I've given a few public talks over the past year or so addressing the issue of Free Will, and why we probably don't have any; and rather surprisingly, nobody in the audiences has gotten upset. There have been plenty of responses starting like "Yeah but…" and some difficulty and discomfort in people wrapping their head around the idea, but no indignation, no heckling, and that is comforting. This may be partly because the audiences have been largely Buddhist, and Buddhists intellectually accept the notion of No Self, which pretty much implies No Free Will. Also, I guess, some of my listeners have been scientific materialists, who consider themselves to be soulless meat robots anyway.
The Buddhist doctrine of anattā or No Self is set forth in the Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta, traditionally an account of the Buddha's second formal discourse after his enlightenment, as well as the occasion of the full enlightening of his first five disciples. In this discourse the Buddha points out that with regard to any of the five aggregates which make up the phenomena of a human being we cannot say, "Let it be this way, let it not be that way," and have it happen---in other words, we do not have real control over them---and one of those five aggregates is saṅkhārakkhandha, the aggregate of conditions, which the texts identify as volition, or will. Thus Free Will would be ruled out by the interpretation of anattā promulgated in this Sutta.
Another Buddhist complication is the fundamental doctrine of paṭicca-samuppāda or Dependent Co-arising, which states that anything in this universe, including a volitional action, is relative to other things and dependent upon other things. On the other hand, Free Will implies some degree of independence from extraneous circumstance, the existence of a free agent undetermined by the rest of the world. (Consequently it should be no surprise that the great Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna essentially identified Dependent Co-arising with No Self, and with Voidness besides.)
However, a non-Buddhist could simply dismiss evidence from Buddhist philosophy as non-authoritative. But there are other kinds of evidence.
For example, I have some experiential evidence of my own. There have been times when my mindfulness has been good enough that I have been able to see "my own" decision-making processes happening spontaneously, as though I were observing something foreign, something not me. One of the most memorable occasions of this type occurred in a cave in northwestern Burma several years ago. My absolutely necessary sweat-wiping rag was disintegrating, so I had delved into my stash of extra washcloths and was deciding which one to use. I had the choice narrowed down to two: a yellow one and an orange one. There was no obvious reason to choose one over the other, so I was in a state of slightly stumped indecision---when suddenly the thought arose, "I'll use this one." It was as much a surprise to me as if someone else had said it. If one thinks about it though, it does make sense that we can be surprised by our own decisions, as we can't know how we will decide until we find the decision suddenly arising in our mind. If we knew in advance how we were going to decide, then we would have already decided. Even so, for a while after it started happening I felt like I might be losing my mind; I had read that schizophrenia has symptoms like that. You can check out this automatic decision-making phenomenon for yourself through a little introspection: it works best if you have two or more options with no obvious decision to choose one way or the other, like with my sweat rags, otherwise the obvious decision quickly chooses for you. (As it turned out, a few moments after the surprise choice of the one cloth I changed my mind and used the other one.)
But someone who doubts the soundness of my judgement may easily dismiss my epiphany of the sweat rags. After all, I am a rather eccentric person. But the evidence against no Free Will is not exhausted.
In modern scientific materialism ("Scientism"), for example, there is empirical evidence that our brain cells start firing to make a decision at least one-tenth of a second before we are aware of starting to make that decision. I recently heard that the brain may start its decision-making as much as six seconds before we are aware of starting the wheels in motion. Those who take Scientism to heart seem to have little choice but to be determinists, or to harbor mutually contradictory beliefs. But one may have reasonable doubts about scientific materialism also. Its findings are not really proof.
But the worst is yet to come…From the perspective of simple Logic, Free Will is not only impossible, but it doesn't even mean anything. It's just empty words with nothing backing them up. Albert Einstein, who was no moron incidentally, used to say that he had no idea what people were talking about when they spoke of Free Will. It may be that some young wise-guy logician has invented a new kind of logic that can account for Free Will, but I have never heard of it. And classical Logic is pretty darned persuasive.
The classical argument runs something like this: Either something (in this case a decision) has a cause, or it doesn't. It has to be one or the other, or perhaps a combination of the two. Now, if it has a cause, then it is determined by that cause, and is not free. On the other hand, if something happens without a cause, then it happens at random; and although random chance may be considered a kind of freedom, that is apparently not what libertarians are talking about in their assertions of Free Will. Truly random actions would be more like an epileptic seizure than what people would desire as Freedom. Yet logically it has to be one or the other. We seem to be stuck between the rock and the hard place of Determinism and Random Chance. Science may allow a combination of macroscopic determinism tempered with a bit of submicroscopic quantum uncertainty, but it seems even that would not account for Free Will.
