In August 2016, the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari wrote an essay for The Financial Times where he asked the question: if algorithms decide all our choices, what happens to free will Harari’s argument is simple. The idea of authority among humans was once validated by prophets and revelations. What is the ‘truth’ was determined by what was revealed to the messenger.
Divinity or the word of God decided what could be accepted as the infallible truth. But this is changing said Harari. What determines the ‘truth’ increasingly in our world is data. The veracity-defining power is so strong that the historian said we are entering a new age with a new ‘religion’ Dataism. Harari was prescient.
In September 2017 came news that a former Google engineer Anthony Levandowsky had created a new religion based on futuristic technology called Way of the Future. This group was now building their own artificial intelligence (AI)-based ‘God’. A new benevolent deity pre-programmed to process the future for devotees.
In all this there was one thing that was being subsumed – free will or, more prosaically, choice. Whether we have free will, or we don’t, is an old question. David Hume, the Scottish philosopher, described it as “the most contentious question of metaphysics”. Thomas Hobbes argued that freedom meant the absence of any external inhibition to anyone doing what they want to do, and Immanuel Kant said without free will, without the power choice, the whole edifice of morality collapses because goodness is the power to choose the right thing over the wrong thing. This is morality.
Why are our choices so important? Well, as the American psychiatrist William Glasser discovered, our choices are important because they are driven by the most fundamental impulses that make us alive, and human: the need for food, clothing and shelter, safety, sex, the desire for a feeling of belonging, power, freedom, even fun. Glasser’s Choice Theory explains that these choices are fundamental to our very existence.
More recently (in the 1980s), the American physiologist Benjamin Libet showed that what we perhaps have is only a sensation of choice as the impulse for the action emerges before the appearance of the feeling of free will.
Even more recently Libet’s data has been challenged by the philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett – so the issue of intellectual free will is perhaps still open. What is more apparent though is Harari’s point – technology decides our choices more than ever before. You see that each time you buy something from Amazon, for instance, as you are prompted towards things that the algorithm has decided that you might like based on your past behavioural patterns.
Dataism imposes a sort of regimented uniformity upon us based on our own previous behaviour which creates what we now call echo chambers – all we see are our own opinions being everywhere. This, by the way, has been the most strident criticism against social media, and especially Facebook. By filtering what people can see based on an algorithmic intuition of what they usually see, Facebook places us in an ‘opinion bubble’ or an ‘echo chamber’ where we lose that valued thing: the opportunity to change our mind.
This is not new. As biologists have often argued, our genes too are a natural or biological form of algorithm, and so many of our instincts are pre-programmed within us: as we sometimes confess as we grow older we seem to become more like our parents.
But what modern technology is, and will, perhaps do is make this lack of choice even more stark. It will nudge us into boxes that we are instinctively most comfortable in – see the ideological bubbles on Facebook and Twitter and you know that this is already true. The comfort of the known saves us from the trouble and the trepidation of being challenged about our easy beliefs, and worse, having to change our mind.
Today, more than ever, what we seek from our metaphysical systems are processes and mechanisms that seek help us a greater level of freedom. But freedom for what? For attaining the freedom to choose. Our liberation lies in our ability to truly make up our minds. Therefore, meditation is ‘hot’, and the Headspace app has created a $250 million business with 400,000 paying subscribers. But what on earth are we meditating for? In meditation, said the philosopher JidduKrishnamurti, all forms of seeking must come to an end. What is it that by knowing which, asks the Upanishads, all things are known? The answer is ourselves, our true selves. We stop seeking when we finally understand ourselves and what we really want – when we have, at long last, made up our minds, for we finally understand what our minds really are. Vivekananda said no religion which cannot be seen through the eyes of science should exist. He said this a hundred years ago, thereby foretelling the furious debates of atheism versus religion that rage around us today.
