I want to break free! (from this meat suit and consciousness created by others)

Before delving any further into the proper subject of this essay, I need to make it clear that it isn't about the notion of free will. What do I think about free will, you might wonder. I think it is a meaningless chimera and I tend to subscribe to what is now called superdeterminism. About what is superdeterminism and how it relates to Bell's theorem, watch the video titled Does Superdeterminism save Quantum Mechanics? Or does it kill free will and destroy science? by German theoretical physicist, former professor at the Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics, and former research fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies, Sabine Hossenfelder. In it, Hossenfelder explains in laymen's terms how superdeterminism does help make sense of quantum mechanics. And while it also helps destroying the vulgar notions of free will, it does not destroy science — those who oppose it say it does because it supposedly destroys the freedom of the experimenter, something Hossenfelder disputes as nonsense, since in order to understand the world, free will or not, scientists and experimenters need to construct theories and test them either way. After all, between Newton and the advent of modern quantum mechanics, most physicists worked under the assumption that the physical universe was deterministic, and that didn't stop their investigations.

It's also worth watching an older video by Hossenfelder — titled You don't have free will, but don't worry — in which she discusses how contemporary scientists and philosophers of science tend to embrace the ideia that a deterministic universe doesn't allow free will while an non-deterministic universe does. For Hossenfelder, this is absurd, since free will doesn't make sense regardless of the universe being deterministic or non-deterministic. No need to talk about why free will doesn't make sense in a deterministic universe. But let's assume quantum mechanics is really non-deterministic, as most still do because of Bell's theorem: in this case, there's still no room for free will because randomness in no way accommodates a moment in which a purely free decision is made by a completely free agent who exists outside the world of probabilities. In this case, the agent and his decisions are random or probabilistic — there is no ghost outside the realm of randomness making a decision. Bell's theorem proves that quantum mechanics is incompatible with most hidden-variable theories, not all — in fact, it was Bell himself who stated that if the universe were absolutely deterministic from its beginning, then yes, his inequalities wouldn't hold, and there wouldn't exist superluminal “spooky action at a distance”.
Golden Buddha at Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat temple (stylized)
With that out of the way, let's get into the proper subject of this essay: the human yearning for freedom and fulfillment — especially in personal, social and political ways — and how certain causes, while just, cannot stand in the way of us understanding that there must be a limit to our hopes. Although I've come to subscribe to political views that embrace the notion that humanity should be free from domination by authoritarian political powers and economic interests (since it's no use being free from authoritarian governments only to be enslaved by the wealthy owners of the means of production, i.e. the capitalist class) I haven't got great news on that front either. We can and should push for change. The human-built world more than likely can become something better than the sad dystopia it is today. Unfortunately, though, even that won't suffice. Which doesn't mean we shouldn't try and change things, only that our expectations need to be drastically adjusted if we want to survive and perpetuate ourselves on a planet bound for death in the next few billions years, and in a universe bound to reach maximum entropy in the deep future. It might seem silly to think in such terms, but it isn't. I argue that if our ancestors in the neolithic had any foresight — had they understood or cared about the level of pain and misery our species would go through in the next thousands of years — they should have abstained from reproduction. Not thinking about the far future, and not caring about what could happen in the far future, led us to this.

Beyond harmful normative, cultural and political impositions, which should by all means change, there is an unfortunate brute fact: we are never  going to be “free to be our true selves” because we are locked in a body made of flesh and bones and blood and we never had a saying before being put into it. What do I mean by being locked into a body of flesh? That's just poetic language. The reality is we didn't exist before being biologically generated by parents who wanted pleasure or perpetuation or both. Some of us might feel like they're born in bodies they don't identify with, for instance, and socially they may be able to change that — something I fully support. But certain physical aspects of our creation will forever be with us. Imagine, for instance, someone born with a horrible disfigurement or disability, which our science and technology can only partially mitigate. That consciousness is forever married with that condition. The same happens to those of us who develop deadly cancers. As much as we try to live healthy lifestyles, many of us will get cancer and decay horribly. It doesn't matter if the outcome is survival, since the process of beating the disease is painful, and the consciousness of the victim will have to ride a diseased meat suit without the possibility of fully detaching itself. After we are born, we have to go along for the ride with our bodies and our assigned consciousness, no matter what happens, because we are our bodies and consciousness. We can change a few things here and there, but we are still this body and this consciousness, separated from everything and everyone else.

