Martijn Schirp • • 5 min read
Are you determined to achieve free will?
You can do what you will, but not will what you will. Or can you?
Free will and determinism
Free will is ones ability to make choices without hindrance. One of the common hindrances to argue against free will is determinism and the question would be as followed: How can I be a free agent if everything around me is determined which in turns determines me? For example, I didn’t choose to be born in this city, with these parents, these genes and this environment but somehow I did, and these factors have determined the being which I am now. Where is my free will in that? Or in yet other words, did the big bang cause me to write this? If god knows beforehand every decision I will make, how do I remain free to choose? This question has troubled philosophers for the last 2000 years and the outcome should have big implications regarding personal responsibility. I hardly can be held responsible for the causing the big bang, can I? And so I can’t be held responsible for my genes, or my genetic traits, or even my personality! Since my ideas of reality is just some residue of the culture I grew out of…right?
We can discuss the incompatibilists who argue that determinism can’t exist together with free will, ergo, they are incompatible and only one of them exists. In this category we have both the hard determinists who deny free will because they believe all of reality is determined by previous causes and we have the metaphysical libertarians who accept free will and thus claim that reality is in some way indetermined. Compatibilists on the other hand argue that determinism and free will can co-exist, they deny determinism is at odds with free will. In this category we have both the hard indeterminists that argue reality isn’t determined and there’s also no free will, and we have the compatibilists view that reality is determined and free will is still possible.
What are we even talking about?
And we can also discuss the many, most slightly, different viewpoints on this matter. Aren’t we just playing word games? Is there even an I to begin with? Don’t I determine the environment as well? Or why even the assumption that the past causes the future? Why doesn’t the present cause the past? And we can also discuss the psychological effects of a reduced belief in free will making you a less pleasant person.
From metaphysical speculation to pragmatic understanding
But we won’t discuss these things. Because if you wanted to know about that you would probably have to read a thick dusty book and not an internet article by some guy you don’t know. And most likely, if you read a couple of dozens of those books, your intellect would be enhanced and thus would pull you in different directions throughout life, but your experience of life itself wouldn’t change much, if at all. We won’t discuss these matters because it seems to me impossible to resolve the question of whether we have free will or not and so I’d rather join the likes of Alan B. Wallace and propose the switching from metaphysical speculation to pragmatic understanding.
When we’re cruising along in a dream but we don’t know we’re dreaming, we are reacting mostly out of habit, with not much freedom. If we were free, then when we encountered something unpleasant in the dream we would simply say, “Well, this is a dream, I’m out of here.” -Alan B. Wallace
There seems to be a freedom spectrum where we have no freedom whatsoever on the one hand and ultimate freedom (as far as a human being can go) on the other. We have less freedom if we get older and develop Alzheimer’s than the freedom we have now. Our mind has more freedom of creativity and association if we use psychotropics to lower the barriers of conventional habits of thought and interpretation. We don’t have much freedom when we are ‘blinded’ by rage or obsessed by addictions. And we have more freedom when we feel confident we will succeed than if we are stuck in a loophole of doubts.
And to use the analogy of the dream it seems that we get tremendous freedom from waking up, becoming lucid! Because how can we be free from something if we aren’t even aware of it? We can never be free from our unconscious impulses because we don’t know what they are. But once you realize something, you get an insight into the unconscious, whether through a lucid dream, deep meditation or something like LSD, and you get this amazing feeling of inner bliss. Not because something external happened, like winning a new TV, but because you get an insight into yourself, into the real you. This in turn gives you an amazing sense of well-being because you achieved more freedom.
Ultimate freedom in ‘ordinary’ life is then proposed as waking up. Becoming enlightened. Achieving an ‘unconditional mind’. The mind that is not conditioned, so it won’t do things without us willing. Because this is what happens to most of us, we crave, we hate, we judge and we become fixated by ideas of what makes us happy instead of looking inside for why we are not happy now. And so we can’t say no if someone offers a cigarette even if we know we should be quitting. We can’t say in the midst of rage ‘wait a minute, I am feeling horrible, I will stop doing this now’ and be immediately in a peaceful state of mind. Because we only know what happened in hindsight, and then we have to conclude we had no say in it whatsoever.
So the first step is to become aware of our unconditional mind, becoming aware of the craving that arises when we do something that we know won’t make us happy but only makes the pattern of habit worse. The craving consists of wanting the present moment to be different, resisting reality as it is, this wanting is made of thoughts, images and emotions. First, you blindly follow these. They seem to be solid and you identify with them. Then you gradually begin to see them but following is still inevitable. Slowly you switch from identifying with the solid impulses to the awareness that sees them. But the impulses are still too strong. You might still go for the cigarette. But gradually, when one is following the path to freedom, you will see the craving for what it is and you can will to do something else. This gives you tremendous freedom as it gives you the power to be the best person you can be at any given moment. Even if I am nervous, I will still approach that person because she/he could be the love of my life. Even though the impulse, the craving, for a cigarette is so strong, I can observe it without identifying with it, I can observe my conditioned mind but I will something else.
The chains of conditioning won’t break easily, but it’s worth the effort.