Latest post:

+Jules Tabak earlier today questioned Free Will: at any fixed moment in time, wouldn't we always (come to) make the same decision, based on our genetic predisposition and our life's experienc…
July 13th, 2012

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

+Jules Tabak earlier today questioned Free Will: at any fixed moment in time, wouldn't we always (come to) make the same decision, based on our genetic predisposition and our life's experiences? So what does that say about choice, are we as free as we think we are, or does our free choice only appear to be free, covered by the illusion of time?

'Free will' is not a philosophical artefact of Asian philosophy (and if it existed, such debate would not be framed in European terms). However, many Western Buddhists have been tempted to read Buddhism as denying 'free will' on the ground of conditioned phenomena. Such conclusion though is not as clear or straightforward as many would hope it to be. The Buddha made it clear that the value of holy life existed only because karma was not deterministic, i.e. because our past did not prevent us from changing right now the course for our future! I will come back to Buddhist theory at the end of this post, but let's address some preliminary points first.


Quantum mechanics are not deterministic as far as we know. That saddened Einstein but this is still the prevalent scientific view. As a result, no, playing the exact same conditions twice would not necessarily bring the same outcome! Assuming we'd get the same outcome is only an assumption of some determinism in the collapse of the wave functions, an assumption we have nothing to justify.
Because of lack of strict determinism at quantic levels, genetic predispositions are dubious: most of our cells are renewed regularly (very few cells are older than 15 years, and the cells of the surface skin barely live only days). Renewal relies on DNA copies, but we know such copy occurs at ridiculously small scales and thus is not deterministic; it is actually unreliable enough that the double helix of the DNA is meant to be a control mechanism to reduce errors but it still results in slightly imperfect copies (bad occurrences leading to e.g. cancer)… As renewal in one's body is continuous and slightly random, 'genetics' are not deterministic.
Our brain (the depository for genetic influences and life's experiences, the cortex being the body part where cells live long and are the least renewed) relies on molecular interactions and chemically-based electricity impulses. Molecules and ions are also small enough to consider that quantum effect is not entirely negligible. Neural activity is not deterministic.
Because of quantum uncertainty and because of the scales at which genetic predispositions and neural storage of life's experience play a role, there is no determinism (from physics). Of course, large bodies don't have as much uncertainty as isolated atomic components: the interactions between elements make the uncertainty level drop fast. However, the uncertainty never disappears entirely, and this is quite critical: we know from observation that 'free will' is rare (so rare we might even question it exists!). But even 'very rare' doesn't mean 'inexistent.' Tendencies and constraints might be broken under the right physical circumstances.

The above doesn't solve the question of "free will vs. the deterministic illusion of it." It only reframes it as "free will vs. the chaotic illusion of it." But it is quite important, since we don't know what drives the 'chaos,' and maybe the chaos is precisely an expression of 'freedom.' Politically and artistically, chaos is often seen as such! Free will is a perfectly acceptable working hypothesis when attempting to explain apparent chaos we cannot explain otherwise…


Many philosophers understood that if free will exists, it is in 'emptiness' (or Sartre's 'nothingness'), not in 'being.' Positing that we 'are' our genetic predispositions and life's experiences is only positing a particular theory. But, for a start, one's experiences constantly 'change' (by accretion of additional experiences) however one perceives oneself as the 'same' through such 'changes.' The "same but different" contradiction directly questions the coherency of a theory that assign a 'self' (or individuality, or person-entity) to "genetic predispositions and life experience" only.

If genetics and experiences are both evolution 'processes' rather than fixed, solid, deterministic parts of 'being', then the individual whose we're questioning the freedom doesn't exist (in the specific way we naïvely assumed at first). Who are we, really, that we maintain a sense of identity —much stronger than a sense of continuity— through evolution (i.e. through non-identity)?
Before questioning the free will of X, we should know what X is.

