On Mundane Freedom

| February 25, 2013 | 48 Comments

johnny_automatic_electric_train_scene

Ye dharmā hetuprabhavā hetuṃ teṣāṃ tathāgataḥ hyavadat teṣāṃ ca yo nirodha evaṃ vādī mahāśramaṇaḥ

Of those things that arise from a cause, the Tathāgata has told the cause, and also what their cessation is: this is the doctrine of the Great Recluse.

Vinaya, Mahavagga, I.23.5

“The most famous statement in Buddhism” — Donald Lopez, Buddhism & Science (p. 147).

The trolley beside me hurtles down the track: five workers stand in the tunnel ahead, unaware. They will all die when the train reaches them. But I can save them all, by pressing a button under my finger. That will shunt the train onto a side rail, where only a single worker stands. What should I do? Given the option, I would prefer to save more rather than fewer people. Making a quick calculation, I decide to push the button. I want to save five people, and am willing to sacrifice one to do so.

This is one of the most famous thought experiments in contemporary ethics. My interest in bringing it up has to do with one crucial nexus in the causal chain: that moment of what the Buddha would have called “volition”, usually known as “the will” in the West; the fulcrum of kammic action.

What does it mean to say we are “free” to act? This is not a case that the Buddha took up with any clarity or completeness, except to say that our actions were not completely determined by our kammic conditioning. Indeed, to my knowledge the question was not taken up to any significant degree in the entire corpus of Buddhist thought.

This does not, however, mean that it doesn’t apply.

What Mundane Freedom Cannot Be

At the outset it’s worth getting past a few common misconceptions about freedom. Perhaps the most common, a mainstay of Western theology, is the notion that in order to be free, the will must be an “uncaused cause”: that all the causal conditioning of the past must have strictly no influence on the action of the will, and that therefore the will is radically free.

This has a key theological benefit in questions of “theodicy” or the Problem of Evil. The Problem of Evil asks how it is that evil occurs in a godly universe. If there is evil, isn’t God responsible for it? Insofar as God is the creator of what exists in the world, is he not therefore responsible for evil?

One standard apologetic response is to point to this notion of “libertarian” free will: since our will is not conditioned by God or his creation, God is not responsible for our evil actions. Since our will comes unconditioned from our own soul, only we are responsible for it.

Leaving aside the question as to whether this gets around the Problem of Evil (it does not), nevertheless the problem we are faced with is how to make sense of libertarian freedom. Taking our trolley example, my decision to press the button was based on input from my eyes (I saw the trolley, the people on the tracks, the button). This conditioned my beliefs about the way the world was set up. My decision was also based on input from my desires (I wanted to save as many people as possible). This conditioned the kinds of actions I would be likely to perform. The calculations I made were based on those inputs: they did not come from elsewhere, nor from nowhere.

The question for the libertarian about free will is how to make sense of the directedness of action (pushing this button rather than that button or no button, or waving my hands in the air, or dancing a jig) without assuming that causes condition the will. I am not alone in claiming it cannot be done, and therefore that libertarian free will is incoherent.

The second thing freedom cannot be is stochastic in character, or merely random. Would it have made my action any freer if I had decided to roll a die to decide whether or not to push the button? No. Indeed, whatever resulted from the die roll would in a sense not have been my action at all: my action was only to roll the die. The die roll then determined the button pushing.

To put it another way, we have a good picture of what random behavior looks like: it’s what happens when we have a muscle twitch or involuntary jerk. If there had been some quantum mechanical fluctuation in my brain that caused my arm muscle to jerk and push the button, that would not have been my action either. It would have been a simple behavior, like the shivering of my arms when I am cold, not a real “action” at all.

So whatever freedom is, it cannot have anything to do with randomness.

What Mundane Freedom is Still Not

Another possible understanding of what makes the will free has to do with it coming from some disembodied mind or mental state. Some say: the action was free if it was brought about by my mental volition rather than by my physical brain, therefore determinism is false and I am free. I have heard several traditional Buddhists support this kind of line. But this has its issues as well.

First of all, if we assume that the mind or mental states are themselves determined, either by physical states or by previous mental states, then the issue of determinism doesn’t go away, it simply moves around. More problematically, this move appears to reject something that most scientists believe is likely, namely the “causal closure of the physical”: that mass-energy is conserved in the universe, and that a complete physical description of the universe would yield a complete description of the universe.

(This isn’t to say that all states must be physical states. As I’ve argued before, there could be mental states, but so long as they were determined by — supervened upon — physical ones, causal closure would remain true).

If the physical is causally closed, then whatever mental states there are would be determined by physical states, something that appears an open possibility in Buddhism, much as some traditionalists at times inveigh against it, or mental states would be causally inert or “epiphenomenal”. The latter case, however, is very weird since it would have that our physical behaviors had nothing to do with their associated mental states.

The physiologist Benjamin Libet and others have further established that whatever free will is, it is not the naïve kind that is apparent to us by first-person conscious awareness. Since decisions are often made long before conscious awareness of them occurs, whatever volition is, it is not entirely something of which we are consciously aware. Again, no Buddhist need have a problem with this picture.

Mundane Freedom

We have illustrated a number of problems with traditional analyses of free will. Some take this to mean that free will itself is a mere illusion. The difficulty with that approach is that there is, nevertheless, something about our actions that make us feel that they are freely decided some of the time. We intuitively distinguish doing something we want to do from being forced to do it. We need somehow to recover the distinction between acting out of our own beliefs and desires, versus being forced or coerced into acting. There is a difference between, say, pushing the button freely and being told to push it by a man with a gun, or being unable to push the button because our hands are tied behind our backs.

As philosopher Dan Dennett and others have argued, there is a good notion of volitional freedom that’s fully compatible with determinism being true. Here is the key insight: we are free when we do what we want to do. After all, what more could we want from mundane freedom than to do what we want? The great worry about losing our freedom isn’t, at base, a worry that we aren’t disembodied, causally unconditioned souls that act out of nowhere; it’s rather a concern that our beliefs and desires have causal force on our actions. In other words, the real worry basic to freedom and its loss is about coercion, not determinism. That is, it’s a worry about the causal history of our volition, not about causal determinism itself. This is true in ethical deliberations and the legal system as much as in daily life.

One may take determinism to be itself a kind of coercion, and therefore assume that since we are always coerced by our past conditioning, we are never free. But this is a confusion. Coercion assumes conscious agency: one cannot be coerced in the relevant sense by blind conditioning. (Assuming there is no creator God, of course). It’s true that one’s learning, one’s genetic history, one’s nature and nurture all go into one’s decision making, but to claim that one is coerced into acting by one’s genes or one’s schooling is to misuse the term. And if so, then determinism by itself is no argument against freedom of volition.

This so-called “compatibilist” message goes farther as well, and here I think it fits nicely into the general Buddhist framework of causal conditioning. That is, freedom requires at least some extent of causal determinism. To be free requires that our volition be caused by the things we have experienced, and by what our minds have become. To be free requires that our volition cause what we want to come about.

Volition, in that sense, is simply another node in the grand causal net. It’s the locus of decision making, so inevitably carries ethical weight.

On Kammic Determinism

The Buddha made clear in several places that past kamma did not completely determine one’s present state of affairs (E.g., Devadaha Sutta, Majjhima Nikāya 101, Saṃyutta Nikāya 36.21; Aṇguttara Nikāya 3.61). This argument is sometimes misconstrued as an attempt to refute causal determinism. Instead the Buddha’s aim was to refute the doctrine of the Jains, who claimed that since our present state of rebirth depends entirely on past action, the only way to break the cycle of saṃsāra is to cease acting entirely:

Monks, there are some brahmans & contemplatives who teach in this way, who have this view: ‘Whatever a person experiences — pleasure, pain, or neither pleasure nor pain — all is caused by what was done in the past. Thus, with the destruction of old actions through asceticism, and with the non-doing of new actions, there will be no flow into the future. With no flow into the future, there is the ending of action. With the ending of action, the ending of stress. With the ending of stress, the ending of feeling. With the ending of feeling, all suffering & stress will be exhausted.’ Such is the teaching of the Niganthas [Jains]. (MN 101).

