The Experience of Free Will

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.


One thought on “The Experience of Free Will

  1. dstamps2173

    Although I have never sat down and discussed the determinist view of reality with a determinist, I have my doubts that you have properly presented their point of view. You also overlook a possibility that would better explain the Reality we experience.

    You use terms like I, thoughts, etc. in supporting libertarianism. You fail to mention that the concept of I (Soul) and thoughts (Mind) are in two separate time frames. I is always in the present; but thoughts have occurred when we recognize them. They are in the past. I is expression while thoughts are manifestation. You cannot have expression unless a Cause is expressed first. Therefore, Cause is essentially the Future relative to I. You call this Cause the subconscious; but it is essentially above our “I am” in the order of reality. A more accurate proper view would be viewing it as Super Conscious. The order of any reality is cause –> expression –> manifestation, and it only works in one direction. Therefore, manifestation cannot look into its cause–only cause can evaluate itself based on what is manifested.

    Biblically, cause, expression, and manifestation are the heart, soul, and mind of any living being.

    If we now view the 3 levels of a living being, we could say they are on different planes of existence separated by time–although that time is very small indeed.
    Our heart can “see” the I it expresses as who we are. It can also “see” what is in our mind and any lower planes of existence representing the outer manifestation.

    Obviously, individually, we have not created the outer manifestation. We have the ability to manipulate it within the bounds of our limitations; but we did not create it. One reason we know this is that there is evidence that it existed before we did. Based on what we see in ourselves, it is logical to assume that the outer manifestation is the past relative to an expression and the Cause that expressed it. Anytime, a Cause is expressed, a manifestation will also always occur. Therefore, expression is merely the limits Cause puts on an expression for what is to be manifested.

    We know that the outer manifestation is separate from our heart, soul, and mind. It will still exist when our spiritual being is no longer interfaced with it. We see this happen with others and can assume it will be true when we “die”. It is logical to believe that the physical reality also has a cause, expression, manifestation; but just what is the nature of each. Expression is most likely energy. Cause is most likely Mind. Just as we don’t see into another’s mind, neither would we be able to see into any separate Mind that maintains the physical world–although it exists on the same plane as our mind. Mind is, therefore, the manifestation of its Cause; but it in turn becomes the cause of what it expresses and manifests in the physical reality. All of Reality is, therefore, a series of planes representing 3 levels of planes for any one reality.

    The Reality described above allows for created living beings to make freewill choices within the limits Mind expresses in manifesting the physical reality. Naturally, since Mind sets the limits, it is controlling the long term results of the created beings, which is a form of determinism.

    The above concepts are only the beginning of a much larger view of Reality.


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