Tag Archives: Free Will

Revisiting “Free Will” by Sam Harris

Sam Harris argues free will, as people commonly perceive it, is an illusion and does not exist because (1) people are not consciously aware of the formation of their ideas and (2) the decisions people make are influenced by environmental and historical factors outside of their control.

Harris’ argument makes sense to a point. If one thinks about it, the origin of thought is a mystery. It is possible that thought is the product of subconscious processes (in which case one might be able to claim credit for them). It is also possible that thought originates from some external source (in which case one would not be able to claim credit). Regardless of their origin, when a thought appears in consciousness, the consciousness feels entitled to take credit for them. Harris, however, argues that because there is no conscious awareness of the creation of thought, and decisions are a type of thought, that free will cannot exist.

At the same time, any decision a person makes is influenced by an uncountable number of factors leading up to the point of making the decision and most of these factors are outside the person’s control. For example, the person’s culture, education, parental influence and many other prior factors all may play a role in the ultimate decision a person makes. There are many current environmental factors as well that are completely out of the control of the person making the decision. As such (argues Harris), how can the person say that he makes a decision of his own free will?

As Harris asserts, free will resides in an area outside of conscious awareness. Moreover, it is encumbered by historical and environmental forces. All true. However, just because the origin of thought takes place outside of conscious awareness and may have been influenced by facts and circumstances outside of the consciousness’ control, does not mean that there is no agency at all. Let us say that 99% of ideas come from an external source and 99% of the remaining ideas self generated are 99% shaped by external facts and circumstances that are outside of the consciousness’ control. Is it not possible that there is still a minuscule particle of free will that can be in the mix somewhere? Well, if that tiny particle of free will exists at all, Harris’ argument that free will is entirely an illusion must be false. Moreover, consider the following situation. Person 1 (P1) holds a gun to the head of Person 2 (P2). P1 tells P2 to pick up a ball or P1 will fire the gun. P2 picks up the ball. In this scenario we would say that P2 has a low level of free will with respect to his decision to pick up the ball. Now consider P2 is alone in a room and decides to pick up the same ball. In that scenario we would say that P2 has a higher degree of free will. Therefore, if free will can exist in degrees then it exists, and again Harris’ argument must be false. Finally, we can make a similar argument in terms of consciousness. P1 knows he can say something to P2 that will make P2 angry. P2, however, recently began psychotherapy and has become more conscious of this dynamic. P1 says the thing to P2 to make him angry. Normally, P2 would be overcome with rage in response, however P2, because he is conscious of this dynamic is able to not become angry in this instance. In this situation, we might say that P2, because he is more conscious, has a greater degree of free will than he would have had prior to psychotherapy. If P2 can have more free will in one situation than another then free will must exist, and once again, Sam Harris’ claim that free will does not exist must be false.

I will concede that Harris is correct in that “free will” as people commonly consider it is untrue. Most people (myself included) are not aware that their ideas mysteriously enter their conscious awareness. Rather, the default assumption is that they somehow created the thought on their own. But I disagree that Harris has closed the case on whether agency is entirely absent.

It seems that Harris arrives at his conclusion based on his materialist, scientific and atheist perspective. That is, he sees consciousness as merely a byproduct (perhaps accidental in nature) of the physical mechanics of the brain. Because there is no “God” or “spirit,” there is nothing beyond the mechanics of the brain to examine as to the source of consciousness. If therefore, consciousness is a byproduct of material and mechanical processes, then it is easy to see how an idea in the form of a decision (which had been shaped by past experience and environment) pops into consciousness, can trick consciousness to believe that consciousness made the decision. After all, consciousness is an accidental byproduct and probably should not have been there in the first place.

