Self-Consciousness as a Possible Explanation for Free Will

Volitional formations are not self. For if, monks, volitional formations were self, these volitional formations would not be conducive to affliction, and one could say of these volitional formations “Let my volitional formations be like this, let my volitional formations not be like that,” and have it happen. But since, monks, volitional formations are not self, therefore volitional formations are conducive to affliction, and one cannot say with regard to volitional formations, “Let my volitional formations be like this, let my volitional formations not be like that,” and have it happen. —from the Anattalakkhana Sutta, considered to be the Buddha’s second sermon after his enlightenment

     One of my earliest blog posts, the sixth essay I wrote for my first blog years ago, was about Free Will, and its enigmatic position in Buddhism, and in empirical reality in general. On the one hand, everyone feels like they have free will, including me. On the other hand, logic, science, Buddhist doctrine, and to some degree my own experience indicate that free will is an illusion.

     I won’t take the trouble to write down all my arguments that I used in the older post; those interested may find it here. I will explain some of the main points though, which point away from free will.

     First off, from the perspective of western rationality, that is Aristotle’s Laws of Thought, free will is not just impossible, it is nonsensical. The basic argument goes like this: When somebody makes a choice or a decision, that action has a cause, or else it doesn’t have a cause. It has to be one or the other, or maybe a combination of both. So, if our choices have a cause they are determined by that cause and are not free. On the other hand, if our choices do not have a cause, then they occur randomly. These are the two options, determinism and chance; and free will is neither, nor is it a combination of the two. Someone can argue that our free will is the cause, but that simply kicks the can one more kick down the road and doesn’t really solve the problem: Our free will makes a decision for a reason or without a reason, and we’re back to where we were before. Consequently, from the perspective of western-style rationality and logic, free will is bullshit. It may be that a major reason why so many people in the west stubbornly persist in believing in free will is because the doctrine of free will is necessary for Christianity, because if God punishes us for what we can’t help at all, then He would be rather a cruel and tyrannical God. On the other hand, Muslims have no problem with the idea that we have no free will, and that Allah (the Benevolent, the Merciful) may send us to hell anyway.

     Then there is scientific evidence. One such squall of rain on the free will parade is a study or two demonstrating that the decision-making part of the brain begins firing before a subject is aware of making the decision. The difference between the brain making the decision and the mind experiencing that decision is something like one tenth of a second, but that is more than enough.

     Some of my own experiences seem to back this up, for example times when I have had no obvious reason to choose one thing over another, and am standing there in a mindful quandary over which to choose, when suddenly the thought arises, to my surprise, “I pick this one.” Of course if we make such a decision we don’t know what it will be until it arises, otherwise we would have decided already. But my own personal experiences should have no persuasive power over anyone but myself.

     Then there is Buddhist philosophy—which I admit has no authority over free-will-believing Christians, mechanical determinist followers of Scientism, or Allah-is-the-only-cause Muslims. Even so, according to Buddhism there is no self…and free will presumably would require a self, that is a separated individuality that can make its own decisions independently of its environment. The Anattalakkhana Sutta quoted above, the Discourse on the Mark of No Self, asserts that even the aggregate of sankhārā, which mainly means volition, is not under our control.

     On the other hand, to make things more difficult, Buddhist philosophy also rejects determinism as an explanation of our behavior. For example the Ajīvakas, the followers of a now-extinct sect of ascetic philosophers in ancient India, asserted that everyone has a predetermined number of lives to live, with their karma unfolding deterministically, and with nothing we can do about that. The Buddha rejected this point of view as pernicious wrong view, and the kind of perverse opinion/attitude that can lead one to hell. So Buddhism, as I pointed out in the old essay and elsewhere, appears to reject all obvious options and to rely on some kind of ambiguous or paradoxical mystery. There is no free will, there is no deterministic fate, and of course random chance as an explanation of our behavior is just silly.

     With regard to the logical dilemma referred to above, I have always left the door open for some unorthodox wiseguy non-Aristotelian logician to come along and figure it all out, somewhat like non-Euclidean geometers can explain things that Euclid couldn’t. I think I may have been leaning in the right direction with that, although it may be that the true answer to free will may leave logic behind altogether, Aristotelian and otherwise. Free will of a sort may exist without being logically explainable at all.

