Michael Greening

  • In 1798 the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, an English clergyman disturbed by the correlation between overpopulation and poverty, published his “Essay on the Principle of Population”. This he updated over the following 28 years as new ideas came to him, some in answer to his critics. In his delightful way of expressing himself, he wrote that 'Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will show the immensity of the first power in comparison of the second'.

    He also stated 'The prodigious waste of human life occasioned by this perpetual struggle for room and food, was more than supplied by the mighty power of population, acting, in some degree, unshackled, from the constant habit of emigration'.

    I'm sure that the Reverend's observations are as relevant today as they were two hundred years ago. However he was not correct in believing that individual people could wilfully make alterations to their lifestyle, that might alleviate the rather pessimistic future he foresaw for mankind. Yet, manifestly, the required changes have occurred. The human race has survived and is likely to continue to do so. Both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace were influenced by Malthus. Their theory of physical evolution, combined with non-biological social change, has ensured that our species are not only still here but appear to continue to be winning.

    At the time when the parson was adjusting his conclusions in 1804, the World population had reached one billion. Although earlier statistics can only be estimated, it seems likely that it had taken about four hundred years for our numbers to double from half that. One hundred and twenty-three years later there were two billion. And now, between 1927 and a projected 2024 (within some individuals' lifetime) this will have increased fourfold to eight billion.

    I recently watched and listened to a lecture, by Swedish Professor Hans Rosling titled 'Don't Panic', on World population growth (I'm sure available on U tube). Professor Rosling, a medical doctor and statistician, explained that for an assortment of reasons the extraordinary period of the expansion in our species is now coming to an end. Numbers, in both Europe and the two Americas, will remain stable and there will only be a limited rise in Asia. However, population in Africa will continue to explode. The current figure of around one billion people in that continent is likely to quadruple by the end of the current century.

    If this takes place the two big ills of the world, that our politicians are continually going on about, the current conflict between Islamic extremists and the rest of us and the negative effects of global warming, will be completely dwarfed by the same ogre as the one seen by the Reverend Malthus. Also all three of these disastrous causes, that generate the movement of people, will be intertwined, operating at the same time, with each one stoking up the boilers of the other two.

    I'm sure all this is widely known, but some of us may not have had time to digest the numbers. If only ten percent of the population of Africa wish, or are forced by circumstance, to move north, Europe will have four hundred million refugees on its doorstep within the next eighty years. On top of this there will be others arriving from Asia.




    Although it is too early to know for certain, it is possible that we are witnessing the start of the biggest migration of people ever. An exodus that will not continue for years but a phenomenon that may last for generations. Mass movements of people have happened very many times before in recorded history and, before then, from the time when our very distant ancestors began to live in groups and tribes rather than extended families. The catalysts required are conflict and climate change but the engine, driving the process forward, has always been the increase in our numbers.

    During the first half of the last century large refugee problems were sparked by two world wars. The second war was brought to an end with the explosion of nuclear devices and, because of their probable suicidal consequences, worldwide military engagements have been kept off limits during the lifetimes of the majority of us. However smaller regional confrontations, where people are still killing each other, have caused as much misery and displacement of populations as the universal ones. In addition, these more limited armed conflicts keep increasing in number. As I write this, there are at least forty local wars on our planet and it seems for each one that ends, or declines in intensity, another one or two are spawned. To compound these touch-papers there is the global warming detonator. We are not sure of the time-scale or the extent, but it seems certain that a rise in sea levels may make parts of many countries uninhabitable. Not only are the number of catalysts increasing but the population engine is expanding far faster than it ever has in the history of our species. Currently nearly five babies are born to replace every two of us that die. Our numbers have nearly quadrupled within the lifetime of those of us who have survived into our eighties. The two billion people on Earth in the late 1920s will have multiplied to eight billion by 2024. As birth rates in countries to the south and south-east of Europe are projected to rise faster than in Europe, will some of these additional people need or wish to move north? A parallel situation could also arise on the other side of the Atlantic.

