Sunday, August 13, 2006

Meditation makes one aware that one does not have free will

Andy Smith Says: August 12th, 2006 at 9:49 am “The interior/exterior distinction is purely a human ‘narrative’ construct. Something is exterior only to our concept of an interior. The ability to conceive of such a distinction is only achievable by sentient beings at a certain level of development (we don’t know at what level this occurs). In other words, an interior is something a sentient being believes it has. It is the sum total of its subjective experiences, thoughts, feelings, sensations, ideas and fantasies. Do atoms have this subjective ‘interior’?
You are pointing to a (still larger) problem with Wilber V, the whole idea of perspectives. In his soon to be out book Integral Spirituality, he accepts the postmodern argument that there is no “given”, that the world as we understand it is created at our level. Now this doesn’t mean Wilber or pomos believe everything is created, a la Cohen. But it does imply that nothing like what we know as atoms (and molecules, and cells, etc.) actually existed until human beings evolved who were capable of perceiving these particular forms. As I discussed in my review of IS on Wilber’s site, this seems to call into question the entire four quadrant model. The notion that all these lower forms of existence have four quadrants only emerges with our species (and even then, only at a very recent date).
Indeed, the entire notion of evolution becomes difficult. We presently have a fairly coherent view of how life evolved on earth, beginning with atoms. Some of it, particularly the earliest events, is speculative, of course, but most scientists think the story hangs together pretty well. But if nothing like atoms, molecules, cells and so on actually exists outside of our particular perspective, what exactly did exist before us, and how did it develop into us?
As arguments like this suggest, the myth of the given is not really the solid orienting generalization, accepted by all right-thinking theorists today, that Wilber makes it out to be. There are some very prominent philosophers who don’t buy it, e.g., John Searle. Suppose we were to accept Searle’s view that atoms, cells, etc., in forms as we know them pre-existed us. Can we say anything about agency or interior that doesn’t sound totally fanciful?
You say: “I understand agency to be about choice. To have agency is to have the power to act. In the usual sense of the word this means a conscious act, choice. I do not think that atoms have agency. Atoms do not have choices. They do not act, they ‘react’. In what sense do atoms act? They are the passive objects that react to the laws of physics. They do not exercise choice.”
I would respond, we don’t have choice, in the sense of free will, either. What we can say definitely distinguishes us from atoms, and from other forms of existence we commonly describe as lower than ourselves, is that we have more “degrees of freedom”. I put that in quotes because it is a commonly used term, but I don’t mean freedom in the sense of free will. What an atom will do in any given situation is much more predictable (at least discounting quantum theory, which is another problem I don’t want to get into here) than what a human will do. This doesn’t prove that we have free will or what people commonly call choice. It just establishes that we are far more complex than atoms. A given series of events impinging on us (indeed, we are so much more complex than atoms that the range of what can be considered events that are relevant to our response our behavior is far greater) has a far less predictable result.
One way to look at it is in terms of states. An atom can exist in a limited number of states, so its response to some event is limited to its entering into one of these states. A molecule, composed of several or many atoms, has a great many more possible states of existence. If we were to hypothesize, simplisticially, that an atom could exist in only two states, a molecule of n atoms might exist in 2 to the nth number ot states. All of these states might not be possible, but clearly the molecule would have a great many more states available to it.
Hierarchy is about holons organizing together into higher holons. Molecules organize into cells, cells into organisms. By the time we get to humans, the number of possible states is truly beyond astronomical. If every cell in our brain could exist in only two states, on and off, the number of possible states our brain can take is beyond imagination.
This, I claim, is a somewhat simplified but basically valid way of understanding complexity. And it shows why our behavior can be so hard to predict. But it doesn’t establish that there is anything qualitatively, as opposed to quantitatively, different between ourselves and atoms. Many philosophers have tried to make arguments demonstrating that we have free will. I have never seen such an argument of this kind that worked. Take any supposedly free, chosen behavior by an individual, and there is no reason why it can’t be understood as the outcome of an enormous number of inputs on an even more enormous number of responding, organized holons. Even if one brings in elements of unpredictability such as chaos or quantumt theory, these do not support the notion of free will. They may indicate that some behaviors can never be predicted, but that doesn’t mean they were chosen freely.
Indeed, the notion of free will makes no sense to me. It seems to fall apart upon close examination. Ask yourself why you do anything and you should always be able to see it as the outcome of a weighting process of certain factors. If we make some decision that we call conscious, such as to move to another location or accept some job, how do we make that decision? By considering all the possible plusses and minuses. Where is there room in that process for free will? Are you going to intentionally make a choice that goes against the grain of these factors? Almost never do we, and if we do, I would say it’s because of yet another factor that tips the scale in the other direction.
Not all our decisions are what we call conscious, of course, but even less of a case for free will can be made for decisions involving unconscious factors. If we find ourselves making some decision without really understanding why, surely no one would call that a result of free will. I can’t prove that this is the way we work, of course, in a way that would convince others, but it seems far more plausible to me than the notion of free will. We evolved,like other forms of life, to do things that promote our survival. I don’t see where free will comes into the process of surviving. Survival is promoted by making the most appropriate action based on as much information as possible in a given situation. There is no room in that decision making process that I can see for free will.
There is, of course, a feeling or sense of free will. This is very deeply imbedded in us, so deeply imbedded that thinkers I believe ought to know better accept that we actually have it. But believing we have free will is not the same thing as having it, just as believing we are fully awake or conscious is not the same as being fully awake or conscious. I think our belief in free will is an evolutionary adaptation. Given that we have a sense of identity, we need to believe we are acting freely, or can act freely, for life to be worth living. If we really experienced at a profound level that we were not free, there would be no motive to survive.
Unless, of course, we used that experience to escape life, which is one good definition of meditation. Meditation should make one aware that one does not have free will, that one is asleep, that one simply responds, however complexly, to events impinging on us. I think this is the fundamental message of all spiritual disciplines.

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