Wednesday, May 8, 2013


92. Free will and literature

As discussed in item 5 of this blog, on free will, we have no free will in the sense that much of our conduct is triggered and executed by unconscious impulses and processes. That could hardly not be the case. Just think of having to consciously activate and coordinate muscles, breathing, the beating heart, and pumping adrenalin into your bloodstream when danger looms.

We employ routines for automatic, unreflected action, as when we drive a car. Such action is needed to make room for conscious thought on other matters. Next, emotions are needed to draw attention to urgent conditions and to catapult us out of our routines. A car careening towards you shocks you into action, but that also is routinized, in hitting the brakes. Conscious deliberation would be too slow.

However, we do have influence on our conduct by conscious influence on unconscious impulse. Mentally we simulate the course and the possible repercussions of possible conduct, and thereby we can anticipate regret and punishment for bad conduct. That releases fear that impacts on unconscious motives for conduct. In mental simulation we tap from own experience and experience of others, discussions, books, films, etc.

For social legitimization of our conduct we give explanations of it, even though that is often rationalization after the fact. We don’t know our real motives well because they are largely unconscious, and when we do know them we may not want to disclose or even face them. Instead of a true account we fall back on a store of socially acceptable rationalizations.

For all this we need language. Language is full of unconscious concepts, associations, and metaphors, but in the formation of sentences and of causal or logical connections, as in the simulations and explanations of actions, language use is conscious. The serial coherence of concepts in sentences also serves to integrate distinct parts and functions of the brain, and contributes to the coherent mobilization of unconscious feelings and emotions that are relevant for the situation at hand.

Next to aesthetic value, then, literature, film, theatre, opera and ballet have an ethical, social-cultural function of exercising mental simulation and explanation of the conduct of others to the self, and of oneself to others. They increase the scope of mental and emotional sources by tapping into the experience of others in other contexts.

Literature etc. offer an exercise in empathy, putting oneself into the shoes of others, and in horizontal transcendence, transcendence not in God but in the other human being. They help to explore and practise socially desirable explanations of conduct, but also to see through their shallowness and hypocrisy, and to escape from prejudice and stereotypes.

In the earlier discussion of universals, in items 16 and 17, and meaning, in 36 and 37, I indicated that universals are provisional. In their application to specific contexts they must be expanded with contextual richness, and there they can become unstuck and dissolve, in the formation of a new universal, along the hermeneutic circle (36). That, I propose, is what literature does.