    Can we do anything about this? Wilfully we can do nothing, as I explain in the rest of this article. Yet all the necessary adjustments will take place in the way we live, so our human race is fairly likely to endure and flourish as it invariably has in the past. If a few more people can understand and accept why it is not possible to make wilful decisions to change this situation we should, at least, start to become a society that is a little more compassionate and caring than the present one.

    I am continually reminded that our lives are not as we assume them to be, both common sense and deeper reason tells me that most of us live within a fantasy. I have long been convinced that it is impossible for human beings to reach wilful conclusions. I am certain we cannot actually control what we think, say or do, we only believe that we can. Most of you reading this will immediately dismiss this suggestion as ridiculous but, although you will have almost certainly heard it before, I can only conclude that so far you may not have found time to think about this basic conundrum deeply enough. Possibly your brain, giving itself easier options, has the habit of coming up with diversionary subjects to turn over in your mind and there is nothing you can do about that. If however you are still reading this and wondering what I'm trying to tell you, I will attempt to explain why what I write is true. To help me do this can I ask you to pretend, just for a short time, that you have no control over your own life. Then consider what some of the consequences would be of that proposition?

    To begin with much of what you had been taught as a child, and what you learnt from experience as you grew older, would have to be dismissed as nonsense. Three plus four adds up to seven, New Zealand is situated near Australia and water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen, but if people in history did not have the will to marshal their own thoughts, Nelson could not wilfully have thought up the tactics needed to win the battle of Trafalgar in 1805, any more than Napoleon was not able to decide, of his own free will, not to invade Russia seven years later. Yet the acquired sense of invincibility or destiny in the minds of each of of these iconic leaders were among a multitude of other factors that led one to achieve victory and the other to suffer defeat. In the same way, it was not in your power to wilfully convince yourself to study hard at school so you might pass your exams. If this is true, would this make the little occurrences of your day to day existence and your hopes for the future appear pointless? Do you think you could consider your life purposeful and fulfilling, or believe you were working to improve the material lot of yourself and your family, if you had no control? Could it be possible for you to ever feel happy or even content? If men and women were unable to make wilful decisions there would surely be no difference between kind and honest people and the cruel and deceitful ones, there would be no saints or sinners, no devils or angels, there would be no pride in achieving anything and no blame for making a mess of things.

    The monsters of the past, for example Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot would be no more responsible for the evil consequences of their existence than would Edward Jenner, Alexander Fleming and Florence Nightingale for the relief from suffering brought about following their birth, any more than Johann Sebastian Bach, William Wordsworth and Claude Monet could be for the beauty and joy released into the world following their time here. If no one was responsible for their actions, criminal activity would not be anyone's fault and the justice systems of the world would be in error in punishing anyone by sending them to prison. Every time we switched on the television or radio to watch or listen to the news, almost every sentence we heard spoken would be a partial lie. Whenever we picked up a daily newspaper much of what we read would be untrue. Politicians and other people in apparent authority would not, in reality, be able to wilfully change anything, and the analyses made about them by the media commentators would be nothing but hot air. If, after a morning shower, we did not have the free will to decide which dress to wear or colour shirt to put on, what would be the point of going to work? What would be the point of living? This may all sound terrifying, but it need not if we are able to turn the subject over in our minds long enough to understand it. How can this possibly be true? How can this describe the world we live in? How can it make sense? Let us consider the enigma of free will carefully and rationally.

    Television serials, films and a plethora of science fiction books have explored the idea of intelligent robots, created by mankind and then taking over the world after first destroying us. In the stories the robots have mental capabilities exceeding our own and have the ability to manufacture as many of their own kind as may be required to carry out this doomsday scenario. They are not constrained by human weaknesses, to start with they don't die, suffer from sickness or require our need for sleep. This plot is not confined to fiction. A number of leading scientists, including Professor Stephen Hawking, have warned of a real danger of something like this happening in the not too distant future.

