Free Will meets Zen on Jura: October’s Outdoor Sleep


On the weekend straddling October and November I drove south to rendezvous with nine other men, two of whom were the captain and crew of a fast boat. We travelled to the Isle of Jura, where I pitched my tent outside a bothy and spent much of the weekend inside, eating steak and drinking beer. There are many other things I could have done: I could have remained at home and gone for a walk, done some writing or stayed in bed. I went to Jura of my own free will. Or I think I did. According to some of the finest minds in philosophy and science, free will is an illusion and everything we do is the result of processes beyond our control.

This absence of free will is completely at odds with my perception of myself as a purposive agent with the capacity to shape my life and influence my future. But it sits well with the philosophy of Zen, which I dug into in my last post. Zen appears to go further than throwing out free will; it teaches that the concept of the self as something distinct from the rest of the universe is an illusion, that what we experience as ‘our’ actions are a part of the unfolding of the universe; they should require no more effort than breathing or the beating of the heart.

It seemed suddenly important to take a position on the topic of free will. During my drive I downloaded an In Our Time podcast on the topic onto my phone and listened to it until I had absorbed its contents. This led into a lengthy period of reading and thinking, hence the delay in publishing this post.

ruib Lodge Jura
Camp outside Cruib Lodge

Decision 1: Determinism vs Indeterminism

There are two key questions that must be addressed by those who wish to take a position on the subject of free will. The first is between determinism and indeterminism. Determinists hold that the universe unfolds according to fixed laws, with each event being an inevitable consequence of what has gone before, a linear chain of causes and effects that extend back to the Big Bang, or whatever the true beginning was. Indeterminists believe that events may occur spontaneously, without any causation.

This first question is easy to answer. Things do not happen by themselves in isolation. This makes me a determinist and leaves me in good company, for all scientists are determinists. There would be little point in studying the mechanisms of how the world works if they could be overridden by spontaneous, causeless events.

Philosophers are wont to use trivial examples to illustrate the idea of a deterministic universe. An example is stating that if you were in a restaurant last night and thought that you were deliberating over whether to choose the beef or the chicken, you really had no choice, your selection having been determined hundreds of years before you were born.

Now it is indeed true that with hindsight one could trace this chain of cause and effect: the meeting of one’s grandparents, the births and meeting of one’s parents, the formative childhood experiences of all parties involved, the events of your life. These were all necessary precursor actions to your sitting in the restaurant choosing the beef. Perhaps you got food poisoning from chicken as a child. Perhaps your grandmother got food poisoning form chicken as a child and seeded a suspicion of chicken in your father, which he passed on to you. In such cases the prior events determining menu choice may extend far back in time. But they may also be very recent. Perhaps you had eaten chicken the previous night and wanted some variety. Perhaps your body was craving iron and signalling a desire for beef to your brain.

I am happy with the idea that that the universe, including people, unfolds according to fixed laws, but any talk of how my menu choice was determined before I was born strikes me as absurd. My reason for finding it so is that as we go back in time the number of possible eventualities increases exponentially. The state of the universe a few minutes from now had a number of possible outcomes with varying degrees of probability, but only one of them actually occurred. So when we look back we can seen that things can only have turned out the way they did. But had things gone just slightly differently they could have turned out very differently.

The weather provides a good example – even if we know the precise starting conditions we can only predict a short distance ahead. This is a consequence of chaos, nonlinear interactions whereby a fixed input may have a small effect if the system is in one condition and a far larger effect if it is in another.   That is not to say that such things are unpredictable in principle, but even if we had a precise knowledge of the starting configuration and of the physical laws, we always find ourselves short on the computing power required to make an accurate forecast. And that’s the weather. Imagine how much computing power would be required to predict the menu choice of someone who may or may not be born in a hundred years time? It might require a computer the size of the universe. So in practice the future always remains unknown, even when it is wholