Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Freedom and Free Will

I don’t believe in free will. We are not, in my opinion, free agents enacting Power of Choice decisions as sovereigns in a world of discreet and separate objects. That is an immature, solipsistic perception.

I believe in free will. Free will is the most beautiful thing. It emerges from bondage, necessarily. A fully isolated ‘person’ or ‘thing’ can do nothing; unsupported by the infinitely complex networks of environmental systems and subsystems, no system can be, or, as Charles Eisenstein puts it, inter-be. Nothing makes sense in isolation, and there is no such thing as nothing. No ‘thing’ can ‘be’ in isolation; existence is and can only be interbeing. And as you can see, we need new words to speak this new language, to tell the new story. Our language, which has us by the throat (pun intended), is too immaturely dualistic to sing the new tune emerging now all around us. The transition involves in part the acceptance and embracing of paradox. Opposites unite. Division is illusion. Illusion is reality. All interbeing.

Freedom stems etymologically from friendship. The taproot of freedom is therefore bondage, debt, obligation, embededness, necessity. Unless you are bound to the network which enables you, that is, unless you inter-are, you cannot inter-be, cannot exist or act, in which case freedom is utterly moot. ‘Free will’ is an expression for chance, or wriggle-room. The future is not predictable, not controllable, just like (what we call) the present (I do not know what time is, or ‘inter-is’). Unpredictability and uncontrollability are what free will is. It is not sovereignty. Free will is an emergent property operating at the level of a meta-self, a supra-agency no ego can perceive. It cannot be owned, it cannot be controlled, though the real illusion of control emerges from it. I could not be writing these comprehensible words were that not the case, though they emerge from me beyond my control. There is no sovereign Toby Russell autonomously doing this, despite what my ego-experience tells me. Toby Russell is the embedded vehicle enabling the emergence of that which emerges from him. 

Totalitarianism, or purity, which is about controlling all possible outcomes in the name of some ideology or other, impedes ‘freedom’ by fearfully refusing to allow ‘chaos’ and ‘anarchy’ to upset, spoil or otherwise make ‘messy’ some preferred vision of How Things Should Be. This possibility, this Dream of Human Ascent is as natural as rain, emerged by ‘chance’ out of chance, e.g., with ‘inventions’ such as the Taming of Fire (though other animal tool-use precedes this, is a ‘preparation’ of sorts, as is all prior evolution, in a way). Control is born by ‘accident’, totalitarianism its unforeseen descendant. All forms of the state tend towards totalitarianism because they are fundamentally about control, and as such must get ‘better’ at it to survive. This is a great paradox, since the anonymity of The Wild seems to beckon if we relinquish our grip, our control. Slippery, slippery slope!

We must feed the beast, for the beast is necessity. It is our relationship with it which determines how bound-free we are. There will always be debt. There is no freedom but that it arises from necessity and bondage as the wriggle-room in which creativity and change can occur. Carl Jung said, “Free will is doing gladly that which one must do.” Bondage is embeddedness in and emergence out of the environmental network of systems which enable us, which paradoxically yield freedom, or chance, which we might think of as the space for change, which yields suffering and joy, ‘opposites’ united by their interbeing.

I talk of chance as if it were fundamental, and yet deeper still there is design. The very fact we have the word and ‘understand’ it is evidence enough. Universe has birthed the concept, the perception. Therefore design is of Universe, of its fabric, is no new, accidental and separate epiphenomenon of ‘matter’. Intelligent design unknowing, blind. Blind, intelligent design, Dawkins’ worst nightmare; the intelligent, blind watchmaker interwoven into everything. There is nothing which is not god. There is only god. All horror and beauty ever perceived included, and everything else too. This is the bitter sweet pill. 

Woodie Guthrie sang, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” When you let go of the illusion of control, fall backwards into whatever embrace nature has in store for you, accepting, then you know ‘freedom’. It is the heady and liberating air of necessity. In a world of fear, control and ‘ownership’, freedom becomes the worst kind of rigid bondage. Today we have Consumerism, dying for any number of reasons. We are drenched through with its fear, and its fear of demise. Our systems of propaganda, which we each feed and sustain as we are fed and sustained by them, paint my definition of freedom as shoddy poverty, ‘raw’ nature as idle resources “red in tooth and claw.” My position here is (partly) from Rousseau of course, except that I can no longer be ‘against’ any of that which I disparage. Being against the state or the market or the corporation is like being against solar flares or hurricanes or the human orgasm. Does this mean I no longer have the will to battle for a better life (whatever that is)? Yes. And it means also I have more desire than ever. Good is bad, everything is natural, and I can’t not fight for the love of life I feel. Love is the liberating bond freeing me to inter-be.

