Free will and I have had a life-long journey together. For the first forty years, I ‘knew’ I had free will. I could do anything I set my mind to. Such certainty is especially strong in youth, and naturally so! Around age 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 believe I had free will. (See, John Cleese, A ‘Taoist’? and Beware: the Blind Spot)
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’s 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, especially need and fear, in concert with thought create our blind spot. Because animals don’t think, they experience no such blind spot. Unlike us, 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 a conversation with Brian, who believes in free will. I told him I found the idea of free will, either explicit or implied, to underlie all affirmational ‘spiritual’ literature to some extent… including most translations of the Tao Te Ching (i.e., much less than the literal Chinese). Not believing in free will doesn’t mean I am a Nonbeliever, so to speak. 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 perhaps profounder 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 ‘half-dead, half-alive cat’ of free will come alive. Saying “I” plus “__(a verb)__” awakens the sense of free will, i.e., a sense of free will doesn’t appear until I think or say “I”. In moments absent an “I”, free will must be indeterminate. In other words, free will manifests itself in the act of observation of “I”. The Zen kōan (公案), “the sound of one hand clapping” hints one characteristic of this ‘weirdness’. 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? It only ‘exists’ when their subjective experience of “I” brings it ‘alive’. Alternatively, and more socially important, free will comes ‘alive’ only when you feel another person experiences the same quality of being, the “I”, that you do. This makes sense when you consider that society doesn’t regard young children or animals as being self responsible, i.e., of having free will.
In addition, perhaps free will originates not so much in “I am” as in “I desire”. Desire fundamentally determines what we see. The observer’s eye that peeks in to see whether the cat is alive or dead is similar to how ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. When I am impartial, truly neutral, how can I possibly choose sides and ‘know’ whether anything is or isn’t — it’s both! In the same way, I ‘know’ free will is and is not. This is quite a special awareness, for at-the-moment of knowing ‘Nothing’, knowing everything comes naturally.
The Arrogance of ‘I Am’
The perception ‘I am’ also separates 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 intrinsic ‘self’ does not give itself life. Our capacity for creating an illusion of an objective self — the ‘I am’ — disunites us emotionally from reality’s cosmic background. Subsequently, our innate survival instincts bustle about to shore up and protect that Self-illusion. Chapter 7 sums it up 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 experience of an ‘object’ reality is absent when “I” is not present. As chapter 56 has it, This is called profound sameness.