The Will to say “No”

Do we have “Free Will”?  There is a long, complicated history of debate on this issue. Some say we have it, some say we don’t.  Of course we intuitively feel that we do have Free Will, but among the most fascinating altered states I have experienced have been several clear visceral insights into how small (if not non-existent) my Free Will actually is.

For some, the thought of “no Free Will” may feel emotionally threatening.  For you folks, I will suggest a compromise — a weak version of Free Will: The Will to say “No”.

Blender MindPerhaps the only Free Will we possess is our will to say “no” to options our brain offers us.  Our brains are like blenders and are churning together many, many bits:

  • Memories: both facts and fictions
  • The influences of those around us
  • The circumstances around us
  • Our past experiences

It takes these bits, spins them around, and out splashes substance that feeds our awareness at that moment while their origins are hidden.  But there are lots of bits splattering out.  And so perhaps the only free will we have is to say “No” to most of them, leaving our actions to those options not negated.  “No” give us the ability to focus, to concentrate, to value.

I am sure my thoughts on this are not my own.  I think I may have read it somewhere in the past. But this is a position I have held as a metaphor in my mind for many years now.  So if any of my philosopher readers know the origin of this perspective, please do comment.

As an example of the “No” phenomena, recently I have been training for a sprint triathlon and often my mind would tell me to stop running and I have to say “no”.  Or when meditating, the mind will suggest I get up or that I daydream.  Again, I have to say “no”.   In both instances, instead of giving in to options drawing me away from my activity, I gently draw the mind away from the distracting option (say “no”) and continue my practice.

So while it seems that our lives are often automatic, pre-determined unfoldings due to:

  • The genetic code we inherit by no choice or our own
  • The random influence of natural events
  • The random influence of people we happen to meet and opportunities we happen to encounter

yet our ability to choose by saying “no” and thus choosing the best our minds offer us, we can influence many of these to some degree and slowly form a different self.

Some philosophers think we are not born with a soul but that we create one (I first read this in Gurdjief’s writings).  And though I am a no-soul kind of guy, I have to admit that if there were a soul, I imagine it must be largely formed by our “no”s.  Going through life by the luck of your genes or favorable opportunities and by obeying the promptings of your society may turn out very fortuitous for you — but you risk never developing a soul if you don’t learn to say “no”.

So rejoice in your ability to avoid distractions, it may be the only thing that makes you really YOU.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

7 responses to “The Will to say “No”

  1. But when you are saying “no” to something, you are saying “yes” to something else. For instance, your example, when you are saying “no” to the impulse to want to stop running you are also saying “yes” to the other thoughts that tell you that you need to keep running. This is no special freely willed ability, there are simply conditions that determine us and our paths all moved via causality.

    Also, take note that you suggest we “learn” to say “no.” Think about what learning really is. Because in other words, we are programmed, conditioned, and ultimately determined to say no to one thing and yes to another. I’m sorry, but this doesn’t qualify as even a weak version of “Free Will.” Nice try though, and I can’t blame you, because you really didn’t have choice to come to this conclusion. 🙂

  2. The ability to say no may not be a sign of free will, but the attitude of saying no to random stimuli is certainly a good way to condition oneself to act differently, or to “form a different self” as it is eloquently put above, free will or no.

    At least, reading this post I now have the will to say a pronounced no to random web surfing and start working.

  3. @ Timo
    Thanks ! I hope your “no” worked. 🙂

    @ Travis
    I anticipated the “No is Yes” objection but decided it was immaterial. But your objection that even saying “no” is determined may be true. But I thought I saw an article discussing the filtering of signals and timing of decisions and the like implying that it was more than the mind playing catch up. I am not sure. But even if it only another arm-chair philosopher’s myth, it inspires me at times so I thought I’d say it. I must say, the thought of determinism does not bother me, but perhaps it should. It just goes to show how some abstractions barely affect me even though I enjoy playing with them.
    Thanx for stopping in.

  4. Joel Wheeler

    I think I like this. I can’t tell if I agree or not.

    There’s an episode of Penn & Teller’s BULLSHIT! that takes on Alcoholics Anonymous, and winds up challenging the whole disease model of addiction. The counter-argument is basically that putting any substance into your body, repeatedly, is not a physiological disease, but a behavioral and conditioning problem. In other words, addicts are just really, really bad at saying “no” to the use of specific substances, even when said usage is causing bigger problems.

    It seems like what you’re talking about here is a conscious overcoming or rejection of natural or subconscious impulses…

  5. @ Wheeler
    That is fascinating. I just had a friend who went through rehab. I will discuss it with him. What you say seems to apply to him too.

    Thanx for stopping in!

  6. I think most people acquire free will in their forties. It takes that long for us to remove Mom from our shoulders. Some folks never get there.

    I have never been a parent, but I’m the proud aunt of 16. And I have watched them learn everything they do from the adults. My 1-year-old nephew says, “ahhh,” just like I do, and when he sees a car, he goes, “vroom, vroom” just like he heard me say it.

    Children are white canvases that caregivers get to write on, and as they learn habits, facial expressions, ways of thinking, and problem solving skills, their future is shaped. Their choices are limited by the attitude towards life they were given even before their 5th birthday.

    As we age, some of us are inquisitive enough to learn new tricks. But it’s very hard and it takes a lot of work.

Please share your opinions!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s