John Stuart Mill of his own free will,
On half a pint of shandy was particulary ill.
Will. The Pythons’ song memeing itself in my brain the last day or so, was prompted by listening to the BBC’s “In Our Time” this last Thursday. Anthony Grayling, Janet Radcliffe Williams, and Alan Ryan discussing the life and work of Mill with Melvyn Bragg. I’ll say more about Mill another time – I need to read more about him first – but he struck me as ahead of his time and on the money in his views on the evolution of quality of life through levels of biology, culture and intellect.
What it did do apart from nurture the infectious meme, was put me in mind of will, and create a connection with the Daniel Wegner book I’m currently reading; “The Illusion of Conscious Will” and motivate me to pick it up again and continue where I’d left off.
Wegner’s book was leaving me cold in the first few chapters, so I put it down and read Arundhati Roy’s “God of Small Things”. (Very reminiscent of Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” for obvious reasons of location and culture, and a great read, with great inventive language – playful psychological (autobiographical ?) account of how people treat people, and the usual “what really matters after all” themes – the story itself marred only by the fact that the “secret” scandal behind the looming trajedy is too easily worked out early on. Anyway I digress.)
Wegner’s is a good textbook summary of psychlogical perspectives on conscious will. As such I wasn’t finding much new other than a light amusing presentation of issues covered already by Sacks, Edelman, Austin et al. (In fact the reference list is full of material I’ve read already.) To be fair, it is well written, and easy to read apart from my own impatience with the subject matter. Dennett and Blackmore, heros of mine, both give it their seal of approval.
Apart from my impatient reaction to the usual mis-interpretation of Libet’s results, I am really railing against the word “illusion” in the context of consciousness and will …
To be finished (Off to Chatanooga, back later. In which we find that Choo-Choo really does indicte a major historic connection with railroads, and that Alonzo Boden, the reason we made the trip, did a really good stand-up routine at the “Comedy Catch”. Good thoughful comment and funny enough to have Southern Tennesee folks laughing continuously at his republican politics and racial stereotyping gags. Great tirade on Cheney. Good mix of material and assured delivery. Very funny, and a very exciting drive back to Huntsville in torrential rain and thunderstorms, too.)OK, continuing …
Railing against illusion ?
Bearing in mind that “causation” is itself a pretty weird concept – nothing like as “concrete” as most of our common sense induction would have us believe (Ref – Mill above, Paul Turner’s buddhist perspective, and David Deutsch’s “explanatory science”). Wegner rightly makes ongoing reference to our psychological need “crying out for causal agent explanations” – who did that ?
But causation itself is remarkably illusory, so much so that just about any “explanation” of anything could be deemed illusion, if that’s your game. It’s a doubly cheap-shot, if your interest is causation and your subject is the mental realm – a meta-illusion. Explaining what “really exists” in mind ? And we find ourselves back at Ontology-101, when we should probably be at Epistemology-101. Let’s not go there.
I’ve disagreed already with both Dennett and Blackmore about conclusions like consiciousness or conscious will being illusions, and I 99% agree with most of their arguments. My problem is the sense that suggesting “illusion” means it’s somehow “not real”. Ephemeral yes, but it’s real enough.
A large part of the published debate is about the extent to which (human) causation is “free-will” and how much is automatism, “mechanistic” physio-biological activities. Unsurprisingly, all empirical evidence shows that a great deal of what we characterise as mental free-will is indeed mechanistic, operating at levels below (or in advance of) what we’d think of as conscious mental will. (Libet etc, and all the neuro-psychological studies of mental abnormalities, Sacks, Autsin, etc). Hardly surprising since we are clearly “thinking with (physio-biological) meat”
In reality our consciousness is highly evolved on many levels, with many loopy, recursive, strange, (Hofstadterian) interactions between the levels. Only new blue-sky or supervisory intervention “thoughts” and “wills” need reach the level we call active consciousness. “Free won’t” as it has been dubbed. The “better” our consciousness, surely the less we should expect to impinge on it. Good management is delegation. Same with minds. Really well organised systems look like “machines” – look at a top class tennis player on top form.
OK, so picking up on Wegner, on p143 he says
“… the attribution of outside agency suggests that when we see an action we immediately require that someone did it … The agent can be found in the self when there is an illusion of conscious will, and elsewhere when the illusions breaks down. And the presence of any potential agent other than self can relieve us of the illusion that we consciously willed our action.”
Well, OK, but the illusion of “will” is no less real or more illusory than “self”, “agent”, “we” or “us” in the statements above. Let’s join up the dots here and use the Blackmore (or Dennett) idea that “we”, our conscious selves, are nothing more than the sum total of all these interacting thoughts (and memes). Our thoughts are illusory, only in the sense that we are already illusory (and vice-versa of course, it’s a loopy world).
Strong evidence that we and our wills are just a connected mass of thoughts is to be found in Wegner’s own examples of doing precisely what you are thinking hard about not doing. Stepping off a cliff, veering into oncoming traffic, mentioning the war, etc … thinking about not doing something is connected to doing that something in just the same way as a consciously willed thought of doing it. And thinking about something completely unconnected with something creates that very connection too. This is Hofstadter, this is recursive strange loops. Success relies on game theory, learned tricks of the trade of thinking. That’s the human trade. Cat’s sneak up on their prey, we sneak up behind our memes. Let the evolution begin. Welcome to the real world.
The fact that our explanations of mind and will, make them look ever more illusory, the more we try to explain them, doesn’t mean we have the wrong explantions. These mysteries are exactly explained. We need to learn that and move on before we paralyse ourselves with analysis.