Imagine There’s No Free Will

According to Sam Harris, American neuroscientist and author of Free Willthis means two things:

1. You don’t know what thought you are going to think next
2. You don’t know why you think the thoughts you think

Essentially, this means that you have no control over what goes on in your brain. You may think you do. In fact, the thought may have crossed your mind that said “No way. I don’t agree with this.”

Right, but how did that thought originate?

And what if another reader had a different thought, like “Wow, I’m intrigued.” And another reader: “Whoa, this is trippy.” Where do these thoughts come from? And how can three different people react to an idea in three different ways?

In The Mind is Flat, by Nick Chater, the author argues that our mind works like a mysterious black box. We don’t really know what goes on inside it . . . all we see are the outputs.

The outputs are the thoughts we become conscious of. For example, “I’m hungry.”

If we try to investigate “why did I think ‘I’m hungry’” — we could arrive at a series of logical conclusions:

  • It’s dinner time.
  • My body hasn’t had food in 5 hours.
  • I saw a commercial for hamburgers.

We become satisfied by this explanation and assume that the “I’m hungry” thought is a perfectly reasonable, well-explained phenomenon. But it’s not that simple.

Instead, the line of thinking we used to justify our thought — was an example of improvised reasoning. We don’t actually know what happened in the mysterious black box of our minds, but we’ve gotten very good at creating a story around it.

In fact, the Chater’s entire premise is this:

Our mind is an improvisational machine that rapidly makes meaning on the fly.

A thought occurs. We don’t know why, but our mind is already busy making up reasons for it.

What does this imply? A few things:

  1. Don’t believe everything your mind tells you.
  2. There is no “right” thought. (In fact, Adyashanti even says “there’s no such thing as a true thought.”)
  3. Our thoughts don’t belong to us.

This last idea is particularly interesting to me. 

Our thoughts don’t belong to us.

Despite all the advances in neuroscience, psychology, and beyond — we still don’t understand why the mind thinks what it thinks. And that’s why, according to Sam Harris, we don’t have free will. We aren’t the ones who decide what thoughts to think. We just experience them and their consequences.

And this idea brings great freedom.

Freedom from negative thinking

It’s freeing to know that your negative thinking doesn’t define you:

  • Being nervous about a presentation
  • Imagining yourself blanking, freezing, stumbling
  • Worrying about failure

These thoughts occur at random. They pop up in your head unannounced. If you don’t get to choose them, you don’t need to believe them.

Freedom from coming up with ideas

It’s time to change your relationship with thinking altogether. It’s not a process you control. It’s a process you observe.

Don’t struggle to think of good ideas. Just observe. Listen to your brain at a distance. Watch the thoughts pass. Then, jump onto the one that feels worth exploring.

That’s what speaking is. 

An improvised exploration of thought. A spontaneous, unpredictable process.

At first, it’s scary. So you grip the steering wheel tightly. You monitor mirrors, change lanes constantly, and look for potholes, signs, and shortcuts.

But one day you discover the brain’s self-driving feature. You switch it on and slowly release your grip. At some point, you relax and shift to the passenger seat. Eventually, you lean back, put your feet up, and enjoy the ride.

Of course . . . it’s still the same ride . . . but somehow the journey became more enjoyable the moment you stopped controlling it.

February 11, 2022

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