July 07

Free Will: The Last Gasp of the Unenlightened Mind

Jay Michaelson

"Everything is foreseen; yet free will is given" - Pirkei Avot 3:15

Much of Western ethics, religious and secular, seems to rely on the concept of "free will," the principle that each of us is free to choose – in both mundane and morally significant contexts – and thus bears responsibility for whatever choice we make. Choose to indulge your urge to steal, and you bear both moral and legal responsibility for the consequences of that action (particularly if you get caught). And so on.

This notwithstanding the withering attack on free will by scores of philosophers. John Locke and David Hume called it nonsensical. Schopenhauer, whose philosophical work is largely about the question of will, noted it is only an a priori perception, not an actual description of events. As Hobbes noted, free will has only apparent reality; in Nietzschean terms, it has conventional truth only; in terms of absolute truth, it is incoherent.

Ultimately, "free will" is useful solely for describing our perception of, and responsibility for, decisions. This is enough: in the classic compatibilist perspective, it is coherent as a mental phenomenon, even if it makes no sense absolutely – and yet since its only function is as a description of a mental phenomenon, no more is required.

However, particularly in the Jewish religious world, this absurd notion that we actually somehow have free will, really, as a matter of ontology, persists – and it persists to justify an entire system of incoherent egotism which resolutely opposes every effort to liberate the self from the ego. As an agreed-upon ethical convention, free will is as useful as it is obvious. As a metaphysical proposition, however, it is more an obstacle to moral and spiritual self-fulfillment than an aid.

1. I dare you to defy your conditions

First, the observable facts. The meaning of "free will" is essentially that there exists an action without any external causes, solely determined by an independent moral agent who, while of course affected by the world, ultimately operates independent of it. The notion is that there is a "me" making decisions, freely choosing, and solely accountable.

Free will is really a subset of the classic philosophical distinction between determinism and indeterminism. Normally, of course, most of us live our lives according to determinism. We expect that when we are ill, there is a cause (material or otherwise) of the illness; that when we see cars, they likely have drivers (and engines); that rain does not materialize out of nothing in the sky. All phenomena have causes; they do not blip in and out of existence on their own. (The pseudo-quantum-mechanics objection to this point is discussed below.)

Yet most of us live our ethical lives according to indeterminism. We assume that we make choices, and that those choices are "ours," that is, not wholly caused by other things. The buck stops here. At this moment, you could continue reading, or click to another page – and of course it seems that the choice is yours.

However, simply relying (for the moment) on the empirical data of one's own thought process, this is clearly not what is actually going on. Both logically and empirically, whatever choice you make is completely – not mostly, or partly, but wholly – caused by the sum total of causes and conditions which have brought you to the moment of choice. Where else would it come from? Some of these causes may be proximate – how interesting this essay is, how restless you are, what you have to do in five minutes – and others may be quite distant: how you respond to philosophizing; your gender, race, and class; and so on. It is beyond our ken to identify all these different causes and conditions, but surely they exist. Even if a choice seems totally impulsive, even random, it is caused by something, is it not? And whatever that something is – or rather, whatever the uncountable myriad of somethings are – already exist(s) as the product of other causes and conditions. Indeed, even the choice to say, exactly, "I defy my conditions!" can, of course, be ascribed to various conditions. Sorry. (Religiously speaking, it's one of the catches of an omnipresent, Infinite Being – there’s no getting away from It. But we'll get to religion later.)

This is observable through meditation, which, contrary to its various associations with all forms of spiritual nonsense, is as close to the scientific method as the introspective mind can get. There's a tendency to say to meditators "well, that's your experience," as if scientific observation is indistinguishable from taste. But meditation, in this sense, is not about having an "experience;" it is about observing closely the patterns of mind. (Again, not the brain – just the mind, for now.) Likewise, its results are not "my experience" any more than the results of an observed scientific experiment are "my experience." If you want to repeat the experiment, get trained, sit down, and follow the same process. The process of meditation is to slow down the rapid-fire to an extent that the mechanism of causation and choice can be seen more clearly. Involuntary actions which ordinarily pass unnoticed are seen as intricately detailed sequences of desire and repulsion. Just brushing away a mosquito can seem like a choreographed ballet.