However, there is another possibility that makes more sense in my opinion. That is, that consciousness comes first before the material. This is not a new idea. It has its roots in Hinduism and is spoken about to great extent by Alan Watts and Leo Guara (for example). Essentially, the idea is that all anyone knows about the universe is consciousness because consciousness is the means by which everyone experiences the universe. As such, it is entirely possible that there is no universe “out there” or external to consciousness and that it is all contained within consciousness. Therefore, the hardness of a table and the mechanics of the brain are all the dream of consciousness. In this model, consciousness is God and each person is God experiencing consciousness through the eyes and limitations of that person. As such, free will comes from God which is consciousness because all there is, is consciousness and if there is free will to be had then it must come from there.

To those who doubt consciousness can precede the material world, consider a dream experienced during sleep. When dreaming, consciousness perceives the environment to be real. When we wake, however, we realize that the content of the dream was not real. Who is to say that what we consider to be real in waking life is not another level of dreaming?

The world is deceptively material in appearance. This deception is revealed in that there is always a smaller particle for nuclear physicists to discover and the edge of the universe is always a little farther out than astrophysicists can see. In the same respect, I suspect the material origin of consciousness will likewise, never be located with specificity.

The point of all this is (IMHO): Sam Harris has not successfully proven that free will does not exist. Nor has he convincingly shown that consciousness has a material genesis as it relates to free will or anything else.

See the following video for an EMP discussion of this topic:

Leave a comment

Filed under Psychology, Religion

Inquiry Into Consciousness Part IV – God

ARTICULATING THE PROBLEM OF CONSCIOUSNESS: THE SELF & FREE WILL

I experience my consciousness first hand. Without examination, I feel like I am a self, and should properly take credit for my thoughts and I have free will and am responsible for the decisions I make. Upon closer scrutiny, however, I do not know how my thoughts are created, nor can I predict my next thought. Because my traditional notion of self-hood (i.e., a creator of thoughts who has free will) has a great deal to do with my thoughts and my agency in their creation, I must question this notion of a self that I have heretofore assumed to exist.

If the experience of self is based upon a faulty assumption, what then is the experience of consciousness? Who is it that is experiencing consciousness and believes he has a self? The reality that exists in which a non-self entity can question whether he has a self, itself exists. That is, the process exists (because I experience it firsthand) but it is unclear as to whether there is or whether there necessarily has to be one who experiences the process.

Consciousness entails the awareness of this dynamic (and much else) but a definition of consciousness in its totality is elusive. Yet, we all seem to know instinctively what the word consciousness means. It is as if at its very nature consciousness avoids scrutiny. Questioning the notion of self illustrates this problem of consciousness.

MODELS OF THE UNIVERSE

This problem of consciousness seemingly exists within a universe (i.e., a physical realm). This universe consists of physical space in which to operate and physical objects within this space (including the body). This universe and all the stimuli within it can be interpreted in different ways. Each interpretation carries with it different implications as to the nature of the self and free will. Let us consider Monotheism, Non Duality and Atheism as examples.

Monotheism

Monotheism, including Christianity (of the non mystical variety) as well as Judaism and Islam (to the extent I understand them, not being of either tradition) espouse the belief in the self and a separate personal God who is also a self. This of course is a low level interpretation of the mind of God. Certainly Catholic theologians would speculate that the Godhead is so much more than what I would normally conceive of being a self. But essentially what I mean when I say that the Christian God is a separate self is that under this framework, God’s mind is not my mind and therefore God is a separate self. In the monotheistic universe, the universe itself is made of material stuff and is separate from the self. The self within this universe has free will subject to limitations. The self is also capable of creating thoughts and therefore morally responsible for those thoughts and any actions taken in response to thoughts.

Non Duality

By contrast, my understanding of the non dualistic spirituality described by Hinduism, Buddhism, Alan Watts and others espouses the belief that there is just one process going on. This process is God. My feeling of a separate universe, and a self within that universe is an illusion or a misunderstanding of the situation. This entire process is really God experiencing Himself in a limited manner through my eyes. The other people I interact with are also God experiencing Himself through their eyes. In this sense, the thoughts and free will I experience are essentially God’s thoughts and free will.