    I would guess that such a sequence of events is possible but unlikely. Our species has so far shown that we are supremely adaptable and resilient. While speculating that the current rate of human population growth is probably unsustainable and being fully aware that an asteroid with our name on it will arrive one day, we haven't yet destroyed ourselves in a nuclear war and it seems likely that we will be able to protect or relocate our coastal cities before global warming has them under the sea. This being so, we should have designed the right fail-safe provisions before any robots we have built are capable of taking over from us. Yet, if we look at ourselves in another way, the professor's suggestion has already happened. The automatons are already here and they are well programmed to survive. In as much as our world can be run, within the constraints of nature itself, the robots think they have been organising everything here for quite a long time.

    Although I realise that most of you reading this will not initially accept the idea, we ourselves are the robots. We have not been manufactured by other beings or been created by some extraterrestrial power. We have simply found ourselves here, by chance, after a long and complex process of evolution. It may be easier, for some of you, if you can forget this correct explanation. However for those who find they are still thinking about it, don't worry, you can still enjoy life and be happy if you go on to accept that this is the truth. Yes, we are humans and in the same way as we have no option other than to stay living and breathing we also cannot wilfully change our lives. We are unable, both individually or collectively as part of a group, to self-determine what we think or do. Considering this concept both scientifically and logically, let me try and explain why this is so. How it is quite impossible for us to have free will but also why, as we carry on living our lives, rather than worrying about it this knowledge can give us peace of mind.


    I am aware that at this time in the history of mankind, the majority of the World's population still believe that our appearance here was caused by some supernatural agency. However, during the last one hundred and fifty years or so, large numbers who have enjoyed the benefit of a Western scientific education now agree that this cannot be true. Many have done this with some reluctance. They agree that the human species arrived on Earth as a result of evolution, and that Darwin and Wallace were on the right lines when explaining how this came about, but they still hanker after a feeling of meaningfulness. They need the support of at least one of the many faiths that are on offer, and trust that their particular selection had some input in the evolutionary process.

    Although a minority of the minority, a still sizeable number of us have left religion behind. We not only agree that all forms of reproductive life are related to each other, but also feel sure that there was, and is, no omnipotent power at the back of the stage pulling the strings. A very small minority of that second minority include people like myself. We have arrived at what we consider to be the ultimate truth and sometimes wonder what holds others back from going that far. For us, science tells us that, if our species arrived in its present form by evolution, we cannot possibly have free will. Logic tells us the same thing. Logic also tells us that even if we were spontaneously created, or even blessed or modified by some creator, we would still not have free will. This article will try and explain why that follows.

    First let me take you through a scientific line of reasoning, before I explain the slightly more complex logical argument. In the eighteenth century the Swedish naturalist, Carl Linnaeus, became the initiator of the system of scientifically naming all living organisms, which eventually led to the science of taxonomy. This discipline attempts to show how all species of life are related and how they fit together on the evolutionary tree.

    This is, before we start, impossibly complicated. Since self-reproducing life first began on our planet, a little less or possibly longer than four billion years ago, there have been billions and billions of separate species living here. Most of these are long extinct. It does not take much thought to realise that 'almost' every animal that ever existed will have either ended up being eaten by another creature, or as dust blown away in the wind. So the remains of comparatively few will ever be discovered. Having said that collections of fossils do continually increase and, with the help of improved technology and an expanding understanding of DNA and other chemical biology, knowledge of the tree of life and the subsequent filling in of this enormous tapestry advances almost daily. As for our own ascent, although there are frequent alterations, adjustments and disputes, some of which may never be resolved, the very broad outline of the branches in the tree leading to humans has been more or less agreed for some time.

