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The illusion of no control

Leo Babauta of Zen Habits recently wrote an interesting piece called, “The Illusion of Control.” In it he describes how our efforts to control our lives and our surroundings are fundamentally flawed and worthless. We cannot control things, Leo argues, because our world is too complex, and the future is ultimately unknown.

I partially agree, but I also find his position a bit absolutist:

    “When you think you control something, you’re wrong.”

No, at least not always. When I consciously make a decision, I’m taking control over my actions. When I choose to say something nice, hug someone, or do some other act of loving-kindness, I am indeed taking control over my pattern of behavior.

    “Consider the fish. A fish swims in a chaotic sea that it cannot possibly control — much as we all do. The fish, unlike us, is under no illusion that it controls the sea, or other fish in the sea. The fish doesn’t even try to control where it ends up — it just swims, either going with the flow or dealing with the flow as it comes. It eats, and hides, and mates, but does not try to control a thing.”

It may be a bit presumptuous for any of us to try and understand the psychology of a fish, but I would argue that a fish is not under the assumption that it has no control over anything.

Have you ever tried to catch a fish with a net before? The fish does not sit idly, drifting with the current, going wherever destiny seems to take it; instead, it reacts to the net by moving away and seeking freedom.

How much of the fish’s actions are conscious or unconscious is beside the point, the fish acts as if it has a mind of it’s own (and I would argue it does!), and this mind determines some of that fish’s destiny.

If a boat comes by and kills the fish, sure, there may have been nothing in that fish’s capacity to change those circumstances. But just because some things are outside of our control doesn’t mean everything is outside of our control. Often there is a middle ground – and there should be a balanced understanding between what is inside our control and what is outside of our control.

The stoics were one of the first schools of philosophy to take this compatibilist approach to the question of free will vs. determinism. One of the core tenets of their philosophy was finding the balance between the consequences of free will (which they defined as “prohairesis”) and the consequences of what they called “cosmic determinism.” They believed both were intertwined into the laws of causality that determine our reality.

In other words, we are neither complete puppets to external circumstances, nor are we the sole determiners of our reality. There is in-fact a gray area between this black-and-white approach.

Buddhism takes a similar compatibilist approach, although it is more practical than theoretical. Buddhists believe that through meditation one can increase attention and gain insight into what thoughts and attitudes influence their behavior. Then, using this knowledge, we can learn how to change our pattern of behavior by living more consciously and adopting new attitudes. This is why mindfulness has shown to be effective for exercising better self-control over impulsive decision-making often found in those with addictions or Borderline Personality Disorder. (See Alan Wallace’s “Achieving Free Will: A Buddhist Perspective” (PDF) for more on this pragmatic approach to free will and determinism.)

The point I think Leo Babauta was trying to make is that many people sometimes overestimate their influence over their world. This can be an unhealthy attitude because it leads us to assign unnecessary blame for things that are outside of our control. A best friend may get into a car accident, an earthquake happens in Japan, or a mother has a miscarriage, and they exclaim “Why me?! What did I do to deserve this?” The truth is sometimes things just happen regardless of what we do. Just like the fish gets hit by a boat and killed, we too experience things that we have no power to predict or control. This is a very important warning to keep in mind, and I’ve expanded on this idea before in posts like not everything is in your control.



At the same time, some people also have the tendency to underestimate their influence over their world. They become something like a lifeless automaton, letting the wind dictate wherever they go, without a care in the world as to where it may lead them. At times, such a “letting go” attitude can be beneficial, but other times it is a denial of our ability to change ourselves for the better. When we see a handicapped person crossing a road, it is not outside of our control to walk over and help them. In such a case, a “whatever be, will be” attitude actually inhibits us from making a positive difference.

We can’t control many things. We certainly can’t control the past, and our influence on the future is also limited. But in the present moment – when we make conscious decisions – we are indeed exercising our control over our lives and the lives of others. I don’t think it is smart to deny this responsibility.

Leo says in his “Illusion of Control” post that his new attitude allows him to stop making goals and plans. I have a hard time believing him. So he doesn’t meet up with friends at a restaurant or bar? What about when he goes to a blogging expo (that doesn’t require planning?!) Is there also no effort or planning involved when he writes a new post or book? Although he uses absolutist words in his article, I find it hard to believe that he can consistently practice this attitude at all times. In fact, the very action of trying to write a post that (presumably) changes people’s minds to believe in the “illusion of control,” ironically assumes some realm of control.

The point of this post isn’t to criticize Leo (I’m actually a big fan), but to take a more realistic approach to the problems of free will and determinism that many people seem to struggle with. In the end, I think a compatibilist approach is the most accurate and practical. We aren’t fully responsible for everything that happens in our lives, but we do have some responsibility so long as we are conscious and thinking beings.


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