We treat free will and determinism as opposite and irreconcilable concepts, and there are adherents ready to argue one position or the other and provide irrefutable proofs of their position. It is clear from the strength of each position that there is a truth that underpins each of these concepts. How can we then reconcile the innate sense we maintain of having free will with the apparent determinism of the law of cause and effect, the chain of causality?

Close observation seems to support the idea of determinism at the gross material level of existence. Laws of Nature seem to be the basis for Matter and Energy and material existence. Newtonian physics rules the movement of physical forms, Yet at the subatomic level we see the issues that arise in terms of quantum mechanics, the observation of wave/particle status, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, the principle that particles can remain in ‘superposition’ until and unless observed, and the concept of quantum entanglement. The observations of quantum mechanics leads us to a view of the universe that is not ‘fixed’ in the way that the Newtonian principles would imply. Yet each of these seemingly opposite principles seems to hold up and ‘work’ in their own sphere.

We have to wonder why, if there is strict determinism in the universe, Nature chooses to create innumerable seeds, and we have apparently random chance of a particular seed germinating and growing, and then, despite general similarity of the results of any growing living organism within its species, we still note differences in form and function to some degree conditioned by factors such as subtle genetic differences or environmental conditions. This seems to support the concept of free will having a role. Determinism has no need for such a profusion of seeds!

When we look at large numbers of forms, beings or events, we can see that while individual responses may show some amount of variation, the larger picture or pattern tends to fill in with highly predictable regularity. This may imply that the individual beings have an element of free will which nevertheless is conditioned by the general ‘law’ or framework of the specific species or type. It may also mean that free will is not in conflict with determinism from a higher viewpoint, just as we see apparently random brushstrokes in an impressionist painting that nevertheless create a consistent and coordinated view when seen from the intended distance and perspective.

It is also apparent that as the evolutionary development of consciousness manifests, we see less reliance on pure instinct or habit or any fixed ‘law’ of Nature, and see an increased ability to exercise what appears to be free will, albeit with a chain of causality that provides a framework for that exercise of will. We see an example in the organization of our social being. The higher an individual stands in an organization, the more he can exercise ‘free will’ in the direction and operations of the organization, with power to control the actions of those who carry out subordinate functions in that formation. The assembly line worker has very little ability to influence the overall direction of any operation, certainly not to the extent that the supervisor, or the CEO may wield such an influence. While we may find that even the CEO is carrying out a more or less ‘determined’ role, yet it is clear that there is an increasingly visible tendency towards more flexibility and freedom of action.

The trend, if carried out further with additional developments of consciousness, would lead to the idea that free will is available and potentially operative at higher states of consciousness, as they approach and eventually unify with the consciousness of the divine Reality.

Sri Aurobindo writes in his epic poem Savitri: a Legend and a Symbol (Book IV, Canto 3)

“Nothing we think or do is void or vain,
Each is an energy loosed and holds its course,
The shadowy keepers of our deathless past
Have made our fate the child of our own acts,
And from the furrows laboured by our will
We reap the fruit of our forgotten deeds.
But since unseen the tree that bore this fruit
And we live in a present born from an unknown past,
They seem but parts of a mechanic Force,
To a mechanic mind tied by earth’s laws;
Yet are they instruments of a Will supreme,
Watched by a still all-seeing Eye above,
A prescient architect of Fate and Chance
Who builds our lives on a foreseen design
The meaning knows and consequence of each step
And watches the inferior stumbling powers.”

and continues in Book V, Canto 1:
“For though a dress of blind and devious chance
Is laid upon the work of all-wise Fate,
Our acts interpret an omniscient Force
That dwells in the compelling stuff of things,
And nothing happens in the cosmic play
But at its time and in its foreseen place.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, The Hidden Forces of Life, Ch. 1 Life Through the Eyes of the Yogin, pg. 2

Author's Bio: 

Santosh has been studying Sri Aurobindo's writings since 1971 and has a daily blog at http://sriaurobindostudies.wordpress.com and podcast at https://anchor.fm/santosh-krinsky He is author of 19 books and is editor-in-chief at Lotus Press. He is president of Institute for Wholistic Education, a non-profit focused on integrating spirituality into daily life.
More information about Sri Aurobindo can be found at http://www.sri-aurobindo.com
The US editions and links to e-book editions of Sri Aurobindo’s writings can be found at http://www.lotuspress.com