Free Will, Or Not-So-Free Will?

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Do you want to take a liberating and exhilarating trip with me? Do you have some free time for this experiment? Can you stop what you’re doing? Can you abandon for a brief moment all the things you hold very dear to you? Then, grab your thinking cap and “leave your worries on the doorstep,” and your fears, your predilections, your mind altering aids, and your confining commitments. Just direct your mind to the enlightened side of the street. When you return, you will never look at all those precious mental accouterments of your life the same way again!

Relax, though, because the trip we’re taking in the mind requires only a small investment of your time to review the propositions we’re going to investigate and evaluate. Stress comes from having too many choices, too little information, too little time to contemplate “pros” and “cons,” and too many voices in your head arguing about potential consequences. For this trip, you have left behind those “dear” voices and hopefully vacated the portion of your mind that measures your responses against guidelines learned from prior instructors and mind-altering experiences. You are going to a new “country” where your past has no relevance in decision-making, where you will be totally “free” to make new decisions and interpretations about “the consequences.”

Regardless of your age, you are now like a new-born infant ready to explore this fresh, pure, uncharted territory. Can you ignore your body and its senses? I hope so, because in that physical part of your life are many bits of information that subconsciously impact your reactions to the unlimited possibilities ahead of us. How can anyone examine these possibilities objectively with so much potentially conflictive, subconscious data? We will be looking for a way to make an unencumbered interpretation of the future, so that you can react more intelligently to the deceptive challenges and illusive pleasures that you will encounter later. Having complete freedom is requisite. How otherwise could you exercise “free will?” Let go of that body and its hidden subtle messages. It only makes you think that you cannot function without it. And if you accept that premise, are you really totally free?

Do you like this unattached feeling? Do you have a feeling to describe? If you are free from those old pains and pleasures, do you have any feelings at all? Supposedly, if you have left behind all your cares, your troubles, and your fears, you must at least feel “better!” Than what?

That’s exactly the question! Because all our feelings are compared with some measuring rod or some previously received or inherited mental criteria. Regardless of the correctness or integrity of the rod you have chosen (which Einstein says varies with the velocity you are traveling!) you cannot escape grabbing some criteria to compare things to or with. Any incoming sensual data that reports whatever happens to you next will be compared.

That’s just how our human intelligence works: encounter some event, record it, and compare it to some prior experience or lesson, if there is one. We all record subjectively what we observe that just transpired. This is not new to you, I’m sure. But, how you select the measuring rod, why you select this particular rod, and with what actual feeling of satisfaction you have as you select this unique rod will have major implications on your future.

But we are feeling nothing. We didn’t bring any measuring rods with us. We are indeed free to witness some event, and then accurately record it for future reference. We are going to exercise our long disputed “free will” bestowed upon mankind before Adam and Eve sampled the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the famous Garden of Eden. Those mythical humans were just like us, using their free will and listening to the opinion of that precocious serpent or some ventriloquist behind the tree of life nearby. Adam and Eve borrowed the serpent’s wisdom as a measuring rod: “There’s no harm in becoming as wise as Jehovah!” Of course, their use of free will caused them to be ejected from the Garden of Eden.

Unfortunately, they didn’t select some fruit from the tree of life first! But the only conventional wisdom they thought was available to them at that moment was, alas, the serpents. I guess that borrowing someone else’s measuring rod isn’t such a good idea. Yet, here we are in the beginning of our trip after you have abandoned all your treasures and guidance apparatus using the lessons of this Biblical allegory for evaluating what might happen to us! Shame on us!

Now we humans are full of pride about this unique power we are blessed with to make choices called “employing our free will.” But I’m not sure just why. We seldom take it out and look at it closely. We argue about whether or not we do possess it, without defining exactly what it is. I think you would agree that it is a process of several steps. First, as we encounter anything, we must select a proper measuring rod to evaluate how to proceed. Second, we need to understand the potential consequences for proceeding to use this rod. And third, we have to actually apply the chosen rod in responding to the event or encounter. In the Biblical story about Adam and Eve, when they followed the serpent’s advice, they obviously did not completely understand the dire consequences neither of banishment nor of toiling the rest of their lives tilling the ground.

