WHAT KIND OF FREE WILL DID THE BUDDHA TEACH?
Department of Psychology, University of Warwick
The modern version of the problem of free will is usually described as a collision
between two beliefs: the belief that we are free to choose our actions and the belief
that our actions are determined by prior necessary causes. Determinism—the view
that events are determined by specific causes—makes most aspects of reality intelligible.
It works quite well, for example, when explaining aspects of the natural world
(quantum physics aside). When heat, fuel, and oxygen come together there is fire.
There must be fire. To borrow a famous Buddhist simile, when a mango seed is given
the right conditions, it will grow to become a mango tree. It cannot grow to be anything
else. However, we do not usually think of agents as being caused in the same
way. We tend to think that agents somehow transcend natural causation by their
ability to choose freely. If we also think that agents are part of the natural order, we
face a paradox. This is, in short, the problem of free will.
On the face of it this problem applies to Buddhism as well. Buddhist thought is
very much dedicated to explaining reality as a series of causal relations between processes.
This, together with the rejection of a transcendent soul, seems to contradict
the Buddhist insistence on choice, personal responsibility, and retribution. Surprisingly,
the subject of free will in Buddhism has remained somewhat marginalized in
Buddhist scholarship. This has left a void that has attracted contradictory claims:
either that Buddhism allows no free will or that it is a doctrine of free will per se.1
This article aims at counterbalancing this situation by comparing the Buddhist position,
as preserved in Pa¯li sources, with a recent proposal by the philosopher Daniel
Dennett, who advocates a compatibilist solution to the traditional problem of free
will. It argues that Dennett and the Buddha represent two similar conceptual shifts:
from ultimate free will to compatible free will.2 Dennett criticizes the Cartesian
notion of the soul as the ultimate inner controller of the body and replaces it with
a dynamic notion of intention that is dependent on the agent’s cognitive ability to
reflect, plan, and control. Similarly, the Buddha rejects the Brahamanical concept
of soul as the ultimate controller and replaces it with a dynamic notion of intention.
The parallels between the rejections of Cartesianism and Upanis
show that although the Buddha rejected ultimate free will, he accepted a compatibilist
free will that allows self-control and moral choice.
This article begins with a critical review of the secondary literature on free will
in Buddhism. It progresses by comparing the Brahamanical notion of free will with
the Cartesian notion. It discusses the arguments that are used by Dennett and the
Philosophy East & West Volume 60, Number 1 January 2010 1–19
> 2010 by University of Hawai‘i Press
Buddha in order to reject ultimate free will, and presents a positive account of the
kind of free will the Buddha taught, using the conceptual tools laid out by Dennett.
Finally, it addresses the question of the compatibility of determinism and free will. It
argues that the Buddha’s position is closer to accepting determinism than to rejecting
it, and that determinism is compatible with the kind of free will that the Buddha
Review of Secondary Literature
As mentioned above, there is little published on free will in Buddhist scholarship.
The collection Freedom and Determinism contains a chapter on Buddhism by Gier
and Kjellberg that compares the Buddhist doctrines from the Pa¯li Canon and from
Na¯ga¯rjuna with Western philosophies from the ancient Greek to Modern Europe.3
Although this chapter begins to do justice to the long-neglected subject, its broad
scope eventually leads to an unsatisfying conclusion: that Buddhism is silent about
free will because its conceptual tool kit is different from the modern tool kit.
An earlier article by Luis Go´ mez contains some preliminary insights from the
Pa¯li.4 It presents the problem of free will as a tension between choice and determinism
and concludes that Buddhism suggests a ‘‘middle way’’ between the two.
Go´ mez argues that this is possible only if causality, or karma, in Buddhism is understood
as ‘‘weak determinism.’’ Unfortunately this concept is not adequately explained
or developed. Although the article presents an interesting analysis of some Pa¯ li passages,
it compromises the philosophical side.
Mark Siderits provides a more detailed philosophical argument for Buddhist
compatibilism; however, his article suffers from a lack of references to primary
sources, a fact that led him to unnecessary complications.5 Although he argues that
in Buddhism personal freedom and psychological determinism relate to each other
like ‘‘two ships passing each other in the night,’’6 he admits that the Buddhist rejection
of a¯tman practically cancels the possibility of free will:
If ultimately there are no persons but only physical and mental events in a complex
causal series, then the ultimate truth about ‘‘us’’ must be that ‘‘we’’ are not free.7
After that he tries to ‘‘save’’ freedom by suggesting that believing in freedom is
necessary because ‘‘otherwise there would be no explaining the utility of the concept
of freedom.’’8 This is a problematic argument that tries to derive the existence
of freedom from the mere existence of the concept of freedom. However, taking this
path is unnecessary, because—as suggested below—although the Buddhist doctrine
of not-soul rejects the idea of ultimate self-control, this does not lead to denying that
people control their behavior and choose their actions.
There are other references to the question of free will and determinism in textbooks
and monographs. Here are two examples that illuminate, again, the problem
scholars face when dealing with free will in Buddhism. In his Buddhist Logic Stcherbatsky
writes that ‘‘the Special Theory of Causation has been established by Buddha
himself in defense of Free Will and against a theory of wholesale determinism.’’9 He
2 Philosophy East & West
bases this observation on the famous Buddhist rejection of the fatalistic position of
Makkhali Gosala, who denied absolutely all free will and all moral responsibility.10
Here, in Stcherbatsky’s view, the Buddhist rejection of Makkhali’s fatalism is equated
with the rejection of determinism and leads to the defense of free will. Thus, in this
interpretation, the Buddha accepts free will.
Walpola Rahula, on the other hand, describes the Buddhist position in the following
If Free Will implies a will independent of conditions, independent of cause and effect,
such a thing does not exist. How can a will, or anything for that matter, arise without
conditions, away from cause and effect, when the whole of existence is conditioned
and relative, and is within the law of cause and effect?11
Here, in Rahula’s view, the Buddhist doctrine of causality overrides the possibility
of independent free will (cf. Wallace in note 1 above). Determining the Buddhist
position on free will requires a clearer analysis of the terms involved in the discussion.
Does free will mean something that is ‘‘independent of conditions, independent
of cause and effect’’? Or does it mean the opposite of fatalism? The first step
in answering these questions is to acknowledge that there are in fact two different
definitions of free will. The first defines free will as a power that belongs in the
soul, transcends the physical, and has ultimate control over the body (FW1). The
second defines free will as the agent’s ability to control action in conformity with
will, when there are no constraints that limit performance (FW2). The shift from
one definition to the other characterizes the philosophical atmosphere today and
has characterized the Buddhist position in the early days. Much of the confusion in
Buddhist scholarship is caused by mixing these two kinds.
The Cartesian Notion of Free Will and the Upanis
adic Notion of Ultimate Control
The problem of free will is a product of European thought and is rooted in medieval
theology. As expressed by Augustine of Hippo, the will to do evil poses a tremendous
difficulty to the believer who accepts the existence of an all-powerful, benevolent
creator God.12 This difficulty is then generalized to encompass the entire realm
of moral choice, and eventually human conscious choice in general. Thirteen hundred
years after Augustine of Hippo, when Descartes articulated his ‘‘proof’’ of free
will, he called upon a very similar notion of God to aid his argument for ultimate free
will.13 Indeed this notion of free will cannot simply be imposed on Buddhism, which
rejects the idea of an all-powerful Deity.
