How well do you know your own mind? In typical Western thinking, we believe, at least to some extent, in free will: Our moral system is built on the idea that we have, to some extent, independent control over our own actions, whether this be in secular thinking, in which the human mind has some level of independence, or else with the concept of an immaterial soul, which may owe its allegiance to a higher power, but not to the external world. One of these two things, or possibly both, is what we tend to refer to when we use the first person: “I” or “me”. However, the evidence for free will is dwindling more and more as the scientific method becomes more prominent in the formation of our philosophies, and specifically as neuroscience and ontology advance as disciplines.
There does seem to be a clear distinction, if only internally, between involuntary action — reflexes, autonomic functions such as digestion and respiration, or compulsive thoughts symptomatic of anxiety — and voluntary action — physical activity we intend to engage in, thoughts we intend to ruminate upon. Most would agree that in defining the first person, we are defining the agent of voluntary action, whether physical or mental. Indeed, we tend to reflect this in language: We say “my heart is beating” or “my anxiety is getting the better of me”, but we would never say “my brain is going to think about work now” or “my arm is playing catch with my son”. The limiter for this is not the part of the body, but the action itself: “I” kick a ball, but “my leg” jumps when a nerve bundle is struck by a physician. We may say “I am anxious”, which blurs the line between the voluntary and involuntary — linguistically, the agentive and possessive. This apparent free variation in reference will be brought up later. However, based on this anecdotal and linguistic evidence, we may delineate a reasonably clear distinction between voluntary action — those actions controlled by what we claim to be free will — and involuntary action. While determinism generally refers to a more universal sort of predestination, here it will be used to describe the predetermination of cognition via causal events — to most thinking, the opposite of free will.
The common secular argument for free will is that the agent of voluntary action, from here in simply referred to as “I”, is the mind, a conscious mechanism in some form contained in the material brain — a material free will. As it stands, there is no existing evidence for such a mechanism; all neurological phenomena seem to be linked to stimuli external to the phenomena. That is, if a nerve is firing, it is because another nerve achieved an action potential prior to that firing, or else due to direct sensory stimuli, such as in pain or temperature receptors. Because all of these phenomena are fully and directly caused by physical events in the material world, ruled by the laws of physics, expressible in mathematical formats, it must therefore follow that the phenomena directly caused by those events are just as predictable.
The only limit to the predictive power we might exert on them is the sheer volume of causal events: Whereas a ball dropped can be predicted completely knowing only the force of gravity exerted upon it, and the air resistance it can be expected to encounter, in order to predict an individual’s thought (whose “I” is the material mind) we must know every thought of their previous day, perhaps the previous week, all of the genetic influences upon that person, their precise immediate environment, and all past social and environmental influences that have shaped their mental world since their conception.
Nevertheless, this failure for humans to find the capability to predict voluntary action does not nullify the theoretical predictability of voluntary action. There are many physical events that take place that we know are entirely predictable and material in nature even though we do not presently have the capability to predict them ourselves, such as stellar evolution. Just as we can presume that our sun will evolve into a red giant and eventually collapse, even if we don’t know the precise day, or whether Earth will be within its radius by this point; a person who has experienced attachment-related trauma as a child will likely develop attachment problems later in life, even if we cannot know the precise nature and severity of these problems.
An answer to the argument for determinism is the potential existence of randomness. One researcher has indicated that there are neurons that appear to fire randomly, without external stimuli, and he has suggested that this may be the basis of free will. Certainly, randomness means that the argument about theoretical predictability is no longer relevant, and others have used quantum theories about apparent randomness as well to indicate the same evidence against determinism. This is a false equivalency: Randomness does not equal free will any more than does theoretical predictability, if it cannot be shown to be tied to the will of the individual person. If anything, the will would be of the individual neurons or quantum particles! Unless evidence arises that an individual’s will can control the firing of these neurons, without any material causal event preceding the firing (ie, the intentions of the individual aren’t shown by other neural firing, causing the firing of these “random” neurons), it cannot be given as reasonable evidence for free will.
Indeed, we have seen quite the opposite, when applying neuroscience: studies have shown neural activity to precede conscious intention, rather than vice-versa. Subjects were given a decision-making task, and directed to indicate their decision as soon as it was made. Neural activity showed changes corresponding with the eventual decision several seconds before the subject themselves became conscious of it, to the extent that researchers could predict the decision before the subjects made it. Other studies have shown this preemptive neural activity to be present at times even several minutes before a decision.
