Saturday Ramble: Do we have free will, and where is it?
Listening to a radio discussion this morning on the age-old question of free will versus determinism, I was struck by how limited humanity’s view of itself has become in this scientific age.
Three academic philosophers and Melvyn Bragg covered the hoary old ground with competence and wit. You can’t expect more from a 45-minute sound broadcast. It didn’t matter much that they ran the argument into the ground by getting mired in the question of “Which is the ‘I’ that operates free will?”, even touching on quantum theory as an element in the mix. By and large they sort of settled on determinism as the more likely ingredient — kind of. Yes and no is the only correct response.
It reminded me of a dramatic incident that happened to me some years ago. I suddenly felt rather ill and had no option but to take to my bed. The condition got much worse until I became convinced I was going to die. The normal response would have been to ring for an ambulance and go to hospital, but I tend never to do the obvious.
Instead I started to interrogate all the resources of mind and body to seek a solution. None came. Soon I had exhausted every faculty of my personal self without success. By that time I really was on the edge of a seemingly unstoppable deterioration. I decided to test if there was anything outside and beyond myself that could, or would, give me an answer. I posed the question in my mind and, as if with a cricket ball, hurled it up into the cosmos. Then I fell into a deep sleep.
It turned out to be no ordinary sleep. The night was punctured by an urgent, vivid dream, instructing me precisely what to do the next day. The dream didn’t just tell or show, it actually walked me through the whole process again and again. In the morning as I awoke, the procedure was imprinted indelibly on my mind.
Still feeling ghastly, I set off to do what I had been shown. It was not easy and went beyond my normal patterns of behaviour. Within a couple of hours I was fully recovered, a little tired, but the malady had gone.
That incident taught me that there is “something” beyond what I know as “me”, and that it is there to help and can be called on in times of danger. “I” — my conscious self — lacked all free will at that moment, and yet that same “I” was able to call up a source of free will to pull me out of the soup. It was just like magic.
I’m fairly sure that this faculty operates continuously in the background of life. Conventional materialism is blind to it. So is the greater part of humanity, especially Western-educated people. If you think that every advance in evolution is caused by blind chance producing a successful variation, while the rest die away discarded, you will never see the magic inherent in this world.
Let me give you an example. Can you touch something that is beyond your reach without moving? Let us say, a distant wall. If you think “No”, you are not aware of your own magical potential.
All senses arise from one: touch. Touch was the first sense to develop and, in a way, defines a living thing from what we believe is dead, a stone, perhaps. Even a unicellular amoeba will retract from the point of a pin. It has touch.
The problem with touch is that it only applies to objects very close to us. At that point it may be too late if the touch indicates a predator, or a big pin. There arose a need to be able to touch at a distance.
If we go down the time route, early creatures produced specialised touch cells that could do precisely that. They developed into eyes. Seeing that distant wall is actually touching it.
The conventional view is that photons of light crash into the wall, rebound off it and, for some reason, carry the wall’s characteristics into an eye, whereupon the brain translates them into a wall. This is a very mysterious process that is inexplicable if you consider it without prejudice. Why does the photon do that? Is it in league with the eye and the watching brain? Materialists would say not.
What came first, the photon or the eye? Blind, silly science ignores the patently obvious operation of conscious management here. It rejects the magical properties inherent in sight. Every one of us with sight can touch distant objects. It’s almost as if the world is an extension of the body.
Mechanical “natural selection” is the lamest explanation that anyone could come up with, and yet it survived despite its low-rent qualities.
Materialists hate magic because consciousness takes precedence over matter. Without consciousness, though, nothing makes sense — on a multitude of levels. Even the quantum boys recognise some consciousness at work in their minute particles whose behaviour changes when observed by humans. Magic is consciousness. Consciousness is magic, but you have to cut through the mind’s boredom with what it thinks it knows to a much deeper level. Ennui masks the magic in simple things.
In a recent article here (Who, what and where is God?) I described another experience of mine that accords with the second stage of mystical progress. It’s repeated below for convenience:
I was engaged in my usual early morning limbering-up exercises and thinking about my failure to make further mystical progress, when — and there’s no other way of putting it — the world turned inside out.
The room and its objects were suddenly transparent, while the space that occupied it was alive and vibrant with intelligence. “I” was completely separate from my body, which continued with its exercises. I could actually see it and hear my own chattering thoughts, although I was no longer originating them.
I now had other ways of seeing and hearing away from the body — the “inner senses” as they have been called. The experience was a bit like swimming under water, and seemed similar to near-death experiences even though I was not near death. My body continued with its strenuous exercises right in front of me. [...]
Although I was completely out of body, I retained a non-discursive consciousness and was aware of everything that happened. I reflected afterwards that this is what survives physical death. It was a fearless state, no emotions were present just a kind of deep acceptance. [...]
When my body had finished its exercise regime, it went into the kitchen to make the customary pot of tea. As the tea was poured, I came back to normal bodily consciousness.
The part that left the body is clearly a superior element that carries the life force for the body. If it separates completely, the body dies. Let us call it the soul, although names can all too often confuse. My experience of the soul was of a non-thinking, non-feeling consciousness: pure awareness. It may be, though, that it carries many possibilities inexplicable to a mere mortal.
Since then, I have given a great deal of thought to the relationship between the soul and the body. Here’s a snatch from St John of the Cross’s masterpiece The Dark Night of the Soul which captures the essence of this relationship precisely at the time of the above experience:
And thus it is of great importance for the security of the soul that its inward communion with God should be of such a kind that its very senses of the lower part will remain in darkness and be without knowledge of it, and attain not to it: first, so that it may be possible for the spiritual communication to be more abundant, and that the weakness of its sensual part may not hinder the liberty of its spirit; secondly, because, as we say, the soul journeys more securely since the devil [the material mind] cannot penetrate so far. We may understand in this way that passage [in Matthew 6 3] [w]hich is as though He had said: Let not thy left hand know that which takes place upon thy right hand, which is the higher and spiritual part of the soul; that is, let it be of such a kind that the lower portion of thy soul, which is the sensual part, may not attain to it; let it be a secret between the spirit and God alone.
The “dark night” then is not a time of attrition, but of illumination, in which the body remains in ignorance (darkness) of what is taking place at soul level.
When I resumed normal bodily consciousness, part of me remembered exactly what had happened. But there was no sense of triumph, no Eureka moment. It was only after a puzzling few minutes, that I realised the body memory — brain and central nervous system — knew nothing of what had taken place, as John describes so precisely.
The soul exists outside our material world, which it sees as a dreamy transparency. It is the Watcher of our life story, acting, I believe, as an intermediary between our bodily sentience and the Universal Consciousness, which some call God.
In my life-saving dream (see above), the soul was undoubtedly the agency that intervened to preserve my life. The soul is always on our side and is clearly the source of the many tales of Guardian Angels that proliferate in world literature. Similarly, the chattering mind that seeks to keep us from knowing the soul is what is widely called the devil.
It’s a fascinating irony that Old Nick himself resides in the heart of what most people think of as the essence of themselves, their mind.
So, going back to the radio discussion, where does free will really come from? It can only come from the soul, not the mind, which turns out to be like a spooling computer program creating the noise of our world.
We escape the night terrors of the world by asking the soul to befriend us and show us what lies behind our everyday reality. The initial approaches have to be persistent, but the outcome is the Divine Light and a showing of the nature of reality.
Our highest impulse is to ascend the peaks of the spirit, not Mount Everest, which is just a metaphor for the soul. Why should we make the attempt?
Because it’s there.
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