Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Illusion of Free Will

The term “free will” commonly refers to the felt sense that people could have acted otherwise than they actually did. For example, I decided to sit down and write this blog post. Someone who accepts the common notion of free will (sometimes called “libertarian” free will) would argue that I could have chosen to do something else with my time, but I instead deliberately selected to write this blog post.

This is all well and good, and it describes how nearly all normal, healthy people subjectively experience the world. But do we have free will in this sense? *Could* I, in fact, have done differently than I did?
Read on for some reflections on free will.

Religious believers often object to atheism and materialism – it is common for them to conflate these two ideas – by pointing out that in a purely materialist world, there could be no free will. After all, in a purely material world, the universe is nothing more than the interaction of atoms. Even the act of making a decision is simply the atoms of a particular brain assuming a certain configuration. Atoms move according to the physical laws of the universe. Every state of the universe, therefore – including the state of the universe I call “deciding to sit down and write a blog post” – is just a collection of atoms in a certain configuration that has been caused by the state of the universe immediately before it, which was caused by the state of the universe immediately before it, which was caused by the state of the universe immediately before it, which was caused by etc., all the way back to the Big Bang and whatever was before (?) that.

Hence, religionists say, atheists cannot believe in free will. However, they say, we clearly have free will, so atheism can’t be true. Checkmate, atheists!

There are a few arguments we might make in response, after we get done laughing at the fact that these religionists are ignorantly using “atheist” as a synonym for “materialist,” which (to their imprecise way of thinking) is apparently a synonym for determinist. Actually, that laughter suggests the first significant response: they’ve conflated a number of terms and made some unfounded assumptions, including the assumption that materialism necessitates determinism.

However, I will concede that as a materialist (in the sense that I lack the belief in non-material worlds), I am inclined to think that determinism, if not strictly true, is practically true as far as the human will is concerned. Much as I don’t accept the concept of absolute morality because this concept is in many ways incoherent and unsupported by evidence, I find most accounts of free will to be incoherent and poorly supported by evidence. Our subjective felt sense that we could have done differently – like our subjective, felt sense that certain actions are “wrong” – is no more evidence for free will (or for absolute morality) than our subjective perception that the sun travels around the earth is evidence that the earth is the center of the universe.

I do accept the existence of the physical world, and the physical world appears to be governed by laws that determine its movements. *If* our decisions are the products of what our brains do – which they appear to be – then our decisions necessarily are determined. Some object that there might be random elements of the universe, and there may be (such as some quantum phenomena), which would mean that the universe is, to some degree, indetermined. But even if this were the case, those random aspects of the universe (if they are truly random and not governed by some as-yet undiscovered law) would be just another of the zillions of causes, outside of our control, that determine our will in a given situation. In other words, whether or not the universe is strictly deterministic, the human will seems to be determined, for all practical purposes.

I’m not willing to say that I accept determinism as strongly as, say, I accept that the earth orbits the sun. But I find it compelling for the reasons I explained above. What I’d like to do for the remainder of this post is to explain the logical consequences of determinism and how these consequences might be useful for Thelemites.

If determinism is true, then in a given situation, there can only be one outcome. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened in that situation. In other words, if we could somehow “replay” all of time leading up to my decision to sit down and write this blog post – with everything happening in the exact same way, down to the exact position of every subatomic particle – then I would choose to sit down and write this blog post again. That is the only thing that could happen, no matter how many times we “replayed” the universe. Each time, it would feel to me subjectively as if I have a choice, and each time that choice would be to sit down and write this blog post.

Keep in mind that this does not mean that I’m saying it’s impossible for me, in general, to do other things with my time than write a blog post (if we’re talking about “me” as a concept, for the useful purpose of naming my attributes and thinking about my options). But I am saying that in the specific situation under discussion – that specific situation, with all of the atoms and subatomic particles of the universe in the exact same positions – it is impossible for me to have done otherwise than I did.

Does this mean, then, that I do not have free will? That depends on how we’re defining terms. There is a school of thought called compatibilism, which holds that free will is compatible with determinism. According to this school, “free will” simply means the ability to make a choice uncoerced by other conscious agents. In other words, if I choose to write this blogpost simply because of causal factors like my nature and the kinds of things I was thinking about today as a result of the things I saw, then we can describe that choice as free. However, if I were to “choose” to write this post because some hired goons threatened to beat me up if I didn’t write it, then we cannot describe that choice as free. According to these definitions, we indeed have free will.

