Free will is “the unimpeded capacity to choose between different possible courses of action.” We tend to believe that everyone has free will all the time, except under certain exceptional conditions, such as being hypnotized, or having a mental illness. I’m going to argue, however, that we don’t have free will, and that this doesn’t matter, because free will is not a Buddhist concept.
Free will is an important concept to us. Moral philosophers, religious teachers, and politicians have pointed to it as essential for personal morality as well as the flourishing of civilization. For example, Kant said “a free will and a will under moral laws is one and the same” and that if “freedom of the will is presupposed, morality together with its principle follows from it.” And Barack Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope, that American values are “rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will.”
The opposite of free will is determinism, which means that we’re wholly conditioned and aren’t responsible for our actions, even if we think we are. Determinism is a bit of a scary concept.
We believe that if we don’t have free will, life is deterministic. And if that’s the case, we’re less than fully human. If life is deterministic we’re not able to take responsibility for our lives, but are living in a purely conditioned way, like robots.
Problems with the concept of free will
The problem is that the concept of free will doesn’t seem to match up with how things actually are. For example, the American neuroscientist Benjamin Libet did an experiment a long time ago. He asked people to perform a certain action, like pressing a button, at random times of their own choosing. The important thing was that they were to do this action as soon as they thought of it.
Libet used EEG to monitor subjects’ brains as they did this experiment and found that there was a burst of activity initiating the pressing of the button. This took place something like three tenths of a second before the participants had their first awareness of any conscious will to act.
So that’s a challenge for the idea of free will, because free will is the experience of choosing. But what Libet saw was that something that was not experienced consciously was pushing people to make a choice. It’s a bit like asking someone to jump into a swimming pool at a random time, but behind them some hidden person is actually pushing them in. What seems to happen is that just after the person has been pushed, they think, “OK, I’ve just decided to jump.”
As observers to this event, we can see that the person who thinks they decided to jump didn’t actually jump. They were pushed. Which means that they only thought they decided to leap. Which means that they only thought they had free will.
Another more recent experiment, using more sophisticated MRI equipment, asked people to perform an action with either their right or left hand. In this case it was possible to see activity taking place a full five to six seconds before the action was taken. This activity allowed the scientists to predict, with a high degree of accuracy, which decision would be taken. So that’s even more challenging.
You might want to imagine the decision-making process as being like a whole line of hidden people behind the person by the pool. There’s a whole chain of shoves, with someone at the back of the line creating a domino effect, until eventually the person standing at the edge falls into the pool, saying, “OK, I just decided to jump in!”
This doesn’t leave much room for the conventional understanding of free will, which involves conscious choice. And since free will is seen as crucial to morality, this is very jarring.
Why the free will concept is so cherished
I gather that the concept of free will arose as part of Christian thinking. In that model, God put us on earth, and will ultimately judge us based on what we do here. For example we’ll be judged based on whether we accept or reject the existence of God, and on whether we follow his will.
Imagine a God demanding that we make certain decisions and punishing us (for eternity) for failing to do so. And imagine that he’d created us without free will. Such a model would be cruel and arbitrary.
Anyone believing that God wants us to make choices pretty much has to believe in free will.
Free will is not a Buddhist concept
Now, Buddhism doesn’t talk about free will.
So what does Buddhism talk about? Well, Buddhism’s certainly not deterministic. The essence of Buddhist practice is that we are able to make choices. For example, the very first chapter of the Dhammapada, a very influential Buddhist text, is called the twin verses, or “The Pairs,” because most of the verses are, as you’d expect, in pairs. Each pair presents a choice: Do this, and you’ll suffer. Do that and you’ll be happy. Buddhism’s entire ethical system revolves around making choices between what is unskillful (what causes suffering), and what is skillful (what brings freedom from suffering).
Aren’t the ability to choose and free will the same thing? Well, no. The freedom to chose is not the same as “free will.”
Buddhism talks about conditionality. Everything arises in dependence upon something else. What arises is dependent on what existed just before. Choices arise dependent on what existed at the time of choosing. And so our choosing is never unconstrained. If “will” exists, it can never be entirely free.
The Buddha pointed out that it doesn’t work to say, “Let my consciousness be thus” and expect that to happen. You can certainly have that thought — for example, “I choose to be happy right now, and to stay that way for the rest of my life” — but it won’t work. Being happy forever is not an option available to you, because your mind is conditioned, and the conditions affecting your happiness can never be entirely under your control.
You might be able to make choices that affect your well-being in a positive way, but you’re always choosing from a limited menu. You can’t meaningfully decide to be happy, but you can make choices that nudge your mind in the direction of happiness. You can choose to do things that leave you feeling less unhappy, or maybe even just a little happier. You might, for example, choose to drop a hateful thought, or choose to relax your body, or you might choose to cultivate a loving thought. These things all make a difference. But the menu might not, at any given time, even include the option, “be happy.”
