Notes on free wills

Sure pal, like you turned out trustworthy. A different attitude on this and you wouldn't have fallen for the ring crap.

They’re really at the ‘no free will’ business right now, the skeptics. Someone pointed me to this article by Jerry Coyne, a fine example of the usual claim you have no choice in anything since you are a mere ‘meat computer’ that ‘must obey the laws of physics’. Of course there are more elegant anti-will claims. This is not one, this is a meatgrinder. One cannot help hearing the voice of the cyberman. Add in some ever-popular Freudian tango (“if this seems to deny something basic about your humanity, that only makes it more of a true revelation”), et voilà — one strangled personhood. And that is their aim.

As Volk points out, we can make changes in our physical brain structure through meditation, so the idea that our physicality limits us is wrong. Murphy wrote a very big book on that which Coyne would choke on. The autonomic can become consciously controlled via a couple of dozen disciplines at least. The use of the body against freedom is ironic as it is so often the source thereof. Since we also know ch’i exists and responds to intention, plus has the power to alter physical matter, the automated billiard ball psychological universe disappears on cue.

“We are biological creatures, collections of molecules that must obey the laws of physics,” Coyle says. “All the success of science rests on the regularity of those laws.” In other words, if you exercise free will you are betraying your own lifestyle and culture! Do you dare to contravene them even in thought, infidel?

Well you do and we can catch you at it. An important aspect of free will is “free won’t”, the ability to refuse or inhibit an impulse which even the Libet experiments, so often misused as skeptic ammunition, still allow. Goleman writes of the now-classic ‘marshmallow test’, in which four-year-olds are sat down opposite a marshmallow and told they can eat it, or wait for an adult to come back from an errand in which case they’ll get two. Impulse control was better in some kids than others and correlated to increased actualisation later in life — more control, more actualisation. A subsequent study found the area of the brain responsible for the inhibition as Goleman reported in 2007. It corresponds roughly to the dorsal fronto-median cortex.

“Free won’t” is actually like a muscle — we all have it, but attaining its potential requires work. The marshmallow routine should really be done not as a secretive test “on” children but as a training of them. If you have a kid do the test a few times and you will see improvement which feeds through into other areas.

Thus we have a property that not only exists measurably and differentially amongst humans but which can be shown to improve. Since improvement has been shown to correlate to happiness, to say that what one is improving “doesn’t exist” is just a reductionist sophistry, and a Trojan horse for the prevention of flourishing.

Marshmallows are low on the pyramid, challenge to achieve is high

How many who have done the marshmallow test realise it’s a spiritual training method? In Learning Ritual Magic Greer/King/Vaughn have a version where you bring a brightly-coloured object into a room and then do something for 10 minutes in that room but never look at the object. Same exact impulse control, same “free won’t” skill developing. But notice that the original marshmallow test used self-interested greed as a motivation (low on the hierarchy) where this one deliberately shows that no motivation is needed for an adult other than interest/challenge. True grit and other such subtleties are beyond the currency of Coyne since to him we only interpret neurotransmitters as motivations.

Free will training also shows relation to paradox that should surprise no-one — anyway no-one who has observed the effects of aporia. Mental patterns can be changed just as can physical ones if you know how. Kundalini involves a re-wiring of the nervous system, or “bein’ god-teched” as Glenn liked to say which radically reorientates the will.

“Free won’t” leads to free will since not-doing something is aided by doing something else. In another classic training exercise — I got it from Draja Mickaharic who I believe snagged it from Gurdjieff — a person walking home in a snowstorm reaches his front door but does not go in immediately; instead he walks around the block once first. Thus he strengthens his will. Here, free won’t or the refusal of gratification has been translated into free will or choice of alternative courses. (You could sing Ave Maria before going inside if you prefer.)

This is all related I think to the level of coalesced harmony and negentropy in the system, entrained around the decision-maker. That’s where knife edge is — when spirit is willing how is flesh doing? Through training, the answer to that question can change.

So much for the active form of free will. There is also a more subtle, paradoxical and probably fundamental form which is referred to as creativity. We saw last week how a Breakout or moment of inspiration can bring something new to the human system, which resolves stressful issues into harmonious relationship, and we also saw how it can be deliberately induced by giving up any attempt to consciously control. I often induce similar resolutions by Ericksonian trance. More sophisticated anti-willers like Wegner would say this is giving up free will, but of course you can choose to do it consciously and you thereby gain freedom. Meanwhile Coyne is far even from Wegner.

As with all concepts of intuition and inspiration, these are not things “I” do but appear from outside the closed circle of the personality. An argument for free will is not an argument for conventional personal identity or for the necessity of control. On the contrary, less control can mean more freedom. (This does not mean giving way to any “randomness” since randomness does not reduce disorder.)

