Free will and the subconscious

Summary:  Those who deny free will often reference the subconscious as a counter-argument to free will.  How can man have free will if the subconscious continuously feeds him ideas he didn’t choose and over which he has no control?  Previous posts have identified the need to edit and select from what the subconscious delivers.  But how does that process work?

A subject that frequently arises in discussions of free will is the subconscious.   The free-will deniers harp on the subconscious repeatedly.  For example, Harris states in his attack on free will:  “The intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in consciousness—rather, it appears in consciousness, as does any thought or impulse that might oppose it.”  In effect, the anti-free-will argument rests on the idea that there is a part of the mind not in one’s awareness that feeds one data, ideas, and feelings that ultimately control one’s actions.  If that is the case, they argue, how can man have free will?

The answer emphasized in previous posts is the process of selection, discarding, editing of what the subconscious feeds.  Whether one is building the Panama Canal, sending rockets to a celestial body or planting flowers in one’s backyard, the process of selection is critical to achieving productive results.

But what exactly does that process of selection consist of?  What guidance can be provided to someone who wants to gain or regain control of one’s consciousness?  What specific steps are involved, and how are they connected?


To edit, one needs a criterion of selection.  Only a purpose can provide it.  In any context or project, the purpose provides the standard by which one judges any idea that comes into the mind.  Without it, one cannot edit or select.  Consider the example of writing a novel or story, where the theme represents the purpose in this context.  In the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, the theme is:  the methods of a brilliant detective.  Based on this theme, the author includes concretes that support and further the theme, such as how Holmes observes physical detail.  When editing a rough draft, the author uses the theme to select, from the material originally written, only those concretes that achieve the purpose.

It cannot be overemphasized that one needs a hierarchy of purposes.  One cannot simply have a grand, distant purpose and expect anything useful to come from it as a guide for what to do today.  Especially in constructing a product as complex as a novel, the purpose is broken down into sub-purposes, such as: write the description of a gentleman’s attire in 19th century London.  Those who study the issue of goal-setting, in the fields of psychology and business management, emphasize the need for one’s goals or purposes to be specific and proximal. That is, on any given day of engaging in one’s larger purpose, one must translate that purpose into goals that are specific enough to grasp and achieve on that day.  Further, one must set those goals at a time close to that particular day.  Only in this way can those goals be retained and used as a guide.  Nesting today’s and tomorrow’s purposes hierarchically into the larger purpose results ultimately in achieving that larger purpose.


Reality is the ultimate standard of selection.  Even in a work of fiction or a fantasy story, what is real and possible (in the context of the project) should always guide one in establishing a) whether the purpose itself is achievable, and b) whether the project as it unfolds actually embodies one’s purpose.  Evasion, wishful thinking, and emotionalism are as destructive to editing as they are to treating patients in an emergency room.


This is the central method of editing.  Integration is connection of one’s ideas to each other and to reality.  One cannot edit without performing the process of connecting each idea to the purpose.  If an idea “comes to you in the night,” it may be worthwhile or it may be useless.  It may advance the project or diminish it.  It won’t even be possible to know which it does without making this connection.

Integration has a further critical role:  all new ideas, all innovations, are based on connections.  Creativity is not a mystical process but rather a process of making new connections among what seemed like disconnected elements.  Whether it is Newton connecting the fall of the earth in its orbit to the fall of an apple, Pasteur connecting microbial activity in fermentation to microbial activity in disease, or an English teacher connecting a new word to its Greek and Latin roots for his students, the expansion of knowledge rests on such integrations.

The two kinds of integration just described – connection to goals and connection to knowledge – have a fundamental unity: both are a method of widening the context of the current contents of consciousness – to knowledge and to values.  Both involve asking the question: what else do I know that conditions or relates to this situation?  It is precisely the failure to broaden that context to the fullest extent that leads to the puzzling phenomenon of a person acting or saying something that clearly is within his power to avoid.

