Time and Space and the Problem of Free Will

An excerpt from the book of Lama Anagarika Govinda

A view into space is at the same time a view into the past. Space is visible time-visible, however, only in one direction. We are like travelers on the backseat of a fast-moving vehicle, from which can be seen only what has passed by, not what is coming.
However, who knows whether we do not move in a circle, so that a view into the remote past would be equal to a view into the future? Even if the circle would not be closed, but develop into a kind of three-dimensional spiral, there would be a great deal of similarity between past and future. However that may be: we might compare the circle to the rigid law of governing all merely relative processes, while the deviation from the circle into a three-dimensional spiral (by which the movement enters from the second into the next higher dimension) indicates a certain measure of free will in the higher forms of life.
The discovery that no straight movement can be found in the universe, but that everything, including the light, moves in curves, justifies the above-mentioned idea. "The extended theory of relativity," says Haldane in Possible Worlds , seems to lead inevitably to the view that the universe is finite, that progress in any direction would ultimately lead back to the starting-point."
We can see worlds which are many thousands of lightyears away, and perhaps even more distant worlds may be discovered, until one day we may find out that one of them is our own world - however, not as it is now, but as it was billions of years ago. And this is perhaps why we shall never discover, or rather, recognize it, and why we shall go on penetrating the universe without ever coming to an end. Because space (though it may be finite in the form in which we know it), ever recedes before us and transforms itself under our very eyes into a new infinity, namely, that of time.
Thus, if we contemplate the starry sky, it is not the present universe which we see with our eyes, but a universe of the past - and what is still more remarkable-a universe of which the different parts have not even existed simultaneously (but some a few minutes and others some millions of years ago), though we see them in the same moment.
But do we not live, even in our nearest surroundings, more in the past than in the present? Do we not almost live in a world of phantoms, if we are conscious of the fact that our bodies themselves are actually the visible appearance of our past consciousness, which has built u this material form according to its particular tendencies and state of development? This is perhaps the reason why all our bodily sense-organs are toward the past, i.e. toward the consolidated forms vibrations emanating from them, but not toward the the present in the real sense.
The body by its nature is actually materialized karma, the consciousness of past moments of existence made visible. Karma is nothing else but the acting principle of consciousness which as effect (vipaka) also steps into visible appearance The appearing form is thus essentially "past," and therefore felt as something alien by those who have developed out of and beyond it.
The hybrid position of the body as the product of a long-passed consciousness, and the basis of the present on presses itself also in the fact that one part of its functions is conscious and subject to our will, as for example the movements of our limbs, the faculty of speech, etc.-while another part runs its course unconsciously and is not subject to our will (and therefore to our present consciousness), as for example the circulation of the blood, digestion, internal secretions the growth and disintegration of cells, and so on. Breathing holds an intermediate position, because it can be raised from an unconscious into a conscious function. Thus breathing is able to combine the present with the past, the mental with, the corporeal, the conscious with the unconscious. It is the meditator, the only function in which we can lay hold of what has become and what is becoming, through which we can master the past and the future. It is therefore the starting point of creative meditation.
We live mostly in an indirect, reactive world, and only rarely do we experience actual reality and thus live in the present. Our usual reactions are habitual, due to routine and therefore based upon the past, stored up in form of instinct, memory, conceptual and emotional associations, etc. Though these functions are necessary for the coherence and continuity of our mental and physical life, they form only the substructure of our existence, the passive side of life; they are our individual as well as our common inheritance. As long as this inheritance predominates, we live essentially in the past.
Our consciousness, however, is not bound to one direction, like the body and its senses, but partakes of the present and the future as well-provided we give it an opportunity, by freeing it at least temporarily from the burden of the past.
This happens in moments of contemplation or intuition (in religious contemplation as well as in the contemplation of works of art or the beauty of nature), in states of profound absorption or concentration. In such a state every object, whether mental or material, is turned into a subjective and direct experience, in which no previous associations disturb the freshness or distort the originality of the impression.
To live in the present means to see everything with a perfectly pure, unprejudiced and open mind, to experience everything as profoundly as if we had never known it before. It means to retain (or to restore) the freshness and alertness of mind which is the characteristic quality of genius.
