Free Will and ‘I’

Do you realise that within five years every atom in your body is replaced? The body I had five years ago has gone. With time, water and food I have unwillingly replaced it all.

I have no control over this process. I can affect how my body looks and how I feel depending on what I give and do to it, but it will natural replace every atom all by itself. This is a physical fact.

I am not the Sam I was then, but I still feel like me. I have seen my body change as I have got into lifting weights and running again. I have explored intellectual heights and spent time trying to explore my consciousness. I have questioned, cried, given up and started again more times than I can count. But have I really become a new person during it all?

The physical is easier to understand, not that I have done a great job of explaining it, but at least we can create diagrams and structures that explain it and help us to grasp the reality that is all around us. The physical world that we are linked to and even if we don’t necessarily realise it all the time. But there is a mental side to this as well, my free will and my sense of ‘self’. I think both of these have religious consequences and are worth exploring a little further here. So, from the physical to the mental we shift – this should be interesting.

From small to big questions I end up making a small or big decision. Do I want to work out tonight or read? Do I want to question the fabric of my existence or settle for the hopeful religious doctrines I was raised to rest in? Can I freely make a decision, or am I actually chained to my upbringing, social situations and the environment?

It boils down to two things and I can only scratch the surface of each. The idea of free will, that we can ‘freely’ choose anything and the idea of ‘I’. That behind my eyes ‘I’ exist, and ‘I’ is a single entity in agreement, rather than a committee of hope, wants, desires and voices.

Let’s go deeper. But before we do please note that I am no expert on these things, rather I find them interesting. I am also not saying that the mental and physical are unlinked as we ‘shift’ from one to the other. I personally think there is a naturalistic explanation for all of this, even if we have not fully found it yet.

Freewill: there are (of course there are) two books I want to read on this subject. ‘Free Will‘ by Sam Harris, and ‘Determined to Believe: The Sovereignty of God, Freedom, Faith and Human Responsibility‘ by John C Lennox. One from an atheist perspective and one from a Christian. From what I can tell, both books look at the viewable limits of humanity and the actions we can and cannot take. We are confined by certain things, for example, I can’t breathe underwater without any aid. But are there other things that impact upon my free will that are not so obvious, and to what extent can I actually make decisions?

I think this is fascinating. If someone murders someone else, 100 years ago we would have locked them up to rot, today we lock them up to correct them and help them reintegrate into society when they are released, but if it isn’t their choice to murder, then what right do we have to do either? For example, is it our free will that allows us to advance our thinking about the purpose of prison and how best to sentence someone convicted of murder in the first place? I have to say, I am not so sure anymore.

If free will is not real, then we cannot be held responsible for the actions we take and the repercussions that those actions have within the world around us. But that just doesn’t feel right to me. Though, could I really have any other feeling about freewill if free will doesn’t exist?

This is a massive area for psychology and neuroscience, as you might have noticed, I am vastly out of my depth. Science, religion, the reality of day to day life, they all seem to have something to say on the subject.

If we can’t control what we can or cannot do, can we really have a handle on claiming to be rational at all? There are a whole host of big questions that I will never be able to answer. This is defiantly worth me spending some time learning about it and thinking it all though.

I however and not the person to flesh these things out. I hope some of the books I work through and review will help us in these areas in due course.

‘I’: I was listening to a Jordan B Peterson debate with Sam Harris a few months ago when they started talking about the idea of ‘self’ and ‘I’, (for those interested it was within one of their 4 debates during the middle to back half of 2018, just search their names together and you will find them). They chatted over the fact that we attribute a mixture of feelings, hopes, fears, desires, wants and voices into a ‘self’ and call this self, I. This is a video in which Sam Harris explains how the ‘self’ that we feel isn’t actually anything more than how we cope with all the physical and neurological senses that we have. That it is actually possible to step back and let go of this ‘self’ and become the very senses that we use to make the decision from.

Like we are forever looking over our own shoulder as we experience life. When all we really are is the experiences themselves. If the soul is not real, then we cannot claim to have any space within us for ‘I’ as we can see the physical signs of the things we experience. Fear or Hope when being experienced display brain activity. They are just physical and neurological responses, not a ‘self” being fearful or hopeful.

The idea that we are not a ‘self’ and that all we are is a series of experiences linking back to the start of this universe seems to be testable and to confirm that we have no power to control or change the decisions, actions and paths that we take, any more than whether or not you were going to read this blog post.

So, am I a committee rather than a self? Do I actually have the ability to freely choose to write this word or that word? Yup, this all blows my mind.

You see, all of this has a direct knock-on effect to faith-based belief systems and how valid their claims really are if we don’t have free will or even the ability to claim a self. It is going to need to be read over, talked about and I do hope to have a good few blog posts about it in the future.

If either of these two things is true (free will being an illusion and ‘I’ being a construct) then religion fails to be real (at least the three Abrahamic religions that dominate our world today). I can’t see any other way of looking at it. But could I ever have thought about it in any other way?

I want to believe I have the freedom to choose to work on my ‘character’ so that I become a more loving father (for example). If you take away the thing that makes me think I have an option to work on my character, do you remove the very thing that could make me work on my character and become a more loving father? Or do you just expose choice for what it is? Do I ‘stop’ working on my character because I now believe I have no option, or does realising that I have no option grant me a bigger scope to work within?

I really don’t know if that makes sense, or if there is an answer to all of that. Typical.

_End of Blog Blurb_

Thanks for taking the time to read my blog. It has taken me a few years to get to a place where I am able to share my loss of faith and to start writing about the journey that I am still on for you all. I hope you find it useful.

Grammar, spelling, capitalisation and punctuation: I am massively dyslexic. It has taken me years to get to the level I am currently at with writing and I have done this mainly through reading. I want to be better and ask you, reader, to please forgive any errors in my writing. I hope you notice improvement upon improvement over the coming years.

Time Frame: This blog is roughly six to nine months behind where I currently am at in my journey out of religion. It’s important to remember that when reading and commenting.

If you want to connect with me, then you can get in touch via any of the social media links that can be found at the top of the page. If you want to get every post straight to your inbox then you can do that by either following directly via WordPress or with your email address, whichever you prefer – the links are to the right.

I’ll see you back here at the same time next week 🙂

-Sam

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