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Brian Joseph



Joined: 23 Jan 2014
Posts: 11
Location: West London, UK

PostPosted: Sat Mar 22, 2014 4:30 pm    Post subject: Free Will Reply with quote

FREE WILL

Do we possess free will or are all our choices determined? This is a perennial philosophical question, important not least because some notion of free will underlies society’s thinking on moral responsibility. We all appear to believe that we do possess such will – it is a fact that we all experience guilt about what we regret having done or have omitted to do, so that we obviously believe that we are responsible for our actions. But can such a belief be justified?Kant observed that it is indisputable that we have moral concepts – our vocabulary---- should, ought, etc..- Indicate that. But these convictions would have no meaning if we were not free to act by their dictates. Yet a free will is impossible to demonstrate empirically. Which of us can point with certainty to the ultimate cause of any action and how can we confidently assert that we could have done otherwise?

Is a free will compatible with determined universe, determined either by God’s laws or universal laws established by Science? Consequently most philosophers have inclined towards determinism or a modified version of it.

Broadly speaking they have adopted one of four possible positions: -
  1. A human being may be free to choose and free to accomplish a willed action.
  2. All freedom could be totally illusory.
  3. There may be potential free will, in that a person may be free to choose, but because of an interior constraint (character or ahankara) may be unable to act according to his choice.
  4. What appear to be choices are in fact determined by character, ahankara, etc. and, therefore, not freely chosen, but if not constrained freely enacted. This is freedom of action, but not freedom of will and would broadly be the position of Hume and Leibnitz.
Spinoza argued that our everyday sense of being free agents is an illusion. ‘To think that freedom is the ability to do or not do something evil is quite wrong. True freedom is being the first cause of something ---- God is the first cause, because there is no external cause outside Him to coerce or constrain Him.’ (Short Treatise on Man and his Wellbeing 1.4.) He does speak, however, of obeying the laws of the natural world as aligning the mind with the mind of God. ‘The more we see things as necessary --- the more we increase our power over them; the more we are free’. Ethics Pt.5 Prop.6.
Schopenhauer’s denial of the possibility of free will closely argued in his prize essay ‘On the Freedom of the Human Will’ of 1839. He argues that a will, which was not determined, would be random and incompatible with the world in which we live. We are part of a phenomenal world, which has laws by which we understand it and without which it would be unintelligible.
The view of Advaita philosophy stems from the belief that since there is no individual Self, there can be no individual will of such a Self. However each individual is believed to be the product of previous lives and therefore events met, and the character that meets them, are predetermined. Patanjali; Ch 4:9 ‘Life is a continuous process, even though it is demarcated by race, place and time. ------- the fruits of action remain intact from one life to the next, as if there were no separation between births.’

Other philosophers in the Advaitic tradition take the view that causes incline without necessitating. (Sri Santananda Sarasvati 93.5.4) ‘The Absolute has provided buddhi to all individuals, in which is enshrined freedom, choice and reason. He wants it to be used by every individual.’ And, in a statement rather reminiscent of Spinoza – ‘People have such a notion of free will that they think they can regulate the world as they wish ---- What they overlook is that prakriti is a body of laws which have not only manifested the world but also the individual --- one must learn the finer laws of nature.’

Yvonne Fletcher
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Brian Hodgkinson



Joined: 27 Jan 2014
Posts: 7
Location: Oxfordshire, UK

PostPosted: Fri Jun 13, 2014 11:13 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Yvonne's quote from Sri Shantananda Saraswati is particularly helpful in looking at the question of freewill, since he makes it very clear that it is the buddhi or intelligence of the individual that has the power of choice and is free to exercise it. Given also that the real self, the Atman, does nothing, this makes it evident that it is the freedom of the buddhi and not of the self that is at issue.

So the question becomes, not is the self free or determined by external factors or conditions, but is buddhi so determined. Most forms of determinism assume that determination comes from the past, either through antecedent causes, such as brain states, or from sanskara, such as past actions that are held in memory. All of these may have a bearing on how buddhi makes a decision in the present moment. However, if indeed it is able to make genuinely free choices, it must be capable, in some sense, of transcending these influences, so that they alone do not determine the outcome.

What then might enable buddhi to decide with some degree of independence or autonomy? Can it, for example, decide with reference to a categorical imperative, free from personal prejudice or interest, as Kant would claim? Can it be spontaneous, seizing the moment without regard to the past? This would surely only be possible if there is a reference back to the consciousness of the Atman. This does not involve action or decision by the real self, merely the casting of greater 'light' upon the buddhi, so that it can make a decision unimpeded by external factors like the effects of past actions.

Freedom of the will then becomes simply the ability to make conscious decisions. Like Kant, we might say that we can never be absolutely sure that such a decision is made. Nevertheless we can say that the recognition that the presence of consciousness or the Atman is necessary is enough to make a free will possible.

Brian Hodgkinson
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