Book Giveaways

The World Behind the World: Consciousness, Free Will, and the Limits of Science

Dylan Schleicher

August 11, 2023


Furthering our understanding of existential issues like human consciousness and free will is increasingly relevant to decisions we make about the existential problems we face. Erik Hoel's new book is a gift that helps us do just that.

WorldBehindWorld.jpegThe World Behind the World: Consciousness, Free Will, and the Limits of Science by Erik Hoel, Avid Reader Press 

Arthur C. Brooks, who has a book he co-authored with (clearing my throat) Oprah Winfrey coming out next month, recently penned an article in The Atlantic that argues “Even if you don’t quite believe you have free will, you’re better off acting as if you do.”  

Indeed, the world may be better off if you do. Near the end of his new book, The World Behind the World, Erik Hoel shares the story of how William James battled crippling depression for three years as a young man due to an inability to believe in free will. It was only when he concluded that it was impossible to prove one way or another and decided that his “first act of free will shall be to believe in free will” that his depression lifted. He would eventually write The Principles of Psychology—the genesis of that field.  

But by this point in The World Behind the World, Hoel has already done one better by making a scientific case for free will we can believe. And before he even gets to all that, this kid-raised-in-his-mother's-bookshop-turned-neuroscientist takes a tour through the development of humanity’s intrinsic and extrinsic perspectives. Following along, we become recipients of beautifully considered and written paragraphs like:  

Zoomed out so that all of history is a mere panorama, its figures like children’s toys from a great height, its nations merely shifting lined on a map, its centuries mere paragraphs, we will see that the development of civilization is the story of humans exaggerating their baseline understanding of the world in two opposite directions. Indeed, it is arguable that what we even mean now by “civilization” is merely a society that possesses fully developed versions of both perspectives, a society that can switch between the two as it suits them, a move we each individually make unnoticed with an almost aristocratic leisure. But it was not always thus. We are the recipients of a gift we have forgotten is a gift.  

Hoel explains how representations of inner life in ancient literature were so scant that Julian Jaynes argued in his 1976 book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, that we actually lacked consciousness until around 1200 BCE—that humans were, up until that point, “automatons who knew not what they did.” If this seems like a provocative claim to you, rest assured it is, and it is not one Hoel subscribes to. He explains where he sees it in ancient literature, especially in love poems, and how the intrinsic perspective was expanded in Greek and Roman theater. 

I should step back here and tell you that Hoel admits in his first chapter that his focus in the book is on “what is sometimes called ‘the West’—with all the biases and limitations in scope that implies.” So we don’t have a window from this book into other literary cultures and traditions, but I feel this literary reality is universal. We may have first developed writing in Mesopotamia for accounting purposes, but we have used it in literary traditions around the world to understand—and even form—our internal lives across the world. At the apex, Hoel suggests, sits the novel, “which he calls “the purest expression of the intrinsic perspective.” Steven Johnson made a similar, and strong, case, in his book Farsighted, for why we should read novels. As I wrote in my review of that book: 

The last chapter, on personal choice, is essentially a 34-page rumination on the nature of decisions as seen through George Eliot’s Middlemarch. It is about the power of the arts and fictional narrative, and why reading novels, in particular, enhances our decision-making skills. “Cinema and photography can take you to other worlds with more fidelity; music can excite our bodies and our emotions,” Johnson writes. “But no form rivals the novel’s ability to project us into the interior landscape of other minds.” 

Hoel agrees, writing:  

No other medium can mimic this ability. Which actually provides a continued justification of the novel as an artform. 

And, like Johnson, he contrasts it with movies. 

Film, of course, is an incredible medium, but it trends toward characters being mere billiards set to and fro by external events. Only novels can describe the deep whirlpools of human consciousness, which is never fully reducible to response to an external event; it’s a gyre that turns in each of us with its own weather and can render us ciphers to one another, except on the page.  

Hoel concludes that: 

Humans, by finding our depths, learned to dramatize our internal lives through literature, and in doing so learned how to make the mundane extraordinary.  

Like our intrinsic perspective, our extrinsic perspective also developed in fits and starts. And just as we have developed our intrinsic perspective through art—especially literature, and at its apex the novel—the development of our extrinsic perspective has found its final form in the scientific revolution that came out of Enlightenment Europe.  

