Today I got this question via email:
Hey Brian, quick question. But there might not be a quick answer. LOL
Do the concept of wu wei and the absence of free will work together?
For some reason, I’m having trouble really understanding wu wei and how it works. Most of the time, I think I understand it from an intellectual stand point. But then walking in it is a whole different animal.
Wu wei is a Taoist term that literally means non-doing. But "effortless effort" is how I think of wu wei. It's when things are going really smoothly, when we're in a state of flow, when this follows that in a pleasingly melodious fashion.
Naturally I had a quick answer to the quick question.
Well, my understanding of wu wei is that it basically means effortless effort. So it seems to me that it meshes nicely with no free will. My reason for thinking this is that most of our problems arise from either believing that the past could have been different from what it was, or that weâ€™ll make a mistake in some future decision. If we accept that both the past and future are determined, including our efforts to decide what to do, then this means that we can relax about what has happened or will happen, because what is to be, will be (as an old song says).
When I was just a little girl
I asked my mother, What will I be?
Will I be pretty? Will I be rich?
Here's what she said to me:
Que sera, sera
Whatever will be, will be
The future's not ours to see
Que sera, sera
What will be, will be
Pretty damn simple philosophy of life. And an appealing one.
I've written a lot about free will, or rather the lack thereof, most recently here. But I'd never thought before about the relationship between wu wei and free will.
Now I've got another reason to embrace the almost certain reality that free will is an illusion. Determinism is the secular equivalent of God's will, fate, karma, destiny, and similar supernatural notions.
We atheists can get the same peace of mind from accepting determinism, and hence our lack of free will, as religious believers get from those other ideas.
What will be, will be. The future's not ours to see.
I remember hearing this 1956 Doris Day song when I was just seven or eight. It rang true to my child brain then. It rings true to my senior citizen brain now.