Tag Archives: aporia

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.

Just say NO

The Breakout Principle -- actually rather useful

Soul change as problem solving requires a cookbook of methods, because many of the most successful operations turn on the unexpected. Humans enjoy a change, are good at backs-to-the-wall rhetorical creativity, and use aporia — a Greek word for the whaaa? blankness Socrates aimed to induce in his interlocutors — to open the mind.

Common sense is valuable but far from sufficient. At some point soon I’ll go over a panoply of methods that can concatenate to loosen the frames which normally prevent reality dawning in humans. Cycling through different mindstates can be very helpful. There is no single ‘correct’ mindstate in which to transmute the “stuff” although obviously some are more useful than others. A main point is to approach what you are handed creatively rather than settling for regular meanings.

Herbert Benson got some of this down to a science around a decade ago. He summed up his findings in a book co-authored with William Proctor, The Breakout Principle (2003). I’ll give the quick version and those who like the sound can buy it to dip into since it’s quite cheap now like most of my recommends.

The sequence of states in a breakout -- but don't take the vertical axis too literally. (It's not "measuring" anything.)

What we have here is a way to deliberately generate a “Breakout” which is a moment of creative inspiration. It can involve a Maslovian peak experience, the solution to a dilemma, clearing a health issue, etc. The way to engineer one reliably amounts to: 1) work heavily on the problem, then 2) let go of it and do something unrelated, which induces 3) a ‘breakout’ from the subconscious bodymind, that appears to come from outside the normal personality, resulting in 4) a better ordering of the original situation by a sudden inspiration, an aha!.

Yerkes-Dodson stress-performance curve -- performance initially improves with stress/activation but then declines

The initial struggle with the problem or situation being worked is necessary, because a certain amount of stress is productive so long as it doesn’t pass the Yerkes-Dodson peak, so getting familiar with one’s personal stress tolerances and gradually raising their thresholds by all the usual techniques is time well spent. The ability to lower stress is the only safe partner for raising it.

Then at a certain point the idea is to give up completely on wrestling with the problem and do something unrelated which brings on relaxation response and parasympathetic activation combined with enjoyable clear-minded concentration. Benson has found nitrous oxide, NO, will be released into the bloodstream at this point, which counters the stress hormones. William James would be proud. Qigong or callisthenics, meditation or yoga, hypnoid trance or prayer or ritual, may be excellent, but are not exclusive triggers. One of the coolest real-life examples in the book has needlepoint as the letting-go. Music, drumming, fishing and even folding laundry have been used. The point is to zone troublelessly.

Dancing would work

I often do gentle work of this kind but major fistshaking stuff can also be done if desired. Then you can give up and admit “you” cannot solve your life (that is equivalent to a quite minor kind of ‘death’ for the dramatically inclined) whereupon it solves itself. This sort of thing is mentioned in zen koan training descriptions and has made Rinzai students sweat buckets before now. Ironically, as we know from multiple traditions and some Hollywood movies, the moment when it’s all too much and you can’t cope is the prelude to rebirth, so hold off on the suicide and watch the Marx Brothers as Woody Allen recommends for his particular peak experience. (It takes all sorts.)

This works well for emotional acceptance and to short-circuit cultural arguments which are being made dramatically by other people. I prefer things to be humming along more efficiently and peacefully most of the time but numerous new age guru types (you know, the ones who can’t be bothered to learn qigong) describe their ‘enlightenment’ events as happening at the end of much depressed hacking through questions about life’s meaning etc. When younger I did some of that myself and had quite a time. Bill Wilson founded Alcoholics Anonymous on the back of a similar experience including bright light and an elation followed by deep serenity.

Andrew Wiles only proved Fermat’s famous theorem when, following a month of despair as his mass of initial work was pulled apart by critics (= heavy stress), he simply admitted he couldn’t do it (= aporia) and tried to see why — his reaction when he found he suddenly had after all is a nice juicy subject-based peak breakout:

suddenly, totally unexpectedly, I had this incredible revelation […] it was so indescribably beautiful, it was so simple and so elegant, and I just stared in disbelief for twenty minutes…

Singh (1998)

… etc. Unlike Wilson, Wiles was unlikely to shout, “So this is the god of the preachers!” in response to that moment, but as a manifestation of mathematical beauty his otherwise similar experience is quite in line with the Platonic path. Plato would insist this “beautiful and good” can be experienced without any other content and the kundalini-ist would concur. This is also a classic Maslovian peak.

Such a subject-based breakout in some ways is possible only because there is still a strong idea of a personality with boundaries around it, which the kundalini experience will take away permanently (trance does so only temporarily) providing more direct access to inspiration and body energy as one realises “I am also that which I thought I was not”… the usual emergence stuff. But even with no meditation practice, with the Benson Breakout you learn losing can be winning — in a personal rather than a doctrinaire way — which will do wonders for enjoying life.

I’m trying to move this towards a situation of continual creative solving in every moment, which I think is what human beings do. Such events can also be ‘seeded’ with prior trance work — much fun to be had with that as you just watch it pay off. It obviously helps to keep general stress down with basic practices as mentioned before. Social “sole ownerships of meaning” can be readily circumvented with all this. (It seems to occur to relatively few spontaneously that they use language normally only to relate to other people, not to themselves.)

You can also see this as manipulation of different types of entrainment, ref. last post.