Unfinished Essays on Free Choice without Free Will

I don’t believe in a certain sort of “free will” that many people find extremely important, but I have good news about this age-old problem. We can abandon free will and still gain the benefits that free will advocates cherish. One day I hope to write a little book on this subject, but for now here is an unfinished collection of essays and notes. First you will find three talks which I have presented at Unitarian Universalist congregations. After that come excerpts from the chapter on freedom in Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You. Later I’ll post more of my writings on this topic, along with various notes and quotes I’ve collected over the years.

There is quite a bit of overlap between the three talks and the book chapter, but with this particular topic repetition of key points is not a bad thing.

As a preliminary, here are some definitions that may be helpful.

Determinism means everything that happens is entirely caused by what has already happened. Therefore if we knew all the laws of the universe, and we knew everything about what is occurring in the universe during some particular period of time, we could theoretically predict everything that would happen after that.

Randomness: In a world that operates (at least partly) at random, some events are (at least partly) uncaused. To the extent that they are uncaused, they occur for no reason at all. They just happen, and they are not predictable.

Free will: One traditional doctrine of free will says we can make choices that could not have been predicted in advance, even by an all-knowing deity.

The problem: To have free will, my free choices must truly be my choices. They must not occur at random or result from some force outside myself. They must flow out of the person that I am, at the moment when I make those choices. (Otherwise I would not deserve either credit or blame for these decisions.)

So if a decision is my decision, there must be a chain of causation from who I am to what I choose to do. Yet this sounds suspiciously like determinism: The person I am at 11:01 a.m. causes me to make a certain choice at 11:02 a.m. If my choice at 11:02 flows out of the way I am at 11:01, the whole thing seems predictable. If we knew everything there is to know about me, and fully understood the way human minds work, we could forecast all of my actions. Hmmm.

THE MYTH OF MAGICAL FREEDOM

© Dr. Chris Schriner 2008
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
March 9, 2008

I usually enjoy preaching about topics that are important but hard to understand, trying to say complicated things clearly. That is definitely my challenge this morning and frankly I’m not sure I’ll succeed. My theme today is freedom of the will. Thinking about such a deep subject is good spiritual exercise, because it forces us to dig down underneath the everyday surface of life, to reflect on our basic human condition. Who are we? What are we? What is our place in the great scheme of things? So we’ll be exploring free will in a sermon series. The second part of the series, next week, will be fairly easy to understand. But today’s material is so difficult I waited till announcing my retirement before attempting it!

It is so easy to get tripped up in logical tangles about whether we are “really free.” In fact, many people deal with the question of free will by just thinking about it until they reach a point of confusion that feels pleasant and reassuring, and then stopping right there. Very effective!

Let’s try starting off with a god’s-eye view. Regardless of whether you believe in god, imagine that a being exists who knows absolutely everything about the past, present, and future. If this deity knows the future, then everything about the future is already decided and all of our actions were predictable in advance. But if a god could anticipate every one of our choices, were those choices really free? And did we deserve either praise or blame for actions which could have been predicted since the beginning of time? It sounds as if we were just acting as the creator programmed us to act. No doubt many Christian theologians have spent sleepless nights trying to reconcile free will and divine foreknowledge.

The ancient Greeks also lost some sleep. With their gift for logic, they reflected on how things are caused. Some Greek philosophers tended toward what’s called “determinism.” Every event is determined by some cause, and these causes operate mechanically, following the laws of nature. A determinist would say that if we fully understood the laws of the universe, and we knew absolutely everything about what has happened in the past, we could accurately predict the future, including our own future decisions.

Of course people define “free will” in various ways, but the sort of freedom I’m talking about today requires two things. First, our free choices must lift us above our own past, breaking all bondage to the forces that shape our decisions such as heredity and environment. And second, free will involves having moral responsibility for our actions, so that we can’t just say, “The determinants made me do it.”

Let’s suppose that at least some of our actions are not completely caused by the past, so that even an all-knowing god would be unable to predict our choices. In a way that sounds like freedom. But it also sounds random, as if things happen for no reason at all. It could be that the universe sometimes works that way. Many scientists say that radical randomness does occur in subatomic particles. Down at the so-called quantum level, these particles bounce around in a way that is absolutely unpredictable. I have no idea how this could be, but physicists assure me that it is so.

Some writers proclaim that this is free will. Random quantum events in my brain influence my decisions, leading me to make choices that even a god could not anticipate. Hallelujah! I’m free! But should I be pleased to hear that my choices may be partly caused by the random movement of tiny particles in my head, staggering this way and that like they’ve had too much tequila? Randomness in my brain sounds as if something has come loose in here, rattling around aimlessly. In some ways this would give me less freedom rather than more.

A computer programmer might express this by saying that randomness in the brain is a bug, not a feature. Far from being a desirable feature that gives me true freedom, it’s actually a malfunction. I would have to work even harder to attain true freedom, because I would need to allow for a certain sloppiness in the way my brain works. Would Superbowl quarterback Eli Manning want randomness in the way his throwing arm functions? Would he think that gave him more freedom or less?

So basically, I see two alternatives. On the one hand, if all our choices are predictable, then we do not have the sort of free will that rises above heredity, environment, conditioning, habits, and all the other determinants that influence us. On the other hand, if some of our actions are caused by random forces that just happen out of the blue, that isn’t free will either. It’s random chance roulette.

So there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that we do not have a “super-special” sort of free choice that goes beyond either determinism or randomness. I call this the “magical” idea of free will, because to me it is fantastic and impossible. The good news is that we can enjoy all of the supposed benefits of free will, even though we don’t have it. Today I’m talking about why we don’t have magical freedom, and next week we’ll see how we can enjoy what free will is supposed to offer us. Free will is supposed to enable us to become better persons, give us the sense of dignity that comes with freedom, and enable us to make moral judgments about who deserves praise and blame. I believe we can have all of these things regardless of whether we have free will.

One reason this subject is so confusing is that without free will, it sounds as if we do not make our own choices. But we do. Let me give you an example of a decision that is clearly mine and that is clearly not made through free will. I’m walking across the street and I notice a truck hurtling toward me at seventy miles an hour. I jump aside to escape obliteration. Was I acting freely? In a sense I was not. I am powerfully programmed to value survival. Running from the truck was fully determined by my nature. Nevertheless, I made that choice. Nobody was pulling my strings like a puppet.

