Monday, June 16, 2014

It's a Free Country

"'Free-will' is nothing but the will of God freed of the passions and impulses arising from the false ego.  The so-called 'free-will' of the murderer or thief is not a 'free' will at all, but one that is constricted and obscured by the false sense of ego, and its attendant desires."  *

"...when the heart surrenders willingly to the Divine hold, it becomes free of the manipulation of the lower self.... Paradoxically, such freedom is reflected by a letting go of choices....  When the will of the heart becomes one with the will of God, then whatever God chooses for the seeker the heart accepts with no resistance...."  **

Free-will is a tricky concept.  Do we have free-will, or not?  It depends on who you talk to.  To me, it seems obvious that we have a free will.  I certainly feel like I make completely independent choices, good or bad.  I also believe that this God-given ability to make choices explains why there is suffering in the world, and why there is love.  If we did not have any freedom of choice, we would be automatons, machines, or forever victims of circumstance.   However, many scientists, psychologists and philosophers say that free-will is an illusion, and that, really, the choices we make are completely wrapped up in our DNA, our upbringing, our physical state in the moment, and other matters beyond our control.

Sam Harris, in his little red book "Free Will," states, "Free will is actually more than an illusion (or less), in that it cannot be made conceptually coherent.  Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.  If a man's choice to shoot the president is determined by a certain pattern of neural activity, which is in turn the product of prior causes -- perhaps an unfortunate coincidence of bad genes, an unhappy childhood, lost sleep, and cosmic-ray bombardment -- what can it possibly mean to say that his will is 'free'?" (pg.6)  His argument is persuasive, but I wondered about the people that don't succumb to their environment or DNA, who rise above bad genes, an unhappy childhood, etc.

Harris argues that we simply cannot have free-will because our thoughts arise spontaneously, not consciously.  He supports this by referring to psychologist Benjamin Libet's famous study in which subjects were asked to watch a computer screen of randomly appearing letters, push one of two buttons, and state which letter was on the screen at the time they decided to push a button.  During the experiment, each subject's brain activity was measured.  The results of the experiment showed that areas of the brain "lit up" 7 to 10 seconds prior to a subject's conscious awareness of having made a decision.  Harris writes, "One fact now seems indisputable:  Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next -- a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please -- your brain has already determined what you will do."  (pg. 9) 

I had a lot of questions when I read this.  I didn't get the connection between the results of the experiment and free-will.  All it revealed to me was that the brain becomes active before a person consciously makes a decision.  It says, essentially, that I have many thoughts before I make a decision about any one of them.  Ah... is that surprising?   At an impasse to understand Harris' argument, I put his book back on the shelf.

Later on, however, Libet's experiment was described in another book I was reading, and this time I decided to look into the experiment myself.  Unfortunately I wasn't able to read the actual experiment without paying an exorbitant fee, but, thankfully, other scientists were more generous with their work.  One philosophy of science article thoroughly described Libet's and the follow-up experiments and examined their conclusions in terms of established standards of logical reasoning***.  The authors of this paper, after much detailed explanation, drew the conclusion that there was no causal relationship between the results of the experiment and free will.  And I learned that even Libet himself speculated that it may be possible for the conscious mind to "veto," rather than initiate complex action.  If it's possible to say "No" freely, it is also possible to say "Yes" freely.  So, maybe our free-will comes in our ability to assent or dissent to the thoughts that come to mind. 

Is our ability to do that completely free?  Clearly, our DNA, culture, upbringing, and health do play a role in the choices we make.  We all have within us certain survival instincts which kick-in before we are consciously aware of our surroundings.  Life situations trigger chemical reactions within our bodies that we have no control over.  Crimes of passion, in which reason plays little to no part, are real.  It's possible that if I had grown up in a different family, the choices I make would be different.  I also know that I react to situations more quickly and more negatively when I'm tired than when I'm well-rested.

On the other hand, I have, at times, chosen not to react negatively when my first instinct is to do so.  Which makes me we, perhaps, have different amounts of free-will at different times?  Or, do some people, perhaps those who are more self-aware, or enlightened, have more free-will than others? 

In the last few days, I have come across two different sources which address those questions:  one from a book describing the teachings of Hindu mystics, and another from a book about Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam.  Both are quoted above.  I read the first one, was confused by it, and picked up the second book right where I left off, only to have it say essentially the same thing.  Coincidences like this make me wonder:  What is it that God is trying to teach me?  After some soul searching, I think I understand.

I was having a conversation the other day with a friend who described how she had made a choice not to react defensively, as she wanted to, when her husband hurt her feelings.  She was able to side-step her normal pattern, and was glad for it.  We both agreed that, as we get older, we are learning that how we react in a particular situation is up to us.  We can either take "the high road" or "the low road," so to speak.

But it's not easy to continually take the high road.  Where we succeed in one situation, we fail in another.   We learn how to react to our spouse, but then a friend, a family member, our own child, or a stranger, hurts our feelings, is rude or annoying.  We get frustrated or angry by what someone does or says.  And we react poorly, defensively, angrily.  And then what happens?   Life gets immediately harder.

When we respond to negative feelings with more negativity, the result is only more pain -- only now, we are not the only one experiencing the negativity.  Now it is shared.  If a better choice is not made, then this pain can reverberate back and forth to no end, getting worse with each poor choice.  Not only that, but the negativity we send off can potentially spread far and wide.

And guess what?  The result of all this negativity is not only a lot of pain, it's also a loss of freedom.  Think about it.  When we dwell on our hurt feelings, or anger, we limit what else we can accomplish.  We limit our happiness, too.  If we dwell on our negative feelings too much, we could potentially become incapacitated with grief or anger.  As Jesus said, "Whoever sins becomes a slave to sin."

But what happens when we react as God wants us to react?  What happens when we turn the other check, when we forgive those who sin or trespass against us, when we love as God loves us, steadfastly, patiently?  Then, and only then, do we have complete freedom.  And then we have the potential to spread freedom beyond ourselves.  But, as the quote above expresses, this means, paradoxically, restricting our choices to God's choices.

It may be a free country, we may believe we can do whatever we want, but the choices we make have consequences that restrict our freedom, one way or another, either upfront or after the fact. I, for one, not only want to live in greater and greater freedom, but also greater happiness and peace. May the choices I make be the choices you would have me make, dear Lord.  And...

May the Peace
which passes understanding
be with you always.


* "The History of Mysticism," by S. Abhayananda, pg 193
** "The Taste of Hidden Things," by Sara Sviri, pg 9
*** (

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