But why the Europeans? Why then? Why not the Romans? Why not the medieval Song Dynasty in China, with its banknotes, printing, and gunpowder? The answer is a historical anomaly, one of those small differences that makes all the difference. It was luck, in other words.  

He points, as Gal Beckerman did in The Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideas, to the “Republic of Letters,” of the early humanists. This “movable salon” as Hoel calls it kicked off the Age of Enlightenment. Voltaire said of it that “There never was a more universal correspondence kept between philosophers than at this period.” But he pinpoints Galileo Galilei as the man who forever cleaved the extrinsic from the intrinsic and into science with his 1632 manifesto The Assayer. It was there that he argued “that science should be in the language of mathematics” and based in things that are measurable.  

But Galileo, a deeply religious man, would probably not have ever assumed something like consciousness itself could be measurable or scientifically studied. Indeed, the great success of science, in Hoel’s view “has been predicated on the removal of consciousness from the purview of science.” So, he writes: 

Perhaps we ask too much of modern neuroscience—it bears the burden of trying to reconcile two vastly different perspectives on the universe, ones that civilization has been refining in opposite directions over thousands of years. Following Galileo’s prompting, we have pushed back all non-numeric qualities, all purpose and teleological reasoning, all discussions of the intrinsic, to the three pound object that sits inside our skulls.  

Of course, we need consciousness to make observations and deductions about the world we live in, so all of science requires it, but how to study consciousness? How to make a science of that study? That is what psychology and neuroscience really aim to do, while almost explicitly denying it. As Hoel writes: 

In order to survive as a science, psychology only kept the reduced elements of consciousness—attention, memory, perception, and action—while throwing out the domain in which they exist, the very thing that gives them form, sets them in relation, and separates one from the other. 

Hoel lays much of the blame for this on B.F. Skinner, who as a young man had ambitions to write “the next Great American Novel” before becoming the radical behaviorist who authored Walden Two—which is officially a novel, I guess. Even though the very field was founded upon the idea of a “stream of consciousness”—a term coined by James in the aforementioned Principles of Psychology, Skinner’s staunch form of behaviorism had no place for it—or free will for that matter. And, well: 

Due to the popularity of his approach consciousness became a pseudoscientific word and psychology was stripped of the idea of “stream of consciousness,” stripped of everything intrinsic, for almost a century.  

But it has been brought back in the field of neuroscience. Hoel lays out the historical development of, and debates within, the field. It took two Nobel Laureates working on two separate paths, but the study of consciousness—of the intrinsic—now has a scientific home. Yet, and Hoel dissects the efficacy of each approach and looks at the current state of neuroscience, he concludes that “Its status is, secretly, a scandal.” 

For how many years have neuroscientists and psychiatrists told the public that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in serotonin levels? And yet there is no proven link, after decades of exhaustive research, between depression and these levels. It was merely medieval humors, resurrected for the modern chemical age. Neuroscience is full of such zombie ideas. So much so they make up the bulk of it. Which is an indication that there’s something wrong with neuroscience itself. 

In Hoel’s estimation, neuroscience is pre-paradigmatic—so far lacking a theoretical peg to hang its proverbial hat on. Due to the failure of its existing rules and theories, it is a field in need of revolution.  

It has not had its Big Theory moment. The reason neuroscience is in such a quagmire is that it ignores the brain’s entire evolved purpose, it’s very raison d'être—maintaining a stream of consciousness. 

“It will eventually become clear,” Hoel follows, “that nothing in the brain makes sense except in the light of consciousness.” Just as the world around us follows the “Laws of Physics,” Hoel suggest “the high-level laws governing neural dynamics are those of consciousness.” I am not going to get into Integrated Information Theory (IIT), first developed by Hoel’s mentor, Giulio Tononi, or its five axioms, or the many other specifics of neuroscientific theory. My own mind doesn’t do well with the mathematical, so I admit thinking about this section of the book now is a bit of a beautiful blur. Still well-written and intellectually stimulating to be sure, but I won’t pretend I fully grasp it enough in all the granularity it is presented to relay it to you here. It is a heady scientific journey I am sure you will enjoy on your own.  

Luckily for me, the book contains equally heavy doses of philosophy. And Hoel writes: 

Personally, I think there’s no bright line of demarcation between science and philosophy and that, in many cases, philosophical ideas precede scientific ones. 

