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Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Behave or be punished: choose, please

Mankind is under many illusions: you have only to consider the state of society throughout the world to see that. If we all saw truly, would the world not seem a better place? That is why I think it is good for us to consider what actually are we doing and thinking wrong. 

Mouse, for whom I have great respect, devoted half of a blog post to her careful response to my question/comment about free will. She clings to the idea that we have free will, as do the vast majority of humans I believe. I made that comment on her blog post because she, along with many other submissive women, is having the experience of forgoing her “right to choose” to a considerable extent, and that practice seems to me to be a kind of preparation for a much more radical abandonment of the power of choice. Actually no one is abandoning anything, since it is not something anyone has in the first place. 

 It’s certainly true that the vast majority can be wrong, and I think that is the case here. The problem of free will has been debated by philosophers for a very long time. I cannot see any way to prove that we have any power of choice over what we do. We can assert that we could have done otherwise than what we actually did, but assertion does not amount to proof. If you go out for dinner, there is no way you can show convincingly that you could have chosen not to go out for dinner at the time you thought you were making the choice. Free will, I believe, is simply an erroneous habit of thought. 

Not only do Zen Buddhists say “Events happen; deeds are done; but there is no doer thereof”; now neuroscientists are coming up with evidence to support this. Here is a link to some interesting and relevant research.  Our brains apparently show indications of what we are about to "choose" some measurable time before we are aware of choosing.

In addition, many who have had the experience of realising that what they had thought was their personality is simply an illusion say that life “just happens”, the “person” does nothing, because, in fact, the “person” does not exist. There is no person there to be a doer. There’s just a body-mind organism. If we do not even do stuff, much less can we decide what to do! 


     It does seem that thoughts have some effect.  Kant thought that reason could not be completely trusted, and I feel that he was right.  I think it is worth considering the scenario sketched out by Vadim Zeland in "Reality Transurfing".  He postulates a region where everything is possible and suggests that we are running on a track in that region determined by our thoughts, and by our thoughts we can change that track gradually towards a future we think we would prefer. 

The situation now becomes murky.  If there is no person, then who is thinking?  Where do these thoughts belong?  How do they appear?  And in the phrase "we would prefer", who is this "we"?  Do thoughts, like the rest of life, "simply happen?"  The universe is very mysterious.  

Time is running short for writing this post and I am going to stop there.


  1. My answer to these philosophical questions comes from the French philospher. Descartes. He said. "I think, therefore I am". In my humble opinion, that is the best mankind can do.

  2. Thank you, sixofthebest.

    Descartes may have been mistaken in assuming that he was doing the thinking. Thoughts arose that presented themselves to his awareness, and he understandably assumed they were "his" thoughts. It seems to me that he had already assumed his own existence, in order to be able to say he was the originator of those thoughts.

    Awareness certainly exists, and it seems to be accessible to the human body-mind organism, but that is as far as I can go, at the moment.

  3. You wrote: Our brains apparently show indications of what we are about to "choose" some measurable time before we are aware of choosing.

    Could this not be interpreted as we are unconsciously choosing before we are consciously aware of doing so? The decision to act is still generated by the person doing the choosing; right? Or are you implying that the choice was placed there by something outside ourselves?

    If we are in fact doing the choosing, is it perhaps previous conscious thoughts that influence our future decisions even if the decisions are made unconsciously in the moment?

  4. @Cygnet - Yes, I hadn't thought of that. If we are "unconsciously choosing", I am not sure how that would be a choice in the way we usually understand the word. If I make a choice unconsciously, as it were without my knowledge, can it be said to be my choice? I might consciously disagree with that choice, might I not? I do many things unconsciously that I have no conscious intention of doing, don't you have the same experience? Suppose that while doing some watercolour painting I dip my brush in my adjacent cup of tea instead of in the water. Was that my choice?

    1. I think there is a difference between a habitual action that goes awry (like you making the practiced motion of moving to rinse your brush and putting it in the tea instead) and making a choice about something. The difference to me being that at some point before the action is taken, you are aware of that decision. In the watercolor example you are consciously aware after the habitual action goes awry. Many of the things we do in every day life are not controlled by our higher reasoning which I would think is where the idea of the will is involved.

      The reason I called it "unconsciously choosing" is because of you indicating in your blog that the brain shows we are about to choose before we are aware of choosing. I would say that when we become conscious of that choice, that is what we would call choosing, because we are unaware of what our brain went through to get to that choice. We may interpret the choice as being made with our conscious mind, when in fact it is being made by our brain outside of our conscious knowledge. Ever gone to sleep with a problem and woken up with a solution? You are unconscious and you are unaware of the solution until you are conscious.

      Now as to the question of whether you can consciously disagree with your unconscious choice. I think that is yes, that happens and I would argue it happens all the time. Haven't you ever come to a decision and then debated with yourself about whether or not to do it? Ever lied awake at night going over the possible solutions to a problem? Ever rehearsed over and over what you want to say to someone you with whom you are upset each time polishing it and finding that the version you started with has changed drastically in the final version? Perhaps this is evidence of the interplay between the conscious and unconscious mind.

  5. Malc, I'm glad to see that you cannot prove that free will does not exist. Let's be honest, it would need some thinking to make up the evidence, and there's nobody to think.
    But I'm willing to compromise with all you figments of my imagination: My free will is the only free will in the Universe and actually I'm the one who does all the thinking.
    Don't even try to prove me wrong.
    Oh yes, and the majority is always wrong!

    1. Hello Bas,I enjoyed your last blog post very much.

      Of course, we cannot prove the non-existence of free will, it's notoriously difficult to prove the non-existence of anything. But as far as I know, nobody has yet succeeded in proving its existence, either. So it's safer to assume that it doesn't exist. We just bumble happily along feeling that we have it, it's just a comforting thought. (Though actually it can be pretty uncomfortable at times, agonising over whether we have made the right choice.)

      The majority isn't always wrong - just a lot of the time. That great humourist Mark Twain thought so, too!


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