As Insignificant As A Star: The Brief Light of Consciousness

Pale Blue Dot“We’re made of star stuff,” Carl Sagan famously quipped.

Sagan makes this claim, in part, because of what we are made of. We humans, like all other animals and most of the matter on Earth, are made of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. These elements, we know, were created in stars long ago.

Sagan also makes this claim because he wants to make us feel special. He adds, in a curiously Hegelian turn of phrase, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

In this way, Sagan adds his voice to a chorus of opinion about the nature of human consciousness. Like Sagan, many other people want to characterize the fact of our consciousness as something profoundly special. They want human consciousness to be much more than one more mere phenomenon of the universe. Sagan wants us to feel special because we are conscious of the universe and can come to know it.

Sagan’s claim about the specialness of humans, however, like all such claims, does not make much sense.

Yes, we are made of matter that originated in stars. That matter, however, has existed in one form or another for billions of years. It will exist for billions more. The amount of time it will be animated by our consciousness is imperceptibly short. From this perspective, consciousness and whatever it might come to know is of no more or less significance than anything else.

Consciousness, nevertheless, is precious to us. From our perspective, it should be. Its temporality, its finitude, its ephemeralness, its very nature shouldn’t diminish its preciousness to us. It only seems less precious, I think, when we fantasize, like Sagan, about its special significance.

We humans seem to have a desperate need to make ourselves out to be much more than we are. Even a cosmologist like Sagan, who is all too aware of the vastness and scale of the universe, succumbs to this desperation. It is this desperation to be more than we are, I think, that leads either to hubristic fantasy or pointless nihilism.

Instead, we should accept and embrace our indifferent and fleeting place in the vastness of the universe. It is, after all, the most plausible account of our place in the universe. It may also be the key to truly enjoying our brief time as conscious and experiencing matter here on our pale blue dot of a planet.




An End to The Blame Game: Beyond Freedom and Will.

ToSeeTheLightOn August 1st, 1966, Charles Whitman went on a infamous murderous spree. He killed his mother, wife, and thirteen other people, before he was shot dead by police in the University of Texas Tower.

Perhaps what is less well known is the fact that Whitman strongly suspected that his brain was not working properly. Not only did he seek medical treatment, he even tried to turn himself into the police.

Most remarkably, in many of the notes and writings he left behind, he expresses confusion and remorse over his actions. So strong was his suspicion that his violent urges had a biological origin, in one note, he even requests an autopsy.

After his death, a tumor was discovered in his brain, which had been impinging on those parts of his brain involved in the regulation of emotions like fear and aggression. Had the tumour been detected and removed, there is good reason to believe Whitman’s murderous spree might never have happened.

More recently, in 2000, an otherwise typical man suddenly developed uncontrollable sexual desires, including paedophilia. When his brain was finally examined, a tumor was discovered in the part of the brain which is thought to control impulsive behaviour. When the tumour was removed, the man’s behaviour returned to normal.

Months later, however, the aberrant behaviour returned. When his brain was reexamined, it was discovered that some of the tumor had been missed in the first operation and had grown back. Once the tumour was removed, the man’s behaviour returned to normal.

These are provocative examples, of course, but when they are buttressed by an ever-growing understanding of our brains, our genes, and how they both interact with the environment, it is becoming increasingly clear that criminal behaviour is often rooted in a failure of biology rather than a failure of will. Indeed, much like Whitman’s tumour, which went undetected and untreated, we’re probably blaming many people for biological problems that we don’t yet have the technology to detect and treat.

David Eagleman, a neuroscientist and writer, tackles the legal implications of our growing understanding of the brain in his book Incognito (and in this very readable Atlantic Monthly article.). Although Eagleman has his doubts about the overall efficacy of the human will, suggesting that our will probably isn’t as free as was once thought, he thinks the overall effectiveness of our will is largely irrelevant, when we examine the criminal justice system from the perspective of the best science currently available to us.

In Eagleman’s view, once the courts have determined that a person has, in fact, committed a crime, instead of focussing on the criminal’s blameworthiness, they should focus instead on a person’s biology and the likelihood he or she will reoffend because of it. In this model, the length of incarceration is set not by a person’s blameworthiness, but instead is set to fit whatever rehabilitation regime is required to fix the criminal’s biology and ensure he or she does not reoffend again. In some cases, however, Eagleman is prepared to admit, permanent incarceration might be the only recourse, if a person’s likelihood to reoffend is very high.

