Do We Have Free Will?

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Modern biology suggests that free will is an illusion and that belief in it is similar to a religious belief. What does the Bhagavad-gita say on this point?

Biology and Free Will

The biological behavior of human beings is currently thought to be due to their genes, which encode proteins, which form functional blocks of neurons and other cell types, which form the brain and other tissues of the human body.1 Free will, or the capacity to make an independent choice, from a biological point of view is therefore an illusion given that behavior is not under the control of the person. In fact, in biology a person is not an independent entity, but a collection of genes, proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and water. How does it make sense to talk about free will of, say, a nitrogen atom or a bowl of pasta?

Even biologists have a tough time acting like they don’t have free will, as Anthony Cashmore at the University of Pennsylvania astutely points out in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.2 He argues that belief in free will is equivalent to a belief in vitalism,* which is embarrassing for biologists who “proudly reject vitalism.”

Even if there is something called free will, science cannot test the hypothesis “free will exists,” because free will means unpredictability. In a comment on Cashmore’s paper, Konrad Hinsen from the Centre de Biophysique Moléculaire in France wrote,

An individual cannot be held responsible for either his genes or his environment. From this simple analysis, surely it follows that individuals cannot logically be held responsible for their behavior. Yet a basic tenet of the judicial system and the way that we govern society is that we hold individuals accountable on the assumption that people can make choices that do not simply reflect a summation of their genetic and environmental history. As de Duve has written, “If … neuronal events in the brain determine behavior, irrespective of whether they are conscious or unconscious, it is hard to find room for free will. But if free will does not exist, there can be no responsibility, and the structure of human societies must be revised.”4

It is my belief that, as more attention is given to the mechanisms that govern human behavior, it will increasingly be seen that the concept of free will is an illusion, and the fallacy of a basic premise of the judicial system will become more apparent.5

How does the process of evolution explain this illusory notion of free will? According to Cashmore, consciousness provides us with an apparent sense of responsibility, which benefits society even though it is a burden on the individual. Cashmore recognizes that punishment is meaningless given that an offender has no free will, but suggests that justice should be based on what’s necessary to maintain a degree of orderliness in society.

Various scientists commented on Cashmore’s article, and he appears to convincingly rebut them. In one reply, he writes, “Thus Richard Dawkins writes scathingly6 about religious beliefs and yet in numerous interviews expresses his belief in free will. … The reality is that in this instance, the process of evolution has conned us into believing in free will.” This idea that we trick ourselves into thinking we made a “choice” was first proposed by Harvard psychologists Wegner and Wheatley nearly twenty years ago,7 with mounting recent experimental evidence that seems to support it (for example, Note 8).

The trouble is that neither theists nor atheists can operate without “believing” in their free will. Otherwise the entire act of living becomes superfluous. This is the sorry state of affairs that a human being is stuck with in the world.

Explanation of Free Will in the Gita and Bhagavatam

Somewhat similar to the biological worldview, in the Bhagavad-gita the body is likened to a machine. A machine such as a car needs fuel to run. Similarly, the bodily machine needs food, drink, and a favorable environment to survive. But the jiva, being nonmatter, is distinct from the body and does not need the body to survive. The driver of a car doesn’t drink gasoline, and the jiva in the body doesn’t need food and water. Yet we (souls) all have the strong experience of thirst and hunger. The Gita explains that we are hallucinating that we are the bodily machine and therefore consider its needs our own. But this hallucination is far from the truth.

The mind receives inputs from the senses (eyes, ears, nose, skin, and tongue). An intrinsic quality of sense objects (form, smell, taste, touch, and sound) is that they elicit attachment or repulsion in the mind. The mind desires to possess sense objects imagined to produce pleasure (attachment) and detests those that come in the way of that possession (repulsion). Incorrectly thinking that it is the body (this misidentification is called ahankara), the jiva considers these desires its own although they are actually born in the mind, which is separate from the jiva. The jiva is not enjoying or suffering, but rather thinking that the suffering and happiness born in the mind are its own.

All actions are carried out by the body (which includes the senses) and the mind. The person is not mechanistically causing the body to work; that is, the jiva neither runs the heart nor flexes the muscles. Being nonmatter, the jiva is aloof. All these activities are carried out by the body alone (under the supervision of Paramatma, a partial expansion of Krishna).

When the body feels thirsty, it seeks out water. But the jiva, or soul, is not thirsty – it cannot actually taste the water, which is material. Rather, it is having an “experience” of tasting the water because the mind registers a sensory event and the jiva considers that event to be happening to itself. So long as the jiva is in the body and thinks it is the body, it is forced to be in this “hallucinatory” state.

The jiva’s hallucination is vividly demonstrated in the Fourth Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam with the allegory of Puranjana. There the jiva is shown to be directly under the control of the intelligence. The intelligence decides the appropriate course of action for the jiva by accepting or rejecting different actions proposed by the mind. A weak intelligence follows the mind’s whims easily, resulting in destructive behavior (such as immoral acts), while a strong intelligence enables resistance to the mind’s tempting proposals. But so long as the jiva identifies with the intelligence, it has no capacity to make independent decisions – i.e., it has no free will. We will call the control of the jiva by the intelligence in this way “outside-in” control.

