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.