We easily acknowledge that animals and young children don’t choose their nature; they are born with it. Consequently, society doesn’t regard them as being responsible. With the onset of adulthood, that suddenly changes, and society then holds us responsible for our actions. As adults, we somehow miraculously acquire the power to choose “right” from “wrong” (see Free Will: Fact or Wishful Thinking?, p.587). It is rather obvious that this irrational rationale is society’s means of maintaining order. Civilization 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
Why did we decide that only animals act via instinct while humans have the power to act via free will? To me, this smacks more of an ideal promulgated to shore up the legitimacy 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”. This notion gives form and function to our species-centric ego. The idea of free will serves to makes us feel exceptional.
The idea of free will shows a wanton disregard for nature’s way. Perhaps this reflects the ignorance to which chapter 16 refers, Not knowing the constant, rash actions lead to ominous results. We certainly have our fair share of that blindness. Similarly, chapter 70 observes, 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 think up numerous ideals of progress, if not perfection. Take a moment to recall an ideal you hold dear. Does it not stem from some emotional need or fear? Perhaps you cherish the widespread 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, want and worry are easy mental activities that can mushroom without limit. However, they are seldom strong enough to initiate physical action, which is a good thing. Otherwise, we’d soon burn ourselves out. Indeed, even if free will existed, we don’t have sufficient wisdom to wield it.
Now, consider the desires and worries that you actually do something about. If you look closely, you’ll notice that the only time you 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. This is the hopeful where our mouth is phase. Anytime that ideal is tested and we fail, we come up with the necessary rationalization for why our free will failed us. This is the regretted inability to put our 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. We create the finest rationalizations our superior intelligence can weave together.
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 is revealing. Simply put, an instinctive need to control our actions drives our belief in free will. Every animal feels a need to control its circumstances. I’d even venture to say plants feel this need too, although not via a nervous system, per se. The only difference is that plants and animals don’t possess the cognitive resources to turn that feeling 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 world. Life becomes a constant battle between what we think should be and what is. Overall, there is less time and energy left for living effectively. As chapter 73 reminds, Nature’s way never contending, yet adept in victory. Some fear that without free will, we would just lie around doing nothing. Nonsense! Look at the rest of the animal kingdom. Does the lack of free will cause them to lie around doing nothing? All I see is superb natural efficiency.
Even as biological science continues to illuminate the mysteries of life, many continue remaining in the dark. What we need to believe drowns out any evidence to the contrary. We continue to think we can control life. Metaphorically, this is like a skyscraper with its penthouse in the clouds thinking it can control its foundation. The foundation rules; when it tilts one way, the rest of the building tilts with it. When it fails, the building fails.
A Pinch Of Science Is All We Need
The Triune brain is a model of the vertebrate brain proposed by the neuroscientist Paul MacLean. This model identifies three structures added in the course of the brain’s evolution: (1) the reptilian complex, (2) the paleomammalian complex (limbic system), and (3) the neomammalian complex (neocortex). This model makes sense… up to a point anyway. Here are some brain science basics:
♦ 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 center 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 linked to intelligence. 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.
What actually makes decisions is the deeper question. Assuming that the neocortex does this can’t be accurate. After all, emotions arising from the lower layers are constantly influencing this upper one. All stimuli, both internal (e.g, memory) and external (e.g., loud noise), can potentially push our emotional buttons, which means we can only make truly rational decisions in the absence of all stimuli. This causes the brain’s mind to lose itself, so to speak.
Overall, the layered model lends support for my analogy above, i.e., when the foundation tilts, the rest tilts with it — the foundation rules! That is a hard pill for ‘Mr. or Ms. ego’ to swallow since they need to feel they are in control. That need arises naturally 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?
Human culture normally sees instinct and free will as being opposites. We believe animals merely act out of instinct, whereas humans act rationally through free will. This doesn’t hold up to either science or honest observation. It is clear to me now that the belief in free will is itself driven by an instinctive need (and fear) to control circumstances. Ironically, reality is what we believe is real, be they ghosts, gods, UFOs, or free will. So, is there any way to manage this deep-seated bio-hoodwink?
Before thinking about how we can better manage our biological reality, we might instead ask how we make it worse. Primarily, I notice we make matters worse by assuming we are in control, or that we can rise above our animal reality. This plainly reveals our species’ arrogance and ignorance of nature. Chapter 74 takes a swing at this streak of overconfidence…
A man taking the place of the killer killing,
Is said to be taking the place of the great craftsman.
A man taking the place of the great craftsman rarely never hurts his own hands.
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.
Carl Abbott says
The idea of there being a “one’s chosen path” is an example of the illusion of free will. Believing that humans are free to choose anything is a comforting story we tell ourselves. In fact, we are not different from any other animal on earth. Ironically, we only think (imagine) that we are, and relentlessly fabricate narratives to ‘verify’ it.
On the other hand, if by “free will” you mean that all animals have this capacity, then I fully concur. Of course, that makes the ‘free’ aspect meaningless, which means it all come down to a will-to-live shared by living things.
However, in my experience cultures view free will as solely a human capacity. We merely think we are different, and dare I say, uniquely so. We really are not any more or less unique than any other animal… meaning each species is unique in its own way.
I assume this elitist view is driven by our illusion of self (ego). This would not be such a big deal if it weren’t for our disease, i.e., Realizing I don’t know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease.
Michael A. Lewis says
“Our thoughts of having free will are driven by an instinctive need to control our actions.”
“Free will” is not control. Living spontaneously, one is free to do whatever arises of the moment.
Free will is the absence of control, letting go of the need for control, accepting that flowing with the Tao, one’s chosen path is always in harmony.
Free will is the opposite of determinism, as living in the Tao is the opposite of control.