Dear Sensei - I read your book, Free Your Mind, and it changed my life. I was discussing it with a friend recently and he said that no one is truly free and that there is no free will. How would you respond? Thank you, Roger.
Hey Roger - I am so grateful that my book was helpful to you. Free will is a very complex subject with a long history but I will simplify it for our purposes here. Years ago there was a theological concept that was popular which said that human beings don’t have free will. And, like the proverbial coin, this idea had two sides to it. One side was predestination, which meant that whatever was happening in your life, it was preordained. Sinner or saint, winner or loser, it was already decided. The other side was fate, which decreed that whatever was happening in your life, you had best accept it as your destiny.
And while there are plenty of pop philosophical proponents of “there is no such thing as free will,” the modern version of this is found in the physiological front. This version is based upon studies in neurology which have found that when a person makes a movement such as lifting his or her arm, there is specific activity in the brain that precedes this movement. Therefore, it is hypothesized that this proves there is no free will, and that human beings are essentially automatons. However, analogous studies in neurology have also found that human subjects, when they were randomly shown pleasant or unpleasant pictures, their bodies actually reacted before they were shown them. They seemed to be able to accurately “feel the future” even before seeing the photos, indicating a possible form of precognition. In quantum physics, some studies have shown that an observer can predict the outcome of an experiment before it has even happened. For that matter, some quantum experiments conducted in outer space have found that the present can, after a fashion, shape the past.
So what does this all mean? Here is my response:
Our knowledge is always growing and we should take care to refrain from making any grand pronouncements that sound final or are based on a current consensus.
Consciousness is a major factor in all of these experiments and scientists are still very new at exploring this realm. It is my opinion, and that of many Buddhist traditions, that consciousness is the foundational aspect of reality.
Buddhists tend to believe that the truth is always found in the dynamic tension of opposites, the middle way between extremes. In this case, Buddhists would generally teach that complete free will or absolute determinism are both wrong. We teach the concept of “interdependent arising” which posits that every conditioned thing arises in accordance with some other thing, that the interconnections among all things cause conditioning that can make us act unconsciously. However, it would also teach that we still have conscious choice. From a scientific cosmic perspective, we can refer to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which states that there is inherent uncertainty in the act of measuring a variable of a particle. Heisenberg suggested an observer effect (please see my video “Quantum Questions“ https://youtu.be/Xy-JSHguVhY ) at the quantum level as a physical explanation of quantum uncertainty. This implies that the observer actually affects what is happening at a subatomic level. The popular theoretical physicist, Michio Kaku, uses these very concepts to demonstrate the scientific reality of free will.
I would add that free will is also pragmatically necessary for freedom of expression, well being and the development of ethics. This has been practically shown in psychological studies where a person who does not believe they have this capacity will be less creative, more conformist, less willing to learn from their mistakes, and ungrateful.
In summary, I would admonish that we mindfully wake up to our unconscious conditioning in order that we may experience the mystery of the present moment, unimpeded by the past. Consequently, we may enjoy a more experimentally creative sense of being, where we live fully, by our own consciously aware determination. Let the glory of your story unfold. I hope this is helpful.