Chapter Four - God, Fate and Free Will
What is life?: God, Fate and Free Will
These three topics seem too intertwined to be discussed separately. They form a consistent part of my reflections and are something which I often find great joy in discussing. I have attempted to discuss them both separately and in relation to one another. I shall begin by discussing how my views have so far been formed.
Chapter Four: Part I
How my views have been formed thus far?
I was brought up in a catholic environment and school, baptised, made my communion and taken to church until around age 13. At that age my parents left the choice up to me. I stopped going to church as I just felt I was going through the motions when I was there, repeating words and not putting any meaning into them. I maintained a belief in God throughout college and university. I would often talk to God, usually in a sense of wanting something – whether it be a partner, success with music etc. I think at one point I may have apologised to God for always seeming to be asking for something. When I moved to Birmingham I worked in construction and I continued what had become a regular drinking habit. Drinking has always been in my environment. I never seemed to enjoy drinking, certainly not excessively, but I kept doing it through my youth. As a child I was quite outgoing. The problem with drinking is that it releases inhibitions so when I first started, I would find myself getting a bit over-excitable when combining my alcohol induced lowered inhibition with my outgoing side. To try and counteract this over excitability, I began to inhibit myself when drinking, so not to do or say anything that I felt was overly excitable. This crept into my sober way of being as well. Because I had spent years alone, often slightly isolated from friends who lived away at university, with no partner, I became accustomed to drinking on my own, it was all no good. When I got to around age 23, I decided enough was enough; it brought me down as a depressive stimulant, it felt I wasted life and I became overly reserved through excessive inhibition. It was not beneficial for me. Throughout all this time I had maintained a belief in God and was reading the bible more and more frequently. As I decided to cut down my drinking, I internally said I was doing it for God, as well as myself, to be the person that God wants me to be. I recall a time when I had cut down for a few months; I returned home for Christmas and on Boxing Day, I found myself in the living room at midnight flying through some Belgium beers. I ended up getting rather drunk and when I awoke, I was furious with myself. I made a promise to God that I would not do that again. That was interesting, a promise to God, not to myself but to an external agency. I projected my desire onto him, as if letting him down would be a lot worse. At this time in my life I often spoke to God about my pursuit of a music career, praying daily that something would happen. I believed that any challenges that occurred, any negative things I experienced, they were meant to happen because God felt it was right for me, it was what I needed. I never became preachy (at least I do not think I did), but I became more and more communicative about my religious views, I felt I almost had to speak loud and proud of my love for God, otherwise I was letting him down; religion started finding its way into a lot of my music and lyrics. When I quit my job and moved back to Liverpool in 2011, I took up mindfulness meditation and read a little about Buddhism. I had begun to see the ruminating in my head as unproductive and mindfulness allowed me to observe and reduce some of the tiring cycles that this brought up in me. However, as my mindfulness practice increased, I began talking in my head less, which meant that I talked to God less. I would only talk consciously out loud to him, something I did not do often. As a result, my catholic based religious view started to dissolve little by little. I had also become far more involved in psychology, biology, evolution and such things. I began to open up to the idea that religion is perhaps a creation for the organisation of society. Carl Jung, among many others, discussed the role of religion in providing a moral compass which helps prevent the destructive natures of humans being realised (Jung, 1916). And this made sense to me. I stopped praying out loud and in my head, and I just worked with what was real in my life, what was in front of me in the moment. At the same time, I noticed that I started to accept my wish for a partner a lot more. These experiences led me to the view that I have today.
Chapter Four: Part II
So, given the experiences I have mentioned above, what are my current views on free will, fate and religion?
It feels starting at the question of God makes sense. Is there a God?
