Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Illusion of Free Will

I recently finshed reading Sam Harris' latest book, The Moral Landscape - How Science Can Determine Human Values. Among the many interesting questions Harris raises (which I will return to later) is the question of Free Will particularly from the perspective of what modern neurobiological research is finding. Our ordinary psychological state presupposes that we are the authors of our actions. We experience a sense of deliberation and intentionality about the actions, thoughts, and feelings that arise from our field of consciousness.

And yet, if we confront the large body of scientific data about the operation of the human brain, a different reality presents itself. There are cascades of neural events that precede the phenomena of which we may be consciously aware (our thoughts, feelings, field of vision, movements). We have little or no awareness of this level of processing and it operates in timeframes and on a scale quite different from our sense of ordinary consciousness. Harris quotes a famous study by physiologist Benjamin Libet that demonstrated that activity in the brain's motor regions can be detected approximately 350 milliseconds before a person feels that he or she has decided to move. He reports another study that used fMRI data to show that in some cases activity begins as much as 10 seconds before the "conscious decision" even entered the subject's field of awareness.

Harris concludes:

The truth seems inescapable: I, as the subject of my experience, cannot know what I will think or do until a thought or intention arises; and thoughts and intentions are caused by physical events and mental stirrings of which I am not aware.

This conclusion is not so distant from the conclusions reached by certain spiritual traditions. The perspective on ordinary conscious awareness shared by traditions such as Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta, and Gurdjieff's Fourth Way speaks to the intrinsic emptiness or non-existence of the common conception of the self. Gurdjieff goes so far as to challenge followers of his teaching to recognize their own "nullity" as a critical step in establishing a different relationship to one's Being. That both ancient and more modern spiritual traditions could reach such conclusions without the benefit of fMRIs suggests that the intuition of the illusory nature of our sense of free will may be available to us directly through a rigorous and honest process of self inquiry.

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