Introduction: hermeneutical koan—what is the sound of one Buddhist theory of free will?
Some of the major reasons that motivate philosophers to think that the idea of free will is problematic, as well as why the issue has caught the attention of Buddhist philosophers and scholars, have been explained in some detail already in the Preface, so I will not repeat them here. Many of them will arise in connection with my discussion below of the chapters in this collection. Instead, therefore, here I summarize the main arguments set forth by our contributors. I offer some observations about how they relate to the chapters immediately preceding or following them, as well as strengths and weaknesses of some of them. As mentioned in the Preface, I have sequenced the chapters to loosely resemble a philosophical dialogue, placing each where they afford either supporting or opposing views regarding the immediately adjacent chapters. The earlier chapters question whether the very concept of a Buddhist ‘theory’ of free will (FW) is coherent, with mixed responses and qualifications, and some that presuppose the falsity of the notion of FW, then some that split Buddhist attitudes across two dimensions (ultimate and conventional, the former of which is negative about FW and the latter positive), culminating with chapters that advocate increasingly FW-friendly views. To ask “What is the sound of one Buddhist theory of free will?” is to implicitly acknowledge that the issue involves a conceptual knot, if not a non-starter. After all, Buddhism has remained ‘mostly’ silent for over two millennia about FW. More problematically, since Buddhism rejects the reality of the self, isn’t the notion of an autonomous agent incoherent? If not, is, was, can there be, or ought there to be an implicit/explicit Buddhist theory of FW? Christopher Gowans places the main issue of this text-the meta-question of how to think about the propriety of Buddhist theoretical considerations about FW-into the appropriately problematic but explanatory context of its historical absence: until recently, Buddhism mostly ignored FW, despite vast resources to address it. Gowans argues that the main reason is that Buddhist philosophical analysis is limited by soteriological parameters: whatever promotes enlightenment. Gowans concludes, however, that if Buddhism must pronounce on any theoretical position, it would only be justified as ‘skillful means’—the doctrine whereby beliefs, speech, and actions otherwise known by the wise to be avoided may be justified if they have soteriological utility, a view
shared by Goodman-but Buddhism nevertheless would remain silent on the metaphysics. However, a Buddhist ethical theory might be soteriologically justified, yet Buddhism has none, except recently. Additionally, whatever justifies the many extant Buddhist (often metaphysical) theories of intentionality, phenomenology, and so on, arguably justifies FW theory. Arguably, these theories arose historically against competing views, and are thereby soteriologically warranted. If so, however, in its present historical encounter with the West, Buddhism may acquire soteriological warrant for free will theorizing. Contrary to this soteriologically restrictive view, as well as to some of the increasingly restrictive views to follow his, perhaps casting aside hermeneutical caution, Repetti offers three arguments in support of the idea that there ought to be a Buddhist FW theory. First, the Buddhist path to mental freedom prescribes meditation and related methods for cultivating virtuoso-level, self-regulationincreasing abilities associated with (naturalistic) FW, e.g., mind-control, volitional/metavolitional regulation, reason-responsiveness, etc. Intuitively, if the virtuoso has greater FW-related skills than the average non-practitioner, the virtuoso has (naturalistic) FW, which increases, paradoxically, proportionate to the decrease in the self-sense, and peaks in total mental freedom, nirvāṇa, the cessation of the self-sense. Repetti argues that this skill undermines the most powerful FW skepticism, ‘hard incompatibilism,’ a view Goodman advances to the effect that there is no autonomy regardless of whether we are determined, because either we are, and thus not responsible for our choices or we’re not, and thus our choices are random and thus not up to us. The meditation virtuoso, however, can escape from previous and present mental state conditioning, irrespective of its causal history. That virtuosos cultivate skills that theoretically defeat the most powerful FW skepticism justifies a Buddhist FW theory. Second, proper understanding of agency, even if that understanding is negative, say, denying agency altogether, implies a (negative) FW theory, but proper understanding of agency is constitutive of enlightenment. And third, an abundance