Freewill - real?

Kenneth:I was pondering over this question of free will. And then I happen to be in the toilet shitting (sorry to use such a crude example), could my body stop shitting, I feel that I have no control or free will over this process. Let us assuming we do not know Buddhism in the first place, in our life before Buddhism do we have free will or are we in control of our lives? Could we stop the body from being hungry, or feelings from being sad and only wish for happy feelings all the time. Could we control our live in having sense pleasure all the time and free will have them not going away. Could we stop ourselves from not being angry at all?
In a nutshell, do we have free will or control in the first place even before we learn Buddhism.

Dear Kenneth,

You might appreciate this from the atthakatta (ancient commentary) to the Satipatthana sutta:


Within there is no doer of the act of defecation or urination. Only by the diffusion of the process of oscillation born of mental activity defecation and urination occur, just as in a matured boil, by the bursting of the boil, pus and blood come out without any kind of wishing to come out and just as from an overfull water-pot water comes out without any desire for coming out, so too, the faeces and urine accumulated in the abdomen and the bladder are pressed out by the force of the process of oscillation. Certainly this faeces-and- urine coming out thus is neither that bhikkhu’s own nor another’s. It is just bodily excretion. When from a water-vessel or calabash a person throws out the old water, the water thrown out is neither his nor other’s. It simply forms parts of a process of cleansing. In the form of reflection proceeding in this way clear comprehension of non- delusion should be understood.”

I guess innumerable beings have attained deep insight into anatta, even up to arahatship, while defecating. To me this is what right effort really is. (no scatological implications meant!)

Dear Robert,

It was while standing before the urinal that I had a series of similar thoughts. I’ve been pondering this a lot lately, the idea of control, especially in relation to practise. I’ve been trying to learn more about the conditions because it seems as if one can arrange conditions, if “arrange” is the right word, more readily. I mean I was drinking liquids, which was why I had to urinate, but the ideas which arose at that moment regarding how this process was like a template for things, these were conditioned by what I had been reading and thinking about previoiusly. I’ve re-read this section a couple of times, for example.


Dear Scott,

Due to wrong view, lobha and avijja- that all of us have accumulated over countless aeons- we look for control. The fact of uncontrollability is unobvious and hidden and goes against habitual ways of seeing the world.
Right practice is tied up with right pariyatti, so any practice should be in accord with the fundamental understanding of anatta- and its characteristic, uncontrollability.

Of course uncontrollability has no relation to randomness, as all elements arise and fall away due to conditions. So all actions fit in with these fundamental truths- but because we usually see only the shadows of the realities it is easy to posit (unknowingly) something or someone who has control.

The only way out is to study consider and see directly the Budda’s Dhamma.It is very good to reflect on these things in our daily actions, as you are doing.

Someone wrote to me who feels that no control is a dangerous idea.

They want to stress control and volitional intention which is what they believe that Buddha really taught and they feel uncontrollabilty to be a pernicious belief leading to apathy.

“I have a choice whether to get angry in the present moment.” the writer said.

I replied:

“Yes, the processes of cittas during anger are new kamma. However, they are also conditioned. The Patthana, the last and most important book of the Abhidhamma, goes into enormous detail about the 24 paccaya (conditions). Some of which are past and some present. But even the present ones do not simply arise out of nothing. Nor do they arise because “I” want them to. The processes of mind are happening at enormous speed and there is no “person” who can do anything to stop them or change them. Even the cittas that are arising at this moment are conditioned by previous cittas as well as well as by other conditions that are present at the same time. This is not the place to go into details but it is well worth studying the Patthana. It gives us a glimpse of the profundity of the path and the wisdom of the Buddha.”

They further wrote that “we are not just helpless automata acting out our old kamma – that is absurd. I hope the above helps overcome the despair that comes from the belief that we are a slave to our conditioning.”

I said “This sounds like the debates that western Philosophy used to have (and still does) about Free-will versus Determinism. The Buddha’s analysis of the world is neither, it is the middle path. Thus the statement about “we being helpless automata acting out our old kamma” misses the point. There is no “we” to be anything. And kamma is not the only condition. Hearing the teachings of Buddhism – especially the deep teachings on anatta, are a condition for understanding. This understanding leads to energy: energy to hear more, and energy to carry on with the study and practice of vipassana. It leads to the type of determination that will gladly keep developing understanding moment after moment, life after life, aeon after aeon, no matter how long it takes. And if understanding grows then there will be detachment from the idea of self and of control. Then there is no more despair about the path – because “I” have been taken out of the equation. Then, as the Visudhimagga says,

‘there is a path but no one on the path.”

This round of births and deaths is beginningless. However, it is not random in any sense. Because of conditions birth occurs in one plane and because of different conditions birth occurs in another plane. Panna (wisdom) is a conditioned phenomena and it is itself conditioned. What are the conditions for panna to develop : hearing the Dhamma, considering it, applying it and also accumulations of merit from the infinite past (pubekata punnata). Why are we so interested in Dhamma? Why isn’t the leader of the Taliban interested; surely he makes effort, surely he has the intention to do what is best? Why do some people hear Dhamma but find it unappealing while others can’t get enough even after hearing it just once? Why are some initially not interested and then later they get interested and surpass in understanding those who studied much longer? It is clear that there must be reasons for all this; and the Dhamma explains it all.

You wrote, “that’s where I get stuck…if all dhammas except nibbana are conditioned (i’m going on saddha with this, of course), then thinking one can develop anything seems like an exercise in micchaditthi….”

Robert: Good point. I think it depends on the thinking. If we have the idea of “I can do it”, then we are likely to be caught in self view. Or we think we can manufacture sati by effort or good intention – self. But there can be wisdom – not us- that sees the danger in samasara and thus there is naturally effort that arises with that understanding. It is subtle: often we slip into self view; either towards the freewill end of the continuum or towards the fatalistic end that thinks nothing can be done.

Can the path be developed? or do we just leave it up to (for lack of a better f-word) “fate”? “”

Robert: Fate implies a preordained outcome. In that case whether we did this that or the other nothing would make a thread of difference. We could go out and kill and pillage and nothing would have any effect and we would all get enlightened or not get enlightened depending on our “fate”. This is not what the Buddha taught. He explained in detail many different conditions. It is true that some are past conditions but there are also present ones thus it is not fatalism. Both the idea of fatalism and the idea of freewill are bound up in self view – a self who can control and a self who can’t. The Dhamma is the middle way and is neither. When we hear a teacher say “develop it” this can be a condition for either wrong effort or right effort. It depends on the understanding of the listener.

