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Mar-15-2010 03:49printcomments

Faux Freedom Part 2

You can prove you are free if you can find one decision you can make that is not influenced, directly or indirectly, by your social background.

Human senses
Courtesy: faizani.com

(CALGARY, Alberta) - We experience the world through the five senses of sight, sound, touch (tactile), taste and smell (olfactory). Each second the eye sends at least ten million bits of data to the brain; the skin another million bits; the hearing and olfactory senses about a hundred thousand bits each and our taste buds another thousand bits. In total, more than eleven million bits floods through our senses every second, which our brains are tasked with processing, interpreting, and compiling into a “representation” of the world.

What we are conscious of, however, is actually very little—about 40 bits per second. All the world goes on around us, and we have almost no awareness of it. Physiologist Deitrich Trincker tells us that

of all the information that every second flows into our brains from our sensory organs, only a fraction arrives in our consciousness: the ratio of the capacity of perception to the capacity of apperception [conscious awareness] is at best a million to one. That is to say, only one millionth of what our eyes see, our ears hear, and our other senses inform us about appears in our consciousness”.

Science writer Torres Nörretranders summarizes:

Precisely because from one instant to the next consciousness can switch from one object to another, it is not perceived as limited in its capacity. One moment you are aware of the lack of space in your shoes, the next moment of the expanding universe. Consciousness possesses peerless agility. But that does not change the fact that at any given moment you are not conscious of much at all”.

So, what can this limited consciousness actually do?

There is in the brain what physiologists call a readiness potential (in German, a Bereitschaftspotential). This is a shift in the electrical potential which shows that a physical action is being primed. This potential must obviously precede the action, but physiologists have found that it begins a whole second before the action.

This was discovered in experiments where subjects were not reacting to a stimulus, but were consciously initiating an act. Subjects were asked to flex a finger, on their own volition. But a second before they decided their brains indicated that they had already started to act.

So, it appears that our brains start an act before we have consciously decided to do it. Does this mean that we do not have free will?

Physiologist Benjamin Libet set up an experiment. Subjects looked at a TV screen with a rotating spot that revolved in 2.56 seconds. They then flexed their fingers voluntarily, whenever they wanted to, and indicated where the spot was when they made the decision. Libet then had three pieces of data: when the conscious decision to act occurred; when the act occurred; and when the readiness potential began.

The results were unequivocal:

  • The readiness potential starts 0.55 second before the act
  • consciousness starts 0.20 second before the act
  • Thus, the conscious decision takes place 0.35 second after the readiness potential starts

That is, 0.35 second passes between brain start-up and the conscious experience of making a decision. Three events take place:

  1. The readiness potential begins
  2. The person becomes conscious of initiating the action
  3. The action is carried out

The wish to carry out an action becomes a conscious sensation long after the brain has started initiating it, although consciousness does occur before the action is performed. Our actions begin unconsciously! Even when we think we make a conscious decision to act, our brain starts a half second before we consciously decide.

Our consciousness is not the initiator—unconscious processes are!

This conclusion runs completely counter to our everyday image of what being a human being involves. Our consciousness misleads us! It tells us that we can decide on what we do, but can only pretend to be in charge of things beyond its control. Our consciousness is not even there when a decision to act is made.

We have results from the other, reaction side. Psychologist Arthur Jensen carried out a series of reaction time experiments in which subjects demonstrated normal reaction times of about 0.25 second. He wondered, however, if some of the subjects were cheating by being deliberately slow. To find out, he asked them to gradually increase their reaction time. But none of them could! As soon as they tried to increase their reaction time to more than a quarter of a second, it leaped to at least a half second. Human beings can react tremendously quickly but they cannot voluntarily react a little more slowly. If they want to react a little more slowly than they do instinctively, they have to react consciously—and that takes a lot longer.

It takes time before we experience the outside world. For example, a pinprick on your foot or a finger is not felt when it happens, but about a half second later. That’s roughly how long it takes for the impulse to travel through your nervous system to the brain where it registers. We just relocate the experience backward in time, so we think that we experience the world simultaneously with events.

It’s like the blind spot in the eye: There are flaws in the way we sense the world, but we are not aware of them. Our consciousness lags behind and hides that fact—from itself. Consciousness is largely a self-delusion.

We do have limited free will, but it’s not what we have come to think it is. Consciousness has enough time to stop an act before it is carried out. Benjamin Libet even had experimental backing to show that such a veto mechanism works: When his subjects reported that they had aborted an action they had decided to carry out, they did have a readiness potential. But it looked different toward the end (as action approached) from when the action had been carried out. The subjects could interrupt themselves. So they possessed a particular kind of free will: Consciousness cannot initiate an action, but it can decide that it should not be carried out.

