Volume 17, 2010
Meditation and Mental Freedom: A Buddhist Theory of Free Will
Kingsborough College, City University of New York
I argue that central Buddhist tenets and meditation methodology support a view of free will similar to Harry Frankfurt’s optimistic view and contrary to Galen Strawson’s pessimistic view. For Frankfurt, free will involves a relationship between actions, volitions, and “metavolitions” (volitions about volitions): simplifying greatly, volitional actions are free if the agent approves of them. For Buddhists, mental freedom involves a relationship between mental states and “metamental” states (mental attitudes toward mental states): simplifying greatly, one has mental freedom if one is able to control one’s mental states, and to the extent one has mental freedom when choosing, one has free will. Philosophical challenges to free will typically question whether it is compatible with “determinism,” the thesis of lawful universal causation. Both Frankfurt’s metavolitional approval and the Buddhist’s metamental control are consistent with determinism. Strawson has argued, however, that free will is impossible, determinism notwithstanding, because one’s choice is always influenced by one’s mental state. I argue, however, that Buddhist meditation cultivates control over mental states that undermine freedom, whether they are deterministic or not, making both mental freedom and free will possible. The model I develop is only a sketch of a minimally risky theory of free will, but one that highlights the similarities and differences between Buddhist thought on this subject and relevantly-related Western thought and has explanatory promise.