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Who am I, What am I, Where am I going?

Who am I, What am I, Where am I going?

Free thought and free will

Br Chris Wilson

It would seem that as we have such a magnificent mind that nothing should be able to hold back our free thought, free will, and individuality, for if the mind is so powerful and so expansive can it really be enslaved? During this chapter the nature of all three will be examined, as well as any natural or man made constraints that may or may not apply so as to limit their power

 Let us begin with free thought, and the concept of being a freethinker, what do we mean by such terms, and is there any difference between the two. If we consult a dictionary, the two following definitions may emerge. Free thought may be defined as freethinking; or unorthodox thought [3], and free thinkers as individuals who have rejected authority and dogma, especially in how they view religious belief, in favour of rational inquiry and speculation [4] So from such definitions it would seem that free thinking is in part, a logical extension, and in part, slightly different from free thought but, if truth be told, how free are both such concepts within the mind?

Let us assume that we have not been brought up in a condition of complete isolation from the world in which we live. In addition let accept that our minds, and our bodies, are continually assaulted, from an early age, by an incredibly broad range of ideas, ideals, disciplines, and powerful judgemental codes of behaviour and practice, and that such an assault comes from various and variable sources around us. Finally let us accept that historic or evolutionary influences affect us even before we are born, let alone as we grow and mature. Under such environmental and evolutionary conditions how can we possibly fare as truly independently minded adults? We have already established that we may be a culminative product of such factors, so if we accept that this is true, might not such a gift as free thought become a near complete impossibility?

If this is so, and potentially it may well inevitably be so, then how can freethinking groups, or individuals, exist in anything but a compromised form? Mercifully the mind is very powerful so, to a degree, such blocks on it’s power are partially negated, but as we go on in this chapter, the importance of recognising such factors will increasingly become clear. In later chapters the relationship between freethinkers and religious groups will be examined, but now let us turn to free will, are things any better there?   

Free will is another one of our hallowed concepts so, again, how might such a concept be defined, let’s turn to a dictionary, and see what is written there. Free will may be defined as free choice or the power or discretion to choose [5], so once more we need to assess how much free will we are able to deploy. Might it not be that despite our powers of free will being higher than free thought, that such a power is once more almost automatically harnessed, and that under most conditions we might find it at least unwise, or impossible, to exercise such powers to the full? It may sound strange to say that the powers of free will higher than that of free thought, but whatever we may chose to think, we still have the power, through free will, to override what we think through free thought so, by logical definition one may be deemed more powerful than the other, although the two will probably be interlocked for all time.

Tragically, even under such conditions, we often fail to exercise such free will as much as we might do, as we almost seem scared to let ourselves grow and flourish to the full. As we shall throughout the book we seem to live our lives shackled by ideas or concepts that, in reality, have no power, and no form of their own, and no or little basis in reality. This does not mean that they have no power or form, or that they are merely figures in some strange dream, for they do have a power, an enormous power, but the power they have is only the power that we give them. If we were to have the courage to break such shackles as we all carry round we might be able to exercise greater free will and free thought, and if we chose to do so there is technically very little to stand in our way. There is one other power that lies within all of us, and that is our sense of individuality, and that is the area we shall investigate now.

 It is true to say that we share our genetic ancestry with so many who have gone before us over millions of years, and it is equally true that we are often influenced by factors or knowledge accumulated over the years, yet despite such factors our own sense of individuality still has the power to reign supreme. This is virtually beyond question considering the power within our minds, but once again we have too consider what effect the world around us has on such a concept within us all. It could be argued that if we look at human diversity, in many areas such as appearance, customs, beliefs, and ways of living and thinking; that true individualism has been achieved, but are all such areas quite as free as they might seem. We know that we are at least, in part, a product of our bringing, but how many of us willing are we to accept that such a product as we have become, is continually evolving due of continual assimilation of new factors all around us. What are such factors, why there are almost two many to chose from, but as an initial factor try life itself.

