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The Lack of Free Will


Write up provided by Dr. D. Samarender Reddy

(Edited from an extensive discussion on the Advaitin List Dec. 2000 – Jan 2001. This was triggered by the following quotation from Swami Dayananda Saraswati:

"If I fail to choose my actions consciously and deliberately, but simply let them happen, they will be reactions, either impulsive reactions born of instincts or mechanical reactions born of conditioning. In either case I have not exercised that special faculty that makes me human, namely choice of action based on rational thought."

My purpose in initiating the discussion was in the hope that I might be persuaded that we do, indeed, have free will. I regard Swami Dayananda very highly indeed and was most reluctant to question so strongly what he had said. Nevertheless, the subsequent discussions only served to reinforce my belief that we do not have free will and this still remains my conviction. If anyone can offer convincing arguments to the contrary, I would be very pleased to receive them!)


Can anyone explain please why 'choice of action based on rational thought' is not itself just a chain of cause and effect? Is it really possible to think anything that is not a logical (and theoretically deducible) consequence of prior thought and action, unavoidably conditioned in a totally mechanical way? Is it not simply that the differentiation between what we call 'impulsive' or 'mechanical' reaction and 'rational thought' is the number of mental steps involved between trigger and response? In the former case, there are few steps and the connection is obvious. In the latter case, there are many steps and we can delude ourselves into thinking that there is some element of 'choice' involved? 


There are three types of action - action for oneself or selfish action; action for others or unselfish action; action in response to a need with no thought of oneself or the other. Most people indulge in the first two (though rather more prefer the first!). Some practise the second. Students of the gItA try to practise the third! The enlightened man only (?) practises the third since, for him, there is no ego or any 'other'. The first results in pApa (sin); the second puNya (reward for being virtuous). Only the third type does not result in any karmaphala (fruit of action). 


What I would term 'reaction' is when there is an automatic, habitual response to a situation, without any real awareness and without the involvement of buddhi (intellect). i.e. re-action - action again, in the same way as it always happens.


However, the main point is that any action that involves thinking (manas) is necessarily incurring some element of habit. As soon as thinking begins, the action can no longer be a simple response to the need. This is when selfish considerations arise - desire, anger etc. Buddhi operates in stillness and clarity without any of the confusion introduced by manas. Accordingly, although there is difference between an impulsive response and a deliberately well thought out response, the latter is not necessarily better. If buddhi is operating, the impulsive response could actually be the 'correct' one, generating no saMskAra (the seeds of future karma). The second one cannot fall into this class since 'well thought out' very much implies the involvement of manas. Most of us tend to lose any possibility of detached action once we start thinking too deeply about something. We get involved in 'what ifs' and 'if only I had' etc. i.e. more and more selfish content.


Accordingly, it would seem that no type of action involves free will.


In the case of the selfish action, this is driven by habit, i.e. what I want or do not want. This is dictated by past (or imagined) likes and dislikes. This is a cause and effect relationship and does not involve free will.


With unselfish action, there is still a desired outcome, this time for a perceived 'other' rather than for oneself. An idea in mind acts as cause for an effect-action. In both this and the above case, there may be many intermediate mental steps. But if each step is logically driven from the previous (based on acquired conditioning of what is logical), then there is no free will involved.


With actions that are a simple response to a need, without the intervention of manas, there are no thoughts involved. However, if this is the case, that the action is a direct response to the need (cause and effect) then, again, there is no free will.


It is often said that, to the extent that doership and ego are 'real', free will also exists. I would want to modify this to say "to the extent that they are 'real', we believe that free will exists". Actually, I don't see why we cannot accept that free will does not exist even within vyavahAra. There is no doubt that the illusion exists but can anyone demonstrate logically that free will is actually (i.e. within the laws of vyavahAra) taking place?


If we accept that fate and free-will are the same thing, there is no question of a 'chicken and egg' situation and no need to resort to infinite regress. If we act and this action coincides with a feeling of having 'made a decision', we call it free will. If there is no concurrent feeling, we call it fate. But the 'feeling of having made a decision' is just as much a result of earlier thoughts as was the act itself. (In fact, if we believe Libet's experiments, the feeling occurs after the act has been initiated anyway.)


[It was suggested that it is the motivation of differing vAsanA-s (accumulated habits and tendencies) from one individual to another that manifest as free will.]


