"Simulated Worlds 1" (BG 3.27)
Thompson continues his review of telerobotic simulation research, this time with consideration to Puranic accounts of the ego being linked to a material body through the senses. Using these concerns as a central perspective, Thompson considers classic questions involving free will and inspiration.
TRANSCRIPT: Bhagavad-gita, Chapter 3, Text 27. “Simulated Worlds 1.” San Diego – Spring, 1990 / (016)
Bhagavad-gita chapter 3, text 27:
The spirit soul bewildered by the influence of false ego, thinks himself the doer of activities that are in actuality carried out by the three modes of material nature.
So, in the purport Srila Prabhupada says:
Two persons, one in Krsna consciousness and the other in material consciousness, working on the same level, may appear to be working on the same platform. But there is a wide gulf of difference in their respective positions. The person in material consciousness, is convinced by false ego that he is the doer of everything. He does not know that the mechanism of the body is produced by material nature, which works under the supervision of the Supreme Lord. The materialistic person has no knowledge that ultimately he is under the control of Krsna. The person in false ego takes all credit for doing everything independently and that is the symptom of his nescience. He does not know that this gross and subtle body is the creation of material nature, under the order of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and as such his bodily and mental activities should be engaged in the service of Krsna, in Krsna consciousness. The ignorant man forgets that the Supreme Personality of Godhead is known as Hrsikesa, or the master of the senses of the material body, for due to his long misuse of the senses and sense gratification, he is factually bewildered by the false ego, which makes him forget his eternal relationship with Krsna.
So, this verse and the purport, raises a very interesting question from Western philosophy this is called the problem of free will and the basic question is: Are we able to act according to our will or are we simply conditioned by material nature? So, this leads to the related question of responsibility. If a person is simply acting under the influence of nature, then he could say, “Well I’m not responsible for my actions – they're merely impelled by the circumstances in which I find myself.” So, this is a very interesting question. In the modern scientific perspective, there's the idea that the living being is simply a mechanism made of matter. If that is so, then the person, a human being let's say, is merely acting according to the laws of physics. And everything that the person does is working out mechanically according to those laws. So, in that case one would tend to think that,”Well, the person does not have any free will.” This is an idea that that arises. So, here in the Bhagavad-gita, we have an interesting statement that would seem to indicate that the living being in one sense does not have free will, because Krsna is saying here that the living being thinks himself to be the doer of activities, but actually these activities are carried out by the modes of material nature. These gunai – there are three gunas, known as goodness, passion and ignorance.
So, it is stated here that the material nature, or prakriti, is carrying out activities in accordance with these three modes. And a person who’s bewildered by false ego is thinking that he's carrying out the activities. Nonetheless, it is also a fact that the individual is held responsible for his activities in the Vedic literature. And in the Bhagavad-gita, Krsna specifically says that he doesn't take responsibility for the activities of the individual. So, if the activities are being carried out by the material nature, then how is it that the person is responsible? So, the answer to that question is that actually Krsna, as the Supersoul, is directing the action of matter. So, the material energy has a superior source of direction that... the spirit soul, or the actual conscious individual within the body, does not have the power to directly control the material energy. But the Supersoul, who is accompanying the living being within the heart, does control the material energy.
So, typically the Supersoul is controlling the material energy in accordance with the desires of the individual and also the karma of the individual. So, for this reason the individual is responsible for what happens, because the Supersoul has arranged that, “All right, I will make things happen according to your desire, so you have to take responsibility for what happens.” And karma in fact is the means whereby one receives feedback for one's actions. If one performs actions in one way one will get one sort of karmic reaction and if one performs actions in a different way, there will be some different reaction. So, that is a system of punishment, actually, and reward for those who are acting on a material platform as conditioned souls.
So, in... there's a very interesting purport in the Second Canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam, in which Srila Prabhupada points out that you can actually realize the presence of the Supersoul as the guiding source of intelligence within the body. He says there that even a common man can do this, and he outlines a series of steps whereby this is possible. So, the first step that Srila Prabhupad points out there, is that one can recognize by introspection that one is not the material body. And he says this may not be obvious immediately. But actually, by very careful thought and discrimination, you can distinguish between yourself and material body including the subtle processes of the mind. So, basically the process there is to examine what you are perceiving and see how you are different from that.
