Choosing to choose; deciding to decide

March 20, 2007 | By | 7 Replies More

We can’t really act freely unless we can think freely, it seems. But none of us can really choose what we will think next.  Thoughts occur to us.  I’m not the guy who puts the records in my own jukebox; at best, I merely punch some buttons.  But can I even say this much?

It seems to me that most (all?) of our freedom of thought (to the extent we have any) boils down to a sort of veto power that we seem to be able to exercise over those thoughts of which we become conscious.  But, again, we don’t choose the specific thoughts that well up from “below” to ripen into consciousness. Instead, we deal with thoughts that happen.  To invoke the baseball metaphor, we decide whether or not to swing at a thought, but they are pitched from elsewhere.  By whom, then?  It’s me, of course, but not a conscious me.  And it’s not a me that is bound by skin and skull.  It’s a me that constitutes an extended self, given that so many of our thoughts are triggered when our attention is diverted by the “outside” world.

Many people would resist these ideas ferociously.   After all, if no one is free, no one is responsible, resulting in a moral and intellectual free fall.  Or is this correct?  After all, what’s wrong with this starting point: What is, is?  Human animals are undeniably tuned so that they truly feel moral pressures, sometimes moral certitude.  Those feelings won’t evaporate just because we raise good questions. The proof is that many of us have been raising good questions for millenia.

But let’s go back to whether we really make choices, at least in the way choices in the way that choices are traditionally conceived.

I admit that you chose to think about X, but did you choose to choose that thought? I admit that you sometimes exercise a conscious veto (“I’m not going to do that thing”) but did you consciously decide to exercise that veto?  Did you decide to decide?  This chain—this non-eternal regress of thoughts—can’t yet be followed down to that place where neurons generate tiny sparks of sentience.  Of this place where thought joins meat, where the frisson of electrochemical activity meets proto-thoughts, we know almost nothing.   And there’s no good reason to stop to declare total understanding at that juncture because, as difficult as it would be to achieve, that achievement would be scratching the surface.  That juncture is only a resting place, because those pulsing cells are each built on a scaffolding of chemistry, and then physics.  Further “down,” those infinitesimally small particles smear into effervescent mystery.

Whenever we claim that we know what we mean when we assert “I chose,” this is an assertion based upon great faith.  And it’s understandable many would resist this characterization.  Person want to be themselves.  They want to be more than chemical-electrical activity “down there,” no matter how intricately those tiny parts aggregate into people.  We crave that old-fashioned conception of ourselves, no matter how elegantly scientists characterize that symphonic buzzing of microscopic life as a complex adaptive system that can get hungry or fall in love.

The tiny-seeming vetoes we exercise, somehow firmly anchored in soft protoplasm, aggregate into extraordinary eruptions of macroscopic intention and planning, purpose and power.   Consider, for example, the many “tiny” vetoes one exercises while web surfing or while dedicating one’s self to a higher principle such as generousity.  That those tiny vetoes can sometimes aggregate into any form of coherence is miraculous.  Really, how could “I” possibly be trillions of exponentially simpler parts? I can’t think of any fictional story that is more amazing than this one. Truly, it is miraculous. 

That’s about all a devout agnostic can say . . .

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Category: Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (7)

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  1. Ben says:

    Okay, now you got me misty-eyed. Of course, we (apparently) don't need to know the atomic level brain interactions to appreciate the whole being. Scale IS important here. For example, if we were admiring physical beauty, we are normally talking about features such as delicate facial structures, rather than the robustness of connective tissue at the molecular or atomic, or sub-atomic level.

  2. Mary says:

    Along the lines of choosing to choose, how do we choose the aesthetic things we love? For example, music or art. Or, do they choose us? My grandma has Alzheimer's and while she can't recognize me anymore, her aesthetic sense remains intact. The things she found beautiful before, she still finds beautiful.

    You know, if you go even deeper, our sub-atomic level is no more than vibrating energy. How is it we take any sort of substantial physical form and don't just blend right into a chair or building or another human being?

  3. Step Back says:

    At best, "you" are the talking part of your head that makes up the after-the-fact excuses about why you put what records in your jukebox.

    Read "The Naked Brain" by Restak M.D. –highly recommended for people who are willing to think about how our minds operate.

  4. grumpypilgrim says:

    This touches on a subject I haven't thought about in a while: why are our personalities so durable? Absent structural brain damage (Alzheimer's, a stroke, head trauma, a brain tumor, etc.), why do we wake up each morning with virtually the same personalities we went to bed with the night before? Why do I not wake up thinking I am a chair, or an iguana, or a four-year-old child, or (god forbid) a conservative? Why do the thoughts and behaviors that make me "the same" individual persist from one moment to the next? Why am I not an athiest one moment, a Christian the next, and a Hindu the next? Why do people go to sporting events as fans of one team and not leave as fans of the other team, even though this does happen to some people over a longer time period when they move to a different part of the country and adopt their local team?

    The answer, of course, is that life as we know it would be impossible if our thoughts were so chaotic.

    As Erich alludes to, neurons have elements of chance and probability, in addition to volition. At the subatomic level, they are subject to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, so there will be some randomness. Thoughts will rise to the surface of our consciousness seemingly without our control. However, consciousness also appears to be a self-organizing phenomenon: if we build the right neural structure, consciousness will spontaneously appear and corral those random thoughts.

    But what about what we might call mental inertia. Yes, the process of thinking involves continual vetoing, and we do not always anticipate or control the thoughts that enter our minds. However, this does not explain what happens when we direct our minds in a particular direction and it persists in that direction, seemingly on its own. When we read a book (or write in this blog) and we become so engrossed that we forget to make supper (or do the laundry, water the plants, wash the car…), we have suspended the conscious vetoing process, if only for a short time. The same thing happens when we play a sport and become so focused on the game that we think of nothing else. It happens when we arrive at work in the morning and forget how we got there. Where do our conscious minds go? There must (mustn't there?) be an element of choice. We choose to read this blog, instead of reading the newspaper or watching television; we choose to focus our mind on the soccer match or the situation at our job, instead of letting it drift. Or do we?

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Step Back: Thanks for the rec. I've ordered a copy of "The Naked Brain."

  6. Mary says:

    Nice response, grumpypilgrim! You don't sound grumpy at all.

  7. Martin says:

    It seems that there are thoughts we can choose not to have; there are topics we can choose not to consider.

    I have heard from colleagues that there is a TV program called Big Brother, but I have not given a seconds thought to what type of program it might be or whether, if I had a TV, I might like it. It is a topic I have chosen not to think about.

    In Erich's baseball metaphor this ball is not pitched from elsewhere because I have chosen that it will not be pitched at all. It could, if you like, be the Schrodinger's Cat of thoughts; it can either exist or not, but only if I choose to open the box.

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