Exploring the Illusion of Free Will 7
This is the seventh of a series of posts where I will be sharing the transcripts of George Ortega’s show which he has so generously made available on his website.
I will share both the link and copy the text as well. This is convenient for those who subscribe to my blog by email. You can read without visiting the site, but I highly encourage you to visit the link and see what else George has on his website.
Episode 7. How the Unsolicited Participation of the Unconscious Makes Free Will Impossible
Let’s explore how the unsolicited participation of our unconscious makes free will impossible. But before we begin, I want to just talk a bit about why I’m doing this show, and what the relevance of this topic is to our lives – both personally and globally.
Presumably, even before civilization we’ve had this idea that what we decide is completely up to us. This is what we refer to as free will. Our will, or volition, would be free of factors, and events, and circumstances that would otherwise compel our behavior. Upon examination, since as early as Greek times, it has been understood rationally that this idea of a will free of those factors is basically impossible. We’ve explored into that in earlier episodes, and now we’ll get into it more now as it relates to our unconscious.
The truth is that we have a causal will. Having a causal will means that our volition – what we decide, how we decide, and our every action, thought, feeling – is caused by events and circumstances that reside in the past. Our volition is caused by our genes, our personality, our past learning, our upbringing, our experiences, and, in this case, the unconscious.
I just got back from a break after having taped two episodes earlier today, and my choice, which I went into in one of those shows, was whether to go to the library to browse through some books on Egyptian art, or go to the mall for some coffee. Well, I actually did both. The funny thing is that I don’t
generally drink caffeine. I just don’t for whatever reason. But I was feeling a bit tired earlier today, so I decided to drink a cup of regular coffee rather than decaf. I notice as I’m talking that I’m feeling it. I’m feeling the effect of the caffeine, which is really another kind of demonstration of my will not being free. If I tried to talk in a way that would not reflect the effect of the caffeine, it would pretty impossible.
The reason I’m doing this show is that hopefully by transcending the illusion of free will, we can create a kinder, more compassionate, understanding, and intelligent world. Let’s consider a toddler. The toddler does something “wrong” like spilling a glass, or whatever. We usually say to ourselves that the toddler couldn’t have known or done any differently. We done blame the toddler, and hold her or him innocent because a toddler would generally not know any better. We don’t ascribe free will to a toddler. This, of course, applies even more to an infant. As a result, we treat the infant with much more understanding and compassion. When we apply that same understanding about infants to others and to ourselves, acknowledging that even as adults we don’t have any more of a free will than a child would at six months, then we can create a world that is much more pleasant for everyone.
In this episode, we’re going to explore how our unconscious, which we all have, is constantly involved in every decision we make. We can’t avoid this influence; its participation is unsolicited. We don’t ask our unconscious to work. In fact, the reason we term the unconscious the unconscious is that we’re literally not conscious of it.
We’ve determined we have an unconscious through various indirect means, some of which I’ll go into later in the program. But this unconscious never sleeps. It is always active, retains all of our memories – what we’ve learned – and it takes part in every decision we make.
In science and reason, there is the principle of causality. Nothing is uncaused. If something happens, there is always a reason, or a cause, (or causes) for it to happen. There is also a principle in science and philosophy of sufficient and necessary cause. For example, if I want to lift the table in front of me, I might grab it with my right hand, and lift it. The cause of the table rising would, therefore, be my right hand and arm lifting it. But, let’s say that while I’m reaching for it with my right arm, and I’m also reaching for it with my left arm, and I lift it with both arms and hands. In that case, I can no longer say that my right hand was the sufficient and necessary cause of the table rising. The left hand was also involved in the lifting. So, it is actually a combination of these two causes that results in the table rising.
Let’s now apply this principle and reasoning to the unconscious. Let’s say your right arm and hand represent our conscious mind. It says, “I’m going to decide to lift this table.” But your left arm and hand is our unconscious. Again, we are not even perceptually aware of it in real-time, but it is always active. It takes part in our every decision. Consider also that even if our unconscious were not taking part in every single decision we make, we could never know with any degree of certainty whether or not it was participating in any given decision.
Actually, the truer and more precise reality – and we’re going to get into this in future episodes — is that although our conscious mind believes it is making the decision to lift the table, it is actually our unconscious mind that is making that decision, and allowing our conscious mind to be aware of the decision.
If the conscious mind and the unconscious mind are involved in the decision to lift the table, we cannot say that the decision was consciously and freely made. We cannot say that the decision was free of the participation, in this case, of the unconscious. If our unconscious never sleeps, and our conscious mind simply ceases to be conscious during sleep, our dreams must all originate at the level of the unconscious. Our unconscious occasionally allows our conscious mind in on the content of what it has dreamed.
How do we know we have an unconscious? How do we know that this unconscious is actually making the decisions that we ascribe to our conscious mind? One way is through hypnosis, and what is known as post-hypnotic suggestion. Scientific medical hypnosis has been around for over 200 years. You can hypnotize a person, and when they’re in that hypnotic state, you can give them the post-hypnotic suggestion that when they wake up, they will do something.
For example, you might tell the hypnotized person that when the phone rings, they’re going to get up from their chair, get on their hands and knees, and crawl a few paces. This is not just theory; this is fact. Psychologists have done the experiment. What happens is that the subject hears the phone ring, and crawls on her/his hands and knees in fulfillment of the post-hypnotic suggestion. How does this relate to the question of whether or not we have a free will, and whether the unconscious mind really is an unsolicited participator in thoughts we ascribe to a freely willing conscious mind?
