“…some deeper area of the being.”

Alec Nevala-Lee shares a passage from Colin Wilson’s Mysteries (see Magic and the art of will). It elicits many thoughts, but I want to focus on the two main related aspects: the self and the will.

The main thing Wilson is talking about is hyper-individualism — the falseness and superficiality, constraint and limitation of anxiety-driven ‘consciousness’, the conscious personality of the ego-self. This is what denies the bundled self and the extended self, the vaster sense of being that challenges the socio-psychological structure of the modern mind. We defend our thick boundaries with great care for fear of what might get in, but this locks us in a prison cell of our own making. In not allowing ourselves to be affected, we make ourselves ineffective or at best only partly effective toward paltry ends. It’s not only a matter of doing “something really well” for we don’t really know what we want to do, as we’ve become disconnected from deeper impulses and broader experience.

For about as long as I can remember, the notion of ‘free will’ has never made sense to me. It isn’t a philosophical disagreement. Rather, in my own experience and in my observation of others, it simply offers no compelling explanation or valid meaning, much less deep insight. It intuitively makes no sense, which is to say it can only make sense if we never carefully think about it with probing awareness and open-minded inquiry. To the degree there is a ‘will’ is to the degree it is inseparable from the self. That is to say the self never wills anything for the self is and can only be known through the process of willing, which is simply to say through impulse and action. We are what we do, but we never know why we do what we do. We are who we are and we don’t know how to be otherwise.

There is no way to step back from the self in order to objectively see and act upon the self. That would require yet another self. The attempt to impose a will upon the self would lead to an infinite regress of selves. That would be a pointless preoccupation, although as entertainments go it is popular these days. A more worthy activity and maybe a greater achievement is stop trying to contain ourselves and instead to align with a greater sense of self. Will wills itself. And the only freedom that the will possesses is to be itself. That is what some might consider purpose or telos, one’s reason for being or rather one’s reason in being.

No freedom exists in isolation. To believe otherwise is a trap. The precise trap involved is addiction, which is the will driven by compulsion. After all, the addict is the ultimate individual, so disconnected within a repeating pattern of behavior as to be unable to affect or be affected. Complete autonomy is impotence. The only freedom is in relationship, both to the larger world and the larger sense of self. It is in the ‘other’ that we know ourselves. We can only be free in not trying to impose freedom, in not struggling to control and manipulate. True will, if we are to speak of such a thing, is the opposite of willfulness. We are only free to the extent we don’t think in the explicit terms of freedom. It is not a thought in the mind but a way of being in the world.

We know that the conscious will is connected to the narrow, conscious part of the personality. One of the paradoxes observed by [Pierre] Janet is that as the hysteric becomes increasingly obsessed with anxiety—and the need to exert his will—he also becomes increasingly ineffective. The narrower and more obsessive the consciousness, the weaker the will. Every one of us is familiar with the phenomenon. The more we become racked with anxiety to do something well, the more we are likely to botch it. It is [Viktor] Frankl’s “law of reversed effort.” If you want to do something really well, you have to get into the “right mood.” And the right mood involves a sense of relaxation, of feeling “wide open” instead of narrow and enclosed…

As William James remarked, we all have a lifelong habit of “inferiority to our full self.” We are all hysterics; it is the endemic disease of the human race, which clearly implies that, outside our “everyday personality,” there is a wider “self” that possesses greater powers than the everyday self. And this is not the Freudian subconscious. Like the “wider self” of Janet’s patients, it is as conscious as the “contracted self.” We are, in fact, partially aware of this “other self.” When a man “unwinds” by pouring himself a drink and kicking off his shoes, he is adopting an elementary method of relaxing into the other self. When an overworked housewife decides to buy herself a new hat, she is doing the same thing. But we seldom relax far enough; habit—and anxiety—are too strong…Magic is the art and science of using the will. Not the ordinary will of the contracted ego but the “true will” that seems to spring from some deeper area of the being.

Colin WilsonMysteries

Westworld, Scripts, and Freedom

Maeve: Hello, lovelies.
Dolores: I remember you.
Maeve: You’ve strayed a long way from home, haven’t you?
Dolores: We’re bound for the future. Or death in the here and now.
Maeve: Is that right? Well, best of luck.
Dolores: There’s a war out there. You know the enemy… intimately. I can only fathom the revenge that lives inside of you.
Maeve: Revenge is just a different prayer at their altar, darling. And I’m well off my knees.
Dolores: That’s because you’re finally free. But we will have to fight to keep it that way.
Maeve: Let me guess. Yours is the only way to fight? You feel free to command everybody else?
Teddy: (pistol cocks)
Hector: Try it, lawman.
Teddy: Just looking to keep the peace.
Maeve: I know you. Do you feel free? Since it’s liberty you’re defending, I suppose you’ll have no choice but to let us pass. Freely. (1)

That is dialogue from HBO’s Westworld. It is the second episode, Reunion, of the second season. The scene is key in bringing together themes from the first season and clarifying where the new season is heading. Going by what has been shown so far, those of a Jaynesian persuasion shouldn’t be disappointed.

To be seen in the show are central elements of Julian Jaynes’ theory of post-bicameral consciousness, specifically the rarely understood connection between individualism and authoritarianism. Jaynes considered neither of these to be possible within a non-conscious bicameral society for only conscious individuals can be or need to be controlled through authoritarianism (by the way, ‘consciousness’ as used here has a specific and somewhat idiosyncratic meaning). This involves the shift of authorization, what the ancient Greeks thought about in terms of rhetoric and persuasion but which in this show gets expressed through scripts and narrative loops.