Think of all its complex if muddled glory; think of all the interaction it has on all of our lives, both seen and unseen, and think of how we, at times, automatically adjust to such a natural force that surrounds us. What if we were to assess some of the processes within our life cycle, look at them from both an emotional and, management position, and see whether or not our precious individualism, or free thought or will survives then. What if we were to consider how we view, and interact, with other people around us, both on a one to one and on a wider aspect, how might such noble aspirations survive there?

 All of us tend be very sensitive if our individuality is questioned, but if we were to make such an enquiry, what kind of a response might we receive. We may well be invited to go to a specified or unspecified place very quickly, but far more likely we might be told that, though nothing special, the individual concerned was still different from others around them. Why, because they are individuals, and therefore have a mind, and a will, of their own. How much of that is true is more open to question than most of us might think, but if we do have such assets, how much of our alleged freedom is sacrificed upon the triple con-joined altars of social convention, and herd instinct or compliance, and generalisation. This might sound uncomfortable, so, in fairness, is only right to look at both in a little more detail, so we can see whether such a statement holds true. In order to do so, all three altars will be assessed separately despite their indivisible relationship.

 How often do we fall foul of social convention and social conformity, and how often do we standalone from the crowd and really use our minds? I would say very rarely, as do we not spend most of our lives meekly following commands or instructions that arise from unspecified, and unnamed figures who have absolutely no authority? We meet them everywhere and, coming in various guises, they include such entities as “they say”,” it’s a well known fact”, and “it’s just one of those things”, but whatever variety they come in do they have any real form or substance, and if we follow such dictates do they not rob us of the independence of will, thought, and action that all of us hold dear? Further more when we allow them to do so, are they yielding any more power than we power we, through our weakness and at times our cowardice and laziness, have given them? Why is it that having gained so much freedom over centuries of struggle, and having so much knowledge of how our minds work, we still allow such enslavement to occur. When we use the term “they say” who are we talking about, and even if they actually exist as some form of detectable mass or body, what right do they really have to tell us what to do?

If we posed that question to the speaker he may well change his stance to the cliché that “people say” this or that, but once more who are such individuals, where are they, and where is the proof by which they can substantiate their claim or authority? Finally in this trio we come to “it’s just one of those things”, and this is one phrase we should all be thoroughly ashamed of. I am not saying we can achieve everything we want through the use of free will, free thought, and individualism as, to a variable degree we all have to work as part of a cohesive unit, and nature sometimes throws a spanner into the works that is beyond our control. What I am saying however is that we all to often use this line so that we do not have to exercise our minds, stand tall as individuals, and most importantly really address some of the deeper problems that surround us. If this sounds harsh, let us assume for a moment that we going into a shop and that, for whatever reason we are in need of some assistance?

What if we approached their customer service desk and asked a designated customer service assistance for their help in order to resolve the issue that we needed to be addressed? If they told us that they didn’t know, they couldn’t help us, and that their failure to do so was just one of those things; what response might we give in return. Would we not question their intelligence, let alone their suitability as regards employment? Additionally if they could not help us might we question the purpose of such a stated service, and question why they were even there? Might we further enquire whether they had a mind of their own and, if so, did they know how to use it. Well we might be inclined to do so but, if we were to do, so there is a very high chance they would look at a screen in front of them and come out with the classic retort of “the computer says that…” If this occurs, and we have probably all heard this mantra at some point in our lives why do not question such a ridiculous reply. If a computer is only a machine which we have programmed then why do allow ourselves, and all others around us, to blame the machine for churning out data that is totally under our own control. The computer says nothing unless we instruct it to speak, we are the controlling mind, and we are the only ones that can set us, and the computer, free. It may be claimed that we do not all work in a shop therefore such a parallels might not apply to ourselves as individuals, but as we live all our lives do we not generally act in the same way, on the whole do we generally prefer the safety and the anonymity of the crowd?