But what if religion’s main argument was not heaven or hell, what if faith ignored sin and salvation, and focussed on the only question that matters – how can we be free? How can we be free not only from desire and sensory illusions but also free to make choices, free to embrace scientific advancement without losing our minds? If Hinduism is to make itself relevant, and make itself heard in the 21st century, this is the only question that matters.
As it happens, Hinduism has an intricate and intimate preoccupation with the idea of choice. It recognises that not just humans but even the gods sometimes struggle to know their true self – as Indra, the king of the gods, did when he turned to Prajapati or Brahma, the creator, to find the answer. Indra had to wait for 101 years and was made to wait for more than three decades at a stretch when Prajapati fobbed him off with answers that he later realised to be untrue but vital in his journey towards the truth.
This quest for knowing the true selves, not just among humans, but even among the gods, is crucial in understanding the Hindu imagination of knowledge and individual choice.
Knowledge is not something Prajapati can straight up give to Indra. He must push him towards a path of analysis, questioning, pondering and then coming to the answer himself – even the gods must make up their own mind and another god cannot do it for them. With each wrong turn, or wrong answer, Indra is pushed towards asking deeper questions, unpeeling more layers, analysing and removing more of his self-doubt, until the truth emerges before him.
But the path towards this freedom is neither easy or serene, as Indra no doubt discovered.Indeed, there are numerous rather difficult instances in ancient Hindu texts of how beguiling the problem of choice could turn out to be.
Take for instance the matter of ruling Ayodhya without Ram in the Ramayan. His brother Bharat is insistent that it should Ram, the rightful and just ruler of Ayodhya, who ought to sit on the throne. But Ram is equally insistent that he must obey their father’s instructions and spend 14 years in exile. Each of them have a choice of altering what they could do in the circumstances but each is insistent on the more difficult option. A middle path therefore is found: Bharat would rule until his older brother returns from exile but with the sandals of Ram on the throne signifying his reign by proxy. The problem is laid out in the form of choices to be made by free men and not as divine dictates that has to be followed. As any given moment, the dramatis personae can choose alternatives.
In the Mahabharat the Arjun feels compelled to kill his older brother Yudhisthir when Yudhisthir insults him and his sacred Gandiva bow. It seems that he has taken a vow to end the life of anyone who humiliates the honour of the bow and his ownership of it. As a warrior Arjun believes he cannot break his vow, even if that means killing his brother in the middle of the war of Kurukshetra. But Arjun is wrong, explains the god avatar Krishna. The warrior has a choice. And that choice is born out of the larger, more compelling consideration of dharma.
It is the omnipresent and indefatigable law of nature, the underlying code on which the universe runs, that is dharma, that creates a compelling case for choice in almost every circumstance, argues Krishna. The most interesting thing about dharma is that it has an inherent, built-in suppleness because it is not an unchanging, inflexible revelation. It is a law based entirely on logic.
Unlike revelations, dharma understands that one critical thing that is most important in notion of independent thought and choice – context. After all, says Krishna to Arjun, what is the context of his life at that point in time? To fight the righteous war. To defend dharma. And keeping such a context in mind, it would be irresponsible and adharmic to be obstinate about keeping his vow and seeking to kill his older brother. That vow and its associated moral responsibility fades in proportion to the task at hand.
This of course is Krishna’s famous argument to Arjun in the Gita: that it is all very well to say that I shy away from fighting my own kith and kin but there is a much wider context to the war. Not least that by discarding even the final offer of Krishna on behalf of Pandavs – give only five villages – the Kaurav clan has brought about the war. It is what Krishna tells Duryodhan when the five-village offer is rejected – you have not understood the value of compromise and justice, and so, now, there will be war. There will be such a war that never has there been such a war.
Duryodhan is offered a choice. A choice in the most generous terms. But it is still a choice. The divine cannot make Duryodhan take that choice – the wheel of justice can only offer the choice to him. The rest is his karma. If he chooses well, there will be peace. But if he chooses injustice, the retribution comes without mercy.