Generally we live away from life, either by being occupied with the past, or by anticipating the future. Both these attitudes of the mind mean bondage, karma in its active as well as in its reactive form. To overcome one's sankharas is equal to overcoming and Freeing ourselves from the past.
Therefore the Buddhist meditation has no other purpose than to bring the mind back into the present, into the state of fully awakened consciousness, by clearing it from all obstacles that have been created by habit or tradition. I have heard a lama say that the part of a master, adept of the "Short Path," is to superintend a "clearing." He must incite his novice to rid himself of the beliefs, ideas, acquired habits and innate tendencies which are art of his present mind, and have been developed in the course of successive lives whose origin is lost in the night of time. On the other hand, the master must warn his disciples to be on his guard against accepting new beliefs, ideas, and habits as groundless and irrational as those which he shakes off. The discipline on the "Short Path" is to avoid imagining things. When imagination is prescribed, in contemplative meditation, it is to demonstrate, by that conscious creation of perception and sensations, the illusory nature of those perceptions and sensations which we accept as real, though they too rest on imagination; the only difference being that, in their case, the creation is unconsciously effected. The Tibetan reformer, Tsong Khapa, defines meditation as "the means of enabling oneself to reject all imaginative thoughts together with their seed."
From this standpoint the words of Tilopa gain special significance:
Act so as to know thyself by means of symbols in thine own mind, Without imagining, without deliberating, without analyzing, Without meditating, without introspecting; keeping the mind in its natural state.
As long as we live in the past, we are subject to the law of cause and effect, which leaves no room for the exertion of free will and makes us slaves of necessity. The same holds. good for what we call "dwelling in the future," which generally is only a state of reversed memory - a combination of past experiences, projected into the future. When, however, the past or the future are experienced in clairvoyant states, they become present, which is the only form in which we can experience reality (of which the other forms are so to say "perspectively distorted reflexes"). Only while dwelling in the present, i.e. in moments of full awareness and "awakedness," are we free.
Thus we are partaking of both: the realm of law or neccesity as well as the realm of freedom. Science-which is only concerned with that which has become, with the consolidated form, but not with the nature of reality or the actual process of becoming, and thus deals with a reactive rather than an actual world-can only conceive of a universe in which law or necessity governs supremely and exclusively.
Science, therefore, cannot be a judge in the question of determinism or indeterminism, or free will with respect to living things, i.e. "self-regulating and self-preserving" organisms endowed with consciousness - nor can philosophy be so long as it relies on scientific facts and methods, such as logical deduction, etc., which all belong to the same reactive world, to the same secondary time-dimension. Abstract reasoning will always lead to an extreme and one-sided result, by reducing the problem to a number of solid concepts and ideologically watertight compartments, which are shifted about on an artificial plane (which in reality exists as little as those conceptual units) and allow themselves to be neatly grouped either on this or on the opposite side of the equation, so that the result will always be either positive or negative, or at any rate a definite decision between the two sides.
The tacit assumption that the world which we build up in our thought is the same world which we experience in life (to say nothing about the world "as such") is the main source of error. The world which we experience includes the world of our thought, but not vice-versa. Because we live in several dimensions, of which the intellect (the faculty of thinking and reasoning) is only one.
If we intellectually reproduce experiences which belong to other dimensions, we do a similar thing to the action of the painter who represents three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface. He can do this by sacrificing certain qualities and by introducing a new order of proportions, which are only valid within the artificial unit of his painting and from one particular viewpoint. The laws of this perspective correspond to the laws of logic. Both of them sacrifice the qualities of a higher dimension; they select and confine themselves to one viewpoint, so that their objects appear from one side only (namely, the side which is related to their preconceived viewpoints, and under different proportions, namely, foreshortened.
But while the artist consciously translates his impressions from one dimension into the other - and not with the intention of imitating or reproducing objective reality, but in order to express a certain experience or attitude towards it - the intellectual thinker generally believes he has reproduced reality in his thoughts, mistaking the foreshortening perspective of his two-dimensional logic for a universal law. The use of logic in thinking is as necessary and justified as the use of perspective in painting-but only as a means of expression and not as a criterion of reality.
