Friday, January 29, 2021

Free Will: What is it and do we have it?

by Daniel Hagen

"Bewilderment" by Vin Scheihagen

               The nature of free will and its very existence have been discussed among scholars and philosophers at least since times of antiquity in both eastern and western societies. Today, it is a topic for study in the sciences as well among physicists and neuroscientists alike. I am certainly more philosopher than scientist in this respect as I have more experience in simply living and observing life around me than I do in any of the labours of the hard sciences. The following is the personal observation of one raised in a Christian household and culture, in which the concept of free will was largely taken for granted, who became a Buddhist and has developed a closer relationship with his own mind through the study of Buddhist philosophy and meditation. It is not my intention to present a definitive answer on the question of free will for the world but rather to answer the question—with the knowledge and experience I have—for myself. For you, the reader, may it inform and be of service to your own search for answers to the question of free will.


The Conversation


            As our young son was taking his bath, my wife lay on the sofa staring up at the ceiling. We had been together long enough for me to know when something was weighing heavily upon her mind.

            “Is everything okay?” I asked.

            “Oh, I’m feeling a bit melancholy,” came the unsurprising reply. I should add that I also know that when my wife is in a certain mood, it is best to leave her be to sort through it on her own. So with that in mind, I cautiously inquired further: “Any particular reason?”

            She went on to tell me that she had been thinking about a friend who had died some years ago. A couple years before we met, my wife lived and studied in France. It was there that this particular person had befriended her, invited her to her dorm to talk, and helped her acclimate to life at the university. As they were both Taiwanese, my wife expressed sincere gratitude at the memory of this young woman and the assistance she had provided.

            My wife went on to tell me she had met this friend again after some time apart to find that she had changed drastically. Her appearance had so altered that my wife was moved to ask if she was all right or unwell. The friend simply stated that she had been under some pressure and left it at that. A few weeks later, she was dead. This young woman, while living in France with an older man, had fallen to her death in what was declared a suicide. Though my wife had heard rumors here and there over the intervening years as to the possible causes and conditions that would lead to her death, she had no certainty as to what had actually happened.

            Fourteen years later, the memory of her friend’s death troubled my wife so greatly that she contacted other friends who had also been in France at the time and were likewise acquainted with the young woman. One thing that troubled my wife in particular was her inability to remember the young woman’s name. None of her other friends, when asked, could remember either, though as some small comfort, my wife was eventually able to find she had written the young woman’s name down in one of her journals.


            So it was that my wife and I began discussing the purpose of life and how each of us comes to make the choices in life that we do. Do we have the freedom to choose our own paths in life? Can we change the course and direction of our lives when they appear to be going in a direction we don’t like or that makes us unhappy, afraid, resentful? What is it that allows some of us to live our lives in relative ease while others suffer tremendous hardships? Do we really have a choice at all? Do we have free will?

            I had only the previous evening been having a similar conversation with a friend I was visiting. He expressed dismay at the feeling that human life seemed ultimately pointless in the grand scheme of things. He, like myself, was troubled by the enormous division in our home country, the US, as evidenced by the recent presidential election. We were both disturbed by the level of support given to a man we considered to be immoral, self-centered, and clearly inept, not to mention the willingness of so many to either give into delusional conspiracy theories or willingly and knowingly traffic in falsehoods. It is to the detriment of society, if not humanity as a whole, that so many have such a slender grasp on reality, and when so many are actively exploiting our irrational fears and ignorance, one can’t help but wonder what hope there is for our species.

            Meanwhile, my son was drawing a picture on my friend’s daughter’s easel-board, which we dubbed “Polyphemus” owing to its resemblance to the one-eyed Cyclops of Odyssean lore. My son, at the time, was just shy of 4 years old, so the interpretation was entirely ours.

