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Understanding the Hindu View of Free Will and Evil

Arjuna Gallagher points out that concepts of reincarnation and karma make both problems look very different in the Hindu tradition

In last week’s Mind Matters News podcast, “Hinduism, Metaphysics, and Free Will,” neurosurgeon Michael Egnor again interviews Arjuna Gallagher, a Hindu in New Zealand. (The earlier podcast was Hinduism, Reincarnation, and the Mind–Body Problem.) Gallagher hosts a YouTube channel called Theology Unleashed, which has featured many guests discussing the spiritual dimension of our lives — philosopher David Bentley Hart, neuroscientist Mark Solms, atheist Matt Dillahunty… a variety of voices on the spiritual life. Gallagher has also produced a documentary, The Persecuted Saints You’ve Never Heard Of about the persecution of Orthodox Christian monks.

A partial transcript, notes, Show Notes, and Additional Resources follow:

Michael Egnor: In our last session, we talked a little bit about the evolutionary argument against naturalism. The people who believe in evolution obviously believe in the reliability of their own ability to reason, that is, they believe that they can logically understand themselves, understand nature.

But a number of philosophers and theologians, particularly Alvin Plantinga, have put forth an argument that if our ability to reason arose strictly through evolutionary means, we have no reason to trust our ability to reason as a way of ascertaining truth — because it evolved as a way to reproduce, a way to maximize the number of our offspring, not as a way to understand truth. So how do you feel about the evolutionary explanations for the human mind?

Arjuna Gallagher: One thing I want to say first off is that I think we can know that we have an ability to reason, even if our worldview doesn’t explain that… The argument from reason would be that there’s a contradiction between the worldview and the ability to reason.

Note: Argument from reason: At Reasonable Faith,William Lane Craig offers a simple formulation of philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s argument: [3]

1. The probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable, given naturalism and evolution, is low.

2. If someone believes in naturalism and evolution and sees that, therefore, the probability of his cognitive faculties’ being reliable is low, then he has a defeater for the belief that his cognitive faculties are reliable.

3. If someone has a defeater for the belief that his cognitive faculties are reliable, then he has a defeater for any belief produced by his cognitive faculties (including his belief in naturalism and evolution).

4. Therefore, if someone believes in naturalism and evolution and sees that, therefore, the probability of his cognitive faculties’ being reliable is low, then he has a defeater for his belief in naturalism and evolution.

Conclusion: Naturalism and evolution cannot be rationally accepted.

A summation of Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 344-5.

Arjuna Gallagher: Cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman wrote a book called The Case Against Reality: How Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes (Penguin, August 2019) where he thinks that evolution can explain us being good at math because there’s survival advantages to being able to do math well.

I don’t know if it explains being really good at understanding highly abstract concepts. You can imagine the mathematician that’s pottering around being the one who gets eaten by the bear because they’re not paying enough attention to the outside world, right?

Michael Egnor: Well it would seem to me there’d be a fairly simple way of testing the hypothesis that evolution was the source of our ability to do math just by checking the reproductive success of mathematicians as compared to say, rock stars. That doesn’t seem to be too credible if you look at the average high school dating scene.

Arjuna Gallagher: The counter argument might be a group selection, a gene pool capable of producing these kinds of intelligences is better at surviving, even if the people with those kinds of intelligences don’t have a better reproduction rate.

Michael Egnor: You can make that argument, but then that gets into the whole problem of group selection versus selfish genes. At least within the population, mathematics would be a vanishingly rare thing because everybody else would be reproducing because the mathematicians have conferred them a benefit. So you get fewer and fewer mathematicians as the generations go along.

Note: Group selection is a somewhat controversial theory among evolutionary biologists: Through much of his career, eminent evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson (1929–2021) pioneered the acceptance of group (kin) selection but then: “Wilson dramatically abandoned kin selection in 2010 in a Nature paper, “The evolution of eusociality,” co-authored with mathematicians. He argued that strict Darwinism (natural selection) “provides an exact framework for interpreting empirical observations,” dispensing with the other theories he had promoted for decades. Over 140 leading biologists signed a letter to Nature, attacking the 2010 paper. Some called his new, strictly Darwin model ‘unscholarly,’ ‘transparently wrong,’ and ‘misguided.’” The field of evolution studies may not be in a certain enough state to justify confidence in its explanations of the origin of the human mind.

Michael Egnor: So from your perspective on Hinduism, what is the metaphysical structure of reality? That’s a big question, but how does the metaphysics work?

Arjuna Gallagher: The Sanskrit word tattva is closest to [the] ontological category. It’s from the demonstrative pronoun tat, which means “that”. So, “that” — when you convert it to a philosophical term — comes to mean “things that actually exist.” It’s categories of existence. You’ve got three broad categories as you get more descriptions, which is God, the world, and the living entities.

