Saturday, 8 February 2014

The Reflex Arc and Free Will

 In his paper “The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology”, Dewey states that the historical reality of the Reflex Arc as stimulus/sensation followed by cognitive idea followed by motor response is a defective, disjointed psychology. In discussion of Baldwin’s analysis of reactive consciousness Dewey summarises that “the conscious sensation of sound depends upon the motor response having already taken place; or in terms of the previous statement (if stimulus is used as a conscious fact, and not as a mere physical event) It is the motor response or attention which constitutes that, which finally becomes the stimulus to another act.

There is much to reflect on in this but of particular interest are the expressions of conscious sensation and conscious fact. Dewey is at the disadvantage of not having access to modern neurological techniques which have painted a far clearer picture of that which is conscious and more importantly that which is not conscious.

When Dewey talks of conscious sensation does he refer to the moment when we are capable of expressing that realisation of the sensation has actually occurred? If so conscious sensation may play a downstream role in the reflex arc process with unconscious sensation playing the more important part.

In the scientific exploration of free will, it has been demonstrated that many of those decisions we believe we make consciously have already been made for us unconsciously. Extremists might argue that we make no conscious decisions, only unconscious ones and that we use consciousness as a rather colourful cover story. Others might take this as reason for a more theological view on consciousness.

Libet’s experiment is a well cited and well critiqued example of our unconscious exerting control in a scenario where conscious thought seems to be prevalent. 

In focusing on conscious sensation and its temporal role in the reflex arc, there may be an argument that Dewey could have considered the role of unconscious sensation. It doesn't necessarily make the concept any less disjointed, but could give more the tradition temporal process of the reflex arc more weight.

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