Exploring the Illusion of Free Will 13
This is the thirteenth of a series of posts where I will be sharing the transcripts of George Ortega’s show which he has so generously made available on his website.
I will share both the link and copy the text as well. This is convenient for those who subscribe to my blog by email. You can read without visiting the site, but I highly encourage you to visit the link and see what else George has on his website.
Episode 13. Overcoming Blame, Guilt, Envy and Arrogance by Overcoming the Illusion of Free Will
Let’ talk about overcoming blame, guilt, envy and arrogance by overcoming the illusion of free will. When we believe we have a free will, we hold each other and ourselves accountable. To the extent that we can overcome this illusion, we will not blame each other, feel guilty, and envy others. When we do good things, we won’t feel arrogant; we’ll feel grateful.
That’s on a personal level. Consider how overcoming the free will illusion would effect how we treat each other as countries, and groups of people. This illusion of free will has profound and global consequences, which is why it is important that we take steps to re-construct our society in a way that will adhere to the reality of our causal and unconscious human wills, and thereby help us in many ways.
When we say we have a free will, basically what we’re saying is that what we do – what we decide, think, feel – is completely up to us without anything that is not in our control compelling us to do what we do. For example, let’s say we claim that our feelings are completely up to us. If free will means that we can freely choose to feel what we want – then who among us would choose to feel negative feelings? Who among us would choose to feel anything but blissful every hour of every day? If having a free will means that we could make our moral decisions completely up to us – that we could be as good as we would want to be, who among us wouldn’t be a perfect angel? Who wouldn’t be good, and do good, all of the time, especially toward the people in our lives?
Considering those questions is a very good way to understand why we obviously do not have a free will. Free will is an illusion. It’s something that we’ve actually been predetermined to believe. It hasn’t been up to us that we believe this. Nature had us hold the illusion that the world is flat. We held that illusion for a long time, and now we know we’re living on an orb. But this free will illusion is much more important. We can conduct our every day affairs very well, regardless of whether or not we believe the world is flat. The belief in free will affects us much more profoundly.
Free will says that what we do is completely up to us. Nothing that is not in our control is making us do anything. Right from the start, if you consider that we have an unconscious that is always awake and active, then we can never say that anything we do has not been made at the level of the unconscious, or, at the very least, with the participation of the unconscious. Think about it. When we make decisions, these decisions require concepts, and a decision-making process. We don’t hold all of those concepts – many of them linguistic – in our conscious mind. Our conscious mind can only focus on one, or at most a few, concepts one at a time. So, all of the words and other concepts that we draw on for our conclusions and our decisions must reside in our unconscious.
If the unconscious is not in our control – and it isn’t because, by definition, we’re not even aware of it – and if we have to draw on the unconscious to make every decision we make, then it’s easy to see why free will is impossible. It has to be an illusion. There are many other ways to understand this, but for this show, we’re going to be focusing on overcoming blame, guilt, envy and arrogance by overcoming the illusion of free will.
Under this illusion of free will, we hold ourselves accountable. When we or other people do things that are wrong, we blame, and indict, and prosecute, and condemn, and punish ourselves, and each other. When we do good, we take pride. But pride often leads to arrogance, and comparisons. “Because I did this, I’m better than you,” we boast. We look down on others, and that’s not good for our personal relations. When other people do good, we sometimes envy them. We don’t realize that what we’re envying them about wasn’t really up to them. They were either lucky, in a certain sense. That is simply the way nature compelled them to be.
Let’s look at these matters one by one, and the actual harm that the illusion of free will causes every day at both personal and societal levels. Somebody does something wrong. The belief in free will leads us to blame them. It leads us to say that they, of their own free will, did some wrong toward us. With the illusion of free will, if we are ascribing complete accountability to that other person, and we’re blaming them, we very likely see them as our adversary. We’re in competition with them. We may seek vengeance and retribution. We may seek to punish them because they did wrong. That’s what happens when we ascribe free will to others.
