“I want to be a machine.” ~ Andy Warhol
[Repost: updated with edits. The topic of free will has come up a lot lately, and my pro-free-will stance and my belief in anthropogenic global warming are the topics where I get the most devil’s advocates and friendly challenges. This article is one of my classics, which slipped through the cracks when I originally published it. There’s a lot of thought and research involved, and I even made the collage above for it. I believe this is a critical topic, and welcome civil debate.]
What do consciousness and free will have to do with art making? If we want to address the nature of reality and the human condition in our art, we can’t very well harbor delusional beliefs or live in fantasy worlds disconnected from real life (though that might be an asset for a much more successful career as a unicorn painter). Understanding what consciousness is – which largely means stopping taking it for granted as something outside and separate from our innermost selves – is probably essential for conjuring and conveying the subtler essences of beingness in art. The significance of free will relates to the possibility of originality or novelty in art, which also means being free of a linear and deterministic model of art history.
Consciousness is our self-aware experience of existence. Computers, no matter how convincingly they can impersonate human interaction, are not conscious. The chess computer, Deep Blue, that beat chess champion Gary Kasparov, didn’t even know it was playing chess. Computing power, no matter how awe inspiring, is not the same thing as consciousness. We tend to mistakenly think that we are conscious within an unconscious universe that exists independently of us. We forget that existence without awareness is nothingness; that awareness is generated by living things with sensory apparatuses; and self-awareness requires a brain. Consciousness is synonymous with existence, and those that argue that a computer is conscious if it can fool us into thinking it is, completely miss the point. That is as ridiculous as saying if a wax sculpture of Elvis can fool us into thinking it’s him, it IS him.
Some new-agers and other spiritualists argue that the whole universe is conscious, but that just seems like wishful thinking so that we can continue to be conscious after death. A rock doesn’t have any way of registering what is going on around it, no brain to interpret information, and no capacity to come to the realization that it is indeed alive. Further, where there is no need for consciousness, there is no reason for it to have evolved.
Because of consciousness, we exist, we know it, and unlike rocks or extremely complex computers, we have free will. The argument against free will is “determinism”, which asserts that all of our actions, including the most superficial inner thought or daydream, were absolutely pre-determined by prior events. This is called “causality”, and can be imagined simply as “the domino effect“. People cling to this abstract idea and conviction, even though in our every action we experience our ability to use free will, and no opposition to doing so. Go ahead and try to touch your nose. Your ability to do that, and conversely the lack of experience of your body dancing Gangnam Style without your willing it, show that in the immediate present you always seem to have complete mastery over your body, and hence your will.
Arguments for determinism go something like this: if I were born with the same DNA as Jeffrey Daumer, and grew up in the same environment, I would do the exact same things as he did, including murder and cannibalism. Such arguments are mere tautologies – they only say that IF there is absolute determinism, THAN there is absolute determinism. If I had the same DNA and upbringing as Jeffrey Daumer, than I would be Jeffrey Daumer, and not myself. Further, if I had precisely the same life experiences as him, than this precludes the possibility of me or anyone else having free will to do anything differently to begin with. Jeffrey Daumer’s parents would have no choice, for example, but to reward and punish me in the exact same fashion they did him. This isn’t a persuasive argument for determinism, it’s an episode of the Twilight Zone.
Determinists like to point out that we don’t choose our parents, where we live, our bodies, our intelligence, or any of the most important factors in our lives. This is another bankrupt argument. Assuming we do have free will, how would we possibly be able to choose those things? Free will doesn’t include the ability to perform miracles or break the laws of physics. We have free will within certain constraints.
I like to use the example of a computer game to illustrate this. Let’s use a classic first-person shooter: Duke Nukem. Within the game one has very limited options. You have to battle aliens in order to survive, and you navigate your way through all the levels to finally win. According to determinism you have no choice not only as to whether to play the game or not, but you can’t even choose to move left or right on your own. Whether you open the door in front of you, and whether or not there’s a heavily armed alien on the other side about to open fire on you, was, they argue, already predetermined by a chain of events unfurling from the inception of the universe.
