I am Everything. I am Nothing.

the self

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In continuing my thoughts on consciousness, I want to look at the self. As I discussed in my last post on consciousness, thoughts, sensations, everything attributed to experience seems to arise and have an effect on consciousness. I think this is fairly intuitive to most people in one way or another, whether they are looking at it through a correct or incorrect lens. What I mean by this is, people seem to, at the very least, believe that things happen to themselves. There is this separation of the mind, the body, and the self. Nobody tends to feel, or believe they are, identical to their body or their brain. That is, you don’t feel identical to your hands, you believe you have hands. You don’t feel identical to your brain, you believe you have a brain. There is the body, the brain, and the self. The self is what people tend to believe is consciousness, the “I”. I look at this differently and the self will be the topic of this post.

The first thing we need to do is talk about redefining “I”. Now if you have read my earlier posts, you can see that I want to do away with the term free will. Free will really seems to be a term that carries around too much implicit baggage that really isn’t there. Intellectual supporters of the term want to use it to differentiate reactionary from intentional behaviors (What makes the term more needless is there are words we can use that are more precise and don’t carry the baggage. Terms like reactionary, intentional or unintentional, for instance. It’s really that simple.). They also boast that the term acknowledges the complexity of the mind, in many cases proclaiming that our ability to make the sane and logical choice is what free will is. But with that argument comes a dualistic perspective that is almost impossible to accept when being truly critical of who and what we are and it is why I tend to argue so fervently against it. Supporters of the term will bring with it, whether they truly realize it or not, the claim that we have the ability to step outside the mind, almost. Suggesting, implicitly, that we can go beyond the processes of the brain and use the information given to us by the brain to make our very own, self-authored decision. This is incredibly dualistic to believe. For instance, to be able to use what the brain gives us begs the question; who is this “us” that is separate from the mind and it’s processes. In their argument, there is the mind and then there is the self, the conscious ego resting behind the eyes utilizing the body and brain as a tool separate from itself. This is the only light in which a free will that people want seems to make sense. It is this personal control, or power beyond the natural order that they desire that naturally spawns the dualistic perspective. It is the only way that the term free will can be held so near and dear to one’s heart. So one might wonder, if I believe the self, or the I is an illusion as well, why I don’t want to simply rid of these terms also. Unlike the needlessness of the term free will, “I” is fully integrated into our every day language. The use of terms like “I” or “myself”, etc. are almost as reactionary as breathing. You would really have to stop and pay close attention to avoid these terms. And in many cases you wouldn’t know what to use in their place. I am also not trying to be in the business of creating new words or making new terms and it would be much more convenient to adopt a different view of the term “I” rather than abandoning it altogether. However, I wouldn’t say this is adopting a new view so much as developing a more comprehensive understanding of what it means to say “I”. Because, to this point, I think there is still a way to use these terms in a way that makes sense, while still carrying no additional baggage about the self that the critical mind can see isn’t really there.

Most of us don’t feel identical to anything that makes up “us”. You don’t feel identical to your hands, you feel like you have hands. I would also confidently say that most people don’t feel identical to their brain, they would say they have a brain. This is made especially clear when we say “my brain”, a phrase that simply does not make much sense when we think about this critically. Who is the possessor of this brain? Can we really be something that isn’t the brain? And even if you could claim that you are part of your brain, does that really give you any ownership of the brain? I digress.

Now it’s easier to look at your hands or feet and say, “these are my hands”. It is very difficult, and most likely impossible, to feel identical to our hands. If there is a self or a feeling of “I” that can reside anywhere that we can feel connected, it is in the brain where consciousness arises. That is, this experience that we are all having is completely due to the existence of consciousness. It is in the psychology that contains most of what we value about ourselves.

Something begins to happen, however, as we look at consciousness and the experience. We begin to feel like we are more than the experience itself. We believe that we are inside the brain. This separate entity, of sorts, that is calling the shots. This ego, or self, that is using the body and the brain as a tool to aid in it’s experience. For many, this is where people can place things like free will. The ego is the ultimate author and decider of our thoughts and actions. This ego is ultimately responsible for everything we do, and it is the power of this ego, self, or I, that we can judge, praise, respect, or hate and condemn. Because of the ego’s appeal on the surface, many people are reluctant to analyze the validity of this belief. What many will find when doing so, is that the ego, the self, “I”, does not exist.

There is a phrase that has been running through my head lately when I think about “I” which is; I am everything. I am nothing. If someone asked me what I call me, or, what would be “I”. So when I’ve used the term “I” without quotations, what am I referring to? This is my answer; I am the continuous psychological and physical entity correlated completely to this brain and this body. In that sense, I am everything. I am consciousness and it’s contents. I am consciousness and a body and the only consciousness and body that is correlated to this brain which, as far as we know, is the sole reason I can even conceive of the idea of an I. I know, it is convoluted, a little complex, and maybe on the forefront, it sounds ridiculous or senseless, but it is the best way I know how to explain it. The easiest, most appealing way to say it, I am consciousness and it’s contents, and in that sense, I am everything.

If you want to feel “the self” drop, there is no easier way to do it, than to introspect and try to find a self within you. If you try to find something that is separate from the brain and it’s continuous stream, you will find yourself somewhere that nothing else exists. The self will drop. When I look at this, I am nothing.

When one refers to the self or “I” in a way that means they are a conscious observer that is basically residing behind the eyes, using the brain as a tool rather than being merely a direct cause of the brain, they will never be able to truly find this self when they look for it. I came up with the analogy of a home to explain this.

Imagine the house that you live in, or perhaps a friends house if you do not live in a house. Now if you go inside this house and try to find the house, you will not find anything. You can’t point at a piece of furniture and say, “There’s the house!” You can’t point to a cupboard or a bedroom either. If you look for something within the house that you call the house or the home, you will never find it. There is nothing. You have to consider everything when you are talking about the house as a whole. The same goes for I.