of Buddhist teachings are multi-leveled and progressive, prescribing a soteriological ‘path’ designed to take individuals from where they are, at a conventional level of understanding that presupposes agency, and to guide them to more subtle, ultimately impersonal levels of understanding. Relative to this progressive path, a theory of agency that capitalizes on the corresponding Buddhist distinction between relative, conventional truth and absolute, ultimate truth, serves a skillful-means-type therapeutic function for those at the conventional level, rather than simply deflating their pragmatically necessary belief in agency and evitabilism by assaulting non-Buddhists or initiates with an unremitting FW skepticism. In a somewhat striking analogy, Repetti likens this unto the therapeutic use of methadone for heroin-addiction recovery, one point the next author might accept. Taking a strongly opposing view except on the last point, one of the first Buddhist philosophers to argue forcefully that Buddhism flat-out rejects FW, Charles Goodman has argued that Buddhism is hard incompatibilist (it considers
FW impossible whether determinism or indeterminism is true, though he thinks Buddhist causation is deterministic). He repeats that argument here, but now allows that the doctrine of skillful means might sanction Buddhist belief in FW, which Gowans suggested earlier. A step in the right direction, some would think, but Jay Garfield and Owen Flanagan, the next two contributors, would disagree. Garfield would likely reject Goodman’s view, that Buddhism is implicitly hard incompatibilist, for Garfield argues that Buddhism, especially, Madhyamaka (later, ‘Middle Way’) Buddhism, lacks an FW theory because it lacks a monotheistic theodicy, and thus requires no conception of the agent operating outside the causal nexus, needed to relieve God from blame for evil, which could be threatened by a deterministic model of causation. For Garfield, absent the Western theodicy that generated the FW conception, the problem does not and cannot arise in Buddhism: there’s no framework in which the discussion may legitimately arise, so no grounds even for a negative theory (such as Goodman’s). However, contra Garfield, Mādhyamikas (followers of Madhyamaka) endorse the view that, because there is no metaphysical foundation enabling the naive realist’s worldview to be reduced or eliminated, it makes as much sense to say there are tables as to say there are table-like phenomenological appearances that reduce to aggregates of atomistic psychophysical tropes, which foundational binary is what many earlier Buddhists assert when they bifurcate reality or truth according to the understanding of the unwise and the wise, respectively. Thus, it arguably makes as much sense for Mādhyamikas to say people have FW, something Siderits, who we will get to later, argues for, yet precisely from the earlier Buddhist reductionist foundationalist perspective that Mādhyamikas reject. Independently, but functioning like a tag team, Flanagan next argues against allowing any inroads into agency-free-in his view, therefore philosophically superior-Buddhism from Western FW conceptions tainted by their genesis within a monotheistic theodicy Buddhism lacks, echoing Garfield’s argument that Buddhism has done fine over two millennia without any FW conception, doesn’t need one, and is better off without one. What Flanagan adds is an independent argument from elimination in which he offers four hermeneutics for cross-cultural philosophical appropriation, so to speak, rejecting each as invalid for FW/Buddhism exchange. I’m not so sure his own writings elsewhere, about Buddhism naturalized, would make it through his argument from elimination, but I leave that to the reader to assess, as well as whether the other theorists to follow somehow violate his hermeneutic provisos and, if so, whether that invalidates them. However, suppose arguendo that ‘theory T’ is the best theory on free will: the scientific community asserts T. Suppose Buddhism implies the opposite, ~T, or worse: neither T nor ~T. Is it cultural hubris to ask whether Buddhists ought to believe T? I don’t think so. With exceptional exceptions, we should believe the truth. If T is the best we have, we/they ought to accept T. Do they? Can they? Are there resources in Buddhism that could support T? If T is true, and
