Do we have free will?

I find this very interesting because these findings are closer to what the Buddha said 2500 years ago.
With Metta


Hi Nimal. Perhaps you could edit your post to say a little about why this is interesting, or who is presenting it. (We try to discourage posting links with no explanation.) Thanks. :smiley:


Block universe of possibilities vs block universe of actualities
Free will vs deterimism, using quantum physics reality model vs relativity reality model.

I fear most people don’t use logic or use it poorly, especially when it affects their “identity” and sense of agency. It seems, in behaviorial terms, to be a primal response to what appears to be an attack on an “identity”. They can make morally deficient, impulsive, nihilistic defiant decisions as a result of depression, if there’s a sense of no-control.

So even if either model works in theory, the block universe of possibilities, in which decision/free will matters, seems to 1) allow morality to exist as more than an illusion, and 2) allow humans a sense of agency essential to health and a practice leading towards an end of suffering.

No free will often seems interpreted into a view in which there’s no restraint (or result of restraint) on greed, ill-will, or delusion because alternatives don’t exist…

These comments are made after watching the entire first video in the playlist, as a response

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For me, the second video is frustrating because it seems to use the terms brain and mind almost interchangeably (and I don’t). Plus, it seems quite vague about some key bit (such as the complexities and patterns of functioning of "the"unconscious). And it seems to want to extract decisions, or free will, from context.
It comes across to me as wanting to understand a wild tuna on the basis of a can of tuna - chunk or solid.

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Ted Chiang wrote a fascinating story called “Story of Your Life” that examined the free will vs. determinism debate. It was the story that the movie Arrival was based on (the original doesn’t have the tension and international intrigue that Hollywood added). In it, humans encounter an alien species that perceives the past, present, and future all at once. Their language is not linear, but rather an entire sentence is formed all at once to produce a unique ideograph that’s not read in any particular “direction”: It’s a holistic piece of information.

The protagonist of the story is a linguist named Louise who’s tasked with learning the alien’s language. In the process, she learns to perceive time in a non-linear way. It was a fascinating story to me at the time I read it because I immediately suspected Chiang might have been influenced by the Buddhist concept of knowing past, present, and future as a form of omniscience. Plus, well, I’m a translator, too, so I could empathize easily. Being tasked with translating a mystic alien language is near the top of a typical list of daydreams.

At any rate, the protagonist “chooses” to have a child with another character even though she knew that the child was going to die young in an accident [movie version: suffer from a fatal childhood disease] because she realized it wasn’t really a choice. She also could “remember” the child’s entire life beforehand. It just was/is/will be what happens. Louise was just part of the story.


The third video in the playlist overstates, I think, in (initially?) describing conditioning as entirely outside of personal control. It seems to me we do make some choices at least.
Interesting points on

  • degrees of moral responsibility and various justice systems.
  • culture, family, language, societal factors as scaffolding in which mind develops

And the last comments in the 3rd video on the role of consciousness in the universe and causality is provocative ( I hope! It reminds me of observations I have heard Ajahn @Brahmali make about recent shifts in science, involvng the role of consciousness.)

Thank you for pointing towards the series, @Nimal.

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Reposting (and slightly editing) something I have written about this subject before.

I view free will much the same way as I view free speech. It makes no sense to ask whether or not we have free speech. It depends on where we are making utterances. Some countries and forums have free speech. Others place restrictions on free speech. Free speech simply means that I am allowed to express my views without being penalized.

Similarly, when I was a child, my mother and father would decide what I had to eat for dinner. I could of course make requests, but frequently I had to eat food I did not want. My will was restricted. It may have wanted pizza, but I had to eat fish. Now, however, when I am an adult, I can go to the supermarket and make decisions based on what I want (and if I am sensible, also based on what is healthy). So my will is no longer restricted in the way it was when I was a child. My will is now free with regards to food.

This way of looking at free will has absolutely nothing to do with determinism or indeterminism. The universe could be either, and it would make no difference. Let me give a few examples on how free will could work perfectly fine in a deterministic universe:

You build a robot that does gardening, and it does so very well. Unfortunately, some kids in the neighborhood are having fun throwing rocks at it. It isn’t able to predict or understand the danger and it breaks. Then you decide to build gardening robot 2.0. It is every bit as deterministic as 1.0, but you give it the ability to predict what will happen when rocks or other objects are about to collide with it and make the decision to move on the basis of the prediction, thus avoiding getting hit. Now the robot is making a choice and it prevents a future that would otherwise occur thanks to its predictive and choice-making ability.

But what about guilt in a court of law? Is anyone ultimately guilty of anything in a deterministic universe?

The idea of ultimate guilt or responsibility makes no sense to me. As I see it, there can be no such thing. Let us assume for the sake of the argument that there exists a divine creator who made the entire universe out of nothing. One could argue that such a creator would have the ultimate responsibility for how the universe turns out. But is this really true? Either the creator is eternal or she has a beginning. Either way, she is not responsible for a) just being the way she is (if she is eternal) or b) for the conditions that brought her into being (if she had beginning). No starting point for ultimate responsibility or guilt can be found. In my opinon, the whole concept is void of meaning whether we are talking about imaginary gods, or humans.

However, humans have had ways of dealing with crime long before philosophical speculation about the nature of reality. It is based on a simple and pragmatic outlook.

Suppose a woman robs a bank and gets caught. We want to know why she committed the crime. Was she broke and in desperate need of money? Was she greedy for wealth? It turns out she didn’t want to do it at all. A man had placed a bomb collar around her neck and held a remote control he told her he would use to blow her head off unless she robbed the bank for him. It makes a huge difference to society whether she was acting out her own will or if she was forced to do it.