Clearly, the Jain view is one the Buddha would have been very concerned to refute. If the kamma produced by our past actions literally determines everything in our current lifetime, then it would make no sense to have nibbāna be the fruit of a human life, which is less kammically perfected than the life of a deva. It would seem that the only way to break the cycle would be as the Jains suggested: cease acting entirely, or alternatively to exit saṃsāra from the kammic summit, which for the Buddha would have been some form of ‘higher being’. Nibbāna for a kammically active human would seem well nigh impossible.

But this counterargument need not concern us. Not all causal conditions are kammic conditions. Leaving aside the scientifically intractable notion of literal kammic causation, we still can understand kammic causes as supervenient upon normal causes: some things we do have ethical or unethical, skillful or unskillful, properties. For example, my decision to push the button will, even if overall a skillful act, end up killing one unfortunate worker. If the family of that worker later tries to get revenge upon me, that will be in a sense a kammic fruit of that action: this is a sense of kamma that is perfectly compatible with our understanding of nature.

The point is, given that understanding of kammic result, not all causes in the world are kammic causes. So the Buddha is right to assert the falsity of the Jain claim. It’s not true that all our pleasures and pains are due to past actions, neither of ourselves nor of others. Some of our pleasures and pains come from other background conditions. As the Buddha says,

Some feelings, Sīvaka, arise here originating from bile disorders: that … one can know for oneself … Some feelings, Sīvaka, arise here originating from phlegm disorders … wind disorders … an imbalance … by change of climate … by careless behavior … by assault … as the result of kamma …  (SN 36.21).

Bracketing the Buddha’s premodern medical model, the Buddha’s claim is quite clear: in addition to kammic causes, there are other physical causes for our pleasure, pain, or neither pleasure nor pain. Nothing in his argument, however, militates against a complete background determinism. The only concern here is refutation of complete kammic determinism, which as we’ve seen is in fact false.

On Edification

As far as I know, the question of free will in a deterministic universe really never comes up in the Suttas. One may argue that for whatever reason it simply wasn’t understood or seen as a problem in the Buddha’s time, as for example it was for Greek materialists like Epicurus.

My hunch, however, is that the Buddha would have viewed the problem as one of those ‘not tending to edification’. Whether or not we are determined, we still have to figure out which acts are wholesome and unwholesome. Whether or not we are determined, we still are faced with dukkha, with clinging. The fact that we may be determined makes no conceivable difference to how we find ourselves in the world right now: the future is still unknown to us, decisions must be made from instant to instant. The fact that we may be determined makes no conceivable difference in how we approach questions and decisions which appear open to us.

Would my knowing I am determined have made any difference to my pushing the button and diverting the trolley? No. If it had, if I had acted out of spite for the universal determinism by not acting, that itself would have been determined by my own spiteful state of mind.

—————

Postscript: one upshot of the compatibilist picture is that robots can be free.

A followup to this article can be found here: On Supramundane Freedom.

Tags:

Category: Articles

Doug Smith

About the Author ()

Doug is Study Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. He has a PhD in Philosophy, with a minor in Buddhist philosophy and Sanskrit. In 2013 he completed the year-long Integrated Study and Practice Program with the BCBS and NYIMC. A long time scientific skeptic, he pursues a naturalized approach to practice. He is also interested in scholarship about the Tipiṭaka, and the theoretical and historical origins of the dhamma. Some of his writing can be found at academia.edu. He posts weekly videos at Doug's Secular Dharma on YouTube.

Comments (48)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. mckenzievmd says:

    Ahh, such courage to wade into this morass! 🙂

    As you already know, I think that once you dispense with libertarian free will and accept that our actions are determined by physical states, then then rest is largely a question of semantics. To me, the distinction compatibilism makes between “coerced” and “free” choices is a legitimate one, but it really sidesteps what I think most people mean when they talk about “free will,” which is some kind of magical freedom not conditioned on the state of our physical brain. And I’m not sure how it helps us with some of the interesting questions generated by determinism, such as to what extent should we be held responsible for our actions and punished or rewarded for them if they proceed from brain states we are often not consciously aware of or able to alter? Still, I see how the kind of freedom Dennett talks about might be a way of salvaging some sense that we make free and meaningful choices in our lives, which most of us seem to need to believe since the idea we are simply acting our deterministic causal chains like boulders rolling downhill is a little depressing.

    As far as free will and Buddhism, I see a variety of different ways to play with the implications of certain Buddhist concepts for the free will debate. For example, one could say that the idea the self is an illusion is consonant with the idea that free will is illusory, and what we perceive to be acts of will are really the unfolding of complex causal chains which we can’t directly perceive in our ordinary state. True freedom might mean letting go of the illusion we are autonomous agents at all.

    But then the emphasis on actively seeking to dispel the illusions that hamper our progress suggests the idea that we can, in fact, choose not only our actions but our perceptions or even beliefs. Both, of course, are oversimplifications, but I imagine most people shape their notions of Buddhism and their notions about free will to fit each other and form an apparently coherent world view, and both are sufficiently complex areas that many different views could be supported.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Well, I think insofar as we are talking about a path, that’s getting us from here to there, we have to be using the language of free will: of making intentional decisions to behave in one way rather than another. I think using the example of the robot or computer makes things clearer. There’s no sense in which a robot or computer is able to step outside of its programming and act as an “uncaused cause”; we can all see that. But that doesn’t mean a (sufficiently complex!) robot or computer couldn’t decide to do one thing rather than another, that it couldn’t deliberate under conditions of epistemic uncertainty, that it couldn’t see for the first time one course of action as skillful and another as unskillful, etc.

      In Dan Dennett’s great book Elbow Room he basically lays out all the things we really want or need from freedom of the will, and argues convincingly that we actually have those things in a deterministic universe.

      This isn’t to say there isn’t some level of “illusion”, as you put it; and I do think there is a real resonance between ideas of the substantial soul and notions of libertarian free will. Certainly there is something we are seeing through or giving up when we see things as they really are. But just as some people seem to despair when they see that we are not everlasting souls, others seem to despair when they see that we are not able to act as ‘uncaused causes’. I think my point here as well as Dennett’s is to show that such despair is ill-placed, and that while realizing the truth will dispel a certain illusion, it doesn’t leave us nowhere.

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          Yes, I’m aware of Harris’s arguments; they aren’t original to him. They are based on a misidentification of free will with libertarian free will. It’s much like those misinterpretations of the Buddha dhamma that has it that there is no self.

          • David Chou David Chou says:

            How is it a misinterpretation of Buddhist doctrine to hold that there is no self??

            If you have an essay or something, I’d appreciate a reference.

            Seems like simple literal no-self solves the conundrum of free will….

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            It’s a misinterpretation because the Buddha never says that there is no self. What he says is that there is no essential or permanent, unchanging self. Indeed, the Buddha refers to a “self” over and over in the suttas.

            If you want to read something extended about the self in the Buddha’s thought, read for example my Gotama and Parfit on the Self. It’s as good as any a place to start, I hope.

          • David Chou David Chou says:

            I’ve already read that essay of yours and it’s clear that since then I’ve come to an different interpretation of his remarks than you. Perhaps you have something (else) where not-self and no-self are also contrasted? Are there no Buddhists who believe in literal no-self??

            That the Buddha referred to a “self” may be just an instance of colloquial speech — I don’t think there is a self (except in the sense that numbers also exist) and yet I can speak of “my self” and “myself” perfectly fine (always meaning those terms in the same way I mean numbers, as convenient and often useful constructs) — and it may even be due to nothing more than the outright corruption of the ages!

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            I’ve already read that essay of yours and it’s clear that since then I’ve come to an different interpretation of his remarks than you.

            Then either you have misunderstood me, or you are at odds with basically all scholarly and traditional interpretations of the Buddha. As I showed in that piece, the Buddha flatly says that claiming there is no self is incorrect.

            That the Buddha referred to a “self” may be just an instance of colloquial speech — I don’t think there is a self (except in the sense that numbers also exist) and yet I can speak of “my self” and “myself” perfectly fine …

            Right: it’s colloquial speech. There isn’t a substantial, unchanging, permanent self. All there is is that which makes it “perfectly fine” to talk about a self in the colloquial, everyday sense.

