After the last couple articles, a good friend of mine asked me what I thought about ‘free-will’ – does it really exist? What a question.
My initial response was ‘of course it does’, but after digging a little deeper I began finding reasons to doubt…I have a feeling this is gonna be a contentious, dividing, atom-splittingly controversial subject (and proper long).
‘Free-will’ - The ability (or illusion depending on where you stand with it) to make conscious, unaffected, uninfluenced choice. Individual control over the decisions that direct our own lives.
Does that about sum it up?
Does free-will exist in any form? Really? Or is it just a facade we tell ourselves to make us feel content in our own existence and in fact everything is completely under the control of our deep subconscious programming (which in many ways is out of control)?
I’ve thought about this before. Throughout my life, but especially over the past few years when I’ve been faced with consequences of my choices that didn’t fit and contradicted what I chose. I touched on it in my last post with that scrap of paper I found written by an innocent 14 year old mini-me. Go check out the ‘Do you believe?’ article if you haven’t already.
You could argue the sentiment in that note in two ways; nature vs nurture. You could say it’s the purity of youth, a brain in its development phase, a brain unaffected by the outside world quite so much (yet). A raw, genetic, human response. With little personal experience, purely basing its opinions on stuff outside of its control and remit, but in a deeply innocent, human way.
A clean slate. A blank hard drive. A computer turned on for the first time, it only knows what its hardwiring does, in our case – DNA. Millions of years of evolutionary learning passed down to little old me. Or if you weren’t as cynical as me at this moment in time, you could argue it was actually free-will speaking from the depths of inner consciousness. Some evidence that an individual exists. Sounds a bit hippy and idealistic that but is that not what we all want to believe?
Clearly at 14 I’d had some experience, some external influence that had begun to shape my opinions both positively and negatively. And some conscious thoughts of my own. But still subconscious learning really. From my primary care givers (parents) and my peers, teachers, what I watched on TV, learned about in school. All learned behaviour and thought we take in without knowing or questioning. Then there’s the more obvious stuff, what I was told by those deemed wiser than me, adults who were far more experienced, those who naturally we trust wholeheartedly as kids, those meant to guide and teach us. There’s also the learning we do whilst picking up on how others respond to things we say or do. All of which is full of learning and theory. Theory after theory, after theory, from one human experience to the next…are there any actual facts out there or is it just what we’re told?
We learn so much from our development years, but it’s mostly subconsciously. It’s a bugger of a start to life if you think about it because it has very little to do with us it seems and everything to do with nature and/or nurture. Our biological make up and our environment. Sucks for us all really, some more than others, but still in one way or another, it sucks. It’s like the blind leading the blind, only as kids we trust the blind mother-fuckers that came before us because they’ve been there and done it, they KNOW.
That kind of suggests that free-will has never existed for any of us, ever. Quite depressing that. There’s plenty to support that. Even as a baby, we just do what all babies do generally. We flop about, piss, shit, barf, wail and soak up everything our environment exposes us too as we grow into it. And that environment is a lottery for us as individuals. Who, what where and how we’re born determines much of our future with very little free-will from us. We didn’t even ask to be born for fucks sake. So straight from the off we are simply a bunch of cells. And those cells interpret our ‘life’ in our own unique way. It’s actually the beauty and wonder of life, the most amazing thing, humans are amazing. Yet when you think about it, we learn how to be a human during our formative years completely void of any say in it. Any free-will at all. The argument for free-will is not looking very good at this point.
Throw in even more of that as we grow up: our personal experiences, our inner thoughts, even more people who have had exactly the same but uniquely different start to life than us up to now. Media, society, stereotypes, traditional thinking, radical thinking, lies, manipulation, control, more TV, more opinions, more lessons about the world, history, science, society, people, life…all of which amounts to even more external influence that we are now taking on both consciously and subconsciously. Being told what’s true and what isn’t. Being groomed. It’s a fucking mess. It’s a surprise we aren’t all just bat-shit crazy, running around naked, buggering each other and generally causing havoc everywhere we go. Being dicks. Shit, we’ve always done that as a species…still kinda do.
