Home______On Daniel Dennett, Free Will,& Modern Spiritual Teachers

This blog has addressed scientific experiments with implications for free will. (Libet & Wegner) Some implications of the experiments have been that free will is illusory. Dennett's new book, Freedom Evolves, presents the subject in a different light.

A brief review. Libet showed that neural activity begins about a half second before a conscious decision to act. Wegner calls this the intention invention to explain that the idea of conscious decision is invented by the mind. Volition is an illusion. Thus the individual thinks he is in charge but is not. This of course has enormous implications for humanity. Are all actions subject to random events? Or are they predetermined? Are penal justice systems based on an illusion that the convict could have done otherwise? (Not that prisons should be abolished.)

Along comes Daniel Dennett. Pointing out that neurologists are stuck on old paradigms, he distinguishes between two kinds of will, the interventionist and the compatibilist. He observes that most philosophers have abandoned the interventionist perspective, a view rather like a controller stepping in behind and before physical activity to determine the course of that activity. Instead, he favors a compatibilist explanation, which holds that a single moment of decision is not needed. That is, no intervention occurs. Agency exists, according to this view, but as an ongoing control and responsiveness to action or other cognitive activity.

Given this view, the convict may have been imprisoned for a single crime, but the robbery or murder resulted from a long chain of events, both physical and psychological. It began the first time he entertained such thoughts, continued with minor misdeeds, and culminated in his felony. The compatibilist view holds that there is not one moment and time for his crime, but that it evolved into itself.

Analyzing the world into doing and non-doing, certain popular living spiritual teachers proclaim that agency is totally illusory, and one even says that his life was "chalked up" from the beginning, and nothing can be done about it. Many of his followers take his every word as gospel.

Zen has a saying, Sin lies in the ignorance that precedes the crime. Zen Roshis teach students attention. When asked by a student what it means, a roshi replied Attention means attention.


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