A famous Zen story goes like this:
A monk asks the master, Joshu, “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?”
Joshu answers, “Mu!”
This story has become known as the Mu koan — a koan being one of those semi-meaningless statements that, by beating your answer-seeking mind against the unanswerable statement, may, eventually, after a lot of brain beating, result in a moment where rationality snaps and you have a dramatic (and temporary) shift in perception (doesn’t that sound much less interesting than, “You experience Satori!”?).
The way you wrestle with this koan is by trying to understand Joshu’s answer. And if you go to a Zen retreat where people are putting their mind into a cage match against the Mu koan, you’ll often hear people muttering, “Mu! Mu! Mu… mu… muuuuu,” as if repeating “2+2, 2+2, 2+2” will spontaneously make them think, “FOUR!”
First of all, why they’re saying Mu is a mystery. Why did the entire story get translated into English, but not the last word?
“Mu,” is a Japanese word for “no” or “nothing” or any form of negation. But you never hear good Zen boys and girls mumbling, “No. No. Nothing. No… nooooo….”
Instead, they sit on the floor or walk around the zendo sounding like their practicing for the upcoming 4-H cow impression competition.
Which makes me wonder if there’s another Zen story that hasn’t yet been translated:
A monk asks Joshu, “Does a cow have Buddha nature?”
Joshu answers, “WOOF!”
But the Buddha nature of livestock and companion animals is not my concern here… I really want to know this:
Do my cats have free will?
My cats clearly learn things. Things like, “don’t eat that plant,” “that weird sound means food is coming,” “if I face this door and meow long enough I get treats,” and, “no matter how much those tall animals yell, I have no personal issue that would prevent me from walking on this counter, scratching that chair, and wiping my butt on the carpet.”
My cats also seem to make decisions. Decisions like: “I will run to that empty corner of the room as if my life depended on it… NOW!” and, “NEVER MIND, I’ll make a 90-degree turn at 100 miles an hour and dash up the stairs instead.” Or, “I think I’ll nap here, and then get up and sleep there, and then rouse myself in time for some serious shut-eye over there.” And, even seeming artistic decisions like, “Yes, it is much more aesthetically pleasing if this mouse were floating in my water dish!”
But do my cats have free will? It seems like a silly question. We don’t think they sit around deliberating, “Do I find a nice sunny spot to lie down, or do I plant myself in the middle of the guests and lick my butt ?” We don’t expect them to be thinking, “I feel a certain sensation that I’ll call ‘lacking’ and if I could only spend a weekend in a hotel room with other cats and discover my ‘purpose’ for living, I should be able to eliminate this sensation.”
Cats seem to do fine, free will or not.
Now, if we’re going to suggest that cats have do have free will, let’s move further back on the evolutionary chain… fish? worms? algae? amoeba?
They all seem to survive just fine without what most of us would call free will. It doesn’t seem to be a prerequisite for survival.
So, let’s head in the other direction. What about us?
For over 40 years, cognitive scientists have noticed that you hook people up to various scanning and measuring devices and see something happen in the brain when they have made a decision. What has been puzzling to them is that this event takes place at least half a second prior to the person actually deciding. A recent study showed a neurological event SEVEN SECONDS prior to the person deciding, “NOW!”
These scientists suggest that decisions, and perhaps most of the rest of our life, is happening in some non-conscious way, and that our conscious thought is simply narrating an event that has already passed.
“I decided to buy that new Brittany Spears album,” is a thought you have merely to explain the fact that, for no rational reason, you’re standing in line with the CD in your hand, and some goth kid behind the counter giving you the evil eye.
Some scientists say, “Well, the initial decision is out of our control… but then we can decide whether to act on it or not!”
But what about that decision? Why isn’t that one as non-conscious and non-controllable than the first?
The notion that we aren’t the conscious and volitional actors that we seem to be makes most people more than a bit nervous… and many — including scientists — avoid thinking about it all together and then justify that lack of consideration with, “Well, that couldn’t be true… it sure seems like we have free will… the notion that we don’t argues with our every day experience!” Even though they know that what we “experience” and what is accurate are often as disconnected as “Paris Hilton” and “Nobel Prize for Physics.”
Or people get even more nervous and suggest that if people truly accepted that the are not the ones running the show, then all hell would break loose. Or nobody would do anything. Or some other equally horrible future would ensue, where humans would merely alternate between watching Brady Bunch reruns, killing each other, and trying to lick themselves.
But I’m not sure anything would change if we all suddenly accepted that, contrary to our seeming experience, we are DNA robots who have a glitch in the programming that makes us think we’re not robots. I’m not convinced that having an intellectual understanding of something that’s so contrary to our experience would make a bit of difference. After all, we know that we could die from any of a thousand causes in almost any moment, but that doesn’t stop us from partying like it’s 1999.
Years ago I heard someone say, “Humans think they are immortal. The proof? They always act surprised when one of them dies in a manner that has taken out millions of others.” Every day’s newspaper, TV and radio tells of some “surprising” death… just like the “shocking” one from the day before and the day before and the day before and…
Though, maybe, if we truly accepted that the thought of having free will is also just some idea that popped into our awareness after our non-conscious being “decided” to cut our hair with a lawn mower instead of a weed whacker… then, maybe, we wouldn’t be as committed to justifying and acting to support our beliefs. Maybe, for example, we would see our desire demonize some group of humans who speak, look, talk or smell differently than we do as no more “conscious” or rational than our “choice” to put on our pants left leg first.
That might be interesting.
I don’t know.
I’m just thinking… or am I?