What does Free Will Even Mean?
Do humans have free will? This is one of those great questions of the ages. I am not going to claim here that I have an answer, just some thoughts, and opinions on the topic. You have to make up your own mind about it. Nor am I going to claim that my particular thoughts on the subject are original. They probably aren’t, and certainly, some of them have been heavily influenced by the Eastern Philosophy that I have spent years reading.
So let’s refine this question. Does everyone have free will?
My answer? No.
Now once, when I was a young Catholic teenager I said this to one of my youth group leaders. She came over and punched me in the arm and said, I just expressed my free will, didn’t I? Being a young teenager and not really having the ability to articulate what I was saying, she won the argument. But if I was going to back now, I would argue, that what she did wasn’t an act of free will, but a reaction to a particular kind of external stimuli.
When I say that not everyone has free I am not going to make a claim that particular group is more capable of this than others, I don’t think that could possibly be true. What I mean, is that the majority of people are not present enough, not mindful enough to actually express their free will. They are just mindlessly reacting. That’s not will, that’s cultural programming and instinct.
Most of what we do in life is not of our conscious choice. Most of what we do is a reaction. What does that mean? It means that without the space and presence of mind to stop and actually make a conscious choice, we aren’t acting of our free will. Instead, we’re caught in a net of cause and effect. Someone with a true conscious choice, with true free will, can break free of the old patterns of cause and effect and completely change the game.
What do I a mean? Let’s use a fairly common example of a reactionary situation. I will use this example because even if it has never happened to you, you have certainly heard of a situation like this or seen it on tv or read it somewhere.
Imagine being held at up at gunpoint in the middle of a parking lot. It’s broad daylight. How do you react? I’ll give you a moment to think on it.
You are probably thinking, well I would just give the mugger what they want and they would go away. Maybe you have a background in combat or martial arts and you figure, I’d kick his ass. Maybe you are a gun-toting 2nd amendment stand up and fight kind of person and you would draw your gun the second you had a chance. No matter what you would do, all of those things are reactions, not choices. They feed the same tired old cause and effect. They don’t make things better, they just continue the status quo, the cycle, the pattern.
A rection is something that arises from emotions, from stress, from neurological patterns that you have spent a lifetime building. X input will result in Y reaction. It is why there are all kinds of mental games you can play with people’s thoughts. It’s how cold reading works.
But here is an article with an example of someone who was present in that situation, who did make a conscious choice. NPR A Victim Treats his Mugger Right
I’ll summarize for you real quick so you don’t have to go read it unless you want to. Basically, a mugger threatens a guy with a knife and as the mugger is walking away he offered the mugger his coat. They end up eating dinner together and the Mugger gives back his wallet and leaves his knife behind.
There is a difference here. This person with enough space and presence was not only able to change the course of the game but drastically alter it so that they were creating something entirely new. It is only in a true conscious choice that the space for real change can begin.
Now you might say well hell, what if the guy just killed him? What if it ended badly for both of them? No one said that free will is a safe course or a safe option. In fact, true transcendence of the simple reaction to any situation requires a large degree of courage and fearlessness. It requires that you leap into the unknown and accept that all situations are impermeant, that yes, you may die, but so what?
Your reaction is probably something like, but what about my family? What about the consequences of my death? What about all the things I will miss out on? Maybe I would have more time if I act a certain way? I am sure that you, like most people, fear death. This is a reaction, not a conscious choice.
But death doesn’t give a shit. It can come for you at any moment and in fact, for most of us, it will catch us completely off guard. It will sneak around the corner and end you and you can’t do a damn thing about it. You aren’t invincible. You will die. Playing it safe probably won’t help you. For example, a family member of mine was murdered working third shift at a convenience store when he was only a teenager. What does that mean? Nothing. Rationalize it with any theological argument you want, death is still coming for you.
It is good and right to contemplate this. You cannot truly live, you cannot truly have free will, you cannot be liberated from stagnation without accepting death as a concrete thing.
True free will is risky, it is dangerous, but it also contains in it a true power to remake the world. True free will is also hard work. It is uncomfortable and messy. You make lots of mistakes and you have to own up to them. But the amazing thing is, true free will is also what allows us to experiment, what allows people to come up with amazing solutions to complex and seemingly impossible problems.
It is the unthinking, unfeeling masses that bring upon terrible conditions in the world. Millions of people are starving in the streets and yet, nearly half of all food in the United States is discarded. We waste half our food
War, poverty, homelessness, so many of the ills of our world come from the lack of the exercise of our free will. Most of us just try to get through our day, apathetic to the consequences of our actions, of the things we do or use.
One of my current favorite authors, Anne Leckie, has a fantastic quote in her book Ancillary Justice. “Luxury always comes at someone else’s expense. One of the many advantages of civilization is that one doesn’t generally have to see that, if one doesn’t wish. You’re free to enjoy its benefits without troubling your conscience.”
So how do you become more conscious? You have to create a space of self-examination. You can do this through various activities. The easiest and most powerful way is meditation. It doesn’t matter which kind of meditation you do but the purpose of meditation is self-reflection. It is creating the space in your brain and in your experience to stop and act consciously. Meditation is training your brain to do just that, to have the focus and the presence of mind to detach from simple reactions and transform them into conscious choices.
The thing is, it doesn’t start happening overnight. It takes a long time for people to transform. Think of this way, if you are 20 years old, you built up 20 years of habits around the way you think and react. You create mental impressions and ideas of how to react based on certain situations. There is also a cultural level to this as well. By the way, this is what Karma is about. The concept of Karma is entirely misunderstood in the West. If you want to read a different piece I wrote over on Quora on Karma you can find it here.
So what does this all mean? Well as I said in my last entry, if you want freedom it requires discipline. Anyone can do this, but few actually embark on it. As humans, we can do better. We need to do better. We will do better. The world is ours to remake, if we can only be a little more conscious.