It still doesn’t sound like free-will exists right? How can it? Where is there anything uniquely, purely us in any of that? Where’s our say? Our choice? Who we are?
If we’re lucky to survive the shit show formative years we hit our twenties, around 25 (ish), this is around the time that (according to science) we as humans (our brains) develop a new level of self-awareness. Given what I’ve previously said there is no way to know that this is in fact fact. It’s something I’ve researched, been told is fact, yet it’s still another theory like everything else.
But there-in lies the interesting bit. I learned this ‘scientific fact’ relatively recently, the past few years. However, I choose to believe it (free-will?). Partly because I remember experiencing this shift in me, in my awareness of self way back in my early twenties. And so I choose to form a belief that this is in fact true.
That belief isn’t based on outside influence, it’s based on a visceral feeling inside of me. Something unexplainable, as well as personal experience and a desire to learn, ask questions. Which you could explain as human evolution, my own evolution. Energy of some kind. Perhaps even gods hand if you’re that way inclined. A feeling I’m sure will have been shared by most if not all of us. Perhaps not always around that age, but certainly at some point, we all become aware of self and start to question…don’t we?
This for me is the key to begin answering the question about whether free-will exists or not. How we interpret awareness. And controversially perhaps, for me, it’s one of accountability. When we become more self-aware, we become more accountable. We grow a conscience. We can no longer rely on the excuse that we’re just a kid, that we don’t know any better. That ‘so and so did it!’. That we get a free pass. We begin to start formulating our own ideas. Our own belief system. We decide whether to accept or reject what we’re told and possibly have been told all our lives. We make choices for ourselves.
As our awareness grows as adults it’s the same, we also can’t consciously fall back on ignorance or the idea that ‘it’s not my problem’. What we’re doing to our planet is the perfect example, as a species we are literally destroying the very things that give us life: water, our oceans, our atmosphere, yet the responsibility isn’t one many of us take personally. That’s an article for another time, but the point is, when we’re aware we can’t become unaware, we have no excuses, we can’t simply ignore things and leave it up to someone else. We must surly hold ourselves accountable.
At least in my mind we should – in an ideal world.
But let’s go back, what about all that baby shit? All that subconscious learning we’ve done, all that influence we’ve been exposed to and soaked up during the (for sake of argument) 24 years and 364 days that led to this moment we ‘became more aware’ of ourselves and began questioning our existence. What about all the years of evolution that formed part of our physical neurological pathways?
It’s all still there. We may as well be robots without conscious thought and free-will. Makes a lot of sense. Perhaps the idea of free-will is the illusion that keeps us from imploding under the weight of pointless reality. Because surly if we accept there is no free-will, it all kind of becomes pointless? Doesn’t it? If it’s all pre-determined, out of our control, that we and everything we think and do is aimless and governed by something else. Surly that means we are just sheep (ahem), or a parasite even, going about our days (also a human-made concept) in a completely automated faculty. With one sole purpose – survive. Reproduce, consume, reproduce, consume. Is that not what we see all around us, throughout history, even today? Reproduction and consumption. Look how much we’re fucking our planet up.
Perhaps we are simply a parasite and earth is our host. Perhaps we are all connected under one simple directive governed by nature or a force unknown to us because our minds couldn’t handle it if we did, and so by definition even the concept of individuality is an illusion. But whilst we are all the same, we are all different. If nothing else we’re certainly an advanced, complex parasite. We naturally know how to reproduce and consume on an invasive, self-destructing level.
The fact our personal survival requires much less of our immediate attention these days (if we’re lucky) is arguably why the majority of us even have time to waste contemplating this kind of shit at all. It’s a privilege. Something I’m clearly guilty of.
Yet, I choose free-will to be true.
