Pretzel Logic: If There’s No Free Will, There’s No Self

image of human cortical neurons and glia from Zeiss Microscopy on Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When asked about things like whether we have free will, or agency, or consciousness, the answer you’ll get from radical non-duality speakers is that “it’s not that ‘we’ don’t have them, it’s that there is no one, no self, that could have them”.

The logic and causality make sense in that direction:

(1) No self -> No free will (it takes a self to have free will)

But the opposite is seemingly an example of the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent:

(2) No free will -> No self (this does not necessary follow at all)

Except that, the more I think about it, statement (2) is actually a valid logical statement. If there is no such thing as free will (as Robert Sapolsky and others have argued far more eloquently and persuasively than I ever could), then it follows that everything that is done is conditioned and/or ‘determined’ (but not determinable, as there are too many variables to make a determination, unless you happen to be a god, I suppose).

So then, what is it that is conditioned to determine what is (inevitably) done? Consider a specific example: I walk into a café, and order a matcha latte. It’s a conditioned response. But what was conditioned to do this? This self, this character, this body, or the many, many creatures that comprise this body?

In my last article, I argued that it is the (immense number of) creatures comprising this body that are conditioned, responding to biological urges and memories and learned behaviours and acquired ‘tastes’. In ways too complex and mysterious to ever fathom, that conditioning compels this apparent body to order the matcha latte rather than something else. The presumption (in statement (2) above) is that there is no such thing as free will. So could this conditioned response be the ‘whole’ body’s conditioned response, or the ‘self’s’ conditioned response? To say it could implies that the ‘whole’ body or the ‘self’ has some kind of agency that can be conditioned, and the presumption in statement (2) is that there is no agency. Hence, it must be the aggregate conditioning of all the creatures that comprise this body that ‘decides’ what to order. The body or self merely (apparently) carries out that decision.

What then is the self, if it is not the conditioned ‘something’ that acts? We might argue that it is the ‘after the fact rationalizer’ for the conditioned behaviour. But what exactly is doing this rationalizing? The brain? The brain is, just like the body, a collective name for a vast number of constituent creatures, each of them conditioned by other creatures, stimuli etc.

What then does the supposed ‘self’ do, if it doesn’t exercise free will or agency, and if it doesn’t even rationalize the body’s actions? Is it a ‘sense-making’ thing? No, that’s the brain again, or rather its conditioned constituent creatures, each doing the only thing it can do.

If the self actually doesn’t do anything, why should we suppose it exists? Because we’ve been told (ie conditioned to believe) that it exists (presumably for some important reason)? Seems a very flimsy argument, though, unsupported by compelling evidence.

Is the self ‘consciousness’? Well, what exactly is consciousness? A closed loop of belief in its own existence, that can only be explained tautologically? Sounds like a hallucination. Or an object of faith, like gods or spirits. If your conditioning leads you to believe in such phantoms, I guess you have no choice but to believe in them.

It seems to me that free will is, in fact, the very raison d’être for a self. Without free will, there seems no purpose for a self. The very existence of selves then becomes, I think, a moot question. The self is relegated to being a place-holder, a label, in our abstracted model of reality, for “that which exercises free will and makes commensurate decisions”. No free will? Well, then, no place-holder needed. The model works just fine without it. The self is, one might then conclude, a fiction:

No free will -> no self

If you thought the implications of giving up belief in free will were enormous, just think about the implications of us having no selves.

What then is left? What apparently walks into the café is, as Stewart and Cohen put it:

… a complicity of of the [trillions of] separately-evolved creatures in our bodies organized for their mutual benefit. And our brains are nothing more than an evolved, shared, feature-detection system jointly developed to advise these creatures’ actions for their mutual benefit. Our brains, and our ‘minds’ (the processes that our neurons, senses and motility organs carry out collectively) are their information-processing system, not ‘ours’.

The mouth of this body utters the words “large matcha latte, please, with soy milk”, acting out the collective consensus of the complicity’s completely-conditioned creatures. There is no free will involved, or needed. There is no ‘self’ involved, or needed. That is the case in this, and in everything apparently happening on this lovely little blue planet, and beyond.

So when we hold a ‘person’ — a container of a complicity of trillions of creatures — ‘responsible’ and ‘to blame’ (or worthy of congratulations) for actions that not only weren’t the person’s ‘decision’, they were entirely conditioned and hence not the complicity’s ‘decision’ either, our behaviour is as ludicrous as blaming a tree branch for ‘deliberately’ falling on our head and ‘causing’ us injury.

And any sense we might have that there’s some little homunculus inside us, believing, rightly or wrongly, that it has some say in the complicity’s conditioning and the apparent resultant actions, is equally preposterous. This whole sense we have of our ‘selves’ moving through time and space within these bodies, thinking and feeling and sensing and intuiting, is an utter illusion. Not only do ‘we’ have no ownership of, and no say in, the utterly conditioned actions of this staggeringly complex complicity of trillions of creatures (including all the thoughts and feelings that arise from them and ‘come to mind’), there simply is no self, no ‘we’.


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5 Responses to Pretzel Logic: If There’s No Free Will, There’s No Self

  1. Bob L. says:

    One of your best writings on non-duality yet!

  2. I’d be curious if you’ve learned or heard of the right and left brain hemisphere studies. I mostly agree with all the non-dual stuff, except, that ego, or self, we are always trying to be rid of or kill or deny is in fact a clump of cells in our left hemisphere—and I don’t mean to say that in a reductionist sense, but that it does, in a sense, exist. Albeit, is only a perspective, or one small part of us, really. Anyway, I guess it’s been helpful for me to think of self integration, or maybe even placement, as opposed to the ultimate truth of myself. I also enjoy Sophie Strand’s idea of herself as a “compost heap.” We are a conglomerate process within one, I imagine.

    I actually just sent you an email this morning thanking you for your work! It’s really got me thinking a lot about a lot. Ha.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks to all for the comments on this, both here and via email. (Samantha, I replied to your comment via email.)

    Bob, I feel like I’m getting closer and closer to a ‘realistic’ or ‘scientific’ explanation of all this stuff, yet the chasm between the third and fourth worldviews ( seems as vast as ever.

  4. Joel says:

    I am not sure statement (1) makes any sense. You are asserting that something that doesn’t exist doesn’t have some property (in this case free will).

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Actually, I am asserting that IF it doesn’t exist it cannot have that or any property.

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