    Our particular twig, known as Homo, diverged from the ancestors of our nearest living great ape relatives, the Bonobos and the Chimpanzees between five and six million years ago. The great apes are the most advanced primates who, as indicated by their title, are the most advanced mammals. It is assumed that the creatures that evolved into primates took to the trees in search of food and to avoid ground based predators. Going backwards in time, mammals evolved from reptiles. Reptiles evolved from Amphibians and they evolved from bony fish who were the first true vertebrates. Vertebrates, in turn, were descended from earlier chordates which, although they did not have a skeleton, had evolved a cartilage backbone known as a notochord. As humans, our scientific classification groups us with all the other chordates when we reach the Phylum stage of nomenclature.

    Our species title, Homo sapiens given to us by Linnaeus, has been awarded an arbitrary arrival date of two hundred thousand years ago. As well as modern man the title encompasses earlier ancestors, which include the Neanderthals from whom we are partially descended. Our species is in the Genus Homo. This we share with our pre-human forebears including, almost certainly, Homo heidelbergensis and very likely Homo erectus, also some other nearly human species that did not survive and are not part of our lineage. This genus is a member of the Family Hominidae, the great apes. The great apes are a member of the Suborder Haplorhini, which as well as apes include old world and new world monkeys. In turn this suborder are members of the Primate Order. All primates are in the Class Mammalia, and all mammals are in the Phylum Chordata. Finally chordates are part of the Kingdom Animalia. An animal is described as any form of life that can move independently during, at least, some stage of its life cycle.

    I'm sure I am on safe ground when I suggest that we should all agree that Bacteria, Fungi, Grass and Lancelets do not have free will (I will go on to explain what lancelets are for those who have not come across them). This is because, although each of them comes from a separate kingdom on the tree of life, they all lack a rather important attribute. None of these examples of vastly different forms of life on Earth has a brain so, even though each of them is highly complex, it would seem unlikely that we could say that any of them are capable of making a wilful decision.

    For those of you who have not been introduced to lancelets, they are animals who are members of the Chordata Phylum the same as ourselves. They are small marine creatures, looking a little like a tiny eel or perhaps a cross between a worm and a fish. There are over thirty species alive today and they are found in many seas of the world including our own. In some countries they are harvested for human consumption. Although they can swim, they spend most of the time with the larger portion of their tail buried in the sand. They are comparatively primitive chordates that obtain their nutrition by water filtration, with a mouth for feeding at one end and an anus at the other for the disposal of waste products.

    Slightly more advanced species of chordate than the lancelets were involved in what must surely be the most remarkable and important stage of vertebrate evolution, including our own. This is known as Cephalization, which is the process where nervous tissue begins to concentrate at the front end of the body to control the emerging sense organs of hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch. The chordates, that followed this line of evolution, are called craniates. They evolved a cranium in which to house their emerging brain. A present day example is the Lamphrey, which has primitive eyes able to recognise little more than light and darkness.

    Most but not all invertebrates, from minuscule insects to the Colossal squid, have brains as well. Some scientists are of the opinion that these evolved separately while others point out that signalling centres, the precursor to brains, arrived before the divergence between vertebrates and invertebrates. So, it could be said, that all animal brains have a common origin.

    We have reached the point where I would like to pose a question to those of you, who accept the theory of evolution but also believe that they have the free will to think, say and do whatever they individually decide. Can you suggest at what stage of our evolutionary journey to reach humanity that ability might have manifested itself? As I have explained, at one juncture in the past, our ancestors would have been relatively simple chordates, not so very dissimilar to present day lancelets. When these animals evolved into the more advanced craniates with brains, were these animals then able to decide where they wished to swim, what they wanted to eat and when they would reproduce? It seems probable that you would answer that this would be unlikely at such an early stage. If so, free will must have arrived later when our ancestors were some variety of fish, or perhaps when their descendants found themselves on land and started to crawl before walk as amphibians? If humans have free will, we should be able to pin down at what stage that particular development occurred.

