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April 24, 2016


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Well, the Buddha nailed it :)

Things are not what they appear to be: nor are they otherwise.

The greatest wisdom is seeing through appearances.

"Seeing through appearances," may involve the "free will" of mind. However, the issue of "free will" comes up again. In the absence of free will, one is just creating another type of appearance. This isn't the greatest of wisdom, but the common and ordinary.

Have you seen this Brian, an atlas of the brain...


Thanks Brian for putting me on to Paul Singh's book 'The Great Illusion'. I first started looking into this question of free will, self and consciousness over fifty years ago. Then only a few (mostly philosophers) were interested in the subject.

Not that it's at all scientific but I was helped in my quest by critical self observation - a sort of meditation. It's good these days to see that science is making great strides in the brain sciences making what was my own thinking tinged (with inputs from the likes of Alan Watts and some eastern philosophies) into a solid science.

I can now see a time coming when the understanding that free will, consciousness and the self are purely brain processes and that this knowledge may allow us to be more compassionate and understanding toward one another in the sense of not condemning people for being what they are.

Of course, there will always be a few diehards bolstered by 'self' maintain beliefs just as there were those who refused to accept the evidence of our place in the universe and today who refuse the evidence of evolution.

The many studies and publications of neuroscience over the past few years have been most enlightening - although I must say that Paul Singh's book gathers the whole science into a very readable and accessible publication for the layman.

And we are perfect capable to hear and fall in Love with His Song and even more without seeing Him Yet


Strumming my pain with his fingers
Singing my life with his words
Killing me softly with his song
Killing me softly with his song
Telling my whole life with his words
Killing me softly with his song………..

BTW but subjective hihi >> Great Guitar Solo 02:50

Brian, on reading and re-reading this particular post of yours, it seems to me that this confusion about the no-free-will idea (on my part I mean) is basically one of semantics, rather than something more fundamental. Possibly we’re thinking the same things, but saying them differently.


Take that spider-web analogy (humans as spider-web I mean ; forget, for now, the second analogy of the web as representing the entire cosmos, to avoid derailing the discussion). As you rightly point out, people have imagined over the ages that there’s some spider over there near the web, when actually there isn’t. The analogy refers obviously to the idea of a self removed from our body-mind-whatever-else-we’ve-got complex. True. However -- and this is crucial -- nor does it mean that there’s NOTHING there. The fact is, this spider-web itself is conscious. Conscious, and sentient, imbued with a sense of self all its own. Let’s not forget that!

The analogy of center of gravity is, in this sense, a bit misleading : Every physical body that we encounter in our everyday life, without exception, has a center of gravity. In that sense, in the sense that it is ubiquitous, the fact that physical bodies have a center of gravity is trivial, tautological as it were. That, however, is not the case with a sense of self. A sense of self is not ubiquitous. It is “special”, in the sense that not every phenomenon that we encounter, not every spider-web we see, has a sense of self. Correct? Possibly transient though it be, and possibly arising from (and dying with) our body-mind complex, and possibly no more than a mechanism that we’ve evolved over the years, nevertheless we (human beings) do have a sense of self. That is probably not true (as far as I know) for a bacterium or an individual virus. And it is most certainly not true for a typhoon or a gale or a mountain or a planet or a star (not unless one subscribes to some exotic pantheistic theology).

In some way that does set us apart, doesn’t it? That particular spider-web you’ve drawn there in the middle of your article, it’s alive, conscious, sentient, and possesses a sense of self! And that very fact sets it apart (not in the sense of “higher”, but in the sense of “different”, and also in the sense of “more evolved” and “more complex”) from other spider-webs (like plants, like bacteria, as well as typhoons) that do not possess these characteristics.

In overturning the nonsensical religious ideas (that there MUST be some transcendental self out there), we must not go the other extreme and claim that there is no self at all. Far more limited than hitherto imagined, we nevertheless most certainly do have a sense of self. This sense of self is not an illusion, it is real. Just like pain is real. Just as pleasure is real. Just as happiness is real, and sadness is real. You’re saying (implying here, and you’ve explicitly said it elsewhere) that our sense of self is only illusory ; and I’m saying our sense of self, even if it is NOT transcendental or eternal, is nevertheless very much real. (This could be where one veers off in a discussion on what is real and what is not real, on what is illusory and what is not illusory.)

And it seems to me that perhaps we don’t really disagree, you and I, about the substance of what we’re talking about. Perhaps our apparent difference in opinion is no more than one of semantics (in that I may have misunderstood what I imagined was your deeper meaning, beyond your words). Would you agree?

