Know Real Facts about Islam

Memorable Writings of
Anwar Shaikh






Site Index




Table of Contents

Free Will
Origin of Mysticism
Mysticism - The Universal Mystery
Buddhist Mysticism
Greek Mysticism
Semitic Mysticism
Christian Mysticism
Islamic Mysticism
Mysticism, the Vedic Legacy - Part 1
Mysticism, the Vedic Legacy - Part 2

E-mail this page Print this page

Sign GuestBook

Read GuestBook



Free Will

by Anwar Shaikh

Of all mysteries, free will is the greatest. It simply means man's power to choose or refuse, yet behind the facade of simplicity, there lurks one of the greatest complexities that the human mind has encountered.

To understand the philosophical nature of this problem, one ought to delve into its background.

Imagine the intellectual state of the primitive man at the dawn of culture. The rustling winds, the majestic motion of streams and rivers, the dignity ot lofty mountains, the twinkling stars, the silvery moon and the blazing sun - all must have filled him with a supernatural awe, leading him to believe that there is a deity which has created this colossal universe and manages it actively. Since everything else is controlled by the supernatural being, the primitive man must have thought, that his own breathing including his actiona and their causes are also determined by the Almighty. Thus man has no power over himself or the environment, and it is God's will which prevails over everything.

Add to this, man's tendency to laziness and his enthusiasm to blame others for his sorrows. All his grief by way of hunger, poverty, disease, social degradation and ill-health are someone else's doing. It is because man does not like blame; he prefers to blame the causes outside his jurisdiction.

Man's fear of the natural phenomena and his reluctance to accept blame for his inaptitudes and follies, gave birth to the concept of determinism. It is the opposite of free will, and means that all events including moral choices are completely determined by the already existing causes, and there is nothing that man can do himself. However, there is an element of truth in this view; there are certain things over which man has no control such as parentage, colour, nationality, language, cultural inheritance, upbringing, and numerous factors of this nature. They do influence man's intellectual attitudes, moral values and behaviour, yet they do not deprive him of free choice. Free will means the will to select or reject and not the ability to act, though it may form a part of free will yet its absence does not negate the validity of free will; choosing to travel by boat is an act of free will but having no boat is no contradiction of free will. Similarly, man's desire to fly like a bird, is no part of free will; it is a fantasy; free will concerns reality and not sheer imagination. However, when imagination is brought within the bounds of reality, it becomes the subject of free will: manufacturing an aircraft to fly in the air is an example of this fact.

Religion is yet another advocate of determinism because it assumes the pre-existence of a procreator or a creator God who assembles or creates the universe and administers it. The priestly interest has a gnod deal to do with this theory. The priest, who projects himself as the Vicar of God, becomes the source of grace or intercession to the devotees and thus enjoys a good deal of benefit from the superstitious minds of his followers who believe in determinism, yet expect him to alter the course of predestined events by invoking the grace of God!

Predestination is another word for determinism but it is usually used by the religious scholars; it refers to the principle that God has already chosen those people whom he intends to save. However, in the field of the Semitic religions, especially Christianity, predestination is based on the power of God to foreknow everything. This is a way around the objection that God's actions are arbitrary: He saves some and condemns others wilfully. On the ground of foreknowledge, it is claimed that as God knows who will be righteous, His determination is based on merits. However, this is only one of the opinions and the argument of good deeds which can be carried to its logical conclusion. The Christian thinkers like Augustine, Luther and Thomas Aquinas ascribe salvation to God's unmerited grace, and it is well known that God's grace is not available to everyone. Thus, predestination becomes a tale of arbitralion.

Confining predestination to salvation only does not appear to te the correct Christian view. It is used in the same sense as the word: "determinism," meaning that the causes for everything have already been fixed by the Maker eternally, and therefore, whatever is or will be, has been predestined. There is ample evidence for this theory in chapter 26 of St. Matthew. During the Last Supper, Jesus told Peter that he would deny him (Jesus) three times "Before the cock crow" ( 26:34 ). Despite Peter's assertions of total faith and obedience, this is exactly what happened. According to the Bible, he did deny Jesus thrice as he had prophesised:

    "And Peter remembered the word of Jesus .... before the cock crow thou shalt deny me thrice." (26: 75).

    As it happened, Peter wept bitterly.

Having the common Semitic origin, Islam has the same approach towards determinism as Christianity. However, the situation has been made somewhat dubious by the sectarian interpretation. Moslem scholars started indulging in philosophic expression c.757. It became fashionable to discuss whether the Koran was eternal or created. The school known as the "Mutazilites" (the Seceders) denied the eternity of the Koran because it implied predestination. The Caliph Al-Mamun championed this interpretation. However, Abul Hasan Al-Ashari (873-945) preached that Allah is the supreme sovereign and He does what He wills. He has determined every movement and event, and is the primary cause of everything that is, or may happen.