Buddhism implies ~T, does one cease to be a Buddhist if she accepts T? Importantly, we’re still disputing what ‘FW’ means; it’s more like T1, T2, T3, etc. Buddhism has interesting things to say about T1, T2, T3, etc., objections notwithstanding. We’re dealing with different conceptual frameworks, but I doubt we’re dealing with the sort of limitations Quine imposed on his hypothetical ‘radical translator,’ such that he couldn’t find out enough about the hypothetical natives’ use of the term ‘gavagai’ to differentiate between their possible meanings of ‘rabbit’ or “nondetached rabbit parts” (Quine 2013, pp. 23-72). After all, there seem to be what Quine would consider ‘native bilinguals’ contributing to this debate. Considering Repetti’s methadone/skillful means analogy above, the next two contributors may be said to prefer the metaphorical cold turkey of unremitting FW skepticism: they either outright deny FW or have doubts about its consistency with Buddhist philosophy. Galen Strawson (1986) was one of the first Western philosophers to link the Buddhist view of the unreality of the self with the unreality of FW. Strawson’s FW skepticism rests implicitly on his earlier (1994) impossibility argument, which he takes to refute ‘strong’ FW (SFW), the belief that we are the ultimate originators of our choices/actions. Here Strawson focuses on determinism, and how even deterministic skeptics find determinism hard to assimilate into their daily lives. Unlike Peter Strawson, who argued (1962) that we cannot adopt the skeptical perspective in our daily lives because it’s too alien to our interpersonal reactive attitudes (e.g., resentment), Galen Strawson thinks Buddhism represents a way of life that embodies that perspective. Reminiscent of Descartes suggesting we imagine an evil demon so as to sustain doubt against and thereby loosen up our habitual credence, Strawson proposes a thought experiment whereby we are to continuously attend to the impersonal deterministic causation of each thought, desire, and action, to bring the resilience of our habitual agential thinking to light. When we see how we cannot maintain the perspective, Strawson advises us to take up the Buddhist practice of meditation, thought to reduce the gravitational pull of agential thinking. Strawson rightly identifies a relationship between the Buddhist denial of the self and FW. However, Strawson’s prescription may be premature: prognosis precedes prescription. Before we prescribe FW’s post-mortem procedures, so to speak, FW must be dead. This reminds me of a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). A cart-man passes through a plagued medieval village collecting corpses, while announcing, “bring out your dead!” He is about to prematurely collect someone’s infirmed associate, who protests, “I’m not dead.” The two negotiate a fee, the cart-man clubs the infirmed man, collects him on the cart, and continues on his way, “bring out your dead!” Oddly enough, this attitude has become quite fashionable among Western analytic philosophers of late (Caruso 2013). Coincidentally, Susan Blackmore suggests that meditation-precisely what was just prescribed to undo the FW belief-has contributed to her non-agential experience, implicitly confirming Galen Strawson’s assertion, disconfirming Peter Strawson’s, with her life depicted as a sort of proof of concept for the
agentless view. Blackmore implies that the more she attends to her experience, the less she experiences agency. She draws the reader into an ongoing phenomenological analysis of ‘doing’ by attending to her ordinary activities and portrays how it is as difficult to locate any ‘doing’ as it is to locate the ‘self .’ Her essay is mostly narrative, a fresh alternative to ‘arguments,’ but with many obvious implications for the arguments at issue here that seem to fall right out of her phenomenological scrutiny. Or do they? This is a meta-question, at least for the non-Buddhist: meditative awareness resembles phenomenological reduction, as Coseru shows (2012), in which ‘conceptual proliferation’ is bracketed, but does meditation render putatively-existing agency invisible or, worse, disassemble it-a kind of psychic suicide practice? To return to Monty Python, does the Buddhist version of the not-dead-yet person hit herself in the head with the metaphorical Zen bamboo staff, rendering her ‘self ’ actually fit for the death-cart? A Buddhist-doctrine-based objection (that might be an ad hominem) could be: that’s just clinging to ego. Perhaps, but the tables may be turned on this objection by noting that many meditation virtuosos attest, and there is much in Buddhism to support their claim, that meditation-theoretic self-regulative skills increase with practice, e.g., greater distance between impulse and action and, among others, ability to disapprove of, detach from, and thereby diminish the force of unwholesome volitional elements. These things arguably illustrate a psychologically functional, naturalistic ‘agent-lite’ or ‘self-lite,’ not the Ātman (immaterial self/soul) that the Buddha rejected. The agent/self-lite’s self-regulative abilities may be considered weak FW (WFW). In Buddhist terms, the virtuoso’s conventional self becomes more functional, not less. Arguably, then, as with Blackmore, the virtuoso’s