Tuesday, April 26, 2005

"Free will," discipline, nirvana, and why Calvin was wrong

Joe Carter writes on free will today, and in doing so unknowingly points towards the weakness of what can only be called "Protestant psychology."

Carter writes:

To “will at will” or to “desire as one desires” is completely different. In order to have that ability the will must not only be “free” but autonomous and self-determining. To “will at will” would mean that the will has the ability to choose for itself, divorced from motive (or, as you say, “desire”). If the will chooses the will, though, then the act of choosing is itself an act of choosing. But that would require and act of choosing to precede that act of choosing and so on, into an infinite regress of the will choosing the will.

But because the human being began in a finite point in time, the will also has to have a starting point. How then could the human will have begun to "will at will" if the act of choosing is predicated on an act of choosing?

This statement should be read with what Nietzsche wrote:

"Life consists of self-overcoming. I estimate the power of a will according to how much resistance, pain and torture it endures and knows how to transform into its own advantage."

Nieztzsche wrote this as a means of pointing towards a post-Christian future, but one that takes much from Buddhism. A Buddhist would phrase it differently, though; something to the effect of, "I would measure the efficacy of practice according to how much suffering, pleasure, attachment, and discouragement can be transcended and transformed for all beings."

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Human beings and animals have the ability to act in this way (even animals exhibit altruistic behavior). But they don't often do so; and in particular, humans can exhibit remarkable degrees of self-defeating neurosis, OCD, etc. You can "will at will" all you want, but without follow-through into action, this whole discussion becomes a jeu d'esprit, or as my father would put it, "mental masturbation."

Carter also writes

Whether she realized it or not, your friend was providing an example of true free will. Free will is making choices based on what we desire, not in being able to divorce ourselves from our own character and motives in order to desire that which we do not want to desire. If she were able to choose to sincerely desire that which she would never want to desire then she would not truly be a free human being.

I have previously said that in the argument of free will vs. behavioral determinism, for all intents and purposes, a) there is no decisve answer one way or another, but b) it appears as though we have an innate freedom to act- when discipline and practice is cultivated sufficiently.

Carter's text above here is quite tangled: "Desire" and "want" are really synonymous, and so if one could choose what one would not want, -to transcend want- one might argue that is freedom. As a result of practice, one can transcend what one desires- even the desire to transcend desire (and in so doing rid ourselves of the stench of enightenment). When we have this degree of transcendance, it becomes irrelevant as to "our" "character" and "motives." "When you find yourself where you are, there is a practice that realizes the fundamental point" wrote Dogen Kigen Zenji. This fundamental point is nirvana, where there is no birth no death no old age and death and no end to old age and death no suffering no craving no path no wisdom no attainment. It is a place where there is no hindrance in the mind.

This points to a rather big fly in the ointment: Carter's atomistic view of human psychology does not account for the fact that there is hindrance in the mind (save, perhaps by referring to it as "sin" or "utter depravity" to put it in Calvinistic terms). And because there is no account for this there is no prescription of a remedy of disciplined practice, but rather a belief that "faith alone" will "save" (and a very specific faith in a very specific deity). But this faith can never be really strong or effective without practice, which is excluded by the theology of faith alone.

And so there is widespread delusion, suffering, and torment.

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