Freedom and Responsibility

By Geoffrey Geddes

Are we free? When I choose to eat or kiss or sing, is it me who chooses? Or has the song been composed and orchestrated before I pick up the mic?

Based on experience, study, and reflection, I suspect the following: the whole separated; life arose; and the resulting organisms remain connected and interdependent, much as water droplets remain connected and interdependent with all other droplets in the ocean. As consciousness manifested in certain of those organisms, so did freedom – the freedom to choose actions from moment to moment. Or did it?

Some determinists argue that our universe and all its parts, including humans, function according to the principle of cause-and-effect – that each of our thoughts and actions constitutes the latest effect in a line of causation stretching back to the big bang and perhaps beyond. To prove this assertion, the anti-free willers challenge us to consider from where our most recent intention came. I intend to sip my coffee. Did I choose that intention? Or did my intention arise from an unconscious source or process? If the intention arose from a process of which I am unaware, how can I characterize that intention as a product of my free will?

That argument presumes that free will must necessarily manifest within a context of continual cognition – that unconscious deliberation precludes free will. I choose (yes, choose) to view free will more robustly – as a concoction ladled from my mental soup, the ingredients of which include remnants of every conscious experience, from the most rudimentary sensory input to the most abstract intellectual contemplation. While it is certainly true that, once they occur, our thoughts and actions can no longer have been otherwise. It is also true that we achieve objectives and reach destinations. To argue that all achievements and arrivals are inevitable is to abandon our fate to the hopeless prison of predestination or to the imaginary whims of a supernatural decider.

The universe, albeit wondrous and incomprehensible, appears indifferent to the fate of its constituents. Life blooms and fades in a dynamic dance of energy and matter. Attributing plans and schemes to that dance might ease the discomfort of uncertainty, but it also diminishes our performance; the ballet becomes a can-can. We need not lament an indifferent universe; power can derive just as easily from a strong faith in free will as from a faith in divine design. Acceptance of freedom, and of the responsibility for the consequences of choices, can empower a person to buck trends, to foil destructive rearing, and to change seemingly inevitable outcomes.

But, what of circumstance? What of genetics? What of chance? Surely a child raised in the slums of Mumbai cannot choose his way out of poverty and deprivation.

Context and early conditioning often impose formidable obstacles that limit choices, decimate dreams, and sap will. But context does not eradicate existential freedom. For the man who is chained to a dungeon wall, blinded, deafened, and fed intravenously, choices are indeed limited. Still, such a man can choose to hasten or calm his breath or to tense or relax his muscles. More importantly for his sanity, such a man still can choose his thoughts.

As you drive to an appointment, your thoughts flow: ‘I have to turn left at the next light; I’m hungry; that pedestrian isn’t paying attention; itch; sniff; where is this place?’ A song begins on the radio, redirecting your mental trajectory: ‘I like this song; I’m hungry; dooon’t stop … belieeevin’…; I think she’s checking me out; dammit, that was the turn.’

Thoughts feel continuous and seem to arise spontaneously and unbidden. In fact, thoughts arise based on circumstance, conditioning, and choice. Unfortunately, we generally think reflexively – i.e., based only on circumstance and conditioning; we seldom choose our thoughts. The ability to choose thoughts requires practice.

Sit quietly. Take a deep breath (two, if you choose), and then breathe normally. Witness your breathing. Allow your breath to flow in and out of your body without mental direction. As thoughts arise, observe them and then let them pass. Label them: ‘I am having a thought about what to wear tonight; I am having a thought about the pain in my shoulder; I am having a thought about how hard it is to stop drinking; I am having a thought about what a loser I am.’ Label each thought as it arises, then release the thought and return your attention to your breathing. Close and open your fists with each release – not tightly, only for symbolic emphasis. Practice this meditation regularly. Your ability to choose your thoughts will grow.

Freedom and choice beget responsibility. If I am free to choose my path, then both commendation and blame for the consequences of my choices fall to me. Our illusory self – what some think of as ego – revels in acclaim; accountability becomes irrelevant when accepting praise. Ego finds culpability repugnant, so accusations often trigger a pointing finger of deflected blame.

Responsibility is not control. If a militant zealot chooses to detonate a nuclear device in my backyard, I have no control over my disintegration. Do I share responsibility for the action? Did I vote for public officials whose foreign policy provoked foreign egos? Do I reside in a densely populated, symbolically oppressive city? Did I buy a hamburger recently? Perhaps we collectively share responsibility for our macro-cultural evolution. Control, however, is illusory. Responsibility is not control; choice is not control; freedom is not control. Control is a delusion. What I really want to do is direct! A diet is more sustainable than control.

Expectations inspire our craving for control – expectations and deduction. If A, then B. If I swing this bat, I will hit that ball. If I nail this audition, I will become a star. If I work hard, I will succeed. But what happens if I miss, or flop, or get fired?

You catch the downtown line at 6:00 a.m. for a 7:00 a.m. appointment. An urban nomad wanders onto the rail, delaying your train. You miss your connection and reach your destination at 7:40 a.m. Your client has left a note dripping with invective. Your expectations, as well as your commission, are dashed. If you accept your situation quickly, you can regroup and rectify; if you resist, you will bemoan and bewail and start pointing your finger. Which track will you choose?

Personal power derives from acceptance. Accept the reality of freedom, responsibility, and your unpredictable future, and you can improve your chances of impacting that future.

It’s your choice.