As mentioned above, the problem of free will and determinism, which lies dormant
at the core of the Cartesian position, is about how to reconcile the view that the
physical world is governed by mechanical causation and the view that people have
free choice. In history there were various attempts to solve this problem of which
two are most illuminating for understanding the Buddhist stance. The first is called
here ‘‘Cartesianism’’ (after Rene´ Descartes), and the second is called ‘‘compatibilism’’
because it argues that freedom and determinism are compatible. The first to
Asaf Federman 3
articulate the compatibilist position was probably Hobbes, who defined a free man
as somebody who finds ‘‘no stop in doing what he has the will, desire or inclination
to do.’’14 Agents are more free when they are less limited by constraints, coercions,
lack of opportunities, and compulsions. Descartes, on the other hand, sees free will
as a Godly power that belongs in the soul. In the fourth chapter of Meditations on
First Philosophy he states:
I . . . can not complain that God has not given me a free choice or a will which is sufficient,
ample and perfect, since as a matter of fact I am conscious of will so extended as to
be subject to no limits. . . . It is the free-will alone or the faculty of choice which I find
to be so great in me that I can conceive no other idea to be more great; it is indeed that
case that it is for the most part this will that causes me to know that in some manner I bear
the image and similitude of God.15
Free will in this case is ‘‘ample and perfect’’ and is ‘‘subject to no limit.’’ Descartes’
understanding of free will stems from his ontological standpoint, which is
known as ‘‘substance dualism.’’ Will is a power that belongs to the soul, to the immaterial
substance. This power can influence the material substance by causing the
body to move. In The Passions of the Soul Descartes writes: ‘‘the little gland in the
middle of the brain can be pushed to one side by the soul and to the other side by
the animal spirits.’’16 The ‘‘animal spirits’’ can be understood as bio-mechanical
forces that originate from neither will nor reason. Descartes was aware of the fact
that human behavior is influenced by various forces (e.g., instincts and emotions),
but he claimed that the will could override them, especially when combined with
reason. These two immaterial faculties exercise a top-down causality—from soul to
Descartes and his followers argue that free will belongs in the soul and that the
body is subject to mechanical causality. According to this view, freedom cannot
arise from a determined physical process. It must come from somewhere else. Determined
processes may cause desires and instincts to arise, but true free decisions are
not bound to the physical. They rule it. They control it.
Let us consider a contemporary example. John Foster introduces the requirements
for free will as follows:
The non-physical subject has a genuine power of choice, whose operation is not constrained
by prior physical or psychological conditions, and which enables him to exercise
an ultimate control over the movement of the body.17
First, the agent is required to be non-physical, because the physical world, as we
know, is governed by causality. Second, the agent should have a genuine power of
choice and an ability to exercise ultimate control over movement. Anything less than
that, according to Foster, would not account for freedom.
Scientists are less attracted to the idea of non-physical substances. The idea that
a non-physical agent somehow imposes freedom on a closed causal system contradicts
essential aspects of scientific thought, namely that the brain controls the body,
4 Philosophy East & West
and that the brain is part of the deterministic physical world. A rigorous materialistic
approach would dismiss free will as unreal or illusory. Actions and choices are primarily
produced by brains. Being part of the physical world, brains do not transcend
causality and therefore cannot be genuinely free.18 However, in the face of our intuition
about ourselves, and the fact that we exhibit many signs of being able to
choose, some hesitate to claim that free will is just an illusion, and insist that there
is a genuine problem with it.19
Nevertheless, even the position of those who think that free will is nothing but
an illusion falls under the category of ‘‘Cartesianism’’ because it is based on the assumption
that without an immaterial soul that transcends causality there is no place
for genuine free will. This is the first kind of free will that was mentioned above
This kind of free will is virtually identical to one view that can be found in the
ads, and that is rejected by the Buddha. Some Upanis
adic passages suggest a
strong association between soul (a¯ tman) 20 and control. On top of the common
Advaita interpretation that sees a¯tman only as an ultimate locus of perception,21
these passages suggest that it is also an ultimate locus of control. In the Br
U) the priest who knows the secret meaning of ritual verses is described
as all-powerful: ‘‘He is able to produce by his singing whatever he desires, either for
himself or for the patron of the sacrifice.’’22 Passages like this lead Steven Collins to
argue that Brahmanical practices and theology contain an important component of
control: the priest who knows the ritual gains control over the universe.23
In the Brahmanical context knowledge is control. Knowing the ritual gives the
priest control over the sacrifice, and hence over the universe. This principle is sometimes
transformed in the Upanis
ads in the following way: one who knows the soul
(a¯ tman) gains control over the ultimate principle of the universe (Brahman), because
they are, in the final account, identical. This is based on two principles: (1) a knowledge
of things gives power over them, and (2) things of different scale may be identical.
Thus, knowing means controlling, and controlling allows those who know to
gain whatever they wish. In the same manner the renouncer gains ultimate control
through the ‘‘internal ritual,’’ through knowing the soul:24
The soul (a¯ tman) of yours who is present within but is different from the earth, whom the
earth does not know, whose body is the earth, and who controls the earth from within—
he is the inner controller (antaraya¯ min), the immortal.25
This passage is repeated with the word ‘‘earth’’ being replaced by various features
like water, fire, and the sky. A¯ tman is repeatedly described as an inner controller
(antaraya¯ min), and at the end it is also described as the center of perception.26
The ontology of the Upanis
ads is very different from that suggested by Descartes.
The latter, as pointed out above, is very much embedded in Christian Theology.
Nevertheless, both descriptions of inner control share the following features: (1) the
inner controller is the soul, or the true essence of being, (2) it controls the body, and
(3) it is different from the body. This could be mapped onto the definition of FW1: a
Asaf Federman 5
power that belongs in the soul, that transcends the physical and that has ultimate
The Buddha’s Rejection of Ultimate Free Will
In Buddhist thought freedom does not require an immortal and immaterial substance
that transcends the causal order. The Buddha denied the concept of soul and at the
same time taught choice, individual responsibility, and personal retribution. In the
Cartesian context the soul serves as an ultimate source of control, and a very similar
idea is found in the Upanis
ads. Nevertheless, it is denied in early Buddhism and is
replaced by a dynamic volitional process, which is embedded in causality.
In the passages from the Upanis
ads that are quoted above, a¯tman is the inner
controller. Knowing a¯tman gives the knower ultimate control and ultimate freedom
to influence his destiny. By knowing a¯tman one becomes one’s own master and
gains freedom of movement. The metaphor of mastery is echoed later in Buddhist
texts, and stresses that the Buddha rejected a¯tman not only as a center of perception,
but also as the center of control (more on this later).
If knowledge of a¯tman is indeed so crucial for being one’s own master, being
free and self-controlled, what should we make of the Buddha’s claim that no a¯tman
can be found? There are two options. (1) With the rejection of a¯tman the Buddha
provided a new source for ultimate free will. Or (2) with the rejection of a¯tman the
Buddha rejected the idea of ultimate self-control and therefore rejected the idea of
an ultimate free-will. The first hypothesis can easily be ruled out. Pa¯li texts do not
suggest any alternative substance as the origin of ultimate control. They discuss reality
in terms of processes, not in terms of substances. In such a reality there is action
but there cannot be an ultimate source for action. The search for ultimate control
must, then, be futile. If ultimate control is the definition of free will then the Buddha
must have denied it.
