Thoughts on Free Will

This morning’s service is about free will. Do we have it, and does it matter? We obviously feel like we have free will; we choose what we’re going to do, how we’re going to react, the strategy we’re going to implement in response to the particular set problems we happen to be facing, the course we’re going to take. When something out of the ordinary suddenly surfaces in our lives we can be blindsided by it, and swept along by currents outside of our control, and feel helpless, but the opposite can also be the case. Our sense of free will can often be heightened by adverse circumstances; we’re no longer just making the kind of mundane choices our everyday lives put before us - what should I have for dinner tonight, which route should I take to my destination, should I do my weekly shop today or tomorrow? I’ll do it today, that way I get it out of the way... But the situations outside of the ordinary, outside of the normal course of our lives, require a new and unique response. It’s outside of the norm, and as such the novelty of new choice makes the fact we’re making a choice more apparent to us. New problems, of course, allow for the possibility of new mistakes. And so we naturally second guess ourselves, deliberate upon the choices we need to make at length, and ultimately, we make those choices in a more deliberate and intentional way than we ordinarily would, hence heightening the sense of free will.

When it comes to the topic of our own free will, there are a number of different places we could begin, a number of different disciplines and fields we could use to help us understand our agency in the world. But let’s begin not with our own perceived sense of free will, our own agency, but rather with the free will we assume in those around us. Or rather, the clemency we afford others when we believe their free will is (for some reason) compromised, due to adverse circumstances, or perhaps brain related complications. As a result, we may in turn find ourselves being more tolerant towards them. And the socially skilled of course utilise their emotional intelligence continuously in this respect, always making snap assessments of those we encounter, of their current emotional or intellectual state, and as such we treat them differently, perhaps offering them more latitude as a result. In other words, we’re always weighing up the degrees of free will at play in any given moment, in any given person.

Phineas Gage with his iron rod.

Phineas Gage with his iron rod.

We can take an extreme example, of an individual whose natural brain function has been severely compromised. There was a man in the mid-19th Century, who worked as a railroad construction foreman in New England. His name was Phineas Gage. In 1848, he was working on a site in Vermont (they were blasting their way through some rock to make way for a new railroad line). He was momentarily distracted, and accidently found himself in the firing line of a live charge in the rock. The explosion sent a huge thick iron rod up from the ground, in through his jaw, and straight out the top of his head. And remarkably this did not kill him. He spoke within a few minutes, and was able to walk, making his way to a hotel, where he found a doctor to treat him. Although he survived this ordeal, his personally was altered. He became brash, and inappropriately sexual in his conduct towards others. In other words, his free will was inhibited. If that’s a most extreme example of someone’s free will being inhibited, you can imagine a sliding scale of severity, going down by degrees, from serious physical harm like Phineas received, to drug addiction, alcoholism and sleep deprivation, emotional distress, to just simple physical needs not being sufficiently met, like hunger (there are some interesting case studies for example, of American judges being less likely to grant parole to prisoners, merely because they’ve not yet had their lunch).

And then at the lowest degree, there are the very minor factors always at play, like the way things are worded or presented to us, which can have a massive effect on our perceived free will. Ask a leading question, and you can give the illusion of choice: you can have this bad thing, or this really bad thing. It is often very difficult to look beyond the parameters of the choices already in play. We often defer ‘the parameters of the question’ issue to the person (or institution) we naturally perceive as having the most authority. And this, in turn, affords them even more authority, but worse than that, it doesn’t just afford them more authority, it creates the illusion of our own agency in the deliberation process. But of course in such cases we have no real agency, we are merely actors in a game not our own, and thus, not free at all.

‘I can’t remember the name of Felicity’s fourth daughter, do you remember?’ That’s a very different question to: ‘I like Felicity’s four daughters, April, May, June, and… what was the name of the fourth again?’ You would need to have a strong conviction to disagree with the shared opinion of everyone else in the room. I can hear them saying it now: ‘of course, her name is July’. Indeed, even the setting in which we find ourselves, the things we can see in front of us, affect how we think about things, and therefore the answer or responses we might give. We may be conscious of those differences, but more likely than not, we are not conscious of the effect places or things have upon our thinking process.

