Chapter 5. Conscious mind and free will

5.1. What are the characteristics of conscious mind?

(Note: This chapter is based on the assumption that the brain is objectively real. In Chapter 9 and following, we shall see that this assumption is unnecessary and, in fact, like any assumption of an objective reality (Section 1.1), it cannot be verified. Furthermore, it leads to the additional assumption that there is an objective "I" that suffers.)

Mind is the conscious experience of the functioning of the brain and senses. This is to be distinguished from the functioning itself. Mind has three important aspects:

a) The contents of mind: Mental contents include thoughts, emotions, feelings, dreams, and visions. Perceptual contents include those that are internal to the body as well as those that are external. Perceptual contents that are internal include sensations of pain, pressure, stretching, tension, movement, proprioception, and interoception. Many of these involve emotional components as well, such as fear or pleasure. Analogs of these mental and perceptual contents are the shadows on the wall in Plato’s cave allegory (see Section 1.4), or the images on the screen in a movie theater.

b)  A special case of the contents of mind is the field of mind. The field of mind varies from wide to narrow depending on the degree of focus, and can be directed towards any object. An analog is the field of view of an optical system such as a telescope or camera.  

c) Another special case that is normally assumed to be among the contents of the mind is the subject of mind. (We shall see in Chapters 9 and 11 that there really is no subject in the mind.) In both Plato’s allegory and the movie theater metaphor, the subjects are the observers in the audience.

There are several ordinary states of conscious experience, the most common being waking, dreamless sleep, and dreaming. There are also altered states of consciousness that can be experienced in meditation or under the influence of mind-altering drugs. Other states are those that are experienced under hypnotic trance, sedation, or anesthesia. All of the contents of our minds are essentially private since our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and sensations, are entirely our own. For example, any sensation, such as "red," is an experience that we know intimately, but it is impossible to convey that experience to anybody else. We assume that each person has had a similar experience, but we can never know this to be true. Conscious experience may include the state in which there are no objects except the subject and/or the field, and even the state in which there are no objects at all. Such states are achievable in deep meditation.

Question: If all of our experiences are essentially private, what does that imply about the existence of an external, objective reality?

5.2. Extraordinary abilities of the mind

There is a great deal of evidence--some reliable, some not so reliable--that the mind is much more than merely the central processor for sensory information. We know that sensory processes are all local, i.e., they depend on local transmission of information. However, extrasensory processes may be nonlocal, i.e., they may depend on nonlocal correlations between two minds or between a mind and an event that is remote, either spatially or temporally (see Section 4.3). Nevertheless, whether the extrasensory processes are local or nonlocal, we shall refer to all of them as nonlocal mind. Much more will be said about this in Chapters 9, 12, and 16.

Russell Targ and Jane Katra in their 1998 book, Miracles of Mind, list a few of the extrasensory abilities that have been demonstrated:

Telepathy: Direct mental communication between one mind and another.

Remote viewing: Obtaining a mental image of a remote target object at which an accomplice is located. This is different from telepathy because the image often contains details not noticed by the accomplice.

Clairvoyance: Obtaining a mental image of a remote target without the aid of an accomplice.

Precognition: There are several types of precognition. A prophecy is a dream or vision of a future event when there is no possibility of taking any action that could change the future. Examples are recording a prophecy and revealing it only after the event has occurred, or prophesying in a vague, nonspecific way. Two famous prophesiers were Nostradamus ( and Edgar Cayce ( If the precognition is specific enough to allow an action to be taken to avert a future event, then it is called a forecast, premonition, or presentiment (pre-sentiment). Example: a dream of an airplane crash that allows a person to avoid that flight.

Distant hypnosis: Inducing hypnosis of a person at a distance.

Psychic healing: A type of remote viewing and healing in which the healer actively transposes intuitive impressions into thoughts and specific healing actions in a patient's body to remedy a perceived problem.

Spiritual healing: Remote healing in which the healer is in a receptive, aware, nonjudgmental state which allows his or her consciousness to be used as a conduit for healing by nonlocal, universal mind.

Energy healing: Healing in which the healer directs his or her attention to the patient and concentrates on replenishing or manipulating the patient’s vital energy flow. Examples are reike, therapeutic touch, laying on of hands, pranic healing, and Qi Gong.

Intuition: Direct, nonanalytical awareness that can come from nonlocal mind, internal subconscious processes, psychic sources such as mind-to-mind connections, or direct clairvoyant perception of the outside world.

The existence of extraordinary abilities attained through the practice of yoga is well established and documented in the literature of yoga, where they are called siddhis. The fourth century BC sage Patanjali enumerated the following siddhis in his Yoga Sutras (as listed by Targ and Katra):

Knowledge of past and future; understanding of the sounds made by all creatures; knowledge of past lives; knowing what others are thinking; prior knowledge of one’s death; the attainment of various kinds of strength; perception of the small, the concealed, and the distant; knowledge of other inhabited regions; knowing about the stars and their motions; knowledge of the interior of the body; control of hunger and thirst; steadiness; seeing the adepts in one’s own interior light; intuition; understanding of the mind; entering the bodies of others; lightness and levitation; brightness; control of material elements; control of the senses; perfection of the body; quickness of the body.

