A few weeks ago, mainstream news with some shock reported the "discovery" that a person making a decision actually makes the choice a fraction of a second prior to being consciously aware that they have made their decision (actually, much of the research had been around for a while, it's just that somebody somewhere happened to have noticed that they could make a sensational story about it). Unfortunately, this has set off a wave of questions about how much a person is actually responsible for what they do and speculation about "free will" that I think betrays several societal biases.
It seems that people fear that this reduces the conscious mind from being the one in control and calling the shots to something more like a central communications hub, a processing center for the multitude of "important" information that has been passed through various different filters. And yet, the reason I put quotes around the word discovery before is because these scientists have now explained the biology behind something that we already knew was deeper.
Before you glance at the title of this blog and run naked and screaming through the streets that we're all under the thrall of the hideous beasts of our subconscious (the resulting video might be worth you doing that anyway), please understand that when I'm talking about "conscious" and "unconscious," I'm not talking about "ego" and "id." For purposes of my conversation, the "conscious thought" I'm talking about is the thing that you think you are, and the "subconscious" is the rest of the machine that is your mind.
The idea that our conscious mind is not that active in the decision-making process is not news. We already have terms like "Freudian slip" and "institutional racism," which are acknowledgments that the conscious mind isn't really calling the shots in our brains. How many times have you gone somewhere new but on a relatively different path and accidentally made the wrong turn out of habit? How "aware" were you of making that turn?
And you thought it was your friend.
Practically, this means that a person is no less responsible for their actions with this knowledge than they were before. I don't think anybody would disagree with me when I say that the decisions that are made by an individual tend to be consistent with that individual's background, experiences and genetic predispositions (the sum total of which we colloquially refer to as "personality"), and that the resulting decisions tend to be consistent with one another. Your conscious mind doesn't necessarily make choices, but it is nevertheless reflects them when they occur.
There is another element to this issue that seems to be bubbling underneath the surface of the public reaction to this information, and that is that at this point we are really talking about the brain as a machine. I think people are okay with the idea of their brains being the seat of thought, but when you start actually breaking down the mechanics of how we think, how this piece of meat actually generates a mind, you start bringing topics that were traditionally where materialism ended and spiritualism began sharply into focus in the material world. Again, this is not news (we've known for some time that if you damage the brain, you alter the mind), but the full reality of it makes people feel less self-aware, when, in fact, it is the opposite that is true; we now have a greater understanding of ourselves.
"While our behavior is still significantly controlled by our genetic inheritance, we have, through our brains, a much richer opportunity to blaze new behavioral and cultural pathways on short timescales."— Carl Sagan
The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence (1977, 1986)