In a previous controversial post, I attempted to bring together Zizek’s thoughts on cognitive science and on quantum physics to devise a “unified field theory” of human freedom. I failed in this attempt because I did not specify the mechanism by which the “subject” (a purely formal factor that is the “fallout” when the faculty that maps the organism’s surroundings becomes self-referential) is able to “choose its own causes.”
The answer is simple: through the negative gesture of refusing to pay attention to something, which opens up the space for paying attention to something else (i.e., “choosing” it as the relevant external factor that will determine future action). In the “normal” case, which we can for convenience call an “animal,” the inputs from the Umwelt create automatic reactions — for instance, Uexkuell’s famous tick, which can only respond to a very limited number of stimuli. In the “human” case, “consciousness” has reached a very fine-grained level that allows for responses to an indefinite number of stimuli, and “self-consciousness” provides some minimal space between perception and reaction.
I’m fine with saying that most of the time, human beings do act more or less automatically and that consciousness provides us with rationalizations in order to maintain equilibrium. Sometimes, though, at what can only be called an unconscious level, the human subject breaks with “instinctual” causality, aka the pleasure principle, by ignoring certain “causes” and attaching to others. This phenomenon is what goes by the name of “death drive” in Lacanian psychoanalysis. It loses the element of conscious deliberation that many people want from free will, but it seems to be the only way to talk about an action being self-caused as opposed to being externally caused. That is, it provides a non-reductionistic account of human agency, and you now how big I am on non-reductionism!
(By calling the two different models “animal” and “human,” I’m not meaning to reinforce the traditional boundary between the two — it seems possible to me that certain other animal species have reached the short-circuit level that I’m calling the “human,” and not even necessarily only primate species.)