Presumably, God is experiencing Himself in these limited versions for a reason. Watts speculates that the only thing an infinite, omnipotent being would lack is limitation. Going through this process is the means for Him to experience this one thing He lacks. Put another way, God experiences the drama of existence through limitation. This conception of God feels unsettling and lonely to me, I suspect because that would mean that the only thing that exists is God. As such, God is all alone with Himself. There is something comforting about the idea that there are other selves other than my self. But perhaps this is only because I am not used to the non dual conception of God.

To a certain extent, non duality releases the self from responsibility. If the self is ultimately an illusion then there are no ultimate consequences for thoughts or actions. Of course, within the illusion there are consequences which may be unpleasant to experience in the moment. But this unpleasantness does not have the permanence it would have under the monotheistic system.

Atheism

Atheism is another option. A rejection of God seems to be an embracing of the physical universe as the ultimate reality. Under this model, the physical forces that created the universe and brought man into being are unconcerned with man’s consciousness. The phenomenon of consciousness would be a byproduct of the physical world perhaps an adaptation employed for survival.

Many scientists including Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking gravitate to the view that the universe can (and does) exist without God. One argument typically made by atheists is that if the universe requires a creator then so would the creator. As such, at some point there has to be a non created, existing thing. As such, the universe itself could be that non created, existing thing.

Under this model, the problem of consciousness is simply one problem among others to be solved. We, as humans may or may not possess the ability or potential to solve the problem.

Not being a scientist myself, I would think that being trained to only make conclusions based on verifiable data naturally orients the mind towards atheism. Or perhaps if one’s mind is naturally oriented to think in this way one would be more inclined to be a scientist. For the purpose of this inquiry I should consider atheism as a possibility, but if I am being honest it just doesn’t feel true to me. Although, it also feels true that I have a self, think my own thoughts and have free will. So if I question one, I should question the other. In any respect, from an evidentiary standpoint, God’s existence remains an open question (although my heart rests with God you might say.)

GOD

In many respects my approach to God was shaped by the milieu in which I was raised (e.g., the Roman Catholic church as experienced in a suburban, New England parish in 1970’s and 80’s America. This was not the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism my parents grew up in which always seemed to be more serious, spiritually rich and on the whole more interesting to me. In a sense I felt gypped growing up in this version of the church.

My experience of Catholicism was somewhat disappointing. Those in charge of my experience never seemed to want to address what I found interesting about God. What they gave me seemed to be a watered down version of spirituality that seemed so sanitized it pushed me away. I longed for a more spiritual and transcendental experience of God.

I say all this only to provide the context in which I approach God. That is, I approach God from my own spiritual history. I have taken in Roman Catholic church history, iconography, music, literature and ritual for much of my life. In recent years I have explored alternative routes to God but I cannot deny the impact of my prior experience and my current thinking is that it would probably be better to use it rather than to fight it.

To me, God is the underlying force of consciousness. I cannot point to consciousness and say, “there is God” but I can feel God within consciousness. Some times this is more apparent than others. Ultimately, I do not know whether I create my own thoughts and therefore have free will. I do not know whether the monotheistic, non dual or atheistic model holds true. (I have my suspicious of course). Nor do I know if my notion of God is purely based upon my religious background. But I do know what feels right and harmonious. It seems that following this feeling is the proper future course of this inquiry.

2 Comments

Filed under Psychology, Religion

Dialog with a [W]hite Supremacist Part III

Thus sayeth my white Supremacist, “There seems [to be] a manner in which one steps beyond basic self-awareness to that creation of the original ‘ego’ set out to push one’s psychological envelope. From the internal monologue to the inter[n]ally manufactured dialogue with one’s ‘ego’ is that initial kickstart seeking to maximize one’s autonomy.”

Here again is the word “autonomy” which in his world carries negative connotations because it suggests an attempt to break away from God. As I said he never made it clear what actions are autonomous and what actions are considered to be in line with his so-called concept of “God-ordained free will.”

In response to his statement I attempted to bridge the gap by suggesting that we both are probably in agreement that the ego is a maladaptive reaction to a misconception of reality. Where our opinions differ is that I believe this process to be largely unconscious whereas perhaps he thinks it is intentional and thus incurring guilt. Of course, he proceeded to snatch this olive branch from my hand and slap me across the face with it.