Robert : There is no fixed determination and everything is possible and can happen – but only by the correct conditions. It is wisdom, understanding – panna – a conditioned , mental phenomena that has the function of seeing rightly and it comes with detachment. It is not a self. Intention, cetana, arises all the time but it too is not a self, it is conditioned. Where did our wish and intention to learn about Dhamma come from? It was because of hearing Dhamma and so wisdom is conditioned by this and the intention to hear more strengthens, the intention cannot grow from nothing. Some people hear Dhamma and it means nothing to them. Why? Different tendencies, also conditioned.

All types of kusala; giving, sila, samatha can be successfully developed with sakkya ditthi (self view) still intact – all types except vipassana. Thus it is only when we want to understand the path of insight that such ideas as ‘freewill’ hinder.

The Buddha taught about the five khandhas , the elements, the ayatanas, so that we could begin to see what really exists. And what exists is evanescent, conditioned phenomenena, no person. But thinking about it can’t break up the idea of self and control; it is only by direct insight that takes any of these dhammas as an object that the (mis)perception of a whole, a person is erased. It seems like ‘we’ can control and do as we wish, but this is an illusion that is at the heart of the self view; as the different elements are resolved the ‘whole’ is found to be concept and instead there is a complex concantenation of conditioned dhammas with no controller or overlord, anywhere.

Resolution into the component parts is an antidote to the wrong idea of a self that exists and is somehow directing this conglomerate of namas and rupas. It is like a butcher; when he takes the whole cow he thinks ‘this is a cow’. But by the time he has skinned, chopped, cut, boned, diced, sliced and minced the carcass that idea of “cow” is gone.

When we think of intention and choice and being able to control, this is thinking and it is not understanding the nature of cetana, intention, as a momentary phenomena -it cannot last even for a split second, nor can any feelings or consciousness.

We have much ignorance about dhammas, they have to be known directly. But if we overestimate the role of intention the knowing is likely to be tied up with craving – and then the links of the Paticcasamuppada are strenghtened. I believe the knowing and investigation should be with detachment otherwise self slips in and distorts. Effort is often “self effort”, but right effort is not obtrusive, it is associated with seeing rather than doing, it can feel almost effortless.

In the Bhikkhuni-samyutta Mara approaches the Bhikkhuni Sela:

“Then Mara the Evil One, desiring to arouse fear, trepidation, and terror in the bhikkhuni Sela, desiring to make her fall away from concentration, approached her and addressed her in verse:

“By whom has this puppet been created? Where is the maker of the puppet? Where has the puppet arisen? Where does the puppet cease?”[24] Then it occurred to the bhikkhuni Sela: “Now who is this…? This is Mara the Evil One… desiring to make me fall away from concentration.” Then the bhikkhuni Sela, having understood, “This is Mara the Evil One,” replied to him in verses:

“This puppet is not made by itself, Nor is this misery made by another. It has come to be dependent on a cause, When the cause dissolves then it will cease.”endquote

Things do indeed happen “without permission or without being intended or invoked”. When I first started to see that this is really the way things are it scared me, and I wanted to turn away and try to believe that it was otherwise. But, you know, this is what dukkha really is. We can’t stop seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, feeling, knowing, thinking; these dhammas are not ours and they arise by conditions. They oppress by continually arising and ceasing.

The amazing thing is that the more we look into this, and the more obvious dukkha thus becomes, the happier we become. And paradoxically the more we see that there is no control the more freedom we have. The more we see that right effort is a conditioned phenomena the more vigor there is – because we are not wasting energy trying to have what can’t yet be had.
One of the descriptions of the khandas given in the Patisambhidhimagga is that they are alien, not us. What discerment discerns is the utter anattaness of all dhammas. If we have the idea of me doing something to get somewhere this is being caught in the whirl of view. But dhammas arise because of conditions, there is not even a hint of self who could make them arise. Now you are studying Dhamma and there is right effort arising together with right concentration that supports right view that can understand this. This is at the theoretical level but these factors can develop to much higher degrees. Usually people want high levels of concentration because this feels different from normal life – it is calmer- and so one perceives progress. But the progress of vipassana is about wearing away wrong view – and any concentration that arises with vipassana is always associated with right insight.

You perhaps find it a little worrying that there is no self who can decide to do this or that to make sure he is going in the right direction. But seeing this leads to detachment from the idea of self and that is the beginning of insight. I think you don’t feel concerend that, for instance, there is seeing whenever the eyes are open – no one can stop it occuring. But all dhammas , all realities are the same: they arise by conditions and cease when those conditions are not present. Understanding must comprehend whatever dhammas – whether kusala or akusala or vipaka or kiriya – arise as being essentially the same; that is they are anatta, dukkha and anicca. Then one doesn’t turn away from whatever arises and there is right effort that assists investigation.

Best wishes

RE: assume you would think that one’s ‘not turning away’ from anything based on greater understanding would also be something that happens non-volitionally based on conditions? So then really, it is all on automatic, and there is nothing to do to influence it for better or worse?
Rob E.

Dear Rob. E.,

This is a great question; it needs the whole of the Patthana to explain it so I just give some hints. Your comment about determinism/freewill to Jon is the question that haunts all aspects of philosophy and always will. Even the Christians used to argue it; cf. the debates betwen Erasmus and Luther that Dan pointed out to me.

To some extent I think trying to go onto automatic or something because one knows that theoretically there is no-self is like talking about letting go: only words.

