Free Will vs. Willpower

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The Problem of Free Will and Its Solution

I have earlier discussed the differences between two distinct ideas of free will: Self-control vs. other control. The key point of that article was the conception of free will in which we are free to control others is false, but the conception in which we can control ourselves is true.

But as anyone who practices self-control or self-improvement will tell you: There are immense difficulties even in self-control. The materialist argument against free will is based on the empirically observable fact that we don’t even have control over our minds or bodies.

This is where we have to draw a distinction between “free will” and “willpower”. The concept of “free will”, even in the sense of self-control, is alien to Vedic philosophy. The accepted concept is “willpower” and is called icchā-śakti. Like other powers, it is acquired by yoga practice. Everyone doesn’t have willpower. But everyone can get willpower through practice.

In this article, I will discuss the differences between free will and willpower. The crux of this distinction is that we are not natively free. Rather, the material energy instigates and controls us in various ways. To get out of this material control, we have to develop detachment and then willpower. We will conclude with the distinct between willpower and surrender.

The Materialist Critique of Free Will

The materialist critique of choice equates it to reasoning. A simple example of such a process is that when you want to get married, you have a set of criteria such as prosperity, love, compatibility, and so on, and you evaluate each person along that set of criteria to decide whether you should get married or not. That approach is adopted even by many matrimony or dating portals that try to match couples based on their natures. Even an astrologer does something similar, although by looking at horoscopes and matching people’s natures. The critic of choice argues that given a fixed set of criteria, reasoning forces you into a choice. Of course, as time passes, those criteria generally change, and you may not find your partner compatible like before. The same criteria for reasoning may now be reapplied and the result could be a couple divorce.

This critique of choice doesn’t say enough about what happens when different prospective partners match some of the criteria and not others. For instance, you might have a more prosperous life through one partner and more shared interests with another. Ideally, you would like to get a prosperous life and shared interests with a partner. But if you cannot get both, then you will choose one—prosperous life or shared interests—depending on which of these you consider more important. That prioritization may be due to previous experiences—e.g., you may have seen couples fall apart because their shared interests did not compensate for poverty, or their prosperity did not compensate for their separate interests. The critic of free will says that a person’s choices are rationally driven by their previously acquired knowledge.

Why the Will is Not Free

The materialist critique of choice—also called “free will”—is based on applying constraints to freedom to say that we are not free to do whatever we like. We operate under many—e.g., social, economic, political, biological, physical—constraints, which preclude many alternatives. Violating these constraints hurts us, and reasoning is how we try to satisfy all the constraints to eliminate our misery. However, the materialist critique misses a few things—(a) most people cannot satisfy most of the constraints most of the time, (b) they try to satisfy one or two constraints and ignore the rest, (c) what they satisfy or ignore depends on what they consider more or less important, and (d) those preferences of more or less important are arbitrary most of the time for most of the people and can be changed by choice. The relation between will and rationality is reciprocal: By will you can change what you consider more or less important and those changes will influence your subsequent choices.

The materialist critique of choice presumes the Christian idea of “free will”—i.e., that we are free to choose whatever we like. The fact is that we are not free in this way. We are constrained by material circumstances and preferences, such that every choice involves a compromise, tradeoff, and selection of one thing over another, which then leads to the famous dictum—”You cannot have your cake and eat it too”. This problem of choice is called duality in Vedic philosophy: You cannot have everything; you must always give up something to get something else, but you can choose what you wish to gain or lose.

The Pattern of Compromises

In the book The Science of God, I discuss in detail 12 such choices of compromise, in the context of knowledge. Ideally, knowledge must be consistent, complete, simple, parsimonious, necessary, sufficient, empirical, rational, operational, instrumental, stable, and novel. The reality however is that when we increase completeness we get more contradictions, and when we try to make knowledge more consistent, then we get more incompleteness. We can either use a few complex concepts or many simple concepts; we cannot get both simplicity and parsimony at once. A theory that is sufficient is not necessary (i.e., it has more arbitrary variables, constants, and equations) and a theory that is necessary (i.e., has few arbitrary variables, constants, and equations) is not sufficient. What seems rational contradicts what we can observe and what we observe seems irrational. The predictions we can make are not practically useful, and what is practically useful is not predictable. When we try to attain more stability in our knowledge, we lose novelty, and greater novelty brings instability.

I imagine that we should be able to map these 12 factors to the 12 zodiac signs to talk about how each of the planets (representing different aspects of the mind-body complex) cycle through 12 factors, trying to gain something that was earlier lost, only to lose something new that had earlier been gained. I just haven’t had the time to study the 12 zodiac signs enough to carry out this mapping. But even outside the consideration of these planetary cycles, we can talk about how a person is forced by material duality to cycle through choices—each time acting rationally, and yet losing something in the process.

Duality and Absence-Driven Causality

The materialist critique of “free will” is what Vedic philosophy calls duality—gain and loss, hiding and revelation, acceptance and rejection, birth and death, pleasure and pain, summer and winter—and there are literally infinite such compromises to be made in order to get something we want. There is a certain amount of determinism in this process because everyone prioritizes what they are missing right now over what they have, not realizing what would be lost while gaining something new. Thus, a poor man aches for the conveniences of prosperity, while a rich man aches for the conveniences of poverty.

