What Is Man?

This was quoted in the last chapter of Daniel Wegner’s The Illusion of Conscious Will.  It’s from Mark Twain’s What Is Man?

“Young Man:  You have arrived at man, now?
Old Man:  Yes.  Man the machine – man the impersonal engine.  Whatsoever a man is, is due to his make, and to the influences brought to bear upon it by his heredities, his habitat, his associations.  He is moved, directed, commanded, by exterior influences – solely.  He originates nothing, not even a thought.
Young Man:  Oh, come!  Where did I get my opinion that this which you are talking is all foolishness?
Old Man:  It is a quite natural opinion – indeed an inevitable opinion – but you did not create the materials out of which it is formed.  They are odds and ends of thoughts, impressions, feelings, gathered unconsciously from a thousand books, a thousand conversations, and from streams of thought and feeling which have flowed down into your heart and brain out of the hearts and brains of centuries of ancestors.  Personally you did not create even the smallest microscopic fragment of the materials out of which your opinion is made; and personally you cannot claim even the slender merit of putting the borrowed materials together.  That was done automatically – by your mental machinery, in strict accordance with the law of that machinery’s construction.  And you not only did not make that machinery yourself, but you have not even any command over it.
Young Man:  This is too much.  You think I could have formed no opinion but that one?
Old Man:  Spontaneously?  No.  And you did not form that one; your machinery did it for you – automatically and instantly, without reflection or the need of it…
Young Man:  You really think a man originates nothing, creates nothing.
Old Man:  I do.  Men perceive, and their brain-machines automatically combine the things perceived.  That is all.”

Wegner makes the point that this is not to say that the feeling of free will doesn’t exist.  But, he argues, this feeling doesn’t have anything to do with causes for actions.  In his opinion, the feeling of free will is simply an evolved way for the human organism to identify it’s own actions.  It does this identifying by relying on a heuristic based on three factors: priority of thought to action, consistency of thought with action, and exclusivity of causal possibilities.  When a situation meets these criteria, the mind infers that it is responsible for the action, and there is a feeling of ownership of that action, of having willed it.


This poem was quoted at the beginning of Daniel Wegner’s book The Illusion of Conscious Will:

A leaf was riven from a tree,
“I mean to fall to earth,” said he.
The west wind, rising, made him veer.
“Eastward,” said he, “I now shall steer.”
The east wind rose with greater force.
Said he: “‘Twere wise to change my course.”
With equal power they contend.
He said: “My judgment I suspend.”
Down died the winds; the leaf, elate,
Cried: “I’ve decided to fall straight.”
-Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary (1911)

I’ve noticed what feels like a voice following the action-producing mechanism.  For example, if I feel an itch on my nose and my hand rises to scratch it, this action begins to happen before I really notice it.  But then following it as quickly as it is noticed is a voice saying something like, “I’d like to scratch my nose now.”

An image came to mind related to this.  It’s like a quiet person going about his business silently, with an obnoxious person following him around saying everything that they’re doing.  The silent person makes his way to the store.  The obnoxious person tags along, and as soon as he realizes where they’re going yells, “I’m going to the store now!”

Very uninspired week but not painfully so. Missed almost all my meditations, played a video game in all of my free time, totally ignored my to-do list and had a celibacy accident when I thought I was done with those. I finally finished the game I’ve been playing since the retreat a month ago and have been watching a conflict what to do next: find another or turn away. I have voices that want both.

Despite lower energy levels from not being celibate for long, both PSI meetings have seemed great. Perhaps it is contrast to not thinking about finding truth, perhaps it is simplicity I was hoping for out of playing games. Perhaps it is something Art’s doing. That I can see I’ve never been anything other than awareness is a problem.

An exercise to challenge assuming I make decisions is a highlight this week. Trying it three times has left me feeling some doubt about this beloved assumption. It was: dedicate 2 hours to not making a single decision then report one’s findings. After a few days of procrastination I was quickly surprised by what was happening once finally starting.

I’ve continued to play video games some each day and had a celibacy accident. Damn that every movie has stuff not helpful to someone trying to be celibate. While the game playing costs energy, my thinking seems simpler, as I hoped (and thus more like normal people).

On Friday at work, I took notes to meditate on later and this looks like it’ll continue and goes well with thought provoking podcasts. I also cut back to only one one hour meditation to see if it improves quality. So far I don’t see it.

Main topic I was trying to meditate on was what do I want out of life. I figure if I can get it in words, I can measure my life by it much easier. This is maybe the 5th time I’ve tried. At our retreat I had “permanence” but didn’t think much about it. And this week, I went from to answer existential angst, to enlightenment, to right now it’s just feeling want/lacking, all words are interpretations.

Scenes from “Microcosmos” plus Radiohead

A few more inisghts. Also I acted on 2 inspirations, 1. getting a mini-confrontation group on decisions started with others who expressed doubts about decision making and 2. to add something I enjoy to my life: playing some video games. I don’t know whether it’s unfortunate or not, but, as I feared, “1 hour” never happened. I couldn’t turn away for a long time, missing all but two morning meditations, not sleeping enough for work, and watching my energy dissapear but my decision always to keep playing, or after a break, go back.

This morning I woke up disgusted with the game but as the day wears on and I realize it’s chalk full of unpleasantries (and why so damn many?) ignoring them and playing looks appealing again. A little game playing usually has a good effect on my mind: life doesn’t feel like an endless miserable to-do list, my honesty with others and in my thinking increases, and I feel more on a same plane with others. But I can never keep it to a little.

I don’t know what I want next week. On one level I want to put time into some of these insights, on another level, I see a miserable to-do list before me and want to find a kinder experience. I don’t want to keep putting off my to-do list but I’d also like to not be such a miserable slave to it. But I’m afraid I am.