Uncommon Sense

April 21, 2012

Our Will, Free or Not?

Filed under: Politics,Science — Steve Ruis @ 8:42 pm
Tags: ,

We act as if we are free to do as we wish. The term used to describe this ability is “free will.” Some say the it was granted to us by god.

Free will is under extensive examination of late, largely due to medical imaging technology. By wiring people up and using various types of brain scanners scientists have accrued quite a pile of evidence indicating that well before we “think” we have made a decision, our bodies have already started to act on those decisions. Anywhere from a half of a second to an astonishing seven seconds(!) before subjects state they made a decision, indications of the decision already made occur. Some claim that this is evidence that we do not have free will and that we are not in control of our own decisions, that some sort of automated response to stimuli in the environment is guiding our actions.

The implications, if this is a correct interpretation of the evidence, leads to the conclusion that we are not in control of our own decisions and therefore should not be accountable for them. This throws quite a kink into our criminal justice system and makes moral theories, in which people supposedly mull the consequences of their actions to base their decisions on, quite bankrupt since such decisions have been decided seconds before we have come to our conscious conclusion.

Are we automatons just reacting subconsciously to stimuli about which we know nothing, at least consciously?

This has been a topic of interest to me for many decades and I think most of the experts I have read make two mistakes. For one they identify with their conscious selves, e.g. “I think therefore I am.” (Descartes) Now, I certainly can’t put myself into Descartes’ class as a thinker, but I think this is a mistake. Our consciousness is apparently a late evolving tool and because it is so powerful we overvalue it. Our consciousness is a powerful tool, yes, but it is only part of us. It is also a fact that our greatest strengths are also our greatest weaknesses. Conscious thinking is quite powerful, yes, but limited nonetheless. Consider tying one’s shoes. What do you consciously focus on when tying your shoes? Nothing? Apparently this is true. No conscious thinking is required to tie one’s shoes. But have you ever watched a three-year old learning to tie his shoes? Ah, the concentration, the triumphs, the frustrations, the failures—high drama indeed. We learn many things consciously (driving a car, figure skating, swinging a golf club) and the learning is laborious, but then we execute those functions subconsciously with grace and efficiency.

We just are beginning to understand how we function subconsciously and I believe that a great deal of who we are functions that way. (I am creating these words consciously, but typing them subconsciously, for example.) I think most of what we do is done subconsciously and then we make up reasons for what we do after the fact. Consider any four-year old caught with his hand in the cookie jar—“Just what are you doing young man?”—and you will see the creative wheels turning in his eyes. Since we can’t come up with rational reasons for “why we do what we do” until we have either done those things or at least decided to do those things, it makes good sense to me that consciousness must lag decision making.

I think we are better off to think of ourselves as being more the subconscious “Me” instead of the conscious “I.” We shouldn’t elevate a smaller part of us to “all.”

The other mistake I think the experts make involves meaning. The role of free will in our judicial system supports our holding people accountable for our actions. “You commit a crime, you go to prison,” that kind of thing. To convict a criminal the prosecution must show the defendant had the means, the opportunity, and the motive to commit his crime (consider the Treyvon Martin case). Motives are reasonable reasons why something got done. We have psychologists testify as to the motives of the perpetrator, but the whole subject of psychology is a just look at “why” we do the things we do, which is an offshoot of our search for meaning. The problem is that because we are constantly looking for the “meanings” of things we get distorted vision.

I, on the other hand, argue that the search for meaning is, well, meaningless. What does life mean? People want to know what their dreams mean, for Pete’s sake. People want to know why Adolf Hitler did what he did. (He stated in Mein Kampf that God had wanted him to fight the Jews but noone apparently wants to take him at his word.) What did his actions mean? Why? Why? Why? Instead of simply accepting that he did what he did, we come up with cockamamie ideas about his life as a child or that he had a disease or a brain tumor, or, or. . . . You can always answer the question “What does it mean?” with “Nothing.” If you stop trying to extract meaning from everything you will find that things do mean something, but those meanings are personal. There is no such thing as meaning outside of our minds. (If you don’t believe me, try to find a single meaning out in the natural world.) Meanings are little fictions we create to make our lives more endurable, as in the phrase “at least it was for a good cause.”

If you want to know the meaning of life, just live.

If you want to know why we are held accountable for our actions, it is because there would be chaos otherwise. It doesn’t really mean anything.

So, do we have free will? I say “yes” even though neither you nor I are consciously aware of the process by which we make decisions . . . but we are learning more every day and, maybe, some day we will. I think that those subconscious processes will be just as logical as the ones we point to now that are conscious. And those decision making process are made by the “Me’s” in all of us.

And then will we find out what it all means? I doubt it.

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