Charles Eisenstein:
“I want you to listen to this paradox, really not with your mind or your reason that tries to figure it out, but I want to just kind of let it sit in the atmosphere, and for you to feel. So the paradox is this:

The more beautiful world our heart tells us is possible is inevitable. It is going to happen. 100% sure. And it will only happen through the exertion of our full efforts and the application of all of our gifts. If you don’t apply all of your gifts to this, then it’s not going to happen. Yet it is inevitable that it will happen.”

Julian Jaynes:
“The critical problem with most of these studies is that if the subject decided beforehand to look for such contingencies, he would of course be conscious of what he was learning to do. One way to get around this is to use a behavioral response which is imperceptible to the subject. And this has been done, using a very small muscle in the thumb whose movements are imperceptible to us and can only be detected by an electrical recording apparatus. The subjects were told that the experiments were concerned with the effect of intermittent unpleasant noise combined with music upon muscle tension. Four electrodes were placed on their bodies, the only real one being the one over the small thumb muscle, the other three being dummy electrodes. The apparatus was so arranged that whenever the imperceptible thumb-muscle twitch was electrically detected, the unpleasant noise was stopped for 15 seconds if it was already sounding, or delayed for 15 seconds if it was not turned on at the time of the twitch. In all subjects, the imperceptible thumb twitch that turned off the distressing noise increased in rate without the subjects’ being the slightest bit conscious that they were learning to turn off the unpleasant noise.”


Debra said...

Hi Toby,
A few comments.
First,I agree with almost everything in this post... (whew..)
I happen to think that the free will problem obscures the problem of choice, and that the word "free" is a grenade.
We have lots of choices in our daily lives. And individual choice means individual power AND responsibility, without having to bring in concerns about system, and being interdependant, in my opinion.
Freedom doing gladly what I must do ?
Not exactly. Not automatically, because who is going to define for me.. what I MUST do ?
I prefer to say that freedom is the capacity to assume the consequences of one's acts. Without necessarily being glad about it.
I told my son a long time ago that in certain circumstances (but not all...), freedom DID entail disciplining himself to do something that, if he did not do it, somebody else would MAKE HIM DO IT.
But all of us must decide just how far we will go in this direction.
Last week I saw a film where Jane Fonda played an older woman who decides to not be treated for her cancer. She chooses to.. DIE. Sorry, Toby, but I happen to think that that, as an exercise of choice, is an exercise of free will.
Freedom is a slippery question, right ? It remains.. elusive.
Your last quote is what I call... pushing against doors that were opened a long time ago (a French expression).
Freud's "discovery" of the unconscious was the discovery that entire continents of "us" escaped from the control of our conscious mind (not entirely synonymous with "ego", because for Freud, the ego also has an unconscious dimension, but it IS synonymous with control. Even unconsciously, we seek.. control).
Why is that STILL a problem for us ??
Could it be that old CARTESIAN DUALISM that keeps getting in the way ??
Yesterday I sat down at the piano and worked for quite a while with my eyes closed.
I can play my music with my eyes closed with very few mistakes, even with large leaps, and funnily enough, when I play with my eyes closed, I can relax much better than when my (ego...) eyes are trained on my right, dominant, hand.
We have overdeveloped our (frontal cortex) vision, with unwanted consequences for our perception of universe.
Relinquish control ? CLOSE YOUR EYES.
Dixit... Sophocles, in "Oedipus Tyrannos". When Oedipus blinds himself, he begins to see.
If we are not as stubborn, and unlucky as Oedipus, we don't have to put our eyes out. JUST CLOSE THEM..

Toby said...

"who is going to define for me.. what I MUST do ?"

Not you. Nor anyone else, and that is the point. What we experience as decision is reaction. At least, one can build a very good case that it is so. When we 'decide' upon an 'action' we are reacting to enormous amounts of stimulus, both perceived and not. 'Decisions' are a dance of forces resulting in perceived outcomes. The human ego experiences agency, but agency only seems to exist in the way we ego-experience it.

