Free Will From an OCD Perspective Part 2

The reason why many neuroscientists say we have no free will is mainly because of the Libet style experiments. These experiments are set up with a person looking at a Libet clock while hooked up to an EEG or fMRI (in the more recent studies). So, what the scientist observes is a build up of energy or blood flow preceding the event that the subject reports. During these studies, a person is asked to not plan ahead and move a wrist or press a button and while looking at the clock, report when the “decision” is made. So the scientist will see a buildup of energy, known as the readiness potential, 300ms (milliseconds) prior to the reported “willed event” and the subject’s movement occurs 200ms after that.

These experiments seem to be passive “urge” detectors instead of “will” detectors. Since the subjects are asked for when they become aware of the unconscious urge, it is implied that decision making happens before we are aware of it. The first problem I see is that the experiment is actually testing for the awareness of urges. Since there isn’t any deliberation, there isn’t a decision or need for a conscious choice being made, which would be the point of “free will.” There is literally nothing for the conscious mind to do except wait and detect. All the experiment actually concludes is that there is a readiness potential (which can be ignored as reported by subjects) prior to the action that may be correlated to an urge. Even that seems to be going far since Peter Tse has shown that they aren’t even correlated. Philosophers Daniel Dennet and Alfred Mele bring up some great counter arguments against the conclusions of Libet style experiments.

Before I get mislabeled, I have no doubt that many of our everyday actions are “unconscious” or subject to our environment/situation. If we had to choose everything then we wouldn’t be able to get out of bed before deciding how to roll out of bed, how many times to blink, which hand to hit the alarm clock, which shoe to put on first etc… Not every action is done with full attention let alone willed. I meditate, so I may be more aware of what is happening in my noodle than someone who doesn’t. Staying focused on the breath takes considerable conscious effort, but with practice one can get quite good at it. During meditation, I am always trying to bring the mind back to the breath when it drifts away. For me, this is an act of will. The will isn’t just an urge.  My mind readily drifts without me exerting effort to bring it back. This effort to control the mind during meditation requires me to will it. It should surprise people that heart rate and blood pressure change when meditating, even though those things are part of our autonomic system, which, in theory, we should not have direct control over.

Now, I believe my will is caused by states before it (ie choosing to meditate etc…), but I include deliberation and conscious decision making as part of the process of causation which some philosophers, like Sam Harris, deny (or at least deny that it should be called free will). The most important type of conscious deliberation is about ourselves. We can improve (or not – Part 3 will explain why OCD is an instance in which we may be deliberating too much) ourselves through deliberation and self reflection. We can even reflect on the fact that we reflect on ourselves, ad infinitum. It’s almost like having a bird’s eye view of our minds, not just a first person perspective only. These reflections change our brains, as in the case with meditation. Note that causation isn’t violated and yet we can choose from a variety of live options, albeit from our experiences, temperament, disposition and knowledge within the scope of our lives.

….And then there are fruit flies. There seems to be some indication of spontaneous choices that are “un-caused” within fruit-flies. I have no idea as to a mechanism, but it would seem that animals, generally, may possess this. I wouldn’t be surprised if all living things possess it, including bacteria. It seems that some part of the fruit-flies’ behavior is undeterministic which blows my mind. I get the impression that neuroscience is in its Newtonian phase because its focus is on understanding brain mechanics which will tend to be reductionist. There will be a point, I believe, as quantum computing becomes understood, that determinism and the spontaneity associated with not being able to predict human behavior completely may play a role in the brain. Unpredictability by itself doesn’t make free will possible, but it could change the way we view free will. A quantum effect that I have in mind is quantum indeterminacy. Having the ability to have several weighted possibilities evaluated consciously may require some quantum computing. An interplay between determinism and quantum effects may resolve to an answer that may make the question of free will and hard determinism irrelevant.  It seems to me that our choices are actually woven into the causal path (which includes our conscious deliberation). We are part of the fabric of reality, not separate from it. It is interesting to note that most philosophers believe in free will and determinism with the majority being compatibilists.

The free will debate strikes a nerve among those with OCD because it strikes at who or what we think we are. If we are “just extravagant, elaborate machines” then it seems to follow that there is no choice. As OCD sufferers, we usually feel responsible for things well outside our control, (such as trying to control all thoughts and urges) and our fight with OCD is about control. We perform our compulsions precisely to control the obsession, even though it is precisely the opposite. OCD has been called the doubting disease because OCD sufferers crave certainty. We want certainty that the nightmares in our minds NEVER come true. We also exert a lot of energy in order for something NOT to happen because we fundamentally do not trust our unconscious minds and bodies. We check to make sure the stove is off, wash our hands because we catastrophize as if our immune systems don’t exist, pray, count, avoid knives and people out of fear that we would hurt them or ourselves.

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