Free Will & Anatta

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This topic contains 7 replies, has 6 voices, and was last updated by Anthony Anthony 5 months 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 1 year, 1 month 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.

  • #42174


    Buddhists reject the term materialism? Can you tell me why?
    I assume it is because the materialism that usually presents itself is mechanical, reductionist materialism.

    Only materialism, however, makes sense out of Buddhism! By definition, the non-material, the supernatural, stands beyond what is. Outside of cause and effect. Which means it cannot be.

    > For, if mind is not a property of matter, then it is a property of something non-material.
    > If something is non-material, it cannot be subject to the laws of motion, cause and effect, attraction, repulsion, yielding, resistance.
    > It cannot be caused and cannot cause.
    > Devoid, therefore, of thought and feeling, which can only exist in relation to cause and effect, this non-material “thing” would not be mind any more than it would be body.
    > It would be ahtman, beyond all and independent of all. Permanent and static. An absurdity.
    > So, the Buddhist objection to materialism is illogical in Buddhist terms.

  • #42382

    steve mareno

    Wow, you folks are way beyond me (and for myself, I see that as a good thing). Free will is a Christian concept, and is never seriously discussed in Buddhism because it’s not relevant to the practice (who exactly is there to choose or not choose to exercise this free will anyway?). Anatta is an activity and what one experiences when one begins to wake up. It’s not a concept, or anything that can be understood empirically, it’s the dharma that people have been experiencing for thousands of years. It IS Buddhism in my mind. All the other stuff in Buddhism is just religion. Jim’s chain of causation sounds a lot like determinism and/or karma, neither of which I buy into. Cause and effect, yes, karma, no. All things are impermanent.

    Anatta is the activity of meditation practice, either on a cushion or out in the world in mindfulness, which leads one to Anatta. The dharma just IS because it is experienced, not spelled out logically or empirically. There is nothing to be empirical or logical about.

  • #42400

    Hi. This is a crucial topic for me. The myth of free will was exploded in Europe by Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire, Holbach, Godwin and Shelley. I have revisited Buddhism, which confirms my materialist views on this.

    Free will is also an ingredient in the human arrogance that underlies speciesism. Feeding human supremacism’s self-congratulation and pride, it (free will) is clung to desperately, and the denial of it encounters much anger and mockery.

    The fact is, an independent will, free from cause and effect, is as absurd as a being independent of existence. Every cause is also an effect. Outside of cause and effect there is no causing, and hence no will. A will independent of motive would likewise not be a will.

    The Middle Way sees also no sense in a determinism/free will dichotomy. Our choices are determined (motivated), but are also choices, of dependent origination. Effects which cause and give rise to more effects.

    The only reason for clinging to free will is desperation in the face of reality. It is human delusion with its roots in the notion of self-contained selfhood. Man deified in the place of his dethroned Christian God.

    • This reply was modified 5 months ago by Anthony Anthony.
  • #42402

    steve mareno

    First of all, I need to say that I misunderstood Jim’s post. I originally thought he was arguing for determinism when he was actually arguing against it, and in a very detailed and lucid manner. My apologies Jim, I screwed up.

    “Outside of cause and effect there is no causing……”

    Yes, this is a very important core premise of Buddhism that has been perverted by the term karma. Life, the universe, whatever you wish to call it, is a constant chain from one to the other. Karma is what happens in THIS life time, not in the fantasy of a reincarnated lifetime. Karma in it’s truest sense is cause and effect, but the word has so much religious baggage that I seldom use it, and much prefer cause and effect.

    I’m very fortunate to have come to Zen after shedding all of my religious beliefs, theories and maxims. My practice has to agree with science, or better yet, with that which is. Science often has too many unproven theories to suit me, while my practice is based on actual experience. I used to wonder…..but can we really trust our experiences? I would say yes, IF we are operating in the present moment. There have been experiences I have had that were not factual, but if I had been experiencing reality directly as it was, I would not have had those experiences. Before practicing meditation and understanding reality as it is (or at least I’ve had some momentary flashes into reality), I was in no shape to trust my experiences because they were tainted by my conditioning, beliefs, irrational attachments, etc.

  • #42404

    Hi Steve.
    I don’t know if you are familiar with Lafcadio Hearn, but he points to the distinction in the Higher Buddhism between rebirth and reincarnation (transmigration of a self/soul). Since ultimate truth (see Nagarjuna) entails non-self, there cannot be reincarnation. Rebirth is a different matter, and, understood correctly, perfectly scientific.
    Your atoms will definitely go to form billions of entities after your death, as they have done before you were born, ad infinitum. But they won’t all stick together to form another individual being, which would be too improbable. They will be part of many, as they are now. And they are leaving you and others are becoming part of you NOW, every day, while you live too.
    Cells in us are being born and dying all the time. Life and death, and life again, are ongoing, perpetually. We too are cells in the great shunyata.
    We consist of societies just as we too form a society. (Horton Hears A Who springs to mind. 🙂 ).
    You are correct. Karma is playing out in our lives. But it doesn’t end when we die. All is beginningless and endless.

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