In practice, Al-Ashari was right. The Mutazilites were a philosophical- group and wanted to give a rational understanding to the Koran. Such people being intellectuals usually see in their Scriptures what is really not there. It is an attempt to rationalise faith to satisfy one's conscience but the faith and reason are usually diametrically opposed to each other. The Islamic doctrine is strictly deterministic:

    "He (Allah) chooses for His mercy whom He will
    (The House of Imram: 25)

    "Whomsoever God will, He leads astray, and whomsoever He will, He sets him on a right path"
    (Cattle: 35 and 125)

    " It is not given to any soul to die, except by the leave of God, at an appointed time"
    ( The House of Imram: 135)

In this context, the Ajivikas of India, also deserve a mention. They were a heretical sect of India which emerged at the same time when Buddhism was rising in the subcontinent. They believed that there is no cause for the purity or depravity of things; they become good or bad without any cause or reason. Effort, whether personal or external has nothing to do with the state of things; they are what they are, and become what they become owing to their destiny and nature. Man has no power to shape his future. This is yet another explanation of determinism.

Fear of the forces of nature and the uncertainty of future, are some of the major factors which arouse superstition, making humans prefer determinism to free will. Astrology is an example to this effect. It is considered a science or a pseudoscience, and is used in the forecasting of earthly and human events through the observation of stars such as the Sun, the Moon and the planets. Some people believe that there exists special reiations between the heavenly bodies, their motions and configurations with one another. Man's destiny is considered closely knit with the astrological movements, thus rendering the universe totally mechanistic in nature. The Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle also made their contributions to these attitudes. The mechanistic working of the cosmos is believed to represent the will or God; it is made manifest by various omens which warn humans of the impending dangers so that they can take necessary steps to ward off the disaster. This is the idea that lay behind the old Mesopotamian collections of celestial omens. The royal court was provided with such information to be in a ready state for encountering the imminent hazards of the mechanistic order of the universe.

The Stoics of Greece advocated the concept or rate which closely resembled determinism but without excluding free will altogether. Their doctrine of fate was founded on their distinction between the basic and initiating causes. They viewed man as a small part in the overall pattern of the world. Hence, the famous Stoic saying that a man is like dog tied behind a cart which he must follow willy nilly.

Man has paid a heavy price for believing in determinism. This view imposes the volition of a super being on the universe which acts as a machine without having a will of its own. Man being a part of the cosmos, is required to act likewise. It is on this principle that men who claimed to be the messiahs and prophets commanded obedience of fellow men by projecting themselves as the envoys of God, who is claimed to be the master of the world. The inter religious hatred and carnage has become the destiny of every believer for this reason. The evils which man would not have accepted otherwise, were thrust on him as the will of God, the true source of determinism. Slavery, the greatest human abomination was projected as the will of God!

Most despots and authoritarian social movements owe their success to the concept of determinism. All Semitic rulers i.e. Jewish, Christian and Moslem, claimed to have been appointed by God and given the divine rights. Hegel, the German philosopher believed in the deterministic nature of history. He advocated that the ordinary folks followed the path chosen for them by history. They did not understand the nature of the social advancement, and were like actors who enacted the roles allotted to them. Hegelian dialectical materialism based on the mutual reactions of contradictory social forces, which was adopted by Karl Marx, represents a deterministic government, desirous of controlling every aspect of an individual's life.

The philosophical doctrine of determinism, having projected the universe as a vast machine bound to operate on a strictiy causal basis, has equally affected the scientific thinking. This attitude is rooted in the Newtonian model of mechanics; it means that all future positions and velocities of a particle are determined completely by the forces acting on it.

The Newtonian or classical mechanics is fully deterministic in its outlook: it can facilitate exact predictions of future (as well as of past) if we have the exact masses and the forces, their basic positions and velocities. However, this view is applicable to the working of the large systems only: predicting the orbital motions and return journey from the earth to the moon, are some of the examples. The French mathematician, Pierre Simon de Laplace is considered the major proponent of the deterministic character of the universe. He held:

The present state of the universe is due to its previous state which is also the cause of the state that is to follow. An intelligent being who knows at a given time, all forces acting on the physical phenomena and the momentary positions of all things of the universe, will be able to translate the motions of all things, large and small, into a single formula, yielding a complete understanding of the universe; thus nothing will remain uncertain, and it will be quite possible to see both past and future with clarity.

