The free-will assumption

Here’s a thought exercise.

Let’s say you are at a meditation retreat. Your eyes are closed and you are trying hard to focus on your breath. You then hear somebody behind you clicking their tongue every minute or so. No matter how much you try, your attention wavers to this sound.

You patiently endure this for the hour-long session, all the while, determined to give this person a sound hearing when it is over. With your eyes closed, your thoughts drift to how best you can express your indignation. With ever click, your irritation grows at this inconsiderate and insolent person behind you.

Then, a gong sounds the end of the hour and the session breaks up. You turn back to identify the culprit who has just sabotaged your meditation session only to find that there is nobody there. The clicks were, in fact, from a radiator fan.

What happens when you find out about this? Does your anger melt away? Does it even transform into laughter?

Why are we angry at a person but not a radiator fan? It is because we believe that persons have free-will, and therefore, when they wrong us, they do it deliberately. We believe that non-living objects or even animals have no will of their own, so we are more forgiving of their actions.

But is our assumption correct? Given how fickle our minds are, how much free-will do we really have? How different are people’s entrenched habits and patterns from the periodic clicking of a radiotor fan?

Suspening belief in free-will need not turn us into fatalists. It could end up making us compassionate and forgiving.