The Powers That Be

“What is—is possible!” William of Ockham

Whenever someone challenges me with a claim that something is impossible, I think of the above quote. If all that I see before me is manifestly possible, my seemingly unlikely existence included, then it would behoove me to exercise caution when making claims about what is or is not possible. I was recently challenged by a friend in a conversation about human freedom to find a single example of something that was “free.” Addled by the Buddhist doctrine of Pratītyasamutpāda, or law of dependent origination, I struggled to think of such an example and succeeded in producing only one: the universe itself. How then to characterize “things” within this universe, that is, parts of the universe, such as ourselves? Should we simply throw our hands up in exasperation with the Buddhists? I think not. My friend wanted to characterize parts of the universe as either beholden to the whole universe in the past, or to the laws of nature, but in either case, “things” are entirely un-free. This view confounded my intellect, which seemed to scream “un-free compared to what? If all is in chains, then at least the chains must be free!” Though this essay is meant to demonstrate that even so-called “in-animate” things have freedom, I am only arguing this to remove the blinders from people who hold all material things to be unfree, as these blinders render it impossible for such people to appreciate the freedom of human beings, built of atoms as we are. I am not arguing, however, that a rock has the same freedom as a person; only that the atom, the rock, the animal, and the person are not prima facie un-free simply on account of being material things. My argument stems from the following premises, which I consider to be irrefutable:

1)      The universe is. That is, the universe (and only the universe) exists. Stated differently, there is nothing supernatural.

2)      “What is—is possible!” -William of Ockham

3)      The universe is free. I mean this in the sense that nothing is stopping the universe from being, nor could anything in principle do so, because by definition ‘the universe’ is everything that exists.

4)      The universe is Freedom!

Now, the word ‘freedom’ is notoriously difficult to pin down, with most agreeing, with Schopenhauer, that it has only a negative definition something like “unimpeded.” However, something must have some initial impetus, power, or freedom for it to then be impeded! So obviously things in the universe must have some freedom: perhaps only the freedom of having mass and inertia “of their own,” allowing for an equal and opposite reaction to any impediment. Why is it so hard for people to view the universe’s constituents as participating in the free powers that are ‘the universe,’ instead of somehow seeing the whole as governing its parts, or worse still, viewing the symmetries within the whole (which we abstract as “laws of nature”) as governing everything, including the whole? Apparently it was not so difficult for the Greeks. Rollo May tells us that “Ancient Greek philosophers defined power as being–that is to say, there is no being without power. And since power is the ability to change, Heraclitus held that being is in continual flux.” This is why the universe was often imagined as a demiurge or later as Spinoza’s god: the universe is not dead and lifeless, but in motion and flux, so one must use dynamic terms in its description. My friend was claiming that the word ‘freedom’ is absurd, and I suppose I am finally coming around to this truth as well. The word is absurd, but only because the universe itself is absurd and necessitates the use of such terms in its proper description. What do I mean by ‘absurd’ here? Well, you see, the Intellect is built to look for the causes of things and to posit a “power” of causation between any two things that seem to be interacting causally. When the Intellect tries to understand ‘The Universe,’ it does this by trying to under stand it; that is, to find a perspective under or outside a giant bubble looking in on it. This immediately gives the impression that something could in fact be outside this bubble, causing the bubble to be perhaps. The very act of conceptualizing demands a “something else,” above and beyond the thing in question, as the thinker dimply recognizes something else in the picture, naively failing to recognize his self and the locus of perspective as responsible for this illusion. Thus, we babbling-super-apes ask such questions as “why is there something rather than nothing?” or “why is there a universe at all?” These questions ask for a cause of the universe, but causation is imminent; it is inside the universe, not outside of it governing the whole show. So the universe is un-caused: it just is! What are things that just are, for no reason whatsoever? They are absurd! Our Intellect has no purchase on them and must sputter to a halt just as soon as it gets moving on the topic. Nevertheless, the Intellect by nature keeps looking for something else standing under the Universe, some ground of being supporting, sustaining, and governing it all. That is, the Intellect is ruled by one imperious assumption: that there is an answer, that there is a reason. To reason about something is to assume its intelligibility. This assumption has allowed science to blossom and describe much of Nature’s workings, but the assumption needs to be questioned once this dialectic reaches a certain point.

