I used to think I was in almost total control of nearly every aspect of being. From learning to emotions to anything mental I felt like I was astutely aware of all the processes, variables and influences that affected me and could control them at my will. That was, of course, my wild teenage brain running amok with its abnormal chemistry and time has shown me that there’s an awful lot going on inside my head that I have absolutely zero control over. Indeed the more research we do into the brain and our genetics the more we find things that we aren’t consciously in control of and that raises some really perplexing questions.
The more we chip away at the apparent control we have over our own being the more the idea of free will starts to look like some form of cruel joke played upon us by our own biological systems. I’ve wrestled with this idea before when I tried to overcome some subconscious beliefs that I didn’t consciously agree with and I’m still struggling to rationalize it today. Indeed the evidence keeps mounting for some form of hard determinism being the absolute truth here but it seems that one of those nigh on unshakable beliefs is the fact that we have some kind of will that is not controlled by our chemical/biological processes.
Things start to get really weird when you start looking at some real world examples of subconscious processes at work. Studies have shown that judges in Israel are far more likely to grant parole right after they’ve been fed with the approval rating tapering off steadily until their next meal. Whilst it may sound obvious when explained to you (it’s a Egg of Columbus type of thing) these kinds of influences pervade every nearly every aspect of our lives and it’s shocking just how little control we have over some of them. Indeed even being aware that those biases there isn’t enough to overcome them requiring a substantive effort to overcome.
I find this particularly interesting because it feeds into some of my other casual interests, namely the process of learning. There’s the oft repeated saying that it takes 10,000 hours to master something and understanding that our subconscious is doing most of the heavy lifting gives you insight into why that is. Rather than the 10,000 hours being training for our conscious selves it is in fact more to do with training our subconscious to take on all the tasks required for mastery that, at the beginning, reside only in the conscious part of our brain. It’s exactly why you can seemingly zone out when driving somewhere and not end up wrapped around a tree; the process of driving is largely a subconscious act. The same reason is behind why everyone has trouble with this seemingly ubiquitous skill at first, your subconscious just simply isn’t up to the task.
There’s also that rather sticky wicket of whether or not this means we actually have an agency at all, I.E. whether we truly are responsible for our actions. For what its worth I don’t have a good answer for this as society is very heavily predicated on the fact that we do have agency and I can’t seem to fathom how that idea could come about without it being true at some level. Of course this could just be a form of common delusion which just happens to work since it increases our survival rate and therefore allows our soma to continue on. Like I said, I don’t have a good answer to this and even my conjecture on the matter feels half baked.
Honestly I’m not altogether sure what this means for us as a species or society at large but I feel like its an important thing to understand. Awareness that we’re largely subconscious beings has helped me better understand the learning process and why people might say one thing then act in completely different ways. It’s a perplexing issue, one I’m sure that philosophers and scientists will struggle with for centuries to come and even then I’ll doubt that we’ll ever get a conclusive answer: scientifically or philosophically.