Q. 365 – Free Will and mumukShutva

Q: In your answer to Q. 12 (http://www.advaita.org.uk/discourses/q_and_a/q_and_a2.htm#q12), you said: “At the level of appearance, yes, there is only causality to account for actions. But this does not lead to passivity. Darwinian selection naturally inculcates competition, ‘development’ and ‘progress’. And there is no escaping the fact that we feel as though we have free will. We feel good when we get what we want and bad when we don’t. All of this stuff will carry on regardless but there is no need to feel negative about it. It really is all quite amazing, isn’t it? It is all arising within you, for your enjoyment, as it were!”

 And in your answer to Q.22 (http://www.advaita.org.uk/discourses/q_and_a/q_and_a3.htm#q22) you said: “At the level of the phenomenal, all proceeds according to cause and effect (or the laws of Ishvara if you prefer!). Also, there appears to be free will (although I have argued – and believe it to be the case – that the evidence is that there is no free will even at the level of appearance). Again, at the level of appearance, there are clearly individuals (jIva-s) and they are affected by all of the influences (including their own apparent volition) according to the cause-effect laws.”

 (My italics to highlight what triggered my question.)

 If there’s only causality to account for actions, there should be no space for free will, as all of my actions are causal. And if there is just a feeling that we have of a free will, then there is no free will. To put it in other words, if there is no free will, how can I actually do mumukShutvam (if desire also is a kind of a free will)? For intense Longing for Liberation to happen, I should be blessed with Free Will.

A (Venkat): Your question touches upon the role of free will vs determinism in enlightenment. A tricky question, mainly because we all intuitively feel we are separate individuals that have some level of control over our desires and will.

A first response. Intense longing can never be a ‘means’ – you cannot develop intense longing – it is either there or it isn’t. It is a description of a qualifying factor of those that invest all their free time in this endeavor.

 A second response. A bit of reflection quickly identifies that the date / country of birth, family, education – indeed all of the major genetic / environmental factors that influenced our formative years – we had no control over. And yet, as adults – with personalities, knowledge and values that have been developed as a result of these factors – we now believe that we have control over our destinies, as separate individuals. And we hold tenaciously onto a belief that some part of us, our ‘soul’ or atman, can somehow achieve freedom.

 For me the idea of separation and individual achievement, and the goals that we all have, are all illusory. And within that illusion that we are living, it is not at all clear to me that there really is an ‘I’ that is striving for anything. And therefore any longing that arises is arguably just another part of the dream. That we are just the witness of all this strikes some chord of truth – perhaps again illusory.

 I think it is absolutely right to ask these questions and try to figure these things out. But ultimately, you arrive back at the very first question: who / what am I that is evidently having these experiences / perceptions / thoughts / feelings. And that, you have to figure out for yourself – because you can never know with certainty, the reality (whether absolute or relative) that underlies your perceptions of the outside world, which obviously includes any ‘external’ responses to your questions.

A (Martin): In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad it is stated that “as a man’s desire is, so is his destiny. For as his desire is, so is his will… so is his deed”, and “as he acts, so does he become.” From the perspective of the Self, as you note, there is no desire and no will (no preferences or choices). Everything just happens… we could say ‘spontaneously’, uncaused, since there is no time and no cause and effect involved.

 From the empirical viewpoint, determinism (and thus fate or destiny) cannot be escaped. One cannot even fight it, although this poses philosophical problems difficult or impossible to reconcile. The Buddhist doctrine of ‘co-dependent origination’ is very persuasive – nothing happens in vain, or is freely chosen; there is a concatenation of causes and effects, everything being related to everything else. If you have an intense desire for liberation, this would be pre-determined in you (your psycho-physiological make-up). If you fail, equally so. One can, of course, resort to inborn characteristics of the individual ‘person’, plus environmental factors, plus external happenings, accidents, etc. in his life, which comes to the same thing or explanation.