 So it is we come to the next altar, the altar of herd instinct and herd compliance, are we any stronger there? Well on mass we form a magnificent herd that, if aggravated, can sweep all before us, but by reverting to such a code of behaviour, do we stand any higher than classical beasts of the field? The opportunities and problems of wider family groups or associations, and herd mentality will be discussed in the next chapter, but if we think of how we actually operate both within, and as a society, examples can soon be seen. We start at school where children, all wearing the same uniform or herd marker, rebel and demand the right to wear what they want as a right of self expression. It is unlikely such a request would be agreed to, but what would happen if such a thing occurred? In the vast majority of instances wouldn’t the children rapidly create a new uniform style of their own, and wouldn’t variation on such a uniform be more dependent on the child’s abilities, or more the parent’s abilities, to pay? In doing so wouldn’t the children deny themselves the very thing that they have been fighting for so long? We shouldn’t be too hard on the children though, for are they not often mimicking, or following, the actions of their peers?

How many of us adults manage to steer clear of fashion, that strange world where we wear what we are told to wear, or act as we are told to act? Are not such worlds are controlled by groups or individuals who have often no real power or even a name? This might sound harsh but look at some of the more common examples that surround us on all sides.

How many ladies have that oh so essential pretty black dress, how many men wear a pink shirt so that they may show their feminine side, and then strangle themselves with a tie that nearly all of them hate to wear? At Christmas, must parents really buy that “must have” present for their children, haven’t such children already got enough “must have” trainers, jeans, computer games, or whatever the current “must have” trend might be? Finally why do so many of us get continually sucked into areas such as Valentines day, or why do we as families groups go through the undisputed endurance trial of Christmas and new year rituals, when we know the true meaning and value of both such articles We know that one is no more than commercial trickery and racketeering, and as regards Christmas, is it any more than political expediency and religious skulduggery by the Roman Emperor Constantine? We will not be told though, so we carry believing and observing such ridiculous and, at times, damaging dreams. Why do we do so will be looked at later in, but if we join the crowd, or follow the herd, we really cannot, with any honesty, extol the virtues of free will, free thought, and individuality.

Finally we come to the area of generalisation, and it’s close cousin stereotyping. Such a cousin will be investigated thoroughly in the chapter extended families, but win both instances do we not sacrifice informed and intelligent independent thought for sweeping uninformed, often biased, and sometimes harmful, generalities? How often do we claim that “everybody knows”, and “everybody says” to express an opinion which we then claim as our own. Who precisely is this “everybody”, and wouldn’t it be fun to try and ascertain where his or her wealth of information came from? Some generalisations are quite dangerous though for what of the claim that “grown men don’t cry”, how many lives has that particular claim damaged or destroyed? Finally what of the damage caused by the line of, “don’t worry, it’s his age, he’ll grow out of it in time”, how has that little beauty has affected children over the years.

Some children are not affected by such an all encompassing and casual approach, but within any group of happy children do we not always find one who, hiding in the shadows, stands alone, confused, and afraid. If he is left alone how likely is it that he will grow up to be a confident, mature, and well balanced adult? If he fails to do so, and passes on such insecurities to society around him, let alone to a new generation, who is then to blame? In part he is responsible for we all have to make our own way in life, but if we, as individuals and as a society, seek to worship at this altar should he alone take all the blame?

 Such altars though are here and, as has been shown, their popularity shows no sign of wearing thin, so perhaps we should be asking why this is so? Bring back the three of them under one roof and suddenly things become clear. Might we not simply be showing a desire to return to the safety of the herd, and, once inside such a unit, to sing the same song, so as to not stand out in a crowd? Strength in numbers, and pack or herd conformity, are two of natures simplest yet potentially greatest survival mechanisms, so if we are part of nature is it so wrong to do the same? What is curious though is when we do step out of line, the reaction we get then is very interesting. Do we get praise and appreciation; do those around you want to hear more? If we avoid some of society’s sacred cows, or if we avoid scaring them with the fear of the unknown, we might be heard with interest, but most frown, and with the classic rebuff of, “you can’t say that”, you are requested to shut up, sit down, and to keep such views well away from the listener in question. This might make sense if we challenged the views of a group or of society when it as under pressure, but sadly we often find the same response under conditions of warmth pleasure and potential serenity.

