Are we victims of circumstance or are we free beings with none to hold responsible but ourselves for whatever we undergo? This question confronts two opposing approaches to human life and activity to one another, strongly affecting our views on the law, morals and social institutions. Not least, it has many consequences for both psychological and social questions. To what extent, if any, are we to absolve from responsibility, because of unfortunate circumstances and backgrounds etc., people who break criminal law? Is it a better policy for solving problems of, say, alcohol and drug addiction to place the main responsibility on the individual addict's efforts or on those of civic authorities, law and drug enforcement agencies etc.? Many such issues ultimately turn upon to what extent (if any) one assumes we have the will freely to choose between alternative courses of action. Ideas about willpower or free will are also a key to understanding how conditioning works, how personal autonomy can be developed and other crucial human problems, from mental illness to morals. Questions that arise about 'free will' are generally either terminologically vague, logically confused or too narrowly understood for evaluating human behaviour, it calls for discussion at the outset of any adequate psychology.

'Free will' and physical conditions: The idea of a 'free will' (the power of volition) are not easily accepted by most scientists and various religionists, not even by many psychologists. By 'volition' is here meant the conscious will, which is expressed in intended actions. This does not of course deny the general existence of physical laws or that human activities are limited in various ways by physical conditions, as we shall see.

Human behaviour is studied by the scientific method on the assumption that it is openly observable and that it is caused by events that are all potentially observable (though not always in practice). But the cause-effect model leads only to less than half-truth. While certain types of 'behaviour' do doubtless have physical causes, such as physical reactions, conditioned reflexes or even perhaps at the borderline, behaviour bound by very rigid, unquestioned tradition etc., human will (volition) is the only key to understanding behaviour that is consciously intended.

Whether or not another's act is conscious and wilful can not be known by direct physical observation, because a conscious act of will can only be inferred from what we observe of others' actions. An act can only be understood as purposive and voluntary by adopting the viewpoint of the subjective individual. This is an indirect kind of 'observation' which we use all the time. However, we only infer it from what we see on the basis of our own self-understanding. In fact, we alone can know directly whether or not our own actions were willed intentionally, or else were genuinely unintentional.

In contradistinction to this is the objective causal viewpoint that physical science always adopts. Behaviour appears very differently according to whether it is looked upon outwardly as natural, accidental and caused by physical conditions, or as the result of intentional and purposive 'acts'. There can, of course, be various degrees of objectivity. The ultimate idea of objectivity is knowing all about everything (omniscience), which is but an idea, and quite an inconceivable or unclear one for the normal human being. Meanwhile life will be experienced as at least partly indeterminate and human volition will therefore be real enough for all normal intents and purposes.

Psychology, ethics and human law must all recognise the common sense truth that a person has responsibility for his or her own conscious and wilful acts. At the same time, no one can rightly be held responsible for behaviour that is entirely beyond one's control or is quite unintentional. That is causally determined behaviour, and it arises entirely as a result of preceding events in given conditions. Only by allowing the assumption that the human being has a certain degree of free will, can any meaningful and practicable understanding of others arise. Only if we have some degree of willpower, can self-improvement, self-discipline and self-transformation be possible... and they are so.

The most marked difference is that between the theories of bio-physical causation and of voluntarism. Traditional scientific psychology regards everything we do as the effect of some preceding series of causes and so denies that there is such a thing as volition, while various existentialists and others have gone to the other extreme and have held that all human acts are voluntarily willed, independent of the cycle of cause and effect. There are various intermediate standpoints which reconcile causation to voluntarism, the present chapter representing one such position, as in the classical Vedantic view of karma. In short, we are partly victims of fate and partly welders of destiny, and in varying degrees.


One essential difference between the human being and other beings is the nature of our consciousness and the mental development it makes possible. Closely connected to this conscious ability to distinguish and reflect is the nature and extent of human will power or volition.

