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.

  1. Paco Tucker
    February 5, 2019 at 3:51 pm

    Wow, you NAIL DOWN some concepts that I have also written about and in a very clear way, Bravo!! When I was an undergrad seeing the perceptual illusions, I knew then that there was a lot of work to be done finding the analogous socio-cognitive ones that we take for granted every day. You eloquently give the example of the automaticity of fluent reading, I similarly like to raise the fact that the brain literally changes the “objective” attributes of the physical sound envelope upon filtering language sounds and non-language sounds. Some may say, Ok great, interesting curiosity but so what? The “so what” is that if “objective” reality is unapologetically not objective, and, unless you’ve been brought up a yogi or similar, status quo sociocultural wisdom has not recognized that unlike most species, we are able to, over time, create an imagined virtual reality figmented by the brain in service of socially evaluated performance improvements that has no basis whatever in physical material space. It is still considered controversial the question of whether numbers are real or imaginary. The questions “we’re asking” as the collective scientific understanding are orders of magnitude away from where we need to be to see the types of changes we expect to see. The “so what” is that there is WAY MORE imaginary than people even suspect right now, so you really have to hand it to the brain. It really makes naïve understanding compelling, but it is time to wake up.

    P.S. The OSI model of network computer communication serves as a near perfect model of the layers involved in symbolic language communication in humans, all 7 layers and even the more subtle features of the biology and cognition.

    Also, I’m formalizing the use and analysis of “meaning” and episodic “content” to extend the roles currently served inadequately by just “information” and “data,” do you have any thoughts?

    • February 5, 2019 at 6:56 pm

      Thanks Paco! I appreciate your comments. I have developed a chronic irritation about terms like ‘information’ and ‘data’, because they carry an unacknowledged ideological bias that arbitrarily projects our intellectual modes of classification onto the very thing that we’re trying to understand. I generally lean on terms like ‘presentation’ or ‘aesthetic phenomena’ or my own neologisms (phoria, semaphoria, etc). The term content isn’t bad, but I like to make sure that I don’t give the impression that I’m certain that an experience is always contained by another. For something like ‘red’, I don’t think it’s accurate to see it as ‘content’, it’s just a visible presence. It may be the case that every experience has a container of pure consciousness or self or something like that, but I would rather leave the door open for the possibility that qualia may stand on its own, or as a part of the totality of experience rather than having to necessarily have an observer-who-observes-themselves-observing-red. Red and visual phenomena may precede the sense of being a seer of sights.

      The term meaning has two strikes against it IMO, the first being that it’s a little vague, and the second that it seems to only really fit for intellectual types of experience. What is the meaning of red, and if there is one (or more than one) is it really meaningful, or are we just attracted to the idea of meaning. Would any meaning of red really point to the actual presence of red? Also meaning has a lot of baggage from philosophy in general, as do terms like ‘being’ and ‘Self’. My intention is to be able to describe nature in the most neutral, descriptive terms that I can – as if I were trying to write a recipe for the universe that even an alien who had no concept of nature at all could follow it.

  1. September 20, 2014 at 2:00 am

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