Life provides us with experience. 'Experience' is a practical concept. It refers to whatever is apprehended in action as distinct from what is thought in reflection. 'Consciousness' is a general term for awareness. Awareness may or may not be 'rational': when it is, we call it 'knowledge'. When we know what we are doing, we are behaving rationally.
Reason is not the capacity to think: much thinking can be seen to be irrational. Rather, reason is the capacity to behave consciously in terms of the nature of what is not ourselves. It is the faculty which provides a priori principles as opposed to the understanding, which is the ability to think logically in terms of the a priori principles reason provides. Reason is what enables us to behave objectively; it is our capacity for objectivity. And it applies to the emotions (the internal stimuli which move us or cause us to act objectively) just as much as it does to the intellect. The rationality of thought and emotion lies not in the thought or emotion itself but depends upon their reference to the external world as known in immediate experience.
When we wish to determine why anything behaves as it does, we normally assume that it behaves in terms of its own nature. That means we need only discover its 'properties' or 'characteristics' to understand why it responds to a particular stimulus in a particular way. We are apt to make the same assumption when we are considering how human beings behave: and this may lead us into error because an element of choice (or the exercise of will) enables men and women to determine their own behaviour to a much greater extent than is possible for any other species we know.
Thought is an activity of the imagination. It is rational only when it symbolically expresses some aspect of the world we know. Our emotions also refer to what we recognise as being something other than ourselves. Both thoughts and emotions may be subjective, and may therefore be true or false. They may be false if we mistake as objective a conscious experience which is merely subjective. If we act upon false subjective apprehensions, our objective actions will be inappropriate. Furthermore, even rational thoughts and emotions may be inadequately expressed or clumsily acted upon, and so our intentions may be misunderstood.
In experience, we distinguish between 'acts' and 'events'. We assume that all changes are either 'doings' or 'happenings'. However, in and of itself, a change is neither an act nor an event. When we call it one or the other, we refer beyond the mere fact to something else which brought the change about, to some energetic transformation of which it is a manifest result. If we call it an 'act', we refer it to a human agent who 'did it' as a matter of intention or 'for a reason', i.e. implying that the agent knew in advance what change her activity would be likely to bring about. If we call it an 'event', we imply either that we can't identify an agent or that it was brought about by some other 'cause'. We tend to assume that there must be a cause for every event and a reason for every act.
Somewhere between acts and events, we must recognise a class of 'organic' changes. We understand the behaviour of living organisms other than man in terms of 'adaptation'. We cannot assign a 'reason' for such adaptation because to do so would imply deliberate conscious intention on the part of the organism. We therefore assume an 'instinct' or 'motive' which is part of the nature of the organism and which makes it 'respond' to a 'stimulus' in a particular limited way.
We must also recognise a class of 'accidents' in which an identifiable agent may be involved, but not intentionally.
When we cannot identify a reason for an observed change, we call it an 'event' and refer it to a 'cause' that is attributable to an unidentified source which bears the same relationship to an event as an agent bears to his act. But once we seriously examine all the available evidence regarding any particular change, we usually uncover an 'immediate' cause which was itself an event produced by another cause, and we are faced with a 'chain of events' each of which had its own cause or causes.
The Headmaster of a school I attended was very fond of quoting an old adage: "For want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe, the horse was lost; for want of a horse, the rider was lost; for want of a rider the message was lost; for want of a message, the battle was lost; for the loss of a battle, the kingdom was lost."
However, a mere recitation of 'history', even if the 'facts' recited are 'true', only describes the course of events and does not constitute an explanation. By comparison, the value of a scientific hypothesis lies not so much in its 'truth' as in its explanatory power. The scientist and the mystic both assume that in the 'nature of things', there must be some form of rationality which underlies all changes, some regularity of pattern that pervades the world as we know it. Without this assumption, there would be no point in searching for 'truth' or 'understanding' at all. It therefore seems not unreasonable to posit the existence of an Ultimate Agent as the infinite Source of all changes and, indeed, of the Energy whose transformations make change apparent to us and in which all changes ultimately consist. It is in taking this final conceptual leap that the mystic goes beyond the scientist.
