On choice

December 29, 2018

Lately I’ve been thinking about free will. This is in part thanks to Sam Harris, who has been examining the topic in his new Waking Up app. He seems especially interested in the fact that we seem to have little influence on which thoughts appear in consciousness. We hear sounds, but we don’t produce them in consciousness. We think thoughts, but we don’t produce them either; there’s a sense in which they happen to us.

He illustrates this with an exercise intended to maximise freedom: Think of any movie you’ve ever seen. Or even any movie you’ve ever heard of. This is maximal freedom of choice. Yet what pops into consciousness is to a large extent governed by what we have previously thought, seen, or done, and recent stimulus is disproportionately represented. A choice this free is still somehow not made freely, but remains constrained by past conditions. Even the exercise “happens to you”, in a certain sense; regardless of whether or not you did it just now, as you‘re reading this, it was an idea that came in from outside, and it was therefore not something you chose to do (or not to do) of your own expansive, voluptuously free volition. There is something of the “Don’t think of an elephant” nature to any such exercise, which seems to give insight to the lack of governance we have over our own minds.

This has got me thinking about whether freedom is inversely correlated with number of choices, on a more intrinsic level. The choice that follows the prompt “Pick Manhattan or Annie Hall” seems somehow more free than the choice that follows the “Think of a movie, any movie” prompt. Moreover the ability to stream any movie ever made produces less movie-watching than the days of the ritualised video rental visit, for those old enough to remember it. Might the unlimited choice limit freedom? We don’t seem to read more books as a result of the immense increase in the availability of literature, for example. Any internet connection dwarfs what I had access to when I learned to read in the 80s, which was already enormous compared to what even the elites of the eighteenth century had access to—which was in turn a huge improvement over the libraries of the eleventh century.

Perhaps artistic freedom proves the same point; the constraints of metre and rhyme produce better poetry than free verse. The straitjacket of stanza can produce Eugene Onegin. And maybe the strictures of a half-hour block of television are now producing better art than the films whose length and budget limits are vast but nebulous.

Presumably Harris uses this movie exercise because we have the impression that our thoughts lead our actions, so if we cannot freely choose what to think, we also cannot freely choose what to do. I’m not certain that he’s right about this. I think there’s a large extent to which past conditioning matters; I often feel that in order to act, the thinking has to have been done “upfront”, as it were. It is rare to do something truly random, that one has never considered doing, with no context or time to get used to the idea. Even something familiar, like taking a walk or going to the gym, takes a measure of preparatory internal dialogue, in which we get the various drives within ourselves onboard. Maybe we use tricks, like a Trigger-Action Plan, but this is merely to have the dialogue with oneself (oneselves?) even earlier. And yet we seem to have at least some control of our intentions, and, over time, these intentions can produce the pre-conditions necessary for volitional acts.

Harris thinks that we cannot, in some sense, choose a film freely, because we cannot decide, beforehand, the options which appear to our conscious mind. The prompt causes certain films to surface in consciousness, but something other than our conscious mind dictates what arises. Harris believes this to be a decisive blow against free will. I’m less interested in whether it precludes free will than in what insight it gives us into the relationship between our conscious and unconscious mind. It makes it seem like consciousness is a side effect rather than the main event, and that the important mental processes are operating out of view. To me this seems more important than the question of whether our will is free.

This idea of consciousness as a sideshow is reminiscent of the idea that the conscious part of our brains may be more like a press-secretary than a CEO, i.e., that self-conception may arise as a way of appearing competent to others rather than out of any advantage to ourselves as organisms. Maybe we are conscious to improve our appearance to others; but maybe consciousness is just the tip of an iceberg that is still “ours”, in the sense that we have some level of control, over time, on the inputs, even to the unconscious mind.

Meanwhile I’ve been slowly chipping away at Tetlock & Gardner’s book Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. One of many interesting ideas it contains is that evolutionarily, there may be high pressure to avoid uncertainty, meaning that the human brain’s “default” may be black-and-white thinking, with a grey area appearing only under extreme duress. The book describes this as “yes-no” as opposed to “yes-no-maybe” thinking (it also implies that even “yes-no-maybe” thinking is woefully insufficient for probablistic thinking).

It’s a persuasive argument. In evolutionary time, the question was: Is there a tiger or isn’t there? Yes means run, no means drop your guard. Coming to a conclusion of maybe is expensive, because then one has to keep paying attention. And today’s political climate shows that people will forego a great deal for the promise of certainty, however unkept. This idea of the expensive of “yes-no-maybe” is also likely related to Kahneman’s idea that the brain might have different systems, with different operating costs; fast thinking tends to be black-and-white, but slow thinking is difficult and disincentivised at a fundamental level.

It has also occurred to me that this “maybe” which we so dislike may itself give some insight into consciousness. The “yes” and “no” are pre-human; the simplest single-celled organism responds to stimulus. Even non-living forces, like gravity and electromagnetism, have this pattern of attraction and repulsion. Could it be that this “maybe” is where we become conscious? Most of the choices we make in life are on autopilot; maybe the CEO illusion comes partly from the fact that only in dire circumstances are decisions escalated into consciousness. Maybe consciousness only crops up when hard choices, or difficult justifications, need to be made. 

All this relates to a question raised at our discussion on Isaiah Berlin’s essay: Does increased freedom lead to human thriving? Does it improve artistic output? Are those questions related, or might the conditions for artistic output be unrelated, or even opposed, to those required for material thriving?

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter, follow me on Mastodon, or see more here.