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A Solitary Ant
What finally crystallized it for me was an essay in the current issue of Scientific American. The essay is one of Michael Shermer's regular columns discussing what he calls "free won't". The essay is talking about the idea of free will in terms of the latest neuro-psychological research. As Michael notes, the current evidence shows we are taking action on a decision before we are consciously aware of the decision. This action commences as much as seven whole seconds before that conscious awareness. We still, he argues, have a free ability to stop the action, hence "free won't".

I'll leave arguing free will (or free won't) to philosophers, neuro-psychologists and Michael Shermer. What I realized from reading his essay is that we have a confusing way of describing consciousness. It means self awareness, but it is freighted with a subtext of decision making which, I believe, gets us into trouble.

We would like to believe that not only are all our decisions conscious, but that conscious decisions are always logical. I don't think either is true.

I'm in no position to disprove these assertions, just to point out some problems that arise when we accept them as true. Also, it seems to me that there isn't any need for either to be true.

Let me start with conscious decision making. Other than equating it with being logical, does it make any difference whether my decisions are made consciously? It is still my decision whether it results from competing sub personalities in my subconscious or from some hyper logical analysis that is totally conscious.

Haven't you ever had the experience of analyzing a situation, coming to a decision and realizing that wasn't what you wanted? When I bought my first car, I did a Spock like analysis of the pro's and con's in columns, and realized that I had to add a row for personal preference to make it come out right. Ever since I've been wary of those who claim to be entirely logical about their life.

Logic, as any freshman logic student will tell you, proceeds from assumptions and axioms. What decides those axioms? They are outside of logic, maybe they might be subconscious. There is an alternative, a sort of super consciousness that decides those, but that gets into the recursive problem envisioned by the little guy in my head making the decisions; who makes the decisions for him?

Ordinarily I'd use a baseball example, but since the summer Olympics are on as I write this, I'll use beach vollyeball. I'm amazed at their ability to react to the changing situation on the court. It's too fast for conscious decision making and also too complicated and nuanced to be any kind of learned muscle memory.

This, in itself, doesn't deny conscious decision making, it just puts it at one end of the scale. I can take credit for that great save in volleyball just as much as for writing a nobel prize winning paper. They are both mine and it really doesn't matter whether my decision was conscious, subconcious or some mixture of both.

Nor does this devalue consciouness. Self awareness becomes a part of our decision making, allow us to correct future action based on past results, to analyze situations and design things like the Fosbury Flop (as long as I am using Olympic examples). What we really mean when we say 'conscious decision', is a decision informed by our self awareness.

That works for me. Free will (or won't) is out of my league.