Of course, it's easy for us to understand that we're different from the sort of gross limbs and so forth of the body, because you know that if a person's arm is cut off or something like that, the person remains the same as a conscious individual. But someone may have doubts when it comes to the action of the mind. Still, one can observe the actions of one's mind and discriminate between that and one's own self, by observing how these different mental images and so on are coming and going and they are something that we are perceiving. But the perceiver is different from those continually flickering mental images. So, by carefully considering this, one can discriminate between the self, which is the actual seer, and that which is seen.
So, that was the first point. And then the second point that Srila Prabhupad made, was that once you see that your self is distinct from the material body, you can actually understand that the body is acting and reacting according to the modes of material nature. You can do this by just analyzing what the body is doing. And you can see it's following rules of a material nature. And so, the body is essentially acting like some sort of mechanism, something like that. But there’s a further step and that step is to realize that in fact, even though the body is acting according to some rules or laws independent of our self, that is one can realize the purport of this verse in the Bhagavad-gita – that we’re not actually the doer... doers of activities – still one can see that these activities are not just coming about or being carried out in a haphazard way, but there's some intelligence involved. However, that's not our intelligence. So, one can come to that point of discrimination Srila Prabhupada points out that one can see that one is taking the assistance of some higher intelligence. And if a person is unable to do this, then he becomes deranged or unable to function in a normal fashion.
So, there are many simple examples in which you can see how we're taking advantage of some higher intelligence, which is directing the action of the body. Krsna says in the Bhagavad-gita that He's the source of memory, intelligence, also forgetfulness, and so on. And you can see that the different abilities that we have are not directly under our control, nor do we understand how they work. We depend on these basic abilities all the time, but if we're asked to explain how they work, we don't know. And even the deepest studies in modern science really don't give us much information on this.
Take for example the fact that one is speaking. When you speak, you have some idea in mind that you want to express and immediately grammatical sentences come out expressing that. And actually, if you think about this, you can see that even if in theory you understand how it works, which we really don't understand, still you're not putting the sentences together according to your own conscious intelligence selecting the words and so forth. If you tried to do that you wouldn't even be able to speak at a normal speed. It's all just happening. So, one could say, “Well this is perhaps being done by some mechanism, some computer-like machine within the brain.” And in fact, someone will argue that damage to the brain can interfere with this process, and so that shows that it is being carried out by a machine within the brain.
But one can ask how the machinery got organized in the first place? For example, if we have a computer, which carries out some complex task, there's the question of how the computer got programmed. We know that in all practical cases, that there's some human programmer who programmed the computer, and once that was done then the computer could function. And of course if the computer is damaged, then those functions are interfered with. So, in the case of the brain, it may be that some mechanism is producing speech, let us say, and it may be that by damage to certain speech centers in the brain one interferes with that, but still, how did the brain get organized in that way? That is the question. So, if you carry the computer analogy to its ultimate limit, one would come to the idea that perhaps there's some programmer that has programmed the brain. And that programmer could not be exactly ourselves because we don't understand how the whole thing is working.
So, that is an indication that there is some intelligence there which is distinct from our own self. Actually, this is... these are examples from just ordinary life, day to day living. But in the life experience of people in arts and sciences and so forth, who are involved in creative activities, there are many other examples of this. One interesting example is provided by a mathematician named Poincare, who lived in the early part of this century. So, this Poincare was involved in the study of many very difficult mathematical problems and when dealing with such problems what one finds, is that it's not possible consciously to solve the problem. If the problems have a fairly simple straightforward nature, then you can solve it by applying some standard method. But problems of this type don't yield to such methods. You can stare at the problem for hours and it's impossible to come up with any solution. So, this Poincare was a very brilliant mathematician, but there were certain problems that he would just work on for days and he wouldn't get anywhere with them. But what would happen would be, that while he was thinking about something else or performing some other activity, suddenly the solution to the problem would come into his mind. And typically what would come into his mind would not just be some simple thing like one little step, but a whole elaborate set of ideas would just come into his mind, all of a sudden. So, then he could completely work out the solution to the problems he was working on.
So, this was very striking to Poincare. And he actually came up with the idea that there’s something that he called the subliminal self, which is providing the solutions to these problems. And he analyzed the nature of the subliminal self. He said that the subliminal self seems to have very great powers of discrimination and also it has very great aesthetic appreciation, because typically these solutions that he would get would be very beautiful they'd have all kinds of symmetric features and so on and so forth. So, he... and he observed that this subliminal self seemed to be able to do things that the conscious self cannot do. So, finally he asked himself,
“Well, must we conclude that the subliminal self is superior to the conscious self? It seems as though it is.” So, at that point he backed away from this idea and he said, “I would hate to accept such a thing.” Because basically he had an atheistic outlook. So, he didn't like the idea that there should be such a subliminal self that was more powerful than his own conscious self. And so, he tried to explain how perhaps the solutions were produced by some mechanical process of just testing out combinations at random until you get a solution. Actually, though, that won't work very well because there are too many combinations.
