This entry proposes ideas and questions but makes no assertions about whether we are matter or spirit.
All matter follows physical laws. Nuclear, electromagnetic, and gravitational forces make atomic particles behave in certain ways, and each event causes another, then another, ad infinitum, resulting in the formation of stars, galaxies, planets and life, and processes such as birth, growth, death, decay, photosynthesis, volcanoes, tides, etc. Every cosmic incident, from the explosion of a star to a light breeze, is the result of an inevitable chain of events that started a long time ago.
If we are nothing more than physical beings, then there is no such thing as free will because all matter is on an unchangeable course that was set in motion sometime in the past, and we cannot alter this course because we are part of it. Our behavior, preferences, thoughts and feelings are predetermined by a combination of our bodies (particularly our neurons) and our environment, neither of which we chose. We think and act in the one and only way possible because our neurons follow an obligatory course. We might believe that we have the ability to make free choices, but since our neurons are being “pushed” by outside forces, what we really have is unconscious determinism. There is no meaning in our “choices”, because they are not choices at all. And because we cannot choose anything freely and cannot therefore cause anything to happen differently from the way it’s destined to happen, none of us can be praised or blamed for anything. Hitler was just as good as Gandhi.
The only way we can have free will is if we are not part of the physical universe. We must be non-physical “souls” or “spirits”. Sure, we might start life in bodies, families, and neighborhoods that we did not choose, but since each of us is a “ghost in the machine”, not the machine itself, we can choose how to think and act, just as we can choose how to drive a car even if we can’t choose its color or model or what road we start at. Our freedom might be in proportion to our circumstances (someone who is intelligent and loved might be more free than someone who is mentally challenged or abused), but we still have at least some ability to choose.
The fact that our brain state largely determines our perceptions might make it appear as though we are merely physical. However, it could be that the brain is merely a “portal” into this universe, so when it gets altered (e.g., by chemicals or trauma), it is the portal that changes, while we (as non-physical spirits) do not change. Alterations to the brain might cause changes in sight, hearing, balance, pleasure, pain, hunger, nausea, fear, excitement, anger, peace, despair and love, but the conscious entity experiencing them does not.
If we are non-physical, then how is it that we are “stuck” in our present bodies? Why can’t we leap out? For that matter, how did we get behind the helm? What allows us to control our bodies? How does free will result in thoughts and movements? Where do we go after our bodies die? Do we float around in some metaphysical ether? Do we leap into other bodies? Can we exist without a body and an environment? How could we experience anything without them?