The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

The Final Mysterians

published July 2018

Are consciousness, free will and God insoluble mysteries?

Scientific American (cover)

In 1967 British biologist and Nobel laureate Sir Peter Medawar famously characterized science as, in book title form, The Art of the Soluble. “Good scientists study the most important problems they think they can solve. It is, after all, their professional business to solve problems, not merely to grapple with them,” he wrote.

For millennia, the greatest minds of our species have grappled to gain purchase on the vertiginous ontological cliffs of three great mysteries—consciousness, free will and God—without ascending anywhere near the thin air of their peaks. Unlike other inscrutable problems, such as the structure of the atom, the molecular basis of replication and the causes of human violence, which have witnessed stunning advancements of enlightenment, these three seem to recede ever further away from understanding, even as we race ever faster to catch them in our scientific nets.

Are these “hard” problems, as philosopher David Chalmers characterized consciousness, or are they truly insoluble “mysterian” problems, as philosopher Owen Flanagan designated them (inspired by the 1960s rock group Question Mark and the Mysterians)? The “old mysterians” were dualists who believed in nonmaterial properties, such as the soul, that cannot be explained by natural processes. The “new mysterians,” Flanagan says, contend that consciousness can never be explained because of the limitations of human cognition. I contend that not only consciousness but also free will and God are mysterian problems—not because we are not yet smart enough to solve them but because they can never be solved, not even in principle, relating to how the concepts are conceived in language. Call those of us in this camp the “final mysterians.”

Consciousness. The hard problem of consciousness is represented by the qualitative experience (qualia) of what it is like to be something. It is the first-person subjective experience of the world through the senses and brain of the organism. It is not possible to know what it is like to be a bat (in philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous thought experiment), because if you altered your brain and body from humanoid to batoid, you would just be a bat, not a human knowing what it feels like to be a bat. You would not be like the traveling salesman in Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella The Metamorphosis, who awakens to discover he has been transformed into a giant insect but still has human thoughts. You would just be an arthropod. By definition, only I can know my first-person experience of being me, and the same is true for you, bats and bugs.

Free will. Few scientists dispute that we live in a deterministic universe in which all effects have causes (except in quantum mechanics, although this just adds an element of randomness to the system, not freedom). And yet we all act as if we have free will—that we make choices among options and retain certain degrees of freedom within constraining systems. Either we are all delusional, or else the problem is framed to be conceptually impenetrable. We are not inert blobs of matter bandied about the pinball machine of life by the paddles of nature’s laws; we are active agents within the causal net of the universe, both determined by it and helping to determine it through our choices. That is the compatibilist position from whence volition and culpability emerge.

God. If the creator of the universe is supernatural— outside of space and time and nature’s laws—then by definition no natural science can discover God through any measurements made by natural instruments. By definition, this God is an unsolvable mystery. If God is part of the natural world or somehow reaches into our universe from outside of it to stir the particles (to, say, perform miracles like healing the sick), we should be able to quantify such providential acts. This God is scientifically soluble, but so far all claims of such measurements have yet to exceed statistical chance. In any case, God as a natural being who is just a whole lot smarter and more powerful than us is not what most people conceive of as deific.

Although these final mysteries may not be solvable by science, they are compelling concepts nonetheless, well deserving of our scrutiny if for no other reason than it may lead to a deeper understanding of our nature as sentient, volitional, spiritual beings.

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49 Comments to “The Final Mysterians”

  1. Susan A Watson Says:

    I understand Free will & God being more-or-less defined as unknowable, but surely we can examine Consciousness. I may not be a bat, but I can test statements about it’s Consciousness. “The bat is asleep” can be true or false.

    It is also meaningful to refer to more subjective concepts such as mood. I understand “The bat is angry [afraid, curious, lustful]”. We examine the mind of the bat indirectly, through it’s effects. That is good enough for us to accept the existence and states of electrons. Why would it not be good enough to accept the existence and states of bat-mind?