If she truly wanted to commit the crime, then she would need to be reformed in order to become a productive member of society again. As it turns out, she is not in need of reform, but the man who put the collar around her neck is.

Revenge is not a part of this scheme. People who deny free will are quite right in maintaining the the bomb-collar criminal is not “ultimately” responsible for his actions (whatever that actually means), since they were conditioned by a will that was also conditioned, for instance by his values. This, however, does not remove the need to reform him and protect society.

Free will as it is often viewed in these debates, as something other than distinguishing between willed and not willed (without external pressure) actions, usually means that someone did not have to make the choice they did. Free will is viewed as some sort of wild card which makes actions unpredictable. If we were to rewind time, one could have made a different choice. In a deterministic universe I am a slave to the deterministic laws of the universe and am therefore not responsible for my actions, it is argued.

I fail to see how this kind of free will could could make people responsible. To my mind, it would mean the exact opposite. Let us say that John shoots Jane in a fit of jealousy. Now, suppose that we rewind time ten times. It turns out that John shoots Jane three out of ten times. The other seven times he does not shoot. On this view of free will, he was simply unlucky. This time around his free will “randomness generator” just happened to make a bad choice. Would this really create responsibility?

I think the idea of free will started out as something pragmatic. A judgement about whether or not someone did something willingly. If they willingly did something bad they were judged to be bad and in need of punishment, like a good tree does not produce bad fruit, to paraphrase Jesus. It is precisely because our free choices are not random but conditioned by our will and wishes that this makes sense. However, somewhere in our history philosophy muddied the water and made something quite simple into something really mystical and difficult.

EDIT: Since I wrote this, I have read a bit of the Vinaya, and it seems to me that it assumes this view of free will. Why on Earth would it make a distinction between consenting to an action and not consenting, if the nihilistic argument “it is all predetermined anyway, so it doesn’t matter” is valid? It is true that the will is not a self and does not belong to a self, but it is nevertheless part of the mental makeup of the monastic, and can be conditioned by Dhamma-practice.


I personally don’t know that it’s possible to know for sure one way or the other. Chiang’s story makes the point that the sense of free will hinges on whether we know the future or not (and by extension, whether the future is knowable). Even if the future were set, we’d still feel like we have free will if we don’t know it. Louise ends up like the mythical Buddha of Mahayana texts, who “does” things because that’s what happens, not because he “chooses” to do things. It’s just part of the story of his life. But her husband doesn’t understand that and divorces her because he still believes in free will.

I think the deterministic position would be true if the physical universe were as mechanistic as they believe it is (and consciousness is a function of matter, I guess). Then the argument makes sense. If that isn’t the case, then they have a hole in their logic. I think the Buddhist position was that consciousness was the controlling element, not form. Yet, they also held that consciousness is heavily conditioned by past and present experience. So, they had a middle road approach.

The trouble I have with the debate is: How do we know whether the universe is purely mechanistic or not? It seems like a debate over who’s assumptions are correct, but they are assumptions that can’t really be checked as true or false. So, it boils down to “I don’t know; does it really matter?” for me.

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Even if the universe is entirely mechanistic, there are meaningful ways of talking about about free will and responsibility. I am surprised at how popular the denial of any kind of free will has become in Buddhist circles, and in society in general. There is a meaningful experiential distinction between being locked up in a prison cell, and therefore not being able to fulfill any of one’s wishes, and not being locked up, but free to follow them to one’s heart’s content. In the former case, one’s will cannot express itself freely, and in the other it’s freedom is far greater. Determinism vs. indeterminism has absolutely nothing to do with it.

Many talk as if they are a self, trapped in a body made by mechanistic parts which must obey transcendent laws of physics. “I am a slave to the laws of nature”. Of course, this self cannot be found anywhere, nor can transcendent laws. Rather, the so-called laws are human abstractions that describe recurrent patterns in nature using humanly constructed language. They are descriptive, not prescriptive. Furthermore, what they point to is part and parcel of the constituents that make up the human body/mind. That is to say, if I self identify with any of the five khandas, then the patterns we use the language of laws to explain, are part of what I call “me”. So far from being some external force enslaving me, they are part and parcel of me. Were these patterns different, then I would be someone else. If electrons had behaved differently from what they do now, such that we would use other formulas to describe their behavior, then they would also behave differently in my brain, and I would be someone else.

So, why care about this? I think telling people they have no free will is harmful. Studies have shown that people are more likely to lie, cheat and steal if they come to believe they have no free will, since this becomes a convenient excuse to say “I couldn’t help it. The neurons in my brain made me do it”. There is also no reason to say it, as free will of the kind that is denied cannot even be defined in a coherent way, and free will meaning something like free speech is both meaninful and useful.

EDIT: When I have discussed this topic with others in the past, they have raised the issue of guilt. For instance, a drunk driver kills someone and is later filled with regret. It is argued that this person will feel much better if they are told that they didn’t have free will, and so could not help what they did, and therefore should not feel guilty. I agree that this would indeed be helpful, but the problem is that it would help a little bit too much. It would also excuse any future drunk driving, so any alcoholic could say to themself while drunk “I cannot help it, I don’t have free will” and get in the car.

I think a far better response to the remorseful drunk driver would be, “the person you are now, who is filled with remorse, is not the same person as that selfish person who got into that car while intoxicated. The person you are now looks back at the former person and says ‘I do not approve of that behavior’, and that is because you have different values from what that person had. Also, you can use this horrible experience for good, by teaching others not to drink and drive, and perhaps prevent others from making the same mistake, and thus save lives that would otherwise have been lost.’”

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Yes. I agree. I think people easily misunderstand and over simplify philosophical ideas. They turn into memes that weren’t intended. Just look at the things that happened with Darwin’s ideas in the realm of politics. He never intended his ideas to apply to human society in that way.