Handel on – Free Will

Alcina – Meghan Lindsay and the Artists of Atelier Ballet. Photo by Bruce Zinger

Alcina – Meghan Lindsay and the Artists of Atelier Ballet, Toronto. Photo by Bruce Zinger.

Driving serenely Eastwards towards London in the middle lane of the M4 amidst dense, though well-ordered, traffic, I listen to Arleen Augér sing an aria in Alcina – Handel’s oft ignored but exquisite opera, and one with an amusingly bizarre libretto. Juggernauts dourly and stately process their tonnage along the slow lane to my left, whilst eager, besuited deal-makers, along with those for whom time runs too fast today, speed past upon my right at a steady, metronomic tick. A Toyota cocooned I, sandwiched, fore and aft, port and stern, in the middle lane, sail contentedly along. Hundreds of minds doing precisely what were required to remain safely within reach of their goals. A taut calmness holds, whilst all rests upon fine judgements, an invading bee, or the inopportune, nerve-vibrating alert of an anxiously awaited text – carnage, staved off, for now. So, sing your honeyed song, evil sorceress; though your spell enchants, I animate for now; just for this now.

A towing truck begins to drift in front of me – a well-judged, if impertinent, call by its driver; or rather one which may have been deemed so had he not forgotten that he was once again towing, and the length of his charge was double that which he had assumed. Brain takes over: get out of the way Hariod; I need to be driving this thing, not you. Brain calculates that hard braking is too risky, and anyway, the Toyota would still get broadsided by the dumb, forgotten trailer. Three, maybe five, 360 degree rolls to follow? Arleen continues oblivious. No option but to drift into the fast lane, hoping amidst insufficient certainty that the oncoming deal sorcerer and his Audi’s stoppers can help Brain save the day – vorsprung durch technik! Save it, that is, for Brain, and much other grey matter besides. Hariod knew none of this silent, synaptic work – axons, dendrites, quantum vibrations in micro-tubules silently orchestrating. Bravo! Enter Hariod stage left, as the driver.

Whither Free Will in all of this? We believe we have agency, meaning we feel we have autonomous, volitional control over events. It feels almost as if a guiding homunculus – or is she a mythical sorceress? – resides benignly within our craniums, directing matters, dutifully thinking our thoughts for us, experiencing our experience, driving our Toyota, cursing careless truck drivers, and appreciating Handel. Most of us consider ourselves largely free to choose as we wish the course of our decision-making, and by thinking of ‘ourselves’ we relate back to this imagined sorceress, or homunculus. Those who may object to this imagery must describe exactly what this agent of Free Will is, or conclude – most counter intuitively – that there is no such thing at all. We exist as embodied, thinking persons, as individuated social constructs or social selves, but not as the agents of Free Will we imagine ourselves to be in our own private La Fenice, our personal operatic myth.

The Songs of Handel's Alcina - Published 1735

The Songs of Mr. Handel’s Alcina – First edition, published London, 1735

Why and how do we experience the illusion of agency and Free Will? The short answer is that we are subject to what psychologists call a Postdictive Illusion – a post hoc mental fabrication of events which reinforces a sense of agency and selfhood; the latter likely being artefacts of evolved survival means. In any situation, an array of possibilities exists as to how we might respond to our current or envisaged environment. What happens is that subconsciously felt predispositions incline towards one particular option, and so motor action of the body initiates accordingly. Following both such occurrences, some or all of these options appear in consciousness, and a postdictive – meaning an explanation after the fact – illusion of choosing appears to be made ‘now’. In fact, the apparent choosing occurred after its consequences were subconsciously felt and after motor action initiates. A sorcery of the mind has tricked us; so let’s get back to Alcina in the Toyota.

This incident struck me so because there was no prior deliberation of how to deal with the situation, no thought of ‘shall I brake, or veer to the right?’ Everything happened far too quickly for any conscious thinking, and I was left with a clear sense that it had nothing to do with any ‘me’ as one might normally think of oneself. This happens frequently in daily life; just try thinking – as you do it – of how to dance, or strike a tennis ball, or tie a shoelace, and see how the whole process becomes impossibly convoluted and clunky. We get a proprioceptive sense of ‘me doing something’ as we throw our shapes, drive that backhand, or tie the laces, and this feeling feeds recursively into a sense of self and agency, just as does the apparently willed choice to have initiated those actions. In fact though, we are devoid of self-agency, just as Arleen is uninhabited by a sorceress called Alcina. As a great artist, she inhabits the role, yet her script has already been written.

