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!]