And what everyone who follows this process reports is that, like a seemingly continuous motion picture revealing itself to be, when slowed down enough, a chain of rapid-fire images, so too the mind. Whereas normally it seems like "I make a decision," in clear enough meditative states, it's possible to actually observe how the different actions and reactions which usually get labeled as "the self" are evoked when the right conditions are present, how habituated responses dictate action, and how even in instances of choice, the thought processes one goes through are caused by personality, environment, and the rest. Once more – not feel, not intuit, not "experience," but actually observe the component parts in motion. The smooth clockwork of discursive thought is deliberately interrupted in such contexts, and its mechanistic nature can be observed. There is no self driving the gears – the self is the gears. It's an emergent phenomenon of the uncountable causes and conditions that are happening all the time.

This is what can be observed empirically, on the phenomenal level of the mind. In itself, it is still insufficient, because one might argue that while it seems to the meditator that her thoughts are occurring in this piecemeal way, in fact, contrary to her observations (and to the centuries of recorded observations of others who have devoted their entire lives to fine-tuning their perceptive apparatus), there is still some "self" which spontaneously and without cause generates thoughts, decisions, and actions. Weird, and unjustified, but still possible.

Most determinists, then, usually move from experience either to formal logic or to the principle popularly known as "Occam's Razor" – that "all things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the best one." Certainly, the latter strongly mitigates against the anti-determinist position. If we can fully account for the phenomenon of the thinking mind within the bounds of (a) known scientific laws and (b) the observed experience of mind without (c) inventing a non-material, invisible ghost in the machine, then surely it seems more rational to do so. I mean, it's how we operate all the time, right – if the rainfall can be explained wholly by climatology, we don't presume the existence of angels and demons who are running the weather. So why do so in connection with the "soul"? Simply because it makes us feel better?

But Occam's Razor, too, is not necessarily right. After all, there could be some weird, somehow non-caused self, even if it's a complete departure from how we ordinarily interpret the events of the world, even if it flatly contradicts the direct, reported experience of people who spend decades closely observing the mind, and even if it requires the supposition of not just one angel or demon but an entire dimension of non-materiality... right?


The non-material soul is a concept which dates back at least to Plato, although its modern conception is primarily the work of Descartes. Bashing Descartes seems to be all the rage in recent years, which is a pity, but perhaps on this one point I might join in the chorus. Descartes famous dualism – that the world is composed of matter and spirit – allows for the self to be real, independent, and possessed of free will; it is totally untouched by the vicissitudes of material causation. But it left him in a bit of a quandary. If the spirit is totally separate from the material world, how does it influence it? Somehow, my "spiritual" desire to move my hands is causing my fingers to type – but how?

Famously, Descartes suggested that there is a nexus between the material and the non-material in the pineal gland of the brain. Given what we now know about the pineal gland and its role in consciousness, that Descartes chose it is quite remarkable, even prescient. But even electricity and the various energies of the brain are still material. The question is one of principle: how can something totally disconnected from materiality have an effect on the material world? It just doesn't make sense – it didn't to Descartes, and it hasn't for centuries since.

Lately, Descartes has had an unexpected and preposterous ally: quantum theory. In recent years, pseudo-scientific religious discourse has seized on the apparent conclusion of quantum mechanics that subatomic particles can indeed appear and disappear uncaused. As popularized in the delightfully trippy but scientifically unsound film What the Bleep Do We Know?, the notion is that free will somehow emerges from this capacity of the universe for uncaused randomness. Perhaps the soul, some non-material essence of the human self, is able to pop gluons and mesons into existence, and from there, somehow, an independent consciousness influences the material brain.

Well, this is balderdash, in terms of physics. As minute as neurons are, they are gargantuan in size compared to subatomic particles blinking in and out of existence, and every thought we have is really a phenomenon caused by many neural connections, in different parts of the brain. Suggesting that quantum flux influences the brain is like saying that an ant crawling across my floor suddenly built my home.

