Originally posted 16 Oct 2003. Hmmm. My view in some ways is just as it was then. A person is an inseparable part of a unitary unfolding process, so has no independent control, no free will.
Crucially, though, in my view today, I am not that person. I (and you, and any sentience) am the experiencing of the unitary unfolding process. Even as That, I don't make choices about how history unfolds moment-to-moment. It unfolds as it does because of what / how I AM rather because of what / how I CHOOSE. The process itself contains all the choices (and everything else).
This all probably sounds very strange to readers who haven't explored / come across eastern philosophies or wisdom traditions. My brief, bold statement brushes over important nuance. I promise that much of this blog site's content (for better or worse...) will be about exactly this!
Explaining our actions
Ever have to explain why you did something?
'Why did you drop out of college?'
'I thought all the classes were boring.'
Well, imagine if the interrogator never took any answer as the final word, but rather asked about it as well.
'Why did you find them boring?'
'They didn't seem to have any practical value.'
'Why was it important to you that they had practical value?'
'Because I wanted to use what I learned to get a job quickly.'
'Why did you want to get a job quickly?' . . . and so on.
Eventually, one of several things would happen:
No free will
The truth of the matter is that the causes of our thoughts, decisions and actions are so complex that they could never be accurately traced. The tangled web of inter-dependencies is effectively infinite. What no one has been able to make any sense of, as far as I know, is how they can rest in some cause-free agent, some unmoved mover that sits at the heart of each of us. Even if there is a soul or a brain-independent mind within each of us (which I certainly don't believe), then ascribing an action to it without some reason for that action being taken is tantamount to calling the action arbitrary rather than the result of any will.
But our evolutionary programming and our social conditioning drive us towards a (often implicit) belief that there is some agent called 'I' that somehow stands outside of the causal chain that drives the rest of existence. We can't help but believe that our decisions flow ultimately from that 'I', not from precedents, causes outside it. We are very uncomfortable with the idea that our decisions and actions are determined, because that flies in the face of our subjective feeling that we possess free will.
It also undermines the way that most of us think about our own morality and the moral responsibility of others. If everything I do is determined, not 'freely' chosen by this imagined 'I', then how can any one action be said to be right and another wrong? How can I hold someone responsible for his actions, including his crimes, if he had no real choice? Is punishment justifiable?
The nature of self
Can the philosophically-strong case for determinism be squared with our inbred and socially-driven need for a sense of free will? No, not in a pure sense. The truth is that our actions are not 'free' in the sense that we all assume them to be. They are, I think, free in a lesser sense, but not one consistent with the existence of free will.
We feel that we have free will because feeling so made our ancestors more able to cope in their world. They needed to differentiate between themselves and others; they needed to be able to read others' intentions and feelings; they needed a sense of righteous anger to enforce tacit, reciprocally altruistic, contracts. Feeling we have free will remains very important today, at the very least because it underpins our conception of morality by making us feel responsible for our own actions and making us hold others responsible for theirs. We might descend into nihilism if, as a race, we were to disavow our free wills. Yet none of this means that we do have free will.
The causes for our actions, as I mentioned before, are infinitely complex. They reach back to the beginning of time and involve countless threads. In fact even the notion of causal threads is just a simplifying tool. What really exists is a continuous flow, as opposed to discrete events. We can 'slice' this flux rationally (and our brains evolved to do so because they had to) into objects, actions, people and words. We can impose discreteness on the flux.
But 'we' are part of the flux. Our sense of unity and identity are essential to survival, but they are tricks nonetheless. Our physical matter turns over several times in the course of our lives; our ideas change; we are impacted by the world around us, including the other people around us. We are collections of living cells, vehicles for replicating genes, drops in the social milieu.
Using the simplifying tool of the thread analogy, we are short-term knots of an endless collection of causal strings that stretch through time. Even at any one precise instant, we are connected to other knots through the impact, intended and otherwise, of our words and actions on them and their impact on us.
Try to think of yourself not just as the person you are now, but as also including all of the causes through time that led to that person - the history of the physical matter that makes you up, the history of the information resident in your genes, the history of the ideas that populate your mind. These are individual histories - each particle has one, each thought, each codon. And the history of each one of those intertwines with an uncountable number of other histories.
Now project to the future. Your physical body will die, decompose and be recycled by nature. Your ideas will impact those with whom you shared them. Your actions impact all of future time in a countless web of interactions, threads running forward from this moment.
Consider not just the present knot, but also these forward- and backward-reaching conical nets as 'you'. And what happens? You see your fundamental interconnectedness with all that is. You see that your existence now as this knot is a tiny part (albeit the most important one to you as a live, conscious being) of the you that fills eternity. Having existed for one moment, you just as surely reach throughout time and much of space. Realising that your actions reverberate in eternity, perhaps you think more carefully about them. Because your time as this knot is such a special one in your overall existence, perhaps you appreciate it more.
As I type that word I think of the Star Wars saga. There was much talk of destiny there. Real Star Wars fanatics may correct me on this, but I don't think that anyone in the story correctly identified his own or anyone else's destiny. If they did, then that stands out as a major departure from reality. Just because everything we do has an endless history of causes, just because we are destined to act in a certain way, does not mean that we or anyone else has the slightest idea what that destiny is. That's the beauty of the infinite complexity within and beneath us - it can't be unravelled.
Fatalism, in the sense of giving up and relinquishing responsibility for yourself and actions, need not and should not set in when you accept that destiny is real. You choose something because of the interplay among an unfathomable set of historical causes, but that set is you. It is you making the choice, not in that you are an independent will outside the causal flow of existence, but in that you are the unique confluence of a particular, indescribably complex network of rivulets, currents within the sea of all that exists.
No need to appeal to a supernatural soul or mind. Your self is one with your destiny and your legacy, and all of these lie comfortably within the natural world.