The Illusion of Will. Prisoners of the synapse?

This morning I stumbled on a reference to a book by Harvard Psychologist Daniel Wegner called “The Illusion of Conscious Will” which is one of those interesing books I’d like to read but probably won’t.    My coffee pal Roy had clued me in to this research some time aog, and the key point is available online via reviews and such, and it is simply this:

We don’t have conscious will.    Things happen to us, and we process them using our conscious mind, but we don’t *make them happen*.

Now, at first glance this deterministic view seems absurd.    Of course, one might say, I control my actions.    But determinist psychology folks point out that it’s increasingly clear that our actions are *preceded* by brain activity and events that would suggest – I think I’m getting this right – that by the time we are doing “conscious processing” about the thing we are doing, we are already engaged in the activity.   ie the “cause” of our actions comes before the conscious processing period.     From a nice review of Wegner’s book I understand he thinks we confuse this “after the fact” processing with “control”.

Although I am pretty much a determinist I am also uncomfortable with the idea that we are sort of passive players in a predetermined universal play.    The “gut test” says we control our actions and decide what to do.  

I think my ongoing hypothesis about this will be  similar to my idea that consciousness is a conversation between different parts of our brain.  These conversations, many of which are taking place during waking hours and some during sleep, allow us to process information very creatively and act on mental models of the world around us.   It seems we might not have control over our actions 0.1 seconds before them, but that we might have control via processes that happen seconds before as our brain runs through various scenarios.     Now, I think Wegner would say – correctly – that for any given conscious thought you can show there is a preceding electrochemical activity (synapse firing and such) that is not reasonably defined as conscious.  

However what if that initial spark of reflection is unconscious but then leads to a back and forth conscious conversation within your mind that in turn leads to the action. Would that be free will?

[my brain answers –   dude, no way, you have no free will.   Now, stop blogging obscurities and pass the damn M&Ms!]


About JoeDuck

Internet Travel Guy, Father of 2, small town Oregon life. BS Botany from UW Madison Wisconsin, MS Social Sciences from Southern Oregon. Top interests outside of my family's well being are: Internet Technology, Online Travel, Globalization, China, Table Tennis, Real Estate, The Singularity.
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7 Responses to The Illusion of Will. Prisoners of the synapse?

  1. horatiox says:

    The determinism/intention debates remain somewhat interesting, and important (that’s one reason I alluded to the Skinner/Chomsky debates on your consciousness thread a few days past. Searle is another thinker who has offered some interesting anti-determinist speculations). Of course the implications of strict determinism, once understood, may be as unsettling to ID-politics addicted liberals as to the usual rightist-conservative: determinism, at least at the level of human society, calls into question all the lightweight moral posturing that passes for discussion on most left or rightist news shows, newspapers, or blogs.

    While I understand the force of the determinists’ arguments, I believe there are some grounds to object, at least to the strict determinist or more behaviorist sort: most of the discussion sort of distinguishes between soft or hard determinism, and, shall we say, Cartesian models of weak-freedom and strong-freedom. By objecting to strict determinism one does not thereby affirm theology: quite the contrary. Theologians in fact often affirm a sort of spiritual determinism.

    Few humans are willing to let serial murderers off the hook because some neo-behaviorists (or “eliminative materialists” as some call themselves now) insist “society made them do it”, or because the murderer simply received the wrong conditioning and input as a “neo-nate.” One could say the same about Bush…or Hitler..Stalin, etc.

    Humans certainly do believe that they are free to some extent, that they exist as persons (and persist in time), and that they make choices. Students in a classroom, for instance, work out their algebra problems and make a decision, hopefully a correct one. A stimulus-response model can hardly account for that: nor can primitive Darwinism. Ultimately, some type of cognitive determinism may replace older Cartesian models of mind (whether in terms of education, psychology, legal issues, etc.) but that could very well be a rather frightening occurrence as well: some nazi psychologists (and stalinists as well) were rather keen on behaviorist models–and Darwinism— and in a sense the reduction of humans to mere organisms. (Pynchon’s “Pointsman” in Gravity’s Rainbow a great parody of a strict determinist).

    Bricmont, a Belgian physicist (he appears on Counterpunch on occasion) writes some powerful and challenging material regarding determinism, and its relation to science, psychology, and political issues; he’s a determinist, but not of the “Pointsman”, Skinnerian sort. I don’t agree with all of what Bricmont asserts, but it’s worth a read.

  2. JoeDuck says:

    Thx for links and a very thoughtful post Horatiox.

    determinism, at least at the level of human society, calls into question all the lightweight moral posturing that passes for discussion

    Great point by you.. but wait, maybe I should not give you credit since you making this point at this time could have been determined millions of years ago?

    This blog is brought to you by the condensations of a gas cloud some 5 billion years ago 8)

    It’s interesting how important the principles of evolution, thought, and probability are with respect to most debates, yet we rarely discuss these “underpinnings” of how and why we wind up thinking the way we do.