          • David Chou David Chou says:

            “Then either you have misunderstood me, or you are at odds with basically all scholarly and traditional interpretations of the Buddha. As I showed in that piece, the Buddha flatly says that claiming there is no self is incorrect.”

            Yes, I am indeed at odds with conventional understandings. I don’t think that’s so terrible — you would also agree that there are no literal rebirths, for example, despite the traditional doctrine on that. I’m just taking no-self one step further, giant leap of the imagination that it may seem!

            “All there is is that which makes it ‘perfectly fine’ to talk about a self in the colloquial, everyday sense.”

            It is only meaningful to speak of a “self” in this colloquial sense because there is no other self possible.

            It’s like race — a construct which is useful, but which doesn’t exist as such in itself.

            Likewise with self. Or numbers. Or God. Or any other idea.

            They don’t exist outside of human consciousness and currency (in the sense of “intellectual money” that is used to effect changes and which can fluctuate in “value” or degree of usefulness).

            Thus, how is there a self “ontologically” (or “normatively”) speaking?? It’s only “phenomenologically” (or “descriptively”) so.

      • mckenzievmd says:

        My own feeling, obviously conditioned by my training as a behavioral biologist as well as my native inclinations, is to view the usual metaphors and language of free will as inaccurate on some level but as part of a pragmatically useful model. Obviously, we evolved a theory of mind, a tendency to view the world in terms of agents and invisible causal forces, and all the other cognitive quirks that lead us astray and that we skeptics argue require skepticism because they are useful heuristics that made our ancestors better able to negotiate the world. As such, they needn’t be abandoned (as if we could!) even if they are inaccurate in points.

        I am even sometimes sympathetic to the use of spiritual language as well because it succeeds in expressing something useful in certain contexts, even though I believe it is misleading and untrue in a deep way. Part of what makes talking about subjects like free will difficult is the fact that, even if we view ourselves as robots in some sense, we don’t feel that way, and it is impossible to function as if we didn’t make choices freely whether we believe we do or not.

        Which then raises the question, is the same true of key Buddhist concepts, such as no-self? Can we really function without the “illusion” of a discrete, autonomous self? Can the path truly lead us to a place where we cease suffering because we recognize the misconceptions we have about what we are is the real source of this suffering? While I certainly have experienced the practical usefulness of starting down such a path, I retain some skepticism of the goal being reachable since it would seem to conflict as much with how our brains have evolved to see the world as the notion of “zombie determinism.”

        What do you think?

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          … even if we view ourselves as robots in some sense, we don’t feel that way, and it is impossible to function as if we didn’t make choices freely whether we believe we do or not.

          Well, the point of my piece, and of compatibilism in general, is that we do actually make choices freely. So there’s no real conflict there.

          It’s true there is a conflict with naïve notions of freedom, but as I say, those notions aren’t really workable in any sense.

          Which then raises the question, is the same true of key Buddhist concepts, such as no-self? Can we really function without the “illusion” of a discrete, autonomous self?

          Great question. I think key to the Buddha’s confrontation of self is that he never really argues for “no-self”; what he argues for is “no-atman”, where the atman is the permanent, substantial self that was the focus of Brahminical practice. In many ways this Brahminic atman is similar to the Cartesian everlasting, substantial soul. What the Buddha substitutes for this is a fluid, ever-changing, causally conditioned self.

          So in a sense the two cases are exactly parallel. We have a metaphysically intractable interpretation of both “free will” and “selfhood”, and a naturalistically tractable, more fluid, causally conditioned interpretation of both “free will” and “selfhood”.

          I think key to the Buddha’s path is giving up clinging to the intractable notions.

          • David Chou David Chou says:

            Are there *any* Buddhists who hold to literal no-self as I do?

            To me, it’s no problem going through life knowing that my very self, same as my thoughts, is just so much flotsam and jetsam selected from the morass of interacting factors that comprise our universe, selected by the hard-wiring of my human brain and its self-reflective preoccupations…it’s like I’m just a mirror or better yet a gem (LOL), reflecting — and even refracting — others, including other mirrors and gems/prisms….

        • David Chou David Chou says:

          I totally “get” you, mckenzievmd, “where you’re coming from.”

          All I can say is that in our normal everyday human context, with its normal everyday human interactions, we don’t have to worry about the fact that the earth is rotating at over a thousand miles an hour. Outside of that normal everyday human context — say, in launching a weather satellite — such a fact becomes relevant, regardless of our illusion of a static (and flat!) earth.

          Similarly, we act like we have free will, but that doesn’t mean we necessarily need to conduct our human society in such a manner, particularly WRT notions of justice and many a social policy prescription: just because there is no free will doesn’t mean there are no causes and effects (or as I prefer to say, CauseEffect).

      • David Chou David Chou says:

        To speak of paths isn’t necessarily to imply free will at all: one may be carried along on water flows — that is, paths in the water.

        Robots can achieve self-reflective consciousness, but this doesn’t imply free will, either. Many people are documented to be under surgical anesthesia but to their horror are fully aware of every last sensation.

        I don’t understand this fascination with Dennett, and I guess I’ll have to look for his book in the library, but as his ideas are being presented here (necessarily rendered in a simplistic manner, I understand), it seems like there’s nothing going on besides redefining terms to enable the illusion of free will.

        We use language because it is helpful within a human context — it wouldn’t do to use language with rocks if you want them located somewhere else; you use force, in that case. Similarly, we use numbers because they are helpful to us; they are how we understand physical properties of the universe — such as how much force is required to relocate how many rocks — but they don’t exist outside our heads; numbers are still artificial constructs. So it is with free will: we can say in everyday terms something like “Dude, you gotta stop masturbating!! It’s making your palms all hairy!!!” but the teenage virgin ain’t gonna stop ’cause he simply can’t. Yet just ’cause he feels desire for it and is able to find himself alone in the house doesn’t mean it was “his” “free” “will”….

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          The concept of free will, as I say, is absolutely essential to ethical action. If we cannot distinguish a free from a coerced act, then there is no such thing as right and wrong action. You can see this when it comes to your water and rocks, which are incapable of right and wrong actions.

          Think of a very complex computer system, like Data on Star Trek. Imagine we could create such a being. That being might act ethically, and it might act unethically. It might kill, steal, and lie, or it might act with good will, generosity, and truthfulness. It might also be forced to do something it didn’t want to do, like being forced to rob a bank by a man with a bomb. In that case, we would be justified in saying that Data wasn’t responsible for robbing the bank, since didn’t do so of its own free will. (It doesn’t require reprogramming or any kind of reconstruction in this case: Data is acting perfectly well). If we can say this of something we know is a completely causal machine, we can say it of ourselves as well.

          I recommend Dennett because he is perhaps the leading philosopher writing nowadays about free will. The fact that he is also interested in popular discussion, and that his books are relatively readable by a popular audience, is an additional bonus.

          • David Chou David Chou says:

            “TECHNICAL” NOTE: WHAT IS UP WITH THIS SITE’S POST COMMENTING SYSTEM!!!! MY POST HERE IS IN RESPONSE TO DOUG’S BELOW AND YET THE TIMESTAMP MAKES IT LOOK LIKE IT PRECEDES HIS…AND INDEED, MY PREVIOUS REPLY, THE ONE TO WHICH HE’D RESPONDED (TO WHICH RESPONSE THIS CURRENT ONE IS A RESPONSE), HAS BEEN LOST!!!!!

            SOMEBODY GET THIS PLACE A NEW PLUGIN!!!!

            THIS POST SOMEHOW REPLACED MY ORIGINAL POST TO WHICH DOUG’S POST BELOW IS A RESPONSE…SOMEBODY RETRIEVE THE ORIGINAL POST FROM THE DATABASE PLEASE AND SET THIS THREAD ARIGHT!!!!!

            AND INSTALL ANOTHER POST COMMENTING PLUGIN!!!!!

            ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

            I don’t want to get into free will and ethics right now, because that’s not “useful” to first determining whether free will exists.

            I’ll gladly deal with that issue later (and rest assured that I will address your points point-by-point, moreover), but to wade into that morass without first establishing that free will doesn’t exist is going to result in a Moebius Strip-like wild goose chase because everything will inevitably wind up referring to free will!

            So first, does free will exist?

