In this post, I plan to expand on my earlier post “Free Will” by explaining what I take to be the nature of the experience of free will. In other words, when I say that I observe my free will, what am I actually saying?
The primary attribute of the experience of free will is that I observe myself doing something, as opposed to being passively receptive of my sensory input and emotions, the spontaneous thoughts that sometimes emerge from my subconscious, and the other non-volitional aspects of my mental life.
It is readily observable that I can drift, i.e., I can relax the mental reins and let myself be pulled along by whatever feelings or thoughts I find myself with. In this state, a person does not criticize or analyze the feelings or thoughts that they are having – they do not wake up and ask “why do I feel this way? What might be causing this emotion right now?” or “is this inference valid? Do I really have good evidence for this belief of mine?” (One is almost inclined to conclude that this is the state determinists think we are always in, since it so accurately depicts their conception of the human mind as a passive, responsive entity.)
It is also readily observable that I can focus, i.e., I can use effort to bring my cognitive resources to bear on an issue. This is the moment when we wake up and start asking questions and rigorously analyzing the answers that we get, looking for concrete examples to test our generalizations against, and so on. Focus allows us to do two things.
First, focus allows us to narrow in on a specific issue. Our subconscious is constantly presenting us with a variety of different thoughts that are relevant to our current situation, and we do not directly control which thoughts it presents to us, as determinists love to point out. However, we do have the ability to direct our attention to specific items that our subconscious presents us with. If I have the sequence of thoughts “capitalism is good; capitalism depends on money; money is the root of all evil,” I have the ability to notice that there is something inconsistent here, then work on analyzing the claim that capitalism is good and the claim that money is the root of all evil in a disciplined fashion until I figure out what is wrong.
Second, focus allows us to draw connections between different issues. I was once writing an essay on Descartes when I realized that I would better understand Descartes’ ontological argument if I went back to the original author of the ontological argument, Anselm. This enabled me to find a connection between the problem of universals in Descartes and Anselm and their respective ontological arguments. If I wasn’t paying attention, I wouldn’t have been able to find this connection. Our ability to draw connections is also related to our ability to narrow in, because the better we have analyzed our beliefs in detail, the stronger the connections we will be able to draw between disparate issues.
So I think it should be clear that focus is starkly distinct from drift. When we focus, we observe ourselves doing something – whether that something be analyzing a specific issue in a disciplined fashion or synthesizing different issues together. During drift, we just sit there and watch the parade of thoughts and feelings that our subconscious spins out before us. These observations lend strong support to the claim that we have free will in the libertarian sense, and are not merely passive automatons, as determinists claim.