Determinism and Free Will

Again, if all motion is always one long chain, and new motion arises out of the old in order invariable, and if the first-beginnings do not make by swerving a beginning of motion such as to break the decrees of fate, that cause may not follow cause from infinity, whence comes this freedom (‘libera’) in living creatures all over the earth, whence I say is this will (‘voluntas’) wrested from the fates by which we proceed whither pleasure leads each, swerving also our motions not at fixed times and fixed places, but just where our mind has taken us? For undoubtedly it is his own will in each that begins these things, and from the will movements go rippling through the limbs.” ~ Lucretius

Many early scientists viewed the universe as deterministic and felt that if you could collect sufficient information you could predict future events with perfect accuracy. Modern science, however, is a complex blend of deterministic and stochastic theories. Free will in theology has followed a similar pattern. Most early religions adhered to the notion of theological determinism, where a god through some form of omniscience determines everything that happens. Some modern religious adhere to the same principles, while others have developed a more complex view, allowing for the possibility of free will at some level.

It is interesting to note that even amongst our most eminent thinkers there is no consensus on the matter of free will. The argument doesn’t just center on the nature of free will, it also revolves around whether or not free will exists at all!

While I possess neither the time nor the capacity to sift through the many complex arguments for and against the existence of free will, my current belief is that man has the capacity of free will although it is underutilized and abused far too often. It is underused in the sense that many people move through their days without much focused conscious thought as they bounce from one circumstance to the next as slaves of their subconscious reactions and static prejudices. It is abused in the sense that the choices they make are not born of inner wisdom, but instead, they are made out of unreasoned emotional reaction to something happening in their lives.

What about you? Do you believe that free will exists? If so, how can it be put to better use?

Truth and Goodness

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” ~ Albert Einstein

I’ve often marveled at the ingenuity of those standouts in history who dedicated their lives to the restoration of goodness and truth to their rightful place at the apex human understanding and function. It hasn’t been easy. Human beings have resisted this restorative process tooth and nail throughout the ages, giving every reason and excuse for not coming to the point of yielding every ounce of their capacity to the expression of goodness.

“The ideals which have always shone before me and filled me with the joy of living are goodness, beauty, and truth. To make a goal of comfort or happiness has never appealed to me; a system of ethics built on this basis would be sufficient only for a herd of cattle.” ~ Albert Einstein

In my estimation, the greatest hindrance to the restoration of sanity on earth is the obsessive pursuit of comfort. Human beings want comfort on their own terms. For each one, it means something a little different, and yet those differences always seem to conflict and contradict rather than complement one another.

Don’t get me wrong. Comfort is not intrinsically bad or evil, but it becomes so when its possession is put ahead of goodness and truth. Comfort achieved at the expense of goodness and truth is fleeting, hence the multitude of comfort-seekers in every corner of the earth.

“If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.” ~ C.S. Lewis

What percent of your energies do you devote to the development of a greater understanding of truth? What is truth to you? To me, truth is the pattern of principle, purpose, design and control that govern the expression of life as well as all creative activity.

The principles of truth are eternal, while their application is specific in relation to the need at hand. There is no “your truth and my truth,” for the truth is holistic and more importantly, never in conflict with itself.

The truth is the one thing that will set you free from a life of wishful thinking and despair. Get to know it and you will not be left comfortless! No matter how much the world challenges, criticizes and condemns you, you will be at rest if goodness and truth are your central concern.

The Spirit of the Age

“The spirit of the age is filled with the disdain for thinking.” ~ Albert Schweitzer

Learning to think is one of the most underrated and overlooked of the steps that lead to living a purposeful, meaningful and fulfilling life. Far more than developing the ability to ingest, digest and retain information, learning to think involves developing that uncommon sense called wisdom.

I once heard wisdom described as the “sense of the fitness of things” and I have yet to discover a better definition for this rare commodity. Wisdom comes only from those who are truly at rest in themselves and it only emerges through a heart and mind free of tension, fear or greed. Wisdom, in a way, is the natural expression of one who stands assuredly yet humbly in this place that is uniquely his or hers to occupy.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca once wrote that “No man was ever wise by chance.” Wisdom is not cleverness, neither is it the ability to manipulate knowledge. Wisdom, instead, is received as you learn to think in the sense that I believe Dr. Schweitzer was describing.

Every flash of inspiration or stroke of genius was nothing more than the evidence of an individual who was, at least for the moment, open to the ever-flowing fountain of wisdom. Thinking is much more than mental machination. Thinking involves both heart and mind, and both must be at peace for the windmills of your mind to work properly.

