The Free Will Illusion

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My concept work currently involves conveying experience that reveals the absence of conscious will as it relates to our actions and behaviors. While this may seem a preposterous position – even aesthetically, I wouldn’t propose it unless I could demonstrate interesting and entertaining ways in which one may have first-hand experience of this mysterious phenomenon.* To preface this specific thought experiment, I offer a quote from Albert Einstein on the subject at hand. In a speech given in 1932 Einstein stated his unequivocal disbelief in free will:“I don’t believe in the freedom of the will. Schopenhauer’s saying, that a human can very well do what he wants, but cannot will what he wants, accompanies me in all of life’s circumstances and reconciles me with the actions of humans, even when they are truly distressing. This knowledge of the non-freedom of the will protects me from losing my good humor and taking much too seriously myself and my fellow humans as acting and judging individuals.”(Albert Einstein (1932). Einstein’s Credo. Courtesy of the Albert Einstein Archives, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.)*Recent studies by neuroscientists on the subject of free will are summarized by the following statement from Scientific American Online. “Most of us have a sense that our everyday actions are controlled by an intention that precedes the action: I decide to turn on the light, and then flip the switch. But experiments don’t consistently support this notion. Some psychologists believe that our sense of intention and purpose is constructed by the brain after the action takes place.”

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Laboratory experiments by Benjamin Libet and others and interpreted theoretically in the work of Daniel Wegner lead to one of the more paradigm-shattering conceptions I have experienced in quite some time.

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*Libet’s experiment – Demostrating that we are only aware that we have made a decision AFTER the movement has been initiated.

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There is an abundant amount of research results in recent scientific literature that points quite clearly to the notion that we think about what we are intending to do AFTER we do it – not before.

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The theoretical work of Daniel Wegner goes a long way toward synthesizing the history of counterintuitive findings that seem to prove our conscious minds are something like backward-looking monkeys riding stumbling tigers through a perilous present holding steering wheels connected to absolutely nothing.*Again, however, as my work consists of conceptual art projects, it is not dependent upon second-hand sources, such as the results of scientific research. Rather, I prefer to directly communicate experiences to others who may have an interest in my work and/or its implications. Here is a thought experiment anyone can do at any time in which it becomes increasingly clear that one of the most complex, crucial, survival-oriented, high-level, human-specific behaviors is executed automatically and without being preceded by volitional thought.The next time you find yourself talking to someone, note that you do not think the words you will say before you say them. We speak automatically and then reflect upon what we have just said. And all the while, of course, we continue to speak.This experiment demonstrates the strong case that we execute complex and survival-critical behaviors without thinking of the exact behaviors until after we have executed them.A few secondary principles must be experienced in order to answer without personal doubt that we do indeed act BEFORE we think about the exact nature of an executed act – its moment, manner, specific content, trajectory, and intended consequence.The first objection deals with a reductio ad absurdum argument regarding time. One may say that one has pre-planned the action (raising one’s hand for example) and therefore it matters not that the exact moment of action may not be immediately preceded by the conscious thought to execute the action. However, any measurable time value between the thought and the action does not demonstrate that the act was pre-planned and therefore executed by virtue of a conscious thought. Notice that even though you may have a general idea about raising your hand, the exact moment, manner, and context in which it is raised is executed spontaneously – without the intervention of conscious will.By extension it makes no difference if we make a plan to say something specific to someone the next time we meet them. When that meeting takes place, we may observe ourselves speaking automatically as it were – guided only vaguely by our pre-planned speech. The exact moment, the exact words, and the exact intonations are executed physically (by our bodies) without being pre-formed in the mind.The findings of neuroscience (especially by Libet and Wegner) are fascinating – and can be used to buttress the positions I take above. But to my aesthetic mind, it is more astonishing that we may directly observe the absence of preformed thought preceding words, sentences, and paragraphs during the actual process of speaking!The implications of these thought experiments are truly mind-boggling. We act before we think – even in the most crucial and survival-focused activities of our lives. Our mind – our consciousness – is at best a record keeper attempting to catch up, keep track, and make fine adjustments to the ongoing stream of our words, actions, and behaviors after they have been executed by our bodies without the intervention or guidance of conscious thought or volition.

*images: 1: http://www.jrosen.org/2: http://www.jolyon.co.uk/illustrations/consciousnessvsi/jpg_6.2_Libet’s_Experiment.htm3: http://www.tbm.tudelft.nl/webstaf/gertjanl/grindlokhorst2.gif4: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/~uctytho/fig1.jpg5: from The Mind’s Best Trick:How We Experience Conscious Will by Daniel Wegner (original pre-publication transcript – published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, February, 2003*Additional Resources:http://www.consciousentities.com/experiments.htmhttp://www.hist-analytic.org/Wegner.htm

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