This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

Automatism and free will

Freedom is completely without meaning unless it is related to necessity, unless it represents victory over necessity. To say that freedom is graven in the nature of man, is to say that man is free because he obeys his nature, or, to put it another way, because he is conditioned by his nature. This is nonsense. We must not think of the problem in terms of a choice between being determined and being free. We must…say that man is indeed determined, but that it is open to him to overcome necessity, and that this act is freedom. Freedom is not static but dynamic; not a vested interest, but a prize continually to be won. The moment man stops and resigns himself, he becomes subject to determinism. He is most enslaved when he thinks he is comfortably settled in freedom.

~ Jacques Ellul

To have a ‘culture of consciousness,’ the people of that culture must first be aware that there is more to consciousness than being awake and walking around. You can be awake and walking without being conscious, sort of like sleepwalking. Epileptics who experience periodic seizures may have a seizure while in the middle of some very complex routine, which they will continue to carry out to completion even while unconscious. You can be unconscious and still make a peanut butter sandwich. So long as you knew where the peanut butter was, and so long as you’ve buttered bread before, you do not have to be conscious in order to make the sandwich. The instructions have been issued, that’s all the body needs at that point. The brain takes it from there.

One epileptic was a pianist who was known to experience attacks in the midst of his practice sessions. He would pause momentarily, which is how his parents knew the seizure had occurred, and then would continue to play the song to completion with great dexterity.

What I mean to say is that consciousness, real consciousness, is a rare thing, much rarer than you might think. Just because you drove your car to work this morning does not mean you were conscious. The brain, through habit and training, can carry out most of life’s activities on its own, absent your guidance. When this kind of unconsciousness reaches an extreme, as was the case with the epileptic, the person enters a state called automatism.

The automaton, or man-as-automaton, can carry out any action with which they are familiar, although such an individual will usually be incapable of processing new data or reacting to changes in circumstance. The program of the brain is running, but the programmer is no longer at the controls.

Obviously there can be various “degrees of consciousness” between full automatism and true awareness, which leads us to wonder how often men actually live in what could be called a conscious state. The answer is important, by the way, because free will is impossible without consciousness.

The automaton can’t make any meaningful decisions—the automaton cannot direct itself to a certain purpose or end. The automaton can only respond to stimuli, and even then it only reacts through previously learned routines. The automaton is absolutely conditioned. If this description sounds familiar, it is because it represents precisely the modern scientific vision of man in general. Man in general, according to our psychologists, is always, more or less, the automaton.

This is why science denies the existence of free will. If man is always and everywhere the automaton, then he does not have free will.

What a crime against humanity that was, teaching us as children that we had no free will and no capacity for purposeful action. Victims of circumstance. They had their reasons, our educators. Their denial of free will is understandable, in light of what man has come to believe about his nature in recent centuries.

But in the end they answered the wrong question. The question is not “can man act as a free, self-determined agent?”—but rather: “How often does he actually do this?” The reason our predecessors answered the first question in the negative was that they did not think to ask if it were possible to consider free will only as a potentiality and not as an all-or-nothing, universal characteristic.

Man can and does go through his entire day acting automatically, thinking of nothing that he did not think of yesterday, answering no questions he has not already answered before, and directing himself to no purpose other than habit and self-indulgence. Our predecessors, those great scientists, saw him doing this, and drew the selectively true but not universally true conclusion that man has no free will at all. Because so many men were indeed living the life of the automaton, I suppose we cannot be too hard on them. They were only doing what scientists do: observing what men do, and drawing conclusions based on those observations.

We don’t have to believe them though, you and I. We can understand them, empathize with their error, and then correct it. If we don’t, then it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Convince a man that he is an animal, and he will be much more prone to act like one. Once man accepts that he is driven by instinct and routine, he will be incapable of seeing anything more—not in himself or in anyone else. Only the man who goes against himself and beyond himself knows that there is a free will to be had.

Science was right when they denied free will in some men, but they were wrong in denying it to all men. They were right when they saw that consciousness is rare, but wrong in saying that it is non-existent. They had spent too much time watching men butter their bread, watch the news, vote, work, sleep, and butter more bread. They had spent too much effort measuring responses to stimuli. They had been too long observing homo economicus. When all you see is homo economicus, then free will truly is extinct and the scientists are justified in all their conclusions.

It is time to talk of consciousness, and to seek wakefulness. This is why every tradition of wisdom talks endlessly about wakefulness; it is why so many sages and wise men seemed to have undergone an “awakening” at one point or another. The sage knows that a man may very well live much of his life in terms of an existence that is barely more than bovine. Man can, if he allows it, be animated by nothing more than Freudian sex drive, animal instinct, and environmental determinations. Everyone has always known this much; science didn’t teach us anything in that regard.

The difference is that the old wisdom assured us that another life was also possible, and spent all its time trying to encourage us to seek this alternative existence. They taught us to seek a life “awake” and thus capable of being filled with meaning, a conscious life in which the free will exists and is in frequent and joyful use.

So what shall it be? Automatism?—or something better? You do have a choice. The automaton will always exist and be open to you. It is useful, after all, when you are making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You can’t discard the automaton completely. It is good, so long as it isn’t the end of the story.

The terrible injustice of our education was to teach us that the automaton was the end, even if the only way it taught us this was by neglecting to mention anything else. The result of such an education has been that very often the automaton is the end, becoming that self-fulfilling prophecy of impoverishment. A generation trained to think of themselves as determined by nature is almost guaranteed to act accordingly.

Our job is to spare future generations that terrible impoverishment of possibilities. Our job is to bring back the rest of the story—to find out what lies beyond the automaton, and to teach the free will to the next generation. Our job is to destroy the barrier that has been erected, humiliating man by telling him that he can go no further than environmental determination and instinct. That is the Berlin Wall of our epoch, telling man that he may live only on his animal side, and may never enter the realm of the human. It shouldn’t be too hard of a wall to smash.

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