Saturday, August 20, 2011

Choice and Hofstadter's Envelopes

Keith Humphreys writes about an important distinction to be made regarding addiction, and the fact that it represents a fundamental altering of the brain.  However, he reminds us, there is a difference between addiction being a lasting disease that someone has no control over, and one that the individual can fight, albeit with great difficulty.
It is reasonable to say to someone who is not addicted “Please be more responsible about your substance use — you are choosing to act in a fashion that may eventually get you addicted.” It is equally reasonable to say to someone who is addicted “Are you being responsible in the management of your addiction, are you attending your AA meetings, staying out of bars, etc?.” But it is not logically reasonable to say “Why don’t you stop being addicted?”. They would if they could, but they can’t, and that should I think evoke some sympathy, which is in no way contradictory with expectations that the person will be responsible about how they manage their disorder.

Our difficulty getting our heads around (no pun intended) consciousness, action and responsibility once again makes it all so difficult.

For this reason, I’ve found it important to work out as best I can whether or not I have free will. There is just so much in life that is riding on whether I answer a yes or no to that question.

In my opinion, we don’t have contra-causal free will. What this means is that we will never have been able to do anything other than what we had done. Yet we can choose to do things differently in the future. Here’s why that isn’t paradoxical. Our thoughts always exist in the past, in the sense that even our projections of the future are based on recollections of the past. So everything is filtered through our past; My thoughts as I type this are nothing more than the sum of everything I have ever learned. I can choose to do anything I like, but that choice will only have ever been the sum of what I had previously known.
I think the thing that tricks us up, and fools us into feeling like we have more control than we really do, is the simple fact that we are only ever conscious of the tiniest portion of what we are, of what is driving us. Even when we try and be as rational as possible, we routinely fail because our very ability to be rational and logical is dependent on what exists in the unconscious.

What addiction seems to add to this is that we have more limited control over what we choose to do when we have become addicted. This would explain the fact that addiction can be a spectrum, and work in tandem with many other areas of our ability to choose.

Speaking of that “ability to choose”, whatever the heck it is, I have to bring up Douglas Hofstadter’s conception of it (as I follow it). He describes the way in which a stack of envelopes, to the blind eye, can feel as though it has a large, round lump in the center. This is the area in which a slightly larger mass of paper forms at the tip of the fold. Yet individually, each envelope seems perfectly flat. So too are we limited by our cognitive faculties to only ever seeing or feeling either one thought at a time, or what feels like a solid mass, or consciousness.

The question of blame then seems quite difficult. It would be like blaming that sensation of there being a large, round mass in a stack of envelopes. We can feel it, we can even measure it and blame it for something that really did occur, but the closer we inspect it, it sort of unravels into nothingness.

So instead of blaming, I propose, we simply do our best to reflect upon what happened in the past and try to make any adjustments we can so that the same course does not get taken again. In terms of the envelope, since we don’t have access to the entire shape, we can make educated guesses about each separate envelope and try to adjust them so that hopefully when they assemble into that whole it will be the shape we approve of.

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