            According to you and Dennett, it does where actions dovetail with desires. So free will becomes redefined as the successful completion of a thought — in effect, abstracting from the stream of events in the universe a chronology of finite length.

            But where do these desires come from?

            I don’t see where you and Dennett have accounted for this.

            ***

            There is no accounting for free will without accounting for selves. There is no accounting for the self without accounting for consciousness that can be turned inward. So ultimately, there is no resolution of the free will conundrum without understanding how selves are created and what self-reflective conscioussness is.

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            I’d argue that just like morality is possible without God, it’s also possible without selves and free wills;

            I’d argue that this is incoherent. If there is no free will, how do you distinguish between someone freely robbing the bank vs. someone being forced to rob the bank? How do you distinguish between someone who pulls the trigger freely vs. someone who does so inadvertently because of a twitch?

            If you can make these distinctions, you just do have a (preliminary) picture of free will.

            Further, if there are no selves, who acts? Who acts ethically and unethically? Towards whom? Who is harmed? Who is helped?

            Again, if you can make these distinctions, you just do have a (preliminary) picture of selves. While the Buddha didn’t believe there were permanent, unchanging souls, he did present a dhamma that included causal selves that could act well or poorly.

            Ethical notions are quite literally incoherent in a world without selves.

          • mufi says:

            Doug: If there is no free will, how do you distinguish between someone freely robbing the bank vs. someone being forced to rob the bank?

            I suppose one could argue that even a coerced agent is “free” in the sense that s/he’s made a conscious choice. The choice itself, however, is not one that s/he chose, and it’s a choice that s/he very likely hates having to make. Simply put: It’s a choice that most folks – including those involved in legal systems – would likely call “involuntary.”

            I see a lot of room here for debating the semantics of “free will.” How philosophers and theologians use the term may very well differ from how other folks use it.

            That said, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary gives two definitions:

            1: voluntary choice or decision (“I do this of my own free will”)
            2: freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention

            #1 seems more along the lines of what you, I, Dennett, and other “compatibilists” have in mind when we speak of “free will”, whereas theologians and their “hard determinist” critics seem to have in mind #2.

            Who’s right?

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            Hi mufi,

            #1 seems more along the lines of what you, I, Dennett, and other “compatibilists” have in mind when we speak of “free will”, whereas theologians and their “hard determinist” critics seem to have in mind #2.

            Yes. In fact, #2 is incoherent: it makes no sense to talk of “choices” that are undetermined. If they are choices, they must be determined by prior beliefs and desires.

          • mufi says:

            Doug: Yes. In fact, #2 is incoherent: it makes no sense to talk of “choices” that are undetermined. If they are choices, they must be determined by prior beliefs and desires.

            Agreed, with this to add about the semantics…

            I noticed that, in a stated attempt to avoid confusion, Massimo Pigliucci started using “volition” in place of “free will” at some point. I think that’s fine, as far as it goes, except that: (a) if the dictionary is any guide, then there’s already a legitimate popular use of “free will” that basically means the same thing; and (b) I suspect that the substitute will not satisfy anyone who’s “hard-determined” (so to speak) to wave away volition as illusory, too.

          • mufi says:

            One more thing on the semantics (which seems to be the main sticking point between hard determinists and compatibilists): Anyone who insists on a contra-causal definition of “free will” should contend, not only with the English dictionary, but also with Shakespeare, as in (from Antony & Cleopatra): “To come thus was I not constrain’d, but did it on my own free will.” Does that sound more like a “voluntary choice or decision” or a choice that was “not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention”? I suppose it could be either, but the context of that quote (in which Octavia replies to Caesar’s question re: why she arrived without “an army for an usher”) seems to favor the more naturalistic interpretation.

            In any case, it occurred to me that “volition” has an advantage over “free will” in Buddhist circles, since the former is a common translation of one of the five aggregates – namely, saṅkhāra – whereas the supernatural sense of the latter was (as far as I know) never really an issue for the Buddha.

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            In any case, it occurred to me that “volition” has an advantage over “free will” in Buddhist circles, since the former is a common translation of one of the five aggregates – namely, saṅkhāra – whereas the supernatural sense of the latter was (as far as I know) never really an issue for the Buddha.

            Sounds right to me, mufi. Yes, one typical translation of ‘saṅkhāra’ is ‘volitional formation’, which captures both its motive and ethical force. (If the behavior didn’t come from your saṅkhāra then you aren’t responsible for it, and AFAIK the ethical merit of the act depends on the ethical merit of the saṅkhāra that produced it. Though I expect this is more fully elaborated in the abhidhamma, about which I am still very sketchy).

          • David Chou David Chou says:

            Semantics indeed.

            Why speak of free will at all? Because there’s this insistence on holding people responsible. Well la-dee-da — how about we stop putting the cart before the horse here??

            How about just honestly inquiring after the truth of something instead of creating theories in order to make reality service some social need?

            In a Star Trek world of magical plenty, there would be no need for the convention of money. In a world where everyone’s nice to one another and there are no crimes, there would be no need for the convention of free will.

            So let’s dispense with the underlying motivation to hold people to account and instead account for whether the “plot device” that is free will even exists — and let’s do this without redefining our terms to suit our theories.

            Free will presupposes a self that is there to make choices. But this self is itself a constituent of innumerable factors, of which only the most proximate ones in spacetime are considered “the ‘proper’ self.”

            If this self is in truth itself just a result of CauseEffect, then any thing it does is also the result of CauseEffect. So in what sense is it meaningful to speak of a self and free will, except as conventional shorthand for seemingly necessary social interactions??

    • David Chou David Chou says:

      How is the distinction between “free” and “coerced” courses of action a valid one??

      Simply sounds like saying that being “a little pregnant” is different from a “full-blown pregnancy” — colloquially, we know what’s meant (namely, early and late-term) but ultimately one is either pregnant or not pregnant.

      Similarly, there either is free will or there isn’t — anything else sounds like semantic sleight-of-hand…”moving the goal post.” Dennett argues that there is free will when it is our true desires that are being achieved — but what’s informing those desires?? Prior CauseEffect (I’m using “CauseEffect” instead of “cause and effect” in the same sense that “spacetime” is often preferred to “space-time” — to highlight the ultimate unity involved of two apparently separate entitites). So if our true desires are the result of prior CauseEffect, where is free will again??

      The truth is, free will is predicated upon a false sense of the self — namely, that there is a self at all, that we can truly be separated from the fabric of the universe (our own cognition, such as that leading to a sense of free will, is but one more CauseEffect in this fabric or stream of the universe). And thus it is that having no free will isn’t depressing at all, unless one is overly attached to a false sense of self (indeed, the very same false sense of self which Buddhist compatibilism holds to lead to the issue of free will being wrongly framed to begin with!).

      That we can overcome illusions is not through our own wills as such. We cannot help but grow if it is in our genes to do so; we will come to enlightenment/liberation when the conditions most proximate to us lead to it. That conditions have lead us to Buddhism today and may lead us to enlightenment/liberation tomorrow is really besides our conscious input, which is why enlightenment/liberation cannot be achieved through scholarship and other intellectual activity, activity that’s associated with what is colloquially labeled our “wills.”

      • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

        So if our true desires are the result of prior CauseEffect, where is free will again??

        This distinction is based on a deep confusion: it assumes that a kind of “true self” outside of cause and effect is required for there to be free will. The only self is the self of cause and effect. This is the mundane self that the Buddha referred to again and again in his suttas, and that contemporary scientists investigate.

        Free will is a concept essential to action, and in particular to ethical action. There is a real distinction between something harmful one does voluntarily and something that one does involuntarily. (= something harmful one does freely vs. something harmful one does coerced). Even the Buddha made this distinction: the Buddha’s notion of kamma was original in that it pinpointed the ethical crux at intention rather than action itself. If the intention is wholesome, so too is the action. If the intention is unwholesome, so too is the action.

        Often what confuses folks in this picture is that they are not thinking of persons as essentially causal beings: they assume that in order for there to be free acts, free minds, there must be some kind of supernatural, non-caused self out there somewhere pulling the strings. But this vision is, in fact, incoherent. If there were a supernatural self out there somewhere, it too would need to be causally embedded in the real world in order to both know and act effectively.

