Determinism vs Intrinsic randomness which one is preferred by Buddhist philosophy?

I am back on the quantum interpretation part of the Physics and Buddhism book project. I am explaining that many interpretations have choices in rejecting or accepting this or that classical concept to interpret quantum.

One of them is determinism vs intrinsic randomness. Please help to review if my Buddhist understanding of it is correct and comment on your own preferences if any based on your understanding of the Dhamma.


Meaning: results are not probabilistic in principle. In practice, quantum does look probabilistic (refer to Stern-Gerlach experiment), but with a certain interpretation, it can be transformed back into deterministic nature of things. This determinism is a bit softer than superdeterminism, it just means we can in principle rule out intrinsic randomness. The choice is between determinism and intrinsic randomness.

Classical choice: deterministic. Many of the difficulties some classical thinking people have with quantum is the probabilistic results that we get from quantum. In classical theories, probability means we do not know the full picture, if we know everything that there is to know to determine the results of a roll of a dice, including wind speed, minor variation in gravity, the exact position and velocity of the dice, the exact rotational motion of the dice, the friction, heat loss etc, we can in principle calculate the result of a dice roll before it stops. The fault of probability in classical world is ignorance. In quantum, if we believe that the wavefunction is complete (Copenhagen like interpretations), then randomness is intrinsic, there’s no underlying mechanism which will guarantee this or that result, it’s not ignorance that we do not know, it’s nature that doesn’t have such values in it.

A Buddhist’s comment (basically me lah): On the one hand, we do not admit the existence of fatalism or fate, on the other hand, we don’t believe things happen for no reason. There was a heretical teacher back in Buddha’s time called Makkhali Gosala. Makkhali teaches the doctrine of fatalism. Everything is fixed, predetermined, there’s no role for effort in morality.

From sutta DN2, we get a glimpse of his teachings, which seems to include both fatalism and no causes.

“Great king, there is no cause or condition for the corruption of sentient beings. Sentient beings are corrupted without cause or condition. There’s no cause or condition for the purification of sentient beings. Sentient beings are purified without cause or condition. One does not act of one’s own volition, one does not act of another’s volition, one does not act from a person’s volition. There is no power, no energy, no manly strength or vigor. All sentient beings, all living creatures, all beings, all souls lack control, power, and energy. Molded by destiny, circumstance, and nature, they experience pleasure and pain in the six classes of rebirth. There are 1.4 million main wombs, and 6,000, and 600. There are 500 deeds, and five, and three. There are deeds and half-deeds. There are 62 paths, 62 sub-eons, six classes of rebirth, and eight stages in a person’s life. There are 4,900 Ājīvaka ascetics, 4,900 wanderers, and 4,900 naked ascetics. There are 2,000 faculties, 3,000 hells, and 36 realms of dust. There are seven percipient embryos, seven non-percipient embryos, and seven embryos without attachments. There are seven gods, seven humans, and seven goblins. There are seven lakes, seven winds, 700 winds, seven cliffs, and 700 cliffs. There are seven dreams and 700 dreams. There are 8.4 million great eons through which the foolish and the astute transmigrate before making an end of suffering. And here there is no such thing as this: “By this precept or observance or mortification or spiritual life I shall force unripened deeds to bear their fruit, or eliminate old deeds by experiencing their results little by little,” for that cannot be. Pleasure and pain are allotted. Transmigration lasts only for a limited period, so there’s no increase or decrease, no getting better or worse. It’s like how, when you toss a ball of string, it rolls away unraveling. In the same way, after transmigrating the foolish and the astute will make an end of suffering.”

Here’s the Buddha’s critique on him, from the sutta AN1:319

“Mendicants, I do not see a single other person who acts for the hurt and unhappiness of the people, for the harm, hurt, and suffering of many people, of gods and humans like that silly man, Makkhali. Just as a trap set at the mouth of a river would bring harm, suffering, calamity, and disaster for many fish, so too that silly man, Makkhali, is a trap for humans, it seems to me. He has arisen in the world for the harm, suffering, calamity, and disaster of many beings.”

