In my dream (if it was a dream), I was roused by a soft, suave, gauzily sonorous voice, hauntingly reminiscent of Laurence Harvey’s. “Are you doing anything just now?” it said. I opened my eyes to see the face of my dog, Roland, bent close over my own. Even in the dim light before dawn I could see the intent, pensive expression in his deep brown eyes and in the alert quivering of his coal-black nose.
“Nothing in particular,” I murmured after a moment.
He stared at me a moment longer, sighed gently, and turned to retreat down the bed, settling on his haunches by my feet; with a languid yawn, he said, “I didn’t think so.”
Several moments passed in silence. “Is there anything on your mind?” I asked at last.
He lowered his head, heaved a louder, more lugubrious sigh, and said, “Freud.” Another pause ensued, during which this single curt, plaintive syllable hovered unelaborated between us.
Again I yielded. “Sigmund?” I asked.
An expression of tender exasperation briefly clenched his brows. “Well, I certainly don’t mean Lucian,” he said. “The reason I can’t sleep, and you probably can’t either, is that it’s so hard to grasp just what everyone once saw in him. I mean, I know the Freudian superstition has been largely discredited since those heady days—his results were falsified, his psychotherapeutic sorcery doesn’t work, and so on—but that doesn’t alter the extraordinary hold his model of human motives still has over people’s imaginations, or the bibulous excitement his ideas once inspired. Why? Is it because all that blather about the unconscious flatters human beings that they’re the deepest mysteries in creation? Or that the key to reality can be found bobbing along on their gastric or genital functions, or locked away in some little tin box concealed in one of their dreams?”
“Well, I . . .” I began.
But he had already become too animated to notice me. “I mean, just consider that whole silly psychic triad of id, ego, and superego: What makes it so profound to observe that we find ourselves drawn by opposing motives? The appetites of organism, the dictates of conscience—the glandular and the spiritual—well, so what? That’s as great a revelation as noting that you have both a snout and a tail with a body wedged in between.” He paused to gnaw briefly at his left flank and then turned back to me. “Would you like to scratch my stomach?”
“Not just now,” I said. “So this is keeping you awake, is it?”
“Naturally,” he replied with a slightly perplexed shake of his head. “It’s just that it’s such an obvious conceit, the whole tripartite psyche thing. You just notice that the self comprises contrary impulses and intentions, desires and drives, and voilà, there it is for you, ready-made. Oh, dear, I want to do this, yet I feel compelled to do that, and here I am in the middle, poor chap. A dreary dialectic, thesis and antithesis oscillating back and forth across a synthetic abyss spanning roughly the distance between epigastrium and cerebellum. The hierarchical picture is so obvious, such an immense banality . . . And it’s such a tawdry notion of persons’ deepest drives.”
“Yes, I see what you . . .”
“Now,” Roland continued, “if you want to talk about the tripartition of the soul, repair to Plato, I say. There you have something that really makes sense to me. The portrait is psychologically true: the perennial tension between the animal ecstasies of the flesh, which bind one to unthinking material necessity, and the rational freedom of the spirit, which is always striving to subdue the brute. Oh, what’s that lovely line from Yeats about the soul? ‘Fastened to a dying animal?’ Anyway, there’s something truly free there, something that isn’t the creature of an unhappy childhood or a frustrated hunger—it’s spirit, nous, Geist—something that can convert the countervailing tempests of physiological urges into the elations of reason set free. Well . . . this is something dogs understand very well.”