But then with the material creation, it gets a bit more complex. I haven’t studied it for a while, but there’s something like the Mahabhutas and there’s 25 elements. One of them includes God, then there’s various other stages. And you get down to 10 senses plus the mind. So the mind is counted as a sense.

And then the material energy is composed of five elements — those five elements each have different qualities and you go from subtle to more gross. Aether is the first element. And then you get air, I think fire is next, water, and then earth. And they each contain progressively more qualities.

How the Hindu view of the universe accounts for reincarnation

Arjuna Gallagher: And then there’s one idea, which is you don’t find in Christianity so much, of subtle and gross. There’s the subtle body and the gross body, and the subtle body is carried from lifetime to lifetime. That includes impressions, so if you suffer trauma or, or whatever other experiences that leave a deep impression on the soul, you carry it until the next lifetime.

As anyone who’s been around children is aware, there’re a diverse collection of personalities that can’t be explained by the differences in environments. I’ve got two kids and they’re both completely different from one another. And this is explained by them carrying over impressions from past lives in the subtle body. And then the gross body is produced as a result of that.

And there’s the material universe, which is composed of matter. And there’s the spiritual world, which is composed of Sat, Chit, and Ananda, which is eternity, knowledge and bliss. So it’s said that the qualities of this living entity, the jivatma, is Sat-Chit-Ananda, just as God is Sat-Chit-Ananda. So we’re one in quality with God, but different in quantity. We’re a tiny spark of the divine, whereas God is the infinite absolute divine.

Is the problem of evil incomprehensible from a human perspective?

Michael Egnor: David Bentley Hart wrote a wonderful book on that particular topic, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (2013). And he divided the book into those three topics. He pointed out that, although there are a lot of differences between individual faiths, they all seem to identify those three things as central to existence and characteristics of God in one way or another. And you had a chance to interview David Bentley Hart on Theology Unleashed, right?

Arjuna Gallagher: Yeah. I’ve had him on twice. Once it was just me interviewing him along with a fellow Christian and yeah, it was really interesting. He was a good sport.

Note: This episode of Theology Unleashed, features David Bentley Hart and British author Ranchor Prime The interview with Hart alone is here.

Michael Egnor: He’s a fascinating guy and a magnificent writer. He did a wonderful book on the problem of evil related to the east Asian tsunami [2004] called The Doors of the Sea. (2011).

As I recall, his basic argument was that God is completely good, that there is nothing evil in God. We don’t understand why evil occurs and it’s better for us that we don’t — meaning that it’s a topic that is simply beyond us. And that our job is to try to help out as much as we can and to love God and not to blame Him for evil. I found it a very thoughtful a way of looking at it.

Arjuna Gallagher: Sometimes you’ll see people who have gone through immense suffering come to a realization that they gained some immense wisdom, which they attribute to having gone through that suffering. And they come to some understanding that the suffering was necessary and the wisdom they got from it is so valuable that they wouldn’t trade it for not having suffered. But of course, oftentimes we’re not out on that plateau. We’re having to employ a skeptical theism where we have this assumption that God is all good, and there’s a higher purpose for all of us — but we’re not able to see the reasons for it.

Michael Egnor: There’s an analogy that I find very helpful in thinking about this. I have four kids and when they were babies, if you put them down to nap time before they wanted to go to take a nap, they would scream bloody murder. They’d be very upset that they had to take a nap. So they’d be standing in their cribs screaming. And from the baby’s perspective, this was the worst thing that ever happened.

Obviously taking a nap is a good thing for them, but they were too young to really understand it. But I understood it as the parent. And the gulf between me and the ultimate reality is infinitely greater than a gulf between a parent and a child.

So no matter how terrible something may seem in my life, it’s like, I’m that infant standing in the crib screaming. I can’t even really begin to understand why God lets this happen, but it doesn’t mean that it’s, in the grand scheme of things, not explainable in a way consistent with God’s goodness. It just means that I can’t even begin to understand it myself, but that’s my problem.

The problem of evil as proof of the existence of God

Michael Egnor: The other thing is, I’ve always considered the problem of evil to be a very powerful argument for the existence of God. Atheists tend to use the problem of evil as an argument against the existence of God. However, if you acknowledge that evil exists, then you acknowledge that a moral law exists independently of opinion, because when people say that things are evil, they don’t just mean that something has happened that they disagree with.

It means that they think it’s objectively wrong, that there is something evil about a child dying of cancer or a tsunami killing thousands of people. But if there is something objectively evil about that, then there has to be a source for that objective moral law, by which you judge it to be evil, and that source can only be God. So I think the problem of evil actually presupposes God’s existence.

If God didn’t exist, we wouldn’t see evil as a problem. We would just have things that we agreed with and disagreed with, but we wouldn’t ascribe any moral importance to it.

Arjuna Gallagher: Well, the atheist can say, you guys believe God’s all good. You believe an objective moral value such as that these things are wrong. And yet these things are going on. God’s all powerful therefore, He could stop it and He’s not so he can’t be all good.