    You may be of the opinion that self-determination happened much later, say when our predecessors were a species of mammal. This gives us a new question, do we think that some or maybe all more advanced animals possess free will? Those of us who own pet dogs may certainly consider this to be so. Alternatively we may have reached the conclusion that dogs are not like us because they do not have the same 'consciousness' as we do. Consciousness is a concept that is almost impossible to explain but, if we regard it as our ability to realise who we are, is that something only humans can do? Some mammals other than ourselves do appear to display emotions like grief and love, is that a sign of consciousness? Any of you who has experienced a close encounter with an Orang-utan, Gorilla, Chimpanzee or Bonobo, or possibly some variety of monkey, will agree that they are not so different from us in ways other than their body shape. If the more advanced primates have free will, this should be even more certain for some marine animals. Bottle-nosed dolphins, killer whales and other cetaceans, who some members of our scientific community like to regard as non-human persons possess a much higher encephalization level than the great apes. Their brains are capable of complexities approaching our own. The same can be said for some creatures with much smaller brains. Parrots and crows, the dinosaur's distant relatives, appear to be able to make up their own minds in the same way as we do.

    Modern humans only emerged as recently as fifty thousand years before now, with our species having a start date only four times longer ago than that. However we know, from fossil evidence, that much earlier stone age people shared food with other members of their group after they had become disabled, perhaps after a serious injury. We regard that as a sign of altruism which we consider to be particularly, although not exclusively, a human trait. If free will were to exist and it was able to evolve, this change must have taken place either in a single generation or slowly over a period of time. Neither of these suggestions are supportable by simple reason. The notion of our primitive ancestors obtaining a little free will and gradually acquiring more over generations must be nonsense, yet obtaining the full ability in a single step is equally ludicrous. The idea of an early human or pre-human couple, who had no freedom of choice themselves, giving birth to offspring with some new type of consciousness and the ability to make decisions cannot be worth serious thought.

    Biology explains why the evolution of free will is impossible. Species do not make 'decisions' about how they will evolve. The terms 'free will' and 'evolution' are the antithesis of each other, they negate one another. Having an ability to decide is something we only think we can do. Free will can be no more than a daydream, it does not exist.

    To reiterate, when we fully consider what we are, we should be able to agree that we are living physical beings, spending time here on Earth between our birth and our demise. We should also accept that the only governing arrangement that runs each of us is our individual brain. This extremely complex control centre has evolved over hundreds of millions of years and, although much has still to be discovered, we are aware that neuroscientists' knowledge of how it functions is already considerable.

    We don't have a mind that is separate from our brain. We are not wooden Pinoccios, who have been brought to life and given a Jiminy Cricket, a grasshopper conscience to sit on our shoulder and tell us what to do. Our thoughts are not in fact ethereal, they are not in the air but are a function of our brains. The word heart, when used to express the source of our emotions, is also a part of that same organ. The soul is just a delightful idea that evolved culturally, possibly at the same time our distant forbears started burying their dead. Francis Crick, who in 1962 was given the Nobel prize for his part in the discovery of the construction of the genetic material known as DNA, said:

    “Our joys and our sorrows, our memories and our ambitions, our sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

    Dick Swaab, one of the world's leading neuroscientists, summed up what we are in the heading of his internationally best-selling and extremely accessible book. The title of the English language edition is: We Are Our Brains.

    As I have explained, human brains have evolved over a long period of time, starting from those in the heads of simple craniate animals. Further back in time, those craniate's brains had evolved from much more primitive creatures that did not possess a brain. Beneath the surface of this simple scientific explanation, explaining the reason we are unable to make original decisions, lies a much more complex world where I don't have the knowledge to lead you. This is the quantum land of fundamental particles, of electrons, of quarks that integrate to make protons and neutrons, that join up to make atoms which then combine to produce the molecules that make us, and everything else. This is a strange world where some particles appear to be in different places at the same time. It is a place were interactions seem random but must still follow the ground rules of cause and effect. There is no need for us to understand quantum physics, to be able to accept that any function of a tiny part of our brain could hardly influence the behaviour of the uncountable number of sub-atomic particles of which that brain portion is itself composed.


