I agree with your point that Eastern practices recognize an ego-based consciousness as the usual human state. It could be that it’s an act of will to deny the ego, as you seem to describe. But it could also be that it’s more a matter of relaxing and allowing one to see the illusory nature of the ego. Well, I suppose that is still a choice, but one less guided and compelled than what you seemed to have described. Or the subjective experience may vary from person to person. One question I have is whether Eastern thinkers subjective experiences were guided by their beliefs or if their beliefs were shaped by their subjective experiences. I think the latter, but I don’t know.

Your comments on second-order willing are less convincing to me than to you. I think that’s because I’m so impressed by the enormity of the concept of first-order free will being an illusion that, if I accept that view as possible, I’m prepared to swallow further elaborations.  But I’m not sure that your paraphrase of what I said means what I thought I meant.

Paraphrase: what we can experience as an act of “free will” is “a description of attitudes about free will and of how brains work.”

What I meant was this: the assertion that everyone has the subjective sensation of experiencing free will is a comment on how our brains evaluate our experiences but is not evidence that free will exists. Your paraphrase, to me, looks as if it means that the experience itself, not the assertion about the experience, is a “description of” etc.

It is true that thinking itself feels like a continuous manifestation of free will. That is, free will is not just about external actions such as choosing blueberry jam over honey or the  honorable course over the expedient one. Thinking seems to consist of innumerable choices—I’ll think about this, that’s how I’ll phrase something, I’ll put off thinking about that for a while. It’s hard to think of this process not coming from one’s ego.

On the other hand, I’m reminded of ants. I heard an interview of E.O. Wilson talking about his early lab work with ants. An individual ant appears to be an automaton. It produces scents when encountering certain stimuli, and it reacts to scents in particular ways. I think he found the ant capable of producing over two dozen scents. Here’s one example. If an ant dies, it eventually produces one particular odor. Live ants ignore the dead ant until the odor manifests, then they remove the ant and dump in the hive garbage heap. Wilson then smeared a bit of the odor on the live ant. Despite is wiggling legs, etc., the live ant got removed and dumped. The ant would then return to the hive. Ants clean themselves, and if the ant had cleaned itself enough, it was accepted. If not, it was hustled out again. The point is that the individual ant has a limited, deterministic repertoire. Yet the hive as whole can exhibit complex behavior – farming, raiding, harvesting, repelling invaders, engineering, and so on.  The question, not answered in the interview, is, where does the knowledge reside?  Do the simple rules governing individual ants somehow contain more complex information expressed when the ants interact with one another?

I’m not sure if we will ever fully understand the mind, although I’m more optimistic than you.  I’m pretty sure that we will find out much, much more about how brains work than we now know and that some of what we find will be unexpected. For example, when we experience an occasion, the visual aspect is stored in one part of the brain, sounds in another, words in a third, etc. I don’t think the mechanism by which these various parts are brought together when we actively remember the occasion is understood.  Another memory result:  recent research suggests than when we remember something, the act of recovering the memory destroys the memory, but we then form a new memory of what we’ve just remembered – that is, we remember, not the original occasion, but our memory of recalling the occasion.  This is one reason why memories can be so easily modified by suggestion.

I think computers will play a role in understanding brain function, but not the traditional AI approach. Instead, I think as neuroscientists learn more about brains, they will be able to build computers – possibly non-digital, that work more like brains. That is, they will have several layers of functionality, they will have several networks running simultaneously, there will be ways for the networks to interact that model what’s discovered about brain networks, etc.  I don’t think the top-down programming approach used in older AI will ever lead to true artificial intelligence. Making an artificial brain that mimics the structure and functionality of a real brain may not succeed either, but it most likely would provide insights on the boundaries of the mind-body relationship, if such exists.

I’m not sure that there’s much more new to be said on the dualism debate from the philosophical side. I am pretty sure that there’s a lot more to be learned about how the brain works. Whether that adds to what can be said on dualism, I don’t know, but I think it might sharpen the focus on what’s relevant. Of course, many things are less conclusive than they might appear. For example, you probably have heard about research finding neurological bases for various forms of religious experience. Some think that this reduces spiritual experiences, such as the dissolution of time, the sense of oneness, a sense of awe, a sense of certainty to no more than brain functions, functions that, perhaps, evolved because they contributed to social coherence or some other social benefit. It seems to me that this is not the only possible interpretation.  Consider sight or sound. On one level, these are brain functions. Stimulate certain parts of the brain, and you may invoke experiences of sight and sound. By dreaming, you can invoke these sensations with no external stimuli. Yet these brain functions evolved in response to physical elements in the external environment, to the presence of light and sound waves. So one could imagine, particularly if one believed in dualism, that the brain functions involved in spiritual experiences evolved in response to the presence of spiritual stimuli.

In short, I think we’ll learn a lot more about how brains work and, perhaps, about how minds work the next 50 years. But it may turn out that the question of free will is an unanswerable question.

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