Thoughts and Questions on Free Will

Briefly, a case against free will is being made. Inquirer wants to know Advaita's take on freewill.

INQUIRER:

Reading Dennis Waite’s case against free will in “HOW TO MEET YOURSELF” (pg 170-174), I was struck at how similar it was to the one made roughly 80 years ago by 20th century English scholar, Joseph McCabe.


Though I still have not accepted determinism (I have yet to grasp the relevant implications of quantum mechanics) — I do not believe that anyone is in control-of or responsible-for the trajectory of their life.

I might use Derk Pereboom’s term “hard incompatibilism” (for want of something clearer) to describe my position on free will (i.e., there is no free will regardless of whether or not determinism holds true).

I think free will is self-contradictory to the point where it’s on all fours with the square circle and the quotient of a number divided by zero.

 

QUESTION 1 ON FREEWILL:

There is something about Advaita’s position on free will that puzzles me…

If I am not mistaken, Advaita claims that we DO have one freedom, and that is to stop identifying with the body-mind.

However, it seems to me that even this is ultimately beyond our control, as this is a choice that the mind makes.

I would argue that our beliefs are as beyond our control as our actions.

It seems to me that the mind, like the body, grows like a tree–many if not most of the principal formative parameters and factors were not determined by the entity in question.

So I happened to stumble across Advaita some years ago, and sometime after started to study it in earnest — reading books, articles, and blog entries on a regular basis.

At this moment I am typing this e-mail to you. You may or may not choose to reply. All of this–past, present, and future–is part of the trajectory of my life, a chain of events that I did not set into motion and whose direction I have no real control over.

Would you agree that it is ultimately not “up to me” whether or not I accept the arguments of Advaita and experience non-duality?

Perhaps Balsekar was right when he said, “There’s nothing I can do, I’m not the doer! It can only happen if it’s supposed to happen according to God’s will, cosmic law and my destiny. Clear? It can only happen.”  (Quoted from “Dennis Waite: Free Will (Part 3)”)

 

QUESTION 2 ON FREEWILL:

Furthermore, what real difference would it make at the end of the day?

If this particular body-mind, which I know as myself, becomes self-realized, it will probably be at peace for the rest of its days.

But its days are numbered, and once it perishes, that’s it.

I might be visited by “enlightenment” today, and death tomorrow.

Even if the fruits of my self-realization benefits future generations, they are not likely to last forever, either.

And the eventual heat-death of the universe will erase any “meaning” or relevance it might have had anyway.

Would it be correct to say that Advaita is an earth-bound Weltanschauung whose benefits for an individual do not extend beyond the here and now?

If it is, what difference does it make whether an individual attains enlightenment or commits suicide?

As an aside, I consider Advaita Vedanta the religion of a “spiritual elite”.

You’ll probably recognize this passage from page 106 of Eliot Deutsch’s treatment of Advaita (ADVAITA VEDANTA: A PHILOSOPHICAL RECONSTRUCTION):

“ Advaita Vedanta is explicitly aristocratic in its contention that, practically speaking, truth or genuine knowledge is available only to the few who, by natural temperament and disposition, are willing and able to undertake all the arduous demands that its quest entails. ”

In other words, Advaita Vedanta is part of the esoteric dimension of religion (per Frithjof Schuon et al) — only open to “the few.” Do you agree?

 

RESPONSE:

Three issues will be addressed per your inquiry…

  1. Concept of free will in Advaita Vedanta.
  2. Common misconception that Vedanta is a philosophy.
  3. Alleged elitist stance of Vedanta.

1) Concept of free will

IN SHORT: Putting all philosophical discussions aside pertaining to availability of free will. One has to ACTIVELY use the mind in order to solve any problem. Driving, moving home, making decisions in corporate setting, removing ignorance in any subject matter. It takes time, energy and effort.

Regarding free will, there are two perspectives from which the issue can be viewed.

PERSPECTIVE 1 OF FREE WILL:

The first perspective from which the concept of free will can be viewed is that of awareness (brahman/atman).

Of course, from this perspective – which is actually not a perspective, as such, since it is non-locatable – there is no doership for the simple reason that since nothing has ever happened, there can be no doing that was ever done and, thus, no doer to have not done it, which ironically would be a doing in itself had it been done.

In other words, from the perspective of pure awareness, nothing is being willed, whether free or not.

Because pure awareness is not a person possessed of the capacity to will.

In short, awareness neither wills nor does; awareness simply IS.

