Sunday, March 18, 2012

Free Will: don't let false dichotomies lead you astray

A recent Horizon programme on the BBC in the uk considered the nature of the unconscious mind. As of the date of this post, it is still available on iPlayer. This was a very interesting account of recent evidence on our unconscious, but I found one aspect problematic. The narrator posed the question: "Are you in control of your unconscious, or is it in control of you?"

I think this is a false dichotomy. My subconscious is part of me, so if a lot of my cognition is handled by systems in my brain that are not accessible to conscious awareness that does not mean I am not in control. It is just that the majority of my control is not conscious, and that is probably just as well. The speed and efficiency of our unconsious mind is essential for our functioning in real time in a complex environment. If we had to consciously deliberate about every aspect of our behaviour, we would be overwhelmed by information, and the burden of decision making would preclude all but the simplest tasks.

I think the role of conscious control in our lives is small but important. We should not be unnerved too much if science reveals that our conscious rationalisations of our thought processes in the solution of real world problems are often inaccurate. We might just be bad at guessing the insides of our unconsious strategies, but they are still ours. I think the best way to defend our cherished notion of free will is to avoid overstating its importance in our daily lives. If we think of a small rider on a large stubborn elephant then that might help to get our measure of control in perspective, but I think it would be a mistake to identify with the rider alone rather than the elephant-rider pairing.

Perhaps some people found this programme disconcerting because they drew the inference that free will is a kind of user-illusion, that our experience of controlling what we do is just a fabrication in the service of another illusion- that of self. I think the science has been forcing a reassessment of the nature of self and free will for a while. It is now almost 30 years since Benjamin Libet did his famous experiment after all. However, even if some of our common sense ideas about consciousness and free will seem to be mistaken, I don't think science has rendered these concepts redundant so far.

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