Cause, Effect and Awareness

By Chris Chittenden

"To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction."

… Isaac Newton (1642 - 1727) English mathematician and natural philosopher

Not many people would dispute the view that Isaac Newton was a genius. He was a key figure in the scientific revolution and his famous book, generally known as the "Principia", is revered as one of the great works.

His work, particularly his laws of motion, led to one of the basic premises of the scientific approach; that every effect has a cause. Admittedly, this tenet has been challenged with the emergence of quantum mechanics but most of our day to day thinking relies heavily on the idea that we can find out what caused something to happen.

This idea has found its way into the study of consciousness and has even raised the question of whether or not we have free will. The argument goes something like this. If what we do now is the result of what we just did then we had no choice over what we did because it was the result of a chain of cause and effect that goes back through time. In other words, we could not do anything other than what we were predetermined to do as a result of previous events. Hence there is no such thing as "free will". This is the basic tenet of philosophical determinism.

This idea has been demonstrated experimentally by a pioneering scientist in the field of human consciousness Benjamin Libet. His experiments and some that followed have shown that at least some actions - like deciding to move a finger at a certain time - are initiated subconsciously at first, and enter consciousness afterward. In other words we have subconsciously decided to do certain things before we are aware we have made the decision to do so. This raises the question of the role of consciousness. Does consciousness simply reveal to us what we have already decided to do? If this is the case, it means we only have the illusion of free will and that our life is predetermined. A scary thought indeed as the concept of free will is closely aligned with that of personal responsibility. If there is no free will, the basis of our societies would crumble.

So is something else going on?

Libet thought so. He argued for the existence of a "conscious veto". Consciousness does not initiate the action but it can act to prevent it. In other words, although we do not have free will, he argued that we have "free won’t". In this interpretation, we could not control what showed up as our desires and impulses; they just showed up. However we could intervene and veto those impulses. Of course, Libet's findings and his interpretation of the role of consciousness are a contentious matter. Indeed the question of what gives rise to consciousness and its role in human life is probably the biggest question currently facing philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists and many others involved in exploring the human condition and spirituality.

So why am I telling you all this?

A key aspect of the ontological approach is the distinction of transparency and breakdown. Transparency relates to the habitual ways in which we respond and act. A breakdown speaks to awareness and a sense in consciousness of something likely to impact our future that we need to address . Our capacity to deal with our breakdowns speaks to our capacity in life. Indeed as Newfield Network founder, Julio Olalla, has said, "Mastery in life is mastery in breakdowns".

No matter what neuroscience may tell us about consciousness, human societies are built on the idea of free will and personal responsibility. This speaks to the importance of developing our self-awareness and with it the capacity to raise the important things from our subconscious to our conscious mind for us to process. These are skills that can be learnt. The challenge is to have the desire and the perseverance to learn them.

You can read more about Benjamin Libet's experiments by clicking here.

More articles on Being Human

© 2015 Chris Chittenden