     My new idea which has inspired the writing of this post was itself inspired by the book I’ve been practically fixated on lately, The Trickster and the Paranormal, by George P. Hansen. I suppose I should apologize for writing about it so much over the past few months, but it really has made a significant impact on my understanding of the paranormal, of Buddhism, and of empirical reality in general. So please be patient. I probably will start writing about other things soon.

      So, for those of you who haven’t perused the book, or my past several blog posts, or several of my latest videos with Brian Ruhe, the main point of Hansen’s thesis is that paranormal events arise from a breakdown of structure. We all have to have rules and regularity so that we can live in a world that is more or less explainable and predictable; but this regularity is not perfect, and there are liminal places around the edges of the rules especially where the supernatural can slip through the cracks and influence our lives.

     From a Buddhist point of view not only the psychic powers attainable by meditation masters, but the workings of karma, rebirth, and even enlightenment itself could be considered paranormal or “magic,” inexplicable or even nonsensical to strict rationalists. According to Dr. Hansen, to some degree even some kinds of imagination, creativity, and charisma have roots in the paranormal and are not fundamentally logical, structured, and orderly phenomena. So it may be that free will also is paranormal to some degree and thereby beyond the scope of rational explanation regarding how it is even possible. It simply arises somehow from the numinous weak points between structured laws. That is my new hypothesis.

     But there’s more: Hansen points out that reflexivity, self-reference, leads to paradox and the breakdown of regular structure—consider the self-referential statement “this statement is false.” Because it refers to itself it knocks itself beyond the scope of formal logic, and can be neither true nor false, neither A nor not-A. The mathematician Kurt Gödel demonstrated mathematically that self-reference can result in the breakdown of logical structure and the possibility of statements which totally defy Aristotelian laws of thought, like “this statement is false,” or “I am lying.” Furthermore, not only meditation, in which the mind observes itself, but even consciousness in the human sense involves self-awareness, reflexivity, which itself may lead to self-referential paradoxes.

     Thus self-awareness, human consciousness in general, may be of necessity, by its very nature, fundamentally irrational and anti-structural (even setting aside the Buddhist idea that “I am” is the root of all delusion), and thereby conducive to magic and other violations of the “laws of nature.” And free will could be just one of those violations, logically flatly impossible but real nevertheless.

     But ultimately, even if the rationalists are right and there is no free will, and deterministic cause and effect (with maybe some submicroscopic quantum randomness) are the inviolable law of the universe, still the fact remains that the more conscious you are, the more aware of various options you are, and the more choices you have in life, and the more likely you are to make the best choice. Just being mindful can cure you of lifelong habit patterns that have had you acting like a meat robot, and can help to free you from your own limited humanity. Socrates is said to have said that the unexamined life is not worth living; but a totally unexamined life, one devoid of paradoxical self-awareness, would be a virtually unconscious one, the life of an animalistic automaton, and devoid of even a spark of conscious divinity or magic, much less free will.


  1. Volitional formations is just a bad translation to begin with. And after the first aggregate, the rest are all just repeats of the same thing 4 times. Is an emotion not in fact merely a special case of perception? Is a perception not a mental formation? Is consciousness in the sense of the 6 senses not perception? So all 4 are the same thing. Buddha clearly never taught the latter 4 aggregates. This is scholasticism. Buddha said sakkaya is not the self; scholastics changed it by adding these 4 repetitious fake ideas.

    1. The very first essay I ever wrote was on the issue of identifying the four mental khandhas. The way I had it worked out when I wrote it is that vedanā is essentially a kind of non-verbal perception (saññā), so that they are differentiated along the lines of complexity and abstraction, which could be said to be an arbitrary distinction. Sankhārā or "volitional formations" are the temporal aspect of perception. Much as Schopenhauer had his Will and Representation, Buddhism has its Volition and Perception, the object aspect and the process aspect, which is also an artificial distinction but which is built into human psychology. Consciousness is the underlying essence of the forms assumed by the mental states.

