If you’re sincerely interested in free will, I’ve somehow compiled quite the rabbit hole on the subject (and interconnected subjects) over the last few years. This post is the ultimate free will guide and jumping off point that links to everything I’ve ever published on the topic.
“Free will scepticism is an antidote to that bleak individualist philosophy which holds that a person’s accomplishments truly belong to them alone – and that you’ve therefore only yourself to blame if you fail. It’s a reminder that accidents of birth might affect the trajectories of our lives far more comprehensively than we realise, dictating not only the socioeconomic position into which we’re born, but also our personalities and experiences as a whole: our talents and our weaknesses, our capacity for joy, and our ability to overcome tendencies toward violence, laziness or despair, and the paths we end up travelling. There is a deep sense of human fellowship in this picture of reality – in the idea that, in our utter exposure to forces beyond our control, we might all be in the same boat, clinging on for our lives, adrift on the storm-tossed ocean of luck.” — Oliver Burkeman
- Let’s start at the beginning
- Free will is a byproduct of the self
- 5 free will myths worth busting
- How I realized all this
- List of all posts
The Ultimate Free Will Guide for Open Minds & Sincere Seekers
Let’s Start at the Beginning
I’ve had countless free will conversations. I’ve generally seen two types of people who desperately grasp onto free will no matter what:
1. The first is obvious:
- the “self-made” person who built their life and success all by themselves, made all their money all on their own, etc.
2. The second is far less obvious and more surprising:
- those who have successfully overcome some kind of suffering in their life (e.g. learning disabilities, depression, nihilism, etc).
I get it because I lived both #1 and #2 above as well. For most of my life, I gave myself credit for my hard work ethic and success in life. And, then when I had an existential crisis in late 2015, I gave myself credit for my positive, proactive, productive response in resolving my crisis. But, now I see more clearly.
What’s the common theme between #1 and #2? In #1, a huge part of the sense of self (aka self-concept, self-worth, identity) hinges on success (usually defined in monetary/financial terms, but can also be the typical stuff of fame, power, etc). In #2, a huge part of the sense of self hinges on overcoming an obstacle (they no longer define themselves by the obstacle, but instead define themselves by the overcoming; they don’t want that taken away from them).
But, let’s go deeper. What’s really the common theme? “I” did it. “I” am ultimately responsible for choosing to do it, putting in all the hard work and effort, and successfully pulling it off. “I” deserve the praise, credit, and rewards. It was up to “me,” and “I” made it happen, with “my” free will.
Now, think about common arguments in favor of free will: “I” feel / believe I have free will. “I” decide / choose / do and could have decided / chosen / done otherwise. “I” do what “I” want to do.
Look again at what’s bolded above…
Free Will is a Byproduct of The Self
I used to say that ‘the self’ and ‘free will’ are two sides of the same coin: if you think you are a separate self, you think you have free will; if you realize there’s no separate self, the question of free will resolves itself. While it’s true that they are directly connected, it’s actually even more straightforward. Your sense of self (primary) determines your relationship with free will (as a byproduct). In other words, it all comes down to the 🔒subject-object relationship which explains your sense of self and is the interconnecting thread between science and spirituality (the big epiphany is that the subject of one stage of development becomes the object of the subject at the next stage of development). Here’s how it works and evolves:
1. Most humans think they are their mind/self:
As a byproduct, free will is taken for granted and unquestioned.
- Subject-object relationship: Most Western humans (~80%) are still having a lived experience where they are “subject to” their mind/self which means they can’t see it “as object.” Without seeing it as an object, there’s no questioning of it. Essentially, one has a socialized mind/self without yet realizing they’ve been socialized (“swimming in the water” while oblivious to the water). All minds/selves are socialized before they are ever self-authoring—shaped by influences and forces outside control/choice (nature, nurture, etc).
- Who am I? “I” is the separate self (the thinker, chooser, doer) and identified with the personal psychological level (e.g. personality type, desires, values, beliefs, strengths, talents, etc).
- In spiritual terms: This is being “asleep”—the relative world of duality where people think they are their minds and separate selves who have free will and ultimate responsibility. One thinks they are the dancer dancing the dance.
2. Some humans realize they are not their mind/self:
They are aware of and able to observe/witness their mind/self, so free will is called into question as a byproduct.
- Subject-object relationship: Some Western humans (<20%?), as subject, are aware of and able to observe/witness their mind/self, as object. The more one can “see,” the more one can question. With more “distance” between subject and object, one is able to self-question and realize that they are not the mind/self that they thought they were (and identified with) for their entire life up to this point. You can only begin to change your relationship with these things once you have awareness of them as objects. One starts to dis-identify with the mind/self, which is why it can now see/observe/witness the mind/self. The mind/self is no longer the subject and is now an object. The mind/self doesn’t have free will, but that’s no problem because you aren’t your mind/self anymore.
