It is a generally accepted idea that all actions (or events) have some cause or other. In fact, if this were not so, that is, if similar actions (or events) were followed by different results each time they occurred, the world would be chaotic and any attempt to understand or control it would be impossible. Life itself would also seem to be impossible under such conditions. So the only question concerning causality is: What is its nature? Several different answers have been given to this question by philosophers over the past centuries. Those who would like to investigate the wide range of answers should consult the articles on “Causation,” “Chance,” “Free Will,” etc. in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Probably the simplest answer to the question is the one attributed to the Lord Buddha, which could be summarized as: “This occurring, that follows.” In Western philosophy, the closest approximation to that formulation may be found in David Hume’s investigation of causality in which he denied that there was any “necessary connection” between cause and effect (as some philosophers believed), but that the idea of such a connection was purely psychological, resulting of our seeing a constant conjunction between two events. Some previous philosophers had inferred that when a certain cause occurred the effect simply had to follow. The implication of this latter line of thought is that if one had complete knowledge of all the conditions in the universe at any given moment, one could infallibly predict what would happen for the rest of time. It was believed by some of those philosophers that God, being omniscient, did have such knowledge, therefore the future was pre-ordained. Under such conditions, there could be no such thing as free will. Some theologians, such as Calvin, who accepted this theory, claimed that God would therefore know exactly who was predestined to go to Heaven and who was predestined to go to Hell.
Obviously, theosophy rejects that gloomy conclusion partly because of theosophy’s septenary view of human nature, partly because of its acceptance of rebirth or reincarnation, and partly because of its belief in the freedom of the human will. Indeed, the law of KARMA would seem to make little sense if the idea of freewill were rejected. How, for example, could one be “rewarded” or “punished” for an action if that action were predetermined? The idea of “reward” or “punishment” would make no sense under those circumstances.
It is sometimes suggested (both by philosophers and others) that the Uncertainty Principle formulated by Heisenberg indicates that effects cannot be predicted with certainty, therefore we are guaranteed freewill. Actually, that is incorrect. If effects were really that unpredictable, we would hardly be in a position to know whether any of our actions would have the result we desire. Our attempts to accomplish anything (even simple bodily movements) would become a guessing game. That is hardly consistent with freewill since one of its common formulations is “I am able to do what I want to do.” Obviously, in order for us to have any freewill at all, we have to assume certain universal laws. We assume we live in an orderly universe. In fact, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle does not deny such an orderly universe, since it applies only at the sub-atomic level and at extremely high velocities, therefore does not in any way undermine the basic laws of the universe.
It is sometimes claimed that Astrology predetermines our actions. Again, this is a fundamental misinterpretation of Astrology. As some astrologers put it: “The stars impel, but they don’t compel.” An analogy might be found in weather reports; we could proceed with a scheduled picnic, sporting event, etc. even though rain was predicted (perhaps, e.g., picnicking under a tarpaulin or preparing ahead for a sporting event by building a domed stadium), but we could also decide to postpone the event until the weather was more conducive. Similarly, if the configuration of planets and astrological houses indicate it would be inappropriate, for example, to consummate a financial deal, one could postpone it — or, if that were not possible, simply exercise greater caution while concluding it. Again, causality — whether astrological or otherwise — assumes that certain results will follow our actions but it does not necessarily mean that those actions which preceded them are predetermined.
As Helena P. BLAVATSKY put it, “Although a study of this science [i.e., Astrology] may enable one to determine what the course of events will be, it cannot necessarily be inferred therefrom that the planets exercise any influence over that course. The clock indicates, it does not influence, the time. And a distant traveler has often to put right his clock so that it may indicate correctly the time of the place he visits. Thus, though the planets may have no hand in changing the destiny of the man, still their position may indicate what that destiny is likely to be. . . . As understood by the Occultist, it [destiny] is merely the chain of causation producing its correspondential series of effects. One who has carefully followed the teachings of Occultism . . . knows that every individual is his own creator or his own father, i.e., our future personality will be the result of our present mode of living. In the same manner our present birth, with all its conditions, is the tree grown out of the germ sown in our past incarnations” (CW VI:228).
Causality assures us that whatever we do will have a result. There is no doubt that all of us are subject to certain habits both of thought and action much of the time. When we act habitually, we may be said to predetermine the results of our acts. There is little doubt that our previous and present conditioning (family and social environment, bodily limitations, character quirks, religious or philosophical beliefs, psychological needs or drives, national identity, even the thought climate we live in and often absorb unconsciously) does limit — or even determine the way we behave. Theosophy does not deny that. Indeed, Annie Besant put it this way: “To all intents and purposes the Will of us is not free. It is only in process of becoming free, and it will only be free when the Self has utterly mastered his vehicles [subtle bodies] and uses them for his own purposes, when every vehicle is only a vehicle, completely responsive to his every impulse, and not a struggling animal, ill-broken, with desires of its own” (A Study in Consciousness, p. 422). In other words, if we wish to exercise control over our conditioning, we must become Self-conscious, we must motivate our actions from a deeper level of our consciousness than is found in our personality and autonomic nervous system. That is one of the reasons for engaging in a routine of daily meditation. It is also a reason for becoming aware of what we are doing at all times and trying to avoid acting in a purely mechanical, habitual, or reactive way.
Obviously, most of us cannot do this consistently. Most of us probably exercise freewill only occasionally. The result of such unconscious behavior often is unpleasant. At some deeper level of our being (perhaps at the level of what is called the “causal body”) we are dimly aware of the relation between past actions and present results. Our conscience tells us that such actions are “wrong,” and we attempt to avoid repeating them. But conscience varies considerably from one person to another, which simply indicates that some people learn faster than others — or, from a theosophical point of view, are more advanced in the spiritual evolutionary process. Again, this process assumes the causal principle. But it does not mean that we are predetermined except in the sense that we pre-determine ourselves. And that means we have freewill, whether we chose — or are able — to exercise it or not.