I used to think I was in almost total control of nearly every aspect of being. From learning to emotions to anything mental I felt like I was astutely aware of all the processes, variables and influences that affected me and could control them at my will. That was, of course, my wild teenage brain running amok with its abnormal chemistry and time has shown me that there’s an awful lot going on inside my head that I have absolutely zero control over. Indeed the more research we do into the brain and our genetics the more we find things that we aren’t consciously in control of and that raises some really perplexing questions.
The more we chip away at the apparent control we have over our own being the more the idea of free will starts to look like some form of cruel joke played upon us by our own biological systems. I’ve wrestled with this idea before when I tried to overcome some subconscious beliefs that I didn’t consciously agree with and I’m still struggling to rationalize it today. Indeed the evidence keeps mounting for some form of hard determinism being the absolute truth here but it seems that one of those nigh on unshakable beliefs is the fact that we have some kind of will that is not controlled by our chemical/biological processes.
Things start to get really weird when you start looking at some real world examples of subconscious processes at work. Studies have shown that judges in Israel are far more likely to grant parole right after they’ve been fed with the approval rating tapering off steadily until their next meal. Whilst it may sound obvious when explained to you (it’s a Egg of Columbus type of thing) these kinds of influences pervade every nearly every aspect of our lives and it’s shocking just how little control we have over some of them. Indeed even being aware that those biases there isn’t enough to overcome them requiring a substantive effort to overcome.
I find this particularly interesting because it feeds into some of my other casual interests, namely the process of learning. There’s the oft repeated saying that it takes 10,000 hours to master something and understanding that our subconscious is doing most of the heavy lifting gives you insight into why that is. Rather than the 10,000 hours being training for our conscious selves it is in fact more to do with training our subconscious to take on all the tasks required for mastery that, at the beginning, reside only in the conscious part of our brain. It’s exactly why you can seemingly zone out when driving somewhere and not end up wrapped around a tree; the process of driving is largely a subconscious act. The same reason is behind why everyone has trouble with this seemingly ubiquitous skill at first, your subconscious just simply isn’t up to the task.
There’s also that rather sticky wicket of whether or not this means we actually have an agency at all, I.E. whether we truly are responsible for our actions. For what its worth I don’t have a good answer for this as society is very heavily predicated on the fact that we do have agency and I can’t seem to fathom how that idea could come about without it being true at some level. Of course this could just be a form of common delusion which just happens to work since it increases our survival rate and therefore allows our soma to continue on. Like I said, I don’t have a good answer to this and even my conjecture on the matter feels half baked.
Honestly I’m not altogether sure what this means for us as a species or society at large but I feel like its an important thing to understand. Awareness that we’re largely subconscious beings has helped me better understand the learning process and why people might say one thing then act in completely different ways. It’s a perplexing issue, one I’m sure that philosophers and scientists will struggle with for centuries to come and even then I’ll doubt that we’ll ever get a conclusive answer: scientifically or philosophically.
I like to portray myself as a wholly rational kind of person, one who takes in all the available evidence before making a conclusion. It’s actually rather inhibiting when I’m writing something as there are a lot of times when I have an opinion on something (and feel it would make a good post) but the amount of research required to either confirm or deny my point of view is prohibitive. Despite this though I’m still riddled with many internal biases towards certain subjects and no matter how good the evidence is on one side I’ll still get some horrible cognitive dissonance when I think about them.
The best example I can think of was my previous (mostly unknown and unspoken) stance on global warming. Up until around 2 years ago I had this deep rooted feeling that whilst climate change was happening the notion that we had anything to do with it, or even that it was that big of a threat to us, was just some form of hyperbole from the environmentalists. This wasn’t helped by my favourite pair of magicians, Penn and Teller, running with the idea that man-made global warming was bullshit on their show. Indeed even up until a year ago whilst my conscious self would take the evidence based approach I couldn’t shake this nagging feeling that I was wrong on some level.
One notion I’m still wrestling with is the idea of free will in a deterministic universe. I took the idea of free will as a given and much of society is based around the idea that we’re directly responsible for the actions we undertake. On the other side of the coin however we have a universe which, as far as we can tell, is almost wholly deterministic. This means that everything, from the motion of the stars to my motivation for writing this very blog post, arise from a strict set of rules that don’t change. The notion of the universe being deterministic then is devastating to the idea of free will, unless you rationalize it out in some way.
For now that’s the part I’m still struggling with, figuring out whether I rationalize it away or if I take the hard determinism route and just straight up say free will doesn’t exist. Eventually I’ll find something that convinces me or some key argument will wear away at me until I come to a conclusion. Strangely though it probably won’t be a conscious “yes this is my opinion now” moments, more one day I’ll no longer feel the cognitive dissonance that I usually feel when the subject comes up and then I’ll know that I’ve changed one of my subconscious beliefs. I don’t expect that to happen any time soon though as I’ve been wrestling with this idea for the better part of a year now.
