Sometime soon I will have to stop rising to what is said about free will. I started this posting in response to K. Smith’s article (see citation below) because the article seemed a way to confuse rather than to clarify. I almost finished when I read the sensible blog by Bjoern Brembs (here) with which I largely agree. It did not cover all my problems with Smith’s article but enough make me simply change course. I confined myself to one interesting passage rather than the rest of the badly done article.
Haynes’s research and its possible implications have certainly had an effect on how he thinks. He remembers being on a plane on his way to a conference and having an epiphany. “Suddenly I had this big vision about the whole deterministic universe, myself, my place in it and all these different points where we believe we’re making decisions just reflecting some causal flow.” But he couldn’t maintain this image of a world without free will for long. “As soon as you start interpreting people’s behaviours in your day-to-day life, it’s virtually impossible to keep hold of,” he says.
The Haynes quote is interesting. I have had such moments of clarity from time to time where I am part of a ‘causal flow’ (although I would describe myself and my surroundings as physical reality rather than deterministic universe). I would be very surprised if this was a rare image although it is probably not common either.
Here is an aside – as regular readers of my blog will know, I disagree with determinism as much as I disagree with free will. Here is a condensed version for those who have not encountered previous blogs on this subject on my site. Both free will and determinism are flawed, outdated ideas. I think that we make decisions using only material brains and physical processes but the decisions are not very predictable and we are usually responsible for them. Causal does not necessarily mean predictable. I do not think that consciousness has much to do with decision making or any other cognitive process. But whether decisions can or cannot contain some conscious processes along with unconscious ones, either way, it does not affect our ownership of our decisions. I am more interested in my decisions being appropriate than free and I am more interested in how decision are made than in arguments about free will and determinism. This way of looking at things is partially due to a similar image to the one Haynes reports.
Beside the Haynes like image, there is an image that I have much, much more often and that I find very comforting. I seem to be very whole and full of rhythms of heart beat, breathing, walking, blinking – not distinct but intermingled. I seem in real contact with the world around me, with the thinnest of boundaries, almost nothing separates me from the rest of reality. On top of this feeling is something like a flickering movie screen – a thin insubstantial stream of consciousness. It is very comforting to feel that I am more real and more substantially than that movie. I feel part of reality rather than free of it and I do not feel like part of a clock-work type of reality but something far more complex. The image is gone when I try to actually live in the world – get things done, communicate in words and so on. The movie becomes the me-in-the-world. Now I’m in consciousness again, but also with a renewal of a deep trust and identification with the unconscious part.
Of course such images are not very well expressed in words, but words is what we have – sorry. We also have science, so we do not have to rely on vague feelings, but can work for a more accurate understanding.
Smith, K. (2011). Neuroscience vs philosophy: Taking aim at free will Nature, 477 (7362), 23-25 DOI: 10.1038/477023a