The ultimate freedom philosophers talk about, especially existential philosophers, is not so much the world, but our experience of the world. In the words of psychotherapist Irvin D. Yalom:
Nothing in the world has significance except by virtue of one’s own creation. There are no rules, no ethical systems, no values; there is no external referent whatsoever; there is no grand design in the universe…
To experience existence in this manner is a dizzying sensation. Nothing is as it seemed. The very ground beneath one seems to open up. Indeed groundlessness is a commonly used term for a subjective experience of responsibility awareness. p. 221, Existential Psychotherapy
He adds: ‘we constitute the world in such a way that it appears independent of our constitution’ (p. 222). and ‘Our sense data tell us that the world is “there”, and that we enter and leave it‘ (p. 222).
It’s true isn’t it? That’s what we experience on waking and sleeping. But the fact is, equally clearly, that on sleeping we do not leave this world any more than we enter it again on waking. Though some theosophists might disagree with that statement. Leadbeater claimed our souls went on nightly journeys, whether we remembered them or not.
My central question in this post is: if we believe we don’t have free will, what influence do we have on our own lives?
This may sound like theory, but in my teaching days I taught kids with all kinds of diagnoses. One kid who was diagnosed as having ADHD told me: I can’t help it, I have ADHD. Which implies that even if he could have changed something about how he functioned, he wasn’t going to try because the adults in his world had given him the ultimate excuse to stay hyper for the rest of his life.
No amount of scientific studies proving how much our genes and environment steer us, can change that basic fact: if we don’t take responsibility for our lives, no one can. In his chapter about responsibility Yalom shares his experiences in the challenge of helping patients take responsibility for their own lives.
However, he also notes (p. 268) that ‘Many therapists are professional advocates of responsibility but secretly, in their own hearts and in their own belief systems, are environmental determinists.’
To combat this secret tendency in the heart of his audience, he goes on to share what it is that makes us know there is freedom of sorts. First of all (p. 271): we shape our own environment. Some people create conflict wherever they go. Others find helpful people wherever they go. The difference is in the person, the environment follows.
However, to take responsibility of our lives is ultimately, as Yalom suggests, to take responsibility of our experience of our lives. He quotes the ancient philosopher Epictetus who said: (p. 272)
I must die. I must be imprisoned. I must suffer exile. But must I die groaning? Must I whine as well? Can anyone hinder me from going into exile with a smile? The master threatens to chain me: what say you? Chain me? My leg you will chain – yes, but not my will – no, not even Zeus can conquer that.
Back to Yalom goes so far as to say: One’s attitude towards one’s situation is the very crux of being human (p. 272)
So, what do you all think? Is there free will? Are we fated to experience life in a certain way?