Volition is an inner moment of conscious evaluation or choice between possible alternatives of thought, word and action. It is a key to understanding, without which we would be no more human than are puppets on a string. This does not mean that events preceding any act which are seen as determining causes do not condition that choice. Presumably, most actions are somehow and to some extent influenced by prevailing circumstances, pressing motivations, the dictates of conscience etc. However, from the viewpoint of the individual, an act involves choice. Choice is awareness of certain pertinent circumstances and decision between perceived alternative courses of action. Choice can be understood as the inner moment of freedom that intervenes between those events that would otherwise be regarded as causes and effects.

The self-understanding that arises from experience, reason and conscience is the first and last instance before which we actually accept or reject ideas. This is a psychological fact. Self-understanding employs inward cognition and confirms with self-evidence that it is I who choose - free from causal duress - to exercise my will.1 Choice can be understood as the inner moment of freedom that intervenes between those events that would otherwise be regarded as causes and effects. This is the freedom of creative thought in that it is detached from action and can range freely through a myriad of considerations and alternative courses of action. It is indeterminate - i.e. unbound to event - until it determines some action.

In studying personal psychology, it is not sensible to overlook the viewpoint of the individual or to minimise it, for this would be to alienate one's very study from the 'subject' matter. Our personal experience of action shows when it is willed (i.e. being inner and 'intentional'), while physical observation is external to the act and at best sees only its outward manifestation within a context of precedents and consequences (i.e. its 'extensional' aspects). We can know why we do something, but anyone else has to interpret it, looking from other viewpoints for the reasons, possible motives, likely aims etc. Looked at on the physical plane (i.e. 'extensionally' and as describable or measurable physical events extended through space and time), the act presents an observable continuity of physical events while the will behind it (the 'intentional' aspect, the volition within it) is not registered at all because it occurs only privately within consciousness.

No science using methods that demand physical experiment or sensory observation can prove that all is caused and hence predetermined. Neither can it refute or finally establish on experimental grounds the existence of free will, for in so far as it is known to exist, it appears to each of us subjectively and immediately - 'self-evidently', as philosophy terms it2. The freedom of the will is a necessary assumption for us in our normal activities and is unavoidable in our understanding of other persons.

The idea that no action is anything but the effect of some predetermining cause conflicts with our experience and self-reflection. There may indeed be both external physical conditions and internal mental and emotional conditions influencing our decision in various directions, but this does not mean that any of them must therefore be the cause of it. In order to be free, any act of will must also be unqualifiedly free of any determining cause whatever, otherwise the will would be a mere mechanism, a blind reaction and no longer a will at all. Reason, such as it is, dictates that either an event must be caused or uncaused, it cannot be both at once, nor can it be 'half-and-half'. However, a human action that is voluntary is of the essence of consciousness though it may well be limited by objective conditions through it's scope, the number of real alternatives open and so on. The idea of 'free will' itself implies acts that are not determined by mere physical conditions3 . The belief that everything is caused is the great blind spot of science, for free will is the fulcrum for all human endeavour.

Human interaction as we know it relies on the assumption of moral choice and accountability, unavoidable for the functioning of orderly society. To hold anyone responsible for their acts would be entirely unjust if they were thought to have no genuine freedom ever to choose otherwise. Responsibility is the consequence only of being able to exercise choice, which shows how volition is an unavoidable idea for underpinning any reasonable system of law. It is equally an underlying assumption of all institutions where choice between alternatives is an essential, such as in all social and political policy-making, in democratic elections, plebiscites and so forth.

The assumption of physical-causational determinism in the entire sphere of human activity is an unconfirmed hypothesis. It is not sufficiently supported by facts to be accepted as applying universally and is also in conflict with inner experience and common sense. No science nor philosophy can demonstrate convincingly with sufficient rational consistency the thesis that 'the world is nothing but a super-complex mechanism' or that 'all people are in principle the same as complex machines'.

