On Free Will

Choice and free will are convenient conceptual shorthands to express some of the complexity of human existence. But what is freedom? Are all choices free choices, and what are the hidden ideological and cognitive structures that give meaning to those questions? Ultimately, ideas of self are intimately entwined with conceptions of and belief in free will, and we must examine the conceptual, cultural and spiritual roots of self to come to terms with freedom, will and choice. First, I must describe orthodox free will and its origins in western enlightenment philosophy. Then, after critiquing this view, I will offer an alternative, not by directly answering the question, but by a different interpretation of self. My proposition is that to ask whether one has free will, one implicitly legitimises a European-derived conceptualisation of self, which can induce motivation and spiritual pain.

Modern dominant notions of free will (in the west) are derived from individualist philosophies. By this, I mean that choices, which are the building blocks of will, are perceived of as being transactional, occurring between atomic individuals. Rationality is described through ideas like “homo-economicus” and is essentially reductionist. Hence, modern discourse on free will centres around problems of determinism; that is, to what degree are one’s actions pre-determined by the physical world? There are four responses to determinism, and you can read more about them on Wikipedia.

Orthodox Free Will

Orthodox Free Will

19th century science promoted physical determinism (a clockwork universe). Modern western societies live with these ideas embedded into their psycho-social frameworks, even though they are discredited by modern mathematics (chaos) and physics (quantum). Westerners tend to think of ourselves as individuals interacting with the world. There is a fundamental dualism between ourselves and the world. Enter choice: the universe exists, and we choose how to act within it. Thus arises a modern spiritual dilemma. If science has explained and hence can predict every action-reaction, then how can our choices be meaningful? To most western egos, it is psychologically unacceptable to give so little weight to one’s own psychological existence. “I feel choice, and it hurts to think I’ve been deluded for my entire life”. So most of us compromise with something like the following: “I don’t know whether free will exists, so I may as well believe it does.”

Western free will is a convenient collective delusion. It is an inevitable response to atomic individualism, by which I mean the idea that I exist entirely and exclusively within my own body. There are at least two methods for refuting atomic individualism, and those are non-western spirituality, and modern physics and mathematics.

At the heart of an atomic individual’s free will is ego. Ego says, “my opinion is important”; “my existence is unique”; “my perspective matters”; and “I am separate”. In Eastern spiritual traditions, like Buddhism, but also in many traditional societies, rejection of ego is valued, particularly in spiritual activities that seek ego death. In these traditions we also find individualism to be much differently perceived. Ubuntu is an African idea, roughly meaning I am because we are. Essentially, individuals are not complete by themselves; they are not atomic. Buddhism walks a middle path. Clearly, one should not deny the physical circumstances that circumscribe possible actions, and hence limit free choice. But there must exist some degree of free will, because to deny it would be to deny the efforts of Buddhists to make moral progress. To ask the question “is there free will” is problematic, because freedom is necessarily constrained by environment, and freedom is a cultural concept dependant on philosophical and social education.

Modern physics and mathematics provide westerners with a path to rejecting atomic individualism and hence the orthodox formulation of the problem of free will. Contrary to Newton and those who followed, the universe is not deterministic. Neither are boundaries well defined. Most mathematical history revolves around simple abstractions. Consider a cube, which is a simple shape with well defined boundaries, finite volume and finite surface area. All points in space can be determined to lie inside or outside the cube. We have known as early as Pythagoras that the real world does not contain cubes – hence the Pythagorean and Platonic obsession with abstraction. A lesser known revolution in the late 20th century dispensed with these shapes in favour of fractal geometries. The universe is much better described using fractal geometry. Unlike cubes, fractals do not have well defined boundaries. Fractals are often formed by the process of recursion. In an interpretation of self by mathematician Douglas Hofstadter in I am a Strange Loop, consciousness and the self can be thought of as an emergent phenomenon from self referential feedback. If we accept this interpretation, then we can expect the “shape” of our consciousness to be a fractal, and hence not to have well defined boundaries. In itself, this strikes a fatal blow to atomic individualism. Chaos theory also strikes a blow to determinism, and quantum mechanics rings a death knell. I leave it to the reader to explore the revelations of modern scholarship.

