Free Will: A case of mistaken identity?

My last two posts may have seemed like a diversion from the exciting discussion on the existence of human free will, (Take a look at the string of excellent comments by Carl and Ted Howard here.) but for me it was a chance to regroup and think about this challenging topic.

What I have been left with is a question about the question – “Is there such a thing as free will?” It seems obvious to me that there is definitely freedom – in other words some things do happen in the universe that are not only the result of previous conditions. As was described in an earlier post, if there was no freedom in the universe there would be no chance for anything new to occur and if nothing new can occur in the universe then there can be no development or evolution at all.

From there I stated that if there is to be a chance for there to be conscious evolution – meaning human participation in creating the novelty of the universe – there would need to be free human will. Now I am wondering if this statement and the question it implies have a misconception built into them. Because they assume that a human being is a something that can have a free will.

American philosophers have repeatedly denied the existence of a human something. William James in his paper “A World of Pure Experience”  beautifully described the human sense of self as resulting only from a stream of thoughts and feelings ‘about’ a self. From all of those thoughts and feelings that seem to tell us there is a self we conclude that one exists and we have a very strong experience of being that self. In my case that self is called Jeff, and it has certain characteristics, thoughts, attitudes and a history. Of course if you go looking for that thing called Jeff you don’t find it. You only find the characteristics, thoughts, attitudes, historical memories, etc. that the ‘fiction’ of Jeff is built up from.

This is classic Eastern Enlightenment Spirituality and it is interesting to note that the Japanese Buddhist Zen Master D. T. Suzuki thought that James’ paper, “A World of Pure Experience,” was one of the clearest descriptions of Zen Buddhism that he had ever read. After reading it during a trip to America, Suzuki mailed the paper back to his spiritual mentor in Japan who then used it to teach others.


B.F. Skinner (the famous American psychologist) half a century after James’ death, similarly denied the existence of “the self.” In his behaviorist view he saw that what we call a self is made up entirely of behaviors (internal and external.) The end result is the same – this thing called “Jeff” is a fictional mental construct that is built up through the amalgamation of perceived behaviors and then assumed to be a real entity.

So now that we have uncovered this problem of mistaken identity we can go back to the question of human free will. When we do we see that asking if “I” as a fictional entity has a free will is a question that starts from non-sense. Asking whether free will exists as a function of the universe is the real question. And we have already determined that freedom has to be a function of the universe. This means that the only question that remains is if there is “will” behind that freedom.

So we end up back where we started a few posts ago – is there intention behind the evolution of the universe? We realize that there is no separate human entity to have a “will” or an “intelligence” to guide it, so we are asking again about the possibility of there being “intelligence” and therefore “will” in the universe.