In a universe governed by unalterable and immutable laws have men free will and, if so, how much? Or are the Mohammedans correct in their belief that a man’s fate is bound around his neck at birth?
It is true that all which happens to man is in accordance with law, as there is no such thing as chance or accident; every event is adamantly linked to a preceding cause and to a subsequent effect. But that man is devoid of volition and a puppet in the hands of a higher power is contrary to logic and contradictory to Divine Nature. It is debasing the Deity to think that we are enmeshed in the web of life, futilely trying to extricate ourselves like flies entangled in a spider’s weaving. This implies that our efforts for progression and advancement are amusing to the Ruler of the Universe. Such a concept makes God a lower creature than man; for no earthly father would hold his children in bondage when he had the power to free them.
Then, since we have free will, what is the extent of its scope? Is it relative or absolute? The freedom of the will is real, although it is also relative and conditioned. Man is surrounded by necessity, but is free to choose. In other words, man is both bound and free.
Man is bound or conditioned by inheritance, environmental limitations, physical constitution, habits, prejudices, ignorance and transgression of natural and spiritual laws. He has also inherited a brain having a certain anatomical structure, and physiological aptitude and quality. In childhood and youth he had an environment not of his choosing, the influence of parents, home and school surroundings and education, when his nervous system was most impressionable.
His nervous organization and personality have been built by what he has inherited and what he has acquired from environment. It is with this behind him that, when he arrives at maturity, he has to use his brain in shaping his further course of action. Choice and free will he has, but with the instrument he has inherited and modified by early years. For this reason, environment, training and education are so important. But the power to do must not be confounded with the power to will. One is limited, the other is unlimited.
Men are conditioned by all of the aforementioned, but principally by their karma, or the Law of Cause and Effect. The operation of this law creates destiny, and destiny is fixed. It is not uncommon for people to find themselves in distasteful situations and painful predicaments from which they are utterly unable to free themselves. They rail and wail against their luck or fate. But neither mythical luck nor fickle fate is responsible for their plight, for they have forged the chains now binding them. True, it may have been done in ignorance; but ignorance of the law excuses no one, whether on the physical, moral, mental or spiritual planes.
But, as we created our destiny, we can change it, and we have within ourselves all the necessary power to change our life and environment into one of our liking. But the change must come from within and not without. Instead of attempting to change our environment we should change ourselves, and the environment will automatically respond.
Moreover, there are certain fixed principles in life which men must obey; for these will ruthlessly discipline or destroy those who attempt to pit their will and strength against them. No man can, for example, violate the eternal verities of honesty, decency, love and brotherhood without paying the penalty.
This applies likewise to all natural laws. No amount of supplication, prayer or agony will change these laws one iota. Stick your hand into the fire and shout to the Almighty till your voice is gone, but your hand will continue to burn. So with all natural laws. You violate these laws by starting certain causes; the effects will follow as surely and inevitably as the pain follows the burn on the hand.
Karma is both immediate and remote. Many causes now obscure, were initiated prior to earth life and are exhausted here. Similarly, we are daily establishing other causes whose effects may not be apparent until we have “passed over.” Hence, the great importance of starting only those causes whose effects will be beneficial. For this is certain: whatever has been set in motion and whatever has been commenced must be finished. There is no cessation, suspension or modification of this law. By every thought, desire, wish and act we are creating future karma or destiny, either good or bad, from which we cannot escape.
What is the will? Is it a primary or secondary urge? Will is the self in action. Wherever there is true volition, there the ego is expressing itself. The strong-willed person has achieved a sufficiently stable character that determines the issues of each conflict. His desires are classified and subordinated to purposes and ends upon which he has previously determined. The weak-willed individual is the slave of his desires and appetites and tries to satisfy them all, no matter how destructive and disastrous they may be.
Though apparently we are all born with a fixed capacity of intelligence, which cannot be increased, it can, however, be trained or left untrained. But we need be under no such fatalistic predetermination of character. That is the product of training, and, later, of personal choice. Anybody except the outright imbecile or idiot, too stupid to profit by example, can be developed into a decent, normal, useful person. If he becomes a criminal instead, it is not because he was born so, but because he chose to be. Otherwise, why subject him to punishment?
All systems of punishments are based on responsibility and accountability which, in turn, rest on the relative freedom of the will. All men realize that a plea of no free will would be a feeble defense in a court of justice, and a much weaker one before their conscience. Furthermore, men never deny responsibility in connection with their good deeds; only when their choice has been unwise or unethical do they attempt to disclaim accountability. He who from such derangement of his intellect is incapable of distinguishing right from wrong should be committed to an institution where his actions are governed by another.
