Free Will II: You Own Your Thoughts, Kinda

Pasadena, California
Thursday, March 30, 2017

Dear Lovely Readers,

I remain marginally obsessed by thoughts about free will. I keep mentally running through the pro and con arguments. I had one thought I now share. It seems to  support the idea of free will. Thus, it extends this earlier posting.


Just now, I remembered a quote from a psychoanalyst whose name I no longer remember.

She wrote something like this:

An ever increasing understanding of the neurophysiology of memory will occur; but there will never be a neurophysiology of a memory.

Here’s where I see an opening. Think of whatever you did last night. I had dinner with a friend and colleague, Helen. I remember the restaurant, Maestro, a new haute cuisine Mexican eatery on Union, in Pasadena. I recall the topics of our conversation, several of the dishes, and even a fellow who sat near us (memorable because it did not occur to me he could have been in a wheelchair until he left).

As I write these words, the images come to mind. Images of smells, sights, sounds, tastes. By the way, their mole sauce is particularly good. Their bartender makes excellent cocktails. I’ve been friends with Helen for nearly 30 years.  We shared tales of the people we knew in common way back when. I highly recommend Maestro. The tamales tasted like no other ones I’ve had in the past. I wish they could do something about the acoustics, because it does get a bit loud in there.

When I got home, I finished reading Koch’s book on consciousness. He refers to himself as a “romantic reductionist.” Based on his scientific explorations of consciousness, and those of his friend and colleague, Francis Crick, he seeks a reductionist view of consciousness. In other words, your conscious experience–right here, right now–can be reduced to a series of physical antecedents.

By inference, Koch and Crick think, a better understanding of the physics of a memory will occur–as predicted in the quote above. Perhaps, for example, a neuroscientist will develop an equation, or a formula, or a specific chemical reaction, accounting for my specific memory of last night.

But what about my memory? I propose that my ownership of my memories, and your ownership of yours, argues against pure determinism. In other words, even if all the antecedents leading to the dinner last night could be identified, from the random (luck) to the cultural, social, historical, and physiological ones, I still sit here, right this second, remembering what occured. How would the equation, formula, or reaction account for that phenomenon? I sit here remembering.

A quick aside, but remember this: Language always abbreviates. If I tried to recall every detail of my memory of the 90 minutes last night, I could fill, perhaps, 30 pages of text. But it would prove insufficient. As soon as I completed the document, other memories, greater details — colors, smells, other overheard conversations, clothing, hats, sounds, etc. would keep coming into my mind.

I hope you feel bolstered, as I do, by the insight about my personal memories.I alone own my memories. I’m pleased to remind you of your ownership of yours. In fact, because of the limitations of language, and other grander themes  like existential aloneness, no one but me can look inward and recall my memories. They are mine, and your memories are yours. It matters little whether equations, formulas, or reactions create memory.

As I often tell my patients, we all live in our private, quiet conscious experiences. Unless you are wildly hallucinating and shouting out on Colorado Boulevard, you walk along the street, as do the others you see, quietly immersed in your own thoughts and feelings. Others can observe your behaviors — how you walk, what you wear, the things you carry. But your internal world is secret. Of course it is influenced by many causative factors.

Some persons, like the two scholars I cite below, work arduously to prove how human consciousness, human will, even human memory is ultimately determined by physical causes. I’m delighted to see their passion for their interest; I have learned a great deal from them both.

Meanwhile,  you are reading this right now, and will hopefully remember it even if only briefly. Your reading and your remembering belong to you — not to any of the causative factors creating them.

I fear I am not a romantic reductionist, but just a pure romantic.


With affection,





Koch, C. (2012). Consciousness: confessions of a romantic reductionist.     Cambridge: MIT Press.

Harris, S. (2012). Free will. New York: Free Press.


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