Think of when we go out for a meal to a restaurant, how free will, free thought, and individuality are in evidence there. Just try and buck the accepted notions of dress code, social etiquette, and centuries of social discipline. Times may now be a little more liberal than in years gone by, but are we really free from the dogma and dubious values of the past, or from the chanting herds of today? Ironically it seems that, very often, the more we pay the greater the degree of enslavement we agree to endure, and the more we pay to be served, the greater degree of control the service provider seems to enjoy. This might sound harsh but if we consider our patterns of behaviour during the course of a special meal then our predicament may become a little clearer.

 To begin with we chose a restaurant or eating venue, and almost immediately our problems begin, for is our choice not often consciously or subconsciously guided by the historic choices of our herd members who have gone before? We then choose how we should dress for such an occasion. Once more do we not often conform to unseen guidelines around us? Let us pretend though that we have escaped such restrictions, how do we fare once we arrive at our chosen venue, especially if such a venue is run on a more formal basis? When you arrive at such a setting a smiling cloakroom attendant may offer to relieve us of your coat, or of any other outdoor apparel. He does so very pleasantly but in doing so he strips us of our first level of control, as should we wish to leave quickly it would prove very difficult indeed. Never mind we are there to have fun and to express our own individuality to the full, so we walk forward into the eating area we have selected; only to be greeted by the headwaiter or maitre de. In a superior establishment this individual is the king as he controls the whole arena before you, and if we upset him God help us, as he can and probably will, make our life hell. We are lucky though for he smiles and escorts you to a table whereby we might enjoy a meal. We sit down, smile, and relax, for we have overcome barriers that lie before our meal and surely we can demonstrate our independence now?

How can we do so when immediately we sit down we subconsciously measure ourselves in relation to other clients around us, both as to how we are dressed and how we should behave? Additionally, how do we cope when we assaulted by serving staff that hover so deferentially around us, and by menus that often we do not fully understand. We are asked, discreetly, if we would “like” anything to drink before our meal, or our attendants gently suggest we sample the soup of the day, or the chefs special. In all three cases are we not manipulated by the restaurant staff, and by social convention? How many of us refuse such openings, or further down the line how many of us decline the opportunity to peruse the wine list? From here on in we are totally under the control of the restaurant staff. If they are any good they can, and often will, manipulate our every move with the skill and aplomb of a master puppeteer, yet if done properly we will never realise what is going on. The culmination of this sequence comes at the end of the meal. By the time you finish you meal we have lost nearly all our independence of thought or action, virtually all of our personal space and privacy. We have placed our health in the hands of unknown and unseen individuals, and endured the domination of the service team in an arena that is technically under our control. So what do we do when we finish our meal, we thank all and sundry for their help and assistance, fill their outstretched palms with banknotes or coinage, and promise to use such services all over again. We leave in a complex fog of pleasure and niggling disappointment, while the servers laugh at our stupidity, count the service charges we have so generously given them, then get ready to greet the next batch of suckers so that the whole wretched cycle might begin over and over again. The ultimate irony is that under such circumstances nobody expresses themselves with complete freedom, for though the restaurant staff hold us in the palms of their hands they also need to curb their natural behavioural instincts, and demonstrate a degree of civility and skill, otherwise we, and others, might never return. 

 Mercifully some individuals have had the courage to challenge and beat such generally well-intentioned yet ignorant orthodoxy, and despite the fact that we cannot, or will not, seem to do so, we still have one trick or one card up our sleeve. That card is called self belief and though it has no form or body it has carried us, along with associated belief systems, through many storms and into calmer water that have followed behind.

 Let us now sail into such calm waters, and examine these new cards that lie before us. Let us see whether they might assist us in our ever complicated and stressful world. Hold tight folks it is going to be a slightly bumpy ride!

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