Although of course, at a practical level, this goes way beyond semantics. If we’re agreed on the fundamentals of the issue, then, semantics notwithstanding, we’ll probably agree on the practical fallouts of this position as well. Here’s one such fallout, for example. Once we recognize the sanctity (using that word in a purely non-religious sense) of a sense of self, and of sentience (wholly transitory and based on our body-mind complex though such sense of self and such sentience be), then using a hammer to break a break a large stone becomes very different from using a hammer to break the skull of a living conscious human being. Firing a missile to disintegrate a meteor that may perhaps crash on earth becomes a very different matter from firing a missile to disintegrate whole villages that may perhaps house (or hide) people who may one day end up crashing planes in our cities. In this scheme of things, eating plants is less violent (and therefore, in one sense, “better”) than eating animals -- and of course, the “worst” of all is eating another human being, no matter how tasty human liver or brain or tongue or heart or thigh-flesh might be, no matter how filled with beneficient proteins human bone marrows may be. (I’m using the words “good”, “bad”, “worst” here in a purely ethical, or even esthetic sense, as opposed to some religious or moral sense.) To treat animals as “livestock” is as brutish (although I suppose lower down the scale of brutishness, but of the same quality) and as reprehensible as to treat human beings as slaves. And the same can be said, at a subtler lever, a level that is easily encountered in our daily life today : in this scheme of things, it is wrong to look at another sense-of-self-imbued human being or animal as merely some creature whom we may physically or socially exploit for our own advantage irrespective of what they (that other person, or that other animal) may feel about it. Knowing that another being has a sense of self means that, if you have any sense of right and wrong at all, you will try, as far as possible, to grant them the same freedom that you yourself know is necessary for your own happiness.



Again semantics, or so it seems to me. (I mean the difference between what you say and what I perceive, and the reason why I find myself unable to agree with your apparent position on free will, is probably one of semantics.)

Generally when people talk of free will, they implicitly assume some free will outside of their body-mind complex, that (they further implicitly assume) ultimately comes from some sense of self that is outside of this body-mind complex. When you say “there is no free will”, it is this position that you’re actually negating. And I agree with this position (or at least, while I don’t myself strongly assert, unlike you, that this is indeed so ; but I freely grant that this would be the default position, and that to overturn this default position we’d need definite proof to the contrary).

Take the spider-web whose mugshot is sitting there in the middle of your article, and which represents us (human beings). This particular spider-web does have a sense of self, we’re agreed on that, right? So why on earth should we deny the obvious fact that this animated spider-web also has free will (or at least, “partial free will”)? No, there is no spider, only the spider web ; and the spider-web is a fragile and wholly transient phenomenon that will one day cease to be ; but for all that, it does have a sense of self, and it does have a limited free will.

In talking a sense of self, it helps to bring home the point by contrasting human beings (as well as tigers and dogs) with a typhoon or a mountain or a bacterium or (as far as we know) a plant. But when we talk of free will, we move to a somewhat more rarefied level. Both the tiger and the human being possess a sense of self ; however, the tiger does NOT possess free will, while the human being does (or at least, to be more precise, the tiger possess very much less of free will than the human being does). And the more evolved human being generally has far greater free will than a child, for example, or a brutish person. This much seems obvious enough, are we agreed thus far?

It seems, then, that where I was making a mistake in understanding you (and in conveying to you what I was thinking) was in using the term “free will” differently from how you meant it. All I mean by the term “free will”, all I mean in saying that we human beings have “(partial) free will”, is that we have far greater options to choose from in deciding how we will act (more than, for instance, a child, or a tiger, or a plant, or a mountain, or a typhoon).

If you agree with what I’ve said thus far, then I do understand you fully, and agree with you fully. Just in case you don’t agree, can you please point out where I seem to have got it wrong?



There’s this story from the life of Buddha. He was walking along with his side-kick Ananda one morning, when a mosquito bites him (the Buddha) on his arm. So what he does is swat at the mosquito with his other hand. And then he suddenly sits down, right there by the side of the road, to meditate. So Ananda asks him, when the Buddha gets up again after ten minutes and calmly resumes walking, what that was all about. And the Buddha tells him : In swatting at that mosquito unawares, I’d sinned, and I needed to make reparation for my sin.

I’m recounting this story from memory, and I may have got the details wrong. The story is NOT about non-violence against mosquitoes, or about denying mosquitoes one’s blood as food (or about some exotic karmic theory of sin). The point of the story very simple : Basically the Buddha, who was generally very “aware”, at the moment of being bitten by the mosquito he simply reacted. In the three-box Stephen Covey model that I’d mentioned earlier, his “gap”, his “proactivity”, had evaporated away. He had simply reacted like an automaton in swatting that mosquito. We could say : he’d inadvertently ended up relinquishing his free will, and so he sat down to meditate in order to reclaim that level of awareness, to reclaim that level of free will, so that next time the mosquito landed on him and bit him, he’d OBSERVE the mosquito doing its stuff, and then consciously decide whether he wanted to kill the pest, or drive it away, or let it continue with its breakfast.

Not that I’m holding that kind of extreme and Buddha-ic awareness as necessarily something “good”, I’m using this story only to illustrate my meaning, the sense in which I’m saying we have (partial) free will. Partial, even here, because obviously the Buddha couldn’t have willed something his body-mind complex couldn’t have let him, for instance he couldn’t have willed the mosquito to suddenly turn into a butterfly.

