Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Free Will


European philosophy and theology have been much exercised on the subject of the ‘free will’ while the Hindu tradition has considered this subject as of minor importance. The explanation for this lies in the analytical understanding of the concept by both the traditions. In European thought, an individual is conceived of as a permanent fixed entity, basically separate from the rest of the world which is his universe. It is argued that without freedom of will there is no moral responsibility and if there is no moral responsibility, there can neither be guilt nor punishment, either in society or hereafter, before the throne of God. This problem has not much troubled the Hindu thought which considers that there is no such thing as a completely and stable entity, called, ‘the individual’ and secondly, the Hindu argues, that if the human will is not free then what does the term “freedom”, mean ? What instance shall we bring forth with which to contrast the supposed determina¬tion of the human will? Our notion of “freedom” is inalienably derived from our own experience to which we give the name of “will”. Whatever, therefore, we may mean by “freedom”, it is ultimately in the terms of our experience of our own ‘will’, that we give meaning to it. Thus interpreted, to say that human will is free is an axiom, as well as a tautology. There is no meaning in the thesis that human will is not free, for, “free” is that which is like unto the human will. The trouble, however, .arises when we give to the expression, “free will”, a meaning which we have not derived from our experience of our ‘will’ but which have been superimposed by our intellect. Thus we like to think that, “free will” is that power of volition of the human individual which is totally uncaused and unconditioned. The concept of ‘self-caused inevitabil¬ity’ and ‘freely chosen determinism’ would appear as puzzling, if no, altogether non-sensical to the western mind. A little reflection, however, will show that such a “freedom” does not, and cannot, in fact, exist and further, that, if it did and could exist, it will destroy all foundations of ‘moral responsibility’, ‘sense of guilt’ and justification for ‘punishment’ either here or hereafter. To begin with, there are the facts of heredity, the environment, and the subconscious mind. There is not much doubt that the individual is the product of his heredity, the inner mechanism of which the science of biology has discovered recently in the fertilized germ-cells and its genes, which make all the organic cells that make up the body including the brain and the nervous system. This pattern we inherit from our parents and our ancestors and it is certainly a determination of the choices that we make in our lives from time to time. Psychology has revealed to us that sub-conscious layers of human mind as the seat of instincts, emotions, and intuitions, for those who faithfully follow the dogma of the Church Council of Constantinople (553 A.D.) which anathematised the doctrine of transmigration, in the race during evolution of millions of years, or, accumulated, for those who hold the doctrine of metempsychosis as fundamental, accumulated in the course of untold numbers of previous births and rebirths of the individual. They are certainly a deter¬minant throughout a man’s life in the matter of his choice and the conduct that follows it. Again, from outside the social environment is active in continu¬ously influencing and moulding individual’s mind and thereby his power of choice and conduct. These three factors, the physical, the environmental and the he¬reditary are there as a fact and their powers of influencing the human power of choice cannot be denied. In this sense there cannot be a ‘free will’, as an uncaused and unconditioned factor which solely determines as to what choice, in a given situation, an individual will make. But even if there were such a “free” will, it will entail disastrous consequences. If a man’s actions are not free when they can be shown to be casually chained to his character, the sum total of his heredity, past experiences and environment, then the only circumstances in which it would be proper to call a man “free”, would be those in which he acted independently of his received character, that is, of his habits, desires, urges, and perspective on life and all the rest. But if this agent or ‘free’ action, is not to be equated and identified with that which is subject to particular desires and urges, which is circumscribed by a given environmental and circumstantial set-up, which is devoid of character, motives persistent inter¬ests and the like, then who is this agent of ‘free’ choice, the ‘he’ ? Such a notion of ‘free’ will completely dissolves the agent of action; a person with such a ‘free’ will is a completely disembodied and unidentifiable entity. Such an entity can neither be blamed nor praised. Indeed, such an entity would be truly like the “Superman’ of Nietzshe, “beyond good and evil.” Nor can such an entity be held responsible for what it does, for, it would be clearly unreasonable to hold an individual responsible for his• actions if we did not think there was a cause and effect connection between his character and his con¬duct. When we can show that there is no such connection, as, for instance, an act is committed as a result of coercion, we do not normally hold him responsible. The reason is not that the one act is ‘uncaused’ and ‘free’, while the other is ‘determined’, the reason lies in the kind of the cause, in the one case the cause lies in the character of the individual over which he has, in some sense, control while in the other case, he has no such control. As we gain new knowledge about the kinds of causes that affect conduct, we change our mind about the kinds of behaviour for which we should hold men responsible. The recent shifts of stress in the science of Penology in the modern world, and the ancient wisdom of the East and West, which iterated that an individual is ultimately responsible for nothing, must be appre¬ciated in the context of this analysis, and not in the superfinal.frame of reference of ‘determinism’ and ‘free will’. “A man reaps only that what he sows in the field of Karma”, 17 declares the Sikh scripture. It simultaneously says, that, “Say, what precisely it is that an individual can do out of his free choice ? He acteth as the God willeth”. 18 And the Bhagvadgita asserts that, “God sits in the heart of every creature with the consequence that all revolve in their set courses, helplessly tied to the wheel of maya.” 19 That man is free to choose and act to some extent, and to the extent that he is so, to that extent alone he is morally responsible and subject to praise and blame, is a true statement. That there is no such entity, and no such entity is conceivable, which is wholly ‘un¬caused’ and ‘undetermined’, and further that in the ultimate analysis, the whole area of individuality can be linked to a cause or causes which are supra¬-individual is also a true statement, and these two true statements are not self-contradictory or incompatible with each other, constitutes the Sikh doctrine on the subject.
This brings us back to our immediate experience that seems to carry its own certitude with it, that, in some sense, we are ‘free’, for, we have the notion of ‘freedom’ as the core of this experience. Sikhism while implicitly taking note of the three factors which determine the powers of human choice, lays stress on this fourth factor, perpetually present and operative In the human mind, which possesses the autonomous power of choice. This autonomous power of choice is, the divinity in man, according to Sikhism and it is this core around which the whole human personality, which is, at heart, the source of all human misery, as well as the panacea of all his ills”. 20 “How may man demolish the wall of nescience that separates him from God ? By being in tune with the Will of God. And how shall we know the Will of God. Nanak answers : It is embedded in the very core of human personality.” 21
It is this autonomous power of free choice which is given to every human personality and by virtue of which the effects of the other three determining factors of human choice are interfused, and, thus, the act of free human choice gives birth to a new event which is not wholly determined, and which is not mere combination and aggregational consequence of all these four factors, but which is a new event, unique in nature, and potently capable of giving rise to other similar events in the future. It is this power of free choice that is included in man’s original heritage which has the capacity to go beyond this heritage and thus, within the limits given, a human being is free to shape his own destiny. Nor are the other three factors, his received character, the indi¬vidual circumstances, are merely accidental and for¬tuitously super-imposed upon the individual, for, they too are the fruits of his past Karma of uncounted previous births, and thus they are self-determined, self-caused, result of free choices earlier made. When and why and how did an individual make the first free but wrong choice ? This question relates to, the First Things, and therefore, exhypothesis, the indi¬vidual comprehension fails at this point: “the son observeth and knoweth not the birth of his father”. 22

— The Sikh Thought, Sirdar Kapur Singh

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