Interview with Richard Gombrich


Thanks for the link. And as a disclaimer, the framing of free will as a metaphysical issue in my comment below was before I read this essay!


Hi Michael, thanks for your message. Yes I had read about this experiment in Ajahn Brahm’s book but have not read Mind time (yet). The one thing I am not clear about is that there seems to be the assumption in this work that the decision to act is taken by the brain, ie that volitions and consciosness originate in biological processes in the physical brain. If that is the case, this would obviously contradict Buddhist ideas. Though I imagine these results can still be reconciled with a model of the brain as a ‘receiver’ of consciousness, like that propounded by the book Irreducible mind, which would be consistent with Buddhism. In this case the ‘readiness potential’ would probably mean that the brain ‘receives’ a volition to flex the arm which at that time is in the mind but is unconsciouos (if that makes sense).


Dear Ajahn, thank you for this article. Yes, this is the understanding that I had reached too on this subject, and indeed I had been helped by my study of Schopenhauer (who is quoted in the article) and of his followers. With metta Stefano


Hi Stef,

Yes, I think you can put it that way. According to Libet the volition to flex the arm is unconscious, it happens 0.5sec before becoming conscious of it. But the important aspect in my view is that if one is paying attention, within the 0.5sec time frame there is time enough to abort flexing the arm. While if there is no attention the “automatic pilot” will take over.


Dear Bhante,

I understand and agree with what you are saying. Free will is a bad choice of words.

Maybe a better approach is the difference between a conscious and unconscious decision or choice. Although both are conditioned I would prefer to have a conscious choice than to be guided by the unconscious.

For example, If I decide to take up the 5 precepts to train the mind, the training can only be fulfilled if the mind reactions to sensory stimuli are conscious. But according to Libet reactions to sensory stimuli are unconscious and a way to get a grip on that process is through attention.


Hi Michael yes I see your point I think: it’s an example of how in more general stuations with mindfulness we can chose between a series of possible actions (or non action), whereas with little mindfulness we act ‘on automatic pilot’ as you say. Stef


Dear all, in the interview it is mentioned that Ajahn Brahm and Prof. Gombrich were going to have a debate in March. I believe a report is found here.
By the way does anyone know if there’s a video on this?!
With metta


Hi stef / dhammarak,

I’m confused now. Surely the ‘mindfulness’ and the ‘decision’ to abort flexing the arm are also conditioned responses, so in a sense, they are ‘on automatic pilot’ also?


Hi Stu,
yes, I agree with you. As far as I understand, when we develop more mindfulness and are able to take alternative action we are doing that because of certain conditions, and so in this sense we are also determined and we had no choice but to do so.
But this is not contradictory with the fact that in practice new possibilities of action (or of abstaining from certain actions) arise when we become mindful. And in the end my understanding is that what is important in practice is not whether we have free will or not, but whether the right conditions arise for us to act in a way which is conducive to more wholesome states.
With metta


Very interesting topic, even 20 something month down the line.

I was researching Sutta Central for free will following a hint by Ajahn Brahm on a recent Sutta class (on Dr Libet) and his interesting twist on this - that there is no free will, but that there is free won’t.

I like the fact that we create today the conditions for our future choices.

Which, if I am not mistaken is the idea of kamma?


The conscious effort I make everyday to follow the five precepts are creating the conditions for me exercise my “free won’t” in the future.

Creating the mental habit of considering the motivations behind a thought / intention and screening it by the potential outcome (wholesome -> let’s go/ unwholesome -> should I really do that? May be not, let’s wait 5 minutes…) is good conditioning.

Or to repeat @brahmali - this is the good brain washing ^_^.