We can see this even more clearly if we think about computers. The advent of the computer has helped us understand ourselves better, because now we can learn about human functioning by comparing ourselves to a highly intelligent machine. Take, for example, a computer that plays chess. Obviously it makes its own moves, just like I made my own decision to dodge the truck. And both the computer chess move and the move away from the truck were fully programmed and predictable. Even though computers can make lots of choices, we don’t imagine that they have super-special cosmic free will.

Or imagine a robot which contains a supercomputer that gives it thousands of different ways of operating. Once we have programmed it, the robot is making its own choices. But it does not have the sort of magical free will that allows it to leap above its own programming. And neither do we.

I’m stating my opinions strongly because I am convinced that I am right. But I also realize that even when I’m sure I’m right, I may be wrong.

Going back to the robot, could we bestow free will upon this machine by giving it the power to re-program itself? We could design the robot’s machinery so that it could rewire its own circuits. Perhaps on Monday morning, it decides it wants to become more friendly, and runs a re-programming process on itself. As a result, something that once would have caused it to raise a fist and strike will now cause it to reach out its hand in a friendly greeting. Does it therefore have the super-special free will that some theologians believe in? Obviously not. Giving it the ability to change its own circuits just added another set of determinants that influenced the robot’s behavior.

The same is true of us. We have evolved with the ability to re-program our own preferences and values. Creatures that can alter their own preferences have a big advantage over creatures that can’t adjust to changing circumstances by shifting their priorities. Our minds can change the way our own minds operate, but this doesn’t give us magical free will.

To show that we have super-special free will, I think you need to show how people have freedom in a way that goes beyond that of an advanced, self-reprogramming supercomputer … or show that the computer has free will.

I am claiming there are only two ways that the universe, including our own minds, could operate. Either it’s totally deterministic, or it’s partly deterministic and partly random. And neither one gives us the sort of freedom that theologians and philosophers talk about.

The basic problem is that to have free will, my free choices must truly be my choices. They must not occur at random or result from some force outside myself. They must flow out of the person that I am, at the moment when I make those choices. (Otherwise I would not deserve either credit or blame for these decisions.)

So if a decision is my decision, there must be a chain of causation from who I am to what I choose to do. Yet this sounds suspiciously like determinism: The person I am at 10:50 a.m. causes me to make a certain choice at 10:51 a.m. If my choice at 10:51 flows out of the way I was at 10:50, the whole thing seems predictable.

… Now let’s move from the negative to the positive, from the bad news to the good news. Even though we don’t have magical freedom, we do have what could be called practical freedom, the freedom to dodge large motor vehicles and do lots of other things that enhance our own well-being. Furthermore, determinism can actually help us expand practical freedom. Determinism establishes the solid connections from one moment to another which ensures that my decisions are really my decisions. In this sense, determinism can help set us free.

Let’s say I have an argument with a friend and later I realize it was my fault. And let’s say I’m the sort of individual who never apologizes, so I’m struggling to make myself do something difficult. Now suppose a fairy godparent appears and tells me, “Because you’re having difficulty making this decision, I hereby give you the gift of free will. After this, your decision about whether to apologize will be free from bondage to the person you are now!” But what kind of gift would that be? I want my choice to be caused by my own motivation to do better. If I act in a way that is not connected with the person that I am, and not connected with any cause at all, this is random chance, not freedom. And of course randomness might lead me to become worse rather than better.

There’s a paradox here. We can think of a “chain” of causation as binding us or as empowering us. We are bound by the laws of our own nature. But we create the outcomes we wish by relying on dependable patterns of cause and effect. In this sense, the reliable laws of causation are our friends.

In reality the very idea of free will is self-contradictory. “Free” contradicts “will.” If my actions flow from my will, they do not occur freely. They occur because I am causing them to happen.

So – many theologians want our choices to be uncaused, on the one hand, and caused by us on the other hand. That way they can have their cake and eat it, too, believing in a “magical freedom” which is logically impossible. If one of my choices is really my choice, then I caused it in a lawful and dependable and deterministic way. But if one of my actions just happened out of the blue through a break in the chain of causation, I can’t take credit for it.

At the end of my sermons I usually try to emphasize ideas that are positive and inspiring. But once in a while it’s OK to just leave ourselves full of questions. Remember the famous UU bumper sticker – “to question is the answer.” We can make friends with our own puzzlement, standing in the midst of our questions rather than running away from confusion because we’re afraid of it. So here is a question you can puzzle about this week, and it has to do with the benefits of free will. Supposedly free will helps us become better human beings, gives us personal dignity, and enables us to hold people responsible for their decisions. The question is, “how could we gain every one of these benefits without free will?” Just using the practical, common-sense freedom that we definitely do have and that sophisticated robots may also possess, how can we become better, feel full personal dignity, and hold each other morally accountable? I look forward to hearing your answers.

It may seem as if we have super-duper magical freedom, making unpredictable choices that are really our choices. But when we look closely at this super-special free will, I think it disappears. Fortunately, this does not reduce us to being victims of fate. We still have the power to become better, stronger, smarter, and more loving, because each of us already wants to transcend the way we have been in the past. And, as we will see, one of the best ways to increase our own practical freedom is to totally abandon the myth of magical freedom.

 
THE POWER OF PRACTICAL FREEDOM

Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
© Dr. Chris Schriner 2008
March 16, 2008
altered for schrinerbooksandblogs.com, January 25, 2015

A friend of mine had a teacher in college whose first-day assignment to his students was to critique an essay called “God’s Foreknowledge and Man’s Free Will.” He knew from experience that eighty percent would drop out after struggling with this task, and he’d be left with those who were highly motivated. Having started a sermon series on free will last Sunday, I’m relieved to see some of you back again! And since some of you weren’t here last time, I should recap what I’ve said so far.

Some people, including many Christian theologians, say that humans have a very special faculty called free will, and usually the idea of free will includes two things. First, it means we can liberate ourselves from the past. We can at least partly rise above the forces that influence our decisions, such as our habits, our heredity, our impulses, our cravings, and so on. And second, free will implies having moral responsibility for our actions. So we supposedly have a special sort of freedom and moral responsibility which is different from the sort of freedom and responsibility that we might find in a highly sophisticated robot of the future.

