The common meaning of the idiom ‘wag the dog’ is to divert attention away from something important to something unimportant such that the former is forgotten in favor of the latter. I always found this puzzling because to me, the idiom evokes an image of a dog totally unaware that he’s being manipulated by his own tail. Taken literally, the dog doesn’t wag his tail, his tail wags him. Because of this I have a difficult time taking the meaning of this expression to be about distraction, when the imagery is so clearly about control.
Yesterday, as I was listening to Here&Now, the ass-backwards image of a dog being wagged by its own tail popped into my head as social/moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt described the conscious mind as largely controlled by the capricious whims of the animal mind from which it was born. From his book The Righteous Mind, Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion:
“…the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning—the stream of words and images that hogs the stage of our awareness. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes—the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior.”
If Haidt is right (and there’s good reason to think he is) who in his metaphor is in charge? The elephant, or the boy riding him?
Obviously, despite the unfounded certainty of Dr. Jerry Coyne’s proclamation, there has yet to be definitive proof of either free will’s existence or the lack thereof (for those of you interested, here is a decent executive summary of the salient points for and against). Coyne did say one thing in the afore referenced USA TODAY piece worth mentioning as it’s germane to our question:
True “free will,” then, would require us to somehow step outside of our brain’s structure and modify how it works. Science hasn’t shown any way we can do this because “we” are simply constructs of our brain. We can’t impose a nebulous “will” on the inputs to our brain that can affect its output of decisions and actions, any more than a programmed computer can somehow reach inside itself and change its program.
Coyne’s contention, when applied to Haidt’s metaphor, is that the boy can’t be in charge of the elephant because the boy is of the elephant. He is manifested by it and as such, the elephant is the unseen hand silently directing everything the boy does. That being the case, any action the boy takes to exert control over the elephant isn’t in opposition to the elephant’s wishes, but is the manifestation of them. The boy, despite how things seem to him, has no will to exert other than what is ultimately that of his steed’s.
An alternative to this view relies on the existence of something called downward causation, or, the manner in which the parts may be affected by the whole. If we accept the contention that it’s possible for things like human beings to be more than the mere sum of their parts, then it must be possible for the collection of parts that is a human being to be organized into a system from which emerges novel properties. These emergent properties, being rooted in but only indirectly related to their basal constituents, are to some degree autonomous from the parts from which they arise. In other words, the boy, being somewhat autonomous from the elephant despite being a manifestation of it, is not completely subject to the whims of his mount. Will is exerted both upon the boy from below, and on the elephant from above.
As I mentioned before, there is not, nor may there ever be a consensus as to what’s really going on (see my response to Coyne’s certainty here). Further, it may well be that we are incapable of accepting the idea that we lack freedom of choice, even if by some feat of philosophy or science, free will is shown to be mere fantasy. While the possibility of a lack of definitive answer may seem disconcerting, I take some comfort in our ability to ask the question. Even if directed at a mirror, the act of reflection is evidence of a desire for awareness beyond that which is currently possessed. As we humans seem to have a thing for asking and answering questions, it stands to reason that at some point, we will acquire enough answers such if we discover the tail really is wagging the dog and free will is an illusion, we can use that new found awareness to invent it. However, if that’s the case, then it’s more than a little ironic that our freedom of choice is the result of a process in which we could not help but participate.
Maybe the best we can hope for is a circumstance where if the tail wags the dog, the dog can wag right back.
photo by argonath1 via flickr