The False Choice Between Free Will and Determinism

The argument goes along the lines of human beings either having “free will” or else, everything is “pre-determined” and we have no free will. If it is not the one, it must be the other. This debate, however, represents actually a “false choice” inasmuch as both sides are bound within the framework of the ego-sense within the machinery of the modes of Nature. Thus, our apparent free will is an illusion and is in fact determined by the action of the modes of Nature. The Gita, as Sri Aurobindo explains, does not get caught in this false choice, by virtue of the fact that the Gita recognizes that one cannot truly understand the frame within which one is bound until one steps outside that frame and views it from a new standpoint. This is the key recognition that there is a divine standpoint that can observe, participate and master the workings of Nature that still resides outside the action of Nature. It is at this level that free will, in identification with the divine consciousness, actually resides.

Sri Aurobindo describes the situation thus: “But the rejection of free will must not be a mere fatalism or idea of natural determinism in the understanding without any vision of the real Self in us; for then the ego still remains as our sole idea of Self and, as that is always the instrument of Prakriti, we still act by the ego and with our will as her instrument, and the idea in us brings no real change, but only a modification of our intellectual attitude. We shall have accepted the phenomenal truth of the determination of our egoistic being and action by Nature, we shall have seen our subjection: but we shall not have seen the unborn Self within which is above the action of the Gunas; we shall not have seen wherein lies our gate of freedom. Nature and ego are not all we are; there is the free soul, the Purusha.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 22, Beyond the Modes of Nature, pp. 216-217