He went on to profess, “I don’t see things in terms of adaptive and maladaptive. The fundamental human process in my view is perpetuating self-annihilators. I do not grant abiogenesis.”

The term “self-annihilator” is another buzzword of his which I think he uses interchangeably with the term “radical autonomist” in that a “radical autonomist” seeks autonomy from God by acting not in accordance with “God-ordained free will” and by doing so ultimately annihilates himself. I’m not sure what his remark about abiogenesis is in relation to as I never suggested that man arose spontaneously from inanimate matter nor do I know why he thinks that is relevant to the conversation.

He continues, “I ‘see’ an ‘evolution’ usurped by the self-annihilators. I ‘see’ the human being driven by raw desire with just enough good few ones choosing right to constitute an ascending continuum. The ‘ego’ really stands as one’s only truly trusted confidante or very worst enemy OR the appearance of one’s very worst enemy, but in fact one’s understood and very much trusted driving force…. This latter individual is the radical autonomist. His ‘ego’ is that which can get him off the hook with the degenerate masses.”

I’m not exactly sure what he is getting at here. I think he is suggesting that the self-annihilators have somehow exited the flow of evolution and it is the “good ones” who are evolving upward in an ascending continuum. Both types, however, have egos only one sees the ego as an enemy and the other sees it as a guide. But it is unclear what goes with what. His final statement about the radical autonomist using his ego to get him off the hook with the degenerate masses seems a little clearer to me. What I think he is suggesting is that to the radical autonomist, the ego is a clever trick used to absolve him of responsibility for his own actions. He can say, “it’s not my fault I robbed that bank, it was my ego.” To an extent he is correct that the concept of ego may be used in such a way. A sociopath might do that. But a person seeking to do right and act ethically and morally would not do this.

The point I was trying to make in my earlier blog post “Ego and Forgiveness” which this thread is in response to, is that there is a sense by some that guilt and shame should be perpetually carried around even once amends have been made and maybe for no other reason than being born the wrong type. Realizing that perpetual shame is largely the result of abusive situations imprinted on the psyche and formed into the ego is the way out of this situation and into authentic morality. For one cannot truly act morally if one is only doing so in order to avoid feeling shame. Morality should be exercised whole heartedly in other words. Otherwise it is an empty gesture.

To be continued…

7 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

The Free Will Debate Part I

The free will debate has existed since ancient times. Anyone can read the various ins and outs of the debate as argued by various people. I think what is more important is the debate that goes on inside the individual.

On the surface, if I do not think about it too deeply it does feel as if I have free will. I can choose to turn left or right. I choose to make the moral choice (as I understand it) or not.

But it is conceivable that I am only experiencing the illusion of free will. When a thought pops into my head I take ownership of it. I claim the credit of my creativity. But if I think about it, I really have no idea where this thought originated. Perhaps someone, somewhere sitting at a computer is implanting these thoughts in my head and I assume they are of my own doing. In this model of consciousness there is a “me” capable of observing but that “me” is under the illusion that the thoughts I think are my own. But even under this model I seem to have the choice of choosing whether or not I will take ownership of these thoughts. But then again, this choosing could also be implanted by the guy sitting at the computer.

So I am stuck in the position where I cannot prove or disprove that I have free will. My religion teaches that God endowed man with free will. My hunch tells me I have some degree of free will but it is probably less than what I assume it to be without thinking about it too much.

Recently a white-supremacist who has been regularly commenting on my blog made the argument (if I understand him correctly) that “God ordained free-will” (his term) means actually having the limited choice between choosing to do God’s will or choosing not to do God’s will. See the comments to my blog post Procrastination When Writing is Essentially Laziness Only More Complicated. I am sure if I misstated his theory he will correct me in the comments to this post.