One of the particularly ridiculous conclusions of determinism, which is as fundamentalist as the most outrageous claims of some religions, is that the future is entirely predictable. They believe that if we had enough information and powerful enough computers we could predict your every action. Naturally, no such extensive and particular predictions have been made, partly because we don’t have anything like the knowledge or power of computation to make such predictions, and more importantly because it is impossible. If someone were to make predictions of my actions for the rest of my life (which is theoretically absolutely possible according to determinist beliefs) and they were to present them to me, I would easily refute them on the spot.
Imagine you are invited to the most sophisticated laboratory in the world, where the best scientific minds have used specially produced computers to map out the rest of your life. You walk in the room. They tell you, “You will now sit on the couch and fold your hands in your lap.” Without preamble you promptly spit on the floor instead. They might conclude that they hadn’t had enough information, the right information, the right algorithms, and so on. But I think we overwhelmingly, instinctively know that nobody could tell us what we will do next, without us being perfectly able to do something else, if only out of spite.
Unless an experiment can be set up in which a human subject is told what they will do, and that person follows through absolutely even though other options are perfectly available, and that experiment is repeatable with other subjects and conducted by other scientists, than there’s really no evidence that we don’t have free will.
What strikes me as bizarrely shortsighted and disconnected about arguments for determinism is that they don’t adequately take into consideration the nature of consciousness and our own intelligence. In all of the universe we are only certain that we humans are self-aware, able to use language, think rationally, and make deliberate decisions. And yet many of the supposed best minds in science and philosophy use that same intelligence to conclude that they can’t make a decision themselves, because, well, dominoes can’t.
If all objects must obey certain physical laws, such as gravity, and each event inexorably leads to the next, determinists extrapolate that the same rules must apply to decisions made in the immaterial human mind. This is like saying that because toads can’t fly, neither can birds. The sort of substance that has no free will also has no consciousness, no intelligence, no language, no capacity to intend to do something, and no immediate experience of acting on its own decisions. A toad doesn’t have wings, and a domino doesn’t have a mind. When we decide to drink Coke instead of Pepsi we aren’t breaking any laws of physics or applicable chain of causality.
The startling missing piece in the determinist stance is thinking itself. In attributing our every action and decision to unconscious physical processes, be they on a physical plane of existence we can directly perceive or on a subatomic level, they leave out the possibility of using reason to think through various options, make informed decisions, and act on them. When you spend months planning a trip – researching and evaluating different destinations, flight packages, hotels, itineraries, and what to bring – is it possible that all that planning was actually irrelevant because your decisions would not be based on your research and planning, but rather on unconscious, physical forces? And then, of course, if consciousness is unnecessary for thought or action, why does it exist at all?
The determinists desperately cling to overwrought conclusions based on vague and inconclusive experiments by physiology researcher Benjamin Libet. These experiments showed that if people were tasked with performing a simple action, such as flicking their wrists, their brains showed activity milliseconds before they actually decided to commit the action. From this he grandiosely concluded that our thoughts are formulated unconsciously before we are aware of them, and this may very well prove we don’t have free will. However, the experiments only really showed the brain preparing for an insignificant physical action. You could go so far as to say that they showed the body readied itself to perform a minute physical action, which required absolutely no sophisticated thought, and then let the consciousness know when was a good time to do it. Indeed, Libet found that the conscious mind had veto power over the impetus from the brain/body. A more reasonable conclusion would be that the mind made the body aware that it was going to need to do an action, and then the body/brain let the mind know when it was ready to do it, which is also why the mind could override the readiness signal.
The experiment reminds me of standing on a diving board for the first time as a kid. One might count to three and then leap, but another way is to wait until the body seems ready and sends the go-ahead signal to the mind. The body knows more about the body than does the consciousness. We don’t have to tell it to breath, and even though we can hold our breath, we can’t stop our heart beating. So, for simple physical acts, and especially meaningless ones, the body may let us know when to jump. Big deal, especially when we can ignore it. This doesn’t prove in the least that we can’t control our thoughts or make our own conclusions.
Nevertheless many now argue that our thinking process is actually unconscious and we only become aware of it after the fact. This somehow makes sense if you believe all your thoughts and actions are predetermined anyway, in which case you are just along for the ride, and naturally the front car of the roller coaster turns the corner before the back car. This should be easily recognized as the-tail-wagging-the-dog nonsense, not just because it’s counter-intuitive, but because it’s illogical. If I am playing chess, I have to consciously weigh different moves and strategies before I can conclude which move to make. If this decision making happens unconsciously, why do I then have to consciously think it through? Further, how can something that is unconscious decide what to do in a world it is unaware of? There would need to be a second consciousness operating behind the scenes that we were blissfully unaware of to then feed us the answers and fool us into thinking we were solving them ourselves. How can unthinking physical forces and a presumed unaware brain come to decisions before the thinking mind? One might as well argue that my computer knows what I am going to type before my fingers touch the keyboard.