What I currently like about the phrase, “I am everything. I am nothing.” is it allows you to conceptualize how you should view the “I”. If you look at the I as a means of representing everything that you are and the continuous stream that represents everything that you have been and everything that you will be, you are looking at it in a way in which a very reasonable, and very real, you, exists (I am everything.).

If, on the other hand, you begin to view the I as something that is more than everything that you are and the continuous stream that represents everything that you have been and everything that you will be, you will continually find nothing, because it just isn’t so. There is no self to pinpoint residing behind the eyes (I am nothing.).

This can be a lot to take in, and there are many emotions that this can lead to. I am still pondering this a lot and critiquing my thoughts on this often. Everything that I said above is still a rudimentary framework. You are witnessing a brainstorm of sorts, though I must say that I think I am on the right path. I’m just not sure how far down this path I have gone yet.

The next time I explore consciousness, I think I may look at more of the emotional implications, and the lens through which we should look at this. But I am not certain. I will continue to think about this and try to build off this hopefully with the feedback of others, both on this blog and in my life. I’m not sure when I will return to this topic on this blog. It may be soon, it may be a while. One thing is for certain. More to come.

Questions for the reader: If you would like to respond to this, of course say whatever you would like, but also, if you would like, I have some questions that if you could answer would help me look at other perspectives of consciousness.

1.) How would you explain consciousness?

2.) What are your views on the self? Do you believe it is an illusion? If not, where is the self?

3.) What are you referring to when you say “I”?


More on Free Will

I have written about free will twice on this blog. In my first post about free will, I argue that regardless of where you stand on the debate, you must concede that the most important things in your life hinge on your inability to control it. My last post on free will was probably my most popular post to this point, especially on Google+. In my last post on free will, I have a much more in depth approach on my views on free will. I base a lot of my points by arguing against Daniel Dennet’s critique of Sam Harris’ book Free Will.

For this post, I have found a few videos on YouTube from Big Think which touch on some common errors that I believe many people make when discussing this topic. Most importantly, the last video I will show I believe is the strongest argument I have ever heard in support of free will, yet I still believe it is missing the point.

Free Will is a Term That Distinguishes Intentional Actions From Unintentional Actions

Now I will first start off easy because this is something I can basically agree with. It is useful, in some sense to have a term that differentiates the two behaviors, one being the iris closing when a light is shined in your eye, and the other being the decision to invest in a type of stock or where to move the next chess piece (Though we already have less misleading ways to distinguish the intentional from reactionary, etc.). And I believe almost anyone that argues against free will would probably concede that if we are to define free will in that way, then I will agree with it.

The only problem that occurs is that a great majority of people do not look at free will in this way. Similarly, they may explain it in an elegant way such as Steven Pinker and yet hold deeper, illogical, and incorrect implications of free will. In a lot of ways it seems that people who argue for free will in intellectual circles will explain it in a similar way as the video above yet as the conversation continues, it becomes more and more clear that they have smuggled more into their definition than they originally advertised. And it is usually the smuggled information that we disagree on. And it is because so many people either believe or continue to smuggle the bullshit, that we can appear hyper-critical at times or stubborn. I argue however that this is us merely trying to look at the core of the issue rather than spar in a game of semantics. For the record, I do not believe Steven Pinker is doing any smuggling here.

Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

This is a common argument that I have heard again and again. My response is pretty quick and concise. Randomness is not free will and it is certainly not the free will that anyone is trying to hold on to. That is, if you are arguing that you have free will because there is randomness to the decisions that you make, then you are still not making the choice. To have free will to any level worth caring about is to claim that you are the author of your thoughts and actions, not that you are the recipient of random emotions.

A Strong Argument for Free Will

In this video, Alfred Mele makes many good points and says a lot of things that I agree with. For instance, as he defines it, I would agree that we all have this “regular” free will. At least us sane folk. That is, when we do something, we were aware of what we were doing, we probably understood the consequences, and no one was forcing us to do what we did. Yes, we can all behave in this way. Similarly, he makes a good point about the mid-grade free will. There isn’t really any evidence to suggest that the brain, or the universe, works in that way, but there also isn’t a lot of evidence that it doesn’t. So he’s right, from a scientific perspective, this is still empirically open.

He goes on to talk about the experiments that have been done to “show” that we don’t have free will, and here is where I believe he makes his strongest point. That is, that we can’t really correlate, clearly, decision making with the spike we see in the data. He also makes a point about how the muscle motion triggers the computer to log the data whereas the other data very well may have been useful. Now he may be completely wrong, but I am willing to give him the point.

There are two issues that still remain. First, this is still missing the point that those opposing free will are making. We are acknowledging that many people, even the intellectuals, are using free will as a means to place a conscious author in the mind. Something that is solely responsible for it’s actions and is not really affected by the laws of physics. This seems to come from a desire to want to hold people ultimately responsible for their actions. This justifies many negative emotions, such as hate and vengeance. I have already argued how we can still be civil people even with a view that no one is ultimately responsible for there actions, and I have shown that we are still justified in having prisons and other means of “punishment” which you can read in my earlier posts on free will. If it becomes clear that I wasn’t clear enough, I will touch on that specifically in another post.

The second point that I want to make is that I don’t really need the science to back me up on my view. Now this is not to say that I won’t listen to what the science reveals. If it is discovered that free will exists and it is proven, I would not hesitate in changing my view. But for now, in the science realm, this is still empirically open. So when I say I don’t need the science to back me up, this is because a lot of experiments on free will can be done through introspection.

What has become clear to me is that thoughts merely arise in consciousness. These thoughts have a causal affect on emotions which lead to other thoughts which cause other emotions and so the causal string goes. Again, I believe I have gone into further detail in the past and will reserve deeper discussion on this unless prompted by others, or if I later decide to devote a post to the point.

