More thoughts on the freedom of so called “Freewill”

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts, Human Freedom and Freewill 14 Comments

Spinoza says that if a stone which has been projected through the air had consciousness, it would believe that it was moving of its own will . I add to this only that the stone would be right. The impulse given it is for the stone what the motive is for me, and what in the case of the stone appears as cohesion, gravitation, rigidity, is in its inner nature the same as that which I recognize in myself as will, and what the stone also, if knowledge were given to it, would recognize as will.”  Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea

I came across this quote and thought that it might have something to add to our discussion. Schopenhauer, a German philosopher and contemporary of Hegel is here referencing the Dutch philosopher Spinoza. In the context of our discussions on freewill is it possible that we are like the stone, projected through the evolutionary process and imagining our actions to be the result of our own freewill? Perhaps freewill is simply the term we use to describe the result of evolutionary forces that create all evolutionary movement forward including our choices. Because we are conscious, we see this movement in ourselves and from our perspective it “feels” like we are doing something, when in fact it is just something happening to us.

After all, isn’t the main reason we believe so strongly in freewill simply because it feels like we can make free choices. Isn’t that freedom always contextual? A young man may decide he wants to be a doctor and he may feel that it is a decision based on his own freewill, but if we find that his father, his father’s father and his father’s father’s father were all doctors we might wonder how free that choice really was. Is there not some aspect of family expectation or even simple familiarity that plays a role in that choice? Many American’s love cheeseburgers, many Indians love dhal (an Indian dish made with lentils) and many Israelis love having salad with olives for breakfast. Are these free choices, or are they culturally conditioned? Aren’t all the choices that we make, and the range of options open to us completly limited by the physical characteristics of our bodies, the mental characteristics of our minds and the environmental characteristics of our planet? How free is our will?

One of the things that I find very powerful about the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce is his insistence that we must always remember how fallible all of our understanding is. Human beings are studying life forms on a single planet in a huge universe. We are studying through a physical form with very limited capacity for sensation. We may find that what we are currently examining and calling the universe is in actuality a minuscule part of the actual entirety of the universe. Perhaps our conviction of freewill is a result of our limited understanding of ourselves and the universe of which we are a part. I believe that my insightful commentator Brian, sometimes uses this logic to point out the fallibility of the sweeping generalizations in my own thinking.

Pragmatically I suppose William James would settle the question of freewill by asking what difference in action would result from my either believing in or not believing in freewill. If I believe in freewill, does that belief leave me with a deeper sense of my creative powers? Does it make me a more productive and useful human being? If I don’t believe in freewill does it make it easier for me to feel victimized and give up all sense of responsibility?
The strong negative response that many people have to materialistic and deterministic notions of reality arises from the fear that it will strip us of our moral sense of responsibility. If we believe that all of our actions are the simple result of past actions and external forces then we are not ultimately responsible for what we do. Our actions occur not as a result of will, but because that is the way that it had to happen.

Does this morally debased state necessarily result from recognizing that there is no freewill? Is it even truly possible to give up belief in freewill? We may say that we do not believe in freewill, but in the end we still make choices and when we make a choice it seems almost a prerequisite that we believe we are making it. If we sit before two options and wait for a choice to be made for us nothing is likely to happen, and isn’t the choice to sit and wait also a choice?

Or are we more like the stone flying through the air? The evolutionary air that we are flying through is “change” itself. We see ourselves passing through this ocean of change and think “I am changing” and we assume that the change we see is occuring as a result of our own freewill. We mistakenly assume that  “I am choosing to change.” But everything in an evolving universe is changing and what is propelling that change is something we are not clear about yet.

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Kim Blozie
11 years ago

After reading your blog, I am left with thinking that maybe the awakening human is actually freeing up will? Is the awakening human (AKA us) disembedding ourselves from our DNA and our cultural predispositions and as a result, beginning to free up our will so that we can participate in actual selection versus natural selection thereby bringing sending evolution’s capacity into a whole other stratosphere of possibility? Very cool and important contemplation you are opening up Jeff.

Carl
11 years ago

Yes! But there is also a wrinkle in this evolution, something that makes us different from the stone. Self-awareness and self-referencing is the product of social, conceptual, verbal behavior — a form of behavior that seems to have emerged in primates, but which can be taught to non-primates to varying degrees. Because we are conscious and self-aware, THAT OF WHICH we are conscious itself becomes a part of the causality of our actions. Our actions have consequences, and those consequences subsequently affect whether or not the actions will be repeated, and with what probability. The environment, changing as we act… Read more »

Juma Wood
Juma Wood
11 years ago

Thank you for this thoughtful discussion Jeff. Both comments above add importantly to your inquiry. Like Kim, I had an instinct to want to separate Free and Will. Freeing up will is a nice image, activates responsibility, but at the same time recognizes embeddedness, and frees one by limiting them. And while Carl makes some leaps of logic (which I am about to do as well), the important thrust of recognizing the central linkage of causality at the physical and phenomenological levels sheds light on the dichotomy. It seems to me the answer is: both/and and linked. It is impossible… Read more »

Carl
11 years ago

The only thing I would say is that the word “conditioning” seems to me based on a dualistic understanding of the person, as though there were a “person” separate from the factors that conditioned it/him/her. “Control” implies a controller and a controlled. Why can’t we see it the same way we see the organism/environment unit in ecology, as one? I read somewhere recently that the essence of the Buddha’s realization was his recognition of the interdependent origination of everything. Where is the freedom or bondage in that, except in recognizing or failing to recognize the truth of it?