But why? I don’t believe that to be naivety, ignorance o programming. And I don’t believe I matter in the grand scheme of the world as a whole, but I matter to someone, and myself and my version of the world, and the people in it. And yeah perhaps taking care of me and my world has a knock on affect in the bigger picture. That may well simply be another form of human nature. An evolution. The act of simply overthinking the shit out it. Or the inbuilt desire to see the good. My own personal selfishness.
I feel this way about free-will so strongly because I have hovered outside of my own body, been so disconnected you don’t feel human, I’ve looked down and consciously observed myself behaving in ways based on my subconscious. Deeper inner feelings that I was struggling with at the time and recognising that it wasn’t me. That these things I could see and know we’re happening was not me. But real and happening all the same.
It was me, it was my body, my words, my behaviour, but it wasn’t me. It wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. Who I knew myself to be. I was completely under the influence, as though I was on drugs, something else under the control of my mind. A mind that was in that moment, detached from my consciousness. From reality. It wasn’t free-will. In this instance it was hurt, fear, confusion, trauma, the unknown, all manner of things having a massive punch up. All things my subconscious was dishing out without me having a say in it at all. It didn’t sit right with hovering me that I could blame what was happening on the lack of free-will. Use whatever it was going on as an excuse. I knew myself better than that. That thought alone is evidence to me, the driver behind free-will – conscience and consciousness.
It comes back to that self-awareness. Accountability. Our beliefs. And what we ‘choose’ to believe. My hovering body was my conscience, consciousness and free-will, it’s this thing that had been ripped from reality, but they were very much real, I know this because they’re back. They are attached to me again. People use their beliefs all the time to excuse away their actions and behaviours. Religion. Money. Power. History. Hate. Fear. Survival. Trauma. Racism. Sexism. Nationalism. Ignorance. Whatever group we identify with. What we’ve experienced in life. What we’ve been taught to be true. What we’ve learned from our environments and those around us.
The good, the bad and the darn right ugly of humanity. Everything that has been passed on from generation to generation, person to person, since day dot. All thrust upon us. But where does it end? Where does the buck stop?
With the individual.
Everything is perception. We get to choose ours. Sure our perceptions are in many ways guided by a default within us, but we can influence that default by what we choose to pump into our brains. Variety, diversity…learning. We can unlearn what’s been programmed into us – that’s choice, that’s free-will.
Change happens, the buck stops, when people believe in themselves and exercise free-will. Choose different to what they know already, what they believe to be true. Whether subconsciously or have been told by and met day to day in the outside world, in other people and in fact those voices in our heads. Our life experiences can teach us we’re worthless, not enough, unloved, unvalued, these are dangerous things that impact our perspective of everything and everyone in our lives. But we have the potential to learn continuously, unlearn things, question and form different beliefs. Until we’re in the dirt. We can say no to ourselves, to our mind.
That there, is free-will too. Saying no to ourselves. If you think about it, it happens a lot. From the small to the extreme. Saying no to ourselves is essentially questioning our programmed brains, what our brain has decided to form as part of who we are…including all those damaging and harmful experiences we’ve had.
Take fear, or trauma for example. That shit spreads like wild fire, within ourselves, jumping from person to person, influencing minds all over the shop. There’s very little control in that. But there is some. You can recognise fear and trauma, it’s pretty easy to see in everyone, we can choose to say no to it, in others and ourselves. Say fuck you to fear and trauma with a dose of love. Rejecting it, stopping it in its tracks. You can choose to say ‘no, I don’t believe that intrusive thought’ or ‘No, that’s not the person I love, it’s trauma.’ You can learn new ways to receive, respond, react, manage, cope and think about trauma in other people as well as your own (is that not free-will?).
From what I’ve read about psychology and how the brain works I have formed a theory. Along with many musings with my equally skeptical Wife on the subject. It’s a theory that works for me. It may not be right, it doesn’t matter if it is, it’s what I believe and what I hold myself accountable to – by choice. Free-will.
