Warning: If you haven’t seen the season finale of Westworld, this post contains spoilers.
Do we have free will? Whether you consider yourself a philosopher or not, chances are you’ve though about this question, had at least one discussion around it. And if you’re a person who likes answers, you probably came to a conclusion that, to some extent, satisfied. And maybe you are, completely satisfied.
But perhaps you still feel an itch to investigate when you hear the question posed again: Do we have free will? It’s a difficult question to answer. It’s also a question with a lot emotional investment. It’s a question whose answer seems to define our human potential as heroic or tragic figures. Why?
Watching HBO’s new series, Westworld, which recently aired it’s season 1 finale, got me thinking about free will. Why is the existence of free will often considered a prerequisite for a positive worldview? What does free will mean?
I’ve been considering this question and have some ideas around it. I imagine that most of my ideas aren’t novel. However, I’m not well-read enough in philosophy to point to those who have expounded more eloquently and completely similar or same ideas(1). So instead of setting my thoughts in the context the history of philosophy, I’ll briefly explain how I came to my thoughts on free will and unpack them in the process.
Freedom, Will, and Free Will
There are people who meditate to cultivate awareness and equanimity in all situations. In concert with practice, many of these people also manage to dissolve or deconstruct their ego(2) to a significant degree. As a result, they don’t feel compelled to hold onto things or push things away. They accept the world as it arises. In this sense, they are free. As their ego loosens it’s grip, they are less inclined to act in ego-driven ways. What most mostly ego-driven people imagine as will is fundamentally changed in these people. They exist and impact the world through their awareness and equanimity, rather than their ego and ego-driven actions.
The will, as most people imagine it, is largely or entirely ego-based. And those who move through the world ego-driven assert a strong will. Those people however, are driven by passions, compulsions, habits, unresolved karma. Those people are not free.
So thinking about the concept of free and the concept of will and it seems to me that they like opposite modes of operation. And something like an uncertainty relation exists between them. That is to say, if you are entirely free, you have no will. If you are entirely ego-driven, you have no freedom. And most people are somewhere in between.
“There is no threshold that makes us greater than the sum of our parts, no inflection point at which we become fully alive. We can’t define consciousness because consciousness does not exist. Humans fancy that there’s something special about the way we perceive the world, and yet we live in loops, as tight and as closed as the hosts do, seldom questioning our choices, content, for the most part, to be told what to do next. No, my friend, you’re not missing anything at all.” – Ford in Westworld
The concept of free will when thought of as a complete freedom and complete will is then as paradoxical as a circle square. Free will is the entanglement of freedom and will.
Consciousness, Free Will, and Suffering
The question of free will is compelling to answer because it arrives at the crux of what it means to be human. In the famous words of buddha, existence is suffering. In Westworld, this idea is expanded as: existence is suffering and (with the right prerequisites) enough suffering can awaken/expand consciousness. In the season finale, Ford explains to Bernard: “Arnold’s key insight, the thing that led the hosts to their awakening: suffering. The pain that the world is not as you want it to be…I’m afraid in order to escape this place, you will need to suffer more.” I read awakening here as, essentially, self-consciousness. The series seem to suggest that the hosts’ free will comes their with self-consciousness.
The hosts in Westworld are programmed. In the context of my ideas on free will, they oscillate between complete freedom and complete will, and never in the space between…never in the space of free will.
They have complete freedom in the sense that they aren’t attached to anything – their feelings and actions can be turned off with a voice command. They are also entirely agents of will – they can act completely according to their programming without questioning their actions. But free will is the suffering of awareness with ego, of consciousness with self, of self-consciousness.
But then what about enlightenment? Am I implying that the enlightenment as freedom from ego means freedom from self-consciousness? I do not believe that. Awareness needs ego. What allows humans to reach a state of enlightenment and still remain self-conscious is time. As a human, liberation from suffering is not a complete dissolution of ego or attachment, but occurs when you can process and resolve attachments at increasingly faster speeds. If you can let go of something as soon as it comes into awareness, it simply serves as a transient ego instead of as the building material for an ever aggrandizing one.
We have the impression that some person, some “I”, makes decisions. This is what we call free will. But what if what we do is determined in advance by what is presented to our senses? These sense objects produce a chemical cocktail in our brains that is then conceptualized as a decision made by a self for a reason. But the actions of the world and the awareness of those actions are different things. As humans, we are programs watching ourselves run.
Rather than tackle the question of free will directly, maybe we should examine why the question matters so much in the first place.
(1)If anyone can point me to philosophers who have expressed ideas along this vein, I’d appreciate it.
(2)I’m using the term ego in the context of Buddhism where the term anatta describes the same thing.