I agree that our actions are driven by vAsanA-s and that all actions-for-a-result bring about new vAsanA-s. (It is said that 'right action' that is purely a response and has no thought of a result does not give rise to new saMskAra but let's not introduce that to complicate the matter further.) But why should any of this be called free-will? Certainly I will act according to my vAsanA-s and you will act according to yours but where is the freedom in this? I agree that our actions are the result of our vAsanA-s but is not our so-called 'choice' not just another action, equally dictated by our vAsanA-s?

In the Bhagavad gItA, for example, the 'choice' that is eventually made by Arjuna is the resultant of all of his vAsanA-s, together with thoughts and ideas consequent upon what Krishna tells him. When the various thoughts seem to contradict each other, we have the feeling that we have a difficult 'decision' to make and may indulge in lots of mental arguments etc. that complicate the matter (adding their own saMskAra to future equations). In the end, however, a 'decision' is made as a result of all of this - a cause and effect relationship; no freedom, no choice, no free will, only the illusion of this. 


Because all of this is dynamic, happening in the present, there does not seem to be any element of 'destiny' in this. The result does not appear to be a foregone conclusion. If you have 'decided' to go and see a movie, for example, and then I tell you that the cinema has burnt down, you will 'change your mind' - cause and effect, no free will. Therefore, the teaching of the scriptures is not a waste of time. Discovering the message of Krishna is useful. We learn the 'right' way to act and this is then part of the cause for our next effect. But still no free will.


[Of course, if you follow the argument through to its logical conclusion, it does end up as predestination. If each result is the direct effect of its preceding causes, then everything must effectively be the result of the original primal cause – the big bang or whatever.]


Nor does the fact that societies have developed systems of ethics and morals provide any contradiction. I do not see why this would not naturally develop as a straight cause-effect sequence. People soon discover that they themselves suffer least in the long run if they treat others as they themselves prefer to be treated. A society with a set of values perceived by the majority to be 'good' rather than 'evil' will appeal to most people since it will accord with their existing nature.

It is not that they can ‘choose’ to treat others as they would wish to be treated. Some can act in this way; others cannot. It all depends on vAsanA-s and circumstances in the moment; no choice. But having acted, they see the results of their actions and note that the better outcome seems to come when they do treat others well. On the next occasion, this knowledge carries a more significant weighting and it becomes more likely that they will act in the 'good' way. Still no free will.


(At this point in the discussion) I have a dilemma. It has been suggested that we bring this discussion to an end. Yet the latest email digest probably has more posts on this topic than all previous ones and several writers comment that they are enjoying it. I have a choice to make - so many would have it. I can sit in stillness (or otherwise) and act - either to close down the email program and switch off the computer or to type in still further remarks on the subject. 


Clearly, since you are now reading this, I made a choice. Of what did this choice consist? I could say that I mentally listed all of the arguments for and against, weighted them all according to some algorithm, added up the results and chose the option that scored highest. Would this be an exercise of free will? (No doubt many will say that the 'choice' to do it in this way would be.) I could say that, incensed with the latest set of objections, I reacted by immediately beginning to type, anxious to press home my firmly held convictions. In fact, it was neither of these two. There were very many factors influencing the 'decision'. My nature has been nurtured from sources too numerous to mention or even recollect. My 15+ years study of Advaita is clearly particularly influential. I have tendencies to think too much as well as tendencies to continue arguing until I convince an opponent. I have read many books, listened to various teachers of philosophy and, in my younger years, discussed the meaning of life, the universe and everything over a pint down at the pub. You may, if you wish, add to these the vAsanA-s from previous lives. (However, I believe this is irrelevant to the discussion - who is there to be reincarnated anyway?).


At any given moment (indeed at every moment of our waking lives) there is action or inaction. Something initiates these actions. Let's call the initiating action a 'choice' on our part. It is my assertion that this choice is made as a result of the vector sum of all of these forces (vAsanA-s, thoughts, persuasions etc.) that are acting at the moment of choice, both from past and present. Depending on one's relative degree of enlightenment, the ratio of guNa (the three ‘qualities of nature) that is operating will differ. For a few of us in occasional moments, there may effectively be no vAsanA-s or habit playing a part; the choice will be a simple and pure response to the present need, past influences will not be relevant. Here the mathematical sum is very much simpler: - action = response to need. But in ALL cases, the action is a sum of those forces. The question of 'freedom' is simply not relevant. Nor is the question of 'fate' if it comes to that. Just because I have always acted in a particular way in a certain situation does not mean I am fated to act that way always. Some new influence may come into play next time, which changes the action completely.