When we “explain” things, we usually just describe the various constituent parts in enough detail that the things needing explanation no longer seems mysterious or can be deduced in some way. However, once this reductive process runs for enough centuries you get to bedrock: the theory of everything (TOE). This should take the tiniest parts and describe them so that all of the features of the greater macroscopic world can be deduced. If it were ever to succeed in producing this TOE, however, the Intellect, having seemingly fulfilled its raison d’etre, continues unabated, asking “why is the TOE the way it is?” After all, the clarion call of the Intellect is “everything happens for a reason (cause),” so what is the reason that the TOE has the particular shape that it does? Lets say for the sake of argument that the answer to life, the universe, and everything is 42. Great. Now why 42? Or, we could look at it this way: regardless of whether the universe had a beginning (the Big Bang) or whether it has always and will always exist, that fact itself is inexplicable! Think about it, in the Big Bang scenario there still remains so many questions: “why is there exactly that much energy in the universe,” “why was it so arranged initially,” “what caused the initial conditions of the first frame?”. Could it be that some of these questions have no answers? Could it be that some features of this universe, or its very existence in the first place, simply are, for no reason; that they are simply givens? If you can see that this must be so, then you can see the need for an absurd term like ‘freedom.’

Science is not explaining things in the sense that we would like to think; it only describes them. Science ultimately cannot explain anything! This is why Whitehead commented that “abstraction is nothing else than omission of part of the truth.” That is, because the Buddhists are right about everything being connected, to explain any one thing within the universe requires an explanation of the entire universe. To “explain” the entire universe in the naive sense would require that something under or outside of the universe exists and is causing it to be, and so too must that thing have a cause, and on and on we go in an infinite regress. No, the best we can do is describe the universe. But whatever the best description ends up looking like, the fact that it looks like that, takes that shape, and so forth, is entirely inexplicable! The universe just is that way and requires no metaphysical ground for its support. But oh how we humans long for such support! This is why one of the most compelling and seductive views in modernity is to view the symmetries of nature as being such a ground. We easily reify these laws as existent entities which “govern” the material cosmos, instead of seeing them as the material cosmos. They are symmetries within the cosmos, not the imperious masters reigning over the cosmos. Nearly every proponent of hard determinism makes this mistake of elevating causal powers to the status of “supernatural” puppet-masters, which somehow exist outside or over nature and control it with an imperious grip. Ironically, these metaphysical musings are produced in the spirit of dispelling metaphysics! Sam Harris claims that “the brain is a physical system, entirely beholden to the laws of nature–and there is every reason to believe that changes in its functional state and material structure entirely dictate our thoughts and actions.” This quote contains two massive confusions. First, it views natural laws as supernatural and second it views thought as something apart from the material structure of the brain, which acts on these thoughts and completely controls them. This attitude of the hard determinist to see everything as unfree and constrained eventually devolves into nonsense when you realize that the word “unfree” can only have meaning if something out there is free enough to be constrained.

The Intellect deals best with “things,” that is, material objects. It easily conjures up the idea of a physical entity for a reified relation; an object “impeding” matter instead of simply the limit of that matter’s freedom or power. This is the crux of the issue: the Intellect simply cannot handle ‘motion,’ as this is a relation between material things that itself doesn’t seem to have “thing-ness.” The concept of freedom is so opaque for the same reason that the concept of ‘power’ or ‘force’ is opaque: we can’t imagine these concepts in action by themselves but require some material things for them to act through. This is actually very truth preserving, because these relations do not properly exist like the objects in which they inhere. That is, the objects are the primary agent of change or motion, not some mysterious “law of nature” that controls them from some metaphysical plane or the throne of god.

David Hume has been vindicated by modern cognitive science in his view that the concept of causal ‘power’ is a projection of our own formative experience of internal motivational powers, an experience which forms the gestalt schema or metaphor by which we apprehend the larger causal powers in operation in the universe, the so-called laws of nature. In the words of Lakoff & Johnson, “It is conscious volitional human agency acting via direct physical force that is at the center of our concept of causation.” We understand gravity as an attractive force because we have experienced attraction, for example the compulsion of hunger. Samuel Johnson famously said that “All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience for it.” Given that it is the experience of our own active powers that allows us to theorize about other active powers, how bizarre that such reasoning would end with a pronouncement that the human being is un-free! The human being is the only thing that we are quite sure is free, because our concept ‘freedom’ is identical to that initial gestalt of internal power or causation we find only within him! Schopenhauer just took it one step further and asserted that this experience of impetus within us is also a profound truth about the universe, that it is the best possible description of the universe that we will ever come by. Recognizing that causation is imminent and not transcendent, he saw that the universe had no cause; that it was absurd. And yet it moves and evolves! How do you characterize such a phantom? Schopenhauer used the term ‘Will,’ trying to avoid any gods or demiurges while at the same time conserving the active, elusive, evolving aspect of the universe. I agree with his terminology but prefer to use the equally absurd concept of ‘freedom.’ Leonardo da Vinci may too have held this view, writing that “you must know that this same longing is that quintessence, inseparable from nature, and that man is the image of the world.”

