I think that one reason why it is often thought that we do not have a free will is that it has come out that most of the processes in our brain are unconscious. And then the conclusion is easily drawn that what happens unconsciously happens without our will. As I have explained in other blogs, this conclusion does not follow. One simply needs more evidence for it. (see for instance my blog dated September 13, 2010) This does not mean, of course, that all things we do occur with our will. What I do maintain, however, is that fundamentally we have a free will and that within the limits of our body and the situation we have choices. We can plan actions long before they take place, and even at the last moment we can often choose what to do, too. But in fact, most of these free chosen actions are worked out unconsciously. How else could it be in view of the limited capacity for conscious processes in our mind?
Then it is an interesting question how the unconscious part within us works. In their article “The Unbearable Automaticity of Being” the psychologists John A. Bargh and Tanya L. Chartrand shed some light on it. In this blog I can only touch their analysis, but in short they see three processes at work that determine our unconscious reactions or forms of automatic self-regulation, as they call them. The first one is an “automatic effect of perception on action”: We see other people doing things and when it fits the ideas that were stored before in our head – if nor our prejudices –, we are going to act in the same way. Although Bargh and Chartrand do not mention it, it makes me think of what the recently discovered mirrors neurons make us do (see my blogs of June 27, 2011 and later). In other words: we act automatically in a certain way because we see others doing it that way.
The second automatism is “automatic goal pursuit”: For one reason or another we have developed certain goals in our mind and they are automatically activated when we happen to meet the right circumstances where we can pursuit them. However, in order to acquire these automatisms we often need first a conscious learning process that gives us the right behaviour. Once we have internalized the learned behaviour it becomes automatic, like driving a car, for instance. We can call these automatisms skill, experience, practice or routine. They can also be acquired by unconscious processes that are different from explicit learning. Once in a situation where we need to apply our skill we behave automatically in the right way.
Bargh and Chartrand describe the third automatism as “continual automatic evaluation of one’s experience”. Evaluating whether an object or event is good or bad is often seen as a conscious process, but in many cases it does not happen so freely, as the authors point out. Our evaluations are often (if not usually) activated directly without needing to think about it and even without being aware that we classified a person or event as good or bad. They just happen. When they happen they can influence our mood and even our emotions or they can influence our behaviour like avoiding places that arouse unpleasant feelings.
Actually, all these processes are not so different from what we freely and consciously do, for we can see them as stored free will, or at least a big part of our reactions can be seen that way, namely to the extent that they are the result of learning and of handling the experiences of life.