In this article in January’s issue of Sp!ked, Anil Seth, co-director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science (professor of cognitive and computational neuroscience) at the University of Sussex, talks about the neuroscience of consciousness, with a particular focus on the self and the role of free will in that.
“There’s a frequent misunderstanding that a scientific explanation of a phenomenon first needs a definition everyone agrees is the right one. Almost any talk I give, people will always ask, ‘can you define consciousness?’. But if you look at the history of science, definitions continually evolve. Life is a good example. Definitions of life have evolved along with our understanding of it. The gene wasn’t really defined until scientists had figured out that there was something that was a hereditary basis for organism characteristics.”
“A big part of being a self is our experience of determining, or being in control of, our behaviour. We do X but we could have done Y, and we do so in a way that seems not completely constrained by our environment. So we do have this experience of being the origin of voluntary actions. But we have it selectively. When you quickly move your hand quickly away from a hot stove, you don’t experience any sense of volition. It’s a reflex action. But when making very difficult decisions, having to balance multiple factors, we can have a very strong and actually quite aversive experience of deciding this way or that way, and being responsible for our actions.”