Intellectual Fascism: The Orwellian Implications of Deterministic Rhetoric
Historical Perspectives on Cognition, University of Texas at Dallas
Daniel M. Wegner’s new book, The Illusion of Conscious Will is a disturbing journey into deterministic rhetoric. Its implications not only limit the potential of the human mind, they restrict its authority as well. Although the book itself is laughably discreditable, the intentions behind its writing justify closer examination. In order to understand the psychological determinism and empiricist rhetoric in this book, one must examine the work of others.
By the time they reach high school, almost every student has read George Orwell’s classic, 1984. Contained within its pages is a ruthless analysis of totalitarian methodology. Private property is abolished. Resources are controlled by a selected few. History is revised in accordance with the political ends of the current regime. Proletarian masses are bred for the specific purpose of creating an army of complacence. Dissent is punished by death, leaving would-be revolutionaries paralyzed with fear. Even sex is strictly regulated. (Orwell, 1949) Anyone who has read this excellent work can easily grasp the the basic methods of physical totalitarian control, but what is less obvious are the methods of mental control.
One of the best examples of mind control in 1984 is the invention and enforcement of a new language, which Orwell called “Newspeak”. In Newspeak, descriptive adjectives are replaced in favor of universal modifiers. Therefore, “bad” becomes “ungood”, and “great” becomes “plusgood”, or “doubleplusgood”, and so on and so forth. The purpose for this, according to Syme, the book’s expert on Newspeak, is to “narrow the range of thought.” By replacing several adjectives with one word, which can be modified in several ways, in order to take on several different meanings, the language becomes drab and colorless. The available vocabulary is useful only for operational communication. Creative expression is eliminated. (Orwell, 1949)
But adjectives aren’t the only thing that are eliminated from the Newspeak dictionary. Entire concepts which are counterproductive to the interests of the totalitarian regime are deleted. At one point in the book, Syme informs Winston, the protagonist, that the elimination of key words in the language will eventually lead to the deletion of their related concepts in the human mind. Thoughtcrime, Orwell’s word for political dissent, would be impossible, if people lacked the words to express heretical feelings. Therefore, if the word “revolution” is eliminated from the language, people will never think of taking up arms against their government. If the word “freedom” is eliminated, then people will no longer question control. (Orwell, 1949)
Since Orwell wrote his book in 1948, just about every prediction within its pages has come true. Cameras line the streets, watching our every move. Richard Nixon, an outspoken enemy of Communism, hammered the final nail into the coffin of the Gold Standard in 1973. Osama bin Laden has become America’s Emmanuel Goldstein. History has been revised to make Oliver North and John Poindexter heroes, and Lee Harvey Oswald Kennedy’s assailant. Protesters gather en masse, not against, but in support of war. Corporate CEOs steal millions from stockholders and employees, and they get away with it. Television and radio are controlled by huge corporate conglomerates, which only broadcast opinions that serve their interests. And academic aristocrats like Daniel M. Wegner publish books like The Illusion of Conscious Will.
This book is little more than fascist drivel. Wegner’s experimental methodology is very questionable. His logic is circular. His delusions are self-contained and freestanding, requiring no outside proof. These unfortunate realities are the consequence of the fact that Wegner has unsuccessfully employed a very rigidly empirical methodology in the examination of rather shabby scientific evidence. Much of Wegner’s “data” comes from dubious occult sources.
Wegner reasons that phenomena such as séance, automatic writing, hypnosis, sleepwalking, and even Ouija Boards are all forms of empirical proof that free will does not exist. He says that when people perform these actions, they are not acting according to any conscious will. Wegner reasons that, since willed action can be separated from awareness and intention, the phenomena of conscious will could best be described as a “necessary utilitarian illusion”. It is a classic case of backwards logic; using an effect to prove a cause.
In addition to his fallacious logic, Wegner often fails to acknowledge important aspects of consciousness that contradict his “scientific” opinions. Artistic expression, for example, would seem to be a very good place to find an understanding of conscious will, but it is scarcely mentioned in this work. Although one could make the argument that most artistic expression follows a certain set of rules that seem to be socially determined, there are striking examples to the contrary. Abstract, surrealistic, and avant-garde paintings often break the rules, yet are still considered valid forms of artistic expression. Music continually redefines itself at an ever-increasing rate. Contemporary authors create stories out of nothing, often making it a point not to mimic Shakespeare, the Bible, or Greek Mythology. Inconvenient data such as this is conveniently absent from Wegner’s work.
Since Wegner has only deemed deterministic principles worthy of consideration, he makes no mention of the concepts of psychological block or social influence. He has eliminated these possible causes of occult phenomena from the argument by not including them in this work. The concept of subconsciously willed action is twisted to Wegner’s deterministic ends. This book is a good example of why neuroscience majors should be required to take more psychology classes in order to complete their degrees.
The fact that Wegner uses occult phenomena, of all things, to disprove the existence of conscious will, is Orwellian in its irony. After all, the focus of many branches of western occultism is to celebrate and develop the will. He is probably quite aware of this, and he probably thinks he is very clever for having “debunked” the idea of free will using these methods. Meanwhile, Alester Crowley is probably rolling over in his grave.
The Illusion of Conscious Will can be considered groundbreaking in terms of fascist rhetoric, because it analyzes why free will, or the illusion of it, exists in the first place, and assigns it a utilitarian function. Wegner contends that the illusion of conscious will is created by the brain in reaction to the existence of other active beings, and stems from the need to distinguish one’s own actions from those of others’. He further asserts this illusion is important, only because it enables human beings to conduct complex cognitive operations, and better enables them to deal with adverse conditions. In essence, Wegner has eliminated the freedom associated with conscious will, but he has retained the responsibility that results from it. He has reduced sentience to an operational necessity, the sole purpose of which is to allow human beings to carry out some undefined greater purpose.
