Sunday, October 22, 2017

In the mirror, what goes in never fully comes out--where is free will?

One might assume that the experience of consciously willing an action and the causation of the action by the person's conscious mind are the same thing. As it turns out, however, they are entirely distinct, and the tendency to confuse them is the source of the illusion of conscious will....*

The existence of free will, libertarian or otherwise, derives from an assumption and is formulated in theory. Through a rather straightforward examination of experience, one can readily observe that free will bears little relation to what is observed. For several moments of quiet attention sit comfortably and observe the movement of thought. Now, without looking for anything in particular, simply observe how thoughts arise without any effort on our parts to think them. They simply arise of their own accord, not ours. The voluntarism is not ours. If it was truly ours or accurately ours, we would be thinking of the thought before the thought arose. This would lead to an infinite regress. Not only is the observation that thoughts arise of their own accord accurate, but if they are said to be willed into being it would fly in the face of logic. To speak in loyalty to experience, we are obliged to say that thoughts arise of their own accord and there is no intentional directedness of thought by the infamous and illusory free will.

Now we take our observations to another aspect of thought, its intentional structure. Thoughts are purposive. At bottom, even the simplest of thoughts such as "Oh!" or "if" are intentional. Thought and language, even visual thought images, presuppose a type of thinker and a listener. They are aimed at; they are intended for; they are meaningful for; finally, they are derivative--something will shall discuss in time. If there is no thinker how does the experience of a thinker arise? What are the necessary conditions for this? Well, one condition, already discussed, is the thought itself, i.e., the intention. We can say, in analysis or parsing, that thought is inherently intentional, meaningful, processual (evanescent), vibratory, and felt. Of course not all of these aspects of thought are present to us all at once. This is an analytical observation and is real only upon observation or, as some would have it, reflection. Now, keeping in mind that what we observe and analyze is another narrative (allegedly) about thought, this analysis is strictly for the purpose of aiding in, or pointing to, or imagining a useful tool for observation; and this observation must point back to the realization that thought occurs without a thinker and there is no need for positing either free will or will as such. What types of thoughts occur will usually be determined by either perceived circumstances or by their association with other thoughts. (Much more needs to be said about this but this is not the time or place.) In point of experiential fact, thoughts do not exist at all. As we live them they do not present as thoughts. Thoughts, as lived, appear in the dynamic context of circumstances. Thoughts are situational. They present as meaning. This is a purely phenomenological approach, being as accurate as possible with the tools of observation we have, narratives.

We have offered a brief discussion of one of the conditions necessary for the arising of a self-sense. Another condition for the appearance or condition of a self-sense is a living context. Thought appears to be autogenous, self-arising. There is no agent thinking or directing thought. However, the fact that it is arising implies that it arises in someplace. There must be a womb in which thought appears. There must be some sort of feeling/context for living meaning to arise within. If we can be said to "hear" thoughts, we must hear them in a silence. To hear is simultaneously to hear silence. We often overlook the necessity of the context of thought's appearance. If we hear thoughts, or see thought-images, they must arise within. But within what? Try it, close your eyes and watch thoughts arise. Are they not arising within? What is this "within"? The within is a living, breathing, no-thing. Yet, it is alive! It lives as a within. The within in which life takes place. We hear within its silence; we taste within its tastelessness (We cannot taste the tongue.); we speak to its silence; we touch within its touchless; it is odor within the odorless; and we think in its open receptivity. This openness is another of the necessary conditions for the arising of a self-sense. Its receptivity appears to thought as an implicit listener, the one to whom the thought is implicitly directed. The openness within simultaneously functions, in its hiddenness, as the thinker of thoughts. It is the feeling of thought production that abides or dwells providing one basis for a confusion or fusion of body and thought as a self-sense. The within is mistakenly taken to be, at once, both the whom thought is directed to and the one who thinks the thoughts. This mistaken assumption is made possible by both the feeling of thought production and the openness to and from which thought takes place. This openness is not inert. It lives! It provides us with the support of thought and feelings. Without it thoughts, sensations, and feelings could not become experience. This living openness makes experience possible.