The effects of nonlocal mind are clearly experienced when people are meditating in a group. (Because of the interactions between the minds of pairs of meditators, the effects of nonlocal mind presumably increase with the square of the number of meditators.) The Transcendental Meditation (TM) organization has conducted several demonstration projects to show the effects on the surrounding community of a large number of people meditating in a group. [For example, see Social Indicators Research 47, 153-201, June 1999; also at This project occurred in Washington, D.C. between June 7 and July 30, 1993 and involved up to 4000 people meditating in a group. An independent group of scientists approved the research protocol and analyzed statistically the results. The report showed that homicides, rapes, and assaults decreased by 23% (significance p<2x10-9) in D.C. during the period and reverted to norms afterwards.]

Question: In your own experience, is there a difference between meditating alone and meditating in a group?

In a remarkable series of experiments consisting of several million trials, Robert G. Jahn and Brenda J. Dunne of Princeton University have shown that operator intention alone can produce small but statistically significant (p<7x10-5) effects on the functioning of various physical devices operating randomly (

Bill Tiller and colleagues of Stanford University ( have discovered that it is possible to make a significant change in the properties of a material substance by consciously holding a clear intention to do so. For example, they have been able to change the acid/alkaline balance (pH) in a vessel of water either up or down, without adding chemicals to the water, merely by creating an intention to do so. In addition, they have been able to use a simple electronic device to "store" a specific intention within its electric circuit. This “intention programmed” device can be placed next to a vessel of water at any physical location to obtain the same results they have achieved in their lab. In this way, others have replicated these water pH results at multiple locations around the world.

[Note: We shall see later that it is not surprising that the mind can directly affect matter. In Chapter 6, we shall see that, in one version of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory, matter is manifested by consicousness. In Chapter 9, we shall see that all material objects are really mental objects. Mind can affect matter because there is no difference between mind and matter.]

More evidence of nonlocal mind appears in the data of The Global Consciousness Project (see, which has maintained many random event generators (REG) scattered throughout the world since 1998. These REGs submit their data automatically to a server in Princeton, NJ for archiving. The archived data can then be searched for evidence of nonrandom correlations between the REGs. Such correlations have been found when a large fraction of the world's population is focused on some extraordinary event. For example, strong correlations between the REGs were found on September 11, 2001 beginning a few minutes after the last attack and continuing for several hours afterwards. The odds that these correlations exceeded chance were about 35 to 1.

For our purposes, the main conclusion that we wish to glean from these abilities is that the mind functions not only through the senses, but also through extrasensory processes. This means that large regions of space, possibly all space; and large eras of time, possibly all time, past and future; may be open to it.

In addition to the possibility of healing remotely, the mind can demonstrably heal locally. Proof is given by the widespread experience of the placebo effect. Research has confirmed that a fake treatment, made from an inactive substance like sugar, distilled water, or saline solution, can have a placebo effect--that is, the sham medication can sometimes improve a patient's condition simply because the person has the expectation that it will be helpful. For a given medical condition, it is not unusual for one-third of patients to feel better in response to treatment with placebo (FDA Consumer magazine, January-February 2000). The placebo effect has even been demonstrated in sham knee surgeries (New England Journal of Medicine, July 11, 2002), and in sham brain surgeries on Parkinson's disease patients (Nature Neuroscience, May 2004).

There are mixed data on the power of prayer in physical healing. A recent well-designed study was designed to determine the effects of intercessory prayer on coronary bypass patients (American Heart Journal 151,934-42, April 2006). It found that there was no beneficial effect of intercessory prayer on the healing of the patients, and, in fact, if the patients knew they were the subjects of such prayers, they suffered from more complications than did those who did not know. However, several millenia of experience attest that praying for others is of spiritual benefit to those who are praying if not of physical benefit for the persons prayed for. One can very easily demonstrate this for oneself. One important form of prayer for others is the loving-kindness meditation of Buddhism (see Section 24.2).

Question: Have you ever prayed for anybody else's healing? Did you experience a healing in your own mind?

5.3. The unity of the human mind

From this discussion, we still cannot answer the question, what is conscious mind? Can we explain it in terms of simple constituents, i.e., can we apply reductivist scientific methods to it, or is it fundamentally a unity? If it is a fundamental unity, does it have a location and size? In answering these questions, we must be careful not to identify the mind with the brain. The mind is subjective while the brain is objective. Therefore, in studying the mind, we must study it subjectively, not objectively. This means to examine our direct experience of the mind and to disregard our preconceived concepts about it.

In some respects, our mind appears to be a unique, unified, continuous thing that provides continuity to our lives and unity to our perception. We seem to be one person, not multiple persons. Even a person with multiple personality disorder thinks of him or her self as one self but with more than one subself.

However, when we examine the mind in a little more detail, it becomes more complex. For example, what do we mean when we speak about inner conflict? Are there two minds in conflict? What about the common advice, "Love and accept yourself", and what about our attempts to control our minds or ourselves? How many selves are there? We shall consider these questions and similar ones later in this course.

5.4. Unconscious functioning of the brain

We call the state of the absence of the mind's contents an unconscious state. We must distinguish between unconscious, mechanical functioning of the brain, and unconscious, but not purely mechanical, functioning.

Much of the unconscious functioning of the brain is completely physical or mechanical, with no mental component. Such processes could be replaced by those of a machine with no discernible difference. This is probably true for those unconscious processes dealing with the physical functioning of the body. Most of the internal organ functions are performed without our awareness, and those that are controlled by the brain are controlled by purely physical components of the brain without any awareness.

