By Roland Watson

Free will is the third factor that helps shape our behavior, and hence our nature.

The idea of free will is simple. It means that you are able to do what you want to do, when you want to do it. It also means that you can decide not to do things, that other people are telling you to do.

Will is personal choice. It is where you make your own decisions. You decide what to choose, what to do, without regard to any influences.

Will can further cover all of your decisions, from the smallest, such as what to do right now, to the greatest, such as what course to follow in your life to become the person that you want to be.

Free will versus determinism

In the preceding articles, I discussed the impact of genetic influences on people versus environmental influences, which is sometimes referred to as nature versus nurture. When we add free will to the mix, the argument changes, to what is called: Free Will versus Determinism.

This is the idea that in some ways you are free to do what you want, but in other ways you are not. For the latter, you have been shaped - determined - by genetic and social influences.

Indeed, some people say that nature and nurture, grouped together, explain all - determine all - of our behavior. They say that there is no such thing as free will.

I have to add, as a joke, that they must have been influenced to say this!

They further argue that even when you consciously believe that you are making a free choice, in fact you have been influenced in some way to make that choice. Frankly, I would agree that in many cases this last point is true.

For example, people sometimes buy things that they previously saw in advertisements, without remembering this, while they are shopping in a store. The influence of the ad is hidden away in their subconscious, and it works its magic when the opportunity - the product - presents itself.

The question of the existence of free will, if this can be proved, is a subject in its own right. I will address it later in the article.

I will say at this time, though, that if we do not have free will, then the idea of personal freedom is a mirage. Moreover, there can be no such thing as democracy, which personally I have dedicated my life to promote. Democracy assumes not only the existence of an electorate that is able to make informed choices, but which is also free to do so.

Strength of will

The next thing to note is that some people have incredibly strong willpower. They seem able to discipline themselves to do just about anything.

Obvious examples of this are the Navy Seals and other special forces. First, they undergo incredibly grueling training. Then, they work in literally the most challenging environments and circumstances possible, and where their lives, and the lives of many other people, are continually at risk.

More generally, anyone who sets him or herself a challenging goal, of any type, and who works diligently for years to achieve it, has strong willpower.

Many people, though, have weak willpower. They have a hard time following through on anything.

The basic objective of the the University of Life is not only to help you recognize - and reject - negative social influences. It is also to help you harness the willpower - your willpower - that you will need to do it.

In an earlier article I asked the question: if form implies content, is anything truly random?Following from this, how can a non-random system not imply determinism?

The answer to this is: For a non-random system not to be wholly determined, it must have at least one degree of freedom. For the human system, this degree of freedom is will.

Will and chance

Furthermore, this is how we get chance. With the existence of freedom, chance is enabled.

For instance, two people may choose to travel along different paths, and then have a chance encounter when they intersect.

Interestingly, this provides another example of a feedback loop. Chance also enables will, such as when you are presented with the opportunity to act, perhaps in many different ways, following such an encounter.

The question of which comes – or came – first, chance or will, is a variation of the proverbial chicken and egg paradox.

Proof of free will

I said that some people deny the existence of free will. Is there any proof that it is real?

One such proof lies with inconsequential matters, over which there are arguably no influences.

Of these, we can start with body control. We can use our free will to decide to raise an arm, or to blink an eye.

Indeed, some people have achieved such a mastery of their will that they are able to use it to control their autonomous bodily processes. Advanced practitioners of yoga, for example, are able to slow down their heart beat.

As another, related example, experts at meditation are able to adjust their body's natural rhythm, for which there is also evidence that it results from the action of the heart. They are able to achieve a frequency that not only affects the heart but through it the brain as well, resulting in an increased ability to concentrate, and a deep sense of peace.

On the other hand, there are also mundane examples of the application of free will. For instance, you can deny yourself a glass of water when you are thirsty. You can of course also decide not to go to the bathroom, even though you feel the need. What possible influence could cause that?

The determinists have an answer for this. They argue that it is the influence that wants you to believe that you do have a choice.

This is an example of a circular argument. In this case the argument says that if you want something, you must have been influenced to want it.

Circular arguments are very difficult to refute, but I would note that they do not offer any type of proof. They do not give evidence of any specific, practical influence that leads you to deny yourself that glass of water, or trip to the bathroom.

For instance, imagine a situation where you are thirsty and want a drink, but where you also want to do something else, such as talk to another person, right then. In these types of situations, which are common, sometimes you choose to have a drink first, and others to say something to the person. The critical fact is that it is you who has decided what to do. You have made the choice.

Grand plans

There is also proof of the existence of free will in large matters. For example, you can purposely plan and implement a change in your life. Indeed, I intend to encourage you to make one such change. But, leaving this aside for the moment, among the many different types of things that you might want to do:

- You can exercise, and control your diet, to lose weight, and get into shape.

- You can stop smoking, and drinking alcohol.

- You can embark on a new career.

- You can seek out and find a partner for your life.

- Or, you can improve a relationship that you are already in.

Again, the overall objective of the University of Life is to convince you that you do have this power.

In other articles, I will give you a lot of ideas on how to counteract behavioral influences, both genetic and social. I will also give you a lot of ideas about purpose, about finding something on which to base your life. But, it will all be in your court after that. You are the one who is going to have to do it.

You can be the person that you want to be. You can be happy. You can have a great life. But, this is your responsibility.

You can of course also seek out other people for different types of help, but, it all starts with you - and your free will.

Aspects of free will

All of this raises one other question. What do I specifically mean by free will, or, said another way, how do we use it?

Free will is expressed through four different things: reason, discipline, effort, and courage. The influences of nature and nurture are in fact strongly deterministic. Your will must also be strong, to fight them off.

It all starts with reason. You look at the world, and using common sense and logic, decide what you want to do.

Of course, some things are easy, but others - many others - are not. Complicated goals in particular take a lot of time to achieve. You will need to maintain your discipline, to see them through.

Indeed, nothing is free. Everything that you want, even in a sense the simplest choice, takes effort. Again, achieving a complicated goal, will take a lot of effort.

As I said earlier, acts of will lead to new chance circumstances, and chance in turn creates new opportunities to express will. In some cases, though, chance involves - or it creates - danger.

All of your goals are in a sense uncertain. You may or may not be able to achieve them.

For some goals, such as the special forces soldiers trying to win a battle, the uncertainty will necessarily involve danger. And, for the goals in your life that involve danger, you will have to have the courage to see them through.

Courage is perhaps the defining aspect, and proof, of free will. It demonstrates that you are willing to take risks, and sacrifice, to get what you want.

Limits to free will

In conclusion, and having said all this, there are some limits to our free will. The most obvious example is when your will conflicts with the will, or the conditioning, of another person. The fact that you can do what you want does not mean that other people will want to do what you want.

As one case, and which involves a certain type of danger, you may love someone, but - no matter what you do - he or she may not love you.

Also, there are the basic limits of life as a Homo sapiens. For instance, you may, through exercising your will, follow a path that maximizes your chances of living to be one hundred. But, no matter what you do, you won't make it to one hundred and fifty.

In the next article, I will review another prospective factor behind our behavior: the life force.

© Roland Watson 2013