How Free Are We?

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The Vedic contribution to one of the central debates in Western philosophy.

Sam Surya goes to his city’s orphanage one day and makes a large donation. Elsewhere in town, Andy Andhakara robs a bank. What led these two to make such drastically different choices? Was it their own volition, or the force of some other factor? In other words, were their actions predetermined, or did Sam and Andy have free will?

These questions concern one of the pivotal debates in Western philosophy. Are human beings destined to follow a set course? Are we like children on an amusement park ride lets them steer right and left but inevitably takes them along a fixed track? Or are we free to desire and do as we like, our lives a blank slate upon which we may write anything and everything?

In this article we’ll take a brief look at how Western philosophy has addressed the problem of determinism versus free will, and then suggest how the Vedic literature can offer additional insight into this most elusive yet important issue.

Before we begin, let’s be clear about the term will. From a philosophical perspective, it is a nuanced concept that has undergone shifts in meaning over the years. Nevertheless, for all practical purposes it can be taken as synonymous with “action.” Hence the debate over determinism versus free will is essentially a quest to identify the cause of human behavior. Keeping this in mind should help keep you from getting lost in what might otherwise become a hazy jungle of abstract philosophical jargon.

Strict Determinism

One perspective on this debate is to say that Sam Surya was destined to donate and Andy Andhakara was destined to steal, and neither ever really had a say in the matter. This is the theory known as strict determinism. It holds that all human actions are the direct results of a sequence of causes and effects such that they are predetermined and can unfold in one and only one way. Thus, we do not actually play any part in determining our actions. Rather, they are caused by something beyond us. Western philosophers have generally been loath to embrace this view, and with good reason: strict determinism is contrary to both common experience and the norms of civilization. (The doctrine of the predestination of souls, espoused by St. Augustine in the fifth century and championed by the leaders of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, is one major exception.) Far from feeling forced into every action we take, we instinctively feel we can make choices in our lives. Therefore, the thought that we have no control whatsoever over what we do is repulsive. And the laws that govern society have meaning only if citizens can decide to follow them or not. For example, we would perhaps support punishing Andy Andhakara to send a message to the community that stealing is bad and others should not follow his example. But if citizens don’t have the power to decide to steal or not, then what’s the use of sending such a message? Therefore, strict determinism can be rejected as counterintuitive and highly impractical.

Categorical Free Will

Having rejected this extreme, let’s test out the other. As strict determinism tells us that Sam and Andy each had to act in a particular way, the opposite perspective tells us they could have acted in absolutely any way. This is the theory known as categorical free will. It holds that human actions are in theory completely unconstrained and can unfold in an infinite number of ways. Our behavior is not the preset product of any grand universal scheme, but is fluid and flexible. It essentially has no cause, for that would limit its course.

Unlike the theory of strict determinism, which has had few adherents among Western philosophers, the theory of categorical free will has been embraced by many, including the French philosopher Rene Descartes in the early seventeenth century and the German philosopher Immanuel Kant in the late eighteenth century. Indeed, it is a welcome relief from the stifling rigidity of determinism, and it resonates with Western notions of liberty and independence. But as other philosophers have pointed out (including those named in the next section), it goes too far. They argue that a phenomenon either has a cause (or causes) or is completely random; there is no third option. Therefore to say that human actions have no cause is to say that they are random. But observation of the world around us shows that this is clearly not the case. We don’t see mothers hugging their dirty laundry and throwing their babies into the washing machine. Rather, in place of such inexplicable chaos (the logical consequence of this theory) we observe order and meaning in human behavior. Hence, categorical free will must also be rejected as illogical and unrealistic.

Soft Determinism

So while strict determinism leaves us with no room to breathe, it turns out categorical free will opens the door far too wide. Neither theory allows for us to have a conscious influence on our actions. What of the middle ground, something between these two extremes? Such a perspective would allow Sam and Andy to cause their actions in some way that reconciles determinism and free will. Human behavior could then be understood as neither capricious nor automatically enacted irrespective of individual wishes.