Nothing I’ve said so far is necessarily an argument against us having free will, it just demonstrates that the human condition goes hand in hand with the very real possibility of our free will being curtailed (usually against our will) to varying degrees. But also part of the human condition is often a belief that our own agency is inviolable. Even if our rationality might tell us otherwise, we tend to maintain the belief and conviction that when we are particularly calm, particularly introspective, and particularly free of distraction, our free will is able to rise above the fray.

Before we carry on down this rabbit hole, let us now create such space for such gentle introspection, laying aside the baggage of the week past, and the week to come, and entering together into a time of quiet prayer and reflection. Spirit of Love be present.

Here in gentle space, we shed concern, we lay down baggage, and we find that deeper stillness. We lay down not just the busyness of our lives, the stuff of everyday, but also, even the part itself we play upon the stage of this world. Moving towards a different state of consciousness, which is not just the semblance of past things - often misremembered - but a present reality, this point of awareness within, which does not even require those reference points of personality, or body, or social role. It's beyond all that. And it's still. And we’re present. And we’re journeying towards a spiritual possibility. And the question matters. For it’s the search, it’s the possibility, which is our humanity, it’s us most alive. And then there’s a glimpse, and it enriches the journey. And I hope you can see that it’s not really me speaking, as I hope it’s not really you listening. Because where you and I are, I hope is the same place. That point of awareness place, and from there we watch together, and from there together we witness as one of us speaks, and the rest of us listen. For until we’re nothing, not hung up on our social roles, I’m afraid we’re not really present at all.

For one day a rich man came to Jesus, a man who was defined by his riches - that was his social role, that was his identity. And he asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. What must I do to participate in ‘thy Kingdom come’? In this shared point of selfless, non-judging awareness, this community of stillness? And Jesus says, you must follow the commandments, you must be good and righteous, and the man says he is good, and that he is righteous, and he is right in the eyes of God. And Jesus smiles, and Jesus looks at him with compassion, and says, and there is one other thing… You must also relinquish your role, which in your case is your wealth; you must give away all your wealth, otherwise you’ll never get past it, and you’ll never really be present at all. And the man was sad, and the man was angry, and the man would not do it, and the man went away. And we are present. And all is one. And we are journeying towards a spiritual possibility. And so let us now hold this stillness together, this communion of silence.

I Am the Great Sun, but you do not see me
I Am your Husband, but you turn away
I Am the Captive, but you do not free me
I Am the Captain you will not obey

I Am the Truth, but you will not believe me
I Am the City, where you will not stay
I Am you Wife, your Child, but you will leave me
I Am the God to whom you will not pray

I Am your Counsel, but you do not hear me
I Am the Lover, whom you will betray
I Am the Victor, but you do not cheer me
I Am the Holy Dove whom you will slay

I Am your Life, but if you will not name Me
Seal up your soul with tears and never blame Me

(‘’I am the Great Sun’ by anonymous, found on a Norman crucifix in 1632).

Holy Spirit, living breath of God, in gratitude, we open ourselves to all possibility,
to new life. Be present we pray. Amen.

Part 2

And so we negotiate the line between mere limitations upon our free will, and factors which curtail our free will entirely. Take our likes and our wants. We choose something because we like it, because we want it. But (we may well ask) what determines what our likes and wants are to begin with? We seem to have very little control over this. I’ll use coffee as an example, pertinent to my own life. I like the idea of coffee. I like the idea of coffee culture. I like the history behind coffee, that coffee houses in the 17th and 18th Centuries caused a cultural and intellectual wave of innovation throughout Europe. Because unlike beer, drunk at pubs, which acts as a suppressant, and causes us to get less done, coffee is a stimulant, and so drunk in coffee houses, causes people to get more done. It was within the coffee house that the French populous was roused to revolution! I like the idea of coffee snobbery. Coffee is something you can get serious about, something you can speak knowingly about; you can have all the shiny gadgets at home, all your various blends, and you can shake your head in pity at all those poor sods who just don’t get the difference between a cup of coffee and a good cup of coffee. But alas, for me, I find the taste of coffee truly horrible. Unlike other things, which I didn’t like at first, but grew to like, like sushi, or olives, or whiskey, coffee has remained, for me, steadfastly disgusting. And so, when it comes to coffee, I don’t have free will. I can’t choose to like it.