Shizuka
Shizuka
11 years ago

1,Coming out of nothing to something=Creation
2,Then change=creation?
3,Awareness of creation become a part of the casusality of our action.
4,Environments(universe) =the casuality of creation
5,Environments(universe) have consequence to our choise of action will be repeated and with what probability.
6,Our actions have consequences to the environments(universe).
7,Our interdependent steams of causality produce new actions and new consequences,create new set of social, conceptual, verbal behavior (culture)
8,Our actions changes the environment(universe)
9,Then,We are creator=God????

Some thought upon
(Sorry for my brocken English)

Mary
11 years ago

Wonderful conversation. I’m not sure I have anything more pertinent to offer. I sense that removing the sense of “I-ness” from our contemplation helps frame the truth: that we are nothing more than a flowing stream of potentials “becoming” and a fractal piece of the “choosing” function of the evolving universe. The more we can align with the potentials unfolding, the more potent our choices will be in the evolutionary direction. Surrendering and then taking responsibility for choice is all there is, and it is everything there is. But that is basically the whole sense of the discussion here. Thanks… Read more »

Willa
Willa
11 years ago

This is a great subject Jeff, thanks. What strikes me, thinking about it, is that whenever I think I want to change, I am trying (usually in vain) to create something that isn’t, while whenever I realise I have changed and I look back over my shoulder to see what happened, the only thing that’s different is that I started doing things they way they were meant to be. And yet there is definitely choice involved, and usually also a strong sense of something needing to happen. But it’s more about lining up with what is meant to happen, than… Read more »

Carl
11 years ago

It seems important to remember that this is not in any way about our being passive. We are as active as the sinoatrial node (the pacemaker) in the heart, even when we feel we are being passive. Sometimes (I daresay too much of the time) we wind up making choices unconsciously, unaware that we are making them and of the consequences. In those unconscious choices we are leaving behind our evolutionary advantages of awareness, self-awareness, cognition, language and other “higher” functions. If we are more aware, we are aware of the consequences for others and for the Whole, and that… Read more »

Shizuka
Shizuka
11 years ago

What does it mean to co-creation within the whole?
I know the fact that we are so deeply rooted how to relate to each others(not limited with human,) based on own survival.
It seems the development or capability of move toward coexistence and cooperation in bigger context???

Mary Adams
Mary Adams
11 years ago

Thank you, Jeff and everyone. …a very interesting and thought-provoking exploration of the topic of free–will, and conscious evolution’…do either even exist? The point derived from Spinoza’s assertion that if a stone became conscious of its airborness, it would assume it is ‘flying’…and therefore we, as integral self-aware parts of an infinitely changing/evolving cosmos, assume we are choosing to change when really change is the very currency we exist in, is very powerful to contemplate. I want to pursue the point of intention/volition…..because as we know (and probably experience daily) an increase in the depth and breadth of our awareness,… Read more »

Carl
11 years ago

Mary, I agree that we seem to be at a relatively primitive stage in this development, as your centaur comparison makes clear. But there is the “human” part, and it does seem to be getting more influential! The choices we make to act in service of the miraculous Process are themselves influenced and made more probable by communications such as yours, particularly when multiplied and magnified by others who are participating in the various circles, layers, and networks of the collective communication in which we participate. Our choices are influenced by their immediate consequences. But in this evolution of collective… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Hi all, re: ” If I don’t believe in freewill does it make it easier for me to feel victimized and give up all sense of responsibility?” Should that be (do believe in freewill) rather? Wouldn’t a belief in freewill be to act in whatever way you feel like without much thought to morality or harming others or society? I wonder if a lot of aetheists may adopt that mindset as a pushback to having been force-fed on religion or having become so cynical and cool to believe in faith of any kind except maybe a kind of misunderstanding of… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
10 years ago
Reply to  Frank Luke

“Wouldn’t a belief in freewill be to act in whatever way you feel like without much thought to morality or harming others or society?”
I would rather think that a belief in freewill means that I am not forced into choices, that I am responsible for the choices that I make and that is why I am not a victim. If I don’t have freewill, then I had to do just what I did and the consequences cannot be pinned on me.

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Hi again Jeff, re: “If I don’t have freewill, then I had to do just what I did and the consequences cannot be pinned on me.” I guess it depends on how freewill is defined. By the terminology, it seems that freedom is connoted and as we see, freedom and license is often confounded by those who seem not to be able to act responsibly in the name of being free to do what ever (the hell) they want. Determinism has a connotation of being unfree to have any choice in the matter but spiritually Awakened people have this sense… Read more »