Living closer to such inspiration is more alive, more on the pivot of the moment — there is a correspondence with the Taoist idea of Ziran — and this aliveness or creativity in the moment is to be contrasted with anything mechanical, which it is not. It runs rings around it. Morinaga calls it “dying in every moment”.

So we can cite some subconscious promptings as evidence of free will. How could Coyne even categorize this? (Deleuze wouldn’t have much problem with it though.) This is far from the last paradox to be enumerated since acceptance of reality as it is creates freedom of action, too, at least, yet seems to give up a freedom — the freedom of the illusory. There is no hope of solving this in physicalism. Acceptance of unwelcome reality for humans usually involves acceptance of death and the shadow, which are the keys to freedom. Thus to deny free will is probably to attempt to deny (“master”) death.

Maslow, not being bound up in any form of mechanistic thinking, says the following:

I must make a statement, even though it will certainly be disturbing to many theologians, philosophers, and scientists: self-actualizing individuals have more “free will” and are less “determined” than average people are. However the words “free will” and “determinism” may come to be operationally defined, in this investigation they are empirical realities.

Motivation and Personality

So here we have two good forms of free will. (I could also mention the longitudinal or diachronic aspect in which big freedoms accrue from small decisions repeated over time — even repeated mechanically, perhaps, which would be another paradox.) Let’s not take even the penny Coyne is trying to spend, let alone give him the pound of meat computer he wants.

All of this and I’ve barely touched on the transpersonal or what Coyne would call the ‘spooky’. The spooky quite plainly exists too, but I see I’ve been distracted by this stuff from more transpersonal things — next week I’ll make up for it. For now I just mention that opening the base chakra requires development of free won’t at the least, since the system must feel safe in increasing impulse power without its degradation into appetite.


4 responses to “Notes on free wills

  • Ben Iscatus

    Jason, That’s one of the best articles on free will I’ve seen, thank you.

    As you’re studying hypnotherapy, I wonder if you have any views about free will when under hypnosis, or, even more fundamentally, when we are asleep and dreaming?

    We think we’re free to act in our dreams, but when we wake up, we often realise that we were highly constrained, and that our dream actions were either irrational or largely determined by emotional reactions, presumably rising from deeper in the unconscious. We also tend to believe while dreaming that we really are our dream persona, but on awaking, that persona often seems to be a shadow or a pale version of who we believe we are. You see where I’m going with this – if our waking physical human self is likewise a dream persona of our soul…this calls into question the very nature of our supposed freedom.

    Whilst I could never agree with Mr Coyne’s mechanistic philosophy, I do nevertheless sometimes wonder whether we are much less free than we like to think. Or maybe I haven’t practiced my free-won’ts enough!

    • Jason Wingate

      You’re welcome. :)

      I only addressed if here, not how much. Quite possible for someone to self-delude on amount of personal free will, for sure; it’s trying to acquire some that shows its nature. Many people think they are free if they like their circumstances! As I say conventional personality = less free will and paradoxically must accept limitation to gain greater freedom.

      Your last remark is on the money since I say it’s always acquisition — acquire dream freedom and you go lucid, acquire waking freedom and you are more aware. It’s a variable quantity… one can test oneself to see how much one has in whatever dimension.

      Trance is different, you aren’t trying to be free at the time, but to set conditions to be more free when awake. A ritual would be similar. Many dreams of course are trying to show the way to freedom also.

      A lot of freedom is about the existence of constraint; that is what makes it possible.

  • badocelot

    For me, the light turned on when I read

    Basically, Long points out that if we didn’t have free will, it wouldn’t make sense to ever deliberate about anything, since the outcome would still be out of our control. Not only does that undermine rationality, but if that’s the case, then it doesn’t make sense to worry about whether or not to believe in free will, since we can’t help it either way.

    He goes on to talk about the interaction between free will and physics, and while he bills it as non-“spooky,” essentially he’s talking about magic. He points out that there is no “way things would have been” since matter is fundamentally probabilistic, so the will doesn’t need to change anything, it just needs to cause a particular possibility to actualize. In other words, the will is a formal cause.

    I’ll be darned if that doesn’t correlate with my understanding of magic, especially as explained by Greer/King/Vaughn. I mean, what they’re both talking about is controlling the downward flow of manifestation from conceptual form to physical substance.

    • Jason Wingate

      Fair enough… maybe I’ll go through the phil stuff properly at some point . Showing that free will does empirically exist seems sufficient counter to the idea that it “can’t”.

      I don’t actually practice “magic” as Greer et al. define it and the stuff I work with consciousnesswise goes through different routes, but I am always happy to steal good exercises. :)

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