However, there are other unconscious processes that might not be completely mechanical. Everybody has had the experience of a creative solution to a problem arising spontaneously after a period of unconscious ferment such as after a night’s sleep, or after (or during) a meditation. This process of creativity has three stages: saturation (gathering and absorption of all pertinent information), incubation (letting this information "cook" in the mind), and illumination or manifestation (the genesis of the new concept). The latter two stages are largely unconscious. It seems unlikely that they could be purely mechanical and still give birth to something entirely new. Of course, it would be difficult to prove that such concepts are in fact totally new, rather than some rearrangement of previously learned concepts.

Question: Have you ever "slept on" a problem overnight only to wake up the next morning with the solution in your mind?

5.5. Is there a test for consciousness?

What objects are conscious? This question was also asked in Sections 1.2 and 1.3.  Because other human beings behave like we do, we assume that they are conscious. But is such behavior proof of consciousness? Some animals exhibit human-like behavior. Are they conscious? If so, are fish and plants also conscious? What about amoebas? Does consciousness come in degrees, so that everything is conscious to some degree? The problem with answering the question, "What is conscious?", is in devising a test that tells us whether something is or is not conscious. Such a test does not exist in science because it would have to measure directly an object’s consciousness rather than its behavior. 

To reveal the difficulties in this type of measurement, suppose that my mind is directly sensitive to your mind without my depending on any cues from your behavior or your physical reactions. We might think that such might be the case in certain kinds of telepathic events (see Section 5.2).  Now, for example, could we determine whether my experience of "red" is the same as yours?  

The answer is no because my experience of red is still inescapably in my mind, never in yours. Thus, a telepathic technique does not give us a way to determine whether my experience of red is the same as yours. Furthermore, no matter what the technique for measuring consciousness, there is always the problem that the person interpreting the measurement is aware of only the contents of his or her own mind, never of anybody else's.  

This does not mean that minds cannot communicate with each other. Nonlocal consciousness allows this (see Sections 5.2, 9.4, 12.1, 12.2, Chapter 16).

Question: What kind of world would this be if we could not communicate with each other? Would there even be any world but mine? Would there even be a world?

The question of which objects are conscious assumes that an object can be conscious. This might be a mistaken assumption. Perhaps no object is conscious and what we think of as a conscious object, like for example a human, is not conscious at all. Perhaps, consciousness is not even a property of objects. This would mean that no object itself can be aware but it could also mean that Consciousness is what aware of objects. We shall investigate this possibility in Chapter 9.

5.6. Can a machine be conscious?

[As mentioned above, there are no objective tests for consciousness.  In Chapter 9, we shall see that consciousness is purely subjective. The concept that there could be an objective test for consciousness is what is called a category mistake. Consciousness is in a category by itself, while objects are in a separate category.]

In 1950,  English mathematician Alan Turing (1912 - 1954) proposed a test to determine whether a computer can think. He posed the question, "Suppose a human, after extensive conversations with the computer, cannot distinguish between the responses of the computer and those of a human, then might the computer be intelligent?"  Because we know that some deterministic systems behave chaotically and unpredictably, even a deterministic computer could be as unpredictable as a human.

We might think that a very complex computer might be capable of understanding, and if understanding is part of consciousness, then a computer might be conscious. However, we can prove that a computer, no matter how complex and no matter how much its behavior mimics human behavior, need not be capable of understanding. This is shown by the famous test invented in 1980 by English-American philosopher John Searle (1932 -    ). Its purpose was to show that a human being can perform any function that a computer can (although much slower) without having any understanding of the meaning of the function. Hence, if the human need not understand, the computer need not either. A computer takes a set of input statements, operates on them by means of a predetermined algorithmic procedure, and produces a set of output statements. Although it does this electronically, the same procedure could be done by means of mechanical operations on mechanical components. A human could take the same input statements (in a readable, but not understandable, form) and by merely following instructions (the algorithm) perform all of the mechanical operations without any understanding of the meaning of the input-output statements or the algorithm. (For example, a human can solve a jig-saw puzzle by fitting the pieces together, but might not be unable to understand the resulting picture.) Thus the computer need not understand either.

If consciousness were really a function of complexity, then an extremely complex computer might be conscious. But what would be the function of consciousness in a computer that operates algorithmically, i.e., by following a prescribed procedure?

In 1930, Austrian-American mathematician Kurt Gödel (1906 - 1978) showed that, in any finitely describable, logical system (one that can be described by  a finite number of statements), that is self-consistent and that contains the rules of arithmetic, there are true statements that are not theorems of the logical system. His proof shows that these true statements can be seen to be true even though they are not theorems.

Before we discuss this theorem, we first define what we mean by a logical system. Consider the statements

a>b  and  b>c

where a, b, and c are integers.  We assume that both statements are true, i.e., that they are the axioms. Then we must conclude that 


This is a theorem that must be true if the axioms are true. This is an example of the simplest possible axiomatic logical system. It consists of a set of axioms, which are accepted but are not proved, and the set of all of the theorems that follow from the axioms.

