Psychedelics & the Myth of 'Free Will'
“You monkeys only think you’re running the show.” - Dennis McKenna ‘heard’ this while on an Ayahuasca journey.
The tendrils of the pea plant may prove that ‘free will’ is a myth..
On Lex Fridman’s podcast, the brilliant Annaka Harris, who wrote ‘Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind’, argues that plant behavior may prove that ‘Free Will’ is a myth.
The tendrils of the pea plant will grow in one of two ways - 1) in a straight line, slowly 2) in coil form, quickly. When they are growing and encounter a wall or a branch or a poll, that’s the cue for the plant to grow at a more rapid pace and coil around the presenting object.
The pea tendril needs light to perform this action. When placing an object in front of the tendril in the dark, it will not coil. However - and this is fascinating, when that same tendril is moved into the light hours later, it coils. The takeaway - the pea plant has a primitive form of memory.
If it has a memory, we can infer that the plant is having some sort of a conscious experience. So when the tendril ‘feels’ the branch, is it possible that it is making a decision like humans make every day? Does the tendril ‘want’ to coil?
One interesting thing to note - when you cut the pea tendril, it still exudes these two behaviors (growing straight or coiling). So unlike humans, they possess distributed intelligence.
As a system, the pea plant has two behaviors to choose from (grow straight or coil). What if humans are only different in the sense that we have hundreds, or even thousands of options?
The human brain is the most complex system in the universe that we know of. But perhaps that is leading us to mistaking free will for something entirely different. Since we are more complex than the pea plant, we have more triggers to act than just feeling something with physical touch. We also have intuition. When we intuit something, what if we had a fixed number of possible outcomes to choose from? This would be in opposition to the current understanding of free will - where we are constantly making decisions autonomously and freely. What if life is not open text but multiple choice?
If I offer you coffee or tea, you may operate under the assumption that ‘you’ are making the choice of which beverage you want. It’s more likely that we are an algorithm following a process, just like the pea plant, however. Choosing tea feels like a willed decision because there are evolutionary reasons to make it feel that way (perhaps you already had caffeine that day, so the brain is making the safe decision to opt for tea).
“We still have this feeling that there’s something that stands outside of the brain processing that can intervene, and that’s the illusion” - Annaka Harris.
Let’s turn our attention to Ayahuasca - which is one of the greatest mysteries of human history. How the Amazonian’s first cultivated Ayahuasca has befuddled scientists and anthropologists for decades. It’s a mystery on par with the construction of the Pyramids of Giza.
Ayahuasca is the result of combing two plants, that were thousands of miles apart from one another, in an area where there are hundreds of thousands of plants. They had to boil the DMT & MAOIs (the active ingredients in Ayahuasca) at the perfect temperature for a specific amount of time in order for the psychoactive properties of the brew to occur. And they couldn’t have just randomly tried this with various plants in the Amazon - doing so could have resulted in Serotonin Syndrome, Disease or Death.
One mythology is that the plants ‘spoke’ to the Natives. Taking into account what we know about plant behavior - there may be something to this story. The Amazonian’s ‘intuited’ that these two plants were special for some reason. If the decisions we make aren’t open text but multiple choice, then this would increase the likelihood of getting the combination necessary to catalyze mystical experiences right. If decision-making is an algorithm, then maybe we were destined to create Ayahuasca. Doing so was built into our operating system. If that’s case, then Free Will is a myth.
I, and many others, can attest to the fact that some of the best decisions I have made came during or in the immediate aftermath of a Psychedelic journey. Psychedelics (as well as other exercises like meditation) quiet the brain to the default mode setting. In layman’s terms - they block out the noise.
Applying this fact to the notion of free will - Psychedelics may eliminate the incorrect choices (in this context, meaning the options that don’t result in the most useful present moment experience). We quiet the brain to the point where we can easily select ‘A’ - assuming ‘A’ is the right answer.
Free Will may be a myth. The intelligence that comes with being an advanced species on this planet may be confusing us with illusions like the existence of a ‘self’ and the notion that ‘we’ have agency over the decisions we make. Because there is no ‘we’ and there is no ‘self’. Just a collection of atoms, some of which achieve consciousness and have ‘felt’ experiences. But none of which operate outside the systems already in place.
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