Free Will? Sheldon Pollock doesn’t know what he is talking about! – Divya Jhingran

Divya Jhingran“Not only does Pollock suffer from a severe disconnect with the Indian traditions that he has been superficially immersed in for decades, he also betrays a lack of understanding of modern science. He seems not to have the capacity to distinguish a Christian idea from a scientific one. His beliefs about agency and free will belong somewhere in seventeenth century Europe.” — Divya Jhingran

Sheldon Pollock proclaims that “the characters of the ‘Ramayana’ believe themselves to be denied all freedom of choice; … and consequently can exercise no control.” He laments the dire consequences our epics have had on our civilization and wants to set things right by liberating us Hindus from our fatalistic beliefs.

If only we could see things through his lens we too would understand that we have free will and can exercise our agency. This attitude displays a dismal lack of understanding of the very essence of our culture and traditions. As we would say back home, “Spent the whole night reading the ‘Ramayana’ but in the morning, wonders, whose father Sita was!”

Before we get into how horribly wrong Pollock is, it would be helpful to know a brief history of the idea of “free will”.

Free will as a concept did not feature in the rich intellectual traditions of the Pagan philosophers of Greece and Rome. Similarly, the idea of “free will” is completely alien to the Indian traditions which have always held a decidedly deterministic stance.

Of course, the western world uses the derogatory term “fatalistic” instead of “deterministic” when speaking of the Indians, but let’s overlook that for now.

One thing we do know is that the Indian philosophers excelled in their understanding of human psychology and spoke at length about a variety of mental states. They broadly categorized manas, buddhi, and chitta along with other more nuanced mental states and mental processes. Nowhere did they identify anything such as “free will”.

Instead, they came to the conclusion that we are not the agents of our actions and that the idea of agency is an illusion.

Free WillSo why is Pollock so confident that free will exists? Whatever his secular pretensions may be, “free will” is actually a very Christian idea. It turned up in the literature around the fourth century after the birth of Christianity. Christian doctrine tells us that God created the world and that everything that happens in this world happens in accordance with his will. This claim, and every other claim made by Christianity, is presented as true.

In other words, just as it is true that water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen, it is true that the Christian God created the world and governs it. Naturally this “truth” had its consequences and soon enough gave rise to what is commonly referred to as the “problem of evil”.

If God is perfect and good and if everything happens according to his will, then how can we explain the fact that there is so much evil in this world?

Enter free will. The problem of evil was conveniently explained by the fact that God gave human beings the freedom to choose between good and evil. Because human beings are sinners they often choose to do evil. Therefore, even though God is perfect, there is evil in the world because of our God-given free choice.

This explanation about the world is absolutely crucial to Christianity. otherwise, their doctrine of a perfect God falls apart.

This Christian idea of free will has now become so deeply entrenched in the western psyche that it is taken for granted. “Freedom” and “choice” are words frequently used in the West as if it is the most natural thing in the world to be free and to be able to choose.

Max Planck QuoteHowever, with developments in science, with the understanding that matter and energy are interchangeable, as a challenge to the notion of mind-body duality, and with developments in cognitive science and neuroscience, some western scientists and philosophers began to question the existence of free will.

The debate has been raging ever since. In the overarching folk psychology of the West and among the religious believers, the concept of free will is very much alive. However, among the scientific community it is strongly disputed, if not outright rejected.

The question to consider is this: what exactly are we free from? We are subject to the laws of physics in the same way that rocks and water and mice and dolphins are. Yes, we have a subjective experience of ourselves but this “self” of ours exists only because life exists. Otherwise, we are just what the universe happens to be doing in a place called the here and now that we localize for ourselves with the pronoun “I”.

We split up the world into different parts and give different names to different things. We consider our “self” as being separate from the world and believe we go around doing things independently of the “world”. But as our sages have pointed out, this split of “doer-action-deed” is just our human perspective and is our way of making sense of the world.

They try and show us that this is only a superficial understanding and that the separate feeling of “I” is only an appearance but is not actually real.

The same laws that govern the world govern our bodies as well as the thoughts and feelings that we believe to be inside of us. But there is no “inside”; there is no dividing line between us and the world.

So in a way we are just like puppets, without any agency, but from another perspective, these laws of the universe constitute our very selves and determine how we act and react. We have the illusion of making choices and of being agents, but our wants, preferences, and needs are determined by the way the universe is. In reality, there is no individual agency that is separate from the flow of the entire universe.

