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[ Dhamma Talk ]

Free Will and Determinism

Free Will and Determinism
Free Will or Not?

Free Will and Determinism

H: Nothing is causeless. This is a very clear concept to grasp but after thinking it through I have come upon a question. Namely, Free Will and Determinism. The reason for my asking is that I have a class entitled just that and I have to write a paper, eventually. So, I am asking what this system (Pali Buddhism as presented on BuddhaDust) has to say about this issue?

My problem starts with the law of causation, that things cannot arise without cause. Expanding a little, one can also see how Kamma works: actions and causes. From here one can fathom the law of dependent origination as being the cause of the world in which beings live, with ignorance about the law of causation being the keystone. This keystone being the root cause of the suffering they experience which is inherent in the system (they created). Furthermore, the ignorance is ignorance of the fact that the result of the conjurings will be subject to ending (ending itself being caused by the things coming into existence).

A little deeper than that, if there is cause then there must also be result, not mutually exclusive. The result (of a previous cause) then becoming the cause of future result, and so on into infinity. So, if the flow of causation is unending then the results of every possible cause are already determined by the natural equilibrium of the universe. In example, if you have two occurrences that are identical in every way, then the results of the two must be the same. Only if the causes are different are the results different. In this way the results are determined by the causes. (Now we are into Hume's Determinism.) So, if all the outcomes of the causes are determined then isn't the result of ones birth the cause of everything that will happen to a person throughout life. In other words, simply by result of the causes of ones existence is ones life determined (by those causes)?

My question is this: Is this a. the way it is, and b. is this in alignment with the philosophical/ethical system put forth by Gotama Buddha, as you hear it?

If so, then where is there room for Free Will within this system?

I ask this question of you because I trust your opinion on the matter. So far I've been able to come up with a solution and it is: not-doing is the only free will we have: The occasion of a not-doing, being not subject to the "swirl of the maelstrom," not incurring any Kamma. By not-doing one is training him or herself to become satisfied with the mind-made universe so that it may be let go of, (the not-doing to end them all). By not creating preference or non-preference one is no longer causing illusions of permanence, no longer lying to one's self, no longer causing one's self pain. When one is acting "normally" again, and considering one's action to be of one's own accord, of free will, then one is just having the wool pulled over one's eyes about the nature of causation and the determination of the results. One sees only what one wants to see. So, in this way a not-doing can be considered the only free action one can perform.

OED defines Determinism: 1. The doctrine that human action is necessarily determined by motives regarded as external forces acting on the will. 2. The doctrine that everything that happens is determined by a necessary chain of causation.

First let me do a little nit picking around the edges to straighten up the question.

What is being said here is that things arise from a cause (tanha; hunger/thirst);
kamma is the mechanism of action of that cause: the action and the consequence of that action (it is two-sided).
The paticca samuppada (dependant origination) is another way of describing the mechanism of action of kamma.
The Paticca Samuppada (or Kamma) is not, itself a cause.
The Paticca Samuppada describes (in outline) factors on which caused events depend for their arising.
Blindness (not just ignorance of, but lack of understanding of) the final outcome is not a cause of that outcome, it is the factor on which an action caused by thirst, depends for it's outcome.

The simile of the cup of tea illustrates:

A cup of tea is not the water, or the tea leaves, or the cup, but a cup of tea depends on each of these factors for its existance.

Seen in reverse, in order to illuminate the idea that there is a difference between causes and dependancies:

Neither the tea, nor the water, nor the cup cause the cup of tea to appear, but it is only when the will, or intent of an individual (the root cause or tanha), his actions, and the other necessary factors come together that the cup of tea is caused to appear.

Then you say: ...if there is cause then there must also be result, not mutually exclusive.

If we blur, for the moment, the distinction between cause and dependance, then:

Where there is kamma there is action with intent to cause a result and there is the result of that action.

It is not necessarily the case, as you say, that: "The result (of a previous cause) then becomes the cause of future results, and so on into infinity." The result of previous actions lays the groundwork for possible future intentionally caused actions which will have results. A break can occur here. That you are aware of this is revealed by your final statements about not-doing.

The flow of caused events that lay the basis for future caused events is unending only in reality, not in theory. It goes on endlessly because the scope of ignorance of beings is limitless, but in terms of the individual it is not. ...And who said there is a natural equilibrium of the universe?

