A reader posed this question as an alternative to “what it means to be mechanical?” He was right. It is the more fruitful way to go. After all, over the past three decades, scientists of all stripes have amassed a great deal of evidence to support Schopenhauer’s claim (as paraphrased by Einstein) that “a human can very well do what he wants, but cannot will what he wants.”
Science is making it increasingly clear that free will –at least deep free will–is a perception, not a fact. As Dennis Overbye wrote in an article published in the “Science Times” section of The New York Times in 2007, “the conscious mind is like a monkey riding a tiger of subconscious decisions and actions in progress, frantically making up stories about being in contol.” In the 1970s, according to the Times article, Benjamin Libet, a physiologist at the University of California, San Francisco “wired up the brains of volunteers to an electroencephalogram and told the volunteers to make random motions, like pressing a button or flicking a finger, while he noted the time on a clock.
“Dr. Libet found that the brain signals associated with these actions occurred half a second before the subject was conscious of deciding to make them.”
“The order of brain activities seemed to be perception of motion, and then decision, rather than the other way around.”
“In short, the conscious brain was only playing catch-up to what the unconscious brain was already doing. The decision to act was an illusion, the monkey making up a story about what the tiger had already done.”
In other words, human beings in their ordinary state cannot do. The animal of the body does it. Libet’s results have been reproduced again and again and elaborated into new experiments. The ethical power that we humans authentically have, according to Dr. Libet, is veto power. We can stop ourselves from doing what we sense we are mechanically or habitually or animalistically doing. In any given moment, we can stop and sense ourselves. We can stop and be still and know ourselves. At least once in that proverbial blue moon.
But what conditions give rise to this rare lunar event? What allows for those openings when we see how it is and wish to be more than we usually are. That I live in a house in Northern Westchester, that I ate yogurt and granola for breakfast this morning, so much of my life just happens. I don’t need to be wired up in a lab to know I did not will it. Yet some of the events that have happened in my life, due a long and mysterious chain of cause and effect that I definitely cannot claim responsibility for, have made a deep impression. That is, I received certain events in a way that has been meaningful, that has given me a sense of what it can mean to be alive.
This is what I mean. I nearly died once, decades ago. I was embraced by a dazzling white light. What has stayed me, what has continued to seem marvelous after all this time are not the neurological intricacies of the NDE, but precisely that power of no, that ability to stop. What happened is arresting. When I remember it I remember that I am a mystery in progress, an unfolding process. I am more and less than I think I am.