Chaos: When the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.  –  Edward Lorenz

Now, where do we find ourselves? Adrift in a chaotic universe, without even our selves as rocks in a turbulent ocean. And where is free will? I propose there is no free will, there is only will. We are not free, we are constrained by our physical and our social world. But there is spirituality that provides consolation. We are not atomised individuals. The boundary between us is fractal – it is impossible to tell precisely where you end and I begin. The same is true for our selves and the physical universe. This revelation provides concrete reasons to believe in the interconnectedness of all people, all life, all places, and all times. I am not separate from the world, but a part of it; and what is my puny will to the will of the universe. And yet the universe is not cold, because you exist, and us manifests. To revel in the soup of souls, one must leave free will behind, and recognise that whatever we are, we are it together.

The Battle for Eurasia

The pieces are moving; the battle for Eurasia has begun.

The 20th century saw the rise of global war. Before the onset of the great war, European powers had come to dominate the globe through superior technology, particularly in war. Two world wars later, and the balance of power had shifted dramatically. Orthodox interpretation of these times proposes a war of ideologies between capitalism and collectivism – essentially a collective brainwashing by the two major powers of the era: the Soviet Union and the United States. However, this interpretation entirely fails to account for the role of China in the fall of the USSR. In 1971 Kissinger travels to China, initiating a secret strategic relationship between the emerging Chinese Communist-led state and the Americans. In Chinese terms, using the far away enemy against the near enemy. A militarised Soviet Union surrounded by enemies ensured collapse, and victory for the Americans and the Chinese. Once again, orthodox interpretation of the fall resembles Fukuyama.  But events in the early 21st century throw new challenges to the end of history. It seems to be, rather, a case of history repeating.

Today, an assertive China is evolving into a modern superpower, and a newly resurgent Russia refuses to be relegated to middle power status. A multi-polar world order is emerging, old alliances are shifting, middle powers are trapped between feuds, and smaller countries are destroyed. The great game is being played once again.

At the heart of the new great game is a challenge to a global hegemony of the United States. US power is being challenged in two great theatres: East Asia and the Mediterranean. In the Mediterranean, states and leaders are falling like flies. Almost every country bordering the sea has been touched by the shifting world order, from Spain, Italy and Greece’s battle with the European troika, to the stalled revolution in Egypt, to the war for the heart of the middle east in Syria and Iraq. The victorious powers of the 20th century can still flex significant military might, as they demonstrated in the removal of Gaddafi. But the will of NATO is not so strong as it was. Its power is being challenged in Ukraine and in Syria, by a newly confident Russia and silently backed by a diplomatic China. However, the battles are not just military. In a ominous reflection of the complex web of agreements between states before the outbreak of war in 1914, great and middle powers are scrambling to sign multi-billion dollar deals to draw others into their spheres of influence. In 2014, Russia signed significant gas, nuclear and weapons deals that span decades, and they signed them with partners of great strategic importance. Similarly, China has created new institutions for infrastructure in South East Asia. Considering these deals gives us some insight into the state of the great game at the end of this year.

Since 1991, Sino-Russian relations have improved dramatically from the lows of the 20th century. Old territorial disputes have been solved, and cross border trade increased. In 2014, the two signed a 30 year long gas contract (Russia supplying 38 billion cubic litres per year) as well as a 150 billion yuan central bank liquidity swap. It is this relationship that will come to define geopolitics in Eurasia, because it allows both Russia and China to focus their efforts in regions of much greater value than the long border between them. For China, a secure Russian border allows it to focus its power (especially military power) in the east, around disputed territories and valuable natural resources. Russia, who has always struggled with distance fronts and long supply lines, can focus of conflicts in the West, including in the Middle East and western Europe. An economic game is also afoot. This week Russia signed a hundred billion dollar deal with India, just weeks after cancelation of the South Stream gas pipeline project, which now terminates in Turkey, which has also been signing billion dollar deals with the bear from the north. A line has been drawn, across which Russia will not tolerate NATO forces, and within which countries lie inside its sphere of influence. It runs south from Belarus, bisecting the Ukraine, Crimea and the Black Sea, to Turkey, Syria and Iraq and ending somewhere in the gulf. Hence, Russia and NATO find themselves at odds over the future of Syria. Not only because of relatively recent militarism in nearby Georgia, but because of a greater struggle between the USA and EU (NATO) and Russia and China, what one could refer to as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

The game is being played by countries as far away as Australia. Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko visited last week, in an event that likely benefited both himself and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. For Poroshenko, the visit lends legitimacy. For Abbott, the visit reminds the Australian public of the downing of MH17, a strong point of Abbott, who has become desperately unpopular in recent months. The two signed a trade deal worth perhaps one hundred million dollars – puny in comparison with deals discussed above, but significant for its symbolic value.