This, I feel, is the strongest evidence for a materialistic determinism: it seems that rather than the conscious mind being the agentive cause for voluntary action, it is only responding to unconscious, physical stimuli, and then identifying certain complex actions with itself. While this seems like a sort of automatic self-delusion, potentially even detrimental, its use will be discussed later.
First, the other argument for free will must be addressed: If we identify “I” to be an immaterial soul, it is difficult to argue with, as the argument essentially becomes an argument of the existence of God — if a God exists within an individual person to command its voluntary actions, and is the essence of the first person. Sam Harris, a neurologist and prominent advocate for humanism and the absence of free will, has addressed this argument simply by refusing to allow the believer to identify the soul as “I”. I feel that this is a failure to first define free will, as has been done for this essay, and thus reeks of shifted goalposts. Because of the nature of the argument, and because its definition of the soul fits with the “voluntary agent” definition of free will and “I”, it does not seem that there can be a solid argument made against this ideological free will, any more than there can be made an argument against the existence of God. Certainly, holes can be poked in it: If one believes their soul to be essentially without sin, for instance, one can point to the innumerable sins people voluntarily commit, without coercion or remorse, but simply on a whim or for amusement, such as is the case with psychopaths. However, those believing in ideological free will can just as easily move goalposts, and the concept of a soul can be as anomalous as a “non-material entity responsible for free will that is referred to in the first person”. It needs no evidence, and offers none, and as a result, takes no argument; and therefore, is useless to consider in present discourse.
If we disregard arguments that are unassailable and thus indefensible, then, and retain a materialistic view at least of determinism and free will, we are left with the assertion that conscious thought and action is predetermined. However, some refer to an argument of compatibilism, asserting that determinism and free will can exist simultaneously. For example, that because one can have willpower and direct their behaviour against what they might normally engage in without exerting as much energy, such as breaking a habit, then that may be referred to as free will. Others have simply referred to consciousness and the ability to introspect as free will, even in the face of determinism. These, I feel, reflect a misunderstanding of what is meant by free will — once again, ineffectively defining it. Willpower and free will are linked, I would hazard, chiefly because of their phonological and etymological similarity in the English language. If “willpower” were replaced with its definition, being “energy exerted towards self-control exerted to do something or restrain impulses”, this easily fits within the definition of determinism — that ‘energy’ is just as causally linked to material phenomena as any other neurological event — and ceases to have anything to do with free will. Similarly, consciousness does not require free will; along with the evidence above that consciousness is a response to neural events, rather than vice-versa, we know anecdotally that we are conscious of many things, and able to introspect upon many things, that are not within our control, such as our anxiety.
This leads us nicely to the role of consciousness in a life without free will. While having a facet of ourselves telling us that it is in full, independent control of our volition when in truth it is only responding to unconscious neural events seems problematic in many different ways, the nature of this illusory free will — what it encompasses, and what it does not — might lead us to a better understanding of its purpose. We note that it chiefly only includes complex thoughts and actions. Thus, bile production, stress reactions, and fear of spiders (and spider-shaped things) are relatively simple, and thus appear to be out of our control; while playing the piano, having a conversation, and writing an essay about determinism are more complex, and seem to be within our free will. This is where the blurry line comes in, where we are conscious of something internal occurring, but we don’t feel capable of exerting control over it, especially with our emotions — hence, emotional language, we might equally say, “My anxiety is bad” or “I am anxious.” Even if we can’t always exert direct control over our emotions, they are still complex mental phenomena whose introspection may be considered adaptive. It therefore seems that the illusion of free will, and our consciousness indicating its capacity for control, exists at least partially to better organize the more complicated things in our internal lives.
More, though, it allows us to learn. Without the illusion of free will, it would be difficult to take responsibility for our actions, and to learn from them and believe ourselves capable of applying what we have learned in order to make better (or at least not worse) apparent-decisions in the future.
