Death, Dissolution, and the Void.

It is precisely the things that science cannot prove about us, and which allow autonomy, independent thought and action, which define our true nature.

There are two things that are objectively impossible, but subjectively undeniable. One is consciousness, and the other is free will.

Science, as hard as it has tried, and is trying, can’t find consciousness. We can define it as a function of the brain, an emergent property that arises from brain functions but is not itself material. The problem is that there’s no evidence whatsoever that it exists at all, except that we know it does because we experience it, and can only know anything in and through it. There is no other property in the universe that we can say exists, but which we can’t locate. If artificial intelligence — let’s imagine a super computer here — were to examine all of our scientific knowledge, it would determine that consciousness doesn’t exist, assuming that AI wasn’t itself conscious. Not experiencing consciousness itself, AI would find no proof of its existence.

Free will is impossible because it breaks the laws of physics. Everything is the consequence of what went before, and there is no possible exception to this. Our bodies are material, and can only react to prior events, in which case everything is predetermined.

The problem with the argument against free will is that it discounts consciousness. Just because billiard balls and dominoes can only move in predetermined ways does not mean that intelligent, conscious beings that can make decisions are entirely bound by physical laws. The body itself can’t break the laws of physics, but you aren’t breaking any physical laws by deciding to drink Coke this afternoon rather than Pepsi. You can’t fly, and you can’t live forever. Quite obviously, inanimate things are bound by physical laws in all their movements and properties, but conscious beings are capable of making decisions, and acting in the world.

Descartes infamously boiled everything down to the one thing he could absolutely be sure of, and could not be an illusion or deception, “I think, therefore I am”. It is impossible that he could think if he didn’t exist. That doesn’t get us very far, but there you are. Another question is what is the “I” that thinks? If we boil everything down again, we are left with a tautology, “the ‘I’ that thinks is the ‘I’ that thinks”.

I’ve slowly come to this same conclusion in a more roundabout way. If you follow my blog and have read enough of my various musings, you might know that I find it quite stupid, in 2020. to think of people as defined by their bodies. Mosquitoes have bodies and sexes. What makes us stand apart is our minds, intelligence, imagination, language, memory, and so on. Would you agree that you have more in common with the opposite sex among humans, than the same sex among dogs, or even apes? You would say, if you are a man, “I have more in common with the male, duck-billed platypus than I do with a woman”? The mind is far more important than the body, even if the mind owes its existence entirely to the body. A beam of light from a flashlight is more important than the flashlight itself which makes it possible, and of a different nature: the light can pass through glass but the source machine can’t. As obvious as this seems, we’ve become a bit dim on it lately.

In the past people used to rebel against being labeled because those labels placed limitations on the people in question. They would argue that they were not defined by their race, gender, and so on. But now we find people insisting that they are defined by their bodies, and that so is everyone else. We will even here that if you are this sort of body you are incapable of understanding the experience of that sort of body. I don’t want to gp into all that politcial ideology right now, but suffice it to say that when people rebel against being labeled, defined, and limited because of their DNA, I am with them. And when people insist someone else is necessarily defined and limited by their DNA, I part ways. When someone says, “As an X and Y” eyebrows should raise’ and when someone says, “You are an X and a Y” red flags are waving high and mighty. No, we are immaterial, thinking, imagining, reasoning minds, not gonads or epidermal layers. Prejudging people by their bodies rather than their minds is an insult to ones conception of oneself. It says that becuase of my anatomy I am this or that, with these or those inherent limitations. Similarly, but I’ll save this for another time, we are not bound by our own personal history nearly as much as we think.

The other day I was contemplating something, and I formulated a sentence with the word coupling “my mind”, and this suddenly stood out as odd. If my mind is mine, I am something else other than it. Consider how stupid it would be to say that the body has a mind, rather than the other way around. Can the skin tell the mind what to do, or analyze it? Clearly, the mind has a body. And then there’s something else that has a mind.

About a decade ago I got rather into Eastern philosophy and brain/consciousness science and theory simultaneously. Curiously, I found them both entirely compatible. Some of the scientists were saying the same thing about consciousness as Buddhism, or Hinduism. And probably my favorite “guru” was Nisagadatta Maharaj. Many will know him from his book, “I AM THAT”, which is a transcription of his free talks in his own home to people from around the world who would come to hear his wisdom. The core of his message isn’t really any different from other Eastern philosophy, and he’s an exemplar of Hindu Advaita. Incidentally, Eckhart Tolle repackaged Advaita for a contemporary audience, and has admitted his thorough indebtedness to the likes of Maharaj and Ramana Maharshi in the past. The point of all this is just that I have to credit Maharaj for saying that anything you can point to as something cannot be you: anything you can point to is external to you.

And that was the conundrum of “my mind”. While I think it’s infinitely better to see ourselves and other people as minds rather than bodies — as actors rather than avatars — the mind is a tool of the inner self, as is the body.

I have memory and awareness
But I have no shape or form
As a disembodied spirit
I am dead and yet unborn ~Rush, IV. Cygnus: Bringer Of Balance


Those lyrics stood out to me since I was a teenager, listening to a scratched vinyl LP on my stereo. It’s a bit mystical, but I think Rush came pretty close to nailing it. Note that I always thought the lyrics were, “I have memory and a will” not “memory and awareness”. And while this entity found itself disembodied, neither dead nor born, we are carnate. Nevertheless the underlying truth is very similar to Nisargadatta Maharaj’s notion that we are “timeless and spaceless beings”. Both are addressing the underlying consciousness, rather than the encapsulating body. [I see the body as a vessel which the consciousness is on a journey in.]

