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Determinism and Free Will: Destiny Change in Buddhism

by Victor Fama

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?

Surprisingly, the Buddhist answer to the question of determinism and free will is that, yes, our destiny is, to a large degree, pre-determined by karma. Thus Buddhism agrees with modern science-and fortune-tellers-that our future, including disease, physical traits and our behavior, is controlled by circumstances present at our birth. Fortune-tellers believe that our astrological birth sign influences our behavior, while science says it's our genes. (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. The Buddha taught that it is karma that determines both the present and future circumstances of one's life, as well as behavior.

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. In science, the human being is nothing but a complex computer program, a highly sophisticated robot, the behavior of which, if sufficiently studied, can be predicted in its entirety. This is the only conclusion to be drawn from numerous scientific and psychological hypotheses.

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. But there is more, much more, to suffering than this.

The truth is that we are completely and wholly slaves, and our masters are craving, ignorance and aversion. The idea that we are free human beings is a complete and utter delusion. 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 excellent at studying the human robot and determinism. It also meshes quite well with Buddhist teachings insofar as science explains the causes of cravings and aversions as having genetic, organic or environmental bases. 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.

Destiny change and transforming fate are not possible under normal circumstances. In the battle between determinism and free will, determinism almost always wins. But it can be defeated. Buddhism aims precisely at transforming fate and obtaining free will. To find out how, please read the next part of this series, Karma, Destiny, Free Will and Mindfulness.

Published July 1st, 2010

Filed in Religion