Humans can do something about many different types of dissatisfaction, be them personal, social or political. But when we are dissatisfied with having incurable diseases, we can't do anything other than hope some amazing new form of technology will be able to cure it or put it in remission. And if you are dissatisfied with existence itself, you better change your pessimistic outlook because existence isn't going anywhere — and killing yourself won't change that, since this act will not erase your pain from existence's log. Going back to the notion of free will: even if the classical and grotesquely naive view of free will was absolutely correct, we would still not be able to be truly free because we were already born in this body of ours (which we can change to a small degree) and in this particular moment in the history (something that is impossible to change). Also, we weren't born as birds, able to experiment the joys of flight, or as anything else, or as someone else. When we stop to think about our predicament, we realize there is very little room for us to act, regardless of what optimists like to say. Again, we shouldn't completely despair. Surely, there are causes worth fighting for here and now. However, our past and future personal, social and political liberation are but sighs of relief when we take into account the unwinnable fight against the oppression of existence. This grand oppression can't be mitigated. Not even by future minds.

It is worth asking, then: why not just end the cycle now by abstaining from the creation of new human consciousness who will experience existence's oppression? From an antinatalist perspective, that is certainly the preferable route. Even if we had the certainty that the present global economic system would be overcome in, lets say, a hundred years, it would be unethical to create new sentient and conscious beings to take part in the class war. The very notion of creating another human being so they can fight our wars is obscene, regardless of how just we believe our cause is. Plus, there's the possibility — the fact, actually — that once our “just cause” is finally won by our great grandchildren, the majority of them will be like most of us are today, oblivious to how horrible existence really is, which will lead them to continue reproducing, not understanding the kinds of hell they are condemning future generations to. So, from an ethical standpoint, the choice is clear — and yet, this is a choice which isn't made by agents in possession of free will, something that isn't devoid of irony, I must observe. The kind of freedom we'll eventually want is one that can never be satisfied because reality is constantly chipping away our being. Even if we were immortals, this friction1, 2, generated by the mere act of existing, would continue to chip away our being — the only difference is that we would not have death to look forward to.

There is no escape. Once we are created, once we develop in the womb, the damage is done. All we do is constantly search for something more while we satiate biological needs. This “something more” may certainly be worthwhile striving for. To know this, all we have to do is look at human history. The end of slavery, universal suffrage, the declaration of human rights — all of those things and more were worth fighting and even dying for. However, even though these things benefited future generations, something we should all be grateful for, there was never a need for future generations to come about. We exist solely to satisfy the yearning of our ancestors who wanted offspring. And now that we — the future generations — were created, we have to participate in the tenuous maintenance of the good things (some) of our ancestors build, things like representative democracy, lest those good things keep corroding at the hands of idiots, bigots and their reactionary leaders. Once conquered, good things need constant attention, and even when attended, they are always at risk of being destroyed. Only one way to avoid this. Hari Singh Gour, a 19th century Indian jurist and social reformer, wrote the following in his book, The Spirit of Buddhism:
Buddha states his propositions in the pedantic style of his age. He throws them into a form of Sorites; but, as such, it is logically faulty and all he wishes to convey is this: “Oblivious of the suffering to which life is subject, man begets children, and is thus the cause of old age and death. If he would only realize what suffering he would add to by his act, he would desist from the procreation of children; and so stop the operation of old age and death.”3
The Mahayana Lotus Sutra4 contains a parable in which the Buddha compares our existence in Samsara as a burning house. We are like small children playing inside, unaware of the danger and reluctant to leave. Our father then needs to lure us out by promising to give us three different types of carts. In the parable, the father is the Buddha, and the carts represent the three different vehicles of Buddhism: that of the practitioner who is liberated by following a Buddha; that of the lone-wolf practitioner who liberates himself by becoming a Buddha without teaching others; and that of the practitioner who accumulates merit during many lives so he can become a Buddha and liberate himself and others. But lets leave aside the belief in reincarnation and the different ways of attaining nirvana in Mahayana Buddhism, lets go back to the succinct way Hari Singh Gour put it in The Spirit of Buddhism. Procreation is the fuel of this metaphorical “fire” of never ending suffering and misery, not some out of reach metaphysical wheel of metempsychosis. By creating new conscious beings we are throwing more and more fuel into the fires of pain. We should stop.

by Fernando Olszewski

¹ See: CABRERA, J. Vicissitudes of the Operation of “Giving Oneself Value”: Between Excess and Disapointment. In: ______. Discomfort and Moral Impediment: The Human Situation, Radical Bioethics and Procreation. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2019. p. 36-39.
² See: CABRERA, J. Demasiado tarde para sermos imortais. In: ______. Mal-estar e moralidade: situação humana, ética e procriação responsável. Brasília: Editora Universidade de Brasília, 2018. p. 103.
³ GOUR, H. S.Spirit of Buddhism. Calcutta: Lal Chand & Sons, 1929.
LOTUS SUTRA. Translation by Gene Reeves. Somerville: Wisdom Publications, 2008.