Periscope Depth

bow down before the one you serve

When I wrote last Friday about where my desires come from, I used the example of Laughing Cow cheese. My desire for this cheese went from non-existent (before I tried it) to compulsory (after). I thought that was pretty extraordinary.

Some folks, commenting on my LiveJournal, observed that the manufacturers of Laughing Cow cheese didn’t literally create my desire out of nothing. I had to have some predisposition for soft, sweet cheeses before I tried it. It’s not, as commenter phanatic put it, as if they handed me a ball of roofing tar and I lapped it right up. And I have been presented with free samples in the past – mango-kiwi juices, pre-packaged cookies, tequila shots served by women in cut-off tees – that have not compelled me to buy. So clearly these new experiences tap into some extant disposition in order to create a desire.

That makes sense but doesn’t satisfy. We run into the same problem here that we do with the Cartesian theater. Okay, so desire is created when a new stimulus taps into some extant disposition. Where did the disposition come from? “Evolution” answers some of that – I’m a mammal; I like salt and calories – but not all of it. The human race is similar enough to interbreed but different enough that menus have to warn people about spicy food.

So our predispositions have to come from somewhere. Did they arise in a similar fashion – a combination of exterior stimuli and even earlier predisposition? Let’s go with that for now, as I’m not sure what the alternative would be (god or aliens or ancestor spirits, perhaps) and it makes sense. We enter the world as creatures of pure instinct, survive on mothering until we start collating our experiences, and turn into complex calculating libraries. Makes sense.

Ultimately, then, every desire I have – and thus every action I take – comes from either biology or experience. What does this mean for the notion of free will?

“Free will” is one of those subjects that requires a lot of brush-clearing before two people can even start screaming at each other. No two people mean the same thing by it. So let me lay out what I mean when I talk about free will first.

In my head, it certainly feels like I have free will. Every action I take is either to fulfill some desire, which seems to arise as if from nowhere, or to respond to some instinct. I’m either closing the blinds to keep the light out of my eyes or I’m jumping in fear because something in the movie startled me. Instinct I can write off as subconscious reflex, but the choices feel free and uncoerced.

And yet we established a few weeks ago that the brain is an organ, and a hungry one at that. We also theorized last week that there is no mini-self sitting in our brain pulling levers – no central ego, soul or homonculus that’s the true core. So when I say “it feels like I have free will,” that might not be a useful statement, as “I” might not be a qualified judge. Who is the “I” saying what it feels like in “my” head? Which part of my decision-making process is the “I” evaluating?

Is there such a thing as a decision that doesn’t come from the brain? For purposes of my discussion, no. If I’m sleeping with someone and I kick them to stop them from snoring, that’s different than if I’m sleeping with someone and I kick them because my legs jerked in a dream. So everything that I intend to do, consciously, has to pass through the brain at some point.

Is there any part of the brain that does not have organic components? No. We can debate souls or homonculi if you like, but if you’ve followed the series so far you’ll know I place little weight on them.

Therefore, is there any decision that does not originate from an organic component? It would seem not.

Does this mean there’s no such thing as free will? It depends on what you mean by “free will.” If you mean that there’s an Aristotelian “unmoved mover” sitting in the brain that makes decisions for us, then yes, your notion of free will is in trouble. But if you mean that there’s a difference between consciousness and instinct – that there’s a worthwhile distinction to draw between kicking someone for snoring and kicking someone by leg spasms – then yes, “free will” makes sense.

But is the difference one of degree or one of type? Is consciousness a different process from instinct, or is it just a really complicated nest of instincts?

And if what I call “free will” is just an instinct, then what internal instincts and external stimuli are driving me to ask so many questions about it?

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