Gödel’s theorem shows that no logical system can produce all of the true statements that are possible. In other words, there are some true statements that cannot be proved within any logical system. A conclusion one might draw from this theorem is that consciousness can learn truths that a computer following the rules of logic can never discover. This might mean that a deterministic computer can never model consciousness, or no deterministic computer can be conscious no matter how complex it is. Furthermore, it might mean that no scientific theory (which is a logical system) can explain everything, possibly including consciousness. That would mean that it might never be possible to conceive a true Theory of Everything. (A Theory of Everything is the holy grail of physics. It is a theory that would determine all physical laws and physical constants without inputting any numerical values.)

Gödel’s school work, age 6-7 (J. W. Dawson, Jr., Logical Dilemmas (1997))

In 1982, the American theoretical physicist Richard Feynman (1918 - 1988) showed that a classical computer (that is, a deterministic one) can never simulate nonlocality [R.P. Feynman, Simulating physics with computers, International Journal of Theoretical Physics, 21, (1982) 467-488]. Thus, if nonlocal mind really exists, a classical computer could never simulate a human mind.

Humans exhibit creativity, which is a discontinuous pattern of thought. It is difficult to see how a deterministic computer, even if chaotic, could operate discontinuously.

Exercise: Give examples in your experience that your mind sometimes works discontinuously, i.e., that some thoughts occur that are not related to previous thoughts.

Humans seem to have a sense of inner connection with other humans that could not exist between human and machine, no matter how complex. This connection, which may be a manifestation of nonlocal mind, may be impossible to simulate in any kind of machine.

Question: Have you ever experienced a sense of inner connection with a machine?

Art by Jolyon,

5.7. What seem to be the effects of consciousness?

Forget for the moment that, without consciousness there may be no physical world (Section 4.2). Does consciousness affect the physical world? It does indeed seem to have an effect on the physical world, although one must be cautious about this:

a) We are unaware of much of what the body does so consciousness seems to play no role in such functions.

b) Much of what we do consciously would not be different if we were not conscious (see Section 5.9 also). Does the fact that our perceptions and understanding are conscious actually make a difference? Would not cleverness without consciousness be as good as with consciousness?

c) If animals are unconscious, then those aspects of human behavior that are like animal behavior are apparently unaffected by consciousness.

However, there are ways in which the physical world seems to be directly affected by consciousness, e.g., books are written about it, we talk about it, courses are given about it, consciousness of suffering stimulates many people to understand suffering in order to end it, and gaining this understanding requires our becoming even more conscious.

Questions: Suppose there is no physical world and there is only a subjective world, i.e., the only world that exists is in the mind. Answer the following questions:
a) Would it be possible to be unaware of some functions of the body?
b) Could we do anything unconsciously?
c) Could anything be unconscious?

5.8. When and how does a child begin to perceive objects?

Is the perception of separate objects an ability that the child learns from its parents, or is it an innate function of the developing physical brain? There has been much research on the development in the infant of the ability to perceive separate objects and to conceive of them as existing independently of the infant's perception of them.

In his book Visual Intelligence (1998, pp. 12-16), Donald D. Hoffman describes the development in the child's mind of the ability to make conceptual sense out of the confusion of retinal images presented to it:

"Among the most amazing facts about vision is that kids are accomplished geniuses at vision before they can walk. Before age one, they can construct a visual world in three dimensions, navigate through it quite purposefully on all fours, organize it into objects, and grasp, bite, and recognize those objects . . . By about the age of one month, kids blink if something moves toward their eyes on a collision course. By three months they use visual motion to construct boundaries of objects. By four months they use motion and stereovision to construct the 3D shapes of objects. By seven months they also use shading, perspective, interposition (in which one object partially occludes another), and prior familiarity with objects to construct depth and shape. By one year they are visual geniuses, and proceed to learn names for the objects, actions, and relations they construct . . .

. . . each child constructs a visual world with three spatial dimensions--height, width, and depth. But an image has just two dimensions--height and width. It follows that, for a given image, there are countless 3D worlds that a child could construct . . .

. . . This ambiguity holds not just for depth, but for all aspects of our visual constructions, including motion, surface colors, and illumination . . .

. . . This makes the task sound impossible. How could a child sort through countless possible visual worlds and arrive at much the same answer as every other child?"

Hoffman concludes that all children are born with the same rules by which they construct their visual worlds, and which allow each of them to see much the same world as any other child. Thus, the principal prerequisite for perceiving objects turns out to be an inherited predisposition to do so. Hoffman argues that the universal rules of vision parallel the universal rules of language (see Noam Chomsky, Reflections on Language, 1975) by which a child’s ability to learn a language is also part of its heredity.

An important special example of the infant seeing separate objects is its perception of its mother as an object beginning at about 4 months (see, e.g., Child Development and Early Education, by Pauline H. Turner, 1994, pp. 58-59). After about 8 months, the child begins to perceive itself as an object separate from its mother, this process becoming complete at about 15 months. It seems likely that these developments must also be a result of the child’s inherited abilities.

We conclude from these studies that our ability to perceive separate objects and individuals is a product of our innate tendencies. Yet, as we shall soon see, the perception of ourselves as separate, autonomous entities is the basis of all of our suffering. Thus, it seems that we are all born with a tendency to suffer. Fortunately, this depressing thought is not the whole truth. We are told by the sages that our perceptions are mistaken and that this mistake can be corrected. But before it can be corrected, it must be understood. Gaining this understanding is the objective of much of the remainder of this course.

A 6-7 month old infant can see that this object is impossible

Question: Does the experiment of the above figure necessarily imply that the infant sees the object as existing outside of the mind?

