Free Will and Following the Tao

Each week we address one chapter of the Tao Te Ching. The Tao Te Ching can be obscure, especially if you think you're supposed to understand what it's saying! We find it easier and more instructive to simply contemplate how the chapter resonates with your personal experience. Becoming more aware at this fundamental level simplifies life. This approach conforms to the view that true knowing lies within ourselves. Thus, when a passage in the scripture resonates, you've found your inner truth. The same applies for when it evokes a question; questions are the grist for self realization.

Chapter 48
In the pursuit of learning one knows more every day;
In the pursuit of the way one does less every day.
One does less and less until one does nothing at all,
And when one does nothing at all there is nothing that is undone.

It is always through not meddling that the empire is won.
Should you meddle, then you are not equal to the task of winning the empire.

Read commentary previously posted for this chapter.
Read notes on translations
Now, do it too at Wengu!


  • edited November 2007
    Free Will and Following the Tao
    [cite] Janell:[/cite]I don't know Carl. I think that "other species" react to circumstances on instinct alone. I wouldn't imagine there's a lot of thought put into what it does ... memories .... knowledge .... understanding the complexities of cause and effect ... things like that. Whereas, we humans do. And then, even after all of our "thinking", we choose to do it anyway. But, through a lack of self control, not a lack of free will.
    First I suppose we should ask what is free will. When asked, everyone I’ve spoken with always says first and foremost that animals don’t have it. This implicitly implies that circumstances and experiences are not factors. As a function of experience, wisdom would be excluded as well. So indeed, that would make free will a uniquely human ability. Thinking up a belief in free will certainly is uniquely human, but does thinking it's so make it so? Is an animal’s life simply driven by instinct, whereas only humans are ‘free’ to drive their lives as they wish?

    I think it is more likely that our species is driven by the same basic instincts as other species, with the big difference being that these instincts drive our big brain's thoughts. We live in a mental world often detached from ‘as it is’, which I suspect accounts for the deep sense of disconnection we have likely experienced as a species since language took over human consciousness 50,000 years ago, give or take. Religions have touched on this, e.g., Genesis, the Tao Te Ching, Buddha’s ‘mind only’.

    Brain scans indicate that there is an ‘after the fact’ aspect of choice, i.e., our thought to do something (free choice) lags a few milliseconds behind stimuli to the muscle. This indicates our thoughts are reflective of what happens, not causative. As our awareness is so extensively dominated by what we think, we tend to assume that the thinking is the initial ‘free will’ switch that get the ball rolling. Self discipline, and a lack there of, is the rationalization we have for why this ‘free will’ fails us. Read this for a more detailed review of the ‘free will’ issue. If you’re interested in the research on this, check out the links at the end of this post.
    [cite] Janell:[/cite]Wouldn't it be nice though to not have to make a choice? Wouldn't it be nice to just react on instinct alone and not have to concern ourselves with consequence? Not have to live with any regrets? To just naturally do the right thing without having to choose or learn better? To just be able to live ... and be "ok" with it all ..
    Oh, believe me, it is “nice”! Having let go of my long held belief in free will has been incredibly freeing. There is no change in my concern for consequences (i.e., animals feel such concerns also). The big difference has been a huge decline in feeling regrets (self judgments), and in judging other people! This has made me a little more pleasant to be around – a good thing. Furthermore, contrary to what one might think, it hasn’t made me less responsible, yet it has allowed me to drop thinking that I am responsible. I recommend at least considering the idea that we are simply animals, despite all that we think we are. It really is a more peaceful and inclusive view of life, for me anyway. When I see an ant crawling up the wall it is easy to feel and think, “there I go”.

    Personally, I find that only when I let go of my will and choice, free or other wise, do I truly begin to follow the way. Consider chapter 21:

    “The opening to virtue always follows holding only to the way. (孔德之容惟道是从)
    The way stands for: things of thought seem indistinct. (道之为物惟恍惟惚)
    Indistinct seems as if its center has shape. (惚兮恍兮其中有象)
    Faintly its center has something. (恍兮惚兮其中有物)
    Deep and dark, its center has an essence.”. (窈兮冥兮其中有精)

    I’ve found that the sense of clarity and certainty that comes with accepting free will as true tends to push that essence out of mind. ‘Indistinct, faint, deep and dark’, on the other hand, helps pull it into mind. Simply put, I can’t ‘follow’ when my will is leading.

