Friday September 1, 2006
This afternoon, I decided it was high time that I sat down and wrote another post for thinkBuddha. I had a bit of a think and decided that I would write something about the week I spent at Sharpham. Thinking further, I decided to write about Sue Blackmore’s day of discussions and exploring the theme of “life without free will”. Satisfied with my decision, I turned on the PC and began to type this.
Or did I? I must confess that I am no longer all that sure. Isn’t there something a bit fishy about the story that I have just told (“This afternoon, I decided it was high time…”)? Did it really happen like this? What do I even mean when I say that “This afternoon, I decided…”? Questions like these have been chewing away at me for the last few days. You see, the thing is that when you begin to ask these kind of questions, the everyday, commonsense stories that we tell about our lives no longer seems as persuasive as they once did.
Before I launch into explaining what I mean by all of this, perhaps I should set the scene by summing up the content of Sue’s presentation last week. Here is the blurb from her own website:
Neuroscience and meditation practice both seem to point to the uncomfortable conclusion that there is no persisting inner self that is the origin of creativity, the subject of our experiences, or the ultimate cause of our actions and decisions. In this case there can be no free will as it is usually conceived. Many people argue that life, law and society would be impossible without free will, or at least without an illusion of free will, but I disagree. We will explore what it is like to accept that “I” do not make the decisions.
I am no expert on neuroscience. It is the kind of stuff that I like to read, but my faculties are weak and it’s hard to keep track of the arguments, let alone to grasp the complex geography of the brain. After all, the brain – when you start to poke around in it – is a complicated place. But without getting too technical, the problem with free will in relation to brain science is this: that there is no centre to the brain in some little homunculus or “will” could reside and from which it could direct operations. It’s not just that there’s no homunculus, no “mini-me”, inside pulling the levers and co-ordinating the whole show. Nor is it just that invoking such a homunculus leads us into infinite regress (who pulls the levers in the homunculus’s mind?). It’s also that there is nowhere for such a homunculus to sit. From what we now know of the brain, we can do quite well without homunculi. They add nothing to our understanding.
Nevertheless, our everyday “folk psychology” assumes that someone “in here” is making all the decisions. With regard to action, this folk psychology runs something like this. First there is a stimulus, which is fed into our decision making centre where we (the homunculus!) make a decision, then there is an output or a response. But this pattern that we imagine we follow of stimulus » decision » response does not stand up to analysis. Take an everyday example: you are walking down the street, minding your own business, and a deranged pigeon flies at you. Movement sensors in your eyes sound alarm bells, you duck to one side, and then – a moment later, only when the pigeon has gone past – you think “Blimey! That was one crazy pigeon!” When the pigeon is upon you, there’s not time to think about the pigeon or to speculate as to its state of mind. You just duck. If your ancestors had hung around to have these kind of fine thoughts prior to ducking, then they would not have lived to breeding age, and you would not be there at all.
To take this line of thought at little further, now say that perhaps you have a friend walking alongside you, and your friend, who themselves didn’t quite see what was going on, turns to you and asks: what happened?. Then, perhaps, when you are asked to provide a narrative of events, you say “Well, I saw the pigeon coming towards me, and I thought Blimey! That is one crazy pigeon!, so I ducked out of the way.” But the fact of the matter is it didn’t happen like that . The idea of the will is added on, if you like, in the narration of the event, as an explanatory mechanism, but it is not there in the event itself.
I have been sceptical of the idea of free will for some time. A couple of years ago I became very interested in what happens when I made decisions. And again, the closer you look at this, the more puzzling it becomes. Let us say that I am torn between chocolate cake and carrot cake (no cake, on this particular day, doesn’t seem to be a viable option). I weigh up the relative virtues of each, I examine each cake carefully, I get as much data in as possible… and then I order carrot cake. It’s obvious what has happened. I must have decided to order carrot cake. But is it really that obvious? What happened in the space between the uncertainty and the settling for carrot cake? Was there some kind of intervention of a sovereign will? If so, what was this intervention? From where? How did it make itself known? Or was it that I simply found myself ordering carrot cake and then – once again, after the event – I told myself the retrospective story, “Oh, look! I decided to order carrot cake.” The closer you look at even these simple decisions, the more perplexing they seem. And there is no reason to think that more complex decisions (for example, should I become a Trappist monk, or should I try for the top job at the United Nations) are substantially different in this regard from the more simple decisions.
So, I’ve been trying to put this into practice, seeing what it is like to lay free will to one side, to live without free will. A simple example. I wander into the kitchen to make a cup of tea and the thought comes to me, “Should I have a biscuit?” Then, catching myself, I reframe the question as this: “I wonder if I will have a biscuit.” This question in mind, I make a cup of tea. I climb the stairs and I notice that, on this occasion, my hand has not reached into the cupboard for a biscuit. A decision has happened, but without the idea that “I” have somehow made the decision. Similarly in meditation, I have been noticing the arising of thoughts, impulses, ideas, sensations, and noticing how they can just arise without the sense that “I”, as a sovereign will, am doing the thinking, sensing and so on.
This practice raises all kinds of interesting questions, in particular it raises questions of ethics: surely free will is central to ethics? But Sue, for one, claims that she has been living without free will for some time now – a claim that I take seriously and that I believe to be utterly sincere – and I can vouch that she is friendly and personable and (at least when I met her last week) showed no signs of suddenly running amok. The ethical question is one worth exploring further, and I may write more on it here in due course. But, then again, there was a time when it was thought that the idea of God was a necessary condition for there to be goodness in the world. This has not prevented millions upon millions living good and fruitful and wholesome lives without this idea (the Buddha, for one… Lucretius, for another). Perhaps the idea of free will is no more necessary than this.
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