5.9. The experiments of Libet, et al., and their implications for free will

In a ground-breaking series of experiments first reported in 1973, Benjamin Libet (noted American physiology researcher, 1916-2007) showed that the earliest experiential awareness of a sensory stimulus occurs about 500 msec (0.5 sec) after the stimulus itself (see diagram below) [Subjective referral of the timing for a conscious sensory experience: a functional role for the somatosensory specific projection system in man, by Libet, Wright, Jr., Feinstein, and Pearl, Brain 102 (1979) 193-224]. These experiments involved applying small electrical pulses to the skin of the hands of patients who were undergoing brain surgery, and then measuring the resulting electrical signals from electrodes implanted in the sensory cortex. The initial negative pulse is the primary evoked potential resulting from the nerve impulse traveling from the hand to the brain---it appears 10-30 msec after the skin stimulus. The subsequent wave (average evoked response AER) is the brain's response to the stimulus.

The experiments showed that none of our experiences of perception are in objective time but in fact are delayed by about one-half second after the objective events. (Objective time is time as observed on a clock or other measuring instrument.) This delay is the time required for the AER to rise to the level necessary for experiential awareness (neuronal adequacy).  (Other experiments showed the necessity of neuronal adequacy for subjective experience to occur.) This means that it is impossible to respond volitionally in less than 500 msec to any external stimulus since our experience is always delayed by that much. [Libet. et al. also showed that meaningful but unconscious, reflexive behavioral responses can occur in as little as 100 msec after a stimulus, showing that meaningful behavior need not be conscious behavior (e.g., a sprinter exploding from the blocks after the starter's gun fires).]

[In addition, Libet, et al. showed that our experience of a skin stimulus precedes neuronal adequacy because the brain refers the experience retroactively to the time of stimulus, as is shown in the diagram. This required an experiment in which pulses were applied directly to the sensory cortex simultaneously with pulses applied to the hand. When this was done, the skin pulses were felt by the subject to occur before the cortex pulses (which were also felt in the hand, not in the cortex) even though it was known that the brain required the same time to process the skin pulses as the cortex pulses. Only when the skin pulses were delayed about 500 ms relative to the cortex pulses were the two pulses felt simultaneously. This showed that our perception of simultaneity and sequentiality are subjective.]

In 1983, Libet, et al. [Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action, The Behavioral and Brain Sciences (1985) 529-566] reported an even more profound set of experiments in which a different set of subjects, these without implanted electrodes, were "volitionally" initiating muscular acts rather than responding to sensory stimuli. Electromyogram signals from a designated trigger finger were used to initiate computer storage of the EEG responses (the readiness potential, RP) that had already appeared on the scalp prior to the triggers [see diagram below from Alexander Riegler, Whose Anticipations? in Butz, M., Sigaud, O., and Gerard, P. (eds), Anticipatory Behavior in Adaptive Learning Systems: Foundations, Theories, and Systems. Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence, Springer-Verlag (2003) 11-22].

A simplified diagram of these results is shown below:

The results showed that the onset of the readiness potential RP preceded the finger action A by 550-1050 msec, but the experiential awareness of the urge to perform the action preceded the finger action by only about 200 msec. (This awareness could not be signaled by finger motion because that would require another decision for muscular action. It was measured by having the subject associate his reading of an electronic clock with the onset of his awareness of the decision.) Thus, the brain prepares to perform a muscle act prior to the subject's awareness of any urge to act. Libet speculated that it may be possible to consciously veto the act if it is done within the last 100-200 msec before the it is to occur. However, because there is no muscle action to trigger the recording of a veto event, experimental verification of conscious veto decisions is not possible. Regardless of that, the possibility of volitional veto decisions is overruled by the considerations in the following paragraph, and by those in Sections 5.10 and 5.12.

Libet’s experiments point to a general concept that a little thought shows must always be valid. This is that everything that happens must happen before we can become aware of it. Any neurological or sensory process always happens before our awareness of the thought, feeling, or sensation that represents it. In Libet’s experiments, the lag of awareness was between 350 msec and 500 msec, but the exact value is unimportant. So long as this lag exists, no matter how large or small, whether it is one hour or one microsecond, our subjective experience of an event must always come after the objective measurement of the event. In other words, the subjective present always lags the objective present, or subjective time always lags objective time. [Because the brain requires about 500 msec to process an event before we can become aware of it, it is impossible for us to be aware of any instant in which the brain ceases to function, such as the instant we fall asleep (either naturally or under anesthesia), or the instant we die.]

The consequences of this insight are extraordinary, revolutionary, and far-ranging. Every thought, feeling, sensation, or action always occurs objectively before we become aware of it subjectively and hence there is no possibility that we can avoid it. This includes any choices or decisions that are made. We inescapably live in the objective past so that the objective present and future are completely beyond our awareness and control.

Art by Jolyon,

5.10. Brain imaging measurements on free will

Even more remarkable than the Libet et al. experiments, were the 2008 experiments of C. S. Soon, M. Brass, H.-J. Heinze, and J.-D. Haynes (Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain,, who made functional magnetic resonance images of the brain activity of a subject prior to the subject's "free" decision of whether to push a button with the right index finger or the left. In comparison to the brain preparation time of 300 ms in the Libet, et al. experiments, these experiments showed that the brain prepared the timing of the action up to five seconds before the subject's awareness of the decision. More remarkable yet, the brain prepared the handedness of the decision even before it prepared the timing, i.e., the spatial pattern of the brain images indicated which button would be pushed up to seven seconds before the awareness of which button would be pushed. (After allowing for the 2000 ms response time of the imaging equipment, left-right predictions were possible for up to ten seconds before the awareness of the decision.). In the diagram below, the dark blue brain image voxels predict a left-button push, while the yellow brain image voxels predict a right-button push.