Another way of speaking about this is the use of a metaphor, the mirror. The mirror has a long and varied history of use in philosophy. However, each of these usages is somewhat different and ours will be no exception.

We may begin by likening the openness discussed above to a mirror. The mirror lives as a reflecting whatever is revealed to it. It is indifferent to the content of the presentations and is untouched by them. No matter what is presented to the mirror, it remains untouched, unmoved, indifferent. What thought captures are the images in the mirror. Thought is not what is presented to the mirror. What appears in the mirror is experience. What is seen in the mirror is thought or imagery. Thought is always one step behind what is presented. What is presented is anonymous, selfless. What is reflected is self-laden. We believe what we see in the mirror is what was presented to the mirror. But how would we ever know that? How do we know that what is presented in the mirror is exactly what is presented to us in the mirror? How would we verify that? We even believe, without thinking it, that our reflection in the mirror is what everyone will see when they see us. Sure we could get some consensus about the forms and colors in the mirror leading us to believe that others see what we see in the mirror. But when others look at us do they see only naked form and color? No, they see a face full of significances that each of us carries to various forms and colors. The face is the basis of historical, cultural, ethnic, social, and personal significances that each person brings to faces. A face is so much more than mere form and color. Our friend sees our face one way and our mother sees an entirely different face. Form and color pale in comparison to the richness that a face exhibits in ordinary perception. This same inclusion of significances is intrinsic to what everyone perceives at all times. We see through fully human eyes, not physical eyes. Perception is a human process, not a biological one. We must not let human perception be reduced to a purely natural process.

In the mirror, what goes in never comes out. 

In our mirror metaphor, experience is what goes into the mirror. We may also say that what is alive enters the mirror. The use of the mirror is alleged to bring experience to the activity of cognition--in the everyday use of the term. However, this bringing may be equated with desire (craving). In almost every case, we intentionally come to a mirror to see what is in it, only occasionally to clean it. More often than not we come with the expectation to perceive something in the mirror. That expectation is desire. That desire to "see ourselves"* (or something else, e.g., a blemish) in the mirror" Expectation is at work and therefore history, the history that functions as a subsoil of beliefs--a matrix of cultural/neurological accretions the origin of which is not present to thought--that frame the expectation to see ourselves in the mirror. (I cannot even tell this story without that matrix.) I mention "neurological" because all perception and cognition bears feeling. "Neurological" provides somewhat of a concession to the language of biology. Now, what goes into the mirror in our metaphor is likened to the concept of experience. The desire intrinsic to thought in its function as expectation may be likened to all thought. All thinking is intentional and as such is desire-laden. "Desire (Skt.kama) came upon that one in the beginning; that was the first seed of mind."**

The mirror metaphor may also point to the reductive nature of thought. When arriving at the mirror, carrying desire, what is anticipated is reductive. Usually, we do not perceive the wall behind us and much of what is present is ignored. Our perception reduces the wholeness of experience to the frame of expectation. Our expectations--configured by past human acts of body, speech, and mind--reduce experience to their own configurations. Experience, reduced by desire-laden intentions, suffers necessary reductions of space, time, feelings, thoughts, etc. It is no wonder that we fail to appreciate and be grateful for the everyday experience of our so-called "ordinary" lives.

Much more requires saying for this story. I will return to it soon. I welcome any thoughts you may have to assist in its completion. Thank you for reading and reflecting on it. You have my gratitude.


1. Daniel M. Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious Will (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2002), 3.

*Notice, we don't say, "I want to see my reflection in the mirror."

**Rg Veda: 10:129:4

Desire and Fulfillment: The only hope for peace? No way!

The supreme exercise in futility is the quest to fulfill desires. By their very nature, desires exclude satisfaction.