Answering the Question: Do We Have Freewill
By: J. Marlando
The question that asks do we individuals have free will or not has been asked for millenniums and is a question that interests (and often baffles) religion, psychology and philosophy. Today there are certainly those who would say absolutely not like the scientific minded reductionists, many modern biologists (like Richard Dawkins) who are also atheists and agree that we human being are nothing but “gene machines.” And of course there is a populated arena of college professors who pride themselves on a pseudo objectivism that denies the subjective as so much mental masturbation, calling it the stuff of fairytales and fantasies. So with all this said, let us attempt to answer the question: Do we or do we not have freewill?
This is obviously no easy question because unfortunately most people live out of learned concepts. For a best example, take the fundamentalist Middle Eastern who, most virtually since birth, has been indoctrinated to hate the Christian, Jewish and Hindu world of others; to believe that God rewards those who kill or die for Islam. This is nothing new: the stories of Christian martyrs being slaughtered by lions for the pleasure of pagan Romans relate much the same model for giving up one’s life for one’s faith as being “favorable” before God. Mormon children, as another example, are indoctrinated to believe in Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon from the time they are taking their first steps. This is true politically as well: kids growing up in predominantly democratic households will be indoctrinated to believe in leftwing policies while children born into republican families will be indoctrinated to believe rightwing policies and all racism and sexism arises in the child from the teachings of significant others in his or her childhood environment. No one is born with prejudices, they are all learned and all learned prejudices definitely affect our volition.
An extended example of this question asks about the guilt of certain criminals who have committed violent acts but were raised by violent, unloving and non-nurturing parents; do such criminals actually have a choice in their actions or are they merely responding to their childhood conditioning? That is, would the South L.A. gang member be making the same decision had he or she been born in a middle-class home with caring parents? These are all questions that must be considered when thinking about the aspects of freewill.
On the other side of the coin we’ve been observing, there is the possibility of freedom because once a person reaches at least a margin of maturity he or she can decide to change political parties, churches, reform attitudes, toss out old social memes and so forth. What such a mental feat demands, however, is to confront one’s own indoctrinations objectively and stripping away the dogma, ideology and concepts that have resulted from them; the very first challenge for being…free!
I base most of this observation on infants who are virtually born blank slates. This does not at all suggest that the body/brain is not already functioning from its genetic instructions to maintain eternal realities but, at the same time, remains ignorant of external realities. For example, a little girl infant is not born predestined to keep her dress down any more than a little boy is born predestined to keep his pants up. These are social instructions fed to the brain through experience. And indeed the brain is, if you will, an open book of blank pages slowly being filled by one’s own experiences and the information given it by significant others. For example, the fundamentalist male, Muslim infant is not born sexist and hating infidels—that infant is born ever as loving and sweet as every other infant but becomes a radical from the radicalism that he is raised with. And so his “free will” has been enslaved by nothing less than brainwashing.
This enslavement happens to all of us at one level or another. Indeed all sexism and all racist, as already said in an above paragraph, is learned and not a predestined brain-event caused by the nucleic acid molecules making up our DNA. Racism and sexism arrives from a child’s parents and other teachers who feed the child’s brain with their beliefs. No child, we’ll say, laughs at an obese, poor or different looking person until he experiences significant others in his life commenting and responding to the unfortunate passerby. Then the child’s brain soaks in the information and that information constructs his own “unfeeling” behavior.
In regard to the above, when a child catches a physical virus of some kind the doctor is called or medicine is administered but there are social viruses of misinformation that can permeate a child’s brain that are ever as destructive but typically left unattended. Hitler’s youth was a great example of this. Hitler began training his future Nazis at age ten. By the time they were old enough to wear a uniform they were fully indoctrinated in his racism and other cruel inhuman ideologies; they were enslaved by their indoctrinations; puppets on his cruel and sinister string.
