The question of free will has bedeviled philosophers for ages. Modern science is both throwing new light on the issue, and increasing the shadows of confusion by upholding the separate self. So is there such a thing as free will?
A neuroscientist named Benjamin Libet made a remarkable discovery at the University of California, San Francisco in the mid-1980’s. Placing electrodes on volunteer’s skulls and forefingers, he asked them to move their finger whenever they had the urge to do so. He found, to his amazement, that his machine registered a “readiness potential” in the brain 200 milliseconds before the person was conscious of the urge!
In the words of another scientist, Libet could “predict what the person would do before the person was actually aware of having decided to do it.” This means that rather than our decisions coming from the ‘top down,’ they are actually being made from the ‘bottom up,’ that is, from the unconscious. Brain studies are therefore confirming Freud’s contention that most of our mental and emotional life is unconscious, or at least subconscious.
But what does this mean for free will? It means there is no such thing–the will is never free because agency is indeterminate, and most action is preconsciously motivated.
Does that imply that there is no such thing as individual responsibility and the possibility of freedom? No, but to the extent that we are conditioned by family, culture and experience, and we are unaware of the operation of this conditioning in the present, our actions are always psychologically predetermined. There is freedom, but it has nothing to do with ‘my choice and will.’ Indeed, freedom only exists in the negation of self and will.
Obviously we all face choices. But the chooser is never free. So how could the will, which is the focused action of the self, be free? Free will implies a chooser, a supposedly separate entity that decides what to do. There is no such thing in actuality, and the sovereign ‘decider’ is the supreme illusion.
All mental activity is conditioned to some degree, which is why freedom only exists in the spaces between thoughts and the stillness of the mind.
The self may be necessary up to a point as an organizing principle for thought, but believing in its actuality, and perpetually experiencing the world in terms of a separate ‘me,’ is the source of division, darkness and evil.
But if one negates the self and will, who or what then directs one’s action and life? There is a latent intelligence within the human brain and human being, the same undivided, unwilled, uncontrolled and essentially uncontrollable energy within all the processes of life.
When the entire mechanism of thought is quiet in the brain, and the will as the basis of action has been negated, there is contact and communion with the source of life’s energy and drive.
Being deeply attentive of the movement of thought as a whole, one can see when one is looking and acting from the previously subconscious content of the mind. And being mindful of this terrain (even if one doesn’t see all of it), one is no longer unconscious, and one ceases ‘acting out.’ Self-knowing is essential.
Indeed, when the content of the unconscious as well as conscious mind is still, the brain sees without the screen of symbols, memories, and conditioning. In the stillness of the mind in undivided attention to the movement of thought in the present, the brain/mind has a completely different quality. Then one simply sees the right thing to do. The illusion of ‘free will’ gives way to freedom in attention and awareness.
Acting from stillness and insight, there is no interval, no gap between deciding and doing, because there is no illusory ‘I’ from and through which one’s actions flow. There is simply seeing and doing, and acting with intelligence.
Insight, clarity, and freedom are not functions of thought, but of the spaces between and the stillness of thought. Can the brain be anchored in self-knowing and attention, rather than in symbols and memories?
I feel so, but we cling to the illusion of control. And as we see with governments, the greater the need for control, the more ruthless, violent and malevolent people are.
One realizes each time a meditative state is awakened that at a deep level one knows nothing and is nothing. This realization is tremendously liberating, even if it lasts only a timeless minute, for it clears away the detritus of experience and conditioning, and lights the way ahead.
Can a sufficient minority of people in all cultures free themselves from the chains of conditioning, and ignite a psychological revolution? I don’t know, but our consciousness is not inevitably chained to the past. Thinking and acting out of stillness is the true basis of human freedom.