"if this exists, that exists" etc


Sorry to interrupt, while waiting for Bhante to respond…
Just dipping a toe in the water, :foot: - well maybe a whole foot ! :sweat_smile:

This issue of agency and choice making, occupied my thinking quite a bit, in my old professional capacity.

Perhaps the process of choice making involves 2 factors. 1) a choice between options and 2) the desire or motivation to engage in choosing.

Both of these factors are determined by perhaps simultaneous but somewhat discrete causes and conditions.

Like the difference between craving and volition - both necessary for the process of making a choice. In the end perhaps it is the confluence of these things (causes) which leads to the choice being made.

Perhaps, as in the case of DO/DL, it is the dismantling of the chain that allows disengagement from the process of Samsara, ie (no-one) making choices about (no-things) ??

So the reversal might be, ‘(some-one) making choices about( some-things)’.

In the case for free will in the car driving example, it would look like this (some-one Driver) making choices about (no-things, No laws or police exist)



I understand these to describe the two main modes of conditionality in dependent origination:
( 1 ) synchronous: while one state / thing / process is present, then so is another;
( 2 ) sequential: one state / thing / process causes another.


It was fascinating being in traffic in India. Everybody is driving as fast as they can aware of everybody else. There is an exuberant lawless chaos that somehow perfectly unfolds into rational action simply through that common shared awareness that fills the Indian street. You can see this in YouTube videos. It is quite amazing.

Visiting India for a wedding, we thought we would absolutely die crossing a street in Delhi. There are no pedestrian walk signs. People jaywalk through cows across multi-lane thoroughfares stepping over median barriers. Crossing safely in Delhi requires a firm, yet gentle declaration of needful intent as well as a relinquishing of individual presumption to the shared awareness of all moving in the street. Choice wasn’t involved. Instead, it was awareness that indicated the path and time of passage.

Ignorant of that, we initially floundered in choices about whether to stay in the hotel till traffic died down (it never did) or whether to hire a tuk-tuk (which tuk-tuk?) to cross the street. Etc. Once we understood the flow of the street, choices disappeared and simple awareness guided us to our destination. Freedom emerged. And it emerged along the lines described in SN12.23. Very peculiar, that.


Bhante, what about moral agency, isn’t that what kamma is all about? Couldn’t it also be said that not having freedom of choice is incompatible with kamma theory and therefore incompatible with Buddhism?

What separates what you said about no free will in your post above from the theories of Makkhali Gosala and the Ājīvikas?


To me, (1) describes kamma and the cessation of (2) is the objective of the Noble Eightfold Path (the path that leads to no more kamma).


The difference is that the determinism of Makkhali Gosala and the Ājīvikas excluded intention as a conditioning phenomenon. In other words, according to their view, intention has no effect on our saṃsāric course. This is like fate. Your future is determined, and is independent of what you do.

In Buddhism intention obviously has an effect; this is what kamma is all about. The question is whether that intention is governed by a free will, by other conditions, or by a mix of the two. My argument is that although intention matters - it does affect outcomes - there is no scope for free will.


Free will requires a person or a Self.

Intention can arise automatically. Door bell rings, and the head turns in that direction. Sound is the cause, intention to turn the head is the effect, which then becomes the cause for the action of turning the head.


Thank you for articulating this point on free will. I’ve started to suspect that the true choices open to us along the path are really the identity vs. non-identiy choices, not the inconsequential tomatoh/tomaytoe choices. In other words, as we progress on the path, we can choose to increase our ethical awareness by letting go of rigid identity views. And that as ignorance disappears, so do choices. It’s oddly fitting that the “free will” of identity might be limited to the choice of relinquishing that very identity.

1.11.119 Four prejudices: making decisions prejudiced by favoritism, hostility, stupidity, and cowardice


While we wait for Ayya Sujato’s response, I’ll continue treading into this philosophical quagmire.