Well, the psychologists then ask the subject “What are you doing?” The subject may respond with something to the effect that they are just admiring the pattern on the carpet, which they say they find beautiful. Or they might say “I don’t know; I just felt the need to stretch a bit.” The idea is that the subject will make up a reason that they think is the actual reason they chose to get up from the chair and crawl on their hands and knees. That is a perfect example of how the unconscious exists, and actually makes decisions for the person.
Priming is a hot and intriguing area of research. John Bargh, a Yale University professor, has done important work with this. Priming is similar to hypnosis, but the subject is completely awake. In one experiment, there are two groups – the target group and a control group. The target group is asked to take some words and make sentences with them. They are given the words “bingo,” “gray,” “cane,” and other words that connote being old, or the concept “elderly.” The control group is given arbitrary words that do not have any strong or implicit connotation.
The subjects from both groups complete the task, and they think that the experiment is over. But, it is not, because during the last part of the experiment they are observed walking from the experimental area to the elevators to leave the building. The curious thing is that the target groups that had been primed with words connoting elderly walk more slowly to the elevators than do the control groups.
Naturally, that tells you that the target group is consciously walking to the elevator, but their unconscious mind is participating in how they perform that decision. This is a perfect example of the collaboration that takes place between conscious and unconscious activity, completely hidden from the subjects of the experiment. The subjects are not aware that the priming is the reason they are walking more slowly.
There’s another priming experiment that demonstrates this quite interestingly. It’s the same kind of word task as in the “elderly” experiment. The target group is given words like “rude,” “abrupt,” “impolite,” and “hasty.” The second target group is given words like “polite,” “respectful,” and “patient.” As, with the other experiment, the subjects in both groups think that they have completed the experiment by doing the word task. They are told that when they are done with the task, they should go to a nearby colleague, and hand them their completed task. They do that, but the colleague is a part of, — a cohort in — this experiment. The colleague has been instructed to be engaged in dialogue with a third cohort for ten minutes.
What happens is that the subjects in the experiment generally want to wait until this conversation is over so as not to interrupt. What the experimenters find is that the subjects in the group that had been primed with words like rude and abrupt tended to interrupt the cohorts’ conversation sooner than did the subjects who had been primed with words like polite and patient. The second part of this experiment demonstrates that these kinds of decisions that we attribute to our free will – that we think we’re making completely on our own – are actually made at the level of the unconscious.
The subjects are then asked why they waited as long, or as short, as they did before interrupting. Again, very curiously, the subjects invent reasons. “Well, I’ve always been taught to wait until somebody is done with the conversation,” or “I don’t know; I just felt like it.” They will invent reasons, but none of the subjects in either group are aware that what determined, in part, the time it took them to interrupt was the priming.
There are many experiments that demonstrate how the unconscious is actually making the decisions that we generally attribute to our conscious mind. There is another kind of experiment that I want to go into in great detail on another show. It demonstrates this decision-making at the unconscious level far more clearly and strongly. I won’t describe it fully now, but the idea is that the experimenters will hook up their subjects to imaging machines like electroencephalograms (EEGs) and functional Magnetic Resonance Imagers, (fMRIs)that measure brain activity and EMGs, (electromyograms) that measure muscle activity.
It turns out that before the conscious mind is aware of its decision – in these experiments a simple motor movement like flexing a finger – the unconscious has already made the decision. Recent experiments, in fact, have detected decision-related activity in the unconscious as far back as ten seconds before the act. So, we have this unconscious that’s either taking part in whatever decisions we make, as in the table-lifting example, or making the decision entirely, as with the imaging case.
Before Freud and the mesmerists did their experiments with hypnosis, there wasn’t a way to empirically demonstrate that we humans have an unconscious. Now, the results are irrefutable that we do. When you think about the unconscious, think about all that is happening in your body – your heart beating, your organs functioning, your lungs breathing in and out. All of this is part of the autonomic nervous system, which basically doesn’t rely on our conscious direction. In other words, we don’t have to think about it; it basically works on its own. Actually, that is another way of understanding the pervasive role that the unconscious has in not just our decisions, but also on our basic biological makeup and functioning. Because we have this unconscious that is always awake and active, we can never claim to any degree nearing even 50 percent certainty that we make decisions that the unconscious takes no part in at all. Such claims are also mistaken because, again, we are not even aware of our unconscious mind in real-time.
Another way to understand how this unconscious participation works is through mood and feelings. If it’s overcast or raining, we will feel differently than on a bright, sunny, and warm day, and that difference will lead to different decisions. There are many other ways to understand how and why free will is impossible, but even if we leave aside causality as the fundamental process of the universe that nothing escapes, and even if we don’t consider the hedonic, moral and other imperatives, and even if we don’t consider the effects of our upbringing and past experience, and we simply consider that we all have an unconscious that is constantly at work, then we can understand why free will is impossible.
It’s mind boggling that our civilization has been under this delusion of free will for millennia. If we’re so fated, and the causal past and our unconscious determine that we’re going to wake up from, and transcend, this illusion of free will, that means that we will have evolved a distinctly new consciousness, and an entirely new way of perceiving our reality and ourselves. That is a huge step in evolution.
My prediction is that as we make that transition from our illusion of free will to the understanding that everything is causal, we will create a much more pleasant, compassionate, understanding, and wonderful world.
Every episode of George’s show is also available on youtube at:
Additionally, I have a playlist specifically of the shows George and I both take part in.