Monday 21 September 2015

Free will

This is a short discussion on free will, initially on whether it exists at all and then how it might fit in the context of non-duality.

Q. Do you believe in free will?  As far as I understand the matter a strict materialism would deny it because everything about us is ultimately down to our genetic inheritance on the one hand and environmental factors on the other. But spiritual philosophies like advaita and Buddhism (whose shortcomings you have spoken of), which reject individuality, would also seem to leave free will out in the cold. In their view our sense of self is just a faulty perception that is the product of identification with thought and memory, and the fundamental reality is emptiness. Or else there is only the One Self so no selves truly exist in which case neither does free will. What's your view?

A. You are right to point out that certain forms of non-dualistic philosophy would seem to meet up with materialism in a rejection of free will. They might be approaching the question from different directions but they arrive at the same answer. Are they right though? Well, as I see it only someone whose intellectual mind had supplanted their intuitive sense of how things really are could think so. After all, no one actually behaves as though free will did not exist, and if it really didn't then why would it matter if you infringed another person's free will? And yet to do so is universally regarded as wrong, even criminal.

That having been said, we can't necessarily take our natural feelings of how things are as showing how they really are. Common sense may be a good guide in most things, but that doesn't mean we can assume our intuitions about ourselves are always right. They could be indicating how things appear to be rather than how they actually are so let's look at this question a little more closely.

Our point of departure, though, must be that the denial of free will is the denial of our own experience and deepest awareness of ourselves as autonomous creatures, and, whilst that is not conclusive, nor should it be discounted unless there is very good reason to do so. The deterministic point of view leads to the conclusion that no one is responsible for anything. We are only our brain states with no I controlling them, even in a limited way. However, though this might seem theoretically plausible to one who has a purely mechanistic view of human nature, a little reflection shows it runs completely counter to our experience of ourselves as rational beings endowed with individuality and knowing right from wrong. Indeed, if there is no free will can we even say that concepts of right and wrong have any meaning?  So, denying free will leads to the denying of morality. You can build it up but it is built on sand because it is rooted in convenience rather than truth.

Whether or not we have free will depends on whether or not we have true individuality or only the appearance of such formed out of experience, memory and so on. As with the existence of God, I suspect this is not something that can be proved to the full satisfaction of a doubting intellect, and that is because it is a metaphysical thing. For individuality does not belong to the world of phenomena and 'things' but to the inner world of qualities and meaning. Theoretically free will can be reduced to an effect of material causes but that truly is to reduce it and to leave out much about it and us that doesn't fit into that particular box. Specifically it is to leave out the element of freedom which is just dismissed as illusionary. So you can’t prove free will to the rational mind any more than you can prove God, and you may choose to disbelieve in it. However that very choice is the act of free will. You may claim that your choice is predetermined by your past, and some of it may well be, but a creature without free will would not be capable of seeing that there is a choice to be made. The simple fact that a creature can ask itself, “Do I or do I not have free will?” shows that it does (to a limited degree). If it did not, it would not even be able to grasp the concept of what free will might be.

So, to answer your question, I do believe in free will. Of course, it is not completely free because whatever we choose will inevitably be influenced by our past, by what we might have experienced and by our point of understanding at the present time. Nevertheless in any given circumstance where there is a question of moral right or wrong there is always an element in us that knows the truth and can incline us towards it. This part of us, call it soul, call it conscience, knows what we ought to do, and we can choose either to listen to or ignore it. That is where free will comes in.

Q. But from the point of view of non-duality isn't free will an illusion to be seen through when we see there is no self?

A. You're confusing the personal will, that can choose to go with the flow of life or against it, with the free will of a Master that is perfectly conformed to reality. His individual will is now one with Divine Will but that does not mean it does not exist. It does exist, in fact it must exist because without it he could not know the enlightened state. That is to say, he could not consciously know himself to be one with God. His will is not separate from God's but remains as a means through which he can serve and magnify God.

But even if free will did not exist for a Master (who, by the way, still has a self just not the sense of a separate self), that has no bearing on whether an ordinary person in this world now has free will. For even if you want to say that free will is redundant in absolute terms when identification with the separate self has ceased you could never reach that state without making the right conscious choices, i.e. exercising your free will. That does not mean that free will is capable of taking you there but it is, correctly co-ordinated, capable of taking you to the point where divine grace can operate.

Q. I asked this question because I read a book that said that free will is unreal because the self is unreal and the seeing of that fact is liberation.

A. At best, that's a half truth. First of all, there is nothing unreal in the phenomenal universe. Everything has its own kind of reality on its own level. All that is unreal are the mental projections we impose on reality, one of which being that there is no reality at all to the phenomenal world. So individuals are real, in their own way, which means that free will is too, in its own way.

I am not claiming that free will is absolute. It operates within a limited sphere but within that sphere it does exist. The author of your book is conflating absolute and relative levels, and using the fact of the absolute to deny the relative any kind of reality at all. But the relative, hence the individual and hence free will, is perfectly real. It’s just not absolutely so.  He is also equating individual identity with the separate self, but the two are not the same at all as can be seen by the fact that all realized beings still have an individual identity even if that is no longer the centre of their being.

God created Man with free will. That was the very purpose of this creation. In order that Man might add to the glory of life, and also for the full expression of divine love. Our free will must eventually be surrendered back to God of our own accord if we are grow in the spiritual way intended for us but even then it remains as the means through which God, Divine Life, continues to be expressed ever more abundantly in joy, love and creativity.


Robert said...

Looks like another thing where we agree. I've noticed almost all of the people who I've come across (which isn't many) who deny free will deny that God exists. Or that God is the only thing so free will is an illusion. Why do these people bother presenting an argument if there is no free will? They clearly want people to think like they do (don't we all). There is a point to trying to explain something to someone. That implies a will and not just randomness and conditioning.
In Baha'i scripture there is an explanation about free will and God's will where God's will is like the wind and our will is like the rudder on a sailboat. A powerful wind can blow you places without steering but also you can choose to go with the wind our against it. If you learn to go with the wind it might look like you have no free will but that idea is a mistake. You choose to go with the wind.

William Wildblood said...

That's a great analogy, Robert. It sums things up beautifully.

I don't know why people deny free will. It's a kind of self hatred to do so. All I can think is that their desire for there not to be a God outweighs all other considerations. Or else, for those who say that God is the only thing, they dislike the idea of having a personal obligation towards a Creator. So their denial of free will is actually the result of them having free will!