The Conundrum of Free Will

Since the beginning of science, nature was believed to be controlled by some laws which can be used to make predictions about the future independent of the individual observers. The observers cannot have choices because through these choices the future could be changed, in contradiction to the laws of nature. Therefore, if free will exists, then there cannot be predictive laws of nature. Conversely, if there are laws of nature, then there cannot be free will. If there is no free will, then there is no soul. And if there is no soul then there is no God. So, the mere existence of natural laws entails atheism. This post discusses this problem and shows how science is possible even though free will exists.

Manifest and Unmanifest Matter

Matter in the Vedic view is described as unmanifest prior to creation. During the creation, matter becomes manifest. The terms ‘manifest’ and ‘unmanifest’ refer to our experience. The technical terms used to describe manifest and unmanifest are vyakta or ‘expressed’ and avyakta or ‘unexpressed’. The Vedic thesis is that matter exists even before the creation, but it is not observable. The manifest universe is the experience of what lies unobservable prior to experience. Matter is therefore eternal; however, the material experience is temporary.

So, the reality underlying the observation is unmanifest or unobservable, and the soul has an experience due to which this matter is said to become manifest.

A different way to state the same thesis is that matter is a possibility and there are infinite possibilities. By its choice, the soul selects some possibilities to create his experience. All experience is therefore the combination of possibility and choice. This idea has a counterpart in atomic theory where matter is a possibility, but choices convert it into an observation. How the possibility becomes an observation is unknown in science and the central problem concerns choice. If we say that choice interacts with matter to select a possibility, then by choice we can change our experiences. Since the goal of science is to predict our experiences, natural laws will be useless if these predictions were based on choice.

Therefore, even if science only describes matter as a possibility, and the description is incomplete without choice, there is a fundamental anathema to accepting that choices might select these possibilities because admitting choice would render science useless in predicting our experiences. Each observer may make a different choice and thereby change their experience by that choice.

This is the fundamental conundrum of free will in science. If we accept free will as a causal agent, it renders scientific laws completely irrelevant. If instead we don’t accept free will as a causal agent, then science remains fundamentally incomplete—describing only possibility but not observation.

A Materialistic Solution to the Problem

There is hence a natural scientific necessity for claiming that free will is also material, and hence can be studied within science. In short, what we call free will must also be predictable using the laws of nature. There is tremendous impetus toward this predictability not just because we don’t want to admit that we are spiritual beings with free will, but also because with free will science itself would collapse.

Under this impetus, there are attempts to suppose that choice may be created by some material phenomena and what we call ‘consciousness’ may eventually arise due to some material arrangement. For example, there is a strong belief today that consciousness is a property of the brain, the brain is cells, which are in turn comprised of molecules, which are then governed by atomic theory. The only problem is that when this reduction is performed, we end up with atomic particles, which are only described as possibility. Therefore, the whole brain is only a possibility without any experience.

Now it becomes necessary to postulate that perhaps consciousness is another category of matter (because we want to save scientific predictions) although different from the matter studied within science (because this matter is at best described only as a possibility rather than experience).

The Solution in Vedic Philosophy

This materialistic solution to the problem of free will is essentially correct according to Vedic philosophy, although in a limited sense. What we call ‘free will’ is called guna or material desire in Vedic texts. Material desire has little to do with the soul or its free will. The guna automatically (under the influence of time) produce desires for the soul to evaluate. The soul can potentially reject these desires, but the soul cannot create new ones. Therefore, it is sometimes said (following Benjamin Libet) that the soul has free won’t rather than free will. Matter proposes and the soul disposes. Matter gives rise to desires and the soul simply succumbs to these desires. Even if the soul rejects the automatically created desires, due to the persistent nature of guna, the same desires will be created again and again. Under this persistent onslaught of automatically created desires, the soul will eventually succumb.

It is very hard to change one’s guna and the process of this change is very prolonged. Typically, most souls don’t have the strength to reject these repeated exhortations of matter, and as the soul succumbs to the repeated push from material desires, it surrenders its free will to matter. Basically, the soul stops rejecting the automatically created material desires, accepts these desires to be his free will, and hence comes totally under the control of material nature which is under the control of time.

Therefore, even though the soul has a free will by which it can reject the proposals of material guna, in practice, this free will is almost never observed in the material world. The guna are said to be like ropes which drag the soul through successive desires, and the soul is therefore said to be ‘bound’ by material desire. Since the material desire is controlled by time, the succession of desires created in a person is also under control of natural laws—although these laws involve a different kind of matter.

To truly demonstrate one’s free will, one needs the strength of rejection. This strength comes to the soul only when it develops a complete disdain for material desires and this disdain is possible only when one acquires a higher taste different from material desire. Material desire is essentially selfishness or how I can be happy. The rejection of this material desire involves the unselfish attitude of pleasing God. Once the soul develops love of God, then material desires are naturally rejected. Without the love of God, the soul may sometimes rise due to its own effort by rejecting material desire, but it eventually falls back into the material cesspool because at some point the free will is replaced by material desire. Vedic texts are replete with narrations of many sages who fall after thousands of years of austerity.