            My wife is currently in the final year of a Master’s degree, studying to become a guidance counselor. As such, her work as an intern brings her into close contact with both the elderly, lonely or troubled in their twilight years, and the young, detached from parents and peers alike. Much like the memory of her friend in France, the conversations she has with troubled people on a daily basis lead her to question the purpose of life, given that it seems so inexplicably difficult for some but not others. Of course, it is clear that we all have our crosses to bear; no one’s life is without suffering. Every age of human life and every period in human history has had its hardships, and our time is no different in that regard. And yet, we live in an age that is also unlike any other. Ralph Ellison, in a 1967 discussion on the merits of public television, stated that “as the American people becomes aware of itself, it discovers itself. We do not know as much as we should know about who we are, what we are, and how we differ.” This awareness now applies to all of humanity; we are learning more about ourselves every day, through TV, film, literature, music, social media, and of course the sciences. We increasingly understand what makes each person what they are and why, though the totality of any one person remains a complex web of genetics, heredity, environment, culture, physiology, neurology, psychology and so forth. So where, if anywhere, does free will lie? 


Different Lives, Different Conditions


            In addition to the sad tale of my wife’s unfortunate friend, I would like to present two other life stories. Indeed one could examine any human life and see only a part of the vast tangle of causes and conditions that make that person what they are. No matter what we may discern from the visible aspects of any one life, no matter what information may be available about them, and provided we are able to separate fact from rumor, the actual workings of all other minds apart from our own are forever obscure in their totality. Even our own minds, as I will get into later, are often obscure to us for a number of undeniable reasons, though one reason is of particular significance. The two people whose stories I will relate were different in significant ways, but each story presents particular questions about the nature of free will and the mind.

Huang Hua-cheng

            Recently, my wife, our son and I took in the final day of an exhibition on the life and work of Huang Hua-cheng (黃華成), a Chinese-born, Taiwanese avant-garde artist and playwright. At the forefront of the avant-garde movement in Taiwan in the 1960s, Huang was not well understood by his contemporaries. As a result of the difficulty and frustration in expressing and promoting his ideas, much of his work has been lost, left unfinished, or unproduced, and he made a living primarily by designing book covers. His uncompromising attitude to his work apparently made him difficult to live with; he was divorced before he died of cancer in 1996 at the age of 61. I was personally struck by his 1965 play The Prophet, which reflected many of my own thoughts about art and commercialism with such prescience; the world moves so quickly now that all art—whether music, literature or the visual arts—is in a constant state of surpassing and being surpassed to the point that art has, in a very significant way, lost any real meaning. Huang stated, “Art will rot, and is actually rotting now. New art is always better than old art.” But at the same time, in The Prophet, “Man is sick of surpassing others, and even more sick of surpassing himself,” and also, “I want to erect that immortal milestone.” The name of the exhibit was given in English as An Open Ending, but my wife explained that the Chinese title more appropriately translated as “unfinished”.

Lisa as a child & prior to execution
            Regarding the second life story, I recently read about Lisa Montgomery, a woman who, at the time of writing, is set to be the first woman to undergo execution by the United States federal government since the 1950s. Her crimes are undeniably horrible: She stole a baby from the womb of a woman eight-months pregnant, killing her to do so. While one may rightly say it was an evil act, we should also recognize the evil that was done to Lisa Montgomery throughout the course of her life. She was born in a troubled household to a mother that did not care for her, and she was abused physically and sexually throughout her youth. Her stepfather allegedly raped her and invited others to rape her repeatedly before she was 14. What’s more, when her mother learned of the abuse, not only did she do nothing to protect her daughter, she threatened her daughter with a gun. These are but a sampling of the litany of horrors visited upon Lisa Montgomery consistently and continuously throughout her young life. What possible choice could a person like this have in the course their life takes when they have been so brutalized? What kind of mind could such a person have? 

            What do these two stories say about free will or the lack thereof? Huang Hua-cheng was an artist. Why? What compelled him to pursue the path that he did? Did he choose it or did it choose him? Could he have chosen a path less fraught with difficulty? Could he have relinquished his persistent need to push the boundaries of art? Could he have done something entirely different with his life? Could he have avoided his cancer or made different lifestyle choices? As someone who has studied and created art, I can understand how an idea can grab the consciousness of a creator as if willing itself to be born, and I have also travelled a path that has made the creation of art a painstaking, laborious and seemingly fruitless pursuit. Huang Hua-cheng is still remembered and his art still lives. Would that be enough to have satisfied him? Would he accept that he had fallen short of erecting “that immortal milestone”?               
                Those of us who have not suffered the abuse that Lisa Montgomery suffered should count our blessings. For all that society preaches on the virtues of responsibility and respect, what could Lisa Montgomery have known of such things? What was the responsibility of her mother, her father, her stepfather and others that abused her? Moreover, what kind of respect could she have had for herself, much less for anyone else? Did anyone in her life nurture the humanity that existed within her, or was that humanity so thoroughly snuffed out at an early age that there was no hope of reviving it? Others imposed their wills upon her—upon her body and her mind. If she had a mind of her own, would she not have done something to protect herself? And yet, how could she have protected herself when she was only a child? It was not her responsibility to teach her mother how to love her daughter. It was not her responsibility to have to protect herself from sexual abuse. And who made the choice to tell her that she had a right to love herself, to be loved, and not to be abused? No one, apparently.