        Free will, therefore, is essentially causal. This is the picture that Dennett gets right, and although the Buddha doesn’t specifically treat ‘free will’ in the Western sense, it’s a picture entirely compatible with the Buddha dhamma.

        • David Chou David Chou says:

          No confusion at all: I don’t even believe in selves!!

          Indeed, that’s precisely why I conclude there is no self — you cannot speak of free will without first accounting for the self (and I also see now that there’s no understanding of the self as a construct without recognizing what self-aware brains are and how they construct things like selves out of the morass of variables that is the universe).

          The self is a useful construct that comes from the kind of brains we have, which are forever constructing ideas (just like how a heart is forever pumping, and livers are forever doing all those liver things). But so are numbers, and yet it doesn’t mean that numbers exist, either.

          So no selves exist — thus, whatever does free will mean??

          It’s meaningless. It doesn’t exist, either.

          And free will is not essential to ethical action. Ethical action, actually, presupposes selves, which I’m saying do not exist.

          But it’s possible to recognize (ah, semantics — for who’s doing the recognizing if I say it’s possible to recognize something?? But there’s no one, I say; it’s just a linguistic illusion born of [neuro-]linguistic necessity) that life is good, and those actions which further life are to be encouraged.

          Think of Douglas Adams’ self-aware starship door in “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (or whichever book in his trilogy). It’s perfectly self-aware and yet all it wants to do is open doors. It recognizes that opening doors is a good thing! And so it’s very happy doing just that.

          Free will?

          Or Sisyphus, for that matter. No free will but happy…and, if need be one assumes, ethical, moral — surely he wouldn’t (the gods wouldn’t have caused him to) roll his rock over someone.

  2. RalphChidiac says:

    FYI Mr. Doug Smith:

    I simply love your blog.
    I came across it by pure hazard and wished I had noticed it earlier.
    Your marriage of Secular Buddhism/Philosophy/Mindfulness are in the perfect ratio to make my conscious, skeptic,
    anal-lytical, OCD, with a flair of borderline personality disorder brain do the ChaCha.

    Thank you for putting in print the storyline I have opted for after 53 years of BS readings on all aspects and angles of mental masturbations through the atypical folklorish-types of disciplines.
    Science, has always been my guiding light in the background noise of my cogitations, with a different flavour (born again, atheist, agnostic, metaphysical, bla bla) in the fore front.
    Today, it is sites like yours, amalgamating practical tools that define what I would interpret as a Unified Epistemic and Pragmatic approach to the life of the mind

    Thank you, and kudos to you sir.
    Sincerely
    Ralph

  3. mufi says:

    Heh, Doug:

    (This isn’t to say that all states must be physical states. As I’ve argued before, there could be mental states, but so long as they were determined by — supervened upon — physical ones, causal closure would remain true).

    If you haven’t already checked out Massimo’s latest Rationally Speaking entry, you might be interested, as it speaks to the topic of causal closure and reductionism vs. (strong) emergentism.

    I’ve only skimmed the surface of these debates, but my hunch is that many of them could be (at least partially) resolved by prior agreement on the precise meanings of terms like “physical” and “cause.”

    Anyway, nice job on the “free will” topic as it relates to Secular Buddhism.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Thanks, mufi.

      Yeah, I saw Massimo’s piece; there’s definitely a lot more to be said on these topics. (Even he only scratches the surface). But for the purpose of this blog I need to stay out of the weeds, or at least the deepest of the weeds!

      • David Chou David Chou says:

        My initial reaction to this essay was a slight disappointment at its brevity. I decided against raising the matter but since it’s already being discussed, let me throw in my two-pence’s worth!

        I don’t see how it’s possible to write about free will without going into the proverbial weeds. And thus I’m bewildered at what appears to be your and Dennett’s semantic sleight-of-hand in redefining the problem of free will away!

        It seems you and Dennett believe that free will exists because free will is when our desires are able to be acted upon. Not sure if actual success is a necessary component to the definition, but that may not matter for the purposes of my disagreement: y’all are just removing the question one step away. It’s like redefining “poverty” so that no one’s poor anymore!

        Similarly, you guys have made free will a matter of desire fulfillment (or the attempt thereto) without accounting for the origin of the desire, which is precisely the point determinists are making!

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          … semantic sleight-of-hand in redefining the problem of free will away …

          Heh. Sort of like the neurologists are doing a semantic sleight-of-hand and redefining the problem of souls away? I don’t think so. What we’re doing is finding out what’s really going on there, when we get rid of the pseudoproblems, incoherencies, and supernaturalisms.

          • David Chou David Chou says:

            “Sort of like the neurologists are doing a semantic sleight-of-hand and redefining the problem of souls away?”

            I don’t agree with the comparison, but want to make sure you understand that I’m not accusing you or Dennett of intellectual dishonesty or anything nefarious. I think you guys are wrong, but remain open to the possibility that I am, too.

            “What we’re doing is finding out what’s really going on there, when we get rid of the pseudoproblems, incoherencies, and supernaturalisms.”

            I agree with the goals. I just don’t see how arguing “desires” and “coercion” rebuts hard determinism. Can you help me see?

            This is a very important issue for me because, let’s face it, someone’s clearly very, very mistaken here!! And if that’s me, I *need* to know how come….

  4. David Chou David Chou says:

    Dennett, as outlined in this essay, has done nothing more than redefine free will. What’s odd to me is how much credence his simple semantic sleight-of-hand is given. Can someone please help me out here??? I’d really like to understand what the big deal is.

    Dennett’s simply saying free will exists because it is exercised whenever our desires are successfully acted upon. But this entirely ignores the obvious determinist rebuttal: what is the origin of those desires???

    It’s like redefining poverty so that no one’s ever poor again!

    The truth is, there is no origin of/for/to those desires except that which is convenient for our self-reflective brains to abstract from the flotsam and jetsam of factors that comprise the whole universe, including we and our self-reflective brains.

    There is no free will, which leads to the question of what a self could possibly be and how ethics could exist.

    Well, there’s no such thing as a self, either, except, like with free will, what our self-reflective brains contrive to abstract from the flotsam and jetsam of factors that comprise the whole universe…including us and those amazing brains of ours.

    So how are ethics possible??

    They’re not, as such — but something functionally equivalent winds up occurring nonetheless by that very same self-organizing principle of the universe which lead to our brains and its ability to construct (and thus sense) selves and free wills. Which is why Taoism (a possible long-lost cousin of Buddhism’s) speaks of just letting nature be.

    So, to address arguments posted earlier in a thread destroyed by this site’s Ajax Edit commenting plugin:

    “If there is no free will, how do you distinguish between someone freely robbing the bank vs. someone being forced to rob the bank? How do you distinguish between someone who pulls the trigger freely vs. someone who does so inadvertently because of a twitch?”

    You don’t morally — since “Trix are for kids” and morals are for selves! — but distinctions certainly are useful where appropriate treatment and prevention regimens are concerned.

    “If you can make these distinctions, you just do have a (preliminary) picture of free will.”

    No you don’t. Would you blame the weather forecaster for a wrong forecast? So why blame someone for not realizing the consequences of his or her actions??

    But insofar as it is in fact raining instead of being sunny, people are advised to carry umbrellas (or stay home altogether, et cetera). Similarly, since murder and mayhem do occur, appropriate steps should be taken — not just WRT treatment, as is our woeful wont, but prevention, too.

    “Further, if there are no selves, who acts? Who acts ethically and unethically? Towards whom? Who is harmed? Who is helped?”

    No one acts “in reality” — it’s just a matter of different “levels” of discourse, perception, and events…as “appropriate.”

    Thus, no one exists except as self-reflective brains are able to abstract certain sets of points for the establishment of boundaries with which to mark out a part of the universe it can perceive (namely, the most proximate part), which results these self-reflective brains label their “selves.”

    Such a self, thus created, is a useful mechanism by which certain patterns in the universe may arise, certain events. It is these selves that are said to be affected and it is these selves that are judged harmed and helped — said and judged by those selfsame selves!

    It’s like a kind of super-heuristic, if you will, our selves. A super algorithm that can operate inwards, too. Imagine not just operations on numbers, but numbers themselves being operations, too, somehow! That’s the crazy magic of self-reflective consciousness.

    So a self exists descriptively, in a certain sense, but not normatively (to indulge in a bit of hopefully helpful philosophical jargon) .