    2. You can attempt some extreme nuance or whatever but you are just further engaging in scholasticism by doing so. Why would anyone think that non-verbal perception was their "self" anyway? They wouldn't. So Buddha had no need to tell them that such a thing is not their self. Its the scholastics who were too "smart" to understand Buddha that came up with this fine abstractions that don't even describe anything anyone would think is their self to begin with. If people think something is their self, it is either the body or the soul, not emotions, not sub-verbals perceptions, not the 5 senses, etc. The scholastics turned a comprehensible doctrine into academic gibberish.

    3. An open question: are we talking about an underlying essence, or just the sum total of all states over time, like the crude cartoon formed by flipping pages in rapid succession?

    4. Well by golly somebody knows the human mind better than ancient Buddhism does. Good for you. Maybe the Buddha was just wrong for not positing the existence of a soul. With regard to Bob's open question, a conscious being's mind is like a flame, with no inherent self-existence and changing from one moment to the next, existing because of conditions. When the conditions cease, the mind also ceases.

    5. Buddha taught a soul, just like Socrates. Nagasena was an atheist who altered Buddhism.

    6. The trouble with that is that even the most ancient texts, long before Nagasena (who technically probably wasn't even a Theravadin), deny the existence of a self, any self, including the sort of Atman endorsed by the Upanishads. The Buddha's reputed second sermon after his enlightenment was on anatta, and the Atthakavagga of the Sutta-Nipata, a VERY ancient text, declares that the primordial root of all delusion is the belief "I am." So say what you like and believe what you like, but from a Buddhist perspective you're spouting "pernicious wrong view."

    7. I assume you are referring to Atthakavagga sutta 14, presented below as in your own personal translation:

      "One with discretion would arrest 'I am,'
      (said the Blessed One,)
      The whole root of diversifying designation.
      Whatever cravings there are within himself
      He would train in their dismissal, always being mindful."

      Which seems to only mean he would arrest any notion of identifying himself with bodily lusts, like thinking "I am one who desires this" like when people identify with their sexuality for instance. This is not saying he denies he is a spirit or that he exists. Rather it is saying he denies the lusts are actually his because they are lusts of the body not the soul.

      Now from Fausboll's translation I would never get any notion like what you suggest here on the blog:

      "Let him completely cut off the root of what is called papañka (delusion), thinking "I am wisdom;"--so said Bhagavat,--all the desires that arise inwardly, let him learn to subdue them, always being thoughtful. (916)"

      It seems you understand differently where the word for wisdom/discretion belongs in the sentence. Here the idea seems to be that he should think "I am wise, and therefore must reject the lusts of the body." In any case, even in your translation, your own conclusion is not there in actuality, because the context of the verse shows that the thing he should not think "I am" about is bodily lusts, not his existence itself.

    8. Something I for sure learned in Christianity is that when someone has a false doctrine to push, they choose a passage that is hard to translate, and pack it in there, which is what you are doing here with that verse in Atthakavagga. You translate it that "one with discretion would arrest 'I am'" while other translators take the word you are translating discretion as belonging as the object of "I am." In Fausboll "I am wisdom" and in Thanissaro "I am the thinker." I don't have access to BB's translation of the Sutta Nipata. Logically though, between the 3 translations I have access to, Fausboll's seems the most reasonable. Putting an end to believing "I am the thinker" is retarded; arresting the thought that you exist is retarded; but thinking "I am wisdom" or "I am wise" and proceeding from that premise to implement the wisdom of getting rid of lusts makes sense. Chalmers' translation I'm sure will be a travesty, but I'll check it nonetheless.

      "Let him pluck out obsession's root--the craze 'I am'; let him in constant watchfulness abide, with all his inward cravings gone."

      Well Chalmers wasn't as bad as I expected. Basically the same as yours except he leaves out the word you translate as "discretion." Still the context shows the "I am" in question is identification with bodily lusts and not belief that you exist or are the soul/spirit. Certainly cannot be approved as the best translation though since it leaves out a word.

      Now "mantā asmīti" which Fausboll renders "I am wisdom" could be "I am like a sage" or in other words "I am wise." And that fits the context perfectly: to get rid of the root of delusion one must think "I am wise" (and prove they actually are so) by mindfully eradicting lusts. Denying your existence doesn't eradicate lusts; plenty of nihilists are still lusty. Just look at the Tibetan lamas always molesting their students!

