FREE WILL: How free is it? Ask your friends

“Life is like a game of cards. The hand you are dealt is determinism; the way you play it is free will.”
—Jawaharlal Nehru

“…one of the differences between animals and humans is the amount of free will or choice that they can exercise. As beautiful as they are, animals and the beings below them are not able to exercise free will and self-awareness at the same level as humans.”
—Jeffrey Armstrong

A thought-provoking interview with scientist John Bargh at The Edge (or thereabouts) about free will or lack thereof—and what the hell is making me write this blog, anyway?

Of course, the first thing needed is a precise definition of what ‘free will’ may or may not be. But who has the will to write it? In the meantime, Bargh says the following:

If you take away the whole connection (the Cartesian guess of a pineal gland connection) to the supernatural soul that many believe we have, you start taking evolution seriously…

The abandonment, in fact, of a so-called supernatural soul is not necessarily needed to take evolution seriously—unless of course one believes the only intelligent (or unintelligent) theory on the soul arose from this curious Cartesian prediction. For everyone daft or otherwise knows the soul isn’t located in the pineal gland.

It’s clearly in the adrenal gland (which one? is the question) or maybe that sneaky little knob called, inconspicuously, our ‘ankle bone.’ As for the pineal gland, it is now known to be one of the main contributors—along with moronic parents and stultified teachers—to our developing a so-called ‘pineal’ or ‘pin-headed nature.’

Rene Descartes was wrong, too. Not only was he never a French Canadian hockey player, his “I think therefore I am” was actually “I think therefore I should probably try to get a decent education.”

Or from the yogic point-of-view: “I am therefore I think.” Yes, based on the idea that ‘animated’ matter came after consciousness, but before bell-bottoms.

Then Bargh states:

…and then also look at the history of concepts like free will and how they’re rooted in Christianity and early Christian writers.

Actually, depending on one’s definition of free will, it seems the idea goes back much further. For starters, let’s consider a tiny slice of woefully and embarrassingly ignored Eastern thought (ignored by scientists and fundamentalists of all sorts—and here Bargh takes his place, I am sure unintentionally, beside the scientists from What The #$%^& Do We Know?).

At least in theory, most yogis for millenia (give or take) have suggested in diverse yet detailed ways that to perceive one’s atma (one’s true self, or, say, svarupa) is for said yogi the definition of freedom, to be free, to have free will.

As for me, I’m still perusing my very restrained and conditioned navel, but the point remains—mostly on the top of my head.

Bargh continues:

Then [and only after finally abandoning Cartesian sloppiness and spiritual delusions and constructions] you begin to see that we do have motivations clearly rooted in our evolutionary biology.

I think by ‘you’, John might in fact mean ‘you.’

The last sentence seems almost ridiculous and utterly unscientific—to me, anyway. Do sane people in any serious numbers anywhere—even some with completely ridiculous origin theories (ie God with beard or a Big ol’ Bang)—still really believe our biology/genes don’t effect our motivations, our thinking, our will, at least to a degree? Even a degree in law?

Either way, that they do effect us and some has been for millenia clearly stated in, for example, the Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3, Verse 33:

Even a man of knowledge [Steve Bargh, for example] acts according to his own [acquired] nature, for everyone follows his nature. What can repression accomplish?

I don’t know, but I need to repress constantly just to get a little work done.

In Sanskrit the term in the text is svasvyah prakrteh (or prakriti)—literally one’s own material nature (physical body, subtle and gross).

This acquired nature is further described in the Bhagavad Gita in considerable detail and how and why we follow our nature, and how to not follow it (good luck!). See in the Gita, for example, gunas, doshas, atma, karma yoga etc.


And that we act according to our ‘evolutionary biology’ has been reiterated as theory and fact a lot of times (“You’re just like your father!”). It’s even been expressed by attacking the opposite idea. For example, when BF Skinner’s behaviorist ideas of a carte blanche newborn baby were thoroughly devoured in the late 50s by a hungry linguist named Noam Chomsky (I’m misrepresenting Skinner, to be sure—but not by my free will).


Bargh continues, and this moment is kind of fun:

All organisms are purposive and have reasons for what they do [which leads to countless other metaphysical questions, like from where that purposiveness was inherited].

We certainly have that of course. So it’s not that [free] will doesn’t exist; it’s that the free part is problematic—a lot of people see free will and say, “Well, you’re showing there’s no free will; therefore, people have no intentions or will.”


There is will, and will can be shaped by a host of factors: your genetic background [nature, so-called], your early experience with your home and your family [their nature!], your caretakers, your playmates, cultural influences bombarding us through the media and through socializing with your peers (and, thus, what they like and what they think and what they believe from their parents) [nurture, so-called]. All this is being soaked up like a sponge by little kids.


“So it’s not that will doesn’t exist; it’s that the free part is problematic…”

I love that line. The question is, can the ‘free part’ ever be be freed?

Either way, any yogi worth his begging bowl, even a yogi bearly like me, is in step with Bargh’s idea of the spectrum of free will where the free part comes into question. A few of the classic yogic questions—indeed one of the main goals of yoga and spiritual practice in countless forms—are ‘Who am I?’, ‘How can I be my true self and exercise my true will?’ and “Is there a bathroom on this plane?’