As you know the crucial factor in the eight fold path is samma-ditthi, right view; and as you also know this is understanding that comprehends the real nature of dhammas that arise at the 6doors. This type of insight depends most crucially on hearing correct Dhamma from the Buddha or his disciples and reflecting in a correct and profound way on it. There are other factors listed such as discussion on subtle points which are said to assist insight. Now these factors all depend to some degree on conditions that arise now, however they are also conditioned partly by conditions from the past. Even hearing deep Dhamma is to some extent a matter of vipaka conditioned by kamma a past factor. How fast and how deep one understands what one hears is largely conditioned by pubbekata punnata (merit done in the past). If one has studied Dhamma for some time there should be growing appreciation that hearing and considering it leads to more understanding and detachment: This then conditions effort to hear more, consider more and ‘let go’ more and these are new conditions arising in the present, but built on past ones. Nevertheless, it doesn’t always work that way; why does one person go so fast, so far and another doesn’t. Venerable Sunnakhata (sp?) was the Buddha’s attendant before Ananda. He listened to Dhamma and attained Jhana, I think even to the degree of having special powers of hearing. But he eventually left the Buddha, spoke badly of the Dhamma, and followed ascetics who used to live a life of severe ascetism, copying dogs (dog-duty ascetics). Why, when he had all this going for him? The commentary says that this man had lived 500 consecutive past lives as a ascetic and had these tendencies. Even the Buddha’s teaching couldn’t overcome them. And so we see how dependent past factors are in conditioning behaviour. Of course Sunnakhata made choices, he had volitional control over what he did but what he couldn’t see was that ditthi (wrong view)and lobha were underlying all his choices; such a hard delusion to see through.

In fact no one can stop volition because it is a conditioned dhamma. But when volition, along with other dhammas, is properly understood (a long process) there is detachment from taking volition for self. Sometimes because the results from this profound path are not quickly apparent one might lose confidence and look for something faster. However, I think other ways are dependent on conditions too. And if those conditions should be interrupted one might find that while they thought they were getting to the disease they were really only applying a palliative to the symptoms.

I do believe this rather radical way of seeing into the anattaness of all dhammas gradually gives a type of detachment that isn’t shaken by anything. One doesn’t expect any dhamma to give satisfaction because they are inherently unstable and every change, whether for better or worse, simply confirms this – at the micro and macro level. There has to be study directly of dhammas for any real insight – but, and I think this is what Jon is showing, this type of study is only real if it is done without desire. It goes against our natural instincts but the type of effort needed is something more profound than mere trying or watching. I think people with a zen background like you and Ken O get this point fairly readily.

While you are reading there may be a great deal of effort arising along with samadhi- concentration – that help any understanding that is arising.(and if my writing is too obtuse then effort and samadhi may still arise but ….) These factors are conditioned by past paccaya (conditions), some of them very recent, and some I am sure from long ago when there was the development of wisdom in other lives. However , those past conditions aren’t enough by themselves to invoke more insight and so other factors , especially hearing Dhamma, from the present are needed.

Also it is not that being in quiet places isn’t helpful. In fact it can be very useful to be secluded and alone where there is time to devote oneself to contemplation. But this is a minor factor and not comparable to the main one of hearing Dhamma because without that ones ‘contemplation’ will be distorted by view. There are other factors helpful to wisdom also. Here is something from the Satipatthana sutta commentary: “Six things lead to the arising of this enlightenment factor(wisdom): Inquiring about the aggregates and so forth; the purification of the basis (namely, the cleaning of the body, clothes and so forth); imparting evenness to the (five spiritual) controlling faculties; avoiding the ignorant; associating with the wise; reflecting on the profound difference of the hard-to-perceive processes of the aggregates, modes (or elements), sense-bases and so forth; and the inclining (sloping, bending) towards the development of the enlightenment factor of the investigation of mental objects.

Inquiring about the aggregates and so forth means: seeking the meaning of the aggregates, the modes (or elements), sense-bases, controlling faculties, powers, enlightenment factors, way factors, absorption factors, the meditation for quietude, and the meditation for insight by asking for explanation of knotty points regarding these things in the Five Nikayas with the commentaries from teachers of the Dhamma.

Purification of the basis is the cleaning of the personal basis: the body, and of the impersonal basis: clothes and dwelling place. The flame of a lamp is unclear when its wick, oil and container are dirty; the wick splutters, flickers; but the flame of a lamp that has a clean wick, oil and container is clear and the wick does not spit; it burns smoothly. So it is with knowledge. Knowing that arises out of the mind and mental qualities which are in dirty external and internal surroundings is apt to be impure, too, but the knowledge that arises under clean conditions is apt to be pure. In this way cleanliness leads to the growth of this enlightenment factor which comprises knowledge.

Personal cleanliness is impaired by the excessive length of hair of the head, nails, hair of the body, by the excess of humours, and by the dirt of perspiration; cleanliness of impersonal or external things is impaired when robes are worn out, dirty and smelly, and when the house where one lives is dirty, soiled and untidy. So personal cleanliness should be secured by shaving, hair-cutting, nail-paring, the use of pectoral emetics and of purgatives which make the body light, and by shampooing, bathing and doing other necessary things, at the proper time. In similar way external cleanliness should be brought about by darning, washing and dyeing one’s robes, and by smearing the floor of one’s house with clay and the like to smoothen and clean it, and by doing other necessary things to keep the house clean and tidy. “endquote

Dear everyone, I have a question:

Does Buddha (& Arahats) have Free Will? Apparently yes, because they are no more conditioned, their actions must be free (i.e. they have free will ?)


Dear KKT,

Was there really a Buddha self existing? Was the Buddha in form (rupa) or apart from it? Was he in feeling or apart from it? In sankhara or apart from it? In consciousness or apart from it? Really there was no Buddha in the deepest sense but there were the five khandhas. The khandhas are conditioned phenomena. With the arising of penetrating wisdom no new kamma is being created and so no new conditions are made for future rebirth. The very long chain of successive becomings ceases forever.

Even talking conventionally did the Buddha have freewill? Any intention he had was always conditioned by rightview, by wisdom. He could never decide “OK , tonight I’ll have a break from compassion and insight and go out with the boys” No conditions for that sort of thinking.

