Psychology as Philosophy ?

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.

9 thoughts on “Psychology as Philosophy ?”

  1. “even if some of us are under an illusion about their precise nature.”

    and this is probably the only fair description of the illusion. I wish Wegner had thought to make that summation. Maybe he should have kept writing a bit longer.

    I am back from Angela’s home in the heart of San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district. I went to a used book store to get my very own couch copy of ZMM. I figured a place in the Haight would have a few copies…no dice, also asked about Dennett, never heard of him and Hofstadter (?) no.

    Then my beautiful daughter informed me that she had ZMM in her bookshelf. I see by the highlighter she only got to chapter 9, but I am enthralled and on chapter 11. It’s better the second time and since I now have more background, I am understanding more.

    “patterns of information realised in the operating system above the physical hardware.”

    rather pirsigian!!!

    We went to Mt. Tamalpias which overlooks the ocean and San Francisco bay and read William James aloud. Magical…the pragmatic middle ground.

  2. Thanks for the thoughts on the illusion. (Most of what I say is Pirsigian one way or another, which is why I keep thinking there must be something fundamentally right about it.)

    Haight Ashbury – I’ll get there one day.

    I’m been active a little in MoQ-Discuss since you left. There are indeed a few nutters who seem incapable of being constructive. Some of the intelligent contributors are still there. I’m seriously thinking about pushing the alternative “Friends of MoQ” idea again. There are quite a few intelligent sympathisers outside the MoQ-Discuss group too, probably more than there are inside now, due to people leaving in frustration at the behaviour.

  3. “Haight Ashbury – I’ll get there one day.”

    Ironically, Pirsig’s son met his demise just blocks from Angela’s apartment. You could probably skip it. It’s pretty decrepit. It’s like me wanting to see Carnaby Street. Come to the Eastern Sierras instead and see Yosemite National Park and us. Much higher quality!!

    Well Ian, I just finished ZMM again. It was so much clearer this time for several reasons. First, I rushed it the first time. Second, I have more background now.
    I took notes on some questions that came up so if you have anything to add to my understanding…

    Pg 33 When the narrator talks about gravitation and the law of gravitation he concludes that it fulfills every test of non-existence there is. Is his point that there is no substance to gravity or the law of gravity and setting us up to show that science is often subjective?

    The conversation which took place at Weese’s where he asked the narrator to look at the instructions for the rotisserie and the narrator tells him it is better to not read the instructions….
    But I know that the uninitiated who do not know the philosophy behind construction and assembly are in danger of putting one part on before it should go on and therefore may have to tear the whole thing apart at the last. But I guess he addresses that dilemma later when he is discussing gumption.

    Pg 255 Pirsig (the narrator) talks about creating reality by way of analogy (I think you call this metaphor) and that quality is the continuing stimulus to do so. This reminds me of “the illusion” Wegner talks about, more on that later.

    Pg 255 Pirsig is trying not to define quality (although he can’t escape it ever) “Now to take that which has caused us to create the world and include it within the world we created is clearly impossible.” Thisreminds me of Russell’s problem that the set of all sets can not be included in the set of all sets.

    Pg 272 “Poincare then hypothesized that this selection is made by what he called the “subliminal self”…..what Phaedrus called preintellectual awareness. Again I am reminded of Wegner’s book.

    Then I found these quotations on the MoQ website
    “Immediate experience is experience where there is no distinction between what is experienced and the act of experiencing itself. Only after the experience do concepts such as perceiver and perceived arise. It is illogical to put them otherwise”.

    “Quality is not a thing. It is an event. It is the event at which the subject becomes aware of the object… The Quality event is the cause of the subjects and objects, which are then mistakenly presumed to be the cause of the Quality!”

    “Buddhists never admitted the rule “A causes B”, except as a crude suggestion in non-philosophical parlance. As a matter of fact, the Buddhist conception of causation is (that) there is no indefinable (i.e. mysterious) relation, except conjunction and succession and that our tendency to accept such propositions as “this causes that” is to be explained by the laws of habit and association.”