Our lack of conscious control is demonstrated every time we speak. We know how complicated it is for the tongue, lips and larynx to coordinate themselves to form a word. And the formation of the word obviously begins a half second or more before we are conscious of the word we are speaking. But the picture is even more complicated than that, because when we speak in sentences, we have a whole string of words that, together, are no longer a string of words, but rather a whole concept or idea. If we had to think of each word before we spoke it, (and consciously decide which words should go together in a sentence to convey a thought or idea) speech would be impossible. We would be beyond tongue tied. But the reality is that as we are speaking, our consciousness is really just listening. It does not initiate or control the process.

My conclusion from this entire exercise is that we are more, much more, than our physical bodies and brains. I’m leaning towards the idea that we are part of some sort of cosmic consciousness, along the lines suggested by astronomer George Seielstad:

"Our universe began in chaos. Yet it changed, beginning almost immediately after its formation, into the hierarchy of organized structures populating it today, including the most ordered, the living. Today's conditions derive from initial ones that could have varied very little if life were to arise in some time after the birth of the universe. Birth is exactly the proper word to describe its origin, since the universe fulfills our definition of life as an order-creating system. In other words, the universe is living, and has been since its inception. It—meaning all space considered for all time—is the unit constituting the true Gaia. Earth's superorganism is a mere, and perhaps temporary, detail in the operation of this ultimate living system. Any organism, man included, that serves functionally (and again temporarily) within the superorganism is an even less significant particular. But we are not trivia. Since we comprehend what it means to be alive, we are the 'sensory organs' with which the living universe monitors its own 'physiology', if you will—taking its pulse and measuring its blood pressure. Without us, the universe is 'blind'. Our 'vision' into the future enables the universe to continue to live."

To quote an old cliché, there is much more than meets the eye.

You can prove you are free if you can find one decision you can make that is not influenced, directly or indirectly, by your social background. As historian Garry Wills writes:

We should not, of course, think of the pre-social individual on the model of Robinson Crusoe. Daniel Defoe’s character was post-social, in the sense that he brought with him into his accidental isolation not only many artefacts of the culture that formed him—guns, an axe, saws, nails, etc. from the shipwreck—but also the skills and concepts formed in that culture, his calculation of times and seasons, of means to accomplish tasks without a long process of trial and error over what works and what does not. He had an accumulation of practical knowledge (which things are edible, which animals are useful, how to make and control fire, and so on). The society he left not only made his axe, which was so useful to him as a weapon or tool. It made him. He knows what to do with the axe, how to build with it, keep it from rust, turn it to things it can accomplish most efficiently. He learned all those things through prior social intercourse, before he was isolated. In order to imagine a truly pre-social individual, we would have to think of a Crusoe with total amnesia about the world he had left without any artefacts from that world. Would such a person in fact be freer than when he was back in England, no matter how undemocratic the government he had been living under?”

The physiological and psychological evidence is irrefutable: We are social beings, not individual beings.

Here is Part One in this series: Faux Freedom Part 1 - Daniel Johnson Salem-News.com

============================================

Daniel Johnson was born near the midpoint of the twentieth century in Calgary, Alberta. In his teens he knew he was going to be a writer, which is why he was one of only a handful of boys in his high school typing class — a skill he knew was going to be necessary. He defines himself as a social reformer, not a left winger, the latter being an ideological label which, he says, is why he is not an ideologue. From 1975 to 1981 he was reporter, photographer, then editor of the weekly Airdrie Echo. For more than ten years after that he worked with Peter C. Newman, Canada’s top business writer (notably on a series of books, The Canadian Establishment). Through this period Daniel also did some national radio and TV broadcasting. He gave up journalism in the early 1980s because he had no interest in being a hack writer for the mainstream media and became a software developer and programmer. He retired from computers last year and is now back to doing what he loves — writing and trying to make the world a better place




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Natalie March 16, 2010 10:40 am (Pacific time)

I know, it wasn't taken as negative. I just realized that Hegel's theory about one being free isn't a very good argument in this case.


Natalie March 16, 2010 8:54 am (Pacific time)

Hmm.. I was speaking hypothetically, but it's of no use. You're right.

Natalie. I am not being negative. I believe we are part of a larger cosmic reality. I'm going to continue to develop this theme.


Natalie March 16, 2010 1:06 am (Pacific time)

So, if I'm absolutely free to do whatever I want in reference to others, those others wouldn't be so excited about my freedom. They would rather think of it as being limited, enslaved by my freedom. One is free, the others are slaves? The positive meaning of freedom for me will be viewed as a negative by those affected by it on the other side. Interesting if the same applies to the so called freedom of thought and so called spiritual freedom...

Who said you were "free"?

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