Man possesses certain virtues of which nature is deprived. He exercises volition; nature is without will.
(Promise of Universal Peace: page 80)
The Reductionist Position
It is good to see so many books, rooted in good scientific evidence, at last admitting to the reality of will as a human attribute. When I was first studying psychology more than 30 years ago, the whole idea of will power was discredited in academic circles. By the time Dennett was writing his influential tract about consciousness in the early 90s he spoke for many when he dismissed the idea of conscious choice as a genuine initiator of action. He wrote (page 163):
[Libet] found evidence that . . . “conscious decisions” lagged between 350 and 400 msec behind the onset of “readiness potentials” he was able to record from scalp electrodes, which, he claims, tap the neural events that determine the voluntary actions performed. He concludes that “cerebral initiation of a spontaneous voluntary act begins unconsciously.”
. . . It seems to rule out a real (as opposed to an illusory) “executive role for “the conscious self.”
In other words, we might believe we are deliberately and consciously deciding what to do, but we are not. Brain processes beneath consciousness are performing that trick automatically.
A recent book on what the authors call “biocentrism,” seeks to prove that consciousness, as far as we are concerned, is all there is:
Without consciousness, “matter” dwells in an undetermined state of probability. Any universe that could have preceded consciousness only existed in a probability state.
They base their case in physics and I found the validity of their arguments in that area impossible to assess. However, when they trundled out their variation of the Dennet case they lost their credibility with me (page 38):
Ten seconds is nearly an eternity when it comes to cognitive decisions, and yet a person’s eventual decision could be seen on brain scans that long before the subject was even remotely aware of having made any decision.
I stopped reading Biocentrism not long after this passage.
In earlier posts I had mobilised my arguments against this glib reductionism, focusing mainly on the fact that the evidence is based on button-pressing reaction-time experiments for the most part (see the links to the two posts on The Self and The Soul below).
Then I began to find other books that marshalled strong evidence for the opposite case (see link below to the work of Schwartz for example).
And now a fascinating book has appeared, written by Baumeister and Tierney, that contains further compelling evidence for the reality of the will and argues against the reductionist point at issue here (Kindle references 262 and 267):
Much of self-control operates unconsciously. At a business lunch, you don’t have to consciously restrain yourself from eating meat off your boss’s plate. Your unconscious brain continuously helps you avoid social disaster, and it operates in so many subtly powerful ways that some psychologists have come to view it as the real boss.
. . . . There is no consciousness in that process. Nobody is aware of nerve cells firing. But the will is to be found in connecting units across time. Will involves treating the current situation as part of a general pattern.
The essential function of the skilful will, which we need to cultivate, is the ability to develop that strategy which is most effective and which entails the greatest economy of effort, rather than the strategy that is most direct and obvious. . . . . .The most effective and satisfactory role of the will is not as a source of direct power or force, but as that function which, being at our command, can stimulate, regulate, and direct all the other functions and forces of our being so that they may lead us to our predetermined goal.
Willpower – the Basics
So, what do Baumeister and Tierney have to say about will that might resonate strongly with my own feelings and thoughts on the matter?
First, though, I need to repeat a summary of their basic idea. In the last post I made a summary of my own. I now have the benefit of the one they wrote in this month’s edition of The Psychologist:
. . . . self-control is like a muscle that gets tired. People may start the day fresh and rested, but as they exert self-control over the course of the day, their powers may diminish. Many researchers have observed that self-control tends to break down late in the day, especially if it has been a demanding or stressful day. . . .
A series of experiments confirmed that willpower is tied to glucose (Gailliot et al., 2007). After people exert self-control, even on artificial lab tasks, their blood glucose levels drop. Low levels of blood glucose predict poor performance on tests of self- control.
Their book makes an extremely important additional point quite clearly (545):
The experiments consistently demonstrated two lessons: You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it. You use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks.
They emphasise the importance of both standards and self-awareness in maximising the adaptive effects of will power (1715):
Changing personal behavior to meet standards requires willpower, but willpower without self-awareness is as useless as a cannon commanded by a blind man.
Why Willpower Matters
Relatively late in their book, Baumeister and Tierney turn their attention to religion and make some interesting observations. Before we deal with them in more detail, there is a preparatory point to consider. Before research into will power got off the ground there was a keen desire to find a quality related to success in life that could be significantly and easily improved.
In the end, almost against their will it seems, they stumbled upon self-control (1995):
The initial results caused great excitement among psychologists, because self-control was one of only two traits known to produce a wide spectrum of benefits, and the other trait, intelligence, had turned out to be quite difficult to improve.
With willpower, on the other hand, improvement was relatively easy (2056):
As long as you were motivated to do some kind of exercise, your overall willpower could improve, at least over the course of the experiment.
It also makes you less narcissistic and therefore presumably less likely to kill people (2444):
. . . self-control is not selfish. Willpower enables us to get along with others and override impulses that are based on personal short-term interests.
Now we come to what they write about religion and the interesting observations they make. Dealing with them in more detail will need to wait, though, till next week’s post.
- Maximum Willpower: How to master the new science of self-control, by Kelly McGonigal; Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength, by Roy F Baumeister and John Tierney – review
- The Self & the Soul
- Mind over Matter (a post on the work of Schwartz)