Buddhism and free will: beyond the ‘free will problem’
The diversity of Indian views concerning causality in the Buddha’s lifetime represented the broader, then-prevalent philosophical pluralism, not unlike our world today, and the Buddha’s novel responses to those views remain as provocative as ever. Then, as now, philosophers fell roughly into two camps, akin to determinism and indeterminism. Among the former, some asserted that all pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral experiences are due to past karma (pubbe kata-hetu) or the will of God (Issaranimmāna-hetu). (For the Western version of the latter type, see Aquinas 1947, pp. 1, 5, 23.) The Ājīvikas maintained the fatalistic doctrine that all actions are predetermined by destiny (niyati), over which people lack control (Dīgha Nikāya (DN) I.53). This resembles the deterministic view that there is at any instant exactly one physically possible future (Laplace 1951; van Inwagen 1983, p. 3; Pereboom 2001). This implies that the precise condition of the universe, say, one second after the Big Bang, causally sufficed to produce the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 (Dennett 2004, p. 84). The Buddha rejected such fatalistic views. Other ancient Indian philosophical schools favored the view that all experiences arise from pure chance, without prior causes or conditions (ahetuappaccayā) (Raju 1985, Ch. 3). In some respects, this view parallels that of some libertarians who argue that the indeterminism in quantum mechanics applies to human experience. For us to be the ultimate source of our decisions so that we are truly morally responsible, they insist, there can be no earlier influences sufficient to determine subsequent actions (Kane 1996, 1999). In response to such views, the Buddha rejected any theory that undermined moral responsibility. He rejected deterministic ideas as supporting ‘inaction’ (akiriya)—if one believes one is not responsible for one’s actions, the will to act wholesomely is stifled. Similarly, he rejected the indeterministic idea that everything arises from chance, without reliance on causes or conditions (ahetu-appaccayā) (Aṅguttara Nikāya (AN) I.173-175 (cf. Majjhima Nikāya (MN) II.214); DN.I.28; Saṃyutta Nikāya (SN) II.22). And he concluded on empirical and rational grounds that there
is no autonomous self that exists apart from and controls the body and mind or that exists among the psychophysical aggregates (MN.I.230-235; SN.III.66). Thus, the Buddha refuted all notions of the self as an unmoved mover, an agent that causes events with nothing causing its decisions (cf. Chisholm 1982, p. 32; Foster 1991). Thus, the sense that each of us is an autonomous, nonphysical subject who exercises ultimate control over body and mind without influence from prior psychophysical conditions, is an illusion.