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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A pragmatic view on free will

In the episode of Judge John Hodgman I mentioned in the previous post, they talked about free will. 

For me, this is a pragmatic question. 

I can take a simple action in my life, find innumerable causes from the wider world and universe, and see that “I” am not doing any of it. That helps me notice what I am, as capacity for the world and what the world to me happen within and as. 

Beyond that, it’s more interesting to see what the consequences are of assuming that I have free will or don’t. When I explore this for myself, I find that neither of the assumptions are very desirable. If we hold either view as true and live as if it is, it tends to create weirdness. In its most extreme form, believing I don’t have free will can create a form of nihilism and not taking responsibility for my own life and actions. And if I believe I have free will, it can lead me to overlook all of the influences from the larger whole.

It makes more sense to hold the question lightly, and live our lives as most do. 

And for pragmatic reasons, it makes sense to assume no free will when we do something people see as admirable, to keep us sober and grounded. And assume free will when we consider our actions and choices, to keep us more accountable

There is another side of this, which I often write about. When I find myself as capacity for the world, and what my field of experience – of this human self and the wider world – happen within and as, then I notice that this human self lives its own life. The mind can take this to mean “no free will” and make it into a belief, but that’s trying to fit something far more rich, fluid, and unknown into a simple category. Here, it still makes sense to hold any ideas about free will lightly and use the pragmatic approach mentioned above.

Free will as a metaphor for learning to function well as a human being

Free will. It’s a big topic, and also very simple.

I can see if I can find free will anywhere. Is it in the words? In my images of free will? In my sensations that seem connected to free will? Can I find it anywhere – in words, images, sensations – in immediacy? Is it unfindable, even if I turn every stone?

I can explore free will within stories. I see that everything happening has infinite causes, stretching back to the beginning of time and out to the widest reaches of the universe. Where would free will come in? Does there seem to be room for it anywhere? Also, is there really a separate being that can “have” free will here? (This can be an interesting exploration, and may satisfy the mind a bit, but it’s not so helpful in itself. At the very least, this is not a stopping point.)

I also see that it makes sense to live as if there is free will. It’s an helpful assumption for my life, especially when held lightly.

And I see that free will can be seen as a metaphor for learning how to function well as a human being. To stand on my own two feet. To grown in being autonomous. To live from authenticity. (Which is undefended, almost as a confession.) To live from my guidance and knowing.

Free will can be seen as a pointer to autonomy.

The rest of life stands back. It allows me to explore. Make mistakes. Suffer. Learn. Align. Grow. Find autonomy. Grow in and within autonomy.

In this process, unexamined fears will come up. Unexamined fears, and unexamined identifications – in place to protect the imagined self. So a part of this process is to notice these fears and identifications. Allow them. (Notice they are already allowed by life.) Welcome them. See they are here to protect the imagined self. See they are from confused love. Find genuine love for it, as it is. Examine the conglomerates of words, images and sensations making up the unexamined fears and identifications. Feel the sensations as sensations, and stay with it.

Is the fear as solid as it seems? Can I find the threat? Can I find the threatened one?

How is it to take the leap into acting from my guidance, from my knowing? Even if there is fear here? Even if some of the fear is still unexamined?

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Free will

I came across a new blog called Freedom or Necessity, which is an exploration into the question of free will.

It is an eternal question for us humans, and interesting to explore in our own lives.

The first thing that comes up for me is a set of additional questions: what does free will mean? For whom may there be free will? Who or what is choosing, if there is free will? Is there an entity choosing? Someone or something somehow set apart from everything else? Is that possible? On what basis are these choices made? What are the influences on these choices? What are the restrictions on these choices? If there are influences and restrictions, to what extent is it free?

My take on it is very simple-minded, and not so different from what I have explored earlier in this journal.

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