We invented the word freedom in order to grapple with the arbitrariness or “givenness” of existence…its apparent lack of an antecedent cause. The word has sense and reference, though it defies static definition. ‘Freedom’ refers to or denotes ‘the universe’: the two are coextensive. Am I just explaining one mysterious term with another? No, there is absolutely no explanation intended here, but only mere description. Can we describe either term in better detail? Yes, thanks to science. Enough detail, perhaps, to produce a definition? No. You see, the universe is, and as William of Ockham correctly observes, “what is–is possible!” The word ‘possibility’ shares the same root as ‘power,’ namely posse, “to be able.” Whatever currently exists in the universe around you, well that obviously is possible! The universe has the power to produce it, or more accurately, the universe is the power that has become it. Because there will inevitably be a future, one full of all sorts of unimaginable possibilities, we don’t yet know what “is.” That is, the universe is like a large block of marble with an infinity of possible statues inhering within it and we do not yet know what the statue will look like in the future. We can’t grasp the range of possible possibility that is the universe. Furthermore, human beings are active parts of the universe and might play some part in determining exactly which statue is revealed next, chipping away from within, so to speak. Therefore, our definition of ‘freedom’ will continually evolve and grow with our understanding of the universe, but this understanding of the universe itself is a change in that universe! Therefore, ‘the universe,’ as well as its co-extensive descriptor ‘freedom,’ will forever elude definition. I don’t intend to obfuscate here, but only to impart something like the following formula:

Freedom=The Universe=Groundless Being=Power=Force=Possibility=Existence.

The universe is free of external constraint; there is nothing supernatural governing it. This basic, inexplicable agency or activity should be the basis of our attributing freedom to any constituent part of the universe, constrained as it may be by other active powers within the whole. All of the “parts” participate in this freedom, but do so by mutually constraining and enabling each other. This is the only abode of “unfreedom” or “determinism:” from the perspective of one part with respect to another. Theoretical science merely notes or describes all of the freedoms/powers of these parts, how they constrain and enable each other, how they break down into smaller and smaller constellations of freedoms/powers, and in doing so science gives ever more articulate sense to the word ‘freedom;’ a sense that is never complete and will never form a static definition that resembles Aristotle’s ‘essence,’ with its necessary and sufficient conditions (well, Haraclitus didn’t do bad, come to think of it). Pragmatic science takes note of the fact that constraints often give rise to new “things” or powers, emergent phenomenon, and attempts to imitate this fact in order to create novel “things” that serve the needs of man. But this unstoppable pursuit of understanding will itself change what the universe is, if only in the small way that such understanding now exists in a vanishingly small subset of objects in the universe, namely us. Just as some future robot scientist puts the last period on The Complete Description of Nature, he has partly invalidated it for having omitted the fact that the universe contains within itself a complete description of itself. The fact that it might be possible for the universe to contain a complete description of itself, within itself, should down right mystify you! Does your Intellect not cry out for an explanation? Why does the universe contain this miraculous possibility? And if it does, then why would I ever conclude that something like Free Will is impossible by virtue of “The Powers That Be,” given that they do not bar this other fantastical/absurd possibility? These powers and all powers are fundamentally inexplicable! They do not have nor require a cause for their existence and potency, which to our Intellect means one thing: they are absurd! If a TOE is ever achieved, this will make the universe strangely self-referential, and who knows what this will in turn change or make possible. Perhaps the second that the future robot scientist finishes his TOE a Socinian god will awake from his daydream and say to himself, “aha! I knew it. The answer was 42!” I doubt this possibility, but simply want to reinforce that because what is is possible, and we don’t know what will be, that is, what is possible, we don’t know what the universe is, and never will! We are an indispensable part of this grand show and will forever thwart its exact description if only because we are programmed to evolve perpetually, to change. Perhaps it is not simply man who refuses to be himself, as Camus holds, but the universe as well!

…the most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and most radiant beauty – which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive form – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of all religion. -Albert Einstein

This entry was posted in Free Will and Responsibility, General Observations, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Powers That Be

  1. Pingback: Materialism Is Magical | Think On These Things

  2. Pingback: Defending A Life Of The Mind | Think On These Things

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