  2. Mathew Goldstein Says:

    There are several mistakes in these arguments.

    The notion that being active agents entails contra-causal, libertarian, free will is a mistake. We are active agents bandied about the pinball machine of life by the paddles of nature’s laws within the causal net of the universe. “free will” is not a synonym for “free choice” because unlike free-will, free choice need not be contra-causal, which is a second mistake embedded in this first mistake.

    The more fundamental mistake here is the underlying assumption that the only way to answer these particular 3 questions is with absolute certainty. That is a double standard. We always answer questions under a cloud of some uncertainty, the only issue is the degree of uncertainty, not there is some inherent uncertainty. We never know with absolute certainty, yet we are not only properly justified, but rationally compelled, to say that we know the correct conclusion when the overall best fit with the available evidence clearly favors one conclusion over all others.

  3. Jason Snowden Says:

    Theoretically couldn’t we recreate a bat’ s experience if we could temporarily change our brain – turn bits off and on? Complete science fiction not but might be possible one day..? Also, free will could one day understood if we knew exactly the processes that happen in the brain that lead from sensory input to decision and action. Again, science fiction now but one day maybe…

  4. Jack Sarfatti Says:

    There is nothing mysterious or “hard” about consciousness. It is a simple natural phenomenon that can be achieved in nano-electronic machines, i.e. fully conscious quantum computers driven off thermodynamic equilibrium using the Frohlich coherence effect. Details are being published in the 90th Festschrift for Henry P. Stapp.

  5. Henry Adam Says:

    Consciousness – self awareness is simply feedback. We are not conscious of radio waves as our senses cannot detect them. So no feedback there (without a radio..). Take away our senses – in a thought experiment – no sight – totally unconscious of the view. Then hearing – no idea of music or speech. smell, taste and feeling gone – now no consciousness of anything. Can’t tell if it is hot, cold, no feeling of pain or pleasure. Basically unconscious. If this state were to arise after normal senses had been there, the only possibility of self awareness would be memory. All living things respond to feedback – react to the environment. we are just responsive in a way we presume is on a higher level than others. However, a tiny bird has spacial coordination we can only marvel at. Feedback.

    Free will is an illusion. I did not choose to be human, far less to have my gender. Everything that follows is an interaction between my chemistry (genetics) and the way that reacts through my senses to the environment. It really is all a matter of luck. Sorry Mr. Gary Player, you were lucky to have the motivation to practice so much. Tough luck Mr. Peter Sutcliff, (Yorkshire Ripper) life dealt you a poor hand. In the random spread of humanity you were probably bound to exist.

    As for “god” – clearly a fictional concept used to explain the un-explainable, and as a corrupt control mechanism. Again, and again as our understanding of our existence and origin as well as the incredibly small fraction of time we have existed as a species, even within the life of our planet, this has become merely a cultural myth and sadly, too often the cause of bigotry and hatred. We are a temporary and probably unique accident of random chemistry and physics.

  6. Mark A LaJoie Says:

    Consciousness is a system of neural feedback loops. (See for instance, “Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst”
    by Robert Sapolsky.)
    “Free will” is an artifact of ignorance. (See for instance the second epilogue of “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy.)
    “God” is the imputation of agency to reified semiotic metaphor, a pattern of neurons in the brain evoke by an undefined term.

  7. Frederick L Specht Says:

    These issues,while necessarily a part of our human drive to peel off the knowledge of the cosmic onion,only presents anxiety/depression to those who cannot accept living with uncertainty and ambiguity.

  8. chuckbeattyxHOEYologist75to03 Says:

    Thankyou for your continued clear thinking writing Michael Shermer.
    “…these final mysteries may not be solvable by science…”
    How can falsely labelled “things” ever be researched and discovered.
    It’s all:
    False-labeling-ism
    Snipe-ism
    Santa-Claus-ism
    Soul-ism
    God-ism
    Consciousness-ism
    Red-Herring-ism (leaning one’s chosen Santa-Claus-ism on other valuable associated and self funding in one way or another human activities justifying the speaker’s mislabeling-ism).