The Sense of Self


            So do we have free will? The answer seems to be, at the very least, variable. No will can be entirely free, as all choices are dependent upon whatever causes and conditions make up the present moment. The Buddhist concept of karma is relevant here. Karma literally means ‘action’; it is a popular misconception that karma refers to the result of one’s actions—a result that rings of poetic justice to those who do wrong and of heaven’s proper reward for those who do right—but no, karma is action—specifically, the actions we choose to make, be they words or deeds. Thus, free will appears to be the ability to choose our karma, but as mentioned, our karma, or potential action, is always dependent upon whatever is happening in the present moment and can never be otherwise. A wealthy American may be able to consider whose services they want to employ to design their outfit for, say, the Met Gala, whereas a Sudanese refugee may be forced to consider doing terrible or dangerous things simply in order to survive. Free will, in this respect, would appear to be a luxury.

            Regardless of wealth or poverty, a person’s free will may be more or less constrained by any number of other factors: duty or obligation, societal norms or taboos, parental expectations, mental or physical capacity, etc. What’s more, our wills are subject to the whims of our most basic needs: hunger, fatigue, sickness, the need to evacuate our bowels, and so on. But could we say that, despite or even in spite of such constraints, one individual can have more or less free will than another? Or even none at all? To be clear, having no free will at all is not simply to suggest a person who is enslaved but rather something more fundamentally broken in a human being—a person incapable of considering and who can only react. Lisa Montgomery may be such a person. 

A total lack of free will, of course, could also suggest a person who is comatose or in a vegetative state. However, even then, we should consider the phenomenon of locked-in syndrome; consider the story Jake Haendel, who despite being apparently comatose spent several weeks fully conscious and aware of his situation. It is entirely possible that an enslaved person may have a freer mind than the person by whom he or she is enslaved; based on the Buddhist concepts of the mind, desire, and aversion, it is almost certain that the mind of a person who can “rationalize” slavery exists in alienation to itself. Regardless, an enslaved person would indeed require a strong sense of self to endure such inhumane and degrading circumstances and remain convinced of their inherent human value and dignity. It is such a sense of self—an authentic and unfiltered sense of self—that may be at the core of one’s capacity for free will.

            Most of us will understand the reference to this “sense of self” by another term: ego. Like karma, ego is largely misunderstood; someone who has “too much” ego is arrogant, self-centered or even narcissistic, whereas someone who has “little” ego is weak-willed, indecisive, a sheep. It is often believed that the purpose of Eastern philosophies such as Buddhism is to dissolve or even annihilate the ego, but not only is that a bad idea, it is impossible to actually do. The purpose of Buddhist practice, for example, is not to dissolve the ego itself but rather to eliminate the misconceptions and filters that form around the ego and that we think of, mistakenly, as the self. These misconceptions can range from destructive mental habits to self-misconceptions that are based on mistaken concepts of culture, race, or religion that prevent us from experiencing inner peace and a clear perspective on our true natures.

            What the “self” is, whether soul or spirit or simply consciousness, is another discussion, but it may be appropriate to suggest that the ego is the “sense” in “sense of self”. Like the other five senses, the ego is a portal through which stimuli enter. (Neurologically speaking, the ego would seem to correlate with the amygdalae, which filter out and focus our attention on the various stimuli as necessary, primarily determined by that which we desire, fear, or are indifferent to.) It could also be said that through our actions and words as well as the functions of our body, stimuli are also transmitted out of these portals. Though this may be more obvious for some senses than others, what is most significant is that the mind is a portal operating in both directions. In Buddhist philosophy, the mind is the sixth sense. We can readily accept that the ego has a role in processing stimuli such as those received through the nominal five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Taking a step further, we can also accept that such stimuli may produce a response or reaction, whether fight or flight, aversion or desire, or something in between. So what is it that exits out of, or rather through, the ego? Thought.

