Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Free will

Although free will is not my main field, I started thinking about it more and more in the last months, since I have been asked to write a contribution on free will in Mīmāṃsā within a volume dealing with free will in Indian philosophy. Of course, one of the most important questions is whether it makes sense to speak of "free will" in Indian philosophy. From the literal point of view, one's will can only be defined as "free" if there is the chance for it to be bound. Is this the case in India? There is something like that in some Śaiva schools, where it is said that God alone is completely free (īśvara and svatantra), whereas we are all like cattle (paśu), bound by three fetters. Further, one might suggest that karman might be thought to obstruct one's will, although in philosophical schools I never found a deterministic view of karman being explicitly endorsed (this happens, rather, in dramas, cf. the attitude of minor characters in the Śākuntalā). I am very much inclined to think that also Buddhism is not deterministic, cf. the fact that Dharmakīrti refutes the possibility of inferring a result from its causes, so that even a karmic cause cannot be said to invariably lead to a certain result.
Furthermore, the issue of free will strictly depends on how one understands action and in this sense Indian schools of thought have very interesting investigations to offer on the abode of action and most of all on the resolution to undertake an action.

What is instead missing, if I am not wrong, are several of the issues connected with free will in the Western traditions. Starting from the obvious lack of the original sin (apart from the theology of the ISKCON movement), the balance between God's omniscience and free will seems to be less of a problem. Possibly because God is rarely seen as directly interfering in worldly matters (He rather uses karman to do it), I am not aware of philosophical discussions about whether human beings alone are responsible of good and evil or God is corresponsible as well, insofar as He favours the first and lets the latter happen. One also does not find the kind of reflections one finds in Islamic thought, asking why God does not let future evil-doers die while they are still harmless children… Nor does one find the problem of the coexistence of God's goodness and free will. I tend to think that the Christian answer to this problem would be that free will is so precious, that God prefers people to be free rather than forcing them to be good. This might be due to the fact that God himself wants to be chosen freely and freely loved. But one might object that this desire of Him implies that there are also evil-doers, who might harm other people. How can one justify a desire, if this indirectly implies harming others?

On the issue of free will in Eastern theology and, hence, on many of the issues above mentioned, just read an interesting article by David Heith-Stade (you might also want to have a look at his interesting blog).

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