People concerned about the existence, or non-existence, of free will usually acquaint themselves with the issue by reading philosophical literature. The literature on the subject goes back hundreds of years, often intersecting with theological interpretations. There is a growing body of scientific literature on the subject, which can be categorized as the “neuroscience of free will.”
I should like to propose a self test for free will, that is an exercise that an individual can perform that may have the end result of convincing one that “free will” is ultimately an illusion. Unlike testing for things like exoplanets or novel viruses, this test requires no esoteric machinery, as the perception that one has “free will” is purely subjective. We don’t even need the sort of exotic devices used in the tests performed by Benjamin Libet and others.
First off, the exercise requires that one meditate. For those who already meditate, this should be no problem. For those that don’t simply sit comfortably in silence, in a chair or comfortably cross legged. Close your eyes and concentrate on your breathing. There is no need to modify how you breath; simply pay close attention to the rise and fall of the breath within the chest. Relax as many muscles as deeply as you can. The goal here is to try to pay close attention to the somatic sensations of breathing, in real time, instead of the thoughts, perceptions, words, and images that naturally enter our stream of consciousness. It’s an amazingly difficult exercise! To be free of words entering the mind for even a few seconds is hard. Nevertheless, with perseverance it becomes possible, at least for moments.
Now become aware of the ~nature~ of the thoughts entering the mind. Most will be associational in nature, that is they will be copies of thoughts you had earlier in the day. You may be considering the tasks you need to do today. You may be imagining a pleasant event that is scheduled to occur later, or mulling over an event that continues to preoccupy you. Mulling over is essentially creating modified copies of thoughts, an associational process. It’s a non-optimal sort of association. Imagine a word association exercise in which one repeatedly answers “cat” to the stimulus of the word “cat” instead of “dog” or “fur.” This is natural, and attests to the less than optimum software that runs our minds. This software was not designed by an “Intelligent Designer” but is a product of evolution. Why do we need to “tell ourselves” things we already know? Why do our minds repeat the same idea over and over again? At the very least this form of largely associational mental functioning, even during meditation, is familiar. It’s unlikely any productive insight will occur during this sort of habitual process.
Most likely, a truly novel word, image, or impression will eventually present itself in your stream of consciousness. It may take several attempts at meditation for this to occur, if one is not already practicing. I still remember the specific image that occurred to me that produced the insight I’m trying to share: During meditation, a memory, tempered by imagination, entered my mind. I saw the shoreline of the Bitterroot River in Missoula, but from the perspective of being in the middle of the river. I had been on the shoreline before, but not in the water. The image was a hybrid of true memory plus imagination.
At this moment my meditation was completely disrupted by the insight that free will is an illusion. For “I” simply did not “chose” this unique visual image at all, it simply entered my mind. The image of the river was striking because of its utter uniqueness. There was no preceding cogitation of rivers, rafting, water, shorelines, or any sort of similar thought. At this moment it was crystal clear to me that there was simply no act of “choice” that occurred in my mind. The notion of choice is integral to the concept of free will, as if we do not choose what thoughts enter our minds or choose what actions to perform we concede that we are, in an ultimate sense, deterministic. If one counters that “free will” is the ability to choose amongst multiple behavioral or cognitive pathways, then indeed we have that ability. Yet the choice to act is yet another impression that simply enters the mind, just like a visual impression of the Bitterroot river. The choice itself has deterministic antecedents, albeit highly complex ones. This is the ultimate sense in which “free will” is illusory.
Why must this exercise occur during meditation? Because meditation is a very effective way of reducing the barrage of stimuli that enter our minds. Meditation is a way of reducing that barrage so the insight of how the contents of our minds simply ~enters~ the stream of consciousness, and is not “chosen” can occur.
Consider that most of our daily thoughts are associative or repetitive in nature. Isn’t this more or less a concession that those thoughts are essentially habitual and mechanical, and thus far less “chosen” than truly unique impressions? Once one becomes more perceptually attuned to “where” ideas come from that enter our streams of consciousness, it becomes easier to notice this process happening in our prosaic day-to-day lives, not just during meditation. I should like to propose that the FAMILIARITY of our habitual associational thoughts is largely responsible for producing the illusion of “free will.”
For those wishing to research this novel, and admittedly counterintuitive, idea further, I would highly recommend the work of Sam Harris. He is the author of a small book on the issue, as well as a 12 minute video now on YouTube that explains the idea very clearly.
In Sam Harris’ latest podcast, a more direct statement of this notion is given at about an hour and 5 minutes into the presentation:
Q: How often should we be aware of the illusion of free will? Should it serve a more reflective function, rather than happen in real time?
A: Well, for me a direct awareness of the illusoriness of free will, the very clear sense that the notion of free will doesn’t name anything in my experience this is more or less coincident with a moment of mindfulness or a moment of meditation where I’m clearly aware of how thoughts and intentions and desires and their subsequent actions arise spontaneously. Something is not there a moment ago, and then suddenly it’s there. And all of one’s mental life, even the most voluntary behavior has this character when you look at it in a fine-grained way. But I think the most important understanding of it is reflective, certainly the most important ethical implications are born of reflecting on this truth about us. It is just an understanding that people are operating on the basis of everything that has made them who they are, and that they are not agents in the deepest possible sense.