Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Slow humans

Jerry Coyne has a post about a new test result confirming that decisions are made well before "we" make them -- in other words, before the (illusory) person in our head that we call "us" is aware of the decision. In fact, new experimental results show that it takes four seconds before we realize that some types of decisions have been made. Deciding seems to happen without "our" involvement. The decisions we think we make are actually a done deal way before "we" make them.

He cites this result as further evidence that free will is an illusion. We think "we" make all "our" decisions but the real action happens down under. Way down under. It seems to be a rather mechanical process that occurs on a level of which we are unaware. In other words, we are puppets -- which is a super-scary notion for religious people. Puppets?! What then of sin and punishment?! Horrors, they cry. (If this idea intrigues you, see the linked article.)

This idea isn't new to me. I'm not 100% on the no-free-will bandwagon -- though I do lean in that direction. In my case, I do so because physics tells us that the future is already there. The past and the future are needed to hold up the present. They're bulwarks that must exist or there would be no present. This would imply that there is only one decision we can make at any single point in the future. After all, it's a done deal. But never mind that for now.

This experiment and others like it remind me of something. You know when you're watching a baseball game on TV and the pitcher is almost hit by a ball? When they show the replay in slow motion, I'm always mesmerized by how long it takes the pitcher to see the ball that's coming right at him. There's a relatively long stretch where the ball leaves the bat and flies toward the pitcher -- and he's just standing there with no idea what's coming his way. When the ball gets about halfway to his face, he finally notices it and, in some lucky cases, ducks.

But that delay is so telling. We are aware of things well after the instant they occur. We're so damn slow! This isn't directly related to the time-delay experiment, of course. But then, I wonder when the "decision" to duck really occurs. In any case, I'll always enjoy those replays. Next time you see one, watch how long it takes for the pitcher to react. It's funny, and a bit scary.

BTW, in case this whole thing scares you, don't worry. You can ignore this entirely. Whether free will exists or not, it will always seem that it exists. So we can go on as we always have, believing that each decision is up to us. In fact, it's difficult to think in any other fashion.