The will and its power

All morality boils down to how one answers two simple questions.  The first question is, what is the good life?  It pertains to knowledge, and what used to be called wisdom.  The second question is, how much control do I have over my own behavior?  This relates to the will.

I have posted recently on the life of virtue (see here and here).  In the last post, I mentioned the will without explaining in any detail what I was talking about.  Since the will, or the human capacity for self-rule, is an important moral faculty, it behooves us to provide some clarity about its range of action.

An intuititive model of the will is often assumed:  it operates, many believe, like a pilot in an airplane.  The body generates mobility and sensory data, the will analyzes the data and directs the body to a desired place or condition.  Thus I feel thirsty, and seek refreshment; or I fall in love, and seek to win the object of my desire.

The flaw in this model is that it places too much faith on consciousness.  We don’t consciously command our behavior moment to moment, the way an airplane pilot does.  We can’t, and it would be disastrous if we tried:  this is a matter of biology.  We can’t fly by flapping our arms, or swim by breathing underwater.  Similarly, we lack the conscious “bandwidth” to process the immense amount of data pouring into the brain.  One estimate gives consciousness a processing capacity of between 10 and 20 data bits per second.  The senses, on the other hand, generate around 11.2 million data bits per second.

If these numbers are remotely accurate, then most human behavior must be nonconscious.  But what does “nonconscious” mean?  First off, it has nothing to do with Freud or Freudian theories of behavior, all of which have been thoroughly discredited.  The subject here isn’t the “repressed unconscious,” but machine-like, or rather termite-like, behavior.

Unlike human soldiers, the termite soldier can’t negotiate, or surrender, or run away in fear.  It is biologically programed to fight to the death.  No one questions that many human behaviors are similarly programed.  If I put my hand into a fire, I will retract it before I feel any conscious pain.  If I’m extremely cold, I’ll shiver; if I hear aloud noise, I’ll start.

But the numbers cited above suggest a far greater influence of nonconscious data over behavior.  In fact, few important human decisions are arrived at consciously.  Consider falling in love.  Something mysterious happens – data is exchanged behind the back of consciousness – and behavior alters radically.  Consider choosing a career, buying a house, making a friend, hating an enemy, wishing for children.  The critical data for each of these decisions lies beyond the reach of consciousness.  A choice is made, we don’t know how or why.  Rationalizations follow.

The controlling capacity of the will hinges on how closely human behavior approximates that of termites.  The evidence suggests we are less pilot-like, and more termite-like, than we would like to admit.  Yet the difference is apparent, and worth stating.  Termite behavior 40,000 years ago was exactly like it is now.  Termites can’t change.  Human behavior 40,000 years ago was in many important ways different from what it is today.  While termite behavior is fixed, our behavior appears open to change.  The proof is in the pudding.  We have changed.

The adaptive purpose of consciousness becomes clearer once we abandon the pilot model.  I can’t manage my life consciously, moment by moment.  I lack the bandwidth.  But I can consciously teach myself behaviors that, once learned, become largely nonconscious.

Why is learning such a painful process?  Because everything we learn must be squeezed through the conscious mind.  We become proficient at any endeavor – reading, say, or playing the violin – only when the activity is handed off to the far more capacious processing power of the nonconscious brain.

When we first learn to read, we do so very consciously, one letter at a time:  a laborious and ineffective method.  We achieve proficiency once we become nonconscious of the letters, words, or even paragaphs we have consumed, and read only for meaning.  The same capability gulf exists between the apprentice violinist’s note-by-note squawks and the maestro who interprets a Mozart concerto.

Consciousness is a means to learning new behaviors.  It separates human beings from termites and machines.  The will is a type of consciously learned behavior:  the capacity to impose one’s character on a specific situation, rather than surrender to immediate but arbitrary desires.  It separates a strong character from a weak one.

How does the will impose character on a situation?  By means of the habits we have formed, of behaviors learned consciously but deeply internalized until they become “second nature.”  It’s how we learn to read.  It’s how we learn the violin.  The will partakes of all such sustained activities, and can aim at ends that are moral or immoral, practical or artistic, self-serving or generous.

The bible speaks about “men of good will,” meaning those who have formed habits of right behavior.  As I observed before, Aristotle, no less than present-day neurologists like Antonio Damasio, have understood habituation to be the way to the life of virtue:  that is to say, the power of the will applied toward the moral ideals of the community.


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