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    Does my cat have free will… or is that a hairball?

    A famous Zen story goes like this:

    A monk asks the master, Joshu, “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?”

    Joshu answers, “Mu!”

    This story has become known as the Mu koan — a koan being one of those semi-meaningless statements that, by beating your answer-seeking mind against the unanswerable statement, may, eventually, after a lot of brain beating, result in a moment where rationality snaps and you have a dramatic (and temporary) shift in perception (doesn’t that sound much less interesting than, “You experience Satori!”?).

    The way you wrestle with this koan is by trying to understand Joshu’s answer. And if you go to a Zen retreat where people are putting their mind into a cage match against the Mu koan, you’ll often hear people muttering, “Mu! Mu! Mu… mu… muuuuu,” as if repeating “2+2, 2+2, 2+2” will spontaneously make them think, “FOUR!”

    First of all, why they’re saying Mu is a mystery. Why did the entire story get translated into English, but not the last word?

    “Mu,” is a Japanese word for “no” or “nothing” or any form of negation. But you never hear good Zen boys and girls mumbling, “No. No. Nothing. No… nooooo….”

    Instead, they sit on the floor or walk around the zendo sounding like their practicing for the upcoming 4-H cow impression competition.

    Which makes me wonder if there’s another Zen story that hasn’t yet been translated:

    A monk asks Joshu, “Does a cow have Buddha nature?”

    Joshu answers, “WOOF!”

    But the Buddha nature of livestock and companion animals is not my concern here… I really want to know this:

    Do my cats have free will?

    My cats clearly learn things. Things like, “don’t eat that plant,” “that weird sound means food is coming,” “if I face this door and meow long enough I get treats,” and, “no matter how much those tall animals yell, I have no personal issue that would prevent me from walking on this counter, scratching that chair, and wiping my butt on the carpet.”

    My cats also seem to make decisions. Decisions like: “I will run to that empty corner of the room as if my life depended on it… NOW!” and, “NEVER MIND, I’ll make a 90-degree turn at 100 miles an hour and dash up the stairs instead.” Or, “I think I’ll nap here, and then get up and sleep there, and then rouse myself in time for some serious shut-eye over there.” And, even seeming artistic decisions like, “Yes, it is much more aesthetically pleasing if this mouse were floating in my water dish!”

    But do my cats have free will? It seems like a silly question. We don’t think they sit around deliberating, “Do I find a nice sunny spot to lie down, or do I plant myself in the middle of the guests and lick my butt ?” We don’t expect them to be thinking, “I feel a certain sensation that I’ll call ‘lacking’ and if I could only spend a weekend in a hotel room with other cats and discover my ‘purpose’ for living, I should be able to eliminate this sensation.”

    Cats seem to do fine, free will or not.

    Now, if we’re going to suggest that cats have do have free will, let’s move further back on the evolutionary chain… fish? worms? algae? amoeba?

    They all seem to survive just fine without what most of us would call free will. It doesn’t seem to be a prerequisite for survival.

    So, let’s head in the other direction. What about us?

    For over 40 years, cognitive scientists have noticed that you hook people up to various scanning and measuring devices and see something happen in the brain when they have made a decision. What has been puzzling to them is that this event takes place at least half a second prior to the person actually deciding. A recent study showed a neurological event SEVEN SECONDS prior to the person deciding, “NOW!”

    These scientists suggest that decisions, and perhaps most of the rest of our life, is happening in some non-conscious way, and that our conscious thought is simply narrating an event that has already passed.

    “I decided to buy that new Brittany Spears album,” is a thought you have merely to explain the fact that, for no rational reason, you’re standing in line with the CD in your hand, and some goth kid behind the counter giving you the evil eye.

    Some scientists say, “Well, the initial decision is out of our control… but then we can decide whether to act on it or not!”

    Oh? Really?

    But what about that decision? Why isn’t that one as non-conscious and non-controllable than the first?

    The notion that we aren’t the conscious and volitional actors that we seem to be makes most people more than a bit nervous… and many — including scientists — avoid thinking about it all together and then justify that lack of consideration with, “Well, that couldn’t be true… it sure seems like we have free will… the notion that we don’t argues with our every day experience!” Even though they know that what we “experience” and what is accurate are often as disconnected as “Paris Hilton” and “Nobel Prize for Physics.”

    Or people get even more nervous and suggest that if people truly accepted that the are not the ones running the show, then all hell would break loose. Or nobody would do anything. Or some other equally horrible future would ensue, where humans would merely alternate between watching Brady Bunch reruns, killing each other, and trying to lick themselves.