  3. horatiox says:

    “It’s interesting how important the principles of evolution, thought, and probability are with respect to most debates, yet we rarely discuss these “underpinnings” of how and why we wind up thinking the way we do.

    Yes. Instead of say evolutionary or psychological analyses or cost-benefit approaches to political problems, we are served with endless righteous indignation. One might expect moral hysteria from conservative biblethumpers, but the same sort of hysteria can be noted at many so-called leftist or progressive sites (or among AGW defenders, for that matter). Sort of a Sally Field-meme (see DailyKOS for examples).

    Marx himself tried to avoid obvious moralistic condemnation: capitalism is a historical phenomena, and has led to various economic problems having to do with production and distribution, and Marx and Engels document those problems with all sorts of demographics and historical data: it’s not merely some villainous tycoons from central casting (tho’ there are some, and villains in the Politburo as well). Though he was not a scientist per se (tho’ some might consider economists scientists), Marx was aware of Darwin, and economic materialism is itself determinist for the most part, though not of the strict Newtonian-billiard ball type. We are conditioned by our environments, and also biologically and genetically, of course. Alas moralists or all types have a hard time realizing that.

    Marxism itself has a somewhat contradictory aspect in that regards: capitalism seems “evil” (as say Exxon seems evil) but at most the materialist–or Darwinist—can only offer cost-benefit analyses, and point out the inefficiencies and inconsistencies. It’s difficult for humans, even Darwinists or atheists, to give up on the idea of Justice with a capital J, and I for one am not so sure we should, tho’ we should try to avoid the shallow cafe-liberalism and ID politics of DailyKOS and similar sites. That sort of soccer-mommy outrage-lite does more for the right than does a stoical assessment of political and economic problems.

  4. Joe Duck says:

    That Marxism / materialism / Capitalism continuum is very interesting to me. Ironically I see Marxism as a huge and dramatic failure in N. Korea, USSR and China and other communist countries, yet successful at helping to bring mild (and positive) socialistic notions to western democracies. These socialistic ideas that we now hold dear are progressive taxation, govt intervention on behalf of human welfare, universal education, etc.

    Marx was fond of America as he wrote in a time when capitalism created intolerable conditions in Europe like child labor. I think Marx (and any rational person!)would view the USA as a much better economic experiment than, say, North Korea even though Marxist economic ideas are applied more directly there.

  5. horatiox says:

    I agree that applied marxism resulted in great disasters, but so has capitalism. We should never excuse Stalinism, of course (as some Marxists seem to do). I’m not a doctrinaire socialist, but as you mentioned, socialist ideas have been fairly important in Europe and US, and I think the US needs socialist reform, and controls on the private sector and corporate excess.

    Old-school democartic thinking– such as FDR or Truman’s economic advisors (a battle between Keynesians and Marxists, really)— has been pushed to the side: the New Deal school would have anti-trust suits filed against most US corporate giants, whether Microsoft or General Motors. The US demos don’t have the spine and rely on the superficial issues (i.e. AGW), the image politics, character issues. Indeed there seems to be a conscious effort to avoid substantial economic debate, and instead focus on the scandal du jour, the character obsessions, even the lightweight religious chat (or anti-religious chat: the vulgar Darwinist is usually a conservative party-boy type, if not closet-case fascist).

  6. horatiox says:

    Really the central economic problems, at least of US, are not that different than what faced Jefferson and Hamilton, though technology (and maybe energy problems) has complicated matters somewhat. TJ opposed the urbanization, industry and financial schemes of Hamilton. Most humans consider the agrarian or mercantilist type of thinking of Jefferson to be quaint or irrelevant, but really it’s not (that’s not to make apologies for Jefferson’s other ethical problems).

    Real reform starts with destroying HamiltonLand–de-urbanization, de-centralization, reducing finance, and dealing with property/regional issues; though that needn’t imply just Jeffersonian-libertarian freedom, or some marxist egalitarianism across the board. But as even Marx realized, some people stand to lose with socialism. The American middle class might lose. So does one support policies that are good for one’s pocketbook, or which are sort of good for all? Most choose the former. Alas, without drastic political solutions–such as replacing the popular vote with a type of meritocratic system (there Marx might agree)— any substantial reform will probably not come about, though other types of actions (police-state-like or fascist/communist) should not be ruled out. The hispanics and unionists in CA are probably strong enough to bring about a sort of socialist state, but I doubt many out in the ‘Burbs or chi chi urban areas will care for that. Gentrification though remains a problem.

  7. Joe Duck says:

    Horatiox I’m too steeped in tech news to give a good reply but you are making a lot of really interesting points. European style socialist capitalism (in the loose sense of free hand, individual liberties and property and selfishness rights, high value on innovation, Biz > Gov, etc. seems to me to the be best model so far to optimize rights and production. I do think the weak economies of Cuba and Viet Nam and the disastrous economy of North Korea are clear indications that Marxist approaches tend to fail miserably. China is doing better because they are acting capitalistically and doing so somewhat ruthlessly thanks to the centralization communism has imposed there.

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