This is one of the most difficult concepts for free will believers to comprehend: that determinism does not at all exclude the concepts of introspection and learning over time. These, too, are mental events, and even if they are just as predetermined as any other material mental event, they are equally important as well. We might better understand if we can take a step back and consider ourselves as conscious robots, perhaps simple machines exhibiting simple machine learning, with researchers observing its behaviour. The robot is learning to walk up some stairs, stumbles, falls, and makes the attempt, again and again, each time, getting further up the stairs. The researchers are aware of the robot’s learning processes. They know that there is no free will there, and in fact know precisely how it is learning and exactly what its eventual outcome will be, but that doesn’t make the robot’s learning any less important. Regardless of its predictability, it still must learn to climb the stairs.
Where does this leave us with the implications of determinism, then? The illusion of free will has its uses, and losing it entirely without something to replace it leaves us at risk of a sort of nihilism, a belief that regardless of what we think, feel, or do, it is all predestined anyhow, and thus has no consequences. This is once more fallacious, however; determinism actually changes very little. Our actions are still “ours”, even if predetermined. They still have consequences, and we can think of ourselves and the events we perceive as indicative of our free will to be equally important links in a chain of causation.
It is absolutely crucial in understanding determinism to overcome the hurdle, installed by the idea of free will, that the causal chain has one end in cognition. Under free will, the beginning of the causal chain is in cognition, specifically in the volition to do something. Under nihilistic determinism, which might be better termed simply as fatalism, the end of the causal chain is in cognition: that everything that will happen, does happen, and it happens to us. It is important to overcome this hurdle and recognize that we also happen to everything else. We are not at the end of the chain, but rather in the middle, a part of the deterministic machine whose actions have as much consequence as they did under free will. The decision to rescue a victim of violence has as much impact as ever, in every respect; did “I” make that decision, and is causally responsible, or is “I” just processing the complex decision-making mechanisms in a material and deterministic mind? Does it truly matter to the victim? The only individual it matters to is you.
This leads us to a more detached and impartial view of our internal world. Under the reign of free will, we believe ourselves to be sovereign, with our concept of reality centered upon our own feelings, thoughts and actions. When we do poorly, that, too, is entirely on us, a failure on the part of our free will — or else, naturally, we find something else to blame, some circumstance that we have no control over whatsoever. We swing back and forth between these two extremes in an effort to preserve both our sense of control and our blamelessness. Through determinism, we can instead view ourselves as a causal link: Our actions are measured by preceding events, both internal and external, many of which can be examined. When we take those complex actions that we feel in control over, we can observe their consequences and learn from them, just like the robot. Mistakes stop being about who or what is to blame, but about examining their causes and effects.
An example might be a fight with your spouse. Under free will, you get in the fight, and begin shouting, either because it was your choice to begin shouting, because you are an angry person; or else because your spouse made you angry and just doesn’t get it and they got what they had coming. Under determinism-sans-nihilism, you shout at your spouse, because you haven’t had anything to eat today and you’re hungry; they said that one phrase that your mother used to tell you all the time that made you feel like a child; and you’re stressed out from that debate you decided to have on social media for some reason. Perhaps those reasons should be investigated (and now might be a good time to think about the reasons for debating on social media, too). Perhaps think about previous times you’ve fought, and how it was dealt with: what worked, and what didn’t? That one other time you argued with your spouse, and decided to round the corner and shout, “And one more thing!” and that didn’t go so well. Perhaps this time, because you once read about it in a self-help book, you might cool down with not-social-media, apologize, and offer to have a calm conversation about it. Everything is simply a string of causation. You may be thinking, of course, that this is all possible with free will as well, and this is entirely true. Determinism changes little; it merely serves as a framework to better access a more impartial and impersonal method of viewing action and reaction.
It also helps us view other people more impartially as well. Sam Harris discusses determinism and morality to great extent, indicating that a moral legal system from a deterministic view would focus less upon punishment, which is driven by a real human need for vengeance and under the presupposition that the actions of a criminal fall entirely upon their own choices; and more upon examining and resolving the causes of the criminal action. The buck doesn’t stop at the choices of the criminal, because even if they are proclaiming that they did indeed intend to murder their ex-wife, we only view this intention with as much causal weight as each muscle movement required to pull the trigger. Like the pulling of the trigger, it may have had many other causes behind it, some of which might be resolved through socialization, improvement of the environment, therapy, the building of a healthy social structure, and so forth.