On the other hand, we expect that a system that stresses personal responsibility
in both the moral and soteriological dimensions will also provide a theoretical account
of how individuals are agents, ultimate bearers of responsibility, and ultimate
initiators of action. In other words, we expect such a system to have a theory of
ultimate agent causation and free will. But Buddhism fails to meet this expectation.
Buddhist arguments systematically shift the attention from agent causation to a
causal sequence of impersonal processes.
One sutta of the Sam
yutta Nika¯ya expresses the Buddha’s refusal to commit to a
theory of agent causation regarding the origin of suffering. There, Sa¯riputta is asked
where the Buddha stood on a certain controversy, which is expressed in the Indian
quadruple proposition: is suffering created by oneself, by another, by both, or by
none?27 Although there is no reference here to one’s soul (atta¯ ), there is reference
to oneself (sayam˙
). The word sayam˙
is derived from the Vedic sva, meaning ‘‘own.’’
The question is therefore about the ‘‘owner,’’ or the agent, by which suffering is produced
). But the Buddhist answer shifts the attention away from agency alto-
6 Philosophy East & West
gether. It simply states that suffering is created by contact (phassa) and later explains
the causal process in more detail using the language of impersonal causation. In this
sutta the causal analysis is said to be true whether you think that suffering is caused
by self, another, both, or none. It renders the question of agent causation as irrelevant;
instead it suggests that suffering is ‘‘dependently arisen’’ (pat
In other places, theories about the agent’s center of gravity, the soul, are also
rejected and with them the idea that agents have ultimate control over other aspects
of reality.28 This is clearly illustrated in one of the most important discourses of the
Pa¯li canon, the A¯ nattalakkhan
a-sutta, where the Buddha expounds the doctrine of
not-soul (a¯ natta) to his five former companions. The Buddha states:
Body is not soul. For if body were soul this body would not lead to affliction, and it would
be possible to have it of body: ‘‘Let my body be thus; let my body not be thus.’’ But because
body is not soul it leads to affliction[;] it is not possible to have it of body: ‘‘Let my
body be thus; let my body not be thus.’’29
This passage is repeated five times with ‘‘body’’ being replaced by each of the
remaining four ‘‘aggregates’’ (khandha) that constitute the mind-body phenomenon:
sensations, apperceptions, volitions, and consciousness.30 Any of these, it is said, is
not soul because (a) it leads to suffering, and ( it cannot be changed at will. These
passages contain two arguments.
1. If body was soul, and soul could not lead to affliction, then body does not lead to
2. It is not true that body does not lead to affliction.
3. Therefore it is not true that body is soul.
1. If body was soul, it could be changed at will.
2. It is not possible to change body at will.
3. Therefore body is not soul.
The first argument is based on the hidden assumption that soul could not lead
to affliction. This echoes the Brahamanical assertion that knowing a¯tman leads to
ultimate bliss.31 The second argument is based on the following assumption: soulas-
aggregate means an ability to change the aggregate at will. The conclusion does
not say that soul does not exist, but rather says that none of the five aggregates
is soul. More interesting than the conclusion is the premise, which says that soul
entails entertaining ultimate agent causation (‘‘Let my form be thus; let my form not
be thus’’). The text takes it for granted that if soul-as-aggregate exists, then the aggregate
could be directly manipulated. Although it does not explicitly say the soul
controls the aggregates, it does associate the existence of soul-as-aggregate with the
ability to control.
Asaf Federman 7
The same line of argument is repeated in detail in the Cu¯ l
which contains an additional simile that stresses the connection between soul and
control. The Buddha describes how a king rules his kingdom. Then he asks Saccaka
to confirm that soul must have the same kind of control over the aggregates. If the
aggregates were soul, says the Buddha, then one would rule them as a king rules
his kingdom. The conclusion echoes the A¯ nattalakkhan
a-sutta: soul cannot be found
within the aggregates because one cannot change the aggregates at will.
These arguments against a¯ tta and for anatta¯ assume a connection between soul
and ultimate control. Taking any of the aggregates to be the essence of being, the
soul, would mean that it could be manipulated at will. As shown above, this connection
is not foreign to ancient Indian thought. The Buddhist denial of soul includes
a denial of such ultimate control, thus taking for granted ideas that are found in some
passages of the Br
ad. Although there is no agreement among
scholars on whether the Buddha had any knowledge of the Upanis
ads, it becomes
clear that the association between soul and control was taken for granted by the
Buddha when he formulated his arguments for a¯ natta. With the rejection of the
soul, the Buddha also rejected ultimate free will.
Dennett’s neo-compatibilist reaction to the Cartesian conception of free will
shares some features with the Buddhist rejection of the Upanis
adic idea of an ultimate
controller. The most obvious resemblance is the rejection of ultimate soul as
the source for free will. As mentioned above, the Buddha rejected the Brahmanic
idea that humans can find a soul (a¯ tman) that is identical to a divine power (Brahman).
Dennett, too, rejects that traditional idea that free will is ‘‘a God-like power to exempt
oneself from the causal fabric of the physical world.’’33 He, like the Buddha,
is convinced that we do not have immaterial souls in that sense.34 The structure of
the justification for this conviction is similar in both the modern and the Buddhist
cases: the idea that we have souls is simply not supported by anything we have
learned from experience or experimentation.35 This already is at odds with the definition
of free will that is given above (FW1). However, it agrees with the compatibilist
definition of free will that is endorsed by Dennett and can be extracted from
The Buddha and Compatibilist Free Will
The classical compatibilist solution to the problem of free will shifts the attention
from ultimate agency to the more tangible freedoms people have. People are free
whenever they can do what they want to do, that is, when there are no constraints
on choice and execution. To this notion of compatibilist free will Dennett adds an
important cognitive perspective that works well with the Buddhist psychological attitude.
(He also adds an evolutionary perspective that has no Buddhist counterpart,
which will not be discussed here.) He perceives free will as a kind of self-control that
is based on a unique set of cognitive skills: to represent, to reflect, and to imagine
possibilities. In his words:
8 Philosophy East & West
We are the only species whose members can imagine the adaptive landscape of possibilities
beyond the physical landscape, who can ‘‘see’’ across the valleys to other conceivable
peaks. . . . We can conceive (we think) better worlds and yearn to get there. . . . Our
evolved capacity to reflect gives us—and only us—both the opportunity and the competence
to evaluate the ends, not just the means.36
People imagine possibilities, and aspire to achieve what they think is best among
them. This process is not linear. It is subject to constant evaluation and reevaluation
according to knowledge that has been accumulated. The more accurately one represents
reality and imagines possibilities, the more freedom one has. Free will is,
therefore, our imperfect ability to control ourselves, to direct ourselves (our bodies,
to begin with) toward the imagined goal. Free will in this sense is necessarily a property
of an agent who wants something, and who can drive himself in the direction of
fulfilling the desire.37 This is the second kind of free will that is mentioned above
(FW2): an agent’s ability to control action in conformity with his will when there
are no constraints, coercions, and compulsions that limit performance.