 Now it is not a good pedagogical tactic or method to make absolute statements – as some times with Shankara and Gaudapada – about the non existence of this or that – for instance, realization, or multiplicity – to someone convinced that he/she has a separate existence (as a body and mind) and has a will of his or her own. That is why the method of traditional advaita is a gradual one. Any decision on these matters, and by whom, depends on a number of factors.

A (Sitara): Free will is a fact from vyAvahArika perspective (I guess that is what you mean by ‘plane of appearance’). If there was no free will we could close this website down right away and no teaching or searching would have any meaning.

 But even within vyavahAra there are different levels from which to look at reality. Usually people consider themselves as agents, identifying with their actions and the results they wish for. As a result of this identification they get stressed and worn out. With more maturity, people still consider themselves to be agents but cease identifying with their actions and their desires for certain results.

 Amongst those mature people there are again two groups:

. beginners would be able to cease to identify only because of trust in a god who they consider separate from themselves; the identification will become weaker but will not stop completely.

 This (stopping) can happen only for the second group: those who have the firm understanding that they are part of a larger context – meaning that the actions they initiate can only bring about the results that the larger context allows for. This “larger context” consists of the law and order of phenomenal existence, which in Vedanta is called Ishvara. Ishvara often is personified but in fact is nothing but all natural laws put together, forming one natural order that manifests as the “plane of appearance”.

 In your question you refer to Dennis saying “at the level of appearance there is only causality to account for actions” and “there is no escaping the fact that we ‘feel’ as though we have free will”. And you are puzzled because the logical conclusion seems to be that there is no free will even on this level, something with which Dennis concurs. But there is a difference between seekers and those whose understanding is complete. Whereas the first do not really know that they are beyond duality the latter do know. Normal seekers want truly to realize non-duality.

 Part of the seeking/teaching ‘game’ of Advaita Vedanta is that the seeker needs to start where he is. If you have not realized your true nature and maybe do not even have the steadfast understanding of being woven into the natural law and order of phenomenal reality, then you need to start from scratch. Do not mix things into your understanding that you do not really accept yet, even if they logically make sense. The notion that you are separate from everything else means that you still believe in duality. But you may trust that in truth reality is non-dual and thus start following the teaching of Advaita Vedanta.

 As I said, Advaita Vedanta will pick you up where you are. For someone believing in duality, it will take duality for granted. It will not start by questioning it but will teach how body and world have come about and what they consist of. It will make you understand the law of karma and will recommend the cultivation of the nine virtues (chatuShTaya sampatti). If you go along with all this the teaching will change your mind. A cleared mind will enable you to dis-identify from certain beliefs and to take in more facts. Then you will start to understand that your seeming separation does not really make sense. By understanding Ishvara, you will understand how you cannot possibly be separate from Ishvara. Only then you will be ready to grasp that non-dual reality even goes beyond Ishvara. This is an extremely abridged outline of the teaching.

 What I mean to point out is that free will (even if it is only a feeling that occurs on the level of appearance) needs to be taken for fact and made use of until the seeker has truly realized non-duality. It is a necessary ingredient of the search without which the seeker will remain as ignorant as he was when he was born.

 The following essays may illustrate what I said:


 And for a more technical perspective look at late Peter’s series on “Logical Inquiry into ‘Who I am’“, starting here https://www.advaita-vision.org/logical-enquiry-into-who-i-am-12/

A (Dennis): In the world, we react to stimuli according to our pre-existing nature and intellect. In response to the offer of a cream cake, for example, we will want to eat it if we like cakes and are not too full. We probably won’t be interested if we have a history of being sick after eating them. Simplistically, mumukShutva is itself the effect of a long history of a ‘failure to be satisfied’ by those things that we are led to believe will make us happy. We consequently give up on material things, status etc and turn towards the spiritual. There is no need to posit free will.

You must always bear in mind that such explanations are interim only and apply to the world-appearance. All concepts have to be dropped eventually, Just as we are effectively dropping free-will here, so causality has to be dropped later, too.