This idea that “I” am not the thinker of my thoughts and that “I” am not the doer of my deeds lies at the heart and soul of Indian civilization and forms its very foundation. It permeates our folk traditions as well as our intellectual traditions and our artistic traditions, and is woven into the fabric of all the metaphors and analogies all over the place.

Our sages repeatedly tell us that the idea of subject-object-verb is an illusion and that the only way to lasting happiness is to understand this fact.

Our traditions provide us with many ways and means to help us come to this realization.

One of these ways is through the stories told in our itihasa and puranas.  Our stories of Arjun and Rama, of monkeys and jackals, of sages and fools, convey these same ideas and have the same power to lead to enlightenment as does the chanting of Vedic mantras or the pursuit of logic.

However, this does not mean that once the sages had this realization they expected everyone in the world to stop in their tracks and give up on the world because we had no agency anyway, so why bother.

They understood that such knowledge dawns at its own pace and that it is the human condition to live with some illusions about the nature of the self. So our traditions also teach us how to live in the world, in society and in communities and within families.

Sheldon PollockThe very same stories and rituals that help us in overcoming worldly illusions also teach us about living in the world since we are an integral part of the leela.

So when Sheldon Pollock accuses the characters in the Ramayana of merely existing without any ability to exercise agency, he fails to notice that Rama was educated to live in the world, he was educated to govern, and he was trained for battle. He was taught the right manners and nurtured with the right attitudes towards the world and towards his family.

And when the time came to go to war he did not just sit back and let the universe take its own course. He consulted with his ministers, he strategized and planned, coaxed and pleaded, connived and cajoled and did everything it took, and in the end, after all this effort, he won the war.

Not only does Pollock suffer from a severe disconnect with the Indian traditions that he has been superficially immersed in for decades, he also betrays a lack of understanding of modern science.

He seems not to have the capacity to distinguish a Christian idea from a scientific one. His beliefs about agency and free will belong somewhere in seventeenth century Europe.

Oblivious of this, and armed with his “theories” he is trying to force-fit the presuppositions and prejudices of his own religion and culture on to our traditions while claiming all the while how secular he is.

There would be no problem if Pollock named his project “The Biblical Interpretation of the Ramayana”. But that is not what he is doing. The Indian intellectual traditions have a lot to offer to the world.

If all Pollock can do is reproduce Biblical themes or Marxian theories it simply defeats the purpose. – Swarajya, 26 March 2016

» Divya Jhingran studied western philosophy as well as the theory and practice of Hindu traditions. She is the co-author of As Others See Us: A Conversation on Cultural Differences and Do All Roads Lead to Jerusalem? She lives in New York City.

Free Will?

9 Responses

  1. what i understand is this ( correct , if be wrong ) :

    ” free will” refers to the assumption of agency ;

    in the flow of the events/ happenings/ phenomena of the creation/ universe , there is never any separate , individual agent ( whom we call conveniently “a person” ) ;

    e.g.,

    i did something
    ( may be under pressure , may be without any external influence )

    i have two choices :

    i may simply think that the “act done” is in conformity/interlinked with the various happenings that constitute the “flow” of the entire creation/universe ;

    — OR —

    i my think that “i did it , i am the doer” thus assuming myself ( a person ) to be the agent ;
    here , “i” am separating “myself” from the “flow” of the creation/ universe , forming ” a person” and dragging “myself” into a situation where “i” am bonded by “my” supposed actions to receive/enjoy their results/fruits ;
    i am never an agent , but assumed myself to be an agent and entered the inescapable state of receiver/enjoyer i.e., bondage ;

    our R.shis showed ( as resp. madame explained so clearly ) that this assumption of agency/doership is an illusion !

    • All human concepts have value in their utility. There is value in the idea of agency. There is value in the idea of flow. One does not toss value into the trash. For example, when I am driving a car in traffic, I am aware of the flow, but I am also aware of my part within the flow. Both perspectives are true. Both are meaningful. One does not exclude the other. Neither can make the other unnecessary. Neither can turn the other into an illusion.

      For example, there is the way things are and there is the way things might become. To make things better we become agents of change. If the change is to be real, then we also must be real.

