The Brain in Pain

You can stop reading now, if you want. Or can you? Are your decisions really your own, or are you and all other human beings merely spectators in the mind-arena, observing but neither influencing nor initiating what goes on there? Are all your apparent choices in your brain, but out of your hands, made by mechanisms beyond, or below, your conscious control?

In short, do you have free will? This is a big topic – one of the biggest. For me, the three most interesting things in the world are the Problem of Consciousness, the Problem of Existence and the Question of Free Will. I call consciousness and existence problems because I think they’re real. They’re actually there to be investigated and explained. I call free will a question because I don’t think it’s real. I don’t believe that human beings can choose freely or that any possible being, natural or supernatural, can do so. And I don’t believe we truly want free will: it’s an excuse for other things and something we gladly reject in certain circumstances.


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Prime Youver

The utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) thought that the notion of “natural rights” was “nonsense on stilts”. I’m inclined to agree with him, but I think the dismissal applies a fortiori to theology. In fact, I think theology is nonsense on stilts on roller-skates. It’s the pursuit of the unknowable, unprovable or impossible by the irrational, illogical or insane. The illiterate too, nowadays: at least Newman and C.S. Lewis are enjoyable to read, unlike most modern theologians. But there is a theological idea I’ve always found interesting: that you created the universe. And I did too. More than that: the idea says that you or I, or both of us, created God Him/Her/Itself. The idea works like this: if free will exists (I don’t think it does) and human beings can exercise it, every instance of free will must be an act ex nihilo, an act out of nothing, undetermined by what has gone before it, and not a necessary act, in the technical sense. But that act of free will can only take place because the actor exists in a universe. To put it another way: the necessary precondition of an unnecessitated act of free will is that the universe exist. One could conclude, then, that God is forced to create the universe in order to allow you, me and other human beings to exercise our free will: in other words, the primum movens, the prime mover or initial uncaused cause of the universe, is any act of free will by a human being. In short, you’re the prime youver and I’m the prime mever. But in order for God to create the universe, God has to exist. So an uncaused act of free will doesn’t just create creation, it creates the creator. The slightest freely chosen, undetermined act, from rubbing one’s nose to writing a postcard, brings about the Ultimate Whole and the Ultimate Holy. Whodunnit? Youdunnit! And I did too.

Okay, that’s nonsense on stilts on roller-skates on oily ice (in a hurricane) and undoubtedly blasphemous or sacrilegious by any normal theological standard. But it seems a sensical conclusion from nonsensical premises and it gives me the excuse for another piece of paronomasia.