Relevance to Material Science

Matter in Vedic philosophy is of three broad categories. These are called śakti, prakriti, and māyā. What modern science considers ‘matter’ is prakriti and it exists as an ability to know and do things. This type of matter is studied in modern science, and atomic theory models it as possibilities.

In addition to these possibilities there are two other material categories—guna and karma. The former is also called māyā and it creates material desires, and the latter is also called śakti and it creates opportunities.

An actual experience is the combination of ability, desire, and opportunity. For example, to fulfill your desire to taste good food, you must have the ability (e.g. a tongue to taste), you must have the desire to eat a certain type of food (otherwise you will not enjoy the experience) and there must be opportunity to get tasty food (otherwise ability will not be utilized and desire will remain unfulfilled). All these three material categories must combine to create an experience, and they are all controlled by time.

Since the ability is separate from desire, what we call ‘possibility’ in atomic theory is different from what we call ‘choice’. Choice and possibility remain central to modern atomic theory where it is supposed that some choice ‘collapses’ the quantum wave function. However, these two categories are insufficient because karma or opportunity must also be present in addition to ability and choice. That is, you may have a suitable tongue to taste food, and you may have desire to taste this food, but without the opportunity to access this tasty food (which is enabled due to karma), you can’t taste.

Modern science is stuck at present because it considers only one type of matter, which too exists only as a possibility. To solve the problem in modern science, the notion of matter must be expanded to include guna and karma or desiring and deserving, and then these three ideas should be combined.

Our material experience is completely under the laws of nature because what we call ‘choice’ is material desire produced by guna under the control of time. Quantum problems don’t entail a transcendent consciousness or free will, but a new type of material cause called guna which must be accompanied by karma. Expanding the understanding of matter from ability to desire and opportunity is the first step. To the extent that the soul has free will, but it is subordinated to material desire, the effects of these desires cannot be equated to the soul’s free will, nor can these be equated to the atoms of modern science. Nevertheless, there is an explanation of material desire within the broad framework of materialism.

Why Do We Need the Soul?

Now, a materialist can argue that if scientific laws of nature can completely predict the future (because the soul has lost his choice under material influence) then why do we even need to postulate the existence of the soul? Might we not just say that there is material desire (which is, after all, just matter) and there is no soul? Similarly, if there is no soul, there is also no need for God. Science can be consistent and complete without the need for postulating the existence of soul and God.

There are three kinds of answers to this quandary. First, even if there is no soul and God, just to complete material science, one needs additional concepts of desiring and deserving. Therefore, matter has goals or desires, and there are consequences of actions under these desires which are deserving. So, the material science that will be predictively complete (regarding experiences) will not be anything like current science which is without a purpose and without a consequence of actions. Furthermore, since there are three categories of matter, the soul becomes necessary to explain why three categories must be combined. The material categories exist and evolve independently; the soul is required to combine them. Since the experience stems out of this combination, therefore the soul is necessary.

Second, the divide between matter and soul is not as stark as we generally like to think because the three aspects of the soul are present in matter as well. When we study matter in terms of these three categories, then we can arrive at the understanding that matter is like a soul. In Vedic philosophy, śakti, prakriti, and māyā are all personalities or souls, acting under the control of time, so matter is also a soul. These souls have free will, which is subordinated to time and therefore nature doesn’t behave randomly (which would be the case if matter itself had free will). The order in nature comes because the three parts of matter are individually manifested and combined under the influence of time.

It follows that what we call the ‘laws’ of nature or the order in nature is caused by time. As an aside, this time is not an effect (i.e. the changes we observe) but the cause of changes (i.e. the agency that manifests the three unmanifest types of matter and combines them). There is hence choice involved in this unmanifest-to-manifest conversion and the combination of these manifest realities. This choice originates in a personality called Lord Shiva. Hence Lord Shiva is God of material nature. He is the reason why nature appears orderly because His choices have a regular pattern and are not random. Those studying the order in nature can therefore be said to ultimately be studying the nature of Lord Shiva.

Lord Shiva as Nataraja (Lord of Cosmic Dance) at the CERN nuclear research lab in Switzerland

Third, due to time, the same kind of desires, abilities, and opportunities will arise in many living beings at the same time. Therefore, even if a particular soul doesn’t succumb to a particular desire, ability, and opportunity, someone in the universe will, and they will create the relevant experience. Therefore, God becomes necessary in transitioning the possibilities into separated realities, and the soul becomes necessary to combine these separated realities into their personal experience. The explanation in matter—despite the fact that there is material desire—remains incomplete without the soul and God, once we delve into the details of how three types of possibilities are converted into reality, and how these three forms of reality combine to create an experience. So, the fact that there is material desire which causes the changes in the world cannot be taken to replace the notion of soul and God.

Free Will and Universalism

Early philosophers of science were eager to remove free will from the study of nature because they thought that by free will each person will freely interpret and understand reality in their own way and this personalized understanding of reality cannot be considered real because it is not universal. Philosophers of science thought that an understanding of reality that is forced upon us by nature is better because this reality would be free of the biases of the individual free will.

