Free will and I have had a life-long journey together. For the first forty years, I “knew” I had free will. I could do anything I set my mind to. Such certainty is particularly strong in youth, and naturally so! Around age forty, I began to look for biological evidence of free will. Any clear example not explained by universal biological processes would do.
My doubts grew deeper as I failed to find any unequivocal evidence for free will. I also began noticing various ways the free will ideal serves society. Did I not see this before because it is all too obvious? Honestly, I assume my need to believe I had free will blinded me to the obvious. (See, John Cleese, A Taoist? (p.144) and Beware: the Blind Spot (p.300)
Dream without limit
Thanks to cognition (thought), we can effortlessly dream up solutions to whatever bothers us in real life. We can easily imagine perfect solutions in our mind’s eye, yet we are stuck living in our physical reality—the real world. We are trapped between the real world and a world we envision possible… the ideal “if only” world.
This ideality of our mind vs. the reality of our body is deeply disconnecting, often causing us great stress. No wonder we tightly embrace the free will “solution”. “Just do it” is the free will button we push to break the logjam of life. “Just do it” promises to transform the real world into our image of what it should be.
New Year’s resolutions are a straightforward example of how this process plays out. Hopeful ideals prompt us to make our promises for the year to come. Later, when our resolution wavers, we chalk it up to bad luck, poor timing, or human weakness. Any excuse we can dream up will do as long as it lets our belief in free will remain intact. “Next time will be different”, we tell ourselves. Oddly, we never seem to get it.
The sense of free will, whether implicit or implied, is the result of feeling a real need to resolve a real world issue, combined with an imagined way to make it happen. This is essentially need + thought. As I put it earlier, desire = need + thought. (See How the Hoodwink Hooks, p.100.) Essentially then, free will = need + thought as well. The connection between desire and free will is very close indeed. Among other things, this means that each time we satiate a desire, we automatically reinforce any belief we have in free will. You might say, free will = desire. Emotion, especially need and fear, in concert with thought create our blind spot. Because animals don’t think, they experience no such blind spot. Unlike us, they experience no disconnection between an ideal world and their real world.
The Free Will of “I am”
The observation above didn’t just come out of thin air. Some recent experiences have led me to rethink free will, especially evident in a conversation with Brian, who believes in free will. I told him I found the idea of free will, either explicit or implied, to underlie all affirmational spiritual literature to some extent… including most translations of the Tao Te Ching (i.e., much less than the literal Chinese). However, not believing in free will doesn’t mean I am a Nonbeliever, as it were. As I said, I don’t see any evidence that is not attributable to simpler biological causes. This changed with Brian’s comment: “I can’t agree about there being no free will, that’s just where I am at present”. His words, “I am at present” prodded me to see free will in a newer and deeper light.
Like Schrodinger’s Cat (p.149), free will seems like it is there when you look, otherwise it is in a state of indeterminacy. In other words, saying or thinking “I am” makes the ‘half-dead, half-alive cat’ of free will come alive. Saying “I” plus “__(a verb)__” awakens the sense of free will. The sense of free will doesn’t appear until I think or say “I”. In moments absent of “I”, free will must be indeterminate. In other words, free will manifests itself in the act of observation of “I”. The Zen kōan (公案), “the sound of one hand clapping” suggests one characteristic of this weirdness. Even better, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” The reality of “I” lies in the thought of “I”. Without the thought, there is no “I”. Likewise, without the listener, there is no sound, and without the eye, there is no color (1).
Now then, what about the existence of free will in other people? It only exists when their subjective experience of “I” brings it alive. Alternatively, and more socially important, free will comes ‘alive’ only when you feel another person experiences the same quality of being, the “I”, that you do. This makes sense when you consider that society doesn’t regard young children or animals as being self responsible, i.e., of having free will.
In addition, perhaps free will originates not so much in “I am” as in “I desire”. Desire fundamentally determines what we see. The observer’s eye that peeks in to see whether the cat is alive or dead is similar to how “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. When I am impartial, truly neutral, how can I possibly choose sides and know whether anything is or isn’t — it’s both! In the same way, I know free will is and is not. This is quite a special awareness, for at-the-moment of knowing Nothing, knowing everything comes naturally.
