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.”