You can do what you decide to do — but you cannot decide what you will decide to do.
~ Sam Harris
Free will isn’t a concept most of us think about on a regular basis. We tend to simply assume we have it, and not give much thought to whether that’s true. But, when we do think about it, we mostly have extreme gut reactions to it. Some of us believe that all that matters in life hinges on us (humans) having free will.
I disagree. I think that believing we have free will only muddles how we perceive ourselves and other people. In short, I think it makes us worse off.
But first, what is free will? If someone has free will, her actions are up to her in that she could have decided to act otherwise. Free will typically implies some kind of moral responsibility for one’s actions. For example, if she stole a chocolate bar, she could have chosen not to steal the chocolate bar.
The question is, is it true that she could have chosen differently?
Let’s do a quick experiment. After reading this sentence, what is the first thing that pops into your head?
Now, notice that whatever it was that popped into your head came into existence without you having to do anything.
Let that sink in for a second.
The thought that came into your mind may have felt relevant to your life, even appropriate for the situation, but you didn’t decide to think it. It just appeared in your consciousness.
If you didn’t decide to think it, who did?
Let’s do another experiment: when you finish reading this sentence, close your eyes and make your mind stop thinking for just ten seconds.
How did that go for you?
Did your mind cease to think just because you wanted it to? If you believe you stopped your mind, increase it to twenty seconds or thirty.
The fact is thoughts and feelings are constantly being pushed into our consciousness and we can’t stop them.
Just recall the last time you were embarrassed. How much control did you have over the feelings of embarrassment popping into your head, uninvited, in the following hours, days, or weeks? If you could have stopped those thoughts and feelings, you would have, because they suck.
You may be tempted to dismiss these experiments as mere curiosities and nothing to take seriously. For a long time, I certainly did. And by refusing to reflect on the meaning of these experiences I only delayed seeing my mind for what it really is.
If you are mindful of your thoughts and feelings, you will begin to see the pattern of relevant but unchosen thoughts and feelings pushed into your consciousness. These patterns will feel very familiar to you, and they will feel like they belong to you, but that doesn’t mean you chose them. Repeating these experiments may help you see that.
If this hasn’t made you question your own sense of free will, let me try another angle.
We tend to form our identities around our patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. We have an intuitive sense that these things “belong” to us in a fundamental sense — that we are these patterns.
Yet, it’s also obvious that who we are today came about by circumstances completely outside of our control. We didn’t choose our genes, we didn’t choose our parents or our families, we didn’t choose the socioeconomic status or part of the world in which we grew up, and we didn’t choose the experiences we had in our most formative years.
By the time we reached adulthood, the physical structures in our brains reflected all these variables, and many more. Each of our brains developed their own set of patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving based on our own unique set of genes and experiences. And because we’re used to these patterns, they feel familiar — they feel like “me”. But, just because something feels like you caused it, doesn’t mean you did.
Our brains, just like the rest of the universe, are all cause and effect. When we experience something our brains change in response, and that change impacts our future behavior, and so on and so forth.
We may not understand how consciousness works (and there is something very mysterious about it), but we do know there is no magic going on inside the brain. If we (humans) could somehow act “freely”, our brains would need to defy the law of cause and effect, because free will implies an effect with no cause. This just doesn’t happen.
If nothing else, I hope these words insert a sliver of doubt in your mind. There are many people who write more eloquently about this topic than me and I would encourage you to seek them out.
So where does this leave us? If we have no free will, if we are really deciding nothing, how can anything we do matter?
The answer is simple: what you do matters because your conscious experience matters. It matters whether you are suffering or thriving because one is clearly better than the other for you. If you had to choose between living a life of pointless misery and suffering or a life of meaning and fulfillment, I don’t think there would be any debate over which one you would prefer.
And yeah, there will be the rebels who swear they would choose the pointless misery and suffering for one reason or another, but if they had a taste of both, they would immediately choose the meaning and fulfillment. We haven’t survived this long as a species by having the desire to suffer needlessly.
So, if your conscious experiences matters (in the most profound sense), so does mine and everyone else’s. Then, the promotion of the wellbeing of conscious creatures forms the moral basis of all the actions we take in life.
But, you might think, I fucking hate my boss — I don’t want him to be happy. This is where knowing that none of us have free will becomes really useful. If your boss doesn’t have free will, he has no choice but to do what he does. And the fact is, if he’s a miserable piece of shit to you, he’s probably a miserable piece of shit to himself and everyone he loves, too. Which means that his conscious life probably sucks.
The Dalai Lama expressed this beautifully in A Heart Full of Peace: “your enemies may disagree with you, may be harming you, but in another aspect, they are still human beings like you. They also have the right not to suffer and to find happiness. If your empathy can extend out like that, it is unbiased, genuine compassion” (Joseph Goldstein 2007).
You see, we’re all in this shit-show together — this beautifully amazing shit-show. And we’re all suffering. You. Me. Everyone. You don’t need to dig deep to see the suffering in people’s lives. And that’s not meant to minimize any of our individual suffering; it’s just meant to illustrate that none of us are alone in our suffering and that people’s actions are often explained by their suffering.
So, now what?
First, we need to change our perspectives. Our pasts do not have to define our futures. When you understand that you could not have prevented your mistakes, regrets, or embarrassments, then you start to see them as opportunities to learn from rather than disappointments to dwell on. This also opens up the space for forgiving yourself and having compassion for yourself.
Second, understand that the impact you have on other consciousnesses is literally the only thing in the universe that matters. When you can see your own suffering reflecting back at you in someone else’s eyes, you’ve made progress. But, recognize that this is not an easy perspective to put into practice, so give yourself time to adapt to this change.
Finally, let go of your need for control.
Instead, acknowledge that we all are at the mercy of the suffering we endure as a result of our unfolding lives. When you do, you will begin to feel compassion for yourself and everyone else. And then your compassion will compel you to act to cherish and protect the only thing that gives meaning to our universe — our conscious experience.
I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty good to me.