This is obviously a very trivial example, but I suspect our unchosen desires limit our free will all the time, sometimes in ways we are conscious of, like with me and coffee, but probably more often than not in ways we are not conscious of. And when we’re not conscious of the effect our desires are having upon us, it's almost as if our minds are playing a game upon us. We believe we have a free choice, but in reality, our desires have already pre-determined the choices we’re going to make. And ‘desire’ is just one of a whole list of processes in the mind which act in this way, limiting or curtailing entirely the seemingly free choices we have. There’re also emotions, the emotional states we find ourselves in most habitually will colour our thinking patterns in different ways. There’s also our physiology, our heart rate, our blood pressure, or the amount of adrenalin moving around our bodies, or just the amount of tension we subjectively perceive within our own bodies - this can all have a huge effect upon the choices we make. To what extent is what we eat or drink affecting our emotional state, which in turn is affecting our apparent free will? Probably a great deal. Or finally, our beliefs, values and principles, all of these can operate for us much like desires do. Arising not by way of our conscious choice, but arising up without our say so from our unconscious.

Sam Harris

Sam Harris

Of course, this is a community which thinks about belief a lot. Part of our Unitarian identity rests upon our apparent autonomy as individuals to determine for ourselves what we believe. The trouble with this is that it’s not at all obvious that we are capable of determining (in a wholly autonomous fashion) what our beliefs are. There are a whole host of factors, influencing the beliefs we have, and making certain beliefs less or more credible to us. And on top of that, there may well also be a division between what we think we believe, the way we would answer a question about our beliefs if asked perhaps, and what we actually know, deep down within the depths of ourselves, within our unconscious or intuitive self. Here we may hold beliefs completely at odds with our stated beliefs, values, and principles, and of course, not even be aware of it. So we have, then, minimal control over our likes, wants, emotions, physiology, beliefs and values, and yet all of these affect our behaviour and conscious thoughts.

We are not the authors of the next thing we’re going to think of. Sam Harris talks about this in his book ‘free will’. For us, thoughts just appear in our consciousness; we can’t decide which thought is going to pop up for us next, it just happens. Out of a void we cannot perceive. When all of these factors are considered, it would be difficult to conclude anything other than our free will being an illusion. And so, we still our minds, and we’re mindful, and we meditate, and a thought comes. And we allow that thought to come, and we notice it, and it arises for a time, and then it fades away. In doing this we are making a distinction between an interior point of awareness from which we are simply observing, and our exterior persona, which is being influenced by this long list of mental processes. And we can watch, in a detached fashion, exterior stimuli, and thoughts arising out of that void, and those inevitable responses unfolding in our actions. And it’s as if it’s not really us, but rather a drama playing out upon a stage, and we’re watching it as passive observers, and I’m not really speaking, and you’re not really there listening. For we are all mutually observing from that same place. That non-judging, communal stillness, that universal consciousness.


And so what does this achieve, how does us accepting our own lack of free will help us in any way? I think, it allows us to acknowledge the reality of those cascading influences upon our lives, arising from within and outside our own bodies, and directing the course of all this. This promotes compassion - compassion for self and others. Because we are actors on a stage, but more that that, we know we are just actors on a stage. In a paradoxical way, this acceptance of our own powerlessness seems to be empowering. Perhaps it’s like this: we don’t really have autonomy, we’re not truly free agents directing the actions of our exterior persona, for our thoughts come from a thoughtless place. But by acknowledging this, and opting simply to be the observer, it’s as if our persona is empowered or released to be more loving, compassionate, and caring. To take its queues more from that interior place. Our consciousness has been raised, or expanded, and so the breadth of possibility is now larger than it once was.

For here we reside within this point of interior awareness, this calm centre, this still point in the midst of the world’s tumult, this singular consciousness, this divine unitary reality – and here, void of attachment, and having cast off all of our roles, we dwell in a place of love beyond time, that we call the Kingdom of God.


Lewis Connolly