Staying on the “blank Slate” subject for just a moment longer: The brain itself can be seen as a gateway to unlimited possibilities; grow it with indigenous customs and spiritual beliefs it will “believe” that it is a tribal resident and most probably grow up bowing to the totems of the tribe. Grow it with Irish or Russian or American traditions and it will believe that it is Irish or Russian or American; it will speak the language, be receptive to the social mores, superstitions and local morals. It will, in other words, costume itself in the beliefs of the society in which it has been born. However, move the American born infant to Russia and that infant’s brain will take on the Russian character; the “blank slate” will have been developed with different values!
This brings us to the old mind/body dichotomy. While the philosopher Descartes (1596-1650) taught religious folks that mind—call it spirit, soul or consciousness—are separate and distinct from one another, most modern scientists denies this, insisting that mind is a mere epiphenomenon (extension) of the workings of the physical brain. Indeed, it was Descartes that offered us his famous, “I think therefore I am” theory but modern day physicists, like Amit Goswami, are saying that it is not Descartes cogito ergo sum but instead opto ergo sum, I choose, therefore I am.
While I agree with Goswami, one is not actually making a (free) choice when his or her brain is enslaved by the indoctrinations of his or her socialization. While the suicide bomber believes that he or she is in full control of his or her actions, the truth remains that such destructive actions are more robotic than acts of free will. For another example, most of us are repulsed by the thought of lynching and especially lynching based on rank racism. Yet, children who were born into families who were Ku Klux Klan members were simply raised to believe there was everything “right” about hanging disobedient blacks. In fact, how difficult is it for most everyone today to believe that there were those who wanted to lynch young black kids who simply wanted to enter a white school and be educated? Were there people truly that hateful? There were! By now we have belabored the point that our brains are susceptible to the information given them. Indeed, one of the most vital messages that Paul Pearsall gives us is that we cannot only tell our brains how to think but what to think and he adds: “The highs and lows that the endorphins produce are actually related to alterations in the way the brain pays attention to its world and what we tell our brains to pay attention to.”
With the above in mind we will return to the topic of the body/mind dichotomy. If we conceive mind as being a mere epiphenomenon of the brain we concede to the reductionist’s view that we are the totality of our body parts and nothing more. If we conceive our minds as being completely separate from our physical brains as Descartes did, we refute the scientific evidence that our minds and brains act together. There is, on the other hand, a new view based on a very ancient premise. That ancient premise tell us, mind (consciousness) is throughout our entire bodies and permeates all things which implies that mind is both inside and outside of us. When one gives this any kind of contemplation the scientific view that mind is in the brain and a mere brain function becomes absurd. We must, in my own view, begin looking at the self as the mind or consciousness within and so, if you will, as a replica of the manifested body which nearly all near death experiences and out of body experiences (NDEs and OBEs) will attest is the case.
As a quick aside, the irony is that those reductionists simply reject the validity of NDEs and OBEs because they offer that they too are mere brain conditions. However, I know of no reductionist who claims to ever have had an NDE or OBE experience so they are only speaking subjectively in a most pompous guise of objectivity anyway.
In any case, if we conceive of the mind as being form rather than merely function the idea of the spiritual or soul self becomes acceptable. And, in the doing, we begin to grasp that it is not the brain that acts on the mind but rather it is the mind that acts on the brain. A major problem is that the brain is a mere physical part and therefore cannot discriminate between what it is told by the self or by others. This, as I have said, many times is why it is so terrible to tell a child that he or she is stupid, clumsy, lazy or bad because once the brain believes this, the brain starts to deliver the chemicals to produce the condition. Some doctors suggest that a child who is constantly called lazy may well develop a “lazy” heart or “lazy” liver. And, incidentally, it is well known and widely accepted today that words can be biological.
The above brings about another point, however and an example I have used a few times. A signal of our underlying free will is that if we deem the rose bush a thorn bush that is what it will become for us. This is applicable in countless ways—if we tell our brains enough times that the world is against us, that we hate pink pigeons, that our husband or wife is difficult to live with, that we’re sad or happy, our brains will go to work delivering the chemicals to create the realities as we deem them to be. Indeed we have the freewill to deem the sunniest, brightest day a day of doom and gloom just as we have the freewill to call a dark and dismal day a day of joy and beauty. In this way the world is exactly what we make it, most certainly the matrix of freewill.
