Letter to a Nation That Believes in Free Will

Revising Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation to propagate free will skepticism…

You believe in free will.  You believe that you have the freedom to choose.  Every time you make a choice, you believe you consciously decide the course that your life is going to take.  You believe you are the conscious author of your thoughts and intentions.  As a believer in free will, you believe these propositions not because they make you feel good, but because you think they are true.  Before I point out some of the problems with these beliefs, I would like to acknowledge that there are many points on which you and I agree. We agree, for instance, that if one of us is right, the other is wrong.  You have the freedom to choose or your don’t.  You are constantly consciously deciding the course that your life is going to take or you are not.  We agree that to be a true believer in free will that all free will skeptics are mistaken, and profoundly so.  If believers in free will are correct, and I persist in my unbelief, I should expect to suffer derision for the rest of my days.  Worse still, I have persuaded others, some close to me, to reject the very idea of free will.  They too will languish in contempt.  If the basic doctrine of the belief in free will is correct, I am misusing my time in a wasteful way.  I admit this without a single caveat.  The fact that my continuous and public rejection of free will since the end of 2015 does not worry me in the least should suggest to you just how inadequate I think your reasons for being a believer  in  free  will  are.  

To be continued…

How a vomit-fearing eight year old mistook self-transcendence for amnesia

I was five years old in 1976  when my two-year old sister Kristin began to choke on a Life Saver candy that I gave her.  Luckily our dad was with us in the kitchen at the time, and he went into life-saving hero mode.  After a few terrifying moments spent not solving the problem by clapping his little Kiki on the back with his hand, he reached into her mouth with his index finger, and triggered her gag reflex.  After a quick stomach convulsion followed immediately by  an even quicker head dodge by my dad, my sister projectile vomited a stream of yellowish, mostly-liquid puke that splashed down a few feet away all over the light green linoleum floor.  The offending yellow Life Saver was expelled along with the contents of her stomach, and the hysterical sobs that immediately followed confirmed that Kristin was breathing easy again.  This harrowing experience turned me into someone with an irrational and, at times, overwhelming fear of vomiting, also known as emetophobia.  

My sister’s Life Saver-choking incident led me to conflate nausea and throwing up with the risk of imminent death I think, so future bouts with vomit-inducing, contagious infections in our house became stress-filled, nerve-wracking ordeals for me.  I’d have these psychosomatic-nausea-panic attacks where I’d end up sprinting to the bathroom convinced I was about to barf.  I’d be down on my knees, staring into the toilet bowl with my index fingers pressed hard into my ears desperately hoping to prevent myself from hearing what I thought was about to happen.  Knowing that I was abnormally troubled by the prospect of throwing up just piled embarrassment and shame on top of fear and anxiety for me.  While I only threw up a few times as a child, every encounter I had with every vomit-inducing infection over the subsequent decade was one accompanied by paranoia, fear and stress.  My search for solace from these ills led me to make a remarkable discovery when I was just eight years old.  

It was at the end of the summer of 1979, and Kristin was sick again, this time from an infection apparently.  She’d thrown up twice after dinner the day before.  As a matter of habit given my infection-evading regime, I retreated to the bedroom that I shared with my older brother Mark.  He wasn’t there, so I closed the door behind me and sat on the edge of my bed facing a window that looked out onto the front yard.  My head was positioned so I couldn’t see any part of my body when I looked straight ahead through the window.  

Branches of a birch tree swayed up and down in the gentle summer breeze.  With my gaze fixed and unfocused, I fell into a comfortable state of silent reverie as I thought about what was going on:  I thought why did Kristin have to get sick?  Why am I so afraid of throwing up?  Why do people throw up?  Why does it have to be this way?  Why does it have to be like this?  Why is it like this?  Why is it the way it is?  Why is what is happening, happening?  What is going on?  What is… is?  What is… existence?  What is… is?  What is… existing?  What is… is?  What is being?  What does that mean, to be?  What is is?  I repeated that last question silently to myself over and over again.  What is is?  What is is? What is is?

After about half a minute or so focused on contemplating that question something extraordinary happened.  I lost my sense of self.  The voice in my head went silent as I stopped thinking… completely.  I forgot who I was and what was going on in my life.  My ever-present frame of reference for the world vanished.  With it went my sense of time and awareness of my body too.  The scene in front of me remained the same, the branches of the birch tree were still rising and falling in the breeze, but the sense that I was looking at the tree from somewhere behind my eyes was missing.  There was just the world and my selfless awareness of it.  It was a blissful state of mind where all that was felt interconnected.  Gone was the sense of being separate from my surroundings.  Everything that existed was part of the same one thing.  Complete.  Unbound.  Free.  Whole.  All that was, was one.  And I… my sense of me… was nowhere to be found.