I started off talking about the two things that are objectively impossible because they are also, I’d first concluded, our core nature of being. We are consciousnesses with free will.

Above is a rather crude illustration, but I think it makes the bold point. We go around as if our bodies are all important and define who we are, but know what’s inside really counts, even if people seem hell-bent on saying what is inside is determined by what’s outside. In reality consciousness (awareness of being aware), is the overwhelming force, without which we’d be like the chess computer Deep Blue, which has beaten the world’s greatest human chess champion, but doesn’t know it has done so, or that chess exists, or that it exists. Some — like the scientists who say free will is impossible — argue that the body controls the mind, and consciousness is just a captive prisoner along for the ride. I think it’s quite the opposite. Consciousness controls the mind and the body, though as apparent as that may seem, it’s also technically impossible, but so is the existence of consciousness in the first place.

We experience a center that things happen to. While we may consider that what happens to our bodies is the extent of what happens to us, with the exception of the brain, just about any part of your body can be replaced with a donor or mechanical substitute without changing who your are. If you lost all your memories, would you still be you? Maybe not, but you’d still be someone. Things would still happen to you. Unless your brain were seriously damaged, you’d still have a sense of “I”.

A counterargument is that we are the brain, and the consequences of any damage to the brain proves this. You could lose your free will, your personality could change, and so on. Well, yes, and itf your brain were squashed you woould lose all consciousness as well. This is like arguing that a beam of light is the same thing as a flashlight because if you break the flashlight the beam disappears. The beam of light is dependent on a functioning flashlight, but is a separate kind of a thing; and so the mind is dependent on the physical brain, but is not the same thing as a physical organ. I’m talking about what one is, assuming one is alive and the body is functioning properly.

Why does any of this matter? Because we generally have it completely backwards, or inverted. For example, we believe the consciousness dwells inside the human skull within a world of matter. But in reality, on a peceptual level. matter is a speck within the field of consciousness. Curiously, we sometimes fear that AI may achive consciousnessm, but it’s more as if consciousness were to spread to AI.

Aside from the fact that it’s very difficult to discriminate or be racist or sexist against a mind or consciousness, I find that every day is filled with making decisions and acting on them. That’s the great burden of existence: having free will and being thrust into circumstances where you constantly need to make decisions. In order to make those decisions and act on them more effectively it helps to realize that usually the only obstacles to doing so are self-imposed. A consciousness with a will has no inherent limitations.

Just looked at the clock and it’s 2:22 a.m.. I have to decide whether to wrap this up here. I just decided a minute ago to eat an apple. Earlier I decided that it’s Sunday (I’m a day ahead because I live in SE Asia), and I can take it a bit easy on myself today, relax, perhaps write one of my rants.

All these little decisions make up my life, and my body only shows the general effect of them over time. When you see your core self as consciousness, and know that you have a will, then a lot of other presumed, self-imposed limitations can be overcome. If I have to do something it’s a matter of deciding to do it, not of consulting my body in relationship to my environment, and every conclusion and context I impose on myself. We might have dozens of reasons why we can’t do something when all we need to do it is to act

It seems like for most of us who are not particularly well off, it’s a bit hard to get ahead, have any security, or accomplish our own goals. I rather think the most important factor in overcoming those obstacles is the ability to make intelligent decisions and act on them. Will power is essential, and wholly dependent on free will. People who convince themselves that they don’t have free will are shooting themselves in the feet, and just rolling with the punches. When you define yourself by your body you self-impose limitations that may not exist at all. Consciousness itself is formless and limitless, so defining oneself as that, and knowing you have will, makes more things possible and obliterates many oblstructions.

~ Ends


18 replies on “Runaway Rant: Our True Nature

  1. Without getting into either complex science or entangled in philosophy, I have held a longstanding belief about whether or not we have free will. My take on it is, everything we choose to do is based on the fact that at the moment we choose to do it we believe that it is, in that moment, the right thing for us to do. It has nothing to do with whether or not it is moral or legal. We can look at an action that we have been taught is highly immoral, such as murder, and decide to do it anyway because it is “right” in the moment for us to do it. So in that sense, we do not have free will because we could not have chosen to do otherwise in “that moment”.

    I’m sure my rationale could be totally picked apart, but it’s my rationale and I’m sticking to it. And I have also managed not to commit mayhem or murder in my current lifetime.

    You might be interested in this article (it’s free unless you’ve already exhausted your 4 free reads):
    I found the part of it that describes Sam Harris’s work interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Alli:

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I don’t quite see why your argument is against free will. If once chooses what is right in the moment, regardless of prior convictions, laws and morality, one is still making a choice in the present. One could argue that this is evidence of free will, as in one is not bound by morality or law, but can choose do to otherwise.

      In the law there are crimes of passion, and perhaps “temporary insanity”, and these things are taken into consideration. But just because there are instances where we may lose control, or disobey our strongly held convictions, does not mean we aren’t usually in control. People who have strong addictions frequently can’t resist doing whatever it takes to get the next hit, however, there are other people who can break the addiction, even just by going “cold turkey”. We can build our will power, and some people are much stronger in that regard than others.