Because we have become far more sophisticated in understanding the consequences of using our free will, the difficulty of applying the evaluation tool we choose is much more complicated today. For example: you may have chosen the wrong rod in the first place; or you may have failed to appreciate its obscure consequences or refused to acknowledge what the consequences actually were; and then you may have applied the rod haphazardly or with little expertise. All to the detriment of your future. Or not, we shall see.

There you sit, mind a blank (I hope) awaiting some enlightenment. And I am about to give you just that: the first measuring rod for your newly liberated person. Are you smiling? Of course you don’t have to accept what I’m giving you, but how can you evaluate it since you have no other rods of your own (you left your old body back there remember?) At this instant of time you must accept or reject my instruction, possibly risking your own survival, since you are no longer one of the “lesser” species who possess certain instincts to survive without parental instruction. Our sophisticated Homo sapiens species supposedly abandoned that inheritance many years ago and evolved the “free will” mental process to replace our animal instincts.

In our thought experiment you have no primitive measuring rods implanted in the body’s DNA that would make the routine choices for your new physical body. You must begin by choosing measuring rods from another source. Do you have another source? Was that choice really based on your concept of “free will?”

“I’ve decided that I want to survive! Where are the oxygen, water, food, and warmth?”

Well, you’re forgiven your quick decision to hang around and check out what this small planet has to offer you. You didn’t have much time to make a decision. Nor any measuring rods, nor a good appreciation of their potential consequences, nor any other criteria to apply.

Well, Adam did get another chance to use his free will. He fathered several children and started what became the Jewish religious traditions. And depending upon what the religious convictions your parents had, you likely have been bequeathed one set of measuring rods based on some religious tradition if you were born in the Western Hemisphere. I’m not here to judge measuring rods! Only to show you how they come into being.

The first that you are exposed to are those of your parents and older siblings. Of course, if there is a TV in your house, there are many other measuring rods offered to you if you are lucky enough to be placed in front of it for your youthful amusement. Gradually you pick up a variety of different rods from various sources that enable you to demonstrate the “use” of your free will. The choice of these newer rods is influenced by the initial measuring rods you have filed away for future use. You may eventually reject some of the earlier rods, when you discover that they are providing consequences that you find unappealing. But, let’s stay with the first step of adopting measuring rods, the criteria used in applying your free-will decisions.

Sooner or later a “cast of thousands” enters your life. People with different measuring rods. For their own personal gain, many of these characters are peddling influential rods which promise fabulous consequences. All of us have our own agendas no matter how lofty our goals appear. The prosecuting lawyers with their yardsticks and the defense lawyers with their foot rulers. The politicians with their liberal or conservative orientations. The advertisers with whatever economically driven criteria they can find. The bosses with their hides exposed the teachers with their tenure intact, and even your friends with their genuine interest in sharing fun with you. And if you assume these measuring rods were long-lived; don’t review the efforts of our numerous legislators and judges who obtain great pleasure in rewriting and reinterpreting the governmental rods for you!

If you thought you had a will and the freedom to use it, you had better ask yourself: “When was the last time you felt you were using it in making a decision?” Did you freely decide to go to work? To pay your taxes? To recycle your garbage? To send your children to that lousy public school? To pay your bills? To take your wife out to dinner last Saturday?

Yes, you checked the measuring rods that told you if you didn’t, the consequences would be unbearable. How unbearable? Bring out another rod that measures your unique concept of unbearableness and employ it immediately. Masochistic you are not! However, you may have accepted a multitude of “dire” consequences that may not occur. And there are others that many of us could not agree are truly the consequences pertaining to using the rods you have selected. So, be careful. The real consequences may not be clear to you. They may be better or worse than you anticipate. The worse that can happen is that you suffer a consequence that falls in the third standard deviation of probabilities on the unfortunate side of the bell curve of anticipated events! No one can predict the impact of consequences that accurately.

Then, another factor enters in here. Honesty. After weighing the projected consequences, are you going to honestly assign a weight, or shade it just a little by using a crooked rod? That’s totally up to you, because we believe that you alone pay the consequences, right? Still, there is one consequence we all try to avoid, although this one has an unknown impact on us: the untimely termination of our ability to use our free will.

