"In The Spiritual Crisis of Man you say that everyone has a choice of action in life's situations. I do not understand this because, for instance, if I find a wallet on the street with identification and one hundred dollars in cash, it seems to me that the action I will take under these circumstances will be the result of my total experience (thinking) up to this point. I may feel that I make a choice between finding the owner and keeping the money because I am aware in my mind of the two possibilities but I feel that my life (or lives) up to this time would determine what I would do and so I do not really have a choice. I can see that as a person gains experience and grows towards a spiritual being that his idea tomorrow will not be what it was yesterday but the decision he makes is the only one he can make at the time.
"The idea of free will has always been hard for me to understand. What I have said above does not depress me because I feel that as we learn more our actions will be wiser but I would like to know what there is that I do not realize when you speak of man's free will." This is the text of a reader's letter. Here is my answer.
Many Orientals put all happenings under the iron rule of karma. There is no free will, no individual control over them. One has to accept them fatalistically and, if dismayed by their evil, turn to the Spiritual Source for the only real happiness. In mental attitude, in personal inward response to events, lies one's chief freedom of will.
It might, however, be questioned how far such freedom is illusory, since the response, the attitude, are themselves conditioned by the past and many other things. It is quite correct to state that the past inclines us to think and act in a certain way. But it is also admitted that we can grow, can improve our lives and change in the course of time. So this is an admission that we are free to choose to grow or to remain exactly as we were. A man who commits robbery with violence may say that he is fated to act violently. With each offense, he is arrested and suffers imprisonment. After this has happened several times he begins to change his course. Eventually he fears imprisonment so much so that he resists temptation and ceases to be a criminal. This change of mental attitude was an act of free will. His past inclined him to the old direction but it did not compel him.
One of my reader's claims that "the decision he makes is the only one he can make at the time." But the real situation is that it is the only decision he was willing to make. A man may not be conscious at first of conflict between two impulses inside himself. It is the presence of the Overself behind the ego which sets up the conflict. At first it remains in the subconscious, then in a dim vague way it becomes conscious. He may dismiss the alternative choice, but it was there all the time. Jesus said: "What you sow, you shall reap." The criminal chooses not to believe it, because he does not want to believe it. Inclinations from the past do not compel a man, but he unconsciously uses them as an excuse and claims he can do nothing else. The will is being expressed even when the man thinks he is, and seems to be, compelled to act in a certain way. It is expressed in the mental attitude adopted towards the situations in which he finds himself. Whenever he accepts the ordinary materialistic, negative, egoistic view of a situation, he is actually choosing that view. He is choosing even though he believes the contrary is true.
Where there is no choice, where circumstances make the decision, one must bow one's head to them. Fatalism is acceptable only in the sense of recognizing what is inevitable and what is not. But fatalism is unacceptable as a blind, unquestioning, helpless submission to every happening.
-- Notebooks Category 9: From Birth to Rebirth > Chapter 4: Free Will, Responsibility, and The World-Idea > # 25