- Who am I? The “I” as the mind/self (the thinker, chooser, doer) is called into question. First, by being able to take one’s mind/self as object, that means the mind/self is not fundamentally “me.” I am not “my” mind/self (I am aware of “my” mind/self, I watch it working, etc). Not only that, but if I had nothing to do with creating/shaping “my” mind/self, how can I even call it “my” mind/self anymore? Who am I anyway? Why defend “my” mind/self anymore, get offended by it anymore, or take blame/credit for it anymore? What is there to resist, judge, or attach to anymore? Is it really that hard to accept I don’t control “my” mind/self when I didn’t choose it in the first place? Free will is seen to not be a belief at all (it’s not a belief that you hold in your mind and then act according to—that’s just more mind stuff). The lack of free will is a realization beyond mind. The self and therefore free will are called into question as you see and understand all the influences that created/shaped your mind/self outside your choice/control. It starts to feel less like you’re living life and more like life is living you. Life is just happening and unfolding through you. If it’s not “my” will, whose will is it? “Not my will but thy will be done” starts to make much more sense.
- In spiritual terms: This is “awakening” (the realization that your mind/self wasn’t created by you—that it was constructed completely outside your choice and control—and that “you” aren’t this mind/self that you thought you were for your entire life up to this point). The dancer isn’t dancing the dance, the dance is dancing the dancer.
3. Few humans have transcended the mind/self:
The merging of subject and object in nondual awareness dissolves duality including the sense of separate self, so free will is no longer a relevant question as a byproduct (ultimately, it’s the realization that there’s no separate self to have free will in the first place).
- Subject-object relationship: Few Western humans (<5%? <1%?) have subject and object merge in nondual awareness which dissolves the sense of separate self. Free will isn’t even a question at this point because to whom does the question of free will arise? The free will question disappears because there’s no separate self there in the first place to have it.
- Who am I? I am. The mind/self dissolves in being. The “I”-thought ceases to rise. There is no longer an “I” that’s a separate thinker, chooser, doer. There’s no separation between: experiencer, experiencing, experience; perceiver, perceiving, perceived; witness, witnessing, witnessed; observer, observing, observed; chooser, choosing, choice; thinker, thinking, thought; knower, knowing, known; seer, seeing, seen; doer, doing, deed.
- In spiritual terms: This is “enlightenment” (or liberation, Self-realization, etc). Ultimately, the dancer and dance are one. This also explains why there are so many Buddhists and so few Buddhas, so many Christians and so few Christs, etc—because this isn’t a case of “fake it til you make it.” The behavior of a Buddha is a byproduct of being a Buddha. In other words, the behavior follows from being in particular subject-object relationship.
Putting it all together…
5 Free Will Myths Worth Busting
There are plenty more, but this gives you a gist of the common ones I hear most often.
1. Free will is a belief:
- Nope, this only applies if you think you’re a separate self. This is where almost everyone seems to go wrong. Free will (or lack thereof) is ultimately not a belief or anything to do with thinking in the mind; “there’s no free will” isn’t a belief you either agree or disagree with in your mind and then act according to (that’s just more mind stuff). It’s a realization that comes with awareness beyond mind; a clear seeing from one who is aware of and able to observe/witness their mind. In other words, it’s a byproduct of realizing you aren’t your mind.
2. It’s either free will or determinism:
- Nope, this is most likely a false dichotomy. Determinism may be proven incorrect (or at least incomplete). Many also confuse determinism with predictability, which isn’t true. Many others confuse determinism with predetermined, which also isn’t true. It’s computationally irreducible, not predetermined, and unpredictable. But, there’s still no free will.
3. It doesn’t matter if we have free will or not:
- Nope, this is the epitome of lazy thinking that comes from people who quite literally haven’t thought or experienced deeply enough. The realizations of the self and free will literally change everything. You can’t see it until you see it, but once you see it you can’t unsee it.
4. It’s bad for us:
- I looked at 25+ research studies on agency, volition, attribution, free will, etc, but it’s not conclusive and suffers from a replication problem and many of the typical research biases. So much of the research is about “free will belief” which we already covered above (free will is only a belief for those who are their minds). All in all, not investigating free will because you think it would be “bad” (whether that means for you, others, society, Earth, etc) is like staying in a prison cell with the door wide open. The investigation of the self and free will lead to liberation, not limitation. Walk through the open door. As for nihilism, fatalism, futility, etc, those only come from not seeing deeply enough.
