Do we have free will? Philosophers have been arguing and debating on this question for ages, but nothing concrete has come out. There are some who believe that we don’t have free will, some others say that we have complete free will, and there are some who say that we have limited free will.
Instead of approaching this question of free will in an argumentative manner to justify my views, I’ll make use of a concept and explore the question of free will on that basis. As usual, you are always free to discard or accept the concept based on your personal experience.
The concept can be summarized in the following few words: “You are not the doer of your actions; hence the sense of personal identification or agency is just an illusion.”
How do you see yourself as an individual? The sense of personal identification arises because of the movement in consciousness, which we call the mind. The mind creates an illusion of the individual “doing” things.
In deep sleep, there is no movement, and hence, the notion of “me” or ego or personal identification is missing. Only on waking up do we say “I slept.”
Therefore, this personal identification with concepts, ideas, beliefs, dogmas, etc., becomes the source of never-ending suffering, which we identify as the thinking mind. The thinking mind is the restless mind that either lingers in the dead past or an imaginary future.
Simply put, you are not the individual who identifies with the thinking mind. You are the pure and eternal awareness in which the individual is simply an appearance.
Therefore, the mind-body complex is contracted energy or an instrument that simply functions according to the granted capabilities. In other words, the ego or identification with name and form as a separate entity is an illusion.
When there is no individual, where is the question of individual free will? The individual that appears to be doing things in the phenomenal world is an illusory projection on the screen of consciousness. You are the screen and not the character that is being projected.
But that said, you are to completely act as if you have complete free will because “you” or the created object cannot assume the will of the creator (or rather the projector) subject. In the movie called Life, we are simply the created objects or characters (actors).
The only difference is that we don’t know that we are in the movie, and we have no choice but to act our parts. The spiritual awakening happens when it is recognized that “we” per se are not acting with our free will, but the action is happening through us according to the cosmic law.
We are the biological machines executing cosmic instructions. The script containing all possible actions and outcomes has already been written, where past, present, and future exist in superimposition, and we are merely acting our parts.
The suffering happens when the ego or the sense of personal identification believing itself to be the “doer” thinks that it has the free will to change outcomes.
“There is neither creation nor destruction, neither destiny nor free will, neither path nor achievement. This is the final truth.”Ramana Maharshi.
But I Do Have Some Volition to Make a Choice?
You may argue that in the larger context, we don’t have free will, but what about smaller scenarios? My assertion to that is that you do have the freedom to make a choice, but what choice you make and its outcome is predetermined by the universe. This is the part a majority of people struggle with.
For example, you may assert that when I am offered a choice between two beverages: say tea and coffee, I have the volition to choose one over the other, don’t I? And yes, at the moment, it may appear that you are choosing, but the choice has already been predetermined.
If you are aware at that moment, you’ll notice that your choice, let’s say coffee in this case, was the result of some internal or external process.
Maybe the presentation of the coffee was more appealing than the tea. Maybe the smell of coffee reminded you of a past pleasant experience of having a similar beverage somewhere else.
Maybe it was the positioning of the coffee – say you’re right-handed, and the coffee was placed on the right side, so it became your natural choice. Maybe you got up a bit fuzzy in the morning, and you felt the need for a powerful stimulant.
There can be an endless number of causes that contribute to an action taking place. Whatever may be the cause, the choice and corresponding outcome are predetermined. When your awareness is low, you will perceive this event as personal (I made the choice).
When you investigate deeply, you’ll notice that everything that happened had a precursor leading to that event. Therefore, randomness is as illusory as the existence of the individual making a choice.
What we perceive as randomness forms the basis of cosmic law’s execution. There are unknown variables that hide its cause. This idea is prevalent as superdeterminism in Quantum theory. However, let’s not go there as scientific theories keep changing.
Moreover, this idea is not likely to be accepted by the majority scientific community as it challenges the free will of the scientists to conduct experiments, and therefore, our trust in science as a whole. However, I do not look at it that way.
Even if the scientists don’t have the complete free will to conduct experiments, it does not mean that the science is wrong or that it cannot be trusted. The only thing is that the scientists cannot take complete credit for their findings, which may be a troubling idea for them to accept.
What you perceive as the “your” choice is truly not yours. The outcome has already been decided, and you are just a functioning instrument claiming the choice to be yours. This concept makes people uneasy initially. I’ll admit that it is disturbing for most people.
