Whenever I get into a conversation with someone about free will for the first time, they will usually end up saying something like this: “But I experience the world as if I have free will.”
They are, of course, wrong. They experience the world exactly the same as someone who doesn’t believe in free will (like, for example, me).
We both experience the same thing. What is different is the way we interpret what we experience.
Here’s a good analogy.
One thousand years ago, if you asked most people about the relationship between the Earth and the Sun, they would have told you that it was obvious: the Sun revolves around the Earth. If you tried to tell them that, in fact, the opposite was true, they would have laughed in your face.
“But I experience the Sun revolving around the Earth! It’s obvious that the Earth isn’t moving because we can’t feel it moving. We don’t experience it moving. But we look up into the sky and we can experience the Sun moving around the Earth. You dumbass.”
Of course, what they were actually experiencing was the Earth revolving around the Sun. They had the exact same experience as Copernicus when he published “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres” in 1543. What was different was how they interpreted that experience.
So it is with free will. We all experience the same thing. We walk around, decisions are made; actions are taken.
The difference is that some of us interpret those things as “the laws of physics”. And some of us interpret those things as “free will”. Same experience – incorrect interpretation.
The same is true with our relationship to the universe. Most people imagine themselves as being somehow separate from the rest of the world – in it but not of it, independent from it. Again – same experience, incorrect interpretation.
There is only the universe. It’s just one thing. One construct. We are not in the universe – we are the universe.
The atoms that you’re made of are the universe. The universe isn’t some kind of blank canvas that you’ve been painted on. The universe is both the canvas and the paint. The universe is the sum total of all of the matter and the energy and the anti-matter and everything else. It cannot be divided into universe and non-universe.
Most of the atoms that make up your body today were something else 20 years ago. And they will be something else 20 years from now. They continue. The universe continues. You are those atoms. There is nothing else.
You can only be the universe. Nothing else makes sense.
How do you handle people in your life who are being a pain in the ass?
Well, for a start, we know that we have no free will. So we’re going to handle them however our current neural state handles them. Our neural state is the current structure of our brain, the way our memories, experiences and genetic pre-dispositions have been encoded in the synapses and chemicals of our brains.
However, something you read or hear today can change that neural state for tomorrow. The brain it plastic. It changes over time with every new experience or insight.
So – we know we have no free will. We also know that the other person has no free will. They are behaving exactly as they have to, based on their own neural state. They are an actor on a stage, forced to read certain lines, to play a certain part. And it’s hard to stay angry at someone who has no control over their actions. You can’t be angry at the sky for being covered in rain clouds. You can’t be angry at tree for shedding its leaves during winter. And you can’t be angry at a person for obeying their nature. It’s like the old story of the scorpion and the frog (Google it if you don’t know it, and try to find the version told by Orson Welles).
If someone is acting badly towards you, it often means they aren’t happy. Happy people, with healthy self-esteems, usually don’t treat others badly. They try to build the people around them up, make them feel good about themselves. They lift people up, they don’t knock them down. So if the person treating you badly is unhappy and doesn’t have any control over their behaviour, they are probably upsetting more people around them than just you, which, in turn, makes those people dislike them, which makes them feel worse about themselves – and the cycle continues.
So when someone is lashing out at me, I normally feel sorry for them.
On top of that, we also know that the concept of “identity” is problematic. We have realised that there isn’t a “me”, a distinct collection of atoms that is separate from the rest of the universe. So when someone is being mean to me, who, in fact, are they being mean to? They are being mean to the universe, to themselves. Now – do you think the universe cares? Does someone on the other side of the planet care what this person thinks, says or does? Does a tree care? Does a dog? No? Then why should I care?
They can’t be attacking “me”, because there is no “me” to attack. As Bob would say, there is no “reference point”. It’s like water off a duck’s back. Insults and attacks slide right off. The hardest problem I have when being insulted is to fight back a smile, which itself is unkind and can make the other person feel worse. But it’s actually quite amusing when someone exposes their pain and anger so openly by turning it on someone else. Not that the fact that they are hurting is at all funny, but just that their behaviour is so transparent and immature. It’s like when my five year old gets angry about something and tells me that he’s the boss of the house. His defiance is hilarious but if he sees me smiling, he gets even angrier. It’s the same with mean people. They can be unintentionally funny. So try not to smile. Even when it’s blaringly obvious that their anger towards you is an indication of their own issues.
So, once we understand that we shouldn’t take their insults and attacks personally, how should we handle the situation?
Usually I’ll try to think about what they need from me at that moment. My goal is to initially defuse the situation, then try to turn into something positive, where there are no winners or losers. But that’s hard to do, even with the Three Illusions, because our brains are designed with a “fight or flight” response to threatening situations. When we are being attacked, our subconscious defense mechanisms kick into gear – adrenaline courses through our veins, and our conditioning kicks in. Even after 30 years of completely accepting that I don’t exist as a “me”, my F/F system still kicks in from time to time. But it gets nipped in the bud pretty quickly as my post-Three Illusions wiring kicks in. After a few seconds to a few minutes, I’m usually thinking about how to defuse the situation so it doesn’t escalate. And I’m still not great at this part of it. My instinctive response is to think “I don’t exist, they don’t exist, this is all just a story going on in my head, it’s all just atoms” and to disengage. Which honestly probably isn’t the best way of handling these situations. So I’m trying to get better at it.
People’s egos usually want to be assuaged and they want to be heard. So it’s helpful to say something like “I see where you’re coming from, let me think about it some more and come back to you with a more thoughtful response. Can we park this issue for now and talk about it more later?”
Buying some time for both parties to calm down.
The important thing is that I’m not left with any anger, resentment or anxiety over the confrontation, because I know neither of us has any free will and I feel empathy for the person who is attacking me. This helps me think about what the other person needs from me and how to create a positive outcome for everyone.
“The whole world was seen as the divine activity welling up from the mysterious being of Brahman, which was the inner meaning of all existence. The Upanishads encouraged people to cultivate a sense of Brahman in all things. It was a process of revelation in the literal meaning of the word: it was an unveiling of the hidden ground of all being. Everything that happens became a manifestation of Brahman: true insight lay in the perception of the unity behind the different phenomena.”
‘A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam’ by Karen Armstrong
In other words – Brahman = the laws of physics, atoms, whatever you want to call the underlying fabric of the cosmos.
It seems quite clear that the Hebrews and Yahweh (or Elohim, actually) both believed there were multiple gods. Monotheism wasn’t their thing – at least not when Exodus was written.
As Karen Armstrong writes in “A History Of God”:
In the final text of Exodus, edited in the fifth century BCE, God is said to have made a covenant with Moses on Mount Sinai (an event which is supposed to have happened around 1200). There has been a scholarly debate about this: some critics believe that the covenant did not become important in Israel until the seventh century BCE. But whatever its date, the idea of the covenant tells us that the Israelites were not yet monotheists, since it only made sense in a polytheistic setting. The Israelites did not believe that Yahweh, the God of Sinai, was the only God but promised, in their covenant, that they would ignore all the other deities and worship him alone. It is very difficult to find a single monotheistic statement in the whole of the Pentateuch. Even the Ten Commandments delivered on Mount Sinai take the existence of other gods for granted: ‘There shall be no strange gods for you before my face.’