Some recent events have sparked a flurry of talk on the issue of Free Will. I wrote about it a bit in a previous entry. It is not a spiritual issue, rather than a growing mass of neurological evidence that the subconscious controls a lot more of our behavior than traditionally thought.
And – While looking at choice from a neurological viewpoint, some intriguing concepts regarding the nature of conscious thought start to surface.
A fascinating article in the New York times brings a lot of these issues into the mainstream. Here are some quotes.
(quoted from the article) A bevy of experiments in recent years suggest that the conscious mind is like a monkey riding a tiger of subconscious decisions and actions in progress, frantically making up stories about being in control.
Here is one such experiment with an EEG:
In the 1970s, Benjamin Libet, a physiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, wired up the brains of volunteers to an electroencephalogram and told the volunteers to make random motions, like pressing a button or flicking a finger, while he noted the time on a clock.
The order of brain activities seemed to be perception of motion, and then decision, rather than the other way around.
In short, the conscious brain was only playing catch-up to what the unconscious brain was already doing.
Interesting, eh? The study has been reproduced countless times in various ways, and other research seems to point to the same conclusion: the conscious mind acts more as an observer than an active participant!
But what about the Buddhists?
All this recent neuro-analysis of choice makes me wonder how much variance there would be if people outside of the “norms” were analyzed. For example, people who had learned to control their mind to a greater extent – meditators, NLP experts, people who regularly practice neurofeedback, etc.
Would their “will” be stronger, or would their perception of (the lack of) free will be more objective?
There could be significant differences - in the same way there are huge differences in the EEG responses of meditators vs regular people to sensory stimuli. Perhaps taking away certain emotional components of an experience, or having the ability to observe internal urges and thoughts objectively - all of which buddhists and frequent meditators claim to do - would give one more “free will”?
Perhaps one day there will be a standard measure, or scale, based on a psychological or neurological test, meant to quantify exactly how much mental freedom an individual has. Like an IQ test, or the kinesy scale of sexuality. This may even be a good thing, if it were followed up by an effort to give individuals with “low free will scores” more control over their own mind.
Where would you be on Adam’s Free Will scale of 0-100?
How about the rest of us?
One thing I’ve noticed that is conspicuously absent from this debate is the origin of a subconscious. We are not born with it. It is programmed into us – by our parents, our world around us, our own internal dialogs, struggles, and so on. To seasoned psychologists and hypnotherapists, all this buzz about the subconscious is hardly news, and neither is the cure for unwanted behavior: RE-programing the subconscious based on what the conscious mind wants.
Optimistically speaking, Free Will can be a feedback mechanism. You perceive an action, a choice you have made – good or bad – and analyze the consequences of those actions. You then interact with your brain and make slight alterations to your brain’s “operating system”. A child whose subconscious mind made him touch a hot stove is not likely to do it again. Of course, whether we repeat the same mistakes over and over is based solely on the control we exhibit over the programming of our own mind.
Another article excerpt:
“All the varieties of free will worth having, we have,” Dr. Dennett said.
“We have the power to veto our urges and then to veto our vetoes,” he said. “We have the power of imagination, to see and imagine futures.”
In this regard, causality is not our enemy but our friend, giving us the ability to look ahead and plan. “That’s what makes us moral agents,” Dr. Dennett said. “You don’t need a miracle to have responsibility.”
Others find the idea of no free will a comforting idea. I admit, it does have its appeal. Here is a great quote from Einstein:
“This knowledge of the non-freedom of the will protects me from losing my good humor and taking much too seriously myself and my fellow humans as acting and judging individuals”.