Exploring Consciousness: Morality and its Existence

Published by Irfan Bashir on

Does morality exist? The concept of morality only takes shape when we shift the burden of responsibility of causation from the universe to an individual — at least partially. But if we can argue against the existence of free will, then we are left with only one conclusion, i.e. determinism. And if everything is predetermined, then morality becomes a mental construct — a mere illusion society perceives to hold everyone accountable for things that may well have been beyond their control. Or is it that free will is appended to something prior to causation? Many saints believe consciousness as a precursor to an individual’s free will. The higher the level of consciousness an individual attains, the greater free will they can exercise against the currents of external causes and effects. But that’s a discussion for another time. Today, let’s argue against the existence of free will and its consequences on how society operates.

To prove that morality doesn’t exist we must argue that free will doesn’t exist and if free will doesn’t exist, then morality doesn’t exist. Without delving into the implications/consequences of such an argument, let’s put forward an argument.

To put the argument in a premise conclusion form:

1.) Free will (in a physical system) does not exist.
2.) If free will doesn’t exist, then nothing we do can be termed as moral or immoral.
3.) If nothing can be termed as moral, or immoral, then morality doesn’t exist.
Conclusion: Therefore, Morality doesn’t exist.

We are all born in an environment where everything is already predetermined. We have no control over our place of birth, the genes we inherit from our parents, our nationality, our religion, our race, our language, culture, society, and other relatives pertaining to our conditioning and nurturance. The moment we come to life, our actions become a consequence of our environment. What we eat is determined by where we live and countless other factors. The friends we make are determined by our school, classroom, neighborhood and other external factors. All our preferences are a product of external stimulus and factors. Our free will doesn’t exist, at least for the major part of our childhood. And as is known, childhood and genetic developments serve as the foundation and blueprints for our future personality. But let’s first define free will so that there is no confusion.

Free will is a philosophical term of art for a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives. Free will therefore can be termed as the capacity to choose between different actions. The definition is simple, but the execution is not. By execution, I mean, the execution of free will. Is it possible to do anything on our own free will?

All actions in our life are either determined by external factors (like people, the society we grow up in, the culture/religion we practice, media, etc) or internal factors (like our DNA). But there are disagreements as to whether everything can be explained by external factors and the genes we inherit, whether everything can be explained just by physicalism which ties to the existence of free will.

Moreland argues that there is not. If physicalism is true, then human free will does not exist. Instead, determinism is true. If I am just a physical system, there is nothing in me that has the capacity to freely choose to do something. Material systems, at least large-scale ones, change over time in deterministic fashion according to the initial conditions of the system and the laws of chemistry and physics. A pot of water will reach a certain temperature at a given time in a way determined by the amount of water, the input of heat, and the laws of heat transfer.

Let’s now take a look at how our genes determine a large part of our everyday choices. Our genes are hard-wired and coded in our DNA. Our genes determine a lot of things. Studies at the world-leading Minnesota Center for Twin and Family Research suggest that many of our traits are more than 50% inherited, including obedience to authority, vulnerability to stress, and risk-seeking. Researchers have even suggested that when it comes to issues such as religion and politics, our choices are much more determined by our genes than we think.

Basically, anything from our instincts and preferences to our intelligence is already determined by our DNA. I’m not saying that those preferences cannot be changed, but they exist in the first place and determine our behavior. Point is there exists a precedent in terms of our preferences, which later translates to our actions/behavior. When a pre-existing state of our preferences/mind exists, we are more likely to go by it then change it, but if we do change it, it’s mostly because of external physical factors that play a role throughout our lifetime.

Next, we have the external factors. At this point, I would like the reader to understand what determinism means. “The world is governed by (or is under the sway of) determinism if and only if, given a specified way things are at a time ‘t’, the way things go thereafter is fixed as a matter of natural law.”
“The roots of the notion of determinism surely lie in a very common philosophical idea: the idea that everything can, in principle, be explained, or that everything that is, has a sufficient reason for being and being as it is, and not otherwise.” Basically, the roots of determinism lie in what Leibniz named the Principle of Sufficient Reason. Once things are set in a particular order, then it’s possible to know the outcome of those things as they are predetermined. As Laplace says, “We ought to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its antecedent state and as the cause of the state that is to follow.”

The idea is that once we look back into time and say find a point where the universe starts to unfold and is limited and perceivable in size, then we can keep tab of what happens and what will happen in that universe. Even if we can’t keep a tab, we can acknowledge that the universe will unfold in a certain predetermined way. Suppose we can go back in time and there was a beginning of time and space where the observable universe consisted of just a few particles and suppose we can pause time and pinpoint the exact location of these particles in space and time and observe them as we unpause. Now as the universe gains motion and mass and these particles take different forms, there is only one predetermined outcome that can happen from that point. Since there was a starting point, where things were put in motion in our observable universe say by a God particle, all other outcomes are a result of cause and effect which stretch over the entirety of time. An event X in future will be the result of events {A, B, C, D….} that happened in the past or are happening in the future. When we say events in the past, it can mean things that happened a billion years ago. 

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains: Suppose Mary looks up at the sky on a clear night, and a particularly bright blue star catches her eye; she thinks “What a lovely star; I think I’ll stay outside a bit longer and enjoy the view.” The state of the solar system one month ago did not fix that blue light from Sirius would arrive and strike Mary’s retina; it arrived into the solar system only a day ago, let’s say. So evidently, for Mary’s actions (and hence, all physical events generally) to be fixed by the state of things a month ago, that state will have to be fixed over a much larger spatial region than just the solar system.

