Exactly this question, was what initially triggered me to start investigating my mind through daily meditation, philosophizing and contemplating seriously. I had been thinking a bit about it for a few days in a row, which resulted in an all night long discussion with a friend when I came over for dinner during those days. After talking for long about it, neither of us were sure anymore, that we had free will, in spite of the fact that we both started out arguing for the opposite.
This discussion took place over a year and a half ago, and today I see that the answer to this question is not simply a yes or a no, but that it’s a bit more complicated than that.
The reason why we even ask this question in the first place, is that we all feel like we surely have free will. We feel like we are like individual conscious beings, controlling some parts of our bodies and deciding how to walk, talk and think. However, there has been no discovery of such a conscious self, which allows for the use of “I” in the question. No part of our body or mind has been found to represent such a self, neither in natural sciences nor in psychology. If there is no conscious self at all, the question “Do I have free will?” becomes absurd – what is meant by this “I”? Nature or reality? A soul? God? What do you mean?!
As mentioned before; no field of science or psychology is able to find this self as some real, existing component of our body and mind. In fact, the opposite is indicated by a classic experiment by Benjamin Libet, which found that brain activity, indicating a decision being initiated, was detected in the brains of the participants of the experiment before they themselves were aware that they had made a decision. This is not considered to function as any exact proof that some conscious self does not exist, however it does make one wonder why it feels so certain that we have free will, and yet is a claim so reluctant to be proven or disproven.
In the practice of Vipassana meditation, Buddhism in general, Hinduism, Taoism or many other spiritual practices it was always stated that the feeling we have of being a conscious self is indeed an illusion. Meditation, which is an inherent practice of these ancient teachings, serves as a fundamental tool required to see this for oneself.
In meditation it is practiced to gain awareness of what is going on in the body and mind. This practice can start simple; for example you may not right now be aware that you can actually feel the soles of your feet resting on the floor or in your shoes. But as you are being reminded of it just now, you can most likely feel something already. Some things are easy to feel, but others very difficult. Try, for instance, without moving, to feel something inside your skull. We know that it is possible to feel something there because we do when we have a headache. But when we don’t have pain in our heads the sensations there are a lot more subtle, and we have to develop a sharp sensitivity in order to feel anything at all.
When a meditator has developed this skill to perfection she will be able to feel every little tiny piece of skin on his body, every organ, every thought, every emotion, all to such a degree that it all together will seem like a beautiful symphony!
The thing is that we humans are indeed only able to perceive things that are of our senses of touch, taste, smell, sound and sight. When observing carefully, you see that even when you are perceiving thoughts and emotions, these are also composed of the same five sensory impressions.
This is remarkable, because it means that every thought, idea or belief you ever had must have been nothing but a combination of sensory impressions as well.
If you find it hard to believe, try now and search for something in your mind, that isn’t perceived as something heard, seen, felt, smelled or tasted. In thoughts, especially perceptions of sound and sight are encountered, whereas with emotions, you will especially come across sensations of touch, feelings that are felt throughout the body.
If you are very observant, you’ll notice that the thoughts you have, always immediately evoke emotions in you which are all felt in the body. In turn, these feelings also seem to affect the thoughts appearing in your mind, and as such there exists a dynamic relationship between the two.
If you can’t really see this completely clearly just yet; that everything you think of, believe in, or know, is really just sensory impressions combined in intricate combinations that are perceived – don’t worry! A meditator can spend years trying to develop enough pin-pointed concentration to make these discoveries for herself.
The whole point of developing this skill of observing sensory impressions, is that you start to see that this idea you have of yourself, is of the same nature as all the other things you ever perceived; It’s a blur of all your five senses, both mentally and physically, in the mind and in the body.
When this is seen, what sense is there to see oneself in a perception of touch? One of taste? Smell, sound or sight, or a blend of all together even? Is any of these perceived phenomena really something that it makes any sense to derive an identity from? How do you feel about the sight perception you are perceiving right now? Are you it? Try to ask yourself the same question with the other four senses – are you any of them? One by one, or all at once? Perhaps you are perception itself? You tell me! The meditators job is to investigate for herself, after all, not just take anything as given.
The question of whether or not we have free will seems more and more absurd the more we look for this “I”. So until we have specified who/what this is that we are talking about, the question will remain absurd.
This search for whatever it is that we feel like we are, is in fact the origin of my spiritual development. When I used to wonder how I could argue for my own free will, I noticed that it wasn’t easy to specify exactly what I was and what this free will I felt I had, willed over anyway.
The realization that the self is an illusion has major implications. If you seize to exist as a free willed “I”, as observed by yourself, what is left? Do you become a careless vegetable? A Buddha working day and night for 45 years to tell other people about it? A Christ, spraying love and compassion left and right, even in moments of torturous agony? Any change at all?
Again, you tell me! Almost certainly your interpreting left brain hemisphere will come up with a good reason why you shouldn’t sit in meditation for countless hours to realize this for yourself. In the meantime, you can at least try to enjoy this post and the following, written by a guy who most definitely thinks that the hours spend meditating are worth it for the very reason of dissolving his ego!
What is the ego anyway? Go read my post on that if you’re unsure 😉 (Link)
– The Scientific Meditator