Well, at long last I've finished Paul Breer's book, The Spontaneous Self: Viable Alternatives to Free Will, which I've been writing about recently.
I enjoyed it a lot. But then, I'm a big fan of the notion that free will is an illusion that we'd be better off not embracing. In the post I'll explain in my own words some of what struck me most strongly in the book.
Spontaneity. Breer opened my eyes to a fact that other writers on free will don't emphasize much. If we look upon our thoughts, emotions, and actions as not being produced by our own unfettered free will, the alternative is to recognize that the whole universe, really, has generated the causes and effects which result in our doing or experiencing something.
That's beautiful. It substitutes the loneliness of the isolated free-willing self with the companionship of everything in the natural world, since that world is acting through the person that is us -- as contrasted with the illusion of a non-material soul or self that somehow is part of our being and does the deciding for our mind and body.
This is where Breer's spontaneity in his title comes from. There's no limit to the forces acting upon us. Everything in the cosmos is potentially at our disposal, forming who we are, what we do, and what we experience. Things happen in our life, but there's no one inside our head controlling the happenings. They spring up unbidden, often surprising us (sometimes in pleasant ways, sometimes in unpleasant ways).
Sense of free will remains. However, for most of us, the generally pleasing sense that we are freely willing agents will stay as it is. Or at least, much as it is. Sure, that sense may be diminished by contemplating the illusion of free will through books, videos, blog posts, meditation, and other means.
I agree with Breer, though, that evolution has instilled a sense of free will in us for good reasons (not that evolution uses reason), and that the culture in which we live typically fosters a sense of free will through explicit and implicit means. For example, the legal system in most countries assumes that a criminal of sound mind and body would have been able to not commit a crime if he or she had wanted to.
Free will seems so real because it's an obvious truism that we can only be conscious of conscious contents of consciousness.
Since neuroscience knows that unconscious influences drive most, if not all, of our thoughts, emotions, and actions, those deterministic factors will remain a mystery to us. So this produces a sense of freedom in us, whereas actually what's going on is that we're clueless about why we do or feel something -- even though we love to tell stories to ourselves and others about the motivation for our actions.
Empty rowboat. There's a story that I believe originated in Taoism via Chuang Tzu about a man in a rowboat on a foggy lake.
There is a Zen story about a man who repaints his boat. Once it’s done, he’s so pleased with how it looks that he decides to take it out on the lake, even though it’s a foggy day. As he steers through the fog, another boat slams into his, damaging the new paint job.
The man is furious. Why the hell didn’t the person in the other boat pay attention and watch where he was going? The man turns to yell at the person in the other boat, and finds that there is no other person. It’s just an empty boat, drifting on the lake.
If a man is crossing the river and an empty boat collides with his skiff, even though he is a bad-tempered man he will not become very angry. But if he sees a man in the other boat he will scream and shout and curse at the man to steer clear. If you can empty your own boat crossing the river of the world, no one will oppose you, no one will seek to harm you. Thus is the perfect man – his boat is empty. ~ Chuang-Tzu
I don't think Chuang Tzu is correct about no one opposing or seeking to harm a person with an empty boat, meaning, I assume, a realization that they lack a self or soul capable of free will. However, I like the notion that the person who got angry at a boat, before realizing that no one was controlling the boat, is just as empty of control as the boat drifting without anyone in it.
Happening here. Breer talks quite a bit in his book about how to make no-free-will and a lack of agency a lived experience rather than just an intellectual understanding. Of course, an intellectual understanding is part of our lived experience, so it's important in its own right.
Breer believes, with good reason, that language plays a key role in how both our sense of self and of having free will is created and maintained. After all, in English we say things like "I am writing this blog post," which obviously assumes that somebody referred to as "I" is doing something called "writing."
In other words, a subject -- me -- is considered to be different from the activity I'm engaging in, writing a blog post. So Breer recommends an alternative: "Writing a blog post is happening here," where here refers to the person, the body/mind, known as Brian Hines.
Doing that all the time would be absurd. My brief conversations with a grocery store clerk wouldn't go so smoothly if, after they ask, "How is your day going?," I said "A fine day is happening here." I'd rather simply say "Fine," or "I'm doing well, how about you?"
It seems to me that the mindfulness exercise of labeling fits well here. If I find myself getting upset at something, a frequent occurrence when I watch a news program about politics, rather than telling myself "I'm irritated," I prefer to mentally say "Irritation" or "Irritation here."
That serves to reduce my sense of selfhood and free will somewhat. But I have no interest in giving up the use of "I" in ordinary conversation or writing.