I believe our subconscious brain does dictate many of our default choices. Certainly the options we’re given. I believe our subconscious brain to be all the learned behaviour from our past. What we picked up along the way. Even down to our DNA. Our core-programming. None of which we have a smidge of control over.
However, I also believe in consciousness. In choice. Have you ever noticed yourself thinking? Noticed a thought? Questioned anything your mind has produced? Of course you have. It happens daily. For me that’s the conscious mind observing the subconscious mind. You within you. You recognise yourself thinking something and the opportunity for free-will presents itself. It’s the stuff of madness I know but bear with.
The subconscious is your default thought in any given situation right? Your pre-programming, the stuff you just can’t explain. The lack of free-will if you like. Your observation of that is your conscious mind. That little voice of reason that immediately follows your default. The REAL you underneath. The essence of who you are. The challenger and questioner. The combination of all the bits that you have constructed to formulate your own identity. WHO you actually are. Always keeping you in check.
The result of thinking and feeling. Failing. Learning from mistakes. Questioning what you’ve been told. New ideas. New belief systems. Documentation of everything you’ve ever done, everything you’ve ever heard, read, learned or experienced organised into a box of you. It’s all the best bits, the least affected bits, the least influenced by the outside world bits. The bits you ‘chose’ to keep, and make yours in each and every waking moment.
This forms you. Your conscience. Your core beliefs, morals and values. Those beliefs and values form the structure of your identity. Your purpose. Your meaning. Your faith. What we believe and how we make choices. We all shape that differently, and it changes over time, evolves, if we want it to. I firmly believe that all of us are good at our core. I never used to. Free-will becomes about choosing which way to go in any given situation, what to see and which route to take, based on all that is you in that moment.
In that moment, when our default subconscious has a thought, our conscious either steps in, or it doesn’t. We move forward based on the first thought or the second. That for me is where free-will can and does take place. Can influence the outcome. If the real us can step in and override our subconscious, take the wheel, we create free-will. And if that free-will is grounded in love, respect, hope, compassion and self-worth, we can achieve great things with it.
Free-will is accountability for self. For our actions. For the way we perceive things. For how we feel and think. Any of these things can be changed and challenged. Through further choice, further desire to improve, to grow, to do better. So in a way there’s free-will in choosing free-will. But that’s where things can fall down for us a species, it’s not easy because of all the subconscious programming, all that outside influence. Which naturally wants to reject exposure to new ideas, different perspectives, other opinion, alternatives to what we’ve been told and shown all our lives. It hinders learning, even the desire too.
For me, the goal is to encourage free-will. To be able to question, to challenge my own mind, to be able to be in that moment and think without influence of what came before, where free-will ‘can’ happen, to go against my grain, to be present enough that I can recognise the difference between the me I want to be and what’s my pre-programmed subconscious telling me who I am. It’s about challenging that programming to the point our conscious mind becomes our (more in control) default.
Which I think is achievable by learning about who we are, digging deep until we shit out the other side. Openness and acceptance. Accepting that truth and reality only exist in what we determine those things to be. Our perspective. But equally, accepting that we have a say in what that is. By continually learning and being open. And to know that’s the case for every single human being on earth. There’s a strange acceptance of others that comes from that. A base level, undeniable acknowledgement that we’re all equal, all fighting the same battles in our own uniquely individual way. That there is such a thing as individuality, that there is no clear cut right or wrong. And that actually there is only free-will.
That free-will is in fact, the only thing we can say with any ounce of confidence is real. Is true. The only thing we can control or have any say in – ourselves.
Fuck me that was deep and long-winded.
Feels like quite an abrupt end to a subject that’s actually quite maddening. In the end, like most things, I guess to believe in free-will requires faith. It’s not an exact science, a quantifiable thing. It’s theory like everything else. A personal choice.
As much as I’ve argued for and against, I choose to believe in free-will, because to not would remove accountability, conscience, compassion, kindness, respect and love. Which is not something I’m prepared to hand over or give up on.