This desire to remove free will—to obtain unbiased knowledge of nature—is a fundamentally flawed goal because it makes the observer a blank slate incapable of interpreting and choosing. If the observer is not a blank slate, then there is no universal knowledge, although there is a universal reality.

This universal reality can be known in a personal way by interpretation. We can compare this interpretation to a reflection in a mirror. There is an external object to be known, which constitutes the reality. But there is also a mirror of the individual soul which reflects this reality. Since there are infinite mirrors, there are potentially infinite representations of an Absolute Reality, which constitute the interpretations of that reality. These individual mirrors can be clean or unclean. If the mirror is unclean, the same Absolute Reality is distorted in the process of interpretation, and the reality becomes an illusion. However, even in that illusion there is some inkling of reality because even the illusion reflects reality. Therefore, God is present even in the illusory experience, although not seen clearly.

Vedic texts describe that the mirror of the observer has many layers which represent the reality at many levels. These levels are called objects, sensations, things, concepts, intentions, morals, etc. and form the hierarchy of our experience. When the mirror is unclean, the deeper levels of reality are not perceived because of which we think (as in the case of modern science) that reality is only objects. The cleansing of the mirror entails that deeper levels of reality gradually become visible. All these levels of reality form a tree—from root to leaves—so cleansing means the root is seen in addition to leaves.

However, even when the mirror is fully clean, the soul can perceive only a very small subset of the entire tree. This subset constitutes the soul’s perspective or interpretation of reality. It is complete in one sense that the connection from the leaf to the root is visible. It is incomplete in another sense that all the branches emanating from the root to the leaf are absent from the perceived reflection.

The soul is said to be anu or small, which means it cannot reflect the entire reality. Furthermore, under the illusory experience, even the connection of the leaf to the root is not seen. When the mirror is cleaned, the connection to the root is visible, but every branch emanating from the root is not. Therefore, even in the purified state there is a perspective which represents the soul’s personality and individuality. Since the soul never has every possible experience, the individual soul and the universal soul are never identical. This limited experience of reality is however not illusion. It is only part of the whole truth. The part of the whole that we experience constitutes our free will.

Under material desire—i.e. selfishness—we ignore the existence of God, and we get a partial understanding of a single branch (which is a part of the tree). There is factually no free will other than the fact that we have chosen to be selfish. Once this choice is made, material desire expands this selfishness into many kinds of selfish endeavors, and the soul loses control. However, when the selfishness is discarded, then true free will is discovered, which becomes our perspective.

In the final analysis, our ability to interpret can never be given up; it constitutes our personality. The whole truth is the sum of all the perspectives about that truth. God’s free will is that He is the Absolute Truth, and the soul’s free will is that it is a certain perspective on that Absolute Truth. The free will is real but only in relation to God. In relation to matter, this free will is controlled by laws of nature.

Free Will is Real Despite Material Determinism

Hence the fact that we can observe order in nature doesn’t deny free will, and the fact that current science is causally incomplete doesn’t necessarily created a room for free will. Material science can be made complete by expanding the notion of matter. This is not free will but material desire.

The combination of ability, opportunity, and desire produces an experience, and the succession of these experiences constitute a trajectory. This trajectory is called the reincarnation of the soul through diverse experiences (the body and mind are just experiences of the soul). In modern science, we draw such trajectories and then postulate the existence of a particle which is never scientifically observed. There is a subtle but important difference between the trajectory and the particle; the particle is a unique individual object, and the trajectory is the phenomenal observation of this individuality.

The notion of a particle arises because there are multiple properties—e.g. mass and charge of a particle—that must be combined into a single entity. In the same way, the soul is the ‘particle’ underlying the trajectory (or succession) of experiences because there are three properties (ability, opportunity, and desire) that must be combined. Nevertheless, since the particle in science remains inert (the causality is only in the properties such as mass and charge) similarly the notion of combining the properties is only a theoretical necessity rather than an empirically observable fact.

Science—if it is restricted to experiences—can only tell us about the trajectories, not the particles. But just as it is scientifically convenient to say that there is a particle underlying the trajectory, similarly, it can be scientifically convenient to say that there is a soul underlying the succession of experiences. It doesn’t prove the existence of the soul, just as the particles of science remain unproven.

To truly know the soul, one must transcend the material experience. That is, one must say that I want to change the course of my trajectory by choosing another trajectory. Material laws will not allow the self-driven change in trajectory, which is why this change must be outside scientific prediction.

Since trajectories can be changed due to material desire, to know that this change is due to free will, one must be free of material desire. To the naïve observer—who doesn’t know the difference between material desire and free will—the effects of both will appear to be the same. Only a person who has become free of material desire will know the difference between the determinism of material desire and the independence of free will. The acceptance of material desire to explain material trajectories fixes the current flawed notion that because matter is possibility, so material desire is free will. As we advance the idea of matter from abilities to material desires, we come closer to distinguishing material desire from free will. Both look like ‘choice’ but the former is determined, and the latter is free.