From: Peregrinus the Nihilist
I finished reading your five-part series on free will yesterday evening, after several sittings over dinner. It was an interesting and informative presentation indeed. The question of free will has occupied my mind for some years now. In fact, one of the things that drew me to Advaita Vedanta was its position on free will — it seems that more than a few of the arguments closely resemble my own.
Reading your case against free will in HOW TO MEET YOURSELF (pages 170-174), I was struck at how similar it was to the one made roughly 80 years ago by the 20th century English scholar Joseph McCabe. I think the passage is worth quoting in full, as you might find it interesting:
“When you say that you are free to choose—say, between the train and the surface car, or between the movies and the theater—you are using rather ambiguous language. All common speech for expressing mental experiences is loose and ambiguous. You have the two alternatives—movies or theater—in your mind. You hover between them. You do not feel any compulsion to choose one or the other. Then you deliberately say to yourself—not realizing that you have thereby proved the spirituality of the soul, which has made apologists perspire for centuries—‘I choose Norma Talmadge.’
Well, let us examine it patiently. In the ordinary acts of life you behave automatically. You don your clothes and shave and eat and walk, and even work, in a mechanical way. The motive arises, by routine, at the proper moment, and the action follows. It is only in grave things—such as whether you shall go to see Norma Talmadge or Bebe Daniels—that you use your freedom. To be quite accurate—am I not right?—it is only when two or more motives seem to have about equal force that you are conscious of your freedom. If one motive, if the reason for doing one action, is palpably stronger than the reason for doing the alternative, you do not hesitate. The ‘will’ follows or acts on the stronger motive.
Why, you ask, do I put ‘will’ in inverted commas? It may shock you to know that psychologists are not sure that there is such a thing. You may be surprised to know that your ‘will’ is only a theory (like evolution). What you are really conscious of is a series of acts. It is just a theory of yours that there is a thing you call your will behind them.
Well, to come back to the ‘acts of will.’ When you hesitate between two courses, do you for a moment doubt that your will eventually follows the one which seems to you wiser or more profitable?
Yes, I know. Just to prove your freedom you may choose the less wise course. But in that case you merely have a new motive thrown into the scale. Your ‘will’ always follows the weightier motive. How, then, is it free? All that you are conscious of is the hesitation of your mind, because for a time one motive balances the other. They may remain so balanced that you do nothing, or leave it to others to decide. But if you do decide, you are merely conscious that the battle of motives is over and the stronger carries your will.”
—“The Myth of Immortality”
Though I still have not accepted determinism (I have yet to grasp the relevant implications of quantum mechanics), I do not believe that anyone is, in the last analysis, in control of or responsible for the trajectory of their life. I might use Derk Pereboom’s term “hard incompatibilism” (for want of something clearer) to describe my position on free will–i.e., there is no free will regardless of whether or not determinism holds true. Indeed, I think free will is self-contradictory to the point where it’s on all fours with the square circle and the quotient of a number divided by zero.
There is something about Advaita’s position on free will that puzzles me. If I am not mistaken, Advaita claims that we do have one freedom, and that is to stop identifying with the body-mind. However, it seems to me that even this is ultimately beyond our control, as this is a choice that the mind makes. I would argue that our beliefs are as beyond our control as our actions. It seems to me that the mind, like the body, grows like a tree–many if not most of the principal formative parameters and factors were not determined by the entity in question.
So I happened to stumble across Advaita some years ago, and sometime after started to study it in earnest, reading books, articles, and blog entries on a regular basis. At this moment I am typing this e-mail to you. You may or may not choose to reply. All of this–past, present, and future–is part of the trajectory of my life, a chain of events that I did not set into motion and whose direction I have no real control over. Would you agree that it is ultimately not “up to me” whether or not I accept the arguments of Advaita and experience non-duality? Perhaps Balsekar was right when he said, “There’s nothing I can do, I’m not the doer! It can only happen if it’s supposed to happen according to God’s will, cosmic law and my destiny. Clear? It can only happen.” (Quoted from “Dennis: Free Will (Part 3)”)
Furthermore, what real difference would it make at the end of the day? If this particular body-mind, which I know as myself, becomes self-realized, it will probably be at peace for the rest of its days. But its days are numbered, and once it perishes, that’s it. I might be visited by “enlightenment” today, and death tomorrow. Even if the fruits of my self-realization benefits future generations, they are not likely to last forever, either. And the eventual heat-death of the universe will erase any “meaning” or relevance it might have had anyway. Would it be correct to say that Advaita is an earth-bound Weltanschauung whose benefits for an individual do not extend beyond the here and now? If it is, what difference does it make, in the last analysis, whether an individual attains enlightenment or commits suicide?
As an aside, I consider Advaita Vedanta the religion of a spiritual elite. You’ll probably recognize this passage from page 106 of Eliot Deutsch’s treatment of Advaita (ADVAITA VEDANTA: A PHILOSOPHICAL RECONSTRUCTION):
“Advaita Vedanta is explicitly aristocratic in its contention that, practically speaking, truth or genuine knowledge is available only to the few who, by natural temperament and disposition, are willing and able to undertake all the arduous demands that its quest entails.”
In other words, Advaita Vedanta is part of the esoteric dimension of religion (per Frithjof Schuon et al), only open to “the few.” Do you agree?