Eagleman’s arguments for this shift in perspective is motivated by cutting edge research and the intuition that the mere fact of criminality is a reliable sign that there is something wrong with the brain, even if we can’t yet detect, measure, or cure it. The shift in perspective he proposes and the intuition that motivates it, however, is not entirely novel and has much in common with the approach to aberrant behaviour that was most common in North America before European colonialism introduced the idea that humans are essentially evil and must be threatened, coerced, and punished into right action.

Rupert Ross, in his book Indigenous Healing, provides an important and accessible introduction to the traditional indigenous perspective on justice. Crucially, North America’s indigenous peoples begin with the assumption that people are intrinsically good and that an individual’s aberrant behaviour is a symptom of a breakdown in his or her social relations. A system of justice, in this model, focuses primarily on identifying and correcting the failed relations at the root of the aberrant behaviour. It involves “looking at how the crime came out of all of the offender’s relationships, and in turn affected the relationships surrounding both the offender and the victim, including those with their families and friends, and their places in the community.” The aim of justice, according to the traditional teachings of indigenous peoples, is to heal rather than punish.

Eagleman’s view, based on the latest science, and the indigenous view, based on traditional teachings, are nevertheless importantly different. Eagleman wants the justice system to focus on the biological health of the individual, whereas indigenous peoples want to focus on the social health of the individual and his or her community. On further reflection, however, the two perspectives aren’t so far apart, if one expands the notion of an individual’s biological health to include a person’s relationships with others and his or her environment. Eagleman, for example, suggests the latest science points to a “broader sociobiological” account of the person in which “the brain is the densest concentration of youness,” but not all of what you are.

Although this brief discussion is not sufficient to make the case that the latest science is, in fact, pointing to a conception of human nature more in line with the traditional indigenous perspective, it does highlight an important question well worth asking: how many of our social institutions begin and end with the assumption that humans are intrinsically evil and need to be saved by violent and coercive intervention? More importantly, how might our institutions be changed for the better, if we start with the assumption that humans are essentially good and need healing rather than punishment when one of us does wrong.

If this line of reasoning has piqued your interest, please take a look at some of my other posts that discuss our new and growing understanding of the brain.

I’m also in the process of developing a little (and free!) online course, which will explore the implications of the ideas discussed in this post.

If you want to be the first to receive what I develop, sign-up to my email list or subscribe to my YouTube channel.

If you would prefer a personal guided tour through this research and its implications, let’s talk.

A Ghostly Spandrel Puzzles the Will: “Free or Not Free?” Isn’t the Question.

WillFor as long as there have been thoughtful people, there probably have been thoughtful people who doubted that we are, in fact, responsible for our thoughts and actions.

Whether it is gods, God, or cause and effect that is thought ultimately to rule the universe, a thoughtful person can easily question whether or not he is the ultimate cause of his thoughts and behaviour and, for this reason, easily question whether or not he should be held accountable for them.

On the one hand, this is easily done because the free will discussion is typically framed with inhuman and, essentially, divine expectations for our will. Framed in this way, it is thought that our will is free if and only if we can do other than what is demanded of us by any cause at any moment. If a thought, action, or decision is best described as the effect of any cause other than a cause outside of all causes, our will is judged insufficiently free to be called free. Free will, framed in this way, is so kooky and magical, it’s very easy to doubt and almost certainly impossible to find.

On the other hand, it’s easy to call into question the existence of a free and human will because there are so many repeatable and reproducible instances in which a person feels she is responsible for her thoughts, actions, and decisions and clearly is not. Whether it is a tumor in the brain or group dynamics or unconscious mental processes, time and again, people often feel like they are freely choosing when they are, in fact, not.

Alfred R. Mele offers a thoroughgoing defense of free will in his slim and accessible Free (2014). Although he convincingly questions some of the arguments and experiments that motivate recent claims that our sense of free will is illusory, he eventually concedes, “[i]f you think that having a free will requires being totally free from situational influences, you should conclude that there’s no free will.” This is an important and admirably honest concession to make. It also neatly illustrates that the debate about free will is definitional in nature.

The crux of the problem, ultimately, is that our brains are subject to the same laws as any other object in the universe, which means our “decisions” are as determined as the movements of billiard balls, even if they are as difficult to predict as the weather. Unless we expand our sense of self to include a bit of magic that exists outside of the laws of the universe, we are stuck. Our notion of a “free will” is impossible in this universe. Alternatively, we can redefine “free” or “caused” in whatever way that allows us to feel good about claiming that our will is “free.”

