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Free Will in Buddhism: An Issue of Linguistic Confusion?

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 Just came across an interesting article by the philosopher Mark Siderits, “Paleo-compatibilism and Buddhist Reductionism”, in which he argues that the problem or confusion of free will in Buddhism stems from a fundamental misconception of a “semantic dualism” between its ontological doctrine of the Ultimate Truth and the Conventional Truth: a linguistic intermixing of conceiving the person as a whole (conventional truth) and the person as impartite parts (ultimate truth) and whence the confusion arises in interpretation (pp.29). He asserts that “freedom for moral responsibility is not incompatible with determinism about factors relevant to moral assessment (pp.29)”. Why? Because, the claim that we are free and the claim that psychophysical elements are causally determined are true in distinct and incommensurable ways (pp.29). This seems to be an interesting way of reconsidering the issue of free will in Buddhism, an attempt to make a case for the problem as a matter of linguistic issue. Lets dissect his arguments to evaluate the cogency of his argument for the semantic dualism as a way to argue for what he calls a “paleo-compatibilist” position.

First, he asserts that the freedom required for moral responsibility is not incompatible with determinism about factors that are relevant to moral assessment, because freedom and determinism are true in distinct and incommensurable ways (pp.30). And he adds that the illusion of incompatibilism arises when we illegitimately mix two distinct vocabularies concerning the persons, i.e. conceiving the person as wholes on the conventional level and conceiving the person as reducible parts on the level of ultimate truth. In making this argument, Siderits cites from Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara where the author discusses mental states like anger and its ontological and causal status.

Shantideva’s argument for absence of moral responsibility would be that it would require that there be something about the agent that is distinct from causal series of psychophysical elements and that possess a genuinely autonomous power (pp.32). Contrary to Strawson’s impossibility argument for moral responsibility, Siderits argues that Shantideva considers a dual notion of agent’s existence as both beginningless and having a determinate time by introducing the doctrine of karma which is responsible for determining the future lives or previous life that caused the present life. Logically, true self-determination seems impossible for there is no beginning that leads to an infinite regression. Here, I think moral responsibility argument is not very clearly argued but I can see how he is trying to relate the notion of responsibility to karma and a person’s role of creating karma as a form of self-determination. Siderits claims that Shantideva can hold the position that persons are sometimes responsible for their actions and make the statement that they are responsible in a distinct and incommensurable way i.e. there is no moral responsibility on the level of ultimate truth while there is on the level of conventional truth. The argument goes like this:

    No statement having an ultimate truth-value have a conventional truth-value and vice-versa.
    Persons are sometimes the originating causes of their actions for which they are then responsible.
    Each impersonal and impermanent elements in a causal series of psychophysical elements is causally determined by earlier elements.

Now, the premise (3) is argued by the Buddhist reductionists and the incompatibilists would obviously therefore reject (2) which states that persons have moral responsibilities. However, pale-compatibilists would argue that statement (2) and (3) cannot be incompatible. Because, incompatibility holds the truth of one statement entails the falsity of the other (pp.36). Siderits argues that semantic dualism does a great instrumental service of presenting this problem in (1). So, to employ semantic dualism would mean that while ultimately there is neither desert nor responsibility, it is still conventionally true that persons deserve the karmic fruit they receive because they are responsible for actions that generated it (pp.38). Conventionally, he argues, “we can accept that over a beginningless series of lives, each life determines the next life”, this seems to me a misinterpretation of the concept of karma. Because, quite inarguably, it is argued that karmic consequences of an act can come to fruition either immediately in this life or after several lives.

Unlike the traditional compatibilists who hold that real freedom is an illusion but it is useful to hold this illusion for its good consequences (efficacy argument), paleo-compatibilists’s position is that one cannot speak of moral responsibility, which is a property of the whole – and also speak of psychophysical elements as the parts of the whole in the same breath (pp.41). It is true that responsibility requires agent causation and agent causation pertains to person, the whole that is composed of psychophysical elements. So, when we speak of responsibility, it pertains to the conventional reality of the person as a whole – not the impartite psychophysical elements. Therefore, when we conceive of persons as impartite psychophysical elements, all sense of agency drops out and with it also moral responsibility. Therefore, there is no free will ultimately, but there “is” in the conventional reality of human condition, understanding the Buddhist ontology of the two truths actually evaporates the problem of free will debate as a matter of cognitive closure to the ultimate reality of existence.

Work Cited:
Siderits, Mark Paleo-Compatibilism and Buddhist Reductionism, SOPHIA (2008) 47:29–42.