Life Without Free Will

Friday September 1, 2006

Brain Cross Section

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.

# · indifferent children

I have lived free-will-free for six years or so now, and it seems to be working. You don’t need to discard phrases such as “I decided to…”; they are shorthand for “The neurons in my brain acting in a cascade fashion arrived at the outcome of…”. This is similar to saying “My computer calculated result x” instead of “The circuits in my computer following looping and cascading instructions produced the result x”.

I don’t think that predetermination is best illustrated by the lack of a homonculous seat in the large structures of the brain, but examining the smaller structures of the brain. If thoughts, and eventually mind, are emergent effects of neurons firing, and neurons fire in response to other neurons’ neurotransmitters (limited by the amount of neurotransmitter available in the cell in question), then there is little room for anything but deterministic behavior. Stimulus, dendritic connection patterns (experiential and innate), and chemical levels (neurotransmitters, hormones, blood sugar, etc.) drive our thoughts and decisions.

One of the most popular arguments against determinism is quantum randomness. The number of electrons in a single neuron is huge (~4 X 10^30?), so their randomness should cancel-out, as such things do in large samples. Even if they don’t cancel-out, quantum randomness would mean that we act randomly, still not with Free Will.

# · Steve

I have never believed in free will. To me, “free will” means the capacity to choose otherwise. That is, if one had two or more options to choose between, one could have chosen another option than what one did under the same precise set of circumstances.

I don’t believe that one could have done this, because I believe that we and our choices are manifestations of what Alan Watts called an “organisim-environment field.” That is, “we” are a transaction of physical, biological, psychological, social, cultural, and spiritual factors that ultimately encompass the entire past and present universe. Thus, “our” choices are ultimately the choices of the unified totality of physical, biological, psychological, social, cultural, and spiritual existence and could not be other than what necessarily issues from that unified totality at any given moment. There is no magical “homunculus” or agency within each of us as individuals that is independent and can choose independently of this unified totality.

Alan Watts went on to suggest that the Buddhist nirvana is actually a concrete realization of this. I’m not sure I recall his exact words, but they were very close to the following: “Nirvana is a radical transformation of how it feels to be alive. It feels as if everything were myself, or as if everything—including my thoughts and feelings—were happening of itself. There are still efforts, choices, and decisions, but not the sense that “I” make them. They arise of themselves in relation to circumstances.”

In other words, nirvana is the concrete realization of “no free will.” It is also the concrete realization of “no determinism.” For in order for something to be determined, it must be determined by something OUTSIDE itself. But if there is ultimately nothing outside us to force us to choose what we do, then we are no more determined to make the choices we do than we are free to make them. They simply “arise of themselves in relation to circumstances.”

# · Sam W

Wow. Another great post, Will. Makes me very interested in reading Sue Blackmore’s books. I had a quick look at her site – nice hair! Glad you had a good week down there and hope the re-write is going ok!

# · ck

If I understand correctly, all of us are living without free will, but some of us, like Sue, just choose to recognize that?


# · Will

I was wondering how long it would take to spot that contradiction, CK! Yes, this is a problem here. But then there is choice in the world, at least phenomenologically speaking. It is just the stories we tell about choice and what choice is…

Thanks, Steve, for the Alan Watts quote, which is pertinent. And, yes, I also agree about the necessity of using the language of “I decided…” as a shorthand.

Too many questions, too late at night. I need to go to bed. And think more about this. But thanks for the thought-provoking comments…

Will :-)

# · Tom

It may be that I have no choice but to think about it exactly in this way, But I don’t see how free will is being ruled out, here.

To begin, I reject what is a physicalist argument that must find the source actor for our actions. If we DO have free will, then we—not a mini-me or a locus in the brain or a cocked gun needs to be found. Our indelible, invisible-to-the-eye Self is the action-maker.

Whether we make choices overtly, or on the run, it is Free Will in action.

