A different look at free will

Christopher asked:

Are there any good arguments for not having free will other than lack of evidence for it and that it doesn’t conform to how the rest of the universe works? I do not believe in free will, per se, but I believe that there is something there that is the driving force behind voluntary action. I say I don’t believe in free will because I believe that this ‘something’ is not free, it cannot ‘choose’ unbiasedly, it is influenced by the external physical world (sensation and perception) as well as the internal physical world (pain, hunger, thirst, ‘instinct’). What I find to be so compelling to believe that there is ‘something’ is the fact that I can do things like hold my breath or think about a subject on command.

Now how long I hold my breath is determined physically, (I’ve been told that it is impossible to hold your breath until you die) and how I think about the subject is determined by my personal beliefs, but there is a small window that some sort of ‘will’ comes into play between where the ‘decision’ starts and the ‘limitations’ begin. I realize that both of the previously mentioned actions need to be learned before they can be performed, but I’m not sure how or if learning is involved in the problem of free will. I’m also very interested in consciousness and somehow ‘intuitively’ feel that the two are dependent on each other, probably that free will is a quality of, or arises from consciousness, but I’m at a dead end there too. Any ideas?

Answer by Peter Jones

Hello Christopher.

You ask some interesting questions. I don’t think this one can be answered except by a long essay, but below are two quotations that might give you food for thought. For the view these represent the freewill-determinism debate would be caused by a misunderstanding, and the two horns of the dilemma may be ‘sublated’ for the truth.

First is Ramesh Balsekar giving the meaning of ‘Wu Wei’ or non-volitional living, from his book The Ultimate Understanding:

Living volitionally, with volition, with a sense of personal doer-ship, is the bondage. Would, therefore, living non-volitionally be the way in which the sage lives? But the doing and the not-doing – the positive doing and the negative not-doing – are both aspects of ‘doing’. How then can the sage be said to be living non-volitionally? Perhaps the more accurate description would be that the sage is totally aware that he does not live his life (either volitionally or non-volitionally) but that his life – and everyone else’s life – is being lived.

What this means is that no one can live volitionally or otherwise; that, indeed, ‘volition’ is the essence of the ‘ego’, an expression of the ‘me’ concept, created by ‘divine hypnosis’ so that the ‘lila’ of life can happen. It is this ‘volition’ or sense of personal doer-ship in the subjective chain of cause-and-effect which produces satisfaction or frustration in the conceptual individual.

Again, what this means is that it is a joke to believe that you are supposed to give up volition as an act of volition! ‘Let go’ – who is to let go? The ‘letting-go’ can only happen as a result of the clear understanding of the difference between what-we-are and what-we-appear-to-be. And then, non-volitional life or being-lived naturally becomes wu wei, spontaneous living, living without the unnecessary burden of volition. Why carry your luggage when you are being transported in a vehicle?

And here is Gurdjieff putting the same view differently, in an extract from P.D. Ouspensky, Conversation with Gurdjieff. In Search of the Miraculous – Fragments of an Unknown Teaching):

I asked G. what a man had to do to assimilate this teaching.

‘What to do?’ asked G. as though surprised. ‘It is impossible to do anything. A man must first of all understand certain things. He has thousands of false ideas and false conceptions, chiefly about himself, and he must get rid of some of them before beginning to acquire anything new. Otherwise the new will be built on a wrong foundation and the result will be worse than before.’

‘How can one get rid of false ideas?’ I asked. ‘We depend on the form of our perceptions. False ideas are produced by the forms of our perception.’

G shook his head.

‘Again you speak of something different,’ he said. ‘You speak of errors arising from perceptions but I am not speaking of these. Within the limits of given perceptions man can err more or err less. As I have said before, man’s chief delusion is his conviction that he can do. All people think that they can do, and the first question all people ask is what they are to do. But actually nobody does anything and nobody can do anything. This is the first thing that must be understood. Everything happens. All that befalls a man, all that is done by him, all that comes from him – all this happens. And it happens in exactly the same way as rain falls as a result of a change in the temperature in the higher regions of the atmosphere or the surrounding clouds, as snow melts under the rays of the sun, as dust rises with the wind.

‘Everyone finds that nothing is being done in the way it ought to be done. Actually everything is being done in the only way that it can be done. If one thing could be different everything could be different… Try to understand what I am saying. Everything is dependent on everything else, everything is connected, nothing is separate. Therefore everything is going in the only way it can go. If people were different everything would be different. They are what they are, so everything is as it is.’

This was very difficult to swallow.

‘Is there nothing, absolutely nothing, that can be done?’ I asked.

‘Absolutely nothing’.

‘And can nobody do anything?’

‘That is another question. In order to do it is necessary to be. And it is necessary first to understand what to be means.’

Food for thought at least.

You may not find this view amenable but you’ll see that it represents a moving of the goalposts in regard to the traditional academic freewill debate. The dilemma evaporates. We come right back to the Oracle at Delphi and the idea that in order to answer your question it would be necessary to ‘Know thyself’. I hope you find this interesting if not convincing.


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