I hope not to have dwelt overly on dry technicalities; it being far more fun to be dressed-up on the stage of life acting out our dramas, is it not? Still, when the curtain falls, the bows being taken, we then return to the dressing room to wipe away the make believe in the mirror of self-reflection. If the mirror is perfectly clean, what we see is no longer the sorceress willing so freely, or the homunculus determining things on our behalf. We instead see ourselves as links in a vast and beginningless ocean of interrelatedness. In Handel’s opera, Alcina the sorceress is a wicked seductress, casting spells upon many lovers who, spellbound, arrive upon her mystical isle. After using them, she turns them into stones, animals, waves or trees. Finally, Alcina comes truly to love, and with it her powers dissolve; she sinks into the isle’s ground – way out in the vast ocean – and it is seen that both Alcina and her isle were only ever the illusions of her now reanimated victims.

Eyeing the I in the Eidola

Venus at a mirror. Titian c.1555

Venus at a mirror. Titian c.1555

Eidola, the pluralised rendering of ‘eidolon’, are represented in ancient Greek mythological literature as what we commonly regard as phantoms, or apparitions – the spiritualised human form in other words.  These terms derive from ‘eîdos’, a Greek noun loosely translating as ‘a form seen’, yet broaden the meaning to embrace a supernatural element. Ever ubiquitous, humankind’s tales of ghosts, spectres and the like, extend to the animistic beliefs of indigenous tribal peoples, pervade the anthropology of religion, reach back to pre-literate cultures of ancestor worship, and are vividly alive in contemporary media too. In Christian theology, the fundamental reality, or hypostasis, of God, posits the same as existent consubstantially in three forms, one of which is the Holy Ghost. It would appear that eidola persist as a cultural universal, gripping the human mind in faith, awe and fascination.

Personally, I am not keen on being spooked, and the idea of one seeking out such dubious a privilege in film, books or theme parks is as much puzzling as it is anathema to me. This is not merely an inevitable by-product of my advanced years, for I have always eschewed the dubious delights of having my vampire juice flooded with neutrophilic leukocytes, or my sympathetic nervous system haunted by cloaked and shadowy adrenergic receptors – whatever those may be. Such beleaguering goings-on occur irrespective of my clammy-handed protestations, and much as I may bid to reassure the conscious self of the actuality of the situation, show me Regan’s swiveling head and the shivers start up unfailingly. Something odd is going on, as if there were a doppelgänger here; the one being self-possessed, reasoned and conscious, the other irrational, perturbable and asleep at the wheel.

Which is the essential me, the conscious rationalist, or the closeted and timorous absurdist? Still, in presupposing some enduring quintessence of selfhood within or about me, I unwittingly invoke an eidolon, a form seen in mind’s eye yet vaporously at best instantiated; a mind-blown ectoplasmic doppelgänger whose existence pervades my substance and reflectively conscious psyche, which itself is but partial, fleetingly present, a mere fluxing bundle of perceptual imagery alone – a Humean human, inhabited and haunted by a spectral homunculus.  In short, I too am a myth of sorts, a narrative of my own insignificant little odyssey. And yet I exist, so whilst excusing, if you will, the peccadillo of the double negative, I am not nothing. Selfless in the strictest sense, am I more than embodied characterisation, a spectre idling along in its dramaturgical existence, an empty ghost actor?

Self Portrait. Johannes Gumpp. 1646

Self Portrait. Johannes Gumpp. 1646

Surely the eidolic invocation of self cannot be the primary evidence of my truest being; nor is my social construct consistently self-like, as it morphs from one encounter to the next. My physical presence fails the criteria too, for it changes and is subject to programmed cell death, or apoptosis, and the body is a cellular formation. As an adult, up to seventy billion cells die within me each day, so I am separated from my own cells at an astonishing rate. One minute they constitute what I am as an alive being, and the next they are dead, decaying within me and awaiting scavenging by white blood cells which smell their death. Am I somehow separate from the dead cells yet identical with any alive ones? No, they both are part of what I am, which is neither entirely alive nor dead, not inside or outside any self, part eidolon and part matter, not nothing, and yet for a while, an indefinite something.

Glib theories abound, yet which of them withstands scrutiny; which do not devolve to fanciful thinking at base? It seems implausibly dismissive to hold that consciousness does not exist so requires little accounting for – the view of Eliminative Materialism. And similarly so to assert that consciousness and transcendental idea alone are what I am; or otherwise to call forth the ineffable and regard myself as some play of Lila or Godhead. No, undeniably there is awareness illuminating all consciously apprehended phenomena, and there is this heaving heap of cells coming and going too, albeit only in loose aggregation. In all, some tight-woven interplay of mind and matter, a body subjected to endless sense impressions, a mind-created eidolon which spooks whilst affirming itself. And at times, a unified multiplicity prevails, a seamless non-localisation in which I as subject recede, give way, dissolve.

