Thou shalt not think all the time. That should be the eleventh commandment. Maybe it should be the first commandment.
You’ve probably all heard that you have no “free will”. It’s a basic tenet of the Mechanical Philosophy. In fact, there would be no Mechanical Philosophy without the dogma of determinism or necessity.
To a certain extent, nonetheless, the mechanist is correct, even though he or she involves himself or herself in a self-contradiction. It is true that there is no free will…. until there is. Freedom is your quest. It’s not something you “have” as a possession or as a birthright or as an inheritance. “Free” is something you are striving to become.
The reason that the intellectual, or scientist, cannot believe in “free will”, particularly if they are of the mechanical or physicalist school, is because they are themselves unfree. It would be better if, instead of speaking of “freedom” in the abstract, we were to speak rather of free acts or unfree acts. But the strict mechanist or determinist cannot even admit to there being free acts. This results in some rather bizarre self-contradictions, as noted by the neurologist Mario Beauregard in his book The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul. And it would be better if we would stop blathering on about “living in the free world” and thus “at the end of history”, too. We simply aren’t there yet.
The intellectual who insists on a deterministic world does so because he or she is a slave to mentation and cogitation. The intellectual thinks compulsively and obsessively, whereas if he or she were truly the master of reason and thinking, they could stop thinking at will. They could turn their thinking on and off like a light switch. If they could do that, they would they could be said to be masters of thinking and reasoning. But if one thinks compulsively and obsessively, about everything and anything from the time one gets up in the morning to the time one retires at night, one is not free. There is no mastery. So, in that sense there is indeed no “free will”. It’s something that, like a muscle, needs to be exercised, practiced, and developed. As long as the intellectual only mentates and cogitates and ruminates continuously he or she must believe in the truth of necessity and determinism, for they are true enough in those terms as compulsiveness and obsessiveness.
It’s the function of the famous Zen koans to short-circuit this compulsive cogitation. A Zen koan, like “what is the sound of one hand clapping”, is like instructing a computer to divide by zero, or to process a result that is true and false at the same time. It locks up or crashes — the computer equivalent of a nervous breakdown. In my earlier computer programming days, we called it “the blue screen of death”, otherwise known as “catastrophic system failure” — an unrecoverable system failure which required a reboot. The situation gave rise to some very clever computer haiku, by the way, one of my favourites being…
All shortcuts have disappeared.
Screen. Mind. Both are blank.
And the presence of absence:
“My Novel” not found.
(More very witty and absolutely hilarious computer haiku messages are posted on Netlingo. They still make me laugh out loud every time I read them).
I think we are growing more sophisticated in the sense that our understanding of freedom now goes well beyond the notion of mere physical constraint to include (even principally) spiritual constraint or inhibition. Sri Aurobindo achieved his emancipation, ironically, while he was a prisoner of the British in India (after which he quipped that he couldn’t thank the British enough for throwing him into prison for his anti-imperialist and revolutionary activities).
There’s a certain paradox to freedom (one realised by Nietzsche as that of “the free spirit”), that free will actually involves the surrender and sacrifice of willfulness. Here again, I ask you to bear in mind “Khayyam’s Caution” that “only a hair separates the false from the true”. Sacrificing willfulness to achieve total freedom seems a complete contradiction, yet that is the implication of the prayer and petition “Not my will be done, but Thine, O Lord” (which is also the very meaning of the term “Islam” also — submission). This is not slavery. Quite the opposite. It’s the desire to become as God is. For we can conceive of no being more free than God. God is our own superhuman destiny because God is total freedom. For that reason did Jesus give his followers the direction: “Be thou therefore perfect, even as thy Father in heaven…” What does that mean? It means that what we call “God” is the model for what we are to become.
And the only contemporary Western philosopher to have taken that seriously was Nietzsche. For that reason, the old God and idol, Jehovah (who is also Blake’s tyrant Zoa Urizen) had to die. “If God existed, how could we bear not to become God?” wrote Nietzsche, and he answered his own question with his philosophy of the “overman” or transhuman. This is fully the equivalent of Blake’s understanding that God exists and is revealed in the human form divine, or as the divinised human form, who is “Albion” reborn. This is, I believe, also Aurobindo’s evolutionary spirituality of the “supramental consciousness”.
Those of you who know Castaneda’s work might recognise this “will of God”. It is what is there called “intent”. The mastery of intent actually involved a voluntary submission to intent. That’s the implication of the all-important passage from the Commentary to the 25th anniversary edition to Castaneda’s Teachings of Don Juan, where Castaneda writes that “the real struggle of man is not the strife with his fellowmen but with infinity, and this is not even a struggle; it is, in essence, an acquiescence. We must voluntarily acquiesce to infinity. In the description of sorcerers, our lives originate in infinity, and they end up wherever they originated: infinity.”
In effect, Castaneda’s (and don Juan’s) “infinity” is the same as Gebser’s “ever-present origin”, but this “acquiescence” is equivalent to Nietzsche’s principle of “amor fati” (which, nonetheless, becomes “the free spirit” or equivalently don Juan’s “total freedom”), or the surrender of willfulness to the “will of God”.
In that sense, “God” is the model of what we, as human beings, were intended to become. “God” is a destiny, more than a beginning. “God” is in the future, not the past, and we have an appointment to keep. The “calling” or “vocation” — this issues from the future, not from the past.
I’ll leave you with a riddle: the movement of the free spirit is all this — respiration, inspiration, aspiration, expiration, transpiration. We might call these the metamorphoses of the spirit. And you are a “free spirit” only to the extent that you can circulate through, or undergo, all these metamorphoses. Or, if you prefer, you may consider it thus: respiration is the spirit of Air; inspiration is the spirit of Fire; transpiration is the spirit of Water; expiration is the spirit of Earth.
And aspiration? That might be that which was called, formerly, “the luminiferous aether” or quintessence. What we call “ambition” is the deficient or “leaden” expression of aspiration, as “will” is, in some ways, the deficient or “leaden” aspect of “intent”, as “totality” is the deficient or “leaden” aspect of the whole, as “assimilation” is the deficient or “leaden” aspect of integration, libertinism the deficient or “leaden” aspect of freedom (“leaden” being employed here in the hermetic or alchemical sense). Every value has its shadow or “false” side, which belongs to the Ulro (which is now called “the new normal”). It’s in that sense, too, that you can appreciate Nietzsche’s definition of nihilism as devaluation of values, ie, “all higher values devalue themselves” — the transmutation of all that is golden into lead.