Does Free Will Really Exist?

Does Free Will Really Exist?

I was reading this piece here on how the author thinks the festival of Karwa Chauth is regressive yet she fasts each year. Perhaps, she reasons in her article, the conditioning is so deep she cannot not keep the fast.

She goes on to say, ‘the bottom line is that it is my choice’.

I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly. As long as the choice is ours, we’re not being regressive.

Then I saw a tweet where someone mentioned he loved the food cooked at home on festivals like Karwa Chauth. He went on to say the women cooked happily, out of ‘choice’.

That irked me. (More perhaps, because it came from a man).

Tell me, does it seem at all logical? Would someone truly enjoy spending much of their day in the kitchen without a sip of water through the day? Even if they otherwise enjoyed cooking?

And yet I know of women who do just that. My mother does it. And that made me rethink this whole thing about ‘choice’ and ‘free will’.

I was reminded of another piece I read on Sudha Murthy. Quoting an excerpt here:

In 1981, (Narayan) Murthy realized his big dream and it was the beginning for Infosys, one of the biggest names in software consulting (In India). But before making any decision, Murthy gave her (Sudha Murthy) the choice. He said that both of them could not be at Infosys together, so he gave her the choice of joining Infosys, but she chose to pull back.

There it was again — the bit about ‘choice’, that made her decision acceptable.

Here’s a question, though — what would have been Narayan Murthy’s choice had Sudha Murthy put this same question to him? Would he have made the choice she did?

Maybe yes. Maybe no. We’ll never know.

It did feel logically wrong that a brilliant woman, who had been a trail-blazer all her life, would choose to stay away from a dream project such as this one.

Unless, she (like many other women) was conditioned to do so.

The two pieces made me wonder if the choices women make, could really be termed ‘free will’ conditioned as we were to act a certain way. When women choose to give up work or education, or to eat after other family members, or to wear head-scarves, is it really out of free will?

It holds for men too, although in a whole different way. For instance, would a man, or let’s say, would most men ‘choose’ to give up careers even if they had the choice to do so? They’re as bound by conditioning as women are.

That brings me to the question: Is there anything like free will at all? Can we ever escape our conditioning?

The answer is NO. We cannot. None of us can ever hope to do that.

However, we can be aware of it and try to rid ourselves of it, interestingly, by conditioning ourselves to do so :-).

As someone brought up by a feminist mother, my mum, modified her fasting and included fruits and juices in her diet while also easing off on the cooking.

As the daughter of a feminist mum, I could give up Karwa Chauth without guilt.

We were both conditioned by our respective mothers to modify traditions to suit our lifestyles.

But this isn’t just about Karwa Chauth. Nor am I saying we’re free of it all. I’m sure there are a hundred ways in which we continue to do things we know we shouldn’t be doing, but cannot give up.

That said the only way to move forward is to condition ourselves and our children to constantly question and to reason, to be open to changing, adjusting, reshaping customs, traditions, our entire thought processes.

Last thought: I am more than aware that when it comes to human behaviour, logic is often tempered by many many factors, conditioning is just one of them.

8 Replies to “Does Free Will Really Exist?”

  1. Conditioning—that’s what decides how we live, what we believe in, and how we decide for ourselves. We may say that we are the new age women who have all the freedom in the world to live the way we wish to, but most times, the way we have been conditioned by society and the way we have observed our mothers live, creeps into our minds and makes the decision for us. That line from Sudha Murthy’s book reminded me of the scene from Dil Dhakne Do, where there is the argument between Farhan Akhtar and Rahul Bose, remember? FA asks RB where was the freedom when he gave PC permission to work. That’s what happens most of the time in real life, isn’t it?
    Just like KC, Maharashtrian women follow Wata Pournima, where they pray for the long life of their husbands, etc. I don’t do it. Never have, because I never saw my mom do it, as she doesn’t believe in it. She is very practical and hence there are certain things that I do just as she does. I follow her. I do question things I don’t agree with, and it also helps to have a husband who doesn’t follow traditions and customs as he is a non-believer, so maybe I have been lucky, too.
    I feel when following traditions like KC etc, women must think for themselves rather than following the norms. But then, are we conditioned to think for ourselves?

