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Will demystified

Updated on September 3, 2016

Will is simply what an individual wants to do, or the way they want something to go. People obviously have a lot of will, and almost everything we do involves making choices. Will is often conflicted because not every issue is straight forward, and many issues have several possible outcomes that aren’t ideal, but we have to choose one.

So we know what will looks like. We’re forced to use it all the time. But what is it? Where does it come from? Obviously its our likes and dislikes, as well as our desires. That’s what we base our choices on. We frame it that way: “I want”. I want a Bentley. I want everyone here to sit down please. I want only vanilla ice cream. You don’t even have to add the “I want” its implied.

Now, do we choose to like something or dislike it? No. We just like things or don’t. In some situations we can identify reasons we like this or that. In fact there are always reasons even if we don’t know what they are. But we never choose to like something. You can’t. You can pretend to like something or wish you could like something. We might even acquire a taste for something we didn’t like before. But for the vast majority of things we can’t just choose to like it if we really hate it.

So where do those likes and dislikes come from? Where do desires come from? In a word: conditioning.

Conditioning comes in two main categories: Genetic predisposition and environmental conditioning. Genetic predisposition is hard wired. We get inherited traits from our ancestors. Genetics determine our physical form; two arms and legs, walk upright, can’t fly by flapping arms, etc. They also give us many hard wired likes and dislikes.

Some of these include feeling too hot, too cold, or just right. We hate being too hot or cold, but like being just right. Just right for us, of course.

This specific physicality given by genes, produces needs. Basic needs for all humans are food, water, shelter, etc. Basic needs cause pain and even death if not met, and they drive us to do something to fulfill our needs. Look for food and water and shelter, etc.

Environmental conditioning is about our life experiences and what we learn. This includes culture you are raised in, who raised you, your teachers, your friends, etc. This dynamic gives us desires. Things we want beyond biological needs. Desires act exactly like needs in most ways. They cause unease, disappointment, desperation etc if not met, and a myriad of possible positive feelings like joy, excitement, triumph, security, prestige, etc when we fulfil them.

Your total conditioning then is environmental conditioning played against genetic predisposition. In other words, how your environment mixes with your hardwiring. That’s in essence who you are, and why you like what you like and dislike what you dislike.

No two people can occupy the same space at the same time, so your conditioning, experience and perspectives (over all) are unique.

So how does this work? Well, our brain has two major elements: A conscious part, and a non-conscious part. The conscious part identifies itself as “I”. It also translates feelings into concepts, uses complex language and runs an internal dialogue using language. It also uses logic.

The non-conscious part is instinct and hard wired responses: fight or flight, for instance. It gives us our feelings, sending them up to the conscious. It also acts when we need to.

The conscious mind is slow. A ball coming toward your face is going to hit you before consciousness can get the body to act. It deliberates. The subconscious, as some like to call it, has direct access to the body and acts fast because it acts automatically.

Again: the subconscious is your hard wired predisposition, and the consciousness has to do with the environmental part of conditioning. And this is how we learn, and what learning means.

Any new skill we learn is first deliberated about. Learning a musical instrument, for instance, you have to think about where your fingers are going, how to contort them to get the notes you want, how to breath if you play a wind instrument, how to position your lips to get a crisp note, and of course: which notes are which.

Now as we experiment with the instrument we learn. The more we learn the less thinking we have to do. Why? Because we’ve educated the instinctive, the subconscious. Eventually the instrument becomes like an extension of self. The music flows and the conscious mind is freed up to make minor adjustments if needed, or even decide what’s for supper without missing a beat.

Consciousness is too slow, and if at this point you over think things again, you make mistakes again.

Musicians’, writers and artists can often be heard saying the story, art work, or song writes itself. Particularly when improvising.

This is the same for all skills. We make them part of who we are. If you hate math, you don’t want it being part of self. And that’s what people do; we make things part of self, or reject things from self. Self is important to us and thus anything we make part of self is important to us, including places and other people. You heard the saying: You can’t love others if you can’t love yourself? Well it’s literally true.

Love is the act of making someone or something part of yourself; part of who you are. It’s more complex with another person rather than a thing or skill etc, because the hope is that the other person wants you to be part of who they are. So there is most often a struggle for dominance as he tries to mould her and she him, in to exactly what they want in an added half.