PERSPECTIVE 2 OF FREE WILL:

The second perspective from which we can view the concept of free will is that of Isvara or God-the-Creator.

When for some unfathomable reason pure awareness “wields” its inherent power of maya, and in so doing, projects the entire manifested cosmos (in both its gross and subtle aspects).

The creative power formed by the “conjunction” of  awareness (Brahman) and maya is personified as Isvara.

Or, in more technical terms, we can say that Isvara is the personification of the macrocosmic causal body or field of pure potentiality from which all forms emanate. Which results from awareness having fallen under the apparent influence of its own inherent power of maya.

Either way, the effect is the same: the manifestation of an apparent transactional reality (jagat) and the emergence of an apparent individual doer (jiva).

In other words, there arises a context in which deeds seem to be done and individual doers seem to do them.

And while these apparent individual doers seem to be doing what they do by means of their own independent volition — such is not the case.

All action is actually orchestrated by Isvara.

In order to comprehend the machinations of Isvara’s “will”, we need to first understand what vasanas/samskaras are and how they impact one’s desires, decisions, and deeds.

The Sanskrit word “vasana” literally means “fragrance.”

It is used to denote the impressions left in the mind as a result of one’s experience.

Rather than every detail of each experience being retained, however, the mind filters out all but the essence of the experience (those impressions that give it a pleasant scent or a putrid stink).

These fragrances or impressions are thereafter stored in the causal body (karana-sharira) or the subconscious memory, and from there they wield one’s actions.

Basically, these impressions are the basis of all our attractions and aversions (raga-dvesha), likes and dislikes, desires and fears.

Each time we are faced with a decision, the intellect consults the causal body for advice on how to respond, and invariably the causal body instructs us (the buddhi) to act in accordance with the character of our vasanas.

In other words, it tells us to do what has produced a pleasurable result in the past and to avoid doing what has produced and adverse consequence.

Moreover, each time we satiate the desire or circumvent the fear evoked by the vasana — we strengthen it.

Rather than remaining mild preferences and proclivities, the vasanas we have accrued and reinforced soon become demanding overlords who compel us to act at their behest — and in such ways as will satisfy their voracious appetites.

Hence, instead of being masters of our destiny, we become slaves to our desires.

When a vasana becomes so strong that we are unable to resist its influence, we call it a binding vasana.

Because the binding vasanas extrovert one’s attention, it is these vasanas that need to be neutralized before one can successfully practice self-inquiry.

Despite the grim manner in which they have just been presented, it should be noted that vasanas (habitual tendencies  based on likes/dislikes), are not all bad.

Some vasanas compel us to do things that are quite helpful to either our enjoyment of the world or our inner spiritual growth.

Whether positive or negative in character and despite the greater or lesser degree of their influence, however, vasanas are the fundamental impetus of our actions.

The vasanas themselves are not independent sentient entities with a will of their own.

Rather, they are merely cogs in the organic machine that is the mind-body-sense complex.

They are both the fuel and the by-product of the machine’s regenerative operation.

Not only do they feed the machine the information it needs to carry out its functions, but they are also the subtle residues of that functioning that are stored in the form of informational energy, that in turn fuels the continued functioning of the machine.

As is the case with all manifested objects, the vasanas are time-sensitive and progress through a predictable series of stages during their lifespan.

In other words, like all objects — they are born, grow, mature, decay, and die.

Thus, once they are born of experience, they gain a greater or lesser degree of strength as they are reinforced through subsequent action until they reach the peak of their power.

In the case of certain vasanas, they become irresistible tendencies or binding habits that compel one to satisfy and thereby sustain their strength. Thus they take a longer period of time to weaken and eventually wear out as all vasanas inevitably do.

While this process follows a predetermined pattern that is part of the operational design of the mind-body-sense machine — the machine itself (i.e. the apparent individual person) believes it is functioning according to its own free will.

The ideas, opinions, intuitions, interpretations, and impulses that arise in the mind prompted by the vasanas seem to the apparent individual person; as though they are his or her own spontaneously generated thoughts and feelings.

Thus, when one feels a decided like or dislike for certain objects, behaviors, or experiences — it means that the vasana driving that attraction or aversion is currently “ascending” through the growth and maturation phases of its lifespan.

Conversely, when one is dispassionate toward these same objects, behaviors, or experiences — it means that the vasana  (that formerly drove one to seek these things) is currently “descending” through the phase of decay and making its way toward “death” — which is essentially the complete neutralization of that preference or proclivity’s power to compel our actions.

