Science

An Intimate Dialogue On Free Will

 

I am strongly inclined to believe there is no such thing as free will.

Good for you.

Let me reason this out. On a basic level, the term “free will” generally refers to my ability to consciously choose in a specific event or situation. 

Right.

Now, for free will to exist on this fundamental stage, there needs to be “someone” who is present to make the decisions, right? 

If you say so…

Here is where I encounter my first issue. As I look very hard and try to detect this “someone” within, all I encounter are components, not the whole. I come across thoughts. I find emotions. I stumble upon sensations. It is a very peculiar thing. I search and search and search but simply cannot find the gestalt, the one who is perceived as more than the sum of its parts. Why then does it seem that there is “someone” who makes a decision? 

Let me tell you right off the bat that your preliminary examination is legitimate. This sense of self you call “someone” is nothing but a construct, an illusion created as a backlash to predisposition, a set of beliefs reinforced by environmental responses to stimuli perceived as pain or pleasure.

Ouch. Intriguing, but complicated. I’m in the dark. 

Bear with me here. As a young child, you tended to repeat behaviors that led you to pleasure and avoid those that caused you pain. 

It’s only natural, right? 

It’s a self-preservation thing. As you seemingly journeyed through experience, these repetitions turned into deeply ingrained grooves that became your preferred routes toward contentment and away from hurt. By sheer force of habit, the bundled packets of thoughts and emotions that comprised your favorite pathways eventually gravitated towards a common center—a “me” thought—which instinctively started creating sense out of the entire thing while feeding on energy of attention. The resulting mess is what you call “someone,” complete with its stories, interpretations, justifications, motives, judgments…and a life. 

So that’s how the human apparatus works. That’s just the way we are.

Yes, sir. Undeniably lame. 

I see. So I may have been wrong in assuming that there is no such thing as free will. Even though this “someone” I call “me” is a deceptive appearance, it does exist, yes? 

Well, yes and no. Here’s the thing. As I told you before, this “decision maker” consists of autonomous bits that came together for the sake of evolutionary convenience. As such, it is like a large group of people, a crowd. Does a crowd exist as a thing? 

Hmm. Not really.

The individuals that make up a crowd are certainly there, but the collective entity has no independent existence. It is only an event. It is the result of unconsciously coordinated motives. 

A very strange phenomenon indeed!

There’s more. Individuals can apparently act, but a crowd is only capable of reactions, a crowd can only resist. 

Okay. I think I see where you’re going with this. You’re saying that the decision maker exists—albeit as a robotic process—and as such can only produce a conditioned response. 

Exactly. After many years playing the same songs over and over again, you started taking the individual sources for granted and began to see the imaginary collective “agent” as a decision catalyst. In other words, your habits, your likes, your dislikes, even your outer and inner discourses eventually become impromptu-like, but while you believe you’re acting from a perspective of independence and free will, your entire life is in reality based on pre-defined tendencies.

Makes sense!

This is a very clever mechanism. It strengthens and perpetuates itself by subtly making you forget that your present behavior is actually based on past interpretations. It creates a sort of unconscious competence.

Like when we have had so much practice with a skill that it has become second nature. Like driving or riding a bicycle.

Yep, but in this case it is not really an advantage. Whenever you believe you’re acting on free will, in reality you’re reacting with your same old song and dance. You just don’t notice it. You believe you’re making a choice, but that’s just another defense mechanism designed to keep the entire apparatus going. At this level, you will invariably choose in accordance with your ingrained patterns.

So it’s true. There’s no such thing as free will.

I wish I could say it was that easy. Automation can most surely be overcome at this level.

Really? How?

Let’s just say for now that by consciously remaining present with your patterns while they are doing their thing, you will naturally distance yourself from identification and sooner or later see them for what they really are: mere stories. You will no longer suffer their influence and your life will then be seen from a detached perspective, as if it were happening to someone else. 

Aha! If I can rid myself of these programmed reactions, deep down I really do have a choice after all.

Sorry. Not really. Remember how I mentioned that your repetitive patterns, along with the “me” thought, comprise that fictitious someone? Well, as you integrate these patterns, this very strong and obvious sense of being a person begins to expand and diminish in density—it begins to fade away. Thus, as you further free yourself from this bondage, this burden, and reinstitute your ability to choose freely, you’ll unexpectedly find that there really is no one left to make the decisions. Now, in the absence of a subject, the choices just happen.  

Wu wei!

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