Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Self, Free Will and UG


Cartesian Theatre

(Derivative work: Pbroks13 Original: Jennifer Garcia (ReverieImage:Cartesian Theater.jpg)
 A tiny person sits in a movie theater inside a human head, watching and hearing everything that is being experienced by the human being. An illustration of the Cartesian theater.

Self, Freewill and UG 

Are events and results predetermined? Are they beyond human control?


Is there a ‘free will’, can we influence events and results?

According to the dictionary, the word ‘will’ denotes determination, insistence, persistence, or wilfulness.

Free will is one’s ability to ‘consciously’ exercise choice, to influence a decision or an action, so as to bring about a predictable outcome.

‘Free will’ cannot be thought of in isolation. It presupposes a ‘self’ or agent that has the power to consciously exercise choice! When we say consciously, we append yet another important attribute to the ‘self’, namely, ‘consciousness’.

Free will’, ‘self’ and ‘consciousness’ constitute our rich mental or psychological world. They share common traits and roots. To use a philosopher’s expression, they have a common ‘ontological basis.’

The idea of ‘self’ and ‘consciousness’ introduces the mind-body problem. Philosophers and scientists consider this as one of the toughest problems in understanding the nature of reality. Is our reality physical or mental or both?

The mind-body problem goes somewhat like this: How can the ‘self’, existing in a pure mental domain (or psychological domain), impact events in the physical domain? Does mind rule over matter? How does the mind arise in the physical system, in the first place?

Science is prodding on with this single most important question…

If you dare any philosopher to prove mind over matter, he will waste no time, “Mentally I decide to raise my arm (intention) and the damn thing goes up (action)!”

Renowned philosophers like John Searle from Berkeley advance formidable arguments for logically proving the existence of ‘free will’, even ‘self’ and consciousness. 

According to John Searle, “consciousness has a first-person or subjective ontology, and is thus not reducible to anything that has a third-person, or objective ontology.” [1]

This simply means that the phenomenon of consciousness is purely subjective experience and cannot be further divided or reduced to simpler or more fundamental units.

Reductionism is the typical approach of modern science. The idea is to reduce or break down a complex system into simpler, more fundamental units to understand its workings.

Unlike an atom that could be reduced to its constituents like protons, neutrons or electrons, consciousness cannot be further divided into its simpler units, say, ‘selftrons’ or ‘mentrons’!

Consciousness is a hard problem for science, as the Australian philosopher David Chalmers put it. Because it is irreducible!


Let us now find out what neuroscience has to say considering recent discoveries in brain anatomy.

But before that, what does ‘self’ mean to you and me?

It is strange but true that one may or may not believe in God, but all of us, without exception, including theists, atheists, agnostics, philosophers and scientists (that is pretty much everyone on the planet!) tend to believe in the existence of a conscious ‘self’ , a mental or psychological being, or the first person ‘I’ that exhibits awareness, that experiences pleasure and pain, that reasons out, that chooses or exercises the free will.

Self dominates every moment of our social existence.

Without ‘self’, there is no name, there is no social identity, there is no degree, there is no social security, there is no voter ID, there is no passport, there is no filing of tax returns, there is no death certificate!

The entire edifice of ‘society’ seems to have been built upon the notion of the ‘self’. And the ‘self’ too gets its legitimacy through and from society.

This social ‘self’ could be appropriately labelled as autobiographical self to borrow the words of the famous neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio.

Antonio Damasio has proposed a thought provoking theory of consciousness that is truly remarkable as it is thoroughly grounded in neuroanatomy. According to him, consciousness is centred upon the ‘self.’

The ‘self’, says Damasio, has evolved with the evolution of brain. He describes three distinct stages in the development of the ‘self’ alongside the evolution of brain – Proto-self, core-self and the autobiographical self.[2]

Proto-self is the most primitive form, a true biological entity, ‘it maintains its active model of the body, the chief object of its concern, and has the basic foundations of homeostasis (internal body) management.”

“On top of the proto-self is the core self. The core self is the momentary self. It exists in “pulses.” It comes into existence when the proto-self perceives objects and how those objects relate to the body. Is the object food? A predator or some other kind of threat? Another body like ours? Something else?”

“On top of the core self is the autobiographical self. This is the self that comes into existence as the organism lives its life. It is heavily dependent on memories, along with the projections it makes for the future.”

The core-self spoken of by Damasio comes closest to the observations of Eastern thinkers like UG or Nisargadutta.

UG’s description of how he operated in his Natural State completely resonates with the ‘core-self’ description of Damasio as that ‘pulses’ or ‘comes and goes’ momentarily.

UG explains, “What you call ‘I’ is just a first person singular pronoun. The ‘I’ or UG comes into operation here only when there is a demand. Otherwise there is no one here…” 

He adds further, "Every time a thought is bornyou are born. When the thought is gone, you are gone.”[3]

Also, interestingly, the concept of core-self finds resonance with the Buddhist Doctrine of Momentariness or ‘Kshanika Vada.’ 

‘Autobiographical self’ on the other hand could be thought of as the ‘social self’ or ‘ego’ (with all its social trappings), a pure creation of society, a finished product of culture.

Autobiographical self is resurrected or reborn in every thought, during every social transaction or interaction. It shall be maintained at all costs for the sake of its own continuity (everyone craves immortality) as well as that of its very creator – the society.


