Is There Such a Thing As Free Will?

The ongoing debate about free will versus determinism frames much of human history. We instinctively feel like we have free choice and can determine our own destiny, overcoming genetics, upbringing, and societal limitations to achieve success in our lives, and change who and what we are, and what we become. To some degree, however, this “instinct” is similar to our erroneous perception that the sun revolves around the earth rather than the other way around! If we look deeply at the question of free will, we can see various lines of impulsion which have conditioned and in most cases determined our “free” choice. In fact, modern day social scientists, such as Nobel Prize winning author Daniel Kahneman in his recent book Thinking, Fast and Slow has illustrated numerous instances where our “free choice” is conditioned by training, language, background and various propensities.

Sri Aurobindo discusses this issue as follows: “But this will and its effort, is it not itself an instrument, even a mechanical engine of Nature, the active universal energy, and is not its freedom an arbitrary illusion of our mentality which lives in each moment of the present and separates it by ignorance, by an abstraction of the mind from its determining past, so that I seem at every critical moment to exercise a free and virgin choice, while all the time my choice is dominated by its own previous formation and by all that obscure past which I ignore?”

In order to adopt the idea of free will, it becomes necessary to find some part of our existence or being which stands outside of and independent from the action of Nature. “Only if there is a soul or self which is not a creation, but a master of Nature, not a formation of the stream of universal energy, but itself the former and creator of its own Karma, are we justified in our claim of an actual freedom or at least in our aspiration to a real liberty.”

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 9, Karma and Freedom, pp. 76-77,

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