Exploring the Illusion of Free Will 3
This is the third of a series of posts where I will be sharing the transcripts of George Ortega’s show which he has so generously made available on his website.
I will share both the link and copy the text as well. This is convenient for those who subscribe to my blog by email. You can read without visiting the site, but I highly encourage you to visit the link and see what else George has on his website.
Episode 3. Morality Within a Causal Will Perspective
Let’s explore our causal will from the perspective of morality. What that means is that if we don’t have a personal free will, then it’s not accurate to say that we have a personal morality. When we talk about morality, we’re basically talking about right and wrong, and personal responsibility. We do certain things that are good, and we expect God, or the universe, to reward us for those things. If we do things that are bad, we expect that the universe will punish us. That tends to be the way it generally works, but the salient point here is that it’s not up to us whether we do right or wrong, good or bad.
Every moral decision that we make is based on our understanding of the morality of the issue. Take, for example, a young boy who is raised in a culture where stealing is, for some reason, done and promoted. The culture teaches stealing. This young boy is raised in this culture, and learns is that stealing is not wrong; stealing is right. This young boy, when he becomes a man, steals. He considers himself to be right in doing so. Let’s now consider another person, a young girl, who was raised in a different culture. She was taught by her culture that stealing is wrong, and grows up to not steal.
Is the boy who becomes a man and steals to be blamed for his stealing, and is the girl who doesn’t steal to be credited for not stealing? If we believe we have a free will, we’ll say “yes.”
But to the extent that we understand that we don’t have a free will, we understand that the boy could not have done other than to steal because when he steals he thinks he’s doing the right thing. That’s what he was taught. That’s how he was conditioned. With the girl, it’s the same thing. She was conditioned to think stealing is wrong, and she doesn’t steal.
The rightness and wrongness of what we do is not up to us. It’s up to how we were taught. If we’re in a certain culture, we’re going to believe that certain things are right and certain things are wrong. If we’re in a completely different culture, we may believe that other things are right, and other things are wrong. But we don’t get to choose what culture we are raised in. We don’t get to choose what parents we have, what ethics they instill in us, what books we read in school relating to morality, etc.
That is a good way to understand why we don’t have a free will, and how this relates to our moral decisions. We’re not truly morally accountable. We’re puppets, or robots, or automatons, or whatever, and we do good and evil because we’re either lucky in the first case or unlucky in the second. When we do good, then the proper response is to be and feel grateful. If we define good as that which creates happiness, that’s the reason we would be feeling grateful. We’re doing something that is going to benefit us, and, ideally, benefit the world around us.
In our relationships with our best friends, our spouses, our parents, our brothers and sisters, all of the people around us, we essentially interact. What we say and do – our morality toward each other – is based on our understanding of morality and our understanding of whether our wills are free or causal. To the extent we fall for this illusion of free will — that we believe we are the captains of our fate, and can decide what we want – when someone does something wrong to us, we will tend to blame the person.
We attribute moral accountability to the person, and say to ourselves “well, if the person did something wrong, the person deserves to be punished.” That will often breed anger and judgment toward the person. More often than not, this blame hinders rather than helps our relationships. Now let’s see our interactions with the people around us as having been the result of our causal will, or the causal past.
Suddenly, that person who did wrong to us is no longer our enemy and adversary, per se. He is no longer someone we believe deserves some kind of punishment. When we understand that we don’t have free will, and we have causal wills, and people do not behave as we believe they should, we might say to ourselves “it would have been nice if the causal universe, or God, would have compelled that person to act differently, but S/He didn’t. You can’t blame a robot — a human being without free will – for doing something the person was completely compelled to do. You can’t logically do that.
This perspective helps with our relationships. It helps us to be more understanding, compassionate, and forgiving, not just toward others, but also toward ourselves. We do wrong all of the time. That’s almost the definition of being human – we make mistakes. We have high goals and aims, but we also have a part of our nature that causes us to do things that are not in our best interest, or the best interest of others.
Let’s look at this from the perspective of how we might treat a very young child – a two-year-old. When a two-year-old does something wrong, what do we do? Generally, we tend to be understanding toward the two-year-old. We say to ourselves “the two-year-old couldn’t have done any better. S/he doesn’t know any better.” At two years old, a child does not have enough experience, or knowledge, or maturity, or information. Because the child doesn’t have sufficient cognitive and emotional ability, we don’t attribute free will to the two-year-old. We conclude that two-year-olds do not have a free will. They can’t think and do whatever they want because they are limited by their degree of education and psychological development.
What happens? Because we recognize that the two-year-old does not have a free will, we are compassionate toward him or her. We think to ourselves “hey, that two-year-old is not responsible for spilling that drink, or doing whatever s/he may have done that we may consider wrong. And, we’re therefore much kinder toward the two-year-old. Think about it. We’re much more forgiving and accepting. That is why morality is so important to this question of whether human beings have a free or a causal will. When we come to understand that we don’t have a free will – that free will is an illusion – then we can apply the same understanding and rational compassion that we apply toward the two-year-old toward everyone in our lives, including ourselves.
It’s not going to be without challenges. Even how we address those challenges, incidentally, is just as compelled and unfreely willed as anything else. For example, let’s say someone does something that we are compelled to dislike. We’re compelled to see it as wrong. What do we do? If we operate under a causal will perspective, we say to ourselves “alright, the person is not to blame.” But let’s say the person keeps, for example, stepping on our foot. That can’t be the end of it. We basically have to take action even though we know that the person does not have a free will, and is completely compelled to do what they have done or not done that we consider a threat. If someone is physically threatening us, we might say to ourselves “alright, the person does not have a free will, but neither do I, and, the causal past may have us engage in self defense.