When you say:

In example, if you have two occurrences that are identical in every way, then the results of the two must be the same. Only if the causes are different are the results different. In this way the results are determined by the causes. (Now we are into Hume's Determinism.[1])

This logic does not hold up. Here we see the results of kamma being determined by three factors: The act of the individual, the act itself, and the recipient of the act. All three would need to be the same in both cases in order to say that the results of the two must be the same. Such a thing is impossible. This also depends on the idea that a result is some discrete entity that can be measured. The consequence of kamma is not a "one thing" or even a "hundred-fold-repeat of one thing," it is more like "a situation." This is the meaning of sankaram. One's identification with an action of mind, speech, or body produces (san=one's own, ka=shit, aram=all round) a world, the gestalt in which an indivudality is manifested (in which self-identification is a factor)[2]. The kammic result is really the subjective experience of sensations in that world. It's like the ripples produced in a pond when one throws a rock in the pond. You could throw the same exact rock in the pond in the same exact way (if you could manage such a thing) as often as you wanted and you would never produce the same results twice, and the results cannot be said to be "just this and that set of ripples" the tossing of, and that rock and the reaction of the pond to the tossed rock has changed the pond throughout and in every way forever.

Then you say:

So, if all the outcomes of the causes are determined then isn't the result of ones birth the cause of everything that will happen to a person throughout life. In other words, simply by result of the causes of ones existence is ones life determined (by those causes)?

The first premise here is not correct: All the outcomes of the causes are not determined. But one's birth is of course the cause of everything that happens to a person throughout life. In what sense? In the sense that if the individual had not been born, nothing else could have happened to him.

Having got to this point we must toss out the original questions as being based on assumptions that have been shown to be incorrect. The question we can answer here is: If things worked in the manner similar to what you describe, where would there be room for Free Will? Then, interestingly enough, we arrive at a response very similar to the one you constructed for yourself.

The problem with your solution is what I think they call in philosophy class: "reductio ad absurdum" ... if you take this to the extreme, your case leads to the being not doing the being of himself in order to attain the ultimate of free will for himself ... unfortunately he will not be there to enjoy it. This is great Buddhism, but is not accounted for in the construction of your answer.

The idea of "not-self" (see DhammaTalk: Not-self, not No Self) needs to be built into the formula from the beginning: There is no individuality there in the first place that could "have" this free will you speak of.

What, there, could own such free will?

Form which is out of one's control?
Sense experiences which are out of one's control?
Perceptions which are out of one's control?
The Personal Subjective World which is out of one's control?
Consciousness which is out of one's control?.

There is something like free will there at the moment when identification with an act of body, speech and mind is about to occur, but it is not the free will of an individual, it is like an element in a molecule or a programed response in your computer. It is the freedom to exercise choice according to one's best understanding. One can elect to act or not act as the extreme example; but this should be heard in the conventional sense: There is no "self" there that can be pointed to that is the doer of the act.

So the final answer that needs to be given to your question here is the one that we see so often in this system: it cannot be said that there is free will to begin with because breaking it down, free will implies an individuality there that can exercise it, and this individuality cannot be pointed out, and it cannot be said that there is no free will because anyone with eyes in their head that can see can see that choices are being made all the time...we do not deny ordinary subjective experience.



Freewill or Not?

by RM

Free Will

Our ancestors did not understand the world around them. Because they did not understand, they created external "Gods" that controlled the weather. These "Gods" could control the weather according to their whims and fancies. Today, we look back and smile at the naïveté of our ancestors. Today, we understand that the weather operates according to impersonal laws of nature.

Modern man does not understand the world within himself. Because we do not understand, we create an internal "God" called the "self" that controls the flow of our thoughts. We believe that this self can control the flow of our thoughts according to its whim and fancy. Perhaps some day, our descendants will look back and smile at our naïveté because they understand that the internal world, the world of the mind, also operates according to impersonal laws of nature[3].

The concept of self is deeply rooted within us. A recent book, "Why God Won't Go Away" by Dr. Andrew Newberg and Dr. Eugene Aquili, reported research on how the brain functions. According to this book, information from the senses is routed to a portion of the brain called the "Orientation Association Area" (OAA). The function of the OAA is to put the incoming sensory data into context by overlaying an artificial sense of self. Brain scans show that the OAA is normally a very active part of the brain; there is lots of blood flow in this area of the brain. Experiments were done with Franciscan nuns and Buddhist meditators of the Tibetan tradition. When the subjects reached deep stages of concentration, the blood flow to this portion of the brain was dramatically reduced. When interviewed later, the subjects indicated that at the times that the blood flow to the OAA was dramatically reduced, they were experiencing a "higher reality". The illusion of self may be hardwired, but we can overcome this hardwiring through correct practice.

Belief in freewill is a belief in self

The doctrine of non-self (anatta) is central to Buddhism. The Visuddhi Magga (XVI, 90) says, "For there is suffering, but none who suffers; doing exists although there is no doer; extinction (death) is but no extinguished person; although there is a path, there is no goer."

Expanding on this concept from the Visuddhi Magga, "There is choice, but there is no chooser". If there is no chooser (self), how can there be freewill? The concept of freewill assumes a supervisory self that monitors the mind's activities chooses a response.

