photo: CC0, from pixabay
The greatest challenge in shrugging off the belief that humans have free will, is how to reconcile that with the feelings of responsibility and blaming that are so deeply conditioned in us.
The cognitive dissonance is unavoidable. At least half of my recent blog posts implicitly assume that someone is being irresponsible, or could act more responsibly, and implicitly assigning blame for the consequences of ‘bad’ behaviour. The other half assert that there is no responsibility or blame for anything that happens, since we’re all just acting out our conditioning, and since most of what is happening (like climate and ecological collapse) is outside the control of anyone or any group anyway.
The result is writing that is a bit schizophrenic, and I’m far from the only one exhibiting it. Many of my favourite writers (on my collapse blogroll and in my links of the month) are angry, and their writing is full of accusations of irresponsibility, evilness and blame. Are they ‘justifiably’ angry? That’s what I’ve been thinking about of late.
The most notable of these wonderful writers and thinkers is Caitlin Johnstone, because not only is she extremely angry and blame-y, but she often writes about non-duality. On the one hand, she writes about the evil global empire of wealthy corporatists who control most governments, most parties, and most of the media. They have to be called to account and overthrown, she asserts.
You have to give her credit for not falling for the euphoria, amnesia and ignorance that underlies the coverage of, and leftists’ accommodation of, the neoliberalism of the Biden regime and other faux progressive governments. The ongoing atrocities in Yemen, which all western nations are funding and supplying weapons to, and the stepped-up, dangerous belligerence of the west towards Russia, China, Iran, Korea, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia and the other usual western neoliberal elite’s whipping-boys, are just two examples of this horrifically biased and incompetent reporting and unwarranted militarism.
On the other hand, she writes about non-duality, reminding us that we are all one, inseparable, and that there is nothing stopping us from becoming aware of the western imperialist propaganda and military insanity that is wreaking havoc on the planet (and which is simultaneously ignoring, beyond lip service, the actual urgent priorities our world faces), and rising up and overthrowing it or just walking away from it and refusing to continue to acknowledge and fund its legitimacy.
Yes, and yes. But — that assumes we have free will, and that it is only a kind of voluntary, wilful ignorance that is keeping us from creating a more functional and less irresponsible and destructive world. We can free each other from the propaganda, and from the war-mongering, planet-destroying elite that propagates it, she says. “The good news is that we can always wake up”, she writes. You get the cognitive dissonance I feel here?
What a lot of today’s pseudo-intellectuals (Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris et al) have been saying is that, when it comes to free will, we can have our cake and eat it too. We have a “sort of” free will, enough to do what Caitlin would have us do (wake ourselves up etc), but not “absolute free will”. We can’t just accept that we have no free will at all, Sam Harris has written, or the world would quickly degenerate into nihilistic despair and anarchy.
I don’t know where this well-entrenched bafflegab comes from. Perhaps it’s a lingering loathing for BF Skinner and the absolute terror that might come to the intellectual elites if they had to acknowledge that it was just dumb luck and genes that were responsible for them being rich and famous and having a bajillion adoring Facebook fans, rather than being penniless, unhoused, and peeing in back alleys like some of their (at least) intellectual peers.
The acknowledgement of our lack of free will is a great leveller, and hence it is hugely threatening to those with wealth, power and popularity. Perhaps instead of being revered for what they do and say with their immense privilege, they should be despised for not giving everything they have to those less fortunate, through no fault of their own, and working night and day to rectify that obscene inequality. I’m not advocating that, but it would bring me a smile, and a lot more respect for these poseurs than I have for them now.
So let’s look at the full-on, Sapolsky-strength denial of the existence of free will and see where it might lead us.
Robert Sapolsky has said, for example, that there is no moral or other justification for our system of prisons, incarceration and other “penalties” for breaking the law. If we lock someone up, he says, it should be with the understanding that they did what they were conditioned to do, under the circumstances of the moment, and could have done nothing else. So we can justify locking someone up not as punishment or with the objective of changing their behaviour, but only as a means to prevent them repeating violent acts. That means restricting their freedom without punishing them.