      Yup, I can’t read any more free articles from just about anywhere. I am, however, already familiar with Sam Harris’s take on free will. It’s one of the reasons I lose a little respect for his mind. He falls pray to scientism there, in which case only what science can explain exists. He’s one of the ones who argues that because all matter must follow the laws of physics, and every event is the unavoidable consequence of the preceding one, it is impossible for us to have free will. That has a nice, rational finality about it, but it defies our immediate experience, and discounts that unlike every other material thing in the universe, we are conscious beings capable of making decisions. And as I pointed out in may article, you are not breaking any laws of physics where you choose what beverage to drink using free will.

      At any point do you find that you can’t exercise your free will? Do you reach for a cup of coffee and find that your arm disobeys you? Do you suddenly dance the Macarena against your own free will? Even hardliners like Harris admit that not only do we experience free will every waking moment, it is necessary to believe in it in order to get anything done. The only reason to not believe in it is applying the limitations of inanimate objects to fully sentient, intelligent beings. We could also argue that consciousness doesn’t exist, and some scientists do that, because there is no physical evidence. But like consciousness, free will is experienced directly, and is subjectively undeniable.

      We can only have will-power if we have free will, and we can only act independently if we have the will power to do so. This has implications for artists, developing our vision, and being able to manifest it. Those who argue that nothing new is possible, everything’s been done, painting is dead, and so on, rather fall into the “no free will” camp. It’s all very cynical.

      I’m going to stick we we do have free will until I see a better argument that takes into consideration that we are conscious, thinking, reasonaing beings who evidently exercise our free will incessantly on a daily basis.

      Here’s my article about free will and art, in which I also tackle some of the supposed evidence that we don’t have free will:

      How much art I do today is entirely dependent on my exercise of free will, and my will power.

      Better get to it.




    2. Hi Ali:

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I don’t quite see why your argument is against free will. If once chooses what is right in the moment, regardless of prior convictions, laws and morality, one is still making a choice in the present.


      1. Hi Eric,

        I guess maybe it’s that what we perceive as control or ‘choice’ is in fact dictated by an infinite number of complex factors and pressures, only a tiny fraction of which we are aware of. Theoretically it could be described in a mathematical equation, which would also be infinite and ongoing, like a butterfly effect extending back to the moment of your birth, and by extension the ‘birth’ of the universe. You can’t rewind time and actually, truly erase or replace a ‘choice’ you made and make a different one in its place – so how much choice did you really have?

        As for consciousness, I wonder if it is an evolutionary adaption that is both illusory and real. Illusory in the sense that it is a cognitive veil through which we experience the world that allows us to thrive as a species which can perceive a relatively limited amount of information (the feeling that we are unique and worthy individuals would be a powerful driving force for survival). Real in the sense the evolution of sharper canines or an opposable thumb is real. By it’s nature it might be counter to our own survival to be able to separate or ‘find’ that consciousness, and hence perhaps impossible.

        My head hurts.



      2. Hi Craig:

        Thanks for reading and commenting.

        You ask if we have free will if we are overwhelmingly influenced by factors, pressures, circumstances and so on, beyond our control, and which we are unaware of. Somebody else made a similar comment, and I do appreciate that this isn’t merely a theoretical argument, but one based on a lifetime of observation and experience. Sometimes when we look back at our own history and wish we made some different decision, or didn’t make a certain mistake, and we cast ourselves back to that time in the past, we realize we would probably do the same thing again.

        We can’t choose when we are born, where, four bodies, our family, the culture we grow up in, what the fashions were, what was on TV, what were the dominant beliefs, and so on. As you pointed out, once we make a decision, we can’t undo it.

        Those are all very true, and important. However, they are not a questions of “free will” but rather of available choices. Even if we have limited choices, and our decisions may be overwhelmingly influenced by outside sources, we are still in the driver’s seat, and we are perfectly capable of choosing from the available choices. Free will does not mean the ability to will ourselves superpowers, change what has already happened, or otherwise break the laws of physics.

        I like to go with a computer game analogy. Let’s go with an older variety with less options, something like DOOM or Duke Nukem. You can’t change your avatar, the environment, the rules of the game, or even what your role is in the game. But you can play the game. To win you need to figure things out, memorize some maps, improve skills specific to the game, and so on. If you didn’t have free will you couldn’t play the game. You could only helplessly watch it unfold on the screen of your inner consciousness, and it would thus be no fun. So, like that analogy, we don’t make the game of life, we don’t choose the initial situation we are thrust in or how we are configured, but we can and damned well better play the game to the best of our ability. One may argue that we have so limited choices that we are kind of helpless, and I think there’s really a lot of truth to that (what if we just happened to be born in the Dark Ages?), but we can still see what a difference it can make in our daily lives if we make the right choices and take the right actions among those available to us.

        I think it’s commonly accepted that consciousness is an evolutionary adaptation which was beneficial for survival. Note here that consciousness isn’t just awareness, but the awareness of being aware. Also note that consciousness would have virtually zero evolutionary benefit if we don’t have free will and would do the same thing conscious or not. Without consciousness how could we for foresight and the ability to plan anything. Clearly, being able to think about potential dangers and make plans to deal with them is a survival asset.