The Jaynes quote is from a book published in 1976 ("The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind"), a wonderful book, with lots of good stuff in there, but Jaynes, as is so often the case, doesn't pursue his thinking as far as he might. I did not quote from it because it is new, but because it is still pertinent today. Very few people are aware of this. The ego wants to believe it is the king of the castle, and we have an enormous set of systems promoting that day and night, paradoxically (what else) leading to the most sheep-like society I suspect humanity has ever known.

As to responsibility and obligation, I believe in them as I believe in 'free' will; within the context of the paradoxes that give rise to them. In the case of things like obligation, I suspect it is for reasons of pragmatism that I accept them, but also because creativity, which is also freedom in a way, is divine, and the "I" which does not exist as we think it does, is divine (whatever that is) nevertheless, is both embedded in The One as it is 'sovereign'. Again, a paradox, a blind spot the ego cannot quite perceive. And language does not help us here at all.

Debra said...

One way of talking about "reaction" is that no one on this earth is self created.
There is no such thing as a self made man...
The "I" as divine is the central tenet of Judaïsm, Toby..
We have a hard time conjugating our Jewish/Greek heritage.
They are so... opposed in many ways.
As I wrote back in the last post, it is really sad that we have allowed ourselves to become so ignorant about our past in our.. HURRY to produce the future.
If we were not so ignorant, we would recognize these debates as arising.. more than 2500 years ago.

Toby said...

Yes, Debbie, these are age old issues, yet I continue to believe that change is the only constant.

I used the word divine, but don't really like it. A blade of grass, a mote of dust, is divine, has an "I" which I think of as a unique and unforeseeable destiny. Perhaps that's what I mean by divine, but also with a twist of perception on top.

As to self creation, there is a theory I am very fond of called autopoiesis, which emerged from the Santiago school of systems theory a few short decades ago. Autopoiesis means self creating, and is used to capture the essence of the emergence of living systems from non-living systems. A more prosaic expression might be 'pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.' Gravity keeps things in place, but what keeps gravity in place? Perhaps the nuclear forces. But what keeps them in place? Perhaps space time and gravity. But what keeps them in place? Everything inter-supports. Nothing is or was an uncaused caused. Reality is not linear, it is self creating, but the ego only gets to experience the ride while believing it is in control. This is the blind spot the ego cannot see, the self creating center, the eye of the storm, the constant of 'change is the only constant'.

If there is no self creation (non-ego), then there is a creator. But then who created the creator? Infinite regress. The only way out of infinite regress I am aware of is self creation, non-linear development, and infinitely complex interrelationships mutually supportive and stressing.

Debra said...

Toby, Edwardo and I had a discussion a while ago, and last night I picked up a whiff of this problem on a French blog, where a guy said that he was resorting to personnification more and more...
The creator gives human form to system/process.
You may think it is reductionist, but it allows identification, and connexion to develop, what process does not allow for.
So... which is reductionist, personnification or systems point of views ?
Perhaps each has its advantage, and each its disadvantage...
But remember that "I'm just doing my job" is a perfect illustration of the systems mindset...

Toby said...

"The creator gives human form to system/process.
You may think it is reductionist, but it allows identification, and connexion to develop, what process does not allow for."

I disagree. Identification is already there in the process, in the process of cooperation and interbeing which is, in part, systems emerging from systems. Identity or point of perception is not in any way mutually exclusive from One, from networks of systems self creating, where the self that emerges is the thing 'created.'

I think "I'm just doing my job" is there anyway, whatever happens, whatever world view we use as our filter. Who punishes, who 'decides' what is right and wrong? How does that process happen? Who commands it, knowing utterly that they are 'right.' There is no God of that type, the Daddy in the clouds, all-knowing. And yet the emergence of this paternal idea is evidence that such is part of Universe. I can ask Why, but I can't answer it.

So, to be arrogant for a second, what you say is true, but it is a subset of my position. ;-) Identity is part of process, as is responsibility. There's no get out of jail free card, just because our immature notions of free will might suggest such is the case, when we remove sovereignty from our equations. Universe is not chaos being held together by Hobbesian discipline. Hobbesian discipline emerges from Universe as a process, just as egalitarianism did/does. Both are responses to environmental stimuli as they shape the environment in an ongoing negative (sometimes positive) complex of interrelating and inter-influencing feedback loops. This does not remove culpability or agency at some (or many) levels, it merely offers us a different perspective, one I feel the world sorely needs right now.