So here’s a test for you. The two clowns who killed 18 people between them this month — should they be punished, or merely restricted to ensure they cannot repeat their dangerous, mentally-disturbed behaviour? What if they turn out to be incels provoked by anti-woman university professors, or if they were on anti-psychotic medicines for anger management and, for whatever reason, stopped taking them? Should we also punish the professors (and other media blowhards) and the shrinks?
Not easy, this belief in no free will. In addition to converting our prisons into mental care facilities, we would have to acknowledge that the most despised members of the military-industrial complex (corporate execs with Facebook, Monsanto, Purdue, Exxon etc, PR and advertising “consultants”, politicians and media mouthpieces on the take or just too gullible to see they’re being used) also had no free will but to do what they have done. The horrific state of our world and no one is to blame? No wonder Sam and Daniel and others get cold feet. They would lose all their followers if they admitted no one has free will.
I spent most of my life raging against behaviourism and the belief that we have no free will. I’ve embraced them recently, improbably, because my conditioning has been such that the intellectual appeal of the arguments for Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s behaviourism and Robert Sapolsky’s no-free-will thinking was presented to me at exactly the time I was open to being reconditioned by these arguments, and I had the time and energy to explore them. I have no choice but to embrace them, and you have no choice, I would guess, but to suspect or reject them.
I still get enraged, terrified and grief-stricken by corporatist ‘misbehaviour’, and cheer on well-written and well-spoken rants. But now I see them, at least a bit more, for what they really are: theatre. My rage/fear/sorrow is the same rage/fear/sorrow that arises when something happens in a well-written play or story that instinctively evokes a sense of outrage, fear, or grief. (Provided, that is, it is not manipulative; I have no use for most movies/shows/novels that exploit our emotion triggers to get a rise out of us, and am now extremely particular about what forms of fiction I subject myself to. And that includes most of the ‘fiction’ in both the mainstream media and the hate/social media. We are all being ‘played’.)
There is a reason most of the mental hospitals in the western world have closed down over the past generation or two, and it isn’t because we’re all mentally healthier. In part it’s because these facilities were built on false premises and promises of ‘healing’ that never worked — they were, and are, like modern psychiatry, completely dysfunctional. But dysfunction alone hasn’t been enough to bring down any of the other types of institutions that we struggle with today (most hospitals, seniors’ homes, ‘twelve step’ institutions etc.)
The real reason is that we simply, in our overextended, fragile, bubble modern economy, cannot afford them. We have so mortgaged our futures to pay for today’s excesses that we have nothing left for social services of any kind. That’s one of the reasons why Republicans and other fear-driven ideological groups want social services shut down and privatized. These systems are all teetering on the edge of collapse, as we spend money instead on corporate jets, wars, bribes and other unaffordable luxuries.
So while Robert may be right in his radical penal reform proposals, there is no money to even begin to do what he suggests. We are fully invested in the existing dysfunctional systems, and in the belief systems necessary to justify them. This gives most people even more reason to deny the absence of free will.
Perhaps I’m unusual in my conditioning, but while I accept all this, and the inevitable and ghastly collapse of our global industrial civilization in this century, I am not driven to depression, thoughts of suicide, or bouts of abject nihilism by these beliefs. On the contrary, it is enormously freeing to acknowledge that we’re fucked, and there’s nothing we can do, provided you’re ready to part with your particular religion or other salvationist beliefs. It is liberating to shrug off the self-inflicted and culturally-inflicted mantle of responsibility to do something, anything, everything, to make the world a better place. Call me irresponsible, but I’m not buying the ‘if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem’ bullshit any more.
My conditioning may change in the future, but for now it seems to me quite clear, based on everything I’ve studied and learned, based on science and evidence: We have no free will, no control or choice over what we do, or don’t do. Not even “kind of” free will. No one is to blame for anything. We are not responsible for doing the only thing we can possibly do each moment. And there is nothing that could, can or will be done to prevent civilization’s near-term collapse and all the hardship and radical changes to every aspect of life on earth that will entail. And that’s perfectly fine. The truth can sometimes really set us free.
