Wrestling with the notion of the illusion of free will

Dear Night Clubbers,

Some people in our Book Study Group are wrestling with the notion of the illusion of free will. Without examination, free will seems to be an absolute given. It’s not so easy to challenge this illusion. The following podcast with a theoretical physicist and a polymath may help. I’m a long-time fan of Robert Sapolsky (the polymath), great writer, with a sharp wit, and even sharper mind. We can discuss some of the ideas tossed about in this podcast in our upcoming Tuesday gatherings.

And for those who want more, here’s a talk from Sam Harris, philosopher and polemical author. I read his book Free Will, short, and very direct. This talk is a summary of the book. Stick with it, because at about the 45 minute mark he points out some of the surprising healthy aspects of understanding the notion of no free will, and how this view nurtures empathy, compassion, and deep understanding in others.

Finally, a balancing counterpoint from Buddhist scholar Alan Wallace (Alan and Sam have gotten into some sparky exchanges). It is not easy to challenge the illusion of free will, so all these different angles may help. Unsettling, but important material. Again, this topic has been discussed for thousands of years by thousands of great thinkers.

Let me know what you think.



Hi, I was going through some notes and found this excerpt from the teachings of Hermetics, it really resonated and showed the two differing opinions, as two sides of the one coin.

-We do not wish to enter into a consideration of Free Will, or Determinism, in this work, for various reasons. Among the many reasons, is the principal one that neither side of the controversy is entirely right-in fact, both sides are partially right, according to the Hermetic Teachings. The Principle of Polarity shows that both are but Half-Truths the opposing poles of Truth. The Teachings are that a man may be both Free and yet bound by Necessity, depending upon the meaning of the terms, and the height of Truth from which the matter is examined. The ancient writers express the matter thus: “The further the creation is from the Centre, the more it is bound; the nearer the Centre it reaches, the nearer Free is it.”-

Three Initiates. The Kybalion: A Study of The Hermetic Philosophy of Ancient Egypt and Greece (p. 78). Perennial Press. Kindle Edition.


Sapolsky fills in so many blank areas for understanding human behavior. I’ve suspected the answers for a long, long time, but never had the details, research and experience to fully understand all of the possibilities governing how we think and behave. What do the implications of “free will” say about efforts to develop “critical thinking skills?” Is that even possible? The riff at the end about the legal system reminded me of the song “Officer Krumpke” from West Side Story.

Harris’ take on “Free Will” is very much in line with what Andrew writes about in “Dreams of Light” but for a different audience. I like how he demonstrated that we really are not aware that we don’t have free will. “A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings.” Viewing the YouTube comments are a must. “If you can’t control your next thought and you don’t know what it’s gonna be until it arises where is your freedom of will?" However, he does posit “You can’t take credit for your talent, but it matters that you use them.”

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@_Barry Maybe the answer to the question of free will is not quite as clear cut… I mean, it‘s an old question, with Schopenhauer‘s „der Mensch könne tun, was er will, aber er könne nicht wollen, was er will“ (Man can do what he wants, but he can‘t will what he wants“), it was already pretty clear that humankind is heavily conditioned, and therefore is influenced in its formation of free will.
But, this doesn’t say that free will is not possible.
If one is able to see the habitual conditioning in one‘s thoughts and emotions and is able to relax and release lucidly and does not act on the conditioned impulse, then for me, that would constitute free will.
No need trying to control thoughts or emotions etc.


so when one considers whats free will - he thinks in terms of Karma. There is that small self included there, somewhere, we can agree. But there is something that speaks to creativity then. That is something of a release. A simile might be: like making a profit from cause and effect. Now that being true (if it is!) I’m wondering, to complete this, if there is something else that is ‘higher order’, whether mind (self referential) or emptiness itself. When one steps aside from reactionary doing and something new emerges- that craft of novelty lets say, can you go further and pierce duality- glimpse unity? Is that realm alluring in ones evolution?..actually I have an opinion- its inevitable.

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Thinking in terms of concepts, how can it be?

@_Barry In my opinion, in terms of concept and practice it‘s a two tier prerequisite thing in order to exercise free will:
First, one needs to be conscious (lucid) of the conditioned response pattern to a stimulus. If that lucidity is not there, then we will in any case act in the conditioned pattern on the stimulus without being aware. But that is not enough:
Second, one needs to be able to relax into the conditioned pain reaction to the stimulus in order to be able to not react automatically to it. Only with this second step there’s a good chance to break the adhoc conditioned behavioral response pattern to stress stimuli. Only then, one is in the position of choice to act with options or not act on the stimulus.

If one succeeds by practice to do that, then, in my opinion, that constitutes exercising free will.