When we think of wholes we do not see the nature of dhammas. It is by breaking down the wholes that insight grows. :

“When they are seen (the khandhas) after resolving them by means of knowledge into elements, they disintergrate like froth subjected to compression by the hand. They are mere states (dhammas)occurring due to conditions and void. In this way the characteristic of not-self becomes more clear” Pm (visuddhimagga xxi n.4)

It takes time to do this, along time. First it is known as theory but it can be known directly too: “First it has to be seen by inference acording to the texts. Afterwards it gradually becomes to be known by personal experience when the knowledge of development gets stronger” Pm Vis. xx n.20)

“It is not-self on account of the insusceptibility to the exercise of power,. It is not self for four reasons, that is, in the sense of voidness, of having no owner-master, of having no overlord, and of opposing self” (see vis. note 3 xxi)

best wishes
Nyanatiloka Mahathera:


This phenomenality and egolessness of existence has been beautifully expressed in two verses of the Visuddhimagga:

No doer of the deeds is found,
No one who ever reaps their fruits.
Empty phenomena roll on.
This only is the correct view.
No god nor Brahma can be called
The maker of this wheel of life:
Empty phenomena roll on,
Dependent on conditions all.

In hearing that Buddhism teaches that everything is determined by conditions, someone might come to the conclusion that Buddhism teaches some sort of fatalism, or that man has no free will, or that will is not free. Now, with regard to the two questions:

(1) “Has man a free will?” and

(2) “Is will free?” the Buddhist will say that both these questions are to be rejected for being wrongly put, and therefore unanswerable.

The first question “Has man a free will?” is to be rejected for the reason that, beside these ever-changing mental and physical phenomena, in the absolute sense no such thing or entity can be found that we could call “man,” so that “man” as such is merely a name without any reality.

The second question “Is will free?” is to be rejected for the reason that “will” is only a momentary mental phenomenon, just like feeling, consciousness, etc., and thus does not yet exist before it arises, and that therefore of a non-existent thing — of a thing which is not — one could, properly speaking, not ask whether it is free or unfree. The only admissible question would be:

“Is the arising of will independent of conditions, or is it conditioned?”

But the same question would equally apply also to all the other mental phenomena, as well as to all the physical phenomena, in other words, to everything and every occurrence whatever. And the answer would be: Be it “will”, or “feeling”, or any other mental or physical phenomenon, the arising of anything whatsoever depends on conditions; and without these conditions, nothing can ever arise or enter into existence.

According to Buddhism, everything mental and physical happens in accordance with laws and conditions; and if it were otherwise, chaos and blind chance would reign. But such a thing is impossible and contradicts all laws of thinking.

I googled ‘free will definition’ and reproduce two definitions below (not very rigourous I realise):


“…freedom of self-determination and action independent of external conditions”

“…the partial freedom of the agent, in acts of conscious choice, from the determining compulsion of heredity, environment and circumstance.”

I don’t think the Buddha taught these things.

I gather from these two definitions, an admittedly limited sample, that free will is rather an ambiguous term. So no, if these definitions are even close to representative of what the concept of free will is, I think there is no such thing.

For balance, some web definitions of determinism, another term being used in this discussion (same non-rigourous method):


“…every event in the universe is caused and controlled by natural law.”

“…human action is not free but the inevitable result of antecedent conditions and…the human being, in acts of apparent choice, is the mechanical expression of his heredity and his past environment.”

I don’t think the Buddha taught these things.

Both concepts seem to depend on the existence of an agent who acts, either with freedom or without. The Buddha taught that there is no agent. The only thing that exists apart from conditioned dhammas would be, I think, nibbaana. The impermanence of dhammas precludes any possibility of control. The reality called thinking allows for ideas like free-will and determinism and control and “I will do”.

I’ve been thinking along these lines: Is decision making (the topic of this thread supposedly) the same as making a choice? Is decision making the same as volition? Is volition the same thing as intention? Is intention the same thing as kamma? Is this the same intention of which we should try to have Right Intention? If these things fit together sort of like I’ve suggested by my questions then might it be acceptable to say that the question of what makes a decision is (perhaps) the same thing as asking what makes kamma?

If you mean by making a choice to imply an agent or choice-maker I think then that the act is only a conceptual and imaginary one. The functions of various cetasikas (cetanaa, viriya, chanda) arising and falling away seem prone to being misconstrued by us as being proof of agency or choice by an agent. I think volition and kamma are related; the multiplicity of conditions and conditioned dhammas is much more than just kamma condition. We know that cetanaa (intention) is action and acts performed accumulate, for good or ill I think.
Free Will, Free Won’t, or Neither? A refinement of Libet’s work on the conscious control of spontaneous
In a famous paper published in 1983, Libet et al. showed that the recordable cerebral activity (readiness-potential) that precedes a freely voluntary motor act occurs at least several hundred milliseconds before the reported time of conscious intention to act. The actual movement occurs 200-250 msec after the reported time of intention to act. The data are pretty spooky when you think about it. They say that your brain (“it”) has started working on a action well before “you” think you are initiating it! This article has sparked a continuing debate on whether we actually have free will. Libet has suggested that the ~200-250 msec period between awareness of intention and the actual action was sufficient to permit a “veto” of the action if it was judged inappropriate. In this interpretation, we might be said to be “free won’t” rather than “free will”.

Lau et al. have now done a more nuanced version of LIbet’s experiments. In a previous paper they showed that, when participants were required to estimate the onset of their intentions using Libet’s procedure, the activity in the presupplementary motor area (pre-SMA) was enhanced ~228 msec before motor execution. In their most recent work they show that when participants were required to estimate the onset of their motor executions (instead of their intentions), the activity in the cingulate motor area was enhanced. This latter condition, judged to be more natural and have less task-demanding instructions. The perceived onset of intention could be as late as ~120 msec before the motor execution . “Together, these findings raise the question of whether the conscious control of spontaneous action can be done within a much shorter time window than we had expected, or whether, as suggested by Wegner (The illusion of conscious will Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), our impression of conscious control is simply illusory.”

Free Will: Now You Have It, Now You Don’t

Published: January 2, 2007
Correction Appended

I was a free man until they brought the dessert menu around. There was one of those molten chocolate cakes, and I was suddenly being dragged into a vortex, swirling helplessly toward caloric doom, sucked toward the edge of a black (chocolate) hole. Visions of my father’s heart attack danced before my glazed eyes. My wife, Nancy, had a resigned look on her face.

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The outcome, endlessly replayed whenever we go out, is never in doubt, though I often cover my tracks by offering to split my dessert with the table. O.K., I can imagine what you’re thinking. There but for the grace of God.