In this sense I say, the Buddha had more free will than an ordinary everyday mortal like me. And I myself have more free will today than I did ten years ago (and very much more than I had when I was a child). And the average human being has more free will than the average tiger, and more free will than a typhoon. And in order to have “more free will” than something, we necessarily need to have SOME free will, right? (If we have none at all, then there is no question of degree. There can be no question of more or less of something that doesn’t exist at all.)

That is the sense in which I hold that we have (partial) free will. It is actually a very trivial, commonplace, and ordinary point of view, with nothing religious about it at all, and nor do I find (as far as I can make out) that current neurological/medical/brain-science advances (as you’ve described them) in any way detract from this ordinary point of view.

And I’m guessing you agree with me, and that my earlier misunderstanding of your position was only a question of semantics. Am I right in thinking of all of this in this way?

Brian You make very logical arguments for the materialistic thinking. Until you find yourself out of the body such as this gentle soul. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xsbtdT2FOdQ

"All I mean by the term “free will”, all I mean in saying that we human beings have “(partial) free will”, is that we have far greater options to choose from in deciding how we will act (more than, for instance, a child, or a tiger, or a plant, or a mountain, or a typhoon)."

---this could be a description of the Freedom to Choose. The freedom to choose is not free will, in my opinion. There could be brief moments of free will, or partial free will. Additional work needs to be done on the definition of free will. Again, my opinion.

Could you expand on that thought, Andrew? How would you say do those terms differ? It might be easier for me to understand if you could simply spell out, define, what the terms "freedom to choose" and "free will" mean, exactly, to you.

Thanks AP,

Say, I go to a car dealership and want to purchase a pickup truck. The selection at the dealership is a pink, red, blue, purple/green strips, and a black one. In mind, I have the freedom to choose any one of those colors. Nothing is stopping me to choose and purchase any one of those vehicles. So, I have the freedom to choose. However, during the selection process, in mind, I keep rejecting the pink one. I some how am drawn to the blue one. I think and study the issue, but will not go with the pink or green(with purple strips) pickup. I have the freedom to choose the pink, but keep going back to the blue colored pickup. I have the freedom to choose, with an absence of free will. That said, AP----what do you think free will is? Where is the absence or partial absence of free will in my selection process. What is it about my genetic, environment, memory, etc. that is avoiding the pink truck? Finally, there is nothing wrong with the color pink, just an example.

I suppose I'd say, Andrew, that your de facto freedom of choice, in the scenario you describe above, would be limited to buying either a red truck or a blue truck (even though your theoretical freedom of choice would encompass all four colors). And I'd describe your de facto freedom of choice as your (partial) free will. To me the two terms appear synonymous.

Let me emphasize that those are merely "my" terms, how I myself see those terms. The "official" meanings, that is, the meaning that serious writers and thinkers on this subject (including Brian) vest on to those terms, that is something I am ignorant about. A spot of googling can remedy that ignorance easily enough I guess, and perhaps I will try it out one of these days.

Incidentally, in your pick-up truck scenario, if you were a more generally aware person (either by nature, or because you were generally more introspective that day, or because you'd started examining your inner self via either mediation or psycho-therapy or simple unstructured introspection, then I suppose your choices could increase to include the following options, (options that were earlier not available to you), over and above the two basic options of getting either the red or the blue :
1. You postpone your buying until you've seen the choices available at some other shops.
2. You re-examine your purchase decision to see if some other vehicle might not serve you better.
3. You re-examine your purchase decision to see if you can do without a new vehicle of any description. (Rent a truck, perhaps ; or perhaps hire somebody who already owns a truck.)
4. You probe within to see what it is that makes you dislike the pink, and see if you might not overcome that instinctive dislike given advantages (like, perhaps, a lower price for that color, or whatever).

(etc, etc)

The more your DE FACTO freedom of choice, the better off you are, I suppose, at least as long as you don't get stuck with all your choices and don't inordinately delay a relatively trivial choice. And the greater, I would say, your (partial) free will (as regards this particular issue).

Your partial free will (or your partial freedom of choice, if you will) will never be unlimited, will never be other than partial ; and nor will it ever be zero, as long as you remain conscious and in possession of your senses (barring externals like, for example not having the money to buy anything at all ; but that would then give rise to other options, and we'd then be discussing a different scenario than the one you've described).

I have to confess, this "no free will" business makes no sense to me at all. (As I've said before. Perhaps because I'm mistaking the sense in which Brian says we have no free will.)

I don't think I'll hog the comments space any more, and let this go for now (a later reading sometimes clears up stuff that earlier seemed difficult to understand), but I'm sure I'll enjoy reading any further thoughts you might have on this.

I disagree.
You are the spider
the web is your mind/subconscious
as nde..dmt...obe proves

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