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Free will is one of the most fascinating and likely the most unsolvable issues in Western philosophy. I say “Western” philosophy because it doesn’t seem to have been such a hotly contested issue in Buddhism or other Asian philosophies that I have studied.

The central issue at hand tends to be: do we have it? If so, how? And if not, what does this mean for our ideas about ethics?

A Naïve Beginning

A naïve account of free will generally asserts that yes, we do have free will. I want to go eat, so I do. I want to build a shed, so I do. And so on. Everything comes down to our choices.

In this view, people who do bad things, such as breaking the law, deserve to be punished.

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They chose to speed or to use illegal drugs, society has decided that these are punishable acts, so these people in a sense chose to put themselves in a position of being punished.

Even a tough case, in which a person is attacked and fights back against an aggressor might be worthy of punishment according to this. Ethical choices revolve around trying to make the best decision one can and accepting the consequences that might follow.

Enter the Determinist

The theory of determinism is quite popular today among scientifically-minded people, but the theory is as old as the debate itself. According to determinism, everything in the universe follows pre-determined paths. Even humans, despite our complexity, are pre-determined in this way.

A common metaphor is of billiard balls on a table. An opening shot that scatters the balls might look like the work of some divine will or of pure chaos, with balls rolling in seemingly incoherent directions. But the physicist and mathematician would instead reduce every movement on the table to forces such as velocity, momentum, drag, and friction. For them, every ball’s future motion could be calculated and charted even before the player hits the cue ball.

Similarly, determinists say that our own actions, even those that seem to be chosen by a free will or to be simply random, are completely pre-determined by outside causes and law-like structures. According to this theory, a “want” such as “my wanting to eat” is entirely superfluous and unnecessary. A better explanation is simply that I, as a mammal, happen to have lowering blood sugar at certain parts of the day and an empty stomach. These send signals to the brain that suggest it’s time to put nutrients into my mouth.

We could ask, do dogs also “want” to eat? How about ants? What about bacteria?

For a determinist, the answer is always a clear, “no.”

Enter the Compatibilist

A third way to deal with this problem is to say that both approaches above are right. Yes, we have freedom. And yes, we live in a deterministic world. For the compatibilist, the emphasis of the debate switches to ask, “where in a deterministic world might we reasonably talk about freedom?” Here, there might be a spectrum of freedom, with the freedom of a brick or a simple computer program at one end (no obvious freedom there) to the freedom you or I might experience when trying to make a difficult life decision.

In recent years, I’ve made several big life decisions, from getting engaged and married to moving to Hong Kong for a job and deciding to have a child. And then deciding to move back to Missoula, Montana with my family in the middle of a pandemic. And finally, buying a house in the middle of record-breaking price increases. All of that in the last 4 years. And probably a thing or two that I’ve left out.

In any case, these big life decisions in which hours upon hours were spent considering the merits and potential downfalls from each potential decision. A compatibilist would say that in the midst of all of the deterministic factors around me, the very act of reasoning through them opened a tiny gap of freedom. In that gap of freedom is where I made my decision and as it was freely made, I am responsible for it. Even if someone were to say that the deterministic factors alone could have and should have led me to that decision, I still made it myself.

A Kantian Conclusion

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I’ll write some time in the future about the Buddha’s account of freedom and determinism, because I find it interesting. But it was never quite such a difficult issue for the Buddha or future Buddhists as it has been for Western philosophers.

My favorite Western philosopher is Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804). In many ways he was the great synthesizer of the Western tradition up to his life. And in many ways everything since has been built on interpretations of his work.

His take on free will was relatively ingenious. He agreed with the determinists in two ways. First, everything in the world that we can observe, from atoms to planets, seems to follow deterministic laws. And we’re no different. We seem to do the same. He also agreed with determinists that we cannot know that we are free. Like a dog chasing its own tale, any account of our freedom can be explained away by determinism.

However, he noted that the very act of consciousness does separate us from our observed world—it creates that gap in every moment where freedom might arise. And if we want our moral intuitions to make sense, and he thinks we do, we must act as if we have freedom. Again, we cannot know that we are free, and we and everything in the world around us are determined. But within all of that, we must believe that we are free in order for our sense of morality to hold true.

Without freedom, he argues, morality is gone. We cannot be praised for our heroic acts. And we cannot be blamed for any of our misdeeds. We cannot hope for reward if our good deeds lead only to suffering.

These are just a few approaches to the problem of free will. I find it helpful to wrestle with them and the idea from time to time, as we can find ourselves bounced around the world like a billiard ball one moment and in an abyss of apparent total freedom the next. The reality is usually somewhere in the middle and that alone can sometimes give peace, as we recognize that we’re responsible for our actions but we’re also heavily determined by the world around us.

Default Alt Tag for this pageJustin Whitaker, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in Buddhist ethics from the University of London. He has given lectures, and taught Buddhist studies and Philosophy at Oxford University, the University of Hong Kong, the University of Montana, and at Antioch University’s intensive study-abroad program in India. A certified meditation teacher, he is a regular contributor to Patheos.com, and Senior Correspondent for Buddhistdoor Global. He lives in Missoula with his family.