Why freewill does not make sense

Think of the last time that you were confused about something (reading this article, perhaps?). Does it make sense that there was a "choice born of freewill" to be confused at that moment? What about the last time you were restless . . . was there a "choice born of freewill" working at that moment? We all know that anger is one letter away from danger. Knowing that anger is bad and dangerous, does it make sense that there was a "choice born of freewill" every time anger arises? Does it make sense that "choice born of freewill" only operates when there is a choice to do something good, but "freewill takes a vacation" whenever there is a choice to do something bad?

How does choice work without freewill?

According to Buddhism, all things except Nibbana are conditioned. This means that our actions arise because of conditions (not because of a self or freewill). What are the factors that direct choices? There are two: our current situation and our habits (our accumulations or mental tendencies).

An idea or a sensory input arises in our mind and our mind reacts naturally according to it's habits. A mind that has a habit of metta will naturally react to situations with loving kindness. A mind that has a habit of greed will naturally react to situations with craving and clinging.

What does this mean in daily life?

The flow of our thoughts is directed by our habits; not by a supervisory self. If we can develop and nurture "good habits" in our daily life, our thoughts will be directed accordingly. Habits are developed and nurtured through concentrated repetition. Another word for "concentrated repetition" is "practice".

In his article, "Questions on Kamma", Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote about the psychological effect of kamma[4], "When a willed action is performed it leaves a track in the mind, an imprint which can mark the beginning of a new mental tendency. It has a tendency to repeat itself, to reproduce itself, somewhat like a protozoan, like an amoeba. As these actions multiply, they form our character. Our personality is nothing but a sum of all our willed actions, a cross-section of all our accumulated kamma. So by yielding first in simple ways to the unwholesome impulses of the mind, we build up little by little a greedy character, a hostile character, an aggressive character or a deluded character. On the other hand, by resisting these unwholesome desires we replace them with their opposites, the wholesome qualities. Then we develop a generous character, a loving and a compassionate personality, or we can become wise and enlightened beings. As we change our habits gradually, we change our character, and as we change our character we change our total being, our whole world. That is why the Buddha emphasizes, so strongly the need to be mindful of every action, of every choice. For every choice of ours has a tremendous potential for the future."

Formal meditation is one form of "concentrated repetition". Sitting each morning and radiating metta, develops a habit of metta in the mind. When a mind that has a habit of metta encounters a difficult situation, the habit of metta directs the mind to a positive response. Vipasanna meditation develops a habit of seeing things as they truly are; impermanent, unsatisfactory and non-self. Vipassana meditation develops the habit or perspective of right view, the first step on the Noble Eightfold Path.

Imagine that you are driving along and somebody cuts you off. You start to get angry, but then you remember the Dhamma and calm your mind. Was this freewill at work? No. Your past experience of studying the Dhamma created a mental tendency or habit in your mind. When the situation arose, your mental tendency caused the memory of the Dhamma to arise and this calmed your mind. Everything occurred because of an impersonal law of nature, without the need for a self and without the need for freewill.

Does the denial of freewill mean that Buddhism is fatalistic or deterministic?

In 1927, Werner Heisenberg wrote, "The 'path' comes into existence only when we observe it." Heisenberg was one of the founders of modern physics and he was referring to the path of atomic particles such as electrons. Heisenberg was making the point that the classical view of an "objective observer" was wrong. We can say that the 'path of our life' does not exist until it is observed. The concepts of "fatalism" or "determinism" are rooted in the self-view that there is an objective observer. If our "subjective observer" perspective makes it impossible for us to determine the future, how can we say that the future is predetermined?


Belief in freewill is a belief in a self. The doctrine of anatta is incompatible with freewill. Understanding that choices arise naturally because of our habits is an important lesson. The Buddha stressed in the Bhumija Sutta (Mn126) that results are obtained through proper practice, not through aspiration. Strong aspiration without proper practice will never yield results. Proper practice, with or without strong aspiration, will always yield results.




I think this is a very well written article that rationalizes the Buddhist view with modern science/philosophy. It is also a topic that fits in well with this discussion topic and on the idea that we continue to do what we do (in many places, but especially): Using Paticca Samuppada and Paticca Samuppada x4

I would only mention that I think it might be wise to hold open the possibility that the gods of the weather may exist as beings believing that the forces at work are "themselves," in the same way that modern man believes that he has free will.

I would also point out to those who follow Castenada the similarity in mechanism of action if not in location of the Assemblage Point and the scientificly observed Orientation Association Area. I suggest the possibility that in the same way as the eye does not contain the sights that it comes in contact with, perhaps the brain too is merely reflecting a phenomena which is occuring elsewhere (to the left and back about a cubit).


[1] Hume's Determinism is not allowed into the record. We know nothing of Hume's Determinism here. Arguments must stand on their own legs.

[2] Carlos Castaneda's Don Juan's Luminous Egg if you like.

[3] If our descendants are able to rid themselves of self-view, then they will be quite close to enlightenment.

[4] The original article was located at which is now off line.

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