Wednesday September 23, 2009
I’m thinking once again about free will again (see my previous posts here, here and here), having recently read Sue Blackmore’s Ten Zen Questions. And once again, I am baffled. Free will is something that I have been puzzling over for a long time now, and as long-term visitors to the blog will know, I’m really not entirely sure that I have such a thing. No, it’s more complicated than that, because I’m really not entirely sure that, even if I do have “free will” – as many will insist that I do – I know what kind of a thing it is that I am supposed to have, nor what kind of a difference the having or not of this thing would make. This, for me, is an experiential problem. No doubt I make choices. I wander around, I am bombarded by various sense-impressions, thoughts churn hither and thither, and then… I choose to go left or right, to have coffee or tea. But what goes on inside the black-box of my choosing, and what this has to do with the idea of “freedom”, I have absolutely no idea. And despite ploughing through a fair bit of philosophy on the subject over the years, I remain puzzled. It’s an instructive exercise, after one has chosen something, to ask (as I find myself often asking) “Did I will that choice?” And then, if the answer seems a straightforward “yes”, to ask, “But at what point did the will intervene? How do I know it was the will, and not something else?”
So leaving philosophy on one side, I have over the last few years been practising having no free will. That it to say, I have been giving up on the thought that some little homunculus in my head is responsible for directing me, and instead I have been having the thought (or the thought has been having me…) “What if my actions arise not out of some kind of personal freedom, but merely out of various interacting conditions at play in the world as a whole?” What this means, in practice, is allowing the constant internal conversation around acting and the justification of acting to subside. Because much of the time, what our minds seem to be doing is something like this: “Hmm…. those luminous green cupcakes look rather splendid. Should I have cake? It’s sure to be tasty. But it’s also not cheap. And fattening, probably. And I had a large breafkast. Then there’s that paperwork I should be filling in today, so I should get moving and head to work. Perhaps I should come back this afternoon. But what if the cakes have sold out by then? Oh, I don’t know what to do! How to decide? Maybe I should toss a coin…” and so on and so forth. The whole business is, frankly, rather exhausting. And what happens? Well, a decision eventually pops up, and I find that either a) I have sat myself down for the pleasantly luminous cupcake that I do not really need, or b) I have gone to do my paperwork like the well-behaved fellow that I really ought to be, or c) something else has happened. But I have no idea, if I am being honest, how it is that this decision has popped up, nor what it has to do with this curious notion of the “will”.
As I’ve thought about this, I’ve become less and less sure what useful role this kind of internal monologue serves. And the more time goes on, the more I am beginning to think that it’s main function is perhaps to justify those things that I really ought not do. That is to say, when I catch this little mental subroutine doing its thing, and when I just stop myself and say, “OK, forget all this to-ing and fro-ing, and all this ‘I-must-make-a-decision-ing’. Let’s just see what I do next …”, then – perhaps rather curiously – what I do next is often the thing I really ought to do.
The fear is that – if we give up on the idea of this internal decision-maker – somehow we will be giving up on ethics. As I have suggested before, this may just be an internalisation of the idea that without God there is no ethics, with the little decision-making homunculus becoming a kind of internal god directing the whole show. But as time goes on, I have a greater trust in the wisdom of decisions that arise in this “Let’s just see what I do next…” way, than I do in the kinds of decisions that arise in this “Let’s just work out what I ought to do next…” way. This little, insistent subroutine often seems to be decidedly deficient in wisdom, whereas, when I surrender things to my organism as a whole, whilst I’m not exactly coursing in streams of wisdom of unparalleled depth, it seems that there are more resources available to inform whatever choosing I am involved in at that moment, that I am more open to the world as a whole, and that the decisions that arise as if by their own accord are correspondingly rather better informed, rather more elegant and skilful, and just a little bit wiser.
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