  2. You have opened a Pandora’s box! I doubt its free will in all of the cases you mentioned above. It is often the lack of choice but we term it as “being our own decision , free will”. The way forward is questioning ourself, our deep rooted beliefs, the log kya kahenge mentality (as my mum often says , damn people)

  3. Freewill is often overrated. Especially, for a woman. 13 years ago, when I left my job to get married and move to the US with my husband, not many liked my decision. Though, I never wanted to leave my job and regretted leaving it ever since that day as I couldn’t work here due to visa reasons, I know I would choose the same thing again and again. Every time I talk to my relatives they make me feel as if I have committed a sin and is wasting my life by doing “nothing”. In the past year since I have received work authorization here, my friends also set on the journey of finding me a job and fulfilling my life. But right now, it is my choice to stay home and work on things that I love. I don’t have anything against restarting my lost career. But I absolutely enjoy getting to write every day along with recording and editing videos for my YouTube channels and learning new things. You wouldn’t believe the way my own friends treat me like a delicate petal on a delicate flower that is ready to fall off into the abyss just because I am not behaving like a normal person doing normal things! It’s my choice. I wonder where is free will and the common sense to let a person exercise their right to follow their choice!
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  4. Yes I wholeheartedly agree. I will give you another example. Cleaning, I have seen women absolutely obsessed with it. Even cooking sometimes. So many of us are killing ourselves making this and that. Sometimes societal pressure, at other times the voice in my head. Taking the same KC example, my mum kept it, seemed very happy doing it because dad implored her every year to stop. Perhaps it was her conditioning. I kept the same fast for about 10 years and then gave it up with zero difference or comment from the husband. It also helps that women are much more forgiving with each other now. We happily celebrate together when some fast and others don’t. There is so much of our behaviour based on conditioning that it is difficult to break free completely. But as you mentioned, it helps to be aware and modify what we can. This Diwali, I have kept the cleaning to the minimum and haven’t made too many things at home. No one is much affected to tell you the truth.
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  5. For me, one of the key phrases from the Sudha Murthy example is that he ‘gave her a choice’…so where’s the freedom in that? But it’s also possible that the phrase popped out because I find that couple to be quite a bunch of hypocrites…. How my perspective changed how I viewed his words!
    I think we often have to rewrite the script about rituals, gender roles, etc. This is even more important in a country that is trying to tell us woman who to behave, dress, relate etc…
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  6. When someone says they’re so deeply conditioned to do something that they can’t not do it, there’s no free will there, and it’s no longer a choice. Social conditioning plays a big role in how we make choices and decisions – I had written about it recently, btw: https://shinjinim.com/2021/09/29/the-cages-you-live-in-understanding-social-conditioning/
    I think that’s why understanding and overcoming unseen biases is such a big focus these days.
    Staying with the Karva Chauth example, my mom wasn’t a feminist, she kept the fast with her own modifications (though I didn’t know that when I was growing up). I loved the filmi theatrics around KC (DDLJ style), and I kept it for the first 2 years after marriage. After which the excitement wore off and I decided I couldn’t be bothered, after all!
    But that choice too came about because I was exposed to other women who didn’t keep KC either (seeing that it’s ok allowed me to make my choice) and starting to read more feminist literature, which made me question “the norm”.
    So I guess aside from conditioning, we also need different role models and different viewpoints to flourish. That is what helps us to question why we do what we do and then make more informed, nuanced choices.
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  7. Hmm, lots of food for thought. I do agree, calling a decision a choice sounds and feels better. But however progressive we may think we are, the scales are never really level genderwise. It just may have to tip a wee bit this way or that, simply to maintain harmony. Our free will also comes with some kind of jugaad, doesn’t it?
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