Again and again on these pages, you will have read about the importance of choice: how stepping back into the Observing Self empowers us to choose what to think, how to act and even what feelings to entertain so that, to a large extent, we can be what we choose to be. This is the true meaning of the word "Freedom", since we are no longer a slave to our thoughts and feelings and can choose our response to the circumstances we find ourselves in.
Yet the idea of choice or free-will has long been a topic of controversy among philosophers. Quite apart from beliefs among the faithful that there is a divine hand shaping the course of our lives and vague inklings among the rest of us about "destiny", "fate" and "luck", (resulting in a lucrative trade in horoscopes and suchlike), there are also the assertions of sages and scientists that all time is now and therefore choice is an illusion. When apparently backed up by science and sound reasoning, these arguments, at the very least, call upon us to question the seemingly common sense notion that we are free spirits and able to do whatever we like. But is that logic sound? And what are the implications for ourselves and for society if free will is illusory?
On this page, I will give each intriguing hypothesis due consideration. If you choose to explore these deep and turbulent waters with me, at the end you will get to make up your own mind on the subject. Or will you? That's the point. Is your judgment pre-ordained before you even make up your mind? Fascinating isn't it? Let's go exploring.
The Concept of Choice
At every point in time there are choices to be made and the future depends on these choices. One person's choice of career, or partner, or who to vote for, or whether or not to have children, or whether to write that angry letter or sleep on it first, or even where to go on holiday, can have far reaching results for themselves and others.
Can you imagine a world in which Hitler's mum decided not to have children? Or Einstein's dad decided to practice celibacy? Or Martin Luther King decided not to get involved in politics?
Our lives, and those of everyone around us, are continually shaped by our actions, which often result from our decisions. It's something we all take for granted most of the time but it becomes most obvious when things go wrong and we get into the business of "If only..."
Cause and Effect
The most extreme view about our power of choice is the law of cause and effect or: "As ye sow, so shall ye reap," which presupposes that we actually have a choice in what we sow and thereby reap. We have difficulties with this idea when we see villains literally getting away with murder while there are law-abiding people and innocent children suffering wherever we look.
We may try to "fix" this anomaly by invoking ideas about an afterlife where all scores will eventually be settled. This might involve rewards in heaven and punishments in hell, or it might involve reincarnation and karma, endless cycles of birth and rebirth in which our actions have consequences that follow us from life to life. This then provides us with a cop out. We don't have to care about the suffering masses if we convince ourselves that they somehow deserve their misery as punishment for some bad stuff they did in a past life. And we can also rest easier in our beds knowing that the bad guys will eventually get their come uppance, whether we, or they, live to see it or not.
Other than by coincidences such as tripping up and twisting an ankle after making an unkind remark, which seem to support such a theory, we really don't have a lot of scientific evidence to back it up.
The Universe and the Multiverse
The same could possibly be said about an offering from the scientific community: the multiverse theory. Though this is now a widely-respected theory, it is pretty much impossible to prove. It is summarised on our science page, but to recap, it has been suggested that there are an infinite number of universes in addition to our own in which there can even be different laws of physics.
One version of this theory is that every time two (or more) possible things can happen, they in fact both happen but at that instant, the universe splits into two and while we trot along happily in the version where we avoided getting run over by that bus, there's another one out there, (parallel with ours and somehow occupying the same space but maybe in a different dimension) in which we were not so fortunate. That universe has since divided into one where we spent some time in casualty and then got sent home and one in which we no longer feature, and so on. It's a bit like a soap where the writers can't make up their minds between their different ideas for the series so they make the whole lot and run them in different rooms, all at the same time.
As the theory goes, there are an infinite number of universes and anything that could have happened has happened somewhere and anything that can happen is happening now.
It would not be terribly surprising if you found this idea a bit unsettling.
Uncomfortable or not, at least it doesn't exactly rule out the possibility of free will, since we only perceive the time strand we are currently in, so from our point of view we do have choices and we are living in the universe we choose (except of course where someone else makes our choices for us, or accidents thwart our intentions, but that still doesn't invalidate the concept of free will).
What may be even more unsettling is the idea that the future has already happened.
Looking at a single universe, it means that all our future decisions are already made, together with all their resulting outcomes, but we just can't see them from where we are standing in the here and now.
This, to most rational people, must surely sound like nonsense. As practitioners of mindfulness will tell you, the present moment is all we have. The past is over and no longer exists (and our memories of it are less accurate than we imagine) and the future hasn't happened yet, so of course it doesn't exist. We live in the now and when we keep our attention right here, without worrying about the past or the future, our lives become immeasurably richer.