I find this interesting as even though I try my darnedest to be a fully rational actor I still can’t escape the rule of beliefs that I hold for no reason in particular. The key then is understanding when you have a belief like that and then working to either fully accept it (if you agree with it that is) or working to convince yourself otherwise. For me the effort of maintaining the right belief consciously eventually won out but it’s definitely one of the more mentally exhausting processes I’ve undertaken. Once I was aware of this process though it became a lot easier, well at least for all the smaller issues anyway…
I’ve often found that trying that sticking with a problem from start to finish is usually the least efficient way of getting it completed. Quite often if I take a 1 hour break whilst I’m in the thick of trying to solve something I’ll usually figure the answer out before I return, being able to move onto the next bit of work in far less time than if I had tried to struggle my way through. I think this is the main reason why the lawn gets mowed routinely during he summer months, that 30 mins~1 hour of basically mindless work let’s my subconscious tackle the problem in ways that I can’t do normally.
The most recent example I can think of was the problem of producing realistic gravity in the game I’m developing with a good friend of mine. I’ve had the basic gravity mechanics working for ages and even managed to get a planet into a near-circular orbit around a star. Unfortunately from there finding other stable orbits for varying distances and masses proved to be quite troublesome as there didn’t seem to be any kind of simple relationship that I could derive that would produce the same circular orbits as I had achieved after tinkering around with initial forces for a couple hours.
It’s been a real pearler of a problem too as whilst I’ve been able to make steady progress despite this (my one little test planet is enough to get most things working) I still couldn’t figure out how to give a planet a stable orbit based on its mass and initial distance from the sun. I tried many different things, from trying to map an equation based on a couple stable orbits to pushing the planet around so it would stay on course (which hilariously flung planets out of sight). Then late one night just before I was about to fall asleep it hit me: I could use the force that was being applied to the planet by the sun as the magnitude for the initial force. I then just have to work out the components along the desired orbital trajectory (breaking out some good old fashion trigonometry) and I should be on my way. I haven’t tested this yet, but it’s the only idea I’ve had that hasn’t involved fussing around with variables for hours on end.
It’s that same process that jolts you awake in the middle of the night with that name that you couldn’t remember or that fact you were trying to come up with at a crucial time. I find it really intriguing as I obviously have the ability to solve these kinds of problems somewhere in my head however I just can’t have it on tap, I’ve just got to let my brain do its thing whilst I wait around for the solution.
Is there something that you’ve always believed, whether it was something told to you as a child or a fact you just “know”, that despite evidence to the contrary you can’t for the life of you change? As a man of science I’m always researching many topics that I usually start out with little to no idea about, so my opinions generally follow the scientific community’s general consensus. However for a very long time I’ve had this uneasy feeling about climate change. Now I can’t remember when I formed the opinion but every time I see evidence about the subject (and even if you ask me, I’ll say that we humans are responsible for the majority of the drastic change in climate over the past century) I get this uneasy feeling that the scientific community is wrong somehow. Try as I might to educate myself on the matter, reading article after article and journal after journal, something in my head tells me that they’ve got it wrong. It’s like I have a climate change denier constantly whispering in my ear.
I’ve found this with a lot of other things too. Usually it stems from an insignificant fact that I might have learned many years ago and never got around to questioning or doing some research on. One of the biggest sources of these sorts of ideas is the media, who will usually report something without doing the proper fact checking. It is rare that a media outlet will publish a clarification when they’ve got something wrong and when they do it is often given a fraction of the time that the original was given. I think this is probably one of the biggest sources of frustration for the sceptic movement, since a lot of their time is dedicated towards fighting this unquestioned ideas.
Another more prevalent example is an expert in one field giving advice in another. We see this a lot when celebrities start giving out advice about things like government policy when in fact they’re no more qualified to speak on the subject than your average Joe on the street. I must admit that I fall victim to this to as people will come to me for advice on many different subjects and whilst I try to make sure they know I’m not the best person to talk to I’m sure a few of them took what I said as fact. I see it happening a lot in corporate environments with large projects being hinged on advice from a single person. It is all too easy for this kind of thing to happen, since everyone will go along with the expert they can all also point the finger at them when it doesn’t work out the way it should.
It’s a very introspective thing to question every little thing that might pass through your head but for someone like myself it has become an automatic ritual. If I think of something that I can’t explain how and why I “knew” that I’ll make sure I look into it. I can get into a bit of a loop when this happens though, since there’s a lot of things that I just know without any explanation.
I remember an experiment that a first year psychology student described to me where they found these subconscious biases during a lecture. I can’t for the life of me find it but I’d love to see if anyone has a link to the methodology or even a video of it being done. Either leave a comment or drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org