Free will in Buddhism - technically explained

There have been problems trying to explain free will in the buddhist context of conditionality and no-self. This topic is trying to explain that. Take for example the random generator machine at online poker.

  1. Everything is entirely conditioned. It’s logically not random at all. Look at it very strongly from this angle, contemplate it for a couple of minutes from this angle. It appears for it to be a logical impossibility for it to be random. It’s just not random from a logical point of view, period. How could something entirely conditioned by algorithms ever be random ?

  2. But… no matter how things might look from that angle, cards are handed out in a totally random way for the players. The player can not anticipate what card will hit in any way. And statistically, they are distributed as random as possible. It’s as random as a thing can get. In all intents and purposes, things are as random as any human could possibly shuffle the cards. They are as random as randomness can get in all intents and purposes.

From a point of view it looks one way, from another point of view it looks different. Just like a gray car might look black due to a tree above it covering it with his shadow. So what exactly is the tree in the case of the random generator ? What is that element that makes sense of all of this ? How is this appearent contradiction technically explained ?

Well, here is the technical explanation: It is like a pyramid of conditions, and a circle surounding the tip of the pyramid. The payer only has access to the tip of the pyramid. For him, there is just randomness at the tip of the pyramid that exists. That is all he has access to, that is all that exists. Only if he could have access to the whole pyramid, he would be able to anticipate what cards will be distributed and things will not be random anymore. Without this information, things are perfectly random at the top of the pyramid. That is what “randomness” means, nobody can argue that is not random. Not being able to anticipate the cards and the cards being statistically 100% random is the definition of randomness. It’s in all intents and purposes random, no matter what looking from another angle and following the logical line from another angle might suggest. That logic is correct but it is omitting information, making it incorrect.

Imagine a gray car that has a tree above it causing a shadow, making it look black. With a shadow on top of the car, the car is black now. Nobody can look at the car and say “it is actually gray because of logic, therefore what you are seeing in front of your eyes is gray not black” - that is not so. What I am seeing in front of my eyes is black, because of the added element of the shadow. The shadow existing and making the car black is part of logic. It is not logic saying “what you are seeing is actually gray because the car is really gray” - no, logic should be saying "what you are seeing now is black despite the car being gray, because of the element of the shadow that exists.

I am seeing black in front of my eyes = there is randomness
The car is actually gray in reality = this randomness is produced in a perfectly conditioned way

Both these statements are correct. The statement “you are seeing gray in front of your eyes” or “there is no randomness in online poker” are incorrect.

Now let’s take a look at free will. There are 2 analogies to give here first. One is the same with the car that might look gray from one side and gray from another. The second is with groups of people and political beliefs or commercial advertising. Looking at them individually, people look extremely distinct. Look at them from above, in terms of groups, and they look extremely similar and predictable. The mass can be totally predicted and anticipated, but individually they can not. There are 2 points of view from witch you can look and see different things. When it comes to free will:

  1. You can look at things while looking towards the past. By looking towards the past, everything looks perfectly deterministic. Just like the poker example, everything is conditioned. How could such a thing as randomness or, in our case ability to chose (due to existence of volition element) could possibly exist ? You can take any individual action, like writing this e-mail from example and start following the chain of conditions. By looking from this angle, things look totally deterministic. Also, if looked in terms of groups, again things look totally deterministic. But let’s look from another side:

  2. Looking towards the present, things don’t look deterministic at all. If the being desires to do effort, this will can overcome conditioning, he can overcome tendencies developed in the past that have an influence in the present. The volition element can overcome past conditioning. Due to the way things are arranged, there exist this ability at the present, same as the circle around the top of the pyramid exists in poker random generators. In all intents and purposes, this free will without a self and with everything being conditioned, is just as “free” and powerful as the free will that would exist with a self and without conditioning. In all intents and purposes, there is free will, things are not determined by the past.

This is why Buddha always answered the same thing when asked about free will. Every time, he directed the person to look towards the present. “If you want to rise your hand, can you do it ?”

How is this technically explained ? There is a little bubble that is formed due to conditions, conditions that are “horizontal conditions” not vertical, past conditions. Even if these “horizontal conditions” exist there due to past vertical conditions, they do exist and have a power. A power similar to the circle around the top of the pyramid in poker that makes randomness possible. A power similar to the shadow that makes the car be black. An added element. The fact that these horizontal conditions existence at that point in time is determined by the vertical ones does not make them vertical too, that would be a logical mistake. Therefore, things are perfectly covered by logic too, just like the poker example.

PS: If one has problems with laziness or regret, he will be inclined to believe in the determinism wrong view. His mind will lean in that direction. Just like an alcoholic or drug addict is inclined to say “alcohol/drugs are not that bad for me”. His opinion is influenced by that craving, if there would not be that problem he would have a normal opinion like any person walking down the street. I know from personal experience that laziness and regret are what is making the mind lean towards fatalism.

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 first thing that is necessary is to let go of the idea of ultimate guilt or responsibility. 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 just being the way she is (eternal) or for the conditions that brought her into being (beginning). No starting point for ultimate responsibility or guilt can be found.

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 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 did what he asked, in this case robbing the bank. Pragmatically speaking, it makes a huge difference whether or not she was acting out her own will and wishes or if she was forced by a bomb collar to do something she would otherwise not wish to do. Philosophical musings about the nature of the universe are beside the point. Why?

If she truly wished to commit the crime, then she needs to be reformed in order to become a productive member of society again. This is both to her benefit and to the benefit of society. In addition, society wishes to deter others from committing a similar crime. Finally, society also wishes to protect the savings of its members and prevent mob justice by angry mobs who want “justice”.

As it turns out, she is not in need of reform, there is no need to deter others from doing what she did, as asking people to die rather than rob a bank is too much to ask of anyone and she is not a danger to peoples savings. However, the man who put the collar around her neck is in dire need of reform.

Note that revenge is not a part of this scheme. The 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. This, however, does not remove the pragmatic need to reform him and protect society.

Free will as it is often viewed in these debates, as something other than a pragmatic look at choices, usually means that I did not have to make the choice I did. If we were to rewind time, I 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, ultimately or otherwise. 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 he just happened to make a bad choice. Does 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: By the way, I don’t actually think the universe is deterministic, but with regards to free will I don’t think it matters at all.