Socrates said in Protagoras that man could not act against his knowledge, and so Socrates thought that committing evil must be a failure of knowledge.  Socrates was wrong on two counts:  If a person simply lacked knowledge that he had no way of obtaining, then he cannot be said to be committing evil, as he had no choice in the matter and a moral evaluation therefore is not relevant.  On the other hand, we see examples all the time of evil acts (cheating on exams, lying about one’s credentials, colluding with enemy foreign governments, committing sexual harassment).  Those acts are committed by people who have enough knowledge and intelligence to understand their destructive consequences.  What explains it?  What explains the kinds of acts criminals commit, as described previously?  The answer, to connect back to the theme of integration, is disintegration, failure or refusal to enlarge the context beyond this narrow frame of consciousness, failure or refusal to look beyond the momentary out-of-context emotion fed to consciousness, to include the knowledge and values one does possess.  The subconscious mind is permitted to set the terms of thought and action, with no editing.

Integration has so many benefits, across the entire spectrum of conscious activities – including improving memory, maintaining one’s goals and values, improving creativity – that it is worth significant effort to make it a habit.  Forming habits is part of a larger discussion of the full scope of free will’s control.  Free will as presented so far is merely defensive, in its role of editing subconsciously offered material.  Free will in fact has a much larger role:  A person has control (within definable limits) even over what the subconscious provides.


By definition the subconscious is sub-conscious, so one cannot have direct control over it.  On that point, the free-will deniers are correct.  The subconscious delivers to the mind, out of the vast storehouse of data perceived and assimilated in the past, the result of connections not in one’s immediate power to alter.  Thus the subconscious itself is an integration engine, albeit an automatic one.  Nonetheless, one does have control over 1) what goes into the storehouse, and 2) how much attention to pay to particular items that come out of it.  What goes into the storehouse is determined by one’s choice of what to read, what thinking and research to do, what experiences to deliberately pursue.  What to pay attention to is determined by one’s deliberate choice of what is relevant in a particular context.

The process of choosing to notice some aspect of reality is accomplished by giving oneself standing orders, and reinforcing those standing orders repeatedly until they themselves become automatic.  A simple example is: reminding oneself to count calories if one is pursuing a healthy eating style.  During the first several days, or weeks, of beginning this activity a person may find himself being haphazard about counting.  With monitoring and constant reminders, the process becomes automatized.  Automatized does not mean fully automatic, as anyone who has gone on a diet knows full well.  What it does mean is that one finds it easier and more probable that he will notice what he has set his mind to.  The only guarantee of continuing to succeed in making the action as automatic as it can be is to intentionally monitor and remind oneself of the goal.

Self-monitoring has been implicit all along in the process of editing, in that without it one isn’t even aware of the ideas one needs to connect to reality and to one’s purpose.  Self-monitoring, then, is an aspect of integration.  A previous post on intelligence as a learned skill  referred to monitoring and the critical role it plays in building intelligence.  It is also critical in study methods and motivation, in psychological reform, and as has been seen, in forming good habits and by implication breaking poor ones.

With respect to accomplishing a purpose like writing a story, the standing order might be:  notice everything one encounters (ideas one has, information one reads) regarding, say, how detectives evaluate clues to a crime.  The principle and the methods are the same, on a more exalted scale, when one is trying to automatize not information delivery but a method like the skill of integration.  One gives oneself a standing order to ask the integration question:  what is the larger context of values and knowledge that connects to my current line of thought or action?  What other things do I know that relate to this?  It’s the same preprogramming one uses in forming any other habit.

Even with preprogramming – standing orders guided by monitoring – there will still be much delivered by the subconscious that is irrelevant, fanciful, exaggerated or in other ways useless to the purpose at hand.   That is why integration, guided by reality and one’s purpose, is indispensable if one is to achieve anything worthwhile.

Those who use the methods discussed here do not find their subconscious minds to be the enemy of choice.  They do not feel the way Sam Harris did when he stated “[M]y mental life is simply given to me by the cosmos.”  They do not deny the automatic character of the subconscious – that is an obvious psychological fact – but they are not ruled by it either.  Rather, they can program the subconscious, habituating new methods of thinking, and regulating within limits what it provides to the conscious mind.  Subconscious material thus obtained becomes the indispensable feed-stock from which integrations are made, and from which the selection process sifts, high-grades, refines and molds raw data to achieve the purposes men strive for.

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