Is there a free will?

This question doesn´t quite leave me after having seen the brilliant movie Winter´s Bone, about a  young girl´s predicament in poor and deprived circumstances in a backward community in  Missouri, USA. The  17 year old girl, Ree Dolly, carries her whole family. The father has left them to  ”cook” metampethamine and hide from the police, and her mother has withdrawn into  herself. So Ree has to fend for her two smaller siblings and her mother and at the same time keep  creditors and  the law at bay.

Ree´s upbringing, her network and family, the hard times – everything points towards a sad end to the story, with Ree, her siblings and mother being evicted from their property and the family scattered for the winds.

Somehow, Ree unexpectedly rises to the occasion and finds against all odds the resources to rescue the family and ride out the situation. Instead of a gloomy end, her remark to her brother who anxiously asks if she is going to abandon them (”I would be lost if I didn´t have to carry you two on my back”), can stand as a human statement for all times.

Maybe the girl simply uses her free will to break with the past? But is there such a thing? As a regular Acem meditator over decades I have experienced increased mental freedom in situations where I would normally have reacted stereotypically, limited by my tensions and upbringing. Meditation has taken me into new territory in my life, in the way that I feel free to pursue a broader range of interests and impulses. In my experience  the free will does exist. But many people object to the idea. Free will is an illusion, they say. You are tied by your earlier experiences, your circumstances and by your genetics. There´s very little room to maneuver outside the box. Even the will to do good can be explained in light of subtle  favour exchanges, game theorists say.

That may be so, but even small steps forward are important when it comes to breaking unsatisfying life patterns.  The free mental attitude that regular meditation cultivates gives you increased room to reflect and choose between conflicting impulses before you make your decisions. There´s still room for the unexpected!


  1. Grunde

    I just read about someone doing experiments about this. They told people to touch a screen with flashing random letters with either their left or right index finger whenever they felt like. At the same time the used fMRI to look at the brain activity.

    And the results:
    “The conscious decision to push the button was made about a second before the actual act, but the team discovered that a pattern of brain activity seemed to predict that decision by as many as seven seconds. Long before the subjects were even aware of making a choice, it seems, their brains had already decided.”

    I’m not really convinced that you can do a such a simple experiment to decide such a complex question. Or even any experiment.

    Read the story here:

  2. folkeg

    I´ve also heard about this experiment, Grunde. It´s interesting. My guess is that the reality when it comes to this is very complex and ambiguous.

  3. Kaif

    Thank you Folke for this very interesting post. In my experience, it is obvious that meditation gives me an ability to act less in terms of my habitual patterns. At the same time, I feel that the other choice I have is not necessarily of acting in any way I please, which would seem omnipotent. Rather, meditation makes one more aware of another kind of personality which is more authentic and perhaps has deeper roots. So, it seems that the choice is more between a kind of deeper self and a superficial self. To take a somewhat simplistic example, a person who is very shy may learn to be more sociable, but for some persons, that sociability may emerge as a warm-hearted, welcoming attitude, while for others, it may emerge as good leadership qualities, boldness, and authority.

    Also, the very fact that I came across something such as Acem Meditation (or other forms of self-development), which helped me gain some degree of freedom from my past, was a matter of luck, because that would not have happened had I been in another place or another time where such methods were not available.

    And even after learning the technique and having an option of gaining freedom, some continue on the path while others are not able to. It sometimes seems to me that we are predetermined as to how far we can get on the path of freedom.

  4. Folke

    Thanks for your remarks, Kaif. This is complex stuff! I agree that we may have limitations as to whether we can become regular meditators (you need to be able to organise yourself to a degree, and you have to be able to follow long term goals rather than follow your every whim).
    I also think you need to have a certain disposition, maybe you could call it talent, towards being introspective. Or at least an interest in what lies beneath the surface of your own mind. So I agree, our freedom is limited, but we may have a little more freedom to pursue our own agenda than we actually act upon.
    Why don´t we all use our windows of opportunity to chart new mental territory? I guess there are many answers to that, from laziness to hedonism to a lack of self confidence, or a hectic schedule that doesn´t leave room for contemplation. Or simply that we have other priorities than introspection.

  5. Karan Sewani

    Nice article. commendable effort to touch upon and reflect on this complex topic.

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