Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Free will and fiction

There's an interesting article in today's NYT science section about free will. Basically, we don't have it, or not nearly to the extent we think we do. Thinking we have it is apparently inevitable, a result of our evolution, so knowing we don't really have it might not change our behavior. But our consciousness is, according to the article's illustration, a tiny, backward-facing monkey struggling to manage the roaring tiger of our subconscious. Usually we are doing something already before we "decide" to do it; more precisely, it seems we can "veto" at least some of these actions, but we can't really decide to initiate them.

The writer, Dennis Overbye, talks about how thinking tends to mess up certain processes, including fiction writing. He envies the "trance" that fiction writers say they go into when working, and suggests this state is the unconscious coming to the surface. The monkey is off its back, so to speak. It's a little alarming to think of it this way, but I suppose this is another way of talking about "being in the moment"--you stop pretending to have free will and let the tiger drive.

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