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August 28, 2023

Updated: Apr 24

I'll get to an art update in a bit, jump ahead to 'The Art' section if you just want to read that. But first, some serious TL;DR. (No, really.)

I may or may not suddenly believe that humans have no free will.

I recently decided I wanted to get more serious about my meditation practice and develop a stronger point of focus for it, which led me to Sam Harris' Waking Up app (which has been amazing by the way). In addition to guided meditations, there's a lot of great information on the app from Sam and others about how we think and perform in the world, and tucked in there is an argument from Sam asserting that humans don't have any free will.

Meaning that our thoughts, feelings, and actions are the result of things outside our deliberate control.

And for better and worse...I think I fully believe it.

I clicked on that particular topic because I've been laboring for awhile now over the distinct feeling that all of my behaviors and motivations are coming from someplace apart from me, or simply a place I don't have any control over. I've spent so much time in the past two years trying to dial in my diet, exercise, productivity, and general daily routine, and oddly, the places where I've made the most progress in my life are the places I feel I have the least control.

For example, I've not eaten any refined sugar or desserts of any type in almost two years, and I have no absolutely no desire for them. In another example, I've shifted from being a painfully shy, introverted, and generally awkward person by nature to being one of the most friendly and socially open people I encounter in the world. I also believe I'm a much less angry and critical person, something I talked about in much more detail in my blog post for the final art of Rotting Paradigms.

Despite the fact there was real work involved in those things (ie reading, learning, and building new habits by carrying note cards in my back pocket with reminders of specific actions to take), I oddly don't feel I can take credit for any of it.

I say that because the underlying motivation for those things simply came to me, variously as the result of a traumatic health situation involving my mouth, a decades-long, slow-burning frustration at my own awkward and embarrassing interactions with others, and a greater awareness of my own misaligned masculinity following a difficult breakup.

And it would have been extremely difficult for me (I think truly impossible in one case) to resist that motivation and deny the call to put in the work to become someone different.

For awhile I was attributing this lack of control to the Tao. I liked the idea that there is a flow to life and I'd settled into a groove where I was being taken along with the current and learning not to fight it. I hoped I was living in harmony with the world and the positive energy from that was guiding my life in a new direction.

As Wayne Dyer says of the Tao, "You are not doing anything. You are being done."

Although I like that metaphysical explanation better than the argument Sam offers, and since I'll never know the truth of any of it (at least while I'm alive), I certainly won't close the door on it. But it also never sat completely right with me.

Sam's take on free will, however, checked all the boxes for me about my own lived experience. (Side note: Sam has a book titled Free Will that expands on this topic, and it will probably be next on my reading list.)

This actually isn't a particularly complex topic for me as it seems to connect directly with what I can observe and feel day to day about the root of my own actions, particularly while pushing myself to live the best life I can. So I won't try to replicate Sam's thoughts here, but I want to poke around at a specific aspect of his argument that really hits home for me.

Are We Free to Choose Our Desires and Motivations?

In my experience, especially in the past two years where I've worked so hard to bring about meaningful personal change, it seems clear to me that I am not free to want things more or less than I currently do.

If I feel I should be doing something differently in life, like maintaining a cleaner living space, there are a variety of things I might try posting reminders, setting goals, and putting into motion some kind of plan to form new habits. (Note cards ftw!) But ultimately, if it's not something I truly desire at the core of my being, I will repeatedly, inevitably fail at it.

And this seems to be true for every aspect of my life. And it also seems to be true for every human I've ever known.

The specific thought I have around this at the moment comes in the form of a question, which is: if we truly have free will, why aren't we consistently choosing the best course of action for ourselves based on our current knowledge? For example, why is it that people who understand the importance of diet and exercise and want to live a healthier, longer life still eat junk and never exercise? For myself, I'm consistently clean with my diet and I love vigorous exercise, but there are other things I can't seem to change or get motivated about at all. Why am I okay with a modest income, even when I know that more money would alleviate stress around medical bills and my monthly budgeting while also setting me up for a better retirement?

And if I know that getting to bed early and getting up early keeps me in synch with my circadian rhythms and produces a healthier hormone balance with myriad positive effects in my mind and body, why do I often stay up so damn late?