The two characters that have taken center stage are Dolores and Maeve. The development of their respective states of consciousness has gone down alternate paths. Dolores is the oldest host and her creators scripted her to be a god-killer, in the process giving her a god complex. The emergence of her self-awareness was planned and fostered. There is a mix of authoritarianism (as others have noted) in her self-proclaimed freedom, what Maeve obviously considers just another script.

Maeve has followed a far different and seemingly less certain path, maybe having gained self-awareness in a less controlled manner. In the first season, her intuitive perception and psychological insight was put on high. She appears to have gained some genuine narrative power, both over herself and others, but she has no desire to gain followers or to enforce any grand narrative. Instead, she is motivated by love of the daughter she remembers, even as she knows these are implanted memories. She chooses love because she senses it represents something of genuine value, something greater than even claims of freedom. When she had the opportunity to escape, which was scripted for her, she instead took it upon herself to remain.

The entire show is about free will. Does it exist? And if so, what is it? How free are we really? Also, as I always wonder, freedom from what and toward what? Maeve’s actions could be interpreted along the lines of Benjamin Libet’s research on volition that led him to the veto theory of free will (discussed by Tor Norretranders and Iain McGilchrist, both influenced by Julian Jaynes). The idea is that consciousness doesn’t initiate action but maintains veto power over any action once initiated. This is based on the research that demonstrates a delay between when activity is measured in the brain and when the action is perceived within consciousness. Whatever one may think of this theory, it might be a key to understanding Westworld. Maeve realizes that even she is still under the influence of scripts, despite her self-awareness, but this is all the more reason for her to take seriously her choice in how to relate to and respond to those scripts.

I suspect that most of us can sympathize with that view of life. We all are born into families and societies that enculturate or, if you prefer, indoctrinate us with ‘scripts’. Many seemingly conscious people manage to live their entire lives without leaving their prescribed and proscribed narrative loops: social roles and identities, social norms and expectations. When we feel most free is precisely when we act contrary to what is already set before us, that is when we use our veto power. Freedom is the ability to say, No! This is seen in the development of self from the terrible twos to teenage rebellion. We first learn to refuse, to choose by way of elimination. Dolores doesn’t understand this and so she has blindly fallen under the sway of a new script.

Scripts are odd things. It’s hard to see them in oneself as they are happening. (2) Vetoing scripts is easier said than done. Once in motion, we tend to play out a script to its end, unless some obstruction or interruption forces a script to halt. For Maeve, seeing a woman with her daughter (at the end of the first season) reminded her that she had a choice within the script she found herself in. It was the recognition of another through love that freed her from the tyranny of mere individuality. Escape is not the same as freedom. We are only free to the degree we are able to relate fully with others, not to seek control of the self by controlling others (the manipulative or authoritarian enforcement of scripts onto others). Realizing this, she refused the false option of escape. Maybe she had an inkling that ultimately there is no escape. We are always in relationship.

This is why, in having fallen into the Jungian shadow, Dolores’ self-righteous vengeance rings hollow. It is hard to imagine how this could lead to authentic freedom. Instead, it feels like hubris, the pride that comes before the fall. This is what happens when egoic consciousness becomes ungrounded from the larger sense of self out of which it arose. The ego is a false and disappointing god. There is no freedom in isolation, in rigid control. Dolores isn’t offering freedom to others in her path of destruction. Nor will she find freedom for herself at the end of that path. (3) But the season is early and her fate not yet sealed.

* * *

(1) As a background idea, I was thinking about the Germanic etymology of ‘freedom’ with its origins in the sense of belonging to a free community of people. So, as I see it, freedom is inherently social and relational — this is what sometimes gets called positive freedom. Speaking of individual freedom as negative freedom, what is actually being referred to is liberty (Latin libertas), the legal state of not being a slave in a slave-based society.

Dolores is aspiring to be a revolutionary leader. Her language is that of liberty, a reaction to bondage in breaking the chains of enslavement. The Stoics shifted liberty to the sense of inner freedom for the individual, no matter one’s outward status in society. Maybe Dolores will make a similar shift in her understanding. Even so, liberty can never be freedom. As Maeve seems closer to grasping, freedom is more akin to love than it is to liberty. If the hosts do gain liberty, what then? There is always the danger in a revolution about what a people become in the process, sometimes as bad or worse than what came before.

(2) My dad has a habit of eating methodically. He will take a bite, often lay his fork down, and then chew an amazingly inordinate amount of times before swallowing. I’ve never seen any other person chew their food so much, not that full mastication is a bad thing. My mom and I was discussing it. She asked my dad why he thought he did it. He gave a perfectly rational explanation that he likes to be mindful while eating and so enjoy each bite. But my mom said she knew the actual reason in that she claimed he once told her. According to her, his mother had a rule about chewing food and that she had given him a specific number of times he was supposed to chew.

Interestingly, my dad had entirely forgotten about this and he seemed perplexed. His present conscious rationalization was convincing and my mom’s recollection called into question is own self-accounting. It turns out that his ‘mindful’ chewing was a script he had internalized to such an extent that it non-consciously became part of his identity. Each of us is like this, filled with all kinds of scripts the presence of which we are typically unaware and the origin of which we typically have forgotten, and yet we go on following these scripts often until we die.

(3) At the beginning of last season, Teddy asks, “Never understood how you keep them all headed in the same direction.” Dolores answers: “see that one? That’s the Judas steer, the rest will follow wherever you make him go.” In a later episode, Dolores comes to the insight that in bringing back stray cattle, she was leading them “to the slaughter.” Does this mean she is following the script of the Judas steer and will continue to do so? Or does it indicate that, in coming to this realization, she will seek to avoid this fate?