In practise terms, we should acknowledge that there are causes which we can built to attain to liberation from suffering, effort is important. Causes are important. So morality observance is not wasted, it is encouraged. The law of kamma does argue against suffering happening for no cause and against suffering is fated to happen. It gives hope in that in the present moment, we can plant good seeds to ripen to good results. The patterns from old kamma by itself doesn’t predetermine all future, the input from present moment is important too. (Anyone can provide sutta citation support for this? Thanks)

So in choosing between determinism and intrinsic randomness, it is a toss up. If we can be assured that this kind of determinism does not lead to superdeterminism (which is basically fatalism), it’s a better choice. If not, intrinsic randomness of quantum can be made to not contradict Buddhism. The results of individual experiments cannot be pointed to have one cause or another. To see this, refer to Stern-Gerlach experiment, same set up, that is same cause and conditions, different results of up and down for each identically prepared particles. Remember the exercise in ruling out hidden variables, there’s no underlying difference between one particle and the next already, if we believe that wavefunction is complete. So this seems to violate cause plus conditions equals results in kammic teaching. Yet, it allows for the future to have different paths even if the past is exactly the same.

Richard A. Muller in his book the Physics of Now, argues that physics cannot rule out free will based on quantum phenomenon. His work as an experimental physicists allowed him to analyse pions (one of the many subatomic particles in particle physics) in particle accelerators. Two pions he had observed interfere with each other, that shows that their wavefunctions are exactly the same. So same cause and condition. However, the pions disintegrated at different times, so different results. Thus it would seem that quantum rules out fatalism if we interpret wavefunction as the complete description of the quantum system. The price we pay is, we cannot point to a reason why this pion decay faster than that one. If we light up two dynamites, they explode at the same time, not so with two identically created pions which are born in the same instance.

Also, when quantum is decohered up to the Newtonian physics, this quantum randomness hardly shows up in the macroscopic realm, well except for the radioactive decay which is used in the popular example of Schrödinger’s cat. So we cannot claim that there’s no cause for things based on mere acceptance of intrinsic quantum randomness. The results of quantum experiments are also pretty well defined to be in a range, eg. The spin result in Stern Gerlach is only up or down in the measurement axis. There’s no unpredictable thing like the electrons suddenly group together to become a dragon for no reason. So the cause-condition-result relationship can be restored, if we expand the definition of result to be quantum probabilistic range of result, and the probability distribution function is well defined and deterministic based on the experimental set up. For example, pion is created as cause and condition, result is, pion will decay. The time for the decay of pion matters not much.

Thus, there might be a stronger push to reject determinism.


I’m a complete ignorant regarding quantum physics, so I’m not able to talk about what happens in the micro-scale of the cosmos. However, I see both our (animal) capacity for learning and adapting to new stimuli, and our (human) ability for using our conceptual frameworks for creating theories and models to predict the behaviour of nature (of the mind and of the rest of phenomena) and to manipulate elements to achieve desired results as evidence for determinism, at least in the macroscale of things.

I’d paste here a post I wrote in Buddhism.SE (here’s the link to the OP), which might not answer you specific question, but may be useful nonetheless:

In my opinion, determinism is a feature that appears in all conditioned phenomena (at the very least, in all phenomena of our subjective experience), which makes those phenomena follow inconditionally causality and conditionality.

With X set of conditions, Y consequences occur; Y depends on X to arise.

Some fact or state of affairs A leads to a new state of affairs B; B is caused by A.

This order of things is what allow us to predict events, to manipulate circumstances, to increase our chances of success, and to achieve desired outcomes. Both Dhamma and science follow this, with the former having the main purpose of attaining liberation from dukkha and the cycle of rebirth.

What the Dhamma training does, in my view, is not to “bypass” determinism, but to change what factors are decisive to give rise to interpretation, subjective experience, intentions and deeds. Instead of being governed by the “imposed” interpretations of others, becoming ourselves trained and habituated on such interpretations; becoming ourselves replicators of such interpretations; producing intentions and new interpretations from such habitual and learned interpretations.

Right View is key for all lf this: RV is achieved by reasoning or by influence of others, which leads to acquiring or producing new information that could make our interpretation not giving rise to afective and cognitive contradictions between expectations and facts.

