The Illusion of Will, Self, and Time - William Jamess Reluctant Guide to Enlightenment

How much do I want to read more? 7/10

Interesting. Confront Philosophy with Buddhism.

The great cosmic Intellect is one in all of us,—true! Yet every man we meet requires to be humored.

—- William James

ONE - William James A Guide for the Perplexed

An anatomist, psychologist, and Harvard profes- sor, James was one of the clearest and most accessible writers ever to be called a philosopher.
Indeed, he defined philosophy as “the search for clear- ness where common people do not even suspect that there is any lack of it”.


Much of this masterpiece is comprised of his personal introspections, but only when he came to the experience of will did he use the more intensified word meditating to describe the process. His account of this meditation is among the most significant passages in all Western writing about free will. James himself considered it “to contain in miniature form the data for an entire psychology of volition”

How experience can be accounted for without will, self, and time is, I argue, James’s most significant legacy.
James looked in the mirror and saw only his clothes. His belief in a determinism devoid of any spiritual influence implied that we are “wholly conditioned,” like material objects, completely at the mercy of “physical laws.”


When I ask people what difference it would make in their life if they didn’t believe in free will, most reply that they wouldn’t get out of bed. This tells us something right away: people are tired.

TWO - Thoughts without a Thinker

When man studies himself with honest impartiality he observes that he is not the conscious and voluntary artisan either of his feelings or of his thoughts, and that his feelings and his thoughts are only phenomena which happen to him.

—- Hubert Benoit, Zen and the Psychology of Transformation

I conceive of man as always spoken to from behind, and unable to turn his head and see the speaker.

—- Emerson

Thoughts arise. This becomes strikingly clear if you sit still and bring your awareness to only the movement of your breathing, as in medita- tion. No matter how hard you try to keep this exclusive focus, you very soon find yourself watching random thoughts, arriving unescorted to conscious- ness. These thoughts are experienced more as happening to us than as being made by us.

Does Mark Twain not speak for us all when he describes his thought process as “racing along from subject to subject—a drifting panorama of ever-changing, ever- dissolving views manufactured by my mind without any help from me—why, it would take me two hours to merely name the multitude of things my mind tallied off and photographed in fifteen minutes?”

James, however, could find nothing in experience that confirmed the “mak- ing” of any thought—a deciding thought or otherwise—nothing that con- firmed anything other than—as our idiom expresses it—thoughts occur. “If we could say in English ‘it thinks,’ as we say ‘it rains’ or ‘it blows,’” he wrote, “we should be stating the fact most simply and with the minimum of assumption”

Despite his belief in free will, James had no problem reconciling himself to this impersonality of the thought process.

"We do not “make a thought” like we “make a pot.” The clay pot I make is distinguished from those of my fellow pottery students as having been shaped by my hands, not theirs. There is no dispute about the meaning of the word “make” here. But if I copied an exotic design from the student next to me, there is confusion; and were I to try to sell my pot to an art gallery, there might be litigation. The answer to the question, “Whose hands fashioned this?” answers the question, “Who made this?” except when the origin of the design idea is in doubt. But the origin, ultimately, of all thoughts is in doubt. To say “I make thoughts” is an unwarranted assumption."


James’s meditation on the experience of will is consistent with his belief that thoughts are not generated by an “I.”


According to Eckhart Tolle such a “gap in the stream of the mind” is the key to enlightenment