You might be thinking: “I can and do choose. I make choices all day.”
And I agree, we do make choices.
If we choose to eat chocolate instead of vanilla ice cream, we’re making a choice.
But, although we may have chosen to eat chocolate ice cream, we didn’t get to choose to like the flavor in the first place nor how our brains chose chocolate.
We do make choices, but we don’t get to choose to be the person making those choices nor how we make choices.
You might be thinking that we might not get to choose the way we are when we’re young, but at some point in life, at a certain age, we can start making choices about how we want to be. And so even though we didn’t when we were young, we do choose the way we are now.
Well, so the person we were at that age, let’s say it’s 18, wasn’t chosen by us.
And then this 18 year old version of us starts making choices about the way they want to be.
But who’s this new version of us that emerges at 18 to start making choices?
What happened to the initial 18 year old version of us that wasn’t chosen by us?
To make sense of this, we need to start from the beginning:
First, we develop consciousness.
We become conscious during infancy.
We start thinking.
We become aware of our bodies and our environments. We become aware of our existence. This is evidenced by the fact that infants can recognize themselves in the mirror and differentiate themselves from others.
As our brain develops so do our thoughts. We not only have more desires and beliefs but they also become more complex.
We start understanding the relationship between cause and effect, and start reasoning through what decisions we want to make.
We also develop a sense of self that we start to identify with.
We start to learn about ourselves and find ourselves.
And as we do, we start to feel more and more like ourselves.
We start to feel like we’re becoming more of who we are.
We come of age. We come into our own.
And because we identify with this sense of self, we feel like we’re ourselves.
We feel like we are our bodies and brains.
We feel like we have thoughts, generate our desires and we form our beliefs.
But it’s more than that, we feel like we’re something more —something more substantial, something more essential. A soul.
We feel like we can transcend our nature and nurture. Our bodies and brains. Even our thoughts, desires, and beliefs.
So we feel like we’re in control.
We feel like we choose our thoughts and actions.
We feel like we’re in control of and responsible for the way we are and what we do.
We feel like we’re the master of our fates.
On the other hand, we also develop awareness, starting with self-awareness.
Awareness is simply our ability to watch.
It starts with self-awareness: we begin to by watching ourselves and recognizing our own consciousness.
We start recognizing not just that we exist, but that we’re aware of our existence.
We begin to recognize that we have thoughts, and that we even thoughts about our thoughts.
We develop the ability to watch ourselves, both actions and thoughts, from a third person point of view.
This self-awareness turns into awareness, the ability to perceive existence as a whole. To perceive our world and ourselves, as well as others, as part of that world.
What’s important to note is that all our awareness can do is watch.
Our consciousness can and does utilize what our awareness sees in different ways, but here, we’re just talking about the ‘watching’ function.
And because all it can do is watch, our awareness sees that we’re not ourself.
Our awareness sees that everything we are, the way we are and the way we function, is a result of our nature and nurture. And since we didn’t choose those, whatever results from our nature and nurture can’t be us — neither our bodies, nor our brains, personalities, thoughts, consciousness, sense of self, or actions.
We’re just going to do what our nature and nurture programmed us to do. We’re going to think and act however we were programmed to.
Our awareness sees that our thoughts and decisions come first, and our sense of self comes after.
We have thoughts and make decisions based on our nature and nurture. Then our sense of self reconciles what we thought and did into our self image.
Our awareness sees that we don’t think our thoughts, they think us. We don’t make our decisions, they make us.
We’re not thinking our thoughts and making our decisions, but rather we’re watching them happen and identifying with them as they do.
We have no control. We just get a front seat to the show.
We’re more passenger than driver. We’re more spectator than actor. We’re more so watching a movie than we are playing a video game.
So are we ourselves? Are we our consciousness and sense of self? Or are we not ourselves, and rather our awareness?
Most people I’ve come across think we’re our consciousness. Some, mostly Buddhists, think it’s our awareness.
But whether we are or not is simply a matter of belief.
And also, besides the point.
The point is that we’re having a dual experience.
To be human is to be experiencing our life in two different ways at the same time.
And it’s all because we have two agents in our psychic apparatus. Or more simply, there’s two sides to us: our consciousness and awareness.
We’re us, a body, a brain, consciousness, and sense of self, which is having a specific experience as a specific human.
However, we’re also not us but our awareness. Our ability to watch ourselves, every thought and every action.
But it’s not just any dual experience, but a paradoxical one.
We’re living our lives but also watching ourselves live our lives.
We’re the watcher but we’re also the object being watched.
We’re the observer and the observed meeting together.
And this explains the human condition: simultaneously feeling like we are and aren’t ourselves.
Like we do and don’t get to choose the way we are and what we do.
So, sometimes we feel like we get to choose the way we are, and sometimes we feel like we can’t change no matter how hard we try.
Sometimes it feels like we get to choose our desires and beliefs, and sometimes we feel like we’re a prisoner to them.
Sometimes we feel like we get to choose what we do, and sometimes we feel like we can’t help ourselves.
So what about free will? Do we have free will or not?
Well, what is free will?
It really depends on the definition and the argument.
Philosophers, and people in general, have been arguing for millennia over this topic and each sees free will a little differently.
But again, whether we have free will or not is a matter of belief.
We have different experiences that lead us to believe that we either do or don’t have free will.
But that’s besides the point.
The point is that our dual experience make us feel like we do and don’t have free will.
Sometimes, we feel like we’re free because of our sense of self. Sometimes, we feel like we’re not because of our awareness.
In fact, these contradictory feelings are what lead us to ask a question that can’t be answered.
And feeling like we do and don’t possess free will, questioning whether we do or not, they’re all just the result of the human experience we’re having.
To be human is to feel like we have free will but don’t, to feel like we’re in control but not, to feel like we’re responsible but not.
So when things go well, we feel like we were good enough and made the right choices. But also feel like someone’s help was crucial, God or the universe allowed it to happen, or we were lucky.
When they don’t, we feel like we weren’t good enough or we made a mistake in the moment. But we also feel like something got in the way, or someone else was to blame, or luck wasn’t on our side.
So, to be human is to be having a paradoxical dual experience.
To seesaw back and forth between two versions of us that experience the world in opposite ways.
To sometimes feel the victim of our circumstances. And to sometimes feel like the victor in control of our own destinies.