        Consciousness is definitely real, because so long as we understand what the word means and have a decent grasp on it, it is undeniable that we experience it. It’s a bit like saying that dreams are real. Even if there were no concrete evidence that we dream, we know subjectively that it’s true. And this is good to keep in mind, because certainly before the 20th century, and the advent of being able to monitor brain activity, brain waives, and so on, it would be very difficult to prove much other than that our eyes move when we sleep. Nevertheless, we’ve accepted for hundreds of thousands of years that we dream.

        A dream itself is not real in the sense that what transpired within it did not occur, as it seemed to in the dream, in consensual, physical reality. However, one really had the dream, and one really experienced it subjectively. It really happened to the person who had the dream, but only in a imaginary realm. If you’ve had a particular dream, you can’t say you didn’t have it.

        We can only say that consciousness is illusory in the sense that it is not physical, but not in the sense that it’s an illusion that we have it at all. Something that is not conscious could not perceive that something is an illusion period, let alone itself.

        Nevertheless some people argue that consciousness is an illusion, or doesn’t exist. This is a rather dullard argument because the person who makes it hasn’t bothered to slow down and grasp what the nature of consciousness is. The problem for many is that we take it for granted that reality is an experiential realm with light, form, dimension, and time, when those are all attributes projected onto it by consciousness. For us to understand that we are the source of all that is like trying to explain light to a flashlight (an anthropomorphic one, for this hypothetical example). Wherever the flashlight casts its beam it sees illumined surfaces. It doesn’t understand what light is because it can’t percieve darkness, and thus doesn’t believe in light nor appreciate that it is the source of light. Everything we see is bathed in consciousness, hence we can’t imagine a universe without it, and thus don’t know what it is until we make a kind of mental leap.

        So, while consciousness is not physical, and that’s why we may not find it, it is undeniably real. I have seen no compelling argument that we don’t have free will, but I readily agree that it’s only within a certain range of possibility. I also strongly believe that consciousness and free will are our fundamental, most powerful and unique charactaristics.


      3. Thanks for the reply

        I think I pretty much agree on your words about consciousness, and the flashlight metaphor is particularly good.

        As far as the unseen forces and factors on free will goes, I’m thinking both infinitely larger and smaller than things like biology and physical surroundings. I’m envisioning a universe of absolute chaos, randomness, chance and with no actual conscious actors (either us as beings, or a god-type entity). Just matter and energy in a constant state of random change. I guess it’s within the realm of metaphysics that I’m treading, not that I can say I truly know what that word means!

        The same way evolution has no conscious ‘driver’ making choices and is simply random cellular mutation which is then ‘selected for’, unconsciously, for survival by the environment it happens to be occurring in. In absolutist terms, either everything down to the atomic, sub-atomic and so on levels has free will it is constantly exercising, or nothing has free will.

        I will be honest I’m not really making a good faith argument, I have no scientific background or even rudimentary research to back up my ruminations and I’m more just contemplating the possibilities.


      4. Hi Craig:

        Thanks again for reading and engaging in conversation. You wrote:

        “either everything down to the atomic, sub-atomic and so on levels has free will it is constantly exercising, or nothing has free will.”

        I believe you’re missing something here. I deal with the extensively in another article:

        However, in short, you can’t have free will unless you are conscious. Only that which is conscious can make a conscious decision. And while we stronly suspect some animals are conscious, we only know for sure that people are. Atoms are not conscious, so, quite obviously, can’t make a conscious decision.

        Beyond at least being conscious, in order to make a real decision, something must be intelligent enough to do so. We have intelligence, consciousness, abstract thought, memory, imagination, and the ability for project into the future. That’s why we can make decisions that simple matter can’t, and why we are not bound by physical laws that apply to unconscious, unintelligent matter.

        Consciousness is undeniable, and yet immaterial. Our minds operate within immaterial consciousness, and hence the decisions made there are not subject to laws which apply to material things.




      5. Thanks for engaging my laymen, possibly crackpot thinking! I’ll re-state perhaps my strongest so-called argument in a slightly different way:

        If we say scientific fact is based on repeatable, consistent results (which I think is correct?). Then, like I mentioned earlier, it’s that inability to repeat time and make a different ‘choice’ at the exact moment in time and space that you made that ‘choice’ previously that leaves me not fully convinced of free will.
        Life, time, existence – these things are unrepeatable, irreversible. Once the toast is burned you can’t un-burn it. You can ‘choose’ to put in another slice of bread and try again but you can’t ‘choose’ to remove the original slice before it burned.
        How is it provable that what perceive to be ‘choice’ is not the result of (immensely complex) causality when we can’t repeat the experiment – which would inevitably require time reversal?

        As a bonus in regard to your comments on materiality, I think it possible that what were believe to be immaterial could in fact be material in nature but on a scale so small (or large) that we have yet to observe it. Again, I admit this is just more absolute conjecture.

        I believe I read that article of yours before but will re-read it today or tomorrow and comment again if it provokes any new thoughts.



      6. Hi Craig:

        You wrote: “it’s that inability to repeat time and make a different ‘choice’ at the exact moment in time and space that you made that ‘choice’ previously that leaves me not fully convinced of free will.”

