Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Falls the shadow

She raised one hand and flexed its fingers and wondered, as she had sometimes before, how this thing, this machine for gripping, this fleshy spider on the end of her arm, came to be hers, entirely at her command. Or did it have some little life of its own? She bent her finger and straightened it. The mystery was in the instant before it moved, the dividing moment between not moving and moving, when her intention took effect. It was like a wave breaking. If she could only find herself at the crest, she thought, she might find the secret of herself, that part of her that was really in charge.

Ian McEwan - Atonement

On Friday Derren Brown failed to stick me to my sofa through televisual hypnosis. He succeeded with Martpol, whose sofa may be comfier than mine.

The idea was that by watching a film and absorbing various suggestive techniques, some viewers would be hypnotically coaxed into a state of mind where they would be unable to lift themselves from the couch and escape, no matter how they tried (The Antiques Roadshow has been doing that for years, you might say, ho ho ho).

So I tried it, watched the video, then… lifted myself up, in mild, unsurprised disappointment. But I did want it to work. Or did I? I was conscious that I wanted it to work, which perhaps nullifies the effect. It seemed to me that Brown was trying to mess about with that mysterious instant between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act. Or at least, he forced me to think about it, as I focused on that inexplicable series of signals and mechanisms… I want to move my legs, I will move my legs…now? Now? Now my legs are moving!

Or again, you could say that Brown did force me to move against my will, only in the wrong direction. I wouldn’t otherwise have stood up at that moment (I was quite comfy after all), without Brown trying to get me not to stand up. I got up even though I didn’t want to get up. And the series of signals and mechanisms was buggered: I don’t want my legs to move, I’m telling them to move but I don’t mean it, (or I’m telling them not to move and I don’t mean it?), I won’t move them now…Now? I am moving them now! Damn. The wave breaks in reverse.

So was this an assertion of my free will or the opposite? The awful, nauseous freedom of the moment between the conception and the creation, between the desire and the spasm, between the almost infinite range of things you could do, and what you do do. Crazy things can happen in that shadow. They usually don’t, of course, but they can….


martpol said...

So was this an assertion of my free will or the opposite? The awful, nauseous freedom of the moment between between the conception and the creation, between the desire and the spasm, between the almost infinite range of things you could do, and what you do do.

Fantastic musings, and free will is a fascinating thing. Surely all of us have, on considering free will, tried to jolt ourselves into doing something differently to what we had planned - something that would otherwise seem irrational - just to prove that we can. But then we stop slapping ourselves in the face, or swinging from the lampshade that represents our escape from predestination, and wonder could we have done other than that? Could the neurons in my brain have aligned themselves differently - caused by God or not, whichever you like - at that particular moment in time, or are all thoughts, all bits of matter, bound by the physical laws of the universe to put themselves in that position regardless of your own will?

I am quite sure that physicists have good answers to these questions, but I will avoid them - finding the philosophial conundrum more interesting, of course.

worm said...

Could 'free will' be a misnomer. From looking at rubbish 70's student-staple book 'The Diceman' and Jungian psychology I always thought that you always, conciously or unconciously, set yourself parameters within which your actions occur.

In the case of The Diceman, whilst the throwing of the dice was random, the 6 choices assigned to each number were not.

and likewise, Jung would say that 'there is no such thing as an accident' - it would not be possible for your mind to create a random action where you had not already envisaged and subconciously positioned yourself for the outcome.

Uncle Dick Madeley said...

Damn! Missed it. Why couldn't he force me to remember to watch the show? It was the night my Sky+ box was playing up.

malty said...

An acquaintance, a farmer, whilst in his twenties, stood for some time watching the whirring machinery of some farm implement. He put his arm in, which was torn off. Fortunately I suppose, to have survived, he often recalled the incident, to this day he swears it was not the hypnotic effect of the machinery but something, an urge to veer off in a different direction that motivated him. The term 'motivation' is disturbing. I personally think he felt that, in taking the action, he was entering a new reality.
This is one of the unlooked for side effects of mountaineering, the more extreme, the higher the risk, brings on a state of reality not found elsewhere. so do we climb because of that or do we seek that, who knows.

worm said...

