Free Will and the Unconscious
By default, the degree of freedom of our will is directly proportionate to the degree of privacy that it is applied to. In our innermost thoughts, we have a relatively high degree of freedom to imagine what we like. The further that we get into the public realm, the more that social and physical constraints impinge on that freedom. Just as human self-hood entails self-awareness, human free will is reflexive also in that it gives us the power to seek more power…the freedom to try to extend our personal freedom into the social and physical contexts of the world.
MSR emphasizes the universality of awareness as well as it its capacity to mask its qualities in different ways. The 20th century brought revolutionary insights into human psychology that shattered simple minded assumptions about what we know about our own minds. With Freud’s flawed but pioneering study of the id, ego, and superego, and Jung’s fascination with the shadow and collective unconscious, the world changed the way that it treated the psyche. In the documentary The Century of the Self, Adam Curtis describe how the rise of psychoanalysis led to the development of the modern advertising and public relations industry. No longer was it assumed that people make decisions based on conscious deliberation, but were instead reacting to subconscious fears and desires.
As the popularity of psychoanalysis waned in the latter decades of the 20th century, it seems that people have forgotten much of what had been gained and returned to a kind of folk behaviorism. It should be pointed out that behaviorism was considered discredited in the in the 1960s, partly because of Noam Chomsky’s critique of B.F. Skinner’s approach. In that critique, Chomsky details the ways that ‘modern objective psychology’ doesn’t stand up to even the most superficial challenges. It is surprising the extent to which these objections are now overlooked. Even though there is a common awareness among highly educated people of the pervasiveness of cognitive bias, that awareness does not seem to extend to the sciences, and it has become perfectly acceptable to presume the pre-psychoanalytic, pre-psychedelic model of the brain as a machine programmed by blind natural forces.
No longer considered a part of the psyche, ‘unconscious’ influences are considered to be part of the brain function rather than a deeper context of little explored levels of sub-personal and super-personal psychic content. This key oversight, in my estimation, of the approach taken by neuroscientific research into free will (Libet et al) is in this presumption that all subjective influence that is not available to us to casual introspection is ‘unconscious’ rather than conscious sub-personally. I think that this is demonstrably false.
When we read words on a computer screen, for example we are not conscious of their translation from pixels to optical display, to graphic loops and lines, to letters and words. From the perspective of our personal awareness, the words are presented as readable and meaningful as soon as we look at them. We are not reminded of our experiences of learning how to read and have no feeling for what the gibberish that we are decoding would look like to someone who could not read English. The presentation of our world is materially altered at the sub-personal, but not ‘unconscious’ level. If it were unconscious, then we would have not make any connection between how language looks and what it means, but would instead receive information like a computer, as an invisible data transfer.
In the same way, a robotic task like Libet studied quickly pushed to the sub-personal, reflex level of awareness. Even though there is brain activity 10 seconds ahead of the time that our personal level of consciousness is able to detect and report on this reflex, this does not mean that it is not ‘us’ making the choice, only that there is no need for such an easy and insignificant choice to be recognized by another layer of ‘us’, and reported by a third layer of ‘us’ to the personal layer of us.
When we work on the sub-personal level of neurons, we are addressing a layer of reality in which we, as persons, do not exist. Because we have not yet factored in perceptual relativity as a defining existential influence, we are making the mistake of treating human beings as if we were made of generic Legos instead of a single unique and unrepeatable event. Living organisms bodies divide from a single cell into billions, each one carrying the potential for intention and self-modifying teleology. This is nothing like a machine that has been assembled from dumb parts by outside agents.