That’s an argument they can offer but often when these people say these things, they genuinely believe that it is objectively wrong for these things to happen. And if they do hold to an objective morality, then the argument fails.

I’ve heard William Lane Craig describe that… He’s had one conversation where, when he talked about the first premise, the person would reject that premise and rely on the second premise. And when he talked about the second premise, the person would accept that premise and reject the other one!

Why the problem of evil looks different in the Hindu tradition

Arjuna Gallagher: Another point on the problem of evil is, in the Hindu traditions, it never really came up and I’ve often puzzled over that. Finally, I think it was Dr. Howard Resnick who explained to me that it didn’t come up because there was this bedrock idea of personal responsibility, thanks to karma reincarnation. So the question didn’t really come up as a serious philosophical question. Other things were debated and it was just a bedrock assumption that we had personal responsibility.

The real thing that Christianity doesn’t have, which we have with karma reincarnation is the ability to explain why this person and not that person (suffers). Why me rather than someone else? Because with previous lifetimes, I can actually have responsibility that’s genuine. It’s just the pure will of the divine that some people fall here and some people fall there and we just got to learn and grow from whatever we’re given.

Michael Egnor: Yes, but the difficulty with ascribing responsibility based on prior lifetimes is that it very much presupposes a moral law giver which certainly requires a personal God. I mean, we don’t see any credible mechanistic way that moral problems in previous lives could be punished or rewarded in future lives without a personal God. So I’m not sure that Hinduism necessarily solves that problem. It just removes it one generation.

Arjuna Gallagher: Yeah. You still do need God. I was doing a comparison with Christian views. There’s plenty of views you could argue against, using the moral argument. The karma reincarnation point can’t be explained by plenty of other Hindu views which lack a personal God.

Michael Egnor: With the modern debate between the new atheists and Christians, there’s a tremendous debate about the existence and reality of free will. What is the perspective on free will in the Hindu belief?

Arjuna Gallagher: There might be Hindus that reject the existence of free will… I don’t know if it’s something that was debated much in the tradition. Probably not. We’re free agents. There’s five factors of action so we’re not 100% free. I can’t remember the list of five actions that’s in Bhagavad Gita. One of them is the living entity. One of them is karma. One of them is God. One of them is the modes of material nature, which is actually another part of metaphysics we could get into. Modes of material nature are ignorance, passion, and goodness.

Karma like falling dominoes. Businessman pushed dominoes and expects and analyzes the result. Dangerous situation

Ignorance is suffering now and suffering later, like a drug addiction. The person’s taking the drug, they think it’s happiness, but actually it’s suffering like getting drunk at a party. And then they suffer the next day too with the hangover…

So, as for free will, we associate with the modes of material nature by listening to certain things, hanging out with certain people. And that creates a certain attitude in us. We get covered by a particular combination of the modes of material nature. And then those drive our behavior.

People who are on alcohol are more likely to commit violence. This is caused by becoming more in the mode of ignorance. Certain choices we make limit our free will. So if I choose to get on an airplane… but once you’re on the airplane, your choices are restricted. You can’t just get off the airplane in the middle of a flight. There’s certain things you can do while on the airplane. You still have free will there.

Next: The Hindu view of creation and the universe

Here is the series of four discussions between Michael Egnor and Arjuna Gallagher:

What do the world’s 1.2 billion Hindus think about the mind? Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor interviews Hindu Arjuna Gallagher on the similarities and differences between that tradition and Western theism. Egnor and Gallagher discuss the concept of God (or gods) karma, and reincarnation, in light of what we can really know about the world we live in.

Understanding the Hindu view of free will and evil Arjuna Gallagher points out that concepts of reincarnation and karma make both problems look very different in the Hindu tradition. Michael Egnor observes that recognition of evil is a strong argument for the existence of God, yet a key source of doubt. Perhaps the topic is simply beyond us.

What do Hindus think about the Big Bang? The cyclic universe? Hinduism posits a creator God but assumes the creation of cyclic universes. In the Hindu view, the material universe is meant to enable living consciousnesses to have sensory experiences that ultimately bring them back to God.


A Catholic and a Hindu tackle Woke culture. In a wide-ranging discussion, Michael Egnor and Arjuna Gallagher look at Woke culture, abortion, euthanasia, and microaggressions. On Cancel Culture and euthanasia, Egnor and Gallagher are in general agreement but they find some points of difference on abortion.

You may also wish to read: Michael Egnor appeared on the podcast hosted by Arjuna Gallagher, Theology Unleashed, with atheist spokesman Matt Dillahunty Here is a link to all the segments with transcript and notes.

Show Notes

  • 00:07 | Introducing Arjuna Gallagher
  • 01:32 | Evolutionary Explanations for the Human Mind
  • 04:24 | Hinduism and Metaphysics
  • 08:25 | God and Evil
  • 15:01 | Hinduism and Free Will

Additional Resources

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Understanding the Hindu View of Free Will and Evil