Confabulation and determinism

The reason I chose that one is …

Based on Lars Hall & Petter Johansson

New Scientist: 18 April 2009

This is really another in a long line of studies aimed at using the human propensity for confabulation to create an argument against the existence in freewill. This is not as clearly spelt out as usual in this article, but the refrain here about ‘driving a wedge between intentionality and actions’ is moving in the same direction. It does not require academic studies to tell us that confabulation is an annoying human trait. In ordinary life, we will come across plenty of stories and reasons being fabricated to justify strange or inappropriate actions or seemingly hard to justify positions. Some might think that a good part of consciousness studies was a confabulation designed to shoe horn consciousess into the pre-1900 Newtonian universe.

Hall & Johansson’s work goes beyond the well known studies of change blindness to the idea of choice blindness. In these studies, subjects are asked to choose their preferences of pictures of faces or of supermarket products. A high percentage of subjects do not notice when what they originally chose is switched for something they had not chosen, and they may also provide reasons for choosing what they did not in fact choose.

The problem with all these types of studies is that it appears to look through the wrong end of the telescope. The interesting thing from the point of view of freewill and the operation of the brain in general is how the original choice was made, before the whole process of switching and confabulation started up. The switching of faces or products of the kind described in these psychological studies would rather seldom arise in the hunter-gatherer conditions that we evolved to cope with, whereas the important thing would be to get the initial choice right. On this basis, it does not seem justified to say that these studies have driven any significant wedge between actions and intentionality. At most, it may be telling us that we evolved to economise in terms of the amount of energy devoted to paying attention to the rather unlikley possibility that our mundane choice of forest plant, or in latter days supermarket product, will have been switched.


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