You may not be surprised to hear that my answer is ‘I do not know’. However, I shall excavate some of my thoughts beyond this middle ground. I admit that I do not know anything, nothing is 100% true as I am continually learning, sometimes things which contradict each other. That does not stop me having opinions; it just means that I try not to become too attached to any particular view. However, overly attaching is different from strongly believing. I do not believe murder is right and I maintain that view. I just try not to become too attached to it so that it clouds my emotion and judgement. For example, war and capital punishment could be seen as forms of killing and potential murder, however, is it always wrong? I would say so, but that does not mean that I outright condemn those that make the decision to do it - is it worth killing one evil dictator to save millions of lives, if that is the only option? In that instance it would be important for me to not be so strongly attached to a certain view that I cannot see the bigger picture. However, my personal view is that every single possible effort should be made to negotiate and work for resolution in a peaceful way, without harm, though I acknowledge this is a view which may only be able to go so far in world. I often wonder if I would like to be the leader of my country; one challenge that stands out is that I am not sure I could make the decision to inflict killing on others, even if it seemed like a necessity for the innocent – how do we make such a decision? I suppose we never really know how we will respond until we are in a particular given situation. Situations and experiences often serve up a different outcome or response than we may have previously thought we would deliver; reality is a different entity to imagination. Therefore, it is important for us to maintain belief and logic to our views, whilst remaining open to opposing arguments and perspectives. Right now, I would say that I believe in God. As my back story indicated, I used to hold a particular descriptive belief of God, a belief generally aligned with typical catholic/bible imagery. But my time with Buddhism along with my growing involvement with science and the role of evolution has left me unsure of whom or even what God is. The difficulty with the bible and things passed through scripture is that they have had human involvement. Every action by a human has a motivation which effects upon the action, therefore, words and stories of the past are constantly open to doubt.
If I look at the present, what evidence is there of a God?
I think we have to be open to God being something that we just cannot comprehend, beyond the label and description that we as humans have created and perhaps beyond a physical entity or object. But in one sense, this is what God is - it is whatever is right for the person. So many people seek strength and support in religion and God and if that works for them, what is the issue? However, when a person’s views on God leads to negative impact on others, particularly war and death, does this not then become an issue?
Perhaps there is a further distinction to be made, one between God and religion. God can be nature, can be a being, can be in heaven, can be in our genes, etc. But religion is something different. Religion is a faculty for a belief to be lived. Religion exists, it is a human creation. It exists in sport as well. It fascinates me how similar the experience of a football game is to the experience of church and religious groups. Believing in chosen ones (messiahs), feeling connected with brothers and sisters as supporters (congregation), feeling a bloodline to your club (Lord). People talk of how if you cut them open, they would bleed the colour of their team. This reminds me of the sense of people saying that God and Jesus are within us. In football, just like religion, there are many who partake with peaceful enjoyment, however, there are those who, due to factors such as in-group and out-group mentality, speak hatred and engage in violence with those outside of their group (team). So I am not sure that removing religion (in the traditional sense of the word) would remove conflict. It will always find its way through some means or other.
To return to the question of God; I have so far stated that religion can occur as a separate entity from God and at heart, religion is a channel for communicating a strong belief; this leaves us with the question of who or what is God? Before entering further on this discussion, perhaps free will and fate should be explored. I think these two subjects are intertwined with the question of God because if we are to say that they exist, the immediate question is who creates or controls them?
Chapter Four: Part III
Do fate and free will exist?
My over-arching view - as discussed in relation to ‘the one’ in chapter two - is that we have to live as if fate does not exist. In my religious phase, I found the idea of God creating fate extremely useful when things would go wrong; I would often think, ‘well, it has happened for a reason, God has set me this challenge’. Now, with my altered belief in God, I still maintain the same type of approach when responding to adversity, but I now think, ‘life has dealt me this, and I can learn from it’. It is the same process, but changing the external agency from ‘God’ to ‘life’. As an organism, my brain requires new experiences to learn. The reason we find something challenging, the reason it goes wrong is because we were unable to predict something in our environment and we experienced prediction error, i.e., pain, surprise, shock. Sometimes the surprise and shock is a good thing, a good feeling, so we learn to try and repeat whatever action we took to get this feeling. Sigmund Freud alluded to this when he discussed the pleasure principle and the death instinct (Freud, 1920/1955). In relation to the death instinct, he suggested that we spend our life trying to reach a point where we can predict everything and eliminate any shock and subsequent pain in life. The only time we achieved this was before we existed, therefore in some sense, we are aiming to achieve a state that is similar to death, in which we do not undergo any errors of prediction in the environment so that we are not shocked by anything (Freud 1920/1955, pp. 38.). If we remove the word death and the endless philosophical debates this has caused, he is basically saying that our aim as humans is to try and predict our environment.
