🎧 10: How much free will, exactly?
Neuroscience, historical cycles, and a little mysticism. Why not!
This newsletter uses the STEEP framework (covering Social, Technological, Ecological, Economic, and Political issues) to provide a big picture view of patterns shaping our current reality.
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Lately, I’ve been asking myself — how much free will do I actually have?
Unlike some of the folks interviewed for A Glitch in the Matrix, I don’t believe we’re living in a simulation; but I’ve come to realize that the set of choices I have before me are actually a very small subset of possibilities.
These choices are shaped by the moment in history that I’m living through, how my brain is wired, and perhaps even planetary movements and spiritual realms. Things that are beyond my control — phenomena outside of my desires and intentions.
Gear up baby, because I’m going to remix the STEEP framework for this one. I’m subbing Society for Spirituality, interpreting Technology as Biology (human hardware and software), and stretching Ecological to include Ecologies beyond Earth. This go around, we can call it the SBEEBE framework.
This newsletter covers free will and how:
Our brain circuitry and spiritual paths shape our personal experiences
Our circumstances are results of historical cycles (and related planetary movements)
Part 1: Our Personal Experiences
What does reincarnation have to do with free will?
I had never really thought about reincarnation seriously before. Until I read Many Lives, Many Masters.
Here I am, living in my meat-sack doing the best I can day-to-day, completely unbothered about any spiritual realm — until I read about Dr. Weiss and what he’s learned about reincarnation while treating one of his psychiatry patients.
Dr. Weiss (a medical doctor trained at Columbia and Yale) used past-life regression therapy to treat his patient who suffered from a bunch of phobias. He hypnotized this patient so that she could recall previous lives and heal from whatever she was carrying over into her current life.
In each session, she would recall a specific past life and relive how she died that time. What’s most interesting, though, is what happened after she died.
The patient described being in a dark, floaty state. Each time she entered this state, a group of “Master Spirits” would speak to Dr. Weiss (through her) to deliver some important lessons. Each “Master Spirit” had their own voice and style.
A skeptic, Dr. Weiss doubted his patient at first. Could she be making this up? Dr. Weiss changed his mind when he received incredibly specific, intimate messages from his dead father and infant son, through his patient. So Dr. Weiss started listening to what these “Master Spirits” had to say.
When they spoke to Dr. Weiss, they said: you are put on this Earth to work out a debt owed to yourself or others, to learn a lesson that can only be learned in the physical realm (rather than in the serene spiritual realm). When you’re done learning that lesson, you come back to the spiritual realm. Each time you are reincarnated, you often travel with the same souls, from lifetime to lifetime.
Imagine getting this type of message? As a medical doctor? And then deciding to risk your reputation to share it?
It’s not like reincarnation is a new concept. But it’s not widely discussed in Western culture, and especially not in medicine.
We have Constantine The Great to thank for good ol’ fashioned erasure within Christianity. The concept was deleted from The New Testament in A.D. 325 because the Romans were worried that the concept would weaken the power of the Church. But if you look back at Gnostic, Hindu, and Buddhist writings (and many others that I don’t know much about), there was a widely held belief that you live in many bodies, many times over.
What does reincarnation mean for free will? That you arrive on this planet to repay a debt or learn a specific lesson? You may be making decisions day-to-day, but they all exist within some larger context. I am walking a path that my soul has come to this Earth to seek out, and making decisions within this context. For me, this is mind-blowing.
I feel at ease knowing that there is some lesson I am meant to learn in this lifetime (in this body). If I don’t get it quite right, my soul will get another go at it (hopefully with some of you).
Reading this, do you feel like you know what lesson you’re supposed to be learning? Is there a pattern or lesson that comes up for you, over and over again?
If you want to explore this question further, you might find a recording of Dr. Weiss’s method useful.
What do we know about our brain circuity and free will?
The concept of a “soul” hasn’t quite been cracked by neuroscientists, but they’ve been busy refining theories on consciousness over the last century.
As Dr. Gazzaniga explains in his book Who’s In Charge?, the current understanding among neuroscientists is that we have many distributed, hyper-specialized functions in the brain which communicate to create a unified sense of consciousness.
Most interestingly, the unconscious brain functions move much faster than the conscious functions. This leaves our left-brain, (dubbed the “Interpreter Module”) to make up stories for why we performed certain unconscious processes.
By the time the left-side of the brain gets working, we’ve already done the behavior and we’re just justifying it to ourselves afterwards.
This brings up the question of free will — are we consciously making choices or simply justifying them, after the fact?
Dr. Gazzaniga presents two opposing theories to get to the heart of the matter — determinism and emergence. Determinists believe that everything is predetermined by preceding events and the laws of nature (and can therefore be predicted); these folks would tell you that you have absolutely no free will nor are you really responsible for your actions. Emergent theory states that individual entities take on new characteristics when interacting within a larger whole, and these cannot be predicted by looking at just the individual entity. As an example, you can’t predict patterns of traffic just by studying individual cars.
Human behavior falls much more in line with emergent theory. Yes, we have certain functions pre-programmed into our brains through evolution, but how we behave is very much shaped by the other humans around us (via our neural circuits). Like, maybe you’ve been noticing on your Zoom calls, that when you put your hand on your chin, all of a sudden the person you’re talking to does the same thing? This social behavior is unconscious — instigated by mirror neurons. Much of our social behavior is intuitive and unconscious, and our “Interpreter Module” tries to make sense of it all.