    9. All right, this will be the last word on your idea that Buddhism doesn't *really* teach no self, or that no self applies only to the 5 aggregates and accepts some OTHER self, as I don't like wrangling back and forth.

      First off, Fausboll's translation was an early pioneering work from the 19th century, and is far from reliable. K. R. Norman's version reads: "Being a thinker, he would put a stop to the whole root of what is called 'diversification' (i.e. the thought) 'I am,' said the Blessed One. Either I. B. Horner or ven. Walpola Rahula, who collaborated with Norman, offered the alternative translation: "The Bhagava said: By wisdom he would impede all the root of proliferation, and of the conceit 'I am.'"

      But that was just an obvious text that came to mind, and I could have just as easily mentioned many others, including the Anattalakkhana Sutta that I actually DID mention. The texts, including the most ancient ones, have never endorsed the existence of a self or soul. The farthest I would go is to admit that some early texts, like in the Atthakavagga again, used puns to suggest that a monk should believe neither in self nor in not-self (atta and niratta).

      I get it. You very much want to believe that you have a soul, or a self. But fighting against the most basic teachings of Buddhism and declaring them wrong and you right--with regard to Buddhist doctrine no less--is ridiculous. If you don't like the teachings of Buddhism then try Vedanta, where you can have the same soul as God.

      I've wrangled over his issue before, once with a person who got so hysterical in his insistence on self view that he accused me of being a worshiper of Mara. The trouble is, and I've discussed this elsewhere more than once, reality is totally off the samsaric scale and words like "is" and "isn't" don't really apply to it. But people have to use dualistic language, so most religions make the mistake of "is" for their Absolute and the Buddha evidently went with very ancient Indian philosophical roots and said "isn't"--or at least his very early followers did. The same Atthakavagga declares that existence and nonexistence are themselves conditioned and the product of delusion.

      If you don't like the controversially translated passage (which again was simply the first that came to mind, along with the Buddha's reputed second sermon), try Digha 1, the Brahmajala Sutta, which shoots every self view in the head.

    10. Going back to my earlier question, I've had conversations and read various works where the 'experts' refer to the mind-stream, but is this a valid term? My personality-ego will not persist, but some future buddha will remember having lived 'my' life, correct? I've been over this more than a few times, but it repeats in my "mind" like a bad meal. Mind, soul, essence, buddha-nature, the rounds of birth-death, one feels the need for a scorecard or a cheat-sheet...

    11. I'm not sure exactly what you're referring to by the "mind-stream," but from the context I assume you mean kamma/karma? That would be the momentum of the mind and mental states, which is in a state of constant flux, like a flame. The underlying reality would be off the scale, and so qualitatively absolutely different from anything phenomenal.

      A future Buddha won't necessarily remember having been you, as some future incarnation of "you" might become a regular dry-sighted arahant and not remember past lives at all. Though presumably the after-effects of kamma/karma leave their marks.

    12. Okay, but isn't it so that the Buddha referred to his past lives, or is this only in acanonical sources, like the Jataka tales? Also, won't that arahant you mention become a buddha at some point? Isn't memory of past lives one of the characteristics of enlightenment, or is this purely a Mahayana thing?

    13. Remembering past lives is a psychic power that can be attained by an advanced meditator, allegedly, although certainly not every enlightened being becomes a fully enlightened Buddha according to tradition. And not all enlightened beings have psychic powers (although enlightenment itself could be called a paranormal phenomenon). Exactly HOW past lives can be remembered in some cases (like even my unenlightened father claimed to remember some of his past lives through hypnosis) is another question though. Like I said above, it could be traces left behind via cause and effect, or possibly it could be one of the many seeming impossibilities that arise through liminality, in accordance with that parapsychology book I read recently, The Trickster and the Paranormal, by George P. Hansen.

    14. As I understand it, then, there's a self-identifying interval of causes-effects Bob which will shortly come to an end. Everything else is contrivance and semantics.

    15. Read the Kalama Sutra, my friend.


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