Naturalizing Freedom and Autonomy

It’s hard to remember or mark my first encounter with a naturalistic worldview. It started in the late 1980’s, a combination of interest in Zen Buddhist philosophy, dissatisfaction with the kind of unthinking obedience that religion requires, and beginning to think seriously about the human condition.  Since then it has continued to evolve, the by-product of a rigorous study in personal autonomy that includes and is fully compatible with naturalism but goes beyond it to develop a competent human subjectivity. The result has been a deepening naturalistic world-view supported by a daily discipline of reading, writing, thinking and acting aimed at transforming what it means to be a self – and killing the subjective experience of being an existent ego-like-a-thing.   

The subjective benefits of a naturalistic view of the world have turned out to be profound. If we don’t exist as an individual essence (and we don’t), then the subjective feel that “who I am” is an interior self separate from other interior selves is an error too.  Granted, our bodies are separate – but the almost constant subjective sense that there is “someone” in me, looking out through my eyes and talking and listening to “someone” inside of you, just isn’t true. So now my consciousness isn’t a thing or “who I am” like a fixed entity; it’s something my brain can DO.  Now “who I am” is a process, a flow, and a moment-by-moment expression.  This can sound abstract but in practice it’s anything but… if I don’t exist as a continuous-through-time interior essence then who I am becomes a moment by moment expression, where the expression-in-the-moment IS the self and each moment is an opportunity for self-creation. Now I experience my self as behavior, as my words and actions.

More tangibly, a thoughtfully practiced naturalistic worldview has provided me with a sense of freedom, in many senses of the word.  I’ve become more flexible and pragmatic, less defensive and positional. My reasons and beliefs, being naturally caused (a coalescence of biology, culture and language) and not divinely inspired, are open to discussion, criticism and change. I’ve gained respect for mature thinking as a tempering influence on emotions and gained a good degree of freedom from submission to the unexamined authoritative claims of feelings as the sole or primary motivation for my behavior.   

Now I enjoy a sense of creative freedom in the opportunity to make my self in every single moment. In the absence of an interior self, if “who we are” is what we say and do, the question becomes: “Is what I’m about to say or do in this moment, and this one, and this one… who I want to be?”  And the constant spiritual challenge becomes one of transcendence… can I get over myself and embody my mature thinking by acting in accord with it or will I submit to reflexive egoism and immaturity?    

There’s freedom too in the absence of belief and reliance on the illusion of free-will… if we had free will we’d all be skinny and rich.  Now I have more realistic expectations of myself and others, with greater appreciation for anyone’s efforts and less attachment to the actual result.  We’re all fully caused and we all do the best we can.  This understanding has led to freedom from guilt – from feeling or being ultimately responsible for everything or anything – from judging others (or myself) harshly and to a significant tempering of the punitive impulse.  Punishment as retribution no longer makes any rational or spiritual sense.  By dropping belief in free-will, I’m not looking for any credit, allowing for humility, or due any ultimate blame – which tempers the punitive impulse toward others (judgments of moral superiority, petty criticisms, etc.) and my self (self-doubt, second guessing, self-recrimination, etc.).  Paradoxically perhaps, all of this has me operating in the world with a greater sense of personal responsibility, competence and autonomy.

And I’ve gained the equanimity that comes with being free from the fear of death.  By recognizing the error of thinking of my self as an interior essence, I can see that the fear of death is mostly concern about the end of an illusion. If “I” don’t exist as a soul now, while I’m alive, then “I” or it can’t very well “die” either. My body will die, my brain will stop working and I’ll no longer be there as a thinking, feeling, acting in the moment subject. But there is no “I” to die and nothing to fear. There’s almost certainly nothing to look forward to after the brain dies either, if anyone was hoping for that.

Naturalism speaks of connection…  I love that we are the products of 4 billion years of biological evolution, that the incredible beauty and variation and workability of the biological world are the result of the simple, elegant algorithm of natural selection. I love being kin to all living things because now that kinship is rooted in reality, not in some new age spiritual wishful-ness. This affinity and connection has led me to more humane practices, such as adopting a vegetarian diet and spending significant time thinking about and attempting to temper species antagonism by practicing the gentle virtues, compassion, generosity, gratitude, respect and humility.  

These subjective changes haven’t come about by insight or theoretical understanding alone, or by simply deciding to adopt a naturalistically conceptual world-view. As it turns out, that’s not the way the brain works.  The subjective change takes years of disciplined practice, of thinking and reading and writing and speaking and listening and feeling and acting “from” this world-view. If we can do this long enough, we change the neuronal pathways in our brains, which changes our subjectivity and slowly but surely we get a naturalistic world-view, philosophy and subjectivity “in our brains and bones.”

Adopting this world-view is akin to growing up, leaving childish thinking behind and taking my finitude seriously. I’ve gained a mature sense of wonder, awe and reverence for the world and universe as it is. This is the one life I have – and it’s up to me to live it well – and that makes my time and my relationships precious.  And naturalism provides existential connections too. We can come to see ourselves as participants on the timeline of human existence and find purpose in contributing to humanity’s civilizing efforts.  Seekers spend their lives trying to be “one with the universe” – with naturalism, we already are… there’s nothing we need to do to be connected with all that is.  How could it be – and who would want it to be – any other way?

– Jody Keeler