[Note: Instead of watching a clock as in the Libet, et al. experiments, the subject observed a screen that flashed a consonant letter every 500 ms in random order. The subject then remembered the letter that was present at the subjective time of decision. The randomness of the letters ensured that the subject could not anticipate the next letter and therefore bias the timing of the awareness of the decision towards earlier times.]

Question: Suppose somebody tells you that he will raise his right arm in 10 s and then proceeds to count off the seconds after which he raises his right arm. Is that an example of free will?
Suppose he says he will raise it at some random time. Is that an example of free will?

5.11. Free will as the possibility of alternative action

The following discussion comes from Chapter 7 of the 1990 book by Euan Squires, Conscious Mind in the Physical World. It is a purely logical argument for the absence of free will. Whether the situations described could physically be realized is immaterial to the argument. This is similar to any mathematical proof. If we accept the validity of a mathematical proof even if the situations it describes cannot be physically realized, we must accept that the following conclusion about free will is also valid even if the situations it describes are not physically realizable.

A common definition of free will is the following: A decision is free if an agent could have decided differently. 

In order to clarify this definition, we divide the universe into two parts, the agent and the external circumstances.  Our conclusions are the same regardless of how this division is made (see next section). For example, a human agent could consist of some part of the mind-body while the external circumstances could consist of the remainder of the mind-body plus its surroundings. An inanimate agent like a thermostat could consist of a temperature sensor plus a switch while the surroundings could consist of the air around it.

We now compare the reactions of human agents, in their circumstances, with the reactions of inanimate thermostats, in their circumstances. If we first consider the reactions of identical humans and identical thermostats, the agents can decide differently only as follows:

a) A decision is free if, in different circumstances, two identical agents can make different decisions. But this cannot be the meaning of free will since it would also be true if the two agents were thermostats.

b) A decision is free if, in identical circumstances, two identical agents can make different decisions. But this cannot be the meaning of free will because this implies randomness, not free will, and would be true of any nondeterministic, inanimate agents, such as those that function randomly or quantum mechanically.  

The following table summarizes the alternatives:




True for two thermostats?






different  ("Given different circumstances, even if I were exactly the same person I was then, I would choose differently")




identical  ( "Given the same circumstances, even if I were exactly the same person I was then, I would choose differently")

different, therefore
random decision


yes, if operating randomly

different identical  ("Given the same circumstances, knowing what I do now, I would choose differently") different yes

The first two possibilities are the only ones available for identical agents.  Of course, different agents will react differently to the same circumstances because "different" means "not identical". Thus, the third possibility does not imply free will because two different thermostats in the same circumstances will react differently also.  

This discussion reveals the problems with any definition of free will based on the circumstances surrounding a decision. The circumstances may include the agent’s thoughts, feelings, emotions, sensations, perceptions, and actions if these are thought of as being external to the agent. Thus, if we try to define free will by considering the reaction of the agent to its circumstances, we are forced to the conclusion that free will as we have defined it does not exist.

Notice that the concept of free will can arise only if there is an agent that is separate from its surroundings. This separation is the essence of duality (see Sections 11.1, 11.4). Without duality, there is neither the agent nor that which is acted upon, so free will has no meaning.

Question: Does it frighten you to think that you have no more free will than a thermostat?

5.12. The origin of the belief in free will

The belief in free will appears to originate in a mental model that we have of ourselves. "I" appear to be separated into an inner and an outer part, which we shall call Ii and Io, respectively. The division may be between the mental and the physical, between some combination of the two, or more likely between two different mental parts. We think of Ii as having free will and being the controlling part, and Io as having no free will and being the controlled part. In this way, the separate individual entity (Ii) may believe he/she is free to control the mind and/or body (Io). However, if we are asked what part of the mind is the controlling part and what part is the controlled part, we are never able to provide a consistent answer.

Exercise: Close your eyes and see if you can find Ii. Did you find it? Can you describe it? Where is it located?   

We may think or feel that we reside primarily either in the head (the mind) or in the heart (the feelings). In the first case, we may think that we are heartless minds and respond to events only rationally. In the second case, we may feel that we are mindless feelings and respond to events only emotionally.

Question: At this moment, where are you residing, in the mind (the head), in the feelings (the heart), or neither? What is it that knows?

We see from this model that the separation of the universe into agent and surroundings discussed in Section 5.11 really is a separation within the mind-body organism. The belief in free will depends on our perception of an inner-outer duality within us. Without the perceived separation of ourselves into an inner object that controls and an outer object that is controlled, we could not have this belief, and free will would not be a concept that would ever arise. (In fact, as we shall see later, the belief that we are split is equivalent to the belief in free will.)

