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Many philosophers have argued that free will may be no more than a flattering illusion. Few have gone on, however, to spell out what life would be like without that illusion. In The Spontaneous Self Dr. Breer explores the many ways in which our everyday experience is likely to be affected by giving up a belief in free will. Topics include guilt, pride, credit, blame, ambition, fear, identity, power, and love. His analysis of what we stand to gain and lose by changing our beliefs draws upon the results of an eight-year attempt to dispel the illusion of free will in his own life. The Spontaneous Self describes the cognitive-emotional techniques he devised for uprooting the illusion of free will and the personal transformation that followed when he put those techniques into practice.
TABLE OF CONTENTSPreface
IN SEARCH OF THE HOMUNCULUS1. An Overview of the Agency Problem
2. What Does It Mean To Say I?
3. How Do I Know That I Exist?: An Experiment
4. Linguistic and Social Origins of Free Agency
A QUESTION OF SURVIVAL5. The Self-governing Organism
6. Moral Responsibility and Social Control
PSYCHOLOGICAL IMPLICATIONS OF GIVING UP FREE WILL7. Blaming Others, Blaming Ourselves
8. Beyond Pride and Virtue
9. Releasing the Wheel
10. Going Gentle Into That Good Night
11. The Will to Power
12. Emotion: Torrents of the Soul
13. Love and Sexuality
14. Just Who Do We Think We Are?
DISPELLING THE FREE WILL ILLUSION15. A Strategy for Giving Up The Ghost
16. A Dignity We Never Had
An Overview of the Agency Problem
Of all the beliefs that shape our thinking, feeling, and acting, few are more pivotal than those that define what it means to be a self. Like our basic assumptions about time, space, purpose, and truth, the assumptions we make about personal identity are instilled early in childhood and almost universally taken for granted from that point on. Despite the work of generations of philosophers and psychologists, we rarely question the validity of such fundamental premises even when there is good reason to suspect they may be distorted.
There is good reason to suspect that our Western notion of what it means to be a self is distorted. It may be unrealistic enough, in fact, to qualify as a delusion, i.e., "a false belief regarding the self or persons or objects outside the self that persists despite the facts . . ." (Merriam-Webster). Neither the facts of private introspection nor those of public observation support our traditional concept of who we are. If we go on clinging to our belief despite the evidence, it is perhaps because we find that belief flattering. What may be less obvious (and this will become the focus of later chapters) is the price we pay for that flattery.
The same belief that prevents us from seeing ourselves accurately has the effect of distorting the way other people see us and the way we perceive them. Those distortions, by altering our most common thoughts and feelings, ultimately find their way into every detail of our personal and interpersonal lives. Because the basic distortion comes out of a cultural belief, it affects people from all ethnic, class, and religious groups. While the delusion is most fully developed in modern Western societies, rudimentary signs of it can be found in every culture of which we have some record.
In the societies of Europe and North America where the delusion holds sway over educated and uneducated alike, it is protected by what Alan Watts called "an unrecognized but mighty taboo namely our tacit conspiracy to ignore who, or what, we really are." 1 The term taboo reminds us that our way of defining ourselves is supported by every institution in society, the church, law, family, schools and colleges, government, the media, even by the language we speak. In daring to violate that taboo, we risk more than censure. We risk exposing ourselves to the truth of who we really are. That truth, if and when we ever awaken to it, threatens to trigger an upheaval in consciousness and, in the process, to transform our most fundamental ideas about what it means to be human.
When I say that we have a distorted idea of who we are, I am not referring to the way we perceive and judge ourselves as individual personalities, although it is obvious that those idiosyncratic self-images have a powerful effect on how we feel and act. Nor am I referring to the Buddhist notion that we are deluded when we fail to see that our true Self transcends our particular body and mind. While the Eastern notion of the Self as the undifferentiated ground of being avoids the error I have in mind, it does so only by denying the reality of the individual personality.
In suggesting that we do not know who we are, I mean simply that the inner spirit or soul we take to be our real self is an illusion. Most of us automatically assume that there exists within each of us an agent or force that serves as stage director, overseeing our personal drama from the wings, ready to feed us our lines, cue our entrances, and in general see to it that we play our parts well. There are good reasons, however, for doubting that any such entity exists. When David H ume, the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher, looked into his own mind for such an agent, all he found was a stream of thoughts and sensations, but no self creating or even having those experiences.
Hume was only twenty-eight at the time he published his discovery in A Treatise of Human Nature. The critical passage has been quoted many times before but is important enough to be quoted again:
For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.2
Despite Hume's inability to explain to his own satisfaction what he had found, the suspicion that the self may be no more than an illusion has survived two hundred and fifty years of debate in the West. With the dawn of artificial intelligence and the recent explosion of discoveries in the neurosciences, that suspicion is more alive now than ever before.
What I mean by agent is what writers of a more spiritual age called the soul and what modern psychologists refer to as ego. Despite the difference in coloring, all three terms refer to a common animating
Publisher: Institute of Naturalistic Philosophy
Date of Publication: 1989
Length: 308 pages
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