Volume 21, 2014
Recent Buddhist Theories of Free Will: Compatibilism, Incompatibilism, and Beyond
Kingsborough College, CUNY
This is the fourth article in a four-article series that examines Buddhist responses to the Western philosophical problem of whether free will is compatible with “determinism,” the scientific doctrine of universal lawful causation. The first article focused on “early period” scholarship from the 1970’s, which was primarily compatibilist, that is, of the view that the Buddhist conception of causation is compatible with free will. The second and third articles examined “middle period” incompatibilist and semi-compatibilist scholarship in the remainder of the twentieth century and first part of the twenty-first. The present article examines work published in the past few years. It largely agrees that Buddhism tacitly accepts free will (although it also explores an ultimate perspective from which the issue appears moot), but mostly divides along compatibilist and incompatibilist lines, mirroring Theravāda and Mahāyāna Buddhist perspectives, respectively. Of the writers I emphasize, Gier and Kjellberg articulate both perspectives; Federman and Harvey advocate Theravāda compatibilism; and Wallace argues that although determinism and free will are incompatible, subtle complexities of Mahāyāna Buddhist metaphysics circumvent the free will and determinism dichotomy. Although the present article focuses on these writers, as the culminating article in the series it also draws on and summarizes the other articles in the series, and directs the reader to other recent period works that, due to space constraints, cannot be reviewed here.