Some people reject free will, because they believe in determinism. Determinism means that everything we do is determined by causes, or “determinants,” and these causes operate mechanically, following the laws of nature. But regardless of whether determinism is the whole story, I think the traditional idea of free will is flatly impossible. I call it magical freedom, because only magic could make it work. Some people would disagree, and that’s fine, but basically I can see just two ways that the universe could operate. Either it’s totally deterministic, or it’s partly deterministic and partly random. Last week I argued that neither randomness nor determinism gives us the sort of freedom that theologians talk about.

Today let’s pretend that we know I’m right about this, and talk about the implications. And to keep it simple let’s just say that this is a deterministic world where effects follow causes in lawful and dependable ways every single time. Even if there is also some genuine unpredictability in the universe, we can disregard radically random events as an unnecessary complication.

Fortunately, even if determinism is true we can enjoy all of the supposed benefits of free will even though we don’t have it. So let’s talk about three important benefits that free will is supposed to give us, and see how we can have these benefits thanks to the power of practical freedom. By practical freedom I mean our ability to make our own choices, and we have amazing flexibility about choices because we can imagine new strategies, try them out, and learn from experience.

One reason we want free will is that we want some wiggle room. We don’t want to be boxed in or stuck in a rut. But because we have practical freedom we are not boxed in. And ironically, one of the biggest barriers to fully enjoying practical freedom is our belief that we can just choose to be free from the past. If we think we can instantly decide to be better persons, without taking practical steps to do so, we are likely to fail. Failure is discouraging, and discouragement leads to further failures.

We can lay the groundwork for making good choices by being more reflective, meditating about our decisions, getting in the habit of breaking bad habits, and so on, but that’s exactly what we would do to expand practical freedom. We make better choices by developing good choice-making habits, and these habits operate through cause and effect, not through “Poof! I’m all better.” So the idea that we make our decisions magically and mysteriously can actually interfere with our ability to make healthy choices. One way to expand practical freedom is to stop relying on mysterious super-special free will.

Here is a very simple way to expand practical freedom. It’s just three steps. First, notice the moments when you want to do better. Second, when you find yourself wanting to do better, think of at least two ways you could do better. And third, either try out one of those ideas, or immediately go to your datebook and write down a time when you will try it out. To expand the practical freedom that is our birthright, we need to notice the times when we’re looking up, search for ways to climb, and then start moving.

For example, people often experience frictions with someone in their family, or a friend, or a co-worker. When that happens, I’d suggest trying out this three-step strategy over a three week period. The first week, just notice times when you feel a little tiny inclination to treat the other person in a positive way. You don’t even need to follow through on those motivations. Just learn to notice them. The second week, every time you notice a motivation to do better, think of at least two ways you could do that. Again, you don’t have to do anything; just come up with some ideas. And of course, the third week, after you notice your positive impulses and think of two ways to do better, you choose one of those ideas and try it out. If all committed couples used this approach, I bet it would cut the divorce rate in half.

Notice that this approach works in a deterministic way. It involves learning new habits, so that we automatically find ways to turn good intentions into good results. So accepting determinism can help set us free.

We can become better persons by using practical freedom, even if free will is an illusion. At this moment, either you want to change yourself or you don’t. If you want to change yourself you can find ways to do that, without believing in what theologians think of as free will. And if you don’t feel motivated to improve yourself, you don’t need free will. So if you’re motivated to change, you have the power to change. If you are not motivated to change, there’s no point in worrying about whether you are “really free.”

Another reason people want to believe in free will is to protect human dignity. It may seem quite undignified to think of ourselves as if we were a bunch of billiard balls knocking against each other — cause and effect, cause and effect. That sounds as if we are victims of forces beyond our control. But we are not victims. It is absolutely crucial – crucial! – to remember that “determinants” are not just outside forces that push us around. We are also determinants. We are also forces, causes, sources of new action. This is a subtle point, and it is worth contemplating until we really get it. Yes, we are part of the great cosmic game, and we have to play by the rules of that game. But we do get to play.

One of the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism says we belong to the interdependent web of all existence. Do we respect ourselves as part of the great web of life? We may have mixed feelings about our relationship to the cosmos. We may want to be better than nature, and yet we want to belong to nature. We want to be separate and special, and yet we can also identify with the swami who walked up to a hot dog stand and said, “Please make me one with everything.”

Sometimes people become depressed about the human condition merely because they are reading themselves the wrong kind of poetry. If we feel trapped by “the great chain of cause and effect,” that’s because the poetic image of the chain makes it sound as if something outside of us has us all tied up. There’s no chain around my neck. It’s just a poetic metaphor, and a misleading one at that. The poetic image of the interdependent web is more positive and realistic, and it reminds us that we ourselves help make this world what it is. Being part of the dynamic energy flow of the interdependent web is much more appealing than being “bound by the chain of cause and effect,” and it is also more accurate. Choose carefully the poetry you read to your soul.

So we want free will in order to have wiggle room and human dignity, and practical freedom gives us both of those benefits. The traditional idea of free will has also shaped our understanding of morality, law, crime, and punishment. Supposedly unless people have super-special free will, we can’t hold them morally responsible. Praise, blame, punishment, and reward no longer make sense.

Well, one thing that definitely makes no sense is the doctrine of hell. I don’t say this as a criticism of Christianity because the idea of hell is not essential to Christian faith. Many Christians no longer believe in hell, including some of the Unitarian Universalist Christians in our congregation. But traditional Christianity still teaches that Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden out of their own free will. And every single person since then has, by a remarkable coincidence, used their free will to become such despicable sinners that they all deserve to be horribly tortured for eternity (which is a very long time) unless before they die they accept Jesus as their savior from the flames of perdition. Today it seems obvious that typical human behavior results from the interaction between our environment and our biological programming. Furthermore, if a company makes 10 billion of a certain kind of a widget, and every single widget fails, in the way that every human has supposedly failed morally, one would assume there is some sort of design defect in the product. We do not all deserve to be excruciatingly tortured forever for just being who we are.

Abandoning belief in free will should also lead us to rethink our attitudes about punishment. When a machine isn’t working right, we may give it a whack because we’re mad at it. We feel a little silly, since the machine did not cause itself to malfunction. But what if people operate like unbelievably sophisticated machines? Eventually we will know so much about the causes of human behavior that it will just be obvious that our choices are made through laws of cause and effect.