This scientific attitude makes the universe a machine which runs exactly according to the intended design of the maker and has no capacity or taste for changing its operation of behaviour.

However, this classical view or determinism has been successfully challenged by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. It should be remembered that the classical or deterministic theory depends on precisely knowing the initial positions and velocities of all the particles in a system. While this procedure is operative in respect of large bodies, it does not work at atomic and subatomic level; the study of motions of electrons within atoms and molecules, is an example to this effect. This difficulty is caused by what is called diffraction. It is a blurring agent, and is not accidental in a measurement but an inherent and inesuapable feature associated with the wave nature of light. This blurring or diffraction leads to a corresponding uncertainty in the measurement of an object. Diffraction occurs when the light from a point source is not brought to a point focus in the image plane of a telescope or microscope.

This uncertainty principle is also known as Indeterminacy principle. The reason is simple: what cannot be measured exactly cannot be operated and predicted precisely. Therefore, it is not subject to determinism, and must have some control over its behaviour. This indeterminacy springs from the fact that one can observe accurately only the momentum of an electron or its position. They both cannot be done at the same time. The truth depicted by the Uncertainty principle is confirmed by the fact that the Newtonian mechanics cannot be applied to atoms, the building blccks of the universe. Thus, it is not the Newtonian laws, the advocates of determinism, which govern the essence and operation of the universe but the quantum mechanics, which does not describe exactitudes but possible happenings; they are of statistical nature for being the ambassadors of probabilities of alternative occurrences. They compare with the actuarial tables of insurance companies, which give the probable death rate within a certain age-range and cannot tell the exact life span of a particular person.

Teleology is yet another angle for probing into the nature or this issue. It means "end, " that is, an explanation is given with reference to some end or purpose. Aristotle, was the first person who gave the most effective account of teleology. He believed that the best explanation of something is achieved not only by considering its material form and efficient causes, but it also requires the inclusion of the final cause i.,e. the purpose for which the thing exists or has been produced. He thought of form as the determining agent in the universe but form does not take place through a conscious process; things assume form by what they have in them through a general operation rather than through the working of a constant efficient cause. In simple language, things assume forms according to what they are destined to be; things become what they become according to their potential to be. Therefore, becoming or assumption of form, is dictated by its inherent potential. Aecording to the Aristotelian teleology, every thing has a purpose in the universe, but the things are not striving to achieve their ends consciously; they work like the organs of a body which have their functions to perform but they do so without knowing this fact yet they move in the direction which fulfils their allotted roles.

The modern biological thinking in some quarters is also deterministic. It is said, and quite rightly, that parts of an organism have a purpose with respect to the whole. They even go further and claim that life itself is inherently purposive, but without defining "purpose" or man's purpose as a biological entity. This is an extension of the Lamarckian view of evolution based on the inheritance of acquired characteristics. The fact that offsprings inherit traits of their parents is a deterministic feature, yet evolution is a process of natural selection, which is random i.e. it is not a phenomenon subject to the control of a particular being, and is affected by many factors which are brought about by the elements of chance and unpredictability such as mutation and environmental vicissitudes. Therefore, it is not possible to predict what kind of species the biological changes may produce. Thus biology is cited as an example of an "after- the-fact exploratory science." It means that biological facts take place before they can be subjected to an examination. The reason is simple: the cause of evolution cannot be determined.

What I have said so far is a brief history of the debate which has centered around the subject of determinism versus free will. It shows its significance but does not solve the problem. This is a fundamental issue and points of this nature seldom admit absolute solution, yet one has to ponder over them in search of clarification.

Is free will a reality? And if so, what is its relation to determinism?

To start with, teleology or purpose does not prove that whatever exists, has a maker. If this were true, one would be entitled to ask how the maker himself came into existence. Thus the question of becoming could not be answered solely with reference to the ancient principle of cause-and-effect. Assumption of an "unmoved-mover" as Aristotle made, is just an intellectual luxury because a mover himself has to be moved by something else. Similarly, a maker who has a purpose, must be dependent on it for his own fulfilment, and therefore, cannot be absolute in himself. Though purpose is a reality in terms of a function and daily business of life, in a metaphysical sense it does not hold good. Teleology, contrary to popular belief, is completely destructive to the concept of creation. The God who is dependent on the fulfilment of his purpose, cannot be absolute, and therefore lacks the power and knowledge to create such a vast universe requiring immense intelligence and control. Since teleologically, this is not a possibility, the universe has got to be self - perpetuating, and self-perpetuation is possible through the dominance of a creative principle only. This universe and whatever is in it, is a manifestation of the Creative principle. While I may not indulge in explaining the Creative principle here, I ought to describe my idea of principle.

