Free Won’t—Some argue that the executive function of our brain, the part of us that is most like a “will,” gets to deflect impulses as they come up out of our non-conscious processes. That is, if we’re paying enough attention to what we are about to do, we get to say “no.” (Look up Benjamin Libet and the controversy around his work, if you’re interested.) This idea has some intuitive appeal, and I do have experiences that feel like I’m exerting myself to avoid doing something, like eating a piece of candy. On the other hand, I also feel like I’m exerting myself when I do math, but I know that sense of exertion has to be coming from flexing extra muscles or something, because there are no sensory nerve endings in the brain.
Focusing—Jeffrey Schwartz, an OCD expert, argues in The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (which is definitely worth reading though at times frustrating to baffling), that in moments of deep concentration, we get to choose to focus—basically that we can choose to pay attention. Again, this has intuitive appeal, and again, I have experiences while doing some kinds of schoolwork or while meditating that feel like I’m exerting myself to bring myself back to the task at hand. Again, I’m suspicious of the “exertion” part of it, but I like the idea that when I’m really calm and concentrating, I can intentionally examine.
Choosing that which we are compelled to do—This one’s from some existentialist philosopher, I think, though I first heard it from Brad Blanton. The Landmark Forum people present it well, too. Again, it requires something of a meditative state, where you (hopefully) have minimized the influence of your past and your habits, and can (hopefully) really grok the situation that you are in. In that state, you can choose to be in that situation. It’s kind of like the “Yes” to Free Won’t’s “No.” I like this one because I do feel most free when I’m in that kind of a state, when I’m not contracting away from reality, so to speak. In that state it feels like I can be really creative and spontaneous. I don’t know if it has anything to do with “will,” but it’s nice.
[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, November 25, 2009.]