Although FW1 is rejected by the Buddha, FW2 is consistent with Buddhist doctrine.
In fact, the Buddhist path—that is, the path to freedom (vimuttimagga)38—
aims exactly at the eradication of coercion, constraint, limitation, bondage, and
so on. Buddhist texts focus mostly on mental constraints (a partial list would
contain the three roots of suffering and the five hindrances),39 whose eradication
is often compared to becoming free from slavery, bondage, debt, and sickness.40
Those who are not yet liberated are bound by various mental bondages (bandha)
that limit the mind and obstruct freedom. Finally, nibba¯ na, the ultimate goal of the
path, is referred to as freedom in the compatibilist sense. In David Kalupahana’s
words: ‘‘The term nibba¯na (Skt. nirva¯n
a) conveys the same negative sense associated
with the conception of freedom whenever the latter is defined as ‘absence of constraint.’
’’41 The eradication of mental constraint is the core of the Buddhist path
to freedom, and there is little doubt that the Buddha thought that such freedom is
Besides the absence of constraint, the compatibilist definition of free will requires
also an agent that is capable of monitoring wishes in order to execute actions.
Although the Buddha denied ultimate agency—the singular point from which soul
ultimately controls the body—he acknowledged moral choice and personal retribution.
The agent in this case is nothing but a collection of physical and mental processes,
but as such it can still choose what to do. The Buddha rejected the view,
attributed to Makkhali Gosala, that there is no self-agency (attaka¯ ra) 42 and replied
to another question on the same subject that people have an ‘‘ability of initiating’’
(a¯rabbha-dha¯ tu).43 Some other Pa¯li terms that fall under the English ‘‘intention’’—
san˜ cetana¯ , sankappa, cetana¯—indicate that for the Buddha a person is able to consciously
plan and direct action. Being part of the eightfold path samma¯ -sankappa is
singled out as a function that can direct behavior toward non-harm and renunciation.
44 Cetana¯ is singled out as equally important when the Buddha declares that it
defines action with moral consequence (kamma).45 Denying intention, that is, the
Asaf Federman 9
ability to plan and deliberate action, would be similar to accepting the fatalistic doctrine
of Makkhali Gosala.
The last component that is required for free will is the ability to be aware of
one’s own desires and wishes. Mindfulness (sati) is probably the single most important
cognitive function that is responsible for this task in Buddhist psychology. It is
part of the eightfold path (samma¯ -sati) and can be developed through practice. It
allows the practitioner to know the current state of the body, bodily movements,
feelings, mind (citta), and mental states (dhamma).46 When one knows one’s state
of mind, desires, and wishes, one can consider a course of action. As long as there
are no constraints, one can act accordingly.
However, constraints refer not just to physical limitations that prevent the execution
of action but also to psychological limitations that may interfere with planning
itself. The Buddhist treatment of freedom is notably psychological and takes into account
the level of mental constraints. Unlike some libertarian positions that emphasize
only the freedom of action, Buddhist liberty primarily refers to the mind being
free from what binds it. This notion directly stems from the Buddhist understanding
that the mind ‘‘foreruns’’ or precedes the rest of the phenomenal world, including
action.47 A free mind is therefore a necessary condition for other kinds of freedoms
like freedom of speech, choice, and action, which all come under the compatibilist
definition of free will.
The importance of mental freedom at the level of planning is illustrated in postcanonical
discussion of a Jataka story in the Questions of Milinda.48 The story tells
about the bodhisatta Lomasa Kassapa, whose passion for a princess Candavati drove
him to perform a brutal sacrificial act. Although under Buddhist standards he committed
the offense of killing, the text indicates that he was not fully responsible because
the act was performed when he was out of his mind and not when he was
intending what he was doing. Although on the face of it Lomasa controlled his
actions and executed them in conformity with his desires (FW2), on a deeper level,
says the Questions of Milinda, his mind was so confused, agitated, and disturbed
ita-citta) as to prevent real choice. His actions, therefore, are
said to have been performed without intention (no san˜cetanena).
Conscious reflection and planning—whatever Pa¯li terms are used to describe
them—stand out as necessary components of the Buddhist path to liberation.
When the Buddha instructs his son Rahula he tells him to reflect before, during,
and after performing any action, because otherwise he would automatically and
unconsciously follow his habits and dispositions. The Buddha tells Rahula to reflect:
Would this bodily action that I desire to do (kattuka¯mo) lead to harming myself, or to
harming others or to harming both? Is it an unwholesome bodily action with painful consequences
and painful results?49
Reflection on desire and its consequences allows Rahula to inhibit certain
desires and to perform others. As Dennett suggests, becoming a free agent requires
knowing one’s own desires, and requires knowing, or at least imagining, the consequences
of one’s actions. A mind colored with lust, hatred, or confusion cannot
10 Philosophy East & West
plan appropriately and is limited by its own state. A clear mind is a good guide to
one’s own desires and is a powerful tool that turns knowledge into wise decisions.
This is, in practice, an exercise of conscious will. It is not ultimately free, but only
free to the extent that the mind is not overloaded emotionally, is able to be aware
of its own state, and is able to imagine future consequences.
Determinism and Fatalism
The previous two sections argue that there are in fact two definitions of free will of
which only one is compatible with what the Buddha taught. The Buddha rejected
free will as a power that belongs in the soul, that transcends the physical and that
has ultimate control (FW1). On the other hand he accepted the idea that people
have free will when they are able to control their actions in conformity with their
will when there are no constraints, coercions, and compulsions on either planning
or performance (FW2). One objection may be raised against the second definition:
if determinism is true, is it not the case that one is already under the control of determinism?
