An Update On Free Will and Mind


I have recently been in a couple of situations where free will (or lack thereof) has come up.

I know some people seem to be helped, more able to forgive and be compassionate, to release praise and blame, by embracing the view that conditioning and contingency determines all we do in life. A radical view of no free will at all, it is a story we tell ourselves, nothing more. Of course, they have to say that supposition is their conditioning and biologic predisposition (a biologic conditioning tempered by the environmental effects on biologic development), but that’s not a problem, just how it is.

Some others say:

What about responsibility? Well then, the counter is: conditioned, or just a social fiction.

What about compassion? The counter is: a biologic imperative perhaps (there is altruism in nature) or a delusion, more social conditioning.

I find it interesting that in reading Buddhist texts, at least in translation, I do not run into a specific use of that term, free will, though it is implied in that there is liberation, enlightenment, practice…

And we should ask: free of what? Free to choose without constraints? Sounds like an ego wanting to play God. Obviously, most of our existence does not embody a local/personal free will. Our activities are clearly often determined by our biologic propensities, including brain development, our social and psychological conditioning, and our environmental and social constraints (our opportunities and external limits).

But is that it? Buddhism, and for that matter many spiritual or religious teachings, have an agency implied, or why bother having teachings and practice? Why have terms like enlightenment or liberation?

In Buddhism there is karma, and even the Buddha had karma. Restraints and constraints, a life and a death in samsara. Granted there are Mahayana teachings that say the Buddha’s life and death, final illness and ageing, was just a game Buddha played, in essence, that we all play as we are part and parcel with Buddha Mind. Perhaps a similar teaching is found in other spiritual paths. I recall Yogananda saying something like God is having fun playing hide and seek (I paraphrase, and seem to remember it was couched in a female principle. The Mother was playing hide and seek. Someone can correct me)

It is Mind that has free will, liberation, and sets the constraints, not our limited perspective and ego. Or is that too dualistic? Where is the dividing line?

We certainly seem to have agency, will. We can change our body with exercise, break habits with effort, even change our brains with our brains, say in meditation, as is well demonstrated.

Who is it that makes these choices?

Are they real choices, or just a combination of genetic predisposition and conditioning, with the environment favoring one road over another road.

After all, Buddhism does teach that all composite things, all dharmas, all events and manifestations (which are ultimately events) are contingent. Dependent origination, cause and effect, cycles and karma.

Yet we still talk of enlightenment and practice and liberation, delusion and the idea that we can create new karma.

Maybe it just isn’t important how we frame it. Maybe this is too conceptual, getting trapped in words.

I’m with the Dalai Lama. Forget isms. Learn to give a shit. Can we do that?

While it is a common observation that people don’t often change in substantial, profound, foundational ways, some do.

My favorite example is not some Zen Master or the Dalai Lama or Yogananda. It is nitty gritty, street and here and now. It is Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles (look them up and get Father Gregory Boyle’s books; he walks the walk. Compassion at work. for decades. Donate. Please). Former gang bangers, some even murderers, baking bread with former mortal enemies. Raising families in a way they never experienced. Many fail. Some seem to thrive. Sure, maybe it is just another conditioning, but it sure doesn’t look like it or feel like it. But it is a demonstration of change despite the odds, despite the clear restraints. People don’t end up in gangs coming from mildly dysfunctional homes. These ae people who have been in hells most of us can’t imagine. And in Homeboy they find “radical kinship”, and some truly seem to thrive.

There are students who were brought up poor or even homeless, people trying to change their lives, who are now in college and professional schools. Organizations like Swipe Out Hunger founded by a former UCLA student, Rachel Sumekh, who needs to run for office (full disclosure I am on the board) help them eat. There are groups like Los Angeles Room and Board founded by a dynamic young man, Sam Prater. Or Students 4 Students, run by an engineer, Louis Tse who lived in his car while in grad school so he could start something to help homeless students. This are just a couple I know personally. These are people acting out of compassion, acting as if it mattered, that people have choice, can change, and aren’t totally constrained by how their lives have been and how their lives look. Introducing you to these three is arbitrary, just people I have some contact with. Of course. You likely have many examples. I just felt like showing them some love. My choice. My mandala. Of course there’s Doctors Without Borders, people who dedicate their lives to saving the world politically or with social or. environmental activism. Or who do their jobs helping people. Teachers like my daughter. Doctors like my former colleagues (I have retired). People who act as if.

Or just you and me, in this moment or that, when we make some effort, however small. When we chose to care about someone else, even a bit. Whether expected of us or not. But we do it.

OK maybe more delusion, more conditioning, but why put that set on limits on the universe? Is that just another story too?

So, I chose (!) to act as if. As if I have agency. As if compassion and responsibility and the precepts can make a difference in my life and the lives of those around me. As if there is delusion and clarity. As if when I fall, I can choose to pick myself up.

Maybe that’s just my conditioning, and certainly to a large degree it is. At least it is in part a function of the opportunities I have been afforded.

This is not to deny that free will, to the degree it might exist, is limited in our finite lives. For all of us. And that view can allow us to be more compassionate, as we are all in the same boat.

But the danger is that it becomes, as I have recently seen, an excuse for bad behavior, for poor effort. For not taking responsibility. For self-deception. For lethargy, inertia, not making the effort to make the world a kinder, safer, more livable place.

There is a rationale to that choice (!) of acting as if we have some modicum of agency, of choice, of what some call free will, besides a calculus of empirical usefulness. The way I see things, a core Zen teaching is that Mind is Buddha. Even philosophically, intellectually, non-dualistic idealism has an appeal to me (read Bernardo Kastrup). Mind is foundational, ultimately duality is an illusion if not delusion. Mind is making choices, the me/we are Mind doing that.

Is that not just a belief, another concept?

I suppose so. Let’s call it a working hypothesis.

But one I think, after all these years of exploring it, of whatever wee itsy bit of change, peace and insight this path has afforded me, still worth exploring.

That is, if you choose to!




Free Will and the Real Web



Your brain processes millions of bits of data each millisecond act without any conscious effort. Most brain generated activities don’t have even a whiff of free will involved.

Certainly much of what we do, even complex behaviors, is done on “automatic pilot.” An oft quoted example is when you find yourself at some location you meant to get to without being quite aware of  f the details of how you got there (a bit scary when driving was involved). Or consider  how you cobble together what seems to be a coherent scene from what are actually disparate and rapidly changing sensory inputs that your brain compares to prior experience (that is, conditioning). Continue reading