Countless persons have endorsed some such compromise—including the English philosophers Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill—and it more or less represents the consensus of contemporary Western philosophy. Among these, the mid–eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume made what is arguably the chief presentation. His theory has been referred to as soft determinism because it takes strict determinism and alters it in a way that allows for personal freedom and moral accountability. He starts with the notion that every human action has a cause that determines how it will unfold. If this cause is something external to the individual, he refers to the resultant action as involuntary. If this cause is an internal desire of the individual, he refers to the resultant action as voluntary. Whereas in strict determinism all actions are caused by external forces and are therefore what Hume would call involuntary, his soft determinism allows for both external and internal causes. Indeed, he emphasizes the latter by explaining that human beings will always act according to their strongest internal desire unless forcibly constrained by some external factor.

Hume concludes by deeming such voluntary action “free” and therefore liable to moral scrutiny. Thus, under Hume’s theory, Sam’s donation is considered to be causally determined by his desire to donate, and yet is also considered free because it is done willingly. Andy’s act of robbery is caused by his desire to acquire money, but he remains morally culpable because he was not forced to act against his wishes.

Although with Hume’s soft determinism we finally have a theory that connects individuals with their behavior, whether it does so in a way that gives them actual freedom is questionable. Granting that it avoids the oppressive impersonalism of strict determinism and the chaos of categorical free will, does it actually bestow on humans the power of conscious choice? Critics have said no. They have noted that although under Hume’s theory individuals act voluntarily, they do not act freely. This is because the internal desires that cause their actions are not under their conscious control. For example, Sam voluntarily acts in accordance with his desire to give charity (and so feels like he is acting freely), but where does this desire come from? Did he choose to have the kind of personality that is inclined to give?

No. We could either trace its development through his experiences, education, and parenting, or resign ourselves to a simple, “He was born that way.” In either case, we must acknowledge that the very factors that resulted in Sam’s wanting to help out the orphanage are clearly not subject to his conscious control. Rather, his desire is the deterministic product of his background, and it compels him to act accordingly. He is not free to act otherwise. Thus, we are not justified in calling Sam’s and Andy’s respective actions free, and praising or censuring them accordingly. In fact, soft determinism ultimately leads us to the same dead end as strict determinism, albeit with a little more scenery on the way.

Although strict determinism and categorical free will proved easy to dismiss (both in this article and in the annals of Western philosophy), you will likely agree that soft determinism seemed more promising. But it still left us short of what we are searching for: a viable explanation of the cause of human action. Certainly the answer does lie in some sort of synthesis of determinism and free will, but Western philosophy can take us no further in this direction. We therefore now consider the philosophy of ancient India. Within the Vedic scriptures we find a perspective that genuinely reconciles determinism and free will in a way that makes sense to our heads and is agreeable to our hearts.

The Soul’s Free Will

We begin by reviewing the deterministic side of the equation. Krishna explains in the Bhagavad-gita that all living beings have eternal spiritual forms of which the physical bodies we see are only temporary coverings. The root cause of this encasement is known in Sanskrit as ahankara. Though this term is usually translated as false ego, it literally means “I am the doer.” Because we are made of spirit, not matter, we have no ability to independently manipulate matter, and to think we do is the ultimate binding delusion. Far from being a controller, by inhabiting a physical body we come under the control of nature, because the body, being matter, acts according to the laws of nature. The real agent behind the movements of the material world is the energy of God in the form of the three material principles, or modes: maintenance (goodness), creation (passion), and destruction (ignorance). Krishna sums up this whole dynamic by observing, “The spirit soul bewildered by the influence of false ego thinks himself the doer of activities that are in actuality carried out by the three modes of material nature.” Thus, our freedom does not lie in the tangible realm of physical matter.

To some people the implication of such evidence (see Sidebar for another example) is that free will is simply illusory and that enlightenment involves accepting that we are the powerless pawns of a deterministic world. Historically, Western philosophers have even been led to clump the Vedic worldview together with other Eastern philosophies and dismiss them all under the condescending label of “Asiatic fatalism.” But this is only half the Vedic equation. Equally compelling (and arguably even more important) is the Vedic evidence of freedom and the power of conscious choice.