The progressively patterned “lifespan” of all manifested objects is part of what we might call Isvara’s “will.”

As mentioned earlier, Isvara is basically a personification of the fundamental field of pure potentiality out of which the manifested universe arises.

As such, Isvara can also be understood as the laws that govern the operation of that vast macrocosmic machine.

In other words, everything that occurs in the manifested apparent reality is a predictable result of the impersonal and inviolable chain of cause-and-effect that is personified as Isvara.

Hence, from Isvara’s perspective there is no such thing as individual free will.

The process of individual spiritual growth, self-inquiry, and the eventual assimilation of self-knowledge — is simply a predetermined progression of ever-expanding understanding occurring within the mind (or subtle body) of an apparent individual who is nothing more that a mechanistic component functioning within the larger macrocosmic machine (Isvara).

From the apparent individual person’s perspective, this process of self-realization does not seem to happen spontaneously.

Rather, it most often appears to be the result of painstaking effort put forth over a long period of time.

In other words, the inevitable unfoldment of Isvara’s “will” reveals itself through the apparent choices and actions of the apparent individual person.

It is in this understanding that we at last find the reconciliation of determinism and free will.

Though the apparent individual person is completely controlled by the vasanas, it appears as though he enjoys free will.

That is, while the decisions that the vasanas compel him to make and the actions they compel him to take seem as though they are freely chosen on the basis of his personal preferences and proclivities, the vasanas themselves did not originate with the person.

Certainly, they seem to belong to a particular mind-body-sense complex, but the vasanas themselves actually come from Isvara.

In fact, it is the vasanas that mandated the manifestation of an appropriate mind-body-sense complex through which they could find expression, and not the mind-body-sense complex that generated the desires and fears that seemed to result from its experiences.

In other words, while an apparent individual may like a certain object due to a pleasurable experience he had in association with it — that apparent individual did not choose to find that particular experience pleasurable.

Thus, the vasanas and their influence come unbidden to the mind-body-sense complex at the behest of Isvara.

For all practical purposes, the apparent individual person will seem to possess free will as long as he is associated with the mind-body-sense complex and, thus, appears as a functional component within the context of the apparent transactional reality (jagat).

The only difference in terms of the self-realized or enlightened one is that he/she realizes that the whole apparent happening is a cosmic ruse, that when he apparently makes decisions — it is actually Isvara in the form of the vasanas deciding through him.

Moreover, even Isvara’s orchestrations are only apparent happenings within pure awareness (Brahman).

Or as Shakespeare put it, life is nothing more than “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Still, it’s the only game in town, so what’s to do?

Since the act of taking the [samsara] game to signify something — causes so much suffering, and the endless pursuit of object-oriented happiness proves fruitless for providing lasting happiness — all apparent individuals (subtle bodies) eventually come to the realization that the thing to do is to get free of it.

And here, of course, is where Vedanta comes into play.

 

2) Common misconception that Vedanta is a philosophy

Vedanta must first and foremost be understood as neither a religion, a philosophy, nor even a spiritual path..

NOT A RELIGION:

While religion asks people to unquestionably accept and adhere to its doctrines — Vedanta only asks that one place enough faith, long enough, to hear its teachings with an open mind.

Thereafter to verify what one has heard through  logical analysis of one’s own unexamined or erroneously interpreted experience.

NOT A PHILOSOPHY:

Philosophy, on the other hand, though it does appeal to one’s rational mind — is something that is conjectured by a human being or a group of human beings.

It is theoretical in nature, and thus vulnerable to interpretation or disagreement.

Vedanta, however, is revealed truth.

It did not come from the mind of human beings.

It was “heard” or “seen” in deep states of meditation and through objective analysis of one’s experience.

Moreover, these revealed truths are not simply the personal experiences of a chosen few.

They have been thoroughly vetted through the millennia by thousands of seekers until all personal bias has been removed and only the essential and universal truth remains.

Thus, anybody with a properly qualified mind to undertake self-inquiry can verify the same truth for himself.

NOT A SPIRITUAL PATH:

In the strictest sense, Vedanta is not even a spiritual path.

Though self-inquiry is a practice as are the various yogas by means of which one can purify the mind and cultivate the qualifications necessary to successfully practice self-inquiry and ultimately assimilate self-knowledge — Vedanta is the knowledge itself that removes ignorance and sets one free.

