What we call ‘volition’ exists only in relation to the everyday mechanical self, and even then it is only pseudo-volition. It’s not the real thing – it can’t be the real thing because the real thing doesn’t exist.
One way of explaining volition is to say that it has to do with ‘getting our own way’ (‘asserting ourselves’) but this isn’t the full story because even when we aren’t able to get our own way, even when we are quite powerless in a situation, we can still have volition. [Or rather we can still have the illusion of volition.] What we have then is ‘thwarted volition’, otherwise known as frustration. We’re frustrated because the volition we imagine ourselves to have is being blocked.
Frustration is the thwarting of our personal will and so we still feel that we do have volition, it’s just that we can’t put it into action. We can’t exercise it. The illusion of personal agency is still very much there, therefore, and this is why there is so much mental anguish involved. If we didn’t believe in personal will or personal agency then the pain of being blocked or thwarted wouldn’t be there anymore – there’s nothing there to be blocked or thwarted, after all!
Only the mechanical self (which Wei Wu Wei refers to as ‘the pseudo-entity’) has volition but this isn’t real volition because this mechanical self isn’t who we are. It isn’t real volition because the pseudo-entity that we take ourselves to be doesn’t actually exist. It has been created – so to speak – by the self-deceptive act of pretending to be someone (or something) that we aren’t, and then forgetting that we are only pretending. When I pretend to be someone or something I’m not and then conveniently forget that I myself have created this imaginary identity (via the act of pretending), then that projected entity, that appearance of a ‘self’, cannot be said to have any true volition. It can only have imaginary volition; it can only have ‘volition within the contrived context of the show that is being put on’.
We could also think of this in terms of role play – if I am playing a role (and forgetting in the process that I am) then this role that I am enacting cannot under any circumstances be said to ‘possess free will’. The role that I am playing cannot have free will because there is absolutely no basis for it. When I play a pre-scripted part in a play then that part has no agency of their own (even though it does have agency in the play). When I am acting out of a role – but have forgotten that I am – then I can’t decide upon anything, I can’t choose anything, even though I may have the very strong impression that I can do just this. All of my so-called decisions, all of my so-called ‘choices’, come out of the script that informs that particular role; the choices that come out of me playing a particular role are that role. They are predetermined, in other words. The purposeful output that comes out of a particular predetermined identity is that identity and so we cannot say that it is in any way ‘free’. ‘Freedom’ is entirely the wrong word to use in this connection…
‘Free’ means that nothing has been predetermined, it means that there isn’t any script to follow. If I know who I am (or rather, if I think I know who I am) then everything follows on from this all-important idea. Everything that I do or think has to be logically consistent with it; I am a slave to this idea of who I am and so nothing that comes about as a result of this slavery can be regarded as being freedom. I am acting out the original, invisible assumptions that thought is based on and that is all I can ever do. This is the ‘unconscious life’ in a nutshell! For something new to happen I would have to have awareness of these original assumptions but to be aware in this way would involve transcending my idea myself, which takes me very much outside of my comfort zone. It’s so far out of my comfort zone that – as a rule – I absolutely don’t want to have anything to do with it. Genuine freedom (i.e., the freedom not to be the identity that I am compelled by thought to believe I am) is not what I’m looking for – I’m looking for something else entirely.
We can say therefore that we are in the unhappy position of valuing the comfort zone of having a predetermined role or identity (and the entirely spurious sense of agency or personal volition that comes with this) more than we value seeing the actual truth of what is going on (which is that the only volition we have is the pseudo-volition of the predetermined entity we think we are). There are two falsehoods here therefore:  is that we have free will and  is that we are this mechanical self. In one (very limited) way this is no hardship to us – in no way do I see the mechanical self as not being who I am (which is the same thing as saying that I don’t see it to be purely mechanical or rule-based since if I were to see clearly see this then I would also see that this isn’t who I am) and neither do I see that I am devoid of any genuine volition (since my motivation follow on from my thoughts and my thoughts are always predetermined).
There is nothing volitional about our thinking, no matter what we might imagine to the contrary – thought runs us, as David Bohm says, and as it does so it provides us with the information that we are running it. The system of thought provides us with a complete package of information about our situation, none of which is true. Nothing thought tells this can ever be true since thought is an abstract system of representations which makes the implicit claim to be the same thing as what is being (supposedly) represented. The only way the thought or idea would not be a lie, would not be a deception, would be if the thought or idea came with qualifying information that it is only a representation, and this can’t ever happen. There is never any such qualification. Thought is always concrete – our thoughts are always purely literally nature and on this account they can never transcend themselves. The lie that we are talking about is ‘the lie of the concrete’, ‘the lie of the literal’, therefore, and it is this lie that keeps us in thrall to the unreal.
The concrete or literal reality doesn’t exist, even though we are tied to it with every thought. We look out at the world, and interact with the world, exclusively on the basis of the concrete viewpoint, which is the everyday or mechanical self, which Wei Wu Wei refers to as ‘the pseudo-entity’. This is a perfectly legitimate thing to do – to be sure – but when we exist in this concrete modality then we don’t have any genuine volition, only the illusion of it (as we have been saying). If ‘the world that is made up of things’ were actually real (if our literal statements about the world were actually true) then our motivation to either obtain or avoid these things (our ‘attachments’, in other words) would – perhaps – be genuinely volitional but they aren’t. There is no bona fide motivation in an unreal world, there can be no agency when the entity which that agency is ascribed to is nothing more than a mental fiction. For there to be actual agency the pseudo-entity would have to be real instead of ‘an act’, and it isn’t.
Image – pixel4k.com