The point is that when we understand that we have causal wills instead of free wills, it doesn’t mean that other people, or we, have license to do what we want. We don’t. It’s important to remember that when the universe compels us to do what is right, it usually rewards us with some kind of pleasure. When we do what’s wrong, the universe will often punish us in some way or another. So, even though we might be compassionate toward someone who is doing wrong, that doesn’t mean we absolutely have to be a doormat, or be vulnerable to other people’s aggression. And again, it doesn’t give us license to say to ourselves “well, I don’t have a free will, so I can do whatever I want.” It just doesn’t work that way.
This is very important to remember, because many people see the reasoning of why we don’t have a free will, but can’t completely accept it because they are afraid that if we give up this illusion of free will, it will spell the end of civilization. Such a fear is much more likely than not to be unwarranted because we human beings are hedonic creatures. We seek pleasure and avoid pain. If somebody is doing something wrong, we may not blame them for it, but we’ll certainly have to take some kind of action to minimize the impact of that wrong. The same goes for us if we do wrong. We don’t have to be afraid of civilization collapsing because of our understanding that free will is an illusion. I think the potential benefits of understanding our wills as causal far outweigh its potential detriments.
Our whole civilization and judicial system, and system of business and economics is based on the illusion of free will. With our criminal justice system, there is an appreciation of extenuating circumstances. There is somewhat of an understanding of our causal will. For example, if in our criminal justice system somebody does something wrong, and there is a mitigating factor — let’s say the person was distraught, or ignorant of certain facts, or has some kind of disability — our law accounts for that. It might minimize a sentence or find the person innocent. That’s recognition of causality. That’s recognition that a certain person could not have helped what s/he did.
In business, it’s the same. We ascribe personal attribution to each other based on the belief in a free will. Some of us do much better at whatever than others of us. Our current free will perspective has us reward that person above another person who was not as lucky. That leads to the kind of economic competition that, if you want to get very real about it, is likely the main engine for climate change. We have a competitive culture that promotes the idea that “I of my own free will did something good, and I deserve to be rewarded for it” rather than saying, “no, what I did was not of my own free will. It was simply fortune or luck, and my personal well-being is not any more important than that of those of us who have been less lucky, and certainly not more important than the fate of our entire civilization over the next several decades because of climate change.”
Our understanding of the nature of human will has profound implications and effects. When we understand that morality is not a personal thing, the only thing you can talk about as moral or not is the causal past, or God. Whatever is making us do what we do is the only moral agent that exists. We’re not moral beings as human beings because we’re compelled to do whatever moral or immoral act we do. We’re just like a hand that might do something right or wrong. We’re not going to attribute responsibility to this hand; we’re going to attribute it to the brain that makes it do what it does. Naturally, by the same reasoning, we’re not going to attribute responsibility to the brain that leads the hand – we’re going to attribute it to the causal past.
We’re like a hand, and we think we’re the brain or causal past. When it comes to morality, the better we understand that everything is causal, and that there is no personal morality, the less judgmental we will be. Think about some of the major tenets in the major religions. Even though these religions get this question of human will wrong, they get a lot right. Religion tends to be about morality.
Sometimes it doesn’t live up to its ideals, but there is within most, if not all, religions, this idea of right and wrong. Sometimes it’s not good to be judgmental, per se. We have to differentiate between right and wrong, but to be judgmental means to blame. So, this whole concept of non-judgment, whether it be Christian, Jewish, Islamic or whatever, really has it’s basis in the idea that judgment doesn’t truly make practical sense. If someone is doing something, and you’re judging them based on what they are doing, and they don’t have a free will, then the judgment is erroneous and misplaced.
You could, conceivably judge the causal past, or God. I tend to do that. I say to myself “well, if I was God, I would not have created pain. Naturally, if there is no pain there would be no evil, because evil is, by basic or utilitarian definition, what creates pain. In other words, if there was no pain, there could be no evil.” If the causal past has compelled us to do wrong, we could say to ourselves “the causal past should not have done that.”
But, does the causal past have a free will? Does God have a free will? My guess is “no.” Within our reality, there are a few things that transcend our ability to understand. I’ll go through them briefly, and relate them to what we are talking about. Infinity; it’s impossible to know whether space goes outward infinitely, or stops at some point. Either prospect appears illogical when contrasted with its alternative. The same goes for the eternities, going into the eternal past and into the eternal future. Our mind cannot wrap itself around the idea of reality going on forever and ever, just like it can’t wrap itself around the idea of everything just ceasing to be.
Within that context, it seems impossible for us to know whether the universe that is compelling us is compelled itself, or not. It’s an open question. The reality that rings through is that the causal past may have a free will – may decide of its own accord what will be and won’t be — but certainly we can’t do that as human beings. It’s because we don’t have a free will that morality is not properly applicable to us. In other words, we’re neither moral nor immoral. We’re actors on a stage, doing what the causal past compels relative to morality. Sometimes it has us do things that we consider to be good, and other times not. It’s just not up to us.
Our world is at a very challenging time. Climate Change will be with us for at least the next several decades, and it’s going to be extremely challenging. The global economy is going to be challenging. To the extent we understand that we do not have a free will, we will understand that we are not essentially morally responsible, and can be much more compassionate and non-judgmental toward the people in our world. That, I think, will be the way we solve these problems, because the free will perspective causes blame and moral judgment, which causes denial, conflict and aggression, whereas the causal will perspective would likely lead to more intelligent responses.
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