Why there should be a Buddhist theory of free will
As reflected in some of the other contributions to this volume, some Buddhist scholars think Buddhism rejects free will, or they deny there is, was, or should be a Buddhist free will theory or even any Buddhist inquiry into free will. I disagree. I argue for a certain Buddhist theory of free will in Chapter 17 of this volume that could but won’t be repeated here; here I argue why there should be such a theory. The Buddhist path contains methods for cultivating virtuoso degrees of abilities that exhibit self-regulative agency-for example, volitional/metavolitional regulation, reason-responsiveness-touted by contemporary philosophers sympathetic to naturalistic or ‘compatibilist’ free will, that is, the sort of free will that is compatible with scientific views of causation or nature. For Buddhists, false understanding of self-agency is considered the central cause of dukkha (suffering, existential unsatisfactoriness), and correct understanding is its antidote. The elimination of dukkha, coextensive with enlightenment, is the principal aspiration of Buddhist soteriology. Thus, whether free will is part of correct understanding of self-agency is a valid question; its answer, positive or negative, arguably constitutes a ‘Buddhist free will theory,’ just as the answer to the question whether the self is real constitutes ‘the Buddhist theory of the self.’ The unanalyzed self-sense is not that of a passive witness,1 but of one that wants, deliberates, resists, wills, chooses, acts, and whose actions are up to it. This reified understanding of self-agency, Buddhists claim, perpetuates dukkha. All Buddhist teachings and practices seek to disentangle this self-conception, sorting its illusory and non-illusory elements. It is not choice, action, etc. that disappear upon enlightenment, but the illusory misconception that one is the ontologically independent ātman (immaterial, changeless soul/self ) that (virtually telekinetically) generates them. Whether, to what extent, and how elements/abilities of agency are selfregulating, though the ‘agent’ is not considered metaphysically substantive, are questions the answers to which would provide a theoretical understanding of self-agency and of whether such elements/abilities constitute moralresponsibility-entailing free will, and thus a Buddhist free will theory that may be described as involving ‘agentless agency.’ Such a theory is soteriologically warranted, among other reasons, but even if for no other reason than that
individuals presumably would want to understand how it is that they can alter their lives in certain ways to attain enlightenment if there is no such thing as the individual agent. Such a theory also promises to illustrate the explanatory purchase of Buddhist psychology, metaphysics, and ethics regarding one of the most-if not the most-intractable of problems in analytic Western philosophy. Āryas (advanced Buddhist practitioners) are meditation virtuosos, and they have cultivated great self-control, an element of free will that-at least theoretically —doesn’t require a substantive agent-self. According to Buddhist thought, the average non-practitioner is so heavily conditioned by the three poisons (greed, hatred, and delusion) as to be virtually determined-whether determinism is universally applicable or not-insofar as they lack the sort of proximal self-regulative abilities the virtuoso exhibits. The virtuoso exercises selfregulation dharmically (in accord with Dharma, Buddhist teachings), reducing dukkha and cultivating enlightenment, not only not feeding ego-volitions, but diminishing them. The most powerful free will skeptical argument in Western philosophy, ‘hard incompatibilism,’ denies autonomy regardless of whether we are determined: if choices are determined, we’re not ultimately responsible for them; if they’re random, we cannot claim to author them. An example is Strawson’s ‘impossibility argument’: we choose as a function of our present mental state; we cannot be the cause of our first mental state; so, it’s impossible to be ultimately responsible for mental states we’re in when we choose, or for such choices (Strawson 1994). Most Buddhists would accept most of Strawson’s claims, given their doctrine of dependent origination: whatever arises does so in dependence on everything else that has arisen or is simultaneously arising. That choices are conditioned by mental states is axiomatic, as is the idea that conditioning extends backwards indefinitely through previous mental states, choices, and actions; indeed, Buddhist philosophy considers this temporal sequence beginningless. Add to this the tautology that self-creation ex nihilo is impossible, and it seems to follow that nobody can be ultimately responsible for any mental state, choice, or action. The central insight of Buddhism is that total mental freedom is possible in nirvāṇa, the antidote to dukkha. The meditation virtuoso thus can escape from the influences of previous and current mental states-irrespective of deterministic or random causes-contradicting Strawson’s impossibility argument. Non-Buddhists might deny anyone attains nirvāṇa, but evidence supports some Buddhist meditation claims; to mention just one relevant study, Zen practitioners (trained to be ceaselessly responsive to the present) exposed to repetitive stimuli show no reduction in responsiveness, whereas control groups ignore repetitive stimuli after brief exposure (Kasulis 1985). Hundreds of studies conducted on Buddhist meditators similarly confirm their claims (Lutz et al. 2007; Lutz and Thompson 2003; Thompson 2015). These studies indirectly render plausible the claim that the arhat-the enlightened being, the limit case meditation virtuosois free of mental state influences, with minor exceptions (Harvey 2007), and to the extent they approximate nirvāṇa, so are the not-yet-enlightened āryas. Buddhist metacognitive training thus cultivates a skill that theoretically defeats