In many ways, we probably all agree and this argument is really a lot of semantics. But I do believe that at the core, far too many are smuggling too much into this term which leads to what I am currently convinced are views that simply aren’t true.

Thoughts on Consciousness


Consciousness is perhaps the most mysterious thing that we know exists. It has only been recently that I have come up with a model that seems coherent, to some degree, with what consciousness might be. I believe that the implications of a better understanding of consciousness are fascinating and I hope to, over time, elaborate on these initial thoughts. This may be the first post I have done where going into it, I felt like I was going to basically publish a “rough draft” of an idea. So please feel free to leave your thoughts as I try to further my understanding of consciousness on a deeper level than I ever have. Let me begin.

Consciousness is a very difficult topic to discuss in a way that makes any clear sense to someone who hasn’t thought in much depth about it before and it has only been recently that I feel I have a framework that is presentable to others.

As I view it, we have to look at what we know, or what we think we know about the mind. Our brains are some of the most complex and miraculous outcomes of the natural order that I can think of. Primarily functional to survival and in many ways can be simply described as an efficient data processing apparatus. We know that as our brains function in a certain way, consciousness seems to arise. This consciousness is very much, simply an awareness. And it can be argued that this awareness isn’t based upon the senses. For instance, we do not need to see to be conscious. We also don’t need to hear to be conscious. And our minds don’t have to stretch too far to see that we don’t need to smell, taste, or touch to be conscious either. I am newly aware of a discussion on this topic where people are arguing whether there is such a thing as “pure consciousness”. I have not read one word on these arguments or what they even are so I will not comment on that in this post, but I do know that it exists and my intuitions lead me to believe that I may be barking up that tree right now. I digress.

So in my mind, it is relatively easy to accept that we do not need our primary senses to be conscious. What we see, however, is that these primary senses have an effect on consciousness rather than being consciousness. This brings me closer to my framework on what consciousness is there is one last thing I would like to look at first.

Thoughts. Are thoughts consciousness? Per my logic and understanding, asking the question almost shows that the answer is no. It seems to just sound ridiculous. Introspection, probably most efficiently seen by means of meditation, tends to show that thoughts arise in consciousness rather than thoughts being consciousness. Taking what I have said above one step further, it seems we don’t need thought, in principle, to be conscious.

Now this is the most that I am willing to take away at this point, so now I will move on to the picture that I feel this paints for what consciousness is.

What we can see here is that consciousness seems to be more malleable than a constant or rigid “something”. I like to describe consciousness through the analogy of a pond. Imagine this pond is still. It simply is and exists. Imagine there are no waves or anything. Now imagine you drop a pebble into this pond. There will be a ripple effect. The pebble itself, however, isn’t consciousness, but the pebble has an effect on consciousness. So think of this pebble as a thought, or a sensation. Maybe the feeling of pressure on your back, maybe the sound of a bird. All of these things arise in consciousness, and because of this, they change consciousness in some way.

Now, as conscious, fully functioning people, life does not present us with one pebble at a time, so I think a more accurate view of life and it’s affect on consciousness is to imagine an absolute torrential downpour of rain on this pond. Imagine wind as well, along with any other natural forces on the water. This is the nature of experience arising in and affecting consciousness.

It is worth recognizing that we are all different. We have different strengths, weaknesses, interests, etc. And we all react to stimuli differently. I would claim, and it shouldn’t be hard to buy into, that consciousness is highly correlated to our brain. That is, your consciousness does not exist beyond your brain. I cannot be consciously aware of the thoughts in my wife’s mind as they arise. To use a mathematical term, consciousness and the brain are one-to-one and onto. So what does this do to our pond? It shapes the pond. No pond looks the same. It can experience very similar stimuli, but due to the contours of the pond, or the natural function of one’s brain (to draw the connection I am trying to make), we will interpret, react, or behave differently to similar stimuli, even if only slightly.

Now there is so much more to touch on but I will leave it here for now. I think that there are many implications of understanding reality as we look at consciousness in more depth. I soon hope to write about how the introspection of consciousness leads you to find that there is no self, no ego that we call “I” residing in our heads, acting as the experiencer. But I will also want to use this and my discussions with others, as a foundation to continue to talk about what we can think or say about consciousness. More to come.

The I of the Storm: The Misconceptions of Free Will

free will

Photo Credit: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/commute/2013/01/case-against-one-way-streets/4549/

We are continually faced with choice in our day to day lives. From the mundane to the critical, choice rears its head every step of the way. We quickly discover that it is the choices we make and the actions we take that mold who we are. It is this role that choice plays in our day to day lives in determining who we are that makes the idea of free will most appealing. But do we really have free will? This is what I want to look at today.

In my experience, there seems to be three different positions on this topic. The first position is the belief in ultimate free will. Typically held by the religious, while the degree to which we have free will is more so as you move closer towards religious fundamentalism. In the middle there is a strong second position, typically held by intellectuals with a passion for philosophy, which is compatibilism. As the name suggests, compatibilists believe that we can live in a deterministic universe while still maintaining wiggle room for the freedom to choose. Simply put, compatibilists believe that free will and determinism are compatible ideas, that is, it is possible to believe both while maintaining logical consistency. I currently reject these first two positions and find myself in the third position which is determinism, sometimes called hard determinism. As a determinist, I, in short, hold the belief that everything we do is determined. Looking at the laws of physics, I claim that in principle, we could calculate, and therefore determine, every single thing you do, from when you will take your next breath, to what you will decide to have for lunch in two weeks. I will go deeper into this later in the post, but first I would like to look at the first two positions. My goal is to first disprove these positions and then conclude by explaining why I believe the third position, my position, is the most reasonable to believe.