Physical causes determine involuntary human behaviour, from bodily reflexes and illnesses to hormonal disturbances and certain serious brain tumours etc. Only what is determined can ever systematically be predicted (if enough is known of all relevant conditions!). Yet voluntary actions are unpredictable by their nature, like fashions are, or lottery winning numbers and many other of the realities of life. Many intentional actions may perhaps be guessed at in advance, even with some accuracy, if one knows the person and a particular situation very well, but they will not become generally predictable by any scientific means, unless perhaps people were somehow to become the total slaves of convention in every smallest thing!


Having asserted the fact of free will, it is obviously not without limits. All the evidence suggests that a very large part of human behaviour is strongly influenced both by preceding events, present circumstances and future expectations. This often applies where we think ourselves to act in unhampered free will, because considerations that we forgot, overlooked or ignored may later often be shown to have played their part in influencing our actions. This does not mean that a free choice is one made 'out of the blue', for it can be the end result of a process involving many considerations, both real and imaginary.

Consider, as an example, a President's declaration of war on another state. Provided personal responsibility for the final decision rested with him, he will surely have been influenced by a complexity of political, military and legal circumstances, including the advice of his government, experts and others. All this prescribes certain limits within which his options exist.

Some might say that the above is a case of 'multiple causation'. Such an idea really only confuses the basic issue, because his action was not caused or 'conditioned', even though he took account of various conditions and influences. As to the scientific idea of causation, it requires only one immediately preceding event to be considered 'the cause' in any case. No, the President acted in free will and bears the responsibility, even though he can point to all the grounds he had to take into account if he was to carry out his office responsibly. However, an unrealistic or poor leader may simply choose to ignore the real options and act under some personal hope or even delusion. In the end, the decision is his and responsibility cannot be laid at anyone else's door. To show, through a mass of reliable scientifically-collated evidence about all the conditions surrounding his action, that it was 'historically inevitable', would be to omit the 'moment of inner truth' in which the crucial decision was taken. As Marx held, men make history on the basis of preceding conditions... and not vice-versa, we may add.

Of course, we do not hold people responsible for all acts done of their free will, examples being acts done under great external duress, such as under orders on pain of death or under various other kinds of 'extenuating circumstances'. Moreover, reasonable people sometimes judge that the conditions simply leave no moral or realistic option than the one they choose. This is still not the same as direct causal determination of the choice, for there is always some way out... with suicide as a final resort.

The factors that limit human will power - that narrow down the conceivable and real alternatives of action at any time or place - are mainly the physical constraints of one's environment. In the fulfilment of the individual will, the laws of nature can be both limiting and enabling factors. In the eyes of psychology, such influences appear now as physiological and physical conditioners, now as psychical and social conditioners. One important grouping of factors that limit the will are those often rather vaguely referred to as belonging to 'the unconscious', as already discussed.

It is still largely a matter of belief whether or not circumstances beyond a person's own control, like the supposed 'accidents' of birth and of subsequent constraints on childhood development, can be pre-determined according to laws operating at a subtler level than those so far known to physics and biology. The hypothesis of an all-pervasive law of cause and effect in the form of influences at (and prior to) birth cannot be unproven. The doctrine of karma should be kept in mind as a corrective to that of accident and chance. What seems to be inherited, by one means or another, and appears in some way in the very early years of a child, may well include tendencies due to the inheritance from some source of unconscious traits and even pre-incarnational personality leanings and memories. Many factors already present or latent at birth can evidently limit the degree of autonomy of the child and thus narrow the sphere of free will.


That much psychology sticks to the idea of causation (at least in theory) and yet very largely ignores such universally-known ideas as destiny, fate, predetermination and precognition must be seen as an inconsistency and a shortcoming. Even though a majority of human being have always believed in some forms of fate or destiny, empirical science excludes such hypotheses, largely due to the limitations its physicalistic methods impose on the scope of its investigations. Meanwhile, most paradoxically, many scientists and some psychologists believe in total causal determinism! This implies that all future events are already 'contained' in a latent form in the present universe because all events (supposedly) occur only according to immutable physical laws, even though they are imperfectly known. Many laws may well remain unknown, yet this likelihood hardly justifies certainty about causal determinism!