the most powerful free will skepticism in analytic Western philosophy: this alone justifies a Buddhist free will theory, but there are other justifications. Gowans (Chapter 1) rejects the idea of a Buddhist theory of free will, with one pragmatic exception-shared by Goodman (Chapter 3), but for different reasonsbecause Buddhism restricts inquiry to the soteriologically relevant, and Gowans assumes an understanding of free will is not generally soteriologically relevant. But Westerners are not committed to the principle that only what is soteriologically relevant is warranted. Non-Buddhists-and Buddhists alike-clearly may benefit from a Buddhist theoretical understanding of free will that promises to be enlightening. Moreover, it is possible that by seeing the complexity of Buddhism Westerners might be drawn to it. Many who came to debate the Buddha were drawn into the Dharma (the Buddhist teaching) upon hearing how it handled philo sophical puzzles. If Buddhism is enlightening in general, then anything that brings listeners toward the Dharma is soteriologically relevant and thus justified. Garfield and Flanagan (Chapters 4, 5) cite theodicy in the Western genesis of the free will belief as a basis for rejecting its relevance to godless Buddhism, adding that the free will meme survives-implicitly, as a doxastic appendagein the West, independent of the decline of its genesis in monotheism. If they are right, perhaps this Western meme may be rehabilitated by a Buddhist free will theory that denies the ultimate reality and causal autonomy of the self, but advocates that we may control our volitions, cultivating an agency that leads to its own transcendence in total mental freedom, nirvāṇa. What could be wrong with that, from a Buddhist perspective? Regardless of its genesis, however, which is technically irrelevant to the validity of a concept, most of us have the free will meme, and even if we come to doubt it upon reflection (something that also arguably has a genesis only in Western thought), we tend to live as if it is true, with few exceptions, including Blackmore (Chapter 7), who claims she doesn’t experience free will, and Harris (2013), who claims that even the belief that we experience free will is illusory, because phenomenological examination shows that choice is mysterious. Blackmore and Harris are both long-term Buddhist meditation practitioners, so perhaps the genetic invalidation of ideas (based on their origin) actually does apply to them, in reverse. For one key Buddhist meditation instruction-clearly based on traditional Buddhist assumptions-is to pay non-judgmental attention to the impersonal arising of mental states. Thus, what Buddhist meditation practitioners consider discovered or verified in phenomenological experience actually may be entirely generated by Buddhist-theory-laden conceptual expectations. Thus, unless one is an arguably Buddhism-biased meditator, our pre-theoretical agential phenomenology arguably universally depicts choices and actions as up to us: even Buddhism agrees that desires and thoughts that typically arise spontaneously may be regulated. In the two traditions’ mutual search for truth, no holds are barred-in either direction. Most of us experience some sort of free will: our beliefs and desires inform our choices and volitions, and these-we all seem to think we experience-cause our behavior. However, many branches of contemporary science reveal unconscious
biases, errors, and illusions distorting our experience. Anyone thus informed must navigate repetitive cognitive dissonance between these findings and our humanistic self-conceptions. Anxiety accompanies existential uncertainty about the pretheoretical narrative that no longer seems to sufficiently explain our place in the vast universe, our communities, bodies, brains, and minds. These narrative voids in many Westerners’ lives may be filled with Buddhist philosophy, which does not require belief in implausible myths about divine creation and human origins ex nihilo, anachronistic moral rules, crumbling folk psychology, soul, or self, but nonetheless presents a long-flourishing way of life guided by a comprehensive way of understanding one’s place in a meaningful world that is comfortable with such seemingly depersonalized implications. Buddhism offers hope to anyone in an existential doxastic impasse, unable to maintain outmoded moral, religious, and other humanistic beliefs, but reluctant to embrace what they suspect is the narrative bankruptcy of value-free scientific inquiry. Buddhism offers an equally sobering but simultaneously coherent existential, psychological, philosophical, ethical, and soteriological narrative. Compare the strategy of trying to forge a truce between religion and science, exemplified in Gould’s (2011) ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ (NOMA) thesis: science reigns over empirical fact, religion over values and meaning. But most major religions-with the possible exception of Buddhism-assert claims about the history of the world and humanity that contradict facts in astrophysics, geology, and genetics, among others (Caruso 2014). Most versions of Buddhism are immune to this criticism, and some versions of Buddhism (e.g., emerging Western versions) may count more as philosophies than religions, but most have far fewer claims that contradict scientific facts, and the few that threaten to contradict science have yet to be refuted, and are not core tenets. Buddhism is committed to empirically validated truth, dating to injunctions from the Buddha not to accept anything on authority, but on investigation. Two major exceptions are karma and reincarnation, though some Buddhists do not take these literally. Flanagan (2011) suggests a naturalized Buddhism, ‘Buddhism without hocus pocus,’ which would eliminate supernatural and related metaphysical elements but which would likely appear to traditional Buddhists as ‘Buddhism without Buddhism.’ Nonetheless, Buddhism is a humanistic and spiritual philosophy that satisfies many human needs typically satisfied by religion, and much if not all of its supernaturalism is plausibly optional. Indeed, revisionary Western forms of Buddhism that take Flanagan’s naturalism for granted are emerging, despite traditionalists’ objections (Purser et al. 2016). Buddhism naturalized instantiates a valid NOMA case. Buddhism as is almost qualifies for the status NOMA erroneously affords all religions. Buddhism is probably attractive to Westerners today because it mostly qualifies for NOMA status: without conflicting with science, it answers to deep needs for humanistic self-understanding; it is mostly consistent with contemporary moral thinking, unlike most religions; and it arguably supports a discounted but palatable view of agency or free will that coheres with that moral framework.