The Argument From “I’ll Hold My Breath Until I Turn Blue”

I’ve been talking a lot about free will over the past little while, but for reasons that you’ll see in the next post, I wanted to get this little rumination in today. The key reason that people are so determined to preserve free will is the idea that our conscious deliberations matter, and that what we decide consciously really does impact our behaviour. The challenge from hard determinists has always been that that is itself determined by environment and brain state, which always implies that it doesn’t really have an impact, except possibly as a feedback loop where the experience causes a reaction just as any stimulus would. This is why Libet’s experiments are always cited as evidence that free will doesn’t really exist; they purport to demonstrate that our conscious deliberation can’t impact the decision because the decision is made unconsciously before we consciously make it. On the other hand, our instincts and hard-wired desires are also often cited as reasons to think that we don’t have any meaningful kind of free will, because they are actions — often very complex and direct actions — that we take automatically in response to a stimulus, and they can indeed be conditioned to be automatic and unconscious reactions. So, again, conscious deliberation doesn’t seem to be necessary.

But you get an interesting result when you combine some of our strongest instinctive and automatic responses and conscious deliberation. Take, for example, breathing. We all do this automatically, pretty much from birth. We don’t generally have to think about it. We can, however, consciously override this instinctive behaviour, and hold our breath. But we can’t do it until we die. However, we can hold it until we lose consciousness. Thus, as long as we are conscious, we are capable of overriding this very basic instinctive behaviour, and doing so completely. All our body can do is make it very uncomfortable to do so, but it can’t actually force us to breath … as long as we are conscious. As soon as we lose consciousness, then this behaviour kicks in again and we breath. But as long as we are conscious, we can override this basic and vitally important bodily function.

This suggests that our conscious deliberations and actions can influence our behaviour, as we can consciously override this instinctive behaviour as long as and only as long as we are conscious. In addition, this suggests that our conscious deliberation can override pretty much any instinctive behaviour that isn’t just completely automatic — like the heart beating — because this one is just so fundamental and yet we can override it as long as we can maintain conscious control. Both of these things suggest that conscious deliberation matters and isn’t just an instinctive and automatic response with good special effects. And this seems to strike hard at the hard determinist position … or, at least, a hard determinist position that attempts to strike at conscious deliberation and deny that it is the determining factor in much of our behaviour.

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