There is another school of thought called incompatibilism, which holds that the two are not compatible. This school continues to use the “libertarian” definition of free will, emphasizing that the idea that one could have done differently in a given scenario is not true.

There’s an interesting essay I read from Sam Harris the other day, where he defends his incompatibilist position against a critique from compatibilist Daniel Dennett. I don’t always agree with Harris, but I found this essay interesting, mostly because he stresses the consequences that he thinks follow from incompatibilism. In part, these consequences include rethinking our justice system (so that we don’t punish people to enact vengeance or retribution, but to try to rehabilitate them and, in some cases, keep dangerous people away from the rest of us).

But the more interesting consequence is the eradication of hatred. As Harris points out, accepting incompatibilism renders hatred irrational (it would still be natural and understandable, but it would not be rational). Why? Because hatred is predicated on the idea that the people we hate are the authors of their actions, that they could have chosen to do differently than they actually did.

[Of course the *feeling* of hatred we have for others is just as determined as everything else that happens in our brains…but then again the arguments that we’re making now are equally determined. If these arguments persuade you, then the act of being persuaded is yet another brain function over which you do not have control]

We might remember that the Buddha is supposed to have said, “Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love.”

We might reflect on this statement that hatred is necessarily predicated on an illusory fantasy or story. Feeling that hatred – and, more significantly, telling ourselves that story over and over again – reinforces that fantasy and threatens to immerse us in an imaginary world of villains and heroes.

Our ideas of forgiveness, by the way, similarly play into this fantasy. Many people pride themselves on being “forgiving” people – thereby building up their self-image – but what does it mean to forgive someone? Forgiving someone essentially entails saying, “It’s okay that you did this bad thing.” But this gesture is doubly misguided. First, it presumes that what the person did was “bad,” when, in fact, “bad” is an interpretation that individuals place on events. The events themselves are neither good nor bad. But second, it presumes that the person could have done differently. One might do better to forget the whole “It’s okay that you did this bad thing” and just leave it at “It’s okay that you did this.” Of course it’s okay that they did that. They couldn’t have done otherwise. Everything that is, is right.

So what does any of this have to do with Thelema? Quite a lot, actually.

There seem to be some Thelemites who claim that Thelema is not compatible with determinism. Probably the best example of this is Daniel Gunther, supposedly a high-ranking member of the A.’.A.’. group affiliated with the OTO. In his 2009 book, Initiation in the Aeon of the Child, he states bluntly that Thelemites are “not advocates of Determinism […] The philosophy of determinism disallows the interaction of the Human Will. This is completely antithetical to the Law of Thelema.”

This weird statement is, of course, contradicted by Crowley throughout his writings. Take, for example, Liber V vel Reguli, where Crowley says, “The True Will is thus both determined by its equations, and free because those equations are simply its own name, spelt out fully.” Crowley is clear that True Will can be considered “determined” in some ways and “free” in other ways, depending on the definitions we’re using. There are many, many more examples of Crowley saying similar things for those who care to look.

Recall that “Do what thou wilt” does not mean “do whatever you want.” According to the philosophy of Thelema, the True Will is discovered, not chosen. Upon quieting the mind, the individual finds the True Will there already. That Will is just as determined as everything else about the individual. In one sense, we can consider “True Will” to be everything the person does (since, of course, that person could not have done otherwise than he or she actually did in a given situation). However, just as compatibilists define “free will” more specifically as a decision uncoerced by another conscious agent, we might in certain circumstances – such as, say, in the context of wanting to discuss and practice Thelema as a practical philosophy – define “True Will” more specifically as an action unrestricted by the various elements of the mind that normally impede it.

There are at least three primary ways of defining the True Will.The first is to consider the True Will to be everything the individual does. The second is to consider the True Will to be everything the individual does when he removes internal restriction. The third is to consider the True Will to be everything the individual does when he removes internal and external restriction.

We might associate the first of these definitions with determinism and incompatibilism; the second with determinism and compatibilism; the third with typical libertarian notions of free will (that is, the lived experience of that illusion).

These three definitions also map to our conceptions of the True Will in the past, present, and future (as well as to the three “grades” spoken of in The Book of the Law).

I’ve written elsewhere about how the most useful of these definitions is the second one, simply because it deals with the True Will in the present, and the present is the only thing that ever really exists. The usefulness of the other two definitions is in thinking about the past or the future, and thinking about them are activities that occur in the present.

