Free Will


You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice.  If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.  You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill.  I will choose a path that’s clear.  I will choose free will. – Rush

Are you sure about that, Geddy?  I’m about to question the entire premise of the words Neil Peart put into your mouth beginning with a couple of well-known quotes.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. – Quote falsely attributed to Albert Einstein but more likely something Bill Wilson overheard at a bar and co-opted for excessive repetition at A.A. meetings

The fool who persists in his folly will become wise. – William Blake

Pretty contradictory “truisms” coming from two of the most oft-quoted gentlemen since the Renaissance, wouldn’t you say?  This is an example of how we seem to always have a choice as to which “truth” each of us has the option to embrace in any given situation.  Of course, what both of the above statements have in common is that they actually contain no information whatsoever.  This is the best kept secret of self-proclaimed philosophers: depending on one’s mood, the weather and maybe even his or her gastrointestinal state, words can be spun to deceptively “prove” almost anything and if you follow closely the maxims of even the most brilliant of minds over the course of their lifetimes, I guarantee that you will find many statements that seem to cancel each other out.

So it would seem that along with behavioral volition, we also have the option of choosing our own outlooks. But do we?

The next time you have an opportunity, observe the behavior of a colony of ants or bees, or a flock of migrating geese.  Biologists call the collective intelligence behind the well-choreographed behavior of such animals a hive mind.  Individually, each member of such a group has extremely limited intellect and freedom of choice, but in a group dynamic, instincts cause the behavior of each organism to react according to the behavior of the others resulting in a perfect display of intelligence and efficiency.  This is why the migration pattern of birds always falls into a V formation for the most optimal space/proximity ratio of the individual birds to facilitate a smooth journey.

The next thing I’d like you to do when you have an opportunity (and preferably, an elevated vantage point) is watch the movements and patterns of rush hour traffic or a large crowd of people filing into a stadium or out of a subway car.  You will notice that the patterns within the collective movement are very similar to those you witnessed when you observed the actions of swarm insects or birds.  In the case of the traffic patterns, every person enclosed within a vehicle feels as if he or she is navigating independently while simply keeping alert for others who may create an immediate crash hazard.  However, from above, it becomes clear that this is not the case.  What you are witnessing in this dance of automobiles is the workings of a collective or hive mind.

I often wonder if this tendency for masses of people to behave as a single organism doesn’t perhaps apply to everything we do.  Of course, what I am questioning here is the notion of free will.  We all feel like we are at liberty to make our own choices; then again, we all feel as if we are self-contained independently existing organisms even though each of us is actually an ongoing, ever-changing process.  It has been observed that neural and brain activity always precedes the initiation of a behavior or even a conscious thought by a fraction of a second.  Have you ever wondered why the vision-gifted house fly seems to know when you are about to swat it before you even consciously committed to doing so?  This is because before you were aware of making a conscious decision to murder the fly, your entire system was already preparing for the action.  You could perhaps call this “subconscious will”, but does that really make any sense?  Can the workings of a system unknown to the actor himself still be considered part of a deliberate volitional act?

Large swaths of humanity have expended an awful lot of blood, sweat and tears in the struggle for equality, freedom and justice over the centuries.  What if all such valiant efforts are just a part of the individual roles we’ve been tapped biologically to play in service of what might just be another hive organism?  This would certainly explain society’s addiction to pigeonholing each of its members into “classes”.  Whether it’s the clear-cut financially measured delineations of lower, middle and upper classes in capitalist societies, the ancient Vedic caste system of India, the assigned life stations of Communist citizens, or the former serf/soldier/nobility divisions of Medieval Europe, we behave as if each of us were indeed born into an assigned role and that we are incapable of being anything other than what is already predetermined at birth.  You will also see this same pattern in so-called “primitive” cultures.  No matter what, there is a hierarchy among human beings sharing a culture and regardless of that culture’s surface features, an individual seems to only have the choice of dutifully playing his or her role or being ostracized, jailed or killed.

In the human drama that has been unfolding for a few hundred thousand years, there seems always to be a repetition of certain characters or players no matter the geography or the era: there are cunning villains, courageous heroes, reckless narcissists, good-hearted “innocent” common people, and of course, the “fringe” class shared by madmen, sages, drunks and geniuses.  The latter is generally considered the “subversive” class but despite the angry threats and protests against it from the top of this societal pyramid, it is nonetheless indispensable to keep the whole structure stable.  What would a cop be without criminals?  A Puritan without debauchery?  A king without subjects?  Because it is the nature of a hive to keep itself in balance, it cannot function without such seeming opposites among its constituents.  Draw a line from Caligula to T***p or Confucius to Gandhi and you’ll begin to see that humanity through its diverse cultures and eras has always been based upon the same pattern involving roughly 4 or 5 “types” of individuals necessary for civilization to function.

If what I am saying is true, while it may be uncomfortably humbling on the one hand, on the other, things might not actually be as catastrophically dangerous as they seem at the present.  Our imminent extinction has thus far been avoided, so why wouldn’t the surface features of our current situation likewise work themselves out?  Of course, “working themselves out” often means at the expense of the lives of millions of individuals, but this too is a repetitive cycle the “tragedy” of which is appended to mass extinction events after the fact.

