Most people go through their lives believing a myth that cannot possibly be true. Even those of us who have reached the logical conclusion forget that awareness for much of the time.
I know because I am one of them. Like almost everyone else I carry on for long periods under the impression that I am in charge of my own destiny. Although I know the truth, I mostly function in the same way as everyone else. This is because the big illusion evolved universally in human consciousness, it is engrained in what we are. For much of my day, like most of us, I feel under the impression that I am at liberty to decide what to think about, believe I can initiate whatever physical action I desire, consider what I want to say or – as I do this – what I wish to write. It is only now and then, when I have a moment to reflect on what I have just thought, spoken, written or done that I am able to remind myself that I had no options. It is not possible to change the way we are. Humans, like all other animals and indeed all other forms of life, cannot under any circumstances possess free will. What follows might hopefully illuminate this a little.
In the week I write this, there has been a news story about two men who have been given long prison sentences for the murder of a young man who was not their intended victim. They were drug addicts who had been paid money to kill a person who may have been party to some criminal dispute. In a befuddled state the men had gone to the wrong address and knifed to death their unlucky victim. He, at the time, just happened to be at home with his parents and was the one to answer the door as he was expecting a visitor. There was a partially happier story a week or so earlier. A London crane driver overslept one morning, had he not done so and gone to work at his usual time, he would certainly have died if he had been in the cab of his crane. Partly as a result of foggy conditions, the crane had been struck by a helicopter. The pilot had been killed.
I accept that life or death situations like these, where one of us might be in the wrong or right place, at the right or wrong time, may be slightly exceptional – but they are not that surprising. Every hour of every day some people, somewhere, lose their lives or preserve them completely by what we would all say was chance. Most of us are either drivers, or cyclists, or pedestrians and how many times have we used the word ‘almost’. We know that we have been lucky and are all aware that at some time our luck may run out.
What about everything else that is not quite as career transforming as our demise? Every moment of every day we are at the mercy of influences and events outside ourselves. We must agree that we have no control over any of these. They may be life changing or of very little importance. They can range from the weather to situations where we meet strangers or find ourselves in unfamiliar places. They are everything we smell, feel, hear and see and every experience that is processed by our brains. They are affected and adjusted by all our previous experience and knowledge, by the mood our minds have created and by the stream of each connecting thought our consciousness has dreamt up. We have no more command over them than the chance occurrences that are external to us.
What are we anyway? We all have to admit that at our beginning we can only be the product of three separate influences. We cannot have chosen these or subsequently changed them in any way even if we were in possession of such an ethereal concept as free will. This is because all of these ingredients were in place before the moment we took our first breath. That is before the blank slate of our memory had recorded anything beyond pre-birth perceptions, before we had experienced touch, smell, sound or sight, before we had registered our very first thought.
The factors that shaped us as newly born babies were these. First of all those aspects of what we are that were fixed at our conception. Our sex and the genetic cocktail that came from our parents and all the previous trees of ancestry that preceded them. That chance mix of what we materially are will stay with us until we die. Secondly there were the external influences during our period of gestation between conception and birth. Until fairly recently this was regarded as of minor consequence but, in the last few decades, scientists have come to the conclusion that this period when the embryo is turning into the baby is far more critical. It can, in some instances, be as important in fixing the way our lives will turn out as our genes. The third factor is not biological but can be and frequently is as significant as what we are physically. It is the cultural world, the tribe, the family and their circumstances and the point in time in history into which we are born.
So there we are, we have been born. We had no say in the matter, or in what we are like, or in what happened to us before we arrived, or in the environment in which we find ourselves. Then along comes the sequence of our lives and we have no control whatsoever on anything external to us either. It is that simple, but I can hear you saying. Yes, I agree that much of what happens to us as we grow up and later, when we are adults, is outside our control. But I still believe we have free will. We may not have much of it but we can still choose. Is that the conclusion you have reached? If you contemplate a little longer some of you may see that this cannot be so. There can be no exceptions, we are not in control of our own lives.
Let me put it an alternative way. Around a hundred and fifty years ago, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace gave the world their hypothesis that all life had evolved from a single source. If so it follows that all living things are related and have only become different from each other , over long periods of time, by a simple process this couple called Natural Selection. Today most ‘educated’ people accept that as fact. If we had free will the theory would be untrue, evolution would be a nonsense. We are not able to change history, we are just a part of it. Homo sapiens is a species of Ape, in the order of primates, in the kingdom of animals. It was only after our brains had reached a certain size, enabling us to start to perfect language, that we set out on the journey that would leave all other creatures behind. Our kind were then able to evolve culturally as well as biologically. It is humans’ non-physical development that make us appear so extraordinary.
There is no room here to write about the consequences of having no free will and why life can be meaningful without it. Perhaps the editor will allow me to do this at another time. Any questions will be welcome and answered.
Michael Greening author of ‘You Cannot Change the Way You Are’ & ‘As It Is’