        If you really could roll back time than you could made a different choice because you would be in the present. When people think of this example they get a bit confused with the fact that we can’t change what has already happened. Even if we do have free will, we can’t change history. So, you merely suppose you couldn’t do otherwise because you know very strongly that you can’t change what has already happened. In the present you will always find that you can give yourself a few choices which are easily possible, select among them, and act on it.

        Test yourself rigt now. Give yourself three physical actions to do, make sure they are all easy to do, pick one, and then do it. Then ask yourself if you could have, just a moment before, chosen a different action. You will find you could have.

        For example, I just did it myself… I thought pick up my mouse, my water bottle, or my lamp. I picked up the water bottle. I could have done either of the others. Just now I proved that by picking up the mouse and then the lamp. If you were able to roll me back in time, and make the future indeterminate, in which case I wouldn’t be changing history, I could have chosen the mouse or the lamp first rather than the bottle.

        The burden on the determinists is to tell someone, in the present, “You will stand up in 10 seconds” and then the person can’t just slouch in his chair out of sheer defiance. Nothing like that has ever happened. We retain the option of acting gratuitously. People will say that if we could predict your every action, and it is completely plausable that we could, than you don’t have free will. Well, it’s not plausible at all.

        You asked, “How is it provable that what perceive to be ‘choice’ is not the result of (immensely complex) causality.”

        Occam’s razor. There’s a much simpler explanation. I may make a conscious, intelligent decision because I have information and I thought about what would be the best thing to do. Where I live right now it’s super polluted. If I want to go swimming, I will look at the real time pollution monitor, and factor in how bad the pollution is in relation to the benefit of swimming. The Earth can’t make this decision for me because it’s not conscious. How does unconscious, unintelligent, matter and physical processes make a conscious, intelligent decision before I do, in my conscious mind, using reason?

        “when we can’t repeat the experiment – which would inevitably require time reversal?”

        Right, free will is the ability to make choices and act on them. It doesn’t give us super powers.

        “I think it possible that what were believe to be immaterial could in fact be material in nature but on a scale so small (or large) that we have yet to observe it.”

        It’s a different nature of a thing: a process, or a state. Do the thoughts in my head need to be material for some reason? How can a thought be material? Take a novel by Dostoevsky, say, Crime and Punishment (my favorite). The book is material, but the content of the book is not. Thre’s no way to make the story material. Thoughts and concepts are not material, yet they exist. This already proves that something can exist which is not material.
        We really need free will and will power to do anything with our lives, and we can develope both.

        It’s the key.


      7. I’ve been trying to think if there was a way I could communicate what I mean in an image, because I can sort of envision it, but I’m not there yet.. Written language seems to be ill-equipped for the task.

        When I talk about time reversal I mean complete reversal, as in a return to the previous ‘pre-choice’ state, with the exact same circumstances, occupying the same physical space, the exact same knowledge you had at the point you made the ‘choice’.
        A bit like rewinding a VHS tape and hitting play, what happens on screen will be the same every time. What I’m getting at is that we (including everything we think and perceive around us) might not be the actors within the film, but instead are more akin to the moving images on a screen. Light and energy and so on, transmitted unconsciously through space.

        Leaving aside my time reversal mumbo jumbo and back to consciousness. I think you are suggesting free will derives from a consciousness which is immaterial, but what I might suggest is that the reasons (factors, pressures, circumstances, mechanics, nature, nurture – however you want to describe them) that guide that consciousness to make its ‘choices’ are wholly material and completely rigid to the point where ‘free will’ itself is material and becomes non-existent as a separate concept to material causality. What we perceive to be consciousness, rather than arising out of nowhere from immateriality, is a reaction, accumulation and synthesis of a material universe that – however unfathomably complex – is strict, rigid and delineated.

        Of course I don’t find it pragmatic to think this way in daily life. I FEEL like I have consciousness and free will, and act out my life accordingly so. In fact I’d prefer to think so, which is partly why I’m trying to engage with and play devil’s advocate for causality.

        As an intellectual exercise though it’s interesting to consider, but like the god or no god debate – essentially I don’t know and don’t think I CAN know for sure either way. If you factor in the idea of infinity then free will and causality may be two opposite but complimentary ways of a describing the same phenomenon. A yin and yang type thing perhaps. Be it the result of free will or not, there is one life, one journey, one story and whatever happens, happens.


      8. I gotta’ go to work, but I’m really enjoying this dialogue and will certainly delve into it later. I love the idea of you making an image to convey your ideas.


      9. Hi Craig:

        To continue. You wrote, “When I talk about time reversal I mean complete reversal, as in a return to the previous ‘pre-choice’ state, with the exact same circumstances, occupying the same physical space, the exact same knowledge you had at the point you made the ‘choice’. A bit like rewinding a VHS tape and hitting play, what happens on screen will be the same every time.”

        This appears, on the face of it, to say that if we could roll back time like a film reel, everything would then proceed exactly as it had before. How could this be otherwise? It has already happened, and we can’t change history. You’ve removed our agency, and then concluded we have no agency. We only have free will in the present! The only way you could disprove free will in the past is to travel back in time, give someone the option of making a different decision, and them not being able to do otherwise than they had done before. Otherwise we are bound by the choice we already made. Nobody has free will a second ago.