It’s the adventure of a lifetime. It’s a play that has an unbelievable, cataclysmic ending, or perhaps no ending at all. Hold on to the edge of your seats. The actors are all getting their lines and instructions just seconds before they have to deliver them. Anything could happen. We, the dogs in the stands barking furiously on behalf of our characters on the stage, might even find ourselves part of the play. No one knows. No one has any choice, any control, any responsibility, or any free will over what will transpire next. And it will do you no good to remind yourself “It’s just a show.”
Dave, a wonderful post, as usual!
You state: “it is enormously freeing to acknowledge that we’re fucked, and there’s nothing we can do, provided you’re ready to part with your particular religion or other salvationist beliefs. It is liberating to shrug off the self-inflicted and culturally-inflicted mantle of responsibility to do something, anything, everything, to make the world a better place. Call me irresponsible, but I’m not buying the ‘if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem’ bullshit any more.”
I could not agree more!
Here’s my proposal: I suggest we schedule a Zoom conversation to discuss such things, to learn more about where each of us is coming from, and to see what emerges from the interaction. IF (and only if) we both agree to have some (or most, or all) of the conversation be made public, we can do so. If not, it simply exists in our memory.
We may not have free will, but we must act as if we do, otherwise there is nothing to be said about anything. If we cannot impute agency to human behavior, we must live in the surreal world of enlightened zen masters, where we serenely feign “normal” behavior, because, why not (chop wood, carry water)?
Life is much more interesting with the full panoply of emotions in play. Love, fury, pride, shame and all our emotional investments in normative argument are what make life interesting. My advice is to save your serenity for special occasions. Other times, unleash your furies on the foibles of humanity. It’s much more entertaining for everyone, including me, and very likely for yourself.
Wouldn’t the radical non-dual message say?:
“There is neither free will nor no free will”
Pointing to the knowledge about the nature of free will would still be the dream …
Ivo: Yes, true. It’s all we have.
Joe: We don’t have the choice whether or not to act as if we have free will. There is nothing to be said about anything. It is all just vanity. At some point this blog may just go silent, in which case it might be inferred that I got tired of talking with myself. I talk about it, for now, because I find it fascinating. We have no choice whether or not to impute agency to our selves, or over what behaviour we exhibit. There are no zen masters; that’s just more vanity. And denying free will, or ‘realizing’ that we have no free will, does not diminish our emotions or offer any serenity.
Another writer pointed me to what Alan Watts said about all this, to which I replied:
I like Alan’s work — he was way ahead of his time, and is very much, I think, the predecessor of Eckhart Tolle and the current “non-radical” non-dualists who believe there is a way to become aware that there is only the “now”. As such they are believers in free will. I really, really wanted to believe they were right, but now I find the arguments for there not being free will — the message of radical non-duality — more compelling. That’s not to say I am a determinist. Alan and many of the current crop I think tend to conflate no-free-will with determinism. It was only when I studied complexity science that I could discern that it’s possible to be completely without free will, and yet not be a determinist — the circumstances of every moment are infinitely complex, so nothing can be determined and anything is possible, but that doesn’t mean we have free will.
Daniel Dennett and that crowd, uncomfortable with the lack of free will, which neither they nor their followers like the consequences of accepting, muddy the waters by trying to differentiate between the ideas of “free will” and “choice”. As much as they argue in circles about this, free will and choice are, I think, synonymous terms, and redefining them in a way convenient to their argument does not make the problems with “kind of” free will go away.
Alan promised there is a way to make things better, just as Daniel and Eckhart and Sam and all the current crop and past crop of non-dualists do. To say there is no way, nothing that can be done, is too hard for most to take, and certainly not popular when you’re trying to build a following and make a living as a preacher. But I’m no longer very concerned with being popular, or even, if I’m honest, with being understood, because this message can perhaps never be understood. Had it not been for the ‘glimpses’ I would certainly never buy it. I would still be a believer in free will.
Michael: Largely for the reasons I’ve noted above, I think you would find a conversation on this frustrating. But I’m willing to have one.
