Among all the illusions that we human beings suffer from, I believe that the illusion of us possessing free will is the most pervasive and yet inconspicuous. The concept of “free will” has been debated for centuries especially in the West and there are many schools of thought both in favor and opposition of the view. Philosophers and scientists have studied the issue from the perspectives of psychology, cognitive science, religion, semantics, information theory, and neuroscience. Many of these theses touch upon concepts of virtue and sin, the existence of an omniscient entity, our world being a computer simulation, the hard problem of consciousness, uncertainty in the quantum realm, the neural correlates of the origins of our thoughts, etc. However, below, I take none of these approaches to reflect on the concept of free will. Rather, in the steps of the methods of the Hindu philosophers of old, I humbly reflect on my own experiences and of those with whom I have crossed paths in life.
We take it as given that we have complete control over our actions in this dualistic world that we inhabit. We learn to eat when we are hungry, to study for excelling in exams, to run for burning calories, to respect familial and societal institutions for being accepted in society, etc. It is a no-brainer to us that our actions are responsible for our past, present, and future. But, think a little more about what drives our actions and things start getting complicated.
We undertake a set of actions in the pursuit of desires. The desire is of course a set with infinite possibilities—landing up a well-paid job, visiting an exotic hill station, marrying someone you love, eating your favorite ice cream, teaching young students, playing your favorite computer game, etc. More often than not we do not realize that these desires that we have inculcated are products of our being alive at a particular space-time junction. In other words, the accident of birth has provided us with the “luxury” of instilling these desires in us. A thousand years ago there was no concept of visiting an exotic hill station for tourism’s sake or of marrying someone you love (marriage was too important an institution to be left on the whims of human feelings), or of playing video games. Go back a mere ten thousand years (i.e. before the agricultural revolution) in the history of homo sapiens and there was no concept of landing up a well-paid job, eating your favorite ice cream. Go back a few more eons and we did not even have the capability of teaching young students by communicating through a vocal language.
Look around you and think about your upbringing and you will see the same accident of birth influencing your life decisions more than anything else. Did you ever have an idea that your life would be exactly like it is today? The place of your birth, culture and language in your part of the world, your upbringing, your family’s dietary habits and religious beliefs, your parents’ skin tone and health-related habits, etc., have influenced your life much more than you can imagine and perhaps would be willing to accept. All these factors (and more) were absolutely out of your will to determine and yet they continue to affect your life till you die (or you may die because of them such as when particular genes passed to you from your parents make you susceptible to a fatal ailment). Now, it is true that we have control over some of these factors such as dietary habits, cultural and religious beliefs and many of us do change ourselves as we age. But, then again these changes occur because we come into contact with people and ideas from other cultures, religious beliefs, and dietary habits since we are born into a time where we encounter diverse spaces—again a factor of the space-time junction that we are a part of.
Ok, perhaps we don’t have control over factors arising from the place and time of our birth but given that we have been born, do we then have control over our body and actions in other matters of life? Bad news, we do not! We do not even have control over our heartbeat or our digestive system. Can we turn on and off particular neurons in our brain when we desire or can we control what dreams we want to see when we go to bed tonight? Is it possible to control our body clock and decide to not get old at a fast pace? The particular strand of hair on your scalp that recently turned grey, can you reverse its color? Is it possible to increase your height by an inch by the end of next week? You may argue that these are related to some irrefutable laws of biology driven by the almighty force of evolution which we cannot control. Fine, what about your behavior?
Did we have control when in our mid-20s we suddenly felt that no longer can we keep eating anything and everything without having to worry about gaining weight? Leave such involuntary bodily processes aside, we do not even have control over our important likes and dislikes. I am attracted to people from the opposite gender not because I chose it to be so. There is no switch that I can voluntarily flip so that I can start liking people of my gender. Even when we like or dislike someone, is it not the case that we find it hard to express why exactly do we feel such toward them? Intuition, vibe, gut-feeling, instinct, we have an array of words to loosely communicate this “expression” but it is really impossible to pinpoint the origin of the same. Now, you may again argue that these factors too are driven by the sacrosanct laws of our evolutionary past. In that case, thank you for accepting that the evolutionary past has more control over your behavior than your supposed “free will.”
Wait a second you might say, the above behaviors and actions pertain to larger things in life such as our bodily processes and upbringing. We still have free will in the small actions of our life, you may argue. After all, you can switch off the room’s light, fetch a cup of tea, eat sushi tonight, play a game of sudoku, read a newspaper, listen to your favorite song, watch the new James Bond movie, go out with your friends, prototype something on your 3D printer, or set an alarm clock to wake up before sunrise in the morning. Isn’t that free will? Is it not the case that such small actions ultimately add up to our larger sense of desires and behavior? It might be the case, you may interject, that such small actions shape our desires but we only have limited control over our larger behaviors and actions because they are driven by the undeniable laws of biology?
Consider a(ny) thought more closely. Focus on any object near you right now. You can either decide to pick that object using your left hand or using your right hand. Choose either of the two and do so. Was there any point in your “thought process” when you actually consciously took the decision that which hand would you use? No. Inside your mind, were you able to trace the origin of the thought to pick the object? No. Take any other thought that comes to your mind right now. Are you able to trace its origin before it vanishes to become another thought? When we cannot even control our thoughts and what comes to our mind at any given instant of time, where is free will? With practice, you may be able to teach yourself to not let many astray thoughts come your way, but the origin of thoughts in your mind still remains a mystery.
We have all descended from life that originated more than four billion years ago on this planet. Most of the life forms around us are still single-cellular or microscopic and supposedly unable to “think” and feel “consciousness” like we do. We have all evolved to survive on this planet and react to various kinds of stimuli around us so that we can increase our adaption to the four basic and most primal drives (the four Fs): fighting, fleeing, feeding, and reproduction. The process of “thinking” evolved to satisfy these primal drives and react to various stimuli around us in the environment, not to provide us with “free will” in any sense that is superior to other forms of life. Reflect on your own life. What is that big goal you want to achieve in the next few years? Now reflect on all the events in your past that conditioned you toward this overarching goal. What if you would have been born in a different part of the world under different circumstances, would you still have had the same goal? We are all prisoners of evolution, and of our times and circumstances.
A question naturally comes to mind: Is it all nihilistic then? If there is no free will, why undertake any karma or, in the absolute sense, do we ever undertake any karma? The short answer in the absolute sense is no. The illusion of free will is (thankfully) ever-present and there is no way to completely go beyond it. Unlike free will itself, the illusion is very much real. A way to resolve the dilemma is to humbly accept the reality that there is no free will and yet refute this reality because the illusion itself forces us to do so. You are not consciously undertaking any karma and thus you may not worry about the results. As the oft-repeated saying goes: Separate actions from the desire of results. Of course, it is easier said than done.