Our brains have done pretty well at understanding the world outside themselves, but progress on the world inside has been limited—it’s easier to look outward than inward.
Understanding the world has given us the power to manipulate our environments in wonderful and not-so-wonderful ways that are obvious to most people—space travel, fast food, global warming—but when understanding the brain leads to the conclusion that we don’t have free will, people are not so clear on how that insight might offer any advantage. A common reaction is that if we don’t have free will, there’s nothing we can do about it, nothing we can change, but this is the result of not understanding how the brain works with new information.
When people discovered that we live on a round ball orbiting the sun, it opened up travel opportunities that weren’t available without that insight. As knowledge advanced, we learned to look at a chemical reaction and ask, what were the conditions that led to that reaction? What could we change that would give a different result, or make it more productive?
In the case of free will, the realization that our decisions don’t just appear out of the blue, generated by “us,” but are the result of prior circumstances, also opens options that weren’t available before. We can look at our own decisions and ask the same kinds of questions we ask about external events: What were the circumstances that led my brain to arrive at a certain conclusion? How might different circumstances have brought a different result?
In a more general way, we can develop an observational stance toward our own experience, or to put it more accurately, our brains can learn to monitor the conscious experience that they themselves generate. This is not as difficult as it may sound. All you have to do is sit still and try to concentrate on something boring, like your breath. Your brain is not in the habit of staying focused on anything that uninteresting, and will soon revert to its more typical behavior—something in the environment or in memory will activate a non-breath-contemplating set of neurons, and it’s off and running. But if you persist in sitting there, at some point the set of neurons that thinks monitoring the breath is important will gain ascendance once more, at least for a while, and sooner or later those neurons will become rehearsed enough that they’ll notice more quickly when another set becomes active.
Now that it has developed its inner observational skills, your brain will become more adept at noticing shifts in its focus, even when you’re not sitting in meditation. As it becomes better at noticing shifts, it will also become better at noticing the circumstances that led to those shifts, and become more discriminating in choosing the circumstances to which it exposes itself, to which it gives importance. It will become better at controlling its internal states in the same way it learns to control the temperature of the oven, the channel on the TV, etc.
Example: My brain used to find itself in a state of depression on occasion. Early on, it would inquire about the circumstances that had brought it on, but the inquiry usually turned up so many possible causes that it was impossible to say which ones, or which combinations, had provoked the shift to that state. My brain came to the conclusion that such inquiries were useless for the most part, and realized that it could change focus to other stimuli that would shift its state into something more pleasant. The “smile strategy” proved very effective at that. Finding itself in a state of happiness did not preclude its looking at circumstances for possible ways of improving them, and was actually a more effective state for pursuing such inquiries than was the depressed state.
In general, my brain came to regard the conscious experience it was generating with awe and wonder. It has no conscious access to the processes by which it produces the world and its experience of it, with all its urges, emotions, and preferences. Its functions are a mystery to itself. We have come to a general understanding of some of those functions—Ray Jackendoff’s book, A User’s Guide to Thought and Meaning, is quite enlightening about the way we think—but those functions are inscrutable in real time: Why did I turn my head to look out the window? Why did I start thinking about my girlfriend from 30 years ago? My brain is constantly putting on a magic show for itself, with no idea how the tricks are done.
This new point of view is quite different from how I used to think about myself, and no doubt seems strange and alien to many of you, but science drags us onward, however reluctantly. We can’t go back to thinking the world is flat, to a life without cell phones and GPS, and sooner or later we will have to come to grips with what we are.
I think the discovery that we don’t have free will is at least as important as the discovery of fire. For me, life is infinitely better without the illusion that I’m consciously in charge. My brain and I are on the ultimate carnival ride, and it’s hella exciting.