Having just lived through another New Year’s Eve, many of you have just resolved to be better, wiser, stronger and richer in the coming months and years. After all, we’re free humans, not slaves, robots or animals doomed to repeat the same boring mistakes over and over again. As William James wrote in 1890, the whole “sting and excitement” of life comes from “our sense that in it things are really being decided from one moment to another, and that it is not the dull rattling off of a chain that was forged innumerable ages ago.” Get over it, Dr. James. Go get yourself fitted for a new chain-mail vest. A bevy of experiments in recent years suggest that the conscious mind is like a monkey riding a tiger of subconscious decisions and actions in progress, frantically making up stories about being in control.

As a result, physicists, neuroscientists and computer scientists have joined the heirs of Plato and Aristotle in arguing about what free will is, whether we have it, and if not, why we ever thought we did in the first place.

“Is it an illusion? That’s the question,” said Michael Silberstein, a science philosopher at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. Another question, he added, is whether talking about this in public will fan the culture wars.

“If people freak at evolution, etc.,” he wrote in an e-mail message, “how much more will they freak if scientists and philosophers tell them they are nothing more than sophisticated meat machines, and is that conclusion now clearly warranted or is it premature?”

Daniel C. Dennett, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at Tufts University who has written extensively about free will, said that “when we consider whether free will is an illusion or reality, we are looking into an abyss. What seems to confront us is a plunge into nihilism and despair.”

Mark Hallett, a researcher with the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, said, “Free will does exist, but it’s a perception, not a power or a driving force. People experience free will. They have the sense they are free.

“The more you scrutinize it, the more you realize you don’t have it,” he said.

That is hardly a new thought. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said, as Einstein paraphrased it, that “a human can very well do what he wants, but cannot will what he wants.”

Einstein, among others, found that a comforting idea. “This knowledge of the non-freedom of the will protects me from losing my good humor and taking much too seriously myself and my fellow humans as acting and judging individuals,” he said.

How comforted or depressed this makes you might depend on what you mean by free will. The traditional definition is called “libertarian” or “deep” free will. It holds that humans are free moral agents whose actions are not predetermined. This school of thought says in effect that the whole chain of cause and effect in the history of the universe stops dead in its tracks as you ponder the dessert menu.

At that point, anything is possible. Whatever choice you make is unforced and could have been otherwise, but it is not random. You are responsible for any damage to your pocketbook and your arteries.

“That strikes many people as incoherent,” said Dr. Silberstein, who noted that every physical system that has been investigated has turned out to be either deterministic or random. “Both are bad news for free will,” he said. So if human actions can’t be caused and aren’t random, he said, “It must be — what — some weird magical power?”

People who believe already that humans are magic will have no problem with that.

But whatever that power is — call it soul or the spirit — those people have to explain how it could stand independent of the physical universe and yet reach from the immaterial world and meddle in our own, jiggling brain cells that lead us to say the words “molten chocolate.”

A vote in favor of free will comes from some physicists, who say it is a prerequisite for inventing theories and planning experiments.

That is especially true when it comes to quantum mechanics, the strange paradoxical theory that ascribes a microscopic randomness to the foundation of reality. Anton Zeilinger, a quantum physicist at the University of Vienna, said recently that quantum randomness was “not a proof, just a hint, telling us we have free will.”

Is there any evidence beyond our own intuitions and introspections that humans work that way?

Two Tips of the Iceberg

In the 1970s, Benjamin Libet, a physiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, wired up the brains of volunteers to an electroencephalogram and told the volunteers to make random motions, like pressing a button or flicking a finger, while he noted the time on a clock.

Dr. Libet found that brain signals associated with these actions occurred half a second before the subject was conscious of deciding to make them.

The order of brain activities seemed to be perception of motion, and then decision, rather than the other way around.

In short, the conscious brain was only playing catch-up to what the unconscious brain was already doing. The decision to act was an illusion, the monkey making up a story about what the tiger had already done.

Dr. Libet’s results have been reproduced again and again over the years, along with other experiments that suggest that people can be easily fooled when it comes to assuming ownership of their actions. Patients with tics or certain diseases, like chorea, cannot say whether their movements are voluntary or involuntary, Dr. Hallett said.

In some experiments, subjects have been tricked into believing they are responding to stimuli they couldn’t have seen in time to respond to, or into taking credit or blame for things they couldn’t have done. Take, for example, the “voodoo experiment” by Dan Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard, and Emily Pronin of Princeton. In the experiment, two people are invited to play witch doctor.

One person, the subject, puts a curse on the other by sticking pins into a doll. The second person, however, is in on the experiment, and by prior arrangement with the doctors, acts either obnoxious, so that the pin-sticker dislikes him, or nice.

After a while, the ostensible victim complains of a headache. In cases in which he or she was unlikable, the subject tended to claim responsibility for causing the headache, an example of the “magical thinking” that makes baseball fans put on their rally caps.

“We made it happen in a lab,” Dr. Wegner said.

Is a similar sort of magical thinking responsible for the experience of free will?

“We see two tips of the iceberg, the thought and the action,” Dr. Wegner said, “and we draw a connection.”

But most of the action is going on beneath the surface. Indeed, the conscious mind is often a drag on many activities. Too much thinking can give a golfer the yips. Drivers perform better on automatic pilot. Fiction writers report writing in a kind of trance in which they simply take dictation from the voices and characters in their head, a grace that is, alas, rarely if ever granted nonfiction writers.

Naturally, almost everyone has a slant on such experiments and whether or not the word “illusion” should be used in describing free will. Dr. Libet said his results left room for a limited version of free will in the form of a veto power over what we sense ourselves doing. In effect, the unconscious brain proposes and the mind disposes.

In a 1999 essay, he wrote that although this might not seem like much, it was enough to satisfy ethical standards. “Most of the Ten Commandments are ‘do not’ orders,” he wrote.

But that might seem a pinched and diminished form of free will.

Good Intentions

Dr. Dennett, the Tufts professor, is one of many who have tried to redefine free will in a way that involves no escape from the materialist world while still offering enough autonomy for moral responsibility, which seems to be what everyone cares about.

The belief that the traditional intuitive notion of a free will divorced from causality is inflated, metaphysical nonsense, Dr. Dennett says reflecting an outdated dualistic view of the world.

Rather, Dr. Dennett argues, it is precisely our immersion in causality and the material world that frees us. Evolution, history and culture, he explains, have endowed us with feedback systems that give us the unique ability to reflect and think things over and to imagine the future. Free will and determinism can co-exist.