            That thought exits through the ego rather than out from it is an important distinction to make. This is perhaps one of the greatest misconceptions of the human mind: that thoughts are birthed from what we think of as our “self”, the ego. They are not. Thoughts emerge from “below” the ego, from what is typically called the subconscious. But here’s the crucial part: The ego can be “detached” from this “field” of the mind from which these thoughts actually grow. The ego is not the field; the ego observes stimuli and reacts depending on our personal conditioning and how closely the ego is laid upon this field of the mind.  Too close and the ego may mistake these thoughts for authentic expressions of the self rather than for what they essentially are: the spontaneous bubbling up of mental flotsam and jetsam: products of memory, association, dreams and nightmares.

            The ego, as part of the conscious thinking machine, may and often does make use of these bubbling thoughts and put them to creative purposes. How creative or destructive these thoughts become for us depends on our proper use and understanding of the ego. The better our understanding of the ego, the more free will we may have.


            Meditation, for example, especially meditation that is focused on observation of the mind, body and/or breath as opposed to meditation focused on a chosen mental object—a deity, mantra, or other symbolic focus—is a way of training the mind so as to “put some distance” between the ego and the field of the mind from which thoughts arise. This practice involves having or developing equanimity—a sense of balance and non-judgment— toward the thoughts that arise so that they may pass away of their own accord; a thought grows from this “ground” and if we choose not to tend to it—to water it, so to speak—it will die away naturally. Better still, we may become more attuned to the thoughts that actually matter; thoughts that arise from fear, anger, sadness, desire, joy and pleasure are not necessarily good or bad. Fear can be rational as much as joy can be irrational; knowing the difference between the two—whether a feeling is rational or irrational—is a very valuable kind of knowledge indeed.

            Increased awareness of the interplay or relationship between the ego and the field of the mind gives us the means to better and more honestly know not only ourselves but also others, not to mention the whole of the world around us. For example, your friend may love a song that you, for whatever reason, loathe. It is not necessarily the point of increased self-awareness to explain why you do or do not like something, though it may help to. It may also help, however, to understand that as you yourself connect to different things than others, so too do others connect to their own preferred things: a song, a book, a painting, a place, and so on. By more fully understanding what you yourself connect to and why, you may also begin to appreciate—though not love or even like—what others connect to and why. At the very least, you will likely understand that there is little point in worrying about what other people like—unless it is potentially harmful—when you can spend more time enjoying what you like for yourself. This is just one way in which free will is enhanced by a well-developed sense of self.


The Garden of the Mind


photo by Daniel Hagen
           It seems to me that there is always a purpose in life, crystalized in the choices and actions of any and every given moment. These karma are, for the most part, simple, mundane, and largely inconsequential, be they putting one foot in front of the other, grasping an object with our hand, or closing our eyes to sleep or simply shut out the bright glare of the sun. Consider even these simple (and often unconscious) actions, however, and you may realize that not everyone can make even these choices.
            So it may have been for my wife’s friend, Huang Hua-cheng, or Lisa Montgomery, that owing to the circumstances of their lives, some quantity, quality or fundamental ability to exercise free will had been lost. Just as I, in my life, have felt compelled to follow certain paths—as were in my nature to follow—so am I compelled to write this now. The difference may simply be that I “walk” this path willingly; I have chosen it as much as it has chosen me. I am acutely aware of how grateful I should be to have the life that I do. Furthermore, as much as I’ve struggled at times to find my purpose in life, I realize that my life was always meant to unfold one way or another; whichever way the wind blew, I would inevitably find purpose as long as I was willing to accept the purpose that life had bestowed upon me, however joyful, terrifying, or ordinary that purpose may have been.