  9. Henk Pretorius Says:

    Calling consciousness an unsolvable mystery places the threshold for what is solvable too low. We don’t know yet whether it is or not. Calling it hard and unsolvable in principle is based on a pessimistic view of the future. It may be but just before major past discoveries of other phenomena we were just as uninformed.

  10. John A. Johnson Says:

    I don’t see how we can have a conversation about “free will” without a mutual understanding of what “free will” means. To date I have not seen a definition of free will that makes sense to me. I am unaware of any evidence that “I” am anything other than my physical body, and I am unaware of any evidence that my physical body is exempt from the laws of chemistry and physics. Although I have the experience of making choices and decisions, I don’t understand why any of the neurological and physiological states underlying those choices and decisions would be “free” from prior states. What does “free will” even mean?

  11. Ugo Corda Says:

    I think that the so called “hard problem of consciousness” is a philosophical red herring. Science will proceed studying consciousness the same way it has been doing with everything else: making models of reality (in this case, neural correlates of consciousness, for instance, or Integration Information Theory, or whatever else will come) and verifying the usefulness of those models on the basis of their actual prediction capabilities.

    The only difference (not a minor one, I agree, but nothing that mysterious) is in the verification process: many times the effects of modifications of consciousness states cannot be verified by a third party and can only be reported by the subject. (Think, for example, of a modification of consciousness that would bring the subject from perceiving a particular object as red to perceiving it as green – pretty hard to tell if the person does not explicitly reveal that subjective change in perception).

    So far we have a few very rough and limited models of consciousness (actually a trial and error kind of thing more than real models) related, for example, to anesthesia procedures and psychopharmacology, and they work pretty well in their limited domains. And there is nothing mysterious about them other than not knowing in all the exact details the relevant neural effects induced by the chemical reactions used.

  12. Ugo Corda Says:

    I think that the problem of free will is generated by an error of perspective. It is not the case that my decisions are affected by deterministic (or random) events: my decisions ARE those vents.

  13. noe feldman, Religious skeptic Says:

    Contrary to some of the opinions, both here and in tweeters. I think it is a very deep analysis. Same that it should be careful Read By some People that consider themselves Atheist

  14. David Reid Says:

    Free will is a vague term (allowing, for example, the logician Raymond Smullyan, in his humorous way, to erase the distinction between free will and determinism, in the chapter “Is God a Taoist” in his book “The Tao is Silent”). There are two kinds of free will: one is epistemological, one which depends on the system, so that that which cannot be proven in a system can be labeled as the result of free will from those in that system (even if it is provable in a higher system). Here the results of Gödel and Chaitin become relevant. The other is ontological — although this choice is presently only known to exist in quantum phenomena ( when one eigenvalue is chosen over others, e.g., which spin an electron will take, or when an atom will decay). So the question becomes whether human free will is epistemological or ontological, a question that is made more difficult not by some theoretical barrier but rather by practical issues.

  15. Dr. Patrick Buick Says:

    Some great comments, but we are still curious beings. One can never prove a negative, so denying these three is just another bias. Keep looking for answers, that what we do.

  16. Peter J Seymour Says:

    Once again, we have an assertion that “Quantum” is different because it is random. Surely, describing something as random simply means that we don’t know enough about it to do any better, and underlying that ignorance there are predicatable processes at play. We simply don’t know what they are.

  17. Robert Says:

    My body interacts with the environment, both outside and inside itself, and can communicate said interaction to other bodies it interacts with, therefore it thinks; thus I have consciousness.

