TeaclipseYour conscious mind — believe it or not — is not in charge of your day-to-day behavior.

That claim may seem counter intuitive and contrary to your experience, but it has been demonstrated in controlled experiments time and again. By the time your conscious mind is aware of any particular decision or action, it has already been made or enacted by some other part of your brain.

Your conscious mind, however, is not without influence. There is evidence that it can guide your future behavior, even if it doesn’t determine it in the here and now.

To wrap your head around this conception of the conscious mind, think of a high-caliber athlete. With the help of a coach or trainer, she consciously and carefully trains her mind and body to react instinctively in the here and now of competition. In fact, most athletes agree, thinking consciously is probably the last thing you want to be doing in the here and now of competition.

Similarly, the conscious mind can, with time and effort, train the other parts of the brain to react in certain ways in certain circumstances. There is, of course, no guarantee that these different parts of the brain will react as trained, but the conscious mind’s past efforts can increase the probability that they will react in the future as the conscious mind had intended.

The conscious mind does not, however, set or devise its training program independently of the operations of the rest of the brain. It is only one part of a complex system that is itself reacting to a highly complex environment. Even when it sets a training program for the rest of the brain, the conscious mind is influenced by processes in the brain and factors in the environment over which it has no control or access.

The brain, then, is much more like a team of highly specialized athletes, with no independent coach to guide them. Each athlete competes with the other athletes to determine the overall behavior of the team, including its training goals. One catch: in the team of your brain, there are very many — maybe even millions — of highly specialized athletes exerting their influence over your behavior, including any training program you might devise for yourself.

And this raises a very important question. If all your thoughts, beliefs, decisions and behavior ultimately depend on neural processes and environmental factors over which you have no direct control or access, can it be said that you have anything like a free will, as it has been traditionally conceived? Is there any way for you to think, choose, or act that isn’t determined by processes outside of your control?

The research, so far, suggests that the answer to this question is “no.” More strongly, it also seems to suggest that, even if science one day discovers something like a free will “athlete” in our brains, because so much of our behavior, thoughts, beliefs, and feelings are already known to be determined by processes over which we have no control, whatever free will we might discover will be largely irrelevant.

And that conclusion, if you haven’t already guessed, is a pretty big deal. It may force us to rethink fundamental assumptions at the heart of the western moral, legal, and political tradition. Consider this ‘tiny’ example: given what we now know about the brain, does it make any sense to organize society around the idea that a person is responsible for his or her actions — if, by “responsible,” we mean that she might have chosen to do other than she has done.

Intrigued? I will look at the question of free will in more detail in one of my upcoming posts.

If you want to get started thinking about this question on your own, take a look at David Eagleman’s Incognito. It is a highly readable overview of the recent neuroscience research. Eagleman also thinks we need to rethink our approach to the sentencing of criminals, given what we now know about brains. He also offers a very useful and illuminating discussion of an approach we might usefully adopt, which is more in line with our much richer understanding of the brain.

I’m also in the process of developing a little (and free!) online course, which will explore the implications of the research described in this book (and others) from a philosophical perspective.

If you want to be the first to receive what I develop, sign-up to my email list or subscribe to my YouTube channel.

If you would prefer a personal guided tour through this research and its implications, let’s talk.

7 thoughts on “The Team of Your Brain: All Athletes, No Coach.

  1. “And this raises a very important question. If all your thoughts, beliefs, decisions and behavior ultimately depend on neural processes and environmental factors over which you have no direct control or access, can it be said that you have anything like a free will, as it has been traditionally conceived? Is there any way for you to think, choose, or act that isn’t determined by processes outside of your control?”

    Well, that would depend upon what the “you” is in “your control”. The “you” is the forest. All of the supposedly independent “athletes” you refer to (the specific functional areas of the brain) would be the trees. Sometimes you want to talk about the forest as a whole. Sometimes you want to discuss this birch tree or that maple.

    The “you” that has free will includes all of the “parts” of you that contribute to your decision to choose this instead of that. This would include the basic set of biological needs that every living organism comes with, like hunger, thirst, shelter from excessive heat or cold, etc. These drives would constitute a kind of “biological will”. And they are part of what makes you you.

    But we are also biological organisms with sufficient neurological evolution to support (1) an effective external sensory array (sight, hearing, touch, etc), (2) an internal sensory array (hunger, thirst, internal pain, etc) plus (3) a brain capable of mediating between ourselves and our environment through problem-solving, experimentation, imagination, etc. And that is also “you”.

    And we are also social creatures. We learn from the experiences of others. We are taught values and beliefs by parents, peers, schools, and churches. And all of these lessons that we choose to incorporate into our own personal values and beliefs, become integral parts of that which we call “us”.

    When we make a new deliberate decision, you know one that actually requires conscious thought (deliberation), we may invoke any or all of what we call “us” to help out. It may involve our values and beliefs. It may involve what we’ve learned and accepted. It may involve our personal preferences or tastes. But the point is that it is “us” making the decision for ourself.

    And that is called “free will”. If someone else forces us to choose something against our will, then our will is not free.

    I would suggest that this common experience of conscious deliberation and choosing is precisely what “free will” means. Nothing more. Nothing less.

    Any suggestion of “traditional” free will being anything else should be suspect. When philosophers and theologians argue over free will, they tend to distort the other’s position by taking the other’s words too literally or inserting them into different contexts. But that’s not surprising in debates.