    “Again, if you can make these distinctions, you just do have a (preliminary) picture of selves.”

    No, not “really” — not “normatively” — but okay, yes…”descriptively,” “phenomenologically”….

    “While the Buddha didn’t believe there were permanent, unchanging souls, he did present a dhamma that included causal selves that could act well or poorly.”

    Linguistic illusions…semantics…I too am speaking of causal selves, except I do not mistake their existence as concepts for their existence as ontological fact.

    Just like “race” exists…and does not.

    “Ethical notions are quite literally incoherent in a world without selves.”

    Yes, ethics and morality as such (that is, as historically understood). But the functional equivalent exists without gods or selves or free wills.

    Incidentally, it is precisely our sense of such functionally equivalent processes inherent in the universe that first lead philosophers to speak of “‘natural’ law,” I believe.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      But the functional equivalent exists without gods or selves or free wills.

      Ah, now we’re on to something. It’s sentences like these that makes me think we may be talking past one another. All I’m talking about is, if you like, the “functional equivalent” of supernaturalist notions of free will and ethics. That’s all Dennett is talking about, too. That’s all that any naturalistically inclined philosopher is talking about, since we agree that there is no such thing as an essential self or libertarian free will.

      The Buddha is a bit more complex, since he clearly did believe in a supernaturalist ethics, which did actually have causal power in the future, through kammic causation. Hence on the Buddha’s picture, selves could not simply be false constructs: they had causal power through their actions.

      Re. blaming someone for their actions, it is very much like blaming the weather forecaster for a wrong forecast, assuming the forecaster made some correctable mistake. If they forgot to carry a three when doing addition, for example, they could be blamed for it in the same way they could be blamed for stealing cookies from the jar. This is a more complex case of blaming the toaster for burning your toast: what that means is that it needs fixing somehow; it malfunctioned. In the same way, ethical error is a kind of malfunction that can be corrected. Coercion is not. If one is coerced into doing something, they did nothing wrong for which they can be blamed, just as if you hold down the “toast” button on your toaster, your toaster isn’t to blame for burning the bread.

      • David Chou David Chou says:

        “All I’m talking about is, if you like, the ‘functional equivalent’ of supernaturalist notions of free will and ethics.”

        Sure, but I’m saying there is no free will at all, “functionally equivalent” or otherwise, except as a mental construct that is given life in the minds of believers akin to theism.

        I say that *even as* I say that there *is* a functional equivalent of ethics — hence (a kind of) ethics is possible without gods, selves, or free wills.

        “We agree that there is no such thing as an essential self or libertarian free will.”

        Again, I’m going to go one further than you: not only do I disavow libertarian free will, I’m saying there is absolutely no free will as such — no free will other than as a concept akin to theism.

        And not only do I disavow an essential self but I hold any self to be but a concept akin to theism.

        “Re. blaming someone for their actions, it is very much like blaming the weather forecaster for a wrong forecast, assuming the forecaster made some correctable mistake”

        I used the example of a weather forecaster precisely because we do not hold them responsible for their forecasts, given all the variable minutiae involved. Then you just come along and insert an artificial addition not native to the analogy in order to make a contrary point. Well, it’s fine and dandy to disagree but if you’re going to use someone’s analogy then please play along! Otherwise, you’re not “speaking French to a Frenchman,” as it were.

        Thus in my analogy the weather forecaster is clearly not responsible for a wrong forecast because there are no mistakes s/he could possibly make — the weather ain’t perfectly predictable!! So to speak of mistakes with the attendant possibility of being responsible, as you do speak here, illustrates why we “talk past one another,” as you observed: if you would respond to a point, please address that point as it is — “French for Frenchmen,” as I say.

        “…ethical error is a kind of malfunction that can be corrected. Coercion is not. If one is coerced into doing something, they did nothing wrong for which they can be blamed, just as if you hold down the “toast” button on your toaster, your toaster isn’t to blame for burning the bread.”

        So I’m holding down the “toast” button. Doh! CauseEffect. I get that. What I don’t get is, where’s free will again??

        “Coercion?” I repeat: it seems like a made-up conceit to salvage the compatibilist argument. Please help me understand why “coercion” is helpful in rebutting determinism.

        Forget blame. Forget responsibility. Deal with free will’s existence or lack thereof first. What I’m getting from our interactions here is an insistence from you on ethics and responsibility. I think that’s muddying things up. How about we not try to pigeonhole free will and make it fit some pre-existing need for ethics and just examine its existence first? Seems like that’s what I’m doing while your responses are designed to buttress conventional morality.

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          Please provide a sketch of your theory of ethics that makes no reference whatever to persons (selves) nor any distinction between voluntary and involuntary (intentional and unintentional) behavior.

          Otherwise this discussion has got well beyond issues of Secular Buddhism. If you want to know more about free will, please read Dennett.

          • David Chou David Chou says:

            Okay, my apologies: I’d thought my notions of no-self and no-free-will were not so unique as to cause confusion. Let me propose a fairly simple pseudo-syllogism by way of illustration (the ethical implications you insist on will come later in a separate response; as I indicated elsewhere on this webpage, let’s delay accounting for our sacred cows — first let’s just see whether something is or is not, irrespective of social implications):

            ~ The universe is all there is.

            ~ The universe is purely physical.

            ~ Everything occurs in the universe as a result of physical laws.

            ~ We are part of the universe.

            ~ We are subject to physical laws.

            ~ Our brains are a part of us.

            ~ Our brains are subject to physical laws.

            ~ Our brains determine our thoughts and actions.

            ~ Our thoughts and actions are thus determined by physical laws.

            Thus there is no self as such, nor free will as such, except as convenient colloquial shorthand for purposes of social interaction, because there is only CauseEffect, and it is only our self-reflective minds that snip particular lengths of CauseEffect out from the morass of spacetime it perceives§ (due to its initial, but not necessarily inevitable, limitations) — which operations are, as just mentioned, carried out for purposes of social interaction and, by extension, survival, existence….

            Of course, it’s possible to quibble with just about anything there — “universe,” “physical,” “brain,” “laws,” “thoughts”…most any noun, adjective, or even verb there can be semantically dissected.

            And I feel like that’s all compatibilists have done, quibble with definitions so as to remove the conundrum by a semantic sleight-of-hand akin to redefining poverty such that no one by definition can ever be poor again!

            Is my analysis wrong? How does “desire” and “coercion” fit into that syllogism, except as mere instances of CauseEffect themselves, given distinction only by our faculty for fiction??

            Lastly, I’d like to say that this discussion has everything to do with Secular Buddhism, insofar as any perspective — religion, philosophy, science — means to comment on the world as it truly, “ontologically,” *is.* I believe the Buddha’s no-self doctrine to be literal and implies the lack of free will, which is why it’s an advanced doctrine and deemed unnecessary (presumably, enlightenment or the cessation of craving and clinging reveals the truth of no-self anyway), especially given its radical implications — witness your own continued insistence on ethics§§….

            (As for what traditionalists and even disinterested scholarship have to say on the Buddha’s intentions as reflected in scripture, I do not hold any of that so dear given Secular Buddhism’s secular and skeptical ethos. Thus, you and I can agree to disagree with the Buddha on literal rebirth, though you and conventional interpretations of the Buddha, for example, agree on not-self….)

            NOTA BENE: I AM NOT ACTUALLY WEDDED TO MY VIEWS. I defend them because they make sense to me, but believe it or not I’d actually enjoy being wrong — because I’d rather be wrong and learn what’s right than be “right” for the sake of winning an argument and persist in ignorance!!!! So your time and attention to this matter is TRULY and MOST DEEPLY appreciated…I do not wish to persist in ignorance but cannot for some reason escape the syllogism I’ve laid out.

            § This cognitive operation is like when our smartphones insist on auto-correcting our perfectly good spelling, mistaking our intentions! Similarly, we mistake our redactions of CauseEffect for selves and free wills — or gods, even….

            §§ The motivation to salvage conventional ethics undermines understanding and is in effect an attempt to put the cart before the horse — but I will address this matter of accounting for ethics (that is, the very possibility of extended social interaction deemed mutually beneficial) if there are indeed no selves and no free wills in a, as I promised, later response.

