The entire revised edition of 'Living out of Neutrality' was published in Dutch in October of this year. We have selected a chapter out of this book ((un)free will), in which the author radically settles the idea that we could have command of a free will.

(Un)free will
Justus Kramer Schipper

One of the philosophical questions is whether or not there is a free will. Lets to begin with look at what the will is. By will we indicate in general that we have a preference in a given situation, that we would get satisfaction by having something or precisely by not having it (doing something or letting it go), and that we have a capacity to give direction to our life in a way chosen by ourselves. With free will it emphasized that we ourselves and nothing or no one else determine what our preferences are, what things we wish to get or not, and that we ourselves and no one else give content and direction to our lives. The question is: is that possible?

You are again invited to take part in a thought experiment. Imagine an optimistic, curious, and rich in ideas person with extravagant ambitions. In his youthful enthusiasm he has made the following list of wishes:

  • Biking to the moon
  • Walking faster than a race car
  • Completing a medical education in two days
  • Flying without any external resources

It must be clear that, such a person, it is true, is apparently free to want this or that, but the fulfillment of his wishes would be made impossible by the practical laws of matter. It is not the intention to make things needlessly complex by imagining that possibly one day someone could fly without external means, if our collective conviction, that forms the content of our hypnotized reality shifts in that direction. For the time being, every right-thinking person agree that it is not possible to fly without external help and that a bicycle trip to the moon is pretty well a hopeless expedition. In theory someone could will bizarre things and in principle seem to be free in that. Nevertheless the freedom of the will is limited by the possibilities of reality. Even the wish to cycle to the moon can only exist because there is a moon and the bicycle has been invented. This wish could not have been formulated in the middle ages, since after all there were no bicycles then. In short, the will is in the first place limited by our surrounding reality.

Another limitation seems much like the previous one and has to do with the place and time at which you have landed on the earth. The son of a farmer in the Pyrenees has a pretty good chance to choose in 'freedom' to be a farmer. The son of a physicist would seem to have a better chance of becoming a physicist or an astronaut. If we examine our motives carefully, then we have to recognize that a great part of our 'free choices' can be brought back to the valued interests and longings of our parents. Many choose a profession on the basis of the approval or disapproval of their parents. To want to become a doctor one has to at least grow up in surroundings where there is positive attitude with respect to the métier. In short, the circumstances in which one grows up, the stimulation one gets from one's parents are to a large extent determining factors for someone's ambitions. Naturally there are thought models that say that you choose your own parents, in order to live the life in which you can make the greatest mental development or learn an important lesson. In the first place, no one has experienced this out of their own direct experience, in spite of all intuitively acquired information. The chance that these thought models are true seems to me to be smaller than the chance that they are not true. But good, let us, for the sake of the discussion assume that we have chosen our parents. The question then arises: on what grounds, what are the criteria on the basis of which such a choice was made? Who thought these criteria up? And how did that happen? The fact that a choice has been made for one set of parents and not for another already indicates that there is no question of a free will. After all, a choice is made from one or another criterion that has limited our choice. In short, even if the parents are chosen, then it still not as if this has taken place on the basis of a free will.

But, lets not make it unnecessarily complicated and look at a simple question of choice. Very practical and very concrete. This afternoon I went to the beach, I could just as well not have been able to go and stayed in bed. Nobody forced me to get out of bed and go to the beach. Does that mean that at the moment of choosing I have free will to choose for one or the other? In this case the freedom of choice and action seems evident. Not considering that in order to make this choice you are dependent on the availability of a beach and a bed, that makes this choice so and so somewhat relative, we can still say the following: the decision happened at a certain moment to get out of bed and go to the beach. What was the reason for this decision?' 'Something' made me decide,' etc. is an expression used in speech. This indicates that 'something' and not the person in question caused the decision. What then is that 'something'? That 'something', that impulse can not be anything other than a thought, an image, an invitation (that also enters as a thought to the person in question) coupled to pleasure seeking, pain avoidance. This is the mechanism that causes actions. In our example, going to the beach is a more attractive alternative, delivers more pleasure than staying in bed. How free is this choice actually? You are given the choice: your money or your life! How free are you? You hold your hands under the tap and suddenly very hot water comes out. What do you do? And how free were you then? You, I, and everyone are in fact like bears dancing on hot plates. But, you can retort, there are also moments when we have a choice, but both alternatives are equally attractive. Then no choice is made. But not choosing is also choosing, namely for postponing the choice, that is also an alternative. Choosing for not choosing is then less painful, less troublesome and more comfortable than choosing. Perhaps a bit complex, but the basic principles are very simple.

But what about our own thoughts then? I can suddenly get an inspiration that becomes grounds for me to go into action. Again the question is, where does the inspiration come from? Do we make our own inspirations? I think not. If you do nevertheless think that you make your own thoughts and inspirations, then my question is again: Why do you make precisely the one thought and not another? Why do you make precisely one inspiration and no other? And on what basis did you come to the choice of precisely that thought ? The last question shall certainly be answered by the working of the mechanism: pleasure seeking, pain avoidance. You might imagine that a Mother Teresa lets her self be motivated by precisely the opposite mechanism. That is nevertheless not true. If Mother Teresa 'chooses' for self-sacrifice, personal poverty, for putting herself in service of the poorest of the earth, then she does that because she cannot do anything else. That gives her more pleasure than living in another way. Also Mother Teresa, at least her ego, or what remains of it is subject to mechanism pleasure seeking, pain avoidance. To avoid misunderstanding: this passage is not meant to attack Mother Teresa. Certainly not, but it must be made clear that egos are robots, that carry out their preprogrammed activities as automatically as a computer. That is no merit and neither is it bad or to be blamed. Good and evil are only categories in the domain of the ego. You have to avoid bad because that brings pain, you have to obtain good because that brings pleasure. Both, pain and pleasure come out of the same source. What this chapter is about, is getting the insight that our ego has absolutely no freedom of choice. However, then absolutely our lives would not be exciting. The idea that we have free will sees to it that we identify with our egos. The identification creates our suffering, guilt feelings, craving for recognition, but also, the excitement in our existence. If we could take some distance from our ego, and no longer identify with it, then our life would be a lot calmer. We would no longer need to let ourselves be plagued by guilt feelings. After all, what happens in the world at a certain moment is the result of people's actions, (the actions of the ego). As we have already seen these act on the basis of impulses in which the one we call 'I' has no say. If I have no control over the impulses and thoughts presented, nor control over the mechanism: pleasure seeking, pain avoidance, how can I then still be responsible for my deeds? But, the other side of the coin is that we also can no longer make others responsible for their acts. And, there is absolutely no room for pride or recognition. The result of this insight, is that the identification with our ego ceases to exist, and that the process of living from neutrality can make its beginning. But be careful, this last can never take place on the basis of 'will', because the illusory willing belongs to the domain of the ego. Insight that comes into being, is like a gift that unexpectedly presents itself.

Justus Kramer Schippers

('Living out of Neutrality', 200 pages, author J. Kramer Schippers; Published by Panta Rhei, Katwijk. ISBN 90.73207.76.2 NUGI 613. Obtainable in bookstores. This publication can also be obtained via the known internet bookstores.)