Whichever like or dislike is dominant, whichever right or wrong carries the most influence will tilt the balance and a 'choice' will be made. The process is complicated but a sufficiently powerful computer possessed of all of the information would be able to work out what the decision would be. Indeed - and perhaps this is the key to the discussion - the brain of the person involved is such a computer


The decision is made ‘by us’ but in a deterministic way. There is a ‘choice’ in the sense that there is a selection of options and one is chosen but there is no freedom involved. At that moment, we could not act in any other way. The only thing that could change the decision would be another item of information or another factor in the equation but then that would be another moment and another unique choice, determined by the vector sum of those factors. Who, in any case, is making this choice. Is it not effectively the ego? And is this ego not illusory? In fact, ‘free will’ is really an oxymoron. All willing is of the ego and where is the freedom in that?


The so-called ‘decision’ is simply a part of the overall process and involves no free will. To return to the earlier example of the movie suppose that, when you told me that you were going to see a particular movie, I told you that I had seen that film and thought it not particularly good. Now you have to balance your original desire against what I have said. How much did you want to see it? Where did you hear about it? How much do you value my opinion? Would you want to offend me by ignoring my remarks? And so on. The final decision will be the vector sum of all of these, together with other influencing factors (e.g. is it raining, how much money do you have etc.) It is not that the decision has already been made in some mysterious way or by divine ordination. What I am saying is that, at the moment of decision, all of the factors will take their relative weightings and the decision will be the cause and effect outcome. So, in this sense, yes, it is 'beyond your control'. 


As was suggested quite early on, this discussion is only valid at the level of vyavahAra. We know that there is only Brahman, that He is without limits etc; that nothing can happen without Brahman and so on. [In reality, paramArtha, the Self does not act (or choose, which is itself an action). One of my favourite passages from the gItA is: naiva ki~ncitkaromIti yukto manyeta tattvavit - Settled in the Self, the knower of truth should think, in truth I do nothing at all.]

Here, however, we (the illusory ego) live out our illusory existence with the illusion of free will and it is in this context that the discussion is taking place. I am simply arguing that there is no need to introduce the concepts of fate or free will or destiny. All we need is the law of cause and effect (which you could regard as one of the laws instigated by Ishvara to govern this creation, if you wanted)


The word 'choice' is really a confusing misnomer. My belief is that those thoughts, ideas, opinions etc. that form part of our 'decision making process' are automatically generated in response to the situation and themselves constitute part of the set of vector forces, in addition to the those inherent in the situation itself, which trigger the subsequent action. This is all in the nature of a cause-effect relationship. Certainly the situation is itself the 'cause' of the thoughts and ideas but everything together then becomes the 'cause' for the subsequent action. What you are calling the choice in response to the need is surely only the name given to these thoughts and ideas. So what you have is: -


situation --> thoughts; both together --> action


Your 'decision' to act or not is merely another thought. Indeed you must have experienced a situation where you 'decided' one thing and found yourself doing another. e.g. when driving, I often find myself at a roundabout deciding to drive off and find myself braking instead. Here, the instinctual experience is overriding the intention to move off because it is recognised as being unsafe. No free will here!


It is the ego that desires and wants things to happen. It is also the ego that believes it has choice and can act. But true freedom comes only when it has been realised that there is no ego and that the true Self wants for nothing because it is everything. Therefore, whilst the ignorance is still there, with its consequent desire and belief in doership, there is no freedom at all. Thus it is somewhat ironic that we talk about having free will.


I do not see that any problem need arise with respect to desire and striving by accepting that there is no free-will. Once mind and intellect have accepted that the ego is illusory, the rest surely poses no problem. These things must belong only to the ego mustn't they? Desire is a limitation and an acknowledgement of a limitation. It is the illusion that one (Self) is limited and not Ananda. Once it has been accepted that neither the Self nor the ego acts; that there is only an ongoing cause-effect playing out in prakRRiti; then one can just watch the play, with all of its sound and fury, without the need to believe in a will, free or otherwise. Yes, the desire (and from time to time its concomitant frustrations and anger) will continue to be experienced until the last remnant of egoistic rebellion has been removed and every 'thing' is seen at last as it really is - no 'thing' at all but the one Self.