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            And I feel like that’s all compatibilists have done, quibble with definitions so as to remove the conundrum by a semantic sleight-of-hand akin to redefining poverty such that no one by definition can ever be poor again!

            I find it ironic that you would use ethically charged examples like these in the service of arguing for the conclusion that there are no ethical properties. If there are no selves at all, in any sense, then there are no poor selves. If all there are are physical states and laws, there is no poverty, since ‘poverty’ is neither a physical state nor part of any physical law. So your claim literally amounts to the claim that there is no poverty. If there is no volitional action, there is no unjust volitional action. So on your picture there is no injustice.

            If despite all this you still believe in ethical properties such as these (I see you seeming to argue both sides of the case, above), you will need to explain how there can be such properties as poverty, injustice, harm, or benefit without persons or volitional actions.

            On the Buddhist picture these are not final ontological elements of reality, but they have reality in a derivative, everyday sense.

          • David Chou David Chou says:

            “If there are no selves at all, in any sense, then there are no poor selves.”

            Race doesn’t exist, either, except as a sociological construct. Yet is Obama not the first black President of the United States??? (Clinton’s “ethos” and Eisenhower’s possible ancestry notwithstanding.) Same with poverty. Same with selves and free wills. They exist the way money is valid — because we give them currency, because we accept them. But it’s clear I’m arguing against their “ontological” existence…so let’s not get sidetracked, okay??

            Okay, now I’m really getting the sense that that’s not really your problem with what I’m saying, is it? I keep hearing the insistence on ethics, but honestly that’s got nothing to do with selves and free wills in the same sense that God, another fanciful construct, has nothing to do with ethics. So will ya just let that go please and deal with free will?

            Please, for the sake of argument assume, as you would ask of a theist WRT God, that ethics will somehow remain intact and just deal with the matter of free will.

            I’ve outlined my thoughts already, and promise to discuss how ethics is possible without selves and free will — but that’s honestly another discussion: I want to talk about the horse first, and you keep saying “so who’s gonna pull the cart if the horse doesn’t exist????”

            Please. “Talk French to a Frenchman,” as I say (or Chinese, as the case may be — inscrutable Orientals notwithstanding!!)….

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            They exist the way money is valid — because we give them currency, because we accept them. But it’s clear I’m arguing against their “ontological” existence…so let’s not get sidetracked, okay??

            On that we are agreed. None of these things exist as ontological simples; they are social constructs. But just the way money — a social construct — is real (if you don’t think it is, try scooping up a pile of it from the back of a Brink’s truck and see what happens), so too are selves and free will. They are all real in a social, everyday sense.

            Please, for the sake of argument assume, as you would ask of a theist WRT God, that ethics will somehow remain intact and just deal with the matter of free will.

            I don’t know what you want to know about free will. You say that desires are part of the causal nexus, which is completely correct and banal. When we say that free will exists we are explicitly not saying that contra-causal free will exists. Contra-causal free will is incoherent.

            The best place for you to get a good handle on free will, as I say, are either of Dennett’s books on it. His view, roughly speaking, is the dominant view in philosophy nowadays. It’s known as “compatibilism” as in “free will is compatible with determinism”. It’s an attempt to figure out what’s really going on when we talk about someone acting freely and unfreely.

          • David Chou David Chou says:

            “None of these things exist as ontological simples; they are social constructs. But just the way money — a social construct — is real (if you don’t think it is, try scooping up a pile of it from the back of a Brink’s truck and see what happens), so too are selves and free will. They are all real in a social, everyday sense.”

            And that social, everyday reality can change — because there is no ontological basis for them. This is very important to realize.

            Thus, it’s possible — however unlikely — for that Brinks truck example you cite to turn out differently: our sense/internal model of CauseEffect is not necessarily CauseEffect as it is at a point in spacetime. (And now we’re actually a tiny step closer to the discussion on ethics you would have….)

            “I don’t know what you want to know about free will.”

            Ummmm…I’ve been asking why you think “desire” and “coercion” implies its existence. I really didn’t get the “how’s that possible??” from your essay…if “desire” and “coercion” are just more CauseEffect in spacetime, where *is,* ontologically, selves and their free wills??

            I’m saying they don’t exist. And that has, indeed, social policy implications — but like I said, it’s better to hold off on that discussion until free will is first resolved, else we’ll just keep winding up, Moebius Strip-like, back to free will!

            “You say that desires are part of the causal nexus, which is completely correct and banal.”

            Banal indeed!!! So why do you and Dennett make that out to be some kind of Alexandrian stroke that solves the Gordian Knot of free will???? How does such banality constitute an instance of free will for you and Dennett — except by the semantic sleight-of-hand I’ve noted?? (My apologies, again, if I misunderstand, say through inattention or analytical incompetence!!!)

            “When we say that free will exists we are explicitly not saying that contra-causal free will exists. Contra-causal free will is incoherent.”

            Yes — and I’m saying so too your compatibilist free will as well!! What exactly is the moral meaning of free will and a self, especially WRT ethics and criminal justice, when all there is is Dharma/CauseEffect????

            “The best place for you to get a good handle on free will, as I say, are either of Dennett’s books on it. His view, roughly speaking, is the dominant view in philosophy nowadays. It’s known as ‘compatibilism’ as in ‘free will is compatible with determinism’. It’s an attempt to figure out what’s really going on when we talk about someone acting freely and unfreely.”

            Yes, I’m sure there’s a lot more involved than what your essay’s been able to delve into due to space constraints and/or topical emphasis — but insofar as this is the comments section for your essay and you have the time and compassion to help, kindly let me know how your notions of “desire” and “coercion” undermine strict/hard determinism, especially since I do believe Buddhist tenets logically imply such determinism (unconventional though such a take on them is indeed). Thank you very much, as always!!

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            kindly let me know how the notions of “desire” and “coercion” undermine strict/hard determinism

            That’s easy: they don’t. That’s why it’s called “compatibilism” as in “compatible with determinism”. In order for you to be free, you have to be able to determine your actions with your beliefs and desires. True, your beliefs and desires are determined by other things, but so what? They’re still your beliefs and desires: they make you who you are, insofar as you are anyone.

            Again, think of my example of the toaster, or of Data from Star Trek. None of this involves “undermining” determinism, anymore than does brain science when it discusses elements of the mind.

            As an aside, understanding this sometimes requires a sort of duck/rabbit shift of perspective.

            (I have no idea what you’re talking about with the Brink’s truck, BTW).

          • David Chou David Chou says:

            “That’s easy: they don’t. That’s why it’s called ‘compatibilism’ as in ‘compatible with determinism’.”

            Okay, did I misunderstand the lingo, then??

            I thought strict/hard determinism necessarily precludes any free will. (I know you compatibilists claim otherwise, but I’m talking about what strict/hard determinists say — cf. Republicans claiming someone’s a “socialist” when Socialists would vehemently disagree in most cases!)

            “In order for you to be free, you have to be able to determine your actions with your beliefs and desires. True, your beliefs and desires are determined by other things, but so what? They’re still your beliefs and desires: they make you who you are, insofar as you are anyone.”

            Well, I’m saying there’s no such thing as freedom such that conventional ethics apply, given the lack of selves and free wills, so your reasoning there seems to tautologically presuppose freedom in explaining your view of free will.

            But anyway: it’s important to realize that those beliefs and desires are only *incidentally* yours/mine/hers/etc. Hence such sentiments of humility and gratitude as “but for the grace of God go I.” The “I” is implied to be an accident. (NB: I know you know all that, being a Buddhist; I’m reiterating them here for purposes of making my point.)

            Thus, being an accident (of CauseEffect/Dharama/Tao…even “God”) there is no “I,” no self, and thus no free will to attach to (“we’re all interconnected,” to put it simplistically) — so wherefore the basis for our current regimes of crime and punishment?? No wonder they’re so draconian, founded as they are on phantom selves and free wills!

            (And here we go yet another step closer to the discussion on ethics without selves and free wills that you’d wanted….)

            “Again, think of my example of the toaster, or of Data from Star Trek. None of this involves ‘undermining’ determinism, anymore than does brain science when it discusses elements of the mind.”

            Perhaps I totally misunderstand the jargon, then. I’d thought strict/hard determinism (of the kind I’m claiming) precludes free wills????

