Home______Free Will & The Sense Of Control

When you ride a bicycle, do you decide to balance? Or, so to speak, does balancing balance? When you drive a car, do you decide to drive, or does the act of driving take over? When you come to a fork in the road, do you decide to take the right fork as distinct from the left? Or do you find yourself having gone one direction rather than the other?

British psychologist Guy Claxton has a different view of self control. He has said that what we assume as self control is often a successful attempt at prediction. We say we did this or we meant to do that, and by this means we mask our inability at control. It is masked because we can infer from patterns of our behavior what we can expect to happen next. When things don't go our way, we don't question our lack of self control. Instead, we explain away the failure.

Claxton provides examples such as these: "I meant to keep my cool but I just couldn't. I'm supposed not to eat pork but I forgot. I'd decided on an early night but somehow here we are in Piccadilly Circus at four a.m. with silly hats and a bottle of wine. . . . If all else fails--and this is a truly audacious slight of hand--we can reinterpret our failure of control as an actual success! ' I changed my mind,' we say." *

Claxton maintains that consciousness is "a mechanism for constructing dubious stories whose purpose is to defend a superfluous and inaccurate sense of self." ** Claxton calls self control an illusion and he describes the effect on people of thinking about giving up the illusion. "The thing that doesn't happen, but of which people are quite reasonably scared, is that I get worse. A common elaboration of the belief that control is real . . . is that I can, and must control 'myself,' and that unless I do, base urges will spill out and I will run amok." He says this is an erroneous view. "So the dreaded mayhem does not happen. I do not take up wholsale rape and pillage and knocking down old ladies just for fun." *

Zen roshis attempt to get students to lose this sense of control. They know that it is rigorously defended, although unconsciously so. To nudge students over the edge and into discovery, roshis pose koans such as this one:

What was your face before your parents were born?

Today, consciousness research reveals various interpretations of the sense of self. This blog has addressed some of them. For other articles on the issue, see Free Will in the right hand sidebar. Among these are Daniel Dennett & Compatibilist Volition, 15 December 2003; some of my thoughts on the matter can be found at My Comments in the article The Illusion of Free Will, 28 December 2003. On the religious aspect, another article is located at Losing Control, 9 December 2003. Related issues are listed under Ethics & Morality in the sidebar. For partial insight into my perspective, see In Memory of Carlie Brucia, 7 February 2004.

* (Claxton, Guy, ed. Beyond Therapy: The Impact of Eastern Religions on Psychological Theory and Practice. London: Wisdom, 1996.)
** (-----------------------, Noises From The Darkroom. London: Aquarius, 1994.


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