Free Will is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Opinion.jpgFree Won’t

It’s a good thing my brain has some time to decide what I’m going to do before I exercise my free will. God knows what kind of trouble I’d get into without that extra time! Your brain takes about two seconds to commit itself to a behavior before you know that you are choosing to do it. (We know this because of brain research, particularly that of Dr. Benjamin Libet, who died in 2007.)

That’s no cause to say we don’t have free will. I mean, who said you had to know what you were choosing to do in order for it to be free will? Put another way, does the “you” in “you exercised free will” have to be the “you” that believes your philosophical pronouncements about free will? After all, there’s a lot more to you than you experience consciously.

Put another way, you have “free won’t.” There is a window of opportunity in which you consciously decide to stop yourself from doing something you were preparing to do before you knew it. People who have brain problems that affect this window of time for exercising restraint can get into (and cause) a lot of trouble by acting impulsively.

The Curious Incident of the Brain that was Recovering in the Night

In recovering from my own brain damage experience, I noticed something odd one day when I took off one of my shoes. My hand flipped it in the air, caught it, and smartly placed it on the floor. I had no conscious experience of choosing to do this. But it was a sign of recovery. At least some part of my brain was starting to have a good time…because, man, was I ever in need of one. Another time, I was making rice. After dumping the rice out of a metal measuring cup, my hand dipped the cup into the boiling water and sloshed the remaining rice granules into the water. My measuring cup was completely empty and ready for the dish rack. Lucky for me my hand was smarter than I was. It left me wondering why I hadn’t done that before the brain injury.

This was, literally, a first-hand experience of how the brain processes things in various regions somewhat independently of other regions, and of how the conscious mind is not privy to everything that is going on in there.

Rendering Opinions about Opinions

This should lead us to being more skeptical about opinions and even philosophy. If you make a subversive list of the outcomes of philosophy for philosophers, you get tenure, getting published, getting laid, feeling important, and getting other people to scratch their chins and nod wisely. Isn’t it fair to ask if those outcomes are more powerful shapers of philosophers’ behavior than the logic they consciously experience themselves following? Certainly the Sokal Affair (the hoax that physicist Alan Sokal perpetrated in 1996 on Duke University’s postmodern journal Social Text) gives the hypothesis legs.

Orwell that ends Well

Could better and widespread understanding of how our brains work create a better society? Imagine a nation with citizens so clear as to whether or not the opinions they hear are driven by useful information, that they could not be manipulated by a government that wants to use their bodies and minds to create a war machine that serves highly-capitalized interests. If there were a risk of such a citizenry developing, such a government would probably want to see school funding cut, expanded religious fundamentalism that acts as an easily manipulated political force. It would want well-orchestrated media, with ownership concentrated into the hands of a limited number of wealthy insiders. It would want to eliminate privacy protections and use brutal methods of coercion. It would even attack science in public schools.

People with mental illnesses and disorders would be more valuable to such a government as examples to produce fear and to feed funding into a justice system that makes use of private firms that can divert funds to election campaigns. That means putting them in jails and diverting funding from the kinds of therapeutic people and organizations that would disrupt that cruel frame of reference. It would promote the idea of its populace as “consumers” rather than “citizens.”

Hmmm… This is starting to sound eerily familiar.

Uh oh!

More Reading

Benjamin Libet, 91; probed science of brain, free will
By Thomas H. Maugh II, Los Angeles Times, August 28, 2007

Free Will: Now You Have It, Now You Don’t
By Dennis Overbye, New York Times, January 2, 2007

Benjamin Libet
Machines Like Us (blog)

Benjamin Libet

Robert A. Yourell, MA

Robert A. Yourell, MA, has extensive experience in the mental health and social services dating back to 1975. His training includes Ericksonian communication and hypnosis with John Grinder, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing with Francine Shapiro, PhD, Body Integrative Psychotherapy with Jack Rosenberg, PhD, and solution-focused psychotherapy. He provides free audio experiences on his site that include bilateral sound and Shimmering.
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