Monday, 21 September 2015

Free will

This is a short discussion on free will, initially on whether it exists at all and then how it might fit in the context of non-duality.

Q. Do you believe in free will?  As far as I understand the matter a strict materialism would deny it because everything about us is ultimately down to our genetic inheritance on the one hand and environmental factors on the other. But spiritual philosophies like advaita and Buddhism (whose shortcomings you have spoken of), which reject individuality, would also seem to leave free will out in the cold. In their view our sense of self is just a faulty perception that is the product of identification with thought and memory, and the fundamental reality is emptiness. Or else there is only the One Self so no selves truly exist in which case neither does free will. What's your view?

A. You are right to point out that certain forms of non-dualistic philosophy would seem to meet up with materialism in a rejection of free will. They might be approaching the question from different directions but they arrive at the same answer. Are they right though? Well, as I see it only someone whose intellectual mind had supplanted their intuitive sense of how things really are could think so. After all, no one actually behaves as though free will did not exist, and if it really didn't then why would it matter if you infringed another person's free will? And yet to do so is universally regarded as wrong, even criminal.

That having been said, we can't necessarily take our natural feelings of how things are as showing how they really are. Common sense may be a good guide in most things, but that doesn't mean we can assume our intuitions about ourselves are always right. They could be indicating how things appear to be rather than how they actually are so let's look at this question a little more closely.

Our point of departure, though, must be that the denial of free will is the denial of our own experience and deepest awareness of ourselves as autonomous creatures, and, whilst that is not conclusive, nor should it be discounted unless there is very good reason to do so. The deterministic point of view leads to the conclusion that no one is responsible for anything. We are only our brain states with no I controlling them, even in a limited way. However, though this might seem theoretically plausible to one who has a purely mechanistic view of human nature, a little reflection shows it runs completely counter to our experience of ourselves as rational beings endowed with individuality and knowing right from wrong. Indeed, if there is no free will can we even say that concepts of right and wrong have any meaning?  So, denying free will leads to the denying of morality. You can build it up but it is built on sand because it is rooted in convenience rather than truth.

Whether or not we have free will depends on whether or not we have true individuality or only the appearance of such formed out of experience, memory and so on. As with the existence of God, I suspect this is not something that can be proved to the full satisfaction of a doubting intellect, and that is because it is a metaphysical thing. For individuality does not belong to the world of phenomena and 'things' but to the inner world of qualities and meaning. Theoretically free will can be reduced to an effect of material causes but that truly is to reduce it and to leave out much about it and us that doesn't fit into that particular box. Specifically it is to leave out the element of freedom which is just dismissed as illusionary. So you can’t prove free will to the rational mind any more than you can prove God, and you may choose to disbelieve in it. However that very choice is the act of free will. You may claim that your choice is predetermined by your past, and some of it may well be, but a creature without free will would not be capable of seeing that there is a choice to be made. The simple fact that a creature can ask itself, “Do I or do I not have free will?” shows that it does (to a limited degree). If it did not, it would not even be able to grasp the concept of what free will might be.

So, to answer your question, I do believe in free will. Of course, it is not completely free because whatever we choose will inevitably be influenced by our past, by what we might have experienced and by our point of understanding at the present time. Nevertheless in any given circumstance where there is a question of moral right or wrong there is always an element in us that knows the truth and can incline us towards it. This part of us, call it soul, call it conscience, knows what we ought to do, and we can choose either to listen to or ignore it. That is where free will comes in.

Q. But from the point of view of non-duality isn't free will an illusion to be seen through when we see there is no self?

A. You're confusing the personal will, that can choose to go with the flow of life or against it, with the free will of a Master that is perfectly conformed to reality. His individual will is now one with Divine Will but that does not mean it does not exist. It does exist, in fact it must exist because without it he could not know the enlightened state. That is to say, he could not consciously know himself to be one with God. His will is not separate from God's but remains as a means through which he can serve and magnify God.

But even if free will did not exist for a Master (who, by the way, still has a self just not the sense of a separate self), that has no bearing on whether an ordinary person in this world now has free will. For even if you want to say that free will is redundant in absolute terms when identification with the separate self has ceased you could never reach that state without making the right conscious choices, i.e. exercising your free will. That does not mean that free will is capable of taking you there but it is, correctly co-ordinated, capable of taking you to the point where divine grace can operate.

Q. I asked this question because I read a book that said that free will is unreal because the self is unreal and the seeing of that fact is liberation.

A. At best, that's a half truth. First of all, there is nothing unreal in the phenomenal universe. Everything has its own kind of reality on its own level. All that is unreal are the mental projections we impose on reality, one of which being that there is no reality at all to the phenomenal world. So individuals are real, in their own way, which means that free will is too, in its own way.