  18. ACW Says:

    The silly argument about not having free will is based on a misdefinition of ‘free will’. The whole business shows how important it is to define your terms and set parameters before you undertake to argue anything. You do have free will, within your limitations. Obviously you do not have ‘free will’ in an absolute sense; your existence comes with many predetermined factors, from the cosmic (e.g., Ray Kurzweil’s fantasies notwithstanding, your existence is finite. and you will die) to the minutely specific (I cannot will myself to grow beyond my current height, and progressive polemics notwithstanding, no amount of plastic surgery, hormone treatments, cross-dressing, etc. will actually change my sex as opposed to creating a simulacrum). But clearly I have some degree of ‘free will’ to make choices within the parameters I have been given. Some of those choices are trivial (shall I have cereal for breakfast? Or a bagel?); others carry a clear moral/ethical dimension (I may not have chosen to have paedophilic urges [n.b. that’s purely hypothetical; I don’t have them, but if I did], but I can choose whether to act on them). As for the problems of consciousness and God, I don’t see either really as problems. The first seems to me easily enough considered as the result of a series of chemical and physiological events, just another phenomenon. All other creatures have some degree of consciousness and of free will; we just happen to have developed self-consciousness, and now can’t get over ourselves. As for God, even Aquinas, after adducing a series of proofs for God’s existence (every one of which has been ably refuted by Bertrand Russell et al.), had to concede they were inconclusive, and faith was necessary even if some found it not necessarily sufficient. A punitive, all-seeing God, keeper of the world as panopticon and enforcer in the afterlife of this life’s rules, serves as a useful concept for those whose conscience wouldn’t suffice to keep them from antisocial (or outlaw, or evil – choose your preferred descriptor) acts. He’s also inspired some very nice poetry, art, and music, and even now and then spurs some people to think. Cheers :D

  19. David Dressler Says:

    This will be a little bit from left field, as it were, but consider: What is the weight of a thought? This sounds absurd at first. Intuitively, we know thoughts do not weigh anything. A thought of an elephant does not weigh more than the thought of an ant. This statement is empirical. Stand on a sensitive scale. Think of an elephant. Then think of an ant. Is there a difference in the gross weight on the scale? You know the answer: no.

    Thus thought does not weigh anything. Now consider the definition of matter. Every material “thing” exists in four dimensions: things extend in height, width, depth (or some coordinates in three dimensions), and all material things have mass and exist in time. If thoughts do not weigh anything, the definition of matter does not apply to thoughts. They are non-material. In fact, there are long thoughts and short thoughts: thoughts exist in time, in duration.

    This proves that thoughts are not merely electrical currents in the brain, because electrons exist in space, however miniscule. They are matter. Thoughts are not matter. Yet, few would deny their existence.

    This fact means there can be a non-material reality experienced by everybody mentally. The existence of non-material thought makes that realization possible.

    If there is a non-material reality literally active between everybody’s ears, then this opens the door to possible other non-material realities–such as God or Consciousness.

    What is the weight of thought?

  20. Roland Sassen Says:

    “Are consciousness, free will and God insoluble mysteries?” The problem of consciousness is solved, conscious interiority, in contrast to awareness, happens a few times each day, when we realize that we are thinking about ourselves. It happens only with language, which is a self-referential system. Read our One-Pager for more info. Free will exists of course Mr Shermer, or did you write this article without free will? Gods were invented by human beings several times on earth, just a couple of thousand years ago, to compensate for the missing voices in our heads.

  21. Ben Robertson Says:

    BTW, the band ? and the Mysterians actually derived their name from a 50s Japanese sci-fi movie called “The Mysterians,” directed by Ishirō Honda, director of the original Godzilla and many other Japanese sci-fi/monster movies.

  22. Jerry Bruton Says:

    God is a fabricated character in the mind of the believer with no substance in the external world. This phantom god influences the believer’s concept of reality and their behavior. The utility of this phantom character expends its application in human culture from science as an explanation for ignorance in understanding the material world to rationalize constructs for human behavior such as morality.

