Human beings have a sense or intuition of free-will, yet consistently find that exercising this free will in the outer world is difficult, if not impossible due to the resistance of the laws of Nature and the determination of the past concatenation of events and forces. There has thus been long debate among philosophers and spiritual aspirants about whether free will is really or is simply an illusion perpetrated by mechanical nature to engage the individual in the process more completely. Some believe that the only form of free will that is actually possible is the decision to abandon the outer life and focus the entire attention on the greater spiritual reality through an immobile, silent concentration. Certainly as long as the awareness is bound within the framework of the actions of mind, life and body, the machinery of Nature, the action of the three Gunas, remains firmly in control and we are left with a series of practical choices conditioned by events of the past and limited by the laws of Nature and the processes of Nature.
Sri Aurobindo takes up this question. He notes that the Purusha, the embodied soul, while it may not have active mastery at the outset, has the power to withhold its sanction and upon doing so, eventually the momentum of that action dissipates and the natural action comes to a halt. “The regarding Purusha sees that he supports and in some way fills and pervades the action with his conscious being. He discovers that without him it could not continue and that where he persistently withdraws this sanction, the habitual action becomes gradually enfeebled, flags and ceases.”
“It was the consciousness of this sanctioning control, this necessity of consent, which made him in the ego-sense conceive of himself as a soul or mental being with a free will determining all his own becomings. Yet the free-will seems to be imperfect, almost illusory, since the actual will itself is a machinery of Nature and each separate willing determined by the stream of past action and the sum of conditions it created,–although, because the result of the stream, the sum, is at each moment a new development, a new determination, it may seem to be a self-born willing, virginally creative at each moment. What he contributed all the while was a consent behind, a sanction to what Nature was doing. He does not seem able to rule her entirely, but only choose between certain well-defined possibilities: there is in her a power of resistance born of her past impetus and a still greater power of resistance born of the sum of fixed conditions she has created, which she presents to him as a set of permanent laws to be obeyed.”
“There is a duality of dependence, her dependence on his consent, his dependence on her law and way and limits of action, determination denied by a sense of free-will, free-will nullified by the actuality of natural determination. He is sure that she is his power, but yet he seems to be subject to her. He is the sanctioning … Purusha, but does not seem to be the absolute lord, Ishwara.”
Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 4, The Perfection of the Mental Being, pp. 610-611