- Free Will -

What is an Observer?
(or Why I am not an Atheist)

Consider an impertinent question: Are you are machine made of chemistry?  Devoid of any subjective states of consciousness, and nothing more than objective processes of physics - atomic dominos falling in a sequence and pattern determined by a long unbroken chain of cause and effect anchored to the initial conditions of the universe?  This 14-billion-year process of perpetual action-and-reaction, where every subsequent event is the certain result of a previous event, probably doesn’t sound much like your experience of the world.  We quite naturally believe that it is we, and not cosmic processes of physics, that decides what we do next.  But if there is only energetic particles of matter falling through space and time like the aimless tumble of rocks in an avalanche, then there are some inescapable and unpleasant implications for observer-beings such as we.

If a mechanistic view of nature (and your brain) is true - and materialists, atheists, and most of the world’s top neuro-scientists quite reasonably assert that it is - then there cannot possibly be love; instead there is only the electro-valent tension between electron shells - the inexorable attraction or repulsion of tiny smears of contrasting polarity.  If there is only the measurably tangible, physical universe, then there is certainly no joy; instead there is only elemental interaction between large molecules exchanging atoms in a mindlessly mechanical fashion, according to simple rules that never change and are never broken.  Furthermore, in such a complex but importantly comprehensible cosmos, there is no possibility for fascination or pleasure, for pain or despair, for aspiration or triumph, for will or choice; instead there is only impenetrably complex swarms of proteins folding together the only way they can - like the precision gears in a vast, invariable clock.  The mechanical labyrinth of molecular collision utterly defies total predictability to be sure, but the output state is nevertheless the unchangeable and inevitable result of the input states.  In short, this view of the world demands that there is nothing more to the qualities that we imagine to be fundamentally human than purposeless particle cascade.  No desire or longing, no fear or suffering, no feelings of any kind, just different configurations of mere chemistry and a relentlessly precise mechanical process that forces atoms to go one way or the other.

Everyone would agree that that meat of which we are made does indeed impose significant compulsions upon us.  The neuro-chemical hormones that make us happy, horny, hungry, angry, etc., are a powerful influence on our behavior, and often determine what we do.  But many of us would say that there must also be something else in in the meat that tells it what to do, which impulses to follow and which to deny, and occasionally even creates entirely new impulses.  What is this nature of this “Master of the Meat” that tells chemistry what to do, if it is not also made of chemistry?  This question - are you are machine made of chemistry - is the most important and fundamental of all questions; it is in fact, the only real question.  If natural physics is all that there is, then consciousness, that sense that we are a sovereign awareness observing from behind the eyes, can only be the superfluous noise of the brain, an accidental byproduct of cognitive function, the meaningless effluent waste of neurological processes, the bed-stain artifact of a 100 billion brain-cell protein-clusters orgiastically throbbing around inside the skull.  Simply put, without some additional factor that forces the processes of neuro-chemistry to behave in a way that is contrary to the pre-determined programming of physical law, without some ghostly external initiator of causation in the cerebral mechanism that compels atoms in the brain to do what the observer chooses and not what they must otherwise do, then consciousness is a chimera - the empty delusion of an empty machine. 

It may be true that this is all we are, and many exceedingly clever people think so.  Human consciousness, whatever it is, is just not powerfully clever enough, the determinists say, to comprehend the overwhelming but nevertheless deterministic complexity of a million-billion synaptic connections.  But Philosophical Theists and Platonic Mystics wonder instead if the conscious observer is not in the bio-machine at all, and is instead a projection of something looking into the universe from outside.  Small projections, like my dog, don’t see very far; larger projections, like Einstein, can see very far indeed.  Prominent atheists sound academically sophisticated when they claim, contrary to the intimate evidence of every human experience, to possess no Ghost in the Machine whatsoever.  But one is logically justified to suppose instead that - just like the materialist theory of inflationary cosmology that explains the impossible uniqueness of our universe with an infinite number of other different universes - there is some “initiator of causation” antecedent and external to the cosmos.  In fact, the only practical difference between the atheist and the mystic is that we think that bothersome “inexplicable externality” has intention.

I wonder, sometimes, what people really mean when they say, “I believe in God.”  If we are going to establish some of our fundamental assumptions about humanity based upon what people say they believe, perhaps we should have a better understanding of what we mean by the word “believe”.  Firstly, it must be said, we might be lying; under the harsh glare of the local thought-police, we proclaim the tribal loyalty expected of us, whether we believe the old tribal stories or not.  More honestly, we might merely mean we hope something is true because our post-mortem future might go better for us if it is.  We might similarly mean we fear it’s true and strive to regulate our behavior accordingly.  We might mean we know it’s true, but we frequently institutionalize those who demonstrate impossible certitude - the “God told me to kill him!” crowd - as victims of some neurological pathology, and so it’s prudent to be skeptical of all forms of dubious positivism - especially when people might declare it for so many other more convincing social, political, or medical reasons.  Or, finally, we might simply mean that we are inclined to suppose something because it seems somehow less silly than the other silly things, and it pleases us, not to lie, hope, fear, or know, but only to suppose we are more than empty machines. 

And so, like other non-religious non-atheists, I am inclined to suppose that there is an Intelligence antecedent to the universe that has some purpose for the astounding processes initiated with the creation of space-time, and that to the extent that beings somehow serve and advance this unknown purpose they become projections of that Intention, extensions of that Consciousness, always intimately connected to and communicating with the motive force of existence - that indefatigable will that compels the being and power of the universe to cohere and endure, instead of vanishing suddenly in a puff of dream.  The Consciousness and Intention of the Cosmos is the only possible source of what is otherwise impossible Free Will.  If this external initiator of causation exists, so can you; if it does not, nor can you.  These are the only choices available: chemical automaton with all the intention of bubbling cloud formations, or self-determining free agent able to choose the direction of your own thought.  If you are only chemistry, you cannot be the master of it, and if you are not the master of it, you cannot be what you think you are.

One is sometimes tempted to ask, in those fleeting moments of bewildered stupefaction, “What is the universe and what am I?”  It seems like a big question, but there are really only two answers: they are nothing, or they are the same thing…

The Entrance Foyer to
The Goddess Art of Jonathon Earl Bowser