    Freewill as a trait from some deity is balderdash given God is a figment of the imagination regardless of the degree one attempts to elaborate on God’s presence in the external world. One’s discretion to act defined by cultural norms and evaluating the consequences of their choices determines freewill.

  23. Millard J Melnyk Says:

    Solvability implies one approach to science, no doubt the predominant approach. Predominance never guarantees merit, let alone superiority, though. In fact, predominance often results from effective marketing/propagandizing of the inferior without which an approach would never gain predominance on its merits.

    Is this the case with the approach to science that naively frames questions and mysteries as “problems”?

    I have several reasons for believing that this is in fact the case. The most glaring is the fact that scientists have little to no awareness of alternative approaches. So, they have not settled on the science-as-problem-solving proposition as the result of a rational consideration of the respective merits of each alternative.

    You echo this naivete, Michael, in your statement:

    //Few scientists dispute that we live in a deterministic universe in which all effects have causes (except in quantum mechanics, although this just adds an element of randomness to the system, not freedom).//

    The question of determinism, of course, is not a scientific one but a philosophical one — in fact, an epistemological one. No amount of scientific findings could establish or falsify the answer to the ontological question of determinism, because in order to interpret the findings as evidence one way or the other the ontological choice must already have been made, characterizing the interpretation of the findings and thereby rendering their use to support a yea or nay answer epistemically circular. So no amount of ontological inquiry could resolve the question, since without empirical grounding our ontological conclusions boil down to either preference or bias — which is why, ultimately, determinism is an epistemological question.

    That determinism predominates the opinions of scientists — who Lawrence Krauss frankly admits are not only terrible philosophers but actually detest philosophical inquiry to some degree — in no way recommends it as anything more than a presumption, let alone a meritorious or superior one.

    The ignorance of alternatives coupled with a near-universal attachment to an ontological position as if it were the only option available quite resembles a kind of blind faith which is a typical defense tactic of adversity-preoccupied mentalities. Two people can have very different takes on the same mystery: one seeing it as inviting engagement, familiarity, intimacy and understanding; the other seeing it as a problem that must be solved. Is it truly a problem? To those who see it as potentially adverse, of course it is. These people also tend to be epistemically narcissistic: Since they see it that way, they naively conclude that it is that way, no question, and that being that way is why they see it that way.

  24. Lish Lash Says:

    The notion that all biological processes are deterministic implementations of Turing Machines (e.g. robots) is based on the pseudo-scientific faith-based assumption that everything can be reduced to a computational model. Not only is this arrogant hubris, it is not even mathematically valid, as anyone familiar with the unsolvable nature of the halting problem could explain. It is not an act of faith to recognize that we do not yet understand what lies at the core of human conciousness, nor do we know how it arises in the human brain. It is an admission that all of our theories and projections are nothing more than informed speculation.

    One of the subtler fallacies in futurist automation prophecies is the unsolvable nature of the problem of testing and verification. In this genre of science fiction, Artificial Intelligence is portrayed as unerringly pursuing optimal solutions to each obstacle encountered along the path to ever more efficient utilisation of resources. As more cases are assimilated into distributed databases of working solutions, the technological article of faith is that automated expert systems will provide increasingly refined solutions to ever more finely-detailed obstacles.

    In reality, each automated process requires support from an independent testing and verification infrastructure that is itself a prime target for automation. (The folly of relying on automated self-testing systems is long past dispute.) This produces an endless chain of testing and verification that requires intricate application of human judgment at each level of evaluation.

    The challenge lies not merely in the theoretical unsolvability of the classic halting problem. The deeper issue issue is that evaluation of practical solutions ultimately requires semantic judgment rather than algorithmic refinement of automated tasks. In other words, someone must choose which meaningful criteria should be applied to evaluate the results of each automated process. Attempts to automate this evaluation will succeed only in encapsulating the value judgments of its designers within increasingly opaque labyrinths of self-obfuscation.

