What You Mean “We”, Kemosabe?

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?

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  1. bighominid says

    “Free won’t” makes sense. Some philosophers, like Theodore Schick, loosely define freedom as “the ability to do otherwise.”


    Posted April 22, 2008 at 11:42 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Well, we’re going to get to that, down the road; I’m going to be buzzing around this topic for a long time to come.

    That “could have done otherwise” business needs a lot of unpacking too, and there are a lot of commonsense assumptions in there that get rather awkward under closer scrutiny. I don’t see why vetoing is any “freer” than anything else.

    Posted April 22, 2008 at 11:55 pm | Permalink
  3. JK says

    Well I for one seriously believe it’s the interference that cosmic ray particles have on protoplasm as they hurl their little selves through everything that gets in their little selves’ way.

    Look, if they can interfere with the “thinking” of space-based stuff surely they can (and do) interfere with the thought that one would prefer to lie about the house eating corn chips and swilling beer.


    Posted April 23, 2008 at 10:44 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi JK,

    I had no idea cosmic rays were so motivational!

    Seriously, though, that does fall a bit short of what most folks are hoping for, I think.

    Posted April 23, 2008 at 12:46 pm | Permalink
  5. JK says

    Well Malcolm,

    I just threw my pet theory out there ’cause it seems about as good as any in explaining the unexplainable. And I do regret that I didn’t bother to explain that the cosmic ray thing can provide as much “un”motivational as motivational impeti for the purpuses of determining the source of “free will.”

    However the cosmic ray thing does perhaps explain why it is that motivation toward observable action seems more prevalent during the summer months than they do in the winter months. Kinda like dark matter.

    What remains to be deduced is the mechanism by which any manifestation of “free will” would manifest itself in a more or less coherent pattern. I personally find it very curious that any degree of coherency in disparate actions/expressions of free will-would be apparent.


    Posted April 23, 2008 at 2:01 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Hi JK,

    But what do you think is “unexplainable” here?

    Posted April 23, 2008 at 2:25 pm | Permalink
  7. JK says

    Malcolm, our mutual describes my thinking occasionally as “elliptical” but sometimes an unorthodox approach is useful.

    Do you ever watch C-Span?

    This should be proof enough that my theory has gained some degree of acceptance. A focused and concentrated beam of cosmic rays would (it would seem) tend to induce a fairly uniform effect on any gathered group of similarly protoplasmically comprised individuals synaptically common enough (such as one might theorize makes up a body of individuals sharing a “family or phylum” that some degree of coherence of intent and motivation would seem to tend that group toward a coherent and loosely describedy, rational action.

    Have you ever watched C-Span and seen some individual gesticulating somewhat wildly, making enunciations vociferously and then noticed that the cameraman has gone to take a leak and thereby allowed his camera to pan about the room and taken into account the absence of any appreciable audience to what would normally be considered an “Emmy Winning Performance” sure to bring about a degree of uniformity?

    Well, ever since I presented my paper (prior to the advent of C-Span incidentally) whenever a vociferous elected individual is about to make some sense, whether it is sensible or not there is a resultant loss of a quorum. So I admit there is no direct evidence that my theory holds water.

    However the fact remains: once my theory became known in our Nations’ capital, no group of elected individuals capable of passing into Law any sensible or unsensible suggested legislation has ever appeared on C-Span.

    I rest my case.


    Posted April 23, 2008 at 6:01 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    I don’t know how to tell you this, JK, but everyone seems to have left the room…

    Posted April 23, 2008 at 6:20 pm | Permalink
  9. JK says

    I know Malcolm,

    That’s why it’s so dadggoned difficult to correlate data sets.

    I simply wish I’d published the paper in a scientific journal instead of delivering it to a government agency. I know better now.


    Posted April 23, 2008 at 7:13 pm | Permalink