    If you are not convinced by the biological reasoning against the existence of free will, on the evidence of the impossibility of its evolution, we can think about the subject again using simple logic. We might do no better than start here with a statement made by Benedict Spinoza, who lived in Amsterdam in the middle of the seventeenth century. Spinoza was of Sephardic Jewish descent and earned his living as a lens grinder. He changed his Hebrew first name of Baruch, to the Roman Catholic Benedict, after being expelled from his synagogue because of his views. Following his death, the Catholic church also banned his writings. Spinoza will not have been the first philosopher to suggest that everything that happens must have been caused by previous events, but today he is respected as one of the greatest thinkers of all time. He wrote;

    “The mind is determined to wish for this or that by a cause, which has been determined by another cause, and this again by another, and so on to infinity. This realisation teaches us to hate no one, to despise no one, to mock no one, to be angry with no one, and to envy no one.”

    Spinoza lived three hundred and fifty years ago, so he would have had no knowledge of neuroscience. He also came to his conclusions two hundred years before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, so could not have been able to consider evolutionary theory. Bertrand Russell, a British philosopher well known to my father's generation, did not have those disadvantages although brain research was still in its infancy during his lifetime. He took matters a little further, in his essay Why I am not a Christian based on a talk he gave in 1927, he said

    “When a man acts in ways that annoy us we wish to think him wicked, and we refuse to face the fact that his annoying behaviour is the result of antecedent causes which, if you follow them long enough, will take you beyond the moment of his birth, and therefore to events for which he cannot be held responsible by any stretch of imagination.”

    Although I regard my reasoning as rational, I accept that many of you may not see it that way so I will ask a simple question. As you are reading this, do you believe you have made a wilful decision to do so? If your answer is positive, you are in error, your belief is not logical. I will attempt to explain why this is so. If every action we carry out is caused by an earlier thought or action and every thought by a previous thought, and if everything that happens to us has a cause which is the result of earlier causes, where does the process start?

    I find it helpful, when trying to explain the causes that make each of us what we are, to list them in four separate boxes. They are all linked and follow each other chronologically, so this is just a device that concentrates my thinking and may help yours.

    The first box contains all those factors that happen up to and including the moment of our conception, they are the myriad causes that make up our physical inheritance. They include what sex we happen to be, whether we are male or female or possibly a gender less determined, and they are seeded with our own completely random mixture of genes. Our genes go back far beyond our own conception, which even if planned was a random event, to the conception of each of our parents, their parents, their parents' parents and every generation that lived before them. A lot of what happens to us is laid down at this point, Our physique, our facial looks, our brain capabilities, our physical strengths and weaknesses, even our projected longevity. We can regard this as our starter pack.

    In the last three or four decades, medical research has discovered that for some people the contents of the second box are even more life controlling than the first. For many others it is of equal input. This is the box that lists all that happens to us during our pre-birth development. The nine months, or less or more, when we are carried by our mothers before our birth. One of the foremost researchers in this field was David Barker, a British physician and scientist who postulated the Barker Theory that this period, before we are born, is as relevant to how our lives will turn out as our genes. It would seem fairly obvious that any trauma suffered by mothers, or any addiction to drugs, tobacco or alcohol would affect her baby. However diet and lifestyle can be of equal importance and some of the causes of lifelong good or poor health, level of intelligence and life-span expectations are laid down at this time.

    You should note that free will, if you are still of the opinion that there is such a thing, cannot have entered the arena and had any effect on the causes I've placed in the first two boxes. None of us can have any possible say whatsoever in who our parents are, any more than our parents were able to on the ancestors that proceeded them. We are also unable to set aside anything that modified us during our pre-birth development.