        Let’s say a man, gets a text on his phone while driving, checks it, and ends up in a fatal accident. Even if we go back to “pre-choice” before he reached for his phone, he’d still do it and die all over again. Why would he do otherwise than he did before? His free will was to choose to look at his text.

        In fact, I just got a notification on my mobile phone sitting next to me. I can look at it or not. I picked up the phone, turned the screen on, and gratuitously didn’t read it. I did that using my free will. Note that I even placed the phone on my head for comic effect, when we roll back time to “pre-choice” before I did that. Each time we roll back the clock I put the phone on my head without reading the text. That is merely a record, in the past, of my exercise of free will. If it were to change, that would mean I don’t have free will, because I would not be able to control my actions in the present. I would not have been able to make a conscious choice because my life would have been plagued by spontaneous, unpredictable behavior outside of my control.

        Maybe I’m not getting what you’re trying to communicate to me.

        “What I’m getting at is that we (including everything we think and perceive around us) might not be the actors within the film, but instead are more akin to the moving images on a screen.”

        Ew! I think I just GOT what you are saying here. That is actually very similar to a Hindu notion of being “the observer” or “the witness”, I think. One of the gurus I actually like talks about how he doesn’t make any decisions. He just watches them happen effortlessly “on the inner screen of consciousness”. Some “enlightened” gurus say that we don’t have free will. It’s always bothered me. But they are talking about being in a state of pure, detached awareness, and letting the mind take care of itself, rather than being, as we customarily are, within the mind.
        The connection between what the gurus are saying and what you appear to be suggesting, is that we are forever witnessing this play of light and form.

        I’m going to object, however, because this has some of the same problems as Solipsism, which is that it only really works if we see other people as just hallucinations in a dream. By that, I mean that it denies their agency, and that they are watching a different movie on a different inner screen. There isn’t just one cosmic screen. And we can control what we do, unlike watching a movie. The images of people in movies have no inner life, but we do.

        Quite often, a guru doesn’t have much to do other than very simple things, and giving talks, in which case he or she doesn’t really have to be making tough decisions and acting on them. It’s easier to just dispassionately observe yourself acting, when you are just sitting there not doing anything.

        You wrote, “I think you are suggesting free will derives from a consciousness which is immaterial, but what I might suggest is that the reasons (factors, pressures, circumstances, mechanics, nature, nurture – however you want to describe them) that guide that consciousness to make its ‘choices’ are wholly material and completely rigid to the point where ‘free will’ itself is material and becomes non-existent as a separate concept to material causality.”

        That’s quite a sentence to unravel. Yes, I say that free will exists because we make conscious decisions in our minds, which are immaterial. You are arguing that material factors so influence our minds to make decisions…

        Let’s just tackle this first part of your idea. I would counter that the overwhelming influence and pressure on my decision making process is other people’s freely made decisions, and not material pressures. Culture is not a material. As I mentioned before, a novel is a stack of paper materially, but the content is immaterial. I even think we are daily engaged in a community struggle to influence each others thoughts and actions. This exchange we’re having is just such a case. I’m writing back to you because you chose to think about a topic in your immaterial mind, put those ideas in writing, and respond to me.”

        “…that guide that consciousness to make its ‘choices’ are wholly material and completely rigid to the point where ‘free will’ itself is material”

        Are you speaking metaphorically here? It’s confusing. An act of will cannot be a physical thing. Do you mean that free will may as well be material itself? But it isn’t, and despite all the the fixed things in life, we have choices in the immediate present. If we can choose between our limited options, we have free will. And our options are not at all limited. I can just think of all the different things I can do with the rest of my evening, and I have more than ample choices.

        “What we perceive to be consciousness, rather than arising out of nowhere from immateriality, is a reaction, accumulation and synthesis of a material universe that – however unfathomably complex – is strict, rigid and delineated.”

        I don’t argue that consciousness arises out of nowhere. As far as I know, it is an epiphenomenon arising out of physical brain processes. It is a state of awareness, and experiential. It just doesn’t follow, in my mind, that an intelligent, conscious, rational, mind, with imagination, memory, and the ability to imagine the future, is incapable of choosing whether to take a shower or play the guitar. That the universe have absolute physical laws doesn’t contradict free will, but complements it. Free will acts in and against a stable physical universe. You can’t play a game if the rules keep changing and nothing can be predicted. The world needs to be stable in order for the actor to act within it and upon it.

        You wrote, “I FEEL like I have consciousness and free will”. You can’t deny that you are conscious, because the act of denying it proves you are conscious. This is Descartes, “I think therefore I am”. If you know you “are”, you are aware that you are aware, and that is the definition of consciousness.

        I don’t think we don’t know if we have free will. All the arguments against free will are based on the notion that material can’t disobey the laws of physics. My simple answer is that the mind is not material – and unlike material it can think, and make decisions – and hence not bound by the laws of physics. However, the mind only really had control over the physical body, when it comes to action. How an immaterial mind control the physical body is the “hard question” of brain/consciousness theory, and scientists love to debate this. In fact they will say they don’t yet know how it works.

        So, our free will is unlimited within the immaterial realm of thought, but it only allows us to move our bodies within the laws of physics. Stop and note that science admits it doesn’t know how consciousness can make the body move. How can something immaterial affect something material? I think we understand it intuitively when we say things like, “use your brain”. The brain and consciousness function together, simultaneously and inextricably. But this process of firing neurons, and so on, is not breaking any laws of physics by operating the way it does. It just happens to create a field or state of consciousness. We could say that the brain thinks, but the way it does so is though a state of self-reflectivity, so that the brain effects the mind and the mind effects the brain simultaneously. Because the mind effects the brain we have free will.

