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Sri Aurobindo

Letters of Sri Aurobindo

9. Fate and Free-Will, Karma and Heredity, etc

Fragment ID: 738

It is difficult indeed to make out what Planck means in these pages – what is his conclusion and how he arrives at it; he has probably so condensed his arguments that the necessary explanatory links are missing. The free-will affair, I see by glancing through the previous pages, arises only incidentally from his position that the new discoveries grouped round the quantum theory do not make a radical difference in physics. If there is a tendency to regard laws as statistical,– in which case there is no “strict causality” and no determinism – still there is nothing to prove that they cannot be treated and may not be advantageously treated as dynamical also – in which case determinism can stand; the uncertainty of individual behaviour (electrons, quanta) does not really undermine determinism, but only brings a new feature into it. That seems from a hasty glance to be his position. Certain scientific thinkers consider this uncertainty of individual behaviour to be a physical factor correspondent to the element of free-will in individual human beings. It is here that Planck brings in the question of free-will to refute the conclusion that it affects strict causality and the law of determinism. His argument, as far as I can make it out, is this:

1. The law of strict causality stands because any given action or inner happening of the individual human being is an effect determined completely by two causes, (a) the previous state of his mind taken as a whole, (b) external influences.

2. The will is a mental process completely determined by these two factors; therefore it is not free, it is part of the chain of strict causality – as are also the results of the free-will.

3. What is important is not the actual freedom of the will, but the man’s consciousness of freedom. This creates an inner experience of conscious motive which again creates fresh motives and so on indefinitely. For this reason it is impossible for a man to predict his future action – for at any moment a fresh motive may arise. But when we look back at the past, then the concatenation of cause and effect becomes apparent.

4. The fact of strict causality (or at least the theory of it) stands therefore unshaken by the consciousness of free-will of the individual. It is only obscured by the fact that a man cannot predict his own actions or grasp the causes of his present state; but that is because here the subject and object are the same and this subject-object is in a state of constant alternative motion unlike an object outside, which is supposed not to change as a result of the inner movements of the knower.

There is a reference to causal law and ethical law which baffles me. Is the “ethical law” something outside the strict chain of effects and causes? Is there such a thing at all? If “strict causality” rules all, what is such an ethical law doing there?

That is the argument so far as I can follow it, but it does not seem to me very conclusive. If a man’s conduct cannot be predicted by himself, neither can it be predicted by anyone else, though here the subject and object are not the same; if not predictable, then it must be for the same reason, the element of free-will and the mobility created by the possible indefinite intrusion of fresh motives. If that is so, strict causality cannot be affirmed,– though a plastic causality in which the power of choice called by us free-will is an element (either as one among many contributory causes or as an instrument of a cause beyond itself) can still be asserted as possible.

The statement that the action of the individual is strictly determined by his total mental state plus external influences is doubtful and does not lead very far. It is possible to undermine the whole idea of inevitable causality by holding that the total existing state before a happening is only the condition under which it happens – there are a mass of antecedents and there is a sequent, if it may be so called, or a mass of sequences, but nothing proves that the latter are inevitable consequences of the mass of antecedents. Possibly, this total existing state is a matrix into which some seed of happening is thrown or becomes active, so that there may be many possible results, and in the case of human action it is conceivable that free-will is the or at least a determining factor.

I do not think therefore that these arguments of Planck carry us very far. There is also, of course, the question raised in the book itself whether, granting determinism, a local state of things is an independent field of causality or all is so bound together that it is the whole that determines the local result. A man’s action then would be determined by universal forces and his state of mind and apparent choice would be part of the instrumentation of the Universal Force.