Recent Buddhist Theories of Free Will

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 21, 2014

Recent Buddhist Theories of Free Will: Compatibilism, Incompatibilism, and Beyond

Riccardo Repetti
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.

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3 thoughts on “Recent Buddhist Theories of Free Will”

  1. At the beginning of the article the author says “There are few passages, if any, in canonical or authoritative Buddhist texts that explicitly address anything remotely resembling the philosophical problem of free will.”

    Thus the title is misleading. These are not “Buddhist theories” at all. They are Western theories applied to Buddhism. While I can see advantages to employing philosophical terminology and concepts in analysing Buddhism, I don’t think we can afford to become confused about what the context is.

  2. Jayarava, there is nothing misleading here at all. The key words in the title are “recent” and “free will.”

    “Free Will” is a theological concept that Western philosophy has inherited from its Christian heritage. Any discussion of Buddhism and the Western Tradition is going to involve all of the above.

    As for “recent,” that should be obvious.

  3. Jason, the key words in the title are “Buddhist theories,” which is why we’re reading this article in the Journal of *Buddhist Ethics* and not in some other organ. And the words have a syntactic relationship which you ignore in your sentence chopping.

    If these are “Buddhist theories,” then ought we not establish, for example, that Gier and Kjellberg are, in fact, Buddhists? I’ve never heard of them. What tradition do they practice in? The work cited seems to be about ancient Buddhism, and not even from a Buddhist perspective. What makes their theory a “Buddhist theory” as opposed to a theory about Buddhism?

    Federman is not writing as a Buddhist and not from a Buddhist perspective. His view is strictly etic and comparative. His theory, such as it is, is in no sense Buddhist. Indeed I don’t really see a theory in his article, more of a straight comparison between other people’s theories in order to clarify the ancient view that is far from unclear (to Buddhists) to begin with.

    Harvey might well have a Buddhist theory of free will, but in a sense he’s not articulating anything new about Buddhism either. He’s just trying to contextualize old Buddhist arguments for an audience of Western philosophers in their own jargon. Harvey does touch on some of the interesting outcomes of applying Early Buddhist epistemology to ontological problems: that if the Two Truths describe reality, then agency, like everything else, is an illusion. This was the crowning argument of Nāgārjuna in chapter 17 of Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (see esp. v.27ff) and thus is not really “recent.”

    Wallace, at least, is well known as a Buddhist of some kind, though the ideas he is proposing may only be nominally Buddhist since he is an apologist for some distinctly unBuddhist ideas. At least one knowledgeable commentator on Wallace’s views on consciousness says, “Wallace constructs them very similarly to Christian dualist views” ( Certainly Wallace, who features so prominently in Riccardo’s conclusions, does not represent or speak for “Buddhism.” I don’t imagine he even speaks for the FPMT since he dis-robed and their representatives tend to be ordained clergy. So, whether Wallace has a “Buddhist theory” is moot. He is a Buddhist and he has a theory.

    Such emic/etic distinctions are important and often blurred in Buddhist studies. Our theories about Buddhism are not necessarily “Buddhist theories,” even if we ourselves are Buddhists. None of the works cited are intended for an audience of Buddhists; they are all primarily intended for an audience of academic philosophers. Nor are they grounded in emic perspectives. I’m not aware of them having any impact at all in my Buddhist circle. Thus, I would argue that they are not “Buddhist theories” at all.

    However, what Riccardo has done is admirable in it’s own right. He is assessing attempts to naturalize Buddhism into Western Philosophy by expressing the Buddhist understanding in philosophical jargon is a useful contribution to the field. It certainly is a major theme in the contemporary study of Indian Philosophy generally. I know that many Indologists (e.g., Elisa Freschi and others involved in wish that their subject were more accessible to a wider audience and treated as on a par with, for example, Ancient Greek philosophy. And it seems the only way to do that is to attempt to first translate India ideas into Western ideas.

    I am also involved in articulating the meeting of Buddhism and modernity, particularly through my blog. But I’m clear when I say, for example, that I accept that science makes any kind of afterlife implausible, that despite being the view of *a Buddhist* it is not a “Buddhist theory.” It’s a view that conflicts with Buddhism and causes a great deal of tension (for me and others). Just because we can attempt to describe Buddhism in modernist terms does not make what we say a “Buddhist theory.”

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