So if that's obvious, what do we make of the argument proposed by cosmologists that spacetime is a four-dimensional chunk, like a loaf of bread in which each slice is a particular instant in time? The loaf is all there but we only see our particular slice of it as we progress through the loaf.
Relativity and Free Will
Strange as this may sound, when you look at the implications of Einstein's theories of relativity, with time passing at different rates for different occupants of the cosmos, depending on their relative positions in spacetime and the speeds they are travelling at, things do start to get seriously weird and the notion that our particular "now" is as applicable to Andromedans as it is to us Milky Wayans (and the crew of an intergalactic starship, and the guy in the wormhole connecting them) doesn't necessarily hold up. This would certainly make the lives of Captain Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard infinitely more complicated than we fondly imagine, with or without warp drive, but for most of us we can happily avoid thinking about such issues in order to avoid doing our heads in, unless our space-travel technology ever progresses to a point that makes it relevant to us personally.
In theory, if we could travel at a more substantial fraction of the speed of light, we could go for a little spin in our starship and come back to find that everyone we knew and loved had long since grown old and died while we were still in our prime. To the then occupants of Earth, if any still remained, we would have travelled forwards in time, even though for us and for them, life would have seemed to progress at a normal pace. So who's idea of "now" would be valid. And if each is equally valid, what about the universal now?
For a fascinating account of this, do read "The Fabric of the Cosmos" by Brian Greene. Here's a quote:
"If you buy the notion that reality consists of the things in your freeze-frame mental image right now, and if you agree that your now is no more valid than the now of someone located far away in space who can move freely, then reality encompasses all of the events in spacetime. The total loaf exists. Just as we envision all of space as really being out there, as really existing, we should also envision all of time as really being out there, as really existing too. Past, present, and future certainly appear to be distinct entities. But as Einstein once said, 'For we convinced physicists, the distinction between past present and future is only an illusion, however persistent.' The only thing that's real is the whole of spacetime."
If this is true then the multiverse theory actually becomes more reassuring. Taking it to its logical conclusion, it would mean that all possible future outcomes of all decisions yet to come are already in existence, and therefore inevitable, somewhere, but at least it provides us with some measure of control of our own destiny by allowing us to choose which forks to take in the road and thereby actively select the particular timeline we wish to live in.
Deterministic Laws and the "Measurement Problem"
Physicists have another slightly worrying idea, however: the deterministic nature of the laws of physics. According to this theory, once we know all the laws of physics, we can predict exactly what will happen, anywhere, any time. An apple doesn't choose to fall off a tree, it just grows according to its nature until it gets too heavy for the twig, or the wind applies a bit of extra force or someone comes along and picks it.
The classical laws of physics seem to point to determinism and even quantum theory (famous for its Uncertainty Principle and the fuzzy realm of probabilities) suggests a similar possibility. However, despite the amazing accuracy of the Schrodinger equation when it comes to predicting what the subatomic world will get up to at any given instant, not all physicists agree that this means that the entire universe, including our own behaviour, is deterministic, and one reason for this is the measurement problem: the fact that the presence of an observer appears to influence the behaviour of the sub-atomic world.
This suggests that perhaps we do have some say in what goes on after all and it is not necessarily justifiable to say that we can ever predict the future with any degree of accuracy or that the whole thing is already fixed in the fabric of spacetime.
What the Ancient Sages Say
Strangely, some ancient philosophies actually support the idea that everything is pre-ordained and free will is an illusion. How is this possible when they also speak of Karma (and the responsibility that implies), and mindfulness or living in the moment rather than an illusory past or future?
The argument goes something like this:
If there is only one Self and everything is a part of that Self, then that same Self is in everyone and is the impartial witness which looks out through the eyes of the patient and the nurse, the murderer and the victim, the thief and the judge, without being affected by any of it. It does not make judgements or decisions, it just watches while the drama plays out according to natural laws and the inherent nature, conditioning and karma of the illusory participants, knowing that the whole show, including the characters it observes the show through, are illusory.
Again, what they are saying is that we have no choice in what we do in any given situation; we act according to our genetic tendencies, upbringing and life experiences and even when we go against the grain, for example when a habitual thief decides not to burgle that house after all, it's still an inevitable consequence of some influence they have been exposed to which put the idea of honesty into their head.
Let's think of the implications of this. If it were true that we really have no choice in anything we do, would that mean that we also have no responsibility for our actions?
What effect would that have on our Criminal Justice systems? If no one could ever be deemed to be responsible for their actions, then how could we hold criminals accountable and punish them for their crimes?
And if, as some sages say, nothing matters anyway because the whole thing is an illusion, no more real than a dream, does that give us the right to go out and do whatever we like, irrespective of any harm caused to other illusory beings by our own illusory being?