Philosophers such as Sam Harris argue, as he has, that, “either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.” That only isn’t ludicrous if one assumes that all of ones conscious thoughts and thinking processes are done mechanically by unthinking, blind forces, and that the often difficult process of thinking we go through is actually just an illusion. One can easily test this while doing something that requires complex thought. While playing chess, for example, one can stop consciously analyzing the board, trying to figure out the opponent’s strategies, and imagining different configurations of lines of attack. Then, just wait for the unconscious, the chain of events, and the laws of physics to solve the problem for one. It will never happen. The laws of physics don’t know how to play chess, and anything that is unaware doesn’t know that chess exists.
Causality is actually irrelevant to our conscious decisions, because our consciousness is not a material thing. Determinists can be adamant that there is no scientific evidence that consciousness is immaterial, or that anything is immaterial, in which case everything must be material, including the mind. There’s a stronger argument, however, that in not being able to prove that consciousness is material, science proves that it is not. A snappy comeback would be that my argument is the equivalent of declaring that if science can’t prove that unicorns don’t exist, than they do. The difference between a unicorn, and consciousness, however, is that we can deny the existence of unicorns but can’t deny the existence of our own consciousness.
When René Descartes boiled all of reality to the one thing left that could not be a deception, and could not be disproven, he famously concluded, “I think, therefore I am”. As he further explained, “[We] cannot doubt of our existence while we doubt … .”. There can be no persuasive scientific evidence that we do not exist, because we have to exist to examine the evidence at hand. Similarly, if science cannot prove consciousness is material, and the existence of consciousness is undeniable, than it makes much more sense to conclude that consciousness is immaterial rather than material.
You don’t need to be a quantum physicist to understand that an idea or an experience is not a substance. E=Mc2 does not have mass. Similarly, a novel isn’t the same thing as a ream of paper. Concepts cannot be weighed or measured. Once one however reluctantly acknowledges that things which only exist in the mind are not material, than one should be able to see that the mind isn’t a brick, even if many determinists appear to have minds like steel traps.
The determinist problem is the complete reliance on abstract, objective conclusions, and the complete disregard of subjective knowledge. It’s absurd to believe that that which is alive, aware, conscious, thinking, reasoning, feeling, and able to make choices is actually a slave to unconscious mechanical forces. What this misses is the significance of existing itself.
Free will is important socially because a conviction that we don’t have free will can affect our behavior so that we assume less responsibility for our actions. Studies were conducted to establish the effect on the belief in no free will on people’s behavior. In one study by psychologists Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler, three groups of students were given materials to read before taking a test. One group read scientific material debunking free will, another material in support of free will, and another neutral material. All were given the opportunity of cheating on a computerized math test, by being told there was a glitch in the program where the answer would show up if they didn’t push the space bar quickly enough. The students who read the determinist papers cheated much more, presumably because they could rationalize unaccountability for their actions. A determinist would have to argue that the students who cheated more after reading determinist scientific articles were predetermined to do so, but they’d have no explanation why this should be the case.
Simplistic, cynical beliefs like determinism have a deleterious influence on art as well as general social behavior. Not only does the determinist propound a self-defeatist paradigm that appears to be an inferior delusion and thus not really worth sharing except as a theoretical possibility, it also ties in directly with linear and deterministic models of art history (one “ism” leading to another) that artificially privilege some forms of art-making as continuing an identifiable stylistic progression, and thus being important. Other styles which do not seem to build on significant prior styles in a staircase of development are considered irrelevant. This kind of deterministic thinking about art results in fashionable yet pessimistic beliefs such as that originality is impossible in art, because it’s all been done before; or that “painting is dead”, because the camera is so much better at capturing appearances.
