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  • Writer's pictureBarry Shirley


Updated: Jul 23, 2022

Hi Guys. In this July 2022 blog (Issue 30), I contemplate the subject of ‘Choice and Free Will’.

As in my previous blogs, I will draw on the views and opinions of past and current masters, sages, mystics, gurus, philosophers and generally wise people. I also tap into worldly belief systems, religions and philosophies to draw on ancient knowledge and wisdom. So, if you are beginning to realise there is more to this life than you think, and you have the merest hint of something happening in yourself – read on.

These monthly blog posts are designed for those interested in mindfulness/spirituality/philosophy and will only give you a taste of the information, knowledge and wisdom that is out there (and all points raised can easily be further researched). I must emphasise that I am simply coordinating the knowledge and information that I am able to access, gather and present. I will also include text from my previous blogs as appropriate.

We tend to take for granted that we have choice and the free will to make conscious decisions to choose between alternative possible courses of action. We do seem to have the faculty of basic ‘choice’ in our lives, but do we also have free will to make those choices? This is something I have often wondered about when people say such things as; “I couldn’t stop myself”, or “I couldn’t resist it”. If something is in our nature/personality to do or not do, are we compelled to do those things if they form part of our habitual beliefs, ego or unconscious desires? How does the concept of ‘cause and effect’ change our ‘choice’ and our ‘free will’? Is ‘free will’ an illusion? Are you the ‘master of your fate’ or the ‘captain of your soul’ ?

There is an enormous amount of material on this subject from the philosophical (causal determinism), neurological, scientific, metaphysical and spiritual viewpoints, arguing mainly against the concept of free will. Determinism is described as; The doctrine that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes regarded as the inevitable and necessary consequence of antecedent states of affairs. E.g., Like Baruch Spinoza (17th century Dutch philosopher), Albert Einstein (20th century German born theoretical physicist) was a strict determinist who believed that human behaviour was completely determined by causal laws.

In Michael S. Gazzaniga’s book ‘Who’s in Charge’ – 2011 (Free Will and the Science of the Brain) his key message is: “The human brain has taken millennia to develop, driven by the body’s instinct to survive and reproduce. Thus, the questions of free will and consciousness are inextricable from human evolution. By understanding how people make the decisions they do, we can gain a deeper understanding and clearer perspective on what exactly drives human behaviour.”

In an article on the website ‘philosophybreak’ by Jack Malden (February 2019) the Neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris’s book (Free Will 2012) is highlighted where Harris argues that free will is an illusion. In his view, we are the mere conscious witnesses of decisions that deep in our brains have already been made.

In the article Malden writes that: “On Harris’s view, your genetics, your childhood, your environment – all of the stimuli you’re made up of and exposed to has conditioned your brain, in this moment, to read these very words; and if or when you stop, again, it won’t be because you’ve consciously decided to do so – it will be the result of a lifetime’s worth of conditioning forged into your brain, a historical architecture of decision making that causes you to act the way you do at any given moment.

As he states”: “Take a moment to think in the context in which your next decision will occur; You did not pick your parents or the time and place of your birth. You didn’t choose your gender or most of your life experiences.

You had no control whatsoever over your genome or the development of your brain. And now your brain is making choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs that have been hammered into it over a lifetime – by your genes, your physical development since the moment you were conceived, and the interactions you have had with other people, events, and ideas. Where is the freedom in this?”

An article in ‘The Atlantic’ by Stephen Cave titled; ‘There’s No Such Thing as Free Will (But we’re better off believing in it anyway)’- 2016, indicates the differing opinions of philosophers, theologians, physiologists, psychologists and scientists on this subject.

Cave writes; ‘Philosophers and theologians are used to talking about free will as if it is either on or off; as if our consciousness floats, like a ghost, entirely above the causal chain, or as if we roll through life like a rock down a hill. But there might be another way of looking at human agency. Some scholars argue that we should think about freedom of choice in terms of our very real and sophisticated abilities to map out multiple potential responses to a particular situation. One of these is Bruce Waller, a philosophy professor at Youngtown State University. In his new book, ‘Restorative Free Will’, he writes that we should focus on our ability, in any given setting, to generate a wide range of options for ourselves, and to decide among them without external constraint.