The key notion here is that our brains are constantly trying to eliminate surprise, trying to reach a stage in life whereby we experience a constant level of satisfaction. The difficulty is that this is nearly, if not fully impossible to achieve in life, therefore we end up in cycles of rumination and worry, trying to think our way out of negative emotion, which in itself brings negative emotion (see discussion on ruminating after a break-up in chapter two). And yet in some sense, it is moments of pain, ones which do not endanger our lives but cause us some psychological suffering, which allow us to learn. We have to accept that we cannot predict our way through life, we have to accept the unknowns and challenges, and use them as an opportunity to learn as we navigate our journey.
The thing which surprises me is how often the right challenge comes at the right stage in life. But I am not sure this is fate, I think this is more likely because that is where my development is up to as a human in that moment. If I die and there is a God who says, “yes, all of those things happened for a reason”, then I would like to think I would say “ah right, that makes sense”. Just like believing in God, I think all that matters is whether a belief in fate and free will benefits a person. If my psychotherapy clients believe in something, I am not there to confirm or deny it. My only interest from a therapy perspective is that they make sense of things in a way which feels right and beneficial for them. One might ask “well what if what feels right for them is killing people”? I guess I have a fundamental belief that deep down, we are built to love, it is evolutionary beneficial. If people have a brain injury or condition, or internal processes which lead to psychopathic thoughts of wanting to inflict hurt and death, I cannot help but wonder if deep down they wish they could change it, that something does not feel right in killing. But this is an interesting question. If we got confirmation from a serial killer that they really, genuinely have no ill feeling from killing, no deep down negative feeling, perhaps reviewing their responses at an unconscious emotional level as well, we may be inclined to say that there is no soul and that our loving and kind behaviour is all brain based as it enables evolution of the species. I believe that love and compassion is our ideal state and that by harnessing these qualities towards ourselves and others, we will feel at peace. As a psychologist I have an ethical obligation to report if somebody is planning to harm another and I would report those occurrences when safeguarding is required. However, I would still actually want to work with this person, to get to the bottom of their thoughts and feelings and to see if there are things they would like to work on together. The difficulty is that this type of work takes time, something which services and such things do not always have the resources to provide in the current system design.
What are my reflections on death, especially in relation to free will?
I want to believe that there is some soul like entity of us remaining after we die. However, I am not skilled enough to know whether this is my genuine belief or my innate desire for immortality. When people talk of death, I have heard people find comfort in the idea that there is no point worrying about death because we will not be there to know that we do not exist. The problem with this is that it just makes me think of how I wish I was there to witness my non-bodily existence. I seem to be okay with death at the moment. I do not want to die, but I accept that I will. I live in the mind-set of thinking that I have got so long in front of me that there is no need to worry, and yet, I also hold on to the idea that death could occur at any point each and every day, as it helps me to put perspective on not overly worrying about the challenges, events and occurrences of each day. Death can be a useful tool to live. I do wonder whether, if I am fortunate to live to aged 90, death will be a lot more worrying at that age because nature is more likely to end things for me. Will I accept the idea of dying at an old age or will I always feel too young to die? The idea of death is certainly a motivating factor to believe in God. It provides comfort in the sense that when I die, I will go on.
As discussed in chapter three, there often seems to be two distinct groups of people in life; those who put a lot of value on family and children, and those who put a lot of value on their career. Each often reduces the other. But I wonder whether at the heart of both, there is a sense of wanting to achieve immortality. Our children carry our seeds, i.e., our genes. A successful career could mean our name is carried through the ages.
My own wish is this. When I am 92, I would love to be alive, sat on my chair, surrounded at a family party by my long time loving wife, my best friend. My children are around me and so are my grandchildren, love is in the room. However, I would also like to be sat there having accomplished a number of career goals - career goals which consist of me having an impact on the world. As much as my wish is for these impacts to be of benefit for people, they are also in some sense a wish to be remembered. So where does this come from?
