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These days, sentiments are mixed on where the world is headed. While there are many who believe that the world is getting better, there are just as many who think we’re doomed and nothing we do will change that. Somehow, this reflects the concept of free will or the freedom of choice, especially on the individual level. Your perception of the world is the same question you ask yourself: whether you can change your life for the better or not.
Free will or freedom is serious business. For thousands of years, scientists, thinkers, the religious, and philosophers have wondered whether we have it or not. From the individual level, it expands outward in our fight for the creation of democracies around the world in the goal of fostering freedom.
Is your fate already determined? Are you the master of your own destiny?
Physicist Sean Gourley said free will is like a “Yes, but…” and it’s not an either-or type of thing. We like the idea of freedom, but we are still defined by our environments, society, perception, beliefs, and the limitations of our own biology. You do have free will, but you must operate within the limits of your capacity to sense the world. There are things you can control and there are things you can’t.
The tricky and often misunderstood part is the issue of personal responsibility. There are individuals who would take responsibility for their life and their actions, and there are individuals who would blame everything else and believe they are helpless because as far as they’re concerned, they have no control.
The first refers to the idea that you are the only one who can take charge of your life, no matter what the circumstances are. The second refers to the idea that you can’t do anything anymore because things are beyond your control.
Best-selling author Mark Manson describes this dilemma in his article The Prime Belief, narrating the story of 19th century American philosopher and psychologist William James. William James was someone who experienced so many setbacks that it was a recurring theme of his life. There came a point in his life when, seeing himself as a failure, he eventually fell into depression and then planned to kill himself. It was mostly due to disappointment for most of his life, in spite of coming from a wealthy family and having all the means to succeed.
Before following through with his plan, he made an agreement with himself to experiment for a year with believing he was 100% responsible for everything that happened to him. He did everything in his power to change his circumstances, and things did improve for him. So in the end, he didn’t kill himself. Many years later, he went on to become known as the father of American psychology.
The lesson from this story is that you can actually cause significant changes to your circumstances, in spite of not being in full control of everything. The outcome will not necessarily match your expectations, but ultimately, you’re still the one who can take charge for yourself. Personal growth, development, and change can only happen upon accepting that you are in charge.
Your core beliefs drive all of your actions. You’re always making a choice, conscious or not, as Manson emphasized. It’s your responsibility to know and validate what’s true. It’s like asking a series of questions—there’s always going to be a bigger or deeper why. Seeing consequences in relation to your actions and beliefs gives you a more complete perspective, which you must then adjust accordingly. It is empowering to realize that you have free will, within external limitations, to cause change.
Another figure in the study of the mind and human behavior is Michael Gazzaniga; he is currently being called the father of Cognitive Neuroscience. Gazzaniga said that you need to look at brain function as part of layers or complex systems, the way physicists do. In fact, according to him, it’s in personal responsibility that your free will begins. If you are the only being in the world, you have no one else to be accountable to. However, we have to be responsible with our interaction with others. Any system requires accountability for improvement. Corrections are needed. Thus, personal responsibility is necessary.
With free will, we must return to the emerging movement on the study of consciousness. It’s only in the last decade that we’ve been giving more attention to the mind and its relation with the outside world. For all the lack of funding and interest, it was in 2013 when we first saw the study of the human brain considered an important multi-billion dollar initiative (B.R.A.I.N. Initiative), having been launched by the US President.
A few weeks ago, I had to take a moment to help out a clearly capable man retrieve his Amazon account password. He’s still young, but I noticed that he complained too much, especially in blaming Amazon customer service and his email account. I had to ask him if he was using the correct e-mail. It turns out, he was not. In that instance, he was clearly focused on blaming everything else and not willing to take some time to be conscious of what he was doing and thinking. Of course, he may have been dealing with many issues but that’s beside the point. How he behaved was practically counterproductive.
His behavior reminded me of how emotional vampires behave. Instead of taking responsibility for one’s thoughts, actions, behaviors, and circumstances, the vampire is focused on playing the victim; he is passive aggressive, blame passing, and reliant on manipulation. In the long run, it pushes people and positive circumstances away and becomes a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy. “Everybody hates me”; “Everybody is against me”; “Everybody is mean to me” are some of the common expressions, but failing to take responsibility for one’s behavior causes an undesired effect.
