Of His Own Free Will

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.

13 thoughts on “Of His Own Free Will”

  1. I found Wegner’s book deeply disturbing and it left me adrift wondering “who the heck am I”. But now after a few weeks, I am not so troubled and in discussions on Moq have found some opportunities to discuss the issues of consciousness and find some context.

    I am however baffled, considering the number of studies Wegner has done and that he teaches at Harvard, that he is not cited in any of the books I have concerning cognitve science. Is he on the outs or is he just minor league?

    I hated the two of Rushdie’s books that I tried to read. Didn’t get them, not at all.

    Your friend Matt has an incredible blog. He’s so bright and so young.

    BTW it’s Daniel

  2. “thinking about what mustn’t do increasing likelihood of doing”

    This reminds me of some things wegner said at the end of the book. He calls it the ironic (something) too lazy to go look.

    At any rate…You say to yourself…concentrate, then you do, but there is a part of your brain which needs to check and see if you are actually concentrating and Poof you aren’t any more. …

  3. Hi Alice,

    Ah yes, Daniel not Gary. Gary Wegner is a ZMM fan that runs the detailed ZMM Route Map web site. (I keep making that mistake.)

    I’m about to update the post …

    I don’t think (Daniel) Wegner is cited by others, partly because his book is new, but as I said, partly because it is really an empirical summary of work by others, with no really new insights that I’ve found yet. A good textbook.

    Matt’s writing is excellent, I agree, and amazing in someone so young.

  4. I quit the Moq discussion today. It doesn’t go anywhere and all people are doing is either bashing each other over the head or saying “right on! I agree with you.” Kind of disappointing but oh well.

    I like Matt and find his blog very interesting and he has given me lots of references which I will follow up on, but I was so surprised to hear that he takes Air America seriously, just as I am surprised when I hear some say they take Rush Limbaugh seriously. Somehow humans need to ally themselves with a “side”. Never mind the complexities of an issue. I guess Rorty is saying that, although I don’t actually agree with his politics. He is well spoken and I appreciate that in anyone.

    Also I have an ongoing discussion with Ham, the essentialist. I am trying to “get” his stance. We are discussing consciousness, self, proprietary awareness and something he calls “the essence”. I find it interesting to discuss these things and learn how to define the indefinable. Still, Wegner, was a mindblower in a way that I am still coming to terms with. I am not afraid to have my beliefs challenged as long as it gets me somewhere.

  5. Hi Alice, I see you’ve been very active, interacting with all the usual suspects. Most of the intelligent stuff ends up going on off-line, because many of the usual suspects all seem to get polarised very quickly.

    Some of those who have intelligent things to say, still seem to want to turn everything into an argument, rather than a debate. You’ve seen my view on “binary arguments” many times. It takes real effort to stay involved whilst it always looks like a battlefield.

    Rorty I have sympathies with, but I still don’t see that he adds much to the pragmatic middle-ground. You will have noticed, like Wegner, he uses the idea of “irony” as an important concept.

  6. Oh yes, “the middle ground’. No one seems to like that much, that place where all sides are seen, all views are given equal weight. It somehow stinks of being wishy washy. But that is perhaps the dynamic place where we can begin to move forward.

    There needs to be sides, I understand that part. It would just seem that intelligent people need to know that there is more than just their side.

    My sister likes to say “assume best intent” Maslow seems to agree also. Giving each other the respect one would like for yourself. I think Jesus said that to. But I digress…can’t help it.

  7. “all views are given equal weight”

    I should have waited before I submitted baecause I need to ammend this. I suppose if I waited long enough I’d never submit anything (which could be a blessing)

    Respect is what I meant. As a conservative who has actually struggled to understand the philosophy, and doesn’t agree with every little thing, I would love to know what and how liberals think. I am sure we could agree on many things and struggled over others. But sounds bites, insults and clever retorts, just don’t cut it and that is what politics amounts to in America today, at a time when there’s some really serious shit going on.

    BTW, I don’t think George is a conservative. I’ll go now.

  8. Alice, you said, “I like Matt and find his blog very interesting and he has given me lots of references which I will follow up on, but I was so surprised to hear that he takes Air America seriously, just as I am surprised when I hear some say they take Rush Limbaugh seriously. Somehow humans need to ally themselves with a “side”. Never mind the complexities of an issue.”

    That kind of reaction is actually one of the big reasons why I never open my mouth when it comes to politics. One of the biggest reasons why I go on long hiatuses from moq.org is because so many of the members there have made so many presumptions about the kind of person I am, how I think politically (based on, of all things, my philosophical writings), what kinds of friends I have, etc., etc. I actually get sick of the MD for the same reasons you got sick of it.

    Surprised that I like Air America? I mean, in the long view of it, who cares if I like Al Franken? He’s funny. I like comedians. I think some of the most incisive political and social commentary we have are from comedians. Those are just a few more of the facets that make up the “me” that my friends call “Matt”.

    Now, to me, what’s surprising is to be surprised by learning a little bit more about another person. What I write for the MD and what I write for my blog only shows a very limited perspective of who I am and what I think. People are complex, as you would want to agree, not easily isolatable by a few posts here and there. It seems strange that, by liking Air America, I’d suddenly be the kind of person who ignores complexity or takes “sides”.