Even children can tell right from wrong and know they have the ability to choose their course of conduct. When little Willie breaks the neighbor’s window or pilfers from his mother’s purse, his parents do not excuse him on the ground that he has no free will; but instead, impress upon his mentality, or anatomy, that the consequences of such actions are painful. Later, Nature teaches him that retribution is inevitable and a fundamental rule of life, and that transgression brings with it an absolutely set payment as basic as a burned hand when exposed to the fire.
“I do not believe in free will,” you say. Well, the very fact that you are at liberty to believe it or reject it proves you have choice. Otherwise, there would be no alternative. So long as man has the power to think he has the power to choose.
Life is a succession of choices, and, when we do not like the consequences of our choices, blaming the Deity is foolish and futile. Instead of wasting time in useless regret and vain excuses, we should determine to be more careful NOW. If we have chosen unwisely in the past, we can today, through the exercise of our free will, put into operation causes whose effects will be beneficial in the future.
Others contend free will is an impossibility in a universe of immutable and changeless laws. It is only because of unvarying law that man can have free will at all. In a world of chance and accident, devoid of plan and purpose, man could not have an atom of choice. Because certain causes always produce certain effects is man able to predict with any degree of surety what the outcome of his actions will be.
There is, of course, a central purpose, a general plan, to existence, and we have to follow this whether we want to or not. Anyone who has lived for any length of time can see that. For human affairs are subject, like the rest of the universe, to general laws and, in a large view of men’s activities, free will can be left out of account and necessity takes its place. Kant says “that the force of circumstances is too strong for free will, and that the laws may be traced in the conduct of a mass of human beings, which are invisible in the individual.” The Creator of the universe has a plan and purpose to which all created things are subject.
Some assume that, because God is omniscient and knows what men will do, there is no possibility of free will. God’s omniscience does not preclude men’s exercise of choice any more than children are deprived of freedom because their parents usually know quite well how they will react under different circumstances.
And this is certain, if only God’s will prevailed on earth, it would be a paradise. But, simultaneously with men’s exercise of their will began the existence of evil. For evil is not a person, but a force created for good, but which can be used for malevolent purposes. Man’s perverted use of this force has brought into the world suffering, sorrow, misery, disease, war, pestilence and all manner of ungodly conditions. And these creations of man’s volition will exist as long as he persists in blindly pursuing his erring way.
No perspicacity is required to realize that absolute free will without absolute wisdom would be an unmitigated curse; the worst conceivable calamity which God could impose upon man. When we consider what man in his ignorance has done with limited will and power, just the thought of what would happen had he absolute free will fills one with apprehension and terror. But God is merciful and, in His infinite love and wisdom, limits and controls man’s freedom of action.
As men grow in spiritual stature, they gradually see the folly of independent action and submit to Divine guidance. And, in relinquishing their will, they are directed by the influence of that Higher Wisdom and moulded and guided into the path of true happiness.
“Where does free will function in times of war, when men are compelled to fight?” is a question on the lips of many today. Free will is never entirely abrogated, for there is always an alternative. True, the alternative is usually worse than the duty or responsibility one is trying to evade. Nevertheless, it is there. It often takes more courage to face public opinion than it does to face artillery.
Furthermore, man as a member of a large human family accumulates collective karma which is often discharged collectively, as in war or some other national contingency. He also derives numerous benefits and privileges from his country and, in turn, incurs duties and responsibilities and, in time of war, the welfare of the country supersedes the welfare of the individual. This truth is tersely and beautifully explained in the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, where Arjuna, who does not want to slay his kinsmen and friends, asks Krishna which is the right course to pursue—to fight or not to fight. Krishna replies: “This Real man that inhabiteth the body, O Arjuna, is invulnerable to harm, hurt, or death—therefore, why shouldst thou trouble thyself further about the matter? Instead face thy Duty in the matter, manfully and resolutely. . .. He who, in his ignorance thinketh: ‘I slay,’ or ‘I am slain,’ babbleth like an infant lacking knowledge. Of a truth, none can slay—none can be slain.”
The soul is perfect in its pure essence. It is from its union with matter alone that all the imperfections, error and evil arise; but these do not affect its inner germ essence, for they are not its cause, which is the Absolute and Supreme Intelligence, which is God. The soul is responsible for its desires and for its choice of actions, and for this reason God established causes and effects. The soul, being immortal, came from God and must return to that Great Soul from which it issued. But as it was given to man pure and undefiled, free from all stain and error, it cannot ascend to that Celestial Abode until it shall have been refined and purified from all the evil it has wrought and all the errors and faults committed through its union with matter.
In the future life we will be able to perceive and trace the ineffaceable consequences of our idle words and evil deeds, and our remorse and grief must necessarily last as long as the consequences themselves. When we return to our Father’s home, we will have to give an account of our wanderings and render a report of the stewardship which was entrusted to us. We are rational beings endowed with free will and, therefore, are held accountable both here and hereafter.
How strangely entangled are the threads of Destiny from the Distaff of Life!