To this, one might respond, “Well, if free will doesn’t exist, why would we humans ever develop the notion that our will is free when it isn’t?” The evolutionary answer to that question is pretty simple. Either we developed a notion of free will because it provided us with a reproductive advantage or it is an evolutionary spandrel — a characteristic that emerged as a byproduct of some other beneficial characteristic. Alternatively, the whole notion of free will may be an intellectual spandrel best explained by our intellectual history rather than our biology. Our notion of free will might be as fanciful and unnecessary as the idea of God that spawned it.

Unfortunately, our modern moral and legal traditions are very much grounded in the notion that we humans have a free will. In the free will model, it is thought that people should be held accountable for only those wrongs they freely commit. If a person does not freely choose to do wrong, he should not be punished for it or, at least, not punished as severely.

Not surprisingly then, some people are concerned that if we give up on the notion of a free will, it will lead to moral chaos, in the same way that they fear atheism will lead to moral chaos. In support of this concern, studies have shown that students exposed to the idea that there is no such thing as a free will do sometimes act more immorally than those students who were not exposed to such ideas.

Fortunately, all is not lost if we give up on the notion of a free will or if we carry on believing in it. In the next post, I will discuss an approach to our moral and legal tradition, which doesn’t require a belief or denial of free will. Instead, it starts with the presumption that wrong behaviour is a symptom of an underlying cause that should be treated rather than punished. In effect, it represents an attempt to exorcise — once and for all — the ghost that still lurks in our moral and legal machine.


If this line of reasoning has piqued your interest, please take a look at some of my other posts that discuss our new and growing understanding of the brain.

I’m also in the process of developing a little (and free!) online course, which will explore the implications of the ideas discussed in this post.

If you want to be the first to receive what I develop, sign-up to my email list or subscribe to my YouTube channel.

If you would prefer a personal guided tour through this research and its implications, let’s talk.

The Geography of You: Where Are Your Borders?

Springs eternal.Where do you begin and where do you end?

If you’re like most people, your answer to this question is probably something like, “I begin inside my skull, at a spot about an inch or two behind my eyes, and I extend only as far as my skin.”

Other than the feeling that this is the extent of your geography, is there any other reason to believe that these are the true borders of you?

Perhaps, and probably not.

Your sense of your identity’s geography, like everything else about you and your mind, has roots in your brain. Moreover, the parts of the brain responsible for this feeling can be influenced, damaged, and manipulated to change the feeling of where you begin and end.

In controlled experiments, for example, subjects can be induced to believe fake rubber hands, mannequins, and even other people are a part of who they are — in the same way that you currently believe your hand is a part of you. Similarly, damage to the brain can cause a person to deny that one of his limbs belongs to him — in the same way that you are likely to deny that another person’s limb belongs to you. Last but not least, a person can be induced to believe, by seizure activity, intentional stimulation of the brain, and psychoactive chemicals, that they exist outside of their body — in the same way you think you exist inside your body now. In other words, that feeling of where you begin and end is not set in stone and is open to influence and manipulation from and by stimulus in your environment.

Once we recognize and accept this fact about our sense of self, it become much easier to second guess the presumption that a mind — yours or mine — necessarily originates in one body or brain. If the feeling of where a person begins and ends can change depending on how the brain is stimulated, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to accept as natural and given the very modern notion that a mind is something that originates in and, ultimately, belongs to one body or brain. We might even come to question whether or not this modern notion is the correct understanding of the relationship between a mind and the environment in which it emerges.

For example, many indigenous people often talk as if the land is a part of who they are, in a very concrete sense. There is an easy temptation to understand such talk allegorically, but, if a brain can be induced to believe that a fake rubber hand is a part of its identity, presumably a brain can also evolve to see the land around it as a part of its identity, in a way that is as concrete as the feeling that your hand is a part of you.

More importantly, we can and should turn this observation on its head and ask, instead, if it is our modern sense of self that has been distorted, say, by colonialism and capitalism. It is, after all, much easier to exploit other people and the world around us, when we believe that our identity extends no further than our skin.


If this line of reasoning has piqued your interest, please take a look at some of my other posts that discuss our new and growing understanding of the brain.

If you’re feeling more ambitious, take a look at Robert A. Burton’s A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind. It a friendly and accessible start to a fascinating topic, which discusses some of the research I’ve mentioned in this post.

I’m also in the process of developing a little (and free!) online course, which will explore the implications of the research described in Burton’s book (and others) from a philosophical perspective.

If you want to be the first to receive what I develop, sign-up to my email list or subscribe to my YouTube channel.

If you would prefer a personal guided tour through this research and its implications, let’s talk.

The Team of Your Brain: All Athletes, No Coach.