Because things that are part of our conditioning/part of us, are relegated to the subconscious, we have a lot of issues concerning not paying enough attention to our partner when we’ve won them. Making a spouse too much part of self ends up making them feel neglected like comfortable old shoes.

So conditioning is responsible for all kinds of things, because it is who we are. It is our personality.

Now, why is there a consciousness? Consciousness is due to a set of conditions: Our senses are imperfect and isolate us. We feel needs and pain, and most of all we have a memory which gives the individual continuity. Without memory no one could come to feel like an individual. No learning could happen. Each cell of our body has changed several times in our life time. The only stability of the individual is this personal history.

All these factors and more create the sense of “I” . One side of the brain has that distinct sense of “I”. The other does not, and acts automatically.

Recent tests show the subconscious knows up to 3 seconds before it informs consciousness exactly what its going to do. So who’s in charge? Well, the entire thing, of course. There is no separation between conscious and subconscious. That’s just a way to talk about it. They are both aspects of the brain and work together.

Now, when right and left are separated like in experiments concerning severe epilepsy, a strange thing was discovered: We have more than one source of will. People would consciously try to dress themselves and their other hand would start undressing them. Or they would decide to do something and hit themselves.

This is the two parts of conditioning separated, though not totally: the environmental/conscious, and the predisposed subconscious. Usually they are integrated, though they can be and often are conflicted. Battles of opposing conditioning are happening all the time.

Choices are made by dominance of factors. We make choices based on how we want an end result to turn out. Why we want that end result is because we perceive it to be the one in our best interest according to us/our conditioning. So we may all have potentially the same options, but some are open to us depending on the specific circumstance and some are not.

Often when the subconscious is educated certain doors that were open are now closed. Paul, from the bible, was part Jew on his mother’s side and part Roman on his father’s side. He was on his way to Damascus to pick up Christians for the Roman forums. Perhaps the fact that Christians were Jews never sat well with him. Perhaps he was riddled with guilt and internally conflicted. But along the road he fainted and had a vision. He instantly became a Christian. Before his conversion we might say he had a choice. He could have refused to do his job. Or perhaps an allegiance to his father or Rome or both, or just money was the dominant factor for him. But after his conversion he lost the ability to make the choice to find Christian’s for lion food. One door opened and another closed.

Your conditioning is your outlook on life, your personality, your will. Sometimes small changes have massive impacts on your life.

So there may be thousands of possible choices in any given situation, but only a handful open to each individual. It looks like humans can and do choose all of them, but as a collective, not as individuals. From the few remaining choices we eliminate one after the other until the dominant reason for action is found and action is taken. In a very real way, no other choice was possible for that individual under those exact circumstances. Much like wave function collapse in physics. All of your personal history is behind every choice. No choice is made without a reason behind it.

Consciousness in humans has been elevated a thousand fold due to complex language. Because of it we can think of complex concepts. We shorten them by naming them creating packets of information in just one word. Judaism is a word that one could write a book about and is a books worth of information in one word. I could have said “engineer”, “air craft”, or even “house”. Or any one of thousands.

Language was the leap in our evolution that really changed everything. And written language just put the icing on the cake. We can explain things to ourselves now, debate, explain our emotions to ourselves, develop tools like logic; all things that couldn’t be done without it.

Language also increased our sense of self.

And what is self? Our traits, our personalities, our quirks, (and we all have them} the way we respond to things. In fact what makes us who we are and what we are is our conditioning, our predispositions, acquired beliefs, and our memory.

Does that mean we don’t have “free” will? Well to me, the free in front of will is meaningless. How would one define free in the context of will? Free from coercion? No one is holding a gun to your head? Sure, but that’s not free of conditioning, or outside influence. One person I asked said: separate from god’s will. I’ll take that as separate from other peoples will, and that’s true. Your conditioning is unique, making you a unique individual.

But the question really is: are we responsible for our actions? And of course we are. Could we have chosen to do A instead of B? Yes... but no. “A” might well have been a possibility, but all the factors involved in that situation made B the choice for that individual at that time in the mind set the person was in at that moment.

How would “free” will work? Just randomly make choices based on nothing? We know that’s not how it works. We have feelings about situations, we try to figure out where we want the situation to go and what to do to get it there. Often we are confused or scared or desperate and not thinking rationally. Yet we know we have to act because inaction is action in its own right and has consequences. We make a choice and have to live with the consequences. There are no do-overs.

