William James, The Stream of Consciousness and Freewill

Jeff CarreiraBlog Posts, Philosophical Inquiry12 Comments

stream_of_light_by_robinptmn-d3d4sgiWilliam James was trained as a medical doctor at Harvard University and became generally recognized as the first psychologist in America and his first and arguably most significant written work was “The Principles of Psychology” published in 1889. James’s later philosophical work always retained a certain tendency toward the psychological and many of his core ideas were first expressed in this early work.

James was the first to describe consciousness as a stream – a continuous succession of experiences. He saw the most significant function of consciousness to be the role it played in selecting what to pay attention to.

James saw the stream of consciousness as an unending parade of thoughts, feelings, images, ideas, sensations, conceptions, emotions, etc. that appear before our conscious awareness and then pass away. But James, like Darwin did for species, and Dewey did for stimulus/response, recognized that the lines between these seemingly separate objects of consciousness was not as discreet as we at first might assume. In fact, he postulated, if each of our experiences was truly unique and separate from that which came before we would live in a chaos of random disconnected experience.

Instead of this chaos, our experience is a stream of consciousness in which the last thought we had is recognized to be part of a stream that our current thought is also a part of.  In fact, all of our thoughts, yesterday and everyday are recognized to be part of that same river of awareness. According to James our cognitive experiences overlap so that each experience has a “fringe” in front and behind it. In this way, our present experience is always most obvious to us, but the tail end of the last few experiences that we had are still trailing off and the leading edge of our next few experiences are already entering into our awareness.

James had an intriguing conception for how the process of consciousness, including the process of thinking, can go on in a line that looks intelligently directed, but that does not require the existence of any independent entity that could be called a “thinker.” (Hummmm….sounds a little like Darwin who discovered how what looks like an intelligently directed process of evolution could occur without any intelligent entity needed to direct it.)

Thinking is a goal oriented process and, as James envisioned it, a great deal of what propels our thinking forward is the feeling of satisfaction that we get as we perceive our next thought taking us closer to our goal. In this sense you can imagine thinking as a purely automated process that developed as an evolutionary advantage and doesn’t require the existence of any spiritual entity that is in control of the process. I am not sure what Carl (our resident expert on BF Skinner) will tell us, but I imagine this is very close to Skinner’s Radical Behaviorism.

There are three reasons that I feel this conception adds something to our conversation. The first is that it is yet another example of a view of reality that is founded on inherent continuity – or oneness. The second is that it calls to mind an image of psychology that I find very compelling. James envisions that we are all aware of a process of cognition and perception that can largely go on without us. We mistakenly see ourselves as the guiding force of that process, when in fact much of it – if not all of it – is a completely automated process being led by our desire to experience the satisfaction of believing that our thoughts are leading us somewhere. The last is that it brings us back to a fundamental question of freewill that must be asked if we are to come to a better understanding of what the heck we mean when we talk about “conscious evolution.”

For James the question of freewill was one that belonged in the domain of metaphysics not psychology. In the last chapter of his “Principles of Psychology” he states that as a science, psychology must assume a deterministic process guided by elements of perception and relations. Personally, James was a believer in freewill. At the moment of epiphany that many believe was the guiding insight of his life, James discovered that belief was a choice and that the first thing he would choose to believe in was freewill. In his essay “Are we Automatons?” he tackles the question of freewill directly. He concludes that we are not automatons, that we are a selecting organ. While we may not consciously select what object initially appears in our awareness, we do choose to either hold that object with our attention or not once it appears.

I was never satisfied with our earlier discussion of freewill and have continued to think about it since then. I am ready – or almost ready – to dive into that once again.

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Carl
11 years ago

Isn’t it amazing when we experience deeply and simultaneously that “we” are simply a continuous stream of conscious existence yet at the same time a seemingly “separate” chooser in the midst of that? Isn’t that the beauty, the humor, and the profound Truth revealed in moments of enlightened experience? To me, that is what all of this exploration of so-called free-will and non-dual consciousness comes to. A profound, synchonicity of I/It/You/We and all the rest of it. All at the same time. Here and Now.

Brian
Brian
11 years ago

My belief in freewill is an act of faith and a departure from the skepticism I’ve outlined in previous posts. I reject the null hypothesis, that of no freewill, and accept the possibility that my belief in freewill may be a false positive. I look forward to your continued posts to further explore these ideas.

