Buddhist Hard Determinism: No Self, No Free Will, No Responsibility

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Buddhist Scholarship on Free Will: An Introduction (2)

Buddhist scholarship on the question of the compatibility of free will and determinism is a relatively new phenomenon. Throughout the bulk of Buddhist history, apart from a few fragments of early Buddhism in which the Buddha explicitly rejects a then prevalent form of fatalism (Federman "Buddha"), there has been almost no explicit discussion of the issue. Only recently, encounters with Western philosophy and science raise the question of what Buddhism, in light of its rich philosophies of mind and action, has to offer to this--perhaps the most enduring--question in the Western philosophical tradition.

Let me first review the free will and determinism dilemma, and then how various Buddhist scholars have weighed in on the issue. Determinism implies that every event is causally necessitated by previous events in inviolable accordance with immutable laws of nature. Belief in free will implies that some of our deliberative efforts, choices, and actions are sufficiently self-authored or "up to us," such that they ground attributions of moral responsibility, such as praise and blame, related reactive attitudes, such as remorse and punishment, and the variety of our normative institutions that presuppose that much of our behavior flows from our autonomous agency. The dilemma here is that either determinism is true or false. If determinism is true, then the causes of our actions predate our existence and are unalterable, in which case our behavior, though it appears to be our free choice, is really rigidly fixed in advance, in which case we are not morally responsible. However, if determinism is false, the causes of our choices are utterly random and chaotic, and thus they are no more "up to us" than a seizure or the toss of a coin. Either way, we seem to lack free will and ultimate moral responsibility.

I divide the extant Buddhist scholarship on this issue into three chronological periods--early, middle, and recent--but the writings from each also exhibit certain conceptual affinities. Let me first review the results of my own analyses of the writings of each period, as reflected in my earlier articles, (3) in order to frame the arguments of the present article.

Early-period scholarship

In the early period, there was a flurry of initial scholarship on the issue. In the first article in this series ("Earlier"), I examined the writings of most major early-period Buddhist scholars--Frances Story, Walpola Rahula, Luis Gomez, and David Kalupahana--regarding the free will and determinism/indeterminism dilemma. Determinism, it should be noted, resembles the Buddhist causal doctrine of "dependent origination" (pratTtya samutpada). Dependent origination theory asserts the dependence of all conditioned/composite phenomena on previous (and/or simultaneous) impartite microphenomena.

Most scholars of this period attempted to show that Buddhism was not vulnerable to the dilemma that consists of the prima facie incompatibility between determinism (or its Buddhist cousin, dependent origination) and free will. Early-period scholars attempted to circumvent this dilemma by arguing for some sort of middle path position that avoids both "rigid" determinism and "chaotic" indeterminism, but their attempts insufficiently articulated just what sort of causation could occupy this middle ground.

As I noted in "Paleo-compatibilism," some such Buddhists (including one from the middle period, Siderits) hold that David Hume's deflationary error theory of causation, wherein causation is no more than a conceptual construction and projection based on the perceived constant conjunction of contingent event types, precisely provides the middle path Buddhists would need for a Buddhist compatibilism between free will and both determinism and indeterminism. However promising this appears at first, on analysis it is insufficient for the task at hand, because determinism presupposes necessary causal relations, not contingent ones; therefore, determinism is not Humean. …