Have you ever focused intensely on resolving a problem and then walked away from it for a moment, forgetting about it in the process and then somehow had the solution magically and suddenly “come” to you? Well, duh, you came to rest for a moment and voila, the wheel could turn and wisdom flowed freely.

Your level of education is no more a measure of your ability to be wise than your shoe size is a measure of your ability to run quickly. Neither is your relative accumulation of “street smarts.” Wisdom comes only to those who are captains of their soul, those who have come to the point where they are not defined by the outer things – clothing, looks, social position, wealth, wit and so on – but instead those who are at rest in themselves.

You can and should be an aperture for the expression of wisdom into the world you center. Don’t be afraid of thinking, truly thinking. There is an old saying: “Teach a man to think he thinks and he will love you. Teach a man to think and he will hate you.” Well, I for one stand ready to be hated if those are indeed the terms.

Thinking in the sense being described here is a tremendous privilege. It is the means by which purposeful, meaningful contributions are made. Without thinking you may live a life that feels comfortable at first, but in the long run you will miss out on the fulfillment of your life’s true purpose.

Reverence for Life

Albert Schweizer, Image by Wikipedia

The holidays are fast upon us and I had the good pleasure of watching A Charlie Brown Christmas with my sons after dinner last evening. At one point in the show, Linus mentioned that Albert Schweitzer’s dislike of Christmas stemmed from the fact that he did not take kindly to writing thank you notes. I hadn’t heard that name in a while, so I did a little digging…

As you may know, Albert Schweitzer won the Nobel Peace Prize for his philosophy of “Reverence of Life,” which is translated from the original German phrase “Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben.” The compelling ethical philosophy was best summarized by Schweitzer himself in his book Civilization and Ethics: “Ethics is nothing other than Reverence for Life. Reverence for Life affords me my fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil.”

The idea came to him after a period of deep thought in Gabon in 1915 as he was developing the Albert Schweitzer Hospital. Again, Schweitzer tells it best:

But what is civilization?

The essential element in civilization is the ethical perfecting of the individual as well as society. At the same time, every spiritual and every material step forward has significance for civilization. The will to civilization is, then, the universal will to progress that is conscious of the ethical as the highest value. In spite of the great importance we attach to the achievements of science and human prowess, it is obvious that only a humanity that is striving for ethical ends can benefit in full measure from material progress and can overcome the dangers that accompany it…” “The only possible way out of chaos is for us to adopt a concept of the world based on the ideal of true civilization.” “For months on end I lived in a continual state of mental agitation. Without the least success I concentrated – even during my daily work at the hospital, – on the real nature of the affirmation of life and of ethics and on the question of what they have in common. I was wandering about in a thicket where no path was to be found. I was pushing against an iron door that would not yield.

In that mental state I had to take a long journey up the river…Lost in thought I sat on deck of the barge, struggling to find the elementary and universal concept of the ethical that I had not discovered in any philosophy. I covered sheet after sheet with disconnected sentences merely to concentrate on the problem. Two days passed. Late on the third day, at the very moment when, at sunset, we were making our way through a herd of hippopotamuses, there flashed upon my mind, unforeseen and unsought, the phrase : “Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben” (reverence for life”). The iron door had yielded. The path in the thicket had become visible.

You would think that breakthrough moments like that are unforgettable, but I have known many people who have “seen the light” or put in different terms, recognized their life’s purpose and then for one reason or another have turned their backs on it. Fortunately we have the example of Dr. Schweitzer (among many other great leaders), who never gave up on his passionate quest to discover a universal ethical philosophy.

A passionate, thoughtful, purposeful life is a life worth living. Anything less is a compromise, a deliberate refusal to let the vibrancy of life course through your heart and mind and out into the world through your expression.

The will to live is the one thing that no one can ever take away from you. Life has a magical way of finding expression through even the most limited and barren places. If given the chance, a literal or figurative womb, life will spring forth abundantly.

Take time this holiday season to renew your reverence for life. Magnify its blessings by extending blessing to the world around you. Remember this always: your fulfillment is directly proportional to your reverence for life.

Der Friede sei mit dir. Peace be unto you.

Hasty Judgment

“A hasty judgment is a first step to recantation.” ~ Publius Syrus

I have an acquaintance who is one of the most outstanding examples of someone who is hasty in judgment, but slow to recant. Both are curses to her and I wish there was some way that she could be free of one or both, for she is a dynamic, intelligent and otherwise capable person.