    But I’m not sure anything would change if we all suddenly accepted that, contrary to our seeming experience, we are DNA robots who have a glitch in the programming that makes us think we’re not robots. I’m not convinced that having an intellectual understanding of something that’s so contrary to our experience would make a bit of difference. After all, we know that we could die from any of a thousand causes in almost any moment, but that doesn’t stop us from partying like it’s 1999.

    Years ago I heard someone say, “Humans think they are immortal. The proof? They always act surprised when one of them dies in a manner that has taken out millions of others.” Every day’s newspaper, TV and radio tells of some “surprising” death… just like the “shocking” one from the day before and the day before and the day before and…

    Though, maybe, if we truly accepted that the thought of having free will is also just some idea that popped into our awareness after our non-conscious being “decided” to cut our hair with a lawn mower instead of a weed whacker… then, maybe, we wouldn’t be as committed to justifying and acting to support our beliefs. Maybe, for example, we would see our desire demonize some group of humans who speak, look, talk or smell differently than we do as no more “conscious” or rational than our “choice” to put on our pants left leg first.

    That might be interesting.

    I don’t know.

    I’m just thinking… or am I?

    12 Responses to “Does my cat have free will… or is that a hairball?”

    1. Paul Maurice Martin Says:

      I think we may be thinking along similar lines…

    2. Ed Says:

      Does Hamlet have free will?

      Serious question–he spends all this time dithering about his choices, but the end of the play is already written. So, when he says “to be, or not to be”–does he really have the free will to choose?

      And how can I know that I’m different than he?

      Seems to me that the question of free will is irrelevant from a perspective outside the vector flow of time.

    3. Nina Amir Says:

      What you fail to ask is this: If we don’t have free will, if that impulse that results in a thougth comes before the thougth, what causes it? Hmmm…could it be? Dare I say it? God? Is our life destined? Are we simply actors in a play? IF so, can we do some improv while we are here on the stage God set for us? Does the Director dictate all we do or can we make some choices? When the impulse says, “Buy the Britney Spears CD,” can we on some level rebel and say, “No,” and pick up a Bruce Springsteen CD instead? (Yes, I know, we won’t have the thought until after the CD is already in our hands.) And what then happens to the end of the play? Is the end the same but do we simply get there while listening to different music? Or is the end different?

    4. Tim Says:

      I’ve noticed that when I think (am thought?!) about the notion of *not* having free will, I feel a *massive* sense of relief !!


    5. sashen Says:

      Hi Nina… it’s not that I “failed” to ask what impulse causes the actions… I deliberately didn’t so I could see what comments came up about it 😉

      Many people (I’m not saying you do this) suggest that a “lack of free will” equals predeterminism, but there’s no reason to think that lacking a will means our entire future is somehow written in the past. Chaos theory demonstrates clearly how small changes can lead to big effects, and there are so many factors in our lives, free will or no, that amount to small changes.

      Think of it this way, if you repeatedly pour water or sand from a pitcher, it will never form the exact same pattern as it pours… so why would we think that without free will, everything is somehow determined?

      Or, another angle on this: At the Quantum level, we see particles behaving in ways that are non-Newtonian, that seem to defy our notion of “cause”. Let’s extrapolate micro Quantum effects into our macro Newtonian experience. This is something I typically avoid, but in this case can be relevant: What if the non-causal activity of a single electron is all it takes to create one thought rather than another?

      If something like that could occur, we have an argument against determinism as well as an alternate explanation for the motivating force other than “God.”

      Your question points out one of my favorite cognitive biases — when we reach a question that we find, literally, unfathomable, we’ll fathom/create/invent an answer, any answer, to resolve the tension of being unable to know.

      So, without a need for determinism, there’s no need to wonder whether we can change the script. No script is needed.

      Tim — I get a sense of relief as well, along with the thought “Ah, good, there’s no way to screw it up, then!” 😉

      The question people want to know is: Does this sense of relief bring with it irresponsible action, abject laziness, or any manner of socially impolite or impolitic activity? (since they fear all of those in the wake of “no free will”)

    6. sashen Says:

      Oh, and Ed…

      Clearly the question “Does Hamlet have free will?” is as valid as “Does Hamlet have 18?”

      Since his (fictional) life, in its entirety, is narrated (which is, in a way, another way to say “Already passed”) free will has no relevance.

      The idea that Hamlet could have been different is like asking you to go back and have a different childhood.

      But, again, notice how your question takes “no free will” and leaps immediately to “determinism.”

      Now, for all I know it IS all determined and we are not different than Hamlet. I don’t know. I just find it interesting how that’s the default alternate position to “free will.”

      And, I like how you highlight the dithering over choices! Given how decisions seem to work — they show up when they do, not a moment sooner or later, and not of our own volition — it seems to undermine the value of all our rational consideration.

