Free Will: Causal Determinism or Quantum Probability

I’ve wanted to have this conversation directly for a while now, and today just felt like the day. I guess you could say, I chose to post this today. But did I? The “choice” to post this didn’t really come from any real deliberation, it just came out of nowhere, it just popped into my head. And even if I had thought long and hard about it, weighing the potential arguments this could cause and the time it would take against my desire to talk about this, in the end, my final decision would have just come into existence, seemingly out of the aether. In that moment, this decision became a result of every experience I ever had, and how those experiences reacted with my physiological make-up, and how that make-up depended on my genetics, which depended on the specific sperm and egg from my parents, which depended on their experiences and their genetic make up, and so on and so forth. The exact circumstance of my mind in that moment, reacted to the stimuli in my environment at that moment, and in a singular way that it only could given that set up, resulting in the thought to write this post. Then, my mind reacting to that thought, again in the only way it could given that exact set up, resulted in the decision that, yes, I’m going to write this post. So, if the particular and exact circumstance was uncontrollable all the way back to infinity, and the way that particular and exact circumstance reacts to new stimuli is uncontrollable and bound to unbreakable laws, then there is no room for free will in that scenario.

Now, that is causal determinism. There is also a possibility that quantum probability comes in at some point. But this is offers absolutely no assistance to free will, because all that provides is the possibility that at some point throughout those determined processes, some quantum strangeness threw in a random curve ball. So normally the decision would have been not to write this post, but instead some quantum randomness changed the particles and the mind just enough that instead I decided to write it. This still is not free will, the decision still came out without any help from “me,” it just didn’t follow the exact deterministic path, and had a bit of randomness to it. Equating this to free will is like saying someone who has to roll dice every time they make a decision has free will. Randomness is not free will, it’s just randomness.

Another option is the argument daniel dennet brings forward, which is that, as a human, we have much more potentiality than other lower lifeforms. In any moment, what we are “able” to do, has many more alternatives. But again, this is not free will, this is just freedom. And the funny thing is, even then, it really isn’t; because we don’t actually have more alternatives and potentialities, because we still must react in the exact way that we do. Yes, like I stated in the earlier paragraph, there can be some randomness, but remember this is at the quantum level, so the changes this can make are almost never prominent. Even in those rare cases that they are, the potentiality is still only one decision or thought in difference. So although the effect in reality is pronounced, it does not offer us any more freedom than any other living creature. We are all stuck on a track, that can occasionally switch to another track by random chance, but we are then stuck on that track until another random switch. The most important aspect is that at no point do we have the choice or free will to change tracks on our own.

The reason this applies to all of us in particular, is that it not only reinforces the truth of Anatta, but it is necessary for it to be so. How can we have volition or free will, if there is no self? If there are truly decisions being made, then there has to be someone making the decisions. It can’t work the way we usually explain other phenomena, for example, no one experiences the anger, there is just anger. If you think about this in the same way, it makes no sense. No one has free will to operate, there is just free will operating? It can’t be, because free will or volition, implies a self. You can’t have choices being made, where you could rewind reality to that exact point in time with everything exactly the same, and have it play out differently because of a freely made choice, without there being a self that makes the choice. Decisions made out of free will must have a self behind them or it doesn’t constitute free will, otherwise it’s what? Decisions making themselves?

Every thought, feeling, and action, is the result of causes and conditions, acting on processes, all bound by the laws that govern all phenomena. The particular circumstance that is reacting to newly incoming circumstance is also the result of the same uncontrollable phenomena, all the way back as far as it goes. There is no room for volition or a self in any of this. The interesting thing is that in meditation and in daily life this can be observed, and it can give you deep insight into Anatta. You can see how every thought you have, every action that is made, arises out of causes and conditions, you can actually see, when you calm your mind and look closely, how you never actually make a choice out of free will, how there isn’t a self to make such a choice. So although this may seem merely philosophical, understanding it really does have a practical application.