If what I am saying is utter nonsense, then I thank you for reading because this would mean you had a choice whether to do so or not and you decided to read it anyway.   If you indeed possess free will, Dear Reader, then you also have impeccable taste.



31 thoughts on “Free Will

  1. BLASPHEMER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    OK, you KNOW that I was going to do something like that. While I agree with you on the hive mentality, I blame it on true genetic coding and programming. There are those that are able to perceive the glitches in the matrix of our minds and are thus labeled fringe. So the answer to “why does it happen” is not “because it happens”. Instead it is “because it is supposed to happen”, unless you can see past it.

    Brilliant post, Paul

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you! Both for the compliment and the charge of blasphemy. But I suspect you knew I was fishing for that one with my utilization of Rush. And I concur: there are many ways to view this and yours at least retains a tad more dignity for the individual than mine.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I was hoping I saw you with a nice Zebcoe in your hands, so I am going to say yes. I don’t know what it is about my mental hemispheres (see what I did there 😎 )that mandates I lean so strongly to the gene-seeding theories. I guess there is a part of me that requires and is comforted by the plausibility of it.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I see Shakespeare here too.

      One of the main themes in Macbeth for example is fate vs. free will.Throughout the play, he struggles between the two, having difficulty taking control over his actions.
      ‘If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, without my stir.’

      Nevertheless, neither of us is a fatalist, as I can see. We do care, being free-willed individuals and you dear Paul make LOTS of sense, as usual.

      You like Marriage of Heaven and Hell?

      I think this calls for some music boys. What do you say I get to choose?

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Ooh, Shostakovich! Good one! I do like the point Blake was trying to make in Marriage of Heaven and Hell, but I don’t recall enjoying the prose. Granted, it was a LONG time ago that I read it. Maybe even just skimmed it, knowing me at that age. Thank you so much, Bojana. If you keep chiming in here, you might just class up my page.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh I’m so classy!
        Blame it on Wulf. He ‘advertised’ you. He reminded me of how good you were actually.
        As for Blake, he’s my Bible, my God, my omnipresence. Do go back to read his poetry, esp. socially engaged London, Jerusalem etc. then the Sick Rose, the Tyger, the Lamb-the so-called Songs of innocence and experience, very much connected to and imitating Milton’s existential-mythic states of “Paradise” and “Fall”.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I’ve always considered my desire to go off by myself at social functions when I get overwhelmed by so many humans around me as free will. Or else, I’m just an “introvert” and a “loner.”
    Put me into self-appointed categories, just like sugar lumps in your morning coffee.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. “roughly 4 or 5 “types” of individuals necessary for civilization to function.”

    1-3: persecutor, victim, savior –> enact main drama
    4: status quo –> mechanizes current drama
    5: rebel –> ushers in new drama

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I agree wholeheartedly. I’m also opting to look at the Trump phenomena as inevitable, a sort of mass hysteria—the kind that shook the planet during WWI and II, the purges of Stalin and Mao, the French Revolution, the 100 Years’ War, to name a few. It might get bad. But at the same time it might work out with less bloodshed simply because we have so much immediate information and the ability to counter. But then again, judging from the massacres and displacement that’s gone on in the Middle East and Africa, anything is possible. This is where we need to manifest the Buddha-nature and let things pass. And hope we’re among the survivors. I think you’ve hit it dead on.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Man, I want you to be right so badly, Pablo, but the more I speak with the fervent adherents of the Orange God, the more I realize information is losing the battle against ignorance. In cases like this, however, all I ever want to be in wrong.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Despite my final paragraphs, even an instinct-driven species can go extinct. Millions already have. If our belief in free will is a myth, the only advantage is that we can’t blame ourselves for such a demise. Then again, if we’re all dead, we couldn’t blame anything for anything.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. Recently I’ve been thinking about the concept of free will as an illusion ego clings to. Tell someone they have no free will and you can see the fire inside them set to burst with anger or despair. We all want to
    to be individuals with specially assigned tasks that only we can complete, just like everyone else.

    When I’ve said this in the past, people have thrown the word ‘determinism’ at me as though it is blasphemy. Blasphemous to the ego cult… I usually reply with the word ‘chaos’.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. Why does this seem like such a mystery to so many? Even myself at times. (Yes, I do have good taste, I read your post!) An absolute misunderstood concept of basically the seller creating a market for the buyer. And there has to be buyers who believe they are the smartest in a minority of the majority when in fact they are the MAJORITY!! Oh, the BS of it all… Absolutely LOVED this post! ~Kim

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Man, I wish I would have made the choice to read this before I posted this morning; I could have saved 1600 words with the sudden realization that it’s ultimately not up to me what next year brings. Or, as Hoban Washburne might say, “I am but a leaf in the wind.”

    On the other hand, I probably would have done it, anyway, knowing that the persistence of folly would eventually make me wise, or insane, and either outcome would prove advantageous. Nobody’s free like the crazy; nobody’s crazy like the sage.

    Either way, an excellent treatise on the subject of free will, and the nature of society. Long live the fringe. ✊

    Liked by 1 person

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