belief in SFW diminishes, but, unlike Blackmore, her WFW increases. Or so would argue Harvey, Meyers, and Repetti, later. True, SFW has bigger problems and presumably no place in Buddhism, but agency-lite threatens moral-responsibility-lite, a standard objection to WFW theories: they are too thin to support anything stronger than utilitarian or pragmatic justifications for moral responsibility, since, if there is no real self, nobody is truly responsible, thus nor does anyone deserve praise or blame. Christian Coseru, for instance, immediately below, and Ben Abelson, later, find problems with WFW’s ability to carry the load imposed on it by the requirements of a genuinely justified-that is, desert-based, as opposed to a merely utilitarianmoral responsibility. Coseru thinks Buddhism’s impersonal causal model compromises the notion of responsibility that requires a more robust FW that demands that a moral agent participate in interpersonal relationships and act in self-regulating ways relative to norms and reasons. Coseru argues that the compatibilist idea that we can dispense with SFW, in favor of a weaker notion of responsibility informed by cognitive science, compromises the notion of moral agency by eliminating responsibility from the purview of the truly enlightened-the Buddhist saint. Implicitly relying on his (2012) work with Buddhist phenomenology and the first-person (rather than the impersonal) perspective, Coseru offers interesting
alternative ways of conceiving Buddhist ethics and agency, and explores an alternative view in which genuine responsibility is an ineliminable feature of moral agency. Whether and to what extent this line of thinking might be used to develop a Buddhism-friendly SFW, I leave to the reader to discern. Possibly indirectly supporting some of Coseru’s ideas about enlightened agency, Marie Friquegnon argues that there are three distinct understandings of agency and freedom in various forms of Buddhism. First, all Buddhists understand agency as unconstrained by divine power or material causality, a point emphasized by subsequent contributors (Wallace and Repetti). Second, all Buddhists see unethical actions as the direct result of mental states (ultimately impersonally, deterministically) governed by anger/hatred, jealousy/attachment, and ignorance/fear. For instance, as Goodman and Siderits each emphasizes, Śāntideva asserts that we can no more blame someone-under the impersonally caused influence of such mental states-than we can blame fire for causing smoke or the liver for producing bile. And third, in all later (Mahāyāna) Buddhism, this determinist attitude does not apply to ‘selfless’ actions flowing from enlightened nature; what Repetti describes as ‘agentless agency.’ Friquegnon outlines the grounds for these divergent views of freedom, explores their implications within Buddhist thought, and articulates contributions they can make to the discipline of philosophy. We will see some bifurcations and trifurcations that her distinctions have presaged. Another one of the first luminaries to call attention to this aspect of Buddhist thinking about freedom was B. Alan Wallace. Wallace reviews how the Buddha rejected then-prevalent inevitabilist views about fatalism and chance that resemble determinism and indeterminism, respectively. Subsequent to this early Buddhist rejection of the subject, Wallace sees the Buddhist tradition taking a pragmatic turn, he explores ways we can acquire greater freedom to make choices conducive to well being, and highlights soteriological practices of Mahāyāna Buddhism that point toward mental freedom. One is the cultivation of mind-control, the ability to deliberately focus attention with continuity and clarity; another is the cultivation of insight into how attitudes shape experience, allowing for the possibility of altering not only the way we experience, but how we are influenced by memory. Wallace’s pragmatism rests on a liberating form of Mahāyāna metaphysics that emphasizes the ‘pristine awareness’ or ‘substrate’ dimension of consciousness transcending conceptualization and the causal nexus-and its determinism/ indeterminism dichotomy. As alluring as Wallace’s dichotomy-transcending perspective is, and despite that it arguably supports Repetti’s ‘soft compatibilism’ (the opposite of hard incompatibilism), infra, Wallace’s interpretation of the substrate consciousness is disputed even within Tibetan Buddhism, and his model resembles SFW (possibly stronger than Coseru’s implied genuine agency) as a causality-transcendent consciousness in which free actions may be initiated. Wallace’s transcendental metaphysics aside, his pragmatic insight seems plausible: Buddhist soteriological practices at least generate a soteriologically pragmatic form of WFW, if not a SFW as well, regardless of the nature of causality.