There again one who would like to avoid the idea of a subliminal self superior to the conscious self could argue that, “Well, perhaps there is some algorithm that's being executed some system of steps that the brain is going through that yields the solution to the problem. And for some reason, we're not conscious of those steps.” So, even so, though, you'd have to ask, “Well, how did the brain come to carry out those steps?” A computer couldn't carry out steps like that unless you programmed it with very great intelligence. In fact, computers of today can't solve problems of that sort and so no one has yet been intelligent enough to come up with that kind of programming. So, one would think then that if the brain is doing it by carrying out some kind of program or algorithm, then there must be some source to that program or algorithm. So where did it come from?
So, one again is confronted with the idea that there's some intelligence that is operating. However, there is certainly plenty of evidence to suggest that this intelligence isn't merely setting up machinery, but it's actually acting within our lives from moment to moment. There are other people in different creative situations such as musicians. For example, Mozart made the observation that... well, he was describing how he would compose symphonies. And in his case what would happen would be that he would be just taking a walk after dinner or something like that. And a whole symphony would start just emerging into his mind. And he said that “I have nothing to do with it. I don't know where it's coming from.” And his problem would be... and he would say that at a certain point he could hear the whole thing simultaneously. He would observe that this music would just come into his mind and his problem would be writing it down fast enough. So, where does that come from? One would have to postulate in his case that, “Well maybe there's a mechanism within the brain that generates music.” And if you ask, “Well, where does that mechanism come from?” In his case the problem is that he had a rather rare degree of talent. And one would have to say, “Well, maybe that just happened by chance.” But do we find that by chance you can produce remarkable things like that? For example, going back to computers again, if by chance you just randomly throw some numbers into the memory of the computer and try and run that as a program, will it compose beautiful music for you? You won't find that to be the case.
So, these indications even in day to day life do suggest that there's some higher intelligence which is actually there with us. So, it's not that God is simply something remote who may have created the universe and set it running and so forth. But the indication is that there's actually... we're receiving from moment to moment guidance from some higher intelligence. So, this is the basic principle described in the Bhagavad-gita and in Vedic literature in general. Basically, Srila Prabhupada summed that up by citing the English phrase that “man proposes and God disposes,” namely that we have desires to carry out different activities, and in accordance with our particular karma then the Supersoul grants those desires. Or else he may not grant them as the case may be – that depends on whether we deserve to receive the particular desired result. So, in this way the conscious self is actually not the doer of activities, but in another sense the conscious self is the doer, because Krsna is agreeing to act according to the desire of the conscious self. And so, Krsna then says, well, the given being conscious... the given spirit soul has to take responsibility for that in the form of different karmic reactions.
Of course, this is true only if the spirit soul is acting independently of Krsna. So, as long as one is acting on one's own behalf, without regard for Krsna’s instructions, then one receives karmic reactions for one's different activities. But if one acts in service to Krsna, then there are no karmic reactions, because then Krsna actually takes responsibility. If you're doing what Krsna wants you to do, then He will take full responsibility for all the results of that. So, actually, what we should do is act in devotional service to Krsna and then our actions will actually be perfect, because they'll be an agreement with Krsna’s desires.
So, these are some observations concerning this question of free will. I thought I’d make some other observations concerning the scientific issues that come up in this connection. For example, recently we had a conference in San Francisco held by the Bhaktivedanta Institute. The title of the conference was “Consciousness within Science.” And so, we were discussing there the nature of consciousness from a scientific point of view. There were a number of eminent scientists there. So, one of the talks that was given, which I thought was, I think, one of the most interesting ones presented there, was by a professor Benjamin Libet from Sanford... University of California in San Francisco.