Is Eurasia heading for war once again? Or has the nature of great power changes dramatically from 100 years ago? Enter 2015.

The Race Continues

They rise and they fall. The Silk Road 2.0 has bee taken down by the FBI in collaboration with European agencies, but this will do more harm than good. People are dying because they don’t know what they are taking or how to consume it safely. Attacking online marketplaces is a waste of resources. Put down the guns and think – drugs aren’t going anywhere; let’s do them safely.

Silk Road 2.0 on Sunday November 9 2014

Silk Road 2.0 on Sunday November 9 2014

Like all the nameless empire’s abstract wars, the enemy refuses to lay down and die. Within days, a new site entitled Silk Road 3.0 arose.

Login Screen of tbe Silk Road 3.0

Login Screen of the Silk Road 3.0

Drugs are just too popular and too profitable to go away. Think about it: something as unloveable and unpopular as the Taliban has withstood the might of the empire. They have no chance against MDMA, which was the best selling drug on Silk Road 2.0.

Breakdown on Drugs Sold on the Silk Road 2.0

Breakdown on Drugs Sold on the Silk Road 2.0

Why should you care? Because online drug marketplaces have helped more drug users than law enforcement ever could. Sites like Silk Road, Agora, MiddleEarth and more provide safe spaces for normal people to find the substances they want. No guns, no violence. Buyers provide product and vendor feedback. One way or another, people who want amphetamines, cannabis, heroin etc are going to find it. Criminalising  these behaviours will be about as successful as criminalising homosexuality, alcohol, tobacco, interracial marriage, or ice-cream cones. We need to ask the right questions, which in this case is “what is the best way to sell drugs?”

This weekend in Sydney, a young woman died from an apparent overdose at a harbour-side festival. According to NSW police, who issued a statement after the woman’s death,“There’s little to no quality control in the production of illicit drugs. Quite simply, you don’t know what you are getting – seeking a synthetic high, could result in a serious injury or death”. This on the same weekend as one of the largest websites providing peer -reviewed assessments and ratings for popular drugs is taken down, leaving the street dealer as the obvious fallback. The police are reactionary fools. They will continue to persecute drug users, drive use underground, criminalise popular behaviours and pretend they care. Don’t look to them for leadership.

In Portugal, many drugs have been decriminalised, and at the Boom festival there is a free drug info stand, where users can identify test their drugs for purity. If this had been available in Sydney, a young woman may still be alive.

Help yourself and help each other.

Demand Decriminalisation.

Identity is the Only Form of Politics

Identity is the way we transpose the subjective into the objective. It is the fixed point by which we pivot between our personal universe and the social world. Identity is the only way to politics, though “Identity Politics” has been denounced by many as too post-modern, or a cause of modern political apathy, or a conscious plan by the elite to divide the working class. The denial of identity as fundamental to political or human experience is drawn from the hubris of infallibility.

Here I will consider three indispensable components of politics and the role of identity within them. First, how identity grows concurrently with beliefs and ideology. Second, how identity is the foundation of political groups. Third, how identity drives effective political action from popular opinion to war. These discussions are not so abstract as to be irrelevant to the world today. Conflict in the 21st century cannot be understood without understanding the perceptions, motivations, and groups that exist. The USA and ISIS have this is common: both have unshakeable belief in manifest destiny, and that empowers those that fight in all arenas.

 

Power in human societies derives from social relations. The ‘lone wolf’ is impotent. As societies have grown more complex and specialised, so too have groups have become more diverse. Social groups today vary widely – some proselytise, some isolate, some prosper and some are destroyed. To understand the relationship between group membership and identity we can analyse the language used to proclaim membership. Which statement is stronger (I choose Christian here as an example of a successful group) “I am a Christian” or “I have a Christian group membership”? Members of successful social groups internalise the identity of that group. Hence, we are comfortable with people proclaiming “I am a Christian/ liberal/ soldier/ worker”. And now my strong claim: the power of individuals is insignificant compared to the power of groups, and groups are comprised of individuals who have internalised a collective identity.

