Taking Control of the Machine

4 06 2013

There is a growing trend in the world today to believe that man’s self-agency, his ability to make choices for himself, is a fiction. You will hear it from armchair philosopher bloggers and published brain scientists alike. It’s a comforting self-deception to believe that you have no control over your actions. If ‘self’ is a construct of physically constrained neurons firing in a sea of chemicals mixed per a naturally selected genetic recipe, then we cannot be to blame for anything we do. People who believe this say that our conscious decisions are in fact illusions created by our subconscious in order to fool our conscious minds into thinking that we have control of our actions.

This idea can be explained with an example. Say a person gets up in the morning and makes the decision to sell his car. Their decision to sell their car is not a choice for the person. Their subconscious has been conditioned by its environment and prior experiences to set a chain reaction into place that result in the conscious mind receiving a thought that the car needs to be sold.

With the proper initial conditions, you could conceivably define the entire universe with a large set of equations. What you would have basically is predestination. No matter what you do, you cannot force the physical universe to change just by thinking it. Physics is in charge of your life.

Or at least, it would be . . . if it were true (as Rowan Atkinson would say).

While it is true that our bodies are machines running on the software of our subconscious minds, it is also true that our conscious minds have the ability to exert some control over our bodies. Our conscious minds are the user, our subconscious the computer. We are in the driver seat.

There are ways to subvert our will to the bodily processes of our body and our subconscious. Some people are content to travel in autopilot and give up their agency. But there are ways to program your personal computer and the bodily mechanism it controls. You can think of habits as programs that your body runs on. Decide you want to utilize your will to reprogram your computer for the good and you can create good habits that will take you there. Be sloppy and unwary and you can open yourself up to computer viruses. These are like vices, or habits that become addictions.

Some scientists will discount consciousness as a manifestation of neurons firing through the chemical soup of your brain, but the reality is that we don’t have a purely scientific way to explain consciousness.

David Eagleman, in his book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, gives an example of this that I will paraphrase here. Imagine a radio that somehow finds its way into a primitive village, one that has no connection to the modern world. Let’s say that culture’s most intelligent scientists discover it and study it and determine what makes it work. Now, they have no way of knowing that the signal the radio receives is being broadcast from a modern facility outside of their purview. They just know that if certain parts of the radio are removed it doesn’t work and when it’s intact it does work. That is the same situation that modern brain scientists are with the brain. They know that consciousness does not work correctly when certain parts are damaged and that it does work when the mind is intact.

Most modern scientists would say that my claims here are just a product of various physical processes at work in my brain and are the result of the way my neural pathways have formed themselves throughout my life. The way I see it is that those that would deny self-agency are content to let their physical impulses and inclinations dictate their actions. They would deny the will necessary to put themselves in control of their lives and rely on some predestined course set in place since the big bang.

I am in control of my own choices and I refuse to let anything make my choices for me , be it my subconscious, physics or the  universe. True, I cannot control the consequences to my actions, but I can learn what the consequences are and use them to inform the decision I make using my own will.

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