As I sat on the window porch, overlooking the hills merged with dark, rain-filled clouds at Khopoli on a mid august Sunday morning of 2006, my mind was still whirling with the questions. The questions refused to leave. Is life determined? Do we have a free will? These questions had been chasing me every single day for many months. Answers during my meditation led me to believe that there was both – determinism or destiny as well as free will. But, various saints, be they Ramana Maharishi, Nisarga dutta Maharaj, to philosophers like Ramesh Balsekar and others – talked about God and his control, not just over me, but the entire universe. A complete and rigid control, which does not allow any leeway or deviation – making me just an actor, a pawn, playing a readymade script – unable to even alter a single word in the unfolding drama.
Determinism is roughly defined as the view that all current and future events are causally necessitated by past events combined with the laws of nature. While free will should meet the following two conditions – that we must have two or more possibilities ‘genuinely open’ to us when we face a “choice” and secondly, that our choice must not be forced. Hence the debate over determinism versus free will is essentially a quest to identify the cause of human behaviour.
Some years ago, when I had encountered information about how psychics were able to exactly predict the future to specific details, it had set me thinking. I had read a verified account of a psychic predicting a certain day after 100 days in which the subject would be sleeping, while a child was crying in a certain position with split milk on the floor, coming true. I was also aware of some jyotish able to predict exact occurrences, or of having the past and future predicted through Nadi Palm leaf astrology, based on thumb print. It seems for each and every person the future is already predicted and written on ancient palm leaves, over 2000 years ago.
All these led to the same conclusion – strict determinism leaving us with no room to breathe, absolutely no control. In my desperation to find my answer, I started meditating, giving myself a fortnight to get the right answer and promising to myself that if the answer is complete determinism, then I would end my life. Was everything rigidly destined while an illusion of free will is created by the generation of infinite, complex interaction of a finite set of rules and parameters? Every evening I used to go to Juhu beach, walking alone and for hours, trying to get clarity. Every day, spending long, intense hours reading and contemplating. It was as if my life depended on it. The answer during my reflection and meditation was that life was a middle ground, something between the two extremes. A soft determinism which considers strict determinism and alters it in a way that allows for personal freedom and moral accountability, allowing both for external and internal causes.
But it was again just a hypothesis and could not satisfy me. I needed something more to be convinced. And, as I sat on the window porch in the Gagangiri Ashram, my eyes closed and I felt as if I was going higher and higher. Extrapolating myself into a larger and larger vortex like a sci-fi film. Seeing my body sitting there going out of view and as I travelled high into space – I could find my view enlarging till it encompassed the over 700 crore humans and millions and millions of living and non-living beings on the earth. The camera of my mind went further and further and the entire Universe panned out in front of my eyes with the stars and the heavenly bodies and I saw myself in the context of the same. A tiny speck with a partial free will. My ego was given a massive blow.
The universe has been in existence for over a million years and that we are part of millions of crores of animate and inanimate objects on the earth in the present. Also, free will is only a negligible, minimal fraction of our operative system. It is like a person standing near the shores of an ocean pushing water away by his free will, without having the least impact on the deterministic waves and flow of the ocean. Therefore, for a healthy and complete life – it is imperative to lead a life in sync with the well designed, intelligent and evolutionary existence. Like a small fish in a fast moving river, it is our free will to either swim downstream with the flow of nature and move ahead or swim upstream while undergoing tremendous suffering and pain.
Having inferred through my “subjective” process that there is determinism and free will both, I needed to verify the same through objective process, so I read some more and then some more. There were various viewpoints, some of which I shall state here, in brief:
Physics: Modern science is a mixture of deterministic and random theories. Quantum mechanics predicts events only in terms of probabilities, casting doubt on whether the universe is deterministic at all.
Genetics: Determinism vs. free will finds reflection in the debate “nature versus nurture”, concerning the relative importance of genetics and biology as compared to culture and environment. So, while a plant grows in a certain manner due to deterministic patterns, it could be altered temporarily using free will, but over the next two / three generations, it goes back to its original pattern. If you were to alter the colour of a rose flower using grafting techniques – in a couple of generations, the colour of rose will come back to its original hue.
Neuroscience: An experiment by Benjamin Libet in the 1980s asked the subject to choose a random moment to move his finger, but the observation of the brain activity was measured to be half a second before a conscious intent was made, leading to the conclusion that even the random finger movement of the free will was driven by a determined process.
Hindu philosophy: The six orthodox schools of thought in Hindu philosophy do not agree with each other entirely on the question of free will. For the Samkhya, for instance, matter is without any freedom, and soul lacks any ability to control the unfolding of matter. For the Yoga school, only Ishvara is truly free, and its freedom is also distinct from all feelings, thoughts, actions, or wills, and is thus not at all a freedom of will. The metaphysics of the Nyaya and Vaisheshika schools strongly suggest a belief in determinism, but do not seem to make explicit claims about determinism or free will. Mimamsa, Vedanta, and the more theistic versions of Hinduism such as Shaivism and Vaishnavism, have often emphasized the importance of free will.
Vivekananda said ” The will is not free, it is a phenomenon bound by cause and effect, but there is something behind the will which is free. It is the coward and the fool who says this is his fate. But it is the strong man who stands up and says I will make my own fate.” Ramkrishna Paramhansa said ” Man is like a cow tied to a pole with a rope – the karmic debts and human nature bind him and the amount of free will he has is analogous to the amount of freedom the rope allows; as one progresses spiritually, the rope becomes longer”.
Buddhist philosophy : Buddhists believe in neither absolute free will, nor determinism. It preaches a middle doctrine. In Buddhism it is taught that the idea of absolute freedom of choice is foolish, because it denies the reality of one’s physical needs and circumstances. Equally incorrect is the idea that we have no choice in life or that our lives are pre-determined.
Jewish philosophy: stresses that free will is a product of the intrinsic human soul, but the ability to make a free choice is the part of the soul which is united with God.
Islam: The theological issue is not usually how to reconcile free will with God’s foreknowledge, but with God’s divine commanding power.
Christianity : Christians believe that not only has God always known what choices individuals will make tomorrow, but has actually determined those choices.