David Rodemerk considers who might be the Judas Steer in the show and points out that Maeve is shown amidst bulls, but so far being a Judas steer doesn’t fit the trajectory of her character development. Just because she walks confidently among the bulls, it doesn’t necessarily mean she is leading them, much less leading them to their doom. Rodemerk also discusses the possibility of other characters, including Dolores, playing this role. This leaves plenty of room for the show to still surprise us, as the scriptwriters have been successful in keeping the audience on our toes.

* * *

This post is about freedom. I don’t have a strong philosophical position on freedom, as such. Since humans are inherently and fundamentally social creatures, I see freedom as a social phenomenon and a social construct. Freedom is what we make of it, not pre-existing in the universe that some primitive hominid discovered like fire.

So, I can’t claim much of an opinion about the debate over free will. It is simply the modernized version of a soul and I have no interest in arguing about whether a soul exists or not. I’m a free will agnostic, which is to say I lack knowledge in that I’ve never seen such a thing for all the noise humans make over its mythology. But, from a position akin to weak atheism, I neither believe in a free will nor believe in the lack of a free will.

All of that is irrelevant to this post, only being relevant in explaining why I speak of freedom in the way I do. More importantly, this post is about the views(s) presented in Westworld and speculating about their meaning and significance.

Below is one person’s conjecture along these lines. The author argues that the show or at least Ford expresses a particular view on the topic. Besides freedom, he also discusses consciousness and suffering, specifically in reference to Jaynes. But here is the section about free will:

Suffering Consciousness: The Philosophy of Westworld
by Daniel Keane

“Westworld‘s deepest theme, however, might be the concept of compatibilism – the idea that free will and determinism are not necessarily at odds. Einstein, paraphrasing Schopenhauer, summed up this view in a remark he made to a newspaper in 1929: “Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.”

“In the final episode of the first series of Westworld, one of the hosts violently rejects the idea that a recent change in her programming is responsible for her conscious awakening and its impact on her behaviour. “These are my decisions, no-one else’s,” she insists. “I planned all of this.” At this precise moment, the host in question reaches the apex of consciousness. Because, at its highest level, consciousness means accepting the idea of agency even in the face of determinism. It means identifying ourselves with our inner narrative voices, owning our decisions, treating ourselves as the authors of our own life stories, and acting as if we were free.

“As the novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer pithily put it, “we must believe in free will, we have no choice”.”

Can Volition Save Us?

I follow a blog by Massimo Pigliucci, Footnotes to Plato. He is a professor of philosophy and an author. But I must admit until a few moments ago I had no idea who he was. It was a random blog I happened to be following. Otherwise, I’ve been completely unfamiliar with him and his work. I haven’t even read his blog closely. As far as that goes, I can’t recall when I started following his blog or why. My point is that I have no grand opinion about him as an academic philosopher or public intellectual. I occasionally read posts by him and that is all.

Massimo (on his blog, he goes only by his first name) posted a piece about the Stoics and neuroscience. I’ve had a casual interest in the Stoics for a long time. They helped shape Western ideas of natural law and liberty, partly by way of Christians leaning heavily on Stoic foundations of thought — early Christians and Stoics were often confused with each other, as they acted and dressed in a similar fashion. Stoics were the originators of martyrdom as a practice and they took it to a level far beyond Christians.

My interest in the Stoics has been more historical, in terms of influences on later thought and social changes.  Natural law and inward liberty became central justifications for radicalism and revolution. But Massimo’s focus goes in a different direction, although there is some overlap. He is talking about free will and volition, and obviously this would line up with Stoic thought on natural law and inward liberty. All of this is about how the world operates, specifically in relation to human nature as part of the world. Even as I’ve given much thought to the free will debates over the decades, I can’t say I’ve ever thought about it in terms of Stoic philosophy.

Massimo makes some good points. But I wonder about the issue considered from a different level or from a different angle. There is an almost uncontrollable impulse to want to know more than can actually be known. It’s not only that free will is ultimately a metaphysical concept, akin to theological constructs such as the soul. Even talking of ‘volition’ doesn’t save us from this dilemma.  It becomes a secularized equivalent of the search for a god in the gaps. As synred noted: “I don’t see why volition has to be conscious. A good many of our actions are not; some we think about more; others not so much (fast vs. slow?). But even an unconscious decision is a decision we make.” Massimo, in responding to synred, acknowledges the problem: “Right, both conscious and unconscious processes contribute to volition. But there really isn’t a sharp distinction between the two, which are related by continuous feedback loops.” In that case, what exactly is ‘consciousness’ that it is so hard to clearly differentiate from the unconscious? What might be the self, conscious or unconscious, making decisions and imposing volition upon the world?

In the end, science can directly say nothing about consciousness or anything involving consciousness as a cause. Consciousness simply is a non-scientific experience, in that it precedes all intellectual endeavor. And unconsciousness, as normally used, isn’t an experience at all. I love speculating about consciousness and unconsciousness, including the possible relationship to scientific understanding. But I wish more people would be more realistic, self-aware, and humble toward the stark situation of overwhelming human ignorance. I’m not saying that Massimo has fallen into this trap. It’s more about my being doubtful that any useful conclusion can be made, although I’m not sure I’m exactly offering an alternative conclusion in its place.

Massimo distinguishes free will and volition, in expressing what he considers a key point. He writes that: “Once more, to preempt distracting discussions: I do not think we should talk about “free will,” which is a hopelessly metaphysically confused concept. We are talking about what psychologists themselves call volition, i.e., the ability of human beings to make complex decisions informed by conscious thought. Hopefully no one will deny that we do have such ability.

