Monday, September 20, 2004

Who's really in charge?

"A man can surely do what he wills to do, but cannot determine what he
- Schopenhauer

But doing what I want doesn’t make me a robot, does it?
- If I’ve got the ability to choose to do things that I think will make me
feel good… then what’s the problem with that? I’m still in charge, aren’t

Well, that depends on who - or what - is deciding which things make you feel good…

The Evil Scientist

Let’s get back to Dr Ridley trying to decide whether to go to Edinburgh or not. And let’s imagine that he’s somehow fallen into the hands of.... an Evil Scientist.

Our Evil Scientist has gained access to Dr Ridley 's brain.... and she's found a
way to rewire his neural pathways so that she's in control of whether he feels
good or bad about something. She could, for example, set up his brain so that he
disliked seeing his mum... or indeed so that everything else that was
previously attractive about his proposed trip now filled him with dread and

Would he still go to Edinburgh?

Well, he’d be
somewhat confused that the thought of seeing his mum was making him feel bad,
but he wouldn't put himself through the effort of the trip if he could see so
much pain coming from it.

And yet he would of course still feel
like he was making his own decision....

In reality, of course,
he’d just be doing precisely what the Evil Scientist told him to do.

If we can’t choose which things make us feel good, and which things make us feel bad… then how free are we? To answer that, we need to ask the key question: why is it that some things make us feel good… and some things make us feel bad?

But before we get to why, we need to know where:

- where are feelings created, and where is it decided whether the feeling we experience should be ‘nice’ or ‘nasty’?

Where are feelings?


Feelings are created inside our own brains

We know that all our thoughts happen inside our brains, so presumably that must be where we experience all our feelings and emotions as well. And not only is it the place where feelings are experienced, but it must also be the place where those feelings are created:

Although ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ seem to be automatic responses to things happening in
the world around us, we also know that these feelings aren’t somehow being
beamed into our brains from the outside world. When we eat ice cream, we know
that nerve impulses are passing from our taste buds into our brains, and that
somehow our brains convert those impulses into feelings or pleasure.

A bad feeling is not an inevitable consequence of the physical world - like
light travelling in straight lines, or like gravity pulling us towards the

We also know that when someone tells us that our mother is dying, all that’s
entering our heads are the sound waves of their voice: it has to be our
brains that somehow convert those sound waves into the feelings of sadness
that we ‘automatically’ feel.

But how automatic is it?

Somehow our brains must be decide whether ‘mother dying’ makes us feel ‘overjoyed and elated’ or ‘desperate sadness’.


Our own brains decide whether our lives are…

abject misery or utter delight.

The only suffering we ever experience must be created by our own brains.

Doesn’t seem right somehow. Our own brains?

When a prisoner is trapped in his enemy’s torture chamber and subjected to hours
of horrendous pain… the pain he experiences is created entirely by his own
. Sure, he wouldn’t be experiencing that horror if his torturer weren’t
subjecting him to the horror, but the torturer would have no weapon were it not
for our own body’s ability to create enormously awful feelings.

We blame
our torturer…

…but should we be blaming our own brain?

We’ll discuss the implications more later, but we can not escape the conclusion.

Q But..! That’s silly. We have to feel bad. If your mother dies - you have to feel bad: it’s absurd to think it could be any other way.

Does your mother want you to be unhappy? Does she want you to be miserable?
Sure, she wants to know that you love her and that you’re going to miss her. But
the chances are that she’s spent your whole life trying to do things that will
make you as happy as possible. And there you are - unhappy, miserable and
missing her. The point is not so much whether or not we should feel happy or
unhappy, the point is to realise that it is a decision of our own brains, and
not a decision that we make consciously. We can then explore the reasons why we
feel unhappy.

The question is, why do our brains decide that some of us should lead lives of misery and some of us should be truly happy?

But before we address that issue, one last observation about this brain of ours:

Where - and what - is ‘me’?

Let’s have a careful look at what we mean by ‘me’. What is this 'me' that we are all so aware of?

When we think of who ‘we’ are, it feels like ‘we’ is our whole body... from the
top of our head to the tip of our toes - it all goes to making up the concept we
have of ‘me’.

And yet it's more complicated than that: I am still 'me'
if I lose a leg, or if lose an arm. Sure, I might be changed slightly, but my
basic personality remains in my brain, it doesn’t leave with my departing arm. I
am still me if I am confined to a wheel chair without use of my arms or legs.

‘Me’ is not my body - ‘me’ is my brain.

But we can take this
further. Because, I’m not really 'there' if I’m asleep, or unconscious: my body
is there, but I’m not there myself - at least I’m not aware of being there

My only experience of life - indeed my only experience of
anything at all - is my when I’m awake, when I’m conscious.

Now, I know
that certain things in my brain happen outside my conscious control: I know my
heart rate is controlled by my brain, but not by ‘me’; I know that ????

Which means that there must effectively be two parts to my brain: the
conscious part and a part that isn’t under my conscious control, and that I’m
not even aware of being there.

So that means ‘I’ am not even the
non-conscious part of my brain:

‘I’ am only my conscious mind

my conscious thoughts, sensations, feelings, emotions... etc etc… are the true
extent of ‘me’.


We are our conscious minds.

Only. Nothing else.

The religious concept of 'the soul' is a tidy comparison: the thought that, once the body dies, the soul lives on, rising above the body, floating around, somehow surviving outside the body, is so powerful and easy to understand because consciousness is our only experience,

Back to where…

So where exactly are our feelings created? In our brains, yes… but in our conscious mind… or in the part of our brain that is not conscious? Clearly, we experience these feelings consciously… but we don’t create them consciously: our feelings must be being created in an area of the brain that we don't have conscious control over:

"A man can surely do what he wills to do, but cannot determine what he wills." -

Whether we feel good or bad
depends on a part of our brains over which we have no control

Which is the same as saying:


‘We’ are controlled
by a part of our brain over which we have no control.

This doesn't mean we're controlling ourselves, because we've already decided that 'we' are only our conscious minds.

Somehow, this ‘non-conscious’ part of our brain is able to assess events in the outside world and determine whether we should feel good or bad as a result.

The big question is - How does our non-conscious brain know whether we should be feeling good or bad at any one time?

- How does our non-conscious mind know that ice cream should make us feel good?

- How does our non-conscious mind know that when our mother dies we
should feel sad?

Because this is the key.

Not just the key to understanding whether we are robots, but the key perhaps to a everything that matters in life.

Next: Why are feelings?


Anonymous said...

If we are "not there" when we are asleep, then is it murder to kill a sleeping man?

Anonymous said...

I dunno. I'll sleep on it.

Anonymous said...

Surely this article has a point, but does not really prove that we are robots utterly 'controlled' by our innate evolutionary programming. Our feelings to some extent are controlled, but the actions of people every day prove that we have the freedom to act contrary to our feelings on occasion. Most acts may be committed in accordance with feelings, but the existence of a minority of choices going against our own preferences invalidates the idea of total obedience to some primal programming.
Furthermore, we can actually modify our own feelings through conscious will. If we tell ourselves that we are enjoying something, or that we are confident, it tends to have an effect. I think we are heavily influenced, but not complete slaves to programming.

dan from said...

I have met people that claim to be able to control how they feel, both in an overall sense and how they feel about a particular event. I myself am able to limited extent to influence my emotional state directly most of the time. Sometimes, however, I am completely powerless.

The thing I wonder is whether these people (and myself) are really in charge or if the "unseen" part of their brains is merely complying with their orders to trick them. For that matter, is our conscious mind even in control of our motor functions? Perhaps we are just along for the ride.