Free Will vs. Determinism

I’m in a slightly philosophical mood, so I thought I would offer my two cents on this age-old debate.

“Is there free will or is everything determined?” First of all, why does it matter? What difference does it make?

Well, if there is no free will, can we really hold people accountable for their actions? If everything happens deterministically, why is there so much suffering? Does it mean there is no God, only the indifferent mechanisms of nature? Or has God written in all this suffering for reasons only He can imagine?

On the other hand, if there is free will, how does that fit into our scientific world-view? Does free will mean there is an eternal soul which isn’t bound by material reality?

I want this question to be existential rather than intellectual. The debate can go on forever, but it all comes down to two observations: we appear to have free choice and science appears to explain the whole universe as rigid, determinstic cause-and-effect.

Now, both of these appearances aren’t as solid as they seem. We can take some time to observe how our personalities, moods, and ways of behaving are influenced by the world around us. We’re very used to looking at the world from a self-centered perspective, but a holistic perspective always shows how everything is interdependent and mutually defining. The teeth of the fox define the legs of the hare, so to speak. The hare may say “it is my choice to run!” but if the fox wasn’t giving chase, the hare would likely not feel the pressure to make that choice. Nevertheless, the perception of freedom still stands. No amount of intellectual wriggling makes it go away.

On the scientific end, there’s a little room for non-deterministic interpretations of the latest and greatest physics discoveries.

What really interests me is the impact on the individual. If everything is determined, it’s easy to throw up your hands and say: “What’s the use in trying? Free will is just an illusion anyway.” On the other hand, if everyone has free will, it’s easy to judge and condemn and discard external circumstances by saying: “They still had free will!”

I don’t really like either of these extremes. I would rather have this conundrum be an impetus to personal growth. So I accept free will: I am free to move toward happiness or suffering. I know that attachment to transitory pleasures ultimately throws my mind off balance and brings suffering. I know that practicing detachment, acceptance and compassion is sometimes difficult in the short term, but always rewarding in the long run. So I have free will–when I feel the greatest pressure to capitulate to desires that don’t serve me, I face the greatest potential for self-transcendence. And others have free will too–we should compassionately challenge each other to be the best we can be.

On the other hand, I accept determinism. We have free will–we do what we can to make the world a better place. But determinism is real–our efforts will always encounter natural limitations. The world operates by cause and effect, violence breeds violence and ignorance breeds ignorance. We can’t really hold others responsible for choosing hate when they’ve never known love. We can’t condemn the greed of others when they’ve never known the abundance of true happiness. And we have this duality within ourselves too. Every person who has ever lived has inherited the good and the bad. We could find someone to blame, but they could find someone to blame, who could find someone else to blame, and so on and on and on without beginning. Determinism doesn’t allow that there is a beginning, because determinism is the world of the great circle–the wheel of suffering. There is no first cause, but there is a process which unravels the cycles of suffering. If we find that we are shifting from the cycle of suffering to the cycle of liberation, then we have inherited the great gift of the saints.

Contemplating this duality of free will and determinism is a gateway into the balance of paradox. We are called to be accepting and discriminating… accept the world as it is, but always move toward what you perceive as the highest good. It means to judge without being judgmental…

But ultimately, one of them has to be true, right?

I think it’s more likely that they both miss the mark.


One thought on “Free Will vs. Determinism”

  1. I enjoyed reading this, it is very well thought through, Tom. All the great teachings are in accordance, that we have the freedom to become conscious. Even this is predetermined; but the fact when it happens, alters the whole game. Free will to come off the wheel, to move into its centre and let it turn? Free will includes engagement with the suffering, which is compassion. Free will includes all things. The problem of suffering and of evil-doing is locked in our ways of thought and conditioning. We also have the freedom to breathe, or remain unaware of our breath. The freedom when it happens is truly beyond all the perspectives – like a view from above the maze. Thank you.

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