 

Once internalised, group identities are known as ideologies and comprised of beliefs. The psychological mechanism by which group identities are internalised is often called indoctrination, but could as much be called education or socialisation. The keen observer will note that members of groups will often hold vastly different beliefs (Catholics on birth control, for example). Clearly, a person can internalise multiple group identities, and contradictions between them can have painful psychological consequences. I believe this pain is they key driver of divergence of beliefs within a group, as exemplified by isolated groups. In isolated cults, or tribes, or any other group cut off from broader society, members will tend to converge toward common beliefs. However, most of us must navigate the pitfalls of multiple identities, attempting to reconcile internal contradictions. What is it that prevents us from renouncing an identity? Why is it that group identities persist? I propose that the answer lies in the objectivity and universality provided by these group identities. Converts to Islam gain much more than acceptance in Muslim communities. They are gifted with an “objective” truth on which to build their own psychological structures. It seems to me that all humans are resistant to the idea that “everything is subjective”. We prefer to belief that somewhere there exists a strong foundation on which to build our lives. Objectivity is the language of strength and infallibility. Any claim to objectivity is logically isomorphic to a theological axiom. Subjectivity is frightening – it recognises that there are no certainties, and that we are all fallible. Myself, as a subjectivist, claim that there is no functional difference between agreement and fact. Here we come to the crux of the relationship between group identity and ideology: group identities are persistent and can claim objectivity, hence providing psychological comfort for believers. The stronger the objectivity, the more members feel they are working “for something bigger than themselves”, be it God, the Truth, or the Empire, and hence the more likely they are to sacrifice their individual existence to the group.

 

Well that’s all very well and good, but what exactly does it have to do with conflict in the modern world? To answer that, we must ask what is it that motivates political action, for political action is inherently entering a conflict. Significant political action is always entered into by groups, though groups will often have a leader, figurehead or otherwise, even the strongest dictator needs allies. The conflict need not be violent, as modern parliaments attest. But to be successful, political action must either promote the spread of an identity, or increase the power of the group (for simplicity, I’ve intentionally ignored subset identities). By reduction, I find that all successful groups attempt the following: retain existing members; create new members; increase the power of members. I shall call this the fundamental heuristic of successful groups. New members, if not born into the group, must necessarily be converts (though as mentioned earlier, they may not renounce their other identities). Conversion is an increase in the power of the new group through the addition of a new member as well as through volume effects, which is often coincident with a decrease in power of other groups. Consistent with the heuristic of successful groups, the other groups will resist the conversion. Readers should find similarity between the description given above and theories of evolution. Groups are analogous to species. Successful species must: stay alive long enough to reproduce (retain existing members); reproduce successfully (create new members); adapt to the environment, avoid predators and evade parasites (increase the power of members).

 

All of the mass religions are successful groups, and in particular, I will consider Christianity. Christianity grew from a group of 12 members in 33AD to over a billion today. Following the heuristic of successful groups, I expect that Christianity was particularly good at retaining members, acquiring new members, and increasing the power of members. The first two heuristics are clearly true. Jesus’ disciples did not renounce him after his death, so clearly early Christianity retained its members. Later Christianity, with ideological and religious hegemony, was particularly good at punishing heretics and unbelievers. But why were Christians stoic during the three centuries of Roman persecution? I suspect that the answer lies in the central objectivity and universality of early Christian doctrine, as well as the comfort and precedence it gave to the poor. It is incontestable that Christianity is good at acquiring new members – it has conquered entire continents. The final heuristic is harder to judge: has Christianity increased the power of its members? Not every Christian is powerful, but even if I attempt to consider the average power of Christians over the entire Christian period, I find am unable to disentangle Christian power from non-Christian power. Therefore, I will consider a single point in Christian history, and perhaps the most significant: the conversion of Constantine. I cannot believe that anyone would argue that this was not an increase in the total power of Christianity, as well as an increase for every Christian. While this narrative should corroborate the fundamental heuristic, it should equally apply to many other successful groups. I can, however, think of groups whose strategies for survival include exclusivity, meaning that the number of new members is purposefully limited, in order to increase the power of existing members.

 

To summarise: long lived social groups consist of individuals who have internalised a group identity. The beliefs and ideology of the members create objective coordinates with which members can orient themselves. Actions made by these members, and hence by the group, are motivated by those very same beliefs and ideology. The stronger the claim to objectivity, the more members will act in the interest of the group over themselves. Successful groups tend to retain existing members, to create new members, and to increase the power of members – this is called the fundamental heuristic of successful groups.

 

Next up: How can we use the fundamental heuristic of successful groups to affect social change.