Originally posted on 07-31-07:
There’s a fabulous article in the New York Times today, called “Who’s Minding the Mind.”
Many people, including me, have been saying this for years, and the science has been accumulating: the impression that we are in conscious control of our behavior, our thoughts, our lives, is an illusion, sustained by the inability of the brain to access its own operational processes. This article describes some of the more recent research that has been added to the pile:
When it comes to our behavior from moment to moment, the big question is, ‘What to do next?’ ” said John A. Bargh, a professor of psychology at Yale and a co-author, with Lawrence Williams, of the coffee study, which was presented at a recent psychology conference. “Well, we’re finding that we have these unconscious behavioral guidance systems that are continually furnishing suggestions through the day about what to do next, and the brain is considering and often acting on those, all before conscious awareness.
The article briefly describes several studies that all contribute to the same conclusion, and reading the whole piece will help to flesh it out with specific instances.
While the article doesn’t mention that ancient bugaboo, “free will,” it certainly adds to the evidence that we don’t have it. Of course, there are still those who deny the full implications, and the article is obligated to mention one of those:
Some scientists also caution against overstating the implications of the latest research on priming unconscious goals. The new research “doesn’t prove that consciousness never does anything,” wrote Roy Baumeister, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, in an e-mail message. “It’s rather like showing you can hot-wire a car to start the ignition without keys. That’s important and potentially useful information, but it doesn’t prove that keys don’t exist or that keys are useless.”
Yet he and most in the field now agree that the evidence for psychological hot-wiring has become overwhelming.
What seems obvious to me and many others, but not to Roy, is that, given all the evidence of “hot-wiring”—the demonstrated instances of behavior and dispositions being prompted by cues in the environment that are not consciously perceived—why suppose that our conscious thought is any different? Our train of thought, our conscious associations, are just as much the product of the inscrutable processes of the brain as are those overt behaviors on which scientists have so far managed to conduct experiments.
Speaking of others who have long been aware of the illusion of conscious control, I’ve recently re-read a beautiful essay by Galen Strawson, called “Luck Swallows Everything.” There are many other very well done pieces on the site I’ve linked to.
Another excellent work that ends up dealing with free will, is The Meme Machine, by Susan Blackmore. I’ve linked to her Wikipedia entry, where you can find numerous links to excerpts from this book and other writings. Her web site has much of interest, and among other things, you’ll find a link to this great podcast. The podcast is an interview done by Point of Inquiry, another wonderful source of information.
I think an insurmountable source of difficulty for many people in confronting the issue of free will is that they can’t imagine a satisfying, enjoyable image of themselves without the illusion of control. I have tried to show some of the many positive aspects of shedding the illusion in my essay on the subject, and in the last couple of chapters of The Meme Machine, Susan Blackmore presents a very positive image of life without it.
You don’t have to pretend that things are other than they are to be happy. The more we shed our illusions, the more beautiful life can be.
Happy or Sad?