Cartesian Theater

by on April 14, 2008 · 22 comments

Tom doesn’t elaborate on why the topic of free makes him angry, but I think the gloss on this article—you might have no free will because your brain makes decisions before you’re aware of them!—is pretty stupid. Obviously, if your brain is the organ that you use to make decisions, you would expect your brain to be engaged in certain kinds of activity before any given decision is made. And obviously if you observed this activity closely enough, you’d find that the process takes a finite amount of time. And obviously you wouldn’t be able to report that the process had completed until it had, in fact, completed. But this doesn’t mean that “your subconscious” is forcing you to do something outside of “your” control. That brain activity was just part of the decision-making process you went through to reach the decision.

As Daniel Dennett has pointed out, the idea that this experiment is creepy comes from what he refers to as the theory of the Cartesian theater: the idea that “you” are really a metaphorical guy sitting at a little control panel inside your brain, telling your brain what to do. Dennett suggests that a lot of people have this view as their implicit model of how the brain works. Hence, people assume that “you” should be able to direct your brain’s decision-making process, which makes it creepy when the brain does something without “your” controlling it. But if examined closely, the notion of a Cartesian Theater doesn’t make a lot of sense. Among other problems, it suffers from the problem of infinite regress: if you’re really a little guy at the control panel of your brain, who’s controlling the little guy? Ultimately, if you want a materialist explanation for human cognition, it’s inevitable that you’ll wind up conceiving human consciousness as an emergent property of the physical system called the brain. And if you’re not interested in a materialist explanation for cognition, then why do you care what a bunch of neuroscientists have to say?

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