Ultimate Free Will

The first problem that I think many will find when analyzing the idea of free will for the first time is that free will isn’t very well defined. What does it actually mean to have fee will? When asked to define it immediately, most will say something to the extent of, the ability to choose. This is empty in my opinion and doesn’t really grant anyone the power that they believe free will gives. Choice exists, that is the first thing to understand. We are constantly faced with choices, whether it be what to watch on TV or where to go out to eat. We are constantly presented with choices, and thus we must make a choice. Therefore, regardless of whether or not we have free will, choices must be made. But this means nothing with regards to your freedom with the choice itself.

So we now realize that what makes free will so appealing is that it appears to give us real control or some kind of power over our lives. So to have true free will, everything must be of one’s own doing. Hence, to have free will, one must be the author of their own thoughts and the ultimate decider of every choice they make and every action they take. To claim to have ultimate free will, I do not know how it is possible to not hold these attributes. Because these attributes are so rigid, as they must be to truly define free will, it acts as the weak stability that makes it so easy to bring the idea of ultimate free will down.

There are a few thought experiments one can do to easily bring down the idea of ultimate free will. My favorite experiment is to ask you to think of a city (feel free to actually try this while you are reading). Now when you read this, surely a few cities began to emerge into your mind. And you can just kind of observe this experience, just cities coming into consciousness, Orlando… New York… Portland… etc. They almost came into mind in the same manner to which you read the cities I listed a moment ago. Now choose a city, you can take as much time as you’d like. This whole experience immediately begins to expose potential weaknesses in the idea of ultimate free will. The feeling of cities simply coming into consciousness, without authorship. Granted there was still that point when you chose amongst the list of cities that were in your mind, this may appear to be the moment where free will kicked in, you might say. Well if you are to be the author of your thoughts, how could you be when you didn’t author the cities that merely came to mind. Now you might argue that you did author the cities that came to mind. To this, I meet you with a counter; surely you are aware that, for example, Atlanta is a city. For many of you, Atlanta probably didn’t come to mind and thus Atlanta was off the table in terms of cities that you would choose. I propose this question then; how were you free to choose cities which did not occur to you? To someone who believes in ultimate free will, this is a question which demands an answer.

Another shot in the leg to those who believe in ultimate free will comes from the mouth of science. In scientific experiments it has been shown that your mind has determined what you will choose, sometimes as many as seven seconds before you are consciously aware. In this link here, it acts as many similar experiments, a person is asked to select something, typically as simple as a left button or right button. They are told to go back and forth on their decision making but as soon as they make their decision to press the button. What studies have found is that your mind had already made the decision several seconds before you were consciously aware. As they point out in the video, this shows that conscious decision making is secondary to brain activity.

The most significant point which I believe buries completely the idea of ultimate free will is the fact that we are not perfect. The fact that we make mistakes, we become addicted to bad things, or in the mind of the religious, we sin. The idea of mistakes, sin, or temptation does not fit in a reality where people have ultimate free will. I like how Sam Harris puts it in his short book Free Will  where he states,

To say that someone freely chose to squander his life’s savings at the poker table is to say that he had every opportunity to do otherwise and that nothing about what he did was inadvertent. He played poker not by accident or while in the grip of delusion but because he wanted to, intended to, and decided to, moment after moment.

These sort of things do not make sense in a world with ultimate free will. Why would someone do such a thing? It is absolutely illogical. Someone might claim that the person is evil or easily tempted. But how can these bad attributes exist when you can simply will them away? If you can not will them away, you are proclaiming that you are at the mercy of thoughts or desires that are not truly yours, therefore eliminating ultimate free will. If you say, maybe he was aware of this and yet still wanted to do the wrong thing. This still does not fit in a world with ultimate free will. What does it mean to want something when you have free will? To want something while having free will, you must choose to want something. To choose to want to do something bad before truly desiring to want something bad is illogical again. We can continue this argument for days but you will always find that to do something bad begins at an illogical, dare I say impossible, starting point.

Temptation is perhaps the biggest point here. Especially when speaking to the religious. Temptation should either not exist or be irrelevant in a reality with ultimate free will. Temptation should probably not exist because if we are the conscious authors of our thoughts and intentions, we would have to, from an illogical starting point, choose to think of something tempting (and we can assume bad or wrong or sinful). But suppose “the devil” could plant thoughts that lead to temptation in your mind. With free will, one could simply will those thoughts away. Thus to proclaim that someone was tempted to sin and therefore did, should in fact not be held responsible by God as their actions were the result of a mental hijacking, therefore eliminating sin. And to claim that someone could not easily will the temptation away is admitting defeat. If you can not will temptation, or any bad desire away effortlessly, you admit to not having ultimate free will. You then must concede that you are subject to thoughts and desires that are in fact not your own.


I find compatibilism to be much like mainstream religion is today when debating atheists. Typically, if an atheist quotes scripture and interprets it literally, the religious person will turn up their nose and explain how scripture is much more nuanced and intricate and cannot be interpreted literally. Though they may be right in some cases, ultimately they are missing the point. The same goes for determinists in speaking with compatibilists. Perhaps as a compatibilist was reading my arguments above they were saying the same things; “free will is much more nuanced and intricate. One cannot look at its bones bare and interpret it fully.” I am here to argue that with free will, yes you can.

We humans tend to like free will so much because of what it implies. There is an idea that we have evolved to a degree greater than any other creature on the planet. This ability to pass by the laws of physics because our thoughts are beyond the constraints of natural laws. It can almost make someone feel special. I had not, until recently, heard arguments from a compatibilist. I had always been confused as to how they believe that a person could possibly blend determinism with free will. What I came to find was that compatibilists appear to be redefining free will. What I want to argue is that how they define free will is not only wrong, but it’s not even a free will worth desiring. I claim that the compatibilist is searching to hold on to that feeling that we are special, along with a concern of losing moral responsibility, and doing this through mental gymnastics that tangle in ways that even they cannot find their missteps in logic.