The concept of determinism is useful when working with the second definition of True Will because it can help to think of the task of “discovering” the Will as really boiling down to learning how to “get out of the way” and let the Will do its thing. Its “thing” is entirely determined, and it would have no problem manifesting if you could just get what you usually call “you” out of the way. By quieting the conscious mind and learning to listen to the authentic inclinations, one gets better at doing the True Will.

As part of this task, one needs to clear away distracting fantasies as best as one can, and determinism can also help with this task.

First, determinism frees us from the burden of worrying about our past (applying it to the first definition of True Will). If determinism is true, and if everything that one has ever done has been necessary, then everything that has ever happened to you has been your True Will. In other words, your True Will has led you to this place, to this set of circumstances, and now the decision you have to make – to the extent that decisions are possible – is what to do from this point on. So many people kick themselves for “mistakes” they’ve made. There is no need to do this. Whatever you did, you couldn’t have acted otherwise. Application of this idea can actually dissolve fantasies of regret and imaginary “what if?” scenarios, classes of fantasy that preoccupy many kinds of people.

Further, determinism frees us from the fear that we could ever do wrong (applying it to the second and third definitions of True Will). So many people allow fear of failure, fear of making mistakes, and fear of the unknown in general to cripple them. All of these fears have no basis in reality, for it is impossible ultimately to fail, to make mistakes, or to suffer anything “bad.” Everything that is going to happen is exactly what has to happen, no more and no less. You have no more power over it than you have power over which guy down at the bar is going to with an arm wrestling match. Right now, somewhere in the world, two people are arm wrestling. You have no control over who will win. Are you worried about the outcome? If you’re not, there’s equally no reason to be worried about what will happen to you tomorrow.

It’s one thing to say these sorts of things, and it’s another to assimilate these ideas, apply them to your own particular and unique fantasies, and understand them in your bones. These aren’t just pleasant platitudes: these are weapons that can help you dissemble the fantasy structure that veils the glory of your self from you.

Finally, determinism frees us from fantasies like hatred, holding grudges, resentment, and sorrow in general (fantasies that exist in the present, the second definition of True Will). There’s a parable that Erwin Hessle likes to quote from Charlotte “Joko” Beck, a writer on Zen. I’d like to quote the parable because it’s relevant here:

Suppose we are out on a lake and it's a bit foggy — not too foggy, but a bit foggy — and we're rowing along in our little boat having a good time. And then, all of a sudden, coming out of the fog, there's this other rowboat and it's heading right at us. And… crash! Well, for a second we're really angry — what is that fool doing? I just painted my boat! And here he comes — crash! — right into it. And then suddenly we notice that the rowboat is empty. What happens to our anger? Well, the anger collapses… I'll just have to paint my boat again, that's all.

In other words, when the other rowboat hits us, we immediately get angry at “the other guy” in that boat. We quickly build up an entire fantasy structure around it. When the fog clears, though, we realize that there is no “other guy” at all. It was just a boat floating around on its own. It didn’t intend to hit us. Once we see that, the anger has to evaporate because we realize that we weren’t angry at anything in reality: we were angry at our imaginary guy in the rowboat.

Erwin uses this parable as an example of the ways that the mind can build up a web of illusion. If the mind – in that one example of one imaginary thing – can build up such an elaborate fantasy so quickly to the point that it gets angry over it, just think of the kinds of complicated, opaque illusions it can construct about the world (and about the self) over the course of years and years and decades.

However, I’d like to use parable in the way that Beck does. She immediately goes to say in her lecture that she’s not just talking this one narrow situation on a rowboat: she’s talking about all of our interactions. “It’s always an empty rowboat,” she says.

What does that mean? Among other things, it means that “intention” – as we commonly think of it – is a fantasy that we create. Let’s take two situations as examples. Say that a bolt of lightning hits the front of my car and damages it. Now say that a guy cuts me off in traffic, stops short, and this causes my car to hit his and get damaged (for the sake of argument, let’s say it’s the same level of damage as in the first example).

In each situation, the result is the same. In each situation, the same result was caused by a bunch of atoms obeying the blind laws of physics. But my gut-level reaction to each is vastly different. In the first example, I’m shocked and probably disappointed (“Whoa! Look what the lightning did! Aw, shucks. Now I have to take my car in”). But in the second example, I'm furious (“Hey! Nice driving, fuckstick!”). But why am I so furious in the second example? The result was the same. But in that second example, I’m operating under the assumption that the guy in the other car could have done differently. That’s why I’m so mad. He could have waited and merged nicely with traffic. He could have not stopped short. But nooooooooo. He’s got to drive like a moron instead. He could have done differently!