We’re so used to the idea of making things happen through our effort and control. It is how the ego expands itself through doership. The ego believes itself to be the instrument of change. When things happen as expected, it creates pride and arrogance. And when they don’t, it creates shame and guilt.
It continuously reinforces the sense of personal identification. Only when the ego gives up the sense of personal doership, which is also not in its control, does surrender or liberation happen.
Liberation is simply the realization that you’re not the doer of your actions and that even others are not the doers of their actions.
In the words of Buddha, “Events happen, deeds are done, even the consequences happen, but there is no individual doer thereof.”
Of course, you have the choice, but what is the quality of your choice or the option to exercise free will when every conscious or subconscious choice is determined by your past conditioning? Behind every choice that appears to be random is a subconscious process.
Even the desire to change the subconscious comes from the subconscious, which is formed through conditioning. And the conditioning itself happens because of the cosmic law, which lays out the destiny of every individual mind-body organism.
What We Misinterpret About Free Will?
Free will vs. determinism has been a subject of endless debate through times immemorial. Why? Because we live in duality. It is the nature of duality to exist with opposites. Therefore, if one side claims a certain view to be the truth, there will spontaneously be a counterview.
I believe my concept, particularly, is called hard determinism in Philosophy. Most people don’t agree with the idea of not having free will because it attacks the ego and doership at its core.
Our society is immersed in doership from head to toe. The ego prefers concepts that strengthen it. Therefore, any idea that gives the impression of achievement or change in the world through personal effort is more appealing. It sees pride in its achievements.
In the event of failure, the ego loves to pin blame on others, play victim, complain, and whine about the situation rather than contemplate a constructive solution.
It’s the ego’s ploy to avoid facing the discomfort of shame that one carries within. Therefore, blaming and condemning becomes the default behavior.
But what happens when the ego suspends movement after the realization (impersonal) that it is not the doer and that everything happens according to the cosmic will?
Then one does not get involved in feelings of pride, arrogance, guilt, shame, malice, condemnation, jealousy, resentment, and more.
While the above feelings may surface temporarily, their propensity to carry forward in horizontal time as prolonged suffering disappears.
Why do we struggle with shame? Because we believe to have the free will to “do” things. The realization of non-doership is a paradigm shift in one’s perspective. It is liberation from the pain and suffering of guilt, shame, and resentment.
People spend their entire lives in resentment toward others, and the philosophical or psychological models do not help. Once you’re free from the load of doership, which was brought about by the notion of free will, you remain peaceful irrespective of the external circumstances.
You see the causal chain, but you don’t fixate on a cause that leads to an event, and therefore, there is no complaining, whining, or other ill feelings towards anyone.
That’s because you know the cosmic law is in execution and you are merely an instrument through which things appear to be happening.
The greatest misconception about determinism is the belief that since everything is predetermined, I must not do anything about a particular matter.
Is it even possible for you to not act? Or do nothing? If you can truly “do” nothing, you’re already zen. The action has to happen through the mind-body organism. Even when you don’t make a choice – it’s a doing. You simply cannot “not” execute an action.
The psychophysical organism is designed by nature to execute actions. For example, if you say that you will not take an exam because the outcome is predetermined, it is your assumption that you know the cosmic law. It is doership under the pretext that “You know.”
Whatever you do or don’t do, the outcome is not in your control. But that should not be an excuse to not act or not make a decision. If you think you need to make a decision, do it. If you think you need to evaluate and then decide, do that.
“Understand that nothing happens unless it is God’s will and do what you like. What can be simpler than that?”Ramesh S. Balsekar
Why is the Idea of Not Having a Free Will Disturbing?
The basic problem with the idea of not having free will is that it challenges the very structure that forms the basis of society’s functioning. When one does not have any free will, who is to decide what is right or wrong, good or evil, moral or immoral? These are the constructs on which modern society functions.
The contention is that the establishment or power structure that governs (or rather controls) the society becomes powerless when it can’t fix responsibility.
Let me address the bone of contention with the concept of not having free will, which is that it will give rise to a chaotic society where people will have no regard for laws and regulations.
Ramesh Balsekar would often say in his Satsangs that even with the notion of having free will chaos still exists in the world. Look around you and tell me one society, group, sect, country, or religion where there are no conflicts.
The law says that the person who commits a crime must receive punishment, but then if there’s no free will, nobody commits a crime. Isn’t it? So, do we need policing and law and order? We do. And here’s why.
