One of the problems in arguing against free will is how completely compelling the idea of our subjective lived experience is in consideration of action taken. So whenever we feel that we are making a choice about an action, it gives us what appears like evidence of volition. If we give anecdotal evidence any weight in our considerations, it would appear as though there is no argument and we are of course capable of free will… But this doesn’t really fare well when you look deeper.
The big example I like to start with is the idea of the infant brain and the development of motor functions. When we look at a baby, flailing around unable to get what it wants, we are already seeing real evidence that what we desire and how we will get it cannot simply be an issue of will creating action. If we had total free will, there would be no need for the discipline associated with the time it takes to learn. When thinking of something like an infant’s brain, we have what is essentially a bunch of switches already turned on, and the desire of the infant triggering those options at random until the outcome wanted is reached (literally). At that point the connection which led to the result has two things happen to it. First, the pathway which led to the desired outcome is reinforced through different chemical processes, and secondly, surrounding connections which interfere with accomplishing the goal are trimmed away. Babies essentially start with a library of instinctive preset switches all turned on. Depending on the environment that human is being brought up in, the synaptic connections which best suit the need are optimized for the use. To put it another way, every choice has been made and is turned on, and what allows the final capacity to achieve the desired outcome is trimming away choices that don’t work. This gives an initial instinctive subset of options to start from and hone down until they become useful for the environment the child is reared in.
This does not describe the entire process, and some pathways also grow once variations on the needed outcomes are required, but the basic concept is there. This way evolution has optimized for a relatively infinite amount of subtle variation to hone the outcomes for specific environments and conditions.
As we get older, the trimming and reinforcing never stops. As experiences happen, observation logs experience and the connections are constantly seeking out how to optimize for need. This process is almost entirely subconscious, and even often not relating to consciousness at all, but simply the need to keep the system of mass complexity as efficient as possible.
Whenever we approach a new situation that we have yet to experience, we draw on all of the connections that were previously honed. The brain uses pathways as similar as it can to the intention of the desired outcome, and as the action is repeated and repeated, new pathways are created and convergence of pathways occurs to optimize the extreme efficiencies the brain is capable of.
What this shows us is that at every step, what we are actually doing is accessing the choices we already programmed in through previous experience and applying to a similar variation. Discipline is the act of creating networks of preprogramming we can then access after the fact through unconscious intuitive action, in the now. Masters of any discipline will be very clear in saying that when they are “acting” to accomplish their goal, there is no conscious choice about it, but that they are in the “zone”.
It’s a neat trick of consciousness that allows us to believe we are in control of our own actions.
What we perceive as the path from desire to willed result, is that we chose to take an action to get what we wanted, where really we already made all of those choices previously and that action is accessing those preprogrammed choices in the now. It’s a neat trick of consciousness that allows us to believe we are in control of our own actions.
So the question is, when exactly do we make actual choices? My proposition is that choice is only possible in the reflection of previous action. There’s a good reason for this as well. Conscious deliberation, or any pre-frontal cortex operation the so-called “executive” brain are a part of, are part of a newer evolved and far less efficient system of the brain. It acts as a coprocessor (to continue using information system analogies) accessing the subconscious ocean of thought to bring just a scarce few aspects to the forebrain so the higher brain functions can give the illusion of a conscious process to our sense of self. This part of the brain may be less efficient but is a lot more flexible. It contains the constructs we call identity and believe to make us fully conscious. It processes whatever is currently pulled from memory and is actively being held as what the world is. In this space, we get some opportunity to take in the interfacing of the sensory reality and deliberate on what it might mean, so adding a very small layer of variability to the output of the stored processes.
So here’s the illusion, and here’s the trick… What is choice, where is it made, and when is it made relative to action in the now? When you walk you are accessing low-level motor processing that unconsciously compensates for thousands of variables per second. There is no real will there, as that much processing cannot be contained in the conscious mind. We then say the point of will comes in deciding the direction we choose to go, however, our desires and impulses are also preprogrammed in, driving the human animal to survive, so not much choice there either. Then we say it’s the specific motivation we are rationally considering which we have chosen to direct ourselves to, but even when you have a conversation you are accessing stored information as a stream of consciousness you could never hold all at once in your thoughts, so still not immediately conscious.
At every step, we can describe how the action being taken are the result of previous experiences and don’t even require some notion of unbonded will for actions to get desired results. We might even say that without the necessary causal chains that cascade to create the illusions of choice we think we made, free will would be a nonsense concept, as being free from the connections drawn upon to make choices would mean there would be no context for understanding any reason to make a choice to begin with.
So, it might be that there is no version of action we can describe where conscious processes have any but the smallest amount of effect on the outcomes of action. It’s very hard to find any. Things like advertising and addiction wouldn’t exist if we could just choose not to be affected by them. But we can’t. We require the discipline of time and reflective deliberation, almost entirely in the subconscious mind, to slowly build the synaptic options which change the behaviors we want. So being addicted to a drug at one point in your life, and successfully kicking it later, would mean that the next time you did something with an addictive substance, you have already built the pathways into your capacity to then fight the compulsions someone without that discipline could not. And because the brain is adaptive, these capacities are often capable of working cross-purpose as well, so because one has taken the time being disciplined in anything, the capacity to quickly adapt to new conditions is built in. This shows how just because something is new to you, doesn’t mean that choice is why you can figure it out quickly.
I’m sure this all sounds very deterministic, but I think that is more a misunderstanding of the nature of reality and systems. Understanding the fundamental realities of how systems work only sounds oppressive when you are coming from a place of being deluded by your own beliefs in your choices being free. That is the real prison, as whatever choice is available in reflection isn’t even seen, and you are effectively entirely passively affected by what you experience. The real liberation comes from realizing your limitations and the nature of the reality you inhabit so you can build in the processes that make the reflective deliberation more effective. So essentially the more you assert the delusion of free will, the more likely it is that you have less capacity to determine your own condition. As always you humans-trying to use control leaves you powerless over the outcomes, whereas the acceptance of limitations is the path to overcoming them, and whatever area that choice does exist in offers you the opportunity to participate in how you are being programmed and conditioned.
That is where choice is, that is where power is, that is where liberation is, and that is where we can find the tools needed to develop our conscious capacity. Asserting our dominance and making claims of our rights over nature are paths to self-immolation, and will only prove that we never really did understand ourselves well enough to transcend our nature.
But you know … If you can point to some other place where you think choice exists in actual will, and have good arguments for it, I’d love to hear it. I just can’t find it, anywhere. And I don’t think this means we exist imprisoned, but instead more liberated than delusion would leave us otherwise. If we can accept it, then we can grow.
This is one part of many to conditioning the mind to understand how to navigate the present reality. When we can let go of so many preconceptions that hold us back, then we have ears to hear ideas about our world and social systems that we currently don’t allow ourselves to. While this isn’t a part of “The Broken World” series itself, it describes a part of the thinking necessary to understanding what is being said and why it matters.