Just to polish up my enlightened state of being, which already was at a very high stage after listening to a guided "Daily Calm" meditation on my iPhone's Calm app for the last couple of years, about a week ago I decided to download Sam Harris' "Waking Up" app.
But after listening to the Free Will - Part One talk, I'm now convinced that the reason I just gave for getting the Waking Up app almost certainly isn't what caused me to do this.
Which isn't really a surprise, since I've been fascinated by the notion of free will, especially the lack thereof, for a long time. You can use the Google search box in this blog's right sidebar to find my many posts on this subject (just type in "free will" and choose the HinesSight button).
Harris started out by saying that the illusion of free will is itself an illusion. Meaning, while it often is said that we humans have the illusion of free will, Harris claims that we really have no reason to believe in that illusion.
To provide some experiential evidence of this, in his Waking Up talk Harris asked the listener (me, in this case) to think of a movie that I'd seen. Almost instantly, "Crazy Rich Asians" popped into my head. My wife and I had seen this movie recently. I'd liked it a lot.
Then Harris asked the listener to think of two additional movies, one at a time, which I did. One was "Goldfinger," a movie I saw four times when I was in high school. Guess I had James Bond fantasies back then.
The operative word in what I just said is "guess," because Harris then correctly said that when the thought of a movie title appeared in my mind, there wasn't any conscious volition involved. I didn't think, "Now, what movie should I pick, and how should I go about picking it?"
Instead, the names of three movies simply appeared. Which shows that my brain was coming up with the movie titles on its own, outside of my conscious awareness, not via free will.
I found a You Tube video where Sam Harris has an audience he's speaking to go through this exercise, with a similar sort of commentary as in the Waking Up app. See:
Now, what has this to do with religion, mysticism, or spirituality? That's a great question I just asked of myself. Here's some brief responses.
For one thing, it shows that when people try to explain why they believe in God, follow a certain religion, or whatever, there's little reason to accept that their answer is the true explanation. In fact, it's probably impossible to ever accurately determine why somebody did something, or believed something, or thought something.
The human brain is hugely complex, and way beyond our capacity to comprehend.
Especially our own brain, since that brain is us, and we have no vantage point to study it from the outside. Harris seems to be on the right track when he says that all we're capable of is being aware of what arises in our consciousness -- not how it came to be there.
At the end of the video above, Harris (a philosophical neuroscientist) says that one of the best-proven facts in psychology is that people are terrible at offering up reasons for why they did something. We're addicted to explanations, so give reasons for our actions even when those reasons are demonstrably wrong.
This is humbling.
Which is great, since most of can use an extra dose of humility. Sure, we're not going to stop explaining to ourselves and others why we do what we do, but we can take ourselves less seriously (and less surely) once we understand how our brain works, and why free will is an illusion.
Lastly, and I've talked about this in previous blog posts, giving up a belief in free will should make us more compassionate and less judgmental.
When we believe that someone (which includes ourself) could have done something other than what they actually did, this lays a foundation for negativity: anger, resentment, desire for punishment or retribution, disdain, disgust (I'm assuming here that what was done wasn't good, or at least didn't appear to be good).
Understand: giving up a belief in free will doesn't mean that we accept murder, rape, and other sorts of bad behavior. It simply means that just as we aren't able to control what pops into our head when asked to think of a movie we've seen, people also aren't able to control how they act toward others.
So we need to protect society from criminals, while not viewing them as "evil." That word makes no sense if free will is an illusion. (It also makes no sense if free will isn't an illusion.)