In earlier blogs, as well as my recent book, "Buddhist Biology," I’ve been writing about convergences between Buddhism and biology. Let’s talk now about the Buddhist idea of karma – updated to reflect what we know from modern science – and how it connects to an old debate in Western philosophy: that surrounding free will. As already explained, I think we are not only justified, but downright obligated to reject the older Eastern perspective (notably deriving from Hindu doctrines) whereby our freedom as well as responsibility is severely circumscribed by pre-existing “karma.”
This rejection is mandated not only by ethics as well as biology, but is also, intriguingly, necessitated by the fact that Buddhist thought makes much of the role of free will in addition to a notably modern, deep sense of responsibility, summarized by karma. Choosing to act “mindfully” – a key component in Buddhist practice, especially the form of “engaged Buddhism” promoted by one of Buddhism’s “living saints,” Thich Nhat Hanh – would be meaningless if we did not, in fact, have to option of making such a choice!
It is important to observe in this regard that molecular biology long ago rejected the idea that genes determine outcomes – whether anatomic, physiologic or behavioral - with anything approaching rigid control. There are numerous genes, for example, whose sole function is to regulate the activities of other genes, and gene expression itself is modified by the surrounding environment in crucial ways. Our genes whisper to us; they do not bark orders. Thus, eastern Buddhism and Western existentialism are closely allied when it comes to the question of free will in that both acknowledge its presence and, moreover, they both celebrate it. By contrast, a strictly biological mind-set, insofar as it is materialist, balks at the very idea – not so much from its focus upon genes as because of its commitment to material causation.
This is because if the mind derives entirely from physical actions in the realm of neurobiology – and so far as we can tell, it does – then thoughts, feelings and conscious actions must also be the consequence of charged ions crossing nerve cell membranes: And such a naturalistic, automatic process leaves no room for “free will.” Or, as Schopenhauer put it (without benefit of neurobiology) “a human can very well do what he wants, but cannot will what he wants.”
The only scientifically valid alternative to materialist causation would be a literally uncaused, spontaneous event, such as the “behavior” of a radioactive nucleus when it unpredictably throws off alpha or beta particles, or gamma rays. But insofar as such events are truly random and spontaneous - and one could argue that nothing really is - the result is hardly bed-rock for free will! Alternatively, if neurobiological phenomena are physically caused after all, then free will once again must be abandoned.
Even though such abandonment accords quite closely with a strictly scientific world-view, it goes against the widespread, common-sense perspective by which each of us feels that he or she is fundamentally in control of our thoughts and actions – even if not quite sovereign when it comes to emotions. No less a scientist than Albert Einstein actually derived comfort from the assumption that people aren’t necessarily responsible for their actions, especially when these actions are regrettable. “This knowledge of the non-freedom of the will,” he explained in a 1932 speech given to the German League of Human Rights, “protects me from losing my good humor and taking much too seriously myself and my fellow humans as acting and judging individuals.”
Here, then, in the realm of free will, we have a case in which existentialism and Buddhism join forces in opposition to a strictly anti-free will, biologically confirmed viewpoint, in the process sharing a perspective that, although admittedly unscientific, is also one that accords very well with nearly everyone’s subjective experience. It is difficult indeed to find anyone who isn’t privately convinced that she has free will.
There is, incidentally, yet another problem with the Buddhist embrace of free will, one that I cannot solve but nonetheless feel obliged to acknowledge: How to reconcile anatman (“not-self”) anitya (“impermanence”) and especially pratitya-samutpada (“dependent co-arising,” aka the interconnectedness of all things) with free will? Given the realities of not-self, impermanence and interconnectedness, isn’t “freedom” unavoidably constrained? As Yul Brynner’s regal character laments in The King and I, “Is a puzzlement”!
In any event, Buddhist thought diverges in this regard from materialist biological science, asserting that genuine intentionality exists even though strict cause-and-effect thinking (supported by biology) requires that free will be an illusion. In the process, moreover, Buddhism converges with existentialism, a notably hard-headed, mysticism-denying Western philosophy that isn’t usually encountered in the same sentence as “Buddhism.”
Will wonders never cease?
David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist, long-time aspiring Buddhist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington, whose most recent book is “Buddhist Biology: ancient Eastern wisdom meets modern Western science,” just published by Oxford University Press.