You did it, you’re guilty. I killed ten flies today with an elastic because my wife told me to. I didn’t really want to but if I did nothing they would lay eggs in my garbage and infest my house. I guess I could have tried to catch them alive and throw them out, but my instinct was to grab an elastic band, cut it into a long string and start vaporizing them. I used to get paid a penny each by my mother when I was small. I never miss.

If killing flies were illegal I’d be a mass murderer with thousands on my conscience. And I am. Now I feel bad about it, but when I was a kid it was great fun. But look at all the factors that influence me: my wife who doesn’t want flies and disease in the house, my mother who didn’t like that either and gave me a great incentive to find a quick effective way to kill them, my culture’s acceptance of the idea that humans are superior and fly lives don’t matter, my own love of the hunt, probably inherited from my ancient ancestors, my own feelings for many years that fly lives don’t matter, my ingenuity and love for the skill I learned, and so much more.

Could I have found another way? Yes. But today I had a long day at the office, I wanted to get to writing this, and catching flies live and perhaps answering a lot of questions about why I suddenly became interested in fly welfare, made it easier to just get it over with. Perhaps next time my resolve will hold and I’ll find a better way.

The above is just a partially fictitious example of why we do what we do. There are always reasons for our final choice. Many, in fact. Those reasons are felt as emotions and come from our conditioning. But we are choosing to act the way we act because in the end that’s what we want to do, which is the definition of exercising your will. No law needs to be changed on the basis of the fact that will is a manifestation of our conditioning, because our conditioning is us making choices and taking action because we want to as well as because we must.

We can rehabilitate people. They can all learn, and some will change for the better and some won’t.

Is there a measure of fate here? Might a person, due to their hard wired conditioning be fated to spend their lives in and out of jail? It’s not fate, of course, it’s cause and effect. But yes, of course that’s what we see in our justice systems

Free will is like saying free conditioning, which would be absurd and meaningless. Educated will is educated conditioning. Training in logic is conditioning. Learning any skill, be it mental or physical is conditioning, or if you like: reconditioning.

We can never de-condition ourselves as the mystics used to advise; we can only recondition ourselves, or be reconditioned by others or by events.

One of the keys here is need. Humans would do nothing without stimulus, internal or external or both together, and we get plenty of both. You don’t scratch unless you itch. You don’t blink unless your eyes need moisture. You don’t eat unless you feel a need to, you don’t do anything until you feel you need to.

Need is a type of conflict. Even pleasurable feelings that demand action are a conflict which demand resolution. Without the need for a better mouse trap no one builds one, even if that need is just finding a new product to make money with. Creativity is driven by need. Without conflict there is no need for creativity.

Imagination puts concepts together to form new things, techniques, processes, etc, that didn’t exist before.

Rene Descartes said that a proof that god exists is that humans can only know something through experience, and yet we understand perfection even though we never experience it. Therefore god implanted the concept in us so we would understand that it exists.

Of course he was wrong. I can imagine my life being better if only I had a free supply of good food. Then I can imagine it being even better if I didn’t have to worry about global conflicts. And I can go on and on imagining something better for hours.

But eventually all my wants and needs would be met, and that’s the ideal of perfection for most of us.

No need for it to be implanted, the idea of perfection comes from contemplating imperfection and trying to make ourselves better. Make our world better. Make our lives easier and better.

So imagination and creativity come in to being and in to play because of need/conflict. No need? Nothing to contemplate.

As far as I can tell, no AI will ever gain self aware sentience without it having needs that it must fulfill or suffer. It will also require the physical ability to fulfill those needs, and therefore be independently mobile. Only things that move require a brain. Plants don’t have them, and things like sea squirts are marine invertebrates that plant themselves in the soil like a plant. The tadpoles have a brain. They swim off, find a place to take root, and then eat their brain until they get established. No need for it after that.

So in summation, will is not a mystery. It is a manifestation of our conditioning. Other manifestations are personality, imagination, beliefs, and more.

We are our conditioning. And I won’t say: and nothing more, because that’s really plenty.


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    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 4 weeks ago from Orlando Florida

      I've become very interested in the concept of "free-will." Some say everything is predetermined and maybe they are right. Yet I feel like I have free-will.

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