Thanks, Alan, for opening up this great conversation.

“Consciousness” is for me a muddier term than “free will,” though free will is a more difficult if not impossible proposition to defend. I’ll be using philosophical references from an earlier time to address your inquiry, and hope my stepping back will be of some benefit.

I think your abstract hypothetical begs the question regarding whether there is such a thread as the white one (conscious choice). I’m not sure thread is a good analogy, as why would each strand be a stand-alone cause rather than each participating in a blurry mess of causes which likely is closer to what actually happens?: bodily drives, selfish impulses and intentions, super ego/moral considerations, impediments to said drives, PTSD reactions, vanity, self conscious desire to express my free will even as I doubt its existence, well, of course this list goes on and on…

When it comes to the off stage causes (drives and unconscious input) it seems there are varying degrees of conscious awareness of those and thus varying abilities regarding taking them into account. Some of us go through life never in touch with our bodies sensations or emotions, while others become more aware. None of us become 100% aware. Psychoanalysis has as its main objective bringing to surface unconscious content with the result that a successful analysis frees the patient from the same. I’m not interested in defending Freud as anything but one example of how some of us may be more conscious of that which goes on off stage. It seems to me that this elevates one’s ability to be free from some of those determinates.

If free will exists at all, it is relative and never absolute.

I prefer to discuss these matters in terms of mental life and mental faculties, following from Kant. Consciousness gets muddy: are we referring to being conscious in contrast to unconscious? In your example of “planning depth” I would separate that out as self conscious rather than merely conscious, and I think of it in terms of mental faculties, in this case abstract reasoning.

I don’t agree that our ability to reason abstractly is as close to our primate kin as do you. We don’t just think a few moves forward or backward. We think so far forward that we imagine and care about our own mortality in a way that other mammals do not. Due to global warming we now imagine our own extinction as a species. On the other side, we are also historical creatures who don’t merely study and learn from what happened yesterday or last week, but also last century and even all the way back to prehistory.

To answer your final question: If we do not have free will, do we have morality? The early empiricist’s response would be that we do have moral passions (empathy, compassion, etc.); however, in the strictest sense that doesn’t get us far as we are not responsible (freely choosing as a cause) our emotional states, so in Kantian terms wouldn’t be praise or blameworthy as ethics would assume by definition.

Free will is an apriori condition of responsibility, which is a necessary condition for ethical being. The problem is that at least with other apriori conditions we have empirical sense data upon which to ground our logical deductions: apples falling from trees gets us time, space, causation, and gravity. With ethics we are stuck in a vicious circle: we need free will to be responsible, and our inclination or desire to hold people responsible is used as evidence of free will.


College lecturer of philosophy, and religion. Environmental ethicist. Ordained and reverent reverend. Let’s tell the truth… email: