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LATEST DIALOGUES Are we Ready for the Illusion of Free Will?

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“Free will” continues to be a hot topic in questions and comments with many, many folk. “Free will” is so heavily culturally, religiously, and corporately reinforced, that it seems almost inconceivable that it could be a complete illusion.  EVERYONE KNOWS we have free will, and we even feel it – so it MUST be true.

For decades, I KNEW that I had free will, and consciously “did” everything that happened, both successes and failures, with attendant praise and blame.  However, when the “I” fell away, there was no one there to have a will to be free.  Still, life went on as it did before, even better.  It was obvious that my choices and apparent “doing” were responsible for nothing.  It was surprisingly a liberating and empowering event.

What do we mean by “free will”?
The popular conception of free will is that a) we could have behaved differently than we did, and b) we are the conscious source of our thoughts and actions in the present.  Are these assumptions correct?

If we watch carefully, acts we apparently decided to do actually arose spontaneously, without our being conscious of them.  We cannot see their origin in our conscious minds, nor our decision to perform them. Our “reason” for doing them only arises after the event, post-hoc.  For 99+ percent of our day, actions happen, “all by themselves”, seamlessly, perfectly, without us.

If you watch your next thought, did you (pre)think it, or did it just manifest without your “knowledge” or “approval”?   When you write or text something, did you “think up” what you were writing before it appeared, or did it just appear almost magically from “nowhere”?

Watching carefully the simple act of my apparent choosing which green tea to drink, it is obvious that the choice is not mine, not reasoned, nor premeditated. I watch my hand reaching for the Jasmine rather than Zen or Ginger, but I can feel no “reason” for the selection.  Jasmine just “feels” like the right one. Where and why did that feeling arise?  After the selection, if asked, a “reason” – post-hoc – emerges. “I had Zen this morning, and was almost out of my favorite, Ginger, so Jasmine was the obvious choice”.   This “reason” is a story constructed by the ego/I to make it appear like the choice was made consciously and logically. The ego/I, knowing that it was not involved in the choice, but to keep the “free will” illusion going,  a key part of its job description, it fills in the blanks. Even if I had seemingly, consciously, “decided” on Jasmine, the thoughts that manifested, the weighting of their importance, and which ones were remembered, overlooked, or didn’t arise, were out of my control.

Compelling cognitive neuroscience demonstrating that free will is an illusion continues to emerge.  Benjamin Libet, et al.’s, paradigm-shattering paper in Brain in 1983; Time of Conscious Intention To Act in Relation to Onset of Cerebral Activity: The Unconscious Initiation of a Freely Voluntary Act, demonstrated that the motor cortex initiates actions well before the “I” is told about it, and well in advance of the actions occurring.  If we aren’t aware when, or what, action is initiated, how can we be in control and have free will?

Libet’s work, which received the inaugural “Virtual Nobel Prize in Psychology”, caused hostile reactions from many sides, including other scientists.  Nevertheless, in the intervening decades, with more sophisticated technology, measuring equipment and experimental designs, his work stands.
Libet himself tried to “save” free will by arguing that when the brain was informed that the action was in process, it could have stopped the action. However, the intention to stop the action would also arise, as the initial action did, out of conscious control.

The BBC video Neuroscience and Free Will,  a selected SAND video, demonstrates how convincing contemporary “no free will” science is. The research by J. D. Haynes in “Decoding and Predicting Intentions” in 2011 demonstrated that it was possible to predict intentions with an fMRI, 7 to 10 seconds before the decision was actually made.

Also, Fried, et al. in Internally Generated Pre-activation of Single Neurons in Human Medial Frontal Cortex Predicts Volition, in 2011 demonstrated that direct recordings from only 256 neurons could predict with 80 percent accuracy a decision to move 0.7 seconds before one is aware of it.  “Recruitment” of neurons occurred 1.5 seconds before subjects reported making the decision.
The research is conclusive; the brain determines what you will do before you are aware that you will do it. We no more initiate events “consciously”, than we cause our hearts to beat, or our stomach to digest our lunch.  What will my next mental state, thought, decision, or action be? I do not know… It just happens, somehow, “all by itself”.