For example, the Vedic literature contains a plethora of rules, regulations, and rituals. Many prominent Vaishnava philosophers have used the same logic we cited earlier in defeating strict determinism to claim that such scriptural prescriptions (and their associated rewards and punishments) can have meaning only if the living entity has some degree of factual independence. Indeed, “The Supreme Personality of Godhead has so dexterously formulated and applied the laws of material nature governing punishment and reward for human behavior that the living being is discouraged from sin and encouraged toward goodness without suffering any significant interference with his free will as an eternal soul.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.24.14, Purport by Prabhupada’s disciples)

It is important to note here, however, that as the mind is considered material in the Vedic understanding, it is subject to the same rigid control that was attributed to the body above. So just as the free will of the living being cannot extend to the actions of the physical body and senses, so too it cannot extend to the actions of the mind or intelligence. Thus, the free will Prabhupada speaks of must be restricted to the domain of the spirit soul proper, and it must be the actions of this soul that merit the various punishments and rewards he speaks of. But how does the soul act? Prabhupada explains that it is through desire. Not only that, he goes one step further to reveal that the desire whether “to surrender to God or not is the essential expression of our free will.”

And there, at last, is our answer and the Vedic resolution of the problem of determinism versus free will. As human beings, our freedom is limited to desiring to come closer to God or to move farther away from him. Material nature, under the supervision of God, takes care of the rest. According to our past desires, we are provided at birth with a suitable body through which the modes of material nature help us perform actions appropriate to those desires. Within the constraints of this body, which range from our mental disposition to the karmic results due to us while in it, we have the opportunity to form new desires. These desires may take many forms, but they will always be reducible to one of two broad categories: desires to be closer to God, or desires to be farther away from Him. Our new desires then create karmic reactions that in turn determine our next body.

No Deterministic Dead End

This Vedic understanding of free will thus saves us from the dead end that soft determinism led us to. We can trace the manifold desires that cause a person to act back from the upbringing of his present life to his nature at birth, to the desires of his previous lives, and, underlying it all, to his progressive desire to surrender to or rebel against God. Freedom reigns at this final, primary level, while determinism dominates all subsequent links in the chain. We could thus call the Vedic model a sort of binary free will.

For example, Sam Surya, in his previous birth, must have had godly desires (e.g., selfless desires to forego pleasures for a higher purpose). As a result, he was probably born with an innate generosity and received good training from his parents and early teachers, both of which allowed him to progress towards God. Andy Andhakara, on the other hand, must have had ungodly desires (e.g., selfish desires that focused on his own well-being at the cost of others), which led him to be born in a degraded situation favorable for expressing and acting upon such desires. The key to understanding how this works is in realizing that karma applies on a subtle, as well as a gross, level. Good actions don’t just create good circumstances; they also create the desire to do further good actions. And vice versa.

Unlike the blank slate of free will or the fixed track of determinism, this blend of the two might be likened to an interactive movie that lets you make choices at key moments and then unfolds automatically until the next decision. If we make choices favorable to reestablishing our relationship with God, like Sam Surya, we’ll get more and better options of this kind the next time. If we make choices that hamper our connection with God, like Andy Andhakara, the godly options will diminish in scope and quantity. Either way, what happens in between the decision points is the preset product of innumerable past choices.

When we finally evolve to the point where we unreservedly and uninterruptedly desire only to be closer to God, then we break the chain of successive physical bodies and can return to the divine abode. There, having revived our original spiritual bodies, we will be completely independent of the laws of nature that so rigidly control us in this world. Thus we come to the ultimate paradox of free will. When we are at every moment lovingly offering our free will at the feet of God for His pleasure rather than ours, then and only then are we the most free.

About the Author: 

Navina-Syama Dasa

Navina-Syama Dasa (Navin Shyam Jani) grew up going to ISKCON temples, first in Cleveland, Ohio, and later in Laguna Beach, California. He became serious about spiritual life while studying at Stanford University, and after graduation he spent time in several North American temples and farm communities. Later, he traveled to India with his wife, Krishna Priya Devi Dasi, where he earned a Bhakti Shastri degree with High Honors from the Mayapur Institute of Higher Education.