Exploring the Illusion of Free Will 16
This is the sixteenth 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 16. Overcoming the Illusion of Free Will as an Evolutionary Leap in Human Consciousness
Let’s talk about overcoming the illusion of free will as an evolutionary leap in human consciousness. When we say that we have a free will, we’re saying that our decisions are completely up to us. Nothing that we’ve learned in the past, and nothing in our genes can influence our decisions. One way to understand why free will is an illusion comes from science. In biology and psychology, for example, there was once a debate on whether human behavior was caused by nature or nurture – whether our genes compel our behavior, or whether our upbringing and our environment the kinds of experiences we’ve had in the past determine what we do..
Ultimately we came to understand that every decision we make, and everything we do, is caused by both nature and nurture. The key thing here, however, is that the debate, quite rightly never allowed, or entertained, the possibility of a free will. Free will plays no part in that equation. If nature and nurture combine to cause our every decision, they represent a complete description of our behavior. There is no room for a third cause, logically or otherwise.
We humans have been around for a few million years. We’ve gone through a lot of evolution during that time. We’ve gotten taller, we walk more upright, we’re more intelligent, our brains are bigger, we’ve lost a lot of hair, etc. As our human physiology has evolved, so has our mind. Our mind has especially evolved during this last century.
Over the last couple of millennia, for example, we had wildly erroneous notions about women. The notion that women are incompetent and unintelligent as compared with men still survives to some extent even today. In Judaism there was once a law forbidding the teaching of the Torah to women because male Jewish leaders were afraid these women would corrupt the teachings. Our minds have evolved in terms of how we see each other and ourselves. As part of this evolution, we’re gaining a better understanding of who we are within this universe.
Hundreds of years ago, we thought that the Earth was the center of the solar system, and the center of the universe. We now know that we’re living on a tiny planet within one of billions of galaxies in this immense reality. We cannot even logically or scientifically discern whether our reality is infinite and eternal, or not. We’ve come to understand our place better in this universe, and we’ve learned to better get along with each other. We’ve learned to form societies. We can generally walk around without carrying weapons. We trust each other. We have a civilization.
However, our world definitely has problems, and a lot of them stem from the way we see each other and ourselves — from how we perceive our human will. This notion that we have a free will – that our decisions are completely up to us – is the premise for our legal system of holding people accountable. It labels criminals as bad, and therefore deserving of punishment. Free will also forms the premise and foundation of our socio-economic system of rewards and punishments. If someone does something that is really good, we say to ourselves that they did it of their own free will, and deserve a greater reward than someone who did not, or could not, do such a good.
The notion and illusion of free will also affects our relationship with the people closest to us, and our relationship with ourselves. We were made imperfect in many ways. This free will illusion aside, we have faults, and flaws. We get things wrong. We’re far from perfect. If we did have a free will, who among us wouldn’t choose to be completely good all of the time? But, we don’t have a free will, and because of that we do things against each other – things that we unfortunately can’t but do.
The irony here is that until now, the universe has had us ascribe accountability to each other and ourselves. That kind of attribution often leads to conflict, aggression, and hostility. It leads to vengeance and revenge. It leads to indictments. I’m taping this episode a couple of days after the U.S. killed Osama bin Laden. Some people celebrated in the streets, partly because of their prediction that the world would become safer, but also partly from a free will-based vengeful attitude.
Our desire for retribution is pervasive. To the extent we believe we have a free will, we will treat others and ourselves differently than we would under a causal, or unconscious will perspective. The idea of forgiveness is common to all major religions. We understand that everyone is imperfect, so we forgive. Forgiving derives from the recognition that the person could not have done any better – that the person is human, and flawed. Forgiveness is done from virtue. You are a good person if you forgive, but you don’t necessarily have to do so. When you understand that free will is an illusion, there is nothing to forgive because there is no reason for indictment to begin with.
The notion of free will is the foundation of our civilization, and of our personal lives. What would our world be like if we were to overcome this illusion? Under the free will illusion, we do something good and “hey, we’re great! We’re better than other people!” We become arrogant. We compare ourselves with others. We think we’re special. That self-attribution separates others from us, and separates us from others. Such comparison creates a barrier between people.
When we do something wrong, we blame ourselves. We often conclude that because we did something bad, we deserve to suffer. We deserve to be punished. Very often, we’ll punish ourselves through feeling the self-inflicted pain of guilt. I’m not asserting that we should overcome our conscience, because certainly our understanding of right and wrong is good and necessary. But the idea that because we did something wrong, we deserve punishment is our current understanding, and as we transcend this illusion of free will, we can expect to become much kinder to ourselves. As we overcome the illusion of free will, we will also be more humble. We won’t see ourselves as better than others. We might have a better skill, or might be able to do something better, but it’s not up to us anyway. It’s completely fated. It’s just how God, or the universe, is using us.
Let’s also go through envy. When we see other people do something really well, we might envy them. We might say to ourselves “wow, these people are so much better than we are.” This conclusion is derived from the illusion of free will. We say that because they freely choose to do whatever they did; they deserve the credit, and are better because of it. The problem with that attitude is that it often demeans and devalues us. As we transcend the illusion of free will, we restore egalitarianism, and true equality, to all of us. Some of us may be luckier in certain ways than others of us, but such luck is in no way attributable to their having a free will.
In relating to our family and friends, often conflicts happen because we ascribe free will to others. If someone does something we consider inconsiderate, we blame him or her. If someone is doing something disturbing, we’ll sometimes say to ourselves “this person is evil, or bad.” When we take that attitude, naturally, they get defensive, and the situation is ripe for conflict. That’s the problem with ascribing free will to others.
