Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Do novelists have free will? Part 1

with one comment

Sam Harris

Recently, as part of a writing project I’m hoping to finish within the next couple of months, I’ve been thinking a lot about the problem of free will. Free will, like consciousness, is a phenomenon that seems perfectly obvious in our everyday life but increasingly elusive the more we try to pin it down. As David Eagleman points out in his book Incognito, science has long since established that much of what we think of as our own intentions and behavior arise from parts of the brain that aren’t immediately accessible to conscious thought. In the famous Libet experiment, for instance, subjects were told to flick a finger at the time of their choosing, while recording what they perceived as the exact moment at which they decided to move. What Benjamin Libet discovered was that readiness potentials associated with muscle movement could be detected in the brain about half a second before the subjects were conscious of having made the decision. Later tests have found similar brain activity as much as seven seconds in advance—which implies that consciousness, at least under some circumstances, is really just a way of retrospectively rationalizing actions we’ve undertaken before we’re even aware of it.

To some extent, we all know how this feels. This morning, for instance, while mulling over today’s blog post, I brushed my teeth, showered, shaved—and then brushed my teeth again. Why? I don’t know. My eye happened to fall on the toothbrush by the sink, and without any conscious input whatsoever, my “brushing my teeth” subroutine was absentmindedly activated for the second time in twenty minutes. Later, I made coffee and my morning omelet, and it’s safe to say that I was operating mostly on autopilot: I was watching my daughter and thinking about what I was going to write at the same time, so I was more than happy to outsource my breakfast to a different part of my brain. This kind of automation is a necessary part of survival, as well as basic happiness: I’d go crazy if I had to consciously think over each step of such routine activities, much less to remind myself to breathe twelve times each minute. It’s far less comfortable to acknowledge that higher levels of our actions and behavior may be equally out of our control, but the more we try to grasp what we mean by free will, the more it seems to slip through our fingers.

Samuel Johnson

Opponents of free will certainly have a strong case on their side. Every human thought or action arises from the firing of the brain’s neurons, which in turn are governed by the laws of physics, and attempts to explain consciousness by reference to quantum mechanics are really just a way of replacing one mystery with another. Go down far enough and we’re nothing but physical processes, and any event in the brain, big or small, can be traced back to another. Even if we’re willing to entertain the existence of a soul, this doesn’t solve the underlying problem of the unconscious roots of our influences and intentions, as Sam Harris notes in his little book Free Will: “If you don’t know what your soul is going to do next, you are not in control.” Harris writes elsewhere that most attempts to salvage the idea of free will begin with the premise that they want to prove, and that such efforts have more in common with theology than science or philosophy. And although Harris’s case is in some ways irrefutable, one is still tempted to respond to it in the same way that Samuel Johnson, in Boswell’s Life, replied to the doctrine of idealism:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it—”I refute it thus.”

It might seem equally quaint to point to one’s subjective perception of free will and say: “I refute it thus.” But that’s really all most of the arguments in favor of free will can do—and make no mistake, it’s a powerful piece of evidence. What Daniel Dennett has called “our important intuition that we are the authors of our moral decisions” is something we can’t easily dismiss. And although it’s far outside this scope of this blog to make a case one way or the other, I think it’s worthwhile to consider it through one particular lens: that of creative activity. At first glance, the act of writing a novel—or composing a symphony or executing a fresco—seems like a strong demonstration of willed, conscious activity: each book is a series of choices, executed over a long period of time and with a lot of reflection, constrained only by the artist’s ability. As much as any action in which human beings engage, the novel is an exercise in sustained consciousness that can take years to complete, and the result, however flawed it may be, can only be something that the author meant to do. Or can it? Tomorrow, I’ll be looking at the process of writing as an act of free will, and try to consider how much, or how little, it really explains.

Written by nevalalee

July 24, 2013 at 8:58 am

One Response

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  1. lol. The ones who sell a lot of books certainly do!

    darylgstewart

    July 25, 2013 at 5:52 am


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