With Right View sufficiently developed, other mental factors and qualities start developing as well, while others become diminished in its presence and influence. This makes one’s own critical judgement, reflection and knowledge (both led by the wisdom we have cultivated previously) to have be more preponderance when taking decisions or intending something, or to put ir from the opposite perspective, allows us to not get blindly and impulsively influenced by old habitual patterns, by others’ opinions, by unsupported assumptions, by the worldly winds, etc.

I wouldn’t summarize all of the above by stating that the mind becomes predominant over the external conditions. This is because, without exceptions, it is the mind the one that give rise to mind states. As long as there is the conditions for the arising of intentions, intentions will arise, choices will be made, and deeds (thoughts, communication or bodily acts) will be executed. The question, then, is what factors and conditions are responsible for the arising of intentions as it arises in some specific context.

Instead, I’d summarize all of the above by saying that the training in the Dhamma strenghten, develops and takes to fulfillment the factors that give rise to wisdom and mindful living, while weakening, diminishing and eradicating the ones that lead to ignorance, acritical and impulsive lives.

Kind regards!

It’s a Bad Idea to post chunks of text from somewhere else, but whatever, imma do it anyway. :woman_shrugging: Here’s a modified version of a couple of answers I gave to this question some time ago on this forum.

The free will/determinism problem—or if you like, “determinism vs intrinsic randomness”—rests, I believe, on the conflation of two distinct kinds of natural “laws”. Some laws are prescriptive, like a cop who tells you to slow down. Other laws are descriptive; they merely describe what happens, like the laws of probability. In Buddhism the latter are called upādāya paññatti.

Physical and natural laws, including the “laws” of Buddhism such as the four noble truths or dependent origination, are all descriptive laws.

When we formulate the “problem” of free will, we give voice to the “paradox” that we seem to be free and act of our own volition, yet at the same time everything is determined by causal relations. So we are like a driver who wants to go faster, but cannot because the “law” is stopping them.

But causal laws do not make anything happen. They merely describe. There’s no cop, no speed limit forcing you to make this choice or that. The “laws of causality” that determine what choices you make are mere statistics.

In this way, the whole dilemma is wrongly conceived. There’s no such thing as “free” or “random” or “determined”, there’s only patterns that can be observed. We can make inferences about those patterns, and use them to make wiser choices: if I do this, suffering results; if do that, happiness results.

What follows from this is that causality is not fundamentally different from correlation. Causality is merely correlation for which we have not yet found any exceptions.

Discussions of causality, then, involve two kinds of things:

  • Observable phenomena and the patterns in which they occur. Such patterns are concepts inferred by the mind to help make sense of the world (upādāya paññatti), they are not properties of reality.
  • Magical metaphysics, which is really residual godthink, assuming there is some hidden mechanism underlying the changes we can see. I see this, then I see that, so I assume that there is a “cause” that connects them. But the cause is never seen: we only ever see the phenomena.

From a Buddhist point of view we can dispense entirely with the second kind of statement. Terms like “cause” and “effect” are mere linguistic conveniences like “self” or “nation”.

An interesting consequence of this is that you can rephrase all causal statements with correlative ones with no loss of meaning.

Hate is caused by hate.

Is exactly equivalent to:

Hate is preceded by a previous observable instance of hate.

In programming terms, the language of causality is “syntactic sugar” whose role is to make it easier to express ideas in a nice way, that’s all. Programmers call this kind of hidden transformation of code “magic”.

From a practical point of view, the importance is that both these kinds of statements can serve as the basis for a healthy response: cultivate love, not hate. But the latter kind of statement avoids adding any new problematic concepts beyond what is already required to talk about experience at all (time, consciousness, etc.)

This is why, I believe, the Buddhist tradition does not see free will/determinism as a deadly paradox in the same way that the Western philosophical tradition does. It long ago escaped the legacy of godthink that has haunted Western philosophy.

Or as the Buddha put it:

This being, that is
When this arises, that arises
This not being, that is not
When this ceases, that ceases

See? Patterns only, not a “cause” in sight.


Thanks Bhante! Can I just quote these in the book? haha.

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I think the emotional reaction people usually have to “determinism” is nihilism: the feeling that what they decide doesn’t matter because everything is predetermined anyway. But to me this isn’t logical. “Determinism” doesn’t mean that choices don’t have consequences just that choices are predictable. Are my decisions predictable? Probably :man_shrugging: Are they important? Definitely.