Daniel Dennet is one of the leading names on the side of compatibilism, and it was in reading his critique of Sam Harris’ book on free will that I was able to peer inside the logic behind compatibilism. For the sake of not taking too much time commenting on every passage to which I believe Dennet errors, I will try and choose the most pertinent to the point that I am trying to get across. I do not want to cheat, I do plan to take on what I believe to be his strongest argument as well.

The first problem that arises when reading Dennet’s critique is his claim that what Sam Harris is a compatibilist more than he realizes. As far as I have learned, Harris and I share congruent interpretations of free will, thus I would argue that if Harris is a compatibilist, he is right in wanting to remove the term free will, as it is flagrantly misleading and absolutely antagonistic to reality. This will become more evident soon.

Dennet then displays the arrogance of a compatibilist by continually not answering to points made, but rather disregarding them as pointless. For example, in response to an excerpt from Harris’ book; “We do not know what we intend to do until the intention itself arises. To understand this is to realize that we are not the authors of our thoughts and actions.” Dennet rebuttals as follows,

We do not know what we intend to do until the intention itself arises.  [True, but so what?]  To understand this is to realize that we are not the authors of our thoughts and actions in the way that people generally suppose [my italics]. (p. 13)

Again, so what? Maybe we are authors of our thoughts and actions in a slightly different way.  Harris doesn’t even consider that possibility (since that would require taking compatibilist “theology” seriously).

So what?! This absolutely baffled me. This is a strong point to which a determinist leans on. To reply this way in a debate format, as a professional, is intellectually lazy and borders on unforgivable. It gets worse as he begins his excuse of an explanation with “maybe”. If you begin with maybe and do not lead to justified fact or incredibly solid reasoning, you have intellectually met the equivalent of pulling shit out of your ass.

While I find the majority of Dennet’s arguments rather tiresome, he does make a couple that are worth my comments. One of these arguments lies in the idea that we “could have” done something. This is logically flawed. Here is what Dennet presents however;

Consider the case where I miss a very short putt and kick myself because I could have holed it.  It is not that I should have holed it if I had tried: I did try, and missed. It is not that I should have holed it if conditions had been different: that might of course be so, but I am talking about conditions as they precisely were [Dennet’s italics], and asserting that I could have holed it. There is the rub. Nor does ‘I can hole it this time’ mean that I shall hole it this time if I try or if anything else; for I may try and miss, and yet not be convinced that I could not have done it; indeed, further experiments may confirm my belief that I could have done it that time [Dennet’s italics], although I did not. (Austin 1961: 166. [“Ifs and Cans,” in Austin, Philosophical Papers, edited by J. Urmson and G. Warnock, Oxford, Clarendon Press.])

This is wrong. Just wrong. Saying that I could’ve holed it after you didn’t is absolutely false. Why? Because if you could have then you would have. And if you make that same putt later, this does not mean that you were correct in saying that you could have, the correct statement would be saying you can make the putt. Say the putt was five feet away, if you believe that you have the ability to make putts from five feet away, it makes perfect sense to proclaim that you have the ability to potentially make the putt. Therefore you could say, “I can make this putt!” But if you miss the putt and proclaim, I could’ve made that putt under the very exact conditions, you are wrong, because you didn’t. And those conditions will never be met again (it is probabilistically proven, I have personally witnessed the mathematical proof involving continuous distribution functions), thus to say that you could have made the putt is so grotesquely wrong that my need for response is almost unnecessary. But to give one reason, is the ball in the hole? This shows, quite clearly, how compatibilist seek to grasp onto this idea of having more control, or being more special, than they truly are, using mental gymnastics that appear to have solved their fear at face value alone, while in depth, solve nothing.

Dennet does attempt to save himself from his very example, though, with what I believe is a better example, yet it still misses the point, and I still debate in my mind whether he is contradicting the point he attempted to make above. Dennet states;

Suppose I am driving along at 60 MPH and am asked if my car can also go 80 MPH. Yes, I reply, but not in precisely the same conditions; I have to press harder on the accelerator.  In fact, I add, it can also go 40 MPH, but not with conditions precisely as they are.

If you can say this, and still believe you have free will, I am at a loss. To say that you have the ability to do things does not imply free will at all. If you couldn’t do something different in precisely the same conditions, where does your freedom come in? Where is the free will? If you call being able to do only what the precise conditions allow, which is only that one thing, free will, you are intentionally misleading yourself. If you can find the freedom in this, please present it. This is the putting mishap all over again, mistaking abilities with actual freedoms moment to moment. A free will that is worth having should not be this difficult to find, and not require the mental gymnastics we are observing. This type of free will is as necessary as molding bread.

Dennet also shows that many believe that self-control is evidence of free will. He states;

We can improve our self-control, and this is a morally significant fact about the competence of normal adults—the only people whom we hold fully (but not “absolutely” or “deeply”) responsible.

This is common and I have seen this mistake before, even in myself. I recall one day inquiring about tourettes syndrome with a friend of mine who believes we do not have free will. I was still unsure at this point in time, so I had many questions. I thought I found it, I found free will! I thought about people with tourettes and how they cannot control what they say at times. I pointed this out to him and I said “You see! This is what not having free will looks like! This person has no will to prevent himself from cursing loudly in public, yet I do!” I was met, far too quickly for my prides sake, with, “You are simply wired differently, you couldn’t not control yourself in public. That is who you are (I should note here that this is not exactly the explanation given, I am of course paraphrasing).” Fast-forward to the future and I have discussed this fact to a friend who at one time had an eating disorder. Her response to me as we talked about her eating disorder was that she was drawn to it, partly because she felt like the only thing she could control in her life was what she ate. She could control whether or not, typically not, she was going to eat food. Now, as she was leaning towards determinism, I pointed out that in that time, or whenever she would feel like she could use self-control with food, if, say, she chose not to eat food, she was bound by that choice. She believes that she is in control of the food she chooses to eat when in reality she had no choice but to deny herself food. She had no more choice either way.

