Free Will & Anatta

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This topic contains 2 replies, has 3 voices, and was last updated by  Mark Knickelbine 6 months, 1 week ago.

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  • #41204


    I’ve wanted to have this conversation for a while now, and I posted this in another forum but didn’t really get a constructive response. I guess you could say, I chose to post this here today. But did I? The “choice” to post this didn’t really come from any real deliberation, it just came out of nowhere, it just popped into my head. And even if I had thought long and hard about it, weighing the potential arguments this could cause and the time it would take against my desire to talk about this, in the end, my final decision would have just come into existence, seemingly out of the aether. In that moment, this decision became a result of every experience I ever had, and how those experiences reacted with my physiological make-up, and how that make-up depended on my genetics, which depended on the specific sperm and egg from my parents, which depended on their experiences and their genetic make up, and so on and so forth. The exact circumstance of my mind in that moment, reacted to the stimuli in my environment at that moment, and in a singular way that it only could given that set up, resulting in the thought to write this post. Then, my mind reacting to that thought, again in the only way it could given that exact set up, resulted in the decision that, yes, I’m going to write this post. So, if the particular and exact circumstance was uncontrollable all the way back to infinity, and the way that particular and exact circumstance reacts to new stimuli is uncontrollable and bound to unbreakable laws, then there is no room for free will in that scenario.

    Now, that is causal determinism. There is also a possibility that quantum probability comes in at some point. But this is offers absolutely no assistance to free will, because all that provides is the possibility that at some point throughout those determined processes, some quantum strangeness threw in a random curve ball. So normally the decision would have been not to write this post, but instead some quantum randomness changed the particles and the mind just enough that instead I decided to write it. This still is not free will, the decision still came out without any help from “me,” it just didn’t follow the exact deterministic path, and had a bit of randomness to it. Equating this to free will is like saying someone who has to roll dice every time they make a decision has free will. Randomness is not free will, it’s just randomness.

    Another option is the argument daniel dennet brings forward, which is that, as a human, we have much more potentiality than other lower lifeforms. In any moment, what we are “able” to do, has many more alternatives. But again, this is not free will, this is just freedom. And the funny thing is, even then, it really isn’t; because we don’t actually have more alternatives and potentialities, because we still must react in the exact way that we do. Yes, like I stated in the earlier paragraph, there can be some randomness, but remember this is at the quantum level, so the changes this can make are almost never prominent. Even in those rare cases that they are, the potentiality is still only one decision or thought in difference. So although the effect in reality is pronounced, it does not offer us any more freedom than any other living creature. We are all stuck on a track, that can occasionally switch to another track by random chance, but we are then stuck on that track until another random switch. The most important aspect is that at no point do we have the choice or free will to change tracks on our own.

    The reason this applies to all of us in particular, is that it not only reinforces the truth of Anatta, but it is necessary for it to be so. How can we have volition or free will, if there is no self? If there are truly decisions being made, then there has to be someone making the decisions. It can’t work the way we usually explain other phenomena, for example, no one experiences the anger, there is just anger. If you think about this in the same way, it makes no sense. No one has free will to operate, there is just free will operating? It can’t be, because free will or volition, implies a self. You can’t have choices being made, where you could rewind reality to that exact point in time with everything exactly the same, and have it play out differently because of a freely made choice, without there being a self that makes the choice. Decisions made out of free will must have a self behind them or it doesn’t constitute free will, otherwise it’s what? Decisions making themselves?

    Every thought, feeling, and action, is the result of causes and conditions, acting on processes, all bound by the laws that govern all phenomena. The particular circumstance that is reacting to newly incoming circumstance is also the result of the same uncontrollable phenomena, all the way back as far as it goes. There is no room for volition or a self in any of this. The interesting thing is that in meditation and in daily life this can be observed, and it can give you deep insight into Anatta. You can see how every thought you have, every action that is made, arises out of causes and conditions, you can actually see, when you calm your mind and look closely, how you never actually make a choice out of free will, how there isn’t a self to make such a choice. So although this may seem merely philosophical, understanding it really does have a practical application.

    • This topic was modified 6 months, 4 weeks ago by  jimisommer.
  • #41228
    Michael Finley
    Michael Finley

    Free will v determinism — A significant question, surely. But IMO it may be truly an unanswerable question, pace Kant perhaps more than Gotama. Consider for example, the relevance of quantum indeterminism. Certainly, you are correct that randomness does not equate with free will. The theories that have been spun out to link quantum mechanics and free will are rather fabulist. But, if quantum mechanics describes reality at a more fundamental level than classical physics, and if the Copenhagen interpretation is correct, the universe is not in fact deterministic. Exactly what this has to do with free will, I cannot say — except that indeterminism would seem to be a prerequisite of free will. Our understanding of quantum reality is too crude, I think, to rule out possibilities other than randomness and determinism. In domains in which assuming determinism makes sense of things, I do.

    But — a very big but — when considering my own ability to make choices, I assume free will. This is not to say that a lot of choices I make are not unconscious, or to deny that much of our behaviour is socially conditioned or genetically determined. Rater, in order to believe that I can, for example, act in any way to enter the the Path or train myself to be more mindful, or to carry on at all, I need to assume some freedom of action.

    Of course, I could be wrong. This could be a false belief I was conditioned to believe. But in this case, what I believe wouldn’t make any difference anyway, and my attempts to choose would be meaningless. So I’ll make a kind of Pascal’s wager in favour of free will.

    You’ve probably heard this kind of argument before — I think maybe I’m spelling it out here because I suspect it is one accepted, with or without a lot of deliberation, by a lot of people influenced by Buddhist ideas. Gotama believed that some metaphysical questions could not be answered, and need not be answered to achieve enlightenment. One of the appeals of Buddhism, at least in some versions, including so-called secular Buddhism, is that it offers, unlike most religions, a way to live the good life, to come to terms with existence, without having to answer metaphysical questions. I suspect that’s why you haven’t been able to stir much interest about the free will question. But welcome to the group! I think you find interest in a wide range of philosophical issues here.

  • #41264

    Mark Knickelbine

    If I recognize that certain mind states are more beneficial to my well being than others, and I work to cultivate those states, does it matter that I was “free” to do otherwise? If someone lacks empathy and acts on asocial tendencies, to whom does it matter that he was not “free” to choose some other course? Free will is one of those abstractions that got baked into our culture and language such that we can’t bring ourselves to understand the world without it (the “hard problem of consciousness” is another such abstraction). If one simply drops the concept, very little of substance changes. Our perceptions, reactions, and desire to maximize happiness and minimize suffering remain intact. If we assume a mechanistic explanation for our thoughts and behaviors, the mechanism itself is still far too intricate and complex to perceive in real time. We still judge ourselves and others by our actions and intentions, and act accordingly. It is only our desire to preserve the notion that we are ghosts in material machines that makes this appear problematic.

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