This clearly isn’t teaching determinism. It’s saying that although we can choose, we can only choose from a limited menu. Free will is not a Buddhist concept.
Having chosen, we change the conditions that are present for the next choices we make. That’s important, as we’ll see in a moment.
We have a limited capacity to choose
Often, it’s not just that we don’t have many options to choose from, but that sometimes it’s hard even to make a choice. We might not recognize that we’re able to drop one thought, to relax the body, or to cultivate another thought. At certain times we might lack mindfulness and not even realize that options are available. At those times we really are like automata.
To make a choice requires mindfulness. Choosing requires that we stand back from our own mind and see the choices available to us.
Mindfulness might allow us to recognize, for example, that we’re acting out of anger, and to see that the possibility of being kind or patient is also open to us. And if we see that those options exist, and that they have different outcomes — one that brings more conflict and misery, and another that brings more peace and happiness — maybe we can make that choice.
But sometimes we’re not mindful. Our conditioning can be so strong, and our emotions so powerful, that we aren’t able to stand back. We’re just swept along by a tide of emotion. The conditions that allow us to choose just aren’t there.
When we are mindful, it’s a very precious thing. It’s then that we have choice. We can choose not to do things that will make us and others unhappy in the long-term, and we can choose to do things that are for the long-term happiness and well-being of ourselves and others.
If we keep making these kinds of choices, we change the pathways in our brains, which creates long-term changes in how we act. We become kinder and less reactive, for example. This spiritual work is the real meaning of the word “karma,” which in fact simply means “work” or “action.” Karma is action that changes who we are, for better or for worse.
Mindfulness gives us some wiggle-room amongst all the constraints of conditioning that hem us in and restrict our freedom. And by exercising mindfulness and reducing our reactivity we’re loosening those constraints. We’re using our wiggle-room to create more wiggle-room.
Choosing is never conscious
Libet showed that we only think we make conscious choices. Choices are made, or they begin to be made, up to five or six seconds before we are consciously aware of them.
There’s a part of our mind that, when decisions (say, to jump in the pool) erupt into conscious awareness, immediately says, “I decided to do that.” I call this part of the mind “the plagiarist” because it’s trying to take the credit for things it didn’t do. The plagiarist’s voice is what we take to be the voice of the self. We’ve been hearing that voice our whole lives, and we automatically believe it. This is the reason we believe that decisions that are made unconsciously are actually conscious decisions. And this is why we believe we have a self that is consciously making choices.
That decisions happen unconsciously is not a problem for Buddhism. In fact it’s something that Buddhism is happy to accept. Indeed, tecognizing that the plagiarist is deluded, and that there is no “self” making decisions is a key insight in Buddhist practice.
As long as choice happens, it doesn’t matter that decisions start unconsciously, long before they erupt into conscious awareness. As I’ve said, that’s how all decisions happen.
And it doesn’t matter that our decision-making is conditioned and not entirely free. That’s just how things are. Everything is conditioned.
The important thing is that the decisions that are made take into account more and more our long-term happiness and well-being. That is, it’s important that wise decisions happen — decisions that widen the degree of wiggle-room we have for making further wise decisions.
So to come back to very ordinary experiences — we keep catching ourselves (as long as mindfulness is present) reacting with states such as anger and anxiety. We keep recognizing that those ways of being create pain. We keep letting go of angry and anxious ways of thinking and behaving, and instead seek love and calmness. And we keep recognizing that the result of doing this is that we become happier.
Do this, and you’ll suffer. Do that and you’ll be happy.
And in seeing the two sets of consequences available to us — painful or pleasant — we give mindfulness an incentive to make an appearance.
Keep doing this over and over again, and we become more free, and happier.
But what’s happening isn’t the result of decisions being consciously made. Our belief that decisions are consciously made is a delusion. And what’s happening is not “a self” taking action. Not only is there no free will, but there’s no self to have free will.
Instead choices are making themselves. And if this happens with the awareness, “Do this, and you’ll suffer. Do that and you’ll be happy,” then we find that, more and more, skillful actions result.
The plagiarist is very convincing, though. It’s not easy to see through its lies. And again, that doesn’t matter. At first all we want to happen is that we make choices that liberate. Let go of anger, and cultivate love, and you’ll be happier and freer to make further skillful choices in the future. If the plagiarist keeps saying, “I did that,” then that’s a separate problem we can tackle later. (In fact, right now that probably doesn’t even seem like a problem.)
For now, just keep valuing mindfulness and the freedom to choose that it affords us.
This article was originally written for supporters of Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative. Supporters of Wildmind get access to more than 30 online courses I’ve developed, as well as other articles and guided meditations.