I would like to be able to claim that consciousness is a physical phenomenon, arising from, subject to, and embedded in the physical structure of the universe, while at the same time claim that conscious free will exists. These claims seem incompatible.

However, one possibility that occurred to me is that consciousness is actually a process that exists very marginally in the future, in some sort of haze of physical (im)probabilities. This would give the opportunity for consciousness to be non-deterministic and to affect the outcome of probabilistic events before they actually occur, without leaving any physical record of itself except that an apparently insignificant, improbable event had occurred.

I have been looking for a theory of consciousness along these lines and although some propositions include the possibility of consciousness existing at the quantum level [Penrose?], I haven't found any that consider the possibility of a continuous process existing in the future.

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  • Why does "some sort of haze of physical (im)probabilities" need to "exist in the future"? It is hard to ascribe any meaning to this, and one gets the same effect without any time travel in "consciousness causes collapse" proposals with top down causation that influences quantum outcomes, a la Beck-Eccles. The big problem of all such proposals is that they predict deviations of outcome statistics from those predicted by quantum mechanics, which so far have not been observed. – Conifold Jan 3 '20 at 21:18
  • The reason for proposing "in the future" is that by so doing, we can envisage a process (mind) that can change the probabilities of outcomes before the outcome has resolved (matter). I agree that this would predict deviations of outcome statistics, hard to observe in the brain. Instead of a dualist position, saying that mind is separate from matter, we can say that mind is before matter but still part of the universe. So there can be states of mind represented in probability fields that can change rapidly and continuously without impinging on the observable states of matter. – JohnRC Jan 4 '20 at 14:19
  • If it changes the probabilities before the outcome it isn't "in the future", and if it is "part of the universe" then we will face the same questions as to what determines (or not) its operation. So this like a homunculus model that shifts the problem and does not resolve anything. It is also dualistic in everything but name. With top down causation one at least does not create a redundant homunculus, and the "mind" (global patterns of neural activity) is still "separate" from "matter" (local collapses that determine how neurons fire), while ultimately material nonetheless. – Conifold Jan 5 '20 at 0:29
  • @Conifold Hmmm . . Thank you for your comments . . . My original question was to try to find out whether there are (or have been) any theories of this sort, mainly because I wondered if the problems and questions like the ones you raise had already been explored by people cleverer than me. My terminology is probably rather crude (as the concept of "future" is dubious anyway) and the idea not thought through much, but I don't think I am proposing anything like a homunculus and I did not think it was dualistic either. Clearly, more work needs to be done! – JohnRC Jan 5 '20 at 21:42
  • This could nicely answer why evolution would produce consciousness: to "see into the future". I sometimes imagine the immediate future/extended present as being delineated by something like an event horizon, the distance of which depends on consciousness... – christo183 Jan 6 '20 at 6:08

This just sounds like phenomenology to me — Husserl might be a good place to start. I’m not going to try to present it from scratch but suffice to say phenomenology creates concepts like “retention” and “protention” — roughly memory and anticipation — to help us understand how to ground intentional states in the world, that is in sensorimotor coordination and prehension of sense-data (apperception of objects and environments). Events are fundamentally cuts or discontinuities that stand out and are perceivable against a background or baseline sensation — particulars are interruptions of more fundamental processes constituted by the continuous synthesis of perception on the part of engaged agents in the world (living forms and knowing subjects).

  • Thank you for pointing this out. While the subject of my post is also the subject of phenomenology, I'm not sure of the extent of overlap - I'm reading more on phenomenology, thank you for giving me the direction. – JohnRC Mar 8 at 14:19

The first thing to say is that all such precognitive theories are, with at least some justification, regarded by the mainstream as pseudoscience. While we have learned that the trio of temporal causality, locality and realism cannot all be aspects of the underlying reality and we have no idea which is or are not, there are a good many theorems in quantum theory as to why the known forms of "quantum weirdness" cannot transport information backwards in time.

Having said that, several theories along the lines you propose have been put forward. First off the block, in 1927, was JW Dunne in An Experiment with Time (many subsequent editions). He proposed that our consciousness extends forward only along its own timeline, i.e. we can foresee or, in his case, dream of, only our own experiences in the future. We mostly don't see it because the brain is so busy paying attention to the present moment. He decided that precognition of near-future events was far more common and that quantum uncertainties provided the clue as to how it all faded off in the far future, but QM was not yet developed enough to say anything sensible. He also proposed infinite regresses in levels of time and consciousness. Dunne's theory was discussed at the time by philosophers of Time such as JA Gunn, MF Cleugh and CD Broad, but was not widely taken up and his infinite regresses were universally condemned.

A more recent proponent, describing almost exactly your model, is psychologist Fernando de Pablos. See for example his Brain at Night: Scientific Foundations of Precognitive Dreams, Diego Marin, 2011, pages 236-7 (If you can get hold of a copy). However I find his arguments to be disorganized and unscientific. He also appears to have little expertise in QM. He cites several earlier books and papers of his (which I have not seen). Two which look like they might be relevant here are:

  • "Spontaneous Precognition During Dreams: A Theoretical Model", ''J. Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 68, No. 4, 2004. pp.226-244.
  • Precognitive Memory, Diego Marin, 2006.

