Do We Have Free Will, Yes or No?
A Million Different Things
You are reading a free chapter taken from my book.
A Million Different Things: ...And Night, Meditation #6
Meditation #6 from ...And Night, the concluding section in the free serialization of my book, A Million Different Things: Meditations of The World's Happiest Man, is concerned with free will and its implications about our deepest roots in reality.
Do You Have Free Will? from And Night, Meditation #6
In the stage play, The Man Who Came To Dinner, during its most recent Broadway run, a character modeled after Groucho Marx, played by the great Lewis J. Stadlin opposite the even greater Nathan Lane as a crotchety radio host and critic, paces the floor dramatically, rhetorically asking Lane’s character if he ever
“...wanted to go, but you also wanted to stay? Go? Stay? Stay? Go…?”
Life can get like that, abounding with indecision, although usually not in as hilarious a fashion as Stadlin portrayed it. The important thing is not to get hung up on right and wrong. Both are illusions. What a person needs to do is make choices. Indecision is like putting on four-hundred pounds of body weight, then trying to play centerfield.
Let’s take on another common illusion. We can get back to right and wrong later and look at why anyone would make the claim of anything so nonsensical. The illusion involves our ideas about freedom.
Turns out, we have no choice in the matter. We are free, and we act freely, no matter what we decide. Just in deciding, even if it’s to surrender freedom, we’re choosing freely. We probably should just take boundless freedom as a fact and move on. Unfortunately, in case you haven’t heard, the scientific community has declared that we really don’t have the free will we believe we have.
Our freedom is an illusion devised by nature, and careful experiments and observations support the claim, according to the prevailing consensus. In my opinion, this wisdom is prejudiced irreparably by science’s fierce and unscientific desire to sustain the rule that freedom implies something that might seem like the forbidden “God.” Modern science does not permit a higher or ineffable source of anything. That malevolent ogre known as the God of the Gaps, the one religious people hustle in to explain unsolved mysteries and realities that science can’t, is a villain that scientists will walk into walls to avoid.
Minds are shut tight against even consideration of a deity. I’m not in any position to declare the certainty of any of the proposed deities, be they benevolent, paternalistic, malevolent or inexplicable. None of us have ever seen enough to make anything but an estimate, and our estimates disagree. My position is more scientific than that of anyone who demands that God can’t be, “not noway, not nohow,” as the guard declares in The Wizard of Oz, refusing Dorothy and her entourage an audience with the The Great Oz.
Science seems to crave a universe that came about by accident and evolved for roughly fourteen-billion years, give or take a few million. If we and all we see around us are the natural result of an accident that never ends, our lives are undeniably meaningless. We are here because nature had no choice, given the available conditions. The whole shebang could be no other way.
This “fact” then requires that science invent the coincidental appearance of survival instincts and, for some crazy reason, to trick us into the illusion of free will. A byproduct of the big accident is our foolishly believing we can decide anything on our own. If we have choice, the whole edifice falls apart. Those circumstances are that threatening to the beliefs of science.
Free will, illusion or fact? In real life, it doesn’t seem to matter. We think we have it, and even if it’s an illusion, it’s harmless. We can’t escape freedom, no matter what its essence. We can’t throw it away. In every living moment, we must decide. If we opt for inertia or inaction, we’ve still decided.
Knowing that there is, was and always will be only a single moment is important to remember in this context. There is no true time-space continuum along which we all travel and experience our lives. Our brains invent that to sustain our story. Consider it practically. If there really is a past and a future, we’d need endless replications of stuff, of matter, of cities and towns and histories, of dogs and cats and detritus congesting the universe. There isn’t anything like that.
What we do have is memory and imagination, records of reality seen but not touched. Physicists tell us that there is a finite amount of matter. The universe in this moment is as full as it can be.
There aren’t any vacant spaces where we can store what was. If there is a trail we travel, which is how we commonly visualize our lives, why hasn’t anyone ever turned around and gone back, correcting mistakes and performing healing do-overs? In a witty but deftly revealing observation, Stephen Hawking wondered, if time travel were possible, how come we never meet up with visitors from the future? Where are they? Certainly, if they could, they would, even as a lark.
So, what we see really is what we’ve got, here and now. Taking it a step further and getting it clear in our minds that there really isn’t even a moment, a “now” as we perceive it, is worth the effort. Imagining a moment requires the recognition of time as a fact. Time is a tool of perspective, not a reality.
Imagine we’re in a field of objects known to us–people and other parts of the environment in which we’ve been thriving. The world our brains tell us we’re seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting and smelling is made up from bits of matter, even potential matter, too small to detect through our senses unaided. Unable to know the microscopic underpinnings, we’re faithfully committed to the macroscopic reality anyway. Placing our feet on the assumed ground is an act of faith in the evolution of perception.
Beneath what is in truth a mental invention, one produced and coordinated with other sentient beings, the foundations of reality differ radically from what we believe we live with. We dress things up. Each of us is a fashion designer in a long tradition. We’re all construction workers.
This deeper reality, the bank of materials at our disposal, doesn’t have color, taste or smell. There aren’t really any fundamental trees. Those are features our amazing brains create as guides to a macroscopic universe.
Our brains evolved to create substance and assign values. We imagine hierarchies. Our emotions, so evident and yet so intangible no one has ever been able to put one in a bottle, analyze and predict the effects of our actions. Our brains don’t just build magnificent engines that integrate precisely with other engines–plenty of them, by the way, and in great variety–they also act as a strategist and general manager.
Our brains keep all fifty-trillion cells working together as a machine more fluid that static. Not even the tiniest, remotest cell is ever fully still. Yet, we are required to focus or make conscious decisions about less than one percent of the activity.
Free will, or the illusion of it, is crucial only for a little bit of what we do. Automation has been assigned the rest. We recognize no requirement to consciously manage cells executing rigorous chores in our core cardiopulmonary factory or coordinating physical motion.
We take this amazing equipment so much for granted we fail to appreciate it. Failing to appreciate our flesh, bone and blood machine gets us started along the road of skidding blindly passed the critical actions over which we do have control, and those are the things that make us distinctly us.
Although I’ve painted an oversimplified picture, proposing us as individuals in an impossible isolation, it fairly represents the circumstance in which we discover ourselves now, now and, of course, now.
Until we move, nothing special happens. All those automatic processes priming our bodies, repairing, rebuilding, feeding, happen for no other reason than to set us up for action and experience.
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