In contemporary philosophical metaphysics, there’s apparently a distinction between fatalism and “hard” determinism: fatalism being the view that the course of events could not have been otherwise, (the same sequence of events are weaved into the fabric of time by the Fates/Moerae or “that’s just the way it is” which seems to be the Ājīvika position as far as we have any record of them); “hard determinism” on the other hand being the view that although events could have been otherwise they are deterministic (and the variables that allow for events to be otherwise being something like randomness, etc.). “Softer” forms of determinism allow for some freedom.

I guess for me, the question that arises while reading your response is if intentions are conditioned by something preceding them in a causal chain: then does your future being determined by what you do or not really matter? Either way, it’s determined.

It’s not clear here whether you are saying intention is governed by:
a) free will
b) conditions
c) some mix of (a) and (b)

I’d assume, perhaps incorrectly, that you are arguing for (b).

In as much as intention could matter, it seems to me that it would have to be of the form “could have been otherwise”. In other words, I could have been angry (making negative mental kamma) but I chose to be kind (making positive mental kamma), or vice versa, and then verbal and physical kamma flow from those intentions. It seems to me that is what we mean by choice, and in order for it to be a choice at all it must be free. It must’ve could’ve been otherwise.


Yes, either way it’s determined. But the difference is still significant. If intention is irrelevant for certain outcomes - say whether you reach awakening or not - you are unlikely to make any effort to get there. If, however, you know that your intention and effort matter, you are likely to do more to achieve the desired result. The knowledge or belief that intention matters will be a conditioning factor that affects your progress to awakening.

Well, I would say it could have been otherwise, but only if the conditioning factors had been slightly different. Given a certain set of conditioning factors, the resultant choice can in principle be predicted.

Whether the correct word is “choice” is really a semantic question. It may be, as you suggest, that “choice” implies free will, in which case it would be an inappropriate word in Buddhist translation, or at least that’s my view.

As for the feeling of choice that most people have, this is clearly largely an illusion. In fact, I would say it’s completely an illusion.


Except for the choice to let go of choices. Although one might well argue that even that choice is conditioned by sufficient suffering as a vital condition for faith.


Is it? It’s not my point. By introducing this, you are front-loading a strong dependency on acceptance of the truth of not-self. I happen to share this acceptance, but it is a long hard road to get to that place.

Let me retrace my steps. I was not trying to make an argument about free will and determinism. I was trying to understand what the nature of causality is in light of DO, Nagarjuna, and Hume. It then struck me that the Humean argument is, it seems, cogent and surprisingly in agreement with that of the Buddha. A consequence of that, if it is true, is that there is no such thing as a “cause”: what we call a cause is merely a way of talking about the patterns we observe in nature.

Then I considered, what kinds of consequences might this have? And it occurred to me that if there is no such thing as cause, then the question of free will vs determinism is defunct, because all “laws of nature” are descriptive: nothing is determined and hence, nothing is free. There are only patterns that can be observed.

The concept of free will is revealed to be metaphysical bunkum, ultimately derived from godspeak. It is only in the context of a personal yet absolute god that the very idea of “free will” makes sense. God, indeed, can freely say “Let there be light!” He alone possesses the potential for free will, and only in his context does the idea make sense. However, God, sadly enough, lacks certain other qualities, notably that of existence.

Let me be clear, I don’t mean “free will” is bunkum, I mean the “concept of free will” is bunkum. I am not talking about the actual presence or absence of free will in the world, I am talking about using the word “free will” as if it had meaning.

To give an example from your discussion: if my thesis is correct, then I believe it follows that these two statements are identical in meaning:

The question is whether that intention is governed by fliggldibums, by wddyrhish, or by a mix of the two.

The only difference is that a term like “free will” has an emotional appeal, in the same way as a phrase like “the will of God”. Thus the debate is not about the facts; it’s about whether we position ourselves as emotional beings (free will!) or rational ones (determinism!). It is meaningful from a psychological point of view, but not a philosophical one.

This was, to me, a most amenable conclusion. Long ago I studied this subject at UWA under Michael Tooley, and I have always suspected that it was one of those issues where the problem was malformed. But I have never really known clearly how to formulate it. I think this is why I find the Humean thesis so compelling.