The question that arises in my mind is this: How can I know what is God’s will in order to properly exercise my God Ordained Free-Will in order to make the correct decision? From a Christian perspective the answer is that the Bible is the word of God and tells me what His will is. The only problem with that is the Bible says a lot of things that are open to interpretation. So I am still stuck in the position of not actually knowing the will of God.

This white-supremacist commenter also argued that the opposite of exercising God Ordained Free Will is the exercising of Radical Autonomy (his term). He goes on to say that Radical Autonomy leads ultimately to Self-Annihilation (his term yet again). Again, I am sure he will correct me in the comments if I am misstating his position. From my perspective, there are a great many hoops he needs to jump through in order to square his theories on, God Ordained Free Will, white-supremacy, and Christianity not to mention Radical Autonomy and Self Annihilation.

Of course this white supremacist has the free will to respond or not respond to this post in the comments. If he does respond (which I suspect he will) I assume he will believe his choice to respond is an exercise of “God Ordained Free-Will.” The debate will then proceed from there.

18 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Meditations on Life

I have heard it said that life is a gift. I find this notion a little strange because if life is a gift, it is the only gift I know where there is no recipient at the time of the transaction. The “gift” creates the recipient. The “gift” is the recipient.

I have been told I should be grateful for life, this gift, even though I did not ask for it as far as I can tell.

I have been told that life is precious. I agree that life is miraculous, that a physical object can move and have consciousness and reproduce. But there are all these rules in life. There are things I am not allowed to do. I was given this life where (if I am to believe what my religion requires me to believe) I am in danger of being eternally damned to hell if I do the wrong thing. That cannot be true, can it? If it is true, what kind of gift is that? Perhaps it would have been better not to receive the gift in the first place. Did I at some point have the opportunity to refuse the gift? Not if I did not exist before the gift was given.

On the other hand, life is interesting. People seem to want to hold on to it and preserve it. It certainly has value and seems vastly preferable to non-existence. And there is beauty to life amidst the pain and hardship. Now that I have life I cannot imagine not having it or throwing it away. I suppose I am grateful for it.

Can life properly be termed a “gift” or is it something else? To create, to bring consciousness into being is not quite the same thing as a gift. It is akin to a gift perhaps. But it is not quite a gift.

People do not create other people, they beget them. Begetting is akin to creating but is not quite the same. Begetting is different from creating in that there is not complete control in the process. It is something set in motion but then it creates itself on its own. God the Son was begotten not made. Man, however, was created presumably with the full knowledge and control of God, at least in the creation process.

I have been told man was endowed by God with free will. If this is true, perhaps life is more akin to a science experiment than a gift. A scientist may have a vague sense of sympathy for his subjects, but a proper scientist keeps a healthy distance to maintain objectivity.

But I do not want life to be a science experiment. I want it to be a gift. I want there to be a loving God. I want there to be a loving God who created me to be the recipient of myself as only a loving God could do.

Leave a comment

Filed under Religion

Genesis Through the Lens of Shame Part III

After the story of Cain and Abel Genesis skips forward in time through the use of genealogies. As a reader, my shame ego looks over my shoulder when I reach the genealogies in Genesis. It makes me feels like I should read them. Another part of me (my true self) wants to skip over them. Logic weighs in on the side of skipping over them. Their value is as a reference. The information is there if needed but it is not necessary to read them absent a need to find the information. Not to mention the fact that they are boring to read. But when I skip past them my shame ego tells me I am cheating and not really reading the Bible. What happens is I skim over the genealogies not really absorbing the information but satisfying my shame ego’s desire that I mire myself in useless effort so that I feel like I have obeyed the rules while ultimately stagnate my growth.

After struggling with the genealogies, we arrive at the story of Noah and the Flood. God is frustrated with his creation he endowed with free will. It turns out mankind used this gift of free will and chose not be as God intended and so he decided to wipe them out.

And God seeing that the wickedness of men was great on the earth, and that all the thought of their heart was bent upon evil at all times, it repented him that he had made man on the earth. And being touched inwardly with sorrow of heart, he said: I will destroy man whom I have created, from the face of the earth from man even to beasts, from the creeping thing even to the fowls of the air for it repenteth me that I have made them. But Noah found grace before the Lord. (Gen 6:5-8).