A principle is an underlying formula or doctrine which is responsible for the existence of a thing, and it also imparts a purpose or function to whatever it forms. Take for example, the scientific principle H20. It refers to two parts of hydrogen and one part of oxygen. It means that when these elements mix in the stated ratio, they do so for the purpose ot bringing water into existence. So the purpose is not associated with the maker but the make itself, which is governed by the underlying principle.

The performance of a function is also called purpose. It is inherent and self-directed. The organs of a living body do whatever they have to do without knowing what they are doing. It is done for self-fulfilment, which is usually a successful operation for survival i.e. the continuance of existence. Since existence is an evolutionary process, it is a spontaneous phenomenon, and therefore, its own purpose, and is self-directed.

With a view to carrying the point to its logical conclusion, I ought to refer to the old hypothesis that existence comes out of nothingness. Thus nothingness is the womb of existence. However, as a tree comes out of a seed and a baby springs from semen, the conditions prevailing in the beginning of existence must have been very basic and chaotic to resemble nothingness. It is claimed that initially the universe was an aggregate of dust and gases. To understand the dignity of man, the possessor of free will, it may not be out of place to add a few words how the world came about as we know it:

Nobody knows exactly what happened during the first second of the Big Bang, the starting point of the universe. Quarks are said to have played a major role in the first millionth of a second. It was just an ocean of heat during the first second. It consisted of five elementary particles, namely, protons, neutrons, electrons, photons and neutrinos. These particles which at temperatures about 10 28 degrees lose their individuality, wandered at will without recognising each other. (Here two points should be noted about the reality of the universe:

    1. The fact that the elementary particles become one and the same thing over temperatures of 10 28 degrees, vouches for their basic unity. This proves the old mystical principle of unity in diversity.

    2. Since these particles do have their individuality as protons, neutrons, electrons, photons and neutrions, it means that it is quite natural for the basic unity to emerge as diversity through a process of attaining individuality.)

However, in some cases, the wandering protons and neutrons did combine to form the simplest nuclear system known as the deutron i.e. heavy hydrogen nucleus.

This is a brief account of what happened during the first second. Instead of indulging in further details which is bound to fill several pages, I ought to curtail the narrative and add that protons have positive electric charge and electrons are negatively charged. As temperatures fell to about 3000 degrees, each proton united with an electron to mark the birth of atoms, the building blocks of the universe. We are told that the evolution has been going on for the last fourteen billion years.

Free will is the trait of higher life and nature has gone a very long to way to create it. Take for instance, the planet earth, the only known source of life. To create life, the earth is exactly at the right distance from the sun to receive the correct amount of sunlight; otherwise it would be too hot or too cold as the cradle of life. The magnetic field of the earth is also made to measure for deflecting back to space the lethal radiation of the sun whose severity would otherwise destroy life. Its miraculous engineering is vouched for by the spin of its axis at just the right speed which enables the day- time side to warm in sunshine and the night-time side to cool. The precise gravity of the earth assured by its calculated mass enables the molecules to hold together, otherwise, they would drift off into space. With this description, we should also remember that the planet earth, in the beginning was just a rocky and barren place. The earth had to pass through many stages to develop an environment suitable for producing life. Man is the highest stage of this process, and evolution of man is not possible without endowing him with free will.

Life begins with the emergence of free will. A stone is a stone because it does not have free will but a cell such as amoeba is live because it has the will to move about despite the fact that they both are made of atoms. Obviously, free will lies dormant in atoms and increases in intensity as the ladder of evolution extends higher. At subhuman stage, it is passive but at human level, it becomes active and pines for taking over the conduct of one's ego or self. Its emergence is the greatest wonder for two reasons: firstly fancy, the inorganic state of the universe; its passage through a labour of 14 biilion years for the sheer joy of producing man endowed with free will. Secondly, the librtarian nature of free will because it nearly eliminates the dominance of the physical law as applicable to human life and enables man to conduct his affairs as he pleases. This point is better understood if we realise that the human body is governed by exactly the same laws of physics and chemistry as all other bodies. For example, my walk is activated by what is called the law of reactions, that is actions and reactions are equal and opposite. Unless my body observes this law my legs cannot move but this law does not tell my legs where to go. Obviously, something has emerged inside me, and this something is not only over and above the confines of physics and chemistry, but also their goal. This something is free will, my own power of choosing which decides whether my legs should carry me to a temple or a tavern, a rose-garden or a race-course.

