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Free Will, Consciousness and Essential Self

‘Will’ is the determination people have to do something. Placing ‘free’ in front of ‘will’ promotes its meaning to the categorical power we humans supposedly posses to make choices, which makes us ‘masters of our destiny’. But do we really have free will? It does not seem to be so or, in the best case, it is less than what we could think.

A number of experiments have shown that the neuronal commands to perform any task (e.g., go to the movies or call someone) are issued in our brain before we become aware about the intention to carry out the task. By monitoring the brain activity on test subjects while they perform specific activities, using sophisticated imaging technology that collects input from electrodes connected to the subjects’ head, neuroscientists have confirmed the sequence of the neuronal and motion events. First, the neurons involved in the job instruct muscles to act; next, they tell the pre-frontal cortex—the seat of consciousness—what they have already decided; last, the action takes place. The ‘silly’ self, fully unaware of the actual chain of micro-events, stays convinced that is the maker of our decisions.

Our sense of identity, the brain’s supreme achievement, is neuronal software—super-complicated and incomprehensible—that self-develops and self-adjusts permanently, following a plan set up by the genetic code. This extraordinary software self-executes permanently—it calls itself into action without the need of an operator—for the rest of our days.

This wonderful code generates and updates permanently from the acquisition, modification or elimination of mental formations, the huge set of behavioral routines and conditioned reactions, both physical and mental, that we purposefully learn or inadvertently acquire throughout our life.

Unfortunately, we have limited control over this complex system; the ‘I’ that we would love to be in control is a product­—a subordinate—of the neuronal program. In the automatic production of every code instruction, the frontal cortex records both the wholesome formations (as detachment, humility, affection or tolerance) and the unwholesome ones (as greed, arrogance, hatred or inflexibility). These mental formations are the framework of our preferences and our dislikes. The former, the wholesome ones, which are ‘nature favoring survival’, makes up our essential self; the latter, the unwholesome set, which usually are discretionary, conform our redundant ego.

If we had free will, doubters say, there would not be alcoholics, drug addicts, gamblers, obsessed individuals or obese people. If we had no free will, jurists ask, how does the social order weigh our actions’ morality or immorality? Are we just puppets that cannot be subject to judge because of the inevitable fate of our deeds?

Unwholesome mental formations—cravings and aversions—are kinds of bugs (viruses, spyware, intrusive windows, unwanted email) that slip into the software of our brain and, without us noticing, take control over the mental ‘computer’. Unwholesome formations make up the redundant ego and manage our will; when they are in charge, we lack free will.

How do we deal with these mental bugs? What is the human equivalent of antivirus/anti-spam programs? According to the Buddha, we control harmful formations by maintaining awareness of our body, our sensations and our mental states; it is through them that cravings and aversions manifest. When we are mindful, we are acting from our essential self, which is always impartial and moral. The annoying bugs—the harmful formations—quiet down under the awareness of our essential nature.

In a different context, Pope Francis expressed a similar idea. In a recent letter he sent to La Repubblica, an Italian newspaper, he emphasized the importance of self-observation. When asked by the paper on whether God forgives those who do not believe in Him or are not in search of faith, the Pope responded in his note that “the question for those who don’t believe in God lies in obeying their own conscience. Sin, also for those who lack faith, exists when one goes against one’s conscience. To listen to our conscience means, in fact, to decide in face of what is perceived as good or evil. And on this decision pivots the goodness or malice of our action.”

In short, when we act out from our conscience, from our permanent self-observation—regardless of whether we are Christians, Buddhists or atheists—we flow with life as if we had free will. However, when the redundant ego takes over our will, we are indeed, metaphorically speaking, heading direct to a ‘living’ hell.

Atlanta, November 2013