This is so often used as evidence of free will, but self-control does not mean free choice. We are as bound to choosing “Yes” as we are to choosing “No”, and there is no reason that should be otherwise.

As a quick note before I move on, this is used as a manner of looking at the thought process of a compatibilist and not a critique of Dennet’s critique of Harris, if you read Dennet’s critique (linked above) and wish for me to argue a point of his which I ignored here, comment and I would be more than happy to. I believe the above is sufficient to making my point however.

Determinism and its Implications

I would prefer, personally, not to attach myself to the belief that I am a hard determinist. I personally do not know all that it entails. What I will say is that I simply do not believe that we have free will, or at least any definition of free will worth my time. The idea of not having free will is scary for many people. They come to the conclusion that this implies that we are hostages in our own bodies. This is untrue. All this means is that we are not truly the authors of our thoughts and actions, but we are no less us than we have ever been. We need not worry that we will do something that we vehemently oppose by the minds so choosing, because we are our mind. Sam Harris puts it best in his book (and it was the inspiration to the title of this post) when he says,

You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.

One of the most common misconceptions of determinism is when people confuse determinism with fatalism. Even the compatibilist will be next to me to help correct the misinformed. Determinism does not mean that we can simply lay in bed and everything that we were “supposed” to accomplish in life will be accomplished. If you want to eat, if you want a job, you need to get out of bed and make those things happen. But suppose you simply stayed in bed, this does not mean that you have “beat” determinism and therefore have free will. This gets back to what I was saying about self-control; just because you stayed in bed doesn’t mean you beat the system, I could look (in principle) at the data and determine that you had no choice but to stay in bed when you did, and I would be right, because you wouldn’t have done anything differently (how could you have?).

Many incompatibilists believe that without free will, we are not responsible for our actions. This is simply misguided, but this is in fact a fear shared by a majority (if not all) of those who fear free will is an illusion. But to believe this is to be intellectually lazy. You may not be the author of your actions, but no one else is responsible for your actions. Remember, you are the storm. Therefore, if you intend to harm people, you are dangerous to society and you are to be held accountable for your actions. This is why prisons would still be necessary. Rather than being used as a means of justice, they would be used as a means of protection. And even if we want to eliminate responsibility, that does not take away from what we know about conscious experience. If you enjoy life, not having free will wouldn’t change that, and we would in fact have a responsibility to our society to protect others from those who are “unlucky” in the sense that they are dangerous to us. And to not be able to take responsibility for our accomplishments is to make the error I stated above which is to confuse determinism with fatalism. If you won a Nobel prize, you had to put the work in, and thus everything that truly is “you” is responsible for what led you to earning the Nobel prize. It wasn’t going to fall on your lap had you not put in the work.

A large reason that many people fear that free will is an illusion is this sense of losing responsibility. But this concern does not imply free will exists. It is the same when a Christian proclaims that moral responsibility would be lost if there was no God. Just because you need (in your mind) X to have moral responsibility does not mean that X actually exists. Simply put, free will does not exist simply because you feel we need it to be held morally responsible. With or without free will, you desire peace and the well-being of conscious creatures. Losing free will would not erase this desire, thus some new kind of responsibility could represent this. At the end, what really falls to the ground is the logic of wanting revenge. We would be more compassionate towards those who have been wired to be psychopaths. We would still have to lock them away for safety, but the idea for revenge should dissolve with a full belief in determinism. But it is important to remember that wanting free will so that you can feel morally accountable in no way proves that we have free will.

One of the biggest pieces of this puzzle that left me unsure in the past was the idea of choice. Because I knew that I was constantly faced with choice, I could not see how there couldn’t be free will. I had to make a choice. What I realized however, was that choice exists. We are constantly presented with choices and we are left to make this choice. We must. But while choice exists, my actual freedom in making the choice that I inevitably make is void of freedom. Now I don’t wander through my day consistently reminding myself of this. I don’t wake up and decide to make oatmeal but utter “like I had a choice” in the back of my mind. It is merely something that I am aware of and need concern myself with it only when it matters. I find personally that this understanding allows me to much more easily have compassion for those who have not had the same “luck” as I have had. And because I don’t have free will, it has become much clearer to me why this in fact makes life as enjoyable as it really is. I talked more about this in a previous post here.

When we truly investigate free will, it becomes clear that it is an illusion. And when people try to argue that there is a more complex and convoluted version of free will that we don’t yet understand, we can quickly see that they are grasping at straws, holding on to something that they are too afraid to admit just isn’t a free will worth fighting for. But we just need to remember that everything is ultimately okay. Not having free will is the reason why life brings us so much genuine joy. It is why we have emotions that are so beautiful and yet so unexplainable at the same time (again, I go deeper into this in my earlier post linked above). We need not fear it. We will always behave consistently with who we are and how we desire to be. We are simply aware that at the heart, we are not the author, but merely witnessing another beautiful miracle of nature. Remember, we are not lost in the storm. So in the mean time, I recommend you do as I do, and enjoy your time in the I of the storm.

Take This With a Grain of Salt

We live in a great time. It is a time when almost all of the information we desire is at our fingertips. We can learn about almost anything, MIT has mathematics coursework for anyone to look at, physics professors post videos of their lectures on YouTube for all to see, and TED talks has become a gateway for people to present new and innovative ways of thinking. Again, for anyone to see. We live in a great time indeed. But I do believe that we are abusing this gift, and not utilizing it in the best way possible.

Far too many people these days take information they hear or read about as fact. From standard blog posts to scientific papers, if people hear or read of something interesting, they far too often take it immediately as fact. This is a mistake on our behalf as the reader. We need to learn to take a step back.