If we assume we can replay a situation by rolling the time back to specific genetic and life-experiential conditions, why wouldn't we also roll back the 'free will' conditions? We didn't explain why we could dispense from bringing back free will when we'd bring back the physical state! If we assume there's no freedom to roll back, only to then conclude that there's no freedom, it's just a circular argument: the conclusion is the initial assumption. It proves nothing, we might just try the opposite assumption and reach the opposite conclusion!


So neither physics nor philosophy solved the 'is there free will?' question. Can we find the flaw of the thought experiment? Nāgārjuna can help us.

Firstly, there is no state of the world! To run this experiment "let's observe twice the same situation to see if behaviour is deterministic," one is part of a world to observe. It is impossible to roll back the state of the world (to reset the initial conditions of the experiment) while not rolling back the observer: that would mean the state of the world doesn't include the observer although the observer is part of the world… The world cannot simultaneously be "at the start of the experiment" (initial conditions) and "after the start of the experiment" (replay). Of course, one can assume that only some conditions are replayed while 'independent' others are not, but how does one prove such strict independence? It's only an assumption.

Secondly, to check that two runs of the same scenario would always lead to the same decision by the actor with supposed free will, we'd need to run the scenario an infinite number of times. Throwing a coin twice and getting head twice does not allow to infer that one would always get head and never tail… The problem with the requirement of an infinite number of runs is that the experiment is never over. As runs progress, the probability of a conclusion might increase but it never reaches certainty.

Thirdly, identity doesn't exist, at least in a testable manner. To compare two runs, one need to distinguish them. One run might "number 1" while the other "number 2;" one run might be the former and the other the latter; one run might be on the left-hand side while the other is on the right-hand side; in any case, in order to compare, one need to have two measures. Measures do not even need to be 'distinguishable' (in probabilistic terms) when one only wants to check equality; however, one still needs two measures. To even 'know' that one has two measures and not just one, the measures need to be separate, countable (i.e. not fully, perfectly identical). Of course, one can assume that the difference between the two runs is subtle and the observables are independent from such a subtle difference… but that's an assumption. In quantum physics, the presence (or absence) of an observer influences the experiment. Having an observation of the decision of the 'free will' experiment is enough to influence the decision, we know this but we don't know how it influences it! By observing two runs of the experiment, we entangle them simply by having a common observer, but we don't know the precise influence. We can assume independence, but there's no warrantee of it, at all…


To conclude, let's see why 'free will' is not high on the radar in #Buddhism  , despite the insistence on wholesome intention, ethical choices, etc. Buddhism provides an arsenal for anyone to realise (by themselves, not by the authority of a teacher) that there is no Self; we already addressed above why the sense of identity is a contradiction of a "same but constantly different" and hence cannot be reduced to genetics and past experiences. Impermanence is at the core of No-Self, but one should as well see how the 'individuality' is conditioned and composed, and how the components are themselves conditioned and always dependent on other changing conditions, making the delimitation of a 'Self' impracticable. Exploring conditions of conditions of conditions is similar to running the head-or-tail experiment an infinite number of times: it is never over, so such path leads nowhere.

If there is no Self, who are we debating the free will of? As mentioned above, before questioning the free will of X, we should know what X is! If the Self is a continuously-updated illusion, the free will is also an illusion built on top of another illusion. The question of 'free will' is irrelevant to Buddhism, because it tries to characterise an empty, illusory, person-entity. In a way, it tries to reify the Self as an entity, whose characteristic might be 'to have free will.' That's still trying to fixate concepts and things and views! That's still the approach Buddhism warns us against in the first place! The Buddhists who think conditioned existence solves the question of 'free will' missed the point that they're still trying to 'model', to 'fixate' concepts on top of human existence; they still obscure reality as it is with a veil of concepts.

Why would it matter? If you're free, behave accordingly. If you're not, this conversation is irrelevant. In doubt, the only rational perspective is to behave as if one was free: if true, then the right attitude was taken; if false, you're not responsible for being wrong! What you want to avoid is not taking responsibility if it turns out you actually were in charge of your happiness! The infinity of the test of free will is in your hands: behaving deterministically (according to tendencies) most of the time does not imply you will never act freely.

[initial post by Jules Tabak: