We easily seem to accept the idea that animals and young children don’t choose their nature; they are born with it. Consequently, society doesn’t usually hold them responsible. With the onset of adulthood, that suddenly changes, and society then deems us responsible for our actions. As adults, we somehow magically acquire the power to choose right from wrong. We somehow gain the power of free will. One thing is clear: This irrational rationale is society’s means of maintaining order. Obviously, society needs rules, and chapter 38 jabs directly at this contrivance. Note how each step in “loss of the way” has particular repercussions.
Superior virtue is not virtuous, and so has virtue.
Inferior virtue never deviates from virtue, and so is without virtue.
Superior virtue: without doing, and without believing.
Inferior virtue: without doing, yet believing.
Superior benevolence: doing, yet without believing.
Superior justice: doing and believing.
Superior ritual: doing and when none respond,
Normally roles up sleeves and throws.
Hence, virtue follows loss of the way.
Benevolence follows loss of virtue.
Justice follows loss of benevolence.
Ritual follows loss of justice…
Peeling Away the Pretense
I’m not sure why we’ve decided animals only act from instinct while humans have the power to act from free will. To me, free will smacks more of an ideal promulgated to shore up the legality of society’s rules. At a deeper level, I see this notion of free will as a projection of what Buddha called our “illusion of self“; it gives form and function to this species-centric ego. The idea of free will makes us special.
In any case, it shows a wanton disregard for nature’s way. Perhaps it reflects the ignorance to which chapter 16 points, Not knowing the constant, rash actions lead to ominous results. We certainly have our fair share of that blindness. Similarly, Man alone is without knowing, and because of this I don’t know. Knowing self is rare, following self is noble.
Emotion: The Root of all Thought and Action
Emotion is where the rubber hits the road. As a species, we certainly think up numerous ideals of perfection. Take a moment to reflect on one to which you hold dear. Does it not stem from some emotional need or fear? Perhaps you cherish the common ideal of peace-on-earth. I imagine this arises from an empathetic repulsion to suffering. Perhaps you hold out for something more mundane, like wanting to eat less or worrying that you don’t exercise enough. What we want or worry about in life arises from emotion, i.e., our core needs and fears. Alas, wanting and worrying are easy mental activities. However, they are seldom enough to initiate action. As they say, talk is cheap.
Now, consider the desires or worries upon which you really do something about. If you look closely, you’ll notice that the only time you take personal action to do anything is when you feel emotionally compelled to. Emotion ‘energy’ must reach a certain threshold before we actually put our money where our mouth is.
Our experience with free will follows the same trajectory. We desire to have free will, so we imagine free will is possible; that’s the hopeful mouth phase. Anytime that ideal is tested and we fail, we come up with the necessary rationalizations (a.k.a., excuses) for why our free will was too weak; that’s the lack of money phase.
Not surprisingly, we easily see through the excuses others plead, yet hold them to the same free will standard, often saying “You ‘should’ have __(insert ideal choice here)___”. We play a marvelous game of self deception as chapter 18 describes, When the great way is given up, there is benevolence and justice; When intelligence increases, there is great falseness; or as D.C. Lau put it, When the great way falls into disuse there is benevolence and rectitude; When cleverness emerges there is great hypocrisy. Oh isn’t it the truth! We weave the finest rationalizations our superior intelligence can fabricate.
So, Instinctive Free Will It Is
Instincts are emotional drives arising from a brain’s core limbic system. These propel all vertebrate life on earth to do what they do. The fact that this must also apply to humans was my final clue… Our belief in having free will must be driven by an instinctive need to control our actions. This is exactly what every animal feels a need to do. I’d even venture to say plants ‘feel’ this need too, although not via a nervous system per se. The only difference is that animals don’t possess the cognitive resources to idealize that feeling and turn it into a belief. We do, and so we fool ourselves into thinking we have free will.
“So what?”, you might ask. For one thing, when we believe in free will, we can’t help but contend with ourselves, and with the external world. Life becomes a constant battle between what we think should be and what is. All in all, there is less time and energy left for living effectively— Nature’s way never contending, yet adept in victory. Some fear that without free will, one would just lay around and do nothing. Ha! Look at the rest of the animal kingdom; does the lack of belief in free will result in them lying around doing nothing? All I see is superb natural efficiency.
Through science we know vastly more biological detail than ancient people did, yet what we want to believe creates a blind spot, leaving us just as in the dark as ancient folks. We foolishly continue to think we can control life and rise above our animal self. Metaphorically, this is like a skyscraper with its penthouse in the clouds thinking it can dominate its foundation. The foundation rules; when it tilts one way, the rest of the building tilts with it. When it crumbles, the building crumbles.
A Pinch Of Science Is All We Need
I am particularly pleased with this post’s title — Instinctive Free Will. Human culture normally sees instinct and free will as being opposites. We all ‘know’ that animals merely act out of instinct, whereas humans have the unique capacity to act out of free will. I’ve probed free will as deeply as possible, and now have finally come to a satisfactory conclusion, until the next lightening bolt strikes anyway.
♦ Brains, and nervous systems overall, evolve in layers. Mammal’s brains have a core limbic system (a.k.a, the paleomammalian brain) and a cerebral cortex. The core is tucked away in the centre of the brain and is primeval. It is where most of the basic functions reside, such as our sense of survival, fear, anger, hunger, sex drive, etc. This paleo brain makes its black and white decisions quickly with little hesitation. The even more primal brain stem at the brain’s base, controls reflexes and crucial, basic life functions such as heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure. It also regulates when we feel sleepy or awake.
♦ The top Neocortex layer is a much more recent development, in evolutionary terms. It is much bigger in humans than in other animals and is the part that makes us ‘intelligent’. If the paleo brain tells us to be afraid because we hear a loud bang, the cortex will analyze the situation and decide whether we should run away or stay put, depending on whether the noise portends danger or not. The question is what actually makes this decision? The analysis is not truly rational because emotions arising from the deeper layers are constantly influencing the analysis. All stimuli, both internal (e.g, memory) and external (e.g., loud noise), can potentially push our emotional buttons, which means we can only be truly rational in the absence of all stimuli.
This layered Triune brain view certainly parallels my experience. However, I’ve found that the scientists all fall short of the final grim reality. As my analogy above shows, when the foundation tilts, the rest tilts with it — the ‘foundation rules’! That is just such a hard pill for ‘Mr. or Ms. ego’ to swallow since they need to feel they are in control. That need naturally arises from our emotional paleo brain, (a.k.a, the limbic system). Put simply, our paleo brain does not need to see things as they truly are! It only needs to feel things and pass this on for the cortex to interpret… or misinterpret!
How Do We Manage This Instinct?
Before thinking about how we can better manage our biological reality, we should ask how we make it worse. From all I see, I’d say we make matters worse by thinking we are in control, or that we can rise above our animal reality. This is the height of arrogance and an ignorance of nature. Chapter 74 takes a swing at this arrogance:
The great craftsman is our primal nature. The man taking the place of the great craftsman is our presumptuous self image (ego) taking the place of the killer killing.
Once we finally come to terms with the science of this and confess our sins of arrogance and ignorance, we will be in a vastly better position to manage our reality.