Saturday, September 02, 2006

Nirvana Is Knowing There's No Free Will?

Regular readers of this blog, if there are any, probably know that I'm fascinated by the subject of "free will." If they know that, they also know that I don't believe in it. I realize that this puts me in relatively small company, but that doesn't necessarily make the majority right and the minority of which I'm a member wrong.

Another member of the minority is Dr. Susan Blackmore, who recently addressed the subject of free will on her website. This is what she wrote:

Neuroscience and meditation practice both seem to point to the uncomfortable conclusion that there is no persisting inner self that is the origin of creativity, the subject of our experiences, or the ultimate cause of our actions and decisions. In this case there can be no free will as it is usually conceived. Many people argue that life, law and society would be impossible without free will, or at least without an illusion of free will, but I disagree. We will explore what it is like to accept that “I” do not make the decisions.

I encountered this quote and more on free will in someone else's blog, in an entry titled Life Without Free Will. Here is an excerpt from that blog:

I am no expert on neuroscience. It is the kind of stuff that I like to read, but my faculties are weak and it’s hard to keep track of the arguments, let alone to grasp the complex geography of the brain. After all, the brain – when you start to poke around in it – is a complicated place. But without getting too technical, the problem with free will in relation to brain science is this: that there is no centre to the brain in some little homunculus or “will” could reside and from which it could direct operations. It’s not just that there’s no homunculus, no “mini-me”, inside pulling the levers and co-ordinating the whole show. Nor is it just that invoking such a homunculus leads us into infinite regress (who pulls the levers in the homunculus’s mind?). It’s also that there is nowhere for such a homunculus to sit. From what we now know of the brain, we can do quite well without homunculi. They add nothing to our understanding...I have been sceptical of the idea of free will for some time...So, I’ve been trying to put this into practice, seeing what it is like to lay free will to one side, to live without free will.

I left the following comment:

I have never believed in free will. To me, “free will” means the capacity to choose otherwise. That is, if one had two or more options to choose between, one could have chosen another option than what one did under the same precise set of circumstances.

I don’t believe that one could have done this, because I believe that we and our choices are manifestations of what Alan Watts called an “organism-environment field.” That is, “we” are a transaction of physical, biological, psychological, social, cultural, and spiritual factors that ultimately encompass the entire past and present universe. Thus, “our” choices are ultimately the choices of the unified totality of physical, biological, psychological, social, cultural, and spiritual existence and could not be other than what necessarily issues from that unified totality at any given moment. There is no magical “homunculus” or agency within each of us as individuals that is independent and can choose independently of this unified totality.

Alan Watts went on to suggest that the Buddhist nirvana is actually a concrete realization of this. I’m not sure I recall his exact words, but they were very close to the following: Nirvana is a radical transformation of how it feels to be alive. It feels as if everything were myself, or as if everything—including my thoughts and feelings—were happening of itself. There are still efforts, choices, and decisions, but not the sense that “I” make them. They arise of themselves in relation to circumstances.

In other words, nirvana is the concrete realization of “no free will.” It is also the concrete realization of “no determinism.” For in order for something to be determined, it must be determined by something OUTSIDE itself. But if there is ultimately nothing outside us to force us to choose what we do, then we are no more determined to make the choices we do than we are free to make them. They simply “arise of themselves in relation to circumstances.”

I think Watts' description of nirvana is a wonderful way of understanding the real nature of self and will, and I often use it as a kind of meditation on egolessness and on what it is to "live without free will."


Counter Mag said...


Tom said...

Some of the arguments that Blackmore, you, and Will of thinkBuddha make seem unnecessary to me.

My arm is resting on the table. I 'will it' to rise, for a finger to be set straight, for an elbow to bend, for the fingertip to touch my nose.

This wouldn't have happened otherwise unless I had willed it. [Certainly, so it seems.]

I have no problem with an invisible actor or an agency outside (though I don't really accept the idea that comes accross from this terminology that physical things are 'normal' and this otherness is paranormal, and, thus, to most people unreal or delusional). I am not so quick to accept a sterile physicalist universe as being everything.

I am not sure how something other than or intermediate to 'free will' and 'determinism' operates.

And I don't see the need to rule out 'free will' so long as we are agreed that the universe is not a cold machine. [And from your Watts cosmology and view, you are not accepting a physicalist belief system.]

If, in Nirvana, choices and decisions are still occuring, HOW are decision-points reached, and why would they need to be reached unless 'free will' of some description is being employed?

Nagarjuna said...

Tom, you say you "will" your arm to rise. I don't disagree. But what I'm suggesting is that the "you" who does the willing and the willing itself are inevitable manifestations of a unified universe with interdependent physical, biological, psychological, social, cultural, and spiritual "dimensions." In other words, when someone wills something, it's appropriate to ask why and how he willed it. And the more thoroughly we seek to answer those questions, the more thoroughly we must understand the entire Wilberian Kosmos, past and present. The willing is inseparable from the whole shebang and does not independently--i.e., freely--arise from some "skin-encapsulated" agency.

