By James Arvo (Pasadena, CA USA)
In "The Spontaneous Self" Paul Breer defends a philosophical position that is shocking to Western sensibilities; the thesis that free will is an illusion. Many would immediately reject this assertion as self-defeating, equating it with nihilism or fatalism. Undaunted, Breer carefully examines the idea of an autonomous "self" and finds, with Hume before him, that it is wholly without rational support. The implications are profound--and surprising--for Breer finds nothing problematic nor even troubling in dispelling this illusion; instead he finds that doing so leads to greater calm, and even to a more defensible notion of morality. To his critics, Breer is quick to point out that abandoning free will does not appear so outlandish when one considers the self-governing and organizing abilities of societies, which lack a centralized agency, and the fact that Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies have long ago cast off free agency.
One of Breer's objectives is to examine why we, in the West, cling so tenaciously to the idea of free will, for if it is an illusion the consequences are myriad and profound. As Breer puts it, "The thoughts which affect us the most are the basic metaphysical assumptions we make about the way the world works. Free agency is one of those basic assumptions." [p. 215] In the opening paragraphs of the book, Breer notes that we are indoctrinated into many beliefs that we scarcely question, such as that of free will, yet those beliefs do not hold up to scrutiny. Breer states rather dramatically that "It may be unrealistic enough, in fact, to qualify as a delusion, i.e. 'a false belief regarding the self or persons...that persists despite the facts...'" Breer claims that free will is essentially a homunculus, a vestige of Cartesian dualism, which is also behind the concept of god. "What makes free agency a specifically spiritual concept is the assumption that the agent's choices are not caused by antecedent conditions."
Breer finds nothing compelling, nor even desirable, in the idea of a "soul"; he finds instead both paradox and oppression. He asks, "How can it be that, in a universe where every other living and non-living thing participates in a chain of cause and effect, we humans managed to extricate ourselves from that chain?" He observes that "Our Western belief that individual souls remain separated throughout eternity, in heaven as well as on earth, creates a sense of personal isolation unknown elsewhere in the world." [p 219] According to Breer, there is a fundamental error behind this duality: "The error lies in inferring that if the organism is capable of thinking about its own thinking or perceiving the way it perceives, it must be a subject distinct from the experience it is 'having'". [p. 235]
Naturally, strenuous objections issue from those who wish to defend Western notions of morality, which are inextricably bound up with intention and free will. As Breer admits, without the assumption of free agency, the notion of morality loses its usual meaning. Actions are "simply normative or abnormative, i.e. they either conform to or deviate from agreed upon rules." According to Breer, "Many philosophers have worked hard to avoid this very conclusion, primarily because they can not imagine society's functioning without a belief in free agency." However, "...there is nothing incompatible between viewing behavior as determined while continuing to express moral judgments about it." In defense of this claim, Breer introduces the notion of "positional responsibility", which does not depend upon free will. According to Breer, "To say that I am positionally responsible for a given act means that, because the act arose here in this body/mind rather then somewhere else, I am liable for whatever the consequences may be of this arising." As a consequence, "When our responsibility is purely positional rather than moral,... deliberate punishment makes sense only if it has some kind of deterrent or rehabilitative value."
Breer considers what effect these conclusions have on individuals. "In blaming others, our belief that an agent inside the other person could have caused something less offensive to happen makes acceptance of the actual behavior far more difficult. The more freedom we assume that agent to have had in its choosing, the angrier we are likely to feel over the choice actually made." [p. 117] In a similar spirit, Breer makes the following observations: "What non-agency calls for is not forgiveness but acceptance; this is a cognitive rather than a spiritual process." [p 121] "Giving up the illusion of causal autonomy moderates our desires while reducing our temptation to engage in violent effort in order to achieve them. One of the primary effects of that changed attitude is a reduction in anxiety." [p. 153] "With the giving up of agency, speculating about either the past or the future becomes less interesting. We are drawn more intimately into the present..." [p. 178] "The key lies not in loving every moment or wishing for every event but in accepting whatever arises." [ p. 213]
I find Breer's thesis to be quite intriguing, and worthy of serious consideration. Breer makes an interesting case, both for rejecting the notion of free will, and for embracing its many implications rather than fearing them. Personally, I feel that Breer has overlooked some elements of human nature that have bearing on his theory, such as our righteous indignation toward those who do not share our values. However, I must join Breer, Hume, and legion Eastern philosophers in asserting that our notions of agency are perhaps more fiction than fact, and that it behooves us to gain a more realistic understanding of who we are.
If you intrigued by radical ideas and are not put off by philosophies that run counter to Western notions of morality, then you will likely enjoy this book. Breer posits his ideas very clearly, and explores the evidence and the consequences quite thoroughly. Whether you end up agreeing with Breer or not, it's an interesting journey. If nothing else, it's a great thought experiment. Amazon.com July 7, 2003
By Bob Miller "firstname.lastname@example.org" (Crozet, VA United States)
Throughout history, we humans have cherished notions of holding a special place in the universe. Although we have had to (reluctantly) relinquish the idea that the rest of the universe revolves around the earth, we rarely if ever question the perception that the inside each of us resides an agent of free will which is our essential self. Unlike plants, animals, and other phenomena of the natural world, we see ourselves as "uncaused causes" which are capable of actions free from the influence of genetic and environmental history. We believe ourselves to be like gods, having the supernatural power of uncaused causation. The Spontaneous Self presents persuasive evidence and logic that challenge this belief, and makes a strong case that in every respect humans are just as much natural products of prior events as the rest of the universe. Approaching the issue from the perspective of Western philosophy, Paul Breer's book is a nice complement to the books by Alan Watts, which have done so from the context of Eastern spirituality. Taking the issue to the next step, The Spontaneous Self explores the costs and benefits of giving up the idea of free will, making an effective case that we would be better off individually and societally by doing so. Throughout the book, the psychotherapist author cites his own experiences during an ongoing systematic program of self-therapy to rid himself of the free will illusion. Amazon.com May 10, 2001.
Eli Hirsch, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Brandeis University
"The book is written in an extremely honest and engaging style. It presents a remarkably detailed, thoughtful, and provocative challenge to our ordinary attitudes about free will. Whether or not one agrees with it, it deserves serious study."