Free Will: A case of mistaken identity?

Jeff Carreira Philosophy 13 Comments

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.

About the Author

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira is a mystical philosopher and spiritual guide. He is the author of eleven books on meditation and philosophy. He teaches online programs and leads retreats throughout the world that teach people how to let go of their current perceptual habits so they are free to participate in the creation of a new paradigm. To put it simply, he supports people to live a spiritually inspired life, free from the constraints of fear, worry and self-doubt, and aligned with their own deepest sense of meaning and purpose.
Learn More
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
12 years ago

Jeff, You say: “Of course if you go looking for that thing called Jeff you don’t find it.” I may be simple, but if I went up to Lenox at the right time, I bet I could find Jeff. Unless of course you are suggesting there is an immaterial Jeff, at which point you would be introducing an implausible dualism. That said, I hope Carl and Ted keep blogging. I have lots to learn. They double down on the swift kick just to keep it creamy. The previous sentence is immaterial, but only to this discussion. Must we be so… Read more »

12 years ago

What if, like Skinner, we say that the “self” is a “locus” where biological and environmental events come together to produce an effect? In other terms, a particular point at which the Whole is viewing or being aware of itself via this thing called self-reflective behavior. As those of us who have studied Eastern forms of spiritual teaching know very well, there are many, many metaphors for this. The vortex in the river that seems to be a separate thing, but is really just a pattern in the river. Or the pattern in the marble that seems to have its… Read more »

12 years ago

Carl, towards the end of your post you get me thinking. When I consider claims that the universe or evolution has purpose and direction, that seems anthropomorphic…assigning human traits to nonhuman things. So maybe the manifestation of purposefulness is only through us (and possibly other sentient beings). To assign it elsewhere seems a bit of a stretch. But I sometimes over-simplify.

12 years ago

Brian, I think I agree with what you say if I understand your point. Seems to me that we, because of the emergence of verbal and other forms of representational (and self-referential) behavior, have the ability to project the future. That perhaps gives us the capacity to have “the end in mind.” But I don’t think that the pre-human universe has that capacity (or pre-cognitive, if there are other non-human cognitive beings). I think this Whole Thing is exploding from its origin, varying for all kinds of reasons and then having features selected by consequences, creatively and continuously. I see… Read more »

12 years ago


Hey Carl, if you have some time could you please explain the “Whole Thing is exploding from its origin” as compared to the idea of an eternal universe?

Paul Maurice Martin
12 years ago

“If there was no freedom in the universe there would be no chance for anything new to occur.” Doesn’t what we know of cosmology suggest the opposite – that novelty is determined? That is, new phenomena emerge in sequence form prior phenomena. Though qualitatively new, they required certain preexisting conditions to have unfolded beforehand. Examples: the heavy elements necessary to life are thought to have been forged in the supernova explosions of second generation stars. Before that, a universe of hydrogen gas clouds turned into a universe with billions and billions of first generation stars as hydrogen gas clouds collapsed… Read more »

12 years ago


That’s a beautiful comment. I don’t know anything about cosmology, but I do know about behavior, and the same is true with behavior.


All I meant is that if the Universe began with a Big Bang, then it started out from zero and has been exploding and emerging/creating ever since. But maybe the so-called Big Bang was just one nadir in an eternal wave cycle where it goes from nothing to a BIG zenith something and back again over and over again. Isn’t that sort of what the Hindu cosmology suggests?

12 years ago

It occurs to me that we put ourself at a huge evolutionary disadvantage if we deny that there are laws of behavior. That is, if we say that the “self” is an exception to everything else we know in the Universe — that, unlike the physical, biological, and energetic world, the behavior of the self is self-determined — then we deny ourselves the very advantage we have had as we have understood and then began to consciously “engineer” the rest of our world. If we can accept the laws of behavior as behavior science has discovered, and continue to refine… Read more »

Frank Luke
11 years ago

It’s said that a crisis is an opp that shouldn’t be wasted, a chance to attend to cracks in the infrastructure that would result in much more serious grief if left unheeded. These crisis popping up are all considered wake-up calls that have been left unattended and alarms left unheeded with consequences waiting to happen. Issues of climate changes, the equitable doling out of natural resources, rancorous religious/social/political issues and lastly but not least–humanity’s coming to terms with co-existing peaceably with fellow humans, the other habitants of the planet, indeed a respect for all Creation or face direr circumstances, even… Read more »