I’ve convinced myself that free will doesn’t exist.

It’s shocking to admit because I have a lot of goals and plans and values and and principles… but maybe “I” don’t have then after all.

Imagine you have a powerful computer and neural network that recreates an exact replica of the structure of your brain and nervous system, pre-loaded with all of your existing state. Would that neural network not make the same decision as you in the next instant? And if it was exposed to exactly the same environmental stimuli as your own brain going forward, would it not continue to make exactly the same decisions? To believe otherwise would mean believing there is something that exists independent of your brain and nervous system that is calling the shots.

You may be 100% certain that you decided to click on this essay and read it right now, but from where did the impulse arise to make that decision? It’s the result of a causal chain of events, of sensory stimulation, of the hormones present in your body, of your genetics, of your ancestor’s environment and culture, of a butterfly fluttering its wings on the other side of the world, and of the big bang.

“Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.” - Arthur Schopenhauer

You can examine this experientially through various types of meditation like Mahamudra or Dzogchen, where one searches for a “self” that is independently arising only to discover that no such self exists.

So if there’s no free will, now what? Buddhists make a distinction between conventional truth, or what I will call pragmatism, and ultimate truth. It’s pragmatically useful to believe that a self exists, and that it has free will. It seems to work well in our current society and culture. It’s just not ultimately true.

The choice I do believe you have is your identification as consciousness, and your relationship to the phenomena that occur in consciousness. You are not in control of the events that occur in life but you can control the amount of suffering you experience in your body as a result. Circumstances in life are occurring, and the vehicle through which you are experiencing them can choose to be open and loving, or closed and suffering. That is really the only ultimate choice you have.

Mastery then, is to hold this ultimate truth but continue to play the game of life anyway. The movie Tenet gives some advice: “it’s an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world, it’s not an excuse for doing nothing.” Pragmatically speaking you should continue to pursue your goals and your purpose, just know they aren’t really “yours”.