  25. noe feldman, Religious skeptic Says:

    Regarding comment six and many others

    I also read Sapolsky’s book, And many others (RAMACHADRAbookN, DAMASSIO,ETC). I am sure Dr. Shermer Has also read the book you quote from Dr. Sapolsky, since he is quoted in the Same. I know that the issue is still debated by big Minds, is not that simplistic.

    I assume you have seen all the tweets trying to insult him. He knows they are insulting themselves, too busy to reply.

    I for one admire his depth of analysis, his clarity, his eloquence, etc. I wish many of my friends, that Love labels without analyzing the Issue, Could have such analytical Capacity.

  26. Tom Wilcox Says:

    Speaking as a Jesuit trained atheist and unreconstructed physicist let me offer the suggestion that God” should be viewed primarily as an important construct, independent of the notion of what is “real” or “true”. Many communities serving a useful and positive social purpose in shaping human behavior revolve around the notion of God as creator and ultimate judge. This widespread belief may in fact be central to the survival strategy of homo sapiens (so far). Unfortunately , “doing unto our brethren…” is a two headed coin. We as a species tend to murder our competitors. Maybe our Neanderthal cousins became extinct (in part) because they didn’t believe in a God who was on their side.
    Regarding the issue of “consciousness”, it seems we have no means of determining which entities are conscious and which are not. I have never experienced the world from behind anyone’s eyeballs but my own . Of course I could in principle monitor your brain waves, neurons and eye movements and compare them with my own. But this is nowhere near experiencing your consciousness. Perhaps we may some day acquire the means of directly experiencing other people’s thoughts. We might even construct new entities capable of sharing our collective experience and adding their own. This is of course already done in bedrooms but it would be noteworthy if done in an engineering laboratory with non-traditional materials. Perhaps “consciousness” could then become a science. But we are not there yet.
    Free Will? Perhaps useful as a legal concept in assigning guilt or innocence. Does not suspend the laws of physics regarding causality, however.

  27. Donald Heppner Says:

    I think people are way over-thinking these topics. They are all in your mind; when your brain dies…….

  28. Ugo Corda Says:

    Regarding comment 24, a theory of consciousness does not need to assume that consciousness is computable. That assumption would only be required if we wanted to replicate conscious behavior with a computer.

    The mathematical physicist Roger Penrose is well known for claiming that consciousness is non-computable, but at the same time he believes that “something can be noncomputational and yet perfectly scientific, perfectly mathematically describable” (from an interview on this subject at https://www.edge.org/conversation/roger_penrose-chapter-14-consciousness-involves-noncomputable-ingredients ).

  29. noe feldman Says:

    Regarding comment 24,
    I don’t like to send particular quotes, they could easily be taken out of context, I prefer to do it Dr. Shermer’s way.

    I Think I agree With Tom Wilcox. I also agreed with Dr. asma

  30. frederick Bucheit Says:

    Some higher animals seem to be self-aware, but thinking as we know it is very rare among them. The majority of animals are driven by memory and impulse provoked by genetics. Memory is the father of belief, and many humans operate through belief rather than thinking. Probably all people can think, but many chose not to because it requires too much effort and a certain, minimum amount of information–something many people are completely indifferent to because of sloth. In effect, the world is filled with thinkers and believers. The believers sometimes aid intellectual, social and technical progress and just as often impede it through their beliefs. The thinkers are the artists and scientists who enable the world to get enough food to eat, build adequate and comfortable shelter, prevent killer diseases, and provide entertainment through music, and the other arts. Without the thinkers, we would still be performing human sacrifice, burning witches, and killing infidels–oh, the killing of infidels is still common. The savages of the world are still ensconced in the belief part of the brain, the amygdala, and they often try to rationalize it with pseudo-thinking.

