Pop science: consciousness and free will

The questions of consciousness and free will used to be the domain of philosophers and psychologist. With the onset of neuroimaging, neuroscientists have started looking for the ‘neural correlates of consciousness’, but this has proven illusive so far. This is partly due to ambiguity in the definitions of consciousness and free will. However, some have argued that a reductionist approach to consciousness, as taken by some neuroscientists, is a fundamentally flawed approach. Here we’ve listed some classics and some more contemporary works on the topic. Also be sure to check out our pop science books on decision-making.

1. How the Mind Works by Stephen Pinker

This Pullitzer price-winning book provides an authorative account of how the mind is instantiated in the brain, the evolution that made it so, and is immensely accessible to the lay public and scientists alike. He has many other great books on the mind and language. He also has a great video on TED.

2. Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain by Michael S. Gazzaniga

Gazzaniga, well-known for his mainstream textbook in neuroscience, now takes a stab at consciousness. Starting from the established point that consciousness is generated by physical processes in the brain, he dismisses the argument that this thus means that free will does not exist (much in line with Dan Dennett). Gazzaniga argues that humans are responsible agents, with responsibility arising from social interaction, not the ‘deterministic’ brain. Very accessible and great introduction to this line of thought.

3. The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul by Francis Crick

The astonishing hypothesis referred to in the title of Crick’s book is that all of your phenomenological experience is ultimately reducible to “no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” So, just how is consciousness neurally instantiated? What the reader should take away from the book is just how difficult of a question this is. Francis Crick was a thorough empiricist and he strongly believed that the experimental method was the only way of tackling the problem of consciousness. Along with his close collaborator, Christof Koch, Crick chose visual awareness as the main point of attack. The reason for this is because the visual system is relatively well understood and much easier to study in the laboratory.

4. Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain by Antonio Damasio

The neuroscientist that made fame with ‘Descartes’ error‘ now moves on to consciousness. In this book he takes the, by now, well-accepted view that consciousness has physiological correlates, and can be explained from an evolutionary perspective. His take on the link between culture and consciousness is refreshing and well worth a read.

5. Consciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennett

This book re-defined understanding of consciousness when it was published in 1991. It’s still obligatory reading, as are his more recent books, and his TED talk in 2003 on the illusion of consciousness.

6. The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory by David J. Chalmers

Similar to Dennett’s Consciousness Explained, Chalmers’ book is a classic in the field. It carefully dissects the philosophical and cognitive elements of consciousness, though he does not go into the physiology of consciousness. More philosophical than some other books on the list, but well worth a read if you’re into that sort of thing.

7. Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False by Thomas Nagel

The book is very carefully reasoned and at times not quite “popular” in its technicality. While it discusses the problems of the origin of life, it is mostly concerned with the challenges of consciousness, cognition, and value of materialist neo-Darwinianism. He treats each of these three in its own chapter and with separate, but interrelated arguments. Although free will is not a central concern of this book, he actually makes a very good point about it: “Rational creatures can step back (…) and make up their own minds. I set aside the question whether this kind of freedom is compatible or incompatible with causal determinism, but it does seem to be something that cannot be given a purely physical analysis and therefore, like more passive forms of consciousness, cannot be given a purely physical explanations either” (p. 84). Determinism of the rational will, if true, would not mean anything that we can understand. What would a non-mechanical determinism be? Purely passive epiphenomenalism is the only coherent materialist approach to mind, and it is a stretch at best. Great for anyone looking a counter to materialistic determinism!