Determinism should therefore be viewed as the most productive and moral of the free will-determinism dichotomy. With compatibilism only existent as a misunderstanding of the argument, material free will indefensible, and ideological free will inarguable, hard determinism — determinism at the expense of any free will — also remains the only rational view. However, we must be extremely cautious not to fall into nihilism in embracing determinism, and indeed, if one finds oneself incapable of grasping this concept for the time being, persisting in adhering to an ideal of free will may be more productive. However, in embracing a productive, non-fatalistic deterministic ideal, one gains a tool that allows one to take a more impersonal and impartial stance on their own internal lives and actions, as well as those of others.
Karma is a central concept to several world religions, sometimes termed dharmic religions for their belief in dharma — a complex term that may be said to refer to a pluralistic worldview that views all religions as many different paths all striving to reach the same cosmological and moral truths. The concept of karma lends itself to this pluralism: Karma is “debt” accumulated throughout one’s life that must be paid off, in some form or fashion, in this life or the next — with the next being directly impacted by the weight, positive or negative, of one’s karma.
Dharmic religions view this transmigration as one that happens upon death: We live our present life, accrue our karmas, and when we die, we are reborn as another being with a fate according to those karmas. A sinner may therefore be born again as an insect to pay off their bad karma, while a charitable individual may be reborn as a holy man. The holy man, through his practices, can achieve liberation from this cycle of birth and death.
Karma, transmigration, and dharma are all intricately interwoven, and it isn’t a coincidence that they are always seen together. Karma requires transmigration to function, and the pluralism and emphasis on cause and effect inherent in dharma lends itself to a belief in karma. The relevant question cannot reasonably therefore be whether dharma, karma, or transmigration are relevant concepts to a nondual worldview; rather, these things should be more heavily explored and defined.
A worldview centered on oneness is necessarily dharmic; even in not believing in a dualistic God, it recognizes that the belief in such is a relevant paradigm and may lead to the same truth. This is equal with not believing in any God at all. The concept of nonduality is a very difficult one, and it is probably accurate that the large majority of individuals who embrace a nondual worldview began their study and practice from a dualistic or materialistic one. Therefore, these paths are not inherently distinct in their destinations.
Karma and transmigration, however, need reexamination. From a nondual perspective, there is only a single, universal soul that might be called God, and the appearance of being separate is illusion. This soul is necessarily both without and with every describing feature, since it encompasses everything, ie there is nothing that is not God, and so it does not seem reasonable to assert that karma might accumulate upon it with the intent of judgement. This is not to say that karma does not exist in nonduality, but rather, it needs a more discerning definition: Rather than debts accrued that one is punished or rewarded for by being given worse or better lives — with bad and good being a duality — the dichotomy needs to be scrubbed and viewed without judgement. Instead of being bad and good, karmas simply are.
This means that karmas do not cancel each other out — one cannot get rid of the bad karma of stealing by then taking care of one’s ailing grandmother. From a rational standpoint, this is also sensible: Even in taking care of one’s grandmother, it isn’t as if the consequences of the theft aren’t felt. The theft will still hurt the victim, and the thief will still be punished, and no one would say that this should not be the case simply because the thief decided to turn over a new leaf. Even if overnight they became completely saintly and devoted the next fifteen years to charity, that one theft still has its consequences.
It is not certain that the consequences will be felt by the thief, however. There are many who do not apparently reap the rewards of their activities; people make a magnificent living off of the suffering of others and die happy. Religions have often noted that these people must experience internal anguish, but we know that psychopaths are not uncommon among any population and will never feel any such thing, by nature of their neurology. Dharmic religions address this by stating that this evil individual will be reincarnated into a low or bad life, but within nonduality, what is low? What is bad? Explicit punishment and reward cannot exist from this perspective.
Furthermore, what is rebirth? In dharmic religions, it is the transmigration of the individual soul, but that requires a duality — one soul moving from one form into another, and existing in one where it does not exist in another.
Transmigration needs, therefore, to be redefined: Rather than a soul existing in one place at one time, and another place at another time, it must be reasserted that the single, universal soul exists in all places at all times. Within nonduality, it is important to remember that not only are the differences in entities illusory, but the differences in times are as well; that is, every entity that exists, has ever existed, and will ever exist, is in truth the same single entity.
