free will

‘What we need is not the will to believe, but the wish to find out.’

– William Wordsworth

The Walls of Free Will

Free will is the capacity to choose, freely, but choice is ever limited by scope of awareness. A 9 year old child makes choices within the walls of his or her current awareness, which is limited, restricted, by age, cognitive development, social paradigms, genetics and various environmental influences, not all of which are perceived, or appreciated, within the walls of one’s awareness, both external and internal. Adults are no different in that regard. Awareness is confined within a particular range or scope. Awareness can expand and contract. Contracted awareness is of a smaller range and scope than is expanded awareness. Contracted awareness is like a beam of light, whereas expanded awareness is like a sheet of light. Contracted awareness is focused, whereas expanded awareness is broad. Broad awareness implies more options, more choices. If in a cafeteria the awareness is focused upon only a few dishes, the choices are less than if the awareness is spread over the entire offering. A broad, expanded awareness can survey a larger field of perception and, thus, offer more options. But, once an option is decided upon, contracted awareness provides the necessary focus to enact that choice.

A wonderful exercise in broadening awareness is to practice ‘choiceless awareness’ which is a process of simply observing the activities of one’s own mind and body, without direction, guidance, agenda or judgement. Often referred to as ‘mindfulness,’ the idea is to choose to have no choice, that whatever arises within one’s awareness is accepted as it is without any attempt to alter, change, manage, organize or control the flow of sensory, cognitive and emotional experience. Such a stance has also been referred to as ‘radical acceptance.’ There is broad relative freedom, bordering on absolute, in the mindful choiceless awareness of radical acceptance.

Freedom needs to be understood as both ‘relative freedoms’ and ‘absolute freedom.’ Absolute freedom is beyond any definitions, labels, limitations or boundaries. Absolute freedom is not what you think, or feel, or believe; it has no shape, no mass, no movement; it is not what you can do or say; it cannot be compared to anything. Relative freedoms are comparative. Relative freedoms are ‘freedom from’ or ‘freedom to.’ A person with a bicycle has less freedom to go and do than a person with a car, who has less than a person with a plane. Each person has a range in which they can exercise freedom of choice about what to do, where to go, predicated on the current range and scope of awareness, both external and internal.

Freedom from is like freedom to, but in reverse. It is the freedom to not go, not do. Although most would relish the opportunity to be free from anxiety, few are. Many, unwittingly, employ their range of cognitive freedom to experience mental anxiety with much more vigor than they do to be free from the experience of anxiety. We may be free to hop in the car and drive to the nearest bar for a drink; but, are we free from the desire to hop in the car and drive to the nearest bar for a drink?

That we come into this world with a host of desires, wants, needs, drivers, compulsions dreams, visions, creativity and intelligence which are then managed within the context of a socio-cultural paradigm, implies there are aspects of our lives over which we have no control, no choice, no freedom, other than the freedom to make choices within the confines of those given limitations, which move us to or from our values, which are put to the test, challenging our deepest sense of freedom to, and freedom from, even when highly restricted.

The relative freedoms of to and from each have their own set of walls, predicated on awareness. Relative freedom is closely associated with one’s mobility. A person who believes they can ‘go anywhere they want’ is yet limited by their mobility. A person can travel all over the world if they so choose, but not free to travel beyond the world, at least not with their present level of mobility, i.e., mobile ability. Mobile ability is not limited to physical sensory experience; one is mobile in memory, and imagination as well. Even if one has mobile ability available, the freedom to employ it requires ‘volition.’

Volition: from Medieval Latin volitionem (nominative volitio) “will, volition,” noun of action from Latin stem (as in volo“I wish”) of velle “to wish,” from PIE root wel- “to wish, will”

Wish: from PIE root ‘wen- “to desire, strive for.”

Volition is the power of ‘Will’, which is freedom to. Volition is also the power of ‘Won’t’ which is freedom from. Freedom to is ‘Yes.’ Freedom from is ‘No.’ The relationship between will, and won’t, yes and no, with ‘wish,’ suggests that Will, and Won’t, the freedom to and the freedom from, is the ‘wish-fulfillng gem.’ That is, wishes (desires and that to which one strives) can manifest in tangible material realities, only as a result of volition which is sustained willfulness, or won’tfulness – a highly focused awareness upon a specific target. A sustained yes, or a sustained no and, more often than not, both at the same time, as in, for example, yes to moving ahead and, simultaneously, no to moving backwards, is a requirement for wish fulfillment. Freedom to move ahead implies freedom from moving backwards. Freedom to move ahead is yes to maturation; freedom from moving backwards is no to stagnation. Every yes to one target is no to many others. The ultimate relative freedoms present as continual binary choices, a constant confrontation with yes and no from which arises the direction of mobilization and action. The well-known Shakespearian line spoken by the character Hamlet, ‘to be or not to be,’ is a binary choice, and in that binary choice is relative freedom.

The self is not something ready-made, but something in continuous formation through choice of action.

-John Dewey


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