Parlour Trick of the Mind

Parlour Trick of the Mind

Think of two names.

Okay, now throw ’em away. Think of two more. Any two will do.

Got them? Good.

Now, choose one of them and think really hard about it.

I will now attempt to guess—

Just kidding. I have no idea what you’re thinking. It doesn’t matter. What I want to do is pick your brain.

How many names do you know in total? Hundreds? Thousands? Did you consider all of them to arrive at your final two? Obviously, you didn’t. Instead, a few names just popped into your mind. Why those names, do you think, and not others? The answer is complex, no doubt. The takeaway, however, is that you — your conscious self — do not have full control over the input that bubbles up from your subconscious.

But you did choose one name from two in the end. At least you had control over that, right? Well, maybe. Maybe not. By analysing brain function with fMRI, neuroscientists have demonstrated that they can accurately predict people’s decisions — say between pushing a ‘left’ or ‘right’ button — prior to the individuals’ actual awareness of having made the decision.

It may be that even our decisions are injected into our awareness, just like the rest of the subconsciously-generated input that escape our conscious control. If that’s true, free will is an illusion. And to make matters worse, we may very well live in a deterministic world where events are necessitated by antecedent events. That is to say, Laplace’s Demon — a creature who knows everything about the laws of nature and the current state of the universe, such as the precise location and momentum of every atom etc. — knows what you’re going to do next before you know it. And if you could reset, you could not but do the same as before. Everything is determined.

While there is argument to the contrary, the belief that free will is a necessary condition of moral responsibility is orthodoxy. There’s an incentive, therefore, to save free will. Enter compatibilism, the philosophical thesis that free will and determinism are compatible. Free will is not an illusion, they say. Free will is just not the free will you think you have.

But this was all a parlour trick. In the end, we are more than just our awareness; we are our bodies. Are we driving and in control of it? That depends. But we feel in control, and that proves useful. Maybe that’s all that’s important. The decisions that we make matter, very much — to us and to others. We don’t, after all, possess the knowledge of demons.


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