On Real Will

Some men gathered in the courtyard of Aristokles’ dwelling to talk, as they often did when there was no other work to be done or they wished to escape the nagging of their wives.

A recent discussion on the subject of hate had turned contentious. One man, quite attached to his negative emotions, had insisted that hate of evil could be dispassionate and righteous. Aristokles pointed out that therein lay a trap; once one has justified hating evil, one soon begins to hate that which is merely adverse to one’s person. The other man continued to argue, eventually becoming quite upset. Aristokles pointed out that this was exactly the attachment to negative emotions that he had warned of.

That man had stormed off, feeling insulted. A period of some hours passed without discussion. Aristokles disappeared into his dwelling, emerging some time later with an article, which he shared with those present.

Here is the article he shared: http://io9.gizmodo.com/5975778/scientific-evidence-that-you-probably-dont-have-free-will

When everyone had read the article, many seemed disturbed by the idea that it presented. “But I  have free will, I know I do!”, said one man, and kicked the unfortunate cat, who had been curled up at his feet. “I chose to do that. I willed my leg to move. Nobody forced that action on me.”

Aristokles turned to him and said, “As you read in the article, it has been shown that under ordinary conditions awareness follows rather than precedes physical movement. This is true despite our firmly held belief to the contrary. We edit our memory to fit our narrative. If this is true, ‘free will’ if it exists at all doesn’t occur at the level of supposedly voluntary physical movement.”

Another man, Cicutius, a man who often joked about drinking hemlock for pleasure, spoke. “Aristokles, if you were asked about what ‘free will’ theoretically consists of, what would be your definition of it?”

Aristokles answered, “The ability to will something you aren’t already predisposed to want/choose anyway. By which I mean predisposed by heredity & environment. Anyone can love their friends. It takes real will (a term I prefer to free will) to love your enemies.”

“But,” objected Cicutius, “In the example that you have given, it seems that you have merely changed the predisposed condition from instinct (hate your enemies) to a higher cause (love your enemies). It’s still determined by something else.”

Aristokles nodded. “Yes,” he said, “Man is never entirely free. That is a fantasy. He can however make meaningful selections if and only if he has access to higher and lower motivations. He is either the servant of God or the slave of nature.”

“Servant  implies willingness, Aristokles. Willingness involves will, which is an illusion if what you say is true.”

“You may be misunderstanding me. I’m not saying we have no capacity for will.”

Cicutius stood and paced for a moment, his face troubled by thought. Then he stopped pacing and said, “To me, either will is free or is not will at all. That might be our misunderstanding.”

“That’s the common conception: that if I am free at all I can choose or do anything I want. But that ‘want’ is a motivation. It comes from somewhere. If you cannot choose your motivations, your other choices aren’t meaningful. And there are only so many available motivations.” Aristokles looked around at the others gathered. “Can you see that this is so?”

“Yes,” answered Cicutius, “But are we really capable of willing something without predisposed conditions?”

“No. Not under ordinary conditions. ‘Man cannot do.’ Every selection we make while we are operating at the level of heredity and environment turns out to be the only one we were going to make.”

“So what’s the way out of determinism, Aristokles? It seems that even freeing yourself from heredity and environment doesn’t free you from randomness. Even a chaotic non-determined action seems determined by chance.”

Just then, all noticed a madman wandering by on the road, gibbering to himself, barely clothed and gnawing on a piece of bark. Pointing to the madman, Aristokles said, “If you are so hapless that heredity and environment conditioning is not working, then you are even less free, if that is possible.” He laughed. “The only way out of total material determinism is to place yourself under a higher law. You are still subject to physical laws of course but they can’t completely determine your motives.”

Harharkh, who had been sleeping when the discussion began, but who had already discussed the matter of will with Aristokles at length on prior days, now spoke. “Take a simple example…’I dislike chocolate & prefer vanilla.’ Why? It’s not a choice. Your preferences are largely determined by heredity and environment.”

Aristokles interrupted him, “Yes, that is what I have just said.”

Unheeding, Harharkh continued, “You have an immense web of preferences of varying abstraction, set quite unconsciously. A man can force himself to like something he previously did not. His motivation for doing so is, of course, also based on unconscious preferences on another level. But he can undergo training to rewire his unconscious preferences in accordance with certain principles. This is what initiatic asceticism consists of. In fact, all inner work consists of a hack on this basic system. You have just enough will to submit to such a program of training. Once trained, you can act and think in accordance with rationally selected principles. This is what we call real will. The chosen set of principles can be good or evil. If evil, the man is doing black magic. If good, the man can become a sage or a saint. In Christ, His unconscious preferences were pre-wired with higher principles (Logos). Same biological hardware. Different software, so to speak i.e. Logos incarnate.”

A young, quiet man named Alonsius nearly shouted, “This society has malware!” All laughed, Aristokles the loudest.

Harhakh said, “Exactly. All fallen Man does.”

“True indeed,” said Alonsius. “Man is not God. He fails to realize that, especially once aware of a superior trait, or secret knowledge that he can hold over his fellow men.

“I think,” Harharkh said, “To the extent that a man aligns with God-consciousness, he becomes incapable of using it to do else than awaken his fellow men.”

Aristokles said, “Harharkh, though you are compelled to speak by your unconscious predispositions, what you say is true and you have understood rightly. Do you think that you have enough will to be awake for the beginning of the discussion next time?”

Harharkh blushed and fell silent. Aristokles, his eyes twinkling, smiled at him. “You’ll do your best I am sure. I believe you all understand the terror of the situation we find ourselves in. I will leave you with this, for now: To have the possibility of beginning to acquire real will, one must find a school.”

Several men began to yammer, asking where a school could be found and how one might obtain entry. But Aristokles had risen, held up his hand briefly as if to bless the gathering, and gone inside.