There is a more complex challenge that arises. A great number of today’s quantum physicists and a few other scientists are agreeing that our consciousness is not only in every cell of our bodies but outside us as well; that we belong to a cosmic consciousness or a collective unconscious that Carl Jung suggested. A practical reason for this is that it is agreed by those I am referring to that we are each in connectedness with all else; in a web of relationships. But how can this be. The physicist Paul Davies is quoted in Jeremy Hayward’s wonder book, Letters to Vanessa, says this: “Nature is a product of its own technology, and the universe is mind. Our minds could then be viewed as localized ‘islands’ of consciousness in a sea of mind.”
When we comprehend what Davies is saying here, we easily capture the vision that each of us is the One in All and the All in one. As a result we are freed onto our own volition…at least potentially.
The enslaver, on the other hand, remains our conditioning. For example, disobeying authority such as our parents, we’ll say, is not an act of freedom even though it may feel as if it is because…the act of disobeying is in and of itself a mere reversal of obeying. As long as I am aware that my choices are made in defiance (or in obedience) I am merely reacting. Whenever we make a choice based on an exterior cause, our choice making is necessarily encumbered and not free. Indeed, we can only exercise our free will by being absolutely detached from all causes or relationships behind our choice making. Once any of us have reached the age of reasoning, we have the possibility of breaking loose from our conditioning by simply becoming aware of it and choosing to act (or choose) outside of it. In this way, awareness of motivation becomes the key to our freewill.
This is not as simple as it sounds since we are often victims or victors of our unconscious minds. The inner child, for example, is most apt to insist that we have our own ways. But having one’s own way as an act of defiance or for purely selfish intent is never unencumbered from past conditioning. And so, again, it is essential to become aware of the motivation behind our choosing before we can detach from it, the necessary process to our making unencumbered choices.
Returning to Amit Goswami again he tells us, “…Krishnamurti, suggests an answer” [to what I’ve been struggling to explain in this article]. Krishnamurti says, “We need to make a complete about-face to transform, and this requires complete awareness of what is the case, of what we are, of what is our conditioning.
Goswami, gives the following explanation:
For example, suppose you have a problem with jealousy. Every time your significant other talks to a person of the opposite sex, you are engulfed by intense pangs of self-doubt and anger. You try to change your feelings and behavior but you cannot change by thinking or reasoning. This is where inner-creativity comes in. The techniques of inner creativity are designed to create a slight gap between you and your ego-identification. In the gap, you have the ability to exercise free will, the perfect right of your quantum modality.
Goswami adds: “What does this mean? In the simplest terms, it means a general condition of living with a natural sense of love and service to others—a natural surrendering of our separateness to the quantum self. Rabbi Hillel said,
If I am not for myself, who am I?
If I am only for myself, what am I?”
I believe that in the final analysis a first step in activating our free will is to become aware of the absence of it in our life. There are for example, people well into their thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, even older still responding and so making choices based on what their parents approved of or didn’t approve of. There are those so-called “adults” who have never given thought to why they are so radically attached to a political party or a religion or a philosophy of life that, in truth, they have merely been indoctrinated to blindly accept by some authority (or authorities) in their pasts. A great deal of our guilt and shame, regrets and fears arise from such conditioning.
In this regard, all of us have, to one level or another, been socialized to follow as opposed to think to one degree or another. A fearful realization but an accurate one nevertheless!
I think, after all is said and done, to actually acquire the use of our free will, to really summon it up from the depths of our potentials, may be a chore too meditative for most of us. Most of us are much to in the habit of making choices out of emotion, out of imaginary necessity and out of the indoctrinations we’ve had. There are a few of course who will pursue their free will and I am positive that some of those will acquire it. What every one of us can easily do, however, is practice our freedom to choose in this way: To choose kindness over cruelty; to give encouragement as opposed to discouragement, to be helpful as opposed to harmful and finally to actually love our neighbors as ourselves.