5.13. Is free will necessary for our happiness?

The existence of free will would imply that we should be free to choose our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and actions as we desire. However, are we really free to choose our thoughts and emotions? If so, why do we choose desires that cannot bring us happiness, such as any desire for the unobtainable? Why do we choose emotions like fear, guilt, hatred, anger, envy, or lust? In fact, why are we ever unhappy? Why are we not always happy if we are free to choose happiness? In fact, even more profoundly, why can’t we just stop thinking and feeling if we choose to? Our experience tells us that we cannot choose the thoughts and feelings that we will have 30 seconds from now, much less those of a day or week from now, and, worse, we cannot even stop thinking or feeling at all. In fact, every unbidden thought or feeling we have is more evidence that we are not free to choose.

Exercise: Try to stop thinking for 30 seconds. Were you successful?
Now try not to think of a pink elephant for 30 seconds. Were you successful?
Questions: When you are angry, do you choose to be angry?
When you are sad, do you choose to be sad?

If "we" think “we” have free will but don’t, “we” will think “we” can control “our” thoughts and actions, but will not actually be able to do so. If “we” think “we” should have different thoughts, feelings, emotions, body sensations, and perceptions, and “we” think “we” should be able to fix them, “we” will find out that “we” cannot. Then “we” will suffer.
A solution to suffering: Investigate the “me”. If “we” do so, “we” might not be able to find it. No “me”, no suffering.

Exercise: Whenever you are experiencing suffering (even mild dissatisfaction), look and see if you can find the “me” that is suffering. If you can find it, describe it. What is it that is aware of it? If you cannot find it, what is it that is suffering? What is the experience of suffering now like?

Thus, to pin our happiness on a chimera such as free will must doom us to a life of frustration, anger, and hopelessness. However, the opposite approach of giving up freedom is decidedly not the answer. To resignedly and fatalistically accept whatever crumbs our minds and the world throw our way is hardly a happy solution. The real solution requires us to discover what true freedom is.

5.14. Freedom as subjectivity

In the meditation for December 6 in A Net of Jewels (1996), Ramesh Balsekar, a sage who lived in Mumbai, India and who will be quoted frequently in this course, says,

"Freedom is what happens when the arrogant and silly notion that we live our own lives by our own will has fallen off."

In spite of the prevalent belief in free will, it is not possible to show that free will objectively exists within the split self, as the previous sections showed. Something other than a split self must be the source of true freedom. This something is pure consciousness, which is unified, nondual, unsplit, and totally free, as we shall see in Part 2. True freedom is pure subjectivity and is an intrinsic property of pure consciousness. Freedom as pure subjectivity is not the same as freedom of choice. Freedom of choice is an illusion. Freedom as subjectivity exists even in the absence of any objective freedom of choice. In fact, we can say that true freedom is freedom from the burdens and responsibilities of an imagined free will.

Question: What is it that knows whether or not you are free?

In a completely determined universe, would freedom be possible? In such a universe, there could be no objective freedom of choice. However, the absence of objective freedom does not preclude subjective freedom independent of the objective circumstances. Thus, subjective freedom can exist whether or not the phenomenal world is completely determined. This compatibility between freedom and determinism is called compatibilism. It implies that freedom and determinism refer to different levels of reality, the purely subjective vs. the purely objective, or noumenality vs. phenomenality.

In an objectively determined universe, as is assumed by classical physics, how can there be an actual split between an inner, controlling object and an outer, controlled object? In such a universe, every object is inextricably connected with every other object, whether causally, reverse-causally (see Section 5.16), or in some combination thereof, and therefore there is no way to distinguish between a controlling object and a controlled object. Any belief in a split would then have to exist in spite of the objective evidence that an actual split is impossible.

In the probabilistic universe that is assumed by orthodox quantum mechanics, we still must ask, how does the perceived inner-outer duality arise? What can take two objects and identify one as inner and the other as outer? If we can answer this question, we may also be able to answer the question, how does the belief in free-will arise? We shall present a quantum theoretical model that attempts to answer both of these questions in Chapter 7.

5.15. If there is no free will, how do things happen?

Graphic evidence of our lack of free will is produced by the effects of drugs on our consciousness, thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Antidepressants can make us placid and lethargic. Some antidepressants drastically reduce sex drive, while others increase it. Parkinson's drugs can cause compulsive behaviors such as gambling, excessive shopping, overeating, and hypersexuality. Hallucinogenic drugs change the way the brain interprets time, reality, and the environment around us. They affect the way we move, react to situations, think, hear, and see. They may make us think we're hearing voices, seeing images, and feeling things that don't exist. Amphetamine stimulates the nervous system and combats fatigue; but in cases of ADHD, improves impulse control and concentration, and decreases sensory overstimulation and irritability. Methylamphetamine is an amphetamine that can be made cheaply and hence is used illicitly to increase confidence, exhilaration, and alertness, but with the side effects of increased aggression, irritability, and feelings of paranoia. Hypnotic drugs induce sleep and anesthetics cause unconsciousness. All mental diseases are caused by abnormal brain chemistry and/or structure, but drugs can sometimes be used to restore some semblance of normalcy.