Does this completely shatter your idea of the “self”? It does for me. There is an unconscious layer to my “self” that I have never thought about. There are behaviors that have been defined through evolution, and unconscious reactions that I’m collecting as I move through the world. I’m not making every choice consciously, and this challenges my ideas about my own agency.
Part 2: The Cycles We Ride
Not only are our choices limited by our physical make-up and a spiritual path, they are also limited by the time periods we live through (some man-made, others galactic).
How do historical cycles shape our free will?
In my last newsletter, I mentioned George Friedman’s theory about how the United States has consistently gone through 80 year institutional (political) and 50 year socio-economic cycles.
Each cycle has a unifying theme that emerges, these circumstances shape the perceived choices we have as we live through them.
Friedman breaks down each cycle in detail in his book The Storm Before the Calm; the defining message is that America is a completely invented place. The United States did not happen organically and for that reason, this country continues to reinvent itself.
The reinvention process is incredibly drawn out, and 10 years before a cycle ends, we start to see cracks in the current system.
Friedman explains that typically, leaders who are in power as the current cycle is coming to a close are remembered as complete failures. They’re playing by the old rules, right as the game is about to change. Regardless of intention, their understanding of what the choices are often limited by what’s worked in the past.
We are coming up on an old cycle ending in 2030’s. This past cycle will be remembered as the age of entrepreneurship and computer science, and also by incredible wealth inequality and forgotten swaths of the nation who used to lead in (physical) industry. The next cycle is emerging as a reaction to what we need to correct for as a result of this last cycle. Our personal choices will be impacted by this larger movement.
2030 will be the first time that institutional (political) cycles and socio-economic cycles change at the same time, and Friedman is optimistic about this new cycle. He predicts the pendulum will swing — we will focus more on the physical world with whatever we invent (in areas like energy production and biotechnology) and correct for how lopsided the American dream has become (hopefully, by making various types of education less expensive).
What’s interesting about these cycles is that no one can seem to escape the “inevitable” corrections or waves — not even someone as powerful as the President of the United States.
Regardless of how powerful you are as an individual, no amount of free will can change the broader context in which you are making decisions or setting intentions.
Is there any relationship to these historical cycles and the cosmos?
While we’re examining historical cycles, let’s also look at planetary cycles to add a little extra spice. Not only are we at the mercy of the socio-economic and political systems we exist in, but we are living within the context of the planets, and depending on your beliefs, this may impact how you perceive your subset of choices.
According to cultural historian and astrologer Richard Tarnas (who wrote Cosmos and the Psyche about how historical and planetary cycles intersect), any kind of cycle involving Pluto, Neptune, or Uranus is correlated to big-time sociopolitical shifts.
In January 2020, we experienced a Saturn — Pluto conjunction. The last notable Saturn — Pluto conjunction lines up with what Friedman calls the “Reagan cycle,” which started in the 1980’s and will end in the 2030’s.
George Friedman says that every 50 years, we see new socio-economic iterations of America, but we start to see cracks in the system about a decade before the next cycle begins. Saturn — Pluto conjunctions happen every 31 to 37 years, which is roughly a decade before Friedman’s cycles are slated to end.
Saturn represents maturity or death, authority, and the desire to control amongst chaos. Pluto represents the underworld and paired with Saturn, makes us reckon with the underbelly of authority and control in explosive ways. In addition to noting rises in conservatism at these conjunctions, astrologers also took note that the AIDs crisis started in the 1980’s and warned of another deadly health crisis in 2020. Maybe it’s coincidence! Who knows! All I know is that I’m going to start paying attention to Saturn — Pluto conjunctions from now on.
For context, the other significant years for Saturn — Pluto conjunctions have been 1947 (in the middle of Friedman’s “Roosevelt cycle,” right after WWII) and 1914 (about a decade before Friedman’s “Hayes cycle” ended).
There are other ways in which Saturn and Pluto interact (i.e. in opposition, square, etc.); these events have coincided with historical examples of authoritarianism. If you want to know more, I recommend this deep dive.
Not all of this change is doom and gloom. In 2020, Saturn and Jupiter were also in conjunction in an Air sign (Aquarius). This is interesting because for the better part of the last 200 years, Saturn and Jupiter were in conjunction in Earth signs, and this has been linked to the industrial revolution. As we transition into Air signs, we’ll move on from what was established during the industrial revolution.
Aquarius in particular is about throwing out old systems and structures that no longer work. So while Saturn — Pluto conjunctions are uptight and authoritarian, Saturn — Jupiter conjunctions in Air signs are generative, and a good push towards new systems and structures.
Does knowing this make you feel better or worse about the decade ahead?
Recognizing the 2020’s as a transitional decade puts the ensuing chaos and absurdity into perspective for me. While we may not be able to avoid the challenges ahead, it’s comforting to think that we’re on a path to evolving long-standing systems and institutions.
Ultimately, it brings me peace to re-write my beliefs on free will and personal agency. As I relinquish my (perceived sense) of control over my destiny, I am less likely to internalize systemic challenges as personal failures. I feel more equipped to ride the wave and think about the bigger picture — what lesson do I need to learn while here?