What would it take to actually have free will?  Sam Harris, a Ph.D. neuroscientist, in his “Free Will” answers: ‘You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors… What would influence the influences? (…) You are not controlling the storm and you are not lost in it.  You are the storm.’

One typical response is that if there is no free will, “Why should I do anything?”.  This is the “Lazy Argument” and it confuses determinism with fatalism.  The simple flaw is that if you are predetermined to do nothing, you will do nothing; if not, you will do something, whatever it is. Ramana Maharshi echoed this: ‘The feeling ‘I work’ is a hindrance. Ask yourself: ‘Who works?’(…) Then the work will not bind you, it will go on automatically. Make no effort either to work or to renounce; it is your effort which is the bondage. What is destined to happen will happen. If you are destined not to work, work cannot be had even if you hunt for it. If you are destined to work, you will not be able to avoid it and you will be forced to engage yourself in it.’ So, leave it to the higher power; you cannot renounce or retain as you choose.

What about our justice system if there is no free will, no personal responsibility? If “what we are” is determined by our genetics, parents, where and when we were born, religion, friends, etc. which were not of our choosing, how do we deal with criminal acts, and everyday socio-moralistic interactions? This is a critical question with many implications.  Integrating this scientifically-demonstrated fact into our religions, institutions, personal life, government, legal system, health care, etc. is going to be disruptive. Some scientists and ethicists have argued: ‘Wouldn’t it be better if we just don’t tell them about it?’ IMHO, that is like continuing to tell folk for centuries that the world is flat, or the center of the universe. In the end, “truth will come out”. These arguments are already appearing in the criminal legal system. The article, Criminal Minds: Use of Neuroscience as a Defense Skyrockets cites Nita Farahany of Duke as saying that cases in which judges have cited neuroscience evidence in their opinions increased from 112 in 2007 to over 1500 in 2011.  Justice will ultimately require incorporation of this understanding.

Are we ready for it?

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Gary Weber has a Ph.D. in physical sciences and worked in national labs, industry, and academia in R&D and management. Simultaneously, after over 20,000 hrs of self-inquiry, Zen and yoga, he experienced the falling away of the “I” and the loss of self-referential thoughts, desires and fears. He has authored three books, over 100 videos, a blog, interviews, and presentations on nonduality, meditation and neuroscience at various conferences, gatherings and universities. He was a subject and/or collaborator in cognitive neuroscience and meditation studies at Baumann Institute, IONS, CSNSC, Yale and Penn State. Website: happiness-beyond-thought.com.
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2 Responses to “Are we Ready for the Illusion of Free Will?”

  1. November 28, 2016 at 8:35 pm, Karl Gary said:

    I agree with all that, however, there is still the overriding force that guides human behavior/free will. It’s called the outer environment and it dictates most of human behavior, not the internal environment of the mind. You may reach for a jasmine or ginger tea bag, but what if tea did not exist in the environment at all, and your hand could never tough tea – your free will has been changed. Also, your body attached to the free will of the mind, would never produce a graving for tea due its lack of existence.

    Every day of the year humans wake up in a money environment. That money environment dictates our behavior. We all do things not of our free will to support ourselves. I do not want to go to work today, but I must because I need money to live, and not skilled enough to live like a mountain man without money. But then again, even the mountain man’s free will is a trigger from the environment. He will hunt a dear for it has crossed his path.

    Criminals are the prime example of the environment controlling their behavior. If money would magically disappear from our shared environment, how does a criminal stick a gun in your back for money, when does not exist? He can’t … when money is no longer a part of the environment. He has no will to rob for money.

    Criminals do not chose bad behavior because they are of free will or evil. They do bad things because the unintelligent design of civilization (the environment) enforces bad behavior upon them. When money is no longer a part of the environment, the human behavior/free will of stealing for money disappears too.

