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August 27, 2023


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Bree talks about: - “Giving up the illusion of agency implies rejoining the natural world, or more accurately, recognizing that, despite our dreams of divine status, we have never been parted from it.” This sounds eminently sensible, not only to the question of agency but to the vast amount of abstract concepts that permeate our thinking.

It would appear that the thoughts, ideas and opinions that arise in us consist of perceptions that were laid down in our past through exposure to various experiences and influences. Other than practical matters where we draw upon past information to address a plan of action – whether that is to build a bridge, prepare a meal, or plant a shrub in the garden – all other thoughts fall into the category of subjective opinions.

It appears we spend a vast amount of time and mental energy suffused by the type of abstract thinking where thoughts and views espoused are subjective, and are peculiar to the individual who holds them. Nothing wrong with a few abstract thoughts, a bit of harmless day-dreaming is fun and relaxing, but sadly, where many abstract thoughts are believed to represent reality then the schism between what is real and natural and what is un-natural may have the effect of divorcing us, not only to the natural world but to our own natures and the reality thereof.

I don't know what to make of this idea that a "person" is somehow different from an "agent," Or that mistakes "just happen."

I can understand how the environment can play a part in how I react. For example, I once heard Ajahn Amaro's talk about how pre-monsoon weather affected all the monks' moods. The hotter and more humid it got, everyone tended to be edgy.

I noticed this very thing when I visited Asia. I'd enter the country feeling very serene and full of benevolence, but within no time the heat and the crush of people on the city streets would play havoc with my lofty ideals of serenity. And so, I agree that environment, the time of day, diet, etc can have a marked effect on how "I" am.

No doubt environment has a large impact on the health of a society. I'm talking about cultures within a society. We can see that some cultures have demonstrably positive characteristics of strong family ties, industry, respect for education, and civil order. We have other cultures that do not share those qualities. The people of these cultures are generally responsible for most of the crimes (hurting other people). The solution to this problem isn't to forgo punitive action because these criminals came from a problem culture/environment. Rather, the solution is to change the culture by holding each person accountable for the harm they do, and not reward them for it.

This idea of morality being an illusion is something I don't agree with at all. Yes, self-recrimination can be overdone, but zero recrimination isn't a healthy ideal. The Manson family is an example of why. Manson drilled his followers into believing that all social mores were a false construct.

The entire movement to empower all people is a movement to establish voice and agency personally, individually.

Not erase it.

Whatever helps you sleep at night…

Let’s brush up on the basics, shall we:

“On the benefits front, Breer persuasively argues that without a belief in free will, blame, regret, and pride naturally fall away.”

Ah, I’d been waiting for you to get to this, Brian. The “strategies” part of it.

Here’s my thoughts about what I read here. While appreciative of Breer’s overall work, obviously, but I’m afraid my thoughts around what I’m seeing here are …well, kind of critical?

I’ll briefly mention what all I find just a bit off here, in the first section. And dwell at some length on my major …doubt, issue, about this business, in the subsequent section, that I’ll be grateful if you can resolve, either basis what Breer’s said elsewhere in the book, else basis your own thoughts about this.


First, those little quibbles, in very brief:

(1) I’m not sure I’m onboard with this conflation of free will with agency. We’ve discussed this before --- you have, at length, and I have as well --- but I tend to see agency as a function of complexity; and while agreeing fully that there’s no free will, I’m afraid I don’t see that as necessarily meaning that there’s no agency. …But not to beat this to death, this oft-discussed matter, because, like I’d said, I’d rather focus on what I’m going to say in the next section.

(2) Is this all there is to Breer’s “strategies”? Or is there more coming? If this was just a short portion from what you’ve read so far, and there’s more coming on later, then I’m all ears! But if this is all there is, if this is all those “strategies” amount to, then I’m afraid I find this …underwhelming!

(3) Again, without going into too much detail about any of the points I’m raising in this section, merely touching on them is all, but I don’t see that regret etc will necessarily drop off merely by recognition of personhood as opposed to self-hood. If the “person” isn’t an agency, but is nevertheless given to putting innocents into gas chambers, or killing random children, or committing race crimes, then I’d say that “person” is completely dysfunctional; and if shame and regret are to have any meaning at all, then shame and regret would --- or should! --- apply that person-hood. And of course, while those are extreme examples, but what applies to those enormities, would also apply, although in an appropriately lesser degree, to lesser evils perpetrated, lesser wrongs committed --- should such have been committed at all. That is, I don’t see regret dropping away spontaneously merely on intellectual appreciation of the no-free-will idea.

