The Difficulty of Free Thought


Are we really Freethinkers?

I have not read the book, but I have listened to his lecture on Free Will and read a few rebuttals on the subject. I have also considered this topic for some time prior to Sam Harris’s evidence-based claim that free will is a myth. I realize there are serious implications if Dr. Harris is correct, but a freethinker does not build beliefs on our preferred answers. We, at least I think this is a ‘we’ statement, accept the truth wherever it leads us and strive to make the best of it.

Borrowing from Sam

Sam presented this experiment to a live audience, but it will work for you as a reader as well. Right now…you are probably only thinking of Sam Harris, because he is the name I have given you. Now, think of anothethink-manr person, any other person.

Who is it? Did you choose who to think of? Where you consciously aware of the impression of whichever person came to your mind before you were aware of that impression? Did you freely choose who you would think of? Did you freely choose to think of another person, or where you prompted by reading the words, “Now, think of another person, any other person?”

Oh look, you just did it again, you just thought again of some person at my prompting. Very likely the same person as before, but possibly not. The point is, you are not directing your thoughts. I am. Well, not me universally, but a perceived influence from existing externally to you.

Cogito Ego Sum

So if you’re reading my blog, then you probably know what this phrase means, and who coined the phrase. If not, Google.

A brief refutation of the external world skeptics: “I think because I am acted upon by an external world.”

Don’t freak out, I didn’t just solve some centuries old philosophical concern, but the idea that we control our thoughts seems weak when I can force you to think of some person. Did you do it again just by the mere suggestion?

On Free Thought

Rather than putting forth a claim, I will continue asking questions. Can we atheists, secularist, believers, and people without labels really call ourselves freethinkers without control over our thoughts? If I prompted any thoughts within you, then I would enjoy hearing what they are, so I could be prompted by your words/ideas as well.

I prompt you a good day, evening or otherwise depending upon when you may encounter this post.

–Steven Clear

 

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3 thoughts on “The Difficulty of Free Thought

  1. Yes we can. Parlor tricks do not a philosophy make. Our brains are hugely successful pattern seeking machines. They seek patterns to solve puzzles. Mr Harris knows this and unfairly used this to support his otherwise bland assertion that there is no free will.

    The common mistake of philosophers is to think of brain activity as instantaneous. It is not. Like any machine there are delays in the system so information moves from point to point with a delay. One of the wonderous parts of the mammalian brain is that it uses not one process but many. Vision is processed outside of the conscious mind. Consciously we think to get up and subconscious parts of our brains send out signals and after the appropriate delays our muscles move and we stand without ever having to conscioulsy control any muscle, not even one. Sam’s biggest mistake is thinking that these subconsious processes are not part of ‘us’ and so wrongly concluding that we do not have free will based on the lack of conscious thought in all things. We don’t consciously breathe or make our hearts beat yet no one would argue that it is ‘us’ that does both.

    Yes, we have free will and we are free thinkers.

    • Can you think what it might be like to be aware or conscious of every action our brains are taking on our behalf? Beat heart…hear this…see that…beat heart…hear this…think that…

      You get the point. But what does that say about our conscious self and our self as a whole. If I can propose a bad analogy that you can make better, here we go:

      Picture a factory. I am the Founder/CEO. My buddy and I used one bicycle to pass letters around our small community for small change, but a nice payday for us, and a better service to our customers than pigeons or whatever. We get popular, we make enough to buy a bike for each of us. Later we are both driving cars. Later we are hiring drivers to drive trucks. Later we are a global service called UPS. True story.

      Back to our brain and consciousness. Now that I created this business, do I think about all the processes that go into making this global organization work? My consciousness was simple at the start, a structure grew beneath me, some I fully understood, and others that are beyond me, but the structure is there. Not a ghost, not a god, not a mystery to someone, just a mystery to me. I evolved to only pay attention to that part of the company that was relevant to me, even thought the entire company was mine. The part I don’t pay attention to, or don’t know about, is still functioning and for all involved, we are better for it.

      What do you think now? I am at the end of my analogy. I am not certain of free will, but I guess I should stop before I start speculating and see what you think.

      Thanks for the comment.

      • You have it very close to my opinion. The CEO does not worry about the parts that work without the CEO. The conscious part of our brains are only solving problems. These problems are very complex and nuanced. One such problem is what to fix for dinner now that you’ve invited a new girl over for a date night? It is these types of complex problems which require consciousness. Simple problems of whether to beat the heart or not do not require consciousness. Our circadian rhythms do not require consciousness. A woman’s period does not. The list goes on. All these functions and more happen without conscious thought for the problem is already modelled and well understood so moved to hardware or subconscious thought. You’ve heard of muscle-memory? This is motion that is moved out of conscious thought and can be initiated with a simple conscious thought. A smoker needs no thinking to reach in their pocket for a smoke. We are well aware of our conscious thoughts so this is where the ‘we’ of us dwells. The parts that we are not aware of are outside of our conscious thought. Consciousness is simply one set of processes that happen in our brains.

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