In this Hinduism differs from many other theological frameworks. In the Hindu worldview, the answer is always in the hands (or the mind) of the human being. The divine offers a sort of scenario planning charting out options with hints on what each choice could lead to.
Duryodhan is offered this choice not only in the incident of the five-village offer but even before the war begins. Krishna has taken the pledge that he will not fight in the war, for whichever side he fights on, as a god, would become immediately invincible.
Krishna controls one of the fiercest armies in the world, the NarayaniSena, who have the potential to tilt the battle in favour of the side they fight on. But the choice is clear – Krishna and his army will not be on the same side. His army will fight but Krishna won’t. So, which side would Duryodhan and Arjun choose? Arjun chooses Krishna, thus changing the course of the war and the odds for the Pandavs – even though Duryodhan he has struck gold by getting Krishna’s army. Of course, during the war, Krishna’s advice and guidance would prove to be decisive at every turning point of battle for the Pandavs. It had all been a matter of choice and Arjun had just chosen right. Now it could be argued that Krishna, as god knew how the two cousins would choose, but in real time so to speak it was still left to individual choice.
This is because the freedom to choose is accepted in Hinduism as a fundamental law of nature – a law even the gods cannot break and in fact even the gods are bound to this architecture.
This is what Krishna explains when he meets the mourning queen Gandhari after the battle of the Kurukshetra. The queen is maddened with grief. All her sons are dead. She lashes out at Krishna saying that he, as a god, could have stopped this war. But he didn’t. In this Gandhari believes Krishna failed his divine duty.
It is true that he knew all the reasons and all the consequences, says Krishna, and he had, technically, the powers to alter the course of events, and yet, he chose differently. Even gods do not have the right to alter the course of dharma. When faced with the wheel of justice, gods must concur. And pay the consequences for that, for Gandhari then curses him that Krishna and his entire clan, the Yadavs, would be destroyed.
It is because so much hinges on human choice – as deeply flawed a reflex as it is – that Hinduism’s consistent echo is to know yourself. It is only by knowing yourself at the most subliminal level that a true and honest act of choice can be made. Knowing yourself is the path towards letting the right decision emerge from within us. It is what we could colloquially call instinct but to develop a well-honed, fine sense of instinct is a spiritual act. It emerges from a base of knowing yourself completely and knowing at a very fundamental level what you really need as opposed to what you are conditioned to need.
Hinduism understands that the power suggestion and conditioning is all pervasive and escaping it is our biggest struggle – how can we truly know what we want if at every step we have been conditioned to want certain things?
Hinduism, therefore, urges constantly for people to know themselves because it realises that it is not the broad sweep of pre-determined destiny that defines our path but also the small, crucial choices that we make along the way. Karma is about the choices we make and the inevitability lies in the fact that once a choice is made there is no escaping the consequences. That much is unchangeable.
But we do have a choice in our actions. That power lies in our hands. Hinduism recognises the challenge of free will and that the complexity lies in that word ‘free’. It is consumed with the idea that our will must truly be free.
Hinduism’s biggest idea for the 21st century will be its overwhelming concern towards making our will absolutely, completely free. As technology overwhelms and pre-determines more and more of our choices, human beings will seek to detox not merely from gadgets or the internet but from the omnipresent algorithmic web of formulaic decision-making. This will be the nature of the detox that we will soon seek – or already seeking. Intelligence may become artificial but we would want to keep our minds, our powers of discernment and decision-making – like a lot of our food – organic.
The demand, then, will be for a system, a philosophy that could help us access technology and get retain our ability to make our own decisions. We will never be happy outsourcing our decision-making to algorithms and this is where, from the mists of antiquity, the reverberating power of Hinduism, echoing the idea that to know ourselves is to be free, will rise to guide us into a realm of absolute free will. Hinduism’s importance in the 21st century is its pivotal role in helping us make up our minds.