Free will bestows on me the freedom of choice. Thus I am at liberty to indulge in vice or virtue and become a deuce or deus. It means freedom is the purpose of life and man has the right to demand the elimination of all those barriers which restrict his freedom of action, bearing in mind that everyone is entitled to freedom and therefore, one's own free will must not become a source of denying freedom to one's fellow-beings.

It should be borne in mind that free will is imperceptibly interwoven with individuality. The particles constituting the universe are basically the same but they acquire individuality as protons and neutron through the process of evolution. Therefore, the purpose of evolution is to create individuality, which implies one's innate right to maintain one's identity. Thus, the extension of the evolutionary ladder from particles to man clearly shows that the cosmos is marching towards freedom. In fact, it is an attempt to arouse the dormancy of atoms to the state of consciousness for creating free will.

However, this universe is subject to the law of polarity, that is, hot cannot exist without cold and light is meaningless without dark. This is the reason that free will has its opposite, determinism, mentioned previously. Existence is a form of determinism because it cannot take place unless the underlying principle is observed strictly and lasts as long as the underlying principle is adhered to vigorously. However, existence is not for the sake of existence; everything that exists has a function; a function can be mechanical which is accomplished like a machine and thus free will is not required, but at human level, the situation is almost reversed. Firstly, man is a freedom loving individual, and secondly, his functional nnagnitude is so great and varied that it cannot be accomplished without free will. Thus in human terms, free will has a precedence over determinism. In other words, determinism is an organisational principle whereas free will is an operative doctrine.

A closer examination of the issue discloses that free will is not possible without determinism, which is the fountain of individuality or identity of something. A thing has to exist before it can exercise its options i.e. free will, but the purpose of distinguished existence i.e. as an individual, especially as a human is to discharge certain functions which require free will to choose and refuse for carrying out the functional tasks. Thus free will is the more evolved and advanced form of determinism. In fact, free will is the purpose of determinism.

When this fact is borne in mind, the friction between the two disappears because they emerge as two aspects of the same thing as positive and negative poles are of electricity. The relationship between the two can be viewed with reference to one's genetic pool: one inherits genes from one's parents. They determine not only one's potential to be but also endow upon one the capacity to break away from the constraints of the DNA through individual choice such as learning and also act as the source of enabling one to improve oneself by securing a better adjustment with the environment. Again, for the purpose of existence, it is determined that action must have a reaction but the free will gives one the ability not only to choose the stimulus but also the method of reacting to it. For example, one can forgive or retaliate. Thus the incidence of determinism becomes subject to a vast number of choices. It is determined that only a bird can fly, and man cannot, but he can make this deficiency good through an aircraft.

In fact, further evolution of humanity is not possible without the proper use of free will. Humanity does not mean just intelligence and power of speech; morality is its most significant and greatest ingredient. It implies exercising one's options responsibly and judicially because these are the factors which entitle a mammal to be called a human.

Morality or ethics is man's concern as how to act voluntarily in relation to others and also maintain his dignity as a human. Man's actions and responses spring from his bodily movements and reflexes which are determined by his physical make-up. However, the truth is that though man as a structure is a symbol of determinism, his actions are not stereotype. He may not have absolute control over his body but he has sufficient command over it to mould its benaviour. This is the reason that human life is not mechanical like that of the heavenly bodies, and he largely does what he chooses to do. This power of choosing is free will. Without it development of morality, the essence of humanity is not possible.

Greater mystery is associated with free will than anything else. Change of dust into atoms, atoms into cells and cells into humans, clearly indicates that the universe is involved in a struggle for self-improvement. Man seems to be its highest peak, and it is denoted by his free will. Is man really the apex of the universal improvement? It cannot be; man is still imperfect. Therefore, the process of universal improvement must go beyond man. There must be a higher plane of existence which is perfect for being free from disease, decline and death. Thus, free will, the mystery, leads even to a greater mystery. This is the state of eternity, brimming with hope, hilarity and happiness. One may call it godhead. What is it? One must probe into the mystery, which is posed by the mystery of free will.

The proper enquiry into this problem requires that we should acknowledge thc reality of free will instead of wailing about determinism, which is tne fountain of free will. The concept of free will and its force vouch for the fact that man is born to be free, and therefore, all hurdles such as superstition, poverty, ignorance, injustice, tyranny, despotism, etc., which impede the course of free will and freedom, must be cleared with dare, dignity and dedication.

Free will is the virtue which must be exercised with a sense of responsibility. A free man's life expresses the greatness of free will, and it is this state of living, which deserves to be called liberty.


Previous ArticlePrevious Essay




Home   |   Essays   |  Books to Order  
2008 Islam Review and Anwar Shaikh. All rights reserved
No portion of this
site may be reproduced without written permission of publisher.