Monday, December 11, 2017

Free Will Truthers and Magick

Over the course of the last couple of weeks, the "Free Will Truthers" have been at it again. Now I just made that term up, but it seems appropriate for those psychologists and neuroscientists who are busy trying to prove that their idea of "free will" does not exist. As a magician, I obviously think the whole idea is ridiculous. If you have no conscious will at all, the very idea of practicing magick doesn't make sense. At the same time, the idea that our conscious wills are entirely free, at every moment, regardless of what we are doing, is also probably wrong.

To be clear, the formal "free will" debate is to a large degree over a philosophical question rather than a scientific one, since the definition of "free will" can refer to many things. Obviously, human beings can learn, so we're not talking about free will as opposed to absolute determinism. What psychologists and neuroscientists are trying to tease out with these studies is to what degree the mind as we experience it directs the body. And even that Cartesian breakdown isn't really correct. It's pretty clear at this point that the mind and body are not separate, but rather components of what we perceive as a unified human experience.

So really, the free will truthers are not necessarily trying to argue that human behavior is constrained in certain ways, but rather how much of our behavior is really motivated by "the unconscious." In a way, they're a little like the Freudians from a hundred years ago, arguing that our conscious perception of the world is merely the tip of a metaphorical unconscious iceberg. So that's not the same thing as what philosophers mean by "free will" at all, and that's not what I'm talking about in this article. When I use the term "free will," what I really mean is a sort of "unconscious will" versus "conscious will" as we generally experience it.

At any rate, the original "free will" observations came from studies that seemed to show that brain scans could predict the decision a person was going to make before said persons were conscious of having made them. As I have previously mentioned, these studies were undertaken around the same time as Daryl Bem's presentiment studies were going on. Using a similar technique, Bem seemed to have proved the existence of precognition, showing that subjects seemed to react to emotionally charged images before the images were actually displayed.

Most skeptics think that there were problems with Bem's methodology, and based on my own magical experimentation I tend to agree - though not with the same degree of smugness and condescension. Predicting purely random future events is extremely difficult, moreso than you would think if a randomly selected group of subjects could just do it to some degree on a regular basis. But the issue here is that the studies "disproving" free will follow a similar enough methodology that they are right or wrong in exactly the same way that Bem's study is.

If Bem is right, and the original free will study is right, you have to take into account the effects of presentiment in those free will studies. That means the notion of "before" and "after" become deliberately blurred with respect to decision-making. The brain scans could just be revealing the same effect as presentiment in decision-making - that is, the mind knows what decision will be made before it actually happens. And if Bem is wrong, the free will studies aren't going to be accurate either.

The latest round of free will studies use a different methodology, so they aren't necessarily as flawed as the original ones. And the media loves counter-intuitive observations, so they get a lot of press. I have not done a detailed analysis of the experimental procedures on these latest studies, so I can't pick out specific flaws, but assuming that they are correct I think other interpretations make more sense than the idea that there is absolutely no free will, ever.

Where the observations of the latest studies have a kernal of truth is that even if we do have free will, we don't exercise it nearly as much as we think we do. Most people run on habit and routine most of the time, so it's usually easy to predict peoples' behavior as they go about their days. You get up in the morning around the same time every day to get to work, you break for lunch around the same time, and so forth.

Habits of thought work the same way. Most people rarely focus and apply deep analysis to their situations when it is not really necessary. The bottom line is that it's easier to just coast. It takes less effort, which is the whole point of how our conditioning systems work. It saves us the trouble of having to think through every single action before we perform it, which would be exhausting. The human brain consumes a lot of energy when thinking deeply, so in this way having a conditioning system in the first place is a big evolutionary advantage.

One of the recent free will studies showed that during a particular experiment, consciousness seemed to behave like a passive observer. The study was set up to provide the illusion of choice, when no real choice was possible. The subjects were then asked why they made the "choice" they did, and they were able to explain why they did what they did. But the subjects weren't really choosing anything. They were constructing a narrative after the fact in which they exercised their "free will."

And I don't think this observation is necessarily wrong. I think the error is in the interpretation. Going from people not really exercising free will in a particular experimental condition to the conclusion that "there is no free will ever" is a huge leap. The study does show that when we remember events we have a hard time distinguishing between cases where we employed our free will and cases in which we didn't - but if you think about it, there's little real evolutionary advantage for the brain that to store that bit as a component of memory.

Memories, as I've mentioned before, are not really stored in any great detail. The brain has limited storage space, and essentially "compresses" memories into their most basic components. Then, the memory is reconstructed when it is accessed, and is often recalled inaccurately - at least as far as small details go. It's remarkably easy to create false memories or modify existing ones, probably due to same narrative reconstruction process noted in the study.

But just because we have a hard time discerning the difference doesn't mean that free will is nonexistent. Another group of neuroscientists have noted that the mind seems to operate in two basic "modes." According to those neuroscientists, these modes are called "Active Frame" and "Passive Frame." In passive frame, we don't exercise our free will and just run on conditioning. Active frame is when we are exercising our free will - but since that takes effort, most people run on passive frame most of the time unless it is necessary that they switch modes to work something out.