So, what happens when we understand that the other person who did whatever they did toward us had absolutely no choice in the matter? They were completely compelled in what they did. It wasn’t up to them. To the extent that we can understand that, we become more compassionate. Let’s say, for example, that someone takes another person’s hand, and pushes it so that the hand knocks into you. Are you going to blame the person whose hand someone else took and knocked into you, or are you going to blame the person who took the other person’s hand and knocked it into you? Naturally, it’s the latter.
When you understand that nobody has a free will, and that free will is, and always will be, an illusion, if you become angry, you’re not going to become angry with that person. You won’t wish to punish that person, or seek vengeance. You may become angry with the universe, or God, but you’re not going to be angry with that person. When you don’t become angry, and don’t blame that person, you suddenly find that they and you are on the same side of the equation. If both the other person and you realize that neither of you have a free will, you might then ask yourselves “why would fate, or God, or the universe, or the causal past, do this?”
What happens is that your relationship with the other person is preserved. You and they are no longer adversaries. You’re on the same side, trying to figure everything out. I’m not saying that understanding that we don’t have a free will will lead to everyone being open to aggression by others. For example, if someone aggresses toward us in a certain way, we may have to take certain measures, like separating ourselves from them, or whatever. But we would do this with understanding. It’s a completely different experience to hold someone responsible for something, and address the situation from that perspective, than to understand that both they and you are victims of this fate.
Another way to understand this is by considering a young child. When a young child does something wrong, we don’t ascribe free will to them. They just don’t know any better. They’re obviously doing the best they can. So, what happens? We treat that young child with compassion, and kindness, and caring. If we take that same understanding that we naturally ascribe to young children, because we don’t believe they have a free will, and we apply it toward each other, that becomes the more intelligent and compassionate way of addressing the matter.
From a religious perspective, it makes forgiveness far easier because, in the final analysis, there is nothing to forgive. If the person really wasn’t to blame, we might want to “forgive” them, but the understanding that they are not blameworthy truly means there is nothing to forgive. We now understand how coming to the understanding that free will is an illusion can help us to not blame each other, and help prevent the kind of conflict that blame causes.
Let’s consider guilt. When we do things wrong, we tend to blame ourselves. When we blame ourselves, we sometimes unconsciously punish ourselves in some way or another. That’s the free will perspective. What happens when we understand that free will is an illusion? We do something wrong. Like in the first case, we come to realize that it was wrong. Our conscience can recognize that we may have transgressed against someone else, or against ourselves, and make that determination without our punishing ourselves. In other words, we can say to ourselves, “fine, I realize that I did wrong, but it wasn’t my fault. I remain innocent.”
That, of course, doesn’t mean we’re going to continue to do that wrong, because once we understand that we’ve done something wrong, it’s good, and wise, and right to correct ourselves. We don’t have to punish ourselves. It would, in fact, be wrong to punish ourselves for what we could not help but do.
Let’s go to envy. Let’s imagine you’re watching someone do something, and you say to yourselves “wow; I wish I could do that.” With our free will perspective, we conclude that they did what they did of their own free will, and we just can’t compare. That person is just much better at this. What does that lead to? It leads to feelings of lower self-esteem. It leads to our devaluing ourselves. Self-esteem is one of the four personality traits that correlate most strongly with happiness. To the extent that we diminish our self-esteem, we likely diminish our general well-being and happiness.
What’s the alternative? When we understand that someone may have done a wonderful thing – a great discovery, or an amazing athletic performance – and we don’t ascribe a free will to that person, we’re much less likely to envy them. We might say to ourselves “I wish that fate, or nature, or God, had given me those kinds of qualities,” but we wouldn’t compare ourselves with the person in the sense of ascribing those qualities to the person’s free will, and holding ourselves in lower regard as a result. It wouldn’t make sense.
