Chapter 15. Free will and responsibility

The doctrine of individual free will and responsibility is widespread in both religion and psychology. The traditional doctrine of free will states that the individual is free to choose his thoughts and actions, and indeed must so choose. A poor or mistaken choice may lead to suffering, while a felicitous or correct choice may lead to happiness. Responsibility as it is conventionally defined means that one’s suffering or happiness are a direct result of choices freely made. However, no traditional teaching dares to assert that a correct choice will always lead to happiness, for there is always the karmic load of past choices which must be endured, not to mention the role of chance in heredity and environment. Thus, causality and chance severely limit the fruits of one’s choices. Furthermore, no choice even in itself can ever be entirely free because genetics and conditioning are always inseparable components. Thus, in traditional thinking, it is in fact impossible to determine that a choice was ever really freely made; hence, it is never really possible to assign blame, credit, or responsibility for any choice. This does not prevent people from attempting such assignments, however. Indeed, when society punishes a transgressor, there is usually as much self-righteous outrage as there is desire to deter or to condition future behavior.  The tendency to assign or to assume total responsibility regardless of the actual degree of freedom in the choice places the chooser in a hopeless double bind. It seems that the only way to escape one’s heredity and conditioning is to assert one’s free will, yet free will is never possible because of one’s heredity and conditioning!

Question: Do you feel responsible for your actions? What is the origin of that feeling?
Question: Does the thought of not feeling responsible scare you?

In some dualistic New Age teachings, in particular in A Course in Miracles (ACIM, see and in the "Seth" books of Jane Roberts (see, the double bind is escaped by simply asserting that all choices are totally free! Thus, the traditional concept of responsibility has been expanded to state that everything at all times that happens to an individual is a result of choices freely made, and that one must accept responsibility for one’s entire life. This implies that one’s heredity and environment are also a result of choice.  The superficial advantage of adopting this point of view is that there is no room left for any ambiguity in accepting responsibility, and there is never any justification whatsoever in blaming anybody or anything else for one’s own lot in life. 

In this philosophy, since everything that happens to us is our own responsibility, the existence of separate, autonomous individuals who are making individual choices is not allowed. Therefore, we must comprise a single, collective, transcendent entity (in ACIM, this is the “Son of God” which makes the choice for separation as a result of a “tiny mad idea” ( This is seemingly an empowering concept, because it requires that we accept the responsibility of being the sole cause of our destiny. However, a danger is that it can lead to tremendous guilt, regret, and self-condemnation when the inevitable misfortunes and disasters occur and we are forced to accept that our own choices brought them about. The only way out of this guilt is to realize that we also have the choice of whether or not to feel guilty, and to regard the event as a blessing rather than a disaster. A major problem with this teaching is the complicated and unverifiable nature of the metaphysics. It must be accepted on faith as a theological truth.

In the teaching of ACIM, as in the dream metaphor that we used in Section 13.1, the world is a dream and all of the "individuals" are merely dreamed figures with no volition or free will. In both cases we are in reality transcendent to these figures. However, in contrast with nonduality in which we are pure Awareness, in ACIM we are the transcendent dreamer (the "Son of God") which is a being with form, intention, and volition. Thus, ACIM is dualistic because in it there is a separation between the dreamer and God. This separation is more than a merely dreamed separation, because in ACIM, God is our creator and knows nothing about the dream.  However, if there were really no separation, God could not be our creator because then we would be God. In this course, we do not use the concept of God as creator because, not only is it not a useful pointer to Reality, but it is, in fact, downright misleading.  Because fear inevitably arises whenever there is a belief in separation, if we think of God as our creator, we will fear God.  

In contrast with nonduality, which says that the dream is a completely spontaneous happening within Consciousness, the dreamer of ACIM has total responsibility for everything that happens in the dream, as well as for the dream’s (world’s) existence in the first place. This responsibility exists even though the dreamer is asleep and dreaming, but, of course, the dreamer has chosen to fall asleep and to dream. In addition to giving us this unfathomable burden of responsibility, ACIM is much more complicated than nonduality. Important parts of it, such as the existence of the dreamer and of the choices it made prior to this lifetime, are intrinsically unverifiable, and are therefore merely theological assertions. Such assertions make the metaphysics unbelievable to the incredulous. Because they are made only to preserve the concept of free will which itself cannot be verified, there are no grounds for making them.