Thus it cannot be the business of philosophy to decide whether determinism or indeterminism is the real character of the world, for there is no "either-or" - no two possibilities between which we have to decide or to choose - but only two sides of the same phenomenon. The problem consists only in the definition of the relationship between the two sides.
If the logician cannot combine these two sides of our experience in his picture of the world, in other words, if he finds it incompatible with the laws of logic, then he only proves that his logic is unfit to deal with reality. Because here we have to do with the most direct form of reality, with the most fundamental facts of human experience, which neither philosophy nor religion can dare to deny or to neglect:
1. The fact that we feel free and responsible for our actions, and that this innermost experience of free will is the conditio sine qua non of our very existence as conscious individuals. Without free will we would be reduced to the state of automatons and the faculty of consciousness would not only be superfluous but a positive hindrance.
2. The fact that we live in a world governed by laws which, though they restrict our freedom, give us an opportunity to regulate and to direct and plan our actions, thus bringing our behavior in harmony with our surroundings.
We cannot change the law of causality, but as soon as we know that certain causes produce certain results, we are able to decide between several courses of action open to us. Once chosen, we are bound to follow the course of events, resulting from our first step.
It may be comparatively seldom that we are confronted with a genuine opportunity to choose, because generally one situation grows of necessity out of another and calls for a definite course of action. But the fact that we exercise our faculties of discrimination, reasoning, and decision cannot be denied, nor can the fact that if different individuals were confronted with the same situation, their decisions would differ from each other.
Here the determinist will say that this proves no free will, because each individual simply acts according to his inborn character, to which he is fettered like the stone to the law of gravitation. This is an objection which is as silly as it is logical, because here we begin playing with words, regardless of their relationship to living experience (as if each individual were a reality in itself or a mathematical magnitude with a fixed value).
Free will means the expression of one's own will, that is, the will that corresponds to one's own nature. Thus the expression "free will" already presumes and includes the idea of individuality or individual character. Will itself can only arise in an individual, and if it is free, it expresses the particular character of the individual.
The difference between a law of nature and free will is that the one acts automatically and with universal sameness, while the other is conscious and individual. A will which would act incoherently, and without relationship to our own nature, would be meaningless and could certainly not be called free will, though it were free from any conceivable law. We would rather call it madness.
Thus we can summarize:
1. Free will (or freedom in general) is not arbitrariness.
2. Free will can never be an object of observation, but only a subjective experience. The problem of freedom and necessity is an entirely subjective problem and can never be solved objectively (by science or philosophy).
3. Free will is a relative term, signifying the relationship of a conscious individual towards its surroundings or towards a certain situation.
4. Therefore, there can be no absolute free will.
5. Free will means the freedom to express one's own will according to one's own nature and insight (degree of development) in contrast to a mechanical reaction, which follows a general law without insight into or understanding of its nature.
6. Free will does not imply that it has no law, or that its own law is in opposition to general laws. It may or may not follow general laws, and in many cases it modifies them and converts them into individual law.
We may compare our individual will to a railway engine, general law to a system of railway lines. The engine can choose the line it wants to travel along, but it cannot change the line.
The two apparently contradictory realms of freedom and necessity (ethos and logos, free will and law) have their meeting-place in the human individual. What appears as necessity from outside may be the most genuine expression of freedom, of free will, if it coincides with the inner law or nature of the individual.
And here arises the main question: Are not perhaps the laws which we objectify and which consequently we regard as imposed upon us against our own will, are not those very laws our spiritual creation and therefore intrinsically the expression of our own innermost will? How can the philosopher assume that he stands outside the world and the individual, and pre- tend to be an "objective" observer in a matter where inner experience (upon which the very laws he wants to examine are based) is the only source of information? He is like a man in a moving vehicle, who speaks about movements around him, without being aware that he himself is moving.
We may fittingly sum up our situation in A. Eddington's significant words (in Space, Time, and Gravitation): "We have found a strange foot-print on the shores of the unknown. We have devised profound theories, one after another, to account for its origin. At last we have succeeded in reconstructing the creature that made the foot-print. And Lo! It is our own!"
With this admission science enters a new phase of its course, in which the physical and the metaphysical are no longer contradictions, and in which the exploration of the universe will lead to the discovery and recognition of new dimension of the human mind.