Apr 17, 2008

Free WIll

There was a report in the news that some neuro-scientists had determined from brain-scans that our brain actually make a decision before our conscious mind is aware of it. The scientist being interviewed seemed to believe that this finding invalidated the concept of free-will. This reminded me of a question I often get asked; does Buddhism believe in free-will?

Turning to the scientific finding first; just going on the interview I heard, it's hard to see how these findings, or any imaginable findings from brain scans could prove or disprove free-will. How can they possibly correlate a pattern of brain-activity with a specific mental process which is unconscious to the person? Could they really know, for instance, if someone chooses coffee or tea by the brain pattern? As I understand the theory, they are claiming that the brain makes the decision unconsciously and that conscious awareness simply reports the result, under the illusion that it is actually choosing.

The bigger problem with this kind of analysis is whether we can really call an unconscious process a mental event. Does the whole psychological concept of a sub-conscious actually make sense, except as a crude short-hand for mental events (pali dhamma) of which consciousness is not fully attentive? But then I don't believe that conscious awareness is a product of brain function at all. These brain studies are interesting, but the practical results are muddled by the researcher's physicalist assumptions.

As for Buddhism and free-wil, the question allows of at least three answers, at different levels. In the first place, it should be pointed out that the question itself is something of a category error. The free will vs. determinism debate comes out of western philosophy, not eastern. In it's original form it wrestled with the problem of how free-will could be reconciled with an omnipotent and omniscient deity. If God knew from the creation that I would choose coffee and not tea, is my choice really free? When western thought moved from theism to materialism it took the problem with it, only with blind electro-chemical processes replacing the big guy in the clouds. Since Buddhism isn't encumbered by either the theist or materialist axioms, it isn't bothered by the question in the same way.

On a second level, and in a slightly different form, the question does come up though. The Buddha opposed the hard determinism of Makkhali Gosala with his little ball of yarn. (He would demonstrate his theory that everything was fixed from beginingless time by unrolling a ball of yarn, teaching that beings moved through various rebirths in a fixed order from beginning to end like the unrolling yarn.)

Furthermore, the Buddha said it was an error to teach that all things are determined by karma. This flat statement has been interpreted in various ways. However, in my humble opinion, the statement was made specifically to allow for a kind of free-will. You won't find it laid out so neatly in the Suttanta, but in Abhidhamma it is made clear that in the sequence of conscious mind-moments the sensory awareness of sights, sounds and so forth is determined completely by various factors, including past karma. However, there are other mind-moments (javana) where we make karma, and there the possibility of choice is present.

So, by this Abhidhamma analysis we could say that the present moment experience is always absolutely determined, but that the volitional action we take in response is free. Technically, it involves the factor of cetana or volition. This raises a further philosophical difficulty however. The dependent origination teaches us that everything except for the supramundane Nibbana element arises from past causes. So that would include cetana, so how can our choice be truly free?

The answer is the third level answer, which comes around at a higher level to the first approach. The false assumption still remaining in the previous paragraph is that there is an I who chooses coffee over tea. With the insight of anatta or not-self we dispense with the whole problem of whether a person is free by dispensing with the person. There is only the interplay of various physical and mental factors, one of which is cetana.

These various complexities were wrestled with in Buddhist India, and it may be that the Mahayana concept of the Tathagatagarbha ( the seed-of-buddhahood said to be present in all sentient beings from beginingless time) may have been an attempt to answer one particularly knotty form of this dilemma; how is it that beings who have always wandered in samsara, with only samsaric mental content, could ever develop a volition for seeking the transcendental?


Dharmashaiva said...

"how is it that beings who have always wandered in samsara, with only samsaric mental content, could ever develop a volition for seeking the transcendental?"

How does Theravada answer this question?

Dhamma81 said...

I'd say that even worrying about an answer to that is straying into territory that lies outside the "Handful of Leaves" and the Four Noble Truths.

ken said...

I have personally wrestled with this question myself, long before I encountered Buddhism. I'm sure many people get a sense of what is calle deja vue. Many Neuro scientist believe that this phenomenon is caused by one hemisphere of the brain interpreting information before the other has time to catch up, creating a kind of mental disonance that keeps us guessing. For me it came in a dream. I had dreamt exactly of an event that happened the very next day. The dream came to me in the first person perspective as if I was seeing it with my own eyes. When it started happening, I realized I had dreamt, and with this realization the dream ended, and I started guessing. How could this happen I asked myself? I didn't understand, I still don't. At that point in my life, I assumed reality to be a product of my free will. It's really hard to accept that my life may already be planned out and fated. Then again it's not as hard to accept anymore, I have found interest in occult practices such as palmistry, tarot cards, astrology and religion in general. The event did not trigger my interest in Buddhism but the idea of karma has certainly added some perspective to my experience. Buddhism makes me wonder if samsara is just a dream that I keep on awakaning from, lifetime after lifetime. If there is a way out, and that way is the eight fold path to Nirvana what would be the motivation? My free will? Perhaps this is the only kind of freedom worth fighting for, or so the buddha says...especially if bad karma would dictate some kind of purgatory rebirth in a demonic realm! But then again, I haven't ever been able to remember my past lives like the Buddha did. I'm sure if he spent some time there, he'd never want to go back! Neither would any of us, but we are all damned by ignorance and sin. Thank God we can't remember that kind of torment, but we have to give the devil his dues for that one I think.