TeaclipseYour conscious mind — believe it or not — is not in charge of your day-to-day behavior.

That claim may seem counter intuitive and contrary to your experience, but it has been demonstrated in controlled experiments time and again. By the time your conscious mind is aware of any particular decision or action, it has already been made or enacted by some other part of your brain.

Your conscious mind, however, is not without influence. There is evidence that it can guide your future behavior, even if it doesn’t determine it in the here and now.

To wrap your head around this conception of the conscious mind, think of a high-caliber athlete. With the help of a coach or trainer, she consciously and carefully trains her mind and body to react instinctively in the here and now of competition. In fact, most athletes agree, thinking consciously is probably the last thing you want to be doing in the here and now of competition.

Similarly, the conscious mind can, with time and effort, train the other parts of the brain to react in certain ways in certain circumstances. There is, of course, no guarantee that these different parts of the brain will react as trained, but the conscious mind’s past efforts can increase the probability that they will react in the future as the conscious mind had intended.

The conscious mind does not, however, set or devise its training program independently of the operations of the rest of the brain. It is only one part of a complex system that is itself reacting to a highly complex environment. Even when it sets a training program for the rest of the brain, the conscious mind is influenced by processes in the brain and factors in the environment over which it has no control or access.

The brain, then, is much more like a team of highly specialized athletes, with no independent coach to guide them. Each athlete competes with the other athletes to determine the overall behavior of the team, including its training goals. One catch: in the team of your brain, there are very many — maybe even millions — of highly specialized athletes exerting their influence over your behavior, including any training program you might devise for yourself.

And this raises a very important question. If all your thoughts, beliefs, decisions and behavior ultimately depend on neural processes and environmental factors over which you have no direct control or access, can it be said that you have anything like a free will, as it has been traditionally conceived? Is there any way for you to think, choose, or act that isn’t determined by processes outside of your control?

The research, so far, suggests that the answer to this question is “no.” More strongly, it also seems to suggest that, even if science one day discovers something like a free will “athlete” in our brains, because so much of our behavior, thoughts, beliefs, and feelings are already known to be determined by processes over which we have no control, whatever free will we might discover will be largely irrelevant.

And that conclusion, if you haven’t already guessed, is a pretty big deal. It may force us to rethink fundamental assumptions at the heart of the western moral, legal, and political tradition. Consider this ‘tiny’ example: given what we now know about the brain, does it make any sense to organize society around the idea that a person is responsible for his or her actions — if, by “responsible,” we mean that she might have chosen to do other than she has done.

Intrigued? I will look at the question of free will in more detail in one of my upcoming posts.

If you want to get started thinking about this question on your own, take a look at David Eagleman’s Incognito. It is a highly readable overview of the recent neuroscience research. Eagleman also thinks we need to rethink our approach to the sentencing of criminals, given what we now know about brains. He also offers a very useful and illuminating discussion of an approach we might usefully adopt, which is more in line with our much richer understanding of the brain.

I’m also in the process of developing a little (and free!) online course, which will explore the implications of the research described in this book (and others) from a philosophical perspective.

If you want to be the first to receive what I develop, sign-up to my email list or subscribe to my YouTube channel.

If you would prefer a personal guided tour through this research and its implications, let’s talk.

The Politics of Your Brain: Anarchy in the You, ‘kay?

A Many Brained BeastFor as long as the Western mind has thought about itself, it has thought of its nature in essentially authoritarian and paternalistic terms.

Whether its Plato’s charioteer driving two willful horses or Freud’s ego struggling to contain and direct the family feud between the Id and the Super-Ego, we Westerners tend to think of the mind as a kind of political community where one part of the mind — typically, the conscious mind — controls, dominates, and otherwise rules the unruly aspects of our nature.

Only Nietzsche, as far as I know, ever challenged this authoritarian account of human nature. When he examined the contents of consciousness, he did not see a single conscious mind ruling the roost. Instead, he saw a loose confederacy of minds, with one part of the conscious mind taking credit for the decisions and work of others — not unlike a king or modern day politician. According to Nietzsche, the King of the Mind thinks and feels like he is in charge, but the conviction is a self-serving illusion.

The latest psychological research and neuroscience is much more in line with Nietzsche’s understanding of the mind than the authoritarian model at the core of the western intellectual tradition, and at the core of the model you probably use to make sense of your own day-to-day existence. It is becoming increasingly clear that your conscious mind is not in charge most of the time, and, as Nietzsche suggests, it is most often preoccupied with the task of justifying and accounting for decisions made elsewhere in the brain.