Phenomenologists, most notably Edmund Husserl, have in the past century proposed rigorous mind-analyses for disposing of eidola in contemplatively reductionist ways, echoing the ‘via negativa’ of Vipassana Buddhism and later Indian Advaita/ Natha doctrines, Greek Pyrrhonism, Epistemological Fallibilism, Maimonides’ negative Judaism, with correlates to the apophatic mysticism of Islam and Christianity. So too are there dubious quick-fix, pick ‘n mix bags admissible to the jaded, post-modernist mindset, they being largely corruptions of classical doctrines. All are attempts at debunking the mythological self and god by rejecting falsity; though curiously none state what persists thereafter. Elusive yet obvious when seen, eyeing the I in the eidola is unsusceptible to perceptual capture. Known by and as itself alone, it remains present to all awareness, ever thus, subtle, profound, not a myth.

 

Dog spider dreams

A colour woodcut by Yamamoto Shōun, 1906

A colour woodcut by Yamamoto Shōun, 1906

The world is as it seems; the world is not what it seems. We each of us hold to either statement in any given moment. For the greater part, we incline to the former; yet now and again must hold to the latter. How can the world be other than it seems; it is self-evident is it not? That is how we go about our days; at least, until reason supervenes and we see the evidence is faked.

Example: I observe a Heron on the far side of the river, for a while admiring its own still and statuesque beauty. My world is at one with nature, with this creature; I feel connected, blessed in some minor way. And then in an instant I see that the Heron is in fact a torn grey plastic bag that has become tangled in the distant bushes. The world is no longer what it seemed to be.

None of us knows how frequently appearances in awareness deceive us. We may wrongly think that instances such as I experienced with the ‘Heron’ are quite rare. Our minds create narratives from sensory input; and if all seems plausible, we take it that the world is as it seems. We render sensible our sense data, so believing our narrative always to be rational.

And yet we are not as reasoned as we would like to think, and are thrown into irrational responses very easily. There is a video on YouTube that demonstrates this point well; you can view it in the comments section below. So far, this video has been viewed well over 122,000,000 times. It went viral because what it shows is implausible, yet remains quite scary.

Night & Sleep. Evelyn De Morgan, 1878

Where do dreams begin and end? We tend to think of them as obtaining uniquely to our sleeping state. Some say they convey significant indicative messages; and doubtless this is so at times. Am I in the midst of a dream when I mistake a plastic bag for a Heron; and what might it possibly mean? Perhaps only that at that time I desired to experience beauty in the world.

Our notions of reality are just that, notional. They are suggestions we make to ourselves, perhaps formed upon tested theories; yet they remain only internalised representations of some collective otherness. And we never can quite know if our suggestions are true to that otherness, one which we regard as external to us. We are awake yet never know if we are dreaming.

Rationality is the arbiter; with reason, inference, syllogism, deduction and so forth, we distinguish any reality from our dreams. This all takes time; and whilst we have a hyper-fast form of reason known as intuition, this cannot be summoned by force of will. Most of the time, we depend upon our plodding reason to determine what we may come to regard as reality.

Example: At 3.30 a.m. I cross a deserted walkway, approaching the elevator to ascend a multi-level carpark. The lift apparatus forms muffled sounds which reverberate in its ghostly enclosure. As the doors open, I see a dead body on the floor, astride of which is a giant spider, some 3 ft. in span. It scuttles towards me; I run terrified from the scene, far too fast for reason.

The spider. Nikolaos Gyzis, 1884

The spider. Nikolaos Gyzis, 1884

Logic tells me that this event cannot be what it seems: there are no giant spiders; and if there were, we would not share elevators with them. And yet confronted with the situation I described, how would you react? Would you call on your theory that giant spiders are very scary, and run like hell just as I did, terrified? Or would you stand your ground rationalising the event?

In life, there frequently is no time to think before we act. We respond to the world based upon theories we hold about life generally, our past conditioning, and perhaps some genetic predispositions. To some extent we inhabit a reverie; we dream of our wakened state, seldom realising as much. So, our theories and our conditioning determine much of our life.

To recap: We never know to what degree our experience is purely imaginal. Only a fraction of our lives do we have time to endorse experience with reason. We unwittingly and perhaps frequently enter dream-states whilst awake, however fleetingly. Our life is a narrative formed of both dream-states and influences of the actual; so what we take to be reality is notional.

