I know this goes against the prevailing winds of both science and Buddhism, but what would it be like to hold a naive view of the self and free will? In other words, what if you were to think that, well, the self and free will actually, you know, exist? Not appear to exist. Really exist. Really.
Science, famously, has dethroned the Earth from the center of creation, and identified it as belonging, in fact, to a lonely, medium sized star hovering in a sparse star backwater between the spiral arms of a ho-hum galaxy. And Stephen Hawking says that we are probably several hundred light years from the nearest intelligent civilization. So basically, for all practical purposes, we are alone.
What’s left to cling to? Well, the self and free will, right? They are humanity’s last delusional refuges from being (in the novelist Walker Percy’s phrase) “lost in the cosmos.” To believe that you have a self with free will is to insist that mind cannot reduce to determinate matter, to chemistry and physics. Period. In other words, there are two things in the universe to contend with: matter and mind. And you can’t, in ultimate terms, explain one via the other. There’s a chasm of explanation between them, and to attempt to reduce one to the other is a category mistake. In other words, to retain belief in the self and free will, you not only have to reject the unifying monistic projects of both science and Buddhism, you’re driven to dualism. But isn’t dualism a long vanquished idea? Sophisticated people don’t believe that there are ghosts in machines anymore, do they?
We all live, it seems to me, in a state of total schizophrenia concerning the self and free will. Even if we reject these ideas intellectually, we all act as if the self and free will exist, and most of us don’t look at the issues at stake too closely. We presume the self and free will to exist in our courts, and in the practice of capitalism, and in our pursuits of love. Even the Dalai Lama notices when there is no chocolate mint on his hotel pillow when he visits Dubai or Hong Kong, and he blames the help. John Gray, a professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, in the Forward to the paperback version of his book, Straw Dogs (2003), puts our specifically Western confusion succinctly:
The prevailing secular world view is a pastiche of current scientific orthodoxy and pious hopes. Darwin has shown that we are animals; but—as humanists never tire of preaching—how we live is ‘up to us’. Unlike any other animal, we are told, we are free to live as we choose. Yet the idea of free will does not come from science. Its origins are in religion—not just any religion, but the Christian faith against which humanists rail so obsessively.
Maybe the self and free will are delusions. But I want to think that each individual matters, and that my will is efficacious in the world—that I am a force against matter to be reckoned with. Is this just the irrational protest of another dying animal that has not come to full and unblinkered terms with monistic materialism and nihilism? Am I just one of those dull villagers in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra who is not quite ready for the new ethic, the new world, and the Superman because I haven’t thoroughly slain God from my psyche?
I don’t know. But I think a reversal may be at hand. We who live in the strict materialist darkness may someday be surprised to see a great light, and discover a quantum enigma at the beginning and end of time: that the self and free will really do exist, exactly as they seem to, and that the mind, however baffling as an ontological mystery, cannot be reduced to matter, and really is efficacious in the world.