Free will?

I have seen articles about a neurobiologist (Robert Sapolsky from Stanford University) who spent decades arriving at the conclusion that we have no free will.

With these types of things, the process of exploration is often more interesting and rewarding than what we arrive at.

And yet, to arrive at that conclusion doesn’t need to take decades.


Everything that happens has infinite causes. We can always find one more, and one more, going back to the apparent beginning of time and stretching out to the widest extent of existence.

So where is there room for free will?


Also, the experience of free will only seem to happen when there is identification with and as the mental representations of an I, doer, free will, and so on. When this identification is softened or released, and our nature recognizes itself more clearly, our human self happens within the content of experience as anything else. Our human self lives its own life. It’s happening on its own. There is no experience of free will. Similarly to above, there is no room for free will. The idea of free will or not seems irrelevant.


We may have the experience of free will. Our mind uses mental representations to create a sense of I and free will and a me that operates according to that free will. That requires a lot of mental gymnastics, but it can appear convincing. This human self does something, and there is a thought saying: “I did that”. There is the experience of free will, but that doesn’t mean there is free will.

The experience of free will can only seem valid to the extent there is identification with these mental representations. It happens as long as our nature doesn’t recognize itself very clearly and doesn’t recognize the nature of thoughts. And it’s reinforced by a worldview telling us we are separate from the larger whole.


On the other hand, it seems good for us to think and experience that we have free will. I imagine that helps many of us to be slightly better stewards of our lives.

And, of course, whether we experience that we have free will or not is not really up to us. It happens or it doesn’t. Each one has innumerable causes.


I don’t want to leave this too abstract so I’ll include a few words about my own experience.

When I was fifteen, it was as if the world became very distant. This human self, thoughts, emotions, sensations, and the wider world all became infinitely distant. It seemed to happen far away. This human self obviously got scared by this and went to a number of doctors and specialists who couldn’t find anything.

In hindsight, I realized what happened. There was a release of identification with the content of experience. There was no “I” within (most of) the field of experience. The only sense of “I” that was left was as an observer. There was a simple observer-observed duality.

Of course, at the time, there was no conscious reflection of it like that. It just seemed like something had gone very wrong.

Just about a year later, there was another shift, equally sudden as the first one. From one moment to the next, there was a shift into oneness. There was no “I” anymore, only (what this mental field interpreted as) God. This was simultaneously immensely familiar and obvious, and also a great shock to this human self who was a die-hard atheist at the time with absolutely no interest in spirituality. Any idea of I, me, observer, observed, and anything else was recognized as created by the mental field and not inherent in reality.

Although this mind didn’t recognize it at the time, the first shift showed me that this human self happens on its own. He lives his own life. And the second shift showed that while putting it in a larger context. All is God (Spirit, the divine, Brahman). The question of free will was revealed as the creation of the mental field, just like the experience of free will is.

Note: We can also take a more limited psychological approach to arriving at the conclusion that we have little or no free will. Our perceptions, thoughts, emotions, choices, and behavior are influenced by a huge amount of things outside of our conscious awareness. We are not aware of how our brain takes sensory stimuli and creates an experience. Many are not so aware of how the different sense fields combine to create an experience. Many are not very aware of how our biology, evolution, culture, and personal experiences color our perception and behavior. And so on. Most of what influences us happens outside of our conscious awareness, so how can there be much free will?

Image created by me and midjourney.

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Perception of causality when I notice my nature

How do we perceive causality when we notice our nature?


In a conventional sense, we assume causality in daily life. I stub my toe, experience pain, and stubbing my toe caused or led to the pain. I step on the gas pedal, the car goes faster, so stepping on the gas pedal made the car go faster.

As with our thoughts and assumptions in general, these assumptions of causality help us orient and function in the world. They work often enough and well enough to help us function.

They are often relatively accurate in a conventional sense. They are often layperson level understanding of causality, which means they are simplistic and work reasonably often and well. And they sometimes miss the mark and are not accurate in a conventional sense, and if we receive feedback we have a chance to learn from it and modify our assumptions.


It’s not wrong that I am this human self in the world. It’s how others tend to see me, it’s what my passport says, and it’s how it appears to me when I take on that role. It’s an assumption that mostly works well in daily life.

But is it what I more fundamentally am in my own first-person experience?

When I look, I find I am more fundamentally something else.

I find my nature as capacity for the world as it appears to me. It’s what allows any and all content of experience.

And I find myself as what the world, to me, happens within and as.

Said another way: To myself, I am inevitably consciousness, and any content of experience – of this human self, others, the wider world, and so on – happen within and as what I am.


When I notice my nature, my perception of causality is much the same as described above, although the conscious context is different.

Here, the world happens. It’s what it is in immediacy. Any content of experience lives its own life.

And any sense of time and space and causality is created by a mental field overlay. It’s created by mental representations.

Mental representations says what happened, what’s happening (always a little behind), and what may happen in the near and possibly distant future.

