Against his own nature, man is impotent.
Free will—as a concept—almost broke me; until removing it set me free.
I tried for years to wrangle free-will into existence, to prove that I had a choice—and that I will have a choice. It felt helpless to realize that there is no such thing. It seems fruitless and futile because it runs counter to what our thesis on effort asserts, so how could I ever objectively agree to someone being NOT in control when all we can infer from our practice is to “control what you can control”—namely, the Self?
Whatever your convictions, we must admit at some point how very little we have agency over. Emotions and our reactions are a good place to start. And even if for some reason you hold that free will is at the center of human purpose, you have to at least admit that most of what we think, and do is not directly tied to our conscious choice; that the majority of us do not control the majority of “us”.
At this point most people will pick up an object to prove the power over their domain when they try and argue the age old virtue of free-will, but I should be clear, I’m not saying you don’t have will, I’m simply stating that it is not free. There is software running in the background that hijacks and intercepts most actions; the programs are written, all we have to do is let go. We can override it but we can’t override all of it. The fact that you will use your environment—predictably—in an attempt to prove me wrong only makes the case stronger, so you can put the pencil down.
What sold me on this unassuming absence of freedom wasn’t anything complex, there was no profound moment of realizing the nature of consciousness or the mechanical firings of neurons, I didn’t read a study on “the split brain” and have an “egad!” moment, it was something really simple and pleasant actually; which was years spent attempting to remove thoughts from my mind. You can try the same thing right now, simply think of nothing, I’ll wait…
Did it work? Were you able to think about absolutely nothing for whatever period you demanded? The only person that might say yes to this is likely in a cave somewhere in Tibet, not thinking about free will because he isn’t thinking about anything—ironically.
The mind is busy and full of dangers. If the anxiety of the future doesn’t get you, the regret and shame of thinking we could have averted the past most certainly will. And if you are like most you will bounce in your uncontrolled thoughts from second to second, from the past to future and back again, never realizing that no matter your thoughts, no matter your worries, none of us really control any of this. But this lack of control doesn’t have to be a defeat of the human spirit, realizing the boundaries is a freedom of its own.
It alleviates the panic that we ARE our thoughts. That our judgements and predispositions are OUR identity. That our mistakes decide our future. It doesn’t take away our responsibility, it only removes the power of guilt and regret, because the past is nonexistent and the future is out of our hands. This leaves us only in the present moment, pencil gripped tightly, ready to defend the indefensible.
The idea of free-will is a prison, this is polar to what the concept itself espouses, that you and I are free, that we are not bound by unknown variables. The trap is thinking that a single choice is deterministic. Some might be but most are a part of probabilities in an outcome, they add up, NOT equal out. This is not to detract from the importance of choices. People have died because of other’s decisions (and their own), which means this argument cuts to the deepest center to questions of our existence. To decide one way or another is to choose life or death, most will live but not ever choose life, some will choose death and exert the single most significant aspect of Will that one can, but our culture today will call this cowardice. Camus famously asked: “should one kill themselves or not?” which might be the most important philosophical question to date. It is a question that highlights our only possible look at free-will, which is to wonder whether suicide happens by determinism or circumstance. If you think it happens by the former then you believe that suicide is the purest expression of human purpose, and denying humans the opportunity to do it is an egregious offense to an inalienable right. This may upset some people—as it should—that’s not my purpose, I’m not condoning the act, but you can’t have it both ways; arguing that we are in control and that our will is free is to argue in favor of the merits of suicide, because it is the ultimate expression of free will, it goes against every natural instinct for survival, the means and circumstances under which it happens would be irrelevant because you believe we are in control, right?
There will always be people stuck in a strangle hold with delusion, believing that their every action is a consequence of the freedom of their agency, I know because I was one of them. It might be most painful because acknowledging that our Will is not free feels like someone is stealing something from us, but the only realization should be that it wasn’t ours to begin with. We can white-knuckle the object in front of us in order to prove our Will or we can simply ask better questions. Can we control that which is not free? If control is not possible, can we learn to navigate the boundary that contains our Will, in order to guide it? These are the more rational questions to come out of any argument about the existence of free-will, but they are still centered around “us” controlling “us” when it might be better to seek out what is most malleable, what takes the least force and produces the best result. I fought myself with the best version of myself and somehow I was still disappointed that I lost, that’s because I was waging a war with the wrong territory, I didn’t even have the right map. Change your environment and you will be free of the need or desire of will.
If you are allowed, you will.
We instinctively give in to advantage. We inherited the behavior of scarcity in a world of abundance, and although it will kill us eventually, we can use that understanding to not decide, but to let opportunity be our will. The places you choose to dwell do more deciding for you than you do, and although I can agree with the feeling of fighting against the norms of your surroundings that is simply a 0 instead of a 1 and doesn’t constitute a choice only the illusion of one. On a long enough timeline decision fatigue will make fools of all of us. You can deny impulse, but for how long? You can go against the flow, but for what? You can say you exert control but when is the last time something happened to you that was up to you?
I fell into the business that I am in, I was looking for something, sure, but I neither created the opportunity nor did I manifest its abundance, I took the opportunity when it was presented by completely chaotic or complex circumstances. And if I wasn’t there someone else would have been. I put myself in an environment and the pressures of that environment led to what they did. You might argue that my free-will was in choosing the environment but then you would have to defend the idea that a tree “chooses” its environment because of how it responds to its circumstances, is that the “free-choice“ you’ve been so defensive of? This is often how I aggravate those (and myself) looking to emulate the kind of work we have been involved with. Which is clever because aggravation in itself is frustration for not being able to exert control. But even despite the looks of grimace to my unclear answers I am not being dishonest, I had very little control over my destination, I made decisions along the way and those added up to feel like control but it was no different than playing a complex video game.
In an open virtual realm, what feels like decisions and range are simply what the programers allow you to choose, this is not freedom, it is reality where you may move the joystick left or right but how far has little to do with your agency and more to do with 0s and 1s - it has more to do with others, you are still ultimately influenced and limited by your environment.
An environment can be a Will builder, it can foster the type of Will that others might appreciate and also emulate. An environment can be a place where we push the boundaries of our will, and the thoughts that lead to conditions that might allow us to feel will-ful. This is the sole purpose of our Space. But the boundaries have already been programmed, into an imperceptible thing we call DNA and enforced by the Laws Of Nature.
We have evolved from Star dust, the laws that bind this physical world organized in a way that matter would be appreciated by its environment. One environment became hot then cold, it tempered the atoms and they organized to the emergent properties of life as we know it. That life—through no conscious or sentient control that we know of—was affected and duplicated so many times that the first single-celled organism became two. What willed that to happen? You can’t say that the direction and evolution of all life that we know about had no Choice in the matter.... but if you did you might start to understand how I’ve arrived here, that none of us have that choice and none of us have free will, because we are no different from that which we came. From dust to dust no decision will be free from Will, and no Will will be free from itself.