      In “On Being Certain”, Burton suggests that the “feeling of knowing” is what stops our mental ping pong game and allows a “decision” to arise… and in “Stumbling on Happiness,” Gilbert is great at pointing out how inaccurate our decisions tend to be, and how we rarely consider how inaccurate they are (if we really paid attention to how bad we are at predicting the future, we may cut ourselves some slack and do less of it).

      Determinism or no, free will or no, all that “back and forth” doesn’t seem to be helpful… as if we had the choice to not do it 😉

    7. Ed Says:


      I picked Hamlet intentionally for the theatrical element (and because I love Jasper Fforde’s novels). In the moment that Hamlet on stage (played by your favorite actor) is opining “To be or not to be”–the remaining scenes have yet to play out. So if you are an audience member, ignorant of how the play finishes, would you say that Hamlet has free will?

      What I’m pointing out is that ‘free will’ and ‘determinism’ are clearly functions of linear vector time. You say that ‘it’s written’ and therefore like a childhood. Err, yeah, but if I could become ‘unstuck in time’, who’s to say I couldn’t go back and relive the childhood again? Perhaps even changing things? Or to put the creative process directly into it–when Shakespeare was writing Act III, he certainly had in his head how Act V would go. Is that therefore ‘determined’? Or is it only determined when the words hit the page, like in the film Stranger than Fiction?

      As for the alternatives–I think the jump to predeterminism is directly a function of this linear vector time. We can extrapolate to a point ahead of the current moment and imagine looking back at ‘now’ the way we look back at the past. Therefore, it’s easy to imagine things already being ‘fixed’ in the way our past is fixed (though it really isn’t, but that’s a different topic). We may recognize that our ability to predict the future is horrible, implying that it may not be fixed, and therefore granting us free will. But in both discussions, we’re still on the vector.

      Now this may be a moot discussion, because we can’t exactly get off the vector, therefore making it impossible and irrelevant in general to consider what that’s like. Considering string theory, for example, doesn’t help us decide on breakfast. But I personally like to consider “God” to be ‘off the vector.’ But that may simply because I like the idea of any Divine being something we truly cannot understand. 😉

    8. sashen Says:

      Hi Ed,

      While I agree that a linear time vector is one aspect of free-will/determinism, it’s not the only one.

      A second, necessary for determinism, is the notion that cause and effect are purely Newtonian (i.e. that with identical initial conditions, the identical final condition will always recur).

      A third, necessary only if you want to predict final conditions, is the ability to identify initial conditions with 100% accuracy (and I’m sure you know that Chaos Theory is all about our inability to do so).

      A fourth, necessary only if we believe in free-will, is that some aspects of reality are NOT subject to physical laws but can act on physical components. That is, thoughts are things — a thought is independent from and not merely the result of biological processes but can, somehow, alter physical processes.

      And I agree, since we can’t do something different, including become “unstuck” from time and going back and doing it differently, all of this is conjecture. And I further agree that even if we found out that we are 100% robots, I’m currently leaning in the direction that this knowledge would have no impact on our daily life.

    9. sashen Says:

      Another blog (which I adore) just posted a review of On Being Certain that adds to this conversation (and includes Hamlet!)

    10. Ed Says:

      I think your second and third conditions are pretty related. It’s kind of where quantum and chaos theory collide. There’s no such thing as “identical initial conditions” outside of Newtonian physics, as you well know (courtesy of Quantum Physics). Which means your prediction is really starts with the question “are there variables I can safely ignore such that the final result falls within the error bars of my prediction?” Chaos theory says, “not as often as you’d like.”

      But we do agree that this is largely irrelevant as it has no meaningful impact on our daily life *unless* we let it. We could certainly spend a lot of time dithering over it the same way we worry about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But otherwise, I suggest that a variant of Pascal’s Wager applies. If I act as if I have free will and I don’t, nothing’s lost. If I act as if I don’t have free will, but I do, then I’ve surrendered my ability to use that free will. (the other two variants are left as an exercise to the reader). The net result is that I’m better off assuming I have free will than assuming I don’t.

    11. sashen Says:

      Hey, Ed…

      I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the Pascal’s wager, but maybe not in the way you think you have 😉

      Implicit in your hypothesis is that “acting as if I don’t have free will” is:

      a) Possible
      b) Recognizably different from “acting as if I do have free will” (btw, in that situation, nobody would suggest they are “acting”)
      c) A cause of bad or unpleasant results

      What if one or more of those options are not true?

      BTW, you can fit 8 angels on a pin and it takes 3 licks to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop.

    12. Ed Says:

      C’mon Steven–you know the answer to the angels dancing on the head of the pin question: “it depends on whether they’re waltzing or doing the jitterbug.” 😉





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