Free Will vs. Free Won’t: Being the Scientist

Free will has been a subject for philosophers for ages, but modern neuroscience has made the discussion even more meaningful; we haven’t been able to locate a self (to exercise free will) in the brain. Nondual teacher Wayne Liquorman has an interesting take on free will. He simply says, “If you have free will, use it.” Now nondualism posits that there is no separate self to have free will, suggesting that there is merely a concept of a self that is free to choose. This is what Libet’s experiment puts into question. Another modern thinker, Sam Harris, also suggests that free will is simply a conceptual illusion, citing some of the same neuroscience. Another thinker who touches on this issue is Joe Dispenza, whose work I have also studied. He gives a wonderful example of a depressed client whose life was changed by “doing the opposite” — changing habitual patterns and thereby using the neuroplasticity of the brain to create “new” grooved patterns. I wrote about this in a piece where I recalled the George Costanza character on Seinfeld who experimented with this technique with his luck with women, with humorous results. Noticing the patterns that make up our “self” or the “me” we experience is a powerful tool. Gurdjieff referred to this practice as “self remembering” and it formed the core of his teaching. I don’t pretend to understand it, but I liken it to my friend and teacher Michael Jeffreys’ concept of “being the scientist.” Michael would suggest to our group that instead of thinking we knew what would or might happen, we develop the attitude of the scientist (not knowing) and see what might happen as life unfolds in various circumstances. I experimented with this during a day of running errands where I simply watched my mind concoct a series of possible outcomes, ignored them, and simply observed the day unfold. I came home completely energized from a day that formerly would have drained me. Watching your mind do its tricks and seeing how it works is what Eckhart Tolle refers to as seeing the “structure” of one’s mind as opposed to attaching on the content. Having moved to Las Vegas, I have discovered an incredible laboratory for such experiments, and one where I can have “skin in the game”: gambling. I enjoy NFL football and in Vegas I can place bets on the outcome using “point spreads.” This means that while the team I bet on can lose, I can still win if they finish the game within the spread. This creates a wonderful sense of disconnect as I watch the game on television, because my notion of “winning” is completely different from that of the announcers or the rabid fans in the stands. I have watched a game winning (or losing) field goal with total equanimity, while thousands of other cheer or boo wildly, because my results are already in.... But the reality of gambling is that you lose more often than you win and awareness of this fact (the odds) makes one wary of the possibility of “getting the fever” — betting wildly or stupidly — and losing serious money. Of course this is the very possibility that provides the energy — it’s the “kick” that leads to the release of dopamine and can lead to addiction (very deep habitual patterns that are hard to break). I spoke to another nondual teacher about my predilections in this area at Science and Nonduality. Scott Kiloby runs a wellness center in Palm Desert dedicated to recovery and has a new book, The Unfindable Inquiry: One Simple Tool to Overcome Feelings of Unworthiness and Find Inner Peace, on the topic of self observation and getting in touch with the source one is seeking. I was concerned about how I might be behaving in Las Vegas, so in the casino I try not to “lose myself” and watch my tendencies. What I have discovered is the power of what the Harry Shearer video at the top of the article refers to as “Free Won’t.” It is precisely the power that comes NOT from exercising free will (which may or may not exist) to affect the outside world mentally, but from interrupting what could be habitual patterns, that can lead to one’s own destruction. Dostoevsky wrote about this in his classic, The Gambler. Eckhart Tolle also says that the ego gets as much or perhaps more power from losing (being a victim) than from the equally illusory “winning” — both conceptual projections onto a neutral world. Because I now live near several casinos, the prospect of coming out ahead if I gamble frequently is very questionable. I get short bursts of “luck,” but if I overstay my welcome I inevitably lose at my favorite games — roulette and video poker. So there is generally a moment of decision: leave when ahead, risk more when behind, and so on. During these moments my mind goes wild with theories. It suggests which machines I’ve been lucky on, reminds me of past events (positive and negative), and presents a powerful case for playing more. What I have found is that when I exercise my “free won’t,” I leave a lot happier than if I lose my winnings or compound my losses, which is generally how the odds work out. My mind generally urges me to keep playing. It claims to know or get intuitive hints, it prods my courage and “manhood,” and uses every trick to keep me playing, almost certainly in alignment with the psychological tools at the disposal of the casino. But having been the scientist I have data. I have seen the results. And the most palpable result is the one that comes from “free won’t.” It’s been a wild ride... (Note: Tom Bunzel’s book, If DNA is Software, Who Wrote the Code? The Profound Significance of Life’s Programming Language, is now available directly from Azure Reading Books.) .

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