All this quantum bullshit (Ken Wilber's Quantum Questions is a terrific anthology of the 20th century masters of quantum theory all lining up to say that, while it is remarkable, mystical, and amazing, it has nothing whatsoever to do with "thoughts creating reality" or free will or anything like What the Bleep suggests) just exists to somehow justify an intuitional sense of the world which is flatly contradictory (material influenced by non-material!), directly disprovable (through meditation and introspection), and is only around at all because it seems to feel good.

But notice what this explanation is attempting to provide: a way out of materiality and causality. That's the enemy – and yet, as I'll show in the next part, it's really our best friend. It's enlightenment itself. It's the answer. Ironic, isn't it – that it's precisely the "spiritual" people who are most loudly pushing the antithesis of spiritual realization?

For now, though, materialism is just the simplest, most logical account of the phenomena of mental processes. And that includes "free will." If we are really purely material beings, made up of flesh, bones, neurons, electricity, whatever, it stands to reason that all of those components obey the basic laws of cause and effect. Somewhere, deep within the recesses of the brain, there are memories and learned behaviors that are then combined, in the fraction of a moment, to form decisions. Of course, the way they are combined will be different for each person, thus giving rise to personalities and creativity; the materialistic view certainly does not deny the wondrous powers of the human mind to innovate, invent, and create new "combinations" that have never existed in the world before. We really are in the image of God. But not because we somehow stand outside the material universe. On the contrary (and I'll return to this in the next part), because "we" stand inside it.

The mind is a phenomenon of the brain; consciousness an illusion of it. What we take to be the "self," a soul gazing out at the world but ultimately free from its influence, is but a mirage. Of course, we have "selves" in that my mind is not your mind, and my body is not your body. But our minds and bodies are wholly conditioned by other things: from genetics and how we were raised right down to how hungry we are right now. As I ponder the next words to write, 35 years of experience and thousands of years of genetic engineering are determining the choices that I make. "Free will" has nothing to do with it.

Indeed, the whole delusion of the "I" is a temporary ripple on a pond of causes and conditions. The "I" is like a motion picture, an illusion of seamless movement caused by the rapid-fire succession of still images. Or, in Buddhist teacher Joseph Goldstein's metaphor, this phenomenon of the "I" is like the Big Dipper: it's there if you look at things a certain way, and not there if you look at them a different way. Of course, there's no Big Dipper really; but equally "really," that is, from our ordinary, conventional way of looking at things, there is.

Now, as a lived, perceptual phenomenon – a phenomenon, not more – obviously free will exists, just like the Big Dipper does. This is the point of compatibilism: that free will exists to the same extent as other illusions do: it describes a phenomenon of our experience. If you think about it, what we really mean by "free will" is the absence of coercion. We don't mean that your action is really free of conditions; we mean no one's holding a gun to your head. Even though "your head" is, itself, entirely made up of conditions that are not "you."

This is why Rabbi Akiva's statement in the Talmud that "everything is foreseen; yet free will is given" is not some Zen-like paradox. It's describing just how things are. In actual reality, everything is "foreseen," if by "foreseen" we mean by an omniscient God who, unlike us but like Laplace's famous demon, can actually know the billions of causes and conditions influencing each of us at every moment. In conventional reality, free will is given – a gift of illusion – and so is individual responsibility.

And of course, there's no way to know all of the individual causes and conditions which dictate even the most mundane of choices, and there is a faculty of the mind which is familiar to us as the "decider" which chooses among the different options – or which is so clouded, at times, that we might say one is not responsible for the choice. Faced with the opportunity to steal something, one rationally reviews the various factors in play, is non-rationally affected by various other factors, and a choice is ultimately made. It seems, indeed, as though "I" make the choice. Humans have adapted the ability to see themselves as autonomous agents, manipulating the world to their advantage, and it is a very useful ability – lose the sense of self, and crossing the street can be dangerous.

Or, in the Buddha's words, "there is free action, there is retribution, but I see no agent that passes out from one set of momentary elements into another one, except those elements [themselves]."

So, if free will doesn't really exist, but does exist for all intents and purposes, does any of this matter?

Sure it does.

Images this Page: Bombs bombs Bombs, and Indecision. Next Page: Deep Water and One Two. Artist: Audrey Anastasi.
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