November 2009


Free Won’t—Some argue that the executive function of our brain, the part of us that is most like a “will,” gets to deflect impulses as they come up out of our non-conscious processes. That is, if we’re paying enough attention to what we are about to do, we get to say “no.” (Look up Benjamin Libet and the controversy around his work, if you’re interested.) This idea has some intuitive appeal, and I do have experiences that feel like I’m exerting myself to avoid doing something, like eating a piece of candy. On the other hand, I also feel like I’m exerting myself when I do math, but I know that sense of exertion has to be coming from flexing extra muscles or something, because there are no sensory nerve endings in the brain.

Focusing—Jeffrey Schwartz, an OCD expert, argues in The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (which is definitely worth reading though at times frustrating to baffling), that in moments of deep concentration, we get to choose to focus—basically that we can choose to pay attention. Again, this has intuitive appeal, and again, I have experiences while doing some kinds of schoolwork or while meditating that feel like I’m exerting myself to bring myself back to the task at hand. Again, I’m suspicious of the “exertion” part of it, but I like the idea that when I’m really calm and concentrating, I can intentionally examine.

Choosing that which we are compelled to do—This one’s from some existentialist philosopher, I think, though I first heard it from Brad Blanton. The Landmark Forum people present it well, too. Again, it requires something of a meditative state, where you (hopefully) have minimized the influence of your past and your habits, and can (hopefully) really grok the situation that you are in. In that state, you can choose to be in that situation. It’s kind of like the “Yes” to Free Won’t’s “No.” I like this one because I do feel most free when I’m in that kind of a state, when I’m not contracting away from reality, so to speak. In that state it feels like I can be really creative and spontaneous. I don’t know if it has anything to do with “will,” but it’s nice.

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If you believe in the unconscious mind, or one of its many permutations, subconscious, non-conscious, pre-conscious, extra-conscious, (and maybe even cognitive schemas or implicit memory), if you believe that any of your thoughts, emotions, or behaviors are caused by or motivated by factors of which you are not aware (and if you don’t, let me know and I’ll send you a week’s worth of reading, research showing you are almost certainly wrong), then you cannot rationally believe that you have free will, because even if you did have free will, you could never know it. There will always be that possibility that each action you take is guided by something that is not your will. You can still believe that you might have free will, and you might,* but not that you do have free will.

*In fact, you may be better off pretending that you do.

I have a bunch of papers due in the next couple weeks. About 50 pages worth, give or take a page or two.

Tonight I spent a little time with my friend Grace, watching Alseny Yansane drum and dance on campus, and catching up with each other on the drive there and back. I told her about the paper I’m working on right now, a critique of a journal article on some quantitative research. I said I was expecting some  late nights coming up. “I think I could get with a passing grade by turning in some crappy writing…”

She said, “That’s just not the Nathen Lester way,” and we laughed for a while. No, it isn’t. I just can’t bring myself to do it.

“I know of no evidence of a force or power that may be called a will.” -Harry Stack Sullivan

Back in the days that I had time for extracurricular thinking, I spent about a year reading, talking, and thinking about the arguments for and against free will. One of my tentative conclusion was (and remains) that the arguments for the existence of free will are very weak. Most flow, knowingly or not, from Christian dogma, “How can God righteously judge us if we do not really make choices?” or that other great religion of the western world, Individualism: “Why should anyone doubt that the all-mighty Individual makes choices that shape the world?” There is the moralistic “argument” that comes from our desire to exact righteous revenge: “How can we feel good about punishing criminals (or even just judging/disliking people) if they do not really make choices?” That comes with the corollary, “How can we feel proud about our accomplishments if we really had no choice in the matter?” There are the emotional arguments, along the lines of, “It would just be too depressing to imagine I didn’t have choice,” or, “The idea that I have free will is inspiring to me so I choose to believe it.” (That one a close parallel of Bender the robot’s defiant but casual, “I choose to believe what I was programmed to believe.”) There’s the classic argument from lack of imagination, “I just can’t believe that I don’t have free will.” There is the “argument” from self-evidence, “We have free will because we have free will.” (Who was it who defined “self-evident” as “evident without any evidence”?) There is the argument from randomness, which I find utterly baffling. It goes something like, “Quantum mechanics says that there is some randomness in the subatomic level of my brain, which undermines determinism. Therefore, I have free will.” While ridiculous, at least the argument from randomness is an attempt at an argument and not just dogma, like the rest.