(Holding up paper:) I rejected the idea of free will in college 45 years ago after I typed this half-page paper on randomness and determinism and took it to my philosophy professor. Ever since then I have been trying to live without believing in what I think of as magical freedom. As a result, I no longer think we should want criminals to suffer, except to the extent than their suffering prevents future crime. I think we do need prisons and jails, and these places should seem unpleasant enough so that people don’t want to end up there again. Our country has gone to bizarre extremes in locking up over 2.3 million people, but incarceration can be useful. Yet in addition to preventing criminals from committing more crimes, one may also think that these bad people deserve to suffer just because they’re evil. Even though this is a natural reaction, it makes no more sense than my tendency to curse my computer when it crashes. The criminal operates through the same laws of causation that we do, and if we were impacted by certain determinants every one of us is capable of doing what any other human being has ever done.

I’m taking the radical position that free will is a dangerous illusion. All we need is practical freedom to become more flexible in the way we act, experience personal dignity as co-creators with the rest of the cosmos, and gain compassion for those who act destructively, including ourselves in our less enlightened moments.

I want to thank you for hanging in there through this challenging sermon series. In my personal religion, clear thinking is a spiritual sacrament, so you and I have been sharing communion together.

One reason I care about this issue is that I want us to appreciate being who and what we are. We do not need to magically leap up above ourselves, or play tricks with the laws of cause and effect as if we could go back in time and become our own grandparents. We are here and we are real and we have real creative power. Our starting point at any moment is as a person with values, with an agenda, with aspirations. It is already our nature and destiny to grow toward our potential. We are not static organisms that just stay stuck as they are, like a frog in its pond. We are dynamic organisms who were born in motion, born changing, born dancing with all of the determinants.

So learn as much as you can about the great game of cause and effect. Play it well, because we’re playing for keeps. And choose very carefully the poetry you read to your soul.

Meditation after the sermon:

We want to be special. Yet we want to belong to this world.
We may attempt to master nature, but we ourselves are a part of nature.
We may dislike the idea that we are part of an endless sequence of cause and effect. Yet we may cherish the idea that we are part of an endless flow of energy and vitality.
To feel at home in the world, we need to embrace both our specialness and our ordinariness. In some ways we are absolutely unique, and some ways we are just like the wind, just like the waters, just like the fire and the rain.

 

TAKING LIBERTIES: Power to the People, Power to the Person

© Dr. Chris Schriner 1996
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Laguna Beach
November 10, 1996, altered for schrinerbooksandblogs.com, January 25, 2015

In wrestling with the old philosophical puzzle about freedom and determinism, I’ve been taking the radical position that so-called free will does not exist. And the more I think about it, the more I think the whole thing comes down to whether we can accept ourselves as part of the universe. If we really are part of the universe, then we probably operate through the same laws as everything else.

If we have free will then we don’t operate through the same laws as everything else. Free will is supposedly an ability to make choices without having to do so through laws of cause and effect. This would mean that even a god who knew absolutely everything would be unable to predict our choices, because our choices don’t need to follow any laws. And some people who believe in free will even say that we can be totally free from outside influences. It’s as if the human mind is a castle with a magical moat around it, and no unwanted influences can possibly cross the moat and enter the castle.

But even if this sort of free will does not exist, there’s another kind of freedom that I’ve been calling practical freedom. And practical freedom does operate through cause and effect. Even so, practical freedom is not unlimited freedom, and in many cases we’re not as free as we think. Rather than imagining the human mind as a castle protected by a magical moat, we can use the analogy of the immune system. The immune systems of our bodies are able to resist the control of outside influences, that is, bacteria and viruses. But sometimes those little bugs slip through and we become ill. It’s not a magical process. It’s an interaction of forces of various kinds, resulting in a certain outcome.

Believing in a kind of freedom that operates through cause and effect has a very wide range of implications, and this morning I’m going to sample just a few of these. I’m going to talk about how this issue relates to economic choices, morality, criminal justice, and personal transformation, quite a diverse set of topics.

First of all, let’s talk about economic choices, such as the decision about purchasing a car or a jacket. When we make economic choices, it may seem as if our choices are free from any laws of cause and effect, except that we buy things because we want them. Certainly we do sometimes resist outside influences. None of us buys everything we see advertised. But advertising does shape our behavior. So does the example of others, as we keep up with the Joneses. And obviously we are shaped by our own habits, by what we’re accustomed to purchasing. So are we really free to change the economic choices we make if we just decide to do so?

Here’s a challenging experiment: Decide right now to completely change your lifestyle. Sincerely decide that you’ll move out of your present home into a single room, or a smaller room than you’re living in now. Either give up your car, or at least trade down to a very old vehicle. Shift to a diet of rice, beans and inexpensive plant products, and never eat out. Discard all unnecessary appliances and entertainment devices. Then take all of the money you’ve saved and give it to those who are in need. (This sounds downright Biblical, doesn’t it? “Go and sell all you have and give it to the poor.”)

Now none of us, myself included, are likely to accept this invitation. And one reason for this is that we operate through cause and effect, rather than by free will. If we wanted to change to a far simpler sort of lifestyle, we would probably have to change in a series of stages. I’m not saying that a sudden transformation never happens, and perhaps one of you will go out and do just as I’ve said. But we’re amazed when someone does it because it’s so unusual. And it’s unusual precisely because our minds operate through causes, and there are a whole lot of causes in the mind that are moving us in our usual patterns of purchasing. To make a drastic change in lifestyle involves changing lots of determinants all at once, and that’s very unlikely, although not impossible.

Now let’s compare making purchases to paying taxes. It’s easy to think that we pay our taxes because we’re forced to and we buy things at the store because we’re making a free choice. And of course, there is a difference. One can go to jail for not paying taxes, but not for refusing to contribute enough to the gross domestic product. So in deciding whether to buy things, I have a great deal of “practical freedom,” and very little practical freedom about whether to pay my taxes. But if you think of, say, advertising as being like viruses, I’d say that our mental immune systems are less effective than we think.

There is actually a sense in which watching television commercials is like getting the bill from the IRS, except the patterns of cause and effect are more complicated in the case of the TV commercial. Most of us are no more capable of abandoning our consumerist lifestyles than we are capable of deciding to stop paying taxes and go to jail. Isn’t that amazing? It seems as if the threat of jail is far more powerful than consumerist habits, but in practice our purchasing habits are almost as strong. It’s a little scary for me to realize that!

Think about this in terms of the relationship between the power of the person and the power of the people. We believe that each person should have power over his or her life, because we value individualism. But we have also valued the power of the people, who make decisions that collectively bind us as individual citizens. Without this collective power of the American people, we could never build roads or schools.

