Yesterday’s musings about free will led us to the question of where our decisions actually come from. Even in our own inner experience, our choices seem simply to float up into our consciousness, and indeed, experimental results strongly suggest that our awareness of our decisions comes after they are already made. Our commenter Pat Goldsmith remarked upon his consciousness “observing” and “using” his thoughts — and, interestingly, “taking the reins”, which agrees with the notion that we only have a sort of veto power over our volitional choices, which themselves bubble up from unconscious processes. In other words, then, our consciousness is at most a bridle, not a spur. (As V.S. Ramachandran put it, compared to what we usually imagine as “free will”, this seems more like “free won’t“.) Likewise, commenter Jess Kaplan remarked that as far as free will is concerned, our ex post facto consciousness of our decisions is “neither here nor there”. We seem, then, to have moved toward the view that whatever might turn out to be necessary for our decision-making, consciousness seems not to be on the list.
To repeat the question that concluded the previous post: when we insist that “we” must have free will, what do we mean by “we”, anyway? Plainly we make an awful lot of volitional choices that occur quite automatically; in fact we make thousands of little decisions all day long without, quite literally, giving them any thought at all. We carry with us all sorts of unconscious desires, likes, dislikes, affinities, aversions, resentments, and so forth, all of which affect our choices without our awareness or conscious consent. In fact, it is probably safe to say that the vast majority of all our volitional acts occur in this way. Are such acts “free”? And here’s an odder, but also, I think, very important question: in what sense are they ours?
It is tempting to say that only those decisions that we make consciously are “free”, but as we have seen above, even those are only conscious, it appears, in retrospect. We can consciously endorse them, perhaps, or report on them, but it looks as if consciousness is not part of making them. So where are “we” in all of this?