Yesterday, while seated, I began to reach down for my backpack when a fly landed on my knee.  My reach was instantly interrupted as my hand froze beside me just slightly higher than my thigh. All my intention became focussed on swatting that fly, and my hand began to move ever so slowly and evenly towards the fly on my knee, maintaining a perfectly consistent distance above my thigh of about three inches.

As my hand slowly glided forward I realized that my breathing had slowed to a near stop and I had the vivid impression of a sensation in my thigh that mirrored the position of my hand above it.  As my hand neared, the fly showed no awareness of its impending doom and had not yet bent its knees to get into a jump-ready position - and then SLAP!  My hand suddenly made the final lurch so quickly that it almost shocked me, and I realized that I hadn't actually given the order to attack.  Yes, this was the plan on my mind as my hand was creeping forward towards the fly, but I hadn't made the final movement consciously; it just sort of happened.

This reminded me of some articles I've read about some neurology experiments in which it was shown that our consciousness is not a direct agency of movement.  Obviously our consciousness can direct us - for it's not as though one decides to scratch one's wrist but instead punches oneself in the face.  On the other hand, our consciousness isn't typically aware that one hand has begun moving towards the other until after it has happened.

This brought me to think of a cat poised to pounce on a human hand scratching the carpet before the cat's nose.  The cat observes the action and an emotion is triggered - suddenly the cat finds itself scrunched up, poised to pounce, but seemingly paralyzed to do so.  How long will it wait?  Maybe the cat doesn't even know - maybe it just happens, triggered by highly evolved wiring in the subconscious of cats.

How often do we only become aware of our actions after they have been initiated without a conscious thought?  I've often joked, when asking a server to take away my plate, that I am not hungry but my hand just keep crawling over to the plate and trying to sneak a few more fries into my face.  What then of thoughts?  Is it possible that some thoughts just keep passing through my mind even though I do not care to consider them at this time?

It has long been my contention that I am not 'the decision-maker' in my life but, rather, I am my decisions themselves.  Those who subscribe to the religion of Alcoholics Anonymous would likely agree strongly with this idea.  On the other hand, I often do consciously weigh my options and select a course that can be a struggle to maintain - such as trying to eat a healthier diet.

We obviously have some conscious control over some aspects of our lives - but I sometimes think that we have delusions of much greater control than really exists.

P.S. - I completely missed the fly.



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Comment by Davis Goodman on July 15, 2014 at 12:30am

I'd recommend an interesting book on free will by Mark Balaguer (MIT Press) that's not far off from what you've said. The highlight of his argument is that free will exists but that our use of it is very limited, that it happens when we make anguished decisions between choices in which it's difficult to determine which is more advantageous. I think he would agree with you that your particular case here and your decision to swat the fly was made well before you processed what happened and that there was absolutely no free will involved. Swatting flies very rarely involve free will though they sometimes do according to Blaguer. We've probably all faced such torn decisions a few times over hurting defenceless creatures (even the horridly annoying ones). Now that I've planted the idea in your head... try not to face an anguished choice between murdering a defenceless creature or not next time a fly pisses you off ;)

Comment by Belle Rose on July 15, 2014 at 1:33am
I love your post Heather, and thank you for letting us know the fly's fate. I would have asked, lol!

RE: How often do we only become aware of our actions after they have been initiated without a conscious thought? 

Pretty often I would say, but how could we ever know for sure if we're not aware it's happening?
Comment by Unseen on July 15, 2014 at 1:37am

Catching flies with your hand is easier than you think. (article)

If a decision is the result of neurological processes, ultimately it can't be free. This is because the kind of "freedom" people really want is miraculous.

Comment by Heather Spoonheim on July 15, 2014 at 3:08am

I'm not a proponent of freewill - I believe it is all just illusion.  Even when I weigh options in my mind, I listen to my internal voice and perceive myself as both narrator and listener - but there is neither narration nor listening going on - there are just thoughts, and I'm not thinking those thoughts, I AM those thoughts.  My delusion of freewill comes from imagining that I am narrating and listening at the same time.

Comment by Reg The Fronkey Farmer on July 15, 2014 at 5:45am

Heather - That is it in a nutshell.

Aside - did you ever read the story called "The Fly"?

Comment by _Robert_ on July 15, 2014 at 8:09am

Yeah, I feel we are chemo/mechanical/electrical machines and our decisions are dictated by our highly evolved genetics, experiential memories and their interaction with our heavily filtered perception of our environment. I am struck by the diversity that the process of evolution brings forth and I like to sum it up with a line from Jurassic Park....

"If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it's that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh... well, there it is."

Comment by Ed on July 15, 2014 at 8:39am

"On the other hand, our consciousness isn't typically aware that one hand has begun moving towards the other until after it has happened."

I've been the victim of my free flowing mouth on more than one occasion. :^ (

Comment by Unseen on July 15, 2014 at 12:07pm

Ed, one reason for that is that your brain decides what you will do anywhere from a couple seconds to a fraction of a second before it enters your consciousness. In that sense, there really is no such thing as a conscious decision.

Think of what that means for our justice system!

Comment by Heather Spoonheim on July 15, 2014 at 2:35pm

Well, I read 'the Fly' and, uhm, it seems rather deep.

Unseen - I do not feel that a lack of free will should have any impact on our justice system.  Our accumulated knowledge and experiences contribute to the decisions we make (or that we experience ourselves making) and our justice system contributes to that knowledge as a deterrent to that experience base as punishment.

Comment by Davis Goodman on July 15, 2014 at 3:19pm

I can swallow argument that we don't have free will. But I cannot fathom why Sam Harris would then go on to claim that we should accept that we don't have free will. As a meat robot all of my choices are automatic and I have no influence over accepting my condition without free will or not. What is to gain over accepting a lack of free will if we don't have free will to begin with? How is it meaningful to suggest we accept a lack of free will if we don't have a choice anyway?
To be honest ... you had no choice but to claim that we don't have free will anyway. It's difficult to philosophise about an argument if you had no choice but to make the statement that you did. Especially if I had no choice over whether I agreed with it or not. Not to mention I had no choice but to reply as I am replying now. We are meat robots babbling with one another. Babbling about how we babble with one another. And this babble goes on while we passively process this and enjoy the spectacle.


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