This idea was explored by Fantasy writer Stephen Donaldson who, in "The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever", created a breathtaking saga about a man who goes to sleep and wakes up in a different world which he takes to be some kind of lucid dream. Should he do whatever he likes, regardless of the consequences for the other inhabitants of the dreamworld, or does he still have some kind of moral responsibility to help them in their need, whether or not he believes them to be real?
We are all presented with this ethical dilemma if we interpret the above theory in a certain way: imagining the Self as a passive, uncaring, unfeeling, impotent witness to the passing show. From this interpretation, it follows that when bad stuff happens and we cry out: "God, how can you let this happen?", the stony silence we receive is because God really doesn't care one way or the other and couldn't intervene anyway, being only a passive witness to our illusory lives and concerns in our illusory world.
Having no responsibility would no doubt rid us of a fair amount of guilt. Can you imagine a world in which every bad thing you ever did was OK because none of it was real anyway? Could we completely dispense with the idea of a conscience? On the other hand it would probably rid us of a fair amount of motivation too. What would happen to the concepts of success and achievement if we were all hapless slaves to our conditioning and had no choice about the good things we did any more than the bad ones? Would our lives not become completely pointless?
What a gloomy idea! But while the deterministic argument seems to carry a lot of clout, being espoused by a fair number of scientists and sages, it doesn't quite ring true does it?
If we get to the heart of what it is that makes us uncomfortable with the above ideas, we may find that it is not a black and white issue (ie free will or not free will); our confusion may boil down to a question of interpretation.
If we truly are all one, which has been suggested many times on this website, in many different ways and by many people (or perhaps through one voice that speaks through all of them), then one is one and not two. For there to be an illusion witnessed by a passive observer, there must be two: the observer and the illusion. If there is only One, then the illusion is the observer and the observer is looking at itself.
In this case, for those who are interested in the God analogy, God can't dismiss us as an illusion because God is also us. Our concerns are therefore God's concerns because we are all God. This is the same as saying that our concerns are the Self's concerns because we are we are all the Self. How could we be anything other than ourself? If not, who would we be?
The confusion only arises when we have unhelpful ideas about who and what we are. These ideas are generated by what is often known as the ego. Our individual little self with its body and its collection of hurts and pleasures, opinions, beliefs and concerns, thinks that that is all there is to it, forgetting the greater Self which gave rise to it and of which it is still a part. This is much like a wave forgetting it is ocean or a finger forgetting it is part of a body.
It is this idea which is the illusion, and the sages from all parts of the world have urged us to see through this and remember what we really are. This is the so-called "Perennial Philosophy" which is at the root of most religions, though in most cases long forgotten.
It is the ego which is subject to the laws of determinism, being driven by instinctive urges, addictions, desires, aversions, conditioned responses and habits and a whole bagful of beliefs which it has acquired on its journey so far.
The Self in us can see through this. When we step back far enough, seeing the body, senses, emotions and mind as instruments available for our use, things change quite radically. We can notice the content of our minds and observe the tricks they get up to, but we are no longer under the delusion that this is all that we are. When we are free from this delusion, we become like a driver taking back control of the car instead of sitting in the passenger seat and allowing it to career down the hill in whatever path the laws of physics decree that it must follow.
Without the interference of the ego, (the drive shaft with an over-inflated sense of self importance thinking that it is calling all the shots) the instrument can be seen to be under the control of the driver and it can work perfectly. It is then that we can make real choices, do what needs to be done in the moment and take responsibility for our actions, within the framework of our deeper awareness that we all are, always have been and always will be, One.
It follows from this that criminal activity is a result of ignorance. We can only commit crimes when we see ourselves as separate. Being all one, Al-one, who is there to harm but our Self?
We could ask: since thoughts occur in the higher cortex of the brain, and the Self is beyond these thoughts and is able to observe the content of the mind, how can the Self choose anything?
The Self observes, therefore the Self decides where to rest its attention. And whatever it places its attention upon grows and becomes reality for that instrument, or the aspect of itself which it is observing through. This is a creative process and our individual thoughts, when they arrive from the stillness of the Self deep within us, are inspired thoughts.
Inspiration is the language of the Self. Ask any great musician, writer gardener or artist: "Who is it that created your works of art?" and they will tell you: "It wasn't me. I just stood back and let something higher work through me." That's how it feels when our real Self is in the driving seat. When we work in this way, we call it "flow". Great athletes talk about such experiences. So do healers, sages, inspired leaders and teachers. This is what it is to be fully human and to truly have the freedom of choice.
Return Home Return to Enlightenment