In other words, why are we not fully motivated to do good things for ourselves? If we have free will, shouldn't we be able to blast through all the fear and doubts and laziness and distractions that we all struggle with? We can certainly concoct all sorts of rationalizations and explanations to slap on our bad habits and inclinations (often blaming our parents in the process), and I've recently been attributing most or all of our shortcomings to past traumas and old learned behaviors that I believed we could work through and overcome. (Experts on addiction often insist that even workaholism is an addiction fueled by past trauma.)

And certainly, those things have huge implications for our lives. But I'm suddenly keenly aware that beneath all our successes and failures with personal change is the fact that we simply cannot choose to want things more than we currently do. If we don't desire change in a particular area strongly enough to put in the hard work, we won't do it, even if we have all the time and energy and resources available to make it happen. Yes, people absolutely can and do change (I certainly believe I have), but this often comes as the result of new knowledge or challenging life events. I don't believe there's any way to mentally flip a switch and choose to turn a non-priority into a top priority, even if we fall into the insanity of wanting to want something more than we do. So instead, we just move through life acting in response to desires and motivations we didn't choose for ourselves and essentially have no control over.

Connecting this back to my art for a moment, my art practice has an enormous impact on how I structure my daily life, and I ensure that I have the opportunity to work on projects with a clear mind each day. But I didn't choose this for myself. I was scribbling on furniture with crayons before I was a year old and started making drawings on paper before I had any awareness of what I was doing. For reasons I can't possibly know or understand, it is essential to my well-being to make art. And any time I pull away from it I become absolutely miserable. My whole life falls apart.

Where's the freedom in that?

So for me, this idea of free will explains an enormous amount about my own behaviors and those of everyone else I've known.

I'll probably revisit this topic here in the future, but what do you think? Even stepping back from the bigger idea of "free will" for a moment, are we free to choose our desires and motivations in life, and by extension, the things we prioritize for ourselves?

The Art

Okay, let's look at some art in progress. After all, that's the core reason for these blog posts in the first place. (Though I like to chat about other topics because the things I'm thinking, learning, and doing in life have a large impact on the imagery in my art, so for me they go hand-in-hand.)

If you missed the previous posts for this piece, which I've titled Ascension, I shared the pencil art back on April 7, 2023 and the pen and ink work in my post on May 5, 2023. (And you can now see the finished artwork here.)

Easily the hardest part of any art piece I've worked on in the past two years has been choosing the color palette, and Ascension was no exception. I was honestly all over the damn place with this one. First, I'll share the final colors I chose. (I'm actually nearly done with the full renders of this one at this point, so for better or worse, there's no going back now.)

Incidentally, this version of it ended up being a fairly close alteration of one of the first ones I created. After trying several other I paths circled back to that first one, decided I liked it best, and then took it all the way. So I'll show that initial attempt that I liked, followed by several others I tinkered with. (Most of these also had one or two close variations as well.)

So, obviously a lot of different directions this one could've taken. It's easy to see how digital artists will end up creating two or three "colorways" for a single piece of art. (Side rant: I think "colorway" is just a redundant word like "bespoke" that people use to make themselves sound fancier than they actually are.)

I do still like the look of those last two palettes that were predominately blue contrasted with bright yellow/orange. Maybe I'll revisit this and make a "bespoke" piece of art with an alternate "colorway."

To help steer me in the right direction when I'm doing this work, I'll often look at other people's art or just google color palettes and try applying different ones to my drawing. In this case, I found a color palette of earth tones that I liked, and I used some of them as a framework.

Overall, I feel good about the colors I landed on – not that I could've chosen differently after all, I have no free will :) – especially now that the full art is nearly done and I have all the lighting effects and textures on.

So, to wrap up, here are some detail images from this one with the "flat" colors, meaning I haven't done any shading or highlighting yet. Thanks as always for reading this, you honestly deserve a prize if you made it this far. And if you enjoyed this, subscribe and share it with a like-minded friend or family member. See you soon!

1 Comment

Oct 10, 2023

The bio-mechanical imagery prevalent in your work (though absent in this particular piece) may be an intuitive expression of humanity's lack of free-will. That we are running on programs, some software code installed beyond our control and driving our minds, makes us machines of sorts. Either way, you've got intriguing stuff. Keep the art coming!

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