In recent years many voters have been trying to reduce the percentage of money we spend on taxes so as to increase our ability to spend money “freely” on whatever we choose. I’ve been concerned about this, because beyond a certain point, downsizing government reduces the power of the people, by reducing our power to collectively carry out projects.

I suspect that if we really understood why we buy the things we do, we would become more concerned about the way Madison Avenue pulls our strings like puppets. And it might be unsettling to realize how much inefficiency there is in business, just as we have become rightly concerned about inefficiency in government. Think about the Peter Principle, and how much money goes toward fancy offices and lavish executive compensation packages.

Now let’s shift over to a very different problem and apply these ideas to the issue of personal morality and criminal justice. The notion of free will has shaped our understanding of morality, law, crime and punishment. Supposedly when people do evil, they exercise their free will. In a moment of free choice, we supposedly originate some new goodness or some new evil, in ways that even an all-knowing god could not have predicted in advance.

Now as you know, I don’t think that’s the way it works. When people make destructive choices, these choices operate through laws of cause and effect. I don’t think people who behave in destructive ways just wake up one morning in a perfectly wonderful mood with their hearts filled with love, and suddenly decide that just for the heck of it they’re going to be nasty and despicable criminals for the rest of their lives.

There is overwhelming evidence of causation in our moral choices. Small children who are hostile and destructive almost always suffer from abuse or neglect or from some mental difficulty that makes it hard for them to interact with persons. It’s easy for us to see this in a seven-year-old, because we don’t expect a seven-year-old to have fully developed freedom of the will. But even though we may think of adults as having free will, it’s well-known that hostile and destructive seven-year-olds often grow up to be criminals. And it’s not a coincidence—it’s causation. Of course, there are things that can intervene between childhood and adulthood that make a huge positive difference, but if nothing intervenes in this way, the child’s prospects are not good.

So perhaps we should rethink our attitudes about punishment. Notice that when a machine is not functioning correctly, we may try to adjust the machine so that it will work. But then we may also give it a whack because we’re mad at it. The fact that we feel a little stupid for trying to make the machine feel bad by hitting it, indicates our awareness that the machine did not cause itself to malfunction.

I believe this same principle can be applied to the criminal justice system. If someone commits a horrendous crime, I may have an impulse to do two things to that person. First, I’d like to prevent the person from committing that crime again, and that may involve isolating that person from society, and levying a penalty that will make the person think twice about doing wrong in the future. Fair enough. But in addition I may want to make him or her unhappy, simply because I think this is a bad person who deserves to feel bad. If I realize that the criminal operates through laws of causation just the way that I do, I will realize that my desire to make the person suffer is like my tendency to thump my computer or kick the tire on my car when one of these machines malfunctions. It’s an understandable impulse, but not a rational one.

I need to correct myself when I’m off base. And we need to protect society from predators. So we probably do need prisons and jails, and those prisons and jails should probably seem unpleasant to the prisoners. But I’d like to see us re-examine the idea that criminals inmates are lowly scum who should suffer. If you get rid of the notion that they deserve to be treated badly because they are worse than you and I, then to what extent and in what ways is it still sensible to make these individuals suffer?

Usually people change through a step-by-step process rather than all at once. But whether it occurs rapidly or gradually, I’m convinced that radical transformation of personality is possible. But it operates through causal determinants, and if we understand how the mind works, we’re more likely to cause this sort of thing to occur.

I’d like to ask all of you to think about this for a few minutes. Sometimes people do make enormous changes in their own lives. So what makes this possible?

First, I have the power to change myself by choosing to change my surroundings. That often sets me free from old habits. It’s particularly important to change my psychological surroundings, so that I get feedback and suggestions and positive modeling from other people.

Unitarian Universalist churches have the potential to be the kind of environment in which people can place themselves in order to experience processes of transformation. As time goes by, I notice change in many individuals who attend this congregation. I see people exercising restraint and self-discipline, rather than acting in impulsive or self-indulgent or self-destructive ways. I see people becoming more loving toward others, and more loving and forgiving and nurturing toward themselves. And there’s no limit to the progress we can make in designing a congregational climate that facilitates change.

In allowing ourselves to be changed by transformational experiences, it is extremely important to maintain an attitude of receptivity. Some Asian meditative disciplines symbolize receptivity in an interesting way: one meditates with the hands on the lap with the left hand above the right hand. This indicates that the grasping, controlling, manipulative right hand is subordinated to the receptive and more passive left hand. Of course, left-handed people might want to place their right hands on top.

Sometimes people tell me we need to believe in free will because otherwise we’re boxed in. So I say, tell me some way that you are boxed in now, and what it would mean to get out of the box. And once that’s out on the table we can ALWAYS find ways of becoming more free by using tried and true strategies for personal change.

Here’s another way to look at it: Right now, either you want to change yourself in some way or you don’t. If you want to change yourself you can find ways to do that. If you don’t want to transcend yourself, then you have no need for free will, because you already feel OK about the way you are. And if you don’t want to transcend yourself at this moment, but you want to want to transcend yourself, again there are practical steps you can take in order to do that.

So if you’re motivated to change, you have the power to change. If you are not motivated to change, there’s no point in worrying about whether you have free will.

I want to thank you for hanging in there through this series of talks. I know that some of it may have seemed quite abstract and theoretical. And it’s perfectly okay with me if you disagree with some or all of what I’ve said. I hope that you have been thinking about how you can make choices and how you can change your choices if you wish to. It may seem constricting to operate through powerful laws of cause and effect, but in this case what restricts us can also liberate us. By understanding how cause and effect occur in our own minds, we can choose to reshape our own minds – and that is all the freedom we will ever need. [End of sermon series]

 

Here are excerpts from the chapter on freedom in Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You. Because this material is part of a book, some of the context will be missing. Even so, I think the basic ideas of this chapter will be reasonably clear.

Chapter Sixteen
Consciousness and Freedom

When people talk about human freedom, they often mean the ability to decide what we want to do, to act voluntarily. Some people also equate freedom with a more controversial idea called “free will,” which we’ll discuss later.