Bhikkhu Bodhi writes this, in the introduction to his Anguttara Nikaya translation:

Contrary to many of his contemporaries, the Buddha refused to indulge in speculative views irrelevant to the quest for release from suffering…he did not hesitate to criticize those views he considered detrimental to the spiritual life…He also strongly criticized the “hard determinist” view that our decisions are irrevocably caused by factors and forces outside ourselves. Against the determinist position that “there is no kamma, no deed, no energy,” he says that all the perfectly enlightened Buddhas teach “a doctrine of kamma, a doctrine of deeds, a doctrine of energy” (3:137). He insisted that there are such things as instigation, initiative, choice, and exertion, by reason of which people are responsible for their own destiny (6:38).

1 Like

I would disagree. Hard determinism still fits in with kamma, exertion, and initiative. Kamma is just how your intention effects your suffering. Exertion and intiative is the result of whoever you are in those moments. Your “choice” to exert yourself is where the illusion sits. That choice doesn’t come from “you,” as there is no “you,” it’s just uncontrollable processes running their course. I would say the buddha did not believe or teach free will, because there isn’t any. He only re-discovered the Dhamma, and disseminated it so that it could again become a cause and condition in people’s lives, bringing people to awakening. You don’t need free will for everything to be exactly the same. In fact, accepting its lack actually helps letting go of it all, especially the delusion of self.


If there is free will and you adopt a view of determinism you may end up missing many opportunities. If there is no free will and you believe in free will you have no choice in the matter. So why not run with free will?
On the no self thing- afaik Buddha did not teach there is no self in some ultimate way but rather that we should attend to or regard phenomena as not self because they are subject to change and thus stress when regarded as self - which is very different from saying there is no self.

Yea but its not so much a question of believing in free will vs hard determinism (two extremes)- it is more about the skillfulness of holding a particular view.

Of course the Buddha didn’t say that there was a real self making decisions/having free will. The fact that we can’t control the aggregates according to our wishes is used as proof that they are anatta - and yes, our desires are also conditioned. So I’m totally with you on all of this.

But when you take up this viewpoint of “hard determinism” you are in some sense objectifying reality, trying to pen it all up and say you have explained it all - without really explaining much of anything (details about how things actually function - ie kamma)? At least, that is my opinion.

I also think that Nibbana throws a monkey wrench into the calculus somewhere, because now we are talking about the unconditioned. If there IS the unconditioned, and one can actually experience/realize that - then this aspect of reality cannot be understood according to a totally deterministic view. Or at least it seems that way to me!

It isn’t that I’m failing to follow the logic of hard determinism - it is just that I assume if it was a skillful way to think about things, the Buddha would have explicitly said so. But there are different opinions about these things!

Ajahn Brahmali gave this wonderful talk on the topic earlier this year.


If this is the case then why is the first step in the gradual training sīla?

‘I am the owner of my kamma, heir to my kamma, born of my kamma, related to my kamma, abide supported by my kamma. Whatever kamma I shall do for good or for ill of that I will be the heir.’ this dhould be reflected upon again and again by one who has gone forth.

Dasadhamma sutta AN10.48


Thanks for posting this talk, Anagarika Pasanna. Watching it now; it’s making my Friday night. :slight_smile:


Totally, and to be clear, I am not arguing for hard determinism, only against free will. The difference can be subtle, but it is an important distinction.

Yes but that is clearly, at least in a way, figurative, seeing as though there is no one, no self, to be the owner of kamma. The uncontrollable aggregates are the owner of their kamma, but that isn’t you. That’s stressed over and over again throughout the texts. And if there is no self in the aggregates, then there is no control over them, and with no control, then no free will. The Buddha often says, if there was a self in the aggregates, then you could take whichever one of them it resides in and say “let it be like this.” But because you don’t have any control over any of them, then there is no self in any of them. And since everything you could possibly be is made up of the aggregates, therefore you have no control or free will over any aspect of what “you” are.


Just because the will isn’t free doesn’t mean our choices don’t matter. Otherwise there’s no reason to keep precepts.

These five khandas inherit the results of my previous actions. While I still take these 5 khandas to be a self (I’m not an arahant so I’m living under this delusion) then I need right view to condition the choices I do make. Right view conditions right intention, right intention conditions right action…



Buddhism is a religion predicated upon self-regulation. Willpower is required. It seems to me that the extent to which exercising willpower seems taxing or nearly effortless depends on how well you cultivate the whole path, perhaps especially right intention/motivation and right concentration. There is no doubt that the Buddha strongly encouraged people to use willpower, effort, striving, energy to attain the as yet unattained.