Furthermore, it's really not surprising that experimental subjects would go through the entire experimental procedure in passive frame mode. Experiments are generally boring, and subjects only take part in them because it is part of their major or because they are getting paid. It seems kind of silly to think that this somehow defines the only way in which the human mind can operate in the world.

Anybody who does complex intellectual work (like, say, computer programming) should be familiar with the difference between these modes. Sometimes you get problems that you've seen before and which are easy to solve. You can fix those almost automatically. But when you run into something truly new and mysterious, you need to focus - and that turns on active frame processing. It allows you to come up with a solution to a problem whether or not you have seen the problem before, by the active exercise of our mental faculties.

At a basic level, magick is about turning on active frame processing so that we can escape conditioning and deal with situations as they truly are in the moment. George Gurdjieff's concept of "waking sleep" that must be transcended basically refers to passive frame - "food for the Moon." De-conditioning methods like Christopher Hyatt's "undoing yourself" work directly against the passive frame state, to increase individual freedom by breaking conditioning loops. Much of ceremonial magick works from the opposite direction, engaging body, speech, and mind in complex forms that require concentration to perform and thus "waking up" the active frame modality.

By combining magick with simple mindfulness meditation, you can work both directions at the same time. At the very least, I believe that for magick to produce any real spiritual progress, you must get to the point where you understand and can pay attention to the difference between the two modes. While what I'm talking about here is psychological, it is the active frame mode which opens up the possibility of transpersonal states of consciousness and effective practical magick.

Aleister Crowley wrote that the two great initiations of magick were the invocation of the Holy Guardian Angel and the crossing of the Abyss. But I'm tempted to add a third to that list - the awakening of the active frame modality itself. This would precede the invocation of the Holy Guardian Angel, as active frame consciousness is the magician's primary weapon in all operations, including that one.

I saw a very interesting parapsychology experiment many years ago. The researchers were trying to see if a psychic could influence a subject, and their control was a skeptic who didn't believe in psychic powers trying to do the same thing. While this was a simple test involving one subject, the psychic, and the skeptic, and therefore has little scientific value, I found the outcome interesting all the same - and I think it might highlight something about psychic abilities and the active versus passive frame modalities.

The test involved observing the subject over a closed-circuit camera. The psychic went ahead and focussed on trying to influence the subject, who was just supposed to sit in a room for a period of time without any knowledge of whether or not anyone was trying to influence them at any given moment. When the psychic did it, the subject did seem to respond - they moved around, seemed to feel more anxious and so forth. But when the skeptic did it, there was no perceivable change in behavior.

Again, a single trial like this could easily be a statistical fluke. But it suggests that a large-scale attempt to replicate it might be worthwhile, and it also highlights a factor that up until now I don't think has been well-incorporated in parapsychology research. When the skeptic was asked what they did when they were supposed to be influencing the subject, they said something like "For me it was just like watching television, since I don't believe in any of this stuff."

Catch the difference? The psychic was actually trying, while the skeptic wasn't doing anything but watching the video feed. So the psychic was operating from active frame, and the skeptic was operating from passive frame. That's an important difference, because my guess is that in passive frame mode you're never going to be able to influence the mind of another person. You need to use your will to do that, and that kind of will is decidedly lacking when somebody is doing something "just like watching television."

I've talked about the idea of doing EEG scans during magical operations. But maybe we need to do something similar with parapsychology experiments. We know that beta and higher brainwaves in the prefrontal cortex correspond to states of heightened concentration, so it seems logical to map those states to active frame processing. Passive frame, on the other hand, seems to have more in common with the relaxed alpha state in the same region.

The idea, then, would be to compare active frame versus passive frame brainwave states with results from tests of extra-sensory perception. That also might help us tease out the "experimenter effect" that some parapsychologists claim is the reason certain studies are hard to replicate. An experimenter who gets students excited about taking part in the study might trigger the active frame mode and get positive results, whereas a doubting skeptic who pretty much conveys that he or she thinks nothing is going to happen leaves the subject in passive frame mode - and gets no results.

Again, that's completely speculative, but it makes more sense in the contexts of both neuroscience and my own model of magick and paranormal psychic phenomena than postulating that some unconscious psychic ability on the part of the researcher somehow influences how subjects perform. Like predicting the future, directly influencing others like that is a fairly advanced magical operation too - and as I see it, it's very unlikely that anyone could do it unconsciously.

But inspiring people to actively engage with a process? That's totally something a researcher could do, both by being passionate about the work being done and by making an effort to recruit subjects with a high level of interest in the subject. A skeptic conducting a replication is very unlikely to do either of those things - and as a result, the replication will fail.

And as a point, this might not just apply to paranormal research. It may very well be that tracking active and passive frame in other psychological experiments might help with the current replication crisis in psychology. It's not far-fetched at all to assume that people operating in those two different modes might test differently, and experiments that produce results at first and then, years later, fail to replicate might have to do with the active excitement of the original experimental group, and the lack thereof in the replication sample.

I guess, then, that my takeway from all this research is simple. Free will truthers may very well be pointing out some important truths about how the mind works while passively moving through the world, but none of those necessarily mean that passive frame is the only way to think. In fact, you could probably argue that this is a key reason that self-awareness evolved in sapient species to begin with. It allows those species to be true generalists, and cope with harsh and chaotic environmental conditions than passive conditioning only would ever allow.

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