5. “You don’t choose the cards you are dealt, but you choose how you play the hand”:
- Nope, that’s essentially saying the first half of the sentence is biological/environmental and the second half is something different (that how you play the hand is free will). The problem is that it’s a false dichotomy. “You don’t choose the cards you are dealt” = biological/environmental; “but you choose how you play the hand” = also biological/environmental (not free will).
Here’s a hot take:
How I Realized All This
I had what I call a “holy shit” moment where the conceptual, the experiential, and the scientific all converged at the same time and pointed to the same thing.
By conceptual, I mean thinking:
- This includes logically/rationally thinking through thought experiments like the ovarian lottery, original position or veil of ignorance, college graduate & garbage collector, life of Luckia, tea or coffee, and the basic argument against ultimate moral responsibility. Sam Harris seems to be a gateway for many people on the topic of free will, and his thought experiments are worth doing too (here, here, and 🔒here). For me, the lottery of birth (here and 🔒here) was a BIG epiphany (birth lottery videos, quotes, implications).
By experiential, I mean subjective lived experience:
- This is outlined in extreme detail in 🔒dissecting my own lottery of birth ticket, 🔒how I live with the lottery of birth & lack of free will, and 🔒how I live with the lottery of birth & lack of free will (1 year later).
By scientific, I mean objective research:
- Here’s where Robert Sapolsky’s work on the biology of behavior comes into play (here, here, and 🔒here) along with the homunculus fallacy. Or, we can come at from a completely different scientific direction with Bernardo Kastrup (here and 🔒here). Of course, you can go deep into the neuroscience as well. To be honest, all the scientific stuff is just icing on a cake that’s already baked from the conceptual and experiential.
All of this led to asking some deep questions…
Finally, here’s a list of everything (so far):
- 10 Birth Lottery Videos to Realize Your Luck in Life
- 25+ Birth Lottery Implications to Clearly See why it Matters so Much
- 50+ Birth Lottery Quotes to Question Who You Are
- The Lottery of Birth: All the Things You Don’t Control in Life
- The Ovarian Lottery: A Thought Experiment from Warren Buffett
- “Creating Freedom” by Raoul Martinez (Part 1 Lottery of Birth Book Summary)
- The Life of Luckia: A Thought Experiment on the Birth Lottery, Moral Responsibility, & Free Will
- The College Graduate & The Garbage Collector: A Thought Experiment from Robert Sapolsky (Short Excerpt)
- What is the “Original Position” or “Veil of Ignorance” Thought Experiment? (John Rawls Excerpts)
- The Basic Argument against Ultimate Moral Responsibility (Galen Strawson Summary)
- Tea or Coffee: Who is the Chooser of a Choice? (Rupert Spira Short Excerpt)
- 10 Deep Quotes on Free Will from Yuval Noah Harari
- 25 Deep Quotes on Free Will from Bernardo Kastrup
- 25 Ways to Melt Away the Feeling of Free Will
- 50+ Free Will Questions to Examine the Nature of Your Reality
- No Free Will: The Biology of Behavior with Robert Sapolsky
- The Homunculus Fallacy & Mitigated Free Will (Robert Sapolsky Short Excerpt)
- “Determined” by Robert Sapolsky (Book Summary)
- “Free Will” by Sam Harris (Book Summary)
- Does Free Will Exist? The Latest Thinking from Sam Harris
- 🔒 Sam Harris Synthesis: How to Unravel Free Will (+ Infographic)
- 🔒 Robert Sapolsky Synthesis: The Science of No Free Will (+ Infographic)
- 🔒 Bernardo Kastrup Synthesis: Everything about Free Will
- 🔒 Lottery of Birth Synthesis: How to See Yourself and the World Drastically Differently (+ Infographic)
- 🔒 Stream of Consciousness: What is Going On?
- 🔒 Stream of Consciousness: Is Free Thinking Even Possible?
- 🔒 Stream of Consciousness: Do You Control Your Life Path?
- 🔒 Stream of Consciousness: Do You Live Life, or Does Life Live You?
- 🔒 Stream of Consciousness: Is this the Strangest Thing in Life?
- 🔒 Stream of Consciousness: Is Ultimate Moral Responsibility a Myth?
- 🔒 Stream of Consciousness: What’s our Problem with (Mis)Attribution of Agency?
- 🔒 Stream of Consciousness: Is this the Holy Shit Moment?
- 🔒 Stream of Consciousness: What is the Subject-Object Relationship?
- 🔒 Stream of Consciousness: What is Enlightenment?
- 🔒 Behind the Scenes: Dissecting my own Lottery of Birth Ticket
- 🔒 Behind the Scenes: How I Live with the Lottery of Birth & Lack of Free Will
- 🔒 Behind the Scenes: How I Live with the Lottery of Birth & Lack of Free Will (1 Year Later)