Page One Featured Paper:


Intelligence, Consciousness, Freedom and Determinism


by Dr. Manuel Alfonseca

Escuela Politécnica Superior, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Francisco Tomás y Valiente, 11, Madrid, Spain, e-mail:



The problem of mind is as old as philosophy, and throughout history has been given at least four different philosophical answers:


1.     Reductionist monism or biological functionalism: The mind is completely determined by the brain and by the network of neurons that makes it. The human mind is an epiphenomenon. Freedom of choice is an illusion. We are programmed machines (Dennett 1993; Rubia 2011).

2.     Emergent monism: The mind is an emergent evolutionary product with self-organization, which has emerged as a complex system from simpler systems made up by neurons. A few thinkers argue that the underlying structures cannot completely determine the evolution of the mental phenomena. These, however, would be able to influence the underlying structures (Clayton 2004, Arana 2015).

3.     Neurophysiologic dualism: Mind and brain are different, but they are so closely connected that they make up a unit, two complementary and unique states of the same organism (Eccles 1984).

4.     Metaphysical dualism: Mind and brain are two different realities (substances). The first is spiritual and non-spatial, capable of interacting with the brain, which is a material and spatial substance. Both entities can exist independently of one another, although the body without the mind eventually decomposes (Descartes 1647).


Although metaphysical dualism, Descartes style, seems to have few supporters today, neurophysiologic dualism cannot be excluded, unless one starts from the materialistic postulate, which states that only matter exists, where matter means whatever science can detect and manipulate. In that case, one of the first two philosophical positions on the problem of mind will be naturally chosen.


In his book On intelligence (Hawkins 2004) Jeff Hawkins writes:


Francis Crick wrote a book about brains called The astonishing hypothesis. The astonishing hypothesis was simply that the mind is the creation of the cells in the brain. There is nothing else, no magic, no special sauce, only neurons and a dance of information... In calling this a hypothesis, Crick was being politically correct. That the cells in our brain create the mind is a fact, not a hypothesis. We need to understand what these thirty billion cells do and how they do it.


Wonderful! On the one hand, he states that it is a fact, not a hypothesis, that the neurons of the brain create the mind. On the other, he accepts that we don’t know what they do, or how they do it. How does Hawkins know this for a fact, not a hypothesis? By infused knowledge? How was he able to detect that fact? Are there any arguments to support it? He gives none, he just asserts. Is this good science?


Jeff Hawkins does not say this explicitly, but his position is clearly deterministic and follows the first philosophical explanation for intelligence mentioned above: reductionist monism. Therefore the fact he mentions in the quoted paragraph is not really a fact, not even a hypothesis. For him, it is an axiom, one a-priori philosophical position that comes before science. Presenting it as an indisputable scientific fact is typical among modern materialistic scientists, who do not even realize that they are incurring in a typical logical fallacy, well-known since ancient times: begging a question: stating that something has been proved just by its assertion, without providing any arguments.



One of the most serious difficulties faced by materialists is the problem of consciousness, sometimes called self-awareness, the awareness of being myself rather than another person or object, the feeling of being the same individual from our first memory to our death, even though every few years all our atoms are changed, and hence the specific matter which makes up our body.


Since the materialist ideology assumes that only matter (in the broad sense) exists, it naturally adopts a reductionist approach, according to which our self-consciousness must be, by definition, an illusion, an epiphenomenon, the result of the joint action of our neurons. This is a dogmatic stance, without scientific support, for in the present state of neuroscience nobody has the faintest idea about how self-consciousness can be generated.


The word consciousness has in English two different acceptations:


·       The consciousness of being oneself, also called self-awareness, the object of this section.

·       The consciousness of having experimented something, as when we say I’m conscious of having seen you yesterday.


It is clear that the two senses of the word are very different. We must not confuse them.


In the previous section we discussed Jeff Hawkins’s book On intelligence, together with his reductionist profession of faith and how he incurred the fallacy begging the question. In this section we will consider Hawkins’s ideas about consciousness, expressed in the same book (Hawkins 2004). In this case he incurs another classical fallacy, straw man, but does not notice it.


In the latter part of his book, Hawkins contemplates the problem of consciousness, and although he confesses he is not an expert (and immediately gives proof of it), he declares he has solved the problem. He can prove that consciousness is just the result of the normal interplay of neurons; that it basically reduces to the same thing as declarative memory. To argument this, he uses the following thought experiment:


Imagine I could flip a switch and return your brain to the exact physical state it was at some point in the past... I just flip the switch... and your synapses and neurons return to a previous state in time. By doing so, I erase all your memory of what occurred since that time. Let’s assume you go through today and wake up tomorrow... I flip the switch and erase the last twenty-four hours. From your brain’s perspective yesterday never happened... It’s as if you were a zombie for a day, not conscious. However, you were conscious at the time. Your belief that you were conscious disappeared when your declarative memory was erased.


