That Conscious Illusion

Whilst being a fan of both Blackmore and Dennett, one of their claims I have trouble with is the idea that consciousness (and free-will) is an illusion. I’m never sure if that’s a claim that it isn’t therefore real, which would clearly be preposterous, or simply that it shares some attributes with illusions, which is clearly true.

At the Skeptic’s Society 2005 conference Sue replicated the Libet experiment, whereby the movement of a hand appears to preceed any conscious decision to do so … reported here …

The most animated speaker of the day, Blackmore orchestrated an audience participation activity that replicated Libet’s experiments demonstrating that motor action potentials appear before a decision to move is made. That is, free will is an illusion. Something in your brain makes a decision to, say, move your hand. A moment later, you consciously decide to move your hand. But the decision to move it and the impulse was already well under way. My own take here is that there could be a ‘will you, won’t you’ cell that transmits its decision simultaneously to both ‘consciousness’ (which then realizes, “This is my decision”) and the motor neurons concerned (which quickly execute the decision). Consciousness appears to be a little behind the process (dynamic illusions of reverse depth can be particularly revealing here). Blackmore made the strongest case for consciousness being an illusion of sorts, and she did so in a very entertaining and informative manner.

I don’t buy this explanation either, other than the parallel aspect of the processing involved. My take is that the Libet effect is simply a matter of exposing the many levels of consciousness involved, and the fact that a relatively simple response type decision can be “conscious but delegated”, as a causal result of conditioned free-will / decision making, that doesn’t need to reach the level of active conscious thought to model the inputs / outputs / constraints / alternatives / risks etc, but can be left to the hard-wired genetic / physiological and soft-wired memetic / memory aspects to sort out with only parallel supervisory involvement of the conscious level in the process. In general the conscious level could kick-in to countermand the lower level action, if aware of other significant issues, but the workings vary from the wholly reflex to the wholly considered, and all points in between.

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