Dave, as I understand you, anyone who advocates action or belief has to believe in free will (“my audience should take notice and follow my advice”). But I think there’s another alternative, even without a belief in free will: “My audience may be affected by my advocacy, depending on their own receptivity to the message–and so they may take action or change their belief even without thinking it through or deciding on anything. My advocacy itself is one of those mysteries of existence; I barely understand myself why I keep doing it, but it seems to be a comfortable habit–just like that habit of imagining my ‘self’.”
I still usually imagine my actions and “decisions” to be the product of my own rational thinking, and thus to result from my free will. Then, changing perspective, occasionally the thought arises, “Ha! There’s that imaginary self again, hard at work rationalizing its fictional existence, as always. Kinda fun to watch.” (But of course, “watching” is just a metaphor. There are often a bunch of unreal thoughts swirling around when the brain doesn’t have anything “useful” to do.)
“We are fully invested in the existing dysfunctional systems, and in the belief systems necessary to justify them. This gives most people even more reason to deny the absence of free will.”
I think that’s an important insight. People in general (of course there are exceptions) are sort of stuck with dysfunctional thinking and will continue to attempt to escape reality through widely shared illusions. Seems to be the way we’re wired.
act /akt/ verb 1.take action; do something.
Well, if I say, “I am acting as if I have free will”, isn’t that doing something (as if I have free will)? Yes, because it’s a logical tautology. If I implore you to respond to this comment, I am acting as if you have free will, too.
It may be that this comment was contingent on the unthinking operation of the incredibly complex physical world, including the probabilistic effects of quantum mechanics, on my brain, fingers, keyboard and the internet, but I am acting as if it’s existence is due to choice. Words may be confusing, misleading or even lead to vain delusions, but they still have some meaning, including the words “act” and “acting”.
If you say that all words that imply agency, such as “act”, “do”, or “strive” have no meaning and are non-sensical babble, I would counter that I prefer (another one) to use an English language that includes them and I see no reason to fight (another one) it.
There are many other words that I might view as nonsense, like “God” or “supernatural” but they still have meaning for most people and when I talk I can use them properly in context. It’s not that hard to suspend disbelief and communicate with people using problematic words. I do it all the time. Life’s more fun that way.
Joe, I wouldn’t say that words that have imply agency are nonsensical. We believe that people and actions have agency, that things are causal. We look for patterns, and make sense of the patterns we find. I’m just saying that, for now, I believe our perception of having agency is a misunderstanding of what is actually going on. I believe that when we think we have made a decision what has actually happened is that a decision was made or an action taken, and our brains then figured out (rationalized) how our personal agency or free will led to that action. The decision/action was entirely the result of our conditioning, the only thing we could have done in the circumstances. Our brains then “made sense” of that action by rationalizing how “we” might have come to that decision. If we had free will.
Paul, yes, except that my advocacy for x or y is beyond my control/choice/free will as well. I advocate for a universal basic income, for no necessary other reason than because my conditioning has led me to be an advocate for it. And then I have no choice/free will but to blog about my advocacy. I don’t sense it’s a habit, or even comfortable, but I have no choice but to advocate for it nevertheless.
There’ve been a number of books written about why we’re inclined to believe things even when the preponderance of evidence overwhelmingly suggests they’re not true. It may be because our illusions help us survive better than believing the truth. Or it may be just that we’re conditioned to seek pleasure and avoid pain, and untruths and misunderstandings can be more pleasurable and less painful that truths and understandings.
“Should we also punish the professors (and other media blowhards) and the shrinks?”
It gets even weirder and funnier considering that punishers have no free will either.
Yup, that’s the point Melissa makes in her book about dog trainers who use negative reinforcement to punish their dogs for being ‘bad’. Her hope is that if enough people learn about the alternative, their conditioning to be kind will be enough that they will try it. Of course Melissa is conditioned to write books and articles about positive reinforcement. And the result is… the only thing that could have happened (given the circumstances of having or not having been exposed to her writing).
“You have to give her credit for” Well, I mean if she has no choice,,,,,,,
Only creatures that are as flawed and ignorant as humans can be free in the way humans are free. Accepting the fact of unknowing makes possible an inner freedom. With this capability you will not want a higher form of consciousness, your ordinary mind will give all you need. Rather than trying to impose sense on your life, you will be content to let meaning come and go.