The fact that you point out that we re-create our history in movie terms is not damning evidence, in my mind. Passing through each phase in the first tier changes our pattern of thinking such that we completely reconstruct our memory to suit our new worldview. It shouldn’t be surprising that we are likely to see a confrontation with a pigeon as a movie scene with more deliberative decision-making going on that what really occured—not that ‘what really occured’ has any solid meaning.

# · Tom

I don’t know how this plays into the discussion, but there was a neuroscience study about a year ago that seems to show that people take action on their decisions before being aware of having reached a decision.

In otherwords, there is brain activity that shows what decision a person has come to before there is brain activity that shows a person is aware of his determination.

I’ll see if I can find the study online somewhere or in the news from a year or so ago. I don’t know if the study supports the idea of there being ‘free will’ or is evidence against it.

# · Lewis

Well, to say this was mind-blowing for me would be a pretty accurate statement, Will. I honestly can’t say what it might mean to live in such a way, but certainly just to imagine it creates such a feeling of the weight of the world dropping off the shoulders – suddenly no doubt, no feelings of what you should or shouldn’t do, just whatever you find yourself doing. Isn’t this exactly what Zen masters and the like have spoken about when they take the idea of “I” out of the equation? Perhaps given the language use, the mention of free-will, it strikes hard at the place so many of us defend so strongly, and so has a greater potential to shake things loose. It necessarily creates a situation of there being no distinct separate self, as anything that happens is a combination of circumstances and yourself (and again, not the self you imagined). Haha, I recall a similar idea to this being written as “instead of saying you’re an organism living in an environment, consider yourself an enviro-organism”. I didn’t do it, the World didn’t do it, it was LewisWorld. Now that’s oneness for you :) This is certainly one to practice, Will. What will be interesting to see is what debates come of it, especially as you spoke of, the idea of ethics.

# · Anthony

Tom mentions a study into the brain activity associated with making decisions. He says that it is recent, but it sounds like a study described in a book called ‘The User Illusion’ by Tor Norretranders which I read about eight years ago. Briefly, the study required subjects to raise a finger, and then to report when they had decided to do so (saying at what position a dot on a revolving wheel had been at the moment of their decision). At the same time their brain activity was monitored. The researchers found that there was a build-up of brain activity for some time before the point at which the subjects reported they had made a decision. In other words the conscious feeling of ‘making a decision’ lagged behind the reality of the decision making process. However, interestingly, sometimes there was an identical build-up of activity in the brain, but a finger was never raised, suggesting that the subjects had ‘changed their minds’ at some point in the process. Norretranders suggested in the book that if free will meant anything, it was perhaps to be found in this apparent ‘veto’ – the ability to halt the process at some point in its cycle.

Studies like this call the notion of free will into serious doubt. And yet can we really live without it? I’m not so sure. When I think of times in my life when I have had to make decisions, hard and life-changing decisions – could I really have just somehow ‘sat back’ and just watch a decision ‘emerge’ out of the interplay of ‘conditions’? Life just doesn’t feel like that to me. In reality choice weighs heavily on our shoulders and seems inescapable. Sometimes choices have to be made, and options weighed up. Isn’t the sense that I could do either one thing, or another, or another, an unavoidable part of this process?

# · Steve

Anthony, we usually do have alternatives and, when it’s really important, we would do well to to choose between them by weighing them. But that doesn’t make resulting choices free in the sense of their stemming from a “homunculus” or agency independent of the rest of the Kosmos or mean that our choices are capable of turning out other than how they do at a given point in time. I think it may be possible to realize, even as we deliberate on a choice, that this deliberation is an “organismic-environmental” process, only freed, as Lewis and Zen masters suggest, of the oppressive weight of the illusory ego. Thus, we may make our choices and live our lives with a greater “lightness of being.”

# · Tom

Anthony, Steve:

Anthony: Yes. That is the study. I guess I thought the study came from a year ago only because that was when I learned of it.

Steve: I think I am in agreement with Anthony, that I don’t see how being ‘lighter’ in making decisions less dramatically relieves of the number of them that we must make.