I really want to help the progress of mankind, it gives me a kick and yet, I have no idea if I will be around to see it. So it is an inbuilt desire to contribute to the species. The wish to be acknowledged is because I want to feel like I have made a contribution across society and I suppose being remembered and recognised is a good barometer for knowing whether I have made a difference to people and to society (though it could be argued that every compassionate action is beneficial to society, beyond recognition). I love working with people one-on-one in therapy, as I feel I have made a difference to their lives, for the positive. I also get enjoyment from it as I love travelling the different paths and roads of the human mind, so I am learning as much as they are in our sessions. This learning gives me a great feeling. So it is possible that a wish for immortality is actually an evolutionary advantage, because our wish to be remembered leads us to undertake tasks which profit the species, both in procreation and in attempting to maintain and improve the environment/society. It should be noted that when I talk about being remembered and contributing to society, this does not necessarily mean on a wide, fame like scale. This relates as much to each of our social and work connections, no matter what the number of scale of people.
Pretending (for the sake of this reflection) that people read some of my writing - would I prefer to have my work acknowledged by somebody in my lifetime, but not so much in my death, or would I prefer my work to be unheard of in my life but acknowledged in death?
That is a tricky one. On the one hand, part of me says the former, as life is all about experiences. However, in the second option, if somebody acknowledges my work after my death, it means that I will be spoken of and in some sense kept alive for further time. But again, I cannot help think that life is all about experiences. Therefore, when I speak of the future, I speak as if I am alive and around to have the experiences, but I am not if I am dead, unless there is life after death. This demonstrates another reason why people may believe in God - immortality and the hope that the experience we have now will continue. This suggests that perhaps there is nothing more precious to human existence than experiencing life. Experience could be the meaning of life. We have a certain set of positive chemicals which are wired to encourage us to seek particular experiences which benefit the species. Therefore, the meaning of life could be to seek those experiences which best continue and develop the evolution of the species. But underneath this is learning, learning how to achieve those experiences, so again, I would scale this back to perhaps the meaning of life is experiencing life.
This does not necessarily mean bungee jumping off Niagara Falls. Experiencing life can relate to every moment, every step, every interaction with the environment, with people, with books etc. The aim is undertaking experiences as they provide us with learning and development, which subsequently allows us to continually harness new opportunities and experiences in life. This is a cyclical process which is wired within us so that we feel good by seeking new experiences. By seeking this good feeling we are able to learn new things and develop. This is a vital part of evolutionary development for the individual and subsequently, for the species.
However, which part of us is it which decides what experiences we undertake? What is it within us that decides what actions we will take?
What is this process of action within us?
I currently call this process, an ‘output action of being’ or OAOB for short. No matter what our unconscious memories, drives, emotions, or thoughts do, there is something within us which undertakes an action - an action of being. We can be sat down, with thousands of thoughts in our head or with any range of emotions, but our actual action may be to just sit in stillness and silence. I can sit here and say in my head, “I am going to move my left arm” whilst simultaneously actually moving my right arm. How many times do we plan or practice a scenario in our head, a conversation or activity, and find that the situation never materialises as we imagined. It is the case that in general functioning, our thoughts and emotions will influence our actions, but there is something beyond these aspects which makes the decisions for our organism. This is why I feel it is important to recognise that our body, our existence, is beyond the ‘I’ or ‘me’ in our thoughts, as there is clearly something else at work, which if it wishes, will oppose the request of the ‘me’ in my head. ‘Me’ is actually the bigger sense of our whole being and organism.
It is as if part of us collates information from all the unconscious and conscious processes, and develops an OAOB which integrates information from each of these components into an OAOB which is the most advantageous for our being, given our current situation and environment. Therefore, to understand if, how and where free will exists in our brain, may require us to understand if, how and where the OAOB operates. This is something I hope to pursue in future research.
One final note on free will; to investigate the question of free will requires a definition of the parameters in which we are suggesting free will might exist. When I talk of free will, I talk of actions and existence in the world, i.e., in life, in reality, in the space I live. If I was to say that free will involves my thoughts, then I think this is a whole other discussion. If I want to imagine myself on holiday in my favourite destination, scoring a goal for Everton or winning the Ryder Cup, I am free to do this. But these actions are not undertaken in reality, they are undertaken in imagination. That is why I believe it is an output ACTION of being which is what we need to investigate, in order to further understand the notion of free will. This may mean that the wording of free will needs to be altered into free action. We can all ‘will’ anything we want, as in, ‘wish’ or ‘choose’ to do something in our head, but this is different from an action. If I want to jump out of my window and fly down the street then I am free to choose whether I try this; but I have a suspicion it will not work, and given the height of my window, I would rather not try. The online Merriam dictionary defines free will as (1) the ability to choose how to act (2) the ability to make choices that are not controlled by fate or God (3) voluntary choice or decision (4) freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention (free will, 2016).
