Saturday Blueprint on Free Will and the Self

We explore the illusion of free will and the absence of a self, highlighting the realisation that thoughts and actions arise unconsciously.

Saturday Blueprint on Free Will and the Self
Photo by Saad Chaudhry / Unsplash
Man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wills. — Schopenhauer

Previously in Saturday Blueprint 29 on 100 Days of Meditation I touched on an existential challenge around free will that becomes more apparent during meditation. Now, I unpack free will more fully.

🚷 Me, myself and I

We are not really in control over our thoughts. Practising meditation teaches this, where very quickly it becomes apparent that it’s incredibly difficult to not think. You can no more decide the next think you, than the next thing that someone else says or does. Your thoughts simply appear in consciousness. They pop into existence and then you become aware of them. This makes sense too because you can’t think a thought before you think it.

So it’s true that you can have conscious control over your actions, but as the quote at the beginning made so clear: you cannot will what you will. You cannot author the thoughts that pop into consciousness. In some sense they are authored by not you. This is what is meant when meditation teachers say there is no ‘self’. There is no you authoring your thoughts. Your thoughts (and feelings, and stresses, and urges and reactions) are an unconscious product of your brain chemistry and structure and may as well be shouted out by a stranger across a room.

Practising meditation or mindfulness, and trying to see where your thoughts come from reveals the absence of a centre of ‘the self’. You are skin, bone, sinew, organs, bile, snot, and tears. You are an interdependent system of things. There is no bigger you behind it. In this context, “you” – as the entity directing the system – are a fiction. There is no division between experience itself and awareness of experience.

Sam Harris puts it beautifully with:

There’s no one standing on the riverbank watching the contents of consciousness flow by. There’s only the river. — Sam Harris

In other words, meditation is not a state of mind - it’s the recognition that every experience is indivisible from consciousness itself.

The realisation of the illusion of the self is empowering because it frees you from feelings of shame, or regret, or sadness. Or rather, it frees you from confusing your identity with what are simply feelings arising and popping into consciousness.

Let’s do a test: Think of a food or meal. It would seem this is free will. But there will be foods that just don’t occur to you, even though you clearly know they are foods. Ratatouille for example. It’s a food. But if Ratatouille wasn't even in your short list, then were you really free to choose it, since it hadn't even occurred to you? Where is freedom in that? When you are down to two choices, say Salmon and Bolognaise, what ultimately causes you to chose one over the other is a complete mystery. You might fabricate a story, a narrative, that in hindsight hells explain your choice, but this is retrospective fallacy.

The short list of foods that does pop into your head, that occur to you, are just as random as if someone else had shouted them out. You didn’t chose the foods that occurred to you. You therefore are not making the decisions, you can only witness. And if you wish to fabricate a story that sounds believable after the fact then so be it, but it doesn’t change the fact that there is mystery in the final choice.

The implications are interesting from a moral point of view. Our wills are a product of a long chain of prior causes over which he had no conscious control - so how do we assign blame? We can’t. We are all a victim of our pasts and the chain of events that have led to this particular arrangement of neurons and brain chemistry. This shouldn’t be an excuse, but it should free us from self-shame, and allow us to look forward.

If the topic of free will is interesting to you, then Sam Harris is the person to go to. He has a number of fantastic YouTube videos on the subject, plus the book “Free Will”.

It’s a pleasure writing to you. Have a great week. 😊


About the Saturday Blueprint

The Saturday Blueprint is a weekly newsletter every Saturday on health, vitality and philosophy by Nick Stevens.

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