    The same can be said for the third box of causes. These happen to us instantaneously, at the moment of our birth, and make an unquantifiable difference to what we are and what may become of us. Like the contents of box one and two, there is nothing we can do to change them. These causes are the ones that are outside ourselves. They include the date of our birth and the environmental situation surrounding our entry into the world. If we happen to be born into a middle class family, in a western style nation during a period of peace, our prospects in life will be quite different than if our life starts as a child living with a nomadic tribe in a poor country during a time of drought and civil war. Likewise the date, the season of the year and even the time of day may be relevant. If life began in 1994 as an infant in a Tutsi village in Rwanda, or commenced as a baby in the plague ridden London of 1563, the chance of reaching a first birthday would be very slim whatever genes we were born with.

    Perhaps, if we cannot possibly have had any say in the antecedent causes of the first three boxes, you may now concede that at the time of our birth an overwhelming proportion of what we are and what we will become has been cast in stone, but not all. You may still think there may be wriggle room within the contents of the fourth box. This is the one that contains every experience of our lives, including every influence that will have touched us and registered in our brain, from the moment of our birth to the time of our death. We only have to look back truthfully on our own lives to realise that we had no more power to change what has happened to us, than we could to alter the factors preceding our birth. When we were infants and small children we had no control over our lives at all. We didn't decide where we would live, what we would eat, where we would go to school or even who our first friends and acquaintances were. As we grew older and became adults did we really have choices? If you believe that you did, you are not being truly honest with yourself. Everything that has ever happened to us has to be the result of the combination of every experience and influence that had become a part of our memory and of us before that moment, and the external circumstances of that moment.

    If you still think you are in charge of your own life, you may not have thought about the matter long enough. However you are not at fault. If you are unable to reach the same conclusions about wilful self determination as I have this helps to prove my point, it seems likely that the experiences of life lodged in your brain are slightly different than those that have evolved in mine. Your brain is what you are, as my brain is what I am and mine just happens to be aware that free will is no more than an illusion.

    When I was a young child, I was apt to get a little confused with the idea of three in one. I was told that I was created by God (We'll keep the capital G, as I don't want to upset anyone) who had three manifestations, father, son and holy ghost. In a similar way, I also had a triple identity, a heart, a mind and a soul. I was given to understand that my heart was responsible for the good things inside me, like love and kindness, whereas my mind was less reliable as it was capable of dishonest thoughts if I didn't keep close tabs on it. My soul, a rather flimsy conception that somehow floated in the air around me, became somehow mixed up with the holy ghost. However I was informed that this was the real, deep down, me that had been around before I was born and would still be there after my death. It was drummed into me that my god loved me and therefore I should love him back (he was always particularly masculine) with all three of my parts, together with all of my strength. I'm sure that many children today are given the same admonition.

    I was a little older when I learnt that my heart, although important, was a comparatively simple organ that pumped blood round my body and had nothing whatsoever to do with being good. Rather later, I reached the conclusion that my soul, or my 'spirit', was just a cultural idea that had evolved in human society long before the advent of organised religion. I have long been fascinated by the human brain, with its function that we call the mind, and I accept that my brain alone is what I am. As Arthur Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes say in The Adventure of the Mazerin Stone, “I'm a brain, Watson, the rest of me is a mere appendage.”

    I have long thought about the possibility of there being a God, or whatever other name you give to a supernatural power that might exist and operate in a different dimension from our own, as far more than unlikely. Although I accept that it may not be completely possible to prove that there is no such power, logic and common sense demonstrate that such a phenomenon would be pointless. If we cannot choose to live good or bad lives, the religious idea of rewards and penalties falls flat on its face. It is also very easy to see how such a myth, that of some force higher than us, evolved in our ancestors minds long ago. This most likely occurred when our forebears were pre-human stone age scavengers. They had already acquired a simple language and discovered how to use fire, and they needed the illusion of a power greater than themselves to make sense of their lives.