Now, if you reject my original thesis—and I don’t really expect anyone to accept it, to be honest—then of course you will reject this whole scenario. And you’re free to find other ways of discussing free will. But this way of addressing the problem of free will is, to me, powerful and satisfying, and follows quite relentlessly on from the basic thesis.


Sheer whimsy compelled this choiceless one to confirm that “free will” and “fliggldibums” have never been used in Bhante Sujato’s translations.


I haven’t looked at Free Will from a formal philosophical perspective, but have been more interested in the practical implication of what it means for humans.

From a psychological perspective, I’ve found it helpful to conceptualise “free will” as ‘informed choice’. ( added Importantly this removes the yes/no dichotomy and makes it a question of degree.) The aim in psychological interventions is to assist individuals to understand the choice making factors (information about options, assumptions, values, beliefs, past experience impact etc) in order to make an informed choice - not merely follow conditioning and limited knowledge :slight_smile:

Perhaps, from a Buddhist perspective, one could called this ‘non-deluded choice’ > as in the more awakened/enlightened is, in the comprehension of the world and causes and conditions, the closer one comes to being able to exercise free will. As such, an Arahant (for example) would be the closest to being able to operate with “free will” :smiley:


Thanks for fleshing it out. I think I have a better understanding now of what you are proposing. You are saying that the concepts of determinism and free will exist co-dependently, like night and day, or youth and old age. You are suggesting we leave them both behind. The new model is statistical. There is no absolute causality, simply because no such thing is observed in nature.

What remains unclear to me is how this model informs our understanding of Buddhist ideas such as dependent origination. It seems to follow from the idea of statistical relationships that we have to abandon seeing DO in terms of sufficient and necessary causality. If a relationship between two phenomena is statistical, then does it not follow that there can be no such things as a sufficient cause? And if there are no sufficient causes, then how are we to understand DO? Can’t you then have delusion (avijjā) without willed activities (saṅkhāras)? Am I missing something here?

So regardless of how we actually work, it feels like we have free will. Not only does it feel like it, but we are compelled to act upon that feeling. On the Buddhist path we make the best choices we can as if we had free will. To me this is the critical point, because it means the deeper philosophical points do not have much practical value.


There’s no such thing as “cause” at all, so yes.

As a description of a pattern of phenomena.

I’m not saying what you can have or can’t have anything. I’m saying that if you attribute this relation to a thing called a “cause”, then it’s up to you to show me that cause. Explain to me what it is, and demonstrate somehow that it actually exists. Because all I see is one thing happening and then another thing.

Consider it a case of Okkam’s razor. I doubt whether there is such a thing as a “cause”. So I require positive evidence for it. Lacking that, I assume it doesn’t exist.

What we can actually experience is patterns of phenomena. Things happen, and we make generalizations about those things in our minds. Those generalizations sometimes describe those patterns with a high degree of precision and reliability, so we assume that they must somehow exist “out there” in the real world. But it’s simply that the pattern is regular and our descriptions accurate.


It seems to me the Buddha meant DO to be an invariable pattern. If this is correct, it would be handy to have a term for it. “Cause” may be metaphysically misleading, but perhaps a better term than most in getting at the “invariable” part of the pattern.


Oh of course. It’s just that it has no more a specific metaphysical referent than does, say, a “self”. This was, it seems to me, one of Nagarjuna’s main points: that in Buddhist philosophy we realize that the “self” is not a real metaphysical entity, but we still tend to apply the same patterns of essentialist thought to the teachings of Buddhism. Hence, according to him, it is only when you realize there is no cause that you can understand dependent origination.

I wouldn’t go so far, but I do suspect that an over-adherence to a literalist reading of the idea of “cause” can get someone stuck in the letter of the teachings.


Bhante, what other way is there to think about what we call ‘cause’?


'cause we experience the vitally conditioned inevitably after experiencing the vital condition.
'cause the will freed by Right Freedom is simply Right Will without constraint, unbound by identity.

Why is that?

Just 'Cause.