Did the Buddha teach we have choice? (aka The Great Free Will v Determinism Debate)

Exploring Theravāda's connections to other paths - what can we learn from other traditions, religions and philosophies?
Garrib
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Re: 'The illusion of free will' by Sam Harris is a dangerous idea, but can anyone disprove it?

Post by Garrib » Wed Nov 29, 2017 12:07 am

I don't mean to be dismissive, and I hope this is relatively on topic - but this question comes up so often on Buddhist forums, and in our own lives, that I feel it is important to have some practical response to it. So how about this:

Whether or not we have "free will", however you wish to define it, we cannot, and will not attain liberation without the effort (which we conventionally refer to as "will"). If and when we do attain Nibbana, we can forever put aside metaphysical questions such as these.

Of course, such a response may not totally satisfy the intellect - but then again, nothing truly does. All of this being said, I think that we can perhaps find a balanced approach ("middle way") where we consistently apply effort in the proper direction, but understand that everything around us, and within us, is conditioned and therefore, "out of control" to a very large extent. In this way, we use our conditioned willpower to create the causes that are likely to bring positive fruit, rather than seek to dominate and manipulate situations as they arise (which might be the way we try to apply willpower when we think it is absolute).
Last edited by Garrib on Wed Nov 29, 2017 5:26 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: 'The illusion of free will' by Sam Harris is a dangerous idea, but can anyone disprove it?

Post by DNS » Wed Nov 29, 2017 3:40 am

retrofuturist wrote:
Tue Nov 28, 2017 10:07 pm
Here's an interesting topic from days of old, which seems relavent to your line of inquiry...
Did the Buddha teach that we have choice?
And here's another long thread on this topic too:
viewtopic.php?t=27791

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mikenz66
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Re: 'The illusion of free will' by Sam Harris is a dangerous idea, but can anyone disprove it?

Post by mikenz66 » Wed Nov 29, 2017 3:41 am

manas wrote:
Tue Nov 28, 2017 10:01 pm
It runs counter to what the Buddha taught, and furthermore, it could lead some people to stop making an effort to improve themselves, since according to Harris that effort, too, is predetermined, and whether you try or not, won't change what is already preordained to occur. Yet despite my revulsion for it, and the fact that on an intuitive, experiential level, I feel it is incorrect, I find myself unable to definitely prove him wrong on an intellectual level. Can anyone prove him wrong, definitively?
Garrib wrote:
Wed Nov 29, 2017 12:07 am
Whether or not we have "free will", however you wish to define it, we cannot, and will not attain liberation without the effort (which we conventionally refer to as "will"). If and when we do attain Nibbana, we can forever put aside metaphysical questions such as these.
Good response. I'm not a Harris apologist, but his podcasts are often thoughtful, and the problems he points out with simplistic concepts of "free will" are well known. In other places, Harris (again using well-known arguments) is careful to point out that a lack of "free will" doesn't mean that people should not be held accountable for their actions and so on.
viewtopic.php?t=30550&start=20#p443821
https://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/is-buddhism-true @2:20

I suspect that if you asked the Buddha about it he'd say that such metaphysical concpepts as "free will" are not conducive the end of suffering.

:heart:
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manas
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Re: 'The illusion of free will' by Sam Harris is a dangerous idea, but can anyone disprove it?

Post by manas » Wed Nov 29, 2017 12:02 pm

Sam Vara wrote:
Tue Nov 28, 2017 11:18 pm
manas wrote:
Tue Nov 28, 2017 10:01 pm
I find myself unable to definitely prove him wrong on an intellectual level.
Don't take a knife to a gunfight. Prove him wrong on a practical level.
Your 'outside the box' answer helps, thank you. :anjali:
Knowing this body is like a clay jar,
securing this mind like a fort,
attack Mara with the spear of discernment,
then guard what's won without settling there,
without laying claim.

- Dhp 40

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manas
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Re: 'The illusion of free will' by Sam Harris is a dangerous idea, but can anyone disprove it?