I like to use the analogy of a computer controlling a light water reactor. If it decides to raise the control rods too long, that decision will have consequences even though you wouldn’t say that the computer has free will.

And if we pull in the Halting Problem we see that determinism isn’t so bad as it seems at first blush: even if you’re just a computer program, the only way to perfectly predict you is to run you. As Dr Seuss said,

Today you are You,
that is truer than true.
There is no one alive
who is Youer than You

In other words: you are the program that gets to dictate what you will decide. And if that’s not free will, I don’t know what is!


So so far, it seems that intrinsic randomness is less appealing compared to determinism.

I’ve often thought that the free will vs. determinism problem is really an epistemological problem masquerading in egoistic guise, and I agree with Sujato regarding Buddhism. There’s an oversimplified version that uses cause and effect language, and a more fine detailed version of Buddhist philosophy that recognizes that to be arbitrary (or relativistic) labeling. You have to choose a standpoint to decide one thing is a cause and the next thing is an effect. If you choose a different one, the labels can change.

But, to me, the idea of randomness is really the confusion we have when we realize we don’t recognize a pattern that we can comprehend. No pattern = randomness. But just because we can’t see the pattern doesn’t mean there isn’t an underlying deterministic process happening.

Modern science has uncovered that, on the microscopic level, there’s an unimaginably large number of cause-effect events taking place, which is simply too multitudinous for a human mind to directly observe. So, we speak of probabilities to abstract all of those events into a small enough set of categories that we can think about. I’m thinking of things larger than subatomic particles like the biochemistry that takes place inside of each cell that exists. All of the complex reactions taking place inside one cell is beyond human comprehension, so we have to speak of it in terms of probabilities and statistics to understand it. We can look at individual molecules and understand them very well, understand the rules and possibilities involved in their reactions, but we can’t deterministically know the results of every single reaction that takes place.

So, randomness and probabilities to me are how we cope with this inability to know exactly what is happening. That doesn’t mean everything that happens is actually random or probabilistic, just that we don’t know everything that happens. Our understanding is limited to a fuzzy set of likely outcomes based on observations over time.

Even economics and and sociology becomes too complex for us to comprehend very well. People tend to become biased, I think, because of that. Uncertainty causes anxiety, so people simply pick a reason for x or y, form a pattern in their minds, and believe they understand what is happening around them. It’s just easier emotionally and intellectually to do that. Which confirms to me the ancient Buddhist observation that society as a whole tends to be deluded in its thinking.


Just to be clear, I wasn’t saying that determinism is appealing vis-a-vis quantum randomness. I was only arguing that if the physical universe happens to be deterministic that that doesn’t have to sink free will in any meaningful sense.

Randomness could have a similar emotional problem: causing people to feel that the universe is chaotic and therefore their actions are meaningless. Thankfully modern statistics is advanced enough that this problem doesn’t manifest much. We know that e.g. poker has randomness, but our actions still help to decide the outcome. So I didn’t address randomness not because it’s less appealing but because it’s less often used to justify nihilism.

Personally, I side with most physicists in preferring a multiple universes interpretation of quantum mechanics, in which case the whole problem of determinism vs randomness kind of goes away: all possible things do happen, your consciousness just travels the path of your karma. But I’ll let those more knowledgeable speak to that.

Quote away! Nothing is mine!

Right, it’s largely an emotional problem, which can end up masquerading as a philosophical one.

Interesting; which means also run your history and context and the history of the entire world and the history of the entire universe. And even then, to prove determinism, you’d have to run it a whole bunch of times and get the same results! While remaining an independent observer. Determinism, in other words, isn’t a testable theory: it’s magic.

And as well as an emotional problem, it’s

I’m more and more starting to think that the attempt to apply scientific method to social and pscychological fields was a mistake. Scientific method works well in a few fields, and we just kind of assumed it would work elsewhere. What if it just … doesn’t?


11 posts were split to a new topic: The Social and Psychological fields - Arts or Sciences?

That’s the cool thing about quantum. If we accept certain interpretations, without hidden variables, there really is nothing underneath that determines the randomness. The randomness is intrinsic, fundamentally different from the classical randomness we think because we lack information. There is no information in nature to tell us why this result for this particular electron and that result for the exact same electron without any difference in preparation (same cause and condition) but have different effects.