In Nyāya, we call this the absence-driven model of causation. Something is missing in all material things. Factually, many things are missing in all material things. But each person feels the absence of something more than others based on where they are in the cycle of changes. Children dream of the time when they will grow up to have independence and money to enjoy life. Young people dream of retirement when they would be free of the responsibilities of their profession, family, and wealth creation in the youth. And the old people dream of their erstwhile childhood when they had the energy to run around.

The Machine of Absences

Choices are mostly missing as we go through this deterministic cycle due to the absence-driven model of causation because we always dream of having what we don’t have or what we have lost in this cycle. We are driven inexorably by the feeling of incompleteness, inadequacy, and emptiness. Choices appear when we reject this cyclical evolution and want to escape this cyclical change.

Hence, Lord Krishna states in Bhagavad-Gita 18.61: bhrāmayan sarva-bhūtāni yantrārūḍhāni māyayā, which means “all the living entities are moving seated on the machine of māyā”. The term “māyā” means “that which is not”. It is the feeling of absence, incompleteness, inadequacy, and emptiness. It cycles from one kind of absence to another, in a deterministic manner, and is hence called a yantra or machine. But if we develop a desire to escape this deterministic cycle, then īśhvaraḥ sarva-bhūtānāṁ hṛid-deśhe ‘rjuna tiṣhṭhati or “the Lord situated in the heart of all living entities” guides them toward salvation from the cycle.

Detachment is Freedom

What is salvation? It is the end of the feeling of incompleteness, inadequacy, and emptiness. Even if something is seemingly absent for another person, the liberated person does not feel that absence. He may be alone, but he doesn’t feel lonely. His life may be difficult but he doesn’t feel harassed. He may be disrespected but he doesn’t feel insulted. Conversely, he may be rich, but he doesn’t feel gratified. He may be respected, but he isn’t enamored by it. He may have comforts, but he isn’t relying on them. This is freedom from māyā. The presences and absences of this world do not affect a liberated person.

True “free will” (as opposed to the false idea of free will in which one cycles from one feeling of absence to another) in this world is detachment or vairāgya, by which we stop being driven by the absences and presences of this world. The term “rāga” means attachment, dependence, or reliance on something other than the self. When we rely on something external to the self, then we feel fulfilled when it is present and unfulfilled when it is absent. That unfulfilled feeling drives us to accumulate things that we rely on, such as money, property, friends, family, occupation, and so on. But all these things are temporary; if they are here today, then they will be gone tomorrow. Even when they are present, there is always something missing, which drives us to complete them, producing a cycle of change in which what we have at present may be neglected to achieve what we don’t have. Then when we lose what we have neglected, we feel incomplete again. But we felt incomplete even when we had it.

The wise person realizes that we are always materially unfulfilled. We always feel that something is missing; we think that if we just add that missing thing, then we will be fulfilled. We go in search of what is missing, neglecting what is present, and we substitute one thing for another—at best. At worst, we lose what we neglect and we don’t gain what we thought would be gained by that neglect.

Everyone doesn’t realize this persistent feeling of absence. Even if they realize its existence, they think that the answer is to fulfill it. They don’t understand that it can never be fulfilled. At best, one kind of absence can be substituted with another kind of absence. At worst, the absence will increase. We always think that if I just had this one more thing, I would be complete. Thus, material circumstances control a person’s will and the materialist says: There is no free will. It is true in the sense that the living entities are roaming from one experience to another, seated on the machine of absences. The job of this machine is to keep the living entity deluded—”I will be fulfilled if I can just get that one thing”. This idea of “choice” or “free will”, where we are driven toward something under the influence of its perceived absence, is false because it is always under the control of māyā and overwhelmed by a feeling of absence. This is not a real choice or will, although it is the illusion of choice or will.

The Power of Will

The real choice or will is called icchā-śakti or willpower in Vedic texts. Free will assumes that we are already free, which we are not. To restore that freedom, we need the willpower to ignore the instigations of māyā, namely, the feeling of absence. The job of māyā is to make us see what is missing in every situation and make us feel incomplete. The job of willpower is to overcome that feeling.

That willpower is attained in two ways, called jñāna and kriya, or knowledge and action. The knowledge pertains to realizing how every material situation is incomplete and action pertains to engaging in those activities that will take us out of the cycle of absences. Thus, Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad 6.8 states: parāsya śaktir vividhaiva śrūyate svābhāvikī jñāna-bala-kriyā ca or “The powers of the supreme are spoken of in different ways, such as self-knowledge, self-action, and self-will”. The self-will is called bala (strength) here, so we can call it willpower. It is the capacity to choose true self-interest rather than be controlled by the instigations of externally triggered absences (produced by māyā).

