(This article is by guest writer John Stokdijk. For a short bio, see below.)
There is no consensus on free will among great thinkers who are far more intelligent and much more knowledgeable on the matter than I am. I could spend years trying to understand what Daniel Dennett, John Searle, Julian Biggini, Alfred Mele, Susan Blackmore, Christian List and numerous others have to say about free will. Therefore, on an intellectual level, I DO NOT KNOW if humans have free will.
I have often contemplated why the question of free will remains unresolved. I think I know. If we have free will, where does it reside? It is the mind, not the brain, that has a degree of freedom. Of course, this too is controversial as some naturalists, but not all, believe the brain and the mind are one and the same. There is consensus, however, that science has not yet explained how the human brain generates a conscious mind that is aware of its own subjective experience. This remains a mystery and until it is solved the matter of free will remains an open question.
Yet I am almost certain I have free will. My belief that I have free will is not based solely on intellectual argument. From Buddhism I learned the value and importance of examining my own mind. With introspection, I have never been able to puncture the illusion that I am a real self. Does that self have free will? Yes, I can freely choose, subject to many constraints. All of my life experience confirms this and I cannot deny the value of my life experience. Of course, my life experience cannot and should not be of much value to others who confront open questions. I value what I know intuitively and I am frustrated by the impossibility of sharing intuitive knowledge with others.
Perhaps a belief that humans have free will is a minority view among naturalists. Some naturalists who believe that everything has a cause may deny free will. Some naturalists also assert that spirituality of any kind, including spiritual naturalism, is meaningless. For me personally, spiritual naturalism is very meaningful but without a belief in free will it does not make sense. A path that includes transformation requires an ability to choose to change and an ability to act on that intention.
I am not free to do anything that I want to do. I cannot fly because of the laws of physics and the composition and form of my body. I am further constrained by the genetic makeup I was born with. I am constrained by the manner in which I was raised. I am constrained by the culture that has influenced my life. I am constrained by the limits of my intelligence. I am constrained by my finite knowledge. I am constrained by my life experience.
Yet, while I may not have very much freedom, does any degree of freedom remain that is beyond these constraints? YES! For example, I can freely choose a path of spiritual growth and transformation, but because of all the constraints, it is not an easy path. In making this choice, I am my own agent, and my act has no cause other than my own free choice. And the very idea that I can be an uncaused cause of my own actions is anathema to some naturalists.
At the same time, I am intrigued by the idea that the self is an illusion and that free will is an illusion. Perhaps reality is an illusion. Perhaps it is all illusions all the way down. I may be wrong. I must be wrong because, objectively, it seems extremely unlikely that I am the one human being who has this stuff all figured out.
My belief that I have free will connects to my spiritual journey.
Mindfulness is a part of my spiritual journey. What am I mindful of? Daily, I try to be mindful of my breath, only my breath, while also trying to stop the usually uncontrolled stream of thoughts racing through my mind. This practice helps to ground me.
I am also mindful of my free will. I am in awe of the reality that physical brain generates a mind with free will. Mindful awareness of this great mystery is an aspect of my spiritual practice. I am in awe of the reality that the great minds of this world have not solved this mystery. I am skeptical that it will be solved in my lifetime and I live with an awareness of how little I know about free will.
In my opinion, the best intellectual stance on free will is an agnostic position. At this time, no one knows if human beings have free will. It is the mind, not the brain, that may have free will. But it is not known how this occurs, only that it does occur. After the mind-body problem is solved, and it may never be, it may become possible to settle the question of free will.
It seems to me that everyone who has a position on the question of free will has incomplete knowledge. It is not possible for it to be otherwise. The amount of information on free will exceeds the human capacity to process.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
John Stokdijk is a retired Canadian living with his wife Pat in Ajijic, Mexico. He lost his Christian faith at midlife and lost all interest in religion or spirituality. But after reading Waking Up by Sam Harris in 2014 he gained an interest in secular spirituality which he continues to pursue.