Consciousness, Deliberation, and Choice

The Empty Robot

All that consciousness really tells us is of the existence of passing states of mind. It can tell us nothing of their origin, their value, or their consequences. In the particular instance under consideration consciousness informs us of the fact of choice, and this no Determinist has ever dreamed of denying. He does assert that choice, as the Indeterminist persists in using the term, is a delusion, but otherwise, as will be shown later, he claims that it is only on deterministic lines that choice can have any meaning or ethical significance. In any voluntary action I am conscious of the possibility of choice and of having chosen, and that is really all. What is the nature of that possibility, and why I choose one thing rather than another—on these points consciousness can give us no information whatever. One might as reasonably argue that a consciousness of hunger gives us a knowledge of the process of digestion, as argue that a consciousness of choice supplies us with a knowledge of the mechanism of the process. We are conscious of the presence of several desires, we are also conscious that out of these several desires one is strong enough to rank as a motive, but it tells us absolutely nothing of the causes or conditions that have resulted in the emergence of that motive. Instead of telling us that we could have acted in opposition to the strongest motive—which is really the indeterminist position—consciousness simply reveals which desire is the most powerful. We are conscious that other desires were present, we are also aware of the possibility that another desire than the one that actually prevailed might have been the most powerful; but when we admit this and say that we could have acted differently, we have really displaced the actual conditions by imaginary ones. We might have preferred to act differently. This is not denied. It is not questioned that we do choose, or that the same person chooses, differently or different occasions. The question really is, Why have we chosen thus or thus? And so far as consciousness is concerned we are quite in the dark as to why one choice is made rather than another, what are the conditions that give rise to our conscious desires, or why one desire is more powerful than another.

— Chapman Cohen, Determinism or Free-will

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