This detached, egoless state of consciousness didn’t last for very long—maybe five seconds at most—but it was a mind-blowing wonder to me.  It made me dizzy, and caused my head to dip.  I saw my legs, and my brief taste of this selfless awareness came to an abrupt end.  When the spell broke, my sense of self, memories of my past, and knowledge of my present all snapped back into place in an instant.  I was a stressed out eight year old emetophobe again, re-oriented once more to the story the voice in my head had been narrating for years.   I had stumbled into and out of a state of self-transcendence, without recognizing it as such because I had no context to do so.  Instead, my eight year old mind, so accustomed and comfortable with its own sense of self, misinterpreted the experience as some kind of self-induced, momentary spell of amnesia.  This seemed unlikely to me, so I had to try to do it again.  I wanted to know if forgetting myself and my worries was something I could do on demand.

I focused my attention from the start, on the final question from the first time:  What is is?  Just like before, after about thirty seconds of intense concentration, I lost my sense of self again, and entered that same timeless state of consciousness like before.  I felt free, at peace and connected to everything.  Complete and whole.  Once again, the few awe-filled moments I spent temporarily unencumbered by my usual mental luggage made me dizzy, and caused my head to dip.  My second visit to this ego-transcendent state was as brief as the first, but delight displaced my disbelief when the spell ended this time.  Finding the blissfully discombobulating state of consciousness again, with such relative ease, convinced me that I hadn’t imagined the whole thing.  Plus I seemed to have some grasp on how to make it happen on demand, and I was quite content to have this know-how at my disposal for future bouts with barf-inducing infections that I knew I would inevitably face.

Many years later it seems that the most remarkable aspect of my chance discovery was my monumental misunderstanding of what I had experienced.  At eight years old, I was already married to the idea that my self was the essential part of me that was located somewhere inside of my skull behind my eyes.  I saw my “self” or “I” if you prefer, as the general manager of my consciousness, the controller of the voluntary actions of my body, the thinker of my thoughts, the decider of my decisions, the chooser of my choices and the imaginer of my imaginings.  “I” was the subject of every experience I experienced, and the source or the author of the ever-present voice in my head.  As an altar-boy-to-be who was raised by Roman Catholic parents, I referred to this essential part of me, this nucleus of control that I believed was guiding my consciousness, as my spirit or my soul.  This was the supposedly free-willing, supposedly eternal part of me, that my mother told me would survive the death of my body, and continue to have experiences of a kind that were unimaginable to me while I was still alive.  I was so attached to this view of myself as the central controlling authority in my life that I mistook my relief from emetophobic distress as a brief escape from reality versus what I view it as, almost forty years later.  Now, it seems apparent to me, that my spontaneous, impromptu meditation provided me with a momentary glimpse of an incredible truth about the human experience that I wasn’t able to comprehend at eight years old:  

As I see it, there is no essential “self” there’s no central “I” or “me” anywhere inside or outside of my body that controls it or the thoughts, intentions and feelings that arise within my consciousness.  The voice in my head that I previously self-identified with and saw as the genuine controller of every decision I made, isn’t in control of anything.  Just because knowledge of what I’m about to do arrives within my field of consciousness before anyone else’s, doesn’t mean that I consciously decide the course of history.  Thinking that any single individual possesses that power stems from a confused and necessarily egotistical view of personhood.  Instead, I believe that we are miraculous, meaning-making, storytelling animals that are playing our roles in the unfolding of the cosmos, we’re not authoring them.  No one consciously controls the events occurring in their brain that they are unaware of and that lead to every single thought that pops into their consciousness.  

No one.

Einstein thought shame arose from a gross misunderstanding of the human condition

Kevin Hines is a suicide attempt survivor whose efforts to try to help people struggling with self-destructive thoughts and behavior have inspired me.  He recently posted a video on Facebook about his #mysevenbucksmoment in response to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.  In his video Kevin talks about the shame he felt after his suicide attempt.  As a fellow suicide attempt survivor, I’m familiar with how people who live through suicidal behavior feel guilt, embarrassment and shame as a result.  I was watching the final moments of the Obama presidency draw to a close after watching Kevin’s video, and I was inspired to share the following thoughts with him.

Regarding the shame you mentioned…

Albert Einstein (and many other thinkers) believed that emotions of shame and guilt arise from a gross misunderstanding of the human condition. Einstein said that a belief in free will results from a “delusion of consciousness.” There is a growing pile of evidence being amassed by scientists to back this claim up.

I’m compelled to suggest that Albert Einstein’s free will skepticism–his belief that a person is mistaken in thinking that he or she could have done other than he or she did–is an unheralded prescription for peace that this insightful genius left for the benefit of humanity.