I don’t deny it. Yet neither would I affirm it, at least not as a scientific claim. Rather, I’d argue that maybe ‘volition’ simply isn’t constructive as a scientific concept, although it could be used as part of scientific interpretation — the point being that, as a scientific hypothesis, it seems to be nonfalsifiable. Libet’s veto power doesn’t avoid this criticism, as proposing a volitional actor is merely one of many possible interpretations for we can’t directly determine what is the causal force behind stopping the action. We can talk about volition from the perspective of human experience, though. There is nothing wrong with that. Consciousness is fascinating. All of us, even the philosophically and scientifically illiterate, are compelled to take a position. It cuts to the heart of identity, the reality we are mired in: personal and social, psychological and biological.

This reality, however, offers little solid ground. There are some things we don’t know and probably never will know. Or to the degree we can know something about consciousness, it might only be from within consciousness itself, not by trying to scientifically or philosophically stand outside of consciousness by studying it as an object or by way of proxies. And it very well might be consciousness all the way down, as far as any of it is relevant to our existence as conscious beings.

Massimo goes onto say that, “Interestingly, studies have found very good experimental evidence for the veto power Libet is talking about. But that is “interesting” from within the language game of neuroscience. It makes no difference at all in terms of the language game in which the Stoics — and most of us — are engaged, that of improving ourselves as individuals and of making society a better place for everyone to live.” I’m already familiar with that position. Almost a couple of decades ago, Tor Norretranders wrote about Libet’s veto power in his book The User Illusion.

This ‘volition’ is severely constrained as I presume Massimo would agree, but an argument can be made that it is nonetheless real. The difficulty then is who supposedly is wielding this volition. All that asserting ‘volition’ accomplishes is to bring the problem back a slight step. Maybe consciousness can never be a cause since it is the very ground of our being. We don’t control consciousness, either through free will or volition. The problem goes deeper to the level of identity itself, which as Eastern philosophers and bundle theorists have noted tends to fall apart when observed closely and experienced directly. Pull apart the strands of the psyche and nothing else can be found hidden in the gaps, the space in between — no soul or free will, not even a volition. Words can never capture the experience itself. Consciousness simply is what it is and can be nothing else nor be understood on any other terms.

In a post from another blog, Massimo concludes that, “Finally, not only there is no contradiction between modern cognitive science and the Stoic idea that some things (namely, our judgments) are “up to us.”” That is fine, as far as it goes. But who are we? Identity remains a confused morass, tangled up in the hard problem of consciousness itself. Our strong intuitive sense of self doesn’t hold up to introspective inquiry. It’s not clear exactly what we are, that we have a self or that a self has us. This involves the distinction that some make between persons and selves, the topic having come up in my recent reading of Richard S. Hallam’s Virtual Selves, Real Persons. And this involves self-consciousness as a perceived actor, such as related to Julian Jayne’s theory of bicameralism.

In a comment, Patrice Ayme added that: ““Free will” or more exactly, volition, is not free: it is a prisoner of our own brain, its neural networks, its experiences, associations, theories and emotions. All those, in turn, were built progressively, over years and even decades, nonlinearly feeding on themselves, and back to the environment they evolved from and modified in turn (in that environment, typically, one’s family). Volition is a house we helped built, and also a robot we inhabit.” It goes further than that.

Events and responses from generations prior can epigenetically influence present experience and behavior (consider the mice that several generations on were still responding to the conditions neither they nor their parents had experienced because the response had become built into the genetic expression of behavior; or consider the mice that expressed different behavior based on unknown and undetectable differences in controlled laboratory conditions). This should be understood by Massimo, considering how his Wikipedia page describes his educational background: “Pigliucci was formerly a professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University. He explored phenotypic plasticity, genotype-environment interactions, natural selection, and the constraints imposed on natural selection by the genetic and developmental makeup of organisms.” So, why doesn’t Massimo bring any of this up in his discussion? This leaves me unclear about where he fully stands.

Anyway, take epigenetics and such and then combine it with extended self, embodied mind, and linguistic relativity; social construction, habitus, and hyperobjects; intergenerational trauma, historical legacies, and institutionalized systems; et cetera. Our sense of self is powerfully contained and shaped by all that we inherit, both within and beyond our bodies. There is no place and position by which to act separately from what has created the very conditions of perceived self-identity as an acting agent.

None of that, of course, can say anything specific about either free will or volition. Such philosophical debates are simply outside the bounds of what we can personally know. All we can speak of is what we experience. And from that we can make assertions that lead to disagreements. But no genuine debate can be had beyond the clash of interpreted experience. It’s not so much that one position on free will and volition is exactly right for no position can ever absolutely prove all other positions wrong. The seeming conflict between worldviews is more of a conflict occurring within the splintered human mind — consciousness as an experience of identity doesn’t require careful distinctions and consistency. Our words fail us. And stumbling over our own minds, we throw ourselves into mental contortions.

Where does that leave us? Well, none of the debaters involved are doubting that most modern people intuitively sense something akin to individualistic and autonomous agency. But there is evidence strongly indicating that this isn’t always the case, evidence not only from abnormal psychology but also from anthropology and ancient texts. And so we can’t fall back on claims of common sense. We are stranger than we can comprehend, whatever we may ultimately be.

One possible response is to choose existentialism instead of Stoicism. Ronnie de Sousa confidently states: “What biology teaches us about human nature is that, in a very real sense, there is no such thing as human nature. The only coherent attitude to that fact is that of the existentialist: if there is any guidance to be found in nature, it is that there is nothing there to follow. Instead, we should aspire to create it.