In Zen, there are said to be Two Minds; one is the “Observing Mind” and the other is the “Thinking Mind.” While you have a thinking mind, you also have a mind capable of observing the thinking process. The observing mind is where your awareness or consciousness begins. In the midst of whatever is happening to you, your observing mind is there alongside the automatic system. We just don’t use it as often as we should. We’re trapped into identifying ourselves with our emotions, egos, physical senses, expectations, and outcomes.
While science-based approaches and many empirical evidences suggest that we are at the mercy of a lot of things—our own biology, environment, and more—the idea has somehow caused confusion about choice and change. Limitation of choice doesn’t mean that’s the end of it. While free will can be a myth or just an illusion, it doesn’t mean you have no power. There’s still a will that is free within the confines of limitations.
The good news is that your awareness, along with your strengths, is already within your control. It’s something you can cultivate. Even if you’re not fully conscious, you’re still programmed in some way to seek answers. Your attitude, beliefs, and emotions are within your reach. You may not be able to control everything, but you definitely have a way of approaching things to put yourself in more desired circumstances and cause change.
From a morality standpoint, the idea of strict determinism (no free will at all) seems to work against the common good. This has been demonstrated by neuroscientist Jonathan Schooler and his social experiments on the relationship between determinism and morality. The experiments showed that encouraging determinism increases cheating. Thus, it affirms what’s happening in the real world; those who do not take responsibility will often cheat, take advantage, and suck the life blood of others. As Scooler said, disregarding the value of free will “undermines the capacity to act in a moral manner.” Therefore, the belief in free will has value.
Here in America, the election of Obama in 2008 signaled a thirst for change, not just for Americans, but for a lot of people around the world. Seven years later, the world has seen how enthusiasm for change can be crushed by external forces. In a way, one can’t help but think that free will is like American politics or elections.
If you’re following the current American elections, you may recognize that change cannot happen unless the root cause of the problem is addressed. Evidences are overwhelming that change cannot happen unless big money interests are taken out of politics, because power has shifted only to a handful few. The problem of income inequality is finally exposed. Free will also depends on the power that can define it. Free will can contract or expand. When you are no longer experiencing a healthy sense of free will, you are already codependent.
In the midst of promises being thrown around, you’ll hear many say “Pfft, change will not happen. You have to stick to the status quo; you have to compromise; you have to be a realist; you have to work with others.” You’ll also hear the rhetoric that you must “work hard” and not be a “leecher.” But these are just smokescreens or distractions hiding selfish motives. These are the reasonings of an emotional vampire blaming the victim rather than taking responsibility for his or her actions. Accepting these as truths would be agreeing to a highly dysfunctional and toxic relationship, which is unfortunately the status quo. You can’t compromise in an unhealthy relationship unless you’re willing to be a doormat. An unhealthy relationship means there’s more giving than taking. The taker no longer takes responsibility for his or her actions and consequences.
In the ongoing Democratic Primaries, Hillary Clinton is described as the “realist” while Bernie Sanders is the “idealist.” The Hillary camp echoes realism and compromise, while Bernie is calling for a “political revolution” and is criticized for dreaming of a utopian world.
However, you have to admit that Bernie is practically attacking the root cause of the political problem: big money interests. If anything, he’s actually a realist and an idealist at the same time. Big money gives you the power to get away with anything and thus not be accountable for anything. Until this problem of big money controlling the economy is addressed, change is definitely difficult to accomplish.
No matter how much people argue, everybody must recognize that big money interests worldwide have persistently conditioned the masses with their propaganda. The world is experiencing dangerous polarization, such that nobody can’t agree on important issues such as climate change, education, and healthcare.
The rise of Bernie Sanders has shocked many. He has caused a major spark and created a strong movement across America. He has drawn large crowds wherever he goes. Some say it’s only once in a while that you see an authentic politician like him. If you’re asking about experience, he’s been in politics A LONG time. Someone joked that Bernie Sanders has been fighting for 150 years. The good news for him is that he’s been catching up to Hillary in the polls, running with a strong momentum into the democratic primaries.
For the sake of certainty, perhaps America needs a “realist”. To “compromise” is important. Perhaps the need to “work with reality” is a safe choice. Perhaps the so-called “political revolution” will not happen. You can apply the same attitude to your life, but only if you accept free will as a myth. America, along with the rest of the world, can continue on as usual, but everything will remain the same.