As we understand that we don’t have a free will, we also prevent arrogance. Think about it. It’s good to feel good about doing something, even when we know that it was not truly up to us. For example, when many sports stars are interviewed, they talk about how they were lucky in certain ways. They thank God, whom they consider to have worked through them. They are very humble in that way.
But when many of us do something great, we think to ourselves “wow, I’m special! I did this of my own free will. I deserve the credit and rewards.” The problem with that kind of attribution is that it naturally leads to our comparing ourselves with other people. “I’m better than that person.” “I deserve more than that other person.” To the extent that we do that, we get disconnected from each other. This arrogance separates people.
When we understand that free will is an illusion, we understand that if we do something of value, we can feel grateful that fate is using us as an instrument for this act. But, there would be no logical reason for any kind of pride or arrogance. It is not “we” who are doing these things. We’re a vehicle, or instrument, of God, or fate. We recognize that we don’t have a free will, and although we did something great, we recognize that it’s really fate’s doing. Through this understanding, we remain humble. Our interactions with others remain on a more equal footing. We don’t sense ourselves as any better than others, and that helps keep us closer together.
Because there is cause and effect, and because we have an unconscious, and because if we had a free will, we would be completely blissed out and completely moral, we don’t have a free will. Then who, or what, are we to hold accountable and responsible? There’s an irony in this. Within the Judeo-Christian tradition, when something good happens, or we do something good, the proper response is appreciation and gratitude. “Thank God.” “Thank Goodness.” We say to ourselves that this good could not have been done without God. When we do good, we understand that, but when we do what’s not so good, all of the sudden it’s not God’s or fate’s fault. These religious traditions teach us that when we do bad, it’s our fault. That is the harm of the belief in free will.
What’s the reality? When something good happens, it is the result of God, or fate, or the causal past, or the universe. When something not so good happens, again, it’s the result of God, or fate, or the causal past, or the universe. The remaining question is whether or not God, or the universe, has a free will? Personally, I hope that God or the universe is as completely compelled in what S/He does as we human beings are. Before I get into why I hope that, let’s get a bit into the idea of God.
I was raised in the Judeo-Christian religion, and I believe in God. I like the belief in God. However, some teachings certainly don’t make sense. Let’s say our belief is that God is all-good. We could then ask ourselves whether or not God can decide whether or not to be good. If S/He is all-good, it would seem that S/He would have to be all-good. S/He therefore can’t have a free will. Or, ask yourself whether God, if S/He so decided, could suddenly cease existing? Can God say “I don’t want to be God anymore. I’m outta here,” and then everything just disappears? I don’t think so.
If God is compelled to be good, and if God is compelled to be God, then maybe God doesn’t have a free will either. This question may be beyond our reasoning ability, at least for the time being. But if God, or the universe, doesn’t have a free will that would be a good thing because there are some things in this world that are really bad, like the way we treat farm animals. You would not believe it. We basically torture them. To the extent that we don’t have a free will, we don’t have to blame ourselves for this atrocity, but I would hope that through compassion we would come to their rescue. Although we don’t have a free will, it seems that God, or nature, tends to reward us when we do good, and punish us when we don’t. It would be very good for us to stop torturing those animals, along with lab animals and animals raised in pet mills.
If God, or nature doesn’t have a free will either, then we cannot justly blame Her/Him/It for this cruelty. Granted, if we don’t blame God or nature, something must be responsible, and this prospect leads us into a conundrum wherein God would have to be responsible if God created everything. But to the extent that we hold God blameless, it would help us to be closer to God, and less judgmental of God.
The illusion of free will does a lot more harm than good. Without it, we wouldn’t blame each other and ourselves. We wouldn’t feel that we were better than others. We wouldn’t feel arrogant. We wouldn’t punish ourselves when we did wrong. We would understand that we did wrong, and would hopefully try to correct ourselves. We also wouldn’t feel envious toward others.
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