When understood, this concept leads to a new, but compatible, take on karma: Rather than being punished for doing bad, or rewarded for doing good to others, one is instead only doing what they are doing to themselves. The dichotomy of good and bad is no longer necessary: If one murders, they are murdering themselves. If one cures someone else’s cancer, it’s their own cancer that they are curing. So it is no longer past or future lives that are being discussed, it is simultaneous lives, all being affected by the karma produced by themselves and by one another, as they are played out by oneness.
Once more, this is spirituality and morality approached through rationality: The karma discussed here is no more than cause and effect as defined by the known and scientific laws of the universe. They do not require a judge, or the creation of metaphysical laws. All that is requires is a nondual paradigm that sees a singular soul or awareness at the root of existence.
What does nonduality mean for us? In another essay, free will and its necessary absence is discussed and argued. From a materialistic view, based on current evidence, free will is illusory. Extrapolating from this, if we presume the rest of the universe works similarly, based entirely on causal events and physical laws that are, apart from in extraordinary circumstances that necessarily have no effect on the remainder of reality (ie the theoretical singularity of a black hole, in which the laws of physics break down), reality as a whole must be deterministic as well. But where, then, does our awareness come from? Is it, as suggested in the essay on free will, simply an adaptation of our neurology? If not, where does it come from? What is “I” made of?
It’s entirely plausible, perhaps probable if we assume the simplest answer to the question of free will, that the illusion of having conscious control over our internal world and our decisions, is an evolutionary adaptation, sprung from the necessity of organizing complex mental phenomena and learning from experience. Consciousness, however, seems to expand beyond this. It’s been noted that we are conscious of our emotions, and perhaps other internal phenomena as well, despite having no direct control over them. Our decision-making processes also often fail us; we sometimes focus on processing that which doesn’t need focusing on, while ignoring what is important. We fail to learn from our mistakes. Further, from a more ideological perspective, would limiting consciousness purely to the illusion of free will as an adaptation built around complex processing therefore limit it to human beings? Most animals might be said to have limited complex processing. They still learn, however, and even arguably have rich emotional lives, exhibiting symptoms of anger, sadness, depression, elation, fear, anxiety. (Dawkins, 2000) Still, their survival, unlike ours, does not usually hinge on their complex decision-making skills; usually, at least in the wild, their instincts and basic learning would be enough to sustain them. Emotion may even be considered maladaptive, especially for less social species, and yet they still have them, and we would still instinctively ascribe them awareness. A robot capable of complex machine learning could arguably perform just as well!
We have no evidence for this awareness, of course; it’s purely instinct. In fact, we don’t have evidence for awareness in anyone but ourselves. And yet, we’re reasonably sure that awareness, or consciousness, used interchangeably here, exist in individuals without us. We cast off solipsism. Individuals without language, such as the severely handicapped or severely socially deprived, are deemed to still have awareness. Animals, too, are allowed awareness in our worldview, albeit perhaps, we think, a little less. This might depend on the animal; our beloved horse may have as rich of an internal world as we do, while the beetle you mashed probably barely had a concept that it exists at all. How far down does it go? Do plants have awareness? Studies exist to suggest that they respond to stimuli in ways analogous to emotion. What about fungi, or single-celled organisms? Bacteria? Organisms barely on the fringe of life, like virii? Inorganic matter, such as rocks? There is an observable sliding scale of complexity; the human brain is the most complex concise object we have discovered, with more potential neural connections than there are atoms in the universe, and we descend very gradually from there, to mammalian brains, reptilian brains, beings with a brainlike component, to no brain at all but a nervous system, to a nervous system analogue, to cellular components that act similarly. Where does consciousness begin and end? Am I the benchmark for complexity, and anything (or anyone) less complex than me lacks self-awareness? Do we embrace solipsism, or is there a method?
It would be sensible to presume that, just as there is a sliding scale of neural and neural-analogue complexity, there is a similar scale in the complexity of awareness. More complex systems form more complex awarenesses. And if we presume this, then we presume that awareness is not a product of any one organ (an organ that has been posited many times but never discovered), but rather of the system as a whole.
We then must ask, does it need to be a neurological system? Is there something about neurons that creates awareness? Something about neurological system analogues that mirror it to some extent? This is where opinions differ, but some neuroscientists have come to the conclusion that awareness is actually a product of complex systems, ie Koch (2014).