The Arrogance of ‘I Am’
The perception ‘I am’ also separates the individual from the rest of creation. Each living thing has the innate drive to maintain self-integrity, from the single cell on up… and perhaps on down as well. To “Strive on diligently” as Buddha put it (see “… Strive On Diligently”, p.218). This intrinsic self does not give itself life. The unique human capacity for creating the illusion of an objective self — the ‘I am’ — disunites us emotionally from reality’s cosmic background. Subsequently, our innate survival instincts bustle about to shore up and protect that Self-illusion. Chapter 7 sums it up well…
Heaven and earth can long endure,
Because they do not give themselves life,
Hence they can long continue to exist.
The wise person places his life last yet life comes first,
Is outside his life, yet lives life.
Non conforming as well as without personal evil!
Hence he is able to succeed personally.
(1) Of course, the physics of sound and color are still there, but the subjective experience of an objective reality is absent when “I” is not present. As chapter 56 has it, This is called profound sameness.
Carl Abbott says
I think you got tripped up by assuming it is actually a cat. The cat is a proxy for any ‘thing’. The idea here is that every ‘thing’ is in a state of neutral equilibrium until ‘observed’ (i.e., interaction) by some other ‘thing’. The take home message for me is that the nature of ‘something’ and ‘nothing’ is inextricably linked. We are biologically hoodwinked into perceiving differences where none exist, and are quite blind to what is called profound sameness—the non-locality of reality. Simply put, a strong perception of differences stimulates wakefulness and our sense of reality; a strong perception of similarity puts us to sleep.
That aside, you make some fine points, as always! I enjoyed the episode between you and the Buddhist teacher. You can see how belief has a way of tying up its loose ends enough to leave one with ‘The Answer’. I guess this is where Taoist views and the rest part company. We Taoist are always left in the dark 😉
Soooo…. You’ve really stepped into it—the correlations. I am intrigued to see how this evolves in you. I’ve not seen the correlation’s process ‘blow’ anyone’s mind outright yet, as it did for me. I concluded it was perhaps simply a personal (one-off) eccentricity.
Digging into this in the Forum would be the thing to do. I always at the ready to assist anyway I can. It may be that only in-person, face to face, really works. In the past, that has been true, but only anecdotally from a few experiences.
Weird it may be to answer my own post, but I didn’t have the guts to click ‘send’ on the above at the time without re-reading it, and months have now past. I am now stuck on a floating bucket off the coast of Zeebrugge.
Recently finding the above file I saved and reading it over led me to search how this idea correlates, and I finally took the plunge into immersing myself deeply into the ‘Correlations’ process. It is doing what I ‘expected’ it to do, blow away my expectations. I am positively lost. You can expect me to be seeking a whole lot of ‘holding my hand’ as i stumble into oblivion, as I already don’t understand how one can end up ‘settled’ with anything being on one side when i can also feeeeel the opposite… this is the biggest can of worms ever! and i have already put far too many words on this screen. I think we shall be taking this discussion to the forum, where i will no doubt miss the point over and over again until much talk will lead inevitably to silence, after all, More speech counts as exceptionally limited.
I haven’t posted for a long time, and while I notice a strong desire to return with some eloquent, wise comment to prove how ‘learned’ i have become.. I have about 20 mins before I have to catch a ship.. and I thought I would just throw in some odd ingredients that emerged from the back of the cupboard as I read this ‘taoist paradigm’ shattering post by Carl… without having thought thru how ‘silly’ my childish musings may be.. after a quite a few margaritas here on the coast of Cabo san Lucas. It might be fun:
So what about the cat? Is not the cat an observer in whether it is alive or dead? (hmm perhaps only if it is alive, yet..) We seem to think of the cat as a Drone because it doesn’t ‘think’ things the way we do, that it is ‘alive’ for example, so placing higher value to our thoughts and words we remove the cat from the plain of our ‘heightened’ level of observation and the cat’s perspective as observer couldn’t have the ‘peculiar’ affects at a quantum level that we enjoy analysing – or perhaps i don’t truly get the concept of the Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment and i have not researched into the reported quantum weirdness.. yet my tipsy mind already tumbles on…
If anything this animal is a more present observer than our complex minds tend to be. I guess that the cat is the ‘god’ at the centre of it’s own Universe. Perhaps even every neuron is a ‘self observer’ as it ‘feels’ compelled to fire, so they are the ‘god’ at the centre of their Universe that revolves around them. The ‘uncarved block’ playing out every possible roll as an individual, each ‘experiencing’ a suffering driving it’s action.