A practical example:
I get cut off in traffic by another driver.
According to my conditioning, the automatic response to this stress stimulus would be fear (if it were a dangerous situation) and - a fraction of a second later - anger.
If I would manage to practice lucidity, I would notice immediately this response pattern, i.e. anger. (first tier) Of course, if it would be a really dangerous situation, then I would be fully concentrated on steering the car a, but then the anger would come later anyway.
Then, if I notice anger, that is not enough, it depends on how I‘d deal with this emotion. Do I fuse with the emotion and reify it even more, or manage to relax into it? (second tier)
If I‘d fuse and act upon it, I‘d act as I have been conditioned, i.e. acting out anger.
If I manage to relax into the experience, a field of choices open up. Act in different ways or not act at all.
In order for this field to open up, the conditioned pattern of anger needs to be worked on beforehand, of course, otherwise we have no chance (and no free will to act differently) since the fusioning pattern is too strong to reach second tier.

So, to me it seems that free will depends on dealing sustainably with deeply rooted basic patterns such as how to deal with anger, etc. when it arises. As you can see, my view is influenced by buddhist teachings of dealing with root poisons. :wink:


This is how I view it, you have the free will to say “no.”

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Great discussion.

I might postulate that no decisions made “freely” are ever really free from karmic conditioning.

I might further postulate that only within the rigpa perspective of the ultimate ground of existence (Dzogchen) are we free from that conditioning.

Within that overall perspective, free will feels pretty much like an illusion to me.



So, picking up on your postulate that would also ultimatively mean that if one could integrate rigpa in daily activity, one could exercise free will.

Hmmmm…I’m thinking that abiding fully in rigpa one would have reached the ultimate destination. Perhaps free will at that point becomes moot.

Practically speaking, I think that to relate to this illusory world in which we live we must join in a non-dual dance with the illusory and the clear light awareness…working in a very human way with free will and with rigpa.


Yes, agreed. In order to reach that destination, don“t we need to travel the path to get there?
While advancing on the path, realisation of rigpa progresses while ego is decreasing. I believe this is a gradual process, when it comes to the regular reactions to life‘s challenges.
When sitting on the cushion, rigpa connection can be very strong, and ego appears to be gone.
How is it when we get challenged by people and situations off the cushion? Practicing to establish rigpa connection off the cushion… Some say that‘s one measure of the path.


The Guardian had a very interesting exploration of the topic of Free Will.

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I still think about this a lot, though the topic was highlighted a while ago, I liked this presentation of several perspectives.

From the overview:

Free will remains a hotly debated philosophical question today, as we have no means of proving or disproving it using the scientific method. Are all of our actions causally predetermined, and hence not free, or are we in fact free agents in charge of our decisions? Modern thinkers like Sam Harris espouse the view of scientific determinism , suggesting that free will is a lie that we tell ourselves as a society, which can lead to dangerous consequences like excessive blame being placed on an individual for actions that can be explained by environmental pressures. Meanwhile philosopher Daniel Dennett, as a compatibilist , might suggest that free will can still exist even within a deterministic reality to varying degrees depending on the situation. Perhaps thinking in absolutes is not useful on the subject of free will. Claiming that free will does not exist because the freedom is not complete is like saying that truth does not exist because complete, perfect truth is unattainable. A meaningful degree of freedom can still be present even if complete freedom is not possible.


I am determined to believe in free will – no choice in the matter, so never mind


At its essence, isn’t scientific determinism just another form of materialism?
I.e. one’s will - as a form of consciousness - is supposedly created by chemical reactions.
The world is still waiting for the proof of this hypothesis.
And no, biochemical correlates to mental processes visualized in the fMRT are not a proof of causation, possibly of correlation but not of causation.

On the other side, of course there is no free will… as long as actions/decisions are determinded by conditioning.

So, if conditioning prohibts free will, isn’t the real questiion: Is it possible to act devoid of conditioning?

In order to be able to answer that one, would it not be necessary to study deeply the dynamics of conditioning and how conditioning is affected by consciousness factors such as lucidity?


Yes, it depends on where you start looking—what your premises are. I believe any perspective we operate from should be able to articulate where other paths lead without dismissing them out of hand because others will be traveling them and we are all connected, perhaps some more than others.


Be careful not to believe that belief without solid proof. :wink:

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I would definitely say…yes.

I think we must consider this question relative to the depth of perspective. Analytic Idealism suggests that at the ultimate level of Universal Consciousness, where all things are dependently co-arising, free will is a somewhat foreign concept. But Idealism also suggests that sentient beings are a somewhat recent evolution of UC and that, through us, UC has started to become self-aware.

Within that perspective, our exercise of free will is integral to the overall system and is just a part of the continuing process of evolving awareness at a cosmic level.

At this conventional human level we definitely have free will. This morning, on my pre-sunrise walk, I stopped on the path as the first sun ray caught my eye through the bare trees on my left. I was cold…time to get back. I took another step down the path toward home…and then turned left and into the woods toward the rising sun.


Absolutely, that is exactly the reasoning why materialism disqualifies itself for me. It does not have an answer to the hard problem of consciousness and furthermore - since it cannot solve it - has started to argue that there even really is no hard problem; how convenient.