“All the varieties of free will worth having, we have,” Dr. Dennett said.

“We have the power to veto our urges and then to veto our vetoes,” he said. “We have the power of imagination, to see and imagine futures.”

In this regard, causality is not our enemy but our friend, giving us the ability to look ahead and plan. “That’s what makes us moral agents,” Dr. Dennett said. “You don’t need a miracle to have responsibility.”

Other philosophers disagree on the degree and nature of such “freedom.” Their arguments partly turn on the extent to which collections of things, whether electrons or people, can transcend their origins and produce novel phenomena.

These so-called emergent phenomena, like brains and stock markets, or the idea of democracy, grow naturally in accordance with the laws of physics, so the story goes. But once they are here, they play by new rules, and can even act on their constituents, as when an artist envisions a teapot and then sculpts it — a concept sometimes known as “downward causation.” A knowledge of quarks is no help in predicting hurricanes — it’s physics all the way down. But does the same apply to the stock market or to the brain? Are the rules elusive just because we can’t solve the equations or because something fundamentally new happens when we increase numbers and levels of complexity?

Opinions vary about whether it will ultimately prove to be physics all the way down, total independence from physics, or some shade in between, and thus how free we are. Dr. Silberstein, the Elizabethtown College professor, said, “There’s nothing in fundamental physics by itself that tells us we can’t have such emergent properties when we get to different levels of complexities.”

He waxed poetically as he imagined how the universe would evolve, with more and more complicated forms emerging from primordial quantum muck as from an elaborate computer game, in accordance with a few simple rules: “If you understand, you ought to be awestruck, you ought to be bowled over.”

George R. F. Ellis, a cosmologist at the University of Cape Town, said that freedom could emerge from this framework as well. “A nuclear bomb, for example, proceeds to detonate according to the laws of nuclear physics,” he explained in an e-mail message. “Whether it does indeed detonate is determined by political and ethical considerations, which are of a completely different order.”

I have to admit that I find these kind of ideas inspiring, if not liberating. But I worry that I am being sold a sort of psychic perpetual motion machine. Free wills, ideas, phenomena created by physics but not accountable to it. Do they offer a release from the chains of determinism or just a prescription for a very intricate weave of the links?And so I sought clarity from mathematicians and computer scientists. According to deep mathematical principles, they say, even machines can become too complicated to predict their own behavior and would labor under the delusion of free will.

If by free will we mean the ability to choose, even a simple laptop computer has some kind of free will, said Seth Lloyd, an expert on quantum computing and professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Every time you click on an icon, he explained, the computer’s operating system decides how to allocate memory space, based on some deterministic instructions. But, Dr. Lloyd said, “If I ask how long will it take to boot up five minutes from now, the operating system will say ‘I don’t know, wait and see, and I’ll make decisions and let you know.’ ”

Why can’t computers say what they’re going to do? In 1930, the Austrian philosopher Kurt Gödel proved that in any formal system of logic, which includes mathematics and a kind of idealized computer called a Turing machine, there are statements that cannot be proven either true or false. Among them are self-referential statements like the famous paradox stated by the Cretan philosopher Epimenides, who said that all Cretans are liars: if he is telling the truth, then, as a Cretan, he is lying.

One implication is that no system can contain a complete representation of itself, or as Janna Levin, a cosmologist at Barnard College of Columbia University and author of the 2006 novel about Gödel, “A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines,” said: “Gödel says you can’t program intelligence as complex as yourself. But you can let it evolve. A complex machine would still suffer from the illusion of free will.”

Another implication is there is no algorithm, or recipe for computation, to determine when or if any given computer program will finish some calculation. The only way to find out is to set it computing and see what happens. Any way to find out would be tantamount to doing the calculation itself.

“There are no shortcuts in computation,” Dr. Lloyd said.

That means that the more reasonably you try to act, the more unpredictable you are, at least to yourself, Dr. Lloyd said. Even if your wife knows you will order the chile rellenos, you have to live your life to find out.

To him that sounds like free will of a sort, for machines as well as for us. Our actions are determined, but so what? We still don’t know what they will be until the waiter brings the tray.

That works for me, because I am comfortable with so-called physicalist reasoning, and I’m always happy to leverage concepts of higher mathematics to cut through philosophical knots.

The Magician’s Spell

So what about Hitler?

The death of free will, or its exposure as a convenient illusion, some worry, could wreak havoc on our sense of moral and legal responsibility. According to those who believe that free will and determinism are incompatible, Dr. Silberstein said in an e-mail message, it would mean that “people are no more responsible for their actions than asteroids or planets.” Anything would go.

Dr. Wegner of Harvard said: “We worry that explaining evil condones it. We have to maintain our outrage at Hitler. But wouldn’t it be nice to have a theory of evil in advance that could keep him from coming to power?”

He added, “A system a bit more focused on helping people change rather than paying them back for what they’ve done might be a good thing.”

Dr. Wegner said he thought that exposing free will as an illusion would have little effect on people’s lives or on their feelings of self-worth. Most of them would remain in denial.

“It’s an illusion, but it’s a very persistent illusion; it keeps coming back,” he said, comparing it to a magician’s trick that has been seen again and again. “Even though you know it’s a trick, you get fooled every time. The feelings just don’t go away.”

In an essay about free will in 1999, Dr. Libet wound up quoting the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, who once said in an interview with the Paris Review, “The greatest gift which humanity has received is free choice. It is true that we are limited in our use of free choice. But the little free choice we have is such a great gift and is potentially worth so much that for this itself, life is worthwhile living.”

I could skip the chocolate cake, I really could, but why bother? Waiter!

Correction: January 4, 2007

Written by Sukin:


Yes, when you say “There is no control over what the object will be and what the roots” I read you as saying that everything that arises in the moment is already determined by/in the citta that went before’?

Have I misunderstood you?


I probably should have given more information. But I think that statements made on DSG by students of A. Sujin have been quite clear regarding the complexity of conditions, 24 in all in the Patthana as you know, most of which are ‘present’ conditions. But of course, it is one thing to read about conditions in the Texts and another to understand and apply this to the present moment.