Malty, do you think there's a link between this 'urge to veer off in a different direction' and infidelity? Also with the male propensity for risk-taking in general?

Something this discussion has reminded me of is the russian roulette scene in The Deerhunter where Christopher Walken almost comes to relish the act of putting the gun to his head

martpol said...

Malty, this "urge to veer off in a different direction that motivated him"...

And Brit's "I did want it to work. Or did I? I was conscious that I wanted it to work, which perhaps nullifies the effect"...

Remind me of the good trip/bad trip phenomenon that people widely report with psychedelics. Although the drug plays havoc with the normal mental state of things, the will of the individual appears to play a big part in what eventually happens. An uncertainty about whether the user wants the effect or not, and/or the sense of 'daring' reality to do something different, can have a powerful effect on the mind.

malty said...

Could be Worm, if we had been in John Major's underpants, wouldn't we have?

On second thoughts that would involve Edwina, screw that for a lark, not literally of course.

Just thinking about that has me desperately scrabbling up the wall of reality, falling back, landing on top of the pair of them, running off to a farm somewhere and sticking me head into a combine.

malty said...

It is, I suppose, possible that we all have, to a greater or lesser degree, split personalities, whilst personality A is running, personality B is dormant but constantly communicating, just below the surface. Those occasions when A and B conjoin above the surface results in either ecstasy or agony.

worm said...

"if we had been in John Major's underpants, wouldn't we have?"

favourite sentence of the week!!!!

Brit said...

Great stuff, lads. (Do pop in tomorrow, btw all, I'll need your help with a question).

Worm raises the psychoanalytical attack on free will - yet another problem for it, though the biggie, as Martpol points out, is the physical causal chain.

A dilly of a pickle, free will. All logical inspection points to it being an illusion, yet every fibre of one's human being rejects that conclusion. And the attempts to make determinism and free will compatible are all still problematic or just crap.

Malty's story reminds me of that scene in Annie Hall...

Duane: Can I confess something? I tell you this as an artist,I think you'll understand. Sometimes when I'm driving... on the road at night... I see two headlights coming toward me. Fast. I have this sudden impulse to turn the wheel quickly, head-on into the oncoming car. I can anticipate the explosion. The sound of shattering glass. The... flames rising out of the flowing gasoline.

And Woody's reaction: Right. Well, I have to - I have to go now, Duane, because I, I'm due back on the planet Earth.

As for Major and Edwina... even more impossible to contemplate than free will in a deterministic universe. The mind blanks at the glare.

Anonymous said...

Many discussions on free will descend quickly into either/or debates about mundane things like whether one really chooses orange or grapefruit juice at breakfast or whether, pace McEwan, one actually controls one's fingers. Any scientist worth his or her salt could prove that Higuita's goalkeeping choices are determined. The psychologist would point to his daddy issues, the biologist to his genes, the physicist to the physical laws and elementary particles, etc. Indeed, I believe some cutting-edged neuroscientists could show his "scorpion kick neurons' began firing before he was even aware a shot was about to be taken, a mind-boggling assertion with implications far more profound than I think they may realize.

Of course, no one denies or ever has that a huge portion, nay most, of our characters, lives and actions are determined. The interesting questions on this come, not out of physics, but out of mature theology, which posits that we can rise above our natures and exercise true free will, but not easily or without effort, discipline and, in certain faiths, divine guidance. It is that, not opposable thumbs, that makes us human and without that, man is indeed a prisoner of his nature, which I take as an old-fashioned way of saying his life is determined by impulses. I imagine this is why religious folks will say that God guided them in good actions, but the Devil made them do the bad ones. (Yes, yes, I do see the question begging loudly.)

Not everyone's cup of tea, I know, but at least it puts the debate in a more realistic, strawman-free context. It also makes the Old Testament read like a ripping good yarn.

BTW, something analagous happens in many debates about morality and whether one can be moral without some kind of transcendant belief. The materialist yea side loves to reduce it to the everyday and argue that they are just as moral as Mother Teresa because they don't rob banks or shoot their neighbours for playing music too loudly at night. Good for them, but that really is avoidng the issue. We don't make all that many truly perplexing, life-directing moral choices in our lives.