Consciousness and voluntary action seem to go together. As Susan Pocket explains, “[m]ost persons living in Western cultures in the twenty-first century would identify the ‘I’ who wills and carries out their voluntary movements with their conscious minds. … we believe that our consciousness is what causes the voluntary components of our behavior” (“Does Consciousness Cause Behavior?” Journal of Consciousness Studies, February, 2004, p. 23). But many now question this assumption. “[W]hat role does consciousness actually play?” asks Neil Levy. “What is really happening, when you consciously weigh reasons? Each reason, in favour of or against a course of action, has a weight independent of our deliberation …” This weight “is assigned unconsciously, or at least independently of consciousness. The fact that you will miss your family and friends matters more than the fact that the job will offer you exciting challenges (say). You do not decide that the first matters to you more than the second; the weight of our reasons is simply assigned to them, by subpersonal mechanisms. … Consciousness cannot assign the weights; it receives the news from elsewhere” (“Libet’s Impossible Demand.” Journal of Consciousness Studies, December, 2005, p. 72).

Daniel Dennett chimes in with a similar idea. “We have to wait to see how we are going to decide something, and when we do decide, our decision bubbles up to consciousness from we know not where. We do not witness it being made; we witness its arrival” (Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting, p. 78). On the contrary, it is common for people to notice a painful internal conflict, focus their attention on alternatives, find themselves preferring one or the other, and feel relieved that their conflict has been resolved. This is surely an example of “witnessing” a decision being made. But Dennett is right that we do not witness unconscious aspects of this process that are quite significant

I wonder if Levy and Dennett are “half-consciously” exaggerating, to make a point that is important but counterintuitive. Clearly the conscious aspects of decision-making can be crucial. We all know that focusing attention on some issue by mulling over the pros and cons can influence subsequent actions. In psychotherapy this sort of concentrated introspection provokes striking insights, some of them life-changing. Focusing on currently-felt emotions, which are accompanied by intense visceral qualia, can produce especially dramatically results. So it’s obvious that some of what we experience helps shape our choices. In fact this is an implication of widely accepted ideas such as the global workspace model and even Dennett’s own metaphor of fame in the brain. Conscious thoughts, feelings, and perceptions take a center-stage role in guiding our lives.

When Levy says that the weights of our valuations are assigned unconsciously, this glosses over the fact that these valuations have been shaped by years of vivid and complex personal experiences. We have processed information about these experiences on many levels, both conscious and unconscious. But Dennett and Levy are right to emphasize that many aspects of the decision-making process bubble up from terra incognita. We need not devalue consciousness in order to acknowledge the interweaving of conscious and unconscious processes.

Is there liberty after Libet?

Discussions of voluntary action and free will often cite experiments conducted by Benjamin Libet. Libet attached EEG electrodes to the scalp of experimental subjects. In a series of trials, the subjects were asked to push a button whenever they decided to do so (within a certain length of time). The time when the button was pressed was recorded electronically. The subject was also asked to note and remember the position of a dot on a clock-like timing device at the exact instant when he or she chose to push the button. The experimenters wanted to compare the time when people thought they decided to push the button with brain activity that seemed related to this decision.

The subjects’ reported time of consciously deciding to act was, on average, about two hundred milliseconds (1/5 of a second) before they actually pushed the button. Thus their actions closely followed their perceived decisions. But EEG recordings showed increased brain activity prior to this conscious decision. Some have contended that this “readiness potential” was an unconscious decision to act, and it commonly occurred three hundred milliseconds before the time which was reported by subjects as their moment of decision.

Some say that the existence of a readiness potential merely indicates that a person is focusing attention on an activity. Furthermore there may be time discrepancies between deciding to push a button, realizing that one has made this decision, and noting the position of the timer.

Libet’s research may be less important than the way people respond to it. Many of us have begun to doubt the extent of our own freedom, partly as a result of realizing how unconscious processes influence decision-making. Fortunately we can expand our own freedom by realizing the importance of systematically influencing the unconscious mind. Psychotherapy, psychoactive medications, and various spiritual and meditative disciplines alter unconscious processes quite effectively. Even so, I am going to claim that one particular type of “free will” that has been extensively analyzed by philosophers and theologians simply does not exist. In fact this rather traditional view of freedom is incoherent and even self-contradictory.

Free will is an oxymoron

The “will” in free will means choice, volition, making up one’s mind, but it’s easy to ensnare ourselves in logical tangles about whether we are truly free. People often cope with this complexity by thinking about free will until they reach a stage of confusion that seems reassuring, and then stopping right there. That is an excellent strategy if one’s goal is to feel comfortable.

The sort of free will that I think is illusory requires two things:

❁ Free-will choices must be our choices. If a person makes a free choice, that individual was the one who chose. Free will involves exercising our own volition, deciding for ourselves.
❁ Free-will choices must liberate us from causal determinants. To at least some extent, our decisions must transcend prior influences, including our genetic makeup, our habits, our psychological conditioning, and external influences such as custom and social pressure. According to the traditional notion that I think is misguided, our decisions must transcend these influences in a way that contradicts the idea that the universe is deterministic.

Determinism is the theory that every event is determined by prior causes. If we fully understood the laws of the universe and knew everything about what has happened in the past, in principle we could accurately predict everything that will happen from here on out, including our own actions. Most of us assume that typical mechanical systems such as automobiles operate deterministically. If an engine stops working right, we look for what caused the problem. Suppose a mechanic says, “This may sound strange, but your motor blew a head gasket for no reason at all.” We would think the mechanic was speaking loosely or making a joke. Even if we don’t know what caused the malfunction, surely there is some deterministic explanation for the blown gasket. But when a human being “blows a gasket,” is there a deterministic cause?

Throughout this discussion, bear in mind that the sort of free will that I think does not exist requires:

(1) A personal choice that (2) does not result from causal determinants

Without personal choice we are not exercising our will. And without at least some freedom from determinants, our will is not free in a sense that certain theologians and philosophers think is important. For this sort of free will, we need both (1) and (2). I believe that eventually this anti-deterministic idea of freedom will be rejected by most well-educated individuals, for several reasons:

First, the notion of free will is being gradually and inexorably worn down by our increasing ability to predict people’s actions.
Second, more and more people are thinking about the mind in terms of the brain and its neural machinery. As a result we are becoming accustomed to thinking of ourselves in terms of causes and effects.
Third, it is becoming increasingly obvious that conscious mental processes are interwoven with unconscious processes. Choices are not made in the full light of awareness.
And fourth, the traditional concept of free will is self-contradictory, like the idea of a square circle or a married bachelor. I will now discuss this contradiction for those who wish to delve more deeply into a point that’s somewhat off-topic. (In fact, the rest of this chapter is only loosely related to consciousness studies, but many who are interested in consciousness are also interested in this subject. It also ties into our recent discussions of selfhood.)