The idea of causal determinism has undoubted value in stimulating us to look beyond appearances and so perhaps find possible causes we might not otherwise have discovered. In practical research and understanding, one can view behaviour from both angles, voluntary and determined, rather than enshrine either in advance as a dogma.

Responsibility and the freedom of volition it arises from are difficult to identify or distribute in studying involved human relations and complex societies. To extend the previous example of a President: he may delegate authority (the right to decide and choose) to many individuals without himself relinquishing it finally or in reality. If his executives act wrongly, in his view, his overall authority can be reasserted, curtailing the relative 'free will' of the executive. Every government leaves judgement on some matters to its executives, the interpretation and execution of directives (or neglect of them) are left to them and some responsibility falls on them accordingly. The result is a hierarchy of relative areas of volition and the corresponding responsibilities. Or a President and his executives may arrange for a mixture of co-responsibility with some exclusive personal responsibilities.

This example indicates how the scope of one person's freedom can depend on others. We all act more or less voluntarily within given conditions, whether determined by nature, society or moral conscience etc. We have some genuine choice of alternative actions, within the possible limits of action. For example, one such limit is what we believe or know about the likely consequences of our actions and which 'karmic reactions' to those acts are likely to arise.


The chief system of thought claiming a universal order in all events is the much misinterpreted Indian doctrine of karma. It is a many-sided theory, which includes both causality and free will. Above all, the doctrine of karma presents us with one constant, cardinal choice between acts that lead towards increased freedom or those that decrease it.

  The term 'karma', though translated best as 'action', is popularly related to the idea of fate. Contrariwise, 'dharma', often translated as 'good', refers to the both the general conditions and specific means towards each our true 'destiny', the codes we should follow to realise and become one with our true selves. Fate is thus what happens to us in so far as we are under the dominance of physical forces such as those of outer circumstance, environment or of 'inherited' inner inclination etc. Destiny is the scope of possibilities open to us when we live in accordance with the good, which enables our inward development towards integration and consequently frees us progressively from the duress of physical forces. The reactions upon us of our own bad acts (previous karma) are also to be seen as presenting challenges through which we can grow if we adopted the right attitude and behaviour. Even sufferings and deprivations can be turned to advantage. Good karma obviously also presents opportunities for self-improvement.

The doctrine of karma is a corrective to that of accident or chance, which some physicists and biologists embrace. At first glance, the karma doctrine may seem to be a total determinism, like 19th century physics. However, this is incorrect, a false view that has long been widely propagated, not least both by over-Westernised or improperly informed Indians. The principle of karma involves the freedom to act, but not the freedom to avoid the consequences that follow from the act, whether immediately or later on. However, how strictly this actually applies is unknown, and the doctrine of karma remains a principle, not a proven fact, and as such is a matter of belief and not knowledge.

Because karma doctrine allows for freedom of action in the present, one can act both for or against one's moral duty, badly and wrongly. But one cannot go against the karmic law of a corresponding negative (or positive) reaction upon oneself later. The doctrine also holds that such reactions often occur by means largely or wholly impenetrable to most present human knowledge. The classic case of this is the well-known aspect of karma, acts done in one lifetime may rebound in another. Accumulated karma, good or bad, can determine both the inner and outer given conditions of one's subsequent rebirth as well as certain events that arise.

The karma doctrine, in the form of influences at (and prior to) birth, cannot satisfactorily be proven or disproven on the evidence to date, not does it seem that this will be likely to be discoverable within the foreseeable future. The doctrine holds that traits and tendencies are 'inherited' through one means or another from the former existence of the 'soul' which embodies in the child, and that this manifests in its very early years. These tendencies are supposedly due to the prexistence of personality leanings and instinctive or unconscious memory. Many factors already present or latent at birth can evidently limit the degree of autonomy of the child and thus narrow the sphere within which free will can operate.

It is still largely a matter of belief whether or not circumstances beyond a person's own control, like the supposed 'accidents' of birth and of subsequent constraints on childhood development, can be pre-determined according to laws operating at a subtler level than those so far known to physics and biology.

Paul Brunton is one of the clearer writers on some aspects of karma. He wrote: "The Law of Karma makes each man responsible for his own life. The materialist who denies karma and places all the blame and burden upon the shoulders of environment and heredity denies responsibility. He begins and ends with an illusion." and, "Whereas fate (in the original and Greek sense of the word) is decreed by whatever Powers there be, karma is the result of our own doing." and in refuting complete fatalism he wrote "... philosophy has never been shipwrecked upon the rocks of such foolish fatalism. It says that what happens inside you is intimately connected with what happens outside you, that thought, feeling, will, intuition, or character makes its secret contributions towards the events of your life, and to the extent towards which you begin to control yourself, you will begin to control your personal welfare."The Notebooks of Paul Brunton Perspectives (Posthumous) Benditt 1987, pps 116ff.

In psychological terms, karma means in practice that some actions lead towards the integration and harmonisation of personality and others away from it. In the broader theological terms, some use their freedom to err, others to act well and for the good. Good acts generate good karma, which in practice means that at some later date there will be 'rewards' for the individual equivalent to the quality and quantity of these acts. Bad acts generate bad karma, which sooner or later reflects on the individual as ill consequences. A third class of acts are those designed to free oneself eventually from karma altogether and these are totally selfless acts. Such acts do no accumulate further karma. When all one's acts are done from the necessity of duty alone and never for egoistic reasons, liberation from all karma soon ensues. Meanwhile, the results of past acts, good and bad, still have to be lived out.

The law of karma, usually presented as asserting all-pervasive cause and effect operating throughout nature and human life, however, includes the doctrine of the possibility of its own termination. It excepts from the effects of accumulated karma. those acts that are selflessly intended and dedicated to the good (i.e. right action or dharma). Part 3 deals mainly with such questions.

According to some Vedantic teachings, the law of karma is transcended and ceases to apply only after an individual's every thought, word and act is totally and selflessly dedicated to the good. These may progressively (or sometimes immediately) reduce the effects of past karma, though not the present workings of cause and effect. Others assert that even good actions accumulate karma and the law of karma cannot be transcended in this way, but prescribe other methods, such as worship, yogic disciplines and so on. These views are variants on the Hindu doctrines of liberation (moksha). This often asserts that the cessation of piling up of consequences, of karmic inevitability, is attained by those who choose to liberate themselves totally in all respects from the relationship of 'egoistic' attachments. The karmic law thereby includes the possibility its own potential cessation. What this means in practical life is one of the central questions of any forward-looking psychology. It does urge the further study of psychological dependencies, binds or 'attachments', and how or when they may be dealt with... and by what means one can become free of them.

Whether or not one holds that there are universally-determining causal laws - or else that there is a higher will - one cannot deny the unavoidability for human society of distinguishing between good and bad and acting accordingly. While the principle of karma supposedly and usually is held to dictate what does (or does not) happen and eventually follows from our previous actions, it does not causally bind our present actions. Though we may have generated too many attachments to feel able to make a huge effort required to be free of them, we always remain free in the present and so retain the potential for change. The strength and number of our psychological bonds and mental attachments determine how great an effort is required - and over how long a time - before we can master them. This is the purpose of self-knowledge, to attain the genuine self-realisation as unattached spirits, being at the same time psychologically free to do whatever duties that might fall upon us.


The mind always develops, then, within certain given conditions of physical, social and cultural environment. The extent of freedom of will of individuals evidently tend to differ depending upon temperament, upbringing, training and many other influences, not forgetting material and social opportunities. What one experiences as the sphere of one's personal opportunities is affected by the degree of development of one's personal autonomy.