        For you or I, probably the best chance we have of making much out of our our lives lies in our exercise of free will and will power. We aren’t rich, well connected, and the odds are a bit stacked against us. In order to overcome obstacles and make headway, we need to be determined, smart, and have perseverance. Without free will, will power is impossible. One is consigned to whatever fate. To get over the next hill, and the next one, and the mountain after that, one needs to try, and you can’t try without free will.


  2. Some good thoughts. Are you familiar with Spinoza at all? For me, he has some of the most reasonable ideas about both the mind/body issue and free will. Worth looking into if you’re interested.

    As to the body and identity politics… I honestly don’t know how we have fallen so far so fast. For me, the existentialists had this covered long ago: “existence precedes essence”. There is nothing essential about us until we are dead and so can no longer grow and change. We have somehow gone from this to identity based on unchanging essence and exclusion, to the point that you and I apparently cannot even approximate toward understanding each others point of view because we have different this and that about our bodies. It’s total bollocks. We have different forms of life, but we are still forms of life, with consciousness, and can relate from there. I think identity politics is entirely unhelpful in trying to form an understanding of each other and each others situation, but then I also think it’s aim is the opposite, to atomise, isolate and make understanding impossible in order to enflame conflicts and entrench loyalties that stroke inflated egos. It’s a pointless culture war in which we all lose, and a symptom of a very psychologically sick society that has lost contact with any real sense of self, so is desperately clinging to identity, when what it really needs, in my opinion, is to regain a connection to it’s own soul – that which transcends all the petty tribal nonsense and unites us in experience.

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    1. HI Janice:

      Spinoza is fascinating, and no doubt a revolutionary thinker. Hoover, I disagree with his deterministic model of the universe, in which people have no free will. One of his arguments is that we can’t control our appetites, in which case what we think we do freely is compelled by nature. When a baby seeks its mother’s breast, it thinks it is using its free will, but it is merely reacting to hunger, he says. When a boy looses his temper he thinks it’s his free will, but it’s a predictable emotional response which is inevitable in the circumstances.

      That’s all well and good, but I don’t think I’m using my free will when I go to the bathroom. I think I have a full bladder. And I don’t think I’m using my free will when I buy a sandwich, I think I’m hungry. We can have bodies with natural appetites and still freely make decisions which are not predetermined. We can have natural inclinations, but resist or overcome them. Free will is the ability to make decisions in the present, including arbitrary ones which fly in the face of whatever pure biology would indicate.

      Right now I’m drinking my morning cup of coffee. It would make no sense whatsoever for me to go pour out a portion of it into the sink, come back and continue writing. I just did so. It’s a completely arbitrary act, and you will find you can do such things at any instance. We have never been able to predict someone’s behavior in a clinical setting. We can never say, “You will now stand up” and the person will be unable to do otherwise out of sheer spite.

      I also disagree with Spinoza that the mind and body are the same “substance”. We can argue that they must be fundamentally united and interconnected – I agree – but that doesn’t mean they have the same properties. I use the example of a flashlight to illustrate this. The beam of light is entirely dependent on the flashlight, but it can pass through glass and travel at the speed of light, while the flashlight itself can’t.

      If you can sit where you are, and plan to do any of several actions, and do whichever you choose, whether it’s rational, heeds your biological impulses, or not, you have free will. You can test this at any instance and you will find that you can do as you please with no limitation based on predeterminism. One might argue that those petty decisions don’t matter, but that’s a separate issue. If the universe is physically predetermined, you couldn’t do anything, make any decisions, no matter how trivial. A lifetime of small decisions results has a momentous effect. Further, you surely have found yourself at times where you don’t know what to do, and you can’t make a decision, and then you have to think it through, do some research, and finally come up to an intelligent choice.

      If there were no free will, there would be no will power, which is the ability of the will to overcome natural inclinations, including desire, laziness, and so on. I can say with certaintly that I don’t feel like going to the gym today, however, I plan on doing it anyway. So, quite contrary to determinism, I maintain that what is really important and definitive about us is specifically our ability to think, make decisions, and act on them, including when it is difficult to do so.

      On identity politics. Yes, I agree, it’s totally backwards thinking, basically more biological determinism and essentialism. It started out as a good thing, trying to give underrepresented and marginalized people a voice, and acceptance within the greater community. It was pro-individual, and nobody was inferior, weird, or had deleterious qualities because of their biology at birth. Similarly, it tried to give different cultures and traditions more representation. However, in the the long run it’s become highly toxic and guilty of precisely that which it set out to oppose. There now is a bad culture which must be destroyed by any and all means necessary, and there are people where are guilty at birth and moral inferior by nature. There are the most patently overt racist and sexist claims openly made about a certain segment of the population, and rather than being shot down, they are congratulated. The underlying stupidity and meanness are staggering, and people are afraid to say anything or stand up for themselves. Meanwhile the new “evil other” are killing themselves off in record numbers because they are internalizing the anti-them bullshit rhetoric, and don’t know how to think through it and disregard it.
      What started out as fighting inflicting inferiority, limitations, and deleterious qualities on an individual because of their biology or group identity has turned into doing exactly that with a vengeance, all the while patting themselvs on the back for being “progressive” and “revolutionary”.