Two issues are raised here for Buddhism. First, did the Buddha think that
determinism was true? If he did not, then the objection for FW2 is dropped. However,
if he did, does determinism imply that agents are controlled and therefore not
The idea that the Buddha rejected determinism is a prevalent but inaccurate
view. Determinism is the thesis that the past determines a unique future.50 This thesis
implies that past events causally determine future events so that at any instance there
is exactly one possible future. Early Buddhist thought seems to provide a causal
theory that accords with this thesis, not rejects it. The best known Buddhist causal
formula is ‘‘dependent-arising’’ (pat
iccasamuppa¯ da), which explains how various
aspects of human life arise in dependence on each other. It takes a form of a causal
sequence that typically goes from ignorance to suffering in twelve stages. Nevertheless,
other variants are found as well, a fact that emphasizes the generality of the
causal principle: certain events causally determine others.51 The general principle is
commonly expressed in the short formula: ‘‘When this exists, that comes to be; with
the arising of this, that arises.’’52 Another passage from the Nida¯navagga suggests
that we are dealing here with a theory of specific causality (idappacayata¯ ) which is
an independent principle. The passage says:
What is dependent-arising? ‘With birth as condition, ageing’—whether Tatha¯gatas appear
or Tatha¯gatas do not appear—this principle still stands as the stability of the truth,
the certainty of the truth, specific conditionality.53
This means that the truth (dhamma) of dependent-arising holds independently of the
one who recognizes it (a Tatha¯ gata, a Buddha). This principle (dha¯ tu) of specific conditionality,
is fixed, sure, or certain (niya¯mata). This means that whenever the condition
is present, it is certain that the outcome happens, regardless of anyone realizing
it or teaching it. The commentary and sub-commentary are even more explicit on
this being a description of deterministic causal relations:
Asaf Federman 11
‘This principle still stands’: the principle is the intrinsic nature of the conditions; never is it
the case that birth is not a condition for ageing-and-death. ‘The stability of dhamma, the
certainty of dhamma’: By the next two terms too he indicates just the condition. For the
dependently arisen phenomena stand because of the condition; therefore, the condition
itself is called ‘the stableness of the dhamma.’ The condition determines the dependent
phenomena; thus it is called the ‘certainty of dhamma.’54
And the sub-commentary goes even further:
Now this is [what is meant by] ‘never is it the case that birth is not a condition for
ageing-and-death’: becoming-as-condition fixes aging-and-death. As it is said of both
cases, when there is becoming-as-condition, then he explains the inevitable product
Evidently this cannot apply for all the conditions of dependent-arising; sensations do
not necessarily cause craving (if they were, the end of craving would happen only
in deep unconsciousness or death). But this Therava¯din commentarial lean toward
determinism reflects, I think, a broader Buddhist description of reality as regulated
by deterministic causality. It is not necessary to be as radical as to state that in this
causality a single event determines another single event. Even if dependent-arising is
not a linear causal sequence, it still describes certain aspects of reality as products of
conditioning. When the specific conditions mentioned in the formula exist, and
when other conditions mentioned elsewhere come together, an outcome will necessarily
arise. In their absence, the outcome will not arise.
Dependent arising is specific to human experience, but causality in general is
not limited to that. Kalupahana argues that in Buddhist philosophy ‘‘everything in
this universe comes within the framework of causality.’’56 Although Buddhism is
mostly concerned with psychological causality, Kalupahana provides references to
several instances in the Pa¯li canon and other early Buddhist texts where different
kinds of events are given causal explanation, including natural disasters, weather,
plant life, and human behavior. To this he adds reference to a later scholastic discussion
that enumerates five spheres in which the causal order operates: the physical,
the organic, the psychological, the karmic, and the spiritual.57 Nothing in the universe
seems to escape these categories.
In addition to this, the Buddha certainly rejected the thesis of fortuity
(adhiccasamuppanna-va¯ da). Among the sixty-two erroneous theories that are
rejected in the Brahmaja¯ la-sutta, the Buddha rejects the view that either the world
or the self arises by chance.58 On another occasion he rejects the idea that the experience
of happiness and suffering arises by chance.59 The term adhiccasamuppanna
is curious because it phonologically resembles the negation of pat
Although the former is in fact etymologically unrelated to the latter, they function in
Buddhist thought as antonyms: ‘‘what has arisen by chance’’ as opposed to ‘‘what
has arisen by cause.’’60 The evidence suggests that there is a tendency, if not a
commitment, in early Buddhism to determinism as defined above.
The Buddhist theory of causality does not contradict the theory of kamma
(karma), which says that specific intended actions contribute to the arising of specific
12 Philosophy East & West
results in the future. Although there are no strict deterministic relations between the
act and the result, this does not contradict determinism at all. A result is determined
by a combination of various elements including, for example, the level of physical
development, behavioral history, level of intelligence, and general life circumstances
of the person who performed the moral act.61 Thus, similar actions performed by two
different individuals may result in different consequences. This does not mean that
‘‘the Buddha’s conception of causality is more conditional than deterministic,’’62
but that karma is only one factor among many in determining the future of human
experience. Harvey shows how this is the case when a particular experience is not
determined by kamma alone but can arise from one of many other conditions: ‘‘bile
. . . phlegm . . . a change of season . . . the stress of circumstances,’’ and so on.63 Any
experience is part of a causally regulated reality in which past events determine
It is possible to conclude that the opposite of the Buddhist theory of causality is
not free will, or freedom, but indeterminism (addhiccasamupanna-va¯ da), which was
explicitly rejected by the Buddha. This is often overlooked or at least understated
in Buddhist scholarship perhaps because of the common confusion between determinism
and fatalism. The latter is an ethical stance that states that choice is meaningless.
Niyativa¯ da, the theory of Makkhali Gosala is fatalism, and is rejected by the
Buddha because of that, not because of its being determinism. Most signs indicate
that Makkhali Gosala also believed in a kind of determinism, in which certain
cosmic principles govern the amount of pain and pleasure inflicted upon beings.
This aspect of Makkhali’s view is not at odds with the Buddhist doctrine, which
accepts that manifestation of pleasure and pain is governed by ‘law’ or regularity
(i.e., kamma). Buddhism is at odds with Makkhali’s view when the latter claims that
purification happens without cause (hetu) or condition (paccaya) within the individual.
In other words, all the causes for pleasure and pain are external to the person,
who can do nothing for his or her purification.64 In addition, he says that there is
no agency (attaka¯ ra), will (vı¯riyam
), or human exertion (purisaparakkama).65 This is
an ethical position about what people can and cannot do. The Buddhist rejection
of this view is not a rejection of a deterministic theory of causality but a rejection of
fatalism. The confusion between fatalism and determinism lies at the heart of the
above-mentioned objection (that determinism implies that agents are controlled by
causality). Again Dennett provides a helpful analysis that shows that while free will
is incompatible with fatalism (or, in his words, ‘‘inevitability’’) it is compatible with
The central point in Dennett’s argument is that free will can operate only in a
deterministic reality where future events can be anticipated. It will be hard to account
for this type of free will in an indeterministic reality where events happen
with no apparent reason or order. For Dennett there is no doubt that the world is
deterministic in the sense described above: that there is at any instance exactly one
future. But this, he argues, does not imply inevitability. This term is an antonym of
‘‘evitability,’’ which means an ability to avoid. Freedom, he suggests, is the ability
of agents to avoid certain future scenarios (and thus to achieve others). In this sense,
Asaf Federman 13
some future scenarios are ‘‘evitable’’ for them.66 The fact that there is only one future
may seem to imply that reality controls agents, and that there is no real freedom.
However, Dennett argues, there is a substantial conceptual error in this argument.
Control is something agents do. Reality, not being an agent, does not control anything.
67 Arguments for inevitability usually overlook the fact that the one possible
future already includes the agent’s predictions, considerations, wishes, decisions,
and actions. These are usually inaccessible in advance simply because they are the
agent’s making. In addition, because knowledge of the present and the past is always
limited, any attempt to describe the future in advance would be only an approximation
of possible world situations. The point of view of an all-knowing mind, which
may know exactly how the future will be, is irrelevant because all-knowing minds
do not exist. All points of view are in the world. This leaves agents with plenty of
elbow room to speculate, consider, and decide.
