My atheist mind goes back and forth between Taoism and Buddhism when I try to decide which secular version of these philosophies appeals the most to me.
Since I'm heavy into Tai Chi, which basically is Taoism expressed in human movement, I've got an inclination in that direction. Taoism also resonates with me because its writings often are considerably less serious than the Buddhist variety.
In large part this is because Taoism really doesn't have anything comparable to Buddhism's enlightenment or satori. Nor does Taoism have dogmas akin to the Four Noble Truths. Its a lot more free-flowing, unstructured, and light-hearted.
(Yes, I realize that Zen Buddhism has many humorous stories in its lexicon, but these often involve not-so-funny stuff like being hit over the head with a stick, and the fact that the point of the stories is Serious Enlightenment gives them a heavier tone than, say, those attributed to Chuang Tzu.)
In fact, I just noticed that the first "here" link deals with the same subject in Smullyan's book -- free will -- that enthralled me so much again today.
Oh, well. Since I just re-read the Is God a Taoist? chapter, I guess it is fitting that I'm re-writing a post about how free will is discussed in that chapter.
In short, marvelously.
What I like the most about Smullyan's writing is that sometimes, like this time, it leaves me baffled. Meaning, I can follow him up to a point. Then he leaps over a conceptual edge that has me staring over the cliff, wondering where the hell he disappeared to.
That was the feeling I had this morning after I read the excerpt below.
Which I thankfully was able to copy from someone who shared the entire Is God a Taoist? chapter on one of those wonderful web pages that look like they date from close to the dawn of the Internet. Since "The Tao is Silent" was published in 1977, that isn't surprising in this case.
What perplexed the logical side of my mind was Smullyan's final statement in this excerpt: "A conscious being without free will is simply a metaphysical absurdity."
I sort of get what he means. And I sort of dou't.
Maybe he means that every conscious being is going to feel like it/he/she has free will. Or maybe he means that the freedom in free will arises from the fact, as Smullyan says before, that "you" and "nature" are a continuous whole, so the question of whether we control nature or nature controls us is moot.
(This makes me think of Janis Joplin's freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose. However, since I actually have no idea what Joplin meant by this, it's difficult to use that lyric as an explanation for what Smullyan means by what he said.)
Anyway, here's the excerpt from Smullyan's book that I enjoyed re-reading so much. Again, I liked this not because I could completely comprehend what he meant, but because I couldn't.
I don't know. Do I have free will?
Then why did you say I shouldn't have taken it for granted?
Because you shouldn't. Just because something happens to be true, it does not follow that it should be taken for granted.
Anyway, it is reassuring to know that my natural intuition about having free will is correct. Sometimes I have been worried that determinists are correct.
They are correct.
Wait a minute now, do I have free will or don't I?
I already told you you do. But that does not mean that determinism is incorrect.
Well, are my acts determined by the laws of nature or aren't they?
The word determined here is subtly but powerfully misleading and has contributed so much to the confusions of the free will versus determinism controversies. Your acts are certainly in accordance with the laws of nature, but to say they are determined by the laws of nature creates a totally misleading psychological image which is that your will could somehow be in conflict with the laws of nature and that the latter is somehow more powerful than you, and could "determine" your acts whether you liked it or not. But it is simply impossible for your will to ever conflict with natural law. You and natural law are really one and the same.
What do you mean that I cannot conflict with nature? Suppose I were to become very stubborn, and I determined not to obey the laws of nature. What could stop me? If I became sufficiently stubborn even you could not stop me!
You are absolutely right! I certainly could not stop you. Nothing could stop you. But there is no need to stop you, because you could not even start! As Goethe very beautifully expressed it, "In trying to oppose Nature, we are, in the very process of doing so, acting according to the laws of nature!" Don't you see that the so-called "laws of nature" are nothing more than a description of how in fact you and other beings do act? They are merely a description of how you act, not a prescription of how you should act, not a power or force which compels or determines your acts. To be valid a law of nature must take into account how in fact you do act, or, if you like, how you choose to act.
So you really claim that I am incapable of determining to act against natural law?
It is interesting that you have twice now used the phrase "determined to act" instead of "chosen to act." This identification is quite common. Often one uses the statement "I am determined to do this" synonymously with "I have chosen to do this." This very psychological identification should reveal that determinism and choice are much closer than they might appear. Of course, you might well say that the doctrine of free will says that it is you who are doing the determining, whereas the doctrine of determinism appears to say that your acts are determined by something apparently outside you.
But the confusion is largely caused by your bifurcation of reality into the "you" and the "not you." Really now, just where do you leave off and the rest of the universe begin? Or where does the rest of the universe leave off and you begin? Once you can see the so-called "you" and the so-called "nature" as a continuous whole, then you can never again be bothered by such questions as whether it is you who are controlling nature or nature who is controlling you.
Thus the muddle of free will versus determinism will vanish. If I may use a crude analogy, imagine two bodies moving toward each other by virtue of gravitational attraction. Each body, if sentient, might wonder whether it is he or the other fellow who is exerting the "force." In a way it is both, in a way it is neither. It is best to say that it is the configuration of the two which is crucial.
You said a short while ago that our whole discussion was based on a monstrous fallacy. You still have not told me what this fallacy is.
Why, the idea that I could possibly have created you without free will! You acted as if this were a genuine possibility, and wondered why I did not choose it! It never occurred to you that a sentient being without free will is no more conceivable than a physical object which exerts no gravitational attraction. (There is, incidentally, more analogy than you realize between a physical object exerting gravitational attraction and a sentient being exerting free will!)
Can you honestly even imagine a conscious being without free will? What on earth could it be like? I think that one thing in your life that has so misled you is your having been told that I gave man the gift of free will. As if I first created man, and then as an afterthought endowed him with the extra property of free will. Maybe you think I have some sort of "paint brush" with which I daub some creatures with free will and not others. No, free will is not an "extra"; it is part and parcel of the very essence of consciousness. A conscious being without free will is simply a metaphysical absurdity.