I believe the tendency to think in terms of ‘determinism’ and controlling/free will/choice is there in all of us, having yet to experience the vipassana nanas. So in fact you may be justified in reading statements by some of us as inclining to determinism, but then again, that may be because on the other hand you are coming from the side of control/free will? Actually both these positions are quite obviously wrong, given just a little reflection. But they arise with “self-view” and therefore logic and reasoning is not enough to be done away with them.

So what do I mean when I say, “There is no control …”?

This moment of citta with its object, has arisen and fallen away already, and what is left is only the nimita. Even the latter is a result of many, many moments of say, ‘seeing’ and the other cittas in the process, all arisen and fallen away. We can have a sense here, of no possibility of control by force of ‘will’.

After any particular sense door process, when impulsion arises, the fact that on the one hand ignorance, desire, aversion and so on arises or sila, samatha, satipatthana and so on do, these too do so with the same uncontrollability.

The conditions for sense door process are different from those of the impulsion. However, “conditioned” they both are, by impersonal dhammas arising and falling away beyond any possibility of any ‘willing’ to make a difference. In fact the ‘willing’ i.e. which is part of the impulsion must be seen as conditioned! For example even this thought about ‘guarding the senses’ or ‘noting’ must be seen for what it is and that it has arisen and already fallen away.

Without this kind of understanding, the resultant is ignorance and desire which then either accepts or rejects the proposition. One may believe in the thought and follows it or there can be sati and panna arising which ‘understands’. The former leads to the ‘wrong path’ being taken, whereas the latter would be an instance of the ‘right path’, and both these accumulate, increasing the possibility that such moments will arise again in the future.

This is why it is never about ‘doing’ anything no matter how ‘noble’, but about understanding. The knowledge about conditionality must be applied to this very moment of seeing, hearing, thinking and so on. If not, then it shall remain only ‘theory’ used only when convenient. In other words, it becomes the object of ignorance, craving and wrong view, a manifestation of ‘Mara’ peculiar to Buddhists. :slightly_smiling_face:

But then I have read you elsewhere as saying that a moment of “mindfulness” is ‘being in control’ implying that being “unmindful” is ‘out of control’. I take it that you refer to mindfulness of conventional reality and any intentions, attachments, feelings etc. that arises in the process…?

I think the reason why many don’t really appreciate the Abhidhamma perspective is due to taking seriously the above kind of observation and any results that follow.

  • For example P. described his ‘sitting’ experience. He saw that thoughts just kept proliferating, all seemingly in some causal pattern. Having judged the stories as being rooted in desire, he came to the conclusion that such was a glimpse of the kilesas ( I haven’t bothered to reread your post P., so forgive me if I misinterpret what you said.). But as you can see, these are stories centered on personal experience, and are they reliable? Even when the conclusion is made from present observation, these are not of the ‘characteristic’ of realities, but only ideas/concepts.

The ‘insight’ (conventionally and relatively speaking), might have been that the ‘thinking’ was conditioned, perhaps in part by the very idea to seclude oneself in order to observe! ‘Thinking’ is conditioned in the moment by the various conditions there and then. These are paramattha dhammas of which we are not aware. Instead, there is being taken in by the thought and any intentions associated. This is not understanding, but more thinking rooted in ignorance and craving.

So what most Buddhists consider mindfulness is in fact only ‘thinking’. The concepts being taken as real, gives rise to the illusion of control, hence the justification in ‘doing’/’meditating’.

The illusion of result comes from comparing what one considers to be ‘unmindful’ with what is now labeled ‘mindful’. However, proliferation/papanca is not so much that thoughts being one moment this and the next that, but is a reference to citta rooted in tanha, mana or ditthi.

The very desire to observe/note/guard the sense being tanha, is papanca. The sense of ‘self’ observing, is mana. The belief that there are ‘objects’ which a ‘I’ can give attention to, is ditthi papanca. Being driven by avijja and tanha to act through speech and body, of which there is no so called mindfulness may not be as bad as being driven by ignorance, craving and self-view to “sit still” (cross legged or otherwise) and observe. What kind of sanna is at work when one is conscious of sitting still?

Observing the breath or scanning the body, is accumulating atta sanna and an encouragement of tanha, mana and ditthi. The first two is not such a big problem and they can and must be ‘known’. Ditthi however, makes it impossible that such an observation will take place, i.e. knowing these and other dhammas as they are, conditioned and anatta.

This is why it is so important to listen, consider and straighten one’s views at the intellectual level. Because if the understanding is wrong, then wrong practice invariably follows.


There is no control over what the object will be and what the roots. I do not believe that this is useful to discuss. Because whether it is the case or not, it makes no difference to anything. You are basically saying that both the arising of the question “What is the reality of the present moment?” and whatever the answer of the moment will be, are given. So what? I ask that seriously, not in a dismissive way.


So no free will/control, does this then mean that discussing, reading, responding or not makes no difference? Obviously every moment is different and difference is made all the time, but not in any particular way that you and I could predict/would like it to be. No ‘waiting for conditions’ but no ‘chasing after illusion’ either.

I suppose we can continue from here?

With metta,

While you are thinking about freewill and anatta here are some thoughts that will be a condition for more reflection. The idea of freewill , I believe, is the illusion that keeps the wheel of dependent origination(paticcasamuppada) forever spinning.

It occurs and is repeatedly ‘confirmed’ because avijja , ignorance, runs among concepts and takes what are merely elements perfoming different tasks as wholes. When we think of wholes we do not see the nature of dhammas. It is by breaking down the wholes (the direct study of realities in the present moment)that insight grows. And especially the function of the Abhidhamma is to detail these dhammas to assist this investigation.
“When they are seen (the khandhas) after resolving them by means of knowledge into elements, they disintergrate like froth subjected to compression by the hand. They are mere states (dhammas)occurring due to conditions and void. In this way the characteristic of not-self becomes more clear”

Pm (visuddhimagga xxi n.4)

It takes time to do this, a long time, cira kala bhavana.

