A Determinist Deflation of the Free Will Problem

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 20, 2013

The Metaphysics of No-Self: A Determinist Deflation of the Free Will Problem

Vishnu Sridharan

For over two millennia, the free will problem has proven intractable to philosophers, scientists, and lay people alike. However, Buddhism offers us unique insight into how, when, and why human agency matters to us. In his 2009 book, Consequences of Compassion, Charles Goodman argues that the ultimate nonexistence of the self supports the ultimate nonexistence of free will. Recently in this journal, Riccardo Repetti has critiqued Goodman’s view and made the case that free will does, in fact, ultimately exist. This article first illustrates how Repetti’s view of the self is, actually, entirely consistent with Goodman’s. It goes on to argue that Repetti misconstrues elements of hard determinism as entailing that our wills have no influence on final outcomes. Lastly, it shows how, if Goodman and Repetti are in agreement on the ultimate nonexistence of the self, as well as the causal efficacy of the will, their disagreement about the ultimate existence of free will may be inconsequential.

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6 thoughts on “A Determinist Deflation of the Free Will Problem”

  1. “Ultimate nonexistence of the self” sounds like nihilism, and free will “ultimately existing” sounds like eternalism. My understanding is that we Buddhists ought not to be dealing in existence and non-existence. Certainly this is the message of the Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12.15), and of later texts which take up the idea of eschewing similar dichotomies, such as Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamikakārarikā.

    I think we must be suspicious of any argument which makes a case for ultimates or for the existence and/or non-existence of any phenomenon. These terms ought not to apply to a reality governed by pratītyasamutpāda, and thus ought not to appear in any Buddhist discussion of a phenomenon.

    It seems to me that free will/no free will is a dichotomy of the same type. It should be seen as nonsensical in a Buddhist framework. The question frames as such buys into an ontology that is rejected by pratītya-samutpāda.

    Properly formed questions would look more like this:

    Under what conditions do we experience a sense of self? And to what extent?
    Under what conditions do we experience a sense of being free to decide our actions? And to what extent?

    And a thoughtful consideration of these questions makes it clear that black and white answers are not possible.

  2. For Jayarava:

    While I am sympathetic to your objection, I think there is some soteriological value–if only for those of us for whom this is an issue, and the Buddha seemed to acknowledge that sort of individual-person’s-epistemic-horizon-level-relativism in his ascertaining of what might be kusala–in attempting to understand the nature of agentless agency, and that is what Vishnu, Charles and I are trying to do, any disagreements between us being internal to that effort.

    For Vishnu:

    I think your article presents a very good challenge to my view. I will reflect on this and respond eventually (although I’m preoccupied with several other projects right now), but my initial response is both yes and no: yes, there is very little difference between Charles and me, but no, there is still some difference that I think your gloss misses, so I’m happy that you’ve made a good case for the claim that I haven’t made that clear enough. Off the cuff, I may be a Pudgaladvadin, but I’m really not sure about that… What I do think, with a bit more confidence, is that you gobble up everything as conventional, and almost everything anyone can say is conventional, but that misses important difference between levels within conventionality. Of course, the burden is on me to make the case for that, so, bravo! I’m honored by the challenge, and that you made great efforts to pose it. 🙂

  3. Dear Rick: I deeply appreciate your research and writings. You are asking and answering questions that few others are even considering, and starting debates that I think will grow in scope and importance in the future. I really look forward to engaging with more of your ideas in the future! All best, Vishnu

  4. Riccardo, if you look at early Buddhist teaching on morality, it does not accept agentless agency. Take any Jātaka, for example, and you will see that it tacitly describes personal continuity between lives–an agent who transmigrates. Indeed, there must be an agent who suffers the consequences of actions, or Buddhist ethics would be utterly meaningless. And, of course, the Jātakas became one of the main vehicles for teaching about Buddhist ethics throughout the Buddhist world.

    There is an undisclosed, unnoticed, and ultimately unresolved dichotomy in Buddhist doctrine on this point. Morality and metaphysics do not match up. And they never did. To take teachings on metaphysics as the starting point for a discussion on morality (i.e., to accept anattā as meaning there is no agent and then try to discuss karma) is to do something that no Buddhist ever did historically.

  5. By the way, “The World and the Will” chapter in Kalupahana’s Ethics in Early Buddhism treats some of these issues, albeit briefly.

    My own take on “will” is: conventionally, yes (although different from non-Buddhist conceptions of will), but ultimately, no, but also no “non-will,” either. That may seem like sophistry but it also seems be the general Buddhist metaphysical take on things. Volition is conditioned, yet it also conditions, not only the “individual” but also the external environment. Yet, transcending volition is, to some extent, a major part of the Buddhist path, which also indicates a naturalist tendency of sorts, in that “letting go and not trying” appears to be a key method for attaining spiritual liberation; yet, this also requires a conscious element of volition.

  6. Vishnu, Jayarava, and Erick:
    I apologize for not seeing these remarks for so long, and thank you for your feedback. What Vishnu says (this is good, important work), and what his earlier objections imply (it is in an exploratory phase) informs my general reply to Jayarava and Erick. I agree with Jayarava that agency is presupposesd in the bulk of Buddhist ethics and discussions of karma, and that it is rarely addressed as contradictory to the no-self doctrine. That is, in my view, the implicit Buddhist version of the free will problem, but the mere fact that the tradition has ignored it doesn’t resolve it or render it acceptable philosophically. That’s why I’m exploring it. I also agree with Erick that “the will” in Western philosophy doesn’t quite appear as such in Buddhism, though volition is central, and becoming free of volition’s imprisoning influence is the core goal. This is another Buddhist free will problem, but more at freedom ‘from’ the (negative influence of) will than freedom ‘of’ the will: indeed, indiscriminate exercise of the latter causes the failure of the former.

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