Some people are so convinced of the rightness of their perception of everything that they leave no room for the possibility that they may err in their interpretation of the facts. They see the world through a glass darkened by assumption and prejudice and they are quick to act as judge, jury and executioner in any situation they encounter.

Challenge such people on their assumptions – even with a presentation of the facts – and you are likely to be parried with defensiveness, arrogance, wide-eyed fanaticism or if the person is more passively inclined, with self-pity, shame, and other strategies that seek to convey the idea that “well, if I am wrong in this then I am a useless and worthless person” while deflecting attention and obfuscating the necessity of recanting.

More often than not, assumption stands between its possessor and the truth of the matter. If you base your argument on a faulty assumption, no amount of logic will steer you to the truth. Think of the seemingly unassailable arguments that supported the theory that there are six elements – carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, phosphorous, sulfur and nitrogen – elements essential to life. All of that vanished the other day with the announcement that a bacteria was found that used arsenic as a substitute for phosphorous.

If you are prone to jump to concussions – err, uh, conclusions – you are wise to reconsider your approach. You can only sustain so many head injuries before you are deemed to be as mad as a hatter.

If you base an argument on an assumption, do what you need to to verify those assumptions before building a house upon that foundation. To the best of your abilities, verify first hand. Don’t by swayed by the opinions or interpretations of others. Instead, ask, look, listen. Check, double-check, and look once again. If you’re wrong or unsure, it is much easier to recant before declaring your misperception publicly.

Be Ye Therefore Perfect. Seriously? Seriously.

My youngest son (4 years old) passed the weight test to climb the 24 foot rock wall at the Atlanta Zoo (40 lb. minimum) the day before yesterday and he made a bee line for the top, rang the bell and belayed down. He never hesitated, he remained focused on the goal and he never relinquished control of his body, mind or heart. I can say without qualification that he was perfect, absolutely perfect in that moment!

Speaking of the “p” word, I find it curious that the mere idea of perfection tends to freak most people out. Those who see perfection as tenable are branded as snobs, idealists or arrogant, while those who are convinced of its impossibility possess the perfect excuse for explaining away every failure under the sun.

The idea that human nature is flawed and that human beings are imperfect is one that proponents of science and religion are drawn to like moths to a flame. In religious circles, there is general agreement that we were once “good” but due to an unfortunate and willful bad decision we became sinners in need of salvation. In scientific circles, the notion that perfection is our birthright is blasphemy because we are evolving from our humble beginnings as self-reproducing RNA toward an ever better, more complex future, albeit one that is likely riddled with chaos and imperfection.

It’s hard to mention perfection without also thinking of a remarkable man who walked the earth some 2,000 years ago, a man who has been in many people’s thoughts ever since. He, more than just about anyone else in the centuries that followed, taught that perfection was possible and available to all who sought it. While his teachings were organized and at times rather tragically twisted into religions and codes of behavior by those who were inspired by his wisdom, I do suggest that anyone who longs to live a creative life spend a little time reviewing the observations on life attributed to him.

At a certain point in his life he was purported to make the injunction: “Be ye therefore perfect…”, an electrifying and polarizing commandment that proved an unpopular thing to say to those living on earth at the time. The shock wave produced by that notion has haunted the consciousness of man for nearly two thousand years, leaving a freshly pressed impression on the minds of men that begs the question from generation to generation: “Is perfection possible?”

I believe that it is. Allow me to explain. For starters, perfection is not what most people think it is. It is not static, fixed, unchanging; neither is it passionless, sterile or detached from the quotidian affairs of men. Instead, it is dynamic, fluid, malleable, commodious, energetic and peaceful. Perfection is a floating band of possibilities, not a linear path of all-or-nothing choices. No matter what you believe or don’t believe in, the stand you take on perfection determines the impact you will have on the world through your living.

Why would one of the most remarkable human beings to grace this planet issue such a command if perfection were not possible? To mock us? To give us something to aim for to keep us off the streets? No! He believed and revealed – from what I can see through the lens of history – that perfection is available to each one.

It can be challenging to see through the matrix of concepts, opinions and beliefs that shroud the perfection revealed at that time and non-religious people often mistakenly throw the baby out with the bath water by saying that religion is bunk and therefore what he offered is not worthy of consideration. But if you take a close look, it’s hard not to leave room for the possibility that just about everyone in the world today has it wrong. How specifically? Well, the widely accepted and chanted mantra: “nobody’s perfect” couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Such mistakes have happened before, haven’t they? Just because the majority believes it to be a certain way, doesn’t mean it is so. No amount of human opinion can overturn the reality of the situation, for logic that proceeds from a faulty premise is flawed, no matter how elegant the structure formed thereby.