And, even if neuroscience is a pre-paradigmatic state, he can write with confidence that: 

Our intimate and indubitable knowledge of our own consciousness is one of the few absolute truths of philosophy.  

But what about free will? To believe we lack free will, Hoel writes, is “taking the extrinsic view of the world as literally as possible. It is to look at the world and see only its mechanisms, its cogs and wheels, and see no place for the intrinsic perspective to matter at all.” 

This is where Hoel’s theory of causal emergence comes into play. Summed up in the fewest words I can find, it is the idea that “causation comes in degrees, and fades away with time.” To simplify, that means that just because you didn’t have control over everything that led to you existing in the present moment doesn’t mean you don’t have any agency within it. It means your actions today are going to be more defined by the thoughts rambling around your head when you woke up this morning and what you ate for breakfast than the big bang. That you could not have happened without the big bang does not make it the determining factor of what you do today.  

To put the explanation back in Hoel’s capable hands, taking the deterministic view as literally as possible could lead one to believe that "since you have no control over the laws of nature, or what went on before you were born, and since your actions are solely a result of these things, then you technically are not the cause of your actions.”  

But if, again, causation comes in degrees, and fades away with time, this doesn’t seem like a big deal, since neither distant past events nor the laws of physics getting set at the beginning of the universe would be the strongest cause. 

All of this might sound like an interesting thought experiment, but studying the existential issues of consciousness and free will is increasingly relevant to decisions we make about the existential problems we face—about things like artificial intelligence and climate change. If you believe in a coming technological singularity, then maybe manipulating human behavior with algorithms is not only okay, but welcome. If you believe we are living is a simulation, then we might view human beings as mere economic inputs rather than beings with free will and inherent dignity and our current economic activity as but a quicker and more efficient way to warm the Earth and dissipate its energy into the cosmos and bring the simulation to its conclusion. The jobs we create and do to accomplish that entropic task might matter little.  

But if you believe we are sentient, conscious beings with free will, it does matter. Moreover, Hoel explains why “belief in free will matters significantly for behavior, and for our culture.” 

In a number of studies the belief in free will has been correlated with all sorts of positive psychological traits, like greater gratitude, more life satisfaction, less stress, reports of a more meaningful life, a greater urge to pursue meaningful goals, and even more commitment in relationships and a greater tendency to forgive. 

Poking holes in what we once thought was true is what good scientists do. And to point out the uncertainty of the world around us and all of our understanding about it, to clearly state the shortcomings in his own field and make a case for the idea of scientific incompleteness as a whole, is a step in that direction, a step toward understanding what is true about our world—the goal of science and philosophy. Perhaps neuroscience will always contain an unresolvable paradox and mystery, as our very existence does. As Hoel notes:

Science is not always a universal acid. Sometimes it supports our most cherished ideas, rather than demolish them. It picks us up, rather than knocking us down. Call it the consolation of science. We may be hairless apes, but we are conscious, and that is indeed something special and unique, as the paradoxes around it attest to. Studying consciousness scientifically requires exploring the hybrid zone where the qualitative meets the quantitative, a unique metaphysical ecosystem. And it is possible that this zone will never be resolved to our satisfaction in the way other fields of science are, that it, and therefore we, will always remain paradoxical, mysterious as a deep-sea trench. 

Hoel makes a strong case that the scientific view of the world should not be reduced to being universally reductive. “A deeper understanding of causation, prediction, and computation,” he writes, “not only gives us a disproval of universal reduction, but a notion of emergence, and with it, a conception of free will that’s truly worth having.” We may indeed be “the recipients of a gift we have forgotten is a gift” in our fully developed intrinsic and extrinsic perspectives, but Hoel’s scientific definition of free will is a gift we can believe in and grasp tightly to.   


About Dylan Schleicher

Dylan Schleicher has been a part of Porchlight since 2003. After beginning in shipping and receiving, he moved through customer service (with some accounting on the side) before entering into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the marketing and editorial aspects of the company. Outside of work, you’ll find him volunteering or playing basketball at his kids’ school, catching the weekly summer concert at the Washington Park Bandshell, or strolling through one of the many other parks or green spaces around his home in Milwaukee (most likely his own gardens). He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.

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