Musings on Free Will

I think it’s safe to say that this blog post won’t be the final word on the topic.

Logically, free will makes no sense. After all, what can exist without a cause? But if something has a cause, what is free about it?

In Buddhism, one of the kandhas is volition. Get that? Volition is a conditioned phenomena that we should never mistake from the self. So if volition is conditioned, what is free about it?

But there are two problems: one is, I feel like a have free will. What would it even mean to live as though you didn’t  have free will. Even if you could figure that out, living any particular way because you don’t have free will is pretty much a contradiction anyway.

From a Buddhist perspective, a world with no free will seems to me to fly in the face of kamma. How can there even be volition without free will.

One train of thought is to start reducing the scope of free will. For example: ok, we obviously don’t have complete free will. After all, we can’t flap our arms and fly just because we want to. Even in the realm of more realistic measures, I sometimes find that I can’t stick to a diet even though “I” want to. There’s even plausible scientific evidence that the conscious mind doesn’t really make decisions. Rather, the conscious mind only notices the decisions that are made and retroactively justifies them. I actually think that probably the most that we can really do is tack the mind toward noticing. But even this is a kind of limited free will.

For the Buddha, this wasn’t really an issue. Early Buddhism doesn’t go much in for idle philosophizing. Volition exists. It just isn’t our true self. Just like the body exists. It just isn’t our true self. Bodies ache. Brains generate thoughts. Volition results in kamma. It is volition that “tells” my body to take that step into toward the cushion (or toward the bar or wherever). That’s just the way nature works. The spiritual life is coming to a deep understanding that none of those things are our SELF in any transcendent permanent sense.



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