Some may reply that our own Free Will is the cause of our decisions. All this does, however, is to move us back one step: Our Free Will chooses this decision instead of that one...for a reason, or without a reason---and thus we wind up with the same dilemma. Presumably even an infinite regress of reasons for reasons for reasons wouldn't bail us out of the difficulty.
To confound things even more from a Buddhist point of view, some Pali texts also rule out Determinism and Random Chance---which would seem to rule out all possibilities.
The question naturally arises that if Free Will is flatly impossible, then why do so many people believe they have it? Even most Buddhists and classical logicians assume they have it when they are not being philosophical, which, naturally, is most of the time.
One pretty basic explanation for it is that we have, using Buddhist terminology, the conceit "I am," a deep, natural, mistaken belief that we are intrinsically real individuals distinct from everything else. This is combined with literally boundless ignorance; as the great philosopher Spinoza observed, we believe that we are free because we are ignorant of the causes of our own behavior. (Spinoza, by the way, was the one who made the famous statement that if a thrown rock were conscious it would believe that it was flying through the air of its own Free Will.) Sometimes we assume that we are making a free decision, not realizing that we habitually decide in that same way every time the same set of circumstances arises, or that we are subconsciously biased and influenced by feelings of being punished when we were three, or whatever. The philosopher David Hume elaborated on the ignorance issue by observing that we may believe in Free Will because we can imagine having chosen the other way; but just because we can imagine it is no proof that we really could have done so under the circumstances.
Another reason for the belief in Free Will here in the West is that our culture, and thus our way of thinking, is heavily influenced by Christianity, and Free Will is necessary for Christian dogma to work. To give just one example, if Adam and Eve had no Free Will and were constrained by circumstance to eat the fruit of Knowledge, then God Almighty would be a cruel tyrant for punishing the world all these thousands of years for something that couldn't have been helped, except maybe by Himself. (This incidentally suggests the idea that if there is no Free Will then there is no moral responsibility, and therefore punishing criminals is unjust. However, from a more or less Buddhist perspective apprehending and locking up criminals is mainly for the purpose of protecting society by removing dangerous people, regardless of why they are dangerous, and to serve as a deterring example to others considering criminality as a viable livelihood.)
Another important reason for why we consider ourselves free is that deep down we simply feel free. And as it turns out, there is something in that.
This is the Good News: There is freedom. But, it is not will or volition that is free, it is consciousness that is free.
But it should be pointed out to philosophical followers of Theravāda that it is not viññāṇakkhandha, the aggregate of consciousness in the five aggregate theory, that is free. Consciousness as an aggregate is hardly more than the vehicle of mental states, and thus no more free than the volitions, perceptions, etc. that it supports. The consciousness I am referring to is the kind described in the Kevaṭṭa Sutta of the Dīgha Nikāya (D.11), and also mentioned in the Brahmanimantanika Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya (M.49): "Consciousness unmanifest, infinite, shining all around" (viññāṇaṁ anidassanaṁ, anantaṁ sabbatopabhaṁ). It is evidently a description of Nirvana, and is rather unorthodox from the traditional Theravādin point of view, being more like the philosophy of the Upanishads; although it is endorsed in ancient texts and was presumably accepted by many before relatively early developments in Theravādin philosophy moved in a different direction, leaving infinite consciousness behind.
But remember---we do not have this freedom of consciousness, because we do not really exist, or at least we Buddhists with No Self do not. This infinite consciousness of the texts is unconditioned, and is free in and of itself.
Getting back to our friend Spinoza, the unmanifest consciousness of the Kevaṭṭa Sutta is free just as Spinoza's God is free: According to Spinoza, even God Almighty does not have Free Will, because Free Will is a manifest impossibility. (Spinoza and his followers, like Einstein, tend to be rationalists.) God is absolutely free because He is infinite and contains within Himself all possibilities. Another analogy is the Tao Te Ching's "nameless uncarved block": The Tao is like an uncarved block in that it contains within it all possible forms or images, and maybe even some impossible ones.
