Wednesday, April 24, 2013


On the subject of free will, a friend of mine whose interests lie in the field of quantum physics has put forward his doubts and views on the nature of ‘free will’ -

“The ability of species to make choices based on consequences could be simply called as free will. Is this free will really a choice that we make or is it simply an illusion? There is no way to know. Free will to me seems like a deterministic approach to reality. But there are quantum uncertainties that are present at every nook and corner of the universe. We as humans, I think can be sure that the free will is simply a decision that originates in our brains. We also know that the brain consists of several neurons that are ultimately made of electrons. After all, every entity in the observable universe is made up of electrons or quarks to be more precise. Let us for now take electron as the elemental particle. From quantum mechanics, we deduce that these particles are highly uncertain and it is impossible to pinpoint their path. To put it simply they are random and unpredictable which makes them non-deterministic. When the most elemental process of making decisions is based on such uncertainty, why is it that we think free will as deterministic? This aspect of reality really confuses me because it seems like the very act of decision making is completely random. If this is the case, the universe by itself is completely random”.

As I stood at the edge of the cliff looking down at the chasm below, I was faced with three options – i) throw myself of the cliff to plunge down ii)  take off  from the edge and try to fly and soar into the skies iii) retrace my path and walk away. You can see that there are really only two options for I cannot take off and fly away. I do not have wings and so it is physically impossible to do so. My physical limitations ensure that my choices are limited and that’s all my free will can do. I am therefore faced with the existential dilemma that Hamlet faced “To be or not to be” when the remaining two options confront me. As an individual, at that point in time I have to decide whether or not it is worthwhile to live. Going by my natural instincts of survival I would therefore retrace my steps and walk away despite the fact that life contains so many hardships. The main reason people stay alive is due to a fear of death and uncertainty at what lies beyond life. You may ask what about a man who has decided to commit suicide, well that is his choice. Overcome with the absurdity of his existence when reason has deserted him, he takes the final fling.

The minute a choice is made, free will ceases to exist. A student of physics will be able to correlate this statement with the ‘Schrodinger’s Cat’ thought experiment - a cat is placed inside a sealed box with a flask of poison and a radioactive source. As the radioactive material decays the flask is shattered releasing the poison which will kill the cat. For the observer outside, the cat is alive and dead at the same moment both possibilities existing till the moment he takes the decision to open the jar and look inside.

So free will, does exist till the point a choice is made. Therefore it is choice that is deterministic here. Schopenhauer in his ‘On the Freedom of the Will’ claimed that as phenomenal objects appearing to a viewer, humans have absolutely no free will. They are completely determined by the way that their bodies react to stimuli and causes, and their characters react to motives. As things that exist apart from appearances to observers, however humans have free will.

The fact that we make a choice is because there is a freedom to do so. Where does this freedom come from? You have the freedom to choose and what you choose becomes your reality. On the question of reality itself, isn’t it a subjective view. We have seen the uncertainty that exists at the quantum level. There is nothing deterministic about the basic building blocks of matter itself. At the quantum level we talk in terms of probabilities and that matter itself is interweaving of probabilities. Then isn’t what you see itself an illusion. The reality that you see is an illusion. That brings us back to ‘Maya’.

Will by its very definition is the power of choosing one’s actions, it is the power of control the mind has over its own actions. This is the freedom of the will. Where does ‘Will’ originate and what is it that exercises it is a question that takes us into the metaphysical domain.

However the exercise of free will has its own boundaries whether it is physical, intellectual or moral, and in that sense it is deterministic. On an individual level we are limited by our physical abilities – I may want to fly but it is not physically possible to do so. So also is our limitation on the intellectual level. We cannot choose our parents, our appearance or the environment we are born in. Our genes and the upbringing we have been subjected to, play a large part in shaping our personalities. So to that extent our life is preordained. Since no one knows the future, we can freely choose within the limitations we are bound by. We may ask whether what we ultimately choose is also preordained. In which case, we may draw the conclusion that free will is an illusion.

Einstein said that “God does not play dice”, suggesting that there is no randomness in this world. His view was that Quantum Physics does not present the entire picture of how this universe works. We have now moved away from the deterministic universe of Newtonian physics to the uncertainties of the quantum world and the existence of alternate universes in the cosmic world.

In a deterministic world everything is preordained in which case the very choices that you make are also preordained and so where is the question of free will.

A preordained world would fall within the law of Karma or simply put we may say that Karma is an extension of Newton’s laws of action and reaction – what we are today is the result of our past actions and hence we are caught up in an endless spiral of action and reaction. We talk of good karma and bad karma, reincarnation and transmigration of souls. We are born again to reap the benefits of our good karma or suffer the consequences of our bad karma. So where does free will come in to all this? It appears in such a deterministic world every action of the individual itself is preordained. Then how can we talk about liberation itself and how does the individual move towards it.

On the battlefield of Kurukshetra, Arjuna is faced with the dilemma of whether or not to take part in the battle that was to follow. His dilemma is that he would have to fight against his brethren, friends and guru and the unnecessary bloodshed that would follow. This is his agony and left to himself he would have walked away, this would have been his choice. It was Krishna who makes him realise that above all the free choices that he had was his duty to perform his actions as per his dharma or bounden duty and that as a kshatriya it was his duty to fight for righteousness. The very first stanza of the Bhagavad Gita indicates that the battle of Kurukshetra is a battle of righteousness against wrong doing. In a deeper sense it implies that the battle is also the inner warfare of dharma against adharma that each man has to fight. So we may say that free choice or the exercise of free will would depend on the self determination and accountability of the individual.

Since freedom or the ultimate liberation of the soul or the individual is a possibility, it would imply that within all the constraints that the preordained world imposes on us, exercise of free will is possible. Radhakrishnan in his book ‘The Hindu View of Life’ says that the cards in the game of life are dealt to us and it is up to us how we play with it.

On the randomness that we are faced with in the quantum world or otherwise in our life it is because we are at any point of time faced with inadequate knowledge. Our knowledge is never complete, can never be complete. Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book ‘Fooled by Randomness’ says “Probability is not a mere computation of odds on the dice or more complicated variants; it is the acceptance of the lack of certainty in our knowledge and the developments of methods for dealing with our ignorance”.

Though we plan our lives exercising free will as we understand it, we are never free of the randomness of certain events in our lives, like Taleb says in his other book ‘The Black Swan’ “Black swans, those rare and unexpected events, can be good and bad events”.