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Who Is The Self With a Will?

Last installment, we talked about how to find a gap in the causal chain from sensory input to motor output – a gap big enough for a non-mechanical self to insert its will. I suspect that there is none to be found, and I wanted to talk about some of the reasons I have this viewpoint. Now this is nothing revolutionary – I’m sure plenty of folks have already come to similar conclusions, but I figure it’s worth a once over.

The question I have always asked myself is this – if there is a self apart from the causal systems of neurobiology, then what does it consist of? It isn’t memory, I reason, as memories can be damaged or destroyed by harming the neural network that stores them. It isn’t “personality” – as personalities are changed by wetware damage, too. Is it awareness? Consciousness? I can slow either of those down myself by imbibing a substance that interferes with the neural process in certain ways. Though we have no living and communicative witnesses to the fact, it’s not hard to believe that certain types of damage cause irreversible loss of conscious awareness. While there are times that extremely severe trauma leaves an individual enough material to regrow sufficient neural networks for awareness, it is logical that the same processes which stop it temporarily can also stop it permanently, and sometimes does.

And, of course, many types of neural tampering impact the subject of our discussion – the will. In fact, even a large imbibed dose, as I can testify, render one unable to choose or prone to choose differently than we might have otherwise. All of this suggests that the will, the memory, the personality and conscious awareness are all neural in character.

Where does that leave the self? In fact, it was just this type of reasoning that led me to believe most strongly in the absence of an afterlife. If I have a “soul”, and if that soul survives my body, then what has that to do with “me” – my memory, my awareness (self- and otherwise), my personality, my will all having been left behind with the neural network that no longer functions? “I” – every bit of “I” that I can identify, will be dead. Whatever my “soul” might be may live on, but there is no part of me that identifies with it.

Certainly, I can imagine some grand mathematical abstraction in Hilbert space mapping the information that is in my neural networks at any given time – perhaps that would be some sort of afterlife… but it’s a little too science fiction for my tastes.

And so, I find that when I ask where is this self that can insert itself into the causal chain and bring about a willed result freely, I can find no answer.

I find an echo of this here:

Let’s say you’re a runner and you then cease to be one. It matters to you, because being a runner is part of who you are. But it isn’t, because you aren’t. Not any more. Well, it matters because you were a runner and regret being one no longer. Yet if you are one no longer, and it therefore isn’t part of who you are, you’re regretting it as a former runner, that is, as a non-runner – and consequently for reasons not having to do with your identity.

The problem being wrestled with here is that we integrate so many transient features of our thought and emotion into our concept of “self”, it is difficult to disentangle them and arrive at a model of self that is reasonably justified.

So, if we take the causal definition of free will discussed earlier, then we are at a danger of finding the causal will but finding that the “self” that holds it is itself the current state of a mechanical system.

And that brings me back to the beginning. Being unsatisfied with any rigorous and causal definition, I hold to the “trick” – that the will and the illusory experience of it are the same. It certainly pays no dividend to behave as though I have no choices, since I clearly have a means of experiencing decisions – and likely unpleasantness will result if I make the wrong ones. I have illusory but pragmatic free will, and I intend to use it!

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