    I think Jacque Fresco of the Venus Project has figured out free will better than the phycologists. For there is nothing to steal or strive for, when civilization is sharing all goods and services produced by automation as the Venus Project suggests.

    That type of environment (automation) will completely change our free will. New choices would emerge from the environment that spur our free will in different directions. Once again, proving that the environment dictates free will. Things that the brain knows ahead of time as your article suggests.

    Could it be that the brain is connected to the outer material and we may be along just for the ride? I have a very detailed theory that explains this nature of mind and material. It really is an illusion of free will and becomes obvious, if the atoms in your head are not real. Atoms are mostly empty space, and so goes the human mind. Our heads are empty space.

  2. December 23, 2016 at 2:25 pm, Atman NItyananda said:

    SOME HINTS ABOUT FREE WILL

    First. We cannot speak about free will in general. Each individual is in a different level of consciousness. What is valid for one person it is not for another. For example a liberated one (such as Buddha) and a deluded one have an altogether different state of consciousness and a different ability to exercise their free will.

    Second. We must have a clear view about free will, what is free will. In my view, free will is the ability to decide in harmony with our soul which in its turn is in harmony with the universal Soul. Free will is also the ability to decide to act according to our understanding, discernment and conscience or our heart and not to act according to the mechanical compulsive egoic patterns, conditioning, egoic thoughts, desires or emotions.

    Third. The fact that thoughts arise in our mind spontaneously (without our volition) and without to know which will be the next thought that will arise in our mind, it is not a proof that we have not free will.

    We as intelligence (buddhi), we have the ability to decide if the thoughts that manifest spontaneously, will remain or not in our mind. Of course this capacity depends on the purity of our buddhi and chitta (subconscious mind) and the capacities of dispassion, detachment, discernment, concentration and Self-awareness.

    Ιn addition we can (if we want so and if we train our mind) feed our mind with impressions and thoughts of our conscious choice and not let the mind wander aimlessly or be drawn towards the objects of sensory desires. We can reprogram our mind by feeding it with certain ideas, impressions and sense inputs In order to compel the mind ponder on issues that we decide (as intelligence) and not on those issues or objects that the vital ego (with its mechanical impulses, habits and patterns) wants to. It is up to us to decide what subjects we want our mind to reflect on. This ability increases by practice and discipline.

    To go a step further, we can even to decide to keep the mind still (not to think at all) if we are capable to do so. Of course this requires long time practice and steady determination.

    Fourth. When someone is identified with the vital or lower ego and its manifestations, he is a slave and a puppet of it. In this state of identification there is not talk about free will. The stronger the identification the stronger the inability to exercise our free will.

    On the other hand, when we are detached from the body, mind and emotions and the ego itself and we are identified with our essence (Soul, Consciousness), we can exercise our free will. That means we can choose or decide to act according our deeper intelligence and in harmony with our Soul.

    Finally I want to make it clear one more time that free will doesn’t mean that we have an absolute free will to do anything we want independently of our Soul and Universal Soul or God.

    The fact that the ordinary people do whatever arise in their minds considering this as free will is just ignorance. They are almost always slaves of the compulsive egoic tendencies that occupy their conscious mind and they do what the egoic impulses want; certainly this is not free will or choice.

    Deluded by the hypnotic power of the vital ego they may think (imagine) that have free choice, that they have the freedom to decide what they want to do, but this is only a delusion. The notion that they are free to decide between two desires or impulses is also false, because in this case it is the stronger desire or emotion the factor that determines what they will do. And these impulses or desires are unconscious tendencies that want to express themselves through the body mind entity.

    The free will can be exercised only when we are detached from the egoic mind, when in our intelligence predominates the sattva guna and we are aligned with our Soul.

    In order to avoid be deluded by the lower ego and its innumerable identifications, tendencies, impulses, conditioning and mechanisms and exercise our free will, it is needed a great degree of purity, a high ability of Self-awareness, detachment and dispassion from the mind, thoughts emotions and impulses and a great ability of discernment to discern between the true and the false as well as strong will power . And this a matter of many years of practice and discipline.

    Peace, love and light

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