The Ghost in the System: Where Free Will Lurks in Human Minds

In a system governed by  attractor dynamics, active processes are engaged in service of maintaining a stable and coherent higher-order state. A new and incongruent element may temporarily disrupt the state, but over time the system will return to itsattractor, even if this means rejecting the incongruent element or changing its importance or meaning. The stabilizing tendency of Attractors is readily apparent in cognition, affect, and action. In a cognitive system, inconsistent information that challenges a coherent attitude or value is reinterpreted to reduce the inconsistency or, failing that, is discounted as unimportant or suppressed in subsequent thought. In an affective system, a person’s overall mood is typically stable over long periods of time. Momentary events, even life-altering ones such as winning the lottery or losing a loved one, will perturb a person’s mood only for awhile. Over time, the person’s mood will return to its previously organized ( attractor) state (e.g., Gilbert, Wilson, Pinel, Blumberg, & Wheatley, 1998).

Action systems, too, can be understood in terms of  attractor dynamics. People act in accordance with goals, values, and personality traits that promote consistency across time and circumstance. These constructs, however, are not confined to rigid unchanging behavior. Rather, a goal or a trait is a relatively high-level identity for behavior that can be instantiated through a variety of lower-level acts (cf. Shoda, LeeTiernan, & Mischel, 2002; Vallacher & Wegner, 1987). In dynamical terms, the goal or trait functions as an  attractor that stabilizes behavior at a superordinate level while promoting a flow of behavior on a moment-to-moment basis at a subordinate level. A dynamical system may have more than one  attractor, each providing a unique organization of the system’s elements. In such a "multi-stable" system, the system’s behavior may display a sudden and qualitative (nonlinear) change in response to a seemingly trivial factor. In a mental system, for example, a person’s attitude regarding a personally important topic (e.g., relationship partner) may resist the influence of contradictory information (e.g., rumors of infidelity) until a threshold or "tipping point" is reached, at which point the system displays a dramatic change from one coherent state (e.g., liking, trust) to another (e.g., dislike, suspicion).

Dynamics and the Reality of Personal Freedom

If thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are constrained by attractors, why do people insist that they have free will? Why, in other words, do people believe they are free when their decisions and actions are essentially lower-level means of maintaining and expressing a higher-order coherent state? The general answer is that an  attractor is rarely the object of attention but rather provides the boundary conditions within which people experience specific thoughts, feelings, and behavior that succeed each other in time. An  attractor for thinking, for example, is not characterized by a single and static thought, but rather by a range of thoughts that converge on a common meaning or theme. Indeed, the higher-order state itself might not be expressed at all, operating instead as an implicit guide to mental process, its presence apparent only in the person’s pattern of thought, feeling, and action. On a moment-to-moment basis, where people spend most of their time mentally, the mind is dynamic, generating thoughts and emotions that seemingly arise out of nowhere in an almost whimsical fashion. The person thus feels in charge of his or her conscious thoughts, even though the succession of thoughts is directed by the underlying  self-organization of mind and its attractors.


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