When a person commits a crime, let us say that a violent act takes place through a mind-body complex, nothing should stop society from taking an action.
One can argue that he (or she) is not the doer of the act and that the action happened through him because of his past conditioning, which could be childhood abuse or adverse circumstances that propelled him to commit a crime.
My response to that is that if one is not the doer of his actions then one is also not the receiver of the consequences, but just like the violent act happened, a corresponding consequence will also happen as per the cosmic law.
The consequence may not be in accordance with our preferences. For example, despite compelling evidence, the perpetrator may go scot-free by exploiting loopholes in the law.
An innocent person may be punished for a crime that someone else committed. A criminal may receive a lighter sentence in comparison to the gravity of the crime he committed or vice-versa.
Human intellect can never comprehend the magnitude of cosmic law because it is a product of cosmic law. For example, I can write a code to do some computation, but the code does not have the consciousness to know for what purpose I wrote it.
The problem is that the ego-intellect thinks it knows everything. Therefore, it claims to know everything or asserts that it will decode the cosmic law at some point in the future through technology or other means.
But again, I repeat Ramesh Balsekar’s words, the created object cannot know the will of the creator source.
Society not stopping the person from perpetuating a criminal act is assuming the cosmic law. How do you know you’re not supposed to act and stop the crime? But know that despite your best intentions and efforts, you may not be successful.
If you say that since everything is predetermined, I should do nothing, that would again be an assumption – “I know.” When in reality, we cannot know the cosmic law, therefore, we must act from complete volition knowing that the outcome is not in our control.
The judge while awarding a sentence cannot assume the cosmic law in the context of the argument that we don’t have free will. Even the judge’s free will is shaped by his (or her) past conditioning starting from childhood to his or her most recent experiences.
There is no absolute right or wrong here. The judge in the trial room has to make a decision based on his or her present knowledge. If he starts doubting himself, he will not be able to make a decision.
Therefore, even the judge, as the acting individual, cannot be held responsible if the sentence he announces does not match society’s expectations.
Whether his judgment will change the person or society as a whole, the judge can never know. Neither can he or she know if it’s the right action or not. But he or she must act based on the understanding in the moment without concerning himself or herself with the outcome.
It is quite evident that very few prisoners get reformed in prisons. A majority of them who go in for petty crimes actually thrive and become hardened criminals.
The reason is that the environment of prisons is more or less similar to the environment that shaped their brain to perform criminal activities. Even a home where parents lack empathy for their children can become a prison-like environment that can severely damage a child’s psyche.
Another argument could be that we should show no compassion to people suffering because that’s what is destined for them. It’s their karma. Well, this is again the ego assuming the cosmic law. How do you know that that’s what the universe is asking of you?
If you’re empathic and sensitive by nature, nothing should stop you from showing compassion to others. That’s how the universe designed you, so why not follow your natural instinct? Will you always be rewarded with love in return for your compassion? Absolutely not.
Some will respond to your compassionate nature, others won’t, that’s the design of life. You will learn about your natural inclinations and the path to follow through your own experience.
As I mentioned earlier, even with the idea that individual free will exists, chaos in the world will remain. Chaos and order are two sides of the same coin. One cannot exist without the other.
When people are held accountable (not shamed) and punished for their unkind actions, it does serve as a deterrent to some degree, and that is precisely why I advocate for stricter and more transparent law and policing, but I know that none of it will change the fundamental human nature.
The change will happen only through the cosmic will which lays out the destiny of an individual mind-body organism.
The problem is that we cannot separate the action and the desired outcome. When you act in attachment to the desired outcome, two things are likely to happen:
- When your action is successful it strengthens your sense of personal identification. “I am the doer.” Resulting in pride or arrogance.
- When your action is unsuccessful it again strengthens the sense of personal identification by creating guilt or shame around failure. “I failed.” “I could/should have done this/that.”
The cosmic law does not consider your personal preferences while deciding the outcome of your actions. It does not give any preference to the individual’s views because for it the individual does not exist.
My point is that the action has to happen, but the consequences are not in anyone’s control. You can’t assume anything. All you can do is execute the action. And you can only do that when you remove your filtered perception.
The idea of individual free will gives hope to the ego that it can survive. That is why the ego loves to argue. The ego wants to remain relevant, so it does everything in its power to gain attention and validation, not knowing even that is part of the script and the outcome is already predetermined.
