For centuries, the age-old conundrum of whether we have free will has been a controversial topic for a multitude of philosophers, scholars, and psychologists. Generally, there was an almost unanimous belief that not only does free will exist, but if we lost it, humanity would be doomed. However, the twentieth century saw the development of an opposite way of thinking, backed by a number of popular scientists and science writers who claimed that free will is an illusion, and that choice is just a trick of a brain.
A pioneer of this stream of thought was the American psychologist Benjamin Libet, who demonstrated in the 1980s that humans don’t have free will. Libet conducted experiments, based on the knowledge that electrical activity builds up in a person’s brain before moving any part of his body, which showed that this electrical buildup happens before the person consciously decides to move. The conscious decision to act, which humans associate with free will, is then, according to Libet, just an add-on – something that occurs after the brain has already set the act in motion.
This and other theories brought the death of free will, at least for the next couple of decades. To this day, many firmly believe that human actions aren’t the result of conscious choices but are caused by uncontrollable physical processes in the brain and body. According to skeptics, our bodies are just intricate physical machines, predetermined by the laws of nature and prior physical conditions. However, as of recently, this famous argument against free will has been once again debunked.
But before we speculate whether we have or don’t have free will, we must understand what we mean by it. Are we free? Do we know what freedom is, or at least, what it means for us, individually?
The concepts of freedom and free will are hard to define but vital to both individual and social life. According to the general understanding, there are two types of freedom, and either of the types can be positive or negative.
Positive External Freedom is defined as having the external means to achieve our goals and fulfill our desires. On the other hand, Negative External Freedom is the absence of external constraints, pressures, or restraints that prevent us from doing what we want to do. Basically, you either have the freedom to go for your dreams, supported by the laws of your country and the society in which you live, or you’re in shackles, figurative or literal, and are unable to do what you please.
Positive Internal Freedom consists of a variety of internal factors that take part in people’s ability to fulfill their goals, be self-reliant, and be masters of their own lives and destinies. It’s the freedom to know who we are – to think and make informed decisions. It’s our conscience and morals, motives, emotions, purposes, and the ability to make our own choices. This is where free will also comes into play and helps us find our life’s purpose. As Ammar Charani explains in his book Purposehood, “It’s the freedom to transcend all the limitations and to reclaim your destiny, happiness, success, and fulfillment.”
Negative Internal Freedom is the lack of internal psychological or physiological restraints that prevent the proper functioning of the individual – it’s the impossibility to know, feel, value, discern right from wrong, have self-control, and make choices for ourselves. Conditions like psychoses, compulsions, neuroses, addictions, or physical disabilities undermine negative internal freedom.
Everybody wants to exercise free will and to be free. It’s essential to human worth and dignity. But the concept of free will is often connected with concepts like duty, obligation, or responsibility. However, in his amazing conversations with the eminent American scientist David Bohm, the philosopher Jiddy Krishnamurti would describe, accept, and promulgate only total freedom. This freedom is not tied to any belief, religion, or dogma. For him, the will and personal change are the basis of our individual freedom, and if we are to achieve it, we have to radically break away from imposed patterns and programming we have been subjected to during our upbringing.
Freedom Equals Happiness
According to a study done by the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life, there is an undeniable link between happiness and freedom. Some limits to our freedoms should still exist, as mentioned above, whether external or internal. We should stop at the red light or go uninvited into other people’s homes.
But the freedom to act upon our positive desires that push forward our lives towards beneficial and purposeful direction is the essence of true happiness. People often confuse their lives with the things that seemingly make up their lives, which is not the case. Your life is not your car or your new gadget. Your life – who you really are – is your consciousness and pure awareness.
Thich Nhat Hanh famously once said, “Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything – anger, anxiety, or possessions – we cannot be free.” Presence, love, or consciousness is what is primary. Everything we experience, feel, touch, taste, and hear comes from it. This is why happiness is so elusive for most people – because we are taught to look for it outside of us. The path to happiness is not out there, it’s inside. All personal growth, success, joy, and change comes from within.
During their conversations, Bohm and Krishnamurti would talk about the way humanity evolves, and how, even though there is an evident and steady physical evolution, there is no such thing as psychological evolution. The change should happen NOW, and people should act upon their positive internal and external freedoms to create a fairer world. Otherwise, the change will be eternally postponed because of the illusion of the existence of psychological evolution – a psychological time. According to Jiddy, if there is no time, then humankind has been postponing a change because of the self-imposed illusion. In understanding this lies an actual change of consciousness.
Change is now, he claims, and there is no psychological tomorrow, so it’s up to our free will to make it happen and enable a change in mankind. Are we willing to make that move?
During the Unlocking the Power of Belonging – Virtual Summit, thought leaders will meet to focus on feeling, understanding, and acting on the drivers to evolve and expand individuals and societies that thrive. If you’re a fellow new paradigm seeker and want to contribute with your ideas and dreams, we would love to feature you. Join us and become a part of the world’s happiness community.