I’ve been beating around the ‘free will bush’ all my life. For the first forty years, I ‘knew’ I had free will. I could do anything I set my mind to. Yep, such certainty is especially strong in youth, and naturally so! Around forty, I began to look for biological evidence of free will. Any clear example not explained by universal biological processes would do.
My doubts grew deeper as I failed to find any unequivocal evidence for free will. I also began noticing various ways the free will ideal plays out in society. Today I believe I found one primary cause of this ideal. Did I not see this before because it is too obvious? It was probably the blind spot caused by my need to have free will.
Dream without limit
Thanks to cognition (thought), we can effortlessly dream up solutions to whatever bothers us in real life. We can easily imagine perfect solutions in our mind’s eye, yet we are stuck living in our physical reality—the real world. We are trapped between the real world and a world we envision possible… the “if only” world.
This ideality of our mind vs. the reality of our body is deeply disconnecting, often causing us great stress. It is no wonder we dream up an easy solution — free will. “Just do it” is the free will button we push to break the logjam of life. “Just do it” promises to transform the real world into our image of what it should be.
New Year resolutions are a straightforward example of how this process plays out. Hopeful ideals prompt us to make our promises for the year to come. Later, when our resolution wavers, we chalk it up to bad luck, poor timing, or human weakness. Any excuse we can dream up will do as long as it lets our belief in free will off the hook. “Next time will be different”, we tell ourselves. Oddly, we never seem to get it.
The sense of free will, whether implicit or implied, is the result of feeling a real need to resolve a real world issue, combined with an imagined way to make it happen. This is essentially need + thought. Where have I seen that before? Oh yes, desire = need + thought. (See How the Hoodwink Hooks.) In a way, free will = need + thought as well. The connection between desire and free will is very close indeed. Among other things, this means that every time we satiate a desire, we naturally reinforce any belief we have in free will. You might say, free will = desire. Emotion—need and fear—in concert with thought, power our blind spot . Because animals don’t think, they experience no “blind spot”. They experience no disconnection between an ideal world and their real world.
The Free Will of “I am”
The observation above didn’t just come out of thin air. Some recent experiences have led me to rethink free will, especially evident in my reply to Brian’s Forum Post. I expressed my non-belief in free will (explicit or implied) that tends to underlie all affirmation ‘spiritual’ literature to some extent… even the Tao Te Ching in places. While not believing in free will, neither am I an ardent Nonbeliever. As I said, I don’t see any evidence that is not attributable to simpler biological causes. This changed with Brian’s comment: “I can’t agree about there being no free will, that’s just where I am at present”. His words, “I am at present” prodded me to see free will in a newer and more profound light.
Like Schrodinger’s Cat, free will seems like it is there when you ‘look’, otherwise it is in a state of indeterminacy. In other words, saying or thinking “I am” makes the Schrödinger’s half-dead, half-alive cat of free will come alive. Saying “I (+ any predicate)” awakens the sense of free will. Does free will truly exist when I’m not saying or “I”? In these moments, it must be indeterminate. In other words, free will manifests itself in the act of observation of “I”. The Koan, “the sound of one hand clapping” hints one aspect of this ‘weirdness’. Or, perhaps even better, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” The reality of “I” lies in the thought of “I”. Without the thought, there is no “I”; just as without the listener, there is no sound; and without the eye, there is no color (1).
Now then, what about the existence of free will in other people? I’d say, it only ‘exists’ when their subjective experience of “I” brings it ‘alive’. Alternatively, and perhaps more socially important, only when you feel another person experiences the same quality of being — “I” — that you do. This will make more sense when you consider that society doesn’t regard young children or animals as being self responsible, i.e., having free will.
Perhaps free will originates not so much in “I am” as in “I desire”. Now then, desire determines what we see. It is the ‘eye’ behind the observer that peeks in on the weird cat to see whether it’s alive or dead. When I am impartial, truly neutral, how can I possibly know anything is or isn’t. Like knowing, free will is and isn’t. This is quite a special awareness, for at-the-moment of knowing Nothing, I am able to know everything.
The Arrogance Of ‘I Am’
The perception ‘I am’ also cleaves the individual from the rest of creation. Each living thing has the innate drive to maintain ‘self integrity’, from the single cell on up… and perhaps on down as well. This ‘self’ does not give itself life. Our capability to create the illusion of an objective self—an ‘I am’—severs us emotionally from the cosmic background as our innate survival instincts scurry about to protect the Self. Arrogance is one way this instinct manifest itself. Chapter 7 puts it well…
Heaven and earth can long endure,
Because they do not give themselves life,
Hence they can long continue to exist.
The wise person places his life last yet life comes first,
Is outside his life, yet lives life.
Non conforming as well as without personal evil!
Hence he is able to succeed personally.
(1) Of course, the physics of sound and color are still ‘there’, but the subjective experienced reality is absent when “I” am absent.