I think that only a subgroup of decisions are made somewhat rotely [e.g., the length of steps I should take to elegantly step over the curb when jaywalking.]. Our other decisions are made overtly; this is the burden of being a conscious animal and not plantlife.

Generally, we love that area of our brain where overt decisions are made. The flow of creativity is a delicious well-trafficked stream of overt decisions.

I don’t see the egolessness that I seek as being a place of being more of an automaton.

# · Steve

Tom, I suspect that there is a great deal of unconscious processing or computation involved in even our most “overt” decision-making and that the reasons we cite for these choices are probably conscious rationalizations more than they are the actual determiners of our choices.

If this is how things really are, does it mean that we are mere “automatons”? I don’t worry about the labels, and I don’t feel the least bit depressed, demoralized, or devalued by thinking that our choices “arise of themselves in relation to circumstances.”

# · Tom

Steve, Good point. It gives me
pause. I tend to agree with what you
just wrote.

# · Will

Wow! You go away for three of four days, and then you come back to find that fervent discussion has broken out…

Yes, Steve, I agree with you fully:

I suspect that there is a great deal of unconscious processing or computation involved in even our most “overt” decision-making and that the reasons we cite for these choices are probably conscious rationalizations more than they are the actual determiners of our choices. If this is how things really are, does it mean that we are mere “automatons”? I don’t worry about the labels, and I don’t feel the least bit depressed, demoralized, or devalued by thinking that our choices “arise of themselves in relation to circumstances.”

I’ll write another post about this whole topic, as I want to clarify a few things and explore a few more things…

All the best,


# · Lewis

Quite right Steve! I think that’s the big point of resistance to such an idea like this, people fear the idea of being reduced to automatons. People want to feel special, important, in control. In the end, people want to know that the successes in their lives have been down to them, that they have achieved, that it was their hard work that resulted in their good outcomes. I should know, I am one of them. Yet, it’s plain to see the sorts of advantages there are in living a life born of the flow of life rather than decided upon by an individual (and apparently quite flawed) ego. The question is, can we still claim credit for our skills and efforts? But beyond the need for self-importance, is there any need to? Rather than creating people who are lacking in confidence believing they are victims of life, I would imagine we’d see people who truly believe in themselves because they believe in the life that grows them.

# · David Harmon

Agreed, that there’s no single location for a “self”, and that many of our “reasons for doing…” are actually post-facto rationalizations. But that does not mean we have no free will, nor “self”!

The mind is an emergent phenomenon of the brain. Half the point of an emergent phenomenon is that you can’t predict the meta-level based on the base-level, without exhaustive (and impractical) simulation. But the other half, is that the meta-level can have its own structures and governing rules. Psychology attempts to explore those, but it’s still at a fairly primitive level compared with, say, biology.

What I suspect you folks are actually doing, is suppressing your verbal self-narrative, thus becoming more aware of the sub-verbal processes of your mind. But that’s not really renouncing free will, it’s just letting your ego “go limp” for a while. Not necessarily a bad thing to do, but I wouldn’t idealize it as “enlightenment”. (And verbal thought does have it’s uses!)

Similarly, “self-awareness” makes heavy use of the verbal self-narrative, but doesn’t really need it. “The self is what is aware”. But that awareness seems to be represented in our brains by a cyclical flow of data—continuously fed by the senses, but also continuing to “echo” between associative and interpretive areas. The “seat of awareness” is the entire brain, and the homunculus is ourself.

# · indifferent children

> Half the point of an emergent phenomenon is that you can’t predict the meta-level based on the base-level, without exhaustive (and impractical) simulation.

Your statment “without exhaustive (and impractical) simulation”, means that the system is deterministic. If it is possible to predict at all, no matter how immense the effort, then the system must be deterministic.

> But the other half, is that the meta-level can have its own structures and governing rules.

A computer program can have its own structures and governing rules, but the execution of that software on a Pentium chip is absolutely deterministic, no matter how much chaos and confusion exists to muddy our understanding of those structures and governing rules.