    For example, the idea that the forest somehow disappears because we are looking at a single tree would be a distortion.

  2. Martin, thanks for your thorough response and analysis. It’s very much appreciated.

    I am also very sympathetic to your analysis.

    My only quibble, at this point, is your decision to use the expression “free will” to name the process you have described. “Free will” has traditionally meant something very different. It is, of course, well within your rights to try and redefine the expression. I think, however, it might be more useful to discard that expression in favor of something else. I have a hunch it will avoid a lot of confusion down the road.

    I will continue to explore this topic in the future. I look forward to your insights!

    1. You may be right as to how theologians and philosophers define free will. But ordinary people who experience themselves freely choosing between this and that, call that free will.

      Even among church goers, the Adam and Eve story is about our ability to choose obedience or disobedience. They were kicked out of Eden for choosing to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And this is considered an act of their own free will.

      The idea of “anti-causal free will” is (thankfully) foreign to most people. After all, what could free will possibly mean if the will could not cause anything? Yeah, I know that everyone debating this seems to think it only applies to the front end. But if there is no causality up front then there is no causality anywhere else.

      Because “anti-causal free will” is irrational (the will itself is pointless without causality), reasonable people should avoid attacking or defending such a meaningless definition.

      The same would be true of a definition of free will that claimed freedom from oneself, one’s own motives and drives. one’s own beliefs and values, one’s own life history and experiences. If the will is not one’s own, then whose will are we talking about?

      The same would be true of a definition of free will that claimed freedom from the limits of the real environment that we inhabit. Such a “will” would be nothing but a “wish”.

      So, pragmatically speaking, we need to look at how people generally use the concept in dealing with reality. And realistically, people believe they have free will when they are doing the choosing for themselves, and are not forced to choose something that is against their will.

      If you check the dictionaries, you’ll find that they generally give the number 1 spot (the most common or preferred definition) to “ordinary” free will, and only allow the philosophers the number 2 spot. Here are three examples:

      Free Will
      Mirriam-Webster on-line:
      1: voluntary choice or decision ‘I do this of my own free will’
      2: freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention

      Short Oxford English Dictionary:
      1 Spontaneous will, inclination to act without suggestion from others.
      2 The power of directing one’s own actions unconstrained by necessity or fate.

      Wiktionary:
      1. A person’s natural inclination; unforced choice.
      2. (philosophy) The ability to choose one’s actions, or determine what reasons are acceptable motivation for actions, without predestination, fate etc.

      So I think it is more reasonable to call the ordinary definition the “traditional” one, and leave the other definitions to be debate topics.

  3. In the absence of a thorough empirical study, we should be cautious about making claims about how people generally use a term.

    Plus, even if it turns out that people generally use an expression one way or the other, it is also very possible they are misusing the expression. Science typically updates and corrects our stories about us and the world.

    Finally, the neuroscience has demonstrated that the conscious mind does not have access or knowledge to all the processes that go into a decision. We may experience it as a voluntary choice or decision, when in fact it can be demonstrated that it was not. Moreover, these “choices” might be caused by influences that are external to your broader definition of “I” — for example, a tumor.

    Practically-speaking, one important situation where this all comes to a head is in our sentencing practices. I will be exploring this more carefully in the near future. If you want to familiarize yourself with some of the science and ideas that will be driving my exploration, take a look at David Eagleman’s Incognito.

    Thanks again for your thought reply!

    1. I’m guessing that the guys writing the dictionaries have actually done some empirical studies regarding common meaning and usage.

      Assuming the person is mentally competent, sentencing presumes a living organism capable of conscious thought and deliberate choosing. It is hoped that the penalty will deterministically affect future decisions.

      If we are seeking justice, then a penalty will (a) repair the harm to the victim if possible, (b) correct the offender’s future behavior, (c) protect the rest of us by restraining the offender until his behavior is corrected.

      The offender also has a right to (d) a penalty that does no more than is reasonably necessary to accomplish (a), (b), and (c).

      If we are seeking retribution, then we are not seeking justice.

      And the only model of rehabilitation I know of that doesn’t assume free will is called “brain washing” (as in “A Clockwork Orange”).

      I have no problem with what neuroscience reveals about how our mental processes function within the neurological system. But explaining something that is real and meaningful cannot explain it away. If subconscious processes play a larger role, then so be it. But it is still us deciding for ourselves what we will do.

      And it is clearly subject to conscious review and editing. If we wish, we can think out loud, or write our reasons on paper in columns of “pro and con”. Or we may share the problem with others and kick it around before taking a vote. We are not asleep during this process.

  4. It’s clear you’ve put a lot of thought into this issue. I look forward to your reply, when my position is more fully articulated. I don’t expect there to be much distance between our two positions, but we shall see!

    1. You’re right, I’ve had occasion to think a lot about the issue of penalty.

      My first foray into the problem of penalty was after my father died in a murder/suicide. He was a preacher who became obsessed with another woman and I had to deal with the church’s view of Hell as eternal torment. There’s nothing anyone can do in a finite time on Earth to deserve that, so I decided that a God that could do that must not exist.

      My second exploration came when I was in college and chairman of the Honor Court. Students were unwilling to report cheating if it meant expelling someone who deserved a more reasonable but effective penalty. We changed the Honor Court into a Student Court and passed student laws against lying, cheating, and stealing. Unfortunately, this took all my attention away from studying and I had to drop out right after the change.

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