    So I am thinking that all of these concepts relate to what Wegner was speaking about. I know he says that will is an illusion, but perhaps another idea would be that consciousness creates illusion. Until we become conscious, the world is experienced as it is, then at the moment of consciousness we are obliged, because of our nature to assign an agent.

  4. Hi Alice, welcome back. Did you have a good vacation ? Did your daughter’s graduation go OK ?

    You’ve picked up on the key issues in ZMM as far as I’m concerned. “Conscious will” is only an illusion in the same way that causation and consciousness are already quite difficult to pin down. (See Paul Turner at for a buddhist perspecytive on causation as “dependant arising”, much less certain than our natural tendency to “induction”.)

    The “recursion” of Russell’s paradox too.

    The agent is pragmatic “shorthand” for some very complex goings-on. It’s our nature to be pragmatic – to solve problems of life.

    The Pirsig pursists would say you need to read Lila to get the metaphysical angle, (and you probably should) but several of us believe Pirsig got the story 90% right in ZMM and only complicated things unnecessarily in Lila.

    What do you think 😉

  5. Hi Ian,

    I do want to read Lila, but I need to get me to a bookstore, preferably used.

    I looked at Paul’s site and I am enjoying his thinking.

    I am coming to some sort of synthesis. Among other things, lots of things, philosophers seem to be hung up on causation. That would seem to come from our inability to accept the notion that there is no god. Could it really be that simple?

    James comes down squarely on the pragmatic idea that to believe in God does no harm and can certainly do some good. He can’t prove the existence and admits that. He calls this a pragmatic approach, maybe only because he can’t imagine goodness in men without the existence and threat of God.

    Now to dependant origination and the argument against essence.

    Speaking of a tree…
    “its existence as a unitary object, as opposed to a collection of cells; etc, are all conventional. Removing its properties leaves no core bearer behind. Searching for the tree that is independent of and which is the bearer of its parts, we come up empty”

    “Dependent origination is a Buddhist technical term for the entirely conditional reality of phenomena. Reality is designated conditional in that not one aspect of it originates or exists independently of every other; everything is dependent on conditions. If everything is dependent on conditions, and an essence of something is just that which it has, or is, without dependence on conditions, it follows that nothing has, or is, an essence.”

    These bring me back to my grand canyon metaphor which I cited much earlier.

    And this refers to the ” illusion” we have been talking about.

    “On the other(hand), the actual practice of science is thoroughly permeated with causal talk: science is often glossed as the search for causes; and poor science or superstition is condemned because of its supposed failure to conform to a vaguely specified principle of causality. I have argued that we can have causes in the world of science in same way as we can retain the caloric. There is no caloric in the world; heat is not a material substance. However in many circumstances heat behaves just as if it were a material fluid and it can be very useful to think of heat this way.”

    I think the key in this paragraph is “vaguely specified principle”.

    It would seem that Wegner never really defines the illusion or if he does maybe you could point it out for me. Perhaps he is only saying “things just ain’t how they seem to be”, which I can certainly get behind.

  6. Hi Alice, causality is certainly a key “vaguely understood” concept. Scientists have convinced me that “induction” is a fallacy. Paul’s analysis of dependent arising is as good an alternative as I’ve found. If you’ve seen my comments on Paul’s blog you will have seen I also picked up on the “behaves as if” angle – followed by the idea of some causal agent, some “illusion” of teleology (purpose).

    Without some means of explaining “why” – science is pretty hollow – little more than emprical disproof of hypotheses.

    Actually I need to blog some new material – I’ve finished two books inspired by Paul – Magliola’s “Derrida on the Mend” (mind-blowing) and Garfield’s translation of Nagarjuna’s “Mulamadhyamakakarika”. The former involves a detailed analysis of the latter in part three and ends with a comparative “Christian” analysis of the same material in the fourth and final part.

    Tough stuff to read – has taken me months on and off – but it seems somehow “comprehensive”. I need to record some thoughts.

    Wegner’s final analysis is no more than you suggest – will is “real” but it’s not what it seems …

    “what it seems”
    “seems as if”

    … feel very closely related to me.

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