The Freedom of the Self

by Navid Zaidi

“You sound to me as though you don’t believe in free will,” said Billy Pilgrim.

“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by free will. I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.” ——Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five, 1969

Is the human Self free?

Do we have free will?

Explains Sir Muhammad Iqbal in his lecture ‘The Human Ego- His Freedom and Immortality’ that the human Self is not something rigid. It organizes itself in time and is formed and disciplined by its own experience. Data streams into it from Nature and from it to Nature. So the question arises, does the Self determine its own activity?

The ‘mechanistic’ view of human action is understood to be a conflict of motives fighting each other on the arena of the mind caught in a web of cause and effect. Yet the final choice is determined by the strongest force. This gives us a mechanistic interpretation of consciousness.

However, this controversy between Mechanism and Freedom arises from a wrong view of intelligent action. A careful study of intelligent behavior discloses that the human Self possesses an ‘insight’ over and above the mere sensations. This ‘insight’ is the Self’s appreciation of the causal relation of things, the choice of data in a complex whole, in view of the goal or purpose which the Self has set before itself for the time being.

It is this sense of making the effort and having an experience of purposive action that convinces us of our personal freedom. It does not matter whether we achieve success in reaching our ‘ends’ but the simple fact that we can vision a future situation means we have free will. Our thoughts of changing ‘what is’ into ‘what ought to be’ appear to have no physiologic explanation in terms of cause and effect.

The chain of cause and effect is an artificial construction of the human Self for its own purpose. The body, the organs, the cells, the molecules and the chemicals are all instruments of the Self. The Self is a priori but it is called upon to live in a complex environment and cannot maintain its life without reducing it to a system of cause and effect which would give it some kind of assurance as to the behavior of things around it.

Therefore, the mechanistic systems of our body and organs are simply an indispensable instrument of the Self, not the final reality. Indeed, the Self understands and masters the current environment through the use of cause and effect systems in order to acquire and amplify its freedom.

The element of insight, guidance and directive control in the Self’s activity shows that the human Self is free.



Sir Muhammad Iqbal:  The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam

Owen Flanagan:  The Problem of the Soul

Paul Davies:  God and the New Physics

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