I’m compelled to champion this idea within the suicide prevention community. We have GPS technology and many other modern marvels because of Einstein’s genius insights about reality. It’s time to consider leveraging Einstein’s apparent genius insight into the human condition too.

A world full of people who genuinely view free will as an illusion, and who are committed to maximizing well-being is a world without shame. It’s a world without egotistical pride. It’s a world without revenge–a world without hate of self or others. It’s a world full of people being compassionate, loving and grateful.

Recognizing that we may have already extracted as much utility from the likely fictional idea that human beings are autonomous agents consciously controlling their thoughts, feelings, and actions and therefore their lives, is an important conversation that I don’t hear many people in suicide prevention and mental health advocacy having. I’m committed to changing that reality. Recognizing the likelihood that free will is an illusionary creation of humanity is a silver bullet capable of piercing the heart of the stigma surrounding “mental illness.”

It’s evident to me that Einstein would have said that believing in free will is a major risk factor for depression and becoming suicidal. The Buddha would agree as would Nietzsche. So too would neuroscientist Sam Harris and professors Bruce M. Hood, Thomas Metzinger and Thalia Wheatley.

It’s time to seriously consider Einstein’s conception of what it means to be a human being. This guy was clever enough to notice that humanity was grossly misperceiving the foundational building blocks of our reality–time and space. Is it so incredible to fathom that Einstein might have had profound insights into the illusory nature of the “self” and free will worthy of our attention and consideration?

Einstein’s conception of what a human being is and how reality works would suggest that we reconsider how we approach describing the problem of human suffering, including the suffering that leads people to die by suicide.

Looking forward to talking to you.


Guilt is a feeling that arises from a misunderstanding of the human condition – Albert Einstein

“Often I think we with mental illnesses already feel guilty enough, and we are not responsible for our own suffering.”
Dear Ms. Booth: 
Are you aware that Albert Einstein didn’t believe that any human being was deeply/truly/genuinely responsible for any “choice they make”? Einstein did not believe that humans understand what is happening when they “make a choice.” Al did not believe that people, at the moment of any apparent choice, have the ability to freely choose between the options before them. He didn’t believe that people were the conscious, free-willing authors of their own thoughts and intentions. Rather, he thought the entire universe was governed by immutable laws of physics. He believed that every event that occurs in this physical reality, including the events that give rise to every thought we have, and the events that give rise to consciousness itself, are subject to these laws. Al thought that guilt is a feeling that arises from a misunderstanding of the human condition.  Al thought that if you ever think that you could have done other than you actually did, you are believing in an illusion:  the free-willing self.
Einstein wrote this:
“I do not believe in free will. Schopenhauer’s words: ‘Man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wills,’ accompany me in all situations throughout my life and reconcile me with the actions of others, even if they are rather painful to me. This awareness of the lack of free will keeps me from taking myself and my fellow men too seriously as acting and deciding individuals, and from losing my temper.”
And this too:
“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe’ — a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings, as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
And finally… this too:
“Our actions should be based on the ever-present awareness that human beings in their thinking, feeling, and acting are not free but are just as causally bound as the stars in their motion.”
Please understand, Einstein is referring to everyone, in every situation. “Mental illness” whatever precisely that is… has nothing to do with it. Make no mistake about it, Al thought that people with “mental illness” have no less control over themselves than anyone else.  Rather they are simply unfortunate to be thinking, feeling and acting in a way that is described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM.) But most people don’t think like Al thought.  Instead, the vast majority of people, incorrectly conflate “exhibiting signs of mental illness” with “having less control over your life.” It’s not that people without “mental illness” have more control over what they will think or want next, rather they are simply fortunate that they don’t habitually think, feel and behave in ways described in the DSM. I think most  people who insist that they have free will incorrectly identify themselves as the sole or primary causal source of their thoughts and intentions because they first glimpse ideas and impulses as they emerge within their own consciousness. I made this same mistake for over 40 years until I watched this video.

The thing is, in spite of how persistently persuasive the lived experience of making a decision may seem to confirm the existence of free will, this claim appears unrealistic when examined more closely.  Our thoughts and intentions simply arise in consciousness. A few moments of quiet introspection spent listening to your own thoughts quickly belie the notion that you’re exercising free control over what you think or want. Try to clear your mind and to not think any thoughts for five minutes. Good luck.  Surely if humans had free will, if they possessed control over what thoughts arise within their consciousness, intentionally causing no thoughts to arise would not only be feasible, it would be as simple as raising your right hand, wouldn’t it? Or how about this question: which ice cream flavor do you prefer, chocolate or vanilla? Whatever your preference is at the moment (assuming you have one) are you free to genuinely prefer the other one?  Granted you and your preferences may change over time, but clearly you are not free to consciously choose what you want to want.  Does anyone actually think that people who are unfortunate enough to be sexually attracted to young children are freely choosing to be attracted as such?