Edwardo said...

An excellent salvo, Toby, in favor of what is, essentially, a subscription to a publication I'll dub "Messy Determinism."

I particularly like this comment from you:

"The human ego experiences agency, but agency only seems to exist in the way we ego-experience it."

A simpler, but not necessarily simplistic way of describing the flaw in the doctrine/concept of free will is that we simply don't fully understand, except in mostly superficial ways, why we choose door no. 1 over door no. 2

So, you really don't have genuine agency with respect to your proclivity to write blog essays, and why you are most comfortable understanding the nature of human agency in the way that you do.

Also, I would like to suggest that it's not that we can't predict the future, we just can't know with any certainty when the substance of our predictions may be in sync with what the future holds. This is, I believe, more or less, a restatement of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle.

Toby said...

Hi Edwardo,

long time no see! And it's good to 'see' you again.

I agree. It's the notions of future and predictability which most puzzle me. To me, the most important part of this post is that I do not understand time. Our culture has matured with linear thinking in an atomized Universe, and I strongly believe the 'opposite' (for want of a better word) is truer. We also apprehend Universe from a desperately human perspective, for obvious reasons, a limitation very hard to 'escape'. And language is not our friend here, rather a straight jacket requiring all sorts of tricks and deceptions before we can begin to do justice to the intuitions now (once more) bubbling to the surface of our collective awareness—albeit in low (though growing, I feel) numbers at the ego-level.

Debra said...

Toby, I think that we are at a point where our essential hurt is in disintricating planes the need to be fused together, and that language CAN hold together, if we allow it to.
The Jewish conception of God is one that intricates the imaginary, human like being, with the symbolic "system" perspective that you are talking about.
This intrication runs all the way through the old testament.
Freud was interested in disintrication as separating vital life forces, and Lacan went on to pinpoint destroying metaphor as a means of destroying intrication.
When Pascal said "the heart has its reasons that reason doesn't know", he wasn't talking about that Cartesian machine that pumps how many gallons an hour, and beats so many beats a minute...
Hello, Edwardo. Long time no see, as we say. Why not.. stick around a little bit, if you feel inclined ? I appreciate what you add to our discussions.

Toby said...

Hi Debbie,

I was just talking with Annette about this post this morning, and saying sacrifice to the paternal God, even of one's son (who was asked to do so?) is the Old Testament equivalent of my suggestion that freedom is falling backwards into fate's embrace, faithful, accepting of the possibility of death. For the first time in my life I am beginning to feel what that means, and how intense the difference between reading, pondering and writing, and really 'doing' (whatever that means) is. And though the weather this brings with it is turbulent, this is the very richness I seek, rough and smooth. I'd rather die than be dead, if you follow me. The hardest part is not threatening the future prosperity (whatever that is) of my children, who have less choice in the matter than do I. I would die for them, as all parents, but I was unable to live a dead life for them. I could not give them that. That's something of a source of guilt in me.

Debra said...

Toby, may I suggest that a truly rich, and feeling, sentient life, is one where we take the time to read, write, ponder, AND observe, feel, act.
Embracing complexity, fleshing ourselves out beyond cardboard cartoon, two dimensional characters.
Resorting to all our senses, and our experiences in life (including our reading...) in order to construct a complex vision of our being in this world.
On the sacrifice of Isaac, if that is what you are talking about (the sacrifice of Jesus is not the same thing...), some rabbinic interpretations insist that God was indeed testing Abraham, but not quite the same way as we have understood it.
God demands that Abraham TRUST that the sacrifice will be provided, and that he arrive with empty hands. Abraham, on the other hand... NOT SEEING THE SACRIFICE, and not having personally provided it (ego control), assumes that the sacrifice is Isaac. (In a context where human sacrifice was still thinkable, this assumption was perhaps logical ?)
Since the Old Testament is unique in that it presents narrative of men and women in the grips of their passions, in their foibles, their engagement and disengagement with God, well, Abraham is not a model/example in this scene.
The ram is there, Toby, when Abraham arrives. God didn't want Isaac as a sacrifice, he wanted Abraham to abandon himself to God's plan for him...
Big difference.
Every generation since Abraham gives in to the temptation of understanding God as a big daddy with a stick, ready to punish or give a carrot when we behave.
It is as old as man, this temptation, Toby.
But... it is a particularly immature way of seeing God, and it obscures, to me, the true nature of a God which ? guarantees a particular logos which cannot be separated from a particular vision of man as SUBJECT of his experience.
Man can be a subject under the condition that he recognizes the subjectivity/transcendance of God.
If he refuses, well... something else happens.
As you point out, there is no action, there is only reaction.
To the extent that our Judeo Christian tradition is still very much a part of us, I doubt that we can extricate ? ourselves from it without taking us, and the ship down with us...
Any new paganism will still be a reaction against our Judeo Christian heritage.
And I fear a new paganism, Toby.
It will not be very... humanist...