Those who don’t believe in a distinct self, like mystics and post-modernists, say something like “Of course there’s no free will. There is no distinct entity (ego, self) to have free will. We’ve looked for it and it ain’t there.” And though I’m not a mystic or a real post-modernist, that’s my problem too. I can have vivid experiences of running, a collection of sensations that convince me that there is such a thing as running. I can have vivid experiences of loving, too, which many people consider very abstract for some reason. But nothing I’ve tried has given me any vivid experience of choosing. I can notice thinking about options, and I can notice feeling uncomfortable or excited about them or the prospect of choosing, I can notice my thinking, “Maybe it would be better do such-and-such,” and I can notice doing one of the options at some point, but I have failed to be able to notice choosing. When I look close, it just doesn’t seem to be there. And because I don’t have access to anyone else’s experience, I have to assume that people who do think they are experiencing choosing are either fooling themselves or not looking close enough.

Why do I keep thinking about this? I think it’s because I’m romantic and I feel like I’m coming to this very unromantic conclusion. (Is that true? Is being able to choose more romantic than not? It seems like it.) But now I have a blog and I can ask a bunch of people for help in one fell swoop: Please, tell me about your vivid experience of choosing. How can I have that experience? What am I missing? What should I do and what should I pay attention to while doing it?

I was a relative late-comer to iTunes and only got the bulk of my CD collection into my computer in the last six months, so most of you have probably discovered this long ago, but I’ve been having fun listening to the mixes that come up when I search random words.  Here is my weird, kind of cool “broken” mix:

“Broken Arrow,” Buffalo Springfield

“Broken Chairs,” Built to Spill

“Broken Head,” Catherine Wheel

“Monument,” Depeche Mode (from A Broken Frame)

“This Broken Heart,” Funkadelic

“Broken Harpoon,” The Jayhawks

“Broken Promise,” New Order

“Broken Face,” Pixies

“Steady As She Goes,” Raconteurs (from Broken Boy Soldiers)

“Born of a Broken Man,” Rage Against the Machine

“Broken Nose,” Catherine Wheel

“The World of Broken Hearts,” Elvis Costello & The Attractions

If I make a long list by searching something that will come up a lot, like “love,” I’ll sort by the year and get Love Through the Ages.

I was reading in the library on campus a few nights ago and thought, “It’s getting late–about time to go home.” Then I realized that I was picturing the bus ride back to my old home, Suntop. I used to live in Springfield with a bunch of close friends. Now I live on my own in a studio in Eugene. I like a lot of things about my new space–how I’ve arranged it, my kitchen, the back yard–but I’m homesick for Suntop and my friends. I feel like a monk or one of those guys in the fire-lookouts in the mountains. Isolated. I’m busy, so I don’t think about it a lot, but being busy is part of the problem. I’m too busy to just hang out so I don’t call anyone.

If you know me, give me a call. I probably need a break from reading and would love to hear how you’re doing.

I still swim with Akira most Friday nights. He’s doing great. He swims around with a pool noodle tied around him and gets really excited–big grin, wide eyes, and “I’m swimmin! I’m swimmin!” I almost cried the first time, I was so proud of him. He’s getting more independent, too. He’ll send me away sometimes, “OK, you go north and I’ll go west. Go ahead, go over there.” His technique is all his own. He “swims” completely vertical, making running motions with his legs and periodically stabbing forward with his hands like knives. “I swim like a wolf,” he says. He’s a lot more comfortable with the water. He blows bubbles, no problem, unless he gets water in his nose or eyes, and he loves to get towed around the shallow end at top speed. Here’s some photos.

Showering Off

I'm Swimmin! 1

I'm Swimmin! 2

Obstacle!

Taking a Break

Later That Night, Akira and Miriel