Some philosophers define free will in a way that makes free will and determinism compatible. These “compatibilists” focus on freedom from compulsion rather than freedom from past determinants. If no one is holding a gun to my head, hypnotizing me, or coercing me in other ways, I can exercise free will. A physically and mentally normal individual who is not being forcibly restrained may freely decide to stand up or sit down. Even if the decision to stand right now could have been predicted since the beginning of time, compatibilists say the person is freely choosing. But for the sake of simplicity I will disregard compatibilism. My concern is with the idea of free will that contradicts determinism.

To see why free will is a self-contradictory idea, let’s assume for the sake of argument that determinism is wrong. Let’s say that the universe is indeterministic, meaning that at least some events are not completely and predictably caused by the past. If some of our choices are indeterministic, even an all-knowing god could not predict our decisions in advance. But would that give us free will? No, and here’s why.

Indeterministic events involve a certain degree of randomness. Should I be pleased to hear that my choices may be influenced by the random movement of tiny particles in my head, staggering this way and that as if they’ve had too much tequila? If there are uncaused events in my brain, then it’s as if something has come loose in there, rattling around aimlessly. Why would I want that? Would an MLB pitcher want randomness in the way his throwing arm functions? Would he think that gave him more freedom or less? And if the mind is in the soul rather than in the body, would we have more freedom or less if the states of our souls were subject to random, uncaused fluctuations?

(Randomness is not the same as indeterminacy, but for our purposes they can be treated as equivalent.)

Crucially, indeterminism would not help people act as responsible moral agents. In fact, it’s just the opposite. “If my arm randomly jerks and strikes someone, that is just the kind of thing that excuses me from moral responsibility” (Roy Weatherford in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, p. 293). This leaves free will advocates in a difficult spot. They want a kind of freedom that contradicts determinism, but indeterminism doesn’t give them what they want either. Remember that the sort of freedom we are talking about requires (1) a personal choice and (2) a break from past determinants.

With determinism there is no break with the past. All events are caused by previous events, so determinism negates requirement (2). But what if the universe is partly indeterministic so that some things happen out of the blue, without being entirely caused by what has happened previously? This would give us a certain sort of freedom – the freedom of an open universe that could unfold in many different ways. But this openness would not be due to our personal choices. Indeterministic events would just happen, rather than resulting from our intentions. It would be absurd in such cases to speak of “exercising” free will. So indeterminism negates requirement (1).

It may seem as if we are free to break with the past through a personal choice that could not be predicted even by an all-knowing diety. But when we think carefully about this sort of free will, I think it disappears. It is an oxymoron, a self-contradictory idea, because “free” contradicts “will.” To the extent that my choices are free from the person that I am at this moment, those choices do not express my will. Instead, such choices are freed from my will. The self-contradictory concept of free will requires a choice to issue from my will, while being disconnected from my will. We can’t have it both ways.

Let’s consider an example of a decision that is clearly mine and that is clearly not made through free will. Suppose I’m walking across the street and I notice a truck hurtling toward me. I jump aside to escape obliteration. Was I acting freely? In a very real sense I was not. I am thoroughly motivated to value survival. Avoiding the truck was dictated by my own psychological makeup. Since I was not feeling the least bit suicidal, I had no option other than to hurl myself out of the way. Nevertheless, the choice was up to me, in the sense that nobody was pulling my strings like a puppet. If I had been feeling self-destructive I might have let the truck smoosh me. Again, that would have been my choice.

When it comes to freedom, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that we lack the super-special freedom that goes beyond both determinism and indeterminism. I call this the magical idea of freedom, because to me it is fantastic and impossible. The good news is that we can enjoy the alleged advantages of free will even though we don’t have it.

Practical freedom

Determinism does not threaten what I’ll call practical freedom. This term has been used in various ways, but to me practical freedom involves at least four components:

1. It requires the ability to act. (Cars can move.)
2. These actions must be self-initiated. (Cars don’t drive themselves – at least not yet – so they don’t have practical freedom. But a person can drive them.)
3. One must be able to select among alternatives. (A driver can select a destination.)
4. One must be able to choose to change one’s future choices, modifying one’s action priorities. (A driver can decide to switch routes.)

These four kinds of ability are only found in self-altering information processing agents such as human beings. Those who believe in free will want components 1 – 4, but they add the extra requirement that our choices must contradict determinism. And yet determinism can actually enhance freedom of choice. It establishes the solid connections from one moment to the next that ensure that my decisions are really my decisions. In this sense, determinism can help set us free.

There is a paradox here. We can think of a “chain” of causation as binding us or as empowering us. We create desired outcomes by relying on dependable patterns of cause and effect. From this perspective, the reliable laws of causation are our friends. They connect us with the past and engage us with the future.

If we understand that we are creatures of cause and effect, we may be more likely to guard against the influence of irrational determinants. Our ignorance of these influences fosters the illusion that all of our opinions are rational. (How odd that other intelligent people disagree with us religiously and politically!)

Ironically, one of the biggest barriers to fully enjoying practical freedom is the illusion that we can simply choose to be free. If we think we can instantly decide to be better persons without taking practical steps to do so, we are likely to fail. We make better choices by developing good choice-making habits, and these habits operate through cause and effect, not through “poof! I’m all better.” Therefore one good way to expand practical freedom is to stop relying on super-special free will.

Another reason people want to believe in free will is to protect human dignity. We don’t want to view ourselves as a bunch of billiard balls jostling against each other – cause and effect, cause and effect. The billiard ball metaphor makes it sound as if we are victims of forces beyond our control. But we are not victims, and this is crucially important. In fact, if I can communicate just one idea about human freedom, this would be it:

“Determinants” are not just outside forces that push us around. We are also determinants. We are also forces, causes, sources of new action.

This is a subtle point but it is worth contemplating until we see it with 100% clarity. Yes, we are part of the great cosmic game, and we play by the rules of that game. But we do get to play.

When we are making decisions, our thoughts, emotions, and impulses are causal forces that influence the process. Thus we ourselves are part of the active potency of the cosmos. Without realizing it, we may be setting up a false dichotomy – ourselves versus the universe, as if we were not part of the whole. So we evict ourselves from Reality and then feel pushed around by this huge, alien, deterministic machine that is outside of us.