There is some evidence that this view is compatible with how the Buddha understood
freedom. First, he mocked the idea that there was an all-knowing God
that transcended the causally operated universe.68 He also denied that he had perfect
knowledge of all things.69 For human beings the future is only partially accessible
through speculation and inference, because unlike the present it is not directly
accessible to experience. Kalupahana explains:
[E]xperiential knowledge (dhamme-n˜a¯n
a) consists of knowledge of causally conditioned
iccasamuppa¯ da) of the present and partly of the past. Inferential knowledge
a) is primarily of the future and partly of the past.70
He adds that ‘‘this may be the reason why none of the extra-sensory perceptions
refer to the future.’’71
Human choice and endeavor has a causally effective power within a causally
operated reality. In other words, the fact that reality is deterministic does not contradict
the ability of agents to speculate and reflect about what to do next and decide
accordingly. This kind of free will—imperfect and limited, but not powerless and
irrelevant—is not the opposite of determinism but the opposite of fatalism. While
determinism means that events happen because other events caused them, it is silent
on whether agents cause anything; determinism may well be true in a world without
agents at all. On the other hand, fatalism is an ethical stance because it says that
agents do not have the power to cause anything and that therefore there is no point
in trying. This has, of course, far-reaching ethical implications that are not overlooked
by the Buddha.
The Cartesian and Brahmanical understandings of free will refer to a power that
belongs in the soul, that transcends the physical, and that has ultimate control over
the body. The Buddha rejects this notion and at the same time rejects fatalism, which
leaves no room for significant choices. This rejection is similar in many aspects
to the contemporary rejection of the Cartesian notion of free will as expressed in
14 Philosophy East & West
Dennett’s work. Both Dennett and the Buddha do not accept the idea of a God-like
eternal soul, and argue that there is no ultimate control that transcends causality and
that entertains supreme mastery of the body.
Dennett’s alternative is expounded systematically in the modern Western philosophical
manner. It includes redefining free will as the agent’s ability to control
action according to will whenever there are no constraints, coercions, and compulsions
that limit performance. He adds an important cognitive layer to the analysis
and shows how imagination of possibilities, prediction, and self-control are the basic
functions that make agents free. One of Dennett’s main contributions to the free-will
debate is the distinction between determinism as a metaphysical position and inevitability,
or fatalism, which are ethical positions.
The Buddhist treatment of free will has to be extracted from the doctrine, as the
doctrine is by no means a systematic philosophical treatise. Nevertheless, it is clear
that the Buddha saw that freedom has a negative correlation with compulsions.
While the Western tradition tends to emphasize external compulsion and social freedom,
Buddhist doctrine tends to emphasize internal compulsions and psychological
Much of the confusion around whether the Buddha taught free will can be
avoided by dropping the Cartesian model and using a compatibilist model. Buddhist
doctrine contains a version of compatibilism that may explain the seemingly contradictory
statements given by some scholars: Buddhism rejects the idea that free will
exists outside the causal nexus, and at the same it affirms that people can choose
and take responsibility for their choices. Choosing right action is not derived from a
supernatural or super-causal origin. It is derived from wise contemplation over the
possible consequences. This wisdom enables free will, and is a faculty that can be
developed. What limits free will is not causality itself, but various mental compulsions.
The kind of free will that the Buddha taught is the acquired ability for clear
reflection and wise choice that emerges with their eradication.
1 – Here are two recent examples. One Buddhist philosopher and scholar says:
‘‘Do we have free will? Regarding the question, in Buddhism the answer is
‘of course not.’ There is no autonomous decision process independent of any
circumstances, or outside the causal nexus’’ (Alan B. Wallace and John Searle,
Consciousness East and West [Northwestern University, Cognitive Science
Program, 2005], Internet video broadcast). On the other hand, another scholar
thinks that the Buddha did teach free will: ‘‘The Buddha preached an idea of
moral agency and individual responsibility which is far stronger than that held
by Christianity or indeed by any other religion or ideology of which I am
aware. In the first place there is no external agent, such as a God, who can
take the blame for our decisions. We have free will and are wholly responsible
for ourselves’’ (Richard Gombrich, ‘‘Appreciating the Buddha as a Pivotal
Asaf Federman 15
Figure in World History,’’ in The Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai Lectures [London,
2006], 1st lecture, p. 7).
2 – It has become a convention of the profession to state that by ‘‘the Buddha’’ one
means ‘‘the Buddha as depicted in this or that scriptural collection.’’ In this
article I refer to the Buddha as depicted in the Pa¯li canon.
3 – Nicholas F. Gier and Paul Kjellberg, ‘‘Buddhism and the Freedom of the Will:
Pali and Mahayanist Responses,’’ in Freedom and Determinism, ed. Joseph
Keim Campbell, Michael O’Rourke, and David Shier (Cambridge, MA: MIT
4 – Luis O. Gome´ z, ‘‘Some Aspects of Free Will Question in the Nika¯yas,’’ Philosophy
East and West 21 (1) (1975).
5 – Mark Siderits, ‘‘Beyond Compatibilism: A Buddhist Approach to Freedom and
Determinism,’’ American Philosophical Quarterly 24 (2) (1987).
6 – Ibid., p. 153.
7 – Ibid., p. 158.
8 – Ibid.
9 – T. Stcherbatsky, Buddhist Logic, vol. 1 (’S-Gravenhage: Mouton, 1958), p. 132.
10 – Dı¯gha Nika¯ya I.2 (hereafter D).
11 – Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, 1st ed. (London: Gordon Fraser,
1959), p. 54.
12 – Chap. 7, sec. 4 of Augustine, The Confessions, trans. Philip Burton (London:
Everyman’s Library, 2001).
13 – Rene´ Descartes, ‘‘Meditations on First Philosophy,’’ in Discourse on the
Method and Meditation on the First Philosophy, ed. David Weissman (London:
Yale University Press, 1641/1996), p. 86.
14 – In Robert Kane, A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2005), p. 13.
15 – Descartes, ‘‘Meditations on First Philosophy,’’ p. 86.
16 – Rene´ Descartes, ‘‘The Passions of the Soul,’’ in The Philosophical Works of
Descartes, ed. Elizabeth S. Haldane (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1649/1967), pp. 352 ff.
17 – John Foster, The Immaterial Self (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 267.
18 – An anti-Cartesian account of free will is provided by the psychologist Daniel
Wegner. He rejects the Cartesian model altogether and concludes that free
will cannot and does not exist as an active conscious causal power. In other
words, he argues that although we feel that we are agents and in control of
our actions, this is just an illusion. Wegner rejects the idea that free will belongs
16 Philosophy East & West
in an immaterial substance that miraculously influences the body without being
influenced by it. He thus remains faithful to the materialistic causal worldview.
Wegner’s conclusion is a naturalistic solution to the Cartesian problem: souls
do not exist, and therefore free will must be an illusion. See Daniel M. Wegner,
The Illusion of Conscious Will (London: MIT Press, 2002).
19 – J. R. Searle, Freedom and Neurobiology: Reflections on Free Will, Language,
and Political Power (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).
20 – Few readers commented on my translation of a¯tman as ‘‘soul’’ (see also Paul
Williams and Anthony Tribe, Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to
the Indian Tradition [London: Routledge, 2000], pp. 56–57). Indeed, there is a
problem with any translation of this word, which is a reflexive pronoun on the
one hand and a metaphysical concept on the other. The metaphysics of a¯ tman,
I argue, is quite similar to the metaphysics of ‘‘soul’’ in the Cartesian context. It
is a non-material substance that both is the true essence of the person and takes
part in (or is identical with) the divine. In a private conversation (July 2007)
Paul Williams argued that using the word ‘‘soul’’ for a¯tman completely ignores
pre-seventeenth-century conceptions of the term (e.g., the Aristotelian conception
of the soul). However, I think that it would be adequate for most postseventeenth-
century philosophical thought, which is the context of this article.
