Free will, love and freedom

by Travis Morgan

There were a handful of Christmas cards on the mantelpiece. We had spent three hours cleaning the flat earlier in the day. Rain clouds were gathering in the darkening evening sky.

I was sitting on the floor, drawing a baby monster for my youngest niece. Satya and the older niece, and the niece’s mother were off doing something else somewhere.

The cats had been scared off by the children.

As I was drawing (something like a cross between a furby, a gremlin and false teeth) the brother-in-law and I were talking ethics. I’m not sure how it came up.

At one point he mentioned that he didn’t believe in free will. Then everyone else reappeared, the conversation moved on, and we didn’t come back to it.

I spent a while not believing in free will myself.  Around ten years ago I read Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine and something about the ideas of memes appealed.

A meme is an idea which self-replicates. Blackmore’s thesis is that human brains are idea replicating machines, and that this can be modelled by thinking of the ideas themselves as being selfish – like Dawkins’ selfish gene.

Recipes, pieces of art, sub-cultures, religions, all can be modelled as self-replicating ideas in this way. Ideas are a virus, perhaps, to paraphrase Agent Smith.

What we do, and who we are, comes out of the interaction of various memes. Free will has nothing to do with it. It’s a deterministic model, but, even when I believed in it, I didn’t think we’d ever be able to harvest enough information to make useful predictions.

I tried behaving as if it were true for a while. It made my life much easier.

Instead of prevaricating each time I needed to make a decision, or take action, I would remember that I wasn’t involved in the decision making process anyway (the conscious mind simply tells a story to make sense of it all, later) and the decision would get made, one way or another. Either I’d do the right thing, or I wouldn’t. Whatever happened I was philosophical about it, like that old man in the Daoist story whose son gets a broken leg.

The idea that I didn’t have free will undermined my judgmental critical self, and allowed me just to get on with life. Rather than leading to a lack of energy, as you might expect, there was actually a great release of energy.

That phase didn’t last long. These days my take on free will is that we all have it, but sometimes we are so heavily conditioned that it feels like we don’t. I think this is closer to the Buddhist view.

So have I lost that sense of freedom?

These days I get it from somewhere else.

The style of Buddhism that I practice is relational. It’s about putting oneself in relationship with the Buddha. That’s what undermines my judgmental self.

The more deeply I have faith that I am loveable just as I am, (that even if no one else can love me, a Buddha can) the less I need to manipulate the world in order to get that love.

This system doesn’t necessarily take away all of the prevarication.

There are other outcomes I might want from my actions (rather than love for myself) and whenever we long for a particular outcome we can wind up driving ourselves crazy as we try to work out what the right course of action to take is.

Even if we give up on outcomes, and focus on the intention of our actions, as we are often advised in Buddhism, this can still lead to some fraught moments as we come up against the parts of ourselves that don’t have the best of intentions.

Perhaps what it calls for is simply a deeper faith in that we are all able to be loved by the Buddhas, and a deeper acceptance of our own human nature, and of the nature of samsara

As I think my way through these questions, I find myself getting closer to that sense of freedom I have when I gave up my free will. And maybe I’m ending up in a similar place. When I look back at the struggles I have around choosing how to be and what to do, most of the consternation comes from the place where my ideals meet the reality of my human nature, and part of me really doesn’t want to do the right thing.

Sometimes, from the inside at least, our karma feels too heavy and we find we are unable to make any choice other than the old, unskilful, choice that we usually make. It might be that from the outside someone else can see the other options but we can’t, or maybe we can see them but can’t make that choice.

Yesterday as I was struggling fixing up a wobbly table, Satya encouraged me to ask for help. Part of me could see that asking for help was an option, but it felt like an impossible one. I struggled on alone. As it happened the table got fixed. Perhaps it would have been better to break the karmic cycle and ask for help. At least I was able to see that I was trapped within it, this time.

The question of free will seems academic in moments like those.

What feels more important is whether we can find some way of receiving loving kindness in those moments. The more loved I feel the less likely I am to get trapped in judgements, and the more likely I am to break out of the karmic cycle and move towards real freedom.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, folks.




        1. Fair enough 🙂

          When you reduce it as far as it can go, I think free-will is the choice between taking refuge in self, or in selflesness.

          When you act from selflessness, there is no self-creation: the ‘I’ remains but only insofar as it is useful to serving the dharma.

          ‘Lotus flowers in the sky’ is an essay by Dogen, who is contrasting dependently originated actions, and the self, with enlightenment, which is not dependently originated. The lotus flowers are acts of compassion, appearing from emptiness, (or straight from the Buddhas, you could say).

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