Having been through the crucible of Postmodern art education through the graduate level, I know first hand how overwhelming the push to fit into the art historical lineage can be. I remember thinking very clearly, while still a student, that many of my peers weren’t trying to make art, but rather trying to make art history. A truly great 20th century artist, such as Francis Bacon, was almost entirely unrepresented in my formal art education, unless it was to deride him. Indeed, I dropped out of one university after my drawing teacher dismissed Bacon as a “sick puppy”, and also instructed the class on how to draw auras, which he asserted that he could see, even to the point of describing the colors. I saw no point in wasting my time learning from people who were much less clued in than I was, to the point of lying to students about having supernatural powers in order to impress them. When I dropped his class, he called me a “turkey” in front of the other students.
Even though Bacon is a giant of contemporary art and impossible to dismiss, because he’s a British figurative artist, he couldn’t be interwoven into an American version of a linear art history which culminated with the ascendance of American abstract painting, Pop Art, and conceptual art. The reason Bacon appeals to so many artists, however, is that among scores of famous artists he is one of the very few who attempted to make new, compelling, and challenging imagery in an appropriate style of his own devising. His work was bathed in the horror of a world shaken by two world wars and the Holocaust. He addressed the human predicament unflinchingly, and yet his canvases were seen as irrelevant as compared to Warhol’s soup cans, which merely elevated his own commercial art background to high art, and allowed an appreciation of glib illustration and fashion to supplant much deeper investigations into reality.
Curiously, I can find little about conceptual and postmodern artists’ stances on free will, as if the question weren’t relevant to their art, which is an art that in particular leans so far to the side of philosophy that the idea is often considered more important than the art itself. However, I see a connection between the attack on originality, authenticity, and authorship as related to determinism. If you can think for yourself, and you are not bound by past traditions, you can do whatever kind of art you want. With new technology with which to make art, and new subjects (you couldn’t paint someone huddled over his or her computer fifty years ago), there’s no reason that visual art can’t be as rich, innovative, and popular as contemporary music is. However, the fine art that has been most popularly encouraged, funded, exhibited, and reviewed, tends to leave the layperson cold. This has a lot to do with the cynical and rarefied aims of the artists.
Artists such as Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and the father of conceptual cynicism himself, Marcel Duchamp, have made spectacular careers out of making pseudo-art about the death of art and the inability to make genuinely new or captivating work. Duchamp kicked the ball rolling by exhibiting a urinal as a sculpture; Warhol made large scale replications of Brillo boxes; Koons made expensive replicas of kitsch balloon dogs; and Hirst exhibited a pharmacy as art.
If these artists were correct, than music would have dried up at about the same time as art and the novel. I’m not sure when the cut off point was, after which nobody could do anything new, but it’s obvious in retrospect that it couldn’t have been while Duchamp was still alive, let alone when he declared authorship dead with the critical act of exhibiting a urinal as sculpture. Should I really believe that everything that could be said in art was articulated before I was born? This is another instance where you have to fundamentally believe ideas in flagrant disregard of everyday reality in order to accept the conclusions as true. If everything musically had already been done before I was born, than the Beatle’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band does’t exist, and neither does rap music. Music is constantly evolving, and there are wild explorations including using computers to construct music in ways that were not possible before (as in the music of Matmos), or mixing styles as diverse as 60’s Cambodian rock with psychedelic rock (Dengue Fever).
In reality determinism, like anti-originality in art (aptly known as “anti-art”), is just a superficial and wrongheaded cynicism. The reason people prefer the Yellow Submarine to Duchamp’s urinal is that one is an interesting addition to life, and the other a grey rejection of it. People thought Duchamp’s wry commentaries on the futility of art, and his declaration that he wanted to destroy art like religion had been destroyed, were enormously sophisticated. In retrospect, they were blasé, reductionist, and nearsighted.
There was no cut off on originality or authorship. What was possible for da Vinci or Van Gogh, Shakespeare or Dostoevsky, Beethoven or Stravinsky, is still possible today, especially with all the avenues that technology has opened to us. Either we are always capable of innovation or we never were. We are conscious beings with free will, who are as able as ever to make original art, and to say otherwise is just to rationalize laziness, absolve oneself of responsibility, and glorify creative impotence.
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3 replies on “Consciousness, Free Will, and Art”
The past seems to me to be deterministic as “there” we did this, NOT that, but the future is free willy where we can do either this OR that. Remembering of the past and speculation about the future are different forms of being conscious. So far we’ve not been able to grasp them in our sciency paws, maybe we can’t. Maybe because they are not things but actions, more verbs than nouns.
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That all sounds right to me.