Dec 9, 2019 - 4 minute read

A Philosophy Behind What Happens Next

The following is from an e-mail I sent to Insight Forum members0.

Separately, I developed an insight these last few months I thought I might share here with you. I had started an engaging email conversation with fellow forumite Bruce Parker on the philosophy behind what happens next: a structure we can use to understand the direction of events in the world, and our individual contribution to it. Quite serendipitously, I’d also started exploring the works of Immanuel Kant, and found in there one such compelling structure: a definition of free will, of rational beings that possess it, and consequently what reason tells them they ought to do with it.

In classic Eastern spirituality, that I began studying in the late 2000s, the idea of progress is largely missing. *The past is but a memory, the future but a fantasy; learn to understand how things truly are in the now, and find peace in that understanding*—that would be a typical example teaching found therein. The one explanation I have seen for what happens in the world is an esoteric one: that consciousness creates the world as a means to know itself, and evolves to know itself better and better1. Free will is said to be an illusion2, or something that belongs to the totality of nature and not the individual3. Explanations such as these perhaps have a salutary effect in diminishing the spiritual aspirant’s self-centered ego. But at the end of the day (or rather, at the beginning of the day), we are still faced with the question of what best to do. Egotistic or not, at peace or not, we have time to fill—what ought guide how we do it?

Kant introduces his assertion of free will by pointing out that *where there’s an ought, there’s a can*—meaning, in our point of view there appear conceptions of preferable eventualities that we believe we have the power to effect. The thought I ought to clean my room is a simple example. What determines the ought is morality, which Kant reasons into his famous categorical imperative: to do only that which one can self-consistently commend all other fellow rational beings do in similar circumstance4. Such action must not unnecessarily impinge on other’s freedom, and have that very same freedom and concomitant rationality be the ultimate goal. For, in this formulation, only rational beings can be free—free from the cause-and-effect of empirical and natural biological impulses such as hunger and fear (unlike animals, in our rationality, we can choose not to eat and not to run away), and have reasoned intentions separate from our instinctive desires, and choose to work towards them.

In Kant’s system, without free will our point of view disappears and the question What to do? can not arise and we won’t be having this discussion. Our confronting the field of possible action and finding our way in it is therefore a fundamental part of who we are (a.k.a. our point of view, our consciousness, our awareness, etc.). Along with the transcendental philosophy of Being, which was more familiar to me from my forays into ancient Eastern philosophy, there appears to be a transcendental philosophy of Doing. And at both their hearts lie corresponding mysteries: That we can think and understand but our fundamental identity is ultimately unknowable; and that we can reason and act but our moral decisions are ultimately unpredictable.

So, are you going to pour yourself that second glass of wine after dinner tonight?


0 Insight Forum is a quarterly gathering I organize to examine presenter’s new ideas into progressing consciousness:

1 Adyashanti, in The End of Your World, and also, Rupert Spira, in a talk. Both proponents of non-dual philosophy coming out of ancient India.

2 Sam Harris. The Illusion of Free Will:

3 Francis Lucille. Consciousness, Time and Free Will:

4 Discussion here based on Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason. 1788.