The monkey riding the tiger

You can read the accompanying page, but there was an interesting article in the NYTimes about free will:

A bevy of experiments in recent years suggest that the conscious mind is like a monkey riding a tiger of subconscious decisions and actions in progress, frantically making up stories about being in control.

As a result, physicists, neuroscientists and computer scientists have joined the heirs of Plato and Aristotle in arguing about what free will is, whether we have it, and if not, why we ever thought we did in the first place.

Mark Hallett, a researcher with the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, said, “Free will does exist, but it’s a perception, not a power or a driving force. People experience free will. They have the sense they are free.“The more you scrutinize it, the more you realize you don’t have it,” he said.

That is hardly a new thought. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said, as Einstein paraphrased it, that “a human can very well do what he wants, but cannot will what he wants.”

How comforted or depressed this makes you might depend on what you mean by free will. The traditional definition is called “libertarian” or “deep” free will. It holds that humans are free moral agents whose actions are not predetermined. This school of thought says in effect that the whole chain of cause and effect in the history of the universe stops dead in its tracks as you ponder the dessert menu.

At that point, anything is possible. Whatever choice you make is unforced and could have been otherwise, but it is not random. You are responsible for any damage to your pocketbook and your arteries.

“That strikes many people as incoherent,” said Dr. Silberstein, who noted that every physical system that has been investigated has turned out to be either deterministic or random. “Both are bad news for free will,” he said. So if human actions can’t be caused and aren’t random, he said, “It must be — what — some weird magical power?”

It reminds me of when I took my first Sociology course. Boy, that opened my eyes, to the myths we hold. Yes, you can be rich. You can be powerful. It takes a lot of hard work, but anyone can do. And so, if you’re not rich, not influential, it must be because you don’t really want to be.

It’s funny, in the church if you did something right, it’s because of God. But if you sin, it’s all your fault. Contrast that to to the feeling that if something is going right in your life (you’re rich, you’re skinny, etc), it’s due to you. And if something bad happens to you, say a car crash or cancer, it’s not your fault. But what if real life is neither of those things? What if we do and what we are is due to a weird magical power?

Author: ~R

I write about life, people, and the things that interest in me. Which often includes death, sex, friendship, and the future of humanity. I hope for the best in people and I prepare for the worst. But no matter what happens, change is constant and everything will be ok.

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