For Waller, it simply doesn’t matter that these processes are underpinned by a causal chain of firing neurons. In his view, free will and determinism are not the opposites they are often taken to be; they simply describe our behaviour at different levels. Waller believes his account fits with a scientific understanding of how we evolved: Foraging animals – humans, but also mice, or bears, or crows – need to be able to generate options for themselves and make decisions in a complex changing environment. Humans, with our massive brains, are much better at thinking up and weighing options than other animals are.

Our range of options is much wider, and we are, in a meaningful way, freer as a result. Waller’s definition of free will is in keeping with how a lot of ordinary people see it. One 2010 study found that people mostly thought of free will in terms of following their desires, free of coercion (such as someone holding a gun to your head).

If the complete answer is not in the realm of physics, then we can then consider metaphysics. In Eastern philosophy, karma (basically, cause and effect), ego (ahankara), desires and destiny are also included in the question about free will. In the article, ‘The Illusion of Free Will’, physicist Robert Fraser writes, however: “Eastern philosophers have also generally held that free will is an illusion. The Taoists have a great respect for natural law, advocating ‘Wu Wei’, a kind of non-self-oriented action that flows with nature. In Buddhist philosophy the question of free will does not even arise. As Walpola Rahkula points out in ‘What the Buddha Taught’, “If the whole of existence is relative, conditioned, so-called ‘freedom’ itself is conditioned and relative.” In the Advaita aspect of Vedanta philosophy the ‘chooser’ or ‘doer’ is considered an illusion. Nisargaddata (Indian Philosopher) warns in, ‘I Am That’, “The very notion of doership, of being a cause, is bondage.”

(NB. The ego makes you feel that you are the doer – to feel that you are the architect of all that you do. You are not the doer and not “I am” – consciousness always directs.

“……...Finally, there is the objection that since we think and act as though we had free will, what difference does it make if free will is an illusion? Won’t the end result of our actions be the same? We still deliberate, plan and carry out those plans. The difference here is one of perspective. The planning and subsequent action are not done by “you” but by the universe acting through you. We are in play in which we are both actor and audience and there is no script; the play just appears.

This may seem depressing at first, but there is a freedom that comes with letting go of being at the centre of the action, letting go of being the “doer”. We realise that with or without free choice we will still experience all the joys and sorrows of living in the world. Our conscious experience, our awareness, is not dependent on being “free”; it just is. In the end, we can embrace this paradox like a Zen koan: we can live our lives as though we have free will yet realise it is just an illusion. This may be the ultimate freedom.”

Dr. Deepak Chopra (Indian/US, Endocrinologist, prominent author and speaker on spirituality and wellbeing) in his book ‘Metahuman’ discusses the potential of the ancient Taoist teaching of Wu wei (le ‘not doing’). He writes (pages 252-254): “When you reduce life to what is truly essential, diversity drops away and unity increases. Your consciousness starts to reshape itself around one thing. Waking up is one thing; enlightenment is one thing; allowing the mystery of existence to unfold through you is one thing. These descriptions are limited, however. What we are really after is the experience of one thing. Once this is attained, everything else follows, not just the end of suffering, but access to the infinite potential that wants to express itself through us.

This is the state I’ll call ‘choiceless awareness.’ It is the very opposite of struggle. Instead of always doing, you practice the art of not-doing. Instead of trying to decide if X will make you happier than Y, you let the choice happen on its own. When we hear about the advantage of letting go, living in the now, and allowing life to flow, these possibilities become real in the state of choiceless awareness. Choiceless awareness is the final stage of waking up. It brings you to a place where the next thing you want to do is the best thing for you. In such a state, pain and suffering end because they bear no relationship to the life you are consciously living. The mystical Indian poet saw the situation clearly:

I asked my heart,

Where are you bound?

There’s no traveller ahead of you

Or even a road.

How can you get there,

And where will you stay?

The road, in Kabir’s imagery, is about the stages of leaving, going along, and arriving, which is how we all live. We start in action, either a small one like getting orange juice out of the fridge, or a large one like getting married or finding a job. The action begins, goes along and ends. Kabir sees that the heart – his word for the soul – cannot find fulfillment this way. He sees another way instead:

Be strong, O my heart,

Put your fancy away,

And stand where you are

In Yourself.”

