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Self Contradiction and Self Discipline

January 21, 2012

“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
I am large, I contain multitudes.”

How magnificent that Walt Whitman wrote these lines prior to and independent of Sigmund Freud, who made vivid just how vast and strange the individual can be. (Score ten points for historicism.) It is no less cool if one believes Whitman to be speaking metaphorically, the ‘I’ giving a voice to the United States as a whole, because we see the metaphor working both ways: The individual, like the state, can be made stronger by embracing her plurality, by giving voice to her different, semi-autonomous selves, by being a Democracy.

Last year I read an essay by Donald Davidson that showed how viewing the ‘I’ in this modular way can resolve the old philosophical problem of how weakness of will is possible. This paradox has bothered me since before I knew what the word paradox meant. Davidson defines a person/agent’s actions to be incontinent if:

1) the agent does x intentionally;
2) the agent believes there is an alternative action y open to him; and
3) the agent judges that, all things considered, it would be better to do y than to do x.

With that definition, the following propositions are all, taken singularly, intuitively true, but taken as whole they are inconsistent:

P1. If an agent wants to do x more than he wants to do y and he believes himself free to do either x or y, then he will intentionally do x if he does either x or y intentionally.

P2. If an agent judges that it would be better to do x than to do y, then he wants to do x more than he wants to do y.

P3. There are incontinent actions.

We can understand this fission between judgments and actions by postulating two modules, one determining judgments having one set of desires and the other determining actions with another set of desires. Equivalently, there are two different kinds of desires here: The desires for the judgment and the desires for the action, one representing the thinking-self and the other representing the doing-self.

Lenka Pitonakova in her paper “Our Will Is Conscious but Not Free” comes to a similar conclusion by directly examining human behavior in the lab. For example, consider the following experiment:

Subjects have to press a button if they see black BUT NOT if they first see a grey dot. If the grey dot is presented immediately prior to the black ring, the subject does not become consciously aware of it (it is “masked”), but still doesn’t press the button. (“Frontal Cortex Mediates Unconsciously Triggered Inhibitory Control,” Gaal et al, 2008).

Pitonakova interprets this as meaning that “simple decisions are made unconsciously and only enter awareness afterwards, the ‘free will’ or more generally ‘will’ is more of a percept that is only constructed post-hoc and at least the ‘what’ decision is not conscious.” A bit disturbing, no? Causality does not seem to go:

[unconscious processing] –> [conscious thought] –> [behavior]

But rather:

[unconscious processing] –> [conscious thought]

Pitonakova end with the hope that consciousness and awareness can be extended through Zen meditation. I think we can find hope in another direction as well. Surely, conscious thought plays some function, is not just a psychologically meaningless by-product of cognition. I believe, in particular, that conscious thought influences future unconscious processing, and that over the longer term the causality looks more like:

[unconscious processing] –> [conscious thought] –> [unconscious processing] –> [behavior]

And in this way we can see the self as being part of the self’s environment, the subject as her own object to be manipulated. Perhaps this is where freedom lies; perhaps this is how “weakness of will” can be ultimately overcome.

At least in terms of what I read and write, I’m happy to let my excitement take the lead from day to day, scurrying to whatever is catching my fancy in the moment. But if I ever want to build something larger than my short (poem sized) attention span, I’ll be needing some of that self-discipline stuff.

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