    Resources addressing free will and consciousness in general:

    Free Will: Fact or Wishful Thinking?
    Probing the dynamics of personal choice and self control.

    Fly Moves: Insects buzz about in organized abandon
    Flies aren't deep thinkers. Yet these humble creatures display a penchant for spontaneous behavior that represents an evolutionary building block of voluntary choice, also known as free will, a controversial new study suggests.

    The Unseen Hand of the Unconscious Science News (Oct.30, 1999 Vol. 156, No. 18, pages 273-288)
    Recent evidence suggests that mental operations of which we remain unaware orchestrate everything from goals considered worth pursuing to our emotional reactions to others. These findings raise questions about the nature of free will.

    Consciousness Raising Science News, (Oct.10, 1992 Vol. 142, page 232.
    Dennett also remains skeptical of Libet's claims to have shown that the decision to flex a finger begins unconsciously about one-third of a second before awareness of the decision, although volunteers can consciously veto the act of flexing before it actually occurs (SN: 4/26/86, p.266). According to Libet, this finding suggests that free will, if it exists, selects among and controls unconscious urges rather than initiating those urges.

    The two psychologists agree with Libet that conscious experiences lag slightly behind the brain events that evoke them. Thus, brain processes that work rapidly the calculation of an object's orientation, for example – evade awareness, while slower processes, which coordinate perception, memory, and movement, enter consciousness more easily, they argue.

    Rethinking the mind: Cognitive science faces a philosophical challenge
    John R. Searle sees gaping cracks in the edifice of the mind constructed by cognitive scientists. Searle, a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, peruses the mental rules and representations and computer programs that buttress the cognitive citadel with the eye of a skeptical contractor. Watch out for falling bricks, he warns; the structure lacks the mortar of consciousness to hold it together.

    Smart shoppers use unconscious tactics.
    Consumers make better decisions about major purchases if they heed the power of their unconscious minds, say psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis of the University of Amsterdam and his colleagues.

    Consciousness in the Raw:
    The brain stem may orchestrate the basics of awareness.

    Ape Aid:
    Chimps share altruistic capacity with people

    Go Ahead, Rationalize. Monkeys Do It, Too
    For half a century, social psychologists have been trying to figure out the human gift for rationalizing irrational behavior. Why did we evolve with brains that salute our shrewdness for buying the neon yellow car with bad gas mileage? The brain keeps sending one message — Yesss! Genius! — while our friends and family are saying, “Well... ”
  • edited December 1969
    Hi. I haven't even read the whole post yet and I'm in the middle of something right now, but I just have to say animals are a lot more like us than we think.

    I have 2 dogs. One is 12 years old. When we put our dinner salads on the coffee table, the 12-year old does not gobble them down anymore. He did when he was a pup. Rudy, 4 months old, ate half my husband's salad last night before we noticed. Eventually he will learn.

    So, isn't that just like us? We grow older and wiser and "choose" our behaviors based on past experience. (I like to think it's wisdom; maybe it's only conditioning!) When we were younger, we were less wise/conditioned and got in more hot water. If animals acted only on instinct, the 12-year-old would always eat the salads.

    So either animals have free will, too, or none of us do. Can't have it both ways, me thinks.

    Sorry if I jumped the gun. And yes, my dogs eat salad; they spit out the lettuce and eat everything else. Also, yes, Rick ate the other half of the salad. We love dogs. :roll:
  • edited December 1969
    The only difference I see is that we think there is a difference, or rather, we think the difference is great. And naturally so for I suspect that species’ centric emotion (instinct) drives us to think we are greatly different from other animals. I imagine each species would think the same if they had the capacity for thinking that we have.
    [cite] Lynn Cornish:[/cite] So, isn't that just like us? We grow older and wiser and "choose" our behaviors based on past experience.
    Yes, “choice” is based on experience and emotional impulsive energy (needs and fears). The former would qualify for free will, if there were anything ‘free’ about it. However, isn’t it ‘paid for’ by the struggle that accrues though experiencing life - often through the latter? As animals live longer they become wiser, partly from learning through their experiences, and partly from a biological decline in youthful impulsive energy, i.e., the slower you jump up to act, the more chance you have to reflect. I think of this as pseudo free will. The more readily an individual can learn from experience, the wiser they may become which increases their survival chances. I’m thinking now of the wise old bass fish who is so hard to catch. It learned, while the fisherman’s dinner tonight didn’t. :wink:
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