The word soul, in its post-Cartesian sense, captures much of the meaning of the
Sanskrit a¯ tman.
21 – A common mistake, according to Patrick Olivelle; see Patrick Olivelle, The
ads (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. lvi.
22 – Br
ad (hereafter Br
U) 1.3.28. All citations from the Upanis
ads are from Olivelle, The Upanis
23 – Steven Collins, Selfless Persons (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).
24 – Ibid., p. 61.
25 – Br
U 3.7.3 (Olivelle, The Upanis
ads, slightly altered).
26 – Br
27 – Sam
yutta Nika¯ya II.33 (hereafter S).
28 – Rejecting theories about the soul (atta¯ nudit
hi); e.g., D II.22, S III.85, An˙ guttara
Nika¯ya III.447 (hereafter A).
29 – S III.66.
30 – Ru¯ pa, vedanda¯ , san˜n˜a¯ , sam
a. ‘Body’ here, means the living body,
not just the flesh as an unanimated material. I follow Hamilton’s English translation
which agrees with the Gethin’s analysis of these terms. See Hamilton, S.
Early Buddhism: A New Approach: The I of the Beholder: (London: Routledge,
2000) p. 18 & Gethin, R. ‘‘The Five Khandhas: Their Treatment in the Nika¯yas
and Early Abhidhamma.’’ Journal of Indian Philosophy 14, no. 1 (1986): 35–53.
Asaf Federman 17
31 – E.g., Br
U 4.3.21 ff.
32 – Majjhima Nika¯ya I.231 (hereafter M).
33 – Daniel Dennett, Freedom Evolves (London: Allen Lane, 2003), p. 13.
34 – Ibid., p. 1.
35 – Ibid., p. 2.
36 – Ibid., pp. 267–268.
37 – Daniel Dennett, ‘‘Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting’’
(Oxford: Clarendon, 1984), pp. 52 ff.
38 – I do not mean the Buddhist text known under this title, although it, too, demonstrates
39 – M I.274.
40 – D I.75, M I.275.
41 – David Kalupahana, A History of Buddhist Philosophy: Continuities and Discontinuities
(Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1992), p. 91.
42 – D I.53.
43 – A III.338. Harvey mentions this passage in passing, indicating that a¯ rabbhadha
¯ tu is an ‘‘element of initiating, . . . some kind of locus of choice’’ (Peter
Harvey, ‘‘‘Freedom of the Will’ in the Light of Therava¯da Buddhist Teachings,’’
Journal of Buddhist Ethics 14 [35–98] : 3). There is a danger in this
terminology, I think, if one interprets it as being a real autonomous centre of
choice—although I do not think this meaning was intended by Harvey. The
Pali-English Dictionary indicates that dha¯ tu can be understood as principle,
natural condition or property (Rhys-Davids T. W. & W Stede, The Pali Text
Society’s Pali–English Dictionary. [Chipstead: Pali Text Society, 1921–5]: dha¯ tu
2[a], p. 340), but when speaking of dha¯ tu as in cakkhudha¯ tu, the meaning is
‘the faculty of vision.’ Because it is nonsensical to talk about the ‘faculty of standing’
and the ‘faculty of approaching’ I translate ‘dha¯ tu’ here as ‘ability.’
44 – D II.312.
45 – A III.415.
46 – M I.56–60.
47 – Dhammapada 1.
48 – Questions of Milinda 200 (I thank Peter Harvey for bringing this passage to my
attention. See also Harvey, ‘‘‘Freedom of the Will’ in the Light of Therava¯da
49 – M I.415.
50 – Peter Van Inwagen, An Essay on Free Will (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1983), p. 2.
18 Philosophy East & West
51 – See S II.1 for the classical twelve-link formula. Variants are, for example,
S II.104 and D II.64.
52 – S II.28.
53 – S II.25.
54 – Sa¯ ratthappaka¯ sini (sam
hakatha¯ ) 2.40
55 – Nida¯navaggat˙
ı¯ka¯, from Chat
ha San˙ ga¯yana CD-ROM, Version 3, (Dhammagiri:
Vipassana Research Institute, 1999) VRI page reference: 2.42.
56 – David Kalupahana, Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis (Honolulu: University
of Hawai‘i Press, 1976), p. 30.
57 – Ibid.
58 – D I.28.
59 – S II.22.
60 – Kalupahana even speculates that they are etymologically related. See David
Kalupahana, ‘‘The Problem of Psychological Causation and the Use of Terms
for ‘Change’ in the Early Buddhist Texts,’’ Vidyodaya 2 (1) (1969): 41.
61 – A I.249.
62 – Kalupahana, Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis, p. 50. I thank Frank
Arthurs, whose unpublished essay directed me to this quote and suggested
63 – Harvey, ‘‘‘Freedom of the Will’ in the Light of Therava¯da Buddhist Teachings,’’
64 – D I.53.
65 – D I.54.
66 – For Dennett’s argument for ‘‘evitability’’ see Dennett, Freedom Evolves, pp. 56–
67 – Dennett, ‘‘Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting,’’ pp. 61.
68 – D I.18.
69 – M I.481.
70 – Kalupahana, Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis, p. 30.
71 – Ibid.
Asaf Federman 19
Free Will Is an Illusion, So What?
What are the implications?
Published on May 8, 2012 by Raj Raghunathan, Ph.D. in Sapient Nature
Like dominos, thoughts and actions are shaped by forces outside our control.
Think of someone that you dislike. Let’s call this person X. Now, imagine that you were born with X’s “genetic material.” That is, imagine that you had X’s looks, body odor, inherent tastes, intelligence, aptitudes, etc. Imagine, further, that you had X’s upbringing and life-experiences as well; so, imagine that you had X’s parents growing up, and that you grew up in the same country, city, and neighborhood in which X grew up, etc.
Would behave any differently from how X behaves?
Most people realize, perhaps after a moment of startled pause, that the answer to the question is “No.”
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The question helps people realize that their thoughts and actions are determined entirely by their genetic and social conditioning. In other words, it helps people intuitively grasp the idea that free will is an illusion.
Over the past few decades, gathering evidence from both psychology and the neurosciences has provided convincing support for the idea that free will is an illusion. (Read this and this, but for a contrarian view, also read this.) Of course, most people can’t relate to the idea that free will is an illusion, and there’s a good reason why. It feels as if we exercise free will all the time. For instance, it seems that you are exercising free will in choosing to read this article. Similarly, it seems that you exercise free will when you deny yourself the pleasure of eating tasty-but-unhealthy food, or when you overcome laziness to work out at the gym.
But these choices do not necessarily reflect free will. To understand why, consider why you sometimes deny yourself an unhealthy-but-tasty snack. It’s because you were, at some point in your life, made to recognize the long-term negative effects of eating such food. Perhaps you noticed that consuming unhealthy food makes you feel heavy, or that regularly consuming such food makes your blood pressure shoot up. Or perhaps your doctor told you that you need to stop eating unhealthy food; or maybe you read about the negative effects of consuming unhealthy food in a magazine. In other words, you deny yourself the pleasure of consuming unhealthy food because of exposure to external inputs—feedback from your body or from others—over which you had no control. Had you been exposed to a different set of inputs—e.g., despite consuming unhealthy food, your health did not suffer, or your doctor never dissuaded you from eating unhealthy food—you wouldn’t deny yourself the pleasure of eating tasty-but-unhealthy food.