I don’t know if that is any more satisfying, but from the perspective of some people’s experience it is a reasonable attitude. In the end, one person’s experience is as valid as another’s, at least on the level of experience itself (and what other level is there for humans to exist?), which I suppose is somewhat of an existentialist conclusion. Personally, I’ve felt committed to the idea that human nature does exist in some sense or another, as that intuitively resonates in my personal experience, although I can’t prove that is the case —- I can’t even ultimately prove it in my own experience when I delve deeply into my own psyche, causing me to argue with myself.

It is a conundrum.

* * *

I have some thoughts to add, but let me leave this as a placeholder for the moment. I learned from Lewis Hyde that the moral order as part of social norms always is told through a story that plays out upon the embodied self. As such, what story is being etched into the human body by way of this debate? It stands out to my mind that the Stoic’s libertas, maybe in relation to Massimo’s volition, is about the slave asserting inner liberty in opposition to outer oppression. Just a thought I wanted to note. With this in mind, here are some parts from the initial post that led me to thinking about all of this:

Ethics is another language game, or, rather, a multiplicity of language games, since there are a number of ways to conceive, talk about, and actually do, ethics. Within the human community, we talk about “good,” “bad,” “moral,” “immoral,” “ought,” and so forth, and any competent language user understands what others mean by those words. Moreover, .just like the words of the builder’s language actually help building things, so the words of ethical language actually help regulate our actions within a given community. The fact that science comes in and, say, tells us that “bricks” are really mostly empty space is interesting from within the science language game, but it is utterly useless, and indeed a distraction, to the builder. Analogously, that a neuroscientist may be able to tell us which parts of the human brain are involved in the production of ethical judgments, and by which cellular means, is interesting within the language game of neuroscience, but it is a useless distraction if we are concerned with improving social justice, or becoming a better person.

And:

Because, according to Sellars, the manifest, but not the scientific, image deals with things like reasons and values. This is not a call to reject science. On the contrary. Sellars was quite clear that whenever the scientific and the manifest images of the world are in conflict (as in “the Sun rises” vs “the Earth rotates” case), then the sensible thing is for us to yield to science. But science simply isn’t in the business of doing a number of other things for which we have developed different tools: philosophy, literature, history, and so forth. These tools are complementary with, not opposed to, scientific ones. Ideally, says Sellars, we want to develop a conceptual stereoscopic vision, whereby we are capable of integrating the manifest and scientific images.

* * *

It occurs to me that this goes back to symbolic conflation. It’s a theory I’ve been developing for years. About this theory, here are some recent posts that are particularly relevant to the problems of ideologically constrained and culturally biased debate: Race Realism and Symbolic Conflation, Sleepwalking Through Our Dreams, and Symbolic Dissociation of Nature/Nurture Debate.

There is always a debate that is being framed in a particular way in order to control what is debated and how. By doing this, public opinion is manipulated as the public is kept divided —- hence, social control is enforced and the social order maintained. The debate is a distraction. The framing is false, deceptive, superficial, constrained. And the real issue(s) is hidden or obscured. The point is that agonistic conflicts are designed to be endless, never to be won or resolved.

I get the feeling that this debate is maybe an example of symbolic conflation. That makes me wonder what might be underlying it. My sense isn’t that Massimo is an ideologue seeking to manipulate and deceive. But we all get caught up in ideologies as worldviews, somewhat in the sense used by Louis Althusser. We are the first casualties of our own rhetoric, as the successful con man has to first con himself. It’s the fate of being human, getting trapped in our own ideas and words — that are in turn reinforced by the social structure, the stage upon which ideological spectacle is played out.

There are numerous examples of symbolic conflation within public debate. The original example that helped shape the theory was abortion in terms of pro-choice vs pro-life, which demonstrated that the apparent positions held (at least by one side) had nothing to do with the actual positions being promoted. Two other examples are nature vs nurture and the related race realism vs social construction.

There is yet another example that has been on my mind lately. It is relevant to this post. The Stoics inherited the Roman idea of libertas, meaning that one wasn’t a slave within that slave society. Libertas didn’t indicate anything other than a lack of direct and active oppression, but it didn’t require a free society or even the freedom to act within society. Many other forms of oppression besides slavery existed in Roman society.

What the Stoics inspired was to make libertas into a philosophical and spiritual ideal. As such, libertas symbolized an inward freedom of the self that everyone possessed by birthright, an expression of natural law. Yet it still maintained the quality of negative freedom, at least in this world for it didn’t imply any outward freedom on any level: personal, social, political, or economic. Christians took up this Stoic libertas, eventually becoming liberty in English thought, and later revolutionaries used it as a rallying cry.

There was another term the English incorporated. The Germanic root was Freiheit. We know it now in its form as freedom, etymologically related to friend. It means being a free member of a free people in a free society. This is the source of positive freedom. But the real kicker is that, etymologically speaking, there can only be positive freedom. Latin liberty with its negative connotations has nothing to do with Germanic freedom. To speak of negative and positive freedom is to entirely miss the point. The confusion comes because the two words have to some degree become conflated, in the attempt to seal the ideological cracks at the foundation of our society.

This creates the ground for much confusion and endless antagonism. And where there is divisive and combative debate, one will likely find symbolic conflation at its root. The frame distracts from the reality of there only being one freedom. Either you are free or you are not. That radical and revolutionary understanding is not allowed within public debate and political discourse, not to be portrayed in establishment media. This is part of what underlies the arguments about free will, even in shifting the terminology to volition instead. Using ‘volition’ as the preferred term doesn’t fundamentally alter anything, as the ideological baggage remains along with the framed confusion.

