I’ve made it pretty clear that I see any model of the world in terms of evolutionary psychology almost irrespective of the metaphysical foundations of and explanatory science used to relate its component parts.
I’ve just finished reading Daniel Wegner’s – Illusion of Conscious Will . “A remarkable demonstration of how psychology can transform philosophy” said Sue Blackmore in the TLS. I think I’ve already noted my frustration that Wegner’s book contains no new insights, but it is undoubtedly a learned piece of research – over 800 formally named references (!) – with enough linguistic humour to make it an excellent read as a text-book. Like other good work on what consciousness really is, it dwells at length on evidence from the abnormal and paranormal aspects, sneaking up on the subject of “normal” consciousness.
In “The usual choice” – Wegner points out how it has become normal to make the debate seem like a binary argument betweeen determinism or free-will ? Robogeeks vs bad-scientists. Each side’s caricature of the other. We’re all losers. Clearly it could not be all of either. Will cannot be 100% free, a decision a random coin-toss. The outcome is influenced by the preceding situation, but not 100% determined. Interestingly Wegner cites both Dennett and Voltaire already pointing out the pointlessness of this debate.
Most interestingly, Wegner highlights the “moral philosophy” roles of responsibility and values in debating what we see as “conscious will”. It is wonderfully circular. Not only would “will” be seen as a sign of responsibility, say in questions of guilt in law, but in fact the very act of assigning will is drawn from the very act of taking or attributing responsibility or cause. The classic “Whodunnit” says Wegner. Who did what and why ? Attribution and post rationalisation are a shorthand “… people can get pretty bollixed-up in their understanding of who did what in a social interaction … even with the computational tools of the average rocket scientist, it could be a sizable task to figure out who did what in just half an hour of facilitated interaction … every possible thought-action combination … Imagine what this would look like … in the course of a few hours of court proceedings or the snappy repartee of a good romantic comedy.”
Disappointingly even at his conclusion Wegner is still using the term “illusion”, when he says “It’s the illusion of conscious will that makes us human.” A human self is no more or less illusory than the thoughts of will it entertains. The self is comprised of and comprises such thoughts in fact. I say, they are “illusory” only in the sense that they are virtual – patterns of information realised in the operating system above the physical hardware – the key thing is that the interrelations in and between those patterns are highly recursive. Cause and effect are highly ephemeral and we’d be lost without a good shorthand, but they are no illusion, even if some of us are under an illusion about their precise nature.