Most of us are afraid of losing our freedom.
We like being able to say what we want, go where we want, do what we want. Within limits, of course. Absolute freedom is impossible. Constraints are part of the human condition.
This helps explain the almost universal belief in free will, and the desire to exercise free will to the fullest.
Even if we're constrained by outer circumstances, such as not being able to drive 200 miles an hour because our car won't go that fast, most people have the feeling that what they are capable of choosing to do is within their control.
I walk into Starbucks. I'm asked "What would you like?" It certainly seems as if I'm free to order whatever is on the menu, even though I've never had a desire for any drink other than a latte or regular coffee.
In one sense, this is true.
My brain and vocal cords are capable of speaking the sounds that correspond to the dizzying variety of beverages that can be ordered at Starbucks. However, the notion that I can freely will to do whatever at any moment is ridiculously wrong.
Free will is an illusion. More accurately, as Richard Oerton says in his book "The Nonsense of Free Will," it is an illusion of an illusion.
Determinists sometimes speak of "the illusion of free will", but this is a very odd sort of illusion. If you see a mirage in the desert, the illusion is of something which conforms with the laws of nature and might really be there. But the illusion of free will, surely, is an illusion of something incomprehensible: an illusion of an illusion?
Incomprehensible, because genuine free will (as contrasted with watered-down varieties such as compatibilism) can't coexist with causality. And everywhere we look, causes and effects rule the roost. Oerton writes:
Human beings, according to a believer in free will, manage somehow to stand outside the natural laws which govern the rest of the universe and, despite being inextricably a part of it, are somehow exempt from the inter-dependent causal relationships of its other elements.
So that's why I titled this post as I did.
Free will, if it existed, would cut us loose from everything else in the cosmos. We'd be free-floating bits of... what? Hard to imagine. What would it be like to be unaffected by anything in existence, utterly detached from every other sentient being and insentient object, having no relationship with them?
Sounds like hell to me. Which got me to thinking about why the illusion of free will is worshipped so highly by most religions.
Shouldn't a primary life goal, whether spiritual or secular, involve relating more intimately, lovingly, caringly, and compassionately with other parts of the universe? Isn't it better to be connected than alone, part of the pattern woven into the fabric of the All rather than an isolated thread?
In Christianity, probably along with other monotheistic religions, God supposedly gave humans free will. (Of course, if we weren't free to accept or reject that gift, that seems to limit our freedom.) This supports notions of heaven, hell, salvation, redemption, and such.
Because if everything we do and all that we are is determined by forces outside our control, the theological basis for divine rewards and punishments dissolves. Stuff just happens naturally, causes and effects proceeding in accord with the laws of nature.
Eastern views of karma thus seem closer to reality than Western views of sin and virtue. However, there still remains the question of what gets the karmic ball rolling for an individual soul/self.
Meaning, if what we do is determined by previous causes and effects, yet we still have to go through rewards and punishments of our current actions, where is the fairness in that if free will wasn't present at the beginning of a long causative chain?
That's one problem with karma-based spirituality. Another is that our interconnectedness with the cosmos through causes and effects generally is viewed by Eastern religions as something to escape from, rather than to embrace.
Traditionally, Hinduism and Buddhism speak of being freed from cycles of birth and rebirth controlled by karmic law. We keep being born in different bodies, human or otherwise, until our store of karma is exhausted through some means: meditation, selfless service, guru's grace, or whatever.
This used to make sense to me. So much sense, I spent several years writing a book, "Life is Fair," about the karmic rationale for vegetarianism that was published in India. (A PDF file of the book can be downloaded via the previous link.)
Now, though, I'm happy to see myself as nothing special. I'm just a temporarily existing part of a vast cosmos that existed long before me and will continue on long after me. I'm affected by the countless connections I have with other things and people.
Those interrelationships have made me who I am, and continue to form me. I'm not free to do whatever I will. My will, intentions, desires, actions, and such spring from causes which, ultimately, can be traced all the way back to the big bang some 14 billion years ago.
And also are as recent as the sights and sounds cascading into my brain right now, along with every other influence acting upon me at the moment.
Would I have it any other way? No. Thankfully, because I've got no choice.
Free will doesn't exist, and I don't exist apart from everything else in the cosmos. I'm a part of the whole, dependent, not independent. Naturally I also am not free to lose my belief in free will; that's just happened, for reasons not of my own making.