Wegner’s main contention is that the human brain not only creates behavior, but it creates the intention to behave as well. This may or may not be true, but its truth certainly can not disprove the existence of some empirically indefinable spark behind human thought, emotion, and behavior. Until scientists manage to build a sentient human being by combining the proper atoms in the proper structures, the non-existence of a force superior to the brain remains to be proven. Wegner’s intellectual leap of faith in this area is easily ridiculed. The fact that the human brain is indeed a mechanism does not intrinsically negate the possibility that this mechanism is controlled by conscious intent.
A good example of how bio- and neuro- chemical needs can be overridden lies in the study of drug addiction, and how it can be overcome. A cigarette smoker can consciously decide to quit, even though his brain thinks it needs nicotine. The fact that most smokers don’t quit can be taken as evidence of the social cognitive influence of intellectual fascists like Wegner. The same principle holds true for weight loss; a decision can be made that negates the physical need for food, often to the point of unhealthiness, as in the case of anorexia nervosa. What kind of machine destroys itself? A human one: sometimes, the failures of free will are the greatest proof of its existence. (Aronson, 1998)
Wegner’s contentions are counter-conducive to the utility of neuroscience. Neuroscience itself is not detrimental to the concept of free will; its concepts and applications can actually help human beings understand the workings of the brain as a tool that is at the disposal of its user. Neuro-linguistic programming and neurotransmitter-altering drugs are both examples of how individuals can improve themselves by using the unconscious physical processes in the brain to their advantage. Hypnotic suggestion and meditation are examples of how psychological principles and applications can do the same.
Wegner’s application of strictly empirical and deterministic logic is pretentious, and lends itself to discrediting. Wegner, like many hard core neuroscientists, seems to believe that human consciousness, including all thoughts and emotions, is merely the result of chemical reactions that take place in the brain. When asked what these neurochemicals are made of, a neuroscientist will say that they are made of varying arrangements of molecules, constructed from different kinds of atoms, which are in turn comprised of protons, electrons, and neutrons. If he is educated in physics, he may in turn say that these subatomic particles are made up of quarks and anti-quarks, gluons and nutrinos. But when asked what sub-sub-atomic particles are made of, the explanations seem to break down into absurd leaps of faith. Even more enigmatic is the motivating forces behind action, of which modern science has yet to develop a completely unified operational understanding. (Hawking, 2001)
Deterministic, as opposed to pragmatic neuroscience, seems to be built on a foundation of quicksand. Much like the Newtonian laws of gravitation, these seemingly accurate assessments may or may not bear the test of greater understanding, once it is achieved. There are countless undiscovered properties of our universe which could potentially eliminate the concept of determinism. Therefore, it seems quite pretentious to make these kind of assumptions, given the human race’s current lack of knowledge about what our universe is, and what makes it tick. (Hawking, 2001)
The search for a grand unified theory of the universe mirrors the search for neuroscientific determinism. As physicists concoct more and more bizarre ideas about the nature of reality, the most intelligent humans are more and more likely to discount them. On March 15th, 2003, there was a series of physics lectures held at Texas A&M. Among the distinguished lecturers present was the famous Stephen Hawking, one of the most well-known and accredited research physicists in the world, and arguably one of the most intelligent people on Earth. Hawking has always employed a very pragmatic and unbiased approach to understanding the universe. He does not rule out determinism, but he does not officially embrace free will. It was interesting to note that most of the lecturers at A&M focused on the newest attempts to concoct a grand unified theory: m-theory, p-branes, superstrings, and dark matter. Hawking’s lecture, by contrast, was entitled Godel and the End of Physics.
Kurt Godel was a famous mathematician that proved a groundbreaking incompleteness theorem. Simply put, Godel proved that there will always be certain kinds of problems that cannot be solved by systematic analysis, since within every system of axioms, questions always appear that can neither be proved nor disproved on the basis of the axioms that define the system. Along with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which abandoned the concept of universal time in favor of the concept of personal time, and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle, which states that the exact characteristics of a particle can never been known at any given place and time, Godel’s theorem made empiricism, and by extension determinism, very dubious propositions. (Hawking, 2001)
Despite these revelations, many scientists in the fields of physics, psychology, and neuroscience continue to push for a deterministic understanding of both the universe and human consciousness. Some of them are blind to the true powers of consciousness, but others realize that the power of consciousness can be used as a restrictive force against itself. Propaganda comes in many forms, at many levels. Religious and political propaganda, being based in affection and behavior, influence the weak-minded. Scientific propaganda and psuedo-science, being cognitively based, influence those of greater intelligence. (Aronson, 1998)
Books like The Illusion of Conscious Will are well thought-out, self-fulfilling prophecies. Authors like Wegner realize that if they publish books like this, and force all their students to read them, eventually the principles contained within will become accepted as reality. It is inconceivable that he would publish such flawed research in MIT’s name unless it were for the purpose of influencing those who are less intelligent than himself. Wegner’s work is nothing more than a deterministic propaganda pamphlet, designed to affect those with a high need for cognition. Just like Orwell’s Newspeak, physical and psychological determinism seek to make a lie into the truth, by convincing the conscious will that it is such.
Wegner, Daniel M. (2002). The Illusion of Conscious Will. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Orwell, George. (1949). 1984. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace and Company.
Hawking, Stephen. (2001). The Universe in a Nutshell. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
Aronson, E., Wilson, T.D., and Akert, R.M. (1998). Social Psychology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.