Arguments about determinism or not are pretty much pointless to buddhist practice. Probably best to just assent to compatibilism and get on with self-development. Once one is developed enough in the path, then it is possible that one will overcome all I-making and mine-making.

1 Like

If you look from that angle, it will seem determinism is right. If you look from another, it it will seem it is not. The problem here is the angle of looking. This is in my opinion what Buddha tried to say when asked about determinism.

Casuality does not imply determinism. Take for example online poker. Cards are distributed through a random generator program, one that is entirely conditioned by specific algorhitms. Tehnically there is absolutally nothing random about it, you can’t produce randomness through a computer program. And yet, the cards are shufffeled totally random. Statistically speaking, they are more randomly distributed than any human could ever do it. In all intents and purposes they are as random as randomness gets, despite the way this randomness is technically produced.

Does Dhammapada 277-279 suggest that the unconditioned too is not-self?

“All conditioned things are impermanent”—when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.

“All conditioned things are unsatisfactory”—when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.

“All things are not-self”—when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.

1 Like

Maybe there is no choice but to keep the 5 precepts because of the conditioning? I mean, working with the 5 precepts isn’t a chore is it? If you happen to have spent any time in contemplation, it’s just sort of obvious that it’s a good thing for “the all”.


And keeping 5 precepts, or more in my case, conditions non-regret. For one without regret no volition need be exerted: ‘Let joy arise in me.’ It is natural that joy arises in one without regret…

Thus, bhikkhus, one stage flows into the next stage, one stage fills up the next stage, for going from the near shore to the far shore.”

Our choice to keep precepts is conditioned by those we meet, past lives etc


It lies outside the domain for which the not self approach is to be utilized. As long as I am bound up in conditioned phenomena - this world of things - then there is a sense of self and other and the not self training is relevant. Once the unconditioned is realized ‘the world’ (of conditioned phenomena) ceases to exist and the issue of self/not self is no longer important. This is how I understand it. I am using my phone right now - otherwise I could add some sutta references.

The use of will, initiative and effort is all part of the dhamma- Right effort, for one. This is a way of conventionally talking about a bhikkhu [5 aggregates], putting for effort [5 aggregates] and keeping his sila [5 aggregates]. Note that it is impossible to communicate using ultimate ‘units’ of experience. It would not be possible to set for the ‘wheel in motion’ where the Buddha is the number one cause (kalyanamitta) for ‘us’, the effects if only ultimate reality language was used. ‘Pass the salt’ has to be enunciated in that same way, rather than saying ‘atoms, atoms, atoms’ just to bring a parallel simile from the realm of physics.

Causality explains very well, in my opinion, that there is not- self. Causality underlies impermanence, which in turn explains not-self.

Contemplating in this manner is 'appropriate contemplation (yonisomanasikara), as outlined in MN2. Starting the questions with ‘I’, as in ‘do I exist’ is counterproductive. The inquiry must begin elsewhere in territory of the ultimate reality. The Buddha begins with the meditative experience (EBT vipassana) of the aggregates (anattalakkhana sutta).

This is the wiping away the layers of ignorance (or avijja). Self view will be wiped away. Delusions of permanence and solidity will require (EBT) vipassana (however I wonder if such a appropriate contemplation might just be possible for that too). The Buddha’s graduated talk (anupubbiya sikkha) suggests the he might have led a kind of guided contemplation in this.

All this requires overcoming the hindrances- the mind has to be pure to penetrate into the truths. Mindfulness of breath really helps with this aspect, which is further helped by keeping the precepts (sila).

Oh, and too much inquiry fatigues the brain, -counterproductive.

with metta


Remember though, it’s not about whether determinism is true, but only whether we have free will. Determinism could be false through quantum randomness and yet we still don’t have free will.

1 Like

Yes, but even willpower is not free will. No matter how taxing it may be, the fact that we enact it is the result of causes and conditions, all of which are out of our control. We are constantly reacting in the only way our particular aggregates in that particular moment can. Sometimes that is to do nothing, sometimes that is to exert energy and willpower. Regardless, it is never the result of free will.

1 Like