Is free will an illusion? According to an recent article in the Guardian, about 12% of philosophers believe this to be the case. They argue that our choices are determined by forces beyond our control – perhaps even predetermined all the way back to the beginning of the universe – and that nobody is responsible for his or her actions.
From their perspective, we act only when prompted by physiological reasons. For example, we choose between eating a banana and apple due to a pattern of neurons firing in our brain that can be linked all the way back to our birth, our parents’ meeting, their births, and eventually, the birth of the cosmos. As evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, says:
“Free will is ruled out, simply and decisively, by the laws of physics.”
In other words, you can forget about having any free will. Instead, our lives are ruled by a constant onslaught of neurochemical, hormonal, developmental and evolutionary factors that are triggering our nervous system and hence determining our behavior.
This viewpoint is completely contrary to psychosynthesis, in which the will is given a pre-eminent position. Not only does psychosynthesis recognize that the will exists and that we have a will – but extends even further to the fact that we are will. In his book The Act of Will, Assagioli analyses “willing action” in its various stages, describes the specific aspects and qualities of the will, and offers practical techniques for its development and optimum use. He regards the will as a direct expression of the “I”, the individual’s authentic being, and states:
“The discovery of the will in oneself, and even more the realization that the self and the will are intimately connected, may come as a real revelation which can change, often radically, a man’s self-awareness and his whole attitude toward himself, other people, and the world.”
Why deny the will?
Assagioli attributes the denial of the existence of the will to the objective quantitative techniques that dominate scientific research. Most scientists (including psychologists) only acknowledge measurements, statistics, tables of numbers, etc. as valuable data. Free will, being uncountable, becomes an unruly subject for scientific investigation. It is much easier and quicker for free will sceptics to measure subjects’ brain waves and their corresponding hormonal and endocrine levels than it is to qualitatively account for change in their behavior and choices over a longer period of time.
As a result, the denial of “free will” has become a knee-jerk reaction by many scientists. They often view the endless discussions by philosophers and theologians about free will and its concepts as unmeasurable, untestable and, therefore, futile and without value. One beacon of light are the findings in quantum physics that have shown that there are actually an infinite number of possibilities in every moment of time, and that some events – even at the atomic level – are genuinely random as opposed to predetermined.
Free will brings Responsibility
I also believe that our denial of free will is an easy way out of accepting responsibility for our actions – both personally and collectively.
As Assagioli noted:
“Decision involves responsibility. Therefore men who shirk responsibility ‘escape from freedom’ of decision!”
In Freedom in Jail, he writes that each of our choices have definite and unavoidable effects for which we are fully responsible. Free will comes with power as well as inherent privileges and responsibilities (which most of us would rather not have). Once imprisoned, Assagioli freely chose an attitude of acceptance. He said that this choice derived from the responsibility he felt towards himself, his fellow human beings and toward life itself or God.
On Becoming Will
So how do we solve this question of free will? Assagioli writes that an attempt “to solve the problem of the will on theoretical, intellectualistic lines have led not only to no solution but to contradiction, confusion and bewilderment.” From a true psychosynthesis perspective, he explains that the only way out of this impasse is experiential. We must chose to will! Once we begin to experience the will (in all its aspects), we will soon discover that:
“The will has a directive and regulatory function, one that balances and constructively utilizes all the other activities and energies of the human being without repressing any of them.”
By becoming aware of our will, learning how to direct it, and ultimately being will (!), we are no longer at the mercy of our “amygdala’s fearful response to human faces of a different race” (as Robert Sapolsky, Professor of Biological Sciences and Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University, insists we are destined to be). Free will is, in fact, our saving grace. It lifts us high above the idea that we are nothing more than a plasma of chemical reactions buffered against a zillion biological factors and life circumstances.
Free will does ultimately set us free.
Roberto Assagioli, Freedom in Jail, ed. by C. A. Lombard. Florence: Istituto di Psicosintesis, 2016.
Roberto Assagioli, The Act of Will. London: The Psychosynthesis & Education Trust, 2002.
Nathan Collins, “Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky ponders the best and worst of us, plus free will“ Stanford, California: Stanford News. May 8, 2017.
I appreciate your discussion of this idea of free will as it is something I have reflected on without having a satisfactory answer for.
This debate about free will is as long as time! You might like to read the Guardian article as it also talks about scientists who are considered ‘compatibilists’ – they think determinism and free will are compatible.