      Those who originall opposedy censorship now embrace it and even try to get artworks destroyed, and while they originally fought oppression, they now want to use it for their own ostensible good.


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      1. Spinoza is easily misunderstood as completely denying free will and on his theory of substance. However, I was lucky enough to study with an excellent scholar of his work through a course and then for my thesis. He does appear to deny free will at first, in the way you describe, however, he then also argues for a measure of free will, in the form of developing understanding of our passions giving us a degree of capacity to work with them in order to gain some will. He would see babies as having no will, being completely determined, but an adult as having had the chance to develop some, though not simply having been endowed with it, and never able to have complete free will, as for Spinoza that meant god-like super powers (like Neo in The Matrix). That is what I find to be interesting, as I do not believe we are born endowed with free will but I do believe we can develop some capacity, though there will always be forces acting upon us preventing anything like complete free will. It is often overlooked in Spinoza, but it is there.

        As to mind/body substance, he views them as describing the same phenomena, yes, but from different points of view, in much the same way light may be viewed as both waves and particles. Changing view of substance allows radically different properties to be expressed, so to say it is all “the same” doesn’t quite express the full meaning. I will have to come back to this when I can explain more clearly (early here) and I am struggling to recall the main points he makes. There is also the Monad of Leibniz to consider on this front too, basically Descartes isn’t the be all end all and mainly seems to have split mind and body to appease the church by making mind the new “rational” soul. A big mistake if you ask me.

        We really should know better than to create an “evil other” out of entire classes of people by now, but we never seem to learn.

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      2. Thanks for that clarification, Janice. And I now remember you did your degree in philosophy, and really enjoyed it, after bailing on an art major.

        Right, there is that (for me peculiar) idea of somehow becoming liberated by becoming aware of our determined state: the freedom of knowing you are in bondage. In postmodernism and the contemporary art world there’s something similar, which is the radical breakthrough of realizing nothing original is possible, in which case every act of appropriation and “found art” is perpetually a orignal denial of originality. I maintain that originality is always possible. I get that Spinoza means more than just acknowledging determinism, and that in understanding our natural drives and imperitives we can better not be completely overwhelmed by them. This is less a question of free will than of truly independent, autonomous thought and action. This is similar to saying that while a child can’t think indedependently of its acculturation, it certainly can think.

        Limited free will IS free will. You don’t need to be able to fly, choose your own parents, make money appear out of thin air, or perform any magic to have free will. You just need to be able to do anything voluntarily, make any choice at all. If you can choose Coke or Pepsi, than the universe is not deterministic, otherwise to do so would be impossible. And while some might say it’s not free will if we can’t will our house to sprout wings and fly, just look out the window of an airplane at a city below and what we can do without those magical powers is already astounding.

        If you put someone in solitary confinement, you don’t limit their free will, you limit their freedom. The ability to choose, and the choices available are two very different things.

        Not only can we make a decision, we can’t not make one, or a hundred, virtually incessantly. We may not be able to choose what we are, but what we are are perpetual choosers, and we can’t not act. So, if anything, the lack of free will is the impossibility of not having free will.

        I actually think the soul is an excellent metaphor for the mind, minus the immortality and reincarnation bits. We’d be far better off considering others as “souls” rather than as racial and gendered bodies which we could easily categorize and even vilify. It doesn’t need to be a supernatural phenomenon or tied in with any religious beliefs. The real person, I like to say, is invisible.

        I think computer games make this more apparent. In any game situation you are forced to act and make decisions, but you are not the avatar in the game. In the same way, reducing a person to the body is like calling a novel by Dostoevstack a of paper with ink on it. We can’t yet perform brain transplants, but it’s probably not impossible. If you can switch out your whole body and still be you, clearly you are not the body. Then we get to the brain in a jar scenario. If we lined up a hundred people who were reduced to brains in jars, we’d better have labels on the jars or whe’d have no idea who anyone was. Chances are you could, theoretically, perform operations on every part of the brain, in segments, replacing it with new tissue and stem cells, and the person would still not change. The brain is necessary to store memory, but a memory is not a physical thing. Thus, the real person is intangible: an epiphenomenon, greater than the sum of its parts, and kickstarted by the biological body. It’s more of a state, than a thing. And somehow that state, once up and running, has the power to think, imagine, and act. This is why I say were are fundamentally a consciousness with a will.

        Spinoza also, I believe, questioned how an immaterial mind could interract with a material body, if they are not the same substance. This is what current brain/consciousness scienctists call “the hard question”. Just because we don’t know how doesn’t mean that we must conclude that it doesn’t. As I mentioned in the article, there’s no physical evidence that consciousness exists, but we can’t deny it without doing so within consciousness itself. Further, the universe must either have originated out of nothing, which is impossible, or it was always there with no beginning, which is also impossible. But we wouldn’t conclude that the universe doesn’t exist because we can’t explain how it originated, or didn’t. There are some things that may be beyond our grasp.

        If there is no free will, than what is there to do but roll with the punches and merely become aware of ones bondage. If there is free will, and if we can use it to increase our independent thought and autonomous action, than there is something to do.

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