If you think carefully about any decision you have made in the past, you will recognize that all of them were ultimately based on similar—genetic or social—inputs to which you had been exposed. And you will also discover that you had no control over these inputs, which means that you had no free will in taking the decisions you did. For instance, you had no choice in where, to whom, and in what period of time, you were born. You also had no choice in the kind of neighbors and friends to whom you were exposed during early childhood. You therefore had no choice in how you made your decisions during that time.
It might seem, at first blush, that many of the decisions you made later—during late childhood or adolescence—were based on free will, but that is not the case. The decisions you made during late childhood and adolescence were based on the tastes, opinions, and attitudes you had developed in your early childhood, and on those to which you were exposed through your family, friends, media, or the natural environment. And so on, which means that the decision you now make are based on the tastes, opinions and attitudes you have developed over the years or on those to which you are now exposed through contact with the external environment. Looked at in this light, belief in free will is itself a consequence of genetic and social inputs: without the development of the neocortex and without exposure to the idea of free will from societal inputs, we wouldn’t believe in free will.
Thus, although it might seem like you exercise free will in overcoming temptations or in overriding self-centered interests, this is not the case. Free will is equally uninvolved when you give into temptations and when you curb them.
If free will is an illusion, what are the implications? How should we think or behave differently?
There are two incorrect and two correct conclusions to which most people arrive when they are introduced to the idea that free will is an illusion. The first incorrect conclusion to which many people arrive is the following: “if free will is an illusion, it is OK for me to give into my impulses and temptations.” Several studies have shown that when people are told that free will is an illusion, they are more likely to cheat and less likely to work hard. It is easy to understand why people have this reaction to the idea that free will is an illusion: if giving into temptations is no more or no less an act of free will than is curbing them, why struggle to overcome the temptations?
This way of thinking, however, is incorrect because, although curbing temptations doesn’t involve the free will, the consequences from curbing temptations are very different from those that arise from giving into them. Thus, whether or not you act of out of free will in denying yourself the unhealthy-but-tasty cake, you will still have to face the health consequences of eating unhealthy meals. Likewise, whether or not you acted out of free will in committing a crime, you will still have to face the consequences of your misdeeds. So, from a purely consequentialist perspective, it makes sense to sometimes curb your temptations.
The second incorrect conclusion to which people arrive is related to the first: “if free will is an illusion, there is no use in punishing wrong-doers.” Again, it is easy to see why people think this way. If others did not have a choice in how they behaved, how can they be held culpable? However, although wrong-doers did not have a choice in how they behaved, their behavior still has real and important consequences for the others around them. And more importantly, we know that one of the ways of changing people’s behaviors is by exposing them to a set of external inputs—including punishments—that steer them in a different direction.
Punishments can be like signposts in a maze that help redirect people toward desirable behaviors
Thus, it makes sense to mete out punishments to wrong-doers, so as to dissuade them from committing similar types of misdeeds in the future.
This brings me to the first of the two correct conclusions to which people should—but rarely do—arrive after realizing that free will is an illusion.
This conclusion concerns how we treat others for their misdeeds. Although, for reasons explained above, it is important to punish wrong-doers, those who realize that free will is an illusion should mete out the punishments with compassion. Understanding that free will is an illusion means recognizing that people behave in the only way they know how. As such, it is important to realize that, when people act in harmful ways, it is because they are ignorant of the forces that actually shape their thoughts and behaviors.
There are two main reasons why one should be compassionate even towards those who commit misdeeds, such as hurting others. First, those who commit misdeeds are also hurting themselves. As results from research on emotions show, selfish or hurtful acts generally stem from emotional negativity. In other words, it is those feeling angry, insecure, and stressed—and not those feeling happy, secure and relaxed—who are likely to behave badly. And second, those who behave badly are setting themselves up for negative outcomes in the future. In other words, because those who commit misdeeds are currently suffering from emotional negativity or will suffer from negative outcomes in the future, one should be compassionate towards them.
The second implication centers on the attributions that one should make for one’s successes and failures. As is well known, people generally tend to take credit for their successes, and tend to blame others or the circumstances for their failures
Those who recognize that free will is an illusion will realize that their successes and failures have much more to do with “luck”—the set of genetic and social inputs to which they have been randomly exposed—than with their “self developed” talents and consciously-made choices. Crediting luck for one’s successes leads one to experience an entirely different set of emotions—gratitude, elevation, love, etc.—than does taking personal credit for them. Likewise, recognizing the role of the inputs that led to failures promotes learning and wisdom. By contrast, blaming others for failures leads to the experience of anger, and the sense of entitlement that, as I discussed in an earlier article, leads to negative consequences and divisiveness.
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So, overall, contrary to what one may initially think, realizing that free will is an illusion should lead to greater maturity, compassion, and emotional stability. Hopefully, the ideas in this article serve as the external inputs that steer you in this positive direction
Dear Rob E and Alex
Let me share a passage from the Expositor, Analysis of Term pg 99
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Hi Alex, & Howard.
— In firstname.lastname@example.org, “truth_aerator”
> Hello Howard, RobertK, RobertE, all,
> >HCW: Of COURSE choices are made! There is no doubt of that.
> If only one thing could and would occur given the same set of conditions, then
why is there such thing as a choice?
I don’t think that the way we understand choice is correct. There is no freedom
to choose, one chooses within conditions, which give the possibilities for
choice, and factors of various kinds create the choice. “Choices are made” is
true in that one option is taken while another is not. But “No one makes a
choice” is also true. The choice is made by a collision of various conditions,
past and present, and there is no “free agent” to look over all the options and
then freely decide. If there were, when would he have the chance to make such a
decision? The conditions and their weight is influencing each moment without
any breaks. Even the decision process is the result of various forces coming
> There would be no point in choosing if only one thing could and would occur
given the same set of conditions.
There’s no way to say what would cause the choice to be made for a or for b –
you are assuming you know how it works. But there is no free agent. That which
makes the difference between choice a and b with all the same conditions is
another condition – what goes into the decision-making process at that moment.
It is not a “decider” who comes from the sky and can stand apart from conditions
to assess anything. That is an illusion.
> What is the purpose of the choice in the present if one course of action is
already decided by all the previous conditions?
Choice is just another moment in a sequence of events that are caused by
conditions and tendencies. There isn’t anything else. Unless you believe in a
self that magically exists apart from conditions. Do you?
= = = = = = = = = =
Mon Jun 4, 2012 1:36 pm
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Hi, Alex – In a message dated 6/3/2012 2:58:11 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time, truth_aerator@… writes: Hello Howard, Thank you for your good post that I…
upasaka_howard 5:13 am
Hi Alex, & Howard. … I don’t think that the way we understand choice is correct. There is no freedom to choose, one chooses within conditions, which give…
epsteinrob 1:36 pm
Re: the path
Dear Rob E and Alex Let me share a passage from the Expositor, Analysis of Term pg 99 <
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