Post by manas » Wed Nov 29, 2017 12:11 pm

mikenz66 wrote:
Wed Nov 29, 2017 3:41 am
manas wrote:
Tue Nov 28, 2017 10:01 pm
It runs counter to what the Buddha taught, and furthermore, it could lead some people to stop making an effort to improve themselves, since according to Harris that effort, too, is predetermined, and whether you try or not, won't change what is already preordained to occur. Yet despite my revulsion for it, and the fact that on an intuitive, experiential level, I feel it is incorrect, I find myself unable to definitely prove him wrong on an intellectual level. Can anyone prove him wrong, definitively?
Garrib wrote:
Wed Nov 29, 2017 12:07 am
Whether or not we have "free will", however you wish to define it, we cannot, and will not attain liberation without the effort (which we conventionally refer to as "will"). If and when we do attain Nibbana, we can forever put aside metaphysical questions such as these.
Good response. I'm not a Harris apologist, but his podcasts are often thoughtful, and the problems he points out with simplistic concepts of "free will" are well known. In other places, Harris (again using well-known arguments) is careful to point out that a lack of "free will" doesn't mean that people should not be held accountable for their actions and so on.
viewtopic.php?t=30550&start=20#p443821
https://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/is-buddhism-true @2:20

I suspect that if you asked the Buddha about it he'd say that such metaphysical concpepts as "free will" are not conducive the end of suffering.

:heart:
Mike
More great responses, thank you both :anjali:
Knowing this body is like a clay jar,
securing this mind like a fort,
attack Mara with the spear of discernment,
then guard what's won without settling there,
without laying claim.

- Dhp 40

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manas
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Re: 'The illusion of free will' by Sam Harris is a dangerous idea, but can anyone disprove it?

Post by manas » Wed Nov 29, 2017 12:14 pm

By the way everyone, I like Sam Harris' podcasts very much, and often agree with most of what he says, because it's well thought-out; but on this point, we disagree. :meditate:
Knowing this body is like a clay jar,
securing this mind like a fort,
attack Mara with the spear of discernment,
then guard what's won without settling there,
without laying claim.

- Dhp 40

mal4mac
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Re: 'The illusion of free will' by Sam Harris is a dangerous idea, but can anyone disprove it?

Post by mal4mac » Wed Nov 29, 2017 12:23 pm

Someone said in t'other thread:

Strict determinism rules out free will.
The Buddha taught us to *choose* between skillful and unskillful actions.
Therefore the Buddha did not teach strict determinism.

This argument doesn't work, our choice between skillful and unskillful actions might be strictly determined.

"if a person is wrongly seen as an essential,permanent self, it is an ‘undetermined question’ as to whether ‘a person’s acts of will are determined’ or ‘a person’s acts of will are free.’ If there is no essential person-entity ‘it’ can not be said to be either determined or free.”

- Harvey 2007, quoted in https://www.uvic.ca/humanities/pacifica ... roblem.pdf, where the author disagrees with Harvey, suggesting that a person's acts are determined. He quotes sutta, so please quote sutta if you are arguing for the other side!
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Re: 'The illusion of free will' by Sam Harris is a dangerous idea, but can anyone disprove it?

Post by mal4mac » Wed Nov 29, 2017 12:30 pm

manas wrote:
Tue Nov 28, 2017 10:01 pm
It runs counter to what the Buddha taught, and furthermore, it could lead some people to stop making an effort to improve themselves, ...
Can you quote sutta to say how it is counter to what the Buddha taught? Why should it stop people making an effort to improve themselves? One would expect evolution to give them the determination to improve themselves, although the dhamma might usurp evolution's "improvement program" to give them a better way to improve themselves.
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Re: 'The illusion of free will' by Sam Harris is a dangerous idea, but can anyone disprove it?

Post by Zom » Wed Nov 29, 2017 1:20 pm

It runs counter to what the Buddha taught
Buddha never said that will is "free" or "not free". He just was silent about that, and why - the answer had already been given just above. Will, as it turns out, is not "free" (you need a fully unconditioned "atman" to operate a genuine "free will"), however, the very thought "I will do nothing simply because everything is pre-determined" is considered bad and pernicious, and the Buddha was very clear about that.

So, while you are a deluded unenlightened being, the idea that your will is free can be rather useful to advance on the Path. For quite some time :D

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Re: 'The illusion of free will' by Sam Harris is a dangerous idea, but can anyone disprove it?

Post by mal4mac » Wed Nov 29, 2017 1:35 pm

Zom wrote:
Wed Nov 29, 2017 1:20 pm
It runs counter to what the Buddha taught
Buddha never said that will is "free" or "not free". He just was silent about that, and why - the answer had already been given just above. Will, as it turns out, is not "free" (you need a fully unconditioned "atman" to operate a genuine "free will"), however, the very thought "I will do nothing simply because everything is pre-determined" is considered bad and pernicious, and the Buddha was very clear about that.

