“I have come to a frightening conclusion.
I am the decisive element in the classroom.
It is my personal approach that creates the climate.
It is my daily mood that makes the weather.
As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous.
I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.
In all situations it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or de-humanized.”

— educator Haim G Ginott

Ever since I first took a class in physics I have been struck by the age-old philosophical question of how free will exists when we know the underlying mechanisms are purely physical. I found some comfort when I learned that physical processes can still possess a great deal of nondeterminism. The universe isn’t quite clockwork and there are an uncountably infinite set of possible timelines. Perhaps our claim to agency is just that the sequence we look back on is the one we “chose.” This does at least give us a fig leaf to believe in ourselves as unique products of our own choices.

Still, it seems likely that we entirely misunderstand the causality behind our consciousness. The evidence suggests that our mind and body make decisions first and then our consciousness claims them and explains them after the fact. I recall reading about a split brain patient who had one side of their brain given an instruction to eat an apple, but when the other side was asked why it was eating the apple (knowing nothing of the instructions) it confidently claimed it was hungry.

So if consciousness isn’t a causal process then what is it? The evidence suggests that consciousness is an epiphenomenon that emerges from a symbolic system with a sufficiently complex degree of self-reference and self-modification. I don’t know exactly where the threshold is but there are analogues in theoretical computing. For example, Alan Turing’s Halting Problem shows that we cannot know in advance if a Universal Machine – a machine able to modify its own program – will ever terminate.

As Douglas Hofstadter notes in “I am a Strange Loop,” this relates broadly to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem and the limitations of knowledge inherent to any symbolic system once they are sufficiently complex to encode a version of the paradox “this statement is false.” It may be that if a sufficiently complex self-referential system should be capable of self-awareness then such awareness also comes with limits on understanding. You are aware of your thoughts but not your neurons which encode them, just as it seems likely the neurons are not themselves aware of any higher order process they participate in. The particle layer and the semantic layer are separate and mutually ignorant. The forward process is inscrutable and only in retrospect can it be confidently described.

In the enlightenment there was a tension between the idea of a true inner self, an experiencer working the controls of a conscious body, and the idea that a person is just a sum of their actions. In fact it seems to me now that both are wrong. We likely have several competing “I” concepts internally. When someone says they need to acknowledge their sadness or regain control of themselves they may be more right than they imagine. Consider our ability to be angry with ourselves or to surprise ourselves. There is no reason to believe a brain contains only one “I” and we likely vary on the degree to which we have a single dominant self as opposed to several held in balance.

The Pixar film “Inside Out” strikes me as prescient here, though rather than specifically emotions that jockey for control there are entirely different selves competing for the narrative around past actions. This will then influence future actions. From an evolutionary standpoint I would expect the self with the most reproductively successful predictive power to gain the edge in any given explanatory scenario. We are nothing if not a species obsessed with pattern matching.

For DesCartes the fundamental basis of epistemology was “I think therefore I am” but I wonder if a more appropriate phrase would be “ we think we think therefore we are.”

At first blush the idea of being a “chooser” not of which actions to do, but which self to be is an attractive one. Unfortunately it falls victim to the very same problems. It isn’t clear that I am able to choose my actions nor even which self gains control over the explanation of those actions. But unlike the barrier that prevents me from understanding the role specific neurons might play in my consciousness I do seem to be able to introspect over the various selves I experience. They do seem to be at least somewhat mutually aware and interconnected.

This last observation offers me some comfort and lends credence to popular contemporary concepts of mindfulness. “I” may just be a collection of competing narratives but it does seem possible to deepen the mutual awareness of those narratives. By introducing my selves to concepts like naming emotions, giving permission to change, and taking time to focus inwards I can strengthen their mutual awareness and my ensuing sense of agency in my own life.

But mostly I am struck by how valuable our inescapable fiction of agency is. In spite of my conviction in the intellectual work above I am inescapably convinced on a daily basis of my own independence. And how tragic it would be if we as a species allowed ourselves to escape that notion.