Do we have free will? Many scientists believe that we do not. They believe that our minds are simply machines, computers following a program. At first glance their argument appears to have merit. After all, when we working things out logically we are not using free will. We would all expect that given well defined facts such as “all cats are animals” and “tibby is a cat” everyone would come up with the same answer when asked “is tibby an animal”.
Similarly we cannot say that we are using free will when we are giving in to the desires of our emotions and senses without consideration. Hinduism teaches us that this path leads to degeneration, and distracts from our true divine nature. It is also clear that all people living at this level will act the same way, seeking pleasure where they can.
If a person were just made from these two components; an ability to reason logically plus the drive of sensual pleasure and emotions then the scientists would be right, we would have no free will.
Hinduism teaches us that there is more to us than mind and body, there is the Atman or divine spark within us all. Hinduism teaches us not to be distracted by sensual pleasure or by routine thoughts, but to follow the divine truth within us. I am only beginning to understand the difference between routine thoughts and divinely inspired thoughts, though divinely inspired thoughts come during contemplation, after meditation or can spring up from our souls as unexpected gifts and help at any time! Routine thoughts are of the mind rather than the spirit. They may be necessary but spiritually empty, such as “I need some more milk, shall I get some on my way back from work or shall I go to the shop now”. They may be mental justifications for emotions, “I don’t like him, and it’s all his fault”, which can be harmful.
Some scientists have seen the possibility of free will. In “The Emperor’s New Mind Roger Penrose suggests that our mind brains may be able to amplify quantum randomness. But Quantum randomness is seen by the standard interpretation of quantum physics as saying that something can be in one of many states in an objectively random way, i.e. nothing in the Universe could predict or determine the outcome. Could this be the connection of the Atman to our physical selves?
Interestingly in my “Quantum theory and Vishnu” post I described how Quantum Physics fits the Hindu idea of consciousness being necessary for creation. It seems also that Quantum theory might explain the Vedic idea that true freedom can only come from following our divine souls.
Again I am amazed at how modern science confirms the beliefs of Hinduism, even though Hinduism does not predict that Maya will reflect spiritual truth. How ironic that other religions that do predict that science will support them have to distort science to make it fit, whereas our beliefs fit science even though we don’t need physical science of maya for support!
Coming back to the question of free will, I believe that Hinduism says that we do have free will. We only exercise it however when we look to the truth within us.