“How can the independence of human volition be harmonized with the fact that we are integral parts of a universe which is subject to the rigid order of nature’s laws?”, asked Max Planck. (emphases mine… so proud of it)
Wow, that’s three assumptions in one sentence, and one hell of a question to ask… usually put forward during the small hours, after one long drunken party night, when it’s just the host and his best friend sitting on a sofa in a candle-lit room. But people are ruminating something like this since forever. Open any philosophy primer you got it there, right in the center of the presentation, no matter who wrote the volume.
Leaving aside premise two – humans are integral parts of the Universe; we’ll come back to this in a minute – can we do as we please or are the gods, or chance events, or the laws of physics – force majeureanyway – determining what’s going on? (and what is the role of the CIA, or the Vatican’s here?)
Good question! I said that already, right. And like every ordinary history-of-science edutainment programme, I’ll get you stranded with more of those questions than you had before, I believe. Weird hypotheses and unprovable theories, here we go.
One of them being that either determinism or free will might be an illusion. Likely both.
“Free will is the sensation of making a choice. The sensation is real, but the choice seems illusory,” said Brian Greene, an American theoretical physicist, mathematician, and string theorist. Russian geologist Vladimir Vernadsky joined him by asking: “Thought isn’t a form of energy. So how on Earth can it change material processes?”
There is this thing about premises: once you start looking out for them they are popping up left and right. Can real sensations have illusory content? Does thought have no substance / energy to it? I am not buying into these assumptions just like that. In some way they sound true enough, because you cannot see or touch mental activities. Viewed from an Asian perspective, though, reality does not merely consist of forces and matter, as described before (see also “Cognitive justice: science and the sacred”
). When we feel free, or bound, this feeling expresses the state of a relationship. And it touches right into what many cultures regard as the building… uhm… blocks of reality.
Freedom also lies at the heart of every spiritual tradition there is, yet not in the form of civil rights, free choice, free enterprise, or free thought. To put it bluntly, according to those traditions freedom is the freedom from being ruled by one’s desires, or, in other words, the freedom to want what you get because you love what-is.
Does that sound awful to you? I guess it does, even to those who live by it because I so horribly oversimplified the matter. But I’m serious here. What I am trying to point at is that we need to have a look at hidden assumptions because they define what we mean by ‘freedom’. That’s a difficult task. They often dwell in the subconscious parts of our mind, together with all the rotten stuff about peculiar sex fetishes and gory violent phantasies. Yet they may become conscious when they get confronted with surprisingly different sets of premises. For the sake of this argument, let’s just take a quote from the American teacher Adyashanti, on the relationship between reality, thought, and suffering:
“[The idea of control over one’s life] is based on a fundamental misunderstanding. It is based on an understanding that you are a separate individual person, human being, separate from the whole, separate from others and separate from life, and you need to make sure that your life and your car get where you want it to get. If there is a prescription for suffering, I’d say, that’s about as accurate as you can get. Funny thing is that the very prescription for suffering is the very thing that we think is the prescription for happiness.”
–Adyashanti – Surrender or suffer, 29:20
People who believe in the individual’s freedom of will and choice hate this kind of speech. Not only does it mention the premises that usually nobody talks about because they seem so self-evident. To them, it sounds like saying, “Freedom is slavery”.
And that hits the nail right on the head, though not in the Orwellian sense: According to the Buddha, their misunderstood freedom of choice makes them slaves to their desires. Such slavery comes with all sorts of nasty ramifications like, suffering from lack of ice cream in the presence of huge amounts of milk shakes.
Is Adyashanti a determinist? Not at all. His Zen-based, Non-dualism shaped understanding teaches that we make a conceptual mistake when, in our mind, we pit freedom against determinism. Separated from each other both notions are illusory. As we are one with all of existence there is no separate me that could manipulate an external reality or get controlled by it. It only appears this way. To make it more interesting, ie. confusing, Buddhists believe that their lives are determined by karmic forces… and they get encouraged to alter those through right action and right thinking.
So, when neither free will nor deterministic philosophy are convincing models for how the world works, can we imagine a both-and relationship instead?
The Norman Cousins quote (see image) points in one possible direction.
In a book I recently read and presented here (see essay “The limits to reason”
) I found a similar, yet slightly different thought that conciliates determinism and free will into a holistic view:
“We, like any other entity, are an element in Nature’s round. The notion that we have the freedom to do as we like is an illusion. Each of us do as we must do as part of Nature’s round. We have a free will only to the extent that we can choose to recognise our embeddedness in the round and participate willingly or be dragged along unwillingly, live joyfully or miserably.”
–Tending our land, by M. G. Jackson & Nyla Coelho. Kolkata, Earthcare, 2016, p125
So your fate depends on what you make of it. This works on two levels simultaneously. Surrendering to the suchness of existence removes the element of suffering. Suffering comes into existence when I desire something which I cannot have, or when I get something that I do not exactly desire. When I am free of desires, or when I feel no obligation to follow those I have, I am liberated. I have no choice over what happens, but I have choice over how it affects my feelings. The stories we tell about what happened to us vary very much depending on how we feel about events — and vice versa. If you asked me today to tell the story of my divorce I’d give you a completely different account of it than I would have five years ago or back then when it happened. Yet I would have insisted each time when I told each different story that this is what I really experienced. (No. DON’T ask!)
From this follows what happens on the second level: having changed my view from victim to observer or to active participant – which is a freedom I have – my actions and responses change accordingly. Within each worldview – victim, observer, actor – I have no choice over my reactions to outside stimuli. Hypothetically I might have done something else, yet I didn’t; I chose to do what I did because I thought what I thought, and that’s it. From there on, it’s all deterministic. Sounds interesting enough to me to run some experiments with this assumption as a basis, although I suspect that Adyashanti got it more accurate.
Proof? I can prove the both-and hypothesis no more than any of the deterministic and free-will philosophers could prove their favourite view, but I may take this idea and compare it to my perceived reality. If I’m lucky I can verify it as a functioning model for my everyday life, but most likely I’ll find exceptions to the rule, and the inquiry into the nature of truth and reality goes on – which I’m fine with.
Use? I’d say the question whether someone is responsible for their actions or not makes a big difference. If my actions are determined, there is no place for worry, shame, guilt, and punishment; can’t be held accountable for something that was not under my control. No use feeling bad about it either.
And if freedom is our true, deepest nature, there, too, is no place for worry, shame, guilt, or punishment; for what kind of freedom were that if I wasn’t free to make mistakes? After all, I can choose to mend my ways anytime.
So why do I often choose not to?
O dear, don’t get me started.