The mystic is willing to accept that there is a reason for everything, but is humble enough to acknowledge that such reason may be beyond limited human understanding. He therefore doesn't rely solely on the method of trying to force Nature to disclose her secrets through ingenious laboratory experiments although he does not exclude these from his repertoire. Recognising himself as a child of Nature, he also accepts the validity of the methods of introspection and meditation in which Nature has often revealed some of her secrets directly to individuals who were suitably receptive. Indeed, it appears that many of the most fruitful scientific hypotheses have originated as mystical insights and it looks as if the limited, relative, physical world we apprehend as persons behaves as if it were a comprehensible model illustrating aspects of the operation of the infinite absolute Cosmos.
Thus the mystic is comfortable with the phenomenon for which C G Jung coined the word 'synchronicity' meaning the simultaneous occurrence of events which seem to be significantly related but which have no discernible causal connection. When such 'coincidences' result in favourable outcomes, we may be inclined to refer to them subjectively as 'serendipity' or the 'intervention of Divine Providence'; if they appear to be unfavourable or 'tragic', we are more likely to call them 'disasters' or 'acts of God'.
But if we can stand back a bit, we may be able to see in all these phenomena the essential 'connectedness' of everything. We may realise that what seems 'tragic' to us today (such as being fired from a job) could later be seen as 'the best thing that could have happened' (e.g. when we have obtained a much more congenial job). Of course, the opposite also applies: winning the lottery may later turn out to seem 'unfortunate'. All of which merely goes to show that our subjective impressions, and our emotional reactions to them, may be grossly in error.
Considerations such as these seem to rule out the possibility that W E Henley was completely right when he wrote:
We may wonder whether or not we have any 'free' will at all and, if so, how much and under what conditions. Are we mere tools of the system, pre-programmed to behave automatically while under the illusion of behaving purposefully? Or are we more like servants or agents, entrusted with limited powers of discretion? Personally, I much prefer to assume the latter; and I have chosen to act on that assumption unless and until events compel me to recognise my error. The very fact that I am able to make this choice suggests that I am free to think or suppose whatever I like.
It seems to me that I am also able to act (i.e. do something) although at any given instant, the range of actions which is open to me is limited (e.g. I know that my physical body is unable to fly by itself, even should I wish it to do so). It is only by acting on my suppositions and encountering practical difficulties that I can discover to what extent my suppositions accurately reflect the actuality of the world and learn about the limits of my freedom. I am free to the extent that I am able to do what I want to do. The more I can do in a given time, the more power I have. On reflection, there appear to be three main limitations on my power.
The first and most significant limitation is Natural Law, the complex of rules pre-determined by the Ultimate Agent, which govern the operation of the Cosmos and to which all other agents are subordinate. While I am quite certain that the Ultimate Agent never intervenes directly in the activities of any subordinates, the efforts of each and every agent will be unavailing if they attempt to contravene Natural Law. The more I can learn about Natural Law and how best to co-operate with it, the more powerful I can be. And it is only in action that I can verify Natural Law by the process of trial and error. For that reason, I must constantly endeavour to learn from experience and apply the lessons learned.
The second limitation on my power is the presence and activity of other agents in the same field of action. If other people take exception to what I am trying to do, they will try to stop me from doing it. If what I have already done gives offence to other people, they may 'gang up' on me and seek to punish me in some way. All forms of punishment imply a restriction upon my freedom as an agent. Every instance of such interference with my activity constitutes an experience from which I can learn to become more objective.
The third limitation arises directly out of my own activity. In reflection, I may consider several alternative possibilities, but I can do only one thing at a time. Action is choice. My choosing one possibility for action negates all the other possibilities. After my action is completed, I may wish I had done something else, but I can no longer do it. My action has actualised one possibility; I have made a choice. Notice that the action is the choice. It does not mean that the action is preceded by a choice or that some mysterious 'act of will' somehow converts a theoretical selection into a deed.
When I act, I determine the future and limit my possibilities for all future action. Action here on Earth is irreversible. What has been done cannot be undone. Each attempt on my part to restore the status quo ante is another action at another time. My possibility for future action has been reduced because the energy expended cannot be recalled. The past is fixed. The future is only a possibility which may never be realised. The present is the only available point of action. And each of my actions helps to determine what future I shall experience.
Bearing these limitations in mind, it seems to me that my chances of living economically (i.e. being healthy, happy and at peace with myself and the world) will be improved to the extent that I: