The human mind likes to have nice, neat categories. “Either/Or”, “Black/White”. It has a hard time dealing with mixed actions or anything that partakes of various allegedly competing or conflicting principles. Thus, the debate over free will and determinism rages on, and eventually comes down to whether the Divine actually directs every moment of one’s life, thoughts, actions, reactions, responses, etc.; or whether there is any room for individual discretion or some element of free will.

Recently Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky in his book titled Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will, explained why he does not believe that there is any such thing as free will, and that every action is determined and controlled by both external pressures and past ’cause and effect’. This is not a new or unique viewpoint, but it is totally based on the mechanisms of the external world and its development and does not account for any Divine intention or any soul, or psychic being that grows, develops and acts as a nexus for action and implementation of the divine Will. Such growth and development would have no meaning if everything, down to the smallest detail, were actually pre-determined.

The Bible also weighs in on the side of determinism when Jesus indicates that the fate of each small bird is noted by God, and that a person’s hair on his head is numbered. While ostensibly providing a message about how the personal God of the Judeo-Christian tradition loves and cares for every smallest individual and detail, it is really a message of how determined everything actually is in that viewpoint. Where is the room for free will to act if the very comings and goings of each small bird, or the hair on the head of each individual is under direct divine scrutiny? And yet, in other places, the Bible assumes a certain level of free will of individuals and thus, the entire question of the fall of man, and the need for redemption through actions of a savior arise. The issue is clearly not resolved one way or the other there. This highlights the inherent confusion and ambivalence of our mental notions of the significance of our lives and the role of the Divine in the lives we lead in the external world.

Some earlier articles in our series reviewing the Hidden Forces of Life, went into some considerable detail about the interaction of free will and determinism and the role of each, and the ability for these two seemingly opposite principles to coexist. The main lines are basically determined, but each individual, each unit, is left free within that framework to act or not act, to move or not move, to decide, or not decide, etc. This creates a statistical distribution with most decisions winding up within a relatively narrow range, with some falling above and some below that central pathway. One way or the other, the larger divine intention is still carried out, but at the same time, the individual elements are able to grow, evolve, make mistakes and learn from them, and follow a natural path based on their own evolutionary station and the needs of their further development.

A disciple asks: “Mother, is the orientation of an individual’s life directed by the psychic?”

The Mother responds: “Yes, absolutely unconsciously for the individual, most of the time; but it is the psychic which organises his existence — only in what may be called the main lines, because for intervening in the details there would have to be a conscious union between the outer being, that is, the vital and physical being, and the psychic being, but usually this does not exist. So externally, in the details… for example, there was someone who in deep perplexity said to me, ‘Well, if it is the psychic being or rather the Divine in the psychic who directs our life, it is He who decides the number of pieces of sugar I put in my tea-cup?’ That was the question, verbatim. So the answer had to be, ‘No, because it is not a detailed intervention of this kind.’ “

“It is as when you push your fist into a heap of iron filings or saw-dust, all the infinitesimal little elements of the iron filings or saw-dust are organised to take on the form of your fist, but they do not do this either deliberately or consciously. It is through the work of the consciousness which pushes that this kind of thing happens. There is no decision that each element is going to be exactly in this place, like that; it is the effect of the energy which has pushed the fist that organises the elements. But that’s how it is. There is the psychic consciousness at work in life, organising all the circumstances of your life but not with a deliberate choice of the details….”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, The Hidden Forces of Life, Ch. 2 Hidden Forces Within, pp. 50-51

Author's Bio: 

Santosh has been studying Sri Aurobindo's writings since 1971 and has a daily blog at and podcast at He is author of 20 books and is editor-in-chief at Lotus Press. He is president of Institute for Wholistic Education, a non-profit focused on integrating spirituality into daily life.
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