You can “freeze” a computer’s state and save it to disk. You can then restore that state, and let it run to completion. It will behave exactly the same way, unless it reaches-out to something like a clock or input device, to change its data.

This is why computers have a real problem with ‘random number generation’. If you aren’t careful, the computer will give you the same series of ‘random’ numbers every time you run the program (because the system is deterministic). You have to ‘seed’ the random number generator with the system clock, or noise from the soundcard (some systems really do this). If you seed the RNG every time with the same value, then you will get the same list of numbers.

No, I’m not saying that the human brain is exactly like a computer, but all of your arguments about meta-level structures and rules are applicable to both systems. And those statements don’t disprove determinism.

> The mind is an emergent phenomenon of the brain.

Agreed. And the function of the brain, being governed by electro-chemical reactions, is deterministic. You can’t say that the function of a domino falling over is determined by its being hit by another domino, and then say, “But look at this 100,000 domino portrait of the Mona Lisa, I’ve built. It’s so beautiful and complex that the falling of these dominos must be non-deterministic.” All of the psychological patterns that you mention do exist, but they are manifestations of the interconnections and actions of neurons. Since these neurons individually are deterministic, the emergent phenomena that they create are deterministic, even if they are not ‘predictable’.

# · Wendy

Do you have anything in Buddhism on living without time? I am rattling around in a brain that has white matter changes, and I can’t find a focus point. You seem intropective and analytical and I can’t do that for myself anymore. I’m looking for an article on how to re-connect to this reality, while wandering around in the reality I possess. Do any leap to mind? Thanks

# · John J Patton

Here are a few wise words from someone more learned than myself. Wei Wu Wei

Whoever thinks as, from, or on behalf of, an entity which he believes himself to be, the more so if he tries to work on himself, by, with, or for such an entity – which is only a concept in mind – has not yet begun to understand what it is all about.

Of all that has to be “laid down” – conditioning, knowledge, religion, science, “self,” perhaps the most important is the idea that one lives his own life. To lay down the rest and go on thinking that one lives instead of being lived, would be an idle gesture. We do not “choose” to be born, to grow old, to be well or ill, or to die: why on Earth should we imagine that we can choose anything in between, i.e. how we live, let alone everything? We are free to understand, which means free to know ourselves as “vertical” mind – that is our one and only freedom.

The mechanism of living seems to be based on the notion that what sentient beings do is due to an act of volition on the part of each such phenomenal object. It is obvious, however, that they react rather than act, and that their living is conditioned by instinct, habit, fashion, and propaganda. Their way of life is primarily a series of reflexes, which leaves a limited scope for deliberate and considered action; that is, purposeful action which, superficially considered, might appear to be the result of volition, or what is called an act of will.

There is every reason, total evidence, to suppose that we are in fact lived, entirely and absolutely lived, like all dream figures in every sort and degree of dream, there cannot be any such factor as volition in the serial development of our lives. “Volition,” then, is not an effective element at all in phenomenal life, but one that is imagined to be such. It is in fact an expression of an I-concept, an “ego” appearing to function, and as such may be seen as pure clowning, a psychic activity which, by pretended interference in the chain of cause-and-effect, produces the reactions recognized as satisfaction or frustration, according to whether the attempted interference has been in accordance with what had to occur or has been opposed to that. Volitionally inhibiting “volition,” therefore, in no way factually effects the serial evolution of our lives, in no way has any impact on events, and endeavoring to abolish “egoic” volition can only reinforce it by such an exercise of itself.

Arguing about transcending the I-concept, ‘reducing’ the ‘power’ of the ego, or what-not, is merely evidence of continued belief in the reality of that which, being merely a concept, is totally unreal. It is like a man saying, ‘I am perfectly sane: I know that I am not a poached egg, instead I am busily engaged in unpoaching myself and soon I shall not even need a piece of toast in order to be able to sit down.’

The Saint is a man who disciplines his ego. The Sage is a man who rids himself of his ego.

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