I am not claiming that free will is absolute. It operates within a limited sphere but within that sphere it does exist. The author of your book is conflating absolute and relative levels, and using the fact of the absolute to deny the relative any kind of reality at all. But the relative, hence the individual and hence free will, is perfectly real. It’s just not absolutely so.  He is also equating individual identity with the separate self, but the two are not the same at all as can be seen by the fact that all realized beings still have an individual identity even if that is no longer the centre of their being.

God created Man with free will. That was the very purpose of this creation. In order that Man might add to the glory of life, and also for the full expression of divine love. Our free will must eventually be surrendered back to God of our own accord if we are grow in the spiritual way intended for us but even then it remains as the means through which God, Divine Life, continues to be expressed ever more abundantly in joy, love and creativity.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

How to Stay Spiritual in a Materialistic World

This is a question from a young man who wants to explore the spiritual path but finds obstacles placed in his way from those close to him who reject his new found ideas as impractical and escapist. Some of us may have encountered something similar.

Q. I have been interested in spirituality for some time now but whenever I try to discuss spiritual matters with my friends or family they just laugh and tell me I'm wandering off into fantasy and wish fulfillment. I get depressed by this. It's hard to pursue any kind of spiritual life when surrounded by scoffers and non-believers. Have you any advice?

A. I sympathise with your problem which, I would guess, is not uncommon in today’s largely unbelieving world. It is difficult to hold fast to spiritual convictions, never mind put them into practice, when it seems that the whole world is against you. I remember when I was starting out on this path I encountered a similar reaction and resistance, and that was from people who cared for me. I still regularly mix with people who would regard a serious interest in spirituality as odd, if not deluded. But you just have to be true to yourself and not worry about what anyone else might say. Don’t retreat into a proud superiority that looks down on those who disagree with you, thinking them unenlightened and ignorant. But don’t let them deter you from doing what you feel to be right. You might even regard it as some kind of test that examines the depth of your commitment.  If you express your beliefs and are met with a lack of understanding, disagreement or even ridicule then just keep your own counsel, and don’t pursue the matter unless an opportunity presents itself.

This addresses one aspect of the problem, your reaction when the ideas you believe in are dismissed. The other difficulty is how to lead a spiritually purposeful life when your external surroundings, friends and family all conspire against that. Prayer and meditation can be engaged in, to an extent, in an environment that is unhelpful or even hostile to them, but there may come a time when, if you want to deepen your practice, you will have to remove yourself from that environment and find one that is more congenial to spiritual endeavour. Theoretically, of course, one should be able to maintain spiritual focus anywhere and under any conditions, but when we are putting down roots it does help if external conditions are supportive rather than obstructive or even antagonistic. But if that's not possible then the advice to ‘be in the world but not of it’ should be heeded. 

Here's a suggestion as to how you might deal with people who dismiss your ideas about spirituality as self-indulgent, naive or ignorant, all of which are common ways of belittling such ideas. Remind them (courteously, of course) that they are simply expressing their opinions, and opinions are often based on preconceptions, limited knowledge and obedience to the orthodoxies of the day. If they counter that their opinions are based on fact while yours are merely wish fulfillment, you could say that, even if they are based on fact, the facts they are taking as real are simply those operating at one level of reality while you are acknowledging higher levels which include but go beyond the material or physical level. They are being very selective in their choice of facts and ignoring (or just not knowing about) those that do not agree with their already formed opinion and/or prejudice. Don't forget that while some people are actively against any form of spirituality, others are just under the sway of the modern world and its materialistic bias. These latter might be more open to what you have to say

I think the best approach for you to adopt in these challenging situations is to realise that we live in times when those who would hold fast to the truth are being tested. The quality of your commitment, your courage and steadfastness, are being examined. Can you be true to your beliefs when your views are not taken seriously, and the world frequently denies the reality or distorts the nature of everything that seems to you good and holy? Can you live in the light while not disdaining those who do not because they are led astray by worldly forces? Speak out against falsehood but do not condemn those who are the victims of falsehood. That is not your responsibility. You are here to live the truth and be an example of righteousness, if you’ll forgive the use of such an old fashioned word which, nevertheless, has a meaning not found elsewhere.

So, it can be a hard time for those who wish to live spiritually but, paradoxically, it can also be a time when we can best learn detachment from this world; never giving up on it or allowing ourselves to hate it but not identifying with it or falling for its 'wisdom' either. When the world is in ruins (from the inward perspective) it is easier to put all one's faith in God. Today the powers of this world are being allowed full freedom and I don't think we can defeat them outwardly. But we can proclaim the truth and give as many souls as possible the chance to escape these powers. That is your opportunity now. If you flag in the attempt remember the example of the sufferings endured by Christ. The victory was eventually his and it will be yours too if you can display a fraction of his love, patience and humility.