So, in the above-mentioned instance, in order to change Mary’s current observation and consequently her behavioral preferences, we have to change something that happened millions or billions of years ago. This shows how one event (in the past) leads to other events that are a part of a completely different time-line. The idea is that one event is caused by a billion different events, and that event will help cause other billions of events. Once you bring the universe to a finite observable point, then its future trajectory can be determined. Imagine a pool table where we first take a shot and set things in motion. As things are set in motion, we can determine by our first hit, where all the other balls will go and which balls will collide and which balls will fall in the hole. On a grand scale, we can imagine the universe doing exactly that. But here we must concede that if the universe is infinite and time and space didn’t have a beginning i.e. the universe didn’t originate from something or something didn’t give it mass, then there is a possibility that indeterminism is true. In simpler words, if infinity exists free will can exist including randomness of behavior of the universe, hence again calling into question the existence of total free will. 

There is more. When we take chaos theory into account, then we open up the study of the system of nonlinear systems, where randomness (chaos) plays a significantly greater role than orderly, measurable behavior. By simply acknowledging chaos, it becomes apparent that an infinity of steps exist between one moment to another and therefore they cannot be observed or recorded. Determinism as a theory faces its greatest challenges from the existence of chaos and consciousness — topics we shall explore in our future articles.

Leaving aside the chaos theory and consciousness, let’s create a thought experiment to show that our actions are a product of our genes and external factors. We all influence each other in one way or another. What we have to understand is the chain of changes that we set with a simple action and the effect it has on someone’s life. Let’s have a character Bob who just missed his 10:00 AM flight. The question is, how did Bob miss his flight? To start from the beginning, let’s imagine that Bob woke up at 8:30am instead of 7:00am because he had a few drinks too many the previous night as he was tensed about a project which his boss was not happy with, when in reality, his boss was just channelizing his personal anger into his professional life. Now we may say that Bob freely chose to drink, but he didn’t. Why? Because say Bob had a preference for alcohol hardwired in his genes and say Bob also had a lot of pent-up emotions in him. Say there were {a,b,c,d,e,f………..} events that led to to the point where Bob wanted to drink alcohol. Now Bob wakes up at 8:30 am and cannot find his car keys (which his son had carelessly put in the laundry because of say events {p,q,r,s,t,g……..} which stretched throughout time including the boy’s genetic makeup — making the boy’s attention deficient in the moment when he missed detecting the keys as he put the clothes in the laundry. Bob now has to take a taxi and he can’t find one for the next 15 minutes. Turns out, all taxis are protesting against low wages and the tax increase the government imposed on private businesses. Finally, after managing to secure a Taxi, Bob finds himself stuck in the traffic because two cars had bumped into each other and the drivers were arguing about the fault (one of the drivers had recently found his husband was cheating on her; that and myriad other events in the driver’s life led to a split attention while driving). So on and so forth, Bob missed his 10:00am flight.

So, a series of external events determined whether Bob missed his flight or not, his behavior and those involved in his physical reality. Same argument is applicable to everything we do wherein one event is the product of many (but finite) events and that one event also leads to many other events.

The most random thing we can think of is flipping a coin, and that too can be determined by the cause-and-effect theory. Say we flip a coin, the end result will either be heads or tails but that end result is predetermined by the force we use, the speed of the wind (a random or predetermined act), the height it falls from and so many other events. 

What if it was a baby who had a choice to choose between three identical oranges and she picks the middle one? What then? Even that can be explained by the external environment argument and the genes argument. Assume that the baby was born with a genetic preference of choosing always the middle object, then it becomes natural for the baby to choose the middle orange because of her genetic makeup.

At this point we have provided enough support for the argument that free will doesn’t exist (in the absence of chaos and a higher level of consciousness). Therefore, under the conditions that the universe (space and time) is finite and has a starting point and all things are physical in nature, we can conclude free will doesn’t exist. Moving on to the second premise, we can use the if A then B argument. In this case if not A then not B, therefore not C. So, if we say that free will doesn’t exist then the concept of applied ethics doesn’t hold and hence morality doesn’t exist.

So, if we say that free will doesn’t exist, then the concept of applied ethics fades away. And if we are not in control of anything we do, then how can we say someone’s actions are moral or immoral. Whatever we do is not out of free will, so cannot be moral or immoral. If free will doesn’t exist, morality doesn’t either. Hence the conclusion. Now, there are dire consequences of accepting such an argument. Such an argument implies that nothing is immoral and people are not responsible for their actions, even the heinous ones, for example murder, torture, harassment, etc. But society cannot function under such a reality. So, are we living in a deterministic world wrapped in a veneer of free will? Do we then believe in the illusion of freewill? For what is life if we think that we control nothing.

However, the purpose of this article was not to disprove the existence of free will. Rather, on the contrary, the purpose of this article is to point the reader in the direction of non-physicalism, consciousness and chaos theory as preconditions to human free will. In the next few articles of this series, we will take a look at how determinism only holds in the case of linear systems, and how nonlinear systems introduce the much needed randomness in the universe through the phenomenon of chaos. We will also explore how consciousness is a precursor for free will and how it enables a person to counterbalance external causes and effects, including genetic preferences. By studying consciousness, we will strip the idea of physicalism to see how the universe has a dominant non-physical aspect, both with or without the observer. At the heart of the debate is a simple reflection for us all: As we plunge deeper into the world of things, into digital binaries, and into materialism, we are automatically giving away our free-will. It is only by acknowledging the blank spaces that exist in our perceived reality that we find the moments to act with free will. But more on that later. 


  1. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-free-will-an-illusion/
  2. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/freewill/ 
  3. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/mar/19/do-your-genes-determine-your-entire-life