The month of November in most years brings with it a chance for Americans to make a choice about their leadership for the coming two or four years. Those who vote do so for different reasons – some out of a sense of obligation or civic duty, some to voice approval or displeasure with how they perceive things are going in the country, some to exercise and honor a right hard-won by almost 250 years of Americans who came before us. Democracy has at its heart the ultimate exercise of free will – the right to collectively make choices regarding our lives and destiny. That is, if one believes that sort of thing…
Free will is the belief in one’s ability to choose between different possible courses of action unimpeded. This is as opposed to determinism, which holds that there is only one course of action available, predetermined by circumstances beyond our control. Other, in-between theories also exist, such as compatibilism and incompatibilism, but simple philosophy is mind-numbing enough, and I’d like to stay out of the weeds as much as possible here. Although most Americans believe that free will exists, and therefore “good acts” should be rewarded and “bad acts” punished, some neurological research has shown that free will as commonly understood is an illusion (although not all scientists agree). An interesting analysis of whether we should try to abolish the teaching of free will may be found here.
The principles of American Democracy were founded on the belief that people had the right to choose how they lived their lives, as opposed to having someone who happened to be born into a royal family choose for them. Of course, at the time of the founding of our country, only wealthy white men were allowed to make those choices for the rest of us. Some would say that this hasn’t changed much, and current events make me wonder whether the exercise of free will, which is based on the idea that decisions are made with informed consent, is even possible in the America of today. Once again, our governing seems to be under the control of folks who have their own agendas – no real differences exist anymore between executives and legislators, and the monarchy, besides the illusion of a free and fair election.
In Hinduism and Buddhism, a type of determinism is behind the idea (the details of belief differ between these two religious traditions) of karma. I’m totally simplifying the concept for brevity, but karma is the belief that actions taken in past lives (or even in this lifetime) can affect one’s future lives. Therefore, our experiences in this lifetime may be dictated by a need to satisfy a moral debt incurred before we were born into it. One often hears that “karma’s a bitch,” reflecting a belief that, if someone is cruel, greedy and selfish, eventually what “goes around comes around,” and s/he will eventually suffer for it. The witches’ rede goes further to say that not only will the actor experience what s/he dished out – for good or ill – but will do so threefold. This determinism has nothing to do with biochemistry, but, ironically, with the actions (free will..?) of another version of ourselves, from another lifetime. Which were also determined, one supposes, by the actions of lifetimes before. The mind boggles with the complexity of this train of thought.
Indian Vedantist Swami Vivekananda said, “The will is not free, it is a phenomenon bound by cause and effect, but there is something behind the will which is free.” Yet he also said: “It is the coward and the fool who says this is his fate. But it is the strong man who stands up and says I will make my own fate.” (Swami Vivekananda (1907) “Sayings and utterances”). Complex, indeed.
I suppose that my point is this – I’ve been musing a lot this year about predetermination vs. free will. For example, because Americans have a universal concept of free will – that our actions, good or bad, are under our own control, our first impulse when something “bad” happens – murders, pandemics, terrorism, inequality, etc. – is that it’s someone’s fault. Our first question is “who did it?” It’s important to us to blame someone or some group for catastrophes. We may say that it’s so that we may prevent such tragedies from happening in the future, but really it’s so that we can feel better knowing the culprit was identified and punished for the action. We feel somehow safer when the person or event is neutralized, as if it will never happen again. But focusing on fixing blame keeps us from working on the root problems of antisocial behavior – mental illness, consequences of living in poverty, culturally-sanctioned suspension of compassion and empathy, sustained abuse, and so many other deeply engrained flaws of current society. And, more importantly, it dampens our compassion and empathy for those whose actions are so often a product of these flaws. It creates distance between us, and those we see as “other” – whose behavior we don’t understand, or is contrary to our value system. It leads us to point the finger in the wrong direction, and prevents us from making improvements.
Similarly, we feel that if we have a say in who makes our decisions – if we vote for someone we think will represent our best interests – that everything will turn out well, and we’ll be happy. We have expectations based on impressions we have of the person for whom we voted, and what s/he has said they believe, and what they’ll do, and how they will help us. If that person wins, we can relax. If s/he loses, we have someone to blame for the calamities that will inevitably follow. But we have seen that that expectation is not always borne out.
But what if free will is an illusion, and events have already been predetermined? What if, as some of us who have a more metaphysical philosophy believe, “everything happens for a reason”? In other words, no matter how we vote, no matter how we think that our choice will change our future and make things better for us, it won’t make any difference. The Universe has a plan, and that plan will play out despite our desires, and despite any actions we take to further those desires. Does that make you feel hopeless? Or is it freeing?
If our future is already set, and we are just living into it, along the way learning our lessons, growing our Spirits, advancing our species (maybe after a period of destruction), should we feel more relaxed, knowing that there’s nothing we can do that will “ruin” things – that it is what it will be, despite us rather than because of us?
When people come to me for a reading to help them make a decision, I tell them that “there are no ‘wrong’ decisions.” That your decision becomes the “right” one for you as soon as you make it, by virtue of you having made it. We often want to blame something uncomfortable or “bad” in our lives on a decision that we made. But I know that for me, terrible things that happened to me that I thought were due to a bad decision turned out in hindsight to be the catalyst for a very satisfying result. The longer I live, the more I realize that there are no bad decisions – only those that eventually lead to learning and positive change.
I once saw a phrase that I cut out and stuck on my fridge – “Abandon Hope, Abandon Fear.” It served as a reminder to look at each day through Zen eyes, knowing that the arc of our life experiences bends toward happiness, whether we like it or not.