The Bhagavad Gita identifies the Supreme Personality of Godhead as Krishna. The Bhagavad Gita is an ancient Sanskrit Hindu teaching at least 3-5 thousand years old. The Gita basically denotes an allegorical battle between the forces of ego and the higher self, it does this with dialogue between Krishna, as the Supreme Soul teaching the warrior Arjuna (representing the best but flawed aspects of humanity – e.g. notionally we are all Arjuna) how to defeat the ego forces and discover the higher Self, (The Gita is considered a mostly secular practical guide on living a spiritual life. The entire text is a representation of the battle that goes on in our minds representing a blueprint for solving the ethical and moral struggles of human life).

In various parts of the Gita (see chapter 18, slokas 60 & 61 specifically) there is reference to a person’s inherent nature (i.e. Vasanas.) Indicating people are born with samskaras – (samskaras are individual impressions, ideas, or actions); our samskaras, taken together, make up our conditioning and automatic responses. Vasanas are also said to be ingrained as our karmic imprint but influencing our present behaviour. The Law of Karma is basically the concept of cause and effect which in effect makes us the architects of our own destiny. Repeating samskaras reinforces them and they become a habit. They can be positive and negative (destructive). These are both obstacles to our spiritual growth.

In the ‘Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother’ Blog – Sandeep provides a translation for slokas 60 & 61. Sandeep writes; “We assume that we are independent human beings and acting based on our own free-will. This notion of free-will is an illusion for, in reality, the will that drives our action is itself a product of our past, our heredity and our environment. The choices we make at any given moment are not really random since they are being made by our fixed personality which is itself the product of Karma. That which drives our personality are the three modes of Nature (Sattva or illumination, Rajas or kinetism, Tamas or inertia). As Sri Aurobindo points out, behind the visible events of the world, there is always a mass of invisible cosmic forces at work that are unknown to the outward minds of men. We are blind to their action because our ego-sense creates in us the illusion of a coherent personality.”

The ancient Hindu texts (the Vedas include the Gita) suggests - the Absolute Truth is the source of everything i.e., oneness, consciousness, the spirit, the cosmic soul, the Divine, the Godhead - Brahman. And that human beings should seek this enlightenment of the Higher Self through defeating the ego and certain behavioural attitudes (samskara and vasanas) to complete the spiritual journey and escape the cycle of birth and death to achieve oneness and reincarnation (similarly described in Buddhism and Jainism).

Given the somewhat complicating factors suggested by science and intellectual arguments on free will, and if you are spiritually inclined, it is essential to use the limited ‘choice’ that the universal will provides to you. That is, we are each on a spiritual journey to self-enlightenment and we need to diminish our ego – live in the now (give yourself truly to this moment) – reduce harmful vasanas and negative habitual behaviours. There is a need to balance the karmic ‘bank account’ or purge the karmic ‘USB stick’ (a phrase used by my Guru). Karma is most important in all this.

Michael Bohuslav, philosophy teacher, of Torquay (my Guru) says, “For each of you - your destiny (your blueprint) is now playing out in this continuous cycle of Birth and Death. In the bigger picture of Karma – while this destiny is playing out (reaping what you have sown) we are simultaneously sowing the seeds of our next destiny. During the course of this life every thought/word/action is adding to or modifying your life. These aspects are either positive or negative and demonstrate our choices - free will, self-effort etc.”

There is enough available knowledge in ancient eastern philosophy to assist an understanding of the animating force in everything (i.e. consciousness) and to recognise inner body awareness. It is essential to let go of things that no longer serve you and accept things that you cannot control. Also, to let go of what identifier you have used for yourself (i.e. identify with job, personal and life history) and understand that we are essentially all the same with the same wants, needs and requirements for safety, security and peace.

Eckhart Tolle (revered German born spiritual teacher and self-help author) has commented extensively on Karma and consciousness and is best known for his seminal book ‘The Power of Now’ (1997).

The following is an excerpt from his book, ‘A New Earth’ (2005) pages 129 -131.