What is the problem with this argument? It confuses the two meanings of the word consciousness. The problem of consciousness, as discussed in philosophy and neuroscience, refers to the first meaning indicated above. Hawkins’s thought experiment, however, refers to the second meaning, the consciousness of having lived a particular experience.


Of course, if you lose your memory for a time, which could happen if the passage of your short-term memory to long-term memory is broken, you cease to be aware of some things that you have actually lived. This syndrome has been very well studied. Oliver Sacks, in his book “The man who mistook his wife for a hat”, gives several examples (Sacks 1985). But this has nothing to do with the problem of consciousness, just with the fact that we can lose the consciousness of having experienced something. Therefore Hawkins’s argument, based on his thought experiment, is a classic example of the straw man fallacy, because it has mistaken its target by confusing the meaning of the word he is trying to explain away.


Determinism versus freedom

A famous trilemma (usually called the 3-L trilemma) was formulated by C.S.Lewis to justify the divinity of Christ. Assuming that Christ affirmed his own divinity, Lewis posed the following alternatives: either Christ was a Lunatic, or a Liar, or the Lord. Of these three statements, only one can be true, as each one excludes the other two.


On the question of human freedom, whose reality is denied by deterministic philosophy, Brigitte Falkenburg proposes another trilemma, a little different, because in this case any two of the three alternatives can be true, but then the third must be false. This is her trilemma:


1.     Physical causality is closed. In other words, physics is deterministic. Every physical phenomenon has been caused by other physical phenomena.

2.     Mental phenomena are different from physical phenomena. In other words, the mind is not controlled by physical phenomena. In the previous section we discussed the four different answers given by philosophers to the mind problem. This assertion would correspond to the dualist approach, or perhaps to emergent monism.

3.     We can cause physical phenomena with our minds. That is, final causality is possible. Our intentions (which are obviously mental phenomena) can have physical consequences (such as pressing a button).


Thinking a bit on these three alternatives, it is evident that all three cannot be true at the same time:


·       If 1 and 2 are true, 3 must be false, for if mental phenomena are not physical, and only physical phenomena can cause physical phenomena (physical causality is closed), it follows that the mind cannot cause physical phenomena.

·       If 1 and 3 are true, 2 must be false, because if the mind can cause physical phenomena, and only physical phenomena can do that, it follows that the mind must be a physical phenomenon, therefore statement 2 would be false.

·       If 2 and 3 are true, 1 must be false, because if the mind is not a physical phenomenon and it can produce physical effects, it follows that physical phenomena are not alone producing those effects, i.e. physical causality is not closed.


In conclusion, at least one of the three statements in the trilemma must be false. Which one?


·       If 2 and 3 are true and 1 is false, human beings are free, because freedom means to be able to make at least some decisions about future actions, those decisions must arise from a mental deliberation not fully determined by our previous brain states, and they must have some effect on the external world.

·       However, if 1 is true, humans would not be free, because our decisions would be completely determined by our previous brain state.


Statements 2 and 3 have been part of the common consensus of mankind throughout most of the history of thought. They started being questioned in the seventeenth century, with the beginning of materialist philosophy.


Throughout the twentieth century, statement 1 has become very questionable as a consequence of discoveries such as the uncertainty principle (which makes it possible that there are events without a cause, provided they are below the limits set by the principle), or the thermodynamics of processes far from equilibrium (Prigogine 1996), which describes dissipative systems by means of bifurcation diagrams, where the path followed by the system is not predictable, together with the fact that biological systems (including the human brain) are precisely this kind of system. Today, statement 1 looks much less reasonable than it appeared to be during the nineteenth century. Therefore we can assert that the dilemma between determinism and freedom, which began over three hundred years ago (between Descartes and Hobbes) and has continued until today, now appears to lean to the side of freedom.


And yet, many neuroscientists and writers of popular articles talk as though the problem is already solved in favor of determinism. Observe, for example, these words in (Rubia 2011):

Is free will an illusion...? That is exactly what neuroscience argues, that this conception of freedom is incompatible with determinism, with the deterministic laws that govern the universe... Physicists tell us that the whole universe is subject to the deterministic laws of nature, so it would be strange that human beings, their brain/mind, were not.


In fact, physicists tell us just the opposite. Faced with this mixture of dogmatism and ignorance, we can pose a new dilemma: Do they really know nothing about modern physics? Or perhaps they reject it because it goes against their deterministic ideology?