He fell silent and stared at me expectantly. The air about us had begun to grow more lustrous in the pearl-hued light. After several moments, though, he sighed yet again, as if despairing of my capacities, then turned and leapt down to the floor. A moment later, however, his face reappeared over the foot of the bed and, after three more seconds, he leapt back up and seated himself again. “It’s all about freedom, you see,” he said; “that’s what makes this picture of an interior psychomachy so delectable to late modern persons. It’s a passion for determinism—physiological, subconscious, socioeconomic—what have you. It’s all to do with the final triumph of the mechanistic philosophy in every sphere, even that of consciousness. How silly. As if machines could delight in bacon, or in the chasse sauvage when some impudent rabbit scampers past one’s nose, or in that romp that amuses you so—what’s it called? ‘Fetch?’ Yet nothing so excites the modern materialist as the possibility of proving that consciousness is reducible to physiology, that freedom is an illusion, that mind is a ghostly epiphenomenon of unconscious metabolisms. Every aspiring young materialist dreams of growing up to be a robot.”
“I expect you’re right,” I said.
“Think of those experiments where a subject is instructed to twitch a wrist or push a button whenever he feels moved to do so, and then to report when he consciously made the choice to do it. Then electrodes on the scalp or an MRI can show that a neural impulse precedes the conscious choice by anywhere from one to ten seconds, and the researcher can predict when the subject will perform the action about 70 percent of the time. So the scientist concludes that the real decision is just some autonomic electrical flicker in the brain, while the apparent conscious ‘decision’ is just a posterior accretion, a kind of proprioceptive hallucination. One scientist, that Haynes fellow, even said this renders the existence of free will an ‘implausible’ hypothesis.”
“Never heard of him.”
“But it gets sillier,” Roland continued, more emphatically. “There’s absolutely no logical connection between that experiment and that conclusion. It’s an eisegetical non sequitur. It just shows that a scientist’s interests frequently dictate what he thinks he’s observed. He looks for a mechanical transaction, artificially extracts his data from their actual context, and then miraculously discovers what he has predestined his experiment to disclose. The far more sensible conclusion would have been just the opposite: that these results confirm the reality of rational freedom. My only hesitancy is that, if the subject were absolutely free, one should be able to predict his actions in that situation with 100-percent accuracy.”
I did not want to admit that I was not following his argument, but after several seconds had to: “Why, exactly?”
Roland gazed at me indulgently and shook his head. “Because the subject did exactly what he had freely undertaken to do. He was asked, of his own volition, to act whenever he felt the impulse, and that’s what he did. He wouldn’t have been twitching a wrist or pushing a button otherwise. But the researchers’ bizarre fiction is that they are witnessing an isolated mechanical process without any prior conditions, rather than a premeditated act prosecuted intentionally, so they produce the monstrous fantasy that they have proved that the whole act is reducible to a spontaneous physical urge. I mean, the experiment they imagine they’ve run isn’t even logically possible, because there’s no visible intentional content in any given electrical impulse that identifies it with any particular act. You have to know what’s freely intended beforehand in order to know what the discrete neural event portends. You have to know that the subject chose in advance to translate the impulse into an action. The urge doesn’t go directly to its goal without crossing the interval of consciousness. So what’s the point? That we often feel an urge before we freely decide whether to act on it? Well, you don’t need electrodes on the scalp to prove that. But the urge is never isolated, because at both ends there’s a decision of the conscious mind: undertaking to act in accord with a prompting, then choosing to submit to that prompting. In between there’s some raw physiological agitation, which those free intentions have shaped into an accomplished deed. Let’s just say that that’s the material substrate, and that the intellect that makes the choices is a kind of formal cause: It’s always shaping impulse into intentional action—prospectively, retrospectively . . . synoptically.”
“Yes, all right,” I said.
“I mean, there’s always some prior and final act of the mind, some more capacious realm of intention for any impulse that’s embodied and enacted. Yes? So you can’t ever arrive at a deeper foundation. The researcher can never retreat to a more original moment, some discrete instant when a physical urge exists wholly outside that free movement of the mind. That object just isn’t found in nature. Just you try to find it and you’ll see.”
“I believe you,” I said.
But then, in the morning light that had become positively silver, and as Roland began thoughtfully licking his left shoulder, I fell asleep again, or dreamed I had.