I don't believe in free will. But like most people, I have a feeling that my intention to do something is what causes that thing to happen.
So we have two things going on:
(1) A scientific world view doesn't support a belief in free will. As I've written about a lot on this blog (type "free will" into the Google search box in the right sidebar to find the many posts), there is no evidence of an immaterial self/soul that somehow floats free of the material/physical goings-on in the human mind. So there's no entity within us which can function freely of causes and effects or the laws of nature.
(2) Yet we humans have a strong sense that our intentions lead to thoughts, actions, and everything else we're capable of doing. After all, I think type an example of a thought and the next thing I do is type "I need to finish writing this paragraph." Who the heck is controlling what I'm doing right now if it isn't my conscious intention?
Well, study carefully this photo I took of a fascinating figure in Daniel Wegner's book, "The Illusion of Conscious Will," and you'll get a very interesting explanation of why the experience of conscious will is indeed an illusion.
Note that there is an "actual" and "apparent" causal path leading to an action.
The actual causal path flows from an unconscious cause of the action. Meaning, the human brain is doing things below the surface of awareness that cause us to do something.
At the same time, there also is an unconscious cause of thought. This takes an actual causal path in the brain that leads to a thought.
So the brain is unconsciously causing both an action and a thought.
These two things are actually happening. However, our experience of conscious will -- the feeling that our thought or intention is what causes an action to occur -- is an illusion. This is shown in the "Apparent Causal Path" arrow leading from thought to action.
Here's a few passages from Wegner's book that explain what is going on here. (Wegner is a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University.)
The experience of will, then, is the way our minds portray their operations to us, not their actual operation. Because we have thoughts of what we will do, we can develop causal theories relating those thoughts to our actions on the basis of priority, consistency, and exclusivity.
We come to think of these prior thoughts as intentions, and we develop the sense that the intentions have causal force even though they are actually just previews of what we may do.
Yet in an important sense, it must be the case that something in our minds plays a causal role in making our actions occur. That something is, in the theory of apparent mental causation, a set of unconscious mental processes that cause the action. At the same time, that something is very much like the thoughts we have prior to the action.
...We must remember that this analysis suggests that the real causal mechanisms underlying behavior are never present in consciousness. Rather, the engines of causation operate without revealing themselves to us and so may be unconscious mechanisms of mind.
...The unique human convenience of conscious thoughts that preview your actions gives us the privilege of feeling we willfully cause what we do.
In fact, however, unconscious and inscrutable mechanisms create both conscious thought about action and the action, and also produce the sense of will we experience by perceiving the thought as cause of the action.
So while our thoughts may have deep, important, and unconscious causal connections to our actions, the experience of conscious will arises from a process that interprets these connections, not from the connections themselves.
This is brilliant. I'm only read about 1/4 of "The Illusion of Conscious Will," but I'm far enough into the book to have gotten a good feel for Wegner's thesis. He provides a lot of evidence to support it, both scientific and philosophical.
Naturally spiritual (using that word broadly) implications of this illusion are easy to come by. For example, it can be argued that the so-called enlightenment of Zen, Taoism, and such simply is an intuitive seeing-through of the illusion of conscious will.
Meaning, the illusion that "I" am determining what I do (and also by implication, what happens to me) is somehow experienced as the scientific falsity that it is. Of course, this is just a fact -- assuming Wegner's hypothesis is correct, as it seems to be -- not any sort of supernatural or mystical state of mind.
It is just our actual state of mind, seen for what it is. It'll take another blog post to explain this more fully.