Mary
11 years ago

I’ve enjoyed reading this conversation and am moved to contribute a few ideas. I apologize if I have gone somewhat off topic. But this is what has occurred to me to express. I find it more straightforward for myself to understand the concept of “free will” if I conceive of the following: That the individual is merely a locus of behavior that is constantly arising, not at random, but from a preponderance of potential. In that potential arise attributes or characteristics some more persistent than others. (Eye color is more persistent; my feeling of glee less so. My choosing to… Read more »

Brian
Brian
11 years ago

Mary, Loved your post as it confirms my thoughts that I’ve never fully formed and expressed.

In addition to choices that arise from weak or non-existent potential (unconditioned), there are also strong but conflicting conditioned potentials that we must willfully choose between.

Would you agree?

Mary
11 years ago

I would agree. We are each only the convergence of potentials. (The “you are that” rather than “you have that.”) The degree to which the potentials align or miss-align would seem to be a factor of our state of evolution, or the complexity that this convergence of potentials embodies in the world. It seems to be that at any given time we may or may not have the level of consciousness available to us to maneuver sensibly or profitably among them. But that’s the challenge, it seems.

Carl
11 years ago

How do you distinguish between “conditioned” and “unconditioned” behavior? Seems to me that there are either natural laws of behavior, just as with biology, physics, etc., or there are not. Maybe “conditioned” behavior is that which we do but are not aware of, whereas “unconditioned” behavior might be actions we take of which we are aware. Is “learned” the same as “conditioned”? Possible other definitions for “conditioned” might include: behavior that occurs for a purpose, to achieve consequences behavior that occurs in response to a signal or input from the environment (physical or social), or more generally behavior that occurs… Read more »

Mary
11 years ago

Good question. I am thinking out loud here. In this model, it is a behavior (or a characteristic) that has a high preponderance of happening or continuing to exist for whatever reason. That is, it has a considerable momentum of potential behind it. Some behaviors come from our genes, some come from “human nature” (likely a lot of our genes and how they are naturally expressed in our interactions with the universe), some are driven hormones and emotions and the feedback we get from them. Some have so much momentum that they have no mediation in the mind—reactions; some are… Read more »

Carl
11 years ago

When I refer to natural laws, I mean the kinds of orderly relations among events that scientists discover through experiments, demonstrating functional or causal relationships between them. Examples from behavior science would be that certain consequences arranged in specific ways increase the probability of behavior in specific patterns monitored moment-to-moment in real time; that presenting features of the environment at once which have in the past separately occasioned specific responses makes it more likely that a third response, combining the two forms, will emerge, and so on. These are replicable, predictable patterns that can be reproduced in an orderly way.… Read more »

Brian
Brian
11 years ago

Tucked away in a footnote to the afterword of Robert Wright’s new book “The Evolution of God” is a reference to William James’ pragmatism.

In the afterword, Wright compares belief in God to an atheist scientist’s belief in electrons. Scientist have never seen electrons, can’t say exactly where they are, and don’t know whether they are particles, waves, or somehow both. Yet scientists believe in electrons because doing so has resulted in successful applications.

Likewise our belief in God (or our ancestors belief, if you prefer) has encouraged us to cooperate morally in non-zero-sum games, an evolutionarily successful application.

Margaret
Margaret
8 years ago

The question of whether “free will” exists is guaranteed to raise philosophical hackles. But what’s not in doubt is that the experience of intending and causing our actions exists and is very common. Neuroscientists looked at neural signatures of volition (the experience of intending to do something) and agency (the experience of causing an action). A growing consensus now rejects the idea of volition as explicitly causing actions, instead seeing it as involving a particular brain network mediating complex, open decisions between different actions.

Moo
Moo
7 years ago

So, if I leave a comment here, am I doing it as an act of free will? Or has every action that I have ever taken brought me inexorably to this point where I am destined to write something in the comment box? I really don’t know the answer. Sometimes I think it is one and sometimes the other, depending on where I am placing my identification, on the individual “I” or on the Cosmic Eye. But even having the ability to shift between the two brings up the question of free will. Am I choosing or am I chosen?

Tracey Way
Member
4 years ago

mary’s replies/comments are amazing.!