If this is the case, then the rabbit hole goes deeper: If awareness is a sliding scale based on complexity, then it follows that the least complex systems must have the least amount of awareness. Note that this does not mean that they lack awareness, but incredibly, that they must have some awareness. Therefore, that every part of the universe has some level of consciousness, that that consciousness builds as systems are formed. This idea has led to a resurgence in panpsychism, and the notion that consciousness may in fact be the ultimate basis of all things.
Whether this notion is the truth or not, there is something that must be considered: That within a complex awareness, there are many smaller awarenesses, and smaller awarenesses within those. It isn’t difficult to imagine, and seems likely given the philosophical story so far, that we human beings are ourselves part of a more complex awareness still. Awareness at this point ceases to be a concise entity and is instead a single piece in an endless fractal, beginning at the subatomic level, extending into the known universe and potentially beyond, where it can be viewed as a single, unified whole, potentially one on which the basis of all space-time is founded. Ultimately, there exists only a single thing making up all things, which is awareness. We have arrived at non-duality, or monism — specifically, mentalistic monism or idealism.
In a non-dual worldview, distinct entities cease to exist, ontologically, just as how, when we are discussing the function of a human cerebral cortex, we ignore the fact that it is ultimately made up of quarks. The quarks are simple, deterministic, and only exist to play their infinitesimal role in the function of the brain. In the same way, our lives are tiny and insignificant; brief little particles that play their role in the goings-on of the universe.
This prospect is a troubling one to many. We want to believe we have some level of importance. We live our lives striving to make an impact, whatever that impact may be. On a grander scale, we even read science fiction with lust for a time when the human race has reached out into the stars and overcome the tininess that accompanies existence upon only a single rock in space. We want to believe we can do it all because we make it happen, and to be told that, in fact, we’re motes of dust, bits of awareness that only think we are significant but are only a sliver of thread in the gigantic tapestry of existence bothers many of us.
Simultaneously, though, we look up at the stars, and we feel our smallness, and find some odd solace in the overwhelming humility of it. There is something to be said for recognizing that as crucial as our every action might seem to us, it truly doesn’t matter. Our mistakes, our bad luck, our failures, even our successes, the things we wonder if we deserve, our privileges, everything that bothers and excites us, is the equivalent to an extra, a member of a sprawling crowd with barely a frame of screen time, in a film a thousand years long. And if we assume a deterministic perspective, in which our mental script is not our own, but written for us through the chain of causation, all of which is created by the measurable and theoretically predictable physics of the universe — which is, itself, ultimately aware — the metaphor of the film is very useful.
We become characters in the biggest film that has ever been produced, all played by the same actor, which is defined as awareness. Like the characters in the film, we go through enormous hardships, and we overcome evil — or we fail. But either way, it adds to the film; when a character suffers in a good film, our attachment to them grows; and when they surpass their difficulties, we marvel at their growth. They make the film, for us, in that instant. The question of evil comes up so often when discussing ontology, and the answer is here: Evil happens, disasters happen, sadness happens because it must. What growth can there be, what progress, realistically, can occur without a problem? What story has no conflict, no suffering?
And that character doesn’t know they are a character in a film; for the purpose of the film, the character is unaware that they are merely a speck, an idea spawned by a writer. The actor behind them knows every word of the plot, knows what will happen, but the character themselves have no idea. But what if they did? What happens when characters break the fourth wall? Even the most dire of situations becomes a comedy. The character is now godlike, perhaps not in physical or even mental strength, but in their imperviousness to everything that is happening around them. They know it’s all just a story that they’re a part of, and through that knowledge they become liberated, truly in the dharmic sense.
Thus, we have arrived, through a scientific process with some liberties taken, at an explanation for nonduality. We have defined a concept of God, as best we can, as a potentially infinitely large system, and ultimate awareness. We have recognized our place within that system, and through acceptance of determinism, and analogy, glimpsed what this bizarre concept could mean when applied to our daily lives. And finally, we have identified the process, and result, of the achievement of what amounts to the real concept of liberation.
Dawkins, M. (2000). “Animal minds and animal emotions”. American Zoologist 40(6). pp. 883–888.
Koch, C. (2014). In which I argue that consciousness is a fundamental property of complex things. MIT Press.