Why should rationalists meditate? There are a number of good reasons, but the one I’d like to address is how it impacts our conception of free will.
For many, the question of free will is both a complex philosophical question and a religious doctrine. It can be intimidating for an individual to make sense of the arcane philosophical debates. I know I did. When I was in college I was rather fixated on the notion of free will to an unhealthy degree.
Eventually I discovered the weirdly counter-intuitive idea that both “free will” and the “self” are illusions. I can’t recall clearly where I first encountered this notion; perhaps it was reading Krishnamurti, or advocates of psychedelic drugs.
I began meditating with a reasonable degree of habitual regularity only a few months ago. I am by every metric a beginner at this practice. Nevertheless, during meditation it becomes MUCH easier to perceive the appearance of individual thoughts arising in the stream of consciousness. Because of this, it becomes a trivial matter to directly perceive the truth of the claim that “free will” and the “self” are illusions. They are certainly strong illusions, as our normal waking consciousness creates a veritable flood of images, words, perceptions, and somatic sensations in our stream of consciousness.
When one perceives a single thought arising during meditation, it becomes easy to see that the thought was not “chosen” in any way; it simply appears. There’s also a logical paradox in the notion of “free will” in that it assumes a mind chooses from a range of thoughts and picks one to enter consciousness. If this were so, we would know a thought before we actually know it.
The notion of “self” is another powerful illusion. Again, when one meditates, it becomes apparent that there is no “self” that chooses which thoughts to enter consciousness. Thoughts simply appear in consciousness.
Nothing I’ve said so far is really novel. What I’d like to suggest that might really be novel is that one of the specific virtues of meditation for skeptics, atheists, and rationalists is that enables a direct and simple way to understand why “free will” is an illusion. Why is this valuable? For a number of reasons, but one being that the doctrine of “free will” is a sort of moral Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card for theists in the Abrahamic traditions. When confronted with the uncomfortable notion that God allows evil to occur even though he’s omnipotent, we are told that God gave man “free will” which puts the responsibility on mankind, not God.
Free will also factors into the doctrine of punishment, both human and divine. Curing immoral behavior is itself a more moral act than simply punishing it. For example, if it were KNOWN that a sociopath had a brain tumor that caused his sociopathy, the moral act would be to treat the tumor, not punish the sociopath. As fallible humans it’s largely beyond our ability, at present, to “cure” most sociopathy.
Once the notion of “free will” is abandoned, the notion of hell becomes all the more morally barbaric and gratuitous. It supposes a super-being capable of re-arranging the determinate causes of sociopathy, which is ultimately a victim state, yet chooses to punish the victim. Eternally.
Again, these ideas are not novel to me. I would refer anyone interested in the issue to read Sam Harris’ book on the subject or to watch this lecture of his:
I encourage skeptics, atheists, and rationalists to meditate. Discover for yourself how “free will” is an illusion.