Now that we have discussed more about continuity and spontaneity as fundamental aspect of the universe, and opened up the discussion about what Conscious Evolution actually is, it is time to update my thoughts about freewill. In an earlier post I boldly asserted that if there was such a thing as Conscious Evolution there had to be such a thing as freewill. Lots of questions were raised in your thoughtful comments and I now have to admit that my position has changed.
I no longer believe in freewill – at least not in the same way that I did all those posts ago. In thinking about it more it is hard to imagine what freewill in the ultimate sense would mean. If it were to mean that you were free to make any decision at any time – well, that just doesn’t make sense. I can’t decide to fly, or live without eating, or have a million dollars without making effort for it. Our ability to choose is tempered by chance and physical and social circumstances. Someone born into a low caste family in India probably can’t become the president of India, and certainly can’t simply decide to be president necessarily.
Our will is limited, it is constrained, and it is conditioned. As I looked for sources to read in consideration of this discussion of freewill I came across a philosophy text book which described this type of constrained freedom as belonging to a school of thought known as “Qualified Libertarianism.” It is most frequently associated with schools of Eastern thought. In these schools people are seen as having the freedom to choose, but it is also recognized that human choice is restricted by karma.
Karma is the notion that everything results from that which came before and that implies that the reality we experience is at least partially created by the results of our own choices. This self-imposed limitation is fairly obvious. You cannot choose to hike three hours into the forest and then once you arrive in the heart of the wilderness choose to see a movie back in town that starts in 30 minutes.
As I see it now (always subject to change) freedom is a fundamental characteristic of the universe, not of an individual. It is the spontaneity that Charles Sanders Peirce wrote about. It manifests in human beings as our ability to make choices, but it is not a characteristic of a human being, it is a characteristic of the universe. By way of analogy, I may use my hand to pick up something, but I don’t say that it is a characteristic of hands that they can pick up trash from the floor, it is a characteristic of human beings – the hand is the part of the human being that is used. Similarly the universe has freedom and it is in the human ability to choose that that characteristic enacts itself.
This being said, it seems to me that the evolution of the universe tends to evolve in ways that increase the level of relative freedom that the universe can express through the forms that have evolved. For instances atoms can exhibit very little freedom, very little ability to change. Molecules can exhibit more freedom and organisms even more. Sexual reproduction led to a massive explosion in evolutionary change because there was so much freedom to create diversity when two parents came together to create a third completely different organism.
The human mind with its ability to conceptualize abstractly gives us a degree of freedom to construct and interpret reality that is unprecedented in the universe. Many people can come into the same situation (assuming it is complex enough) and because of the enormous perceptual interpretation that affects how they perceive realty no two will necessarily see things or respond to things in exactly the same way. But does that mean that there really is free choice? Are the choices that we make free or are they only the predetermined outcome of all of the impossibly complex mixture of our internal cognitive functioning and the environment we encounter? It may be impossible as yet to prove either with certainty. I would contend that our ability to conceive of freewill and to wonder about it actually gives an even wider range of possibility to choose. Perhaps the important question isn’t “Do I have freewill?” Maybe the question we should be asking is “How wide is the range of my ability to choose?”
And perhaps another questions is, “As I come to understand the environmental, biological, and social/cultural factors that influence my behavior, how can I use that information to increase my options and my ability to actually behave as I choose to behave?”
The challenge, then, is to continously improve our understanding of causation, including the relative impact of genetic, environmental, and historical factors, in order to make better choices. Yet somehow we must act, and we must act appropriately without taking time to weigh all the reasons.
Yes! And that is exactly what Skinner enabled, by creating a true natural science of behavior without any philosophical baggage — just a focus on demonstrating and understanding the “functional relationships” between behavior and influencing variables in both laboratory and applied settings. My view is that behavior science provides a potential accelerating engine for the evolution of consciousness.
I really like the focus on “ability to choose” rather than the phrase “free will”, for, I agree, it is seldom “free” but always in someway constrained by karmic potentials in all their forms and dimensions. It seems to me that action is the way we change potentials of what can be or happen in the future and that choice is between various actions. The more evolved we are the more potent the actions, and therefore the choices. And I guess that means “less conditioned” where conditioning reflects karmic potential. There seems to be a fine and difficult line between… Read more »
There is another thought that I have struggled with in regards to the freedom to choose which implies a lesser degree of conditioning (more evolve consciousness) and an ability to act, theoretically more powerfully. If you want to take into account the outliers in potent action (say, well, did Jesus turn water into wine or not? did Buddha materialize visions for multitudes or not? do some people seem to be able to know things not easily explainable?), then you have to build a model which allows for a level of consciousness that actually can get out of the forest in… Read more »
Hi Jeff, great post, thank you. How wide is the range of my ability to choose? Now, that’s a great question! In my work, I make a distinction between conceptual free will, the ability to choose that was offered to us upon the emergence of individuation (about 4,000 years ago) and conscious free will. As you uncover and let go of individual and collective conditioning, you can access conscious-free-will and unleash your full potential for the sake of humanity. The meaning and purpose of existence stabilizes to the degree that you have transcended and included conceptual-free-will as an object in… Read more »
Hi Carl, re: “how can I use that information to increase my options and my ability to actually behave as I choose to behave?” You describe one-half of spiritual work, realizing a higher consciousness. The other half remaining is to act on the realization, walking the walk instead of only talking or thinking. Bringing your awareness to bear on the outside instead of only interiorly will be to manifest your spirituality. It may take some time to muster the energy and will but it’s wise to cook the idea well before springing it. Best wishes in your spiritual development! Aloha,… Read more »
Here’s a clip from my work on this very topic of… free will: Conceptual-Free-Will: Conceptual-free-will is the decision-making process of the ego. It appeared in you about the age of four or five when you first became self-aware. Conceptual-free-will stabilized as you developed and matured and it is a necessary level of development that we all must go through. The range of options it offers to you, however, is naturally constrained by the average level of consciousness in the culture in which you grew up. Though you use conceptual-free-will to survive and thrive in this world, it encases you in… Read more »
What about the self-working brain. Some time ago, I read an article in the newspaper telling that recent brain investigation had shown that the brain takes decisions instances before we get aware of it. That is obvious the success of advertisement and how conditioning (personal, cultural) works. But it also works for example when I have been reading a book. If I write a post here for example, when reading intensely a book, than that follows the ideas of the writer of the book even though I am totally not aware of it. Something just pops up in my mind,… Read more »