Friday, February 17, 2012

Free will in Mīmāṃsā

I already discussed how free will does not appear as much a crucial conundrum, if seen from the point of view of Indian philosophy, which in general silently embraces compatibilism (between determinism and free will).

In addition to the general points already brought forward, it is worth remembering that Mīmāṃsā authors in general tend to favour accounts which mirror one's experience. If, for instance, one experiences one's cognition of a chair one gradually distinguishes in a dark room as a ''sense-perception'', there should be very strong reasons to refute it this status (see Taber 2005, discussing this point in Kumārila). Similarly, since we obviously feel that our will has a role in the process of undertaking an action, Mīmāṃsakas do not dispute this. Unlike their Western colleagues, Mīmāṃsā philosophers do not question the degree of freedom of the decisions one experiences as free. They do not, e.g., argue for the fact that our experience of freedom might just be an epiphenomenon accompanying the process of undertaking an action, or that our experience of freedom might be in fact a fake, since our decisions are completely determined by who we are, which is a priori determined by facts we cannot interfere with, such as genes and early education. The fact that decisions are experienced as free is enough for Mīmāṃsā authors to treat them accordingly.

Thus, for Mīmāṃsakas the issue of free will strictly depends on how one understands action. Within this framework, one could also just speak of ''will'', since from the point of view of the way a single action is caused, nothing changes if the general laws of the universe allow freedom or not.

On the topic of free will, a very recent article by Johannes Bronkhorst ("Free Will and Indian Philosophy", Philosophia Antiquorum, forthcoming) also argues in favour of an experiential approach. In our experience, we all know what it is to be free and this experience is perfectly compatible with determinism, since (see this post), we would keep on feeling free even if determinism were the case.

On free will in Indian philosophy, see this post (and the others tagged "free will").


ombhurbhuva said...

There is something of a connection that can be made between the ideas of Bergson about free will and that in the B.G. The nishkama karma there or actionless action is achieved when we do not act for the fruits of the action. We know what they are likely to be but we are detached from them. This is the action of the liberated/free man. Bergson as I understand him holds that an act is indivisible but that we tend to quantify it or spatialise it. That has the result of creating a before, middle and after and introducing the element of causal thinking. That reading may be proleptic as I have not finished reading his Time and Free Will yet. In essence then nishkama karma is merely aligning ourselves with the nature of reality and not a surpassing of it.

Shankara's view about action was succinct. 'might do, might not do, might do differently'.

Kant also held that the morality of the action lay in the action itself and not in anything that arose out of the action

elisa freschi said...

Michael, thanks for the comments on Bergson (which seems to make a point somehow similar to the analysis of action in the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya, where an action is divided into a fore-action, an action and an after-action [e.g., preparing what one wants to give, giving it, rejoicing for the gift]).
As for the connection of this point with the issue of free will, am I understanding correctly that you are suggesting that the liberated person is the only one who has *free* will and that s/he is liberated insofar as s/he focuses on the action and not on its result?

ombhurbhuva said...

"As for the connection of this point with the issue of free will, am I understanding correctly that you are suggesting that the liberated person is the only one who has *free* will and that s/he is liberated insofar as s/he focuses on the action and not on its result?"


Two points. Don't in any way be led by my suggestions about Bergson. His analysis is quite profound and different from the conventional acceptation of act and motivation. At the level of his metaphysics he disputes the notion of 'might do differently' as an indication of the freedom of the act.

As far as the Gita goes it too has a metaphysical approach to freedom which is counter to our normal understanding. Arjuna when he is acting according to his dharma cannot do other than what he does. Personal desire has been eliminated. He is simply acting out of his total incarnated being. He is as the scholastics say connatural with it. It is a paradoxical kind of spontaneity. This is very different from the terms in which we normally understand the problem of free will. To be unable to do other than your duty is not how freedom is understood in the ordinary Western way.

A small grammar point which you will be interested in as a linguist and may save you the awkwardness of politically correct usage on which Americans are very keen.
s/he when you mean an indefinite person or persons over an indefinite period of time can be referred to as 'they'. "they are liberated insofar as they focus on the action ...." is correct.

elisa freschi said...

Thank you, Michael, this is a very precise and interesting reply. Your remark about Arjuna doing what is connatural to him is very much to do the point.

(Tangentially: can I use "they" after a singular subject? "One says X because they want to achieve Y"? It seems to awkward…)

ombhurbhuva said...

Thanks Elisa:

If you have already gone with the indefinite 'one' you continue on with it e.g. one says x because one believes x to be the case. If a person says x it is because they believe it to be the case. ((If a person says x it is because he believes it to be the case - this is grammatical because 'he' has been accepted as the indefinite personal pronoun. This is what upsets the p.c. party the most. A monoglot unhappiness. To substitute - If a person says x it is because she believes it to be the case - just confusing, Amod does it and Thill. Academic America does it. 'They' is really better and saves censure by the p.c. police))

elisa freschi said...

Thank you. I will try applying the "they" in my future writings.

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