            MANY APOLOGIES — OVER MANY LIFETIMES!! — IF THAT IS NOT THE CASE.

            “As an aside, understanding this sometimes requires a sort of duck/rabbit shift of perspective.”

            Yes!!!! That’s why I say selves and free wills are illusory — which by definition don’t exist. If a glass is half-full/half-empty, you cannot say it’s full or empty except with respect to perspective!! And so I say that in a social everyday sense race, selves, free will do exist — but only because we lend them currency. IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE SO!

            “(I have no idea what you’re talking about with the Brink’s truck, BTW).”

            It’s esoteric and eccentric but the same point’s been made less esoterically and eccentrically, so please disregard.

            But here’s the thing: I think free will and the self, like God and hell before them, are concepts whose time have come…for retirement — from our catalog of useful beliefs, from our discourses mundane and arcane, and, eventually, from our very society. But even now that sounds really crazy (ahem), which is why the Buddha tucked no-self away under “advanced” (and which is why later Buddhists amended his original insights to the more palatable non-self or not-self [total speculation, all this, I know]). Hell, I’m even thinking now that time possibly being an illusion as well (can’t and won’t argue *that* yet!!) could somehow inform everything….

            [BTW, I may be naturally “crazy as a fox” but in this day and age I feel like I should reassure you that I am not on drugs…don’t even drink alcohol or coffee or Red Bull or anything…so thanks again for an interesting discussion. Perhaps it’s all old news to you as a philosopher but this is vitally new to me as a layman!!]

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            I thought strict/hard determinism necessarily precludes any free will.

            If that’s how you meant it, then you were asking a maximally uninteresting question. That simply defines free will as impossible. I can define anything as impossible; that proves nothing. The only question then is whether the definition is adequate. In this case, it is clearly not.

            Some people mean “strict” determinism to be the sort of thing Newton and Einstein thought was true of the world, before the statistical interpretation of causation found in quantum mechanics. That is a more interesting meaning of the phrase, and that’s what I took you to mean by it.

            “In order for you to be free, you have to be able to determine your actions with your beliefs and desires. True, your beliefs and desires are determined by other things, but so what? They’re still your beliefs and desires: they make you who you are, insofar as you are anyone.”

            Well, I’m saying there’s no such thing as freedom such that conventional ethics apply, given the lack of selves and free wills, so your reasoning there seems to tautologically presuppose freedom in explaining your view of free will.

            No, it does not. Nowhere in the above quoted phrase following “In order for you to be free” does the word “freedom” appear. So there is no “tautological presupposition” involved. Instead what there is is an analysis of free will in terms of particular causal streams leading from beliefs and desires on the one hand to actions on the other.

            But as I say this is getting somewhat tedious. It would be best now for you to read Dennett if you have further questions about compatibilism.

          • David Chou David Chou says:

            “If that’s how you meant it, then you were asking a maximally uninteresting question. That simply defines free will as impossible. I can define anything as impossible; that proves nothing. The only question then is whether the definition is adequate. In this case, it is clearly not.”

            I don’t know about “interest,” I’m interested in whether something is or is not true. If strict/hard determinism as classically defined is uninteresting to you, so be it, but that doesn’t seem to speak to its ontology.

            “Some people mean ‘strict’ determinism to be the sort of thing Newton and Einstein thought was true of the world, before the statistical interpretation of causation found in quantum mechanics. That is a more interesting meaning of the phrase, and that’s what I took you to mean by it.”

            Actually, I would have once upon a time, but then I read something about how that Heisenberg Uncertainty stuff ain’t really a refutation of classical strict/hard determinism (assuming you’re making circumspect reference to that by “the statistical interpretation of causation found in quantum mechanics”). In any case, we’ve not left my original complaint (I use that word affectionately, believe it or not) that all compatibilists have done is redefine terms to suit their theory (which you now say of me and mine!).

            “But as I say this is getting somewhat tedious. It would be best now for you to read Dennett if you have further questions about compatibilism.”

            Well, thanks again for your time and thoughts. I still don’t see how “desire” and “coercion” are anything other than semantic sleight-of-hand to pigeonhole reality for the sake of compatibilism, and I’m sorry that a feeling of tedium has forced you to select only the easier, surface-level reactions to my questions to publish in response. Perhaps essays for a general, lay, non-Buddhist audience are in order for a Secular Buddhism advocacy organization’s website?? To paraphrase Leonhard Euler, it ain’t mathematics if he can’t explain it to his grandmother.

            I intend no snark by the suggestion and its illustration. I mean merely that such complex matters deserve more exploration for this website than as a short self-evident note, in effect, for those already schooled in philosophy.

            In any case, thank you again for all the time you have taken to help me throughout these many days. That’s certainly sharpened me in the here and now, and I hope to understand your perspective at a later date.

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            I’m sorry that a sense of tedium has forced you to select only those easier, surface-level reactions to my questions to publish in response.

            Actually, as much as anything, the tedium comes from your not having responded to my arguments or examples, from the malfunctioning toaster to Data to the Brink’s truck to the background issue that on your definitions of the terms, there is no such thing as ethics. And when it came to your own example of the weather forecaster, you simply ignored the fact that my interpretation made sense of volitional error in a deterministic world.

            I can’t play this game alone.

            That, as I say, leads me to believe it would be best for you to get more exposure to the complete theory before confronting the minutiae.

            With metta.

          • David Chou David Chou says:

            And with all due metta, I really must call you out for making false accusations:

            Data — I believe I responded to this quite a few times, actually, once explicitly in that post which is now lost (as I noted in all-caps somewhere above, though being lost I may misremember its contents now), and other instances indirectly where I speak of (do a keyword search for the following) “robots,” “starship door,” and “Sisyphus.”

            Toaster — I also responded to this example of yours (keyword search “doh!”), where I’d asked “[so] where’s free will again???” I simply disagreed that your analogy was valid.

            Brinks — like I said, it was esoteric and eccentric (and that’s really saying something, given the level of esoterica and eccentricity there already is in what I say), given that my point had been better made several times already elsewhere, but…as you wish: what I’d meant was that yeah, money is real, if I’d try to take some from a Brinks truck I’d probably get sent to prison, but that’s only according to conventional models of CauseEffect, and CauseEffect is not necessarily predictable, so who knows what may have come to pass, the totality of CauseEffect being what it would be then…therefore, a slight quibbling with the implications of your analogy. You brought this up to make the point that even illusions have consequences, and I’m simply saying those consequences aren’t necessarily what we now have in mind, nor do they have to be as they may have been…I know, esoteric, eccentric, and still clear as mud. Which is why I’d ask that we abandon it.

            Weather Forecaster — I specifically refuted your objections. That you disagree is not an instance of my ignoring them. I repeat: the weather forecaster is not held accountable because of the myraid variables involved — no “mistake” as such is possible precisely due to the unaccountable (I repeat: “unaccountable,” as in “not able to be held responsible” and therefore “impossible to make a mistake as such” for mistakes imply there was something that was left out) complexity involved (and thus your attempt at undermining my analogy fails because a weather forecaster makes no mistakes as such, just as it would be silly to say that Chinese fortune cookie “lucky numbers” were “mistaken” [except in a colloquial sense — but we speak of “ontology” here]). Yet we would hold a “criminal,” so-called, responsible in the erroneous way we do (let me repeat that: “in the erroneous way we do,” which is to suggest that the functional equivalent of ethics is possible even without selves and free wills) because we imagine we can conceive of all the variables involved in an event in spacetime we label a “crime” and thus the criminal, the product of different circumstances in spacetime, should have as well (that is, reproduced within him or herself the same exact cognitive patterns [the same circumstances in spacetime, in effect, “broadly speaking”] we do)????

            Now again, I regret that you feel so fatigued, but is it surprising that free will should be so complicated to explicate?? Thus, perhaps essays in the future that aren’t self-evident notes passed between doctors of philosophy, given the advocatory motivations of this website, would result in less tedious follow-up questions in the comments section.

            Ultimately, the more we talk, the more I’m convinced we are, as semanticists would hold of any argument, disagreeing over nothing but semantics. Witness Exhibit A: you even think I ignored you!! Several times over!!!!

Leave a Reply