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Wednesday, 9 March 2011

A Brief Note From Bryan Magee On Free Will

Free will.  Kinda a big deal in our day and age.  Us Westerners have it ingrained into our very souls.

I want to put this out there just as a supporting piece to something Stephen has written about the absence of self.

He's pointed out that if there's no you, there's also no anyone.  

Now yes, we've known this from day one - in a sense.  It was always one of the obvious consequences of the absence of self, there's no self for anyone, there never was.

But I think that we may have missed the full ramifications of this.  Maybe not - maybe.  

The thing is - if there's no-one, what is there?  Consciousness, thoughts, bodies, brains - no-one owning it.  But also... no-one pulling the strings.  

No-one pulling the strings.

That's the rub.  There is no puppetmaster directing the flow of life, there's just life.  Everywhere.  In everyone. Life flowing - getting blocked of course, tied into knots by the fundamental lie of the human condition - self - but still.

Anyway, I was reminded of something Bryan Magee wrote in The Philosophy Of Schopenhauer.  An insight Schopenhauer had about free will.

I could re-write the example, but that would be to mangle it, so I give you Bryan Magee's own words:

"If I am ordering a meal in a restaurant I may be free to choose whatever I like from among the alternatives on the menu. 

But I am not free to choose what what I like shall be. 

I cannot say to myself: 'Up to this point in my life I have always detested spinach, but just for today I am going
to like it.' 

Nor am I in a position to ask myself: 'Shall I decide that I am in the mood for fish, or shall I decide that I am in the mood for chicken?'

What I am in the mood for, and what I like or detest, are not at my command. It is not they that are matters of choice for me: they are given to me as accomplished facts, and it is on the basis of them that I make my

I can choose whatever it is I wish to choose, but I cannot will what it is that I shall wish to choose. As it has often been put, I can choose what I will but I cannot will what I will."




Because if you look at it like this, it's actually not difficult to notice that free will, as commonly conceived, is - at the very least - a profoundly simplistic way of looking at the situation.

We can be free (of outside pressure) to do what we like or not.... but we cannot choose what we like.

So actually, when you look at it, this is a lot closer to the idea of life flowing, and only getting irritated when it is blocked or confounded in where it already wants to go.

Why does this matter?  Because there is no choice per se.  Not in the sense that all the data goes to a central processor, gets numbercrunched and then a true choice emerges.

Even if there were a CPU in the human brain (and there isn't) what would the numbercrunching be in aid of?  You'd be looking to get the most optimal outcome from a choice you make.  But optimal by what standard?

Magee's point isn't that we ARE free to choose what to do to get the best out of life - but we are NOT free to choose what we think the best of life IS.

This to me seems related.  I think this is interesting - and I think that there may be something in this.  A new way of looking at the world.  Maybe.  Hmm.




  1. Experience is exclusive, automatic and enduring.

  2. Good point, I never looked at in that way before. Free will in the current understanding is like an illusion of choice because noone is deciding they "feel like eating x today", there is only the want/ desire for it. Of course language backs up the existence of a thinker with "I feel like....".

    Theres no one there to decide. Think about the process when you go through a menu, there is just a particular dish that makes you salivate more or produces a stronger taste sensation or mental image. Of course this is usually attributed to a "you" deciding. Free will as a concious choice is an illusion but free will on the level of an organism is what it truly is.

  3. What he ignores here is that his choice is just as arbitrarily delivered to him. It hinges on the weather system in operation, the price of gold in korea, the exact kj value of energy released by a distant pulsar. HIs brains, and conditioning provide the pathways in which these things are converted into choice, choice itself however is completely arbitrary, yes thought affects choice, but thought is not an isolated element outside of this,(god help me) universal system, just another element at the whim of every other element in the system, there is no choice.

  4. Its interesting because there are modes the mind can get into that can shift everything a person feels about what the best of life IS.

    I hate to bring it up but Tyler actually came up with something that sort of explains in theory how a person's idea of what the best of life is changes.

    I've experienced a bunch of different modes of these kinds. One is where I'm partying so much all of a sudden I feel like thats all there is to do in life, and I'm thus inclined to align everything for that. Unrealistic, yes.

    Then I recently got into a small fight where I drew blood from the other person. The aftermath left me with thoughts swirling in my head that joining the military would be a fuckin rad idea. Again, not grounded in reality.

    I sat around thinking about my future and where I wanted to go for awhile and then all of a sudden studying and forsaking fun time was in my best interests while avoiding confrontation is ideal as well.

    Another time I went to a Tony Robbins Convention where the end was primarily talking about health. They use a LOT of hypnotic principles in those events and I have a hunch that its that combined with my own enthusiasm that drove me to become a raw vegan for the next 3 months or so despite hating the taste of raw veggies. After some time I started to LOVE it and would get sick eating anything remotely acidic.

    This brain is constantly shifting its ideas of what the best of life IS.

    So in essence it seems like the dominating desires of the mind set the context for what the best of life is.

  5. Please let me know if you have heard or read Jed McKenna.

    I have the impression something important is going on.

  6. Vesi, Jed Mckenna is awesome. These guys wouldn't know though, they are nuts.

  7. That's an ironic thing to say, Danny, for reasons of which you are unaware.