Who’s there?

Lately I’ve been musing on the following ideas related to consciousness and free will. Our conventional view of “will” going back thousands of years is that we are, on some level, mental or even spiritual beings and from this mental or spiritual “stuff” thought originates. So this mental spirit thinks “I need some coffee,” and somehow that thought is transmitted to our brain which orders our arm muscles to pick up the coffee cup. Now, in modern times, we’ve dismissed the spirit component explicitly (well, some of us) but we still think that’s a pretty good approximation of how things work (or maybe more correctly, we don’t really examine the process at all, perhaps in fear of what we’ll find out.)

Modern science does indicate that there is a pretty direct correlation between thoughts and brain activity. By this I mean, you think a thought and brain cells send electrical signals to other brain cells and ultimately other parts of the body. But those nerve firings are physical processes bound by the laws of the physical universe, meaning things can’t just suddenly move or send electrical signals by themselves. So we have a couple options to explain this. One is we are all mental, non-material beings and we are firing our nerves off with a kind of telekinesis. I’m dubious about that one. The other is we have no free will and we (and who/what the “we” is there is hard to define) are merely observing the pre-determined firing of nerves bubbling up as thoughts. That’s probably my preferred explanation. The third option is there’s something about the true quantum physics nature of reality which allows for randomness and chance (though generally only at a sub-atomic level) that explains all this.

So this kind of ties in with Eckhardt Tolle and many others’ point about ego. If option two above is correct, I’m not really doing things, I’m merely observing my brain/self running through the programmed motions of doing something. So I really should have no pride in achievement for example, since it’s not really me doing things.

You would think this would be disturbing but I don’t really find it so. Partly because it does map to certain experiences I’ve had. What are things I’ve accomplished, that I feel proud of? Well, various songs I’ve composed, articles I’ve written. But the truth is, during those processes of creation I often don’t feel that I’m doing the writing/composing – it’s more like the universe is handing me ideas and I’m annotating them.

I’m reminded of a book I’ve mentioned in the past, “The User Illusion.” In there is story about the scientist James Clerk Maxwell, a guy who came up with a lot of groundbreaking ideas on thermodynamics and related topics. He was on his deathbed and said, “What is done by what is called myself is, I feel, done by something greater than myself in me.”
E.g. it wasn’t “him” doing the things.

But then who/what is doing the things? And who/what is observing them?

5 Responses to “Who’s there?”


  1. John Saleeby

    Hey, you’re one of those Musician guys, let me ask you about something – Paul Westerberg says he can’t tour because he only plays the piano now and he’s never played the piano in front of an audience. He’s being a pussy, right?

    I probably should have opened this with “Hey, you’re one of those pussy guys, let me ask you about something”

  2. wil

    Well, only pussies play piano – I can tell you that much!

  3. John Saleeby

    Joe Strummer played the “Pianner”.

  4. wil

    I rest my case.

    My piano case!!!

  5. John Saleeby

    Those Old School piano guys before electric guitars were pretty cool. Like those guys who played piano in whorehouses back in the old days. That’s how Professor Longhair got his start. Chico Marx played piano in a whorehouse when he was a teenager but when there was a good card game going he would send in Harpo – Who looked exactly like Chico – to play in his place. Unfortunately Harpo could not play as well as Chico and all the girls would talk about how great Chico played some nights and how lousy he played other nights. Those were the days when it took a Real Man to play piano.