5.1 The Question of Free Will

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The question of free will is an age-old one that has exercised minds for millennia. Currently, Neuroscience has advanced to a point where it is possible for a computer to accurately predict the choices that an individual is going to make, well before he or she is conscious of making those choices[1]. Therefore, many modern scientists and philosophers have concluded that we don’t have free will. Says Daniel Do in his TED talk[2],

“Free will cannot be grounded in logic, science or experience. We can logically deduce that it is incompatible with the laws of physics, experimentally verify that choice is the product of unconscious neurological processes, and observe through careful introspection that our sense of control is an illusion.”

However, choices always stem from beliefs and beliefs can be reconfigured in our minds even if the resulting choices are not under our conscious control. This is a subtle distinction that was brought to light in the Hindu epic, Mahabharata, thousands of years ago.

In that epic, Lord Krishna was counseling the warring cousins, Arjuna and Duryodhana. But Duryodhana, who symbolizes material desire, did not wish for any advice from Lord Krishna! He merely stated,

“I know what’s right, but I have no interest in doing it. I know what’s wrong, but I can’t stop myself from doing it. There is a strong tendency in me and I don’t know how to stop it.”

In contrast, Arjuna, who symbolizes human willpower, sought the counsel of Lord Krishna thus [3]:

“By what force does a person do wrong things? And how can I stop myself from doing them?”

In reply, Lord Krishna explained how anyone could reconfigure his or her mind to follow the path of Dharma. While the tendencies (vasanas) in our subconscious minds are uncontrollable and the thoughts (vritti) and actions (karma) that emanate from our conscious minds are also uncontrollable, the discriminatory capacity of our intellect is like a gatekeeper between the two and can be trained to make the right choices. Where there is a conflict between a choice that is good (shreya) and a choice that is pleasant (preya), we must align ourselves with the good choice and actively do something to eliminate the wrong, but pleasant choice. For example, if we now know that eating meat is disastrous for the planet and all Life on it, we can deem it immoral to consume meat since it deliberately harms other beings. Then, given a choice between plant-based foods (shreya) and animal-based foods (preya), we will begin to automatically choose the plant-based foods as we would have reconfigured our belief system and eliminated the wrong choice on ethical and moral grounds.

This is the purpose of meditation as well. In Vipassana meditation that the Buddha originally taught, we actively train our minds to become immune to likes and dislikes so that we can automatically begin to choose that which is right over a conflicting choice that is merely pleasant. For the happiness we experience from doing that which is in the greater good vastly exceeds the fleeting pleasure that we get from doing that which is merely self-indulgent. The founder of the modern discipline of positive psychology, Prof. Martin Seligman, has established that the happiness we experience in any action has three components:

Happiness = Pleasure + Engagement + Meaning

That which is merely pleasurable gives us a certain amount of happiness. That which engages our skills further increases that level of happiness. That which has meaning for us, which is oriented towards a purpose larger than ourselves, vastly increases that level of happiness[4].

Universally, all of us are happiness seeking beings. This includes everyone from the President of the United States to a little mouse. Any crass selfishness that we exhibit is also aimed towards that pursuit of happiness. But Prof. Seligman has scientifically shown that selflessness leads to the greatest experiences of happiness, far greater than what can be obtained through crass selfishness. In controlled experiments, Prof. Seligman showed that subjects remember a day they spent serving the homeless in a soup kitchen far more fondly and clearly than the day they spent at a movie theater watching a good movie[5].

Therefore, selflessness is the highest form of selfishness! But the majority of human beings have not caught on to this simple, scientific fact. Perhaps the all-pervasive advertising in our Caterpillar culture has something to do with that confusion. Manufacturers routinely tout the consumption of their products as the very epitome of happiness!

From a biological standpoint, we don’t have free will because what we do is strictly determined by the neurological circuitry in our brains. Knowing this, we can stop blaming people for their selfish or boorish actions and start helping them with their rehabilitation. For we also know that we have the capacity to rewire the neurological circuitry in our brains, if we so choose. We can exercise our powers of mental concentration and discrimination to overcome any negative tendencies so that we truly become an instrument of good. This is why Swami Vivekananda had stated that the purpose of education must be to teach mental concentration[6]. But this is difficult to achieve when we are disempowered in a socioeconomic system that is fundamentally rooted in fear.

Since time immemorial, Hindu philosophers have asserted that free will is an illusion. The only freedom we have is the freedom to let go. To let go of our ego and to let God work through us, just as our minds work through the cells in our physical body. Swami Vivekananda’s guru, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa said[7],

“As long as a man has not realized God, he thinks he is free. It is God Himself who keeps this error in man. Otherwise sin would have multiplied. Man would not have been afraid of sin, and there would have been no punishment for it. But do you know the attitude of one who has realized God? He feels: ‘I am the machine, and Thou, O Lord, art the Operator. I am the house and Thou art the Indweller. I am the chariot and Thou art the Driver. I move as Thou movest me; I speak as Thou makest me speak.’”

This might seem paradoxical, coming from one of the most influential 19th century exponents of Advaita Vedanta, a philosophy based on the creation story of Mystical Unity. For how could it be possible that you are one with God, and simultaneously, have no free will? Shouldn’t a God-realized human be able to do anything?

But one who has realized God deifies the world and sees everything as sacred. Such a person sees God in every being, to be loved unconditionally. Therefore, if the way of love is always your way, then what free will is there really in your actions?

Imagine a shopper in a supermarket filled with goods and produce. The shopper has many choices, rows and rows of processed foods as well as vegetables and fruits in the produce section. As long as marketing and advertising forces influence the shopper, he thinks he has the free will to choose what he wants. He wanders among the processed food aisles in the center of the supermarket and buys foodstuffs that are probably going to make him sick. But an enlightened shopper would know precisely what she needs and make a beeline, most likely for the produce section at the edge of the supermarket.

The Neuroscientific discovery of our lack of free will has the potential to unite us all towards advocating compassion for all Creation in our relationship with the world, since every religion in the world is also advocating the same compassion. In fact, in this truly watershed moment in human history, the notable atheist, Sam Harris, is now advocating for compassion just as loudly as Pope Francis[8]! That is true unity, indeed!


[1] The relevant experiments are described in http://bit.ly/1TrZSov

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MzW-r_vPf50

[3] This is the dialog in the Bhagavad Gita, http://www.bhagavad-gita.org/index-english.html

[4] Prof. Seligman explains positive psychology here: http://www.pursuit-of-happiness.org/history-of-happiness/martin-seligman-positive-psychology/

[5] Prof. Seligman talks about philanthropy vs entertainment here: http://www.ted.com/talks/martin_seligman_on_the_state_of_psychology

[6] Here’s a compilation of Swami Vivekananda’s writings on mental concentration: http://www.swamivivekanandaquotes.org/2013/12/swami-vivekanandas-quotes-on_4.html

[7] Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa on free will can be found here: http://sfvedanta.org/monthly-reading/sri-ramakrishna-on-free-will/

[8] Sam Harris talks about compassion during his lecture on free will: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pCofmZlC72g