A Buddhist Theory of Free Will

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 17, 2010

Meditation and Mental Freedom: A Buddhist Theory of Free Will

Riccardo Repetti
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.

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One thought on “A Buddhist Theory of Free Will”

  1. Repetti was my student as an undergraduate and later, if briefly, one of my junior colleagues, so let me declare that particular influence upon my interest in this paper. But Repetti’s work on the free will issue is also invariably first-rate, and therein rests my main interest. I’ve therefore read this paper closely (e.g., the phrase “significant less” in endnote 50 should be “significantly less”).

    The paper itself appears to be a rarity–a contribution to Buddhist scholarship on free will directly occupied by those aspects of the free-will question that vex recent western analytic philosophers. Buddhist scholars may deny that there is too little attention to free will in their literature, but there are relatively few papers on the subject, and most Buddhist thinkers on free will rather routinely attempt to fit the two categories of free will and determinism one-to-one into two corresponding categories of theory to be found within Buddhist doctrine. (I refer to the Buddhist volitional theory and the theory of dependent origination, respectively.) Repetti gets us outside this box. He identifies a third category and suggests that it is more central to the Buddhist perspective than either aforementioned theory: this third category is mental freedom. Repetti’s analysis not only explicates the relationships between free will and determinism (both within Buddhism and with reference to analytic philosophy) but also indicates how Buddhism redistributes the issues by way of an account of mental freedom.

    Mental freedom is traditionally and more widely known in English texts as “liberation” and “enlightenment.” They are certainly core concepts. To speak (instead) of “mental freedom” has its risks, but it has some salient virtues. The term wears its relevance to the issue of free will on its sleeve, in the word “freedom,” yet it simultaneously pins the feature that differentiates it from free will to the same sleeve, in the word “mental.” It also makes perspicuous its polar opposition to one of the most powerful objections to free will in analytic philosophy, the denial of free agency embodied in Galen Strawson’s much-discussed “impossibility argument,” a regress-based argument according to which one cannot be ultimately morally responsible for one’s actions because one always chooses what to do based on one’s mental state at the time of choice, and one cannot be responsible for one’s mental state at any given moment because one’s mental state is always influenced by the immediately preceding mental state ad infinitum. Thus, one lacks free will because one lacks mental freedom. Putting it this way, as Repetti does, the pertinence of Strawson’s challenge to the Buddhist presumption of mental freedom is plain. His argument implies that a central claim of Buddhism is dubious or false; there can be no liberation, because liberation is logically impossible.

    But Repetti sees that this argument can be turned around. Conversely, this central claim of Buddhism (that liberation is not only possible, but that the Buddha and others have attained it, and that perhaps anyone can do so by making the right effort) implies that the impossibility argument is faulty. (Anyone satisfied with this stand off alone should read endnotes 29, 30, and 48 in the paper.) Repetti’s analysis brings us past this stand off, and aims to shift the burden of proof back onto Strawson.

    One of the strengths of Strawson’s position is that, unlike others who are pessimistic or skeptical about free will and who base their pessimism on acceptance of hard determinism, Strawson bypasses the metaphysics of causation by posing a regress that makes no mention of any theory. Here is that regress in detail: One cannot be ultimately morally responsible (or, implicitly, a genuinely free agent) unless one can choose from within a mental state that is not itself influenced by previous mental states, something that is impossible because in order achieve such a mental state one would need to be able to create oneself as such, from scratch, as it were. For, otherwise, the regress from one mental state to a prior mental state extends indefinitely. But, the argument goes, it is logically impossible to complete the regress, and equally impossible to be a “causa sui” (a self-created being), for in order to do so one would have to exist before one exists, in order to create oneself. Strawson concludes, in short, that free will is impossible (and thus that no one is ever ultimately morally responsible; or, if one accepts “responsibility” in the name of free agency, it is to adopt an arbitrary ascription).

    This regress argument offers a greater challenge to Buddhists of any kind than it does to analytic philosophers. Nor is the challenge confined to those Buddhists who happen to believe in free will. For if Strawson is right, then not only is free will impossible (and thus no one is ever ultimately morally responsible), but enlightenment is impossible as well. For unless one can be a causa sui, one cannot attain mental freedom, and logic demands that there cannot be a causa sui. If enlightenment is logically impossible, then—despite its increasingly expansive appeal—Buddhism is in serious (philosophical) jeopardy. This implication alone ought to have Buddhist scholars alert and attentive, and it is to Repetti’s credit that he makes this implication obvious.

    Repetti’s rejoinder turns the tables on Strawson, and compares Strawson’s regress argument to the fallacy of the heap. The fallacy of the heap claims, wrongly, that the mere fact that we cannot isolate the distinct number of grains of sand required to move from collection of sand particles not yet a heap to a collection we would call a heap entails that there are no such things as heaps of sand, something obviously false. Repetti relies on Buddhist meditation theory and practice, the monastic record, and recent neuroscientific research on the brains of those who meditate to make the case for the plausibility of degrees of mental freedom, akin to increasing collections of grains of sand. One premise in Repetti’s argument, for instance, states that the brains of Zen meditation practitioners are ceaselessly responsive to repeated exposure to identical stimuli, whereas the brains of non-practitioners tend to screen out such stimuli. Repetti draws on this and related studies on meditation and brain plasticity to support Buddhist claims to the effect that the sort of sustained attention training constitutive of meditation practice leads increasingly to the sort of metacognitive mental states that are intuitively more free than those of the average non-practitioner, states that are also affirmed by thousands of years of monastic experience, such as equanimity, clarity, and focus, as opposed to states of disequilibrium, confusion, and distraction. In other words, Buddhist meditation theory and practice, the monastic record, and neuroscientific research may support the claim that there are degrees of mental freedom and mental bondage. Because one need not know exactly where to draw the bright line to know that the fallacy of the heap is a fallacy, but rather, simply needs to know that there are non-heaps and heaps of sand, by analogy one need not know how precisely to quantify mental freedom in order to know that there are mental states that are more or less free. Thus, Strawson’s regress argument fails to show that mental freedom is impossible.

    Repetti’s rejoinder is persuasive, not conclusive. He makes no claims to enduring perfection. But you have to like his argument. He offers a risk-averse account of compatibilism that has an up-to-date defense consistent with Buddhist doctrine, and his discussion makes clear that the impossibility argument poses a challenge to Buddhist thinkers and western analytic philosophers alike. More generally, the paper combines the teacher’s gift for useful acknowledged simplification of intricate debates with the philosopher’s taste for the intricacies that credible theories require. I think it raises the level of the discussion by means of a Buddhist emphasis, and that it should draw Buddhist thinkers more deeply into the analytic exchange on free will.

    Andrew Wengraf, Brooklyn College, ret.

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