I suppose Noah found favor with the Lord because he followed the will of the Lord seemingly without questioning. He had no free will or was unwilling to exercise it. God then meticulously instructs Noah on how to build the ark and how to populate it. Noah does all that God tells him to do without question. After he builds and populates the ark God floods the world and wipes out his creation. After the water recedes Noah and the other survivors leave the ark Noah makes an offering to God. He is pleased and promises that he will never again destroy the world with a flood.

Later Noah plants grapes and makes wine. He then drinks the wine, becomes drunk and passes out, naked in his tent. His son Ham sees him naked and tells his two brothers Shem and Japheth who walk in the tent backwards so they do not see their father naked and cover him with a cloak. Noah then wakes and finds out that Ham had seen him naked. Curiously, Noah then curses Canaan, Ham’s son.

Noah carries the shame ego passed down from Adam and Cain all the way through the genealogy to Noah. Noah curses Cannan and not Ham or his brothers because shame is cowardly and attacks the weakest target. Shame robbed Noah of his free will and his true self. When Noah got drunk these walls broke down. He then felt embarrassment and rage and vented it on Cannan who presumably would then shame his son so that it could be continuously passed down through the genealogy after Noah. It is this same shame that had been passed down to me. It is the one that makes me feel bad for wanting to skip the genealogies in the Bible.

Leave a comment

Filed under Religion, Shame, Uncategorized

Shame and Free Will

If my actions are motivated by shame then I am not exercising free will. I am acting out a prefabricated script that was passed down to be by those who imprinted their shame onto me. But it feels like I am using my own free will when I am acting motivated by shame. Or to put it a bit more accurately, it does not feel like I am acting out a script when my actions are motivated by shame.

Shame can be very subtle in this regard. Here are a few examples:

I am told to believe in the Bible because it is the word of God and was divinely inspired. How do I know this is true? I want to believe it but I really have no evidence to confirm it one way or the other. So I am left with a dilemma. Either I believe it on faith (because I have been told that is what good people do) or I remain skeptical. If I remain skeptical my shame will punish me for not having faith. But if I believe in the Bible my shame will also punish me for not being a modern, critical thinker.

I was brought up in a family that votes Democratic. There have been times over the years that I have flirted with conservative, Republican ideology. This was back before the invasion of Iraq. At the time my liberal, neo-hippie friends and my family tried to make me feel like a dumbass for siding with the conservatives. Very little of this was based on reasoned debate. It seemed to be all based on shame. Now I vote more along the Democrat lines but I still sometimes feel like I am made out to be a dumbass by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity and the people in my life who espouse that philosophy. Again, their tactics are loosely garbed in reason but their main point of persuasion is shame. Nowhere in the mix is what is true and false and best for the country. It is really all about shaming the other side. But when I pick a side I feel justified in my own beliefs and justified in shaming the other side.

I often feel awkward in social situations. When I am invited to a party my first inkling is to come up with an excuse not to go. Usually what happens is that I feel I should be social as the correct course of action. I go to the party and have a reasonably good time after a few drinks. Later in the night I feel glad I went and silly that I felt like I should not go in the first place. All this is shame. I don’t want to go to the party because I feel I will be judged. After I loosen up and feel okay talking to people I judge my pre-party self for being antisocial.

Where in the mix is what I really want? Where is my free will in any of these situations?

Shame is passed on from generation to generation. To the extent I act out the script I do so because my parents acted out the script on me. Their parents acted it out on them and so on down the line to the point where Adam took that bite of the apple, his eyes were opened and he felt ashamed. (See Gen 2:25 – 3:8). Interestingly it was free will (or so the Bible tells me so) that got us into this mess in the first place. If Adam had not chosen to eat the apple of his own free will then he would not have created the feeling of shame and it would not have then been passed down to me to rob me of my free will.

1 Comment

Filed under Shame