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June 4th, 2019
This episode was inspired by reading Annaka Harris’ book ‘Conscious’. You can find a link to her book at the bottom of this post.
The debate that surrounds free will is often an unproductive quagmire.
One problem with this debate is that it’s often approached as a binary topic. Do we or don’t we have free will?
The phrasing of the question here is perhaps the first problem regarding the debate. Even worse, in such debates, it’s never thoroughly discussed what is left over if free will doesn’t exist. Surely something must exist, some sort of consciousness at the very least.
Without free will, the default assumption seems to be a kind of zombie existence (to reference David Chalmers’ philosophical thought experiment). When we think of a zombie, we think of some sort of robotic being with simple drives that lacks a greater awareness of what it’s really doing and why. Many other entities, however, seem to fit into this description but which on further reflection seem to be more aware than we realize. For example, it’s been shown that trees care for their young in complex ways via underground root systems and through a symbiotic relationship with fungi networks, and if this doesn’t imply some sort of awareness, we can certainly highlight the Venus Flytrap which is quite clearly aware of an insect that lands in it’s ‘mouth’.
That word may in fact be on the other side of the free-will debate: awareness. Even if we are to take the stance that free will does not exist, that certainly doesn’t imply anything about awareness. Anyone who can reflect on the fact that they are experiencing something has awareness. Even a tree without a brain can be aware of all sorts of things.
However, is a tree aware of the planet Mars? or the Andromeda Galaxy? It’s hard to think that any tree in the history of trees has ever been aware of these things in the way humans are.
This reveals a gradient of awareness that is separate from free-will, and perhaps, we can think about the free-will problem on a spectrum where one end is simply unattainable. Free will is that unattainable end of the spectrum and at the other end of the spectrum is the least amount of awareness possible. The easiest example might be something like a rock, or a chair… though, that does mean these things are not aware. We need only wonder if any of the carbon making up the chair was once a part of Cleopatra’s amygdala. That possibility is certainly quite real, and if it was the case, does that mean that at one point in the time part of the chair was more aware? We can think of a deceased person. Such a body was certainly more aware while living, presumably.
So perhaps the question of free will is a red herring: an unproductive question that fuels merry-go-round debates and discussions. Perhaps the harder, and more fruitful question is: can an increased awareness approach free will like an asymptote: forever getting closer but never actually making the jump.
How might this work? Well, it seems that our brain hands us a slightly delayed version of reality, we are continually experiencing everything with a lag. We are in essence living in the past, however incredibly recent. We essentially experience what happened. We are taking in the results of prior conditions. What happens to our reactions to such conditions relative to different levels of awareness?
The more sensitive or aware we are to what is going on, or what has just happened, the more thoughtful we can be about our plans, actions and behaviors for the future. Someone who lacks awareness is clearly bound to make the same mistakes over and over. But someone who is paying more attention more acutely is more likely to pick up on the key factors that can ensure that such mistakes don’t happen again, or at least happen less often in the future. This does not necessarily imply free will, but it’s certainly a welcomed improvement from a total lack of awareness.
The opposite of free will need not imply that we are zombies, but perhaps that we exist on a spectrum of awareness. And even if we concede that free will is a bit at odds with scientific determinism, we can still strive to increase our awareness and therefore precipitate a greater possibility of a better future by being more in tune with the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
This episode was inspired by Annaka Harris’ book ‘Conscious’. You can order your copy by clicking on the book below:
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