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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.

  • 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 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 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 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 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 at 6:08
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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.

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  • 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 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 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 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 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 at 9:41

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