When we recognize that we don’t have a free will, and that free will is an illusion, when someone does things that are wrong, or inconsiderate, we may have reason to become upset that the universe has caused that to happen, but we won’t necessarily be upset at the person. We’ll recognize that the person had no choice but to be the way they were, and do what they did. That’s how fate made them act.
To the extent that we hold that perspective, we maintain better relationships with each other. I think you now understand why the illusion of free will is harmful, and how overcoming it can be very helpful to our lives. Let’s now explore what overcoming the illusion of free will means to our world, and why I describe this as an evolutionary leap.
We have the basic, fundamental fact about human will completely wrong. We’re ascribing authorship to ourselves when we’re really just the actors. To the extent that we get the nature of our human will right, our whole psychology will change. Our whole consciousness will change. It feels surreal to realize that this life is really a movie, and that everything that is happening is happening because it is compelled to happen. We’re just going along for the ride. We’re experiencing life rather than freely making the decisions that make it happen.
Consider our global criminal justice system. There are many, many people in jails and prisons all over the world, and the sad truth is that they are as innocent as the most innocent of us. They were completely compelled to do what they did. They had absolutely no free choice in the matter. Naturally, we will need to maintain law and order in the world. We can’t have us simply do whatever we want to do, but to the extent that we transcend the illusion of free will, we will be seeing others and ourselves, and others will see themselves and us, in a completely different way.
When a police officer, or a judge, or we, as society, look at someone who has done something wrong, we’re not going to say, “that person’s evil, and deserves to be punished and suffer.” We’re going to instead say, “It’s very unfortunate that the person was fated to do something wrong,” and we may have to take certain measures, like separating that person from society. But when we’re relating to that person, we’re not going to be condemning them, and they will understand that whatever they did was not their fault. Remember that much of the pain that arises from the illusion of free will comes from self-blame. Our criminal justice system would be dramatically changed for the better, and we would be creating a much more compassionate world by overcoming the illusion of free will. Religion will also change profoundly.
Again, the concept of free will was coined by Saint Augustine sometime around 580 A.D. He wrote a book back then called De Libero Arbitrio, which is Latin for “on free will.” He was grappling with the notion of evil. Since according to the Judeo-Christian tradition, God is supposed to be omni-benevolent, or all good, he was considering the question “How can there be evil in the world?” His answer was that if it’s not God’s fault, it has to be our fault.
The foundation for most religions, and especially the condemning of people to hell or the rewarding of people with heaven, depends on the notion of free will. That’s something that will have to change. No longer can religion rightly call a person evil. We might refer to an act as evil, but the person will always be recognized and understood as innocent.
Once that happens, it’s no longer justifiable to have the belief that some of us go to heaven, while others of us go to hell. That paradigm no longer makes sense. God willing, we’ll adapt the belief that we all go to heaven. In truth, we don’t know what, if anything, happens after we die, and the belief that we all go to heaven seems the kindest, and most optimistic, belief available to us.
Our educational system will also change because, at present, we don’t teach our kids to be as happy and as good as possible. With the notion of free will comes the correlate that it doesn’t really matter what we teach kids about goodness and happiness. Those of us who buy into the myth of free will conclude that when kids grow older, they can completely ignore our teaching through their free will. To the extent that we understand that our human will is causal, and unconscious, and that free will is an illusion, we’ll understand how important it is to spend the proper resources to educate our kids in the best way. What we communicate to them is what they will express as adults.
The evidence demonstrating that we don’t have a free will is accumulating in the sciences, like neuroscience and psychology. In philosophy the logical arguments against free will – causality and the unconscious — have been understood since the time of the Greeks. Overcoming the illusion of free will will likely come in stages. A milestone happened in April, 2011 when the weekly science magazine New Scientist published a cover story on the nature of human will titled “Free Will; The illusion we can’t live without.”
One reason this is a milestone is that in the past magazines almost never covered free will, and never before through a cover story. The piece understands and asserts the fact that free will is an illusion. What will likely happen is that more of those kinds of articles will be published, initially in science magazines like Scientific American and Psychology Today. We’ll then begin to think about the matter a lot more. We’ll begin to understand how it relates to our personal lives. As we come to understand that free will is an illusion, this new and revolutionary truth will find its way into the more popular magazine, into our legal system, and into our educational system.
In our educational system today, we teach our kids that human behavior is the complete result of nature and nurture, but we don’t ever go beyond that. We don’t say that because of that, we don’t have a free will. But, as we begin to understand our causal, unconscious human will, this new understanding will become the standard teaching. It will be the way our kids, and the rest of us, are taught.
What will be the outcome? On a personal level, when two people are having some kind of disagreement, it’s not going to take the form of competition. They are not going to be in conflict – one against the other. They will both be on the same side, trying to figure out why fate is pitting them against each other – why fate is having one aggress against the other. As all of this takes place, there will be a profound and substantial change in our human consciousness.
I start each show with a quote from philosopher John Searle, who says that for free will to be understood as an illusion would be “a bigger revolution in our thinking than Einstein, or Copernicus, or Newton, or Galileo, or Darwin. It would alter our whole conception of our relation with the universe.” It will, in fact, be the most significant world change ever.
The purpose of life isn’t to understand that we don’t have a free will. But understanding this has its utility in helping us create a happier world. Ultimately as we become more aware of our lack of free will, and start structuring our societies and world based on that understanding, we’ll recognize that happiness is the main goal of our life. That may be a second kind of evolutionary shift in our consciousness and our world.
The world’s overcoming the illusion of free will may happen in ten years or less. Progress is happening relatively fast on this. The challenges we face, like climate change, demand such massive cooperation between us as individuals, and as countries, that if we are to meet them successfully, we have no realistic choice but to shift our understanding of our human will from the myth of a free will to the reality of a causal will.
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