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Tuesday, July 29, 2014


Philosophers and spiritualists alike have debated the concept of free-will since time immemorial. So much so that the debate has even been given its own name: the free-will problem. Rationalists believe in it, determinists do not.

According to the philosophy heavy-weight William James, free-will is a positive principle, a virtue whereby man's dignity is increased. Man's power too, for free-will is the power to choose. Determinists deny free-will. They say an individual originates nothing, but merely transmits to the future the whole push of the past cosmos of which he is so small an expression. The determinist, stripping man of his creative principle, can be said to diminish man to the level of automaton or impotent beast conditioned by education and upbringing, imprisoned by ignorance, and buffeted by fate.

But philosophers of many schools agree that our philosophical views define us as individuals and direct the course of our life (determined or free as it is). Which way do you stand? If everyone were truly free, and able at any time to do whatever they wished, would not the result be utter randomness? If I chose to yell at the top of my lungs, and so did you, and everyone else in the room, to flood it in babble, who could stand to remain amidst such discord? We follow norms, and rules, and society's expectations. Even if given a free choice between a or b, between pizza or French fries, or apples and oranges, isn't the choice an illusion, already determined by what we were given as children, by our particular preferences nurtured over time and even influenced by genes? And isn't an all-powerful God, who transcends time, being omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent as religion says, able to see the universal past present and future and thus able to know your choice before you make it, which would make your actions, in God's eyes if not your own, already pre-determined?

If our acts were predetermined, if we merely, in James's words, "transmitted the push of the whole past forward," how could we be praised or blamed for anything, but only agents without responsibility? But where would we be if we had free-will? If a free act is a novelty, which comes not from me, the previous me, sets of preferences and opinions that I was a moment ago, but out of thin air as it were, how can I, the previous I, be responsible? How can I have any permanent character that will stand still long enough for praise or blame to be awarded and deserved? The day becomes a jumble of disconnected beads as soon as the thread of inner necessity is removed.

I won't belabor you with the intricacies of the free-will problem, and James in his excellent book Pragmatism certainly waxes verbose in his treatment of this and other important issues. But if having no free-will makes you sad, have no fear, for science (of all things) may have come to your rescue.

A recent article in Scientific American sheds some new light on an age-old issue, by studying the behavior of schools of fish.

School of barracuda

A certain breed of minnow displays synchronized swimming so intricate as to easily qualify for the Olympics if fish could enter the games. The ability of these fishes to move in harmony has long fascinated researchers, who have developed several ways of describing in scientific terms how schooling works. Minnow seem to work en masse, as if with a group mind, not dissimilar to the way the bulls run and buffalo stampede. Each fish's movement seems to be influenced, determined as it were, by the movement of those around it, so that the body of fish can move as one.

At least to the untrained eye. Then researchers tried something interesting. They taught a few fish to swim toward a light for food, then returned these beacon fish to the larger school. When the light went on, the trained fish broke toward it, triggering a cascade of responses that resulted in the rest of the school falling behind the leaders and swimming towards the light.

Now imagine yourself, through studying under a teacher, reading of your own, through meditation, turning the attention inwards, etc., finally seeing the light (that shines within). To the larger school of individuals in your society, you would be considered free (not going with the trend). And after a while, others in your particular sphere will follow the leader to the light. That is the power of free thought, to change the course of your destiny and perhaps the destiny of others as well.

In the words of the spiritualist Krishnamurti, "Society teaches people how to make money but not how to live.... The stream of culture may change its course through a few awakened people. These are not strangers but you and me."

Seek the light that lies within and maybe save the world.

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