Well then, what are the options? As I understand it at this point in my life, the options are as follows:

  1. Refuse to believe that perfection is possible. Claim that “nobody’s perfect” – not you, not me, not anybody – and declare the case dismissed. The options with this choice are: (a) pick apart anyone who comes close. Destroy them if necessary or (b) strive for progress but never perfection.
  2. Believe that perfection is possible but only for a God or gods in human flesh. “They can do it but I cannot really be expected to.” The options at that point are: (a) don’t even bother trying, (b) make a half-hearted attempt, for it is better to die a failure than to never have tried or (c) accept the idea that you can get a free pass somehow without doing the work yourself.
  3. Believe that perfection is possible for anyone and everyone given the proper education. Learn the keys to wisdom – that uncommon sensitivity to the right choice in any situation – and unlock the door to perfection in the circumstances that come your way.

The refusal to accept the possibility of perfection – here and now – is the perfect way to guarantee mediocrity. If perfection is not possible, then so too is:

  1. Being in the right place at the right time
  2. Doing the right thing at the right time
  3. Saying the right thing at the right time (le mot juste)

Why not take a stand on this issue? Why not rise to the call that has echoed through the ages and accept the responsibility for the expression of perfection? You needn’t adhere to one religion or another to be open to the possibility of perfection and the fact that you deny its possibility doesn’t make you scientific.

I have a hunch that we’ve made it much harder for ourselves that we need to, much as an “experienced” adult would let his fears, doubts and convictions stand in the way of climbing a rock wall without hesitation, in the pure and unencumbered fashion of a 4 year old. “Well,” you say “life’s just not that simple.”

Well, maybe you’re right. If you are convinced that perfection is not possible, it is unlikely that you’ll do what is required to reveal it consistently. Conversely, admitting that it is possible is the first and most important step in the process that leads to its consistent revelation in and through you.

The Antidote to Premature Aging

 

Photo Credit: Lisa DeJong

A friend of mine told me that she was inspired by the example of others recently to start a new hobby. The hobby she chose, rowing, met several criteria for her as it was outdoors, involved opportunities for solitude as well as social time and provided exercise without physical exertion being the central focus. I wish I had a camera so that I could share with you the light that was in her eyes when she described her new-found passion.

 

Hobbies provide avenues for self-expression, personal development and  change in rhythm. My college soccer coach, who was a marathoner himself, taught me that varying the rhythm in distance running can provide for better performance and greater mental alertness over the long haul. The same could be said for your daily rhythms. If you are stuck in a “it’s time to make the donuts” repetitive rhythm, you might want to consider shaking it up a bit.

It is so easy to get into repetitive patterns that turn lightly-worn paths into ruts over time. I once heard someone say that the only difference between a rut and a grave is the depth and I feel strongly that everyone should find ways to have variety in life, to fill out flat spots in development and to express themselves more fully throughout life.

Consider this: no matter how old you are right now, dear reader, you are as young as you will ever be for the rest of your life. It’s never too late to start! Take up that hobby or activity that you’ve always thought would be interesting. What do you have to lose?

An active body and an active mind are an effective antidote to premature aging. Likewise, a balanced oscillation between activity and rest makes for better sleep, greater productivity when awake and a progressively more influential life. I find it strange that many people seem to give up on the idea that they can live generative, influential lives right up to their last living breath.

One of my readers, “FlyingGma” (Flying Grandma), is a grandmother who took up flying very recently in her life. I loved to hear her story and continue to enjoy reading her posts on her travels. Life needn’t be a bell curve, where you return to inactivity and impotence in your latter years. In fact, life can be and should be an ascending spiral, where its actors soar ever upward like a hawk in a thermal.

If you find something that lights your fire, that pushes you to perform closer to the edges of your present envelope and that calls for something new from deep inside of you, I will assure you that the rest of your world will benefit. Passion is contagious! Even the dullest aspects of your life will receive a breath of fresh air if you allow yourself to open up in new ways.

Gird up your loins, as they used to say, and enjoy a new challenge. The nature of the activity doesn’t matter; it could be physical, intellectual, esoteric, practical, serious or outrageous. The fact that you dive right in and let your mind and heart be caught up in a new field of creative expression is what truly matters, for flow begets flow.

I imagine that some of you have taken up new hobbies recently while others are contemplating them. Please share your stories! I’d love to hear them and how they affected your worlds.