Both the traditional and the New Age ways of thinking are based on the assumption that there is an entity who makes choices and who must accept responsibility for the outcomes of those choices. Traditionally, this entity is the individual, whereas in ACIM, the entity is the dreamer. In contrast, we have already seen from empirical observation, not from ex cathedra pronouncements, that there is no free will (see Sections 5.9, 5.10, 5.11, 5.12, and 10.2) so there can be no responsibility. Furthermore, the sages of nonduality never speak of any kind of transcendent entity that chooses. The dream happens completely spontaneously.

An argument often arises in opposition to the concept of no responsibility. If there is no responsibility, what is to prevent an individual from being irresponsible, perhaps even indulging in the desire to steal or murder? If stealing or murder happens, then it happens, if not, it doesn’t. This is true both before and after a person questions the concept of responsibility. Everything happens as it must, whether or not the concept of responsibility exists. It is very clear that the concept of responsibility has not prevented stealing and murder from happening in the past. Everything is part of the impersonal functioning of Consciousness, including stealing and murder. In addition to producing suffering, the concept of responsibility encourages a sense of moral outrage to arise when the event occurs, and a sense of moral retribution when the "perpetrator" has been caught and punished. Both reinforce the concept of separation. Of course, there is no perpetrator. We must clearly understand, however, that the widespread beliefs in the concepts of responsibility and retribution are also part of the functioning of Consciousness. It is all happening as it must. (Even though the sage has no sense of personal responsibility, he/she is highly unlikely to steal or murder because the sage sees no separation between individuals, see Chapter 16.)

Is the absence of feelings of responsibility and guilt equivalent to the emotional blindness of a psychopathic personality?  The answer is clearly no if we look at the characteristics of a psychopath (from

  1. Superficial charm and average intelligence.
  2. Absence of delusions and other signs of irrational thinking.
  3. Absence of nervousness or neurotic manifestations.
  4. Unreliability.
  5. Untruthfulness and insincerity.
  6. Lack of remorse or shame.
  7. Antisocial behavior without apparent compunction.
  8. Poor judgment and failure to learn from experience.
  9. Pathological egocentricity and incapacity to love.
  10. General poverty in major affective reactions.
  11. Specific loss of insight.
  12. Unresponsiveness in general interpersonal relations.
  13. Fantastic and uninviting behavior with drink, and sometimes without.
  14. Suicide threats rarely carried out.
  15. Sex life impersonal, trivial, and poorly integrated.
  16. Failure to follow any life plan.

The sense of being a separate individual is necessarily associated with the concomitant sense of having free will. Therefore, as long as we think of ourselves as individuals, we will feel that we are making choices. Some sages capitalize on this by teaching us that we are free to enquire into this sense of individuality and free will and thereby to look for the source of the I-notion.  Ramana Maharshi, Russell Smith, and Nome, tell us that we are free at any time to wake up and be free, since freedom is our true nature. When asked whether there was free will or destiny, Ramana Maharshi said to some people that everything is predetermined, to others to find out who it is that has free will, and to still others that, as long as there is a sense of individuality, there is a sense of free will. Thus, these sages direct their answers to the level of acceptability by the questioner.  But freedom of choice can only be a concept that may be useful for some people at some time to encourage them to question their freedom of choice and to see whether there can be true freedom in a mere concept.

Ramesh, Wei Wu Wei, and their enlightened disciples are some of the Western sages of nonduality whose teachings consistently emphasize the absence of the doer because the sense of doership is the source of all suffering. Other sages will at times ask that the disciple take responsibility for choosing, and at other times will say that everything happens according to destiny. One such sage was the Buddha who taught that there is no self that can choose (see Section 14.5) but at the same time asked the individual to take responsibility for his/her path out of suffering. The circumstances and the state of the disciple’s ego determine which approach is taken. It is thus clear that for these latter sages, consistency is less important than using the most effective pointer to Reality for a particular disciple, time, and situation. They attempt to avoid the logical dilemma by saying that, as seen from the dream there appear to be individuals and free will, but as seen from Reality there are no individuals and there is no free will. (None of these sages refer to a metaphysical transcendental self that chooses as does ACIM.) Furthermore, as long as we think we can choose, we will think that what happens to us is a result of our choices even though what actually happens depends on the state of the entire universe at the time (see Section 12.3). (The "law of unintended consequences" is a reflection of the impossibility of making a truly informed choice.)

From this discussion, we can see that to question the existence of free will is only one approach to the problem. Another approach is to question the existence of the “me” itself. When sages like Nome and Russell Smith say we are free to be free, the question must arise, who are the "we"? In Ramesh’s teaching, there is no “me” that can do anything, including questioning the existence of the “me” and free will. If questioning happens, it is because it must. If it doesn’t, it cannot. It is this understanding that leads to freedom.

This page last updated June 7, 2007.
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