Wednesday, March 08, 2006

(48) Our free will to be cautious when a dog crosses the road

At 2:p.m. on November 3rd 1989 I was taking a driving lesson.
My instructor, Chris Mason, remarked that if during a test a dog were to run out in front of me then the correct thing to do was not to make an emergency stop, for that might cause an accident, but rather to run it down.
He was most emphatic about it.

I replied that no way would I be prepared to do that: I would make the emergency stop, and so fail the test.

At about 1:30 a.m. on November 4th, there was an item on the James Whale Radio Show (a TV programme) about sick postcards.
Onesuch displayed was of a squashed dog carcass on a road. It had been run over repeatedly until it was virtually flat. This had been placed on a car windscreen and the resultant photo turned into a postcard.

At 4:20 a.m. on November 5th 1989 I was rereading a paper Arthur Koestler had delivered in 1968 called Beyond Atomism and Holism.
It is included in his book Beyond Reductionism.

He speaks of various levels of organisation in an organism -

On the next higher level are the networks of sensory-motor skills and habits, such as touch-typing or driving a car, which do not require the attention of the highest centres - unless some disturbance throws them out of gear. But let a little dog amble across the icy road in front of the driver, and he will have to make a "top level" decision whether to slam on the brake, risking the safety of his passengers, or run over the dog.
It is at this level, when the pros and cons are precariously balanced, that the subjective experience of free choice and moral responsibility arises. But the ordinary routines of existence do not require such moral decisions...

So long as all goes well and no dog crosses the road, the strategy of riding a bicycle or driving a car can be left to the automatic pilot in the nervous system - the cybernetic helmsman... While acquiring a skill we must concentrate on every detail of what we are doing; then learning begins to condense into habit as steam condenses into drops ; with increasing practice we read, write, type, drive "automatically" or "mechanically". Thus we are all the time transforming "mental" into "mechanical" activities.

In unexpected contingencies, however, the process can be reversed.

Driving along a familiar road is an automized routine; but when that little dog crosses the road, a strategic choice has to be made which is beyond the competence of organised routine, for which the automatic pilot in my nervous system has not been programmed, and the decision must be referred to higher quarters.
The shift of control of an on-going activity from one level to a higher level of the hierarchy - from ‘mechanical’ to ‘mindful’ behaviour - seems to be the essence of conscious decision-making and of the subjective experience of free will.

These considerations may have some bearing on the Mind-Body problem...

At 5:55 a.m. on November 8th 1989 I left the flat where I was living in Bedford’s Shakespeare Road and walked to a newsagents.
About one hundred yards away a car had stopped in the middle of the road with its lights flashing and in front of it three people were huddled over a small dog which lay motionless with its hindquarters draped in a blanket.
I was unsure if it were dead or just injured.

When I walked back fifteen minutes later the car, registration NR5 499P, was still there, the dog was gone and a young woman was sitting in a Police car dictating details to an officer.

British law demanded that the killing of a dog be reported.

At 3:30 that afternoon I had another lesson and recounted these events to Mr Mason.

He replied that the day before one of his fellow British School of Motoring instructors had run over a dog. This was the only such instance that he had heard of in the nine months that he had been working for the company.

See also Entry 32.

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