Determinism and Free Will

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Determinism (niyativàda) is the belief that an individual’s destiny is fixed and that he or she must act accordingly. The Buddha said there are two types of determinism, (1) theistic determinism (issaranimmàna hetu) which claims that God knows and controls everything and thus has determined everything before it has happened and (2) kammic determinism (pubbekamma hetu) which says that everything we experience, pleasant, painful or neutral, is due to our kamma, that is, how we have acted in the past. According to the Buddha, both these ideas are not just false but pernicious also (Anguttara Nikaya 1. 173). Determinism means that the individual cannot choose one course of action over another, cannot make an effort to change anything and is not responsible for anything he or she does. Such a belief can only lead to irresponsibility - ‘Don’t blame me, it is the will of God,’ or inactivity - ‘What can I do? Its my past kamma.’

Free will (attakiriyavàda) is the ability of the individual to freely choose, without any extraneous influences, what course of action he or she will take. The idea of free will is usually contrasted with determinism. Buddhism does not teach that we have complete freedom or that we are determined, but that our will is conditioned or limited to a greater or lesser extent. Introspection will reveal to us that out ability to choose and act is often under the influence of and thus limited by our desires, our skill or lack of it, the power of circumstance, our health, the strength of our habits and convictions and numerous other factors. Psychology also tells us that our unconscious may subtly influence us without our knowledge. The purpose of much Buddhist training is to see and understand the factors that condition us and then gradually overcome them. This way we become more free and make better choices.

Some think that Buddhism cannot be in support of any free will due to the anatta doctrine or because Buddhism is mostly non-theistic. However, the Jains are also non-theistic and they believe in a full-fledged Atman / soul. In Buddhism there is karma, the fruits of karma, attaining nirvana, bhumis, etc and all this occurs through some will or volition.

  • In general, theistic religions are firmly in the free will camp.
  • Current scientific thinking / most scholars are firmly in the determinism camp.
  • The Dhamma is somewhere in the middle.

Actually, the Dhamma is more toward determinism. There is will / volition, but it is highly determined by our past kilesas, saṅkhāras, our conditioned consciousness, viññāna via paṭiccasamuppāda. The only way out of the determinism is by strong mindfulness and concentration, so that one (the aggregates; self-less conventional being) does not get controlled by those past kilesas and saṅkhāras. And this could explain why nearly all people do appear to be operating completely in a deterministic way, i.e. successful meditation, mindfulness, is not easy.

The aggregates are something like a computer -- garbage in, garbage out. The computer gets programmed with various information and this results in very specific outcomes / products. In the same way humans get exposed to certain information, environment, culture, upbringing in a certain country, religion, etc and their world view is subsequently quite predictable. There is a way out of the cycle (programming), but it isn't easy.