    When Charles Darwin was alive, we're told he avoided talking about God as he did not wish to upset his wife and some of his friends. Since his time, the followers of some religions have modified their belief that the human race was spontaneously created. They now suggest that, at some point in our descent from the same ancestors as those of the great apes, pre-humans were singled out and recreated 'in the image of god' into a species with free will that was to become superior to all other animals. Although biology has shown us that we are just one of many mammal species, albeit one with a large brain for our comparative size, let me answer any reader of this who is still of the opinion that we were fully, or partially, created with free will.

    This idea does not stand up to practical judgement. If we were created, rather than evolved, we would still not have free will from the moment following the one in which we were created. We are unable to drop cause and effect and the extension that all causes are the product of previous causes. This being so free will can never occur. If we follow the same logic further down the line, if there were a supernatural force or a god it or he could not possibly have free will either.


    For any of you who may have come to agree that it is not possible for us to wilfully change our lives, you may wonder if there will be any consequences of that realisation. Will anything change?

    Although your life will continue in the same way as previously, your perceptions will be different as you begin to see your existence in a different way. Occasionally you may get a little frustrated, when you become aware that most people are talking nonsense, but this can vanish very quickly as you realise that nothing is truly anyone’s fault. Instead of considering 'what will I do next' you may start to think about yourself in the third person and should find this less stressful. You will discover that as you become more tolerant of others, you will also be free of feelings of envy and clear of notions of guilt. You may not get rid of any aches and pains, or find relief from far more serious illnesses and disabilities, but you should begin to accept your problems with more understanding and start to appreciate life for the strange adventure that it is.

    What of the long term future for the human race? On balance I am optimistic. This is subject to the expectation that, through some process of self adjustment which will not be too violent, evolution will provide a levelling out of our escalating rise in population. Similar adjustments have happened with other species so there is no reason to suppose that it won't happen to ours, our lack of self-determination is all part of that. In a world where we could please ourselves there would be no chance for us. As I have written before, if self determination was somehow possible we would have killed each other long ago.

    I think it likely that there will be a rise in the numbers of us who accept that they have no free will. The increase may be significant but I guess it likely that ours will remain a minority viewpoint. In percentage terms this may remain tiny at far less than one per-cent, yet that may be critical enough to produce a more caring and civilised society. This could deliver, for example, the closure of some prisons. People convicted of criminality may be given more chance of rehabilitation than currently, with medical intervention to alter personalities available for some as an alternative to long incarceration. As the overwhelming majority will still believe they have free will, there will still be politicians, scrambling for what they believe is power and under the illusion that they are running society if luck runs in their favour. I would like to hope that there might be a decline in pomposity in some of our apparent leaders but that may just be wishful thinking. The leaders vast army of acolytes, the advisers, the experts, the pundits and the journalists, will also still be going round in circles explaining what is happening. The bankers will still be here, continuing to add to the commodity in which they deal. There will still be people exploiting weaker members of society, or just taking advantage of others less able than themselves. There will still be wars, with perhaps a little more understanding of why there are, and, of course, religion will survive although the number of adherents to some faiths, in some places, will probably continue to decline.

    The advent of organised religion, about ten thousand years or so ago when our species started to live in groups larger than extended families, has been both a positive and a negative influence on humanity. The scales, I have always thought, are slightly in its favour. It filled an important need in early civilization and made many people content and happier in their lives than they would have been without it, even if at the same time it destroyed or harmed many others or, at the very least, filled them with feelings of fear and guilt. On the plus side it was of unique importance in the rise of art, music, literature and thought. There might not have been a freethinker, like Spinoza, realising that free will could not exist without religious dogma to rebel against.

    For those of us who are enlightened, possibly we have the best of both worlds. We know the truth and can contemplate it whenever our minds move in that direction. The rest of the time we can be fascinated or appalled by the contrary world in which we spend our life span. I hope that we have become more compassionate and understanding because, although life may be fine for some of us, at the same time it remains extremely cruel and difficult for many others. Occasionally, as I have when writing this article, we may be lulled into the soft delusion that our knowledge makes a difference. It doesn't.



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