            I can consider myself lucky, but not everyone—perhaps a considerable number of people throughout human history—has been so fortunate. As mentioned earlier, our own minds are often obscure to us, and one of the most significant reasons for this has been studied in the field of child development. Recent studies have shown that the first three years of a child’s life are critical and have long-term consequences on their personalities, development, and ability to relate to and interact with others. If this is true—and it seems entirely plausible—what does that say about free will? All children begin life not only without self-awareness but also absolutely dependent upon the people who happen to be around them. Typically, a child is raised by its biological parents, but there is no guarantee that the child’s parents will be good parents; even if they are basically decent, they could also be incompetent, uneducated, impoverished, burdened with physical or mental difficulties or poor health, any of which could make raising a child difficult. (Ironically, these same conditions may provide a child with the opportunity to develop strengths they otherwise would not.) A child, through no fault of its own, may also be born with physical or mental challenges; likewise, a child may be born with traits that are at odds with its parents’ or society’s belief system, such as being born with a “taboo” sexual preference; even a physical disability or albinism may be seen as the result of superstitious belief in some cultures.

            Of course, a child’s parents may also be objectively bad: physically or mentally abusive, negligent, cold, selfish, or otherwise emotionally unsupportive or distant. Regardless of wealth or status, a child with such parents may have plenty of material possessions, access to good schools, and potential security in financial or societal terms but remain just as flawed as any child born in poverty and even, in a sense, be spiritually worse off for all of the distractions such a materially-rich but ultimately superficial life may bring.

            Finally, a child may be born and raised by a single parent or left with no parents at all. One good single parent who has reasonable resources and support is better than two bad ones, of course, but what of a child who has no parents? Maybe relatives step in, maybe they don’t. Maybe a child is adopted, maybe shuttled through a series of foster homes, maybe raised in an orphanage … maybe in a wealthy country, maybe in a poor one. Maybe a child is made an orphan by war and left to survive or die in a refugee camp. 

            The point is this: No child has any choice when it comes to the circumstances of its birth. No child has any control over who, if anyone, will raise it. And yet, we are all formed in significant ways by these circumstances and in these times that are entirely beyond our control and, in those very earliest years, beyond memory and conscious awareness.

         An infant has no free will.

         In other words, if free will exists, we are not born with it.

    If free will exists, it must be such that it develops with the emergence of consciousness just as only a fully grown tree can bear fruit.

        Consciousness, or at least one’s sense of self, is affected, if not shaped and formed, by circumstances present from the time of birth and, in fact, even before it. (Even in utero, the growth of an embryo/fetus is affected by the health and circumstances of the mother.) In summary, a consciousness may become free or develop free will, but such development is not guaranteed, as we are all to one degree or another saddled with a number of restrictions or limitations that prevent the consciousness from experiencing a complete sense of freedom. 


From the Primordial Ground

Polyphemus by J.H.W. Tischbein
            Polyphemus, it may be said, was born to be the man-eating monster of Homeric legend, but even this is uncertain. The Cyclopes of earlier stories, the children of Uranus and Gaia, created and gave to Zeus the thunderbolt in obeisance to the king of the gods. Polyphemus, son of Poseidon, however, lived not among the gods but in the “world of men” with others like himself, uncivilized savages who had no regard for the gods of Olympus. However, there are no monsters in the “world of men” anymore. The children of the old gods and the Titans of creation were all destroyed in the age of Hercules, or so the story goes. Now the gods themselves are no more than stories, hatched from the minds of human beings long forgotten, long since returned to dust and scattered who knows where. The only monsters are those that are born, live and either thrive or perish in our own minds. Whether we become monsters and whether our minds are free to confront and challenge the monsters within us is not always up to us. We may not be born monsters, but we can all too easily be molded into them from the same clay from which the old gods first molded humanity.

           We are all born from the same primordial ground, from the same dark, distant, eternally opaque “beginning”. We are all born in darkness, our very own conceptions belonging as much to the chaos of universal creation as those of the multitude of stars, nebulae and black holes spread throughout time and space. At the same time, although we are born ignorant, absent of self-awareness, and helpless, we are also born with the potential of everything that “the ancestors knew and have transmitted to us as seed.” (Amadou Hampate Ba) But just as no seed can grow if something in nature does not exist to nurture it, no human life can be lived with any free will if it is not taught how to develop it.

            As father to my own child, I have a significant part to play in the person my child becomes. If my sense of self is resilient and truthfully engaged with reality, I may yet help him to become a man, a human being, with his own sense of self built upon a solid foundation of clear understanding. I also do not know in what ways I may yet damage him and his sense of self; I can only hope and pray that I do not. I can only try to do my best. As long as I have any free will at all, there, but for the grace of God, go I. 

Special thanks to MD and LG for suggestions and editing.

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