Did I Write, Or Are You Reading These Words Out Of Choice?: The Illusion Of Free Will

The political joke about being forced to 'vote for the lesser of two evils', or in a most optimistic light, to vote for one of two major candidates for President, is apt when considering the idea of free will acting out in reality
Can you choose your next though? Can you know why you did? Did you choose your nurture, or your nature, or where in this world you were born? If we have free will, it is of a severely limited variety, one dependent on our level of our self awareness and awareness of our surroundings.

The topic of free will has been taken for granted throughout many ages past, a gift from biblical texts, or self evident from our day to day subjective experience.  Those who have challenged this concept of free will to be an illusion have not done so without any tangible or lasting effect at the time on society’s opinion of the subject, save perhaps in certain Eastern Philosophies.  These Philosophies  lacked the tools of our current standard of science to prove their insights as testable truths, or at least leave behind physical evidence for us to verify and study.

Through recent advances in the field of neuroscience, and through the invention of EEG and MRI, and the cooperation of volunteers – many of them Monks, to assist in mapping the brain during meditation and various states – we have learned more on the subject.  The common scientific consensus now for those in the field of neuroscience is that the concept of free will as we know it does not exist.  There is something inside many, perhaps most, that rejects that concept outright, for the concept threatens to leave that something on the inside a falsehood and an illusion.

How Accurate Is Your Map Of Reality And What Role Did Free Will Play In Its Making.  Were You The Cartographer?

It is no surprise we perceive our own experience as one of free will, or at least to some extent. The illusion of free will springs the ego – the mind identified self – which maps out reality in a way for us to negotiate through the trials and tribulations of our perceived continuity of our reality.  Those maps that graph closer to reality are more likely to give rise to more meaningful action than a mind that has devised a map of reality based on dwelling on the past and planning, or worrying about the future.  Unfortunately the ladder describes just about all of us.  Excessive thinking can  lack one of access to a realm of what Buddhists call ‘Beginner’s Mind’, or in the west presence or spacious awareness is used for conversational purposes.

The sense organs take in information from all around us and only a small fraction is perceived by the conscious mind.  Many have an understanding of the unconscious mind to some degree – Carl Jung and many others have written on the subject – and so by this basis alone we can conclude that much that goes on behind the scenes in our minds prior to a conscious thought or action, is taking place without your conscious awareness’s involvement.

Did You Choose The Next Thought.  Pay Attention Close To Your Mind And You May Find Out

Let’s tackle this from the most practical way, doing thought experiments and being honest with ourselves about the implications.  Please pick a color and close your eyes a moment, letting it rise spontaneously or choosing it with your thinking mind, either way.  Now that you’re eyes are opened, if they were ever closed, think about why you chose that color.  Immediate reasons would pop into your head.  I saw a purple flower recently – a yellow school bus passed my window minutes ago – the sky is blue and I like looking at the sky.  But can you be certain these are the reasons – and it’s whats lead you into these circumstances to put you in a position now to choose that color?  We can digress with every step of the process until you’re conceived.  There is a continual stream of cause and effect in our lives that we can never understand fully on the subjective level.  Mind’s that start connecting the strands of cause and effect more consciously are either brilliant – in science or otherwise-, a yogi, or paranoid conspiracy theorists, and it can be a fine line.

Choose the name of a book.  Any book at all.  Now why that book?  Again the same mechanisms of self justification spring into play, but stems from our penchant for pattern seeking and justification that our thoughts and free will are our own.

To a large degree almost everyone makes decisions based on nature and nurture.  There was a debate as to whether it was nurture or nature that influenced a being’s behavior and attributes, but I, in recent light of scientific observation and by common sense, decided it is a blend of the two.  Can you give yourself any credit for your nature?  For your DNA, for who your parents are?  Your nature was preordained on the genetic level without your consent.   What about your nurture?  Were you responsible for your childhood, or how those ingrained mind patterns, coupled with your genetic information – are almost entirely beyond the scope of your conscious attention?   If you had no say in either, in what way could you truly claim to have free will?

Nature And Nurture And The Gradations Of Conscious Choice

‘But despite my nature and nurture, I still have choice in any given situation’.

The science of cause and effect plays out in the brain, as well as the world around us.  An external cause impacts our internal reality, as can an internal cause – such as a thought or feeling, or unconscious thought patterns operating in dark of your conscious experience.  I would like to argue that despite these impediments to a full range of free will, the more aware we are of ourselves and to observe the inner machinations of our mind, the more we’re able to focus our attention on the present, coupled with the more knowledge and wisdom we require, allows us a greater range of choices.  But if your range of choices is limited to 2 or 2000 in any given situation that arises, it is still an illusion that you are truly, in every sense, free to make that choice, limited as you are from all other possibilities?

Compelling tests have been conducted and repeated many times over to show that with the use of EEG or MRI a subject’s decision can be predicted up to six seconds prior to the subject being aware of having made the decision themselves.  This is done with simple scenarios such as putting a red button next to the blue, with the subject to press either, at any time.  The subject would report the exact time his decision was made according to a visual and extremely precise clock, and the researchers would make predictions while watching the experiment unfold.  The researches would observe through MRI, and could overwhelmingly predict the decision based on the data prior to it becoming a conscious decision by the subject.  One such study to look into is Matsuhashi and Hallett’s, or studies conducted and discussed by Sam Harris.

Though my final census is that free will – as we commonly like to think of it – is an illusion, but I do believe we have a range of choices open to us that depends upon our level of awareness in the present moment, how educated the mind is in interpreting information received through sense organs, their genetics, their experiences and sum of knowledge and critical thinking skills.  I am sure there are many other factors, but this leaves plenty still to be accounted for to suffice.

Be Ever Vigilant Or Lost In Illusion, Or Dead By Piano Wire

To give an example, if a person sneaks up behind you on a park bench with a wire rope and bad intentions, and you’re asleep, your range of choices are quite limited.  They broaden considerably if one of your skills is awakening instantly to danger with the flair of a martial artist, but even then according to the above explained logic you would not have truly chosen to learn martial arts as an action of free will.  To go back to the example, if you’re in a state of intense awareness at the time, you will have a greater range of choices open to you, though one may well still be immediately preordained.  It was not your choice for the man to come up behind you with the piano wire, and so the sheer fact you had to react at all is an act against absolute free will.  That would infer we had absolute control over outside stimuli. The question then becomes if we have free will over our reactions at least, but to elaborate on the incorporation of martial arts, training in that discipline does require muscle memory so that conscious thought is unnecessary when the art must be utilized.

A Leap Of Logic

This scope of free will be confined and shaped by a number of choices allotted to you in any given scenario that arises is probably not too hard to accept when pondering free will.  We all want to believe we’re the authors of our own lives, and the notion to the contrary threatens the core of what we consider the self.  The difficult leap is made when further confining the spectrum of your perceived choice by going back to the consideration of your genetics, your upbringing and where in the world and into what circumstances in history you were born are all absent  of choice.  In the end you’re left with some range of choice at your disposal, but you are not in a position to know how or why, on the level of the unconscious and a stream of cause and effect you have a tentative scope of, you at that moment have open to you those limited number of choices.  And even within that illusion lays another,  that the choice we settle on was made before we’re aware of it.  What then does the concept of ‘free will’ mean?  Is it bankrupt, limited, or a truth that defies our current knowledge.

I must credit Sam Harris to stimulating my interest in the subject, as at present he is one of the foremost experts on the subject in terms of communicating it to the general public.   Here’s a short talk of his.  He has far more talks on you tube regarding free will, and a book titled, ‘Free Will’ which you can find through the link of our Amazon affiliate.

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