If we tell ourselves that our choices make no difference, we have (irrationally) mobilized a new determinant that undermines effective decision-making. If we tell ourselves that we make our own decisions and our decisions do make a difference, we have (rationally) influenced our decision-making in a helpful way.

Real freedom starts now

If I think about my past decisions, I am, in effect, looking in a rear view mirror. From that perspective I have neither magical nor practical freedom. Everything is over and done with. But if I focus on the options that are available now, I find the steering wheel in my hand. Right this second I am acting, creating, making the difference I decide to make. The way to play my part in the great cosmic game is to focus on what I’m choosing now.

Suppose I look back and think about a time a truck was coming toward me, but I dodged it and survived. Since that event is past, it’s no longer part of the game. We can mentally revisit past decisions as if we were entitled to a do-over, but that doesn’t work. Whatever I did vis-a-vis the truck is finished. But if I see that lethal lorry hurtling toward me right this second, it’s game-on. Time to boogie!

I think a person either does or does not “get” this key insight into present-moment practical freedom. When I myself lose track of this insight, I sometimes remember the analogy of staring into the headlights of an oncoming Peterbilt. Would I rather dodge this rolling reaper, or not? Less dramatically, shall I proofread the paragraph I’ve just written? Yes, I will … and now I’ve corrected an error.

Here’s a comparison between non-deterministic, “magical” free will and practical freedom, focusing on both the past-time and present-time perspectives:

Magical freedom, past tense: My free choices have helped bring me to where I am at this moment. Can I change those choices? No. They are forever fixed. There’s nothing I can do about them.
Practical freedom, past tense: My prior choices have helped bring me to where I am at this moment. Can I change those choices? No. They are forever fixed. There’s nothing I can do about them.

Do you see the dramatic difference? Right, there isn’t any.

Magical freedom, present tense: At this moment I have various alternatives. Which do I choose?
Practical freedom, present tense: At this moment I have various alternatives. Which do I choose?

In making choices right now, there is no practically significant difference between magical and practical freedom. So I cannot change the past, and I have the present-time power to choose among alternatives. That is exactly what I need.

Certain ways of understanding selfhood work especially well with determinism (or determinism plus a dash of randomness). For example, we can understand ourselves as grounded in the present, perhaps by focusing on the notion that each of us is born anew each moment, continually arising in the midst of our former selves. Although it may not be possible or even desirable to hold this view consistently, it is sometimes quite useful.

Having discussed freedom of choice in terms of both past and present perspectives, what about the future? Are you concerned that deterministic factors will limit your future options? Well, there are dozens of ways to enhance the flexibility, creativity, and overall effectiveness of your decision-making processes. If you want more freedom, you can get it. Note that at this very moment, either you want to change yourself or you don’t. If you want to change yourself you can find ways to do that without believing in free will. And if you don’t feel motivated to improve yourself, you don’t need free will. So if you’re motivated to change, you can change. If you are not, there is little point in wondering whether you are really free. It is ironic that some people are quite upset by the suggestion that we lack magical freedom, but do little to expand their own freedom in any sense of the term.

Is it better to fool ourselves?

I abandoned magical freedom in favor of practical freedom decades ago, and I am generally comfortable with a deterministic world-view (or determinism plus a dollop of indeterminacy). But psychology has taught us the importance of individual differences. Some people may wish to avoid dwelling upon the fact that magical, non-deterministic free will is self-contradictory. Others will have no problem with this realization. Similarly, some people get the jitters if they look out the window of a passenger plane while focusing on the fact that this ponderous people-mover is riding on air, and rather thin air at that. Others contemplate the diaphanous foundation of their flight and remain unperturbed.

Among those who despise determinism are people I deeply respect. Immanuel Kant called efforts to make free will compatible with determinism a “wretched subterfuge” (http://praxeology.net/kant4.htm). Christof Koch notes that this issue “is no mere philosophical banter; it engages people in a way that few other metaphysical questions do. It is the bedrock of society’s notions of responsibility, of praise and blame, of being judged for something you did, whether good or bad.” “Personally,” Koch writes, “I find determinism abhorrent. The idea that your reading of my book at this point in time is inherent in the Big Bang evokes in me a feeling of complete helplessness” (Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, p. 99).

Here’s another problem: Sometimes the truth can act like a lie. An idea that is 100% accurate may lead us to think in ways that are inaccurate. Thus a person could discover some new truth, and as a result of that discovery become confused about another issue. For instance, people who rightly reject the traditional idea of free will might wrongly conclude that they also lack practical freedom. Paradoxically, then, learning a new fact would cause a new error. Rejecting magical freedom would cause them to make practical mistakes.

Here’s another confusion: Some people have excused bad behavior by essentially saying, “my brain made me do it.” This rationalization involves the confusion between “I” and “my brain.” If I am (roughly) the same as my brain, saying that my brain makes me do things is as silly as saying, “My excuse for committing murder is that I made myself do it,” or even, “My excuse is that I did it.” But those who affirm practical freedom can understand praise and blame in ways that don’t contradict determinism. People who are not constrained by outside forces or extreme psychological compulsions can choose to improve their future decisions. When they receive positive or negative input, they can decide whether to heed such feedback. Therefore when we want their actions to change, it makes sense to address them as responsible agents. They are, literally, able to respond.

Summing up

The sort of free will that I think is illusory requires two things. (1) Free-will choices must be our choices. (2) Free-will choices must liberate us from causal determinants. This is a self-contradictory idea, because “free” contradicts “will.” Insofar as my choices are free from the person I am at this instant, such choices are freed from my will. Fortunately practical freedom provides us with most or all of what we hoped we would gain from non-deterministic free will.

We are only alive in the present moment. From this right-now perspective, the forces that have made me who I am are part of the overall interplay of determinants that has brought the cosmos to its current state. So here I stand, in the midst of it all. What shall I choose to do? Whatever I choose, I hope reliable determinants will enable my choices to bear fruit as I anticipated.

New truths can cause new confusions, so we need to think clearly and carefully if we reject magical freedom. But in general it seems best to live in alignment with truth rather than to engage in benevolent self-deception. We do not need to play tricks with the laws of cause and effect as if we could go back in time and become our own grandparents. We are here and we are real and we have real creative power. Our starting point at any moment is as a person with values, with an agenda, with aspirations. It is already our nature and destiny to reach toward our varied potentials. We are not static organisms that stay as they are, like lizards or grasshoppers. We are dynamic organisms who were born in motion, born changing, as if we were birds born on the wing.

 

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