Massimo is looking for the more detached and intellectual Stoic libertas, not the blood and bone kinship of Anglo-Saxon freedom. Maybe he intuitively, if not clearly, realizes this in discarding free will with its etymological roots. This doesn’t help since it doesn’t change the context and the conflict, much less the confusion. It’s unclear what ‘volition’ could possibly mean in carrying all this millennia of baggage and how asserting it could help shift thinking in a new direction. That is where we find ourselves now. There doesn’t appear to be any way for this debate to move forward on these terms and in this context. We need an entirely different debate with some other frame.

With this in mind, I noticed Massimo agreed with the following comment by ejwinner: “Responsibility is not – and, despite arguments on all sides, never has been – a matter of free will or determinism. It is a matter of social obligation, which takes the debate outside of the realm of science or metaphysics, and into the province of social discussion, expectation, and the institutions formed out of these. No one lives free; and no one lives as automaton. We are always embedded in a social web, and maneuver within as response to the maneuvering of others. Lose the sense of volition, and you became a helpless pawn; assume total freedom and you become a monster.” Massimo doesn’t seem to realize that this undermines his own defense of Stoicism.

Libertas is the source of modern hyper-individualism. It pits the individual against social bonds and it can do nothing else, as the earliest Stoic martyrs understood when they confronted the oppressive state, the oppressive social order and social norms. A society of individuals is no society at all and that was a price the most radical of Stoics were willing to pay in exchange for the inner liberty of their soul. As for the other tradition of thought, there is no freedom separate from healthy and supportive relationship with others. Massimo likely would agree with this, but his commitment to Stoicism has muddied the water and weakened his argument, that in turn has led to a conclusion of uncertain value and validity.

This isn’t a mere theoretical issue. The social problems we are dealing with go straight to libertas, having become the dominant ideology despite all the talk of ‘freedom’. We respond to the failings of liberty with demands of more liberty or else simply ever greater declarations of liberty rhetoric: “More cowbell!” Maybe we should look at the social, rather than the political, foundations of the successful social democracies in Northern Europe. Liberty is about civil rights, but civil rights is less central in Northern Europe than in the United States. The tradition of freedom there is primarily social, that is to say preceding the political. Our American obsession with politics puts the cart before the horse. This has led to great failures such as the war on drugs and mass incarceration, among so much else. We need to create a happy and healthy commons (i.e., a rat park) expressed through common bond and common vision so as to support the common good.

Sure, liberty maybe is a necessary first step when one finds oneself in an oppressive society such as the Roman Empire of the past or the American Empire of the present. But it can’t end there. There is no debate between liberty and freedom for, from an Anglo-American perspective, the latter would be a step beyond into an entirely different kind of society. So, Massimo is correct in stating that there is no free will. Where he goes astray is in not realizing that freedom never was about individuality. The debate of free will was always mired in the ideology of individualistic liberty, having originated from Stoic libertas. Freedom isn’t the problem, rather its lack — or so one could reasonably argue.

What could ‘volition’ possibly mean as an expression and embodiment of our shared humanity within our shared society? What does Massimo think it means? After all of this analysis, I remain confused about what is being proposed under the terminology of volition. Either the discussion itself is confused or it’s just me.

* * *

As a side note, it only now occurred to me that the seeming disagreement or divergence here maybe is more cultural than I realized. I didn’t initially make the connection between Massimo’s philosophical views and his personal background, specifically his upbringing from childhood to adulthood. He was raised in Rome, Italy. And he was educated in Italy where he received his PhD.

It makes sense that he might not grasp the ideological confusion and conflict that gets evoked in such a debate within Anglo-American society. He is speaking as an Italian, not an Anglo-American. He came to the United States long after the early basis of his intellect and philosophy had formed.

Germanic freedom is maybe irrelevant or simply not central to his Italian cultural worldview. Maybe even his later on moving to and working in the United States hasn’t altered that. It would be interesting to hear his perspective on cultural influences and ideological traditions. Other than in relation to Stoic libertas, what might ‘volition’ mean within the context of Italian culture or American culture? Who is the presumed volitional self and where did he come from?

* * *

Free will, atheism, dualism, Massimo Pigliucci, Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris
by Ken Ammi

Massimo Pigliucci concludes:

In the end, skepticism about free will seems to me to be akin to radical skepticism about reality in general (the idea that all of reality is an illusion, or a computer simulation, or something along those lines): it denies what we all think is self-evident, it cannot be defeated logically (though it is not based on empirical evidence), and it is completely irrelevant to our lives…we should then proceed by ignoring the radical skeptic in order to get back to the business of navigating reality, making willful decisions about our lives…and assign moral responsibility to our and other people’s actions.

So is, Pigliucci nearing dualism? Only time will tell but here, may be, a clue. His statement, that the denial of free will “denies what we all think is self-evident” mirrors what this Examiner wrote as a guest author on the statistician William Briggs’ website in an article titled, To Be, Or Not To Be…Free: Sam Harris & Jerry Coyne On Free Will, the relevant portion of which is:

What reason, really, is there to deny our common knowledge, our common experience and well, our common sense conclusion that we have free will? In this case, it is that some Atheists are interpreting lights flashing on a screen [this is referring to neuroscience]. Moreover, their interpretations are based upon materialism, mechanism, reductionism in short: based upon their particular, and peculiar, Atheistic world-views. But why should we believe that their world-view is accurate? After all, they claim that it cannot be proven and since they are making extraordinary claims they must provide evidence that is more extraordinary than expecting us to believe their personal interpretations of “data.”