All dhammas, even votthapanna, are conditioned (not neccessarily by kamma – there are 24 paccaya explained in the Abhidhammma)and all have the characteristic of anatta, not self. All are as below:
“It is not-self on account of the insusceptibility to the exercise of power. It is not self for four reasons, that is, in the sense of voidness, of having no owner-master, of having no overlord, and of opposing self”

(see vis. note 3 xxi)

We can’t stop seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, feeling, knowing, thinking; these dhammas are not ours and they arise by conditions. They oppress by continually arising and ceasing. The amazing thing is that the more we look into this, and the more obvious dukkha thus becomes, the happier we become. And paradoxically the more we see that there is no control the more freedom we have. The more we see that right effort is a conditioned phenomena the more vigor there is – because we are not wasting energy trying to have what can’t yet be had. There is detachment from the idea of a self who is doing anything – there is the gradual elimination of attasanna (self perception), the paticcasamupadda is being dismantled.

First it is known as theory but it can be known directly too:
“First it has to be seen by inference acording to the texts. Afterwards it gradually becomes to be known by personal experience when the knowledge of development gets stronger”

Pm Vis. xx n.20

Every moment is new and it is all arising and falling away with great rapidity. However, each moment conditions the next moment and so there is continuity. Take the suttas where Buddha expounds Dhamma to his son. If that situation is analysed there was really no Buddha or Rahula. But there was sound, there was hearing; these disappeared as soon as they arose but they conditioned cittas that understood the concepts that were expressed by the myriad sounds. Cittas arise and fall away instantly too but they can – and do take a concept and repeatedly examine it and so the cittas in succession may seem much the same, for split seconds, seconds or even longer.

But by wise attention there can be the insight that begins to study the nature of citta and see how it is different, albeit similar, moment to moment. This wise attention can lead to seeing, so the texts say, that nama and rupa are very different types of reality – and continue on to know more. There is no self anywhere in this process, so the Dhamma ; but the unbroken continuity of rising and falling, deludes the unwise ( into believing there is something substantial there , something somewhere that can direct, decide , that is doing this or that. RobM mentioned the term ayuhana, accumulating, ealier. And this process means that all the time there is new accumulating occuring, subtley altering, right now, what was accumulated from the past; so that in the future accumulations may be very different from what they are now. Wisdom may develop, or not; kindness or cruelty; patience or impatience; metta or anger. It can be studied, this process; while it happens, but usually there is a barrier, self view which distorts and stops us understanding.

Dear DSG,

I keep seeing the argument that “because of anatta there is no control”. Can
someone please explain this? I’m afraid that the logic is beyond me.

Perhaps I can give an example. A computer-controlled vehicle has no self but
does have some control of trajectory…

dear Mike
yes and in the same way a human, dog, insect is programed to perform certain
actions and have certain beliefs. How ever, unlike your computer car there was
never any original programmer- no person, no God, no one at all, who set up the
program. In fact no beginning can be discerned…
Also this program- comprising of paccaya- conditions, is much more more complex
because it is very gradually changing, aeon by aeon, millienia by millenia,
century by century, year by year, and in fact moment by moment.
Now I act, think and look like a man because of the rupas that arise due to
kamma, next life maybe I will be a woman where I will have all the
characteristics of that gender. No control anywhere – the rupas (matter) don’t
want to be woman or man- but they arise depending on kamma. No do the namas
mentality want to think like a man, they merely perform their functions.
I enjoy being a man now- but I will also enjoy being a woman, no doubt- not
because “I” want to enjoy but because underlying life is the roots of avija,
ignorance, lobha, attachment, and wrongview(that thinks there is some self that
is doing, behaving and thinking in various ways).)

Is that clear now…


stress does not exist. Stress does exist.’ When asked, ‘Well, in that case, does
Master Gotama not know or see stress?’ you say, ‘Kassapa, it’s not the case that
I don’t know or see stress. I know stress. I see stress.’ Then explain stress to
me, lord Blessed One. Teach me about stress, lord Blessed One!”

“‘The one who acts is the one who experiences [the result of the act]’ amounts
to the eternalist statement, ‘Existing from the very beginning, stress is
self-made.’ ‘The one who acts is someone other than the one who experiences’[2]
amounts to the annihilationist statement, ‘For one existing harassed by feeling,
stress is other-made.’ Avoiding these two extremes, the Tathagata teaches the
Dhamma via the middle:

From ignorance as a requisite condition come fabrications.>P. S. Getting more serious, when I eat do you two get full? When I >sleep, do
you become rested? Does my kamma lead to your vipaka?

Different causes lead to different results. Causes differentiate results.

Some precise suttas do avoid self/other dichotomy and focus on causes and

There are suttas in SN12 where Buddha refuses to answer questions such as “is
suffering causes by self/other/both/fortuitious” and instead focus on causes &

Example sutta:

“Now, when asked, ‘Is stress self-made?’ you say, ‘Don’t say that, Kassapa.’
When asked, ‘Then is it other-made?’ you say, ‘Don’t say that, Kassapa.’ When
asked, ‘Then is it both self-made and other-made?’ you say, ‘Don’t say that,
Kassapa.’ When asked, ‘Then is it the case that stress, being neither self-made
nor other-made, arises spontaneously?’ you say, ‘Don’t say that, Kassapa.’ When
asked, ‘Then does stress not exist?’ you say, ‘It’s not the case, Kassapa, that
stress does not exist. Stress does exist.’ When asked, ‘Well, in that case, does
Master Gotama not know or see stress?’ you say, ‘Kassapa, it’s not the case that
I don’t know or see stress. I know stress. I see stress.’ Then explain stress to
me, lord Blessed One. Teach me about stress, lord Blessed One!”

“‘The one who acts is the one who experiences [the result of the act]’ amounts
to the eternalist statement, ‘Existing from the very beginning, stress is
self-made.’ ‘The one who acts is someone other than the one who experiences’[2]
amounts to the annihilationist statement, ‘For one existing harassed by feeling,
stress is other-made.’ Avoiding these two extremes, the Tathagata teaches the
Dhamma via the middle:

From ignorance as a requisite condition come fabrications.

From birth as a requisite condition, then aging & death, sorrow,
lamentation, pain, distress, & despair come into play. Such is the origination
of this entire mass of stress & suffering.

“Now from the remainderless fading & cessation of that very ignorance comes the
cessation of fabrications. …From the cessation of birth, then aging & death,
sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair all cease. Such is the cessation
of this entire mass of stress & suffering.”

So when speaking precisely the Buddha avoided self/other dichotomy.

And you are well aware of all the suttas that state that one shouldn’t consider
any of 5 aggregates to be “I, me, mine”.