For me the question is, when have we chosen a choice? It could be argued that a thought is an action, that you may choose to think something and this is a fair statement. But I get the sense that we need to go beyond this and to define free will as an action. Our action may be to do nothing, rather than something. But it is still an action. What are your reflections?
Chapter Four: Part IV
Does fate exist?
To answer this question depends on what we define as fate. What is meant when we talk about fate? My interpretation of what I have heard from people is that fate means ‘something happens for a reason’. Everything happens for a reason; this is the law of causality. Therefore, fate does exist. People say you create your own fate. Again, this is true, because our organism creates processes which lead us to take actions and actions lead to the creation of further processes. But then people also say things like “fate dealt them a cruel blow”. At a base level, this is saying that causality - cause and effect - dealt somebody a cruel blow. I think this is a fair statement. The issue comes more when fate is ascribed as being delivered by something or someone, like God, and that fate is a purposeful challenge laid out by that God. Therefore, it is not possible to say whether fate exists unless you define what you mean by fate. The main opposition I can think to this view of fate existing as causality is if somebody stated that there is no such thing as causality, i.e., there is no reason. If we remove reason and causality, we remove the sense that anything has meaning; that there is literally no meaning in existence and that absolutely nothing matters – that things do not happen for a reason, they just happen. This is a very dark view, darker than death. Is it possible that God is reason? Is it possible that reason is what we seek, above all else. We are designed with reason within us. If we strip away the entire cortex (top layer of our brain), strip away all thinking and movement etc., then our organisms create two types of affect (emotion), positive and negative. That is reason. We interpret those affects to help us decide whether to approach or avoid something, that is reason. Then expand it to love, to friendship, to occupation, everything is based on the existence of reason. The very question and discussion of reason involves language, was language not created for a reason? Causality is approaching something; it is approaching a cause, for a reason. I think this might be the question and answer that we all often seek. What is the reason for anything and everything? Reason may be our God.
When I speak of reason, I refer to the human concept that we have placed on the word. It is probably beyond explanation. It is a belief that there is meaning. We ask about the meaning of life. We ask about the meaning of fate, of love. This whole book, it is about searching for reason. Heaven, hell, they provide reason. We are designed to search for reason - to try and predict our environments. When we think, we are trying to reason. There are multiple levels of reason, all existing at multiple levels of consciousness. Perhaps an example from my life would be useful.
Reasoning extends into literally everything we do. So, perhaps what we seek is the ultimate explanation. That is what we view God as, the answer of all answers. Even a physicist who does not believe in God - i.e., the human notion of a supreme being akin to the bible - they still have a God. It may be the time space continuum, it may be as Stephen Hawking hoped, one equation that answers everything, but at heart, it is reason. I wish I could stop there; it would be so much easier to just say that is it, that God is reason, an inbuilt desire of humans to seek meaning in the environment, in life. That God is a by-product of a necessary evolutionary mechanism. But, I still cannot shake the sense that there is something extra. How was all this created…atoms, protons, nature, reptiles and humans? The problem is that this may just be me seeking reason. So, at this point, I cannot do anything with this, all I can do is live my life and see if I can reason an explanation for a God beyond reason, remaining open to the answer being yes or no.
At this point, I need to say something about reason and living. It seems there are multiple ways to reason and how we do this defines how peaceful we are in life. We have to balance our reasoning, otherwise it can rule over us. This links back to finding a balanced OAOB (see above, output action of being). Reasoning requires all aspects of the brain, unconscious and conscious, cognition and emotion. I feel mindfulness meditation has allowed me to become closer to a balanced integration - I would recommend it. It takes time and patience, but time and patience are the things not just required, but to be learned for balanced reasoning. Meditation is about bringing awareness to the present moment, watching and noticing the thoughts and emotions occurring within us, but not engaging with them, allowing them to just be, allowing them to float by and returning back to the reality of the present moment you are in. When people try meditation, they often stop and start (especially at the beginning), something I can attest to doing myself. They succumb back to the chatter of the mind, of the cortex. Overcoming this initial challenge primarily involves developing the ability to be patient, but also, it is helping us to begin to hear and trust that under layer of the inner decider, trusting our OAOB. It has taken me years and I still struggle, so I would suggest that you do not expect a quick process. I would also say that the key is to not expect a process at all. By this I mean that we have to release the attention that we give to our thoughts (our cognitive reasoning faculty), to actually come closer to improved reasoning. We can focus on being in the world, which can allow us to see things clearer.
