One of the things we often hear about what makes human beings special and perhaps unique on the planet is that we have free will. But what does that mean exactly?
Is it that we are self-directed and autonomous in a way that no other animal is? I think that’s what we mean when we say we have free will. It is what’s behind statements like, “I get to choose,” “I’m the decider,” “No one tells me what to do,” ” I make the decisions,” “I set the course.”
But do you? Does anyone?
Do we choose independently from our environment?
Are we really capable of charting our own course independently of what’s going on around us, our environment, our history, our beliefs etc.? And if we are, how often do we exercise our capacity to choose?
I for one am deeply invested in the idea of free will yet the concept has not been universally accepted. I’ll forgo trying to impress you with my limited erudition on the subject and have you look it up on Wikipedia – should you choose to do so (ha ha, I kill me).
If you accept for the discussion that we have free will, think for a moment. How often do you exercise your ability to choose? How often do you take self-directed action? In the course of a day how much of your actions come from careful consideration of options, or in light of some greater ambition that informs conscious choice? My bet is not very often.
But is not consciously choosing a bad thing?
No, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Exercising your will is a very costly exercise. It takes effort in at least mental energy, and lost opportunity in the time devoted to consideration. In the practice of your life I wholeheartedly encourage you to have much of your actions come from automatic pilot, to be spontaneous, to tango on the dance floor of life. Take care though, that your automatic pilot is leading you to your chosen destination, to your ambitions and life goals.
This calls for practices of planning, observing, and measuring to be part of your automatic pilot. But I digress here a bit. My intent is not to focus you on the importance of these practices, but to ask you to consider how much of your day is governed not by your free will, but by the structures you have set up around you, or have been set up for you; your environment.
You are inseparable from your environment
Human beings, as much as we like to think of ourselves as somehow separate and above the other organisms on the planet, are still essentially biological beings, and like all biological beings we exist in and indeed are part of our environments. We interact in an invisible dance with our environments and most of our actions come from the stimuli we receive from our environments. (For a humorous take on this click here to read an earlier post.)
Our environments consist of the physical environments we live in such as the layout of a room, what we watch and listen to on the TV and radio, and the kind of car we drive; our mental environments such as the beliefs we hold, the thoughts and moods we entertain; and our social environment i.e. the other human beings we routinely interact with, our friends and colleagues, what they do and what they talk about.
Environments “call forth” specific responses
Everything in our environment actually stimulates or “calls forth” some sort of response from us. We rarely negotiate a response to an environmental stimulus, the phone rings, the remote control beckons from the arm rest, the traffic light turns red/green, the daily routine telling us what to do next, the product at eye-level in the supermarket saying look/buy me.
Like the animals on the Nature channel we are continuously reacting to and with our environment. This is why it’s so hard for people with bad habits or addictions to give them up. It’s also why New Year’s resolutions routinely fail. Without a corresponding change to our environments, we are left to the strength of our free will to choose other than what our existing environments are set up to have us do, think or feel.
You can’t change behavior without considering environment
In the practice of your life I refer to the environmental influence on your actions as structure, and this is why a practice of structure is important. Designing and maintaing supporting structures e.g. physical, mental, and social structures for your life intentions are essential. Otherwise you will constantly find yourself being set back despite your best efforts.
Because most people are caught up in the cultural hubris about their free will, they tend to blame themselves e.g. “I’m weak,” “I’m not good enough,” I’m not smart enough,” “I’ll never make it” and this sets up a mental and emotional feedback structure that ensures they continue to fail.
Blame environment or structure and not your “bad” character
Try looking at a typical day in your life from the perspective of environments. Be the Jacques Cousteau, or David Attenborough of your own biological life and see what you can notice about your environments. (“See how our specimen reaches for the hot chocolate fudge Sundae when the other specimens are not looking.” [Or] “Notice our subject continually distract herself with reading and responding to emails whenever the browser is open.”)
From the routines you have set up, the furniture, and colors in your home and office, to the objects you have on your main work areas – especially your computer desktop – see if you can notice the reactions they “call forth” from you. Then ask yourself if those reactions support your intentions, and are consistent with your ethics. What changes could you make? Hint: Look to the structures you have set up in your environment, and not to your character or determination.