Q. 413 – Yet more on free will

Q: The link http://www.advaita.org.uk/discourses/past_messages/freewill_waite.htm   is about your convincing argument that there is no free will.  The Q ( for which I have no free will!!) is whether the lack of free will  is an obstacle in pursuit of Self- realization? It would seem that one has no ‘choice’ in the pursuit for it will follow the law of cause and effect. What are your views? Incidentally you have a supporter in Stephen Hawking [‘Grand Design’].

“Though we feel that we can choose what we do, our understanding of the molecular basis of biology shows that biological processes are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry and therefore are as determined as the orbits of the planets. Recent experiments in neuroscience support the view that it is our physical brain, following the known laws of science, that determines our actions, and not some agency that exists outside those laws. For example, a study of patients undergoing awake brain surgery found that by electrically stimulating the appropriate regions of the brain, one could create in the patient the desire to move the hand, arm, or foot, or to move the lips and talk. It is hard to imagine how free will can operate if our behavior is determined by physical law, so it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion.”

A (Dennis): Free-will is not an obstacle, because it is not relevant.

Whether or not one has the overriding desire to discover the truth/gain enlightenment (mumukShutva) depends upon one’s upbringing, education, experience in life etc. I.e. those are the causal factors which determine our outlook on life and judgment as to what things are important.

If one has true mumukShutva, then one overcomes apparent obstacles to pursue the truth (perform regular meditation, seek out a genuine teacher etc). If one doesn’t have this, then the question does not really arise, or one gives up at the first difficulty or when some material pleasure comes along and so on.

So the entire process is a matter of cause-effect. The lack of free-will is not itself an obstacle; free-will just does not come into it at all. (Which it could not, since it doesn’t exist!)

Q: I am still not clear. I infer the following from your clarification that to seek Self-realization is based on cause-effect principle. Based on cause-effect principle, one will seek or will not seek: a person will not ‘seek’ if it is not supported by cause-effect principle.

My understanding of free-will is that if one has it, he/she can break  this cause-effect  pattern and seek self–realization.  That is to say, free-will could be an aid to seeking. Conversely, in the absence of free-will, one is deprived of this aid thereby making  ‘to seek’ that much difficult. This view is seemingly in conformity with the Advaita teaching  as can be seen from your ‘Advaita Made Easy’: “Our actions are therefore mostly triggered by pre-determined prArabdha but we have some free-will. Since we cannot know which will be effective in any instance, we have to assume free-will and endeavour to ensure that we act in accord with dharma.”

On the other hand, the debate of free-will is a non-starter if it assumed that the free-will is also an outcome of cause-effect, notwithstanding the ego having an illusion that it has free-will.  I refer to your query “Can anyone explain please why ‘choice of action based on rational thought’ is not itself just a chain of cause and effect?”

A: It is true that traditional Advaita teaching would say (in the early stages) that we have free-will. Obviously there can be none ultimately, since there are no jIva-s to have free-will (since there is no creation). It is simply that (personally) I see no point in admitting free-will even in the early stages. We will follow sAdhana chatuShTaya sampatti if our prior circumstances dictate that such a course seems favorable. And this seems to be as good a ‘definition’ of free-will as any: ‘Choice’ occurs when our mind deems that a particular action is more favorable than alternatives. But this ‘choice’ is simply the mind balancing the possibilities according to prior disposition, assessment of likely outcome, desires etc and determining which has the highest ‘score’. All quite automatic, despite appearances to the contrary. And this is no ‘choice’ at all.


One thought on “Q. 413 – Yet more on free will

  1. Free will and Ego
    What does it mean to say that I have free will? It has two assumptions: (1) I had control over my past actions, i.e., I could have acted differently than what I did, and (2) I am responsible for my thoughts and actions in the present. It is easy to see that fulcrum of free will and the above assumptions is ‘I’. This ‘I’ is the ego. It would follow that free will and ego are closely associated: the two sides of a coin.
    Conclusion:Lack of free will and ego is an illusion point to the same fact. Of course, it has relevance from vyAvAhArika viewpoint only.

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