So let me insert my current conclusions to see if I am satisfied with what I have currently posited. I do not know whether God exists as a super natural, omnipotent being, but it is possible that God is reason. Our brains are designed to try and predict everything in the environment, therefore, it makes sense that we idolise the notion of something which is the answer to everything, the route of all reason.
Fate exists if we believe that everything happens for a reason. To say that everything happens by chance and with no purpose, this cannot be true, because we as humans have created these words, we have created the concept and definition of fate; therefore, the definition of fate has to in some way align with human processes if we are making sense of it as humans. Our language creates causality. The fact we have language is to communicate, this in itself is a cause. I cannot see how anybody could deny causation, even at the micro level. Breathing, moving your eyes, the larger sense of socialising, working, having children; there is meaning in every aspect of life. The question then becomes, what is the meaning of life? That is a separate discussion to fate which, though I have touched upon in this chapter, I will discuss further in the final section. However, fate can exist independent of meaning. Cause may not have to have meaning. Wait no, it does! Everything has meaning. Even if its meaning was that it had no meaning, this would still be a meaning. I think the question people may ponder more with fate is ‘does somebody initiate it’?
That is a different question as to whether fate exists and basically goes back to the question of God. If we say that God could be reason, then that suggests that reason does initiate fate. The opposite view of this would be that things happen for a reason, but that there is no end goal to reason. So, to extend, perhaps we are saying not that God is reason, but that God is reason’s ending. Does this mean that God is in fact purpose? I do not like this phrase as again, it is open to a socially constructed definition of purpose. So, perhaps it is best left that God is reason.
In terms of free will, I wonder if we first need to investigate how it operates within us as humans before we even approach the question of whether our actions are driven by an external agency, be it God, spiritual or nature. We can see that free will does not exist solely on a conscious level, as we have implicitly/unconsciously decided what to do before we are consciously aware of it. Therefore, if free will exists, it also exists below our conscious reasoning ability. This goes back to my call for further investigations into the OAOB. Once we remove the notion that the ‘I’, the ‘me’ is this internal voice in my head, we can be open to the fact that the deeper sense of who we are may lie outside of our awareness. There is a need to understand the various levels of our brain and mind. This is how we become closer to an integrated sense of self. There is a lot of information and processing going on underneath, which is being missed out on. The danger with the underlying drives is that a lot of them are over primitive. The cortex, the higher order of thinking, allows us to inhibit some of the destructive impulses which have been at the root of crime and destructive actions etc. This is why religion is important. It is by learning religious structures, morals and such forth, that we are better able to inhibit primitive desires which may possibly have led to the destruction of humanity; that said, my definition of religion is different from that of faith, people can develop their own morals outside of a denomination, but I would think that they still learn and develop morals from another organised body – namely, society. Therefore, society in itself could be called a religion.
I am beginning to realise that this sounds like the more sub-cortical aspects of us, generally below conscious awareness, are the real ‘I’ and this is not what I mean. The closest we can get to an ‘I’ is via an integration of the brain and mind. This suggests that there is no single piece of me within my brain. This suggests that there is no soul. As I wrote that, I literally felt ill. It goes against my hope, it makes me anxious and it makes me scared. Despite all the science, all the philosophy, there is still something inside of me which holds onto God and holds onto the idea that there is an eternal aspect of me. When I make a decision that feels right I get a release of chemicals, a little shiver down my back. What is this inner sense? What is it within me that - beyond anxiety and pain - puts me off kilter when something is just not right and gives me peace if something feels right; what is it that defines exactly what is wrong or right? Is it evolution?
I think I can logically disprove God and the idea of the soul, and yet, there is something deep inside which tells me I am not quite sure if I am right.