I think this is extremely important, because understanding it deeply may not only lead a person to nirvana; it may also help to lead humankind to practical wisdom with medical, ethical, legal, and other kinds of ramifications.

Tom said...


I will need to continue to ponder this whole issue, but for me, now, areas of 'weakness' in your argument arise here:

1. "inevitability" -- We know from particle physics that there is no uninteruptable chain reaction of cause and effect. God does play dice -- it seems. Einstein was wrong. See Consciousness and Quantum Theory.

2. The agency that wills my arm to rise isn't necessarily skin-encapsuled. -- I reject the physicalist assumption necessarily at the root of this. This is the strawman, here. The alternative to Wilber's Kosmos/Cosmos isn't only physicalism.

So, on one level, there is no particular reason to believe that the conscious sense that *I* cause my arm to rise is wrong. Why, using evidence from an outside agency -- of some sort -- should we overrule what we experience to be true? The explanation should be secondary to the experience, which is primary.

Plus, I don't know how it is helpful to have this "whole shebang" -- an encapsuled cosmos/kosmos -- where agency can arise. And if there is not an agency there, then there must be a mechanism. So, I don't see how you escape problems of explanation with this Wilberian Whole.

Nagarjuna said...

Tom, thank you for your thoughtful comments. I'd like to briefly address them.

First, I don't see that randomness at the quantum level makes quantum and larger events non-inevitable. It seems to me that a given event is the inevitable effect of its concatenation of random and non-random causes.

Second, if one believes in independent or free agency, it seems to me that one is likely to see it as "skin-encapsulated" in the sense that it arises from a brain inside the body or from mental processes generated by that brain.

Third, I agree with you that it isn't necessarily a mistake to think that "I" cause my arm to rise, if one understands the "I" to be an "organism-environment field" that ultimately encompasses the Kosmos. On the other hand, as I suggested in a new comment on the thinkBuddha site and to which I see that you've already responded, one might dispense with a superfluous sense of "I" causing the arm to rise and simply see it in terms of the arm rising "in relation to circumstances." The sense of "lightness" resulting from this perspective may not, as you point out, reduce the number of decisions we must make or lessen their complexity, but it may very well lessen the burdensomeness of making those decisions and be a more realistic sense of what is actually going on in the making of those decisions or choices.

Finally, I think that agency/mechanism may be a false dichotomy, and that the truth of how choices are made transcends it. That is, it is neither a "free" and independent "agency" making the choice, nor a robotic "mechanism". It is a unified totality of being that defies categorization. Nevertheless, dispensing with the false notion of free agency may incline scientists, philosophers, and the rest of us to look more deeply into the "dependent origination" of all events, including human acts, and perhaps find more effective ways to foster desirable or wholesome acts and reduce the frequency and severity of harmful ones, and, at the very least, improve the quality of our emotional reactions to undesirable or harmful acts.

In other words, we might be less apt to ineffectually blame and despise people for acts they couldn't help but commit under the circumstances and be more inclined to come to a better understanding of what those circumstances were and how they can be altered to give rise to more desirable acts, and we won't be as upset or consumed by other non-productive emotions in the wake of harmful acts that are committted.

Tom said...


First, I believe that if we let randomness in the door, then determinism is eliminated and the future is open. There is then the butterfly's wing effect such that puny random changes escalate to mamouth changes in the world.

But I am open to consider how this would not be the case. I suppose a truly "unified totality of being" would override everything.

The 'problems/advantages' of this unified totality of being are interesting. You allude at the end of your comment that all blame is excusable if there is a certain inevitability of people's actions. As well, all responsibility is excused.

I believe in "One Mind," but I see it as each of us being the Whole -- at core, no different one from the other. Still, I see us as having real choices and responsibilities -- an ability to will changes and cause events that absent our will would not happen.

Nagarjuna said...

Tom, I don't characterize my position as "determinism," because, as I explained previously, determinism implies one thing being forced by something outside it to do what it does, when I don't believe that there is ultimately anything "outside" anything else. As Alan Watts used to say, every thing is ultimately a "think." That is, it's an illusory thing separated in our minds but not in reality from the rest of the Kosmos.

But I am less reluctant to characterize my view of will as "inevitablism." That is, I believe that every choice we make is inevitable given the precise time and circumstances it occurred. In other words, it arises in relation to a combination of random and nonrandom circumstances, and could not be other than it is given that precise combination. It is not "free" in the sense that it could have turned out any other way than it did at the time.

Does this mean we are not responsible for our actions? Not if by "responsible" you mean chosing to do what you do. But it does mean we aren't responsible in the sense that we could have chosen otherwise and are therefore blameworthy for chosing to do wrong.

Tom, I agree with you and with Watts that there "are still efforts, choices, and decisions." To say that I don't believe in free choice doesn't mean that I don't believe in choice. But I believe in choice that arises inevitably from a causal matrix of interdependent Kosmic conditions. And it seems to me that the Buddhist doctrine of "dependent origination" or, as Thich Nhat Hanh calls it, "interbeing" is essentially the same idea that I'm expressing.