  31. noe feldman,Religious skeptic Says:

    Amen Frederick

  32. charles brill Says:

    The brain of monkeys, and suggested for humans, contain “Mirror Neurons”. Such cortical neurons fire when we move or observe others moving. They are thought to be responsible for empathy. If we can interpret others feelings and our own, we are beginning to understand consciousness.
    There is clearly free will – people brought up in similar environments end up differently, based on their individual decisions. Even something as simple as choosing “heads” or “tails” is an act of free will.
    I have never experienced evidence of God’s existence, but others claim to have had such experiences. Although I believe that the concept of God is the product of brain function, there is no way to prove or disprove God’s existence.

  33. David Reid Says:

    To point out a couple of misconceptions in two of the posts : first, comment #16 is espousing the “hidden variable theory” approach to quantum physics, an approach which was pretty well discredited by Bell’s Theorem (along with experimental verifications which followed). Secondly, comment #28 refers to the theories of Penrose which are now referred to as the “Penrose-Lucas fallacy”: for references see Solomon Feferman’s paper which showed how Penrose got his mathematics wrong (even great physicists make mistakes when they leave their specialty), Max Tegmark’s critique on how Penrose got his biology wrong (with respect to the time of decoherence), and Hilary Putnam’s overall critique.

  34. noe feldman, Religious skeptic Says:

    Ugo
    You might understand now Why I don’t want to quote something without Really understanding The issue. It is called OK, Feeling of knowledge.

  35. Ugo Corda Says:

    Regarding comment 33, David, what is your point regarding Penrose, besides the criticism to his theory that you mention (which is still open to debate, even though it is a minority position)? Is your point that 1) consciousness has to be computable – or 2) something non-computable cannot be scientifically and mathematically describable?

  36. JP Beaudet Says:

    Free will:
    When have I ever decided to become a heterosexual man? Yet this fact alone has been the catalyst of many on-the-surface free will decisions and plans to attract the opposite sex. Was my decision to go to venue A as opposed to venue B in order to meet girls, an expression of my free will?

  37. Peter J Seymour Says:

    Post 33 seems to miss the point entirely regarding the place of randomness as a supposed ultimate explanation. The question is not whether a particular theory is held to settle the matter, but rather that perhaps the right questions are not being asked.

  38. Ugo Corda Says:

    Regarding the questions I raised in comment 35, which I think are very important for a discussion of consciousness, I double checked what the Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy has to say, and their answer is basically “We don’t know”. Here is their argument (from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/church-turing/#SimuThes ):

    “Any device or organ whose internal processes can be described completely by means of (what Church called) effectively calculable functions can be simulated exactly by a Turing machine (providing that the input into the device or organ is itself computable by Turing machine). But any device or organ whose mathematical description involves functions that are not effectively calculable cannot be so simulated. As Turing showed, there are uncountably many such functions. It is an open question whether a completed neuroscience will need to employ functions that are not effectively calculable”.

  39. Barbara Harwood Says:

    The idea of free will may be considered part of a possibility that we are merely characters in somebody’s novel who have a specifici purpose for being there with no opportunity of doing anything that the author did not want. Sdhave no idea what the story is about or how it will end.

  40. Paul Berg Says:

    Before we talk about mysteries, we have to have definitions. As practically everyone has said, “free will” is vague and I’ve seen a couple of different “consciousnesses” in the comments. So the author (Michael, that’s currently you) has to provide their specific definitions so people can argue about those versions. For myself, I find I have consciousness and free will (my definition for consciousness being “I see and think, therefore I read a lot and find lots of silly people to disagree with in the world,” and free will being “I can do what I choose within the limits I have”. By this definition, IF you are not a solipsist and accept that you are not the ONLY conscious person in existence (which for me, I have to believe, or my brain is very sick and invented a unimaginable plethora of stupid people who blat on the Net), consciousness and free will are not mysteries. And yes, they can be mysteries–but please provide your definitions first.
    As for God, whether the mystery has been solved depends on who you’re talking too. Dawkins doesn’t see a mystery, neither does the Pope. Let’s go primitive and have a Cage Fight to resolve it. In fact, let’s invite all Religions to elect a representative, and they can take a Book expressing their belief in as a weapon. If you allowed viewing access to the Fight only to people who signed a sheet saying that you had to believe in whatever the winner believed, I think that an amazing number of people would sign up (which shows there are still a lot of primitives out there; would you–whoever you are–sign up?).