Admittedly, spiritual practices do play a vital role in the process of self-inquiry as they prepare one for the assimilation of self-knowledge.

Knowledge, however, is not something acquired through action, for action, which is fundamentally dualistic in nature given the fact that it requires both a subject and an object, is not opposed to ignorance.

Thus, knowledge itself is not a path of practice, but a matter of immediate understanding.

To be clear, what is Vedanta? How to define Advaita Vedanta?

Vedanta is neither a religion nor a philosophy nor a spiritual path.  It is a means of knowledge.

Because the self (atman), which is of the nature of pure awareness —  cannot be objectified and thus seen or experienced as an object — Vedanta’s systematic unfoldment of the implied meanings of the words of scripture provide a “word mirror” that enables one to intuitively “see” (understand) the limitless truth of one’s being.

In this light it is easy to see why it is said that while many spiritual paths and practices purport to help one successfully navigate the valley of the shadow of death (deal with and find experiential reprieve from the existential angst which is caused by ignorance) — only Vedanta delivers one from evil (suffering) once and for all.

Although we're not say that the only means to emancipation is the systematic presentation and unfoldment of Upanishadic texts under the tutelage of a teacher (schooled in the proven methodology of the Vedantic teaching tradition).

Because many seekers have realized and continue to realize the fundamental non-dual truth of existence by other means and under the auspices of other traditions.

However due to the fact that there is only one truth and truth is the end of all knowledge, no matter what means one realizes it — that truth itself is nothing other than Vedanta.

However one thing is for sure; whether one makes a formal practice of self-inquiry under the “official” auspices of Vedanta OR is graced with correct understanding through some other means — certain qualifications are necessary if one is to properly and permanently assimilate self-knowledge.

These qualifications are traditionally enumerated as discrimination, dispassion, control of the mind, control of the sense, withdrawal of the senses, forbearance, the ability to focus on one topic for an extended period of time, faith pending the results of one’s own investigation, and a burning desire for liberation.

All are concerned with the quality of one’s mind.

Rather than having to have had mystical visions or acquired spiritual super powers — one simply needs a mind quiet enough to turn its focus from worldly pursuits  — objective enough to put aside personal biases — and concentrated enough to persevere in the practice of self-inquiry; until it bears the inevitable fruit of self-knowledge.

Moreover, all of the qualifications are aspects of the nature of the self, and thus everyone has them to some degree.

Vedanta does not list these qualifications as a means of ruling people out from the practice of self-inquiry.

Rather, the qualifications simply function as a checklist by means of which one can take stock of one’s own present level of readiness.

Thus, if one finds that one is not understanding the teachings, then one has a resource for helping to determine why such might be the case.

For instance, if one says that one wants to know the self but every time a cute guy or gal walks by he or she is enraptured with fantasies about sex and romance and puts aside their self-inquiry in order to pursue a possible relationship —  then one cannot be said to have a burning desire for liberation or self-knowledge. This is not elitist. It is simply a fact.

Qualifications are a part of every endeavor we undertake in life.

You can just say, for instance, “It is my right to know what string theory is.”

If you truly want to understand the intricacies of this hypothesis, then you need to have made an adequate enough study of the fields of mathematics and quantum physics to enable you to do so.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that certain qualifications preclude the ability to make effective self-inquiry and ultimately assimilate self-knowledge.

Actually, such qualifications are a part of every spiritual path (i.e. the ten commandments of Christianity, the eight limbs of yoga, the eight-fold path of Buddhism, etc.) — though due to the lack of a formal teaching methodology no other path enumerates them quite as clearly.

Finally, Vedanta does not leave one in the lurch with regard to the qualifications.

Should one find oneself deficient with regard to any of these psychological requirements, Vedanta offers spiritual practices in the form of three fundamental yogas – i.e. karma yoga, upasana yoga, jnana yoga – by means of which one can purify the mind and cultivate an “internal environment” more conducive to conducting self-inquiry and ultimately gaining the self-knowledge that is tantamount to eternal freedom.

 

3) Alleged elitist stance of Vedanta

As seen above, rather than an elitist sect characterized by spiritual snobbery — Vedanta is a time-tested, self-verifiable, and practical means of knowledge that when properly unfolded by a qualified teacher enables one to see the essential non-dual nature of reality and one’s own true identity as whole and complete, limitless, actionless, ordinary, unborn, ever-present, all-pervasive, non-dual awareness.

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