The metaphor that now comes up often when psychologists and neuroscientists discuss the interpretative function of your brain is that of the press secretary in American Presidential politics. He or she is primarily responsible for weaving a narrative that makes sense of the giant multi-headed beast that is the US government, and she has to do it in such a way that it is reasonably plausible for everyone to believe that the President is totally and unequivocally running the show at all times.

Unlike the President’s press secretary, however, who is primarily concerned with knitting the wool of a story to pull over the eyes of the press gallery and the public at large, our internal press secretary is as concerned with pulling the wool over our own eyes as it is concerned with pulling the wool over other people’s eyes. In fact, all the evidence so far indicates, the press secretary in our brain is far better at fooling us than it is at fooling the people around us.

If this seems implausible to you, I am sympathetic to your incredulity. After all, the latest research on our brains flies in the face of one of — if not the — fundamental ideas of the Western intellectual and political tradition — the idea of the autonomous, self-aware, rational agent, who is the king of the castle of his mind. It is such a hard idea to accept and internalize that even a best-selling author and scientist, in a recent book, seems unable to accept and internalize the idea, even when he is explicitly writing about the discoveries of this new research!

Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics, who also happens to host a national science radio show in the United States, writes, in The Future of the Mind, that he thinks the best analogy for the brain, given the new research, is that of a large complex corporation that has a special command center where the CEO makes the final decisions of the brain — even after quoting scientists who indicate in the very quotes he quotes that no one part of the brain is in charge!

For example, Kaku quotes Steven Pinker, a leading psychologist, who writes “the intuitive feeling we have that there’s an executive ‘I’ that sits in a control room of our brain, scanning the screens of the senses and pushing the buttons of our muscles, is an illusion [35].” Then, on the very same page, only a few sentences down from the Pinker quote, Kaku writes in bolded text, “Final decisions are made by the CEO in the command centre.” This is exactly the notion that Pinker, as quoted, has described is an illusion. It’s like a written example of cognitive dissonance!

To put the final nail in the coffin of Kaku’s corporate characterization of the mind, here are a few juicy quotes from Michael S. Gazzaniga’s Who’s In Charge? Gazzaniga, it should be noted, is also quoted in the section of the book where Kaku builds the case for his CEO metaphor.

  • “We have thousands, if not millions, of wired-in predilections for various actions and choices. […] The brain has millions of local processors making important decisions. It is a highly specialized system with critical networks distributed throughout the 1,300 grams of tissue. There is no one boss in the brain. You are certainly not the boss of the brain [44].”
  • “It’s a dog-eat-dog world going on in your brain with different systems competing to make it to the surface to win the prize of conscious recognition [66].”
  • “Our subjective awareness arises out of our dominant left hemisphere’s unrelenting quest to explain these bits and pieces that have popped into consciousness. Notice that popped is in the past tense. The interpreter that weaves our story only weaves what makes it into consciousness. Because consciousness is a slow process, whatever has made it to consciousness has already happened. It is a fait accompli [103].”

Gazzaniga is so sure of this new understanding of the brain that he thinks the only question left for us to confront is whether or not we can hold people responsible for their actions now that we know how the brain actually works. Remember, our entire legal tradition is built around the notion that our conscious minds can and should regulate our behavior, and it is becoming increasingly clear that our conscious mind, at best, can only tell a story about decisions that are made elsewhere in the brain, and often for reasons the conscious mind can’t possibly know (For the record, Gazzaniga thinks there is “no scientific reason not to” hold people responsible for their actions, but I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the account he offers in this book. I will set that discussion aside for another day)!

So, all this is to say, if you are struggling with the notion that no one part of your brain is running the show of your life, and, of all the parts driving your behavior, it’s very rarely your conscious mind, then take solace in the fact that you are in very good company. Even a Professor of Theoretical Physics — who deals with difficult and counter-intuitive ideas in physics all the time — is having a hard time swallowing this particular pill.

And the reason why it is hard to swallow is simple to understand once you accept the facts. The entire edifice of the Western religious, moral, legal, and political tradition is built on a notion of the human self that is demonstrably wrong. To my knowledge, as of yet, no one has systematically assessed whether or not that edifice crumbles or if can stand on our new understanding of the brain.

Exciting days, don’t you think!?

As a first introduction to this conceptual revolution, take a look at Strangers to Ourselves or Who’s In Charge?

I’m also in the process of developing a little online course, which will explore the implications of the research described in these books (and others) from a philosophical perspective.

If you want to be the first to receive what I develop, sign-up to my email list or subscribe to my YouTube channel.

If you would prefer a personal guided tour through this research and its implications, let’s talk.