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.