Free Will, Transformation, and Us

November 19, 2015
Julia Mossbridge, IONS Fellow

One of the most fundamental dualities in our everyday experience is the duality between consciousness and nonconsciousness; the contrast between that of which we are aware in our everyday experience (individual consciousness) and that of which we are not aware (everything else — all nonconscious processes). For example, your awareness of reading this blog post is conscious. But the mechanisms that allow you to read this post and become aware of it are entirely nonconscious. I use “nonconscious” instead of “unconscious” because “unconscious” has connotations in psychology that I don’t want to evoke. Also, based on my reading of Freud, he would consider “unconscious” to be only a portion of the nonconscious processes, which would include the preconscious, the subconscious, and the unconscious.

This duality is so fundamental because we literally cannot ever know what it is like to be our nonconscious processes. By definition. The only thing that we can know what it’s like to be is our conscious awareness. By definition. So, by definition, the duality is there.

But we need to keep in mind that the existence of the duality does not mean that there is nothing that transcends it. It is easy to decide that whatever is true of one aspect of the duality is also true of the other. Just because dogs are not cats does not, of course, indicate that they don’t share the annoying trait of making me sneeze.

In the world of neuroscience, it is common to believe that because we are not aware of what it is like to be our nonconscious processes, then our nonconscious processes are not themselves aware. Most of us neuroscientists say that we have consciousness, but that our nonconscious processes create this consciousness. These nonconscious processes, including most of the neural activity in our brains, are not self-aware, according to mainstream neuroscience. How do we know this? We don’t. It’s an aesthetic choice. It bothers us to think of our neurons being self-aware, because as neuroscientists most of us have the opinion that our neurons are in charge of what we experience in our conscious awareness. And, if that’s the case, AND they are aware, then we are just puppets with puppet masters that are actually not only in control of us, but are consciously creating our delusion that “we” (our conscious awarenesses) are in control.

In fact, examinations of the evidence suggest that all the processes of which we are unaware, including the processes going on in our brains and bodies, are at least as aware if not more aware than our individual conscious awareness.

So if this is true, do we have free will? And what is the point of transformation if my conscious awareness is really a puppet?

Let’s start with free will. The answer to “Do I have free will?” depends on who “I” is. If I consider “I” to be only my individual conscious awareness, then no, I don’t have free will — my nonconscious processes are in charge. But if I consider “I” to be my conscious awareness PLUS all of the nonconscious processes that influence my conscious awareness, you bet your booty I’m in charge. Why? Because I just included the entire universe that influences my conscious awareness in my definition of “I.”

The point of transformation then becomes recognizing that the way that we can transcend the duality of awareness versus non-awareness is to recognize that they are both elements of who we are. We, ourselves, who we are as beings, transcend the most fundamental division that we know.

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