So, the ego questioning “doership” and free will also happens according to the cosmic law. Your stumbling upon this message of non-doership was also predetermined.
This is something extremely difficult to absorb for the ego. The idea of not having personal volition or free will is extremely disturbing. And usually, it ends up in an inconclusive debate.
The ego loves to control and manipulate circumstances according to its preferences. That is fundamental to human nature. But this is precisely what causes suffering in life. That is why our society has so many conflicts at personal, religious, and economic levels.
With a firm idea of free will, the individual acts based on personal interests. The existence of the individual is by nature an alternating cycle of pain (mostly) and pleasure, and suffering happens when the individual clings to either of the two.
The anticipation of pleasure in the form of materialism or even spiritual attainment brings pain and suffering.
Not Having Individual Free Will Is Not Fatalism or Nihilism
Many years back, I and my family decided to buy a luxury vehicle. We used years of our savings to purchase an expensive car (by Indian standards), however, the car dealer took the money but never delivered the vehicle. The money was substantial and we were quite shocked and disappointed.
After a lot of bickering and unpleasant verbal exchanges between me and the dealer, I decided to file a case of cheating against him. My lawyer was convinced that we had the upper hand and we would easily win the case.
The case continued for almost two years without any progress. The dealer was good at exploiting the loopholes in the slow Indian judicial system. He went absconding when the non-bailable warrant was issued against him. Somehow, he kept dodging and ducking, and nothing eventually happened.
Despite our best efforts, we never got our money back, and the dealer somehow continued to operate his business.
How do you look at this situation? The ego would look at the situation fatalistically with a defeatist attitude.
At that time, my ego was hurt by the fact that I couldn’t do anything. The thoughts in my mind were something along the lines of: “How did he fool me?” “How could I make such a mistake?” “I lost our family money because of my carelessness.”
But then something miraculous happened which brought me great peace of mind. No, I did not get my money back.
I accepted what happened as the cosmic law. Is that fatalism or pessimism? Not at all. I relentlessly fought the case for two years. I did whatever I could do. I took the action that I thought was appropriate at the moment.
On accepting the cosmic law’s outcome in this particular situation my bitterness towards the dealer disappeared. I wish him well and think of him as my brother who needed something at that time, and it was my destiny to give him that.
From the egoic viewpoint, this may be seen as cheating, injustice, losing, or a quitter attitude, but for the universe, this was simply an exchange between two objects.
The reason why concepts, theories, philosophies, beliefs, and ideologies fail to give us answers is that they’re always formulated from a personal or individualistic point of view.
When the individual asserts his or her independent existence, he or she creates separation with wholeness. The separation, by nature, is suffering.
In my situation with the dealer, I got to know that he was a repeat offender and had many lawsuits going against him. He was absconding most of the time and had spent some time behind bars. Who am I to judge or question the cosmic will?
Surrendering to cosmic will is most challenging for the ego. The ego-mind thrives by creating divisions such as good and evil; moral and immoral; justice and injustice; and so on.
I’m by no means implying that you give up on your identification of good and evil, but remember that everything is relative. There are no absolute demarcations between good and bad that one can follow to live a peaceful life. All of these concepts change with time.
In medieval times, challenging the catholic concept of Geocentrism (the belief that the earth is the center of the universe, and all stars, planets, and the moon revolve around it) was punishable by law. Galileo was accused of heresy for pursuing the heliocentric model.
The late medieval law punished abortion as a crime against unborn life. While abortion is widely accepted in the world today, there still are a few countries where it is considered illegal and punishable by law.
Just because things are relative in the phenomenal world does not mean that we have to cut off our identifications with everything. The idea of not having free will is not nihilistic. On the contrary, if understood in principle, it is liberating.
Let the universe decide and I will simply execute the actions. It frees me from the load of responsibilities of doership.
When Buddha, in his first noble truth, said that the samsara (the world of names and forms) is dukkha (suffering, restlessness, and irritation), he did not mean it in the absolute sense. He gave the way out of dukkha by following a middle path that is comprised of eight components.
Identifications, by themselves, are not evil or undesirable. They form the basis of interhuman interactions. Without identification, I wouldn’t be able to write this essay, and you wouldn’t be able to read it.
It is the grasping of identifications by the ego by creating strong beliefs and blindly following ideologies that causes suffering …
The above article is a sample from my latest book – The End of “Me & My Story.” You can get it here on Amazon.