“The voice in the head has a life of its own. Most people are at the mercy of that voice; they are possessed by thought, by the mind. And since the mind is conditioned by the past, you are then forced to re-enact the past again and again.

The Eastern term for this is Karma. When you are identified with that voice, you don’t know this, of course. If you knew it, you would no longer be possessed because you are only truly possessed when you mistake the possessing entity for who you are, that is to say, when you become it.

For thousands of years, humanity has been increasingly mind-possessed, failing to recognize the possessing entity as “not self.” Through complete identification with the mind, a false sense of self—the ego—came into existence. The density of the ego depends on the degree to which you—the consciousness—are identified with your mind, with thinking. Thinking is no more than a tiny aspect of the totality of consciousness, the totality of who you are.

The degree of identification with the mind differs from person to person. Some people enjoy periods of freedom from it, however brief, and the peace, joy, and aliveness they experience in those moments make life worth living. These are also the moments when creativity, love, and compassion arise.

Others are constantly trapped in the egoic state. They are alienated from themselves, as well as from others and the world around them. When you look at them, you may see the tension in their face, perhaps the furrowed brow, or the absent or staring expression in their eyes. Most of their attention is absorbed by thinking, and so they don’t really see you, and they are not really listening to you. They are not present in any situation, their attention being either in the past or future which, of course, exist only in the mind as thought forms. Or they relate to you through some kind of role they play and so are not themselves. Most people are alienated from who they are, and some are alienated to such a degree that the way they behave and interact is recognized as “phony” by almost everyone, except those who are equally phony, equally alienated from who they are.

Alienation means you don’t feel at ease in any situation, any place, or with any person, not even with yourself. You are always trying to get “home” but never feel at home. Some of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, such as Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, T. S. Eliot, and James Joyce, recognized alienation as the universal dilemma of human existence, probably felt it deeply within themselves and so were able to express it brilliantly in their works. They don’t offer a solution. Their contribution is to show us a reflection of the human predicament so that we can see it more clearly.

To see one’s predicament clearly is a first step toward going beyond it. So, while you are perhaps still waiting for something significant to happen in your life, you may not realize that the most significant thing that can happen to a human being has already happened within you: the beginning of the separation process of thinking and awareness”.


  • “The first and foremost step you need to take is go see that your life is your Karma; it is your making. Without seeing that, your life is not really yours” – Sadhguru (Jagadish Vasudev) – b1957 – Indian yoga guru, author and proponent of spirituality and social welfare.

  • “In the mind there is no absolute or free will; but the mind is determined to wish this or that by a cause, which has also been determined by another cause, and this last by another cause, and so on to infinity.” – Baruch Spinoza – 1632/1677 – Dutch philosopher.

  • “I am a determinist. As such, I do not believe in free will...Practically, I am, nevertheless, compelled to act as if freedom of the will existed. If I wish to live in a civilized community, I must act as if man is a responsible being.” – Albert Einstein – 1879/1955 – German born theoretical physicist (best known for developing the theory of relativity).

  • “Life is like a game of cards. The hand you are dealt is determinism; the way you play it is free will.” – Jawaharial Nehru – 1889/1964 – Indian anti colonial, nationalist and secular humanist.

Take away

  • Actual free will from a scientific and philosophical perspective is essentially an illusion and a paradox – you are free to do whatever you desire but you are not free to choose your desires (i.e. conditioned subconscious reasons, i.e. a combination of neurology, samskaras, vasanas and egoic reasons – habitual behaviour).

  • From a spiritual perspective, accept all that there is with the present moment – align with the present and you will align with the universal will – consciousness - not with the ego, which is the enemy.

  • All our choices in a sense are inevitable as there is no escape from cause and effect (karma and quantum physics alike) – even ethics and morals.

  • A stated by Robert Fraser in the Inquiring Mind website; “We can live our lives as though we have free will yet realise it is just an illusion. This may be the ultimate freedom”.

  • Also, try yoga, along with meditation – a natural combination for achieving overall well-being. If already practicing yoga and meditation – go deeper – both higher vibration activities! These are all tools to help achieve free yourself from your vasanas. Nourish your mind body and spirit!

Compiled by Baz Shirley.


*See also:

Instagram: @bazabstractart - Facebook: Barry Shirley

And all my previous posts on:

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