Living in the age of technology, not only can you learn about whatever your heart desires. You can just as easily go online and create a page to tell everybody what you think about everything. And blogs are the most common place where people make this mistake in judgement. As I scan mindlessly through Facebook or here on WordPress. I am continually reminded of many people’s poor reasoning faculties and far too well functioning “gullibility machine” (I will call it). I am sure we all have those friends or family members pushing some article with a title such as, “Mysterious Plant in the Amazon Cures Cancer: What the Government Doesn’t Want You to Know About”, or, “Quantum Theory Proves Existence of a Multiverse”, and sadly, “Aliens Seen by Many, Whistle Blowers Now Missing”. I am quickly overcome with my face in palm. I then look to see where they have found their information, only to be underwhelmed with the not surprising blogspot.bullshit or conspiracy.forum.living4christ webpage. The problem in time has become clear. People put far too much trust in what they find online.

When you read about conspiracy theories, amazing drugs that cure cancer, or new theories in quantum mechanics, they need to be taken lightly. You should (virtually) never accept something new to you immediately. If you are really intrigued and wish to really research a topic, the results you find from further research should be what strengthens your belief in a claim. And when we do take part in personal research, look to valid sources. And if you want to claim that you can’t trust a .edu or .gov website, then why in the hell should you trust a blog? We must take blog posts, yes even mine, with a grain of salt. This does not mean that we have to discount blogs or should never look to them for information. We can of course use our reasoning faculties to determine whether or not we could potentially buy into an idea, but further thought and study needs to be taken if we truly want to award these ideas significant merit especially if they themselves do not provide reputable sources. It is of course also okay to let people know about new ideas or claims and say why you are inclined to believe them. You may also develop a structured argument as to why the idea may be valid. But this must all be done with greater perspective. That is, you must look at what you actually know versus what is just hypothesis or bullshit rambling.

Even new hypotheses in science need to be taken with only interest in the beginning. One of the beauties of living in this time is seeing people with a limited science background read about the science that interests them to their hearts content. People should always strive to learn about our universe, from the microscopic to the macroscopic. But these fields too get abused, typically, by those with weaker scientific backgrounds (In my experience at least). Magazines such as Scientific American and books by Stephen Hawking play a great role in society in many cases. I am repeating myself by saying that we need this information out there. They take complex ideas that brilliant minds are working with and package them in a way that many of us can understand, even with a poor foundation of scientific understanding. But what people tend not to realize is that when a magazine makes a claim like there is evidence of a multiverse, it should not be taken as fact. That is, we should not interpret this claim as “there are multiple universes”. This should be taken as an interesting hypothesis that is worth analyzing more. Now before I stray from this, I should say that I personally am a big fan of the multiverse hypothesis. But I would never at this time claim it to be so. What I do claim is that with my understanding, it appears to be the most plausible, but I would hold no judgement to competing hypotheses with strong arguments.

Do not let this discourage you from continuing to utilize our technology to learn about new and fascinating things. There truly is a universe of information out there, more than a thousand lifetimes over. The water of information, true and worthwhile information, will never run dry. So we need not get hung up on wild and unjustified ideas just because we desire to be fascinated. Look for the truth in this reality. That is what will bring the real fascination we all crave.

So when you are reading the many posts that you find on WordPress, or the articles posted by friends on Facebook, take them for what they are, ideas and/or claims. Never take them as fact immediately. At least not until you check the facts yourself. Enjoy the information that we are lucky enough to have at our fingertips. This is a great time to be alive, and we need not abuse it.

Sam Harris: It is Always Now

I am in the process of writing a three part blog which addresses what I believe to be the most important ideals to have or work towards to find the most happiness and peace of mind in one’s life. These three ideals are beyond the obvious values we hold such as be kind to others, or treat others as you wish to be treated. They are more specific. I have found in my life that the more I work towards these ideals, the happier I have become. I am unsure if these three pieces will be posted back to back to back, but I do plan to have them close together and I will try to make it clear when the post is part of the series. As a preamble to this series to come, I invite you to watch this video of Sam Harris talking about the most important value, without a doubt in my mind, which is living in the present moment. I personally think that one cannot do this to the fullest without the attributes I will present; but above all, to put into words the most important key to happiness and peace of mind, it is to live in the present moment. Enjoy.

Peace of Mind Without Free Will

Free will is not a topic I discuss often, outside of a small circle of people. Not because I am ashamed of this view or unsure of my position, but simply because the topic does not arise too often. It is also not the most appealing subject to discuss with people. Granted it is very interesting since the verdict in the discussion plays a major role in how we view our actions, other people’s actions, how we view justice, compassion, forgiveness, and so on. But the reason that this topic isn’t appealing is because many are vehemently against the idea that we may not have free will. As an atheist (I must state here that I am not a fan of the word. I prefer to say that I am an advocate for evidence and reason. People too often apply too much meaning to the term atheist. For the sake of this post, it simply means what it should, that I don’t believe in the existence of a God.), I am consistently reminded of the reaction I will get from many theists when they here of my stance on God. A mixture of offense, and anger, with a glass of confusion. But as someone that believes we do not have free will, I find the same reaction expands out to many atheists as well. I am inclined to think that this stems from fear. Many people who have contemplated free will, and do not like the idea of not having it, typically show signs of fear, despair, and/or anger. What people seem to fear most is the loss of meaning to their lives. So in many ways, it is what atheists experience when talking to theists about God. Only for me, this subject applies when talking to fellow atheists as well. Diminishing my audience that much more.

For this post however, I am not here to debate whether or not we have free will. That may happen in another post depending on the reaction I get. What my intentions are with this post are to attempt to show that there is no reason to fear a life without free will. As a theist fears a life without God, many people of all belief systems, including atheism, fear a life without free will. What I plan to show my readers here is that everything, or at least the majority, that is meaningful in your life, you have not having free will to thank.