I suppose that having left your fears behind, there isn’t much reason to discuss consequences further. But I have one more comment about them. Wouldn’t we pursue a different life-style if we had no fear? What would it be like to be the shepherd, Gyges, described in Plato’s Republic? He found a ring to make himself invisible when he chose to do so, and thereafter had no fear of the consequences of behaving unjustly because no one could observe him in any criminal act. Fear is not a great temperer of the steel of our will. You could reject many rods, if you could forego all anticipation of suffering retribution for your free-will decisions. Alas, most of us humans suffer from the strong inhibition that prevents us from risking much for little gain and possibly much loss. I leave this to your mind. Your fears, or lack of them, will determine what measuring rods you put into your repertoire for future use.

The most complicated of the three steps in the process of implementing our free will involves applying what we have learned from using our stored measuring rods and from evaluating the consequences of our previous actions. In any moment of truth, you must place your bets. You may not have very much time to do so, as sometimes happens under emergency circumstances. Or it may appear that you have time which you don’t have at all. The consideration about the amount of time you have may be affected by a poor evaluation of the speed of the arrival of the consequences or a faulty measuring rod to guess the amount of time available in the first place. Making a timely decision is just one part of the application, however. How you go about it requires a completely different evaluation. For example: should you use a politically correct approach versus a more expeditious one? Or should you follow the path of least resistance versus one of considerable resistance that has longer term beneficial results? Or should you do nothing at all, preferring to suffer the consequences of being wrong if they seem minimal?

The complexity of this whole process is becoming more apparent to you, isn’t it? And to think that we originally thought “free will” was such a simple process, and so routinely applied. Now you are probably wondering when the promised “enlightenment” will be introduced. Well, that all depends on if you want to continue to live in Plato’s cave with its shadow reality. We have been exposed to many shadows by our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and our trusted confidants. All of these you have abandoned to come on this experimental trip into the murky functioning of the human mind. If you are truly motivated to leave your cozy cave, then you only need to think about how you use the free-will process in the future. Nevertheless, you will find it very difficult not to return to those comfortable ways of exercising your free will in that familiar cave where you have been hiding out until now.

Using your new interpretation and appreciation of the free-will process, you can now embark on the path that leads you into tomorrow, an activity I call weaving the pattern of your destiny. Although we are all guaranteed one ultimate destiny: an ending in a polished, highly crafted casket or a hand-wrought urn, we act in the interim like this couldn’t be true. Our whole existence is spent trying to avoid that ending, trying to weave a beautiful tapestry that buys us something called “immortality.” You can go on weaving whatever destiny you “freely” choose within the parameters of the society, family, culture, and physical world you currently live in, but you simply cannot do so forever. You run out of thread. In the final analysis, the only absolutely “free” decision you have (assuming you qualify as a legally sane human being) is to decide whether to continue to weave or not? But be forewarned! You don’t really know the judge who is supposedly evaluating your weaving artistry and his reward should there actually be one!

Regardless of what you decide to do in your future using your new awareness, I suggest you don’t immediately return to your old ways of utilizing the free-will process. If there is any benefit for you from this brief, liberating experiment into contemplating the realm of free will, it is to pause and reflect on the yardsticks, the tape measures, the rulers, and all the other measuring or evaluation tools you have accumulated. Afterwards, you might want to review what you sense to be the real consequences of the behavioral choices you make and whether or not you agree with your previous evaluations. And finally, you could consider if you are “independently” implementing the first two steps, and just how promptly. Perhaps like Penelope, you might discover a better way to weave a more pleasant pattern until Odysseus arrives. Or not.

Remember, to demonstrate the mental faculty of “free will,” you must always choose to have (or to do) something versus nothing. In making that choice, you weigh the beneficial impact on your own life or on someone else’s life. Determining “beneficial” requires selecting a measuring rod as to what is “beneficial.” Survival is the criteria used most often, but not always!

Chic Hollis is a longtime drummer and motorcyclist, who served in the US Air Force in North Africa. Married 4 times with 5 children born in 5 different countries on four continents, Chic is a politically independent citizen of the world interested in helping Americans understand the reality that is life overseas where many intelligent, educated, and industrious people aren’t as privileged as we are in the US. He studied Latin, Greek, Russian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and German and ran several large companies. Sadly, Chic Has left this planet and we miss him very much, but we are very pleased to display his amazing writing works.