On Mundane Freedom


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.