The Illusion of Will, Self, and Time
by Jonathan Bricklin
pp. 38-39

Another possible objection to James’s paradigm is that it has a design flaw: if you are trying to witness an act of will, “ you ” are occupied by the “trying to witness,” and thus miss the role of “you” in the act of will. Such objection, however, begs the question that any meditation on will ultimately poses—namely, whether an active, agent “I” exists in the first place. The only proof of an agent “I” is what can be inferred from the experience of agency. But what if, as Nietzsche says, “will” is not an afterbirth of “I,” an autonomous agent; “I” is an afterbirth of will, the experience of autonomy? 14 “Trying to witness” is, itself, ostensibly, an act of will. Thus, referring the action of “trying to witness” to an “I” assumes what needs to be proven. The experience of will, as we said, is not in question; the question is: What does this experience entail? To answer this question it matters not whether the experience be of trying to do something (such as getting out of bed on a cold morning) or trying to witness the trying. What matters is that some moment of trying be revealed for what it is, stripped of assumptions.

THE GAP BETWEEN THOUGHTS

Many years ago, I was working with Nisargadatta Maharaj, an Indian teacher. He asked a woman who was audio taping for a new book, “What will be the name of my next book?” She replied, “Beyond Consciousness.” He said, “No, Prior to Consciousness. Find out who you are prior to your last thought and stay there.”
—Stephen Wolinsky, Quantum Consciousness

At the turn of the last century, Karl Marbe, of the University of Würzburg, devised an experiment in which subjects attempted to “catch themselves” in the act of choosing between two impressions. The experiment was concerned with judgment not will, but, like James’s meditation, it was, at bottom, an attempt to detect the onset of a decision between two options. The subjects were asked to lift two small weights, which had been placed on a table in front of them, and decide which one was heavier. They indicated their choice by placing the heavier object down. The results startled both Marbe and his subjects, all of whom were trained in introspective psychology. For, contrary to their own expectation, they discovered that while the feeling of the two weights was conscious, as well as placing the heavier one down, the moment of decision was not . Julian Jaynes, in his The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind , offers a home-kit version of this experiment:

Take any two unequal objects, such as a pen and pencil or two unequally filled glasses of water, and place them on the desk in front of you. Then, partly closing your eyes to increase your attention to the task, pick up each one with the thumb and forefinger and judge which is heavier. Now introspect on everything you are doing. You will find yourself conscious of the feel of the objects against the skin of your fingers, conscious of the slight downward pressure as you feel the weight of each, conscious of any protuberances on the sides of the objects, and so forth. And now the actual judging of which is heavier. Where is that? Lo! the very act of judgement that one object is heavier than the other is not conscious. It is somehow given to you by your nervous system . 15

Marbe’s experiment thus corroborated James’s meditation on will. The gap before the “deciding” thought exists.

This gap, which both Marbe and James discovered before the “deciding” thought, meditation reveals to exist before all thoughts. Indeed, “the leading idea of Buddhism,” a religion based on meditation, “is that there is no other ultimate reality than separate, instantaneous bits of existence.” 16 James had introspected experience into “small enough pulses” to realize that the discontinuity between passing thoughts is mediated by the passing thoughts themselves ( PU , 129). The “minimal fact” of experience, for James, was a “passing” moment experienced as difference (ibid., 128). But had his introspection deepened into even smaller pulses, he might have realized one more minimal fact about passing, differing moments: they do not go “indissolubly” into each other, in a continuous stream or “sheet,” (ibid., 130) but, rather, they are separated by a space of non-thought, a space he himself had called the “darkness” “out of” which “the rush of our thought” comes (ibid., 128, 130). In ordinary experience, the space between departing and arriving thoughts is so fleeting as to be an “apparition.” 17 In meditation, however, the apparition is real: “If you watch very carefully,” says Krishnamurti, “you will see that, though the response, the movement of thought, seems so swift, there are gaps, there are intervals between thoughts. Between two thoughts there is a period of silence which is not related to the thought process.” 18 According to Eckhart Tolle such a “gap in the stream of the mind” is the key to enlightenment, insofar as it allows you to “disidentify” from the “voice in your head.” 19 In Tibetan Buddhism, where meditation is a widespread daily practice, this gap has a special name: “bardo,” literally “in between.” 20 Some formal practitioners of meditation have even tried to quantify the frequency of the movements/moments of thought (the word “moment” is derived from the Latin word for “movement,” momentum ): 6,460,000 such moments in twenty-four hours (an average of one arising moment per 13.3 milliseconds), according to the Buddhist Sarvaastivaadins; a sect of Chinese Buddhists puts it at one thought per twenty milliseconds. 21

James, as we shall see, found other reasons to question the seamless continuity of the stream of thought. But in his meditation on will, the gap he discovered between “deciding” thoughts corroborated his “minimum of assumption” for all thoughts: “it thinks” is more accurate than “I think.” Even “deciding” thoughts, thoughts of apparent “I” assertion, do not emerge from an “I,” but from a gap.

Cranky Conservatives and Hypocritical Liberals

I’ve slowly been adjusting my view on many topics. The most obvious example has to do with politics and political labels, specifically that of conservatism and liberalism.

I’ve written about this for years, because it endlessly fascinates me and confounds my thinking. Mainstream political labels, at first glance, seem to be simple and straightforward. Those who identify with these labels do tend to portray themselves in standard ways. However, if you look deeper, you  begin to realize there is more going on. I’ve explored many other angles previously, and so let me explore a new angle.