Counter to the Materialist Critique

Hence, if a materialist says “we don’t have free will”, the counter is “you don’t have willpower”. The material energy controls you and drags you around like an animal tied by a rope. The goal of human life is to become free of this control. Everyone has a choice, although they might not have willpower. Without willpower, they will never be able to exercise the choice they have. It will always lie unutilized and they will remain convinced that they have no choice. Hence, there is the practice of yoga, by which everyone can develop willpower.

As we practice yoga, we develop willpower. That willpower is then used to further improve yoga, and gain even more willpower. By that willpower, we escape the feeling of absence and the delusion that we have no choice. By willpower, we can change our priorities, or what we consider more or less important. Any transformation requires willpower, and willpower comes from yoga. The practice of yoga is therefore the best answer to the problem of choice. Practice it and realize the power of will. Or, don’t practice it, remain the beast for bearing someone else’s burden, and think “I have no choice”.

Advanced Nuances of Free Will

For those who already understand the nuances of the self in Vedic philosophy, we can talk about many different ways in which the concept of choice is used, based on two distinct descriptions of the soul—(a) divided into three aspects called sat-chit-ānanda, and (b) divided into six aspects called the self-identity, intention, emotion, cognition, conation, and relation. In the six-fold description, ānanda is subdivided into self-identity, emotion, and intention; chit is subdivided into cognition and conation; sat is subdivided into relation.

Based on the six-fold description of the soul, we use the term “choice” in many ways. First, we can look at one thing after another, and that is a choice of relation. Second, when we look at that thing, we can describe it in many ways, which is a choice of cognition. Third, we can then act toward that thing in different ways, which is choice of conation. Fourth, we have the choice of altering our likes and dislikes, which is the choice of what emotions we will feel upon cognition and conation through a relation. Fifth, there is the choice of different goals or intentions. Sixth, and finally, there is a choice to redefine the self in a new way. Accordingly, the term “choice” has many meanings.

The general principle of the six-fold self is that there are six aspects and each aspect can be dominant or subordinate. However, one of these six aspects, namely, the self, remains unchanged while the other five can change. Hence, a person maintains his identity even if they change their relations, cognitions, conations, intentions, and emotions. The most fundamental choice emerges out of the self as the ability to redefine oneself as one thing or another. That then alters the intentions, emotions, cognitions, relations, and conations.

Choice and the Self

Thereby, we can say that choice is the nature of the self. But the self has six aspects, and the choice that began with the choice of what the self should be, alters the other choices. We can say that the self is the whole and the other five are its aspects, inseparable from the self. The choice of “Who am I?” pervades these aspects. Hence, it is not wrong to say that choice can be one of the five aspects. And it is not wrong to say that choice originates in the self. The latter statement is more fundamental, and the others are less so. If we are required to provide a single definition of choice, then we can say that it is the byproduct of the self trying to define itself in a specific manner. I can define myself in five distinct ways, and these are aspects of the self-definition choice.

When the soul is covered by material energy, five of the six aspects of the self are under material control, but the sixth, namely the self picking an identity is not. By choosing a different identity, the soul can change the other five aspects. However, it is very hard to assert that self-identity if the other five aspects of the self are controlled by matter. Hence, willpower is required to assert a new self-identity (which is the same self, although defining itself in a new way). The soul is free in the sense that it can choose to be something other than what it defines itself as right now, in five different ways. But to assert that idea of the self over the five materially controlled aspects, it needs willpower. If willpower is understood, then free will is also understood, but they are not identical.

The concepts of choice, free will, and willpower are not completely different, nor are they identical. Choice originates in the self but pervades in the other five aspects. We are free to choose an alternative idea of the self, hence there is free will. However, because these alternative ideas of the self are coerced under the control of the other five aspects, therefore, one has to apply willpower to overcome the coercion. If we understand the complete description of the self, then choice, free will, and willpower will be demarcated properly.

We can rephrase willpower as how badly we want to be something. If we want to be something, but we are also comfortable with our current identity, then willpower is weak. The practice of yoga makes us want to be something different badly because we realize how insignificant the current identity and its experiences are and how exceptional the alternative identity and its experience are. The realization of the insignificance of the current state is detachment and the realization of the exceptionality of the future state is attachment.

Willpower vs. Surrender

Sometimes people see a conflict between the perfection of willpower and the philosophy of devotion or bhakti which relies on surrender to God. But there is no contradiction. Willpower is needed to perfect detachment and surrender is needed to perfect attachment. If one can perfect the surrender to God and become attached to Him, then willpower is not required. Whenever there is surrender to God, all the feelings of incompleteness and absence are destroyed. Hence, willpower is required only when surrender to God is absent.

We also speak about willpower because materialist propaganda advances the false idea that we have no free will, preempting the practice of yoga. Willpower is acquired by the practice of yoga and it is required to persist in the practice of yoga. The denial of free will, the preemption of yoga practice, and the absence of willpower are cyclically self-fulfilling prophesies. However, if the practice of yoga is perfected by willpower, then willpower is not required because there is no feeling of incompleteness. Willpower is only a temporary necessity for the soul to separate itself from the inducements of material nature. The permanent or eternal reality is the surrender to God by which absence disappears.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "Free Will vs. Willpower," in Shabda Journal, November 15, 2022,