31. Neuroscience, Art and Free Will

by Culture and Anti Culture

(For context see Post 1)


Watch the following video carefully before reading this entry.



This experiment is extremely convincing.  The technicians reading the MRI screen could accurately predict the subject’s choice of button 6 seconds before the event, and well before the consciousness of choosing entered the mind of the subject.  In this case, unconscious forces precede and determine the supposedly conscious choice.


This experiment seems to demonstrate that free will is an illusion, but look at the task the subjects are asked to undertake.  The choice has no real substance.  They’re ‘choosing’ without any real content or context, without any meaning attaching to their choices.  There is no moral or aesthetic significance to this activity.  Is this an exhaustive picture of choosing?  Far from it.  What if the choices, instead of being dead and static, were complex and dynamic, that is, in movement?  What if the choices demanded a higher understanding, a rich conceptual content?  What if instantly you had to choose among a vast array of elements to create an effect, an artistic impression, as in a musical improvisation?  Further, what if such choosing produced a completely novel, original result, with a profound aesthetic effect?  No great artifact of human culture, whether an epic poem or a simple utensil, ever existed prior to its imaginative appearance in the creative mind of genius.


Real creativity cannot be reduced to a simple formula or a simple decision.  Look at the difference between the monotonic choice to be made in the experiment, as opposed to summoning all one’s energies in creating or experiencing a work of art.  From this perspective, it is self-evident that there is a free, conscious element of mastery in all art worthy of the name.


The artist begins with basic materials (color, tone, language) and accepted ideas (like the rules of harmony in Western music).  The artist must have the ability to form a central purpose or conception, and then enlist the elements proper to his art, to serve this ideal.


What is the unstated task of real art?  It is to conjure, that is, to produce profound changes in consciousness, to magically render the familiar and ordinary strange, exotic, elevating, appalling, deep, and richly ironic or absurd.  It must cast a spell, and do this using unenchanted raw material, as in the case of the sounds and word meanings Shakespeare employed in these lines from ‘The Tempest’


Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.



What are the vital tools of artistic creation and re-creation (that is in the enjoyment of art)?


– Improvisation

– Excellence of technique

– Tolerance for polarity and ambiguity

– Capacity for subtlety and intimation

– Inwardness, the element of depth

– Capacity to be aware of and synthesize many elements

– Taste (elusive, but real)

– The magisterial power to act out of these capacities (free creation out of nothing.)


Art arises in a rich context, incapable of being rendered into formulae or software.  (You cannot Photoshop your way to artistic greatness.)  It is certainly the case that much in art, most especially that which is called inspiration, rises out of subconscious regions in the soul of its creator.


Were it possible to scan the brain of someone in the act of genuine creation, the factors involved – the array of choices being made, material included or discarded – would entirely destroy the possibility of establishing a predictable chain of cause and effect.  No technician could scan the brain of a Beethoven in full maturity, and predict the next tonal gesture, seconds before it came to the conscious mind of the Master.



Do you really think that in your moments of highest understanding you are simply registering the conscious outcome of a pre-computed result?