If we take the term free will to mean “inside-out control” – that is, the capacity of the jiva to control the intelligence – then a requirement for this is that the jiva has to recognize itself as separate from the intelligence.

Sria Baladeva Vidyabhushana’s commentary on the Bhagavad-gita sheds some light on the question of free will. Bhagavad-gita 3.33 goes like this:

sadrisham cheshtate svasyah
prakriter jnanavan api
prakritim yanti bhutani
nigrahah kim karishyati

“Even the man in knowledge of scripture acts according to his desires. All men act according to their desires. What can instruction or threat of punishment accomplish?” This verse is somewhat similar to the question of judiciary punishment that Cashmore raises. Are men punishable for following their desires, given that these desires are born in the mind and are not the jiva’s own? As even scripturally knowledgeable persons are driven by their desires as if without free will, what can instruction or threat of punishment accomplish?

Baladeva Vidyabhushana’s commentary reads as follows:

Even a person who knows the punishment stated in the scriptures acts according to his evil nature – his sinful impressions which have been present since beginningless time. What then to speak of the person who does not even know about the punishment? All people follow their sinful desires, even though those desires cause destruction of the very goals they pursue – artha, dharma, kama, and moksha. For a person devoid of association of saintly persons, even if he has knowledge of scripture, what can punishment accomplish? He will not be able to destroy the strong influence of those bad desires.

The next verse is an injunction:

raga-dveshau vyavasthitau
tayor na vasham agachchet
tau hy asya paripanthinau

“Attachment and repulsion are firmly fixed in each of the sense objects. Therefore one should not come under control of attachment and repulsion. They are the two obstacles.” Baladeva Vidyabhushana comments:

If the actions of men were under the control of their sinful natures, then the positive and negative injunctions of scripture would be useless.… The scriptures, which direct one to associate with the saintly persons, will turn one away from, and make one detest, what is forbidden, even though it is pleasurable to the mind, by making one understand the undesirable consequences of the forbidden act. And they will also make one have attraction for and engage in acts prescribed by scripture by making one understand their favorable results, even though these may be unpleasant for the mind. Thus the positive and negative injunctions of scripture are not useless.

If the jiva had no capacity to understand the consequences of harmful and beneficial actions, and to direct its intelligence accordingly, there would be no need for the knowledge of the Gita and the Bhagavatam. Thus, the jiva has the capacity to choose (inside-out), but it is limited by the information it receives (outside-in) to make that choice. When it receives the knowledge of bhakti it is presented, then the jiva learns about its identity as separate from the mind, intelligence, and body. It now has the option to choose between material activities and bhakti’s activities. The jiva of course does not become free from the body, but the mind, intelligence, and body now become vehicles in the jiva’s acquiescing to bhakti’s instructions. Now begins the struggle. The jiva has to make a daily choice to either serve Krishna – i.e., to perform bhakti – or to serve Krishna’s material energy, maya.

By steadily progressing on this path, the jiva becomes transcendental to the gunas – that is, free from the agitation caused by the material body, mind, and intelligence. Then the jiva is free from outside-in control; this is called the stage of liberation. In this stage the jiva is completely indifferent to (i.e., not controlled by) material happiness, distress, criticism, praise, friend, foe, activity, confusion, and illumination.

The easiest way to become free from the tyranny of the body that suppresses the jiva’s capacity for inside-out control is to perform bhakti, as Krishna explains in Bhagavad-gita 14.26:

mam cha yo ’vyabhicharena
bhakti-yogena sevate
sa gunan samatityaitan
brahma-bhuyaya kalpate

“One who engages in full devotional service, unfailing in all circumstances, at once transcends the modes of material nature and thus comes to the level of Brahman.” Performing bhakti not only frees one from the control of the gunas but also makes one a surrendered associate of Krishna. In this state the devotee is now controlled by prema, or love for Krishna. The devotee still has the capacity to choose, but the choices available in the spiritual world are in the context of how to make Krishna happy. Thus the jiva is dependent in its capacity to choose, whether in the material world or the spiritual world. In fact, in all of existence the only independent person with complete free will to do as He likes is Krishna Himself.

*A doctrine that ascribes the functions of a living organism to a vital principle distinct from chemical and physical forces.


(1) Cashmore, A.R. (2010), “The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system.” Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 107:4499–4504.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Hinsen, K. (2010), “A scientific model for free will is impossible.” Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 107:E149.

(4) de Duve, C. (1995), Vital Dust (Basic Books, New York).

(5) Cashmore, A.R. (2010) "Reply to Hinsen: Free will, vitalism, and distinguishing cause from effect.” Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2010 107 (38):E150.

(6) Dawkins, R. (2006), The God Delusion (Bantam Press, London).

(7) Wegner, Daniel M. and Wheatley, Thalia (1999), “Apparent mental causation: Sources of the experience of will.” American Psychologist, 54(7): 480–492.

(8) Bear, Adam and Bloom, Paul (2016), “A simple task uncovers a postdictive illusion of choice.” Psychological Science, 27 (6).

About the Author: 

Hari Parayana Dasa

Hari Parayana Dasa is a disciple of His Holiness Radha Govinda Swami. He lives in Alachua, Florida, with his family. To read more of his writings, visit