I no longer kid myself that I am in control of the thoughts that pop into my head. Of course I remain legally and practically responsible for everything that I do, but this shift in thinking, if persistent, literally banishes guilt, shame and pride from your life. Not believing in free will takes away the egocentric or self-centric view of life that we are programmed to believe in, and replaces it with one recognizing that no one is truly separate from anyone or anything else. Rather, we are all linked to each other and to the world around us, and everything that we do still matters, because everything is connected in this cause and effect reality. Author and neuroscientist Sam Harris, the guy from the video above sums it up nicely:
“So you can’t take credit for your talents, but it really matters if you use them. You can’t really be blamed for your weaknesses and your failings, but it matters if you correct them. Pride and shame don’t make a lot of sense in the final analysis, but they were no fun anyway. These are isolating emotions, but what does make sense are things like compassion and love. Caring about well-being makes sense. Trying to maximize your well being and the well being of others makes sense. There is still a difference between suffering and happiness, and love consists in wanting those we love to be happy. All of that still makes sense without free will.”
Just because no one has choices like most people believe that they do, one can still be whomever one wants to be without free will, in part, by recognizing a better explanation for what one is and what is going on in reality.
I wish you guilt-free wellness.
Warmest regards,
Francesco Bellafante
frank talk about mental health at iameinstein.com

What’s wrong with Prince Ea’s message about depression, if anything?

I think this is a powerful video that contains a compelling idea that has the potential to help a lot of people who closely identify their sense of self with the contents of their consciousness or their description of their current state of consciousness. The distinction that Prince Ea is trying to help people recognize about themselves and their life experiences is a crucial one to understand if someone is going to join the ranks of people fortunate enough to have even a single self-transcendent moment during their lives.
With that said, I tweeted these thoughts to him this morning after re-watching his video about depression.
“they always come and go” @PrinceEa It’s presumptuous to claim to know what it is like to be anyone else regardless of YOUr view & YOUr life
Some are more unlucky than others. Some would accurately describe the contents of their consciousness as constantly cloudy, no? @PrinceEa
I think what Prince Ea is saying about depression is similar to what Tim Ferriss has published on the subject – How You Label Determines How You Feel –  and I genuinely think their ideas are potentially helpful for many people.  The brain is the most complex and least understood object in the known universe.  Consciousness remains an enduring mystery to humankind.  Clearly some people are dealt significantly less advantageous hands in life than other people both genetically and environmentally.  I aspire to never make definitive claims about what it’s like for someone else to have the hand they have, like I think Prince Ea did in his video when he suggested that depressive moods or feelings, “…always come and go.”   Despite believing that he’s expressed an insightful idea that many or even most people can relate to as the truth, it’s reasonable to suggest that some people’s subjective experience of the content of their consciousness objectively does not match Prince Ea’s description of the transient nature of such experiences or states of consciousness.
Just a few days ago, I had a Twitter exchange with Kendra Kantor, a blogger who had written the following about herself in a piece also published by TheMighty.com:
The fact is I’m a woman with depression and anxiety. No matter how well I manage my symptoms through medication, therapy, meditation or even exercise, I will have these illnesses for my entire life.
After reading her entire piece I tweeted the following:
Thanks for this piece @KendraKantor Given how little we understand about the brain, how do you “know” you’ll be ill for your “entire life”?
She responded as follows:
@iameinstein Thanks for reading! I suppose I don’t KNOW for 100% because science advancements and the brain can change but I know my…
@iameinstein anxiety and depression are chemical in nature, not situational, and so I personally believe it’s something I’ll deal with…
@iameinstein my whole life. That’s not to say I don’t believe (or HOPE) that I’ll have months or years of “normal” but it’s still part of me
And I replied as follows:
Got it @KendraKantor. Brain plasticity and inevitable advances in neuroscience were behind why I asked. Thx for the detailed clarification.
Kendra Kantor conceded that her claim about “knowing” the future is unreasonably definitive considering our current  scientific understanding of how the neuronal biology of homo sapiens functions to produce human consciousness and the stream of thoughts, intentions and feelings that occupy it.  To apply Prince Ea’s point of view as I see it, even though Kendra admits that her claim was overstated, and she has a belief about her future self versus certain knowledge of it, it seems reasonable to suggest that someone who believes that future suffering is inevitable is more likely to continue to experience such suffering compared to someone who believes that transformational change in one’s own state of consciousness is possible.
I do not know precisely why Kendra Kantor suffers as she does, and no one else does either, including her.   And while I assert that she is someone that may benefit from thinking about her suffering in the way that Prince Ea suggests, unlike him (maybe), I will readily concede that Kendra may turn out to be objectively correct about her claim of lifelong suffering regardless of what she believes about the feasibility of not suffering in the future.