The thing is that this Unmanifest Consciousness, or Brahman, or God, or Tao, or whatever, is infinite and formless, without boundaries. It is beyond the duality of existence and nonexistence, beyond the duality of "is" and "isn't." It is completely Off the Scale.
But regardless of whether or not you can accept this mystical, paradoxical verbiage, the fact remains that the more conscious we are, the more free we are. However, it is not necessarily the freedom to do what we want---it is more like freedom from what we want, as what we want is generally what enslaves us. When we are free, we have more options, and thus we have more freedom to do what is right, or best, or perfect---what the spiritual teacher Paul Lowe calls "living up to our maximum potential." The less conscious we are in our everyday lives, the more automatic and habit-ridden we are, and the more likely we are to make the same mistakes over and over again.
An obvious example of heightened consciousness increasing our chances of being perfect is dangerous sports like rock climbing or motorcycle racing, in which a single moment of carelessness can easily result in disaster. One's consciousness expands and one feels very alive at such times, in addition to being at one's best. The trick is to maintain this level of awareness (although hopefully not this level of adrenalin) even if one isn't dangling from a rock face or riding a motorcycle at 200 miles per hour.
Another example of expanded awareness facilitating perfection is the well-known observation that true inspiration, in both Art and Science, arises from a still, quiet, waiting mind, not from figuring anything out. In traditions like Theravāda this clear mind, which gives rise to insight as well as inspiration, is cultivated deliberately through more and more subtle levels of meditation. In other systems like Zen the clear mind is sometimes attained by being stumped, by working on a riddle which has no answer (a koan, like "How do you know your Buddha-nature from the sound of a chirping cricket?") until the mind hits a crisis point and simply gives up. In this state of being stumped, in this "I don't know," not only insight, but also enlightenment may arise.
In fact, this latter method of being jolted awake by a crisis is the usual way that people in the West wake up---not by practicing Zen, but by having a disaster. A car crashes. Somebody gets cancer. The house burns down. Someone loses all of their money. Someone suddenly just can't stand life anymore. They hit a brick wall and are slammed out of a lifetime of ruts. This is the "method" of being dragged to enlightenment by the hair kicking and screaming, and is the origin of the old Christian saying, "Man's extremity is God's opportunity." This unpleasantness may be avoided by voluntarily following a more peaceful, loving, joyful, spiritual path; but if one is ripe, then it is going to happen, if not voluntarily then kicking and screaming. We do have a choice, however. The whole world has a choice. The trick now is for us to be awake enough to see that choice.
Of course a part of the more peaceful, more joyful path is meditation, although I won't give detailed instructions here. This is a rather long one already, and I would guess that most of the people who read this already know something about how to do it. I will say though that one of the most fundamental purposes of meditation is to reduce the mind's content of symbolic perception (also known as "belief"), and also, getting back to the notion of Will, to reduce its content of volition---since, according to Buddhist philosophy at least, perception and volition necessarily go hand in hand and cannot exist independently of each other. As practice continues and volition is reduced, effort consequently also becomes less, until at the arising of liberating insight Dharma practice does not stop, but becomes effortless.
It is said in the texts that an enlightened being creates no more karma; and it is also said that karma is essentially volition, or will. (Thus karma is a mental state: Our minds radically condition our reality at all levels.) So it would seem to follow logically that even if an unenlightened being could somehow manage to have Free Will, an enlightened one has no Will at all, Free or otherwise. It is interesting that the great Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross said something very similar about Catholics who have attained the stage of Perfection (also called Spiritual Marriage, and Being God Through Participation): They reach this stage partly by "mortifying self-will," and thus they become a kind of Divine Puppet no longer motivated by their own will but moved always by the Will of God. So everything they do is perfect, even though it might not seem perfect to imperfect bystanders. By the way, it is also interesting to me how these two very different traditions teach similar techniques and seem to arrive at similar states of enlightenment, but explain those states by radically different theories.
Regardless of the theory, when consciousness is cultivated and we outgrow our automatic behavior, our habits and addictions, our spinning off of Karma, then we have attained Vimokkha or Liberation; that infinite, shining consciousness shines through us without obstruction or opaqueness; we have infinite possibilities before us; and we are Free.
May all of us become free, and may we have the wisdom to do it voluntarily in these precarious, spiritually charged times, without requiring the world to go kasplooey and slamming us into enlightenment kicking and screaming. The choice is ours, and the time is NOW.
Bless all of you.