Two selves

There is a good description of experiments about the awareness of will by Dave Munger (here). It is worth a read. But I want to look at something in the comments. Here is part of the third post, posted by tmaxPA.

As soon as I started this article, this caught my eye:

So did you “decide” to read this post after your brain had already committed to clicking on the link? It’s possible, but it’s also possible that there’s simply a lag between when you were aware of having made a decision and when you actually decided.

Right out of the gate we can see the difficulties inherent in the topic, and the tendency of our thinking to assume its conclusions. When you say it is possible there is a lag between when you are aware of having made a decision and when you ‘actually decide’, it is the thing that you are identifying as “you” which changes between the two alternatives, not the thing you are identifying as “the decision”. The ‘you’ in the first case is your consciousness, your awareness, your sentience; you WILL. The ‘you’ in the second case isn’t; it is your brain, which you do not control, and while it is YOUR BRAIN, as much as your hand is YOUR hand, meaning it is not someone else’s, that doesn’t make it YOU. YOU is a thing we know is caused by the activity of the brain, but that doesn’t mean any activity of the brain is you.

So essentially this “out” isn’t really at all available to us. If I don’t become aware of the decision until after it is made, it is unsupportable to claim that I made it. It has been common since Freud to hand-wave the matter by saying “you made the decision sub-consciously”, but I think the very point of the research is that there is no such thing. There are things our brains do that we are not aware of (and so “we” are not the ones doing them) and there are things our brains do that we are aware of (and this we call “thinking” and have always, apparently mistakenly, presumed causes and results in decisions.) The latter is “you”; the former is “your brain”.

It is a question of how words are defined. The comment is right to point of the two meaning of ‘you’ and is consistent in the use of words. But to me it is a very awkward and backward way to approach the idea of what the ‘self’ is.

Let’s call the two entities I(sub) and I(obj) or you(sub) and you(obj). In the comment ‘you’ would be you(sub) and ‘your brain’ would be you(obj). Consciousness is awareness of a predictive model of the next ‘instant’ in time, including a constructed self as part of the model. Thus if I (obj) am moving my arm, I(obj) predicts where the arm is going to be. By the time this prediction becomes part of conscious awareness, the arm(obj) should be in the same place as it was predicted to be. In that case arm(obj) and arm(sub) are in the same place. But the prediction may be wrong in which case, the two arms will not be in the same place. If we are going to call one of these arms real and one virtual then it is obvious that the arm(obj) is real and the arm(sub) is virtual.

If I have a goal, it is I(obj) that has a goal – I(sub) may or may not be aware it that goal. If I make a decision to do a particular thing, it is I(obj) that made that decision – I(sub) may to may not be aware it that decision. If I do something, it is I(obj) that is responsible for the action – I(sub) may or may not be aware it the action or the ownership of it. It is I(obj) that will feel pride or guilt - I(sub) may or may not be aware of such judgments. And so on: I(obj) can choose to change behavior, I(sub) may or may not be aware of this new goal.

The idea that someone can escape responsibility for their actions because they(obj) choose not to include the actions in they(sub)’s awareness, is ridiculous. What we do about responsibility is another matter. We will take into consideration the luck and health and capabilities of the responsible self(obj). After all, a falling stone may be responsible for a person’s death but we are not going to jail the stone.

I am not suggesting that consciousness is without any function, only that the function does not involve some sort of disembodied source of ‘will’.

One thought on “Two selves

  1. Very interesting post, so many things to comment, but little time to say, I was thinking first that there are studies that prove that many times first we decide and then we justify it rationaly, which is the oposite of not taking responsability for a thing you did. You can check the following book:
    Practical Intelligence: The Art and Science of Common Sense By Karl Albrecht

    JanetK: I think you are right about justification. That would be another reason to label the conscious self as the virtual one. I looked at the book and what seemed some of the more interesting pages were not available in Google. I may buy it.

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