The mind is essentially a network of desires, psycho-physical attachments and their many kinds of mental and even rational extensions, all of which have either some physical and sensory origin or inherited inner impulse, however sophisticated the nature of the desire. What we mean by consciousness is not the mind, for it is the medium through which the mind develops and, moreover, it is also the source of higher intuitions, which will be considered later. Consciousness primarily means the observing or witnessing faculty, awareness itself which can direct its attention and which alone makes reflection on the contents of the mind possible, such as in remembering or thinking etc.

Individuals differ in respect of the degree of self-disciplined control of the mind and independence from 'the tyranny of thought', consequently also in respect of their capacity for neutral evaluation of the things of the world and detached self-appraisal. This awareness affects the strength of volition, or one could say the extent to which volition is exercised.

People speak of minds being 'conditioned', whether by material or mental factors or by social conditioning, and support this by pointing to many techniques of mind control, from peer pressure to subliminal suggestion and out-and-out brainwashing under torture. However, there is absolutely no evidence that there are any laws of nature physically operating internally on or within consciousness itself to limit or affect it, such as through the mechanism of the brain. We should remember that the physically-imprisoned person who is very strongly aware of his essential freedom can assert his will much better than a weak-willed person can in the face of torture and brain-washing. The examples of this are many and varied, from Socrates to Arthur Koestler.4

On the other hand, a prisoner's situation can be outwardly conditioned in many ways, such as by the limitation of information or 'sensory inputs' and even perhaps to the point of destruction of memory. This does not itself destroy consciousness as such, as can easily be seen even in most advanced senile memory loss.

Here we must bear in mind that the origin of a determined individual will is usually the specific personality or ego. The origins of every ego lie in the assertion of 'I want' and the sense of 'me'. Just as one's physical environment obviously 'determines' the scope and types of available choices open to us in many ways, so does the social environment and the family 'background' into which we are born. The many processes of individual development and of socialisation are formed by these. The environment as a whole sets out both limits and possibilities for the growth of the personality. This formative influence sets the stage for the individual's awareness and what has been called the early 'existential' choices, such as what course to pursue, what to emulate or who to try to become etc. These choices are doubtless influenced to varying degrees and often in highly unique ways by early experiences of every type, from the traumatic to the ecstatic.

It is established that such factors can become conditioners of future behaviour and of personal choices and behaviour. Such conditioners can be brought into awareness by various methods and their influence can often be mastered. The aim of therapeutic techniques is (or should be) to release people from the thrall of unwanted traits of character or personal experiences through supporting self-understanding and greater autonomy of will.

The scope of any person's free will is doubtless relatively insignificant in respect of the great whole of things. It is not impossible to reconcile the believe in an overall design in the cosmos and a universal development through which the future is already predetermined in some sense with the idea of freedom of personal development, which must occur within those major cosmic parameters. Short of being omniscient, however, we cannot know fully what this means.

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1 The theory of knowledge through the ages shows mainstream philosophy accepting as the most reliable source of certainty that which is clearly and irrefutably self-evident to the mind in our consciousness. The 'I' can know certain insights directly in reflecting on the contents of its mind. Thus in an important respect we know our own minds better than others can and better than we can know their minds too. The inner certainty of clear self-perceptive subjectivity is the final instance to which all judgements must at some point be submitted for acceptance or rejection... and most particularly those concerning the nature of mind and consciousness itself.

2 Volition cannot, however, be proven to be an objective reality! Hence, the view of Spinoza (parallelism) which asserts that volition is nothing but a subjective experience, not an objective fact, is not rejected out of hand by our present assumption. In both cases, the matter remains an assumption, but a more fruitful one than its contrary (i.e. the total denial of conscious volition).
3 Note that by 'physical cause' is here implied a reaction within an analysable system of 'automatic' or 'mechanistic' events (as exemplified by Pavlovian and behavioristic 'stimulus-response' models). All this applies to and has consequences for all forms of 'scientistic objectivism', whether in biology (eg. Darwinism), in psychology (eg. Pavlov, Freud, Skinner), in social and economical theories (eg. Marx, Engels) and so forth.

4 'The Invisible Writing'. Arthur Koestler, 1953.