Within the small circle that I have discussed free will with, I have experienced a wide range of reactions. I have talked with some people that, at length, I came to the belief that they could not handle the idea of not having free will if they came to believe it were true. I have seen people completely out of their element; almost so unaware of the idea that not having free will was a possibility that they weren’t affected by the idea at all, but what I saw more of was it was not clicking throughout their being that it was worth even considering. I myself took upon the idea rather smoothly. I try not to hold on to beliefs because I want something to be true. I have a desire to know what isWhatever the truth about reality happens to be, I try my best to be ready to accept that. When I was first confronted about the idea of not having free will by a close friend, I had not considered the possible ramifications of it’s truth, so I was not too affected by it, and certainly didn’t buy into it at the time. As time progressed and I researched the idea, I kind of baby stepped my way into it. By the time I was convinced that we don’t have free will, the shock was minimal.

Not to tangent too much from the discussion but there is something that I want to mention here. People when confronted by new information tend to push it away. This is okay if you are simply being a critical thinker, but if you are afraid to find out that you are wrong, that is when bad things can occur. The problem with the stance of wanting, or even needing, what you believe to be true is that we confuse ourselves of what the ramifications are if we are in fact incorrect. For instance, theists typically fear the idea of God not existing. They say things like, “I just couldn’t imagine a world without God.” What is wrong with this statement is that they seem to be implying that if you were to prove that God didn’t exist, that from that point on God doesn’t exist. Almost as though you daggered God in the heart. This is incorrect. What they don’t realize is that if they discover God doesn’t exist, then God hasn’t ever existed. The world that you thought you could never live in, you have in fact been living in your entire life. Now of course their is that feeling like God did leave the day you came to the realization. But it is in a small way the result of clinging to an idea that you want to be true, rather than simply discovering what is actually true.

I remember the conversation I had with my close friend the night that he realized free will was an illusion. I saw the fear arise. That moment that he didn’t feel in control. He was realizing the ramifications of this truth. And these thoughts, in their immediacy, were not very comforting. I later learned that this was the catalyst to a spiral downward into a very dark depression. He felt as though he had lost all meaning to life. It took quite some time before he finally recovered from the depression. For those of you wondering, he is better than ever, and still believes free will is an illusion. This is not an uncommon reaction however. Many people that are in the conversation about free will attest to this reaction. Sam Harris has even posted a couple of times on his blog on this point to try to help people coping with these emotions.

I myself being aware of this, did begin to think about whether or not meaning was lost when free will was stripped away. I didn’t search for half truths so that I could sleep at night, but I just took the time to ponder the real consequences of this reality. Like I will say many more times in my life, it’s about what is, not what I want. I am happy to say however that I am in fact very happy with what I have come to believe.

There are typically three positions that people hold on the subject of free will. There is the first stance which believes that absolutely everything about you, such as your actions and thoughts, is of your own choosing. You are the author of your thoughts and nothing that has your fingerprint on it was not of your choosing. If you hold this position, the points I will soon bring to the forefront will challenge this belief to the fullest. The second position is in the middle. You believe that we have moments such as Freudian slips which aren’t really of our control, we also have many thoughts that aren’t really of our penmanship, and some emotions can go out of control, but when it comes down to the real choices in our life, that is where our free will is most observable. If you hold this stance, I believe that what I am soon to talk about will fit into your system of belief, and I hope that it will actually bring you even more happiness. Lastly, we have the third position. This is the position that I in fact hold. The belief that one has absolutely no free will. We are merely the result of causes which influence a chain of causes, nothing of which we can claim true ownership of to the level which free will suggests. If you have this belief system, I hope that from where you emotionally are today, you will leave with more happiness, true peace of mind, and a feeling that life couldn’t have more meaning any other way. So let me finally get to my point.

I remember one day looking at my wife. I can’t remember exactly what she was doing, perhaps she was folding some laundry, but that’s not relevant. What is relevant however is the rush of emotions that I felt. Love, happiness, excitement, peace, and so on. In that moment I took the time to appreciate these feelings. I was so overwhelmed with how strong these feelings were. These feelings were so true, so real. If anyone questioned whether I had meaning in my life, the answer was not clearer than in that moment. Then a thought came to me.

Believing in the illusoriness of free will, but not closed off to the idea that I might be wrong, I considered the question; What would this mean if I had free will? It was then that I slowly began to realize how sad this moment would become. Assuming I had free will, suddenly that beautiful moment that I will always cherish began to feel so… fake. If these feelings of love and joy were just a choice, how important could they possibly be? To really bring this point home, I would ask; How important, or how real, is love when you could simply choose to stop loving that person in a moment. If your first thought is, “that’s impossible.” Then you are beginning to see why free will in fact takes away meaning in life.

This is worth repeating many times and in different ways, in my opinion. How important is someones love for you; how strong is that drive for someone to love you, if that love can be taken away in an instant? Just one simple choice, and it’s gone. This may seem far fetched, but it isn’t. Just think about it. If you actually have free will, then think about the one thing that you care about most in the world. If you have true free will, you can choose to not care about that thing immediately. If your initial response, which we know would be true in this experiment, would be to not quit caring for that thing, your are seeing something which you are not in control of. If you truly have control of everything, then your emotions can be controlled as well. You could then quit caring for the most important thing in your life, and most importantly, not care that you quit caring! This brings me to my next point.

If you are in the second and third positions that I stated above, you are hopefully coming to realize that everything in your life that gives you meaning owes a thank you to the fact that you do not have control (or free will) over it. These emotions that would fight you, possibly to the death, are emotions so real in you, that you cannot deny them no matter how hard you try. So when you feel love. When you feel joy, happiness, peace. When you feel that driving force that pushes you to be better. When you feel these things that give your life meaning, they only have meaning in a reality without free will. They only have that truth, that truth that packs a real punch, because you cannot simply choose to not feel that way. Emotions are the most real, most important things to us. And those are the things which are most clearly not in our control (and at the very least not in our complete control).

So if you believe that you don’t have free will to some degree, or to every degree, look at all of your emotions. Look at the people or the things that make you happy. Look at the ones you love. really allow yourself to feel these emotions, because thanks to no free will, it is the most real and most meaningful thing in your life.