This is where causality lives. There are mental representations of having walked, stubbed my toe against a rock, that this experience is called “pain”, and that walking and stubbing my toe is the cause of pain. Similarly, there are mental representations of driving, of having pushed the foot down on the gas pedal, and the car going faster as shown on the speedometer when images of how it was just seconds ago is compared with images of how it is now.

It doesn’t mean ideas of causality are inherently wrong. It just means that I recognize where causality, for me, comes from. It’s created within my mental representations.

I appreciate the gifts in it. It helps this human self function and live in the world.

And I can more easily recognize the limitations inherent in these assumptions. They are assumptions. They are often roughly accurate. I am aware that they are rough approximations and simplifications. And I also recognize that since they are assumptions, they are sometimes wrong – either in details or more completely.

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Everything & nothing comes from somewhere else

Everything comes from somewhere else. And nothing comes from somewhere else.


In one sense, everything we are comes from somewhere else.

The water in my body was rain and will be ocean. All the materials in my body come from food and ultimately star stuff, and it will go somewhere else.

In life, my privilege and limitations largely come from family, society, culture, and what generations of people have built and created.

In terms of skills and abilities, it all comes from somewhere else. Even the motivation to learn, develop, and create something comes from somewhere else.

As a(n apparently) separate being, I cannot take credit for any of it.

This human self is the local expression of the universe as a whole.

Everything I am has causes going back to the beginning of time and stretching out to the widest extent of the universe. (If there is a beginning and widest extent.)

All of what’s here is an expression of existence as a whole.

This is all within the world of stories. It happens within the world of science and knowledge and analysis.


At the same time, nothing comes from somewhere else.

As what I am, I find I am capacity for the world as it appears to me.

To me, the world happens within and as my sense fields.

To me, the world happens within and as what I am.

Nothing comes from somewhere else. It’s here.

There is no distance to anything. To me, it all happens here, within and as what I am.

Any ideas of past and future happen here. They happen within and as what I am.

In my immediate noticing, nothing comes from somewhere else.


These two orientations are pointers. They are medicine for specific conditions.

Everything comes from somewhere else. This reminder and exploration is medicine for taking ourselves as fundamentally a separate being and taking all the credit and blame for who we are. In practice, we can see it all comes from somewhere else, benefit from that insight, and still take responsibility for our words, action, and life, and how we relate to whatever happens in us and our life.

Nothing comes from somewhere else. This too is medicine for taking ourselves as most fundamentally a human being in the world. To ourselves, in our first-person experience, we are capacity for it all and what it all happens within and as. This pointer is an invitation to explore this for ourselves. It’s an invitation to find it here and now.

As who I am, as this human being, everything comes from somewhere else and will go somewhere else.

As what I am, as capacity and what the world to me happens within and as, nothing comes from somewhere else.

Recognizing both also helps us to unstick from one or another view. There is some truth to both.

And reality is always more than and different from any view.

Everything happens for a reason?

As usual, there are many ways to look at this.


Everything has causes so everything happens for a reason. That’s the literal and wonderfully boring answer.


Everything has innumerable causes stretching back to the beginning of time (if there is any) and the widest extent of existence (if there is any). What happens here is the local expression of movements within the larger whole, within all of existence. Seeing it that way can, in itself, be meaningful.

It’s meaningful because of the reminder that everything is existence as a whole locally expressing, exploring, and experiencing itself.


The other side is how we relate to what is happening. We can make what happens meaningful to us. We can relate to it more intentionally and use it to support something important to us.

We can use it as an opportunity to deepen our connection with ourselves and others. Finding receptivity. Authenticity. Deepen in healing and maturing. Exploring living from noticing what we are. And so on.


There is also another way to look at this. We may have ideas of a meaning that’s somehow inherent in reality or given from divinity, or something similar.

For me, this is a reminder to take a closer look at what’s happening.

When I look at this, I find a projection. I find my own ideas about a meaning, and I find a thought saying this meaning is inherent in reality or life or given from the divine. The reality is that it’s an imagination.

Ultimately, trying to find some meaning inherent in what’s happening is a futile exercise. At most, it’s a guess. And more honestly, it’s a projection.

And I also know that imagining a meaning inherent in what’s happening can be helpful in some phases of our process. Any assumption is a kind of crutch, and these crutches are necessary until they aren’t.

Origin stories and a sense of distance


Although I don’t write about it much here, I often use an evolutionary view to explore dynamics in daily life. It is fun to imagine what evolutionary function something has, and it can even be helpful at times.

For instance, I noticed nervousness before giving a presentation to a group, and realized that it seems to make perfect sense in an evolutionary perspective. If I am careless about what I say or do in front of a large group of people, it can have serious consequences for me. In extreme cases, I could get killed. I could get thrown out of my community. I could get stigmatized and have to live with the consequences for the rest of my life. Of course, in the culture I live in, none of these are likely to happen, or if some of the less serious consequences did happen, I could just find another group or move another place. But my system still responds as if I lived in a small tribe in Africa and my life depended on that one small community.

Just having that explanation makes it a little easier. The nervousness seems a little less personal. It is not so much about me, but a shared human – probably mammalian – experience.

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