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14 March 2007updated 27 Sep 2015 2:32am

Letting go of free will

If there is no God and no spirit, then why do we want to be good?

By Susan Blackmore

Does everyone wonder about free will? Certainly the world’s great thinkers have done so for millennia, the existence of God has been challenged by arguments about this very subject and modern science merely makes its existence seem less and less plausible.

But this is not a problem we should leave to the experts, for it concerns us all, tangling as it does with issues of morality, wisdom and the meaning of life.
I suspect that at some level everyone who thinks at all must have asked themselves questions such as Who am I? Why do I end up doing things I didn’t want to do? Is everything inevitable, and if so why should I bother doing anything at all?

To my surprise I recently discovered that even my Dad does.

My father is not an educated man. He left school at fifteen, fought in the Second World War, came home to take over his father’s printing business and, as far as I know, never read a book for the rest of his life. He was a straightforward, honest and kindly man; a father I could admire, but not one I could share my ideas with – not someone I thought would have anything to say about free will. But I was wrong, as I learned one evening, sitting with him by the fire.

“Where did you say you were going dear?” he asked for the third or fourth time.

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“To Sharpham House. It’s a Buddhist centre near Totnes.”

“Why are you going there?”

“I’m giving a lecture on free will.”

“Free will? What on earth is there to say about that?”

How do you explain the problem of free will to a man of ninety who has advanced dementia, just about knows who you are, and whose world consists of a bed, a fireside chair, and the daily paper he can no longer understand?

I did my best. I said that it seemed to me that my body and brain are clever machines that can function perfectly well without there being any inner me, or spirit or soul, to direct them. So there’s a problem – I seem to be in control but I cannot really be. This is, I said, what I was going to be talking about.
To my complete surprise this set him alight. He was quite sure that he had an inner spirit. Otherwise why would anything matter? I asked him where this spirit came from, and he said from God. I protested that there was no God, and that spirits controlling a body would have to be magic, and he came back with a comment I have never forgotten.

“If there is no God and no spirit, then why do we want to be good?”

This struck me so hard because I, too, have come to this point in my own, very different, struggles. I have long assumed that free will is an illusion and have worked hard to live without it, but doing this provokes a simple fear – what if I behave terribly badly? What if I give up all moral values and do terrible things? What indeed are moral values and how can I make moral decisions if there’s no one inside who is responsible? Why do I want to work hard at spiritual practice (link to previous blog on spiritual path) if there’s no one who acts and no freedom not to?

I’m sure I needn’t go on. I suspect that this natural fear is the main reason why so few people sincerely try to live without free will. Like my Dad, they want to be good, and fear that if they stop believing in a self who chooses to do the right thing they might do something terrible.
Is the fear justified? I suspect not.

Evolutionary psychology provides reasons why we want to be good, such as nurturing instincts shaped by kin selection, and the desire to earn brownie points in the game of reciprocal altruism; memetics explains how altruistic memes can spread so successfully; and most of us have been trained since early childhood to behave at least reasonably decently. So it may just come naturally to us to want to be good, even though we so often fail. If this is true, this common fear is no excuse to carry on living in delusion.

Arguably our cruellest and most selfish behaviour is caused by clinging to the false idea of a self who has free will, in which case we might even behave better, rather than worse, if we could throw off the illusion. So it is by no means obvious that giving up believing in free will must be morally dangerous.

Another deep seated fear is that we will fail to do anything at all, and lose all motivation. I have frequently had students who thought this way, “Why would I ever get up in the morning?” they ask. I suggest they try the exercise and see what happens. What happens is that they get bored. Then they need to go to the loo, and once in the bathroom it seems nicer to have a shower and clean their teeth than go back to bed. And so the day goes on and things get done. In fact, if you keep practicing this way it becomes increasingly obvious that the physical body you once thought you inhabited does not need a ghostly driver. It really is OK to trust in the universe and in one’s own spontaneous actions. Then the feeling of free will simply loses its power and fades away.