So, he has done experiments on the brain in which he tries to investigate the question of free will. And he claimed that he could show that actually the mind could not be directing the action of the brain according to its will. He could experimentally give evidence refuting this idea. This was in reference to some of us who were suggesting that the mind can cause the brain to do things. So, he argued that, “No, it's not like that. The brain is the actual source of initiative to action. And we may feel that we are acting according to our will, but actually we are acting according to the direction of the brain; and so this feeling is to a certain extent illusory.” This was his claim. So, he gave evidence for this along the following lines: It seems that if you decide to move your arm, let's say, there’s something called the ‘action potential’ which takes place within the brain and lasts for a period of about half of a second before the action begins. And this action potential can be measured with an electroencephalogram. So, what you find is that before you move the arm, for about a half second, there is a surge of electrical activity within a certain part of the brain which builds up and then the... actually this first builds up in a certain motor control region in the brain, secondary motor control region, and then it spreads from there to the primary motor control regions. And then from there nerve impulses go to the muscles and so forth, moving the arm.
So, Libet was investigating when people experienced will to perform an action. And so, he performed an experiment in which he had a person watching a rotating dot. And on a, I guess, metal disk, or something like that. And he gave them the instruction that, “At some point, whenever you desire, move your hand – but remember where the dot was at the moment that you first experienced the desire to make that movement.” And he was instructing them to just move according to your own free will, whenever you want to. So, what he maintains is that in these experiments, he would find that the action potential would already be in process for about 350 milliseconds before the point where the person reported the will to make the movement. And so, he said, “Well, before the person experiences the will to make the movement, the movement was already set into action by the brain. So, this shows that this feeling of will is illusory. The person is not actually acting according to his will, because the brain was acting first.” So, this was his observation. And so, he was saying then, “Well this shows that you couldn't have the mind influencing the brain,” and so forth.
So, it's an interesting observation, but from the point of view of the Vedic literature, I would suggest that his observation is a little bit too naive or limited, because will is not such a simple thing. What we see here is: it's described that a bewildered soul will think that he's the doer of activities which are all actually being carried out by the modes of nature. So, in one sense, according to that verse you would expect that the person's activities are being carried out by the modes of nature, that is by the material apparatus of the body, and the person is thinking that “I’m doing it, it's happening according to my will.” But actually the term there is ahaṅkāra-vimūḍhātmā, he's bewildered by false ego into thinking that. Actually, that's an illusion. He's not really doing it according to his will. So, that's one conclusion that can be derived there.
But then that leads into the further discussion that I just went through, namely that: well if that's true, then how could we be held responsible for our actions and are we simply passive entities sort of being carried along by nature. In that case, what's the use of trying anything, if we have no actual independence? And of course, the answer is that actually we do have independence and we can make our own choices. But according to our desire these choices and activities are carried out by the Supersoul, who's directing the actions and reactions of the elements within the body. So, it's actually a very complex process. In this particular case of the experiment with the brain, it may well be that the person does not actually have any independent will regarding moving his hand in this experiment. It might be that instead of that you could say his will is actually to cooperate with the experimenter and having will to do that, then a whole complex set of actions is set into motion in which he moves his arm and so forth, and feels that this is happening according to his will.
So, will is actually a complicated issue. In fact, according to the Vedic literature, the most important thing is actually to have the correct desire or the correct will. For example, in the chanting of the holy name of Krsna, it's described that there are different offenses involved in chanting of the holy name. These mainly are related to attitudes or ideas one has about the holy name. So, if you are infested with these particular offensive ideas or attitudes, then the chanting of the holy name will not be immediately effective. So, then one could say “Well, why not just give up those attitudes? Because if you do, then it will be effective.” So, in fact it's described that even when you come to the end of the offensive stage of chanting and you haven't yet reached the stage of love of God, in this so-called namabasa stage all the different anarthas of material life are driven away by that. And so, you could say, “Well, then why not avoid these offences?” But it turns out that it's not easy to do that, because we're bewildered about what our real motives are. So, that's a whole subject to go into. So, let's see, it's about quarter of, are there any questions or comments? Yeah?
Answer: Well, to do that, ultimately, it's a gradual process of purification, because one has to start by being basically willing to follow Krsna’s instructions and so forth. But initially, one is bewildered about one's own motive, as I was just mentioning. So, the chanting of the holy name cleanses the heart. And so initially, one will be bewildered about one's own motives and so one will not actually have fewer desires with relation to Krsna consciousness, even though you may have heard instructions as to what pure desires might be. It's hard to realize this within oneself initially. But because the chanting purifies the heart, then gradually one will realize, to a more and more perfected degree, what one's desires are and what they should be. And thus one will be able to come to a point of having pure desires in relation to devotional service. So, that ties in with the whole question of... then of a free will and so forth. It's a matter of realizing what we're actually willing, but if we undertake this process, then the purifying effect of the holy name will enable us to do that gradually.