Free Will and the Non-Self

The force of habit, the readiness to do things signaled by activation potentials in the brain before it has ever entered into our consciousness… neuroscience has been looking at the matter of free will, and it looks as though “how to truly live in this world” is a silly thing to ask. We live here anyways, as the bodies we are, tossed and turned by reaction patterns – but without quite as much conscious control as we believe ourselves to have.

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Little Mind, Less Control?

For one, as creatures of habit, we may be living in this world anyways, but not “truly,” consciously.

We can fall into habits without even becoming / having to be conscious of our doing that – which is the whole point of habits: They make it possible to do things without having to think about them. And, as that shows, thinking is overrated. Conscious awareness of a motion, for example, takes up a lot of attention, conscious control costs a lot of energy – and if the brain is one thing, it is an energy hog. Therefore, it has to be focused on conserving energy.

Secondly, many decisions apparently create an activation potential, e.g. telling muscles to get ready, before this decision to get ready ever gets into consciousness. So, the actual process is not so much “see a ball thrown towards you, decide to catch it, tell the muscles to get in motion and calculate how,” but rather more like “notice the ball thrown towards you, get the muscles ready, then tell the conscious mind that maybe it should also see there’s a ball coming at you and believe it’s decided to catch it while already doing just that.”

There is no formal, conscious decision making of the kind we imagine to be taking place. Therefore – or so the reasoning goes – there is no conscious, free will. There is, apparently, the power to notice the decision that’s already been made subconsciously and potentially to stop it once it gets into consciousness. Take addiction, though, and it’s clearly more than difficult. You may know that smoking is unhealthy, you may really want to quit – and yet…

However, there is another side to these things. A side that delves into the issue of living deeply in this world, as these bodies – and full human beings – we are and the creatures who may want and are able to become better, learn more, that we can be.

Learning Incomprehendingly

Daniel C. Dennett recently pointed out how evolutionary theory and the idea of artificial intelligence shared a common foundational idea, and one that is so against how we imagine learning to take place that it makes us reject them both with a vengeance: Competence without comprehension.

Our usual idea of learning is that we have to sit down, put our head to the books, pay attention to the teacher, repeat the words, the concepts, the definitions, the formulas until we remember them, think about and practice the proper ways to apply them, until we finally understand and are then able to apply them.

Really, though, it is also possible for a process of mere trial-and-error to come to pretty good “conclusions.” Darwin’s finches developed a variability in beak lengths and shapes, and developed into different species using different resources. In the end, it all looks planned and designed to be just about perfectly fitting, but it was all not taking place according to a conscious plan, but through trial and error over generations.

We do, in fact, learn like that.

Not necessarily with trial-and-error, let alone (only) over generations, but from examples all around us and with the lots of practice that they provide.
We don’t, after all, wait until we have understood our mother tongue before we speak it, we just start babbling as babies, and the sounds and structures we need for successful communications get reinforced, the others get weeded out.
We don’t actually even know much of how the languages we know best function.

Rather, we simply know that something is right – because it feels right, because we have become competent in it. (This, too, may actually be one of the energy-saving devices of the brain: don’t involve the higher-level conscious mind if you don’t have to; comprehension – such as, being able to explain, put into rules, reflect upon something – adds a whole new layer of meaning, and an energy-draining practice that isn’t needed for everyday interaction.)

The opposite may, in fact, apply:  if we have been learning a new skill by consciously studying and applying its rules and structures, real mastery requires that it become automatic, that we can push it out of conscious control and into the realm of those skills that we just have.

Rather similar to how habits – and actually, addictions – work, competence emerges all the stronger the more the thinking (and judging and controlling – and reflecting) conscious mind disappears. We cannot enter a state of flow, a feeling of things being just as they should be, us performing at the top of our abilities, if we have the voice of consciousness whispering its judgments and orders.

Just take a look at professional athletes, or remember yourself doing some sports (or driving a car, or cooking): It works best when the conscious mind disappears, when there seems to be no “I” performing that action, but only the action being performed. Flow.
On the other hand, as soon as there is a mistake, thinking starts, worrying takes over – and there is a reflecting, wondering, worrying “I” that distracts from the performance itself.

Overcoming bad habits or even addictions, apparently, takes a lot of conscious attention. We can change when we are aware of the cues that trigger certain behaviors, and when we expend the effort to control them, channel them into new and better, constructive, alternatives. To make them stick, though, it seems necessary once again to forget about the conscious mind at some point.

For one, these alternative patterns have to become new standard behaviors – habits. That’s not the only way they turn less conscious, though. Part of the way to avoid falling into the old habits is not to try and control them, but to tap into the idea of a higher power that guides to better. Yes, people still like to call that “god.”

Learning Good

What I “believe” it is, actually, is the power of learning something (whether by comprehension or competence) to a high level (so that it can become automatic), all the while knowing that it is a good skill or habit – and learning it so that it is good. “It has become second nature,” as the phrase goes.

Particularly good/noticeable examples of this approach in action come from East Asian (learning) cultures… There, apprenticeship in quite many fields, from arts via craft work to the martial arts, has traditionally been not by the learning of overt rules and the carefully explained comprehension of all the required steps, but by consistent practice, copying and correction by a master of that field.
The aim is not to explicitly, verbally comprehend and be able to explain and do everything, but to be/become able to achieve mastery oneself by letting the necessary techniques become second nature. In effect, one (consciously) aims to come to a point where it is not necessary to verbalize and think about the necessary steps involved, but to simply do, without much of any involvement of conscious ego.

Martial arts, to me, is the example that makes the alternative conceptualization of free will, as something that “I” do without having to involve my conscious self *when and if it is better* most apparent.

The worst you could do as you are being attacked is to start thinking about it; you have to react – but appropriately. Especially if you are trained properly, you will not (while in the situation, anyways) be conscious of what you are doing; you will just react. And yet, there will be enough involvement of the conscious mind to keep you from going too far; there is not just instinct. Your body may show activation – of course, I do not have the brain scans for that, though – appropriate for the next reaction without the conscious mind yet having made that decision. And yet, there is something we may want to call free will. For one, because the reaction is not entirely automatic but adapts as the situation changes, and secondly, because it was you who made the decision, albeit a long time ago, to prepare yourself for such a situation.

To make it both second nature and a “good” reaction, then, does not require free will in the sense that one is constantly, consciously, aware of every pattern of behavior. Rather, the range of available patterns that can be cued was expanded by learning a whole range of appropriate reactions, and by learning them all within the bounds of a system aiming for certain ends – and thus, conscious ego can largely be taken out of the equation, yet the behavior, the reactions, aim for a higher degree of freedom and pertinence, gained by an “unconsciousness” that is more aware of the situation at hand and “habitual” (re)actions that are driving towards better.

Of course, it’s not enough to “just be yourself” for that, and it takes a system of learning that is oriented towards better ends, not devoid of virtue and morality…

2 thoughts on “Free Will and the Non-Self

  1. An easy way to conclude that free will is impossible is to realize that our choices can either be caused or random, that both prospects prohibit free will, and that there is no third option. This reasoning addresses the question at it’s heart, rendering all other considerations relatively inconsequential.

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