Do you have free will?
Updated: Feb 26, 2021
This is the question that started it all for me. I wasn't interested in investigating my mind until I had a discussion with a friend about this old philosophical debate. I started out our discussion completely certain about my free will, what "I" was and what the whole deal with life was about. But I left feeling very unsure about it all...
After this I started looking for a clear answer. Actually, I started meditating, even though I didn't know what to call it at the time. I reasoned, that if I had free will, then I could demonstrate it clearly and convince myself. If I had free will over my actions then I could prove it simply by: Taking willful action! But then I realized that in order to use this as a complete argument, I also had to figure out how an action actually came about, and how I actually created a willful action. I had to find out what the components of an action was and what I actually did in order to rationalize that "I" did anything in that process. My thoughts were this:
In taking action, there isn't only the action itself involved. Part of our will to act in daily life lies in thinking about it, considering it, checking in with how we feel, and then taking action because we choose to based on our evaluations.
Then I realized...How do I actually think? How do I feel? And how do I evaluate these?
Thinking is something we all do all the time, so obviously we can do it. But back then, it struck me as out of nowhere: I didn't know how I did it.
I closed my eyes and focused on my thoughts. I was going to observe, very carefully, how I created the next thought that would pop up in my head. After all, it was "my" thought, so I must be creating it. Right?
At first, it was all quiet in there. But before long, a thought showed up:
"I'm a thought", the thought said.
Well, duh. I didn't realize that I was going to think this thought before it was right there, in my head. I was a little startled, as I believed that thinking was something I did. But this one time I hadn't done anything. The thought had simply showed up in my mind without me doing anything. I figured I must have overlooked something, like some subtle movement of flexing my thinking muscles or something like that. So I tried again to pay attention to how I actually took part in creating my next thought:
"Blue cheese balls.. with onion rings and skittles", the thought said.
I did not see that coming! I kept my eyes closed and tried again:
"Mountain goats. With rubber coats on'em snapping snappy snap finger salads with tosses..like"
Jeez, what? What's going on!?
"Space bubblelicious space space ship goats.. goats, what's with goats? You're with goats! I'm with goats? Stop!... Blue cheese"
OK, so I kept at it for a while, looking for that thing I did, making me responsible for thinking. You know, as I believed I was. But I couldn't find it even after really concentrating for a longer time. I experienced repeatedly how "my" thoughts just appeared, as if out of nowhere and into "my" consciousness.
Then I tried something else. Instead of looking for that thing which I did in order to think, I tried to take control. I thought that "if I am responsible for thinking, then surely I should be able to stop my thought process, even for just five seconds".
I tried, and...
"Space bubblelisious space space space space ships ships yeah..."
I must have kept the thoughts back for about half a second before I could hear such another random and ridiculous thought in my mind. I was wowed. I couldn't control my thoughts in any way, neither could I predict them or change them before they were already there.
But the thoughts felt so mine. Before doing this experiment I had thought that the experiment was a good idea. I had chosen freely to do it based on my thoughts about it.. hadn't I?
The thing is this: We feel very strongly about our sense of free will; We feel that it's even too obvious to even question it. "Of course we have free will", we may think.
But let's challenge this feeling a little bit: What would be the difference be, in being fed thoughts from our body/brain without any conscious say in it, if we then simultaneously are being fed an emotion that makes it feel like we are some "I" being responsible for doing it? If that was what happened, could we even tell the difference between that and having free will over our thoughts?
And what about our emotions? They are a part of our day to day decision making too, right? For instance, if we have to choose whether to go left or right somewhere, but there's a really cute girl (or guy) and an ice cream truck to the left, then we just may feel tempted to choose to go left - even if the right route is shorter and it logically makes more sense to take it.
I won't go into as much story telling here, but I ran the same experiment with my emotions, as I did with my thoughts. The results were very similar.
I tried to see how I generated an emotion, so I sat down, closed my eyes and waited for an emotion to show up. When it did, I hadn't done anything. Neither could I hold back emotions if I tried. And I know from experience, that sometimes I just can't help but being angry, sad, happy, giggly, irritated or feeling any other emotion. I have no conscious say in this either...
The truth is, that thoughts and emotions simply happen automatically. It's like our beating heart: It just goes on and on and on... Even as we sleep, we feel and think in our dreams. But unlike the beating of our heart, we feel that we are doing something when we think and feel. We feel that we somehow are little entities, little "me", sitting behind our eyelids pulling the strings, making stuff happen, thinking thoughts and making decisions based on them.
I later discovered that our emotions are a product of something we feel or think. It can be a touch of something, a pain, something pleasant, something warm or cold; or it can be the words we hear from a person we speak to; or it can be a thought, such as an image of our own sweet mother. This can make us feel warm. Similarly, the thought of that annoying guy from work can make us feel irritated.
Apparently, that body/mind thing works together in ways I didn't realize before I started observing it for myself.
