Free will, what else?

The will is not free in the meaning of “costing nothing”. It is actually quite expensive to use and may be exhausted by sufficient temptation. But it exists as a possibility by necessity – a thing that cannot not be.

I am half amused, half embarrassed on behalf of the people who think hooking the brain up to some kind of scanner can prove or disprove free will. Mostly disprove, it seems. Which is pointless indeed, since free will cannot be disproved. It exists by definition. Just like you cannot disprove the circularity of a circle, you cannot disprove the freedom of will. It is an intrinsic property of will itself, and without it we can no longer talk about will, or about choice, or even about action.

In fact, without free will, we cannot talk at all. After the stage where babies just make sounds randomly, speaking is essentially an expression of will. Even if something is true, we can decide not to say it, and often do. Even if we believe something is false, we can still say it, and this is also quite common. Furthermore, the form of our statement and its tone are also of our choosing. If we then were to say “There is no free will”, this would automatically and by definition expand to “There is no free will and I can’t help saying this”, which – since we have no control over what we say – resolves to “I can’t help making sounds”, which is not a very useful information at all if we already hear you making sounds. Since the sounds we make no longer convey any information about our internal states of mind, except perhaps in the case of screams and moans, we have successfully reverted to the animal stage of communication, and of thinking.

Free will is necessary for a human to be human. In fact, without the possibility of free will, a human would precisely not be human, but rather only human in potential. If the potential for free will was lost, then also humanity. If you cannot even choose what you think, then you don’t actually exist. “I don’t think, therefore I ain’t. I think.”

What we should be looking at instead is how science elucidates the nature of free will. To deny its existence is, as shown above, meaningless and resolves to contradiction in terms, much like the statement “This sentence is a lie.” But what we can disprove, and probably have disproved, is the idea that all choices are enacted by the speech centers of the brain. This is where the “talking consciousness” is located, it would seem. The inner monologue that translates our outer and inner experiences into a narrative, the story of our lives, which is the form in which it is usually stored and remembered in the brain.

It was a peculiar idea in the first place that this specialized brain function should be the origin of our will. I cannot offhand think of any religion or philosophy that has made such a claim. Anyone with more than trivial experience in meditation know how far this is from the truth. Most eastern forms of meditation serve to quiet this narrator function by occupying it with a different task, such as repeating a mantra, counting to ten, or watching closely some sense input like the passage of the breath or the flame of a candle.  As most meditators can attest, this does not suddenly cause the entire mind to come to rest. Rather, there is revealed a frantic activity that is not at all under conscious control, and can only indirectly be influenced.

And you had not really needed to go that far. Even the Christian concept of temptation should ring a bell here. Unless you are following some heretic wild goose and think that temptations come from other people, in plain contradiction to the Biblical claim that we are tempted as we are lured and drawn in by our own desire. What this clearly shows is that the deciding will cannot be alone in the head, otherwise there would not be anyone “else” there to present the desire to the will as an alternative. Likewise when we have the opportunity to do good and decide not to (which is described in the Bible as a sin), clearly there is some fellow occupant of the brain who is presenting the case for doing something, and we reject it.

So whether you’re a westerner or an easterner, unless you are painfully ignorant of the most basic concepts of your surrounding culture, you should be aware that there are processes in your head initiating action before you become aware of them. The later you become aware of them, in fact, the more momentum they tend to have. If a monk becomes aware of a sexual temptation when the compass needle of his mind begins to move away from Heaven, it will be rather easier to resist than if he notices nothing until the “compass needle” of his body has begun moving. By then it is quite a bit harder to stay calm. (Don’t ask me how I know this if you can’t guess.)

In any case, we have free will, but actually exerting our will takes an effort, and will can become tired much like a muscle, and can be trained much like a muscle. There is much to say about the nature of free will and our illusions about it. Oh, so much. But to just write it off as “free will does not exist” is painfully ignorant and shows an intense desire to believe something impossible. If free will did not exist, you could never know it.

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