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doug rogers said...

:-) As to Deja Vu... I cannot find a satisfactory 'physicalist' explanation for a vision encountered on the other side of the world 25 years later.

Joe said...

I like the way you stage your response, Ajahn Punnadhammo. I was waiting for you to get to the third-stage, though you word it slightly differently than I would have. The standard issue with free-will becomes a non-issue when the grounds for what constitutes freedom are the way they are in the Buddha's teachings. Freedom is not freedom of something, which sounds weird since it means freedom is actually not simply freedom but dependent on something, but a sort of revealing of what's there and from whence it came. There is no abiding thing there, which means that when you get down to it, freedom is at least as primordial as delusion

Honsing said...

We have to first define "free will". In the Western perspective, "free" implies independence. Thus "free will" means a will or decision that is independent from all conditions. That is, a will that can choose coffee despite all the surrounding factors condition the will to choose tea.

I believe in Buddhism, such "free will" does not exist otherwise it would be not interdependent, it will have its own ego, and it breaks the law of cause and effect as in it is not the effect of causes.

Alternatively we can define "free will" in compromised way such as the ability to decide among thoughts that arises. For example faced with a thought on choosing coffee and a thought on choosing tea, "free will" means the ability to choose one. We sacrifice the characteristic of independence here, and admit that our choice could be affected by our habitual energies, our hormones flowing at the moment, and the external conditions. Nonetheless it gives the chooser the satisfaction that "I" have answered to a choice (freedom) rather than no choices will given to me (non-freedom). This later definition would not violate interdependence, non-self, and it does not break the law of cause and effect. Hence I think this later kind of free will would exist in the framework of Buddhism.

Joe said...

"We sacrifice the characteristic of independence here, and admit that our choice could be affected by our habitual energies, our hormones flowing at the moment, and the external conditions."

Whose habitual energies/hormones? Conditions external to what interiority?

I don't think there has ever been a coherent conception of independence in the West, since it often hypostatizes rather than grounds something it calls interiority or something it calls exteriority. The same goes for conceptual distinctions like real and unreal. In other words, there are not many Western thinkers who think concretely, because some sort of a priori independent subject is, on its own, a sheer abstraction. Hegel and his various lineages break from this though.

Honsing said...

"We sacrifice the characteristic of independence here, and admit that our choice could be affected by our habitual energies, our hormones flowing at the moment, and the external conditions."

Habitual energies and hormones are of the chooser's. External conditions are as in external to the chooser's physical body.

Habitual energies include tendencies in habit and kamma. For example we may choose tea out of habit, or if we do not have a habit for tea, then our kamma at the moment may be such that we are in the mood for tea. The idea that "free will" is affected by habitual energies is not new. Police uses this to anticipate the criminal activities of serial criminals. Businessmen use this to anticipate the strategic moves of competitors. Thus although the chooser apparently has independent "free will", her resulting choices are influenced by habitual energies.

Hormones: some studies have found that hormones such as testosterone, vasopressin, and dopamine can affect the mood of the person and therefore affect his/her choice. I personally had a dramatic encounter. My father was given a drug that changed his hormone level which the doctor said had a side effect of reducing his urge to speak. Thus my father passed away without leaving any last words -- it was not his usual behavior to keep silent over such important matters. Although my father was awake, he "chose" not to answer any of our queries.

External conditions, in the most extreme cases, are for example war versus peace, calamity versus safety, and abundance versus scarcity. The perceived importance and relationship to other entities affect the chooser's choice as well.

Despite all these interdependence in the choice decision, and thus depriving the choice of a truly independent and "free" nature, the chooser nonetheless has the satisfaction that "I am making the choice". Hence this to some degree qualifies as "free will".

Joe said...

"Habitual energies and hormones are of the chooser's. External conditions are as in external to the chooser's physical body."

So, where lies the difference between the chooser and what is chosen? That's my point.

yy said...

your mind is not youself and is not your will also. You are free with your will. This made/makes individual being which is the seed of budda. We are same, we are different. Same and different are one existing, this is true of our free will.