Having said all that, quantum theory remains incomplete and continues to get ever weirder, while information theory is transcending its roots in telecommunications theory and beginning to influence the philosophy of artificial and even human intelligence. It is conceivable that the likes of Penrose may be on to something (though I regard his microtubule theories as lacking in a coherent philosophy of mind), and that some as-yet undiscovered quantum weirdness might allow conscious information to leak back in time.

But none of the theorists mentioned is or was a philosopher of any standing. I know of none such who have run with this kind of model.

  • Many thanks for this information, it is very helpful. I am trying to track down a copy of Brain at Night, although my question relates to the way in which consciousness operates when awake rather than when asleep. – JohnRC Mar 8 at 14:18
  • Marin's book is hard to find, you might want to try a national copyright library. I have now added a couple of references he cites, but I do not know if they would help or not. – Guy Inchbald Mar 8 at 16:31

I am not sure what "a continuous process existing in the future" means.

Counterfactuals, use real events in the past, to build models now, which can have real consequences on the future. The ability of consciousness to do that, and select or sift for unlikely events is a defining feature of minds, and from a physics perspective the defining symptom of their presence.

Character of others, is a heuristic that makes predicting their behaviour far more tractable. It is an efficient abstraction, but reducible to atoms. In that layer of abstraction, intentions exist as narrative groupings, but still reducible to atoms. Free will is there, in that layer, like chemistry or biology, over physics, but reducible to.

  • I am not sure what "a continuous process existing in the future" means. Nor am I, unfortunately. I am going to have to work more on that concept to clarify it. It seems that there has been no theory of this sort. Regarding your other points, don't we still have the problem of the idea of free will vs. the deterministic behaviour of physical systems? – JohnRC May 1 '20 at 9:42
  • It's a narrative grouping. We have neurons organised from inputs in the past, to trigger at certain thresholds. All deterministic. But in predicting other humans, we have no access to those (yet), so we form models of character & intension from the data that is available, and because that's what our brains evolved to do (Dunbar number) we are quite good at it. And reflect that reasoning about others on to our own introspection, even though split-brain patients show we mostly just rationalise instinctive decisions. – CriglCragl May 1 '20 at 15:37
  • So, that means free will is an illusion? When we "form models of character & intention from the data that is available", that formation must be deterministic? – JohnRC May 3 '20 at 10:07
  • @JohnRC: But also complex, and (weakly) emergent. An error in initial position of the atoms would propagate in a non-linear way. But character as a predictor will stay largely the same, shedding computational complexity and making prediction continue to be tractable. Saying it's 'an illusion' is like say chemistry is an illusion, because physics. Chemistry is a domain of attention, heuristics & abstractions, which helps get types of task done. But of course it's reducible to physics. – CriglCragl May 3 '20 at 11:09
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    "harmonic oscillation of probabilities" The only motivation for that idea I can imagine, is to keep hold of substance-dualism, by maintaining the 'specialness' of mind. It is basically woo, because you are proposing a series of unfalsifiables with no clear motivation from the evidence, and pursuing the intrinsically dodgy identity of 'minds are weird, quantum mechanics is weird, maybe they are the same'. Defining observer & result, & unifying these, is important. But free will can be accounted for using physics: youtu.be/TcFLQvz5uEg – CriglCragl May 6 '20 at 9:41

Even consciousness or free-will existing at the quantum level or some other probabilistic physicalism theory in the realm of math/information/physics as you try to sought after, this is still determinism as a probabilistic law is still a deterministic "physical truth" although its outcome may be uncertain. A latest phenomenology framework is called Integrated Information Theory proposed by Tononi et al, and further applied by physicists such as Tegmark. All kinds of such physicalism ambitious theories including predicting free-will are deterministic and seems to me in conflict of the very nature and existence of free-will, unless they reject the existence of free-will.

Another argument against such reductive physical deterministic mind theories is the ancient debate about "Sloth Syllogism". If everything is fated, the argument goes, then whatever action one “does” will or will not happen whether or not one wills it, therefore one need not will anything at all. One can just be a sloth, and let the universe continue. Leibniz thinks this is absurd–indeed, immoral. The will of an individual matters. If John Doe is the kind of person who is a sloth, then (everything else being the same) the course of his life will indeed be quite different than if he is the kind of person (like Caesar) who takes events by the scruff of the neck.

Similar to Leibniz's monadic view, I hold that some consciousness aspects (free-will, self-awareness, ego, soul, valuation, judgement, life meaning, potential instead of the actual, etc) are contained in another level of true ontological simple substance which cannot be predicted by any of its perceived physical phenomena (shadow). In this ontological world there's true final cause applicable in these specific aspects, thus still consistent with pre-established determinism at this level, but is not determined largely by efficient physical laws in our perceived world. So in summary, I believe not all consciousness or mind aspects can be extended into future by any ambitious physical or informational or chemical or biological theories...

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