Habits and Rediscovering the Old

I felt an opposing tug this morning — I wanted to post something on the site just to move yesterday’s post down on the page. There’s nothing wrong with it, I just felt it retouched some old ground and I wanted to venture somewhere new.

At the same time, I didn’t really feel like delving into any of my recent subject matter. I just happened to check my Analytics to see if anyone had read the blog today, and I saw that someone read one of my old Montaigne Project posts. At first I thought about re-reading that Montaigne essay again and offering a new take, but then I saw that I made a pretty good run at it the first time … why not re-publish it right here?

So here it is, a Montaigne essay, and my take, on the subject of choices and habits.

If Albert Camus is correct and our lives are nothing but the sum of all our choices, what if the thing we call reason is nothing but an after-the-fact rationalization? What if our choices are made before we’re consciously aware of them?

For example, this 2008 study by the Max Planck Institute found that brain scanners could predict decisions seven seconds before they were executed. Study co-author John-Dylan Hayes, a Max Planck Institute neuroscientist, said “by the time consciousness kicks in, most of the work has already been done.”

This and other similar studies do not obliterate the concept of free will. If your unconscious self makes a decision, it’s still you making the decision, even if the conscious mind has to guess why that decision was made. Instead of reason facing off with determinism in the battle of free will, something more akin to emotional habit may be the factor that maintains human freedom.

Montaigne assayed this question from another point of view – imagine a situation where, in purely rational terms, the choices in front of you had exactly equal merit:

It is a pleasant thought to imagine a mind exactly poised between two parallel desires, for it would indubitably never reach a decision, since making a choice implies that there is an inequality of value; if anyone were to place us between a bottle and a ham when we had an equal appetite for drink and for food there would certainly be no remedy but to die of thirst and of hunger!

Montaigne’s solution to this conundrum is to posit that there’s no such thing as an absolute tie. Human beings always find some reason to prefer once choice over another:

This motion in our souls is extraordinary and not subject to rules, coming into us from some outside impulse, incidental and fortuitous …. It seems to me that we could say that nothing ever presents itself to us in which there is not some difference, however slight: either to sight or to touch there is always an additional something which attracts us even though we may not perceive it.

So Montaigne basically anticipated where neuroscience has come down today – long before psychology identified the unconscious as a powerful driver of human behavior. I find the translator’s phrase “an additional something” a particularly poetic expression of the unknowable elements of ourselves.

His closing thought comes from Pliny:

There is nothing certain except that nothing is certain, and nothing more wretched than Man nor more arrogant.

But what does all of this add up to? We cannot completely dismiss human rationality and the will – clearly there are certain acts in life that would not be possible without significant planning and change to our day to day routine. To take a couple examples from my own life, the decision to run a marathon 7 years ago (ed. note, in 2004) may have been an impulse, but building the habits necessary to make that activity possible took some research and a great deal of willpower.

Writing this project is another example – perhaps the spark of inspiration is something unconscious, but I’ve had other creative sparks in my life that did not lead to creative output. I had to a make a rational decision that this project was feasible and, again, had to develop the day to day habits that would make it possible for me to carry it out.

My take on the Camus aphorism is this – we aren’t so much the sum of our choices as we are the sum of the habits we create and nurture. We cannot choose moment to moment how to react to the world as it confronts us, we need our unconscious mind to take over, lest we be overrun with tiny choices. But we do get to choose our habits and put them into the flow of life.

But perhaps Confucius said it best:

Men’s natures are alike; it is their habits that separate them.

Or better, from Edward Thomas’ poem Liberty:

There’s nothing less free than who

Does nothing and has nothing else to do,

Being free only for what is not to his mind,

And nothing is to his mind.

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