If you answer yes, watching the below video might give you second thoughts. Serious second thoughts.
What I take from this clip is that my intentions and actions are things for which the ground has already been prepared, unconscious to me, by my brain. I don’t think, “I’ll do x” and then my brain’s neurons scramble to obey. There’s no ghost commanding the machine. Instead, I think “I’ll do x” because the neurons have already lined up all their ducks for carrying out the action. I’m just the cheerleader or announcer, not the player on the field.
Put another way, I’m tagging along behind a movement–a movement not of civil rights marchers, but of neurons, declaring like a news reporter the route that has already been determined and put into motion by them. But instead of identifying this process accurately, I call those others “I.” I is shorthand for them. Like the Gadarene demoniac in the gospels, I am legion. “I want this, I want that; I did this, I did that,” should actually be said this way: “We want this, we want that; we did this, we did that.”
Perhaps we should call our neurons “The Movement.” The Movement wants sex now. The Movement chooses to sleep in. It’s an awkward, even creepy way to talk, but maybe it would break through a lot of illusions.
Here’s another way to think about this. The conscious mind functions like a politician. It takes credit where credit is not due. It’s actually not leading what the masses of neurons are doing, but following and interpreting them.
For example, marriage equality is succeeding in the United States not because President Obama is supporting it, but because the movement for equality has reached critical mass and its historical fruit is falling heavy from the tree. Obama’s support is just another symptom of a historical change, not its cause. He may get “credit” and it will be part of his “legacy,” but it’s actually more complicated than that. The successful politician tends to follow, not get ahead of, public opinion.
Likewise, your expressions of will and your sense that you are leading your life in this or that direction are symptoms of greater forces at work to which you are scarcely aware or even capable of tracing (let alone actually controlling). You might credit yourself with praise or blame for the manifestations of your will, but in reality free will is a shell game relying on your inability to follow where the ball of causation is actually located at any given time.
The Buddhist distinction between the witnessing mind and the moving mind is helpful here. It appears to be true, as Buddhists have said all along, that “you” are actually thoughts without a thinker. In other words, you are just a witness, calling your thoughts the product of an “I” that isn’t actually there. The real thinker (if you want to call it that) is the whole universe of causative movements (however broadly you want to trace them), what Buddhists call the “spontaneous Buddha nature” that is present in each moment. The spontaneous Buddha nature is that shift from one state of being to another, and who can trace or fathom it?
Don DeLillo in his novel White Noise puts the rabbit hole nature of the self and will clearly:
Who knows what I want to do? Who knows what anyone wants to do? How can you be sure about something like that? Isn’t it all a question of brain chemistry, signals going back and forth, electrical energy in the cortex? How do you know whether something is really what you want to do or just some kind of nerve impulse in the brain? Some minor little activity takes place somewhere in this unimportant place in one of the brain hemispheres and suddenly I want to go to Montana or I don’t want to go to Montana.
One implication of this is the following: where free will starts to vaporize, so does the self. That’s unsettling, isn’t it?