If you wish to view the video I refer to within this piece, please do so in the comments section below. Place yourself in the various scenes depicted and gauge your reactions as they unfold. Only with experience does knowledge about ourselves absorb fully; yet still we can imagine mock scenarios to good effect. You may find, just as I did, that you too have dog spider dreams.

 

 

 

 

 

Rivers of anticipation

Photography: J. Lau, Shenzhen, Hong Kong

Photography: J. Lau, Shenzhen, Hong Kong

I check the post, make a few calls, and then, beneath a cerulean sky, I wander over to Patisserie Valerie on Old Compton Street, where Jamaican Blue Mountain and croissants await, just as they do each workday. It’s going to be a fine start to the week, the mood feels good, and even the West End’s down-and-outs seem chipper at their day’s prospects. As I sip my coffee, I look forward to the visit of a very dear old friend back at my office, and also to the evening, when the two of us are off to see Oscar Peterson at the club ‘round the corner on Frith Street. In between, there’ll be fascinating anecdotes about my friend’s recent tour of South America. My mood balloons with each sip, each bite, and each expectant thought; I just know this will be an unforgettable day.

These anticipatory rivers flowed within me on the morning of Monday 26th of October 1981. Yet as I exit the patisserie, I feel a palpable tension rushing the veins of Soho; police trot purposefully along Greek Street up towards Soho Square, staccato bursts of urgent voices, mixed with static, crackle through walkie-talkies, the stressed faces of the officers betray to all that trouble is in the air. Earlier that morning, just a stone’s throw away, two taciturn young Irishmen had discretely descended to the basement of the Wimpey burger restaurant on Oxford Street. And just 29 minutes before, the IRA had issued their customary warning to Scotland Yard. In a few seconds, an explosives officer’s career will end abruptly, along with his life, in what I will feel and hear as a single dull ‘thwomp’.

Our days pass peering into the future expectantly; tidal streams of anticipation ebb and flood the estuarine contours of the mind as we imaginatively envision how our life will be in the next minute, hour, day, or year. Some even project as to the quality of their putative afterlife; whereas others illogically dread their inevitable non-existence. The colouration imbued within these projections reflects our character; we may conjure a Panglossian narrative in which all will be well in this, as Leibniz would have it, the best of all possible worlds; or we sense only foreboding as the weeping prophet of selfhood cries upon the shoulder of the Jeremiah within. These are the extremes of our anticipatory tendencies, the majority of which lean more to moderation.

It can be instructive to examine this ubiquitous tendency to anticipate, as for many of us, this necessary faculty is overused to the point of abuse. One may ask what harm may be done in our habitual projecting; to be forewarned is to be forearmed is it not? And yet, if it is Doctor Pangloss diagnosing optimistically within the cranial ward, we absorb only into a quasi-magical wish fulfilment, which in truth protects us from nought and holds reality in abeyance. On the other hand, should our own homunculus take on the character of the biblical weeping prophet, we then are rendered transfixed in a similar stasis of inaction. A useful moderator is to mindfully observe these internal patterns; in this way, we gain balance between a helpful preparedness, caution and idealism.

Any seasoned meditators reading here will know all too well the flow of their own anticipations. ‘Just sit’ the Roshi and Rishi advise, as if it were the simplest of instructions. Yet even as discursive thinking is allayed, and the mind pacifies in spaciousness, there still may at times be felt a momentum as expectation navigates awareness from one moment to the next; a subtle grasping at the immediate future; an almost imperceptible bumping along the tracks of time. Whilst this is an extremely subtle state of affairs, there remains a certain time thievery which brooks no interruption and seeks only now-ness in a curious denial of its presence. There’s a misguided, neurotic neediness to anticipate awareness itself as the busying homunculus within rejects all offers of an early retirement.

As I have aged, I increasingly distrust the mind’s projections about the world and my place in it, having come, slowly, to recognise their unreliability. I acknowledge also just how much of the life gifted to me has been squandered as I dwelt in expectation of this or that occurrence. Events turn out differently; just as they did for both Officer Kenneth Howorth and myself 33 years ago to this very day. With my quarter of the West End in virtual lockdown, my dear friend feels unable to visit; Oscar remains holed-up at The Dorchester; and I return home in the afternoon only to discover cause for the ending of a relationship. A river of anticipation forms; I surely face only this inhospitable tundra of the emotions; my past with its imagined securities detonates – ‘thwomp’.

