Where does consciousness come from? Why do we think the things we think? Why am I blogging and bothering with any of this stuff? Most of us would like to think we do the things we do because we will ourselves to do them. I want to blog because writing helps me to organize my thoughts. There! That’s why I do it! But why do I like to organize my thoughts? Well, it helps me to think more clearly and understand why I think what I think. But why do I want to do that? I can write a litany of reasons why I blog that will eventually take me back to some time long before I even knew that the internet and pens existed. I will never get to the first cause of why I do it. At some point the reality is that the necessary conditions arose for me to write this blog and post it on this WordPress website.
I came across an article today in The Conversation by David A. Oakley and Peter Halligan that examines the question, “What If Consciousness Is Not What Drives the Human Mind?” Fair question. No one knows were consciousness arises from, it just does. The thing that likes to take credit for everything I do in life is just ego. That’s the thing I, and most people who talk to me, call Stephanie. She likes to think she wills stuff to occur. She doesn’t, she just thinks this. I promise this the extent of me talking of myself in third person.
Consciousness studies had advanced so little in the past century that in 2012, famed philosopher of mind, Thomas Nagel, called for a new paradigm in the scientific study in his book Mind and Cosmos. He found that reductive materialism was failing to come up with anything that could explain how consciousness emerged, so something new should take its place. This was not well met by the scientific community back then. And to be fair, this would open up the scientific pursuit of understanding mind and consciousness to all sorts of nonsense. But that didn’t mean that Nagel wasn’t correct about materialism being hopelessly stuck. While I wouldn’t say the mainstream scientific community has come around now, there are more and more scientists taking this call seriously.
Oakley and Halligan haven’t quite thrown their hats in the ring, but they are questioning previous assumptions about consciousness, even if seemingly still in the materialist complex. They are asking us to consider that consciousness springs up from non-conscious things. Our environment, experiences, our body chemistry, genetics, produce certain reactions in the non-conscious part of our brain which are then relayed to the conscious part of the brain through our personal narratives (ego). The thoughts arise in us and we act on them or don’t based on our wiring. So long, free will!
I gave up on free will about 15 years ago. This was difficult, I am a hardcore existentialist. Radical freedom was my thing in my early college years. I was rabid for Sartre, Camus, Nietzsche! I’m happy to say I still am. I don’t think one needs to give up their contradictions, so long as they can resolve the paradox at the end of the day. But free will seems a fool’s quest to me now. I’ve bought into a soft determinism. There are so many variables that make each person who they are, that there remains the illusion of free will. Have you ever noticed how many things in our world turn out to be illusions?
As I was reading this study, I realized that what Oakley and Halligan were describing wasn’t new at all. It was actually proposed about two-thousand years ago by the Gnostics. Carl Jung saw the Gnostics as proto-psychologists. They certainly understood the power of symbols and metaphor! But Gnostics such as Plotinus and Monoimos clearly state that our thoughts and ideas do not come from ourselves, we don’t will them into existence. Monoimos gives direct credit to the Divine found within each of us. Plotinus argues that we are merely passive observers in this life. Our actual thoughts arise from outside of us. We’re basically just along for the ride – the very conclusion of Oakley and Halligan.
In the book Jesus and the Lost Goddess, Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy note in Ptolemy’s Gnostic tale of the Demiurge, that neither the Demiurge nor his mother Achamoth (Sophia) are responsible for their actions, both good and evil, in the end. Both are set on a path by the Creator and only think they are their own agents. Their thoughts and subsequent actions arise from a greater consciousness, that of the Creator. Freke and Gandy argue that like Achamoth and the Demiurge, our egos carry the belief that we create our own reality and drive our own destiny, but what we put in motion to design our world are actually the universal archetypes that are already in existence (the Gnostics would call them the Aeons) in Universal Consciousness (pp. 167, 285).
When we realize that we’re just along for the ride, suddenly we have found radical freedom to just fall into who and what we are without the constraints of cultural conditioning. We can allow ourselves to be the sensory units of the Universe, here to experience the wonders of life in all of its forms without fear. It’s all going to be okay, the Universe has our backs! This doesn’t mean we are free of pain and sorry and life will only be sunshine and roses. Pain and sorrow are a part of life, but how we perceive it matters in how we move through the experience.
If we can learn to observe our thoughts and actions, we can have better experiences through our perception.
While I do not believe we have free will in this life, I do believe that we choose our lives in each incarnation to either learn lessons or to have a particular experience. Our freedom exists in where we choose to reside in a particular lifetime in the material realm. But once we get here? We watch. We learn. We come to certain realizations as we encounter different experiences. That’s the point of being here. To be truly free in this life, we must accept and submit to it whatever it is until we leave the material world again.