Martin LeFevre: The Will is Never Free
The Will is Never Free
A neuroscientist named Benjamin Libet made a remarkable discovery at the University of California, San Francisco in the mid-1980’s. Placing electrodes on volunteer’s skulls and forefingers, he asked them to move their finger whenever they had the urge to do so. He found, to his amazement, that his machine registered a “readiness potential” in the brain 200 milliseconds before the person was conscious of the urge!
In the words of another scientist, Libet could, “predict what the person would do before the person was actually aware of having decided to do it.” This means that rather than our decisions coming from the ‘top down,’ they are actually being made from the ‘bottom up,’ that is, from the ‘unconscious.’ Brain studies are confirming Freud’s contention that most of our mental and emotional life is unconscious, or at least subconscious.
But what does this mean for free will? It means there is no such thing--the will is never free. But does that imply our actions are always psychologically predetermined? Not necessarily. There is individual responsibility and the possibility of freedom, but they have nothing to do with conscious choice and the will.
Obviously we all face many choices; it’s the idea of freedom in choosing that is false. It implies a chooser, a supposedly separate entity. There is no such such thing; the chooser is inevitably conditioned. The sovereign ‘decider’ is a delusion.
All mental activity is conditioned to some degree. The will is the concentrated expression of the ‘me,’ and the ‘me’ is never free. It is a conditioned construct based on an illusion—the inherent separateness of the individual or group.
The self may be necessary up to a point as an organizing principle for thought, but believing in its actuality, and experiencing the world in terms of a separate ‘me,’ is the source of all division, darkness, and evil.
If one negates will, who or what then is in charge, directing one’s action and life? There is a latent intelligence within the human brain, the same undivided, unwilled, uncontrolled, and essentially uncontrollable energy within all the processes of life, from stars and galaxies to lions and hummingbirds.
When the entire mechanism of thought is no longer dominant in the brain, and the will has been negated, there is contact and communion with the source of life’s energy and drive. Humans once knew that undivided energy in a lived way, before the Agricultural Revolution. We cannot go back however, but must go forward, consciously awakening a new mind.
Being deeply aware of the movement of thought as a whole, one sees when one is looking and acting from the ‘unconscious’ content of the mind. And being mindful of this terrain (even if one doesn’t see it all), one is no longer unconscious, and one ceases looking and acting from it. That’s why it’s essential to be self-knowing.
When the content of the unconscious as well as conscious mind is still, the brain sees without the screen of symbols, memories, and conditioning. In the stillness of the mind through method-less attention to the movement of thought, the brain/mind has a completely different quality, and one simply sees the right thing to do. The illusion of ‘free will’ gives way to the actuality of freedom in attention and awareness.
Insight, clarity, and freedom are not functions of thought, but of the spaces between and the stillness of thought. The brain can and must be anchored in self-knowing and attention, rather than in symbols and memories.
Acting from stillness and insight, there is no interval, no gap between deciding and doing, because there is no illusory ‘I’ from and through which one’s actions flow. There is simply seeing and doing, and one acts with intelligence.
Control is another illusion (after separateness) to which we cling. And as we can see with governments, and especially empires, the greater the need for control, the more ruthless, violent, and malevolent they are.
One realizes each time the meditative state is awakened that at a deep level one knows nothing and is nothing. This realization is tremendously liberating, even if it lasts only a timeless minute, for it clears away the crud and lights the way ahead.
Can a sufficient minority of people in all cultures free themselves from the yoke of conditioning, and ignite a psychological revolution? Human consciousness is not inexorably attached to the useless, accumulating, crushing weight of the past. Thinking and acting out of stillness is the true basis of human freedom.
- Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. The author welcomes comments.