Tuesday, April 08, 2008


Once upon a time, under the influence of George Orwell and his ilk, I learned contempt for the passive voice. Orwell, like most political activists, perceived a world of free agents. Evil was caused by wicked greedy people doing bad things. Good was caused by decent selfless people doing altruistic things. Thus reality was accurately described by sentences in the active voice; and only those seeking to conceal their agency would avoid it.

The active voice does make for forceful, vivid writing. But I no longer think it corresponds very well to reality. The fiction of independent agents is good for storytelling. But not for understanding what really happens.

"It's raining," we say. What is raining? What is this "it" which decides to rain? Well, we're told, it's just a way of expressing something our language is not well-suited to describe. "It" is a convenient fiction.

But really this "it" isn't a special case. All active sentences employ, and propagate, the same fiction. "I sat down to meditate," I say. The "I" posited by this sentence is no more real than the "it" that rains. I could have done something different, people will say. Could I have? How do you know?

People who study the brain were pleased, at one point, to be able to identify the part of the brain that makes executive decisions. The only trouble was that they found, upon testing, that this part of the brain became active after the motor control centers, not before. In other words, you reach for a glass of water first, and then you decide to do it.

This will surprise most people, but not many people who meditate. We do first, and then we make up the story that explains the action. Volition itself is not conscious: what's conscious is the subsequent narrative.

Now that is a drastic oversimplification. I readily admit that: but I require of those who claim to make conscious decisions that they admit the same thing. What really happens when people act is at least as much like the concealed, diffuse formation of water droplets in a cooling cloud as it is like the drama of titanic free agents that our language insists upon.

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