Determinism and Free Will: Transforming Fate in Buddhism

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Published: 09th July 2010
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Determinism and free will. Is determinism right, and there is no such thing as free will? Can our destiny change? Is transforming fate possible? How does Buddhist karma fit in with determinism and free will? Is transforming fate possible?

The teachings of Buddhism agree that, between determinism and free will, determinism is the victor. Buddhism therefore agrees with the fortune-tellers and scientists that circumstances present at birth controls our future behavior, and therefore our destiny. While fortune-tellers look at the birth sign or the lines of the palm, science looks at the structure of the gene, which is invisible to the naked eye. (Side-note: how interesting would it be if a study determined that our genes uniquely expressed themselves in a predictable manner in the palm, or that people born at certain times of the year had discernible gene differences!) Science believes that, in addition to genes, environmental circumstances, including culture, family and events, also influences behavior strongly. Modern psychology has the consensus view that a combination of genes and environment account for one's behavior, one's life situation. Science does appear to leaning in the direction of a genetic explanation for behavior. Buddhism, on the other hand, teaches that one's karma determines one's present and future life, including behavior and circumstances.

This leads, naturally, to the question of determinism and free will, destiny change and whether transforming fate is possible. Science is firmly on the side of fatalism and determinism, and therefore leaves absolutely no room for free will. How could it? In science, the assumption, the belief, and, ironically, the FAITH, is that everything, including human behavior, is the result of causes and conditions, and thus pre-determined-which is, for the most part, what Buddhism also teaches. To the scientist, a human being is a complexly programmed robot, and nothing else. This is no exaggeration; it is merely the logical extension of every scientific explanation heretofore seen.

Since the concept of free will is completely anathema to science, it goes without saying that science could never possibly explain it.

But free will DOES exist. (We will discuss how later) However, since science denies its existence, it is in no position to define it, and define it we must, to ensure understanding. The realm of free will belongs to religion. (Perhaps the conflict between religion and science could relax a bit if we simply allowed science to have the non-free will realm and religion to have the free will side?) The Buddha defined free will. Implicitly, he defined both the non-free will realm and the free will realm in terms of the Four Noble Truths. The first two Noble Truths taught by the Buddha are actually quite scientific: suffering is caused by craving, aversion and ignorance of how we treat non-self elements as a true, permanent self. Suffering, however, is more than this.

The fact of the matter is that we are completely enslaved and controlled by craving, aversion and ignorance. In our present condition, we do not have free will, nor any semblance of freedom whatsoever. We truly are no different than a software program, a robot. Determinism wins, free will loses.

Are you shocked and annoyed right now, disagreeing? I hope you are, but more importantly, I hope you see this shock, I hope you are aware of it. It is that very awareness that is the catalyst for freedom, for destiny change. It is that awareness that leads us to freedom and brings us to the last two Noble Truths, where Buddhism splits from science.

Before moving on, let's be clear: free will is NOT the ability to do whatever one 'wants' to do whenever one wants to, as such acts are inevitably controlled by, and a cause and condition of, craving, aversion and ignorance.

Free will, then, is defined as the ability to act independently of what one wants or craves, or of what one doesn't want or crave. Determinism, the opposite of free will, can really be boiled down to acting in order to fulfill one's cravings and aversions. It is determinism because the cravings determine one's actions. Importantly, from a Buddhist perspective, one's cravings are NOT the same as the person. I am not my cravings. They are not me. Yet, cravings control me.

Science is actually great for studying phenomena up until the point of free will, at studying determinism. Science can certainly explain the origins of cravings and aversions; genetic, environmental and organic explanations of behavior cohere well with Buddhist teachings. The only difference between science and Buddhism on this point is that in Buddhism the genetic, environmental and organic causes always run through craving, aversion and ignorance. Science, therefore, is the realm of causes and conditions, of, if you will, the slave condition. This makes perfect sense, of course. However, science completely fails when it comes to helping the slave escape-it doesn't even recognize that possibility, as it doesn't even recognize the enslavement.

Religion is the realm of freedom. All of the sages and masters, the prophets, the messiahs-it is of this freedom, of escape from this slavery, that they speak.

As for the Third and Fourth Noble Truths, this is where Buddhism moves beyond science. Science is, at this point in time, completely ignorant of any possibility beyond free will. (Perhaps that is because so few people have actually achieved the state of free will, and they usually aren't willing to be studied.) The Buddhist teachings of the Third and Fourth Noble Truth teach that the end of suffering, the end of enslavement, and therefore free will, is possible by way of the Noble Eightfold Path. The Noble Eightfold Path is thus the cause and condition for freedom. As a cause and condition, therefore, science actually could study the Noble Eightfold Path.

See the link below for Part 2 of this series.

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