Is the ‘self’ then a product of environment?

Animals and humans are subject to natural conditioning to be able to adapt, survive and function in the natural environment. This conditioning or adaptation ensures that the biological entity is not only capable of handling its function and operation, but fully capable of detecting and avoiding natural threats in the environment, and to survive on its own.

Perhaps natural conditioning could be the trigger for the evolution of Damasio’s proto-self.

On the other hand, humans are subject to a different form of conditioning. This apart from the natural conditioning. This is social conditioning imposed by life in the social environment and layered on top of natural conditioning.

Social conditioning largely happens through societal interactions, starting with mother, father, siblings, schoolmates, teachers, friends, groups and gatherings.

Language, learning, experience or socio-cultural interactions are some ways that ensure that one becomes socially conditioned and becomes acceptable to society.

Social conditioning has its roots in tribal communities in the distant past and over the centuries, has gradually developed into its most complex and sophisticated form of today.

It is crucial to understand that conditioning is essential in all its forms for adaptation, survival and operation in the environment. Conditioning helps one to ‘function sanely and intelligently in the world.’

Certain pathological conditions could lead to certain brain disorders like ‘autism’ with the loss of identity or the loss of ‘self’ characterised by serious difficulties in social-interaction.

It is important to note that thought or memory plays a tremendous role in conditioning. UG offered a simple but powerful definition of thought that describes its role or function, especially related to conditioning:

 “Thought is the translation of a sensory perception within the framework of YOUR experiencing structure.”[4]

It is the thought that makes it possible for us to experience the world. Thought perhaps is the very instrument of conditioning.


This is what UG has to say about ‘free will’ or ‘freedom of action’:

“There is no way you can say that you have freedom of action or free will! Metaphysically you can explain, logically you can establish a point of view, but actually there is no freedom of action, because all the actions are born out of our thinking. And thinking is born out of the thoughts that are put in there, and I question the very, very thoughts and thinking you see. I say there are no thoughts and there is no thinking there at all! Thought is nothing but memory.” [5]

Free will or ‘freedom of action’ implies the ability to make a choice. Choice means deliberation, choice means thinking, choice means reasoning.

Scenario One: I get slapped, I hit back, there is no thinking. There is no ‘gap’ between stimulus and response. This is what UG calls the ‘unitary movement’. This is simple action.

Scenario Two: I get slapped, I stop, I deliberate,

“Should I hit back, or should I hold back’, Is it the right thing to do? Is it ethical? What about turning the other cheek?......

This is thinking. Now there is a ‘gap’ between stimulus and response. Thought has created the gap, thought has brought about this division between stimulus and response.

These are conscious choices. Every choice is based on my previous experience or my learning or my cultural background. Every one of my choices (reasons) is coloured by environment, cultural or social. There is no choice that I can call my own.

UG often reiterated, “There is nothing original. Nobody is original. Every thought comes from outside (environment), everything is put in there by culture. They tell you what to do, what to wear, what to eat, what to think…there is not a single thought that you can call your own!”

Cradle-to-grave, every experience of ours, everything we know of, every thought of ours is externally acquired, borrowed from the social environment. There is nothing that we can call our own.

UG reiterates that free will or freedom of action doesn’t really exist at all, as there is nothing to really choose from, except what is offered to us by society or culture!

Also, there can be nothing original. Originality lies in expression, in ‘how’ something is said or done, and not in ‘what’ is being said or done.

We all are imprisoned and restrained in our thoughts and actions by the invisible golden chains of culture. UG could clearly see it, as his Calamity on his 49th birthday flushed out every trace, every remnant of culture from his system, putting him back into primordial Natural State or Sahaja Stithi.


Here is UG’s last word on the ‘self’.

UG’s explanation of ‘self’ is much closer to the ‘pulsing self’ or the ‘core-self’ alluded to by Antonio Damasio earlier. It is that of a ‘self’ responding to the continuous stream of stimuli or perceptions pouring in from the environment.

Here UG explains in very clear terms the real nature of ‘self’ as well as the real place of thought (or conditioning) in the scheme of things:

“You may not accept what I am saying, so what you call ‘UG’ (or self) in one frame is the microphone, in another frame- tape recorder, another frame - cassette – audio cassette or the video cassette as the case may be! In another frame, it is a remote-control instrument. There is an illusion or impression that there is a person, or that there is one who is saying all these things, (but) each one is an independent frame. So, the identity (or self) can be maintained only by assuming that it is the same thing (UG) that is saying all these things….[6]

[1] Searle, John. Freedom and Neurobiology: Reflections on Free Will, Language, and Political Power (Columbia Themes in Philosophy), Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.


[4] Courtesy: UG in conversation with Dr. Sreedhav, Chennai, India

[5] Transcribed from the video clip:

[6] Transcribed from the video clip:


Am neither a philosopher nor a scientist, only a student of life. I am grateful to Dr. Narayana Moorty, Retd. Prof of Philosophy, Montery, California. He has been my mentor and guide having introduced me to Western philosophy. He has been of great help in streamlining my presentations as well as in the development of structured writing. A tough task master but a kind heart. This is my humble and respectful dedication to him. 

Affectionate Regards,

“ I am a White Brahmin, of purest ray serene! ” - UG

I just recall this one-off anecdote. UG and Mahesh Bhatt had just returned to Parekhji’s place after their lunch at the Oberoi...