Thursday, 28 July 2011

On The Impossibility of Free Will

Today I would like to ask you to perform an experiment.

A word of warning, first. If you're not yet free of the delusion of self, or failing that particularly emotionally stable, don't do this one until you're free. If you think that its implications apply to a "you" that exists, it could be genuinely depressing, and your mental health matters to me. In a sense, its improvement is what this blog is all about.

So. The experiment. What I'd like to ask you to do is to look around your experience and observe your thoughts and actions. There are two questions you need to answer.

1) Am I consciously constructing any of my thoughts, or are they all arriving in consciousness ready-made?

2) Am I noticing my actions while they are still at decision level, or are they already beginning when I notice them?

Take some time. What you're trying to do is identify whether there is a gap between the state of "no thought/no action" and the state of "thought arising/action taking place", a gap in which you consciously cause the thought or action.

I can't find one. I'd already realised that thoughts always arrive in consciousness (so to speak) fully-formed as verbal sentences or visual images or physical sensations, and that therefore there is no room for "me" to be involved in constructing them.

Now I've come to see that the same is true of actions. By the time I notice an action taking place, it's already begun. That means even if there was an "I" capable of volition, there would simply be no room, no opportunity for it to exercise it. By the time something's happening, it is too late. All that can happen on a conscious level is a thought of taking credit.

Again, make sure you check this out for yourself. Be rigorous. Can you notice a thought or action before it's in progress? Or is it already happening by the time you become aware of it? Don't take your thoughts on the matter at their word. Check thoroughly.

For me, this has been the biggest realisation since no-self so far - realisation as in a thing that actually permanently alters how I experience the world, rather than an insight (which I use to refer to new intellectual understandings). Not only is there no me to be responsible for thoughts and actions, it isn't even theoretically possible for a me to do so if it existed.

One more thing. We often think that we have a thought, and then we act on that thought. This is not the case. Thoughts do not cause actions. Test this by performing actions without thinking about them first, such as scratching your nose, helping yourself to a snack from an open container or diving in front of a truck to push a loved one out of the way.

So. There is no gap in which thoughts are constructed or decisions are transformed into actions. Is this true?

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