European philosophy and theology have been much exercised on the subject of ‘free will’, whereas the Hindu tradition has considered this subject as of minor importance.
The explanation for this lies in the analytical understanding of the concept by both the traditions. In European thought, an individual is conceived of as a permanent fixed entity, basically separate from the rest of the world, which is his universe. It is argued that without freedom of will there is no moral responsibility and if there is no moral responsibility, there can neither be guilt nor punishment, either in society or hereafter, before the throne of God. This problem has not much troubled the Hindu thought which rightly considers that there is no such thing as a completely independent and stable entity called ‘the individual’ and, secondly, the Hindu argues, again quite rightly, that if the human will is not free, then what does the term “freedom” mean? What instance shall we bring forth with which to contrast the supposed determination of human will? Our notion of “freedom” is inalienably derived from our own experience to which we give the name of “will”. Whatever, therefore, we may mean by “freedom”, it is ultimately in the terms of our experience of our own will, that we give meaning to it. Thus interpreted, to say that human will is free, is an axiom as well as a tautology.There is no meaning in the thesis that human will is not free, for “free” is that which is like unto the human will. The trouble, however, arises when we give to the expression, free will a meaning which we have not derived from our experience of our ‘will’ but which has been superimposed by our intellect.
Thus we like to think that free will is that power of volition of the human individual, which is totally uncaused and unconditioned. The concept of ‘self-caused inevitability’ and ‘freely chosen determinism’ would appear as puzzling, if not altogether non sensical to the western mind. A little reflection, however, will show that such a ‘freedom’ does not and cannot, in fact, exist, and further, that, if it did and could exist, it will destroy all foundations of ‘moral responsibility’, ‘sense of guilt’ and ‘justification for punishment’ either here or hereafter. To begin with, there are the facts of heredity, the environment, and the subconscious mind. There is not much doubt that the individual is the product of his heredity, the inner mechanism of which the science of biology has discovered recently in the fertilized germ-cells and its genes, which make all the organic cells that make up the body including the brain and the nervous system. This pattern we inherit from our parents and our ancestors and it is certainly a determination of the choices that we make in our lives from time to time.
Psychology has revealed to us that sub-conscious layers of human mind as the seat of instincts, emotions, and intuitions, accumulated, for those who faithfully follow the dogma of the Church Council of Constantinople (A.D. 553) which anathematised the doctrine of transmigration, in the race during evolution of millions of years or, for those who hold the doctrine of metapsychosis as fundamental, accumulated in the course of untold numbers of previous births and rebirths of the individual. They are certainly a determinant throughout a man’s life in the matter of his choice and the conduct that follows it. Again, from outside, the social environment is active in continuously influencing and moulding individual’s mind and thereby his power of choice and conduct. These three factors, the physical, the environmental and the hereditary, are there as a fact and their powers of influencing the human power of choice cannot be denied. In this sense there cannot be a ‘free will’, as an uncaused and
unconditioned factor which solely determines as to what choice, in a given situation, an individual will make. But even if there were such a ‘free will’, it will entail disastrous consequences. If a man’s action are not free when they can be shown to be causally chained to his character, the sum total of his heredity, past experiences and environment, then the only circumstances in which it would be proper to call a man “free”, would be those in which he acted independently of his received character, that is, of his habits, desires, urges, and perspective on life and all the rest. But if this agent or ‘free’ action, is not to be equated and identified with that which is subject to particular desires and urges, which is circumscribed by a given environmental and circumstantial set-up, which is devoid of character, motives, persistent interests and the like, then who is this agent of ‘free’ choice, the ‘he’? Such a notion of ‘free’ will completely dissolves the agent of action; a person with such a ‘free’ will is a completely disembodied and unidentifiable entity. Such an entity can neither be blamed nor praised. Indeed, such an entity would be truly like the “Superman” of Nietzsche, “beyond good and evil”.