  41. skeptonomist Says:

    The question of free will has great importance if you believe in gods who punish or reward people according to their actions (but who control everything, instead of the laws of physics). It is thus important in theology, not so much in science.

  42. Bry Says:

    It is certainly possible that understanding the mechanism of Consciousness is beyond human intelligence, and as several have commented, the problem of Free Will boils down to definitions.

    As for God, this problem was solved two centuries ago. In 1842, Ludwig Feuerbach argued that God was a projection of processes within our minds onto an imagined external being. This idea has never been proved wrong, and variants have been propounded by thinkers as diverse as Nietzsche and Freud: see The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901): ‘a great part of the mythological view of the world which reaches far into the most modern religions, is nothing other than psychological processes projected into the outer world.’

    It is only a matter of time before neuroscientists determine the components of this ‘God System’ in our minds – perhaps they should start with Jaak Panksepp’s SEEKING system in the mid-brain.

    In the meantime, people will continue to project this internal system onto the outside world, whether God (religion), or Nature (Pantheism). The problem, if there is one, is explaining why people have a compulsion to project in this way.

  43. noe feldman, Religious skeptic Says:

    Regarding comment 41

    I am a skeptic, I am a skeptic about a God that created the physical laws That rule the universe. Your comment seems a little too sarcastic For me

  44. Gary Whittenberger Says:

    To simplify just a bit: Consciousness exists, can be studied, and is being studied. Libertarian free will does not exist. And God, as commonly defined, not only does not exist, but cannot exist.

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  46. Guru P Das Says:

    God, of course, was created by man, after most lesser gods (with a small ‘g’) were either found unnecessary or useless in explaining the mysteries of nature as science and human understanding of nature progressed. God is simply a blanket entity that is supposed to either create the remaining mysteries or know how to explain the mysteries. Thus God is no mystery or a mysterian.

    Free will surely exists. Also it is not explainable in materialistic terms, however much the evolutionists try. For example, try to explain how a conscious object concentrates on a subject , material or abstract Thus free will is surely a mysterian.

    Consciousness, like free will, is a mysterian. One can, however, propose the existence of a cosmic power (whose physical revelation is essentially electromagnetic radiation) that is behind consciousness as the ultimate goal of creation with the the objective of enjoying itself.

  47. noe feldman, Religious skeptic Says:

    Regarding comment 44, 46

    I wonder how you know that. I am skeptic, no matter what the evidence Is pointing to today, I am open to more evidence, you sound dogmatic. As a matter of fact as dogmatic as the believer in God.

  48. innaiah Narisetti Says:

    The matter is very urgent and quite educative . It will avoid much of confusion among people and educate the people who search for truth and quest for knowledge.

  49. Kenn Says:

    Free will is an abstruse verbal concoction. The reason no final conclusion can be reached is thatvthere wouldv have vto be a way of proving there is no free will. Even if there is proof that all the priciples of physics, chemistry and electronics (let’s throw mathematics in the mix, too) always add up the same and can be predicted in all cases, not all behavior can be predicted on the same absolute manner, primarily because all variables cannot br controlled, e.g. the mad hatter is mad because he’s tge mad hatter, but why is he mad, and will all individuals born geneticslky the sane as the mad hatter be just as mad?

    God, on the other hand, is as real as He can be to anyone who believes that when he speaks to Him, especially in a condition where he prays for his sich daughter’s health and she gets healthy, his inward solipsistic voicevis truly being heard. Convince him that Hevis not real. You can’t. If no harm comes of it, why bother?

    Great discussion going on here … some excellent contributors.

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