    Besides, what is politics other than the shifting of mass amounts of people to and from various “sides”? That’s the only way a democracy works, where the majority rules. Putting “sides” in scare quotes and using it as something of a pejorative epithet signals to me another facet of the defunct “esteemed sixities” you referenced in my blog–that of the authentic, unique self. That “self” is gone, an existential fiction that philosophers have rightly shown to be unworkable. What we have, instead, are massive layers of, to use Pirsig’s language, static patterns. We really are all different, but we are much more the same. Our cultural DNA is the same as our biological DNA–99.9% the same. This, in fact, is what gives credence to you thinking that “we [liberals and conservatives] could agree on many things.” That’s absolutely true, and I agree that sound bites, insults and clever retorts get tiresome and fail to help the situation sometimes. But to deny yourself a “side” by foisting the label pejoratively on others leaves you all alone, with nobody to agree with. Solidarity around issues is what drives political success and moral success. To deny solidarity is to deny the basic static latch of political, moral, and intellectual progress.

    p.s. Now you know something else about me–I’m very sensitive 😉

  9. You’re right Alice, equal weight is wrong, but I knew what you meant 🙂

    Even respect, might not deserve equality. Views come from people, and we know people have track records of saying and doing, so we are allowed to “pre-judge”. Nevertheless each view deserves “appropriate consideration”.

    Must blog about it, but I just read a book call “On Bullshit” by Prof Henry Frankfurt … about politics and the differences between lying, deception and bull.


  10. Matt, We’ve got to stop meeting like this!

    I suppose I deserve some kind of calling out for talking behind your back, so to speak. But I did address you directly, also.

    I don’t think I know you except that I have read quite a few of your essays and I think reading what a person writes is one way to get to know that person, especially when that person is as articulate as you are. I haven’t made too many assumptions about you, however and I promise I won’t make any more.

    I don’t know Ian personally, but since I have been reading his blog for over a year, I have some sense of who this person is. There are just a few other blogs I read on a regular basis and I have developed nice relationships with those writers also.

    I am sorry that you are offended by what I wrote. It wasn’t so much about you as the whole phenomenon of talk radio and how this medium has taken such a hold of our nation’s political discussion. What I have experienced is that many, many people don’t know much about “the issues” except what they are being fed by their favorite talk show host.

    You will notice that I included Limbaugh’s fans in my comments. What I am thinking about is possibility of coming to some kind of truth by real discussion instead of empty rhetoric. I think it would be very interesting to see if Pirsig’s philosophy could be applied to real world issues instead of just yelling about how stupid people are for thinking what they think. (I’m not saying you do that) But I think if I read Rorty correctly he thinks that is an impossibility and it may be….

    “But to deny yourself a “side” by foisting the label pejoratively on others leaves you all alone, with nobody to agree with.

    I am not sure at what point I foisted any label perjoratively and I actually have a “side” but I don’t know if my side is always right and I would be willing to listen to anyone who would be willing to present me with a better perspective. That is what conversation is about and I guess that’s what I would call being open-minded, which I think is a worthy position.

    “Solidarity around issues is what drives political success and moral success.”

    The political part of that is true and as you have noted since the right has much more solidarity it has been more successful. It will be interesting to see how the next years go.

    And the battle goes on. I heard tonight that Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Fact” (?) will be opening this weekend. It will be the opening segment on Limbaugh’s show and he will make fun of the notion that anything like global warming could be happening and all of his listeners will go away assured that there is absolutely nothing to worry about. It will be interesting to see what Franken says. I won’t know because I don’t get any of this stuff anymore because I live in the mountains.

    But I have the internet and I can read the esteemed writings of Lyndon LaRouch.

    If you ever have the chance, check out Thomas Sowell’s “The Vision of the Anointed”. It would give you an idea of where serious conservatives are coming from, if you are interested.

    PS I like Russ Feingold, too, but you already know that.


  11. if you are sensitive, Matt, I am tenacious. I hope ian doesn’t mind me cluttering up his blog with such errant commentary, but I am sure he has the power of deletion at his fingertips.

    I have been thinking about my idea of decent discourse aimed at informing and perhaps persuading and I have begun to form a picture of it in my mind and I’d like to see what you think.

    Two giants are invited to debate on television. The two I thought of are Thomas Sowell and Noam Chompsky. The debate is two hours long with no commercials. Each person is given ample time to spell out his views on politics and economics. then they are asked questions and given lots of time to respond and rebut. there would be rules like no rolling of eyes or smirks, but I think these two could manage that. Also the discourse would have to be at an average level so that lots of people could understand the points which were being made.

    The second part of the process would be to set up websites and have the transcripts printed so that people could comment and ask questions, etc. The speakers need not participate, but there should be some sort of moderator to enforce rules. No snide or abusive remarks.For instance a liberal could say, “while I understand the conservative view of free markets, since there has been such a discrepency in the class structure of our nation, wouldn’t it be right to legitimize affirmative action? Instead of something like “look you greedy bastard, you have gotten rich on the backs of the poor, give some of it up!”

    Yeah, I know, fat chance. It sounded better before I wrote it down.

    Anyway you won’t be hearing from me for a while. my daughter is graduating from college this weekend even though she really graduated last December. Happy Memorial weekend.

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