Opinions and the illusion of certainty

License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

Photography: Jorge Royan, Argentina

Perhaps one of the great current clichés, and one which we come across daily in the media, is that back-handed utterance ‘they’re entitled to their opinion’. It almost sounds as if the opinion holder should be grateful for not being denied their thought processes and the liberty of free expression. What’s implied by the phrase is a sense of tolerance and open-mindedness, yet simultaneously it’s insinuated that the other is misguided. The issuer of the cliché at once seeks to establish themselves as liberal minded, tolerant and right thinking. Politicians communicate relentlessly with sub-text in this way, their odious pursuit of one-upmanship being forged in a stock-in-trade Orwellian double-speak.

In a similar vein, many of us at times distort language and opine so as to manipulate by suggestion. We may subtly disparage the views of others, and seek covertly to impose our own in their place. The ether-borne caterwaul of subjective frothery screeches at us daily on forums and in the blogosphere. Everyone must have their say, to offer up their cherished opinions to an overwhelmingly indifferent world – just as I do here. That’s not to say that influences fail to be exerted in this labyrinthine process; they of course are. Yet most of the consciousness shifting is infinitesimal, such that we may wonder quite why it is that we take proceedings so incredibly seriously; but still, we do just that.

I think we can say that there are broadly two primary motives attached to the process of opinion manipulation. In the first, there’s the attempt to gain some material advantage in the external world – the power-seeking politician, the greedy marketeer, the status-seeking careerist, and so on. Then there’s the purely egocentric motivation of wanting to demonstrate our correctness so as to feel more secure in our personal identity. Here, we aim to build upon a personal narrative in which we come to regard ourselves as inherently perspicacious and savvy. Whether or not this lofty appraisal is shared, it’s our embedded belief in it that counts. As long as we have the illusion of certainty in our ideas, then all is well.

And that phrase is really the nub of it – ‘the illusion of certainty’. This is what generates the fiery passions that so often arise when, in the company of others, we take our (and their) opinions too seriously. Why does debate become ‘heated’; what do we gain by adding a feverish overlay? When observing this in action, we find the overheating debater tends to come across as less plausible, as somehow trying a little too hard to be convincing. We see in them a flaming of the passions which appear to serve as a propellant only for their own sense of certainty; all of which suggests they’re not quite as certain as they project themselves to be. Religious fundamentalists tend frequently to behave in this way.

Almost all certainty and perceptions of correctness are partially illusory – an unfashionable viewpoint, relativism being rather frowned upon in some circles. This deriding dismissal allies with humanist and meliorist tendencies: the belief in humankind’s progressive power to induce improvement in the state of the natural world. Such thinking might imply that the opining of the human mind – a function of the brain of a species of Great Ape – could at times exert a supra-natural capacity. And yet here we are, two centuries away from environmental catastrophe and far closer still to global economic collapse. So has our consensus of opinion led to any certainty of progress, or any proven correctness?

As a collective, the illusion of certainty in our best shared opinions has demonstrably failed us, and continues to do so in ever-threatening ways. On the level of the individual, we see a similar propensity to assume certainty where there is none and so persist in manipulating others with fallacious self-validations – illusions of our own correctness. We fear that should we appear uncertain, to doubt and to waver, then we’ll be judged as inadequate, as not capable of apprehending the obvious. And so we jump to form opinions and adopt them in belief, then defending those ideas with fervour. And should the evidence stack up against us in time, we quietly withdraw the belief, safely away from others’ notice.

Opinions, beliefs, certainties – these are all thoughts that we identify with egoically. That means we take these thoughts to be ‘mine’, as essential to my ‘self’, and as formed by ‘me’. But for this identification, they’re largely harmless, merely stuff floating through and recurring within the mind. We may notice their reiteration, yet there need be no egocentric attachment involved such that we feel defensive of them, needing to sustain and validate their appearance as if it were essential. Many people live in fear of being proven wrong in their opinions; they take great care to qualify and make watertight whatever they say. For them it’s as if to err is taboo, to be proven fallible, to be proven human.

If we suffer from this deadening attachment to our opinions, remedies may include speaking less guardedly, or at times acknowledging uncertainty and an absence of a definitive view. In not constantly and zealously asserting our supposed certainties, we become approachable and more pleasant to engage with. We see that the former imposition of our imagined correctness had created barriers as the egoical self stood alone on one side of an imaginary fence. If we just try sitting on it now and again, or even leaping over it occasionally, we find it’s not as uncomfortable as we’d thought. The illusion of certainty is seen to be just that, a pipe-dream of infallibility that fooled no-one but ourselves.