Sunday, April 29, 2012

The illusion of free will and its utter irrelevance

I like Brad Warner's Zen, despite its Soto flavor.  And I'm sure when his god book comes out, I'll probably read it and rip it to shreds - or not- I might not really; he and I might just come down on the same side of things with just each of using using more unfortunate language than the next person.

This post though is about a comment he makes on his blog entry on his return to California:

Sam Harris is a pretty convincing speaker, isn't he? I plan to watch that entire video soon. But I watched about a minute of it & it seems pretty clear where he's going.

The problem is it's all up in the head. This is what trips up people like Harris. They are far too clever for their own good. They can convince themselves of anything they choose to because their brains are so sharp and efficient.

I actually LIKE Sam Harris' stuff. So don't get me wrong here. Among his crowd of self-satisfied über atheists, he's definitely the best. Richard Dawkins has nothing on Sam Harris.

The best koan I know of that addresses the issue is the one about the guy who stubs his toe and says, "I had heard that the body is an illusion, where does this pain come from?"

It's a slightly different angle on the same problem. "I had heard (from Sam Harris) that freedom of choice is an illusion. Where does this freedom of choice come from?"

Nishijima Roshi always said that determinism and free will are both true. It depends on which angle you look at things from.

Thoughts may be conditioned. But that doesn't negate freedom of action. This is something you see through actual experience, though. Not through thinking.  

First of all, I think Warner's language in dismissing the so-called New Atheists is, yes, unfortunately chosen.

Can a speaker be convincing?  Or are the speaker's ideas, conveyed in the manner in which the speaker chooses convincing? Get it? Warner's language has embedded in it some kind of guru rejection which posits a "New Atheist guru" which  just isn't there in any of the New Atheist writings.   I don't find Warner's words here convincing at all. But not just for that area of his comment, though his dismissive use of the term "self-satisfied über atheists" does nothing to help his case.  Look, many religious folks are going to find New Atheist writings stridently attacking their sacred cows; I'll stipulate to that point.   But given the asymmetry of the playing field, as its been for thousands of years, and given folks like even Brad Warner responding as above, I can't hardly blame them.  Sure they largely don't attack Buddhism, and when  they do it's uninformed.  I'll stipulate to that point, too. But when we have a discussion together, any rationalist atheist is the easiest person in the world with whom a Buddhist can come to agreement. Period. Full stop. In fact, I'd rather spend eternity in the company of New Atheists than I would in the company of someone who gets all touchy-feely about how all religions are one and all that.

If you see my comment below Warner's, though you get to the meat of my objection with this passage. 

We're highly conditioned creatures. as the posts (here and here) indicate with regard to our views and beliefs of death alone. It's been good for our survival to have characteristics like this, and the conditioning to perceive the world as though there were an "I" with "free will" is another biological/social evolutionary trait we have had. 

There is, from  a systems theoretic, behavioral scientific, or Buddhist perspective, no reason at all why there is the necessity of considering that we have a "free will." We seem to perceive ourselves as separate selves with autonomous agency, to be sure, but that's not the same thing as saying we have autonomous agency.

One objection that one might lamely try to bring against this is that people, and Buddhists especially, are prone to develop and improve and cultivate skill. Of course that's true.  But so what? Beings such as us with perceived autonomous agency wouldn't perceive it any other way. In fact if there were a separate self with such autonomous agency it would make the cultivation of skill more difficult, as you can "get" from cultivation of the Buddhist Dharma.

But  that might not be the ultimate objection of Brad Warner (or maybe Nishijima).  That, rather may go like this: if the notion of "self" is inherently empty, with no intrinsic essence, the notion of a  "free will" attribute of this inherently empty self  is also inherently empty.  

But that's not the same thing; it's a kind of category mistake if  they're  going there, and I admit I don't know if that's where they're going.  "Free will" is an attribute applied to certain beings; it is an ideal in the way its advocates apply it, but only imperfectly realized, if at all,  because of the obvious fact of habit.  But that last sentence, to me, at any rate, implies that Occam's razor can be applied, especially given the fact that we improve by suspending such notions, except insofar as we think by practice we improve.  But that thought-position-action doesn't imply the grander philosophical notion; the latter is utterly unimportant as long as there's the former.  That former is assumed axiomatic in Buddhism and its writings; the latter, though, I can't think of something that leaps out at me at the moment that justifies a Western philosophical notion of free will.

I won't be surprised if someone else brings up another Buddhist position on this and cites myriad sutras to back up their position, but I just don't think the Big Question is all that important.


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