But he couldn’t have. It’s always an empty rowboat.

By the way, I’m not trying to say that you shouldn’t ever be angry. By all means feel whatever emotions you feel. But 1) you should then also try to see those emotions as objectively as possible and 2) you should understand that those emotions don’t have to dictate your actions. If all I’m doing is paying attention to how furious I am, I might try to fight the guy in the other car. But if I did that, I would probably be acting out of my fantasy of anger and of getting vengeance. It would be one thing if I seriously thought that kicking his ass would have some kind of causal effect on his future behavior and improve his driving, but that’s a pretty absurd idea that no one would have in that situation. Kicking his ass doesn’t actually accomplish anything aside from satisfying my narrative for vengeance. But that’s the problem: it’s a narrative. It lives only in my head.

Now maybe it’s my True Will to just kick his ass anyway (especially since True Will isn’t rational). Maybe. But I’m not going to discover that by paying attention to my fantasies about how “wrong” this guy and how he “did bad.” The fantasies don’t add anything to an assessment of a situation, and there’s a lot that they can take away.

Judging intention is only useful insofar as it reveals trends as to what a given agent might do in the future. If someone lies a lot, you know not to trust that person in the future (not because he’s a “bad person” who chooses to do bad things, but because the evidence suggests he’s dishonest, and when it comes to trusting someone, it’s a dumb idea to trust dishonest people); in a similar way, if opening a certain program on a computer tends to crash the computer, you know not to open that program unless you have to (not because it’s a “bad program” that’s choosing to crash your computer…it’s just following out its programming, so you figure out how it interacts with your machine as part of figuring out how to use this particular program).

It’s always an empty rowboat. Someone says something nasty about you at work. Empty rowboat. Someone steals something from your car. Empty rowboat. Someone borrows money and doesn’t return it. Empty rowboat. It can be hard to come to terms with that because we all want someone to blame. But there isn’t anyone to blame. It’s just cause and effect operating inexorably.

I have a friend who had a horrible relationship with her mother growing up. The mother was emotionally abusive and all the rest. Now my friend is older, and the mother is a lot older, and they’ve reconnected, and the mother has changed a lot, the relationship has changed a lot, and the mother claims not to even remember the stories of emotional abuse that her daughter relates.

My friend really struggles with that. She held onto so much anger for so many years. She still feels that anger. But who is she angry at? She’s mad at an idea, an imaginary person who doesn’t exist.

It’s an empty rowboat. It always was. What happened simply had to be. Staying mad and trying to get revenge is pointless and a waste of energy.

Some people seem to think that determinism is some sort of hopeless philosophy (probably they are confusing it with fatalism when they say this). But as I have tried to make clear, determinism can actually be liberating. It can assist in freeing us from some of the most destructive fantasies that absorb our attention. It should go without saying that models of reality involving dualism, free will, “souls,” consciousness being the “root of all,” and so forth are not just unsupported by evidence – they are maps that do not correspond to the territory and that can lend themselves to misapprehensions of reality that can carry very serious consequences for someone who makes these kinds of mistakes in thinking.


  1. Oh, that was a brilliant essay, especially the last part.

    You see, I too had a horrible mother who really screwed me up. And I used to hate her for it - I thought I *deserved* a better childhood and she *should* have provided it. I was very angry about it.

    Later, in my 40s, I realized: she *did the best she could*. She didn't mean me any harm, she was just utterly and completely incompetent. To ask her to raise me well was *insane*. She just was *incapable* of doing a competent job of raising a child.

    And that's when I understood Erwin Hessle's comment: "forgiveness is tripe". To "forgive" her was just insane. She couldn't help but to fuck up my upbringing.

    Nowadays, I no longer hate her. I concentrate on my loving relationships to my wife and my daughters, and let her be a good grandmother. (She is actually able to do that.)

    If I still thought that she "should" have done better, that I "deserved" better, if I still thought she was "evil", if I decided I didn't want to meet her ever again, my daughters would suffer from a lack of a good grandmother.

    1. Thanks for the kind words and for sharing your experience.

      Are you familiar with Philip Larkin's poem "This Be the Verse"?

      "They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do. / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you."

  2. It was a deterministic Universe that brought me here. Actually it was Google when I typed the combination determinism and Thelema, nevertheless it was a very helpful essay in a paper I'm writing on this in criminology. It's always an empty rowboat!