(4) Kind of in continuation with the above, I don’t think it’s …right, desirable, that regret should drop off, not unless there’s been a complete overhaul of personality. (Above I’d argued that mere intellectual appreciation of no-free-will probably won’t cause regret to drop off; here I’m arguing that it would be wrong, dysfunctional, should that happen, absent a complete overhaul of personality.) The account of Angulimala and the Buddha comes to mind here: it is only when Angulimala’s personality was completely overhauled, and he literally became a different “person”, that the Buddha absolved him of his past crimes. (And this assumes that such overhaul of personality, taken for granted in both Theravada and Vajrayana, is actually a thing! To be fair, Chandaria also supports this view, but still, I’m not throwing away my pinch of salt yet, as far as that. But even if this were actually a thing, nevertheless, short of such complete overhaul of personality actually happening, I’m saying it would be wrong, dysfunctional, for an Angulimala, or a Hitler, to give up on regret for their crimes --- and in appropriately lesser degree of regret for lesser wrongs, for the rest of us as well.)

(Like I said, I’m only touching, lightly, on these points I've raised above. What I’d like to focus on is #5, below. And that is the part that I’m hoping to see some kind of resolution to, if Breer has touched on it --- or if you’ve come across anything relevant elsewhere in all that you’ve read in the no-free-will literature.)


(5) Should blame, regret, pride, and the rest of it, actually fall away on understanding of no-free-will (or no-agency, as the case may be); then along with those ceasing to operate for past acts, won’t they also fall away in the present as well, and indeed in the future, and won’t the motivation for a great deal of what we do simply evaporate away then?

This is a question that has troubled me, as far as these things; and I think I’ve discussed this here, more than once I think. And in context of what Breer says, I see this coming to the fore again.

If truly we manage to extinguish regret et cetera for past acts; then surely we’ll also see the futility of regret for things we don’t do in the present; and won’t that snuff out the whole …the whole rationale, the whole motivation, for a great deal of what we do?

Most of us spend our lives doing lots of things that are …very involved, often very complex, and that need a certain …driven-ness to do. Once we realize we’re merely an agency-free entity, in fact not even an entity, then why would we push ourselves to do all those things that are …distasteful to us, but that still need to get done, not just as a one-off but day in and day out, as part of how we live our modern lives? (“Distasteful” not in the sense of actually hating those things, because those we’d probably be better off not doing at all; but “distasteful” in the sense that if it were all the same, well then most people that are thinking straight probably won’t want the endless hassle of being …investment bankers, for instance, or …well, whatever else?)

We’d probably continue to “draw water, chop wood”. Those simple tasks that don’t make too much demand on the mind, and that are necessary for simple survival: that, yes, sure. But beyond that? We’ll probably not actually harm anyone, sure; but why would we go out of our way to do the whole million-and-one things that keep the modern world ticking? Wouldn’t we simply withdraw from all of it, as the Buddha himself had done? (Not saying we’d necessarily become monks! But wouldn’t we then withdraw to a much simpler existence, than the frantic engagement that modern life, and “success”, demands? And while if everyone did withdraw into a simpler existence, then I suppose in many ways the world would be a better place; but the complex modern world of ours, that runs on the frenetic engagement of millions and billions, would then cease to be!)

Do let us know, Brian, if any resolution to this occurs to you, basis what you’ve read of Breer (or elsewhere).

“We surrender to a higher power when we no longer believe in free will”

“a surrendering of control to a higher power plays the key role in most conversion experiences, the specific object of that surrender being secondary. While in our culture it is God to whom we usually relinquish our power ("Not my but Thy will be done"), it could just as easily be Circumstance or Causal Necessity or Chance”

“When we give up straining either to bend the world to our will or to prevent it from taking away the things we love, we can experience what it is like to live in that world. Because our wishes are less urgent and our efforts less violent, we no longer feel pitted against the world.”


Right, that does address my #5, straight and square.

I’d asked how one might, given one’s lack of “regret” for past actions (or regret for lack of such), find within oneself the motivation for the frantic engagement that is often necessitated in pursuits that are not in and of themselves meaningful and fulfilling (outside of the rewards they bring, that is to say). And clearly the answer to that, that Paul Breer provides, is that one does not. One gives up on that frantic engagement, is what he’s clearly saying here, in the portions I’ve quoted, even if not in those exact words. Unless of course that engagement, frantic or not, happens to draw one in and fulfil one, in and of itself, in the present moment and without reference to future outcomes; else one simply does not.

Fair enough. That does answer my question. Thank you, Brian!


I do have some further follow-ons, that I’ll post here when I have the time to sit down, and to collect my thoughts, and to (try to!) clearly put them down here. (And I’ll do that in the new thread, under your current post, instead of here.)

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