      • it is said that the notion of agency is unreal ;

        of course , one is FREE to ASSUME one is an agent ;
        then , one becomes answerable for one’s agency/actions & should be at the receiving end for the results of actions ;

        these assumptions , on proper scrutiny , reveal themselves to be illusions ;

        once it is accepted that “agency” is unreal , the first thing that vanishes into thin air is “personality” , which is the least acceptable condition for the person ;

        the situation is tricky , thought is easily led astray ;
        please , please delve deep , very deep into the seemingly unfathomable depths , before drawing any conclusions ;

        you are sure to find the correct answer — whether agency is an unreal “assumption” by an unreal “person” or an absolute truth .

        • Who has gone deeper: the one who can see both sides of the coin or the one who is convinced it has only one side? (1) First there is a mountain. (2) Then there is no mountain. (3) Then there is. (And, of course, there are no “absolutes”).

          • if it is agreed that there are no absolutes , what all realities we talk of can only be ‘relative’ or ‘partial’ realities that last as long as the transactions last
            thus , when it is said that “agency is real” , it can only be construed that it is only relatively real , real only to a limited extent , because there are no absolutes .

            • The mind has two necessary functions: to generalize and to discriminate. A concept arises to name a generalizable truth that appears in many contexts. The idea of agency appears in all those contexts where what we decide to do plays a role in what happens next.

              The results of our choices can be better or worse than we expected at the time of our choice.

              In order to learn from our experience, we review our role (agency) in bringing about the good (or bad) result. This helps us to consider how we might alter what we do in the future to continue getting good results (or avoid getting bad results).

              In this context, it is not helpful to praise or blame anything that we cannot alter — like the universe.

              On the other hand, it may be spiritually beneficial to consider the parts of the outcome that were due to advantages the “universe” bestowed upon us that eased our way, or to disadvantages the “universe” placed in our path that we were unable at first to overcome.

              • i’ll quote :

                “The idea of agency appears in all those contexts where what we decide to do plays a role in what happens next.

                The results of our choices can be
                1.better
                or
                2.worse
                than we expected at the time of our choice. ”

                ” On the other hand,
                it may be spiritually beneficial
                to consider the parts of the outcome that were due to —
                1.advantages the “universe” bestowed upon us that eased our way,
                or
                2.to disadvantages the “universe” placed in our path that we were unable at first to overcome ”

                w h i c h g o e s t o m e a n ::

                i) i decided to do something ;
                ii) i did it
                iii) in addition, there were advantages/disadvantages from “universe”
                iv) something happened next ( the result )
                v) this result is better or worse than i expected
                vi)this is due to the fact that certain parts of the outcome were due to – advantages/disadvantages from “universe”

                obviously , “i” – “my free will” – “my decision” – “my action” —– is not the sole agent of the net outcome ;

                here , i quote resp. madame divya jhingran once again :”

                in reality , there is no individual agency that is separate from the flow of the entire universe ”

  2. From a purely secular viewpoint, the term “free will” is used to distinguish between a decision we make for ourselves from a choice forced upon us by someone else.

    For example, the Boston Marathon bombers hijacked a car and forced the driver at gunpoint to aid them in their escape. Because the driver was forced to act against his will, he was not charged with “aiding and abetting” the criminals in their escape.

    To be meaningful, the word “free” must always imply some specific relevant constraint. A prisoner may be “freed” from handcuffs, a slave may be set “free” from his master, a bird may be “freed” from its cage.

    But in no case can a anything be said to be “freed from reliable cause and effect”. Does anyone claim the bird is not free because it is still subject to reliable causation? No. And if it were actually freed from causation, then what would happen when it flapped its wings? (Hint: Nothing the bird could rely upon!)

    All freedoms require a universe of reliable causes and effects (determinism). Without it we could not reliably do anything! And if you can never reliably implement any intent, then what’s the point of a will?

    So the “free” in free will can only rationally mean the freedom to act upon our own will rather than having our choices imposed upon us against our will by someone else.

    And, of course, you are also correct that viewing causation as something separate from us, that could externally coerce us to choose something against our will, is a dualistic position. Causation is also us, deciding for ourselves what we will do next. And that which IS us, cannot be said to coerce us.

  3. a very excellent article , each line pregnant with rich meaning & proclaiming ( as proclaimed by our R.shis ) the absence of free will in crystal clear terms !

    just two lines from the article :

    “……our sages …. show us that the separate feeling of “I” is only an appearance but is not actually real ”

    ” in reality , there is no individual agency that is separate from the flow of the entire universe ”

    i don’t know whether it is pertinent to the matter at hand , but i want to add ::
    the individual has the absolute freedom ( not free will ) to choose if he wants to remain in bondage or wants to break free of it !

    thank you madame , and thanks , bharatabharati !

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