Monday, December 6, 2010

The Illusion of Free Will (cont'd)

Because Harris' The Moral Landscape is dedicated to the premise that the methodologies and objectivity of scientific inquiry can be applied to the question of human morality, his articulation of the illusory nature of Free Will is particularly compelling. What does it mean to say an action is moral if each human being can be said to not be in conscious control of their actions? If my actions spring from biological and perceptual determinants operating at a scale and speed well beyond the field of awareness of my ordinary consciousness, how can any action that emerges from this flux be said to be good or bad? It would almost seem as though my sense of ethics can only be a post hoc justification of actions operating though my organism with or without the participation of my conscious awareness.

Harris addresses this dificult problem in a charateristically pragmatic way by invoking what I would call a statistical model for describing the ongoing correlation between the flux of activities that arises in our psycho-physical organisms and the ongoing stream of thoughts, feelings, and sensations that we experience in relation to this flux. In other words, there is enough of a correlation between our stream of consciousness and the actions that arise in our organisms that it is meaningful to say that in a certain sense we are responsible for our actions. Harris uses the example of himself walking into a supermarket, fully clothed, and purchasing a tin of anchovies. Though we can know from detailed fMRI studies that the actions that got Harris into that market arose from a scale of activities far outside the scope of his conscious awareness, he would have occasion to be surprised and feel like he was out of control if in fact he discovered himself naked in the market attempting to steal as many tins of anchovies as he could get his hands on. So for an ordinary person (we can leave aside the question of a sociopath, which Harris takes up in great detail in his book), there is enough of a correlation between the activites that unfold through our psycho-physical organisms and the sense of expectation and intentionality that arises in our field of consciousness for us to conclude that our conscious minds have some sense of responsibility for our actions. In other words, we can distinguish "our actions" (e.g. buying anchovies in the market) from "not our actions" (e.g. standing naked in the market trying to steal tins of anchovies) even though the mechanisms by which those actions unfold are not subject to our conscious participation.

This perspective of Harris' raises a number of interesting questions that to me touch on core spiritual questions (most succinctly summarized by who am I, what am I doing, why am I doing it?). For one thing, this picture of the relationship of the conscious mind to the functioning of the psycho-physical organism calls to mind Thomas Metzinger's Being No One - The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity. In this detailed theory of mind, driven by the findings of neurobiology, Metzinger charaterizes the self of consciousness as a sort of self-organizing model of the functioning of the organism. Biological organisms develop a working inner model of the organism as a whole which evolves to serve as a basis for predictive action and more effective interaction with the environment. In this respect, our conscious minds could be seen as attempting as closely as possible to function as accurate predictors of our organisms' inteactivity with the objective external environment.

Spiritual psychology adds to this picture with a detailed accounting of how the egoic mind distorts this process of modeling by using its rationalizing functionality to justify why a particular set of actions that emerges in one's organism is in fact exactly what one intended to do. We often find ourselves justifying our actions to ourselves or sharply criticizing our actions as though there were a direct causal relationship between our conscious state an our actions. To use a Fourth Way term introduced by Gurdjieff, our minds are filled with buffers that serve to justify after the fact particularly contradictory actions that may emerge from our organisms. Our buffers attempt through denial to hide gaping inconsitencies between who we think we are and how our psycho-physical organisms actually function. In fact, it is this dissociation of the conscious mind from the objective functioning of the psycho-physical organism as a whole that gives rise to the illusion of a self that exists independently of the organism. We can refer to this process of dissociation under the term Egoism. Though I will return to this topic in a later post, we can see by way of conclusion that one moral imperative for a human being would be to come to terms with the distortions introduced in our consciousness by Egoism as a means to bring our conscious minds into greater alignment with the activities of our organisms.

No comments:

Post a Comment