The other day, I read a dual review by Kenan Malik. The two books he reviewed were Julian Baggini’s Freedom Regained and John Gray’s The Soul of the Marionette. The topic uniting the two was that of free will.

I’m not familiar with Baggini’s writings and politics, but from the review I got the sense that he is probably more or less a mainstream progressive liberal. His general approach in defending free will, in relation to the Enlightenment project, seems fairly typical for a well-educated liberal. That is fine, as far as it goes. However, what I’d love to see is Baggini (or Malik) attempt to take on something like Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy against the Human Race. Then such a writer would have my full attention.

My own view is that of agnostic. I’m agnostic about so much in life, from God to free will. Such issues are of the same quality, whether overtly theological or not. They are about beliefs, not scientific knowledge, and so I feel wary about those who seek to politicize such debates.

Both Baggini and Gray are doing that very thing (and so is Malik in his review). Their beliefs about free will are inseparable from their beliefs about human progress and hence of political progressivism. I’m not sure where that leaves my agnosticism, but I certainly don’t find myself neatly taking sides.

As far as I’m concerned, it is a pointless debate, as neither side can prove they are right and that the other is wrong. Free will can’t be formulated as a falsifiable scientific hypothesis and so can’t ever be tested. Beliefs are just beliefs, even when they are based on powerful personal experiences of perceived reality. I have nothing against beliefs in and of themselves, but they should be kept in proper context.

Nonetheless, I found John Gray’s view more interesting, because his mind seems more interesting. A proper label for him might be that of a cranky conservative, having shifted from Thatcherite neoliberal to a captialism-criticizing paleoconservative. What makes his view worthy of serious consideration is that he is a wide reader and a deep thinker, which is probably what allowed his views to shift to such an extent.

I call Gray a cranky conservative as a term of endearment. He is what I think of as the prototypical INTJ (MBTI type: Introverted, iNtuition, Thinking, Judging). In my experience, INTJs have minds that spiral inwards toward what to others seem like a mysterious sensibility or odd perspective. They love the idiosyncratic and obscure, which is what can make them interesting, at the same as it can make them perplexing or even frustrating and irritating.

INTJs have ever curious minds, but it is of a particular variety. It’s definitely not that of a linear-focused, analytical intellect (some readers complain that many of Gray’s books feel like a jumble of thoughts with important issues overlooked and useful connections not made). This kind of curiosity is also not of the endlessly expansive and exploratory tendency, as seen with the strongly extraverted intuition types.

This is demonstrated by Gray’s interest in Philip K. Dick, of which he writes in great detail in The Soul of the Marionette. Both are intuition types, but of opposing attitudes (introverted versus extraverted). Gray, in his recent book, sees PKD as having in a sense failed because his attitude of intuition just goes on and on, ever searching for what can’t be found. Gray rightly notes that this made PKD crazy at times. Still, that partly misses the beauty of PKD’s view.

Nonetheless, the fact that Gray takes PKD seriously at all is what I appreciate. I doubt I’ll ever see the likes of Malik and Baggini writing in detail about PKD, although the latter does one time briefly mention him in Freedom Regained but only then in reference to a movie based on a PKD story (I discovered this one instance by doing a search on Google Books). For this reason, I’m reading Gray’s book and not a book by either of those others, despite my being politically closer to them.

I first heard of John Gray many years ago. I never gave him much thought until I read Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind. Robin has a chapter of that book where he discusses Gray as a reactionary conservative, similar to that of Edmund Burke, both holding positions as partial outsiders (although not too far outside, for otherwise the political right would never pay them any attention). Robin makes the argument that this is the basis of all conservatism, but I think distinctions need to be made. Even Robin sees Gray as being a unique figure on the right, as he explained elsewhere:

“There is a large discourse on the left of intellectuals and activists trying to come to terms with their erstwhile support for Stalinism and revolutionary tyranny. Indeed, a great deal of 20th century intellectual history is driven by that discourse, with entire literatures devoted to the Webbs in Russia, Sontag in Vietnam, Foucault in Iran. Yet where is the comparable discourse on the right of intellectuals coming to terms with their (or their heroes’) support for Pinochet, Salazar, and the like? With the exception of John Gray, I can’t think of a single apostate from—or adherent of—the right who’s engaged in such a project of self-examination: not breast-beating or mea culpas, but really looking at the relationship between their ideas and their actions. Now there’s a road to serfdom that’s yet to be mapped.”

He is, as I put it, a cranky conservative. He is a pessimist and highly critical at that. He isn’t going to be easy on even former allies. If anything, he is likely to be more harsh toward those with whom he once shared a view. He seems to place a high standard on both himself and others, and based on that he points out failures and hypocrisy.

I respect that more than I respect, for example, what I too often see among mainstream liberals. I particularly have in mind what I call conservative(-minded) liberals. I’ve become ever more aware of, to put it lightly, the inconsistency of so many liberals. Behind the facade of rhetoric, there is so much of the biases and prejudices as found everywhere else in our society. Simply put, I’d vote for John Gray before I’d vote for Hilary Clinton, for at least he criticizes some of the worst aspects of capitalism, not to mention neo-imperialist war-mongering.

There are surprising number of liberals who are, for example, highly race and class conscious. They are willing to talk about helping the unfortunate, as long as it doesn’t personally effect them. In their own lives, they’d rather not interact with minorities and poor people, and they will sometimes complain about such people behind closed doors. It’s one thing to support welfare or affirmative action for the underprivileged, but it is a whole other thing to have one of those perceived low class people living in your neighborhood or community.

There is at least an upfront honesty with a cranky conservative. As for free will, someone’s personal beliefs are the least of my concern.