In 2006, rigorous research showed that psilocybin (magic mushroom) can induce the single most spiritually significant experience of a lifetime (R. R. Griffiths et al., Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance, Psychopharmacology August 2006;

Recent years have seen a flood of new research on the correlation between brain activity and decision making.  Two examples out of many are the following: 1) brain scans have revealed the existence of hidden thoughts without the subject's awareness of them (; 2) other brain scans have suggested that all decisions are effected by emotion even when the subject thinks they are rational (Science, 4 August 2006, 313: 684-687) and

Scientists studying voles and human Swedish twins have discovered a gene variant involved in producing a hormone that affects monogamy in animals whereby men with two copies of the variant were twice as likely to have had a relationship crisis with their spouse or partner in the last 12 months as men who did not carry the variant (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2 September, 2008, available online at (

In this discussion and those in Sections 5.9, 5.10, 5.11, we see that free will plays no role, so our experiences are determined solely by the reactions of the brain to its circumstances. This means that the brain must function in a purely stimulus-response mode, where a stimulus can come either from an event that is perceived by the senses, or from one that arises spontaneously in the mind, like a thought, feeling, or emotion. We now consider such a model of the brain.

A computer is a crude and inadequate, but still useful, analog of the brain (which we will assume includes the entire nervous system). The design and memory of a computer are analogous to the genetics and memory of the brain, while the programming of a computer is analogous to the conditioning of the brain. Just as a computer does only what its design and programming permit it to do, the brain does only what its genetics and conditioning permit it to do. 

A computer acts on an input and generates an output, while a brain acts on a stimulus and generates a response. However, while the computer functions completely deterministically, the brain most likely functions both deterministically and probabilistically (see next section and Chapter 7).

Most computers are programmed in specialized programming operations by humans or other computers (in artificial intelligence applications, computers may also be programmed by their input-output operations). In comparison, the brain is conditioned continuously through all of its stimulus-response interactions, including not only local interactions with the environment, but also through nonlocal interactions (see Section 5.2). (Actually, this conditioning resides not only in the brain and nervous system but also in every organ of the body that possesses memory, however rudimentary, such as the musculature.) Thus, the enormous differences between a computer and a brain rest on 1) the differences between the primitiveness of a computer's design and the complexity of the brain's structure, 2) the differences between the limitations of the purely deterministic functioning in computers and the open-endedness of the probabilistic functioning in the brain, and 3) the differences between the restrictions of the specialized, local interactions of a computer and the vastness of the continuous local and nonlocal interactions of a brain.

Exercises: 1. (Easy) Watch as you are walking and see whether you are doing the walking or whether it is happening all by itself.
2. (More difficult) After you have become engrossed in something, such as reading or chatting, think back to see whether you actually did it or whether it happened all by itself.
3. (Also difficult) After you have made what you think was a mistake, think back to see whether you actually made the mistake or whether it happened all by itself. Did you blame yourself anyway, or, if blaming happened, did it happen all by itself?

Exercise: Watch your thoughts come and go. See if you can see where they are coming from. Are you thinking them? If you think you are, see if you can see yourself doing it. Can you choose your thoughts? If you think you can, see if you can see your self doing it. Now see if you can choose to have none at all.

5.16. Speculations on the future in determined and probable universes

What does the existence of precognition and prophecy (Section 5.2) imply about the future? Here are several possibilities:

1. The future might be predetermined because of strict, deterministic causality, which implies that the past completely determines the present and future. This is the paradigm of classical physics, which is no longer thought to be valid.

2. It might be determined probabilistically, but not completely, by the past. This is the paradigm of quantum mechanics and modern physics. It implies that all experiences of precognition and precognized events are probabilistic rather than certain.

3. It might be determined through an unconventional causality that operates in a time-reversed direction so that the future rather than the past determines the present. This is the concept of destiny, which will be discussed more fully in Section 12.5. There is nothing in either classical physics or quantum physics that precludes this because microscopic physical laws are equally valid in the time-reversed direction and in the forward direction. The only reason that we apply the laws in the forward direction is because we have knowledge of the past but not of the future, which we try to predict. (The law of entropy, which was discussed in Section 2.3, is a macroscopic law not a microscopic one, and would not invalidate reverse causality because it determines only the direction of time, not the direction of causality.)

4. It might be determined by a combination of (2) and (3) in the following way: A quantum wave traveling forward in time becomes entangled with another quantum wave traveling backward in time to form a present experience that is determined and certain. (This possibility is suggested by the transactional interpretation of quantum physics, see The Transactional Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, by J. G. Cramer, and Reviews of Modern Physics 58, 647–687; and Quantum Cosmology and the Hard Problem of the Conscious Brain, by Chris King,

5. The future might not be determined at all until somebody had an experience of it. Precognition could establish a correlation between a precognition experience in the present and the precognized event in the future. Prior to precognition, as in orthodox quantum mechanics, both the present event and the future one might be only probabilistic rather than certain. In the terminology of Chapter 6, wavefunction collapse might then manifest both the precognition event in the present and the precognized event in the future (this would imply a future that is objectively real). This would be an example of how two temporally separated events could be correlated in time, similar to the way two spatially separated events are correlated in space in the Bell-Aspect experiments described in Section 4.3. How any of this could happen is unknown.

6. All of the past and future may exist objectively now, and it may be only a limitation of our perception that prevents us from seeing more than the perceived present (note the distinction between the objective present and the perceived present as discussed in Section 5.9). This possibility is discussed more in Sections 12.1 and 12.5.  

We must be clear that any concept of a future that is determined, or of a causality that operates in reverse time, is a metaphysical concept, and there may be no experiments or observations that could ever distinguish between them. These are different from the concepts of physics, which, even though admittedly based on the metaphysical assumption of an objective reality (see Section 1.1), can be either validated (although not proved) or invalidated by experiment and observation.

This page last updated October 16, 2010.
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