I once had a long chat with a buddhist teacher who told me that ‘self’ is an illusion yet She firmly believed that we can choose our actions through our free will. I’m guessing that all my questions were the most obvious questions a Buddhist gets, just as we hear the same questions again and again about a taoist view, (yet it’s always a pleasure.) When I asked her “Who is the “I” that is choosing if there is no self?” She said, “It’s the part of you that is not limited to you..” (ooOo interesting) “..that moves on to other bodies when this one dies.” (Ah, our views differ) At the time i felt at liberty to jam a little with some pretty bold statements as there was no way i was going to cause her any disturbance and I wanted to see if I even agreed with whatever came out my mouth. So the best reply I could come up with at the time was something like this:
“To paraphrase and amalgamate, syntheisis-ize if you will:
The illusion of self and the apparition of ‘free-will’ manifests itself in, and springs forth from the same source as our ‘cleaving to things’, though differently named. – ‘things’ essentially being a perceived need to seek pleasant experiences and fear to avoid unpleasant ones, both of which are ‘Suffering.’ And so to stream line: ‘Suffering is Self’ , not thru erroneous human thinking, but because everything is the subject of suffering and so becomes a ‘subject’ helplessly driven to be what it is and all action is pulled by need or pushed by fear.”
She reminded me that there is the cessation of suffering for anyone who extinguishes ‘self.’
I asked her, “If there is no ‘self’ then is it not only the illusion of self that is extinguished? Life is suffering, suffering is need, the illusion of self manifests itself in a cleaving to that which we feel we need, so we have a regenerating circle because… Suffering is the Constant.”
Before we continued to the obvious next step about the cyclical nature of suffering and satiation producing each other, She decided it was time to offer me a cup of herbal tea and ask me if I’d like to buy a book.
I will probably regret posting this half-baked idea, Carl could you blast this potato in the microwave for me and finish it off.. or chuck it out if its gone green… gotta run. Love u guys! Laurence xxXXxx
You hit the nail on the head Joe!
So, by like measure, we could guess that those who hold steadfastly to their belief in free will do so because it helps them be less tolerant and compassionate with others and even with themselves! (i.e., It empowers them to stand in judgment of themselves and others.)
Kind of an odd way to see it, but symptoms don’t usually lie. Necessity is the mother of not only invention, but of the world as we perceive it. It’s very humbling, even for this old animal.
I’ve always appreciated your take on free will. I don’t bring that up a lot in conversation – we all have a need to feel free, but usually it still comes around to what you “believe” in. If someone believes they have free will, arguing against it probably won’t go very far.
I tend to think of free will in the same way I do the question about the tree falling in the woods. Things are the way they are. I’d ask a person to define the “sound in the woods”, or, free will. Either one is not reality, they are our thoughts about a small aspect of reality. If I define sound only as being heard by a person, then no sound. If heard by animals, probably sound. If sound waves created, then yes. Yet none of these views is actually what happens when a tree falls in the woods.
So again, if someone thinks they have free will, then I guess for them they do. That doesn’t mean that’s the way reality is, it means that’s what their perspective is. This actually helps me be a lot more tolerant and compassionate, with others and even with myself. Existence happens, but what we interact about is our perceptions of existence. If we differ, it’s our perception that differs, not the actual reality of whatever situation. (Of course, most of the time “my” perception is “right”. Hah!!!)
Being generous, we could say that it all depends on the side of the looking glass from which one is observing. 😉
From my side… existence and nothing give birth to one another.
The same must be so for:
finiteness and in-finiteness,
absolute and limited,
free and bound,
fullness and emptiness… etc.
Western thought gets itself all tied up in knots by seeing reality as a linear field of ‘obviously’ independent opposites. The subtlest of Easter thought sees a circular field of ‘obviously’ cogenerating opposites, which can spare the observer from the inevitable polar quandary endemic to Western thought. Thanks a lot Zoroaster (and the myth-makers who preceded you).
It is curious how humanity clumps around either of two polar points of view—linear or circular. This seems natural enough. The linear view is much more prevalent, regardless of geography. It is the bio-hoodwink with which we begin our life in infancy.
Anyway, I’ll paste below a short Wikipedia on Zoroaster point of view. This goes to show how once gossip get rolling along certain paths it takes on a life of its own. Only now, with modern quantum physics, is the Western story line beginning to see the other side of the looking glass.
====Zoroaster c.1200 BCE ====
(prehistoric, which makes dates an educated guess)
Dian Reed says
Sounds very existential. Here’s what Simone de Beauvoir said about being free, or at least feeling free: “Regardless of the staggering dimensions of the world about us, the density of our ignorance, the risks of catastrophes to come, and our individual weakness within the immense collectivity, the fact remains that we are absolutely free today if we choose to will our existence in its finiteness, a finiteness which is open on the infinite.”