But anyway, I was now completely uprooted! I had directly observed how I did not have any conscious or willful say in what I think and feel. And yet, I still felt like it was me doing the thinking, feeling my feelings and acting out of free will.
But what about basic decision making? I must have some free will in that, right?
But what does the science say?
In the world of science, consciousness is still a complete mystery and therefore the discussion of free will isn't completely settled.
However, scientific experiments have proven that regardless of what free will we may have, we are definitely also fooled big time in regard to this issue.
One example is Benjamin Libet's decision making experiment. In 1983 he sought to test this so called "free will" by measuring people's brain activity as they were hooked up to an experimental setup. They were asked to flick their wrist at random times, whenever they decided out of free will. These people could choose to wait for a long time, or they could flick their wrists all the time. The point was, that they had to act based on their "free will" as soon as they had decided.
The interesting thing with this experiment was, that even though people thought they had chosen to act when they did, brain activity exclusively associated with taking that action had been building up for several seconds before. This suggested that the brain had started taking action before this thought and feeling of "I choose to do it now" came about.
Similarly to what I experienced in my own series of experiments, this suggests that we are not so much in control of these things as we may believe. Neither thoughts, feelings or basic decisions to move are completely in our conscious control. In fact, it looks as if they very much aren't.
So why do we still feel that we are in control of these things?
It may just be a mechanism which gives us the feeling of "I am in control". I believe it's very closely related to thinking and how we identify with this...
The left brain interpreter
Another really, really cool type of experiments prove that we are fooled when it comes to our sense of free will: Split brain experiments.
Split brain patients literally have their brain cut down through the middle. This has been done in the past to stop epileptic seizures. And oddly enough, it worked! Nowadays we have drugs that can do the same, so we no longer have a supply of people with split brains to do experiments with. But anywho...
People with split brains no longer have a communicating left and right brain hemisphere, which means that we can talk with them without them knowing it! Let me explain.
Because the left brain hemisphere only sees things that come in through the right side of our visual field, and vice versa, we can hold up a sign to the right side of such a person, and only their left brain "sees it" (and vice versa). The left brain is where the thinking part of our brain is, the so-called left brain interpreter, so this person would be able to read the sign, think the words out loud, and tell you what the sign said.
However, if we held up a sign to the left of this person, he wouldn't be able to read it and to think about it. He also wouldn't be able to tell you what the sign said. But something interesting can happen, because this persons right brain hemisphere still receives the message.
Michael Gazzaniga held up a sign to the left of one of his split-brain patients that said "Smile". The patient then smiled, as a response, making it clear that his right brain hemisphere had gotten the message. Gazzaniga then asked his patient "why do you smile?". Instead of saying something like "Well, you just showed me a sign which ordered me to smile", like you would expect, the patient said "What do you want, a sad face? Who wants a sad face around?"
>>This person didn't even know why he smiled, but his left brain came up with an explanation which would justify what he did!<<
This is just mind blowing to me, because it confirms exactly what I could observe for myself in my own meditation experiments: That my thoughts happen automatically and make me believe that I created them. The mind blowing thing is this: We believe those thoughts, very, very much. Even when they're not true.
One big reason why I think it is important to study ourselves, from a scientific point of view, is that I don't like to fool myself! And experiments like the ones described simply show us that we are fooled. But luckily, these things (No Self, a central teaching of the Buddha) can be observed, just as I described in my experiment above. Here it was observed that our "selves" weren't part of our thinking, feeling and decision making processes even though we feel that "we" are.
As rationally minded people, we ought to align our perception to what science tells us about the world and ourselves. The Scientific Meditator is simply about learning to see in a way that is in alignment with scientific findings - hence the name.
I hope that you won't find these no-self experiments too scary or off putting. Before ending, I will make a short remark about the effect it has on you to realize and to observe these things: It's very freeing.
Yes, it's tempting to take the basic spiritual Truths like "everything is impermanent" and "there is no self" and "nothing will satisfy you" and just get all depressed. But know that this can only happen if you intellectualize about it, and turn your actual, experienced reality into a philosophy, rather than an experience. - Nihilism is likely to emerge from thinking too much about the truths of life, and I don't recommend doing this. Instead, go live your life by submerging yourself with reality in all of its five senses. Don't stick exclusively to just the thinking part of your reality. After all, we just saw how deceiving our thoughts can be. Don't hang your whole world on that little part of what life is, but use it whenever it is useful.
As with everything on the spiritual path of insight, you absolutely have to (HAVE TO!) observe these things directly for yourself, and not just think about them. When you do, it won't matter what nihilistic thoughts you may have about it, but you'll gain freedom. Seeing = freedom.
There is a lot of freedom, of mind and heart, to be gained by realizing (read: Observing directly for yourself, NOT thinking about it) these things. That is the whole point. The above presentation of scientific results and personal experimentation is simply an example of how the spiritual truth of No Self can begin to be approached, both scientifically and experientially. It started like this for me, and who knows? Maybe it started some curiosity in you as well...