Tao Jonesing said...

We must feed the beast, for the beast is necessity. It is our relationship with it which determines how bound-free we are. There will always be debt.

But must that debt bear compounding interest in perpetuity?

Debra said...

Tao, every 7 years, the Jewish people celebrated a jubilee year.
During that year, the slaves who desired to be freed were freed, and debts were FORGIVEN, among other provisions.
The word for erasing debt is to forgive it..
Appropriate, she says.

Tao Jonesing said...


You answered my question close to perfectly (although I was thinking of the people of Sumer, who predate the Jewish people).

History tells us that the answer to my question is no.

Debra said...

Tao, my readings took me to Descartes' Method, part 6, where Descartes pens a momentous phrase which shows, to my mind, the great extent to which modern industrialist society is a rewrite of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and extremely indebted to it.
I think that... the promise to Abraham, that his descendance would be multiplied, and as numerous as the uncountable stars in the sky is what is behind our INFINITE productivity behavior at this time.
Think about it.. the original commandment was to be fruitful and multiply. Through the sexual act, by having children.
Now.. look at Western birth rates. Are we multiplying ?
Na. Not at all. But we are certainly multiplying... our debt, for example.
Anything to keep multiplying.
But it is difficult to say to what extent the command to multiply is not to a very great extent an imperative of the species.
Personally, I would rather multiply.. by having sweaty, sex with my husband than multiply debt, or mass produced objects on a hygienic industrial scale, but gotta stick that multiplication somewhere..
Haven't you noticed to what extent we have discouraged the sweaty, one on one multiplication in favor of all those other multiplications ?
Freud was right on that one, I think...

Toby said...

Sorry guys, I'm extremely busy and can't respond for a week or so.

Malagodi said...

so many words. we throw up symbols like chimps chattering over fruit. we are a species of chatterers.
every expression of energy as material produces, as an aspect of that expression, a particular perspective. it is nothing more than a unique angle vis-a-vis other angles.

to borrow an old phrase, perspectives are as numerous as grains of sand in the Ganges.
scientists have recently found that the proteins in blood, mucus and milk, when mixed with a substrate material, self-organize into transistors - on/off switches. transistors allow for the possibility of memory. memory allows for the possibility of cognition and recognition. recognition allows for the possibility of 'self' identifying systems.
there is indeed a very great difference between writing and doing. one is symbolic, the other is the actual expression of power. this is what gives 'force' to your moral dilema, to act but not to injure your offspring by your action. and it is precisely the evidence of free will.
[the historic meaning of 'free will' is set in a moral context, not a mechanical one.]

Debra said...

Steven, I offer the Cartesian dualism perspective again.
Writing IS doing....
If writing were not doing, how do you think that Christianity would continue having the effects on us that it STILL has on us ?
The question is.. what kind of doing is it ?
We remain incredibly blind to the extremely powerful effects of our symbolic systems on us, even as we extol the virtues of.. "action" in opposition to them.
A false dualism, she says...

Toby said...

Debbie, that was a wonderful response, apologies for getting to it so late. Unlike you though, I don't fear a new paradigm any more than I fear the old one, nor any less, because, as you imply, this is 'bigger' than the 'individual', transcends the ego, and we will be danced with it in whatever direction we unknowingly and collectively want to dance it. We aren't in control anyway, so why let fear characterize our relationship to change? Isn't that what faith is about?

Tao, right now I would say, don't feed that positive interest bearing debt beast, but I can't rule out such a money system being appropriate again someday. Never say never, right?

Stephen, I agree with Debbie's response to your comment; beware dualism, it'll catch you every time. There is only doing, which is reaction anyway, and chattering is part of that, as is farting, creating 'art', etc. Birds chatter, chimps chatter, humans chatter. Being silent and 'in the moment' is cool and all that, but there is no better, just change. In my increasingly humble opinion.