After buying the new book by noted biologist Edward O. Wilson, "The Meaning of Human Existence" (can't pass up a book with this title, so long as it isn't written by someone religious), I couldn't resist jumping this morning to the Free Will chapter.
The excerpts below, in bold, are some of the clearest writing about how the brain/mind works I've ever come across. And I've read a lot of books about modern neuroscience.
I've taken the liberty of commenting, in italics, on Wilson's words.
Conscious mental life is built entirely from confabulation.
Ooh, I love that word, confabulation: "to fill in gaps in memory by fabrication." So true. Many years ago my ex-wife launched into a detailed description of how our divorce transpired. Funny. I hadn't remembered it that way at all. Not so funny -- I'm pretty sure she was right. But since, I've forgotten what she said and gone back to my pleasing confabulations of that event.
It is a constant review of stories experienced in the past and competing stories invented for the future. By necessity most conform to the present real world as best it can be processed by our paltry senses.
Wilson had just talked about how pitifully limited our sense of sight, hearing, smell, and such are. We aren't aware of most of the electromagnetic or auditory spectrum. Other animals put us to shame, a fact I'm reminded of on every dog walk, where our family canine seems perplexed by how clueless I am about the scents that surround us.
Memories of past episodes are repeated for pleasure, for rehearsal, for planning, or for various combinations of the three.
Without such, we wouldn't be human. In fact, likely we wouldn't be at all. Along with other animals, learning from past experiences and anticipating possible futures is indispensable for survival. Those who literally preach "live in the now" either don't know what they are saying, or aren't aware that this is neither possible nor desirable.
Some of the memories are altered into abstractions and metaphors, the higher generic units that increase the speed and effectiveness of the conscious process.
Also true. I've read books with an Eastern philosophical/religious tone that decry conceptualizing. Of course, the authors use lots of concepts in their moralizing against abstract thought. What do they think we should do as humans? Not use our thinking ability? But again, they're doing just that.
...Sophisticated stories at this level require a big brain housing vast memory banks. In the human world that capacity evolved long ago as an aid to survival.
Ah, a subject dear to me. Being named "Brian," my name frequently comes out "Brain" in documents written by other people. Even by me, sometimes. I am one big Brian, or Brain. Which was a sometimes irritating nickname of mine in elementary school, especially when spoken in an ironic tone of voice.
If consciousness has a material basis, can the same be true for free will?
Put another way, what if anything in the manifold activities of the brain could possibly pull away from the brain's machinery in order to create scenarios and make decisions of its own?
That's easy: the soul! Immaterial consciousness. The part of us that is eternal, destined to return to God, survives bodily death, has no connection with the crude physical body. Or so the religious/spiritual story goes.
The answer is of course the self. And what would that be? And where is it?
Damn. That's the tough question. Back in my true believing days I was always puzzled by how, if the Self or Soul is the true essential aspect of us, the freaking thing was so difficult to discern. Eventually it dawned on me that almost certainlly the reason I couldn't find my Self was because it didn't exist in the way that I thought it did, or as the theology I believed in taught it did.
The self cannot exist as a paranormal being living on its own within the brain. It is instead the central dramatic character of its confabulated scenarios.
Makes sense. Somehow I always turn out to be the lead actor in the theatrical productions my brain conjures up: "The Truthteller!" "Gray-haired but still sexy!" "Politically Correct -- all the time!" Along with so many others.
In these stories it is always on center stage, if not as participant then as observer and commentator, because that is where all of the sensory information arrives and is integrated.
My self loves to observe and comment on what I'm experiencing. Heck, this is its favorite activity. It's marvelous how I'll be washing the dishes and I'll hear a familiar voice inside my head telling me, "You're doing a great job washing the dishes, dude." I know the voice is within, not without, because often my wife comes along and says the exact opposite.
The stories that comprise the conscious mind cannot be taken away from the mind's physical neurobiological system, which serves as script writer, director, and cast combined.
Talented neurobiological system! And we've all got one with these abilities.
The self, despite the illusion of its independence created in the scenarios, is part of the anatomy and physiology of the body.
Yikes! So evident. So true. Yet also a statement that challenges my sense of myself as a non-material entity inhabiting my body. Oh, no... I AM my body!? My self is an illusion of the physical brain? At first this seems scary. But the more I ponder this almost-certain reality, I begin to relax into it. Janis Joplin's words come to mind: "Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose." I can't be afraid of losing my self, or my soul, if I don't have one.