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The Illusion of Conscious Will and Achievement

The Streetlight Effect and Hemispheric Division


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Tuan Lima

2 years ago | 5 min read

It’s all over the place. “If you want to be successful at anything, make it happen”. This simple sentence reveals a lot about our confusing moment in history, characterized by the hubristic notion that we are in full control of our lives and that if we’d only wish it enough it would happen.

Although there is a certain amount of truth in such optimistic statements about the degree of freedom that life grants upon those who are willing to fight for what they want, the point of this article is to remember that such simplifications are not general and that even the impression of being in control of ourselves is misleading.

Consider the following passage from St. Paul, Galatians 5:171, which touches on the division of the human mind, which sets interesting grounds for a discussion on the limits of our will and what it represents.

“For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want”

The text is old. The body-spirit dualism is not a modern discovery. Many thinkers have delved on the subject throughout History. What is important for us to take into account here is that this perception has branched into two different takes on human nature: the Platonian and the Humean. The former is best introduced by Plato’s chariot allegory itself:

The chariot is pulled by two winged horses, one mortal and the other immortal. The mortal horse is deformed and obstinate. Plato describes the horse as a “crooked lumbering animal, put together anyhow…of a dark color, with grey eyes and blood-red complexion; the mate of insolence and pride, shag-eared and deaf, hardly yielding to whip and spur.”

The immortal horse, on the other hand, is noble and game, “upright and cleanly made…his color is white, and his eyes dark; he is a lover of honor and modesty and temperance, and the follower of true glory; he needs no touch of the whip, but is guided by word and admonition only.”

Needless to say that the mortal horse represents our bodily inclinations, whereas the immortal horse represents our rational tendencies. This take is the one which is most predominant nowadays. It’s the traditional scientific and business view, it’s the view of state bureaucracies. According to Benjamin Franklin “If Passion drives, let Reason hold the Reins.”

My point here is that this take is short-sighted and neglects other important parts of the human experience that contribute to the whole of an individual person (more on this below).

The Humean view, on the other hand, while being sensitive to the dichotomy, takes into account the fact that reason is very much to the service of our physical propensities. Not the other way around.

“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” — David Hume

The Streetlight Effect

Relatively recent discoveries in neuroscience, starting in the 1970s with Michael Gazzaniga’s split-brain studies up until Iain McGilchrist’s magnificent book The Master and his Emissary, have shown that the situation is not quite well-balanced with respect to which of Plato’s horses drives the chariot forward.

It’s been shown that conscious undertaking is largely and singularly associated with the left-hemisphere of the brain, the vocal and analytic one, as opposed to the right-hemisphere, which processes emotion and is pattern-oriented.

This skewness can be used to explain why it may be so hard for us to recognize that we often act guided by motives that we neither understand nor control. In fact, Gazzaniga has even come to the point of coining the term “confabulation” to signify all the lies the left-hemisphere makes up in its effort to explain away the things it cannot grasp. As an example we have the split-brain patient (non-communicating hemispheres) who upon being asked why he stood up (his right right-hemisphere had been asked to via visual prompts) said that he wanted to get a drink, being the left-hemisphere the one which controls speech.

The streetlight metaphor comes in handy to explain the situation. According to it, we are like the drunken man under a streetlight who, being asked by a policeman what he was doing, says that he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, and that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, “this is where the light is”.

Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis argues in the same direction: “This is our situation, lamented by St. Paul, Buddha, Ovid, and so many others. Our minds are loose confederations of parts, but we identify with and pay too much attention to one part: conscious verbal thinking.”

The Rider and the Elephant

This reasoning makes clear that whosoever attempts single-mindedly to make their way upon life by sheer force of will is exposed to the risk of self-alienation.

We have got to learn to integrate these different confederations of the human mind lest they start to retaliate through all sorts of psychic dysfunctions we know that are possible but often can’t understand.

It’s time we start listening to the different kinds of stimuli that are eminently non-rational and that we’ve got accustomed to neglect, such as our natural religious sensibility and animal-like legacy inclinations.

One interesting way of looking at this dual nature problem is presented by Jonathan Haidt through a metaphor. In his aforementioned book, he invites us to look at the problem as if the conscious mind was a rider positioned in the back of an elephant, which represents all the rest of the human psyche.

The wise rider will instantly realize that his degree of freedom to move around is severely conditioned by the elephant’s own capacity of locomotion. He has no alternative but to seek harmony with this animal he happened to get on a journey with and might even dream of changing the animal’s habits one day when he manages to understand and satisfy its needs.

The Bible provides a pearl of final wisdom that I think should be seriously considered by anyone who still believes in the bulldozer lifestyle. Matthew 7:7 says: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”

The passage is extremely subtle. It manages to find the right spot of equilibrium between the arrogance of the no-matter-what seeker and the passivity of those who merely wait for things to happen.

The three sentences are marked by a clever play between action and the state of openness that should follow from it. It wants to convey, in my estimation, that in life we are indeed responsible for making things happen, but we can only go so far, at which point we should only be grateful for whatever outcome we get.

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