We humans have free will? I don't think so...
Updated: Sep 12
We would all agree that the human being is different than any other creation. As we observe a deer or a squirrel in nature, we can see that they are programmed instinctively to “do what they do.” There doesn’t seem to be any ability to “self-reflect.” Their need for survival is the primary driver. They may have some level of instinct to avoid danger, but eventually they can be drawn back into danger.
But humans are classified as homo sapiens sapiens. The second sapiens is key here. The term implies that the human being knows (the first sapiens) and KNOWS she/he knows (the second sapiens). The second sapiens implies a reflective ability to view oneself objectively. This, to me, points to the issue with us, and why most of us are not living as our authentic selves. Somehow, through human history, we have forgotten this skill, or were never really shown that we have it. Through enculturation and influence, our society has determined for us who and what we are by valuing things like our gender, beauty, success, title, material possessions. Remember my August 13th blog when I shared Henri Nouwen’s “three human lies?”
Philosopher René Descartes coined a very popular statement regarding the human race. He said, “I think, therefore, I am.” Well, that’s true…sort of. He is absolutely correct that we humans have the ability to think, and therefore to reflect on ourselves. But what aspect of us is doing the thinking? If I meet you at a social event (assume no social distancing), and after our initial greeting and name sharing, what do you think is usually the next question asked? “What do you do for a living?” If you answer, “I’m the CEO of my own company” or you answer that “I’m a custodian at a school,” the impression of your value is instantly determined by the other. This particular example speaks to the ego’s programs for happiness and in particular, the need for approval, affection and esteem. This need for esteem is amplified because of our culture’s valuation of a CEO over a custodian.
We live our lives through our personality. The word personality comes from the word persona, which means actor or actress. As newborns, we have no personality (i.e. – no views, opinions, attractions, aversions, fears, anxieties, desires). These are “learned” through our upbringing, parental passed-on belief systems, socio-economic status, educational level, religious passed-on beliefs, childhood traumas, peer pressure and culture’s influence over what is good and bad, of value and of less value.
I contend that we live our lives calling these personalities I and me. But is it really the true me? When you look back at decisions in your past with regret and say “I shouldn’t have done this or that,” it implies that you had a choice, that you had “free will.” You made a choice, yes. You may have chosen to cheat on a partner, steal something, pursue a promotion at the expense of another. But which version of “you” made the choices? This has been a problem with some religious viewpoints. What has been called “sin” is the idea that we choose a hurtful behavior or decision CONSCIOUSLY. That is just not the case. We are mere puppets that are controlled unconsciously by the marionette strings moved about by our egos/personalities.
All of my decisions to get educated, to pursue an MBA, to pursue a career in sales, to marry young, to rush to buy a home, the decision to have an extra-marital affair…all of them were driving me and to convince me that I was consciously choosing these paths. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not offering a scapegoat for hurtful behaviors to justify things in our past and give us a “get out of jail free card” to continue these choices in the future. There are natural consequences to decisions we make in our lives and we do pay the price for them.
But what I wish to share is that we do not really have “free will” until we really begin to know ourselves. Once a person sees that they have been held hostage by their ego’s grip their whole lives, we are brought to a true fork in the road. We can use that second sapiens here. We can objectively look at ourselves with scathing self-honesty and true forgiveness of oneself. We can really begin to lean into the idea that “happiness is indeed a choice.” Once I came to understand, accept, and forgive myself, that I married young for the wrong reasons, pursued an MBA to become a VP of Sales to be held in higher esteem, had an extramarital affair because I “deserved someone who loved me the way I was entitled to,” was truly an arrogant person behind this “nice guy” persona, and had to drive a luxury car to “look like someone of value,” the ability to live more free started to come.
We cannot change our pasts. But we can begin to look back at our lives objectively, without pretense and justification, to say, “Wow, look at the choices I made as a result of unconscious personality!” Once you begin to see what is true (and false) in you, the freedom comes in forgoing “free will” to choose. You will just follow your truth-meter to conscious choices that aren’t based on any justification or rationale or influence by culture’s ideas of what is good, better, best. You will choose to see yourself through the lens of completeness without regard for what culture says you should do, have, or be.
Since I’m a Seminarian, let me close with this. The phrase “repent for your sins” is probably making you feel uncomfortable. I get it. Me, too! But the word repent comes from the Greek word metanoia, which means to “change your mind.” What if repent was meant all along as a loving invitation to look uncritically at what drove your thoughts and behaviors in your life in the past and to offer the ability to make conscious change now, in this moment, instead of beating ourselves up for the "less than perfect" person we think we are? From this perspective, life becomes our teacher and all that happened in the past becomes food for our growth. For me, the ability to look objectively at my life’s choices through a lens of self-compassion, I was able to begin to “change my mind” about who and what I am.
What do all you homo sapiens sapiens think?