“Man is created free, and is free, though he be born in chains.” This is the concept of the autonomous modern man as formulated by Friedrich Schiller. Free will is the trade mark of progressive societies and promotes the individual who is creating his own life able to do what he wants without any limitations from outside – authorities or social expectations.
On the Dispute Around Free Will
Yet there is massive doubt about the existence of free will which comes mainly from the world of natural science. Any process in nature which includes man takes place in a chain of cause and effect without any interruption. When such a chain is not evident it becomes the object of research till the gap is filled. One event causes the next, and free will is not needed in the observation and description of the processes (although its existence in talking about it would be the product of a causal chain at least). In addition to that, some of today’s prominent brain researchers like to state that free will is just an imagination of higher brain centers, mainly the prefrontal cortex. It labels decisions which are made up by deeper and unconsciously working systems as decisions from free will, “long” after the choice has been made. Basically, we do not know why we decide but name our decisions as free after it has been made.
From another corner, spiritual teachers and traditions like Advaita argue against free will with another argument: The all knowing and all controlling divine intelligence has created every event in the universe up to the tiniest detail, so everything is already determined whatever has happened so far and will happen in the future. Similar to the insights of modern brain research, free will is an illusion and self deception.
So free will is under attack from the supporters of natural sciences as well as from the devotees of teachings from the East. Should we leave the question to the scholars and students in the academic or spiritual fields? It does not seem irrelevant for our self-concept and for our image of other people whether our will is free or not.
On the Biography of Will
When we consider our upbringing, we might realize that at some point in time consciousness about our own free will arose. As a newborn baby, we had other troubles to handle – building up the first contacts and care about our safety and basic nurturing. We were so much part of a development guided by biological processes without knowledge of alternatives. Of course, we discovered quite early that our behavior had an impact on our environment. Later, this impression became stronger, and as soon as we could master the word “No!” and the sentence “I do not want!” we were clear about our own will.
As grownups, it is obvious: We can decide what we want – whether we take the red or the green apples from the shelf, whether we take a car or public transportation, whether we are friendly towards someone else or not. Yet, are these decisions as free as they seem to us? Who is it really who decides for the green or the red apples? Our previous experiences, our expectations, the momentary state of hunger, the placement of the product in the shop, … Is it really my choice to be friendly to a person with whom I just had a conflict? But what is in the way when I am free in fact?
As mentioned above, brain research has stated that the conscious decision making center is located in the prefrontal cortex. It is the last step of the process of decision, when everything is clear already. Procedures running deeply in the unconsciousness make the decision after surveying the pros and cons, and the neocortex gives its final consent as if it would say; „Well, I have no idea why just this decision came about, but I can herewith state that the whole thing was a thoroughly rational and conscious decision and I can name all the relevant reasons for it.”
So we never know and cannot even know whether the reasons for a certain decision we have in our mind are really those which have actually lead to the decision. Yet we act as if we were fully in control. This is why some people call humans rationalizing (inventing reasons) and not rational (reasonable) animals.
About the Necessity of Free Will
Why then is there an institution which pretends to be a free will? I think it fulfills mainly two functions: One is about having a feeling of self when we act which helps us in planning our future. Also developing creative ideas is supported when we give us the feedback of having achieved something of high value by ourselves. So we are motivated to keep on doing so. We experience ourselves as the center of our world, as the navel point around which everything turns.
The other function of an (probably illusionary) free will can be found in the social fabric, in forming groups and societies. Social interaction works only when the participants are able to hold on to rules and to apply them freely according to the relevant situation. Additionally, individual acts of free will should lead up to forming a common will. The participants always presuppose that they themselves and the others as well can use something like a free will. We feel ourselves and we make others responsible for what is done by us or them. When we make a mistake, the excuse is hardly ever that we do not have a free will but probably that we were not in full mastery of our will in the given situation.
We also assume that we can evolve and improve in our ability to choose. It supports our self-esteem to realize that we have grown in managing fears and that we have improved in certain skills, when looking back. We attribute these steps in learning to ourselves and not to anyone else or to some unconscious processes within ourselves. So the assumption of a free will is the basis of our feeling of self-esteem.
Our daily life is full of connections which do not make any sense without accepting the idea of free will. It is only on the level of wisdom that we start to understand that the free will is not just an attribute which is adhered to our being like the earlap to the ear but a function which we use under certain circumstances and which we imply in respect to other people.
On the Abdication of Free Will
We only start to declare free will as obsolete when we dive into spiritual realms. Apart from the findings of modern brain research which we might find interesting but which do not have much impact on our experience of reality, spiritual experiences can open up to deeper insights about the reality of reality. We can get a sense of how tiny we are in the huge stream of life or existence, while we like to inflate ourselves as giants with all our vanities and how much effort we invest in these endeavors. We, the origin of our life, the all creating and recreating center of our world – what a hardship, what a drag! How superfluous would it appear when we realize that we are held and carried by a power far beyond our imagination? When we start to surrender to this power independent from our will, then the idea of a free will is an unnecessary aspect which mainly serves our resistances against surrender.
So it seems indispensable that we make ourselves clear that we live on different levels of consciousness which become effective in different degrees according to the actual situation and which are growing and evolving throughout our whole lives. When we start to trust our experience, we always find an answer to the question whether there “exists” something like a free will.