Free Will: Is it Real?

Every few days on the blackboard outside my neighborhood café, Sandy, the owner, posts a new gem of wisdom.

Yesterday as I rushed past with my takeaway chai latte, I glimpsed these words: ‘The body is the servant of the mind.’ Which got me thinking: what if the mind is, in turn, the servant of the soul? Now before you think I’m about to get all mystical on you, I’m going to refer to a study on consciousness conducted by the psychologist Benjamin Libet in the 1980s. His experiment revealed that seconds before his subjects had a conscious intention to move a finger, there was a signal in the brain. His results, which have been hotly debated ever since, imply there is a driver behind our conscious thoughts – be it our subconscious or some external force.

Thirty-five years later, when it comes to our own brains, we’re still fumbling about in the dark.

Are we merely avatars of a celestial consciousness? Creations of an artist or novelist in a higher dimension? Or travelers on some preordained journey?
Are we merely avatars of a celestial consciousness? Creations of an artist or novelist in a higher dimension? Or travelers on some preordained journey?

Most of us believe we are masters of our own destiny. So does a belief in our own agency make us behave more morally? If at some point in the future, science proves that we don’t have free will, how might this change the way we treat others?

What an exquisite paradox! The deeper we go down this rabbit hole the more complex it becomes. What do we really mean by free will anyway? Are we just fiddling with semantics?   After all, like all life on this planet, we are constrained by our own biology and, in the case of humans, by our cultural indoctrination.

If we do eventually learn we don’t have free will, we may also discover the source of that force that drives us – be it some transcendent self, a collective unconscious or something we don’t even have a name for yet. And when we unravel this mystery, it will turn many religions on their heads and be as life-changing as discovering earth is not the centre of the universe, or communicating with sentient life on other planets.

However, if history is anything to go by, the person or people who discover the true source or impetus behind consciousness may well be ridiculed or professionally/physically assassinated for spreading unrest and corruption. My guess is it’ll take a few hundred years for their ideas to be absorbed into the human mindset.

I doubt however, these epiphanies will come in my lifetime. In the meantime, harbouring the illusion that I do have free will, I’ll continue to post these blogs and buy the best chai lattes in Sydney from Sandy’s café. All while enjoying her complimentary morsels of wisdom.



Drunken Monks and Brain-dead Bots

Out in the physical world, most people respect those ‘no advertising circulars’ signs many of us have on our doors or letterboxes. Sadly, the same doesn’t apply to the world of digital real estate.

Despite having a polite sign on my contact page saying: No advertisers. Please. I’ve had messages from entities with convincingly human-sounding names like Brad and Susan trying to sell me marijuana bongs, advertising spaces, weight loss products and ab builders.

In addition, I’ve had personal emails from people/ bots offering services that will increase my hits. I think the word for what we all feel when we encounter this kind of spam is IRRITATION.

With regard to the latter, may I just add here, that the last person I’m going to want to do business with is someone (or something) who disregards or can’t read a simple request sitting right in front of them.

There. I feel better now I’ve got that off my chest.

Speaking of persistent sales people, hustling for business is, of course, as old as civilisation.

Back in the Middle Ages, people not only sold merchandise but blessings from God. It was one of the reasons the reformation was inevitable. Particularly when the sales people were intoxicated; which rendered them about as sensitive as bots.

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Here, Marjit encounters one damned persistent sales person:

I nearly jump out of my mist-shrouded shoes. I swivel to see a shabby monk wobble from the shadows of an alley piled with firewood next to the Church. Hairs sticking out from his poorly groomed tonsure, red-nosed and rheumy-eyed, he regards me with a beaming smile in possession of three rotting teeth. He belches as he places the tankard of ale he’s holding onto a chopping block. “Praish the Lord,” he says, crossing himself. “I can help you find shuccour.” He nods towards the Church. “No need to go inshide. Shtay out here. I can give you a dishcount.”

I open my mouth to decline, but he interrupts. “You look like a woman in need of confesshion,” he slurs. The mist clears for a moment, revealing the tattered hem of his robes, worn sandals, cankered feet and filthy toenails. I blink and rub the tears and drizzle from my cheeks.

“Ah. Shoulfil mishery,” the monk says, his eyes briefly crossing, “I’ve sheen it before. Confesshion and benedickshins will put you right.”

He raises his woolly eyebrows. “I’m cheap,” he adds. He points to alley. “The confesshional of the fallen,” he slurs, “available for those whose shins prevent them from shtepping inshide a church.”

He steps closer and buzzes around me, as persistent as a blow fly. “Confesshion will unburden you,” he insists.

I regard him with increasing discomfort. He smells awful. Again, I think of the clean mosque I would rather enter. I shake my head. “No. Thank you. I will only be tempted to, in turn, deliver a cheap confession.”

He may be drunk but he’s alert to my trepidation. He puckers his flabby lips. “A cheap confesshion is better than no confesshion,” he replies. “Shpeaking of your illsh, releashing them from the devil’sh grip will eash your pain,” he slurs, “and bring you closher to our Lord.” He punctuates this last exhortation with another loud belch.