What is free will? (Part 1)

Recently a dear friend shared an article from the Guardian titled ’The clockwork universe: is free will an illusion?’.

The article, as the title suggests, is a discussion on free will, and whether you and I have it, or whether it’s just a kind of illusion. This question of what is free will makes for an entertaining and intellectual discussion, no doubt, however before we get into the specifics of arguing about whether you have free will or not, or what it is, it would seem important to me to actually address the question of who is this you we are talking about.

I’ll break this article, which is my best attempt at conveying my understanding and experience, up into three parts. The first part will begin to answer this question of “Who am I?”. The next bit about looking at existential reality vs our psychological make up. Lastly, we’ll take a look at free will in an indirect way.

Who am I?

This very simple question of “Who am I?” has gripped us humans for millennia as we have tried to make sense of the world and our place in it. There have been an endless number of philosophies, theories, schools of thoughts and religions, (most) with good intentions, that have tried to answer this or at least provide some kind of guidance. When you ask most people this very simple question of “Who are you?” they give all kinds of interesting answers, usually something centred around their identity.

For instance, they might start with their name: my name is Adam Eden. To which an inquirer might say, “Well, that’s interesting – you are, let me see, a collection of only 8 letters? Is that who you really are?”.

Adam might respond and say, ”No, not really. Actually, I’m a gardener.” Our inquirer may further press him and ask, ”So, you were nothing before you became a gardener?”.

To this, Adam might reconsider and say: “Okay, you got me there. I am Adam Eden, Eve Eden’s husband”. To this an inquirer would assume a confused look and say, “So, you didn’t exist before you married Eve? Or, you would cease to exist if you got divorced?”.

Adam, now looking even more confused, is shaking his head and comes up with his life story in response. “Okay. My name is Adam, I was born in the 1970s, went to high school, then university, then got my first job at this garden, where I met Eve, we live in this beautiful house and have two beautiful children. That’s who I am.” To this our gentle-mannered, yet persistent inquirer would press further and thank him for sharing his life story but still insist that by doing so he didn’t get any closer to the truth. And, in any case who had all of these experiences?

This poor sap Adam is looking more depressed than ever, wishing he had never signed up for this “Discover the True You” seminar that was advertised by some famous guru. He is not his name, not his wife’s husband, he cannot even take credit for his life story. Then who he is?

At this moment a light bulb goes off in his head. A stroke of genius. He realises that so far he only remembered his experiences, not those of his body. He thinks to himself, this must be it. He remembers hearing something about this matter business in some metaphysical seminars a few months back.

He blurts out: “I am this body, I’m 1.8m tall, I weigh 80kgs and have blue eyes. That’s who I am.” Our guru, growing more bemused by the minute, completely destroys Adam’s ideas about himself once again. “So you’re telling me, you were not you when you came out of the womb? You were not you 10 years ago when you weighed a little less and had more hair?’ Our guru, once again posits this question to Adam, who by now is dreading the process. Oh, how he dreads it. Oh, how he wishes he had never wasted his money on this damn seminar. They never work anyway.

Here it comes: “Adam, who are you?”

To be or not to be, or some other nonsense

I’m sure, at some point in your life, you’ve asked yourself this question or a variant: “Who am I? What am I doing here? What’s my purpose in life? What is the meaning of this life?”.

If you are like most people, you’ve asked yourself this question and then gone back to eating your dinner. If you were willing to fast a little bit, you’d have started playing with various things like “I’m the body” or “I’m my mind”. If you were willing to fast a little longer until the next lunchtime you’d have seen these are indeed incorrect conclusions to make.

It is very true that you do have a body and a mind – these are like your vehicles in this existence. It might even be convenient to admit that these are all there is to you since you don’t see anything else in your experience. Everyone else around you seems to have a mind and a body too, which is kind of reassuring, as otherwise you’d be seeing ghosts.


Not the body, not the mind

But this is not the ultimate. Both the body and the mind are sort of accumulations that came to you over the years.

Let’s start with the body.

When you were born you were just a tiny baby, and over time, after countless breakfasts, lunches, dinners, desserts (perhaps one too many…I won’t tell!) you’ve accumulated so much food that your body has grown into its present state. You ate a sandwich and it became you, you ate a salad and it became even more of you, not to mention that chocolate donut. That damn thing refuses to depart your waistline.

The body is really just an accumulation of Mother Earth and her bounty over the years. If you don’t believe me, you can consult your mother: what would have been her reaction if the doctors told her there was a 1.8m tall baby growing in her womb, waiting to be delivered. Probably a violent protest, and thoughts that she’d been possessed by some sort of devil.

Perhaps it is less easy to see but the mind is essentially the same.

It is just an accumulation of impressions you had over the years. Where you grew up, who your parents were, how they treated you, whether you read or watched TV, what you ate, whether your first boyfriend dumped you for someone else (that bastard!) and so on. If you had a blue blankie you loved and your mother took it away you’d be one way. If you hated said blue blankie and couldn’t wait for your mother to take it away fast enough you’d be another way. You know, those years they call formative.

Over the years you formed likes, dislikes, preferences, prejudices and, attached emotions to these experiences, creating rigid walls which now form your psyche and personality. You are now a fully fledged adult and exist here on Earth, along with 99% of the population as such. This, as we say, is game, set and match. Today, this is who you know as “you”. Your life now is on an auto-pilot running toward what you like and running away from what you dislike. Feeling joyful if what you didn’t want to happen didn’t, in fact, happen, and miserable if what you wanted to happen didn’t happen.

This might seem ridiculous but that’s how subtle this is. I think by now everyone knows enough popular psychology to have heard about human behavioural patterns. We humans collect and store an inordinate amount of memory right from birth, through every single moment in life, and a lot of it stays unconscious in our experience. For so much accumulation to happen and not to have an impact on our lives would be inconceivable.

So now, we have a body that is just an accumulation of food and a mind that’s just an accumulation of impressions. What are we to do with them? We haven’t even gotten to the dreaded word that starts with ‘e’, aka emotion, (just ask the average man about it), which would round out your psyche. Are we doomed forever?

Not really.

A very important question to ask at this stage is how do you know that you have a mind and a body? How do you know that your body is hungry or that your mind is thinking one way or that your heart feels broken? How do you know? Who sees all of that? Who sees what you see? Who experiences all of that?

If you have a body and a mind (here I refer to the psyche really) – and we’ve established that it is not you per se, but rather that both are in your possession, as something you have or own clearly cannot be you – there must be something larger at work that’s doing the accumulation and gathering. For what you accumulate cannot be you, it can only be yours. You don’t know what it is but there is some kind of larger intelligence that’s doing the work without much of your input.

Stay tuned for part 2.