So, while you are a deluded unenlightened being, the idea that your will is free can be rather useful to advance on the Path. For quite some time :D
Is the idea that your will is free useful to advance on the Path? Your statement that "you need a fully unconditioned "atman" to operate a genuine free will" sounds right. But in that case, the deluded one is walking down the path thinking he has an atman! That can't be good, can it? Not for Buddhists?

Better to think, surely, that we have no atman, that we are conditioned, just that we may suffer from the delusion that we have free will (until the delusion evaporates...) I mean the intellectual argument that we *are* determined is convincing is it not, and whether it disgusts us or not us neither here nor there!

The argument that "I will do nothing simply because everything is pre-determined" is certainly bad, I know it's just plain wrong because I think everything is pre-determined, but I do something!
Last edited by mal4mac on Wed Nov 29, 2017 1:48 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: 'The illusion of free will' by Sam Harris is a dangerous idea, but can anyone disprove it?

Post by Zom » Wed Nov 29, 2017 1:42 pm

Is the idea that your will is free useful to advance on the Path? Your statement that "you need a fully unconditioned "atman" to operate a genuine free will" sounds right. But in that case, the deluded one is walking down the path thinking he has an atman! That can't be good, can it? Not for Buddhists?
Well, not necessarily. One can "use" his free will and be happy/satisfied that this is/was "his own" decision while not delving into philosophical concepts about a "self". As it is known, only arahants are devoid of mana (that is - conceit). All other people, including high level ariyas, have that sense of "self" and can use that sense of "free will". Why not. Arahants, probably, do not have it. And, interesting enough, they are the only beings who do not accumulate kamma, directly connected with such thing as "will" -)

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Re: 'The illusion of free will' by Sam Harris is a dangerous idea, but can anyone disprove it?

Post by mal4mac » Wed Nov 29, 2017 1:58 pm

Zom wrote:
Wed Nov 29, 2017 1:42 pm
Well, not necessarily. One can "use" his free will and be happy/satisfied that this is/was "his own" decision...
So he thinks, "I chose to study dhamma instead of going to the pub, I'm such a good boy for exercising my free will that way." Isn't that just more "selfing", increasing his conceit. Isn't the thought, "the universe caused me to study dhamma rather than go to the pub, the causal process went well today," a better thought. No selfing there!
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Re: 'The illusion of free will' by Sam Harris is a dangerous idea, but can anyone disprove it?

Post by Pseudobabble » Wed Nov 29, 2017 2:47 pm

It's irrelevant. It seems to us that we have choice - and it would still seem so if it was proved that we didn't. For practical purposes, we can discard the question without a problem.

Or is it that we need to know the name of the archer, his caste, his family group, the wood the bow was made from, etc?

Or perhaps the Tathagata both exists, and doesn't exist, after death.
"Does Master Gotama have any position at all?"

"A 'position,' Vaccha, is something that a Tathagata has done away with. What a Tathagata sees is this: 'Such is form, such its origination, such its disappearance; such is feeling, such its origination, such its disappearance; such is perception...such are fabrications...such is consciousness, such its origination, such its disappearance.'" - Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta


'Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.' - Genesis 3:19

'Some fart freely, some try to hide and silence it. Which one is correct?' - Saegnapha

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Did the Buddha teach we have choice? the great free will determinism debate

Post by robertk » Wed Nov 29, 2017 3:00 pm

mal4mac wrote:
Wed Nov 29, 2017 1:58 pm
[]

So he thinks, "I chose to study dhamma instead of going to the pub, I'm such a good boy for exercising my free will that way." Isn't that just more "selfing", increasing his conceit.
Yes it is :sage:
Issn't the thought, "the universe caused me to study dhamma rather than go to the pub, the causal process went well today," a better thought. No selfing there!
That is not right either. The causes for studying Dhamma go back for who knows how long, probably aeons. And they also need present conditions. Its a really amazing thing : but no need to feel conceited about it as there is no self, only impermanent elements.
Last edited by DNS on Wed Nov 29, 2017 5:02 pm, edited 1 time in total.
Reason: changed title thread

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Re: Did the Buddha teach we have choice? the great free will determinism debate

Post by DNS » Wed Nov 29, 2017 5:03 pm

I merged several previous free will vs. determinism threads into this one big one -- now nearly 1,000 posts long!

Don't complain about me merging them; I had no choice. :tongue:

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