Many theorems are there, including Bell + Leggett’s inequality to rule out many types of hidden variable theories.

Your description corresponds almost exactly with a more modern mathematical notion of randomness. The Kolmogorov complexity of data is the length of the shortest algorithm that can reproduce that data (basically general-purpose compression). If I toss a coin several hundred times and record the results as a bring of 0s and 1s, then, virtually always, I won’t be able to compress the resulting data (or usually even if I can, not by much). Any algorithm to represent it will likely be at least as long (basically be something like a simple lookup table). Of course, a minority of such strings will be compressible when there is some kind of pattern, e.g. alternating 1s and 0s or all 0s etc. So, as you say, we can have a kind of randomness (Kolmogorov randomness) even in the context of determinism.

To nitpick a little, that’s really only true if the Turing machine has a potentially infinite tape (infinite memory). An algorithm run on a finite computer will have only a finite (though potentially very large) number of states, which will have to cycle into some kind of finite repeating loop eventually! Though, in the Buddhist case, we are supposed to have a fairly unbounded chain of past lives running backwards in time (perhaps somewhat analogous to an unbounded tape :slight_smile: :man_shrugging: )?

Right, but the OP is also asking about whether quantum mechanics proves that the universe is ultimately randomized or if there’s something deterministic underlying it. We obviously can come to conclusions about what we observe on the subatomic level, but we don’t understand it entirely. I’m just saying that may be simply because we’ve reached the limits of observability.

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Whether the universe is ultimately deterministic or not depends on which interpretation of quantum do you believe. I am still on the research and writing it furiously fast during this month to take advantage of NaNoWriMo (national novel writing month).

So far at least 15 interpretations will be covered. And many of them are very obscure and not popular at all, so hard to get easy to read materials on them.

Regardless of the interpretation, functionally, instrumentally, experimentally, randomness is what we get. We cannot predict with certainty the results of individual experiments, only the probability distribution.

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Thanks for clarifying. I would say that we need to be careful to distinguish being able to use quantum mechanics, and feeling that we really understand the implications.

In fact, the same applies even in more classical circumstances. For example, we know how to calculate the motion of a projectile under the influence of gravity. We could start worrying about unanswered questions such as why gravity exists, why it is always attractive (as opposed to electromagnetic phenomena), and on so on (see the Simile of the Arrow :)), but those questions do not need to be answered if all we want to do is calculate how high the ball we threw will go.


For those who wants to read as it’s written here’s the earlier parts.

Determinism is the current of samsara, which results from ignorance. In Buddhism itself determinism is developed through application of the path. Desire for existence and sensual desire have a function of continuity within samsara and are not random, for example natural selection has specific outcomes. Escape from the cycle is achieved through consciously applying appropriate attention. The word ‘selection’ indicates how in order to counter samsara, focussed effort must be exerted and equinimity alone would not suffice.

From Wikipedia:

By the Humean empiricist view that humans observe sequences of events, (not cause and effect, as causality and causal mechanisms are unobservable), the DN model neglects causality beyond mere constant conjunction, first event A and then always event B

I find that Buddhism has many things in alignment with logical positivism, like both agrees with the criterion of verification (rather than falsifiability).

Rebirth is verified by recollection of past lifes seeing, instead of falsification criterion.

Phenomenon are verified to be impermanent, suffering, not self.

If you cannot observe it, it’s metaphysics (Buddha said the all is 6 sense bases).

Buddha didn’t speak about things we couldn’t verify via supernormal powers or via our senses, saying that if another person claims something beyond what he declared as the all, there’s no basis to declare them.

I ask because the Copenhagen interpretation is influenced by Logical positivism, and it’s the most popular interpretation of quantum physics. It might be because of that that many Buddhists think that quantum agrees with Buddhism, but it might be that Logical positivism influence is acting through this. There are certainly other interpretations of quantum physics which have like no impact on Buddhism.

The following seems like an application of falsification criteria to me… :thinking:

Bhikkhus, you may well acquire that possession that is permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and that might endure as long as eternity. But do you see any such possession, bhikkhus?”—“No, venerable sir.”—“Good, bhikkhus. I too do not see any possession that is permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and that might endure as long as eternity.