But I think perhaps Bargh is not quite asking these things, but saying more what the inimitable Albert Einstein once wrote:

“I hate a man in uniform.”

Oh no, that was something else. Einstein also wrote:

I do not believe we can have any freedom at all in the philosophical sense, for we act not only under external compulsion but also by inner necessity [as the Bhagavad Gita says].

Schopenhauer’s saying—“A man can surely do what he wills to do, but he cannot determine what he wills”—impressed itself upon me in my youth and has always consoled me when I have witnessed or suffered life’s hardships.

This conviction is a perpetual breeder of tolerance, for it does not allow us to take ourselves or others too seriously; it makes rather for a sense of humour.

Indeed—even if we can’t control or will a sense of humour outside of that one which wills us first. Now put that in your pipe and smoke it, as so many have before us.


But if at the end of the day (and during the day), we don’t have free will, what exactly is John Bargh saying, and can he even choose to say or not say it? And should we care? And can we, by will, change it?


I don’t know the answer, but in the meantime this next paragraph is instructive—and a similar idea was suggested to me recently:

But there is another question that is more pragmatic and I think it’s a wonderful question, “If all these things are going on without my knowledge, then I don’t really know why I’m doing what I’m doing, and I don’t really know myself that well apparently. So how can I make the right decisions or make the right choices for myself when all these biases are throwing my decisions all over the place?”

There’s a really simple answer here, which I like and people also seem to like it. It is to ask your friends, ask your family, ask people who are close to you about yourself. Don’t be afraid to hear what they have to say. Tell them to tell you the truth, because they do know you, and in many ways better than you know yourself.

That’s the funny thing about all of this. It turns out we do know about other people pretty well. We’re much better at predicting other people’s behavior than our own, and Emily Pronin at Princeton, whose research has focused on this issue, gives a great example of when she was deciding on grad schools to go to.


But first I (whoever I is) must ask: Who’s the unfree-willed ‘you’ John (whomever John really is) is talking about? And why should we believe a bunch of other unfree-willed ‘I’ folk? Perhaps even wee folk.

That notwithstanding, basically Bargh says: if you want to know what you’re really like, abandon your own delusions, and ask a bunch of people to tell you what you’re really like—and find a way to help them or let them be as honest as possible.

Hi Dad, Buddy, Girlfriend, Boss, Kid, I’ve got a couple of questions for you. Am I the jack ass I don’t think I am? Am I not the jack-ass you say I am?

I implore you, be honest. Relatively.

“Experts in ancient Greek culture say that people back then didn’t see their thoughts as belonging to them. When ancient Greeks had a thought, it occurred to them as a god or goddess giving an order [in the Vedas, this can be seen as the devas giving suggestions].

Apollo was telling them to be brave. Athena was telling them to fall in love.

Now people hear a commercial for sour cream potato chips and rush out to buy, but now they call this free will. At least the ancient Greeks were being honest.
—Chuck Palahniuk

Sincerely, and with programmed love,

Pete xox


3 Responses to “FREE WILL: How free is it? Ask your friends”

  1. Erynn says:

    gate gate paragate parasangate bodhi svaha!

    Your genes may be on too tight, Pete… ;)

  2. Karen says:

    Hi Pete,

    I don’t think free will has existed since the first single-celled organism followed the urge to create a copy of itself.

    And is it possible this was immediately followed by the idea of the cigarette or possibly the late night snack; however, lacking fire to light or heat it, respectively, the fruition of which had to wait?

    If you asked your friends what you’re really like, could they be honest with you, for if they are your friends aren’t they already blinded to that which your detractors see? Perhaps best to ask this of both your enemies and friends, for aren’t we all jack-asses in someone’s eyes? But if we are all jack-asses in the eyes of those who think they are not jack-asses, aren’t we right back to that Dr. Seuss story? And wasn’t it Dr. Seuss who said, “Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

    Do we create anything of our own free will?

    Love to you and those you love,

  3. Excellent points, my friends, excellent! Erynn, I appreciate the great Buddhist line, beyond, beyond, beyond and then, of course, beyond, until finally we all meet in Miami Beach. Or so we think? And my genes are on tight! I thought it was the 70s again!

    By the way, the first noble truth is: All life is sorrowful, or at least highly taxed.

    And Karen, how about not ‘immediately followed’ but ‘simultaneously existed’—but quietly?

    By the way, I think you are precisely right (honestly, you can trust me!). Further, if any of your friends think you’re a jack-ass, well they’re jack-asses! And Dr Seuss said it all, and you tell me, straight to my face, that green eggs and ham isn’t symbolic for some hallucinogen. Puff the magic dragon. Need I say more? Hippies, outcasts, deviants, jack-asses!

    Are we three the only sane ones around? Honestly! And did I right (or write) any of this by my own free-will (or even yours) , let alone unrandomly. Hang on a sec, I have to loosen my genes. Why am I so naughty! What a jack ass!

    With great love and affection, written of my own free will but not necessarily of sound mind,

    Steve Bargh

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