Among the arguments used by deterministic neuroscientists to prove that human freedom does not exist, I’ll mention two:


·       Brain injuries and mental disorders affect the mind and self-consciousness in various ways, depending on which part of the brain is affected. In the worst case, self-consciousness can be completely lost. Hence they deduce that self-consciousness is an epiphenomenon that can provide some evolutionary advantages, but at bottom is an illusion without objective reality.

·       Moreover, mental states of all kinds (even mystical experiences) can be caused by applying electromagnetic stimuli to different parts of the brain. Hence they deduce that mental states depend only on the electrical state of our neurons, while mystical experiences, whatever their origin, must all be hallucinatory.


However, we can conceive of a suggestive parallel, which leads to the possibility that these materialistic arguments really have no weight, that they are based on an intellectual vacuum.


According to Shannon’s theory of information, a communication system consists of the following components:


1.     An information source that generates a message.

2.     A transmitter, which encodes the message by translating it into an equivalent format, usually an electromagnetic signal.

3.     A communication channel, through which the signal is transmitted to another point in space. On its way, the signal can be altered by the inclusion of noise.

4.     A receiver which decodes the message by translating it, usually to the same format as the starting message. Here it is possible to perform operations to minimize the effects of noise and recompose the original message.

5.     A recipient, who receives the message at the end of the process.


Apart from the noise, a communication system as described can be subject to different phenomena that distort the received message in different ways. Consider just two:


·       Different faults in the receiver cause different distortions on the received message. In the worst case, the message may be lost completely. In less severe cases, it may become unrecognizable, in whole or in part.

·       Through the receiver, by means of electromagnetic methods, it is possible to insert and send to the recipient spurious messages that do not come from a legitimate source.


If a follower of the deterministic ideology would apply to the communication system described here the same reductionist reasoning used to justify the claim that freedom does not exist and consciousness is an illusion, the following conclusions would be reached:


·       The source or origin of the information is only an illusion produced by the structure of the receptor. Only the receiver exists, and the received messages are spontaneously generated or induced in the receiver.

·       From the fact that it is possible to introduce spurious messages on the receiver by means of electromagnetic manipulations, it follows that all the messages we receive are equally spurious.


No materialistic philosopher holds something like this. Why should these two systems be treated in such a different way?


It is true that, in the case of a communications system, we know from experience that the source of information and the messages sent to us really exist. But then, we also know from experience that we are self-conscious, and some people have felt mystical experiences without having received any stimulation. However, in one case our experience is admitted, while in the other it is denied and considered an illusion. I think the communication analogy I have just offered significantly reduces the probability that the reductionist ideology is true.


To end this paper, I would like to pose a couple of questions to those people who assert the deterministic philosophy:


Determinism affirms that we are not free, that we are programmed machines, that whenever we act or think, we have no option but to act or think as we actually act or think. Are you deterministic because you have meditated and found reasons for this philosophy, or because you have been programmed to accept it? (Adapted from Sheldrake 2012).


 The second question is addressed to those who try to broadcast their deterministic philosophy by dedicating their efforts and time to write books aiming to convince others of their ideology:


Why do you write those books? If what you say is true, your readers will not be convinced by your arguments, since they cannot help thinking whatever they think, before and after reading your book. So, why waste time and effort? Since you are still writing, I can only conclude that, at bottom, you do believe in self-conscience and freedom and act accordingly.



Arana, Juan, 2015. La conciencia inexplicada. Biblioteca Nueva.

Clayton, Philip, 2004. Mind and Emergence, from Quantum to Consciousness. Oxford University Press.

Dennett, Daniel, 1993. Consciousness explained, Penguin.

Descartes, René, 1647. La description du corps humain.

Eccles, J.; Robinson, D.N., 1984. The wonder of being human. Our brain & our mind. Free Press, New York.

Falkenburg, Brigitte, 2015. "El dilema entre determinismo y libertad. ¿Qué significa la neurociencia para la existencia humana?" In: J. A. Baeza Betancor et al., Filosofía, Psicoterapia e Inteligencia Emocional. Fundacion MAPFRE Guanarteme. German version: Das Dilemma von Determinismus und Freiheit. Was bedeutet die Hirnforschung für die menschliche Existenz?

Hawkins, Jeff, 2004. On intelligence, St.Martin’s Griffin, New York.

Lewis, C.S., 1952. Mere Christianity, Collins, London & Glasgow.

Prigogine, Ilya, and Isabelle Stengers, 1996. La fin des certitudes. Published in English as The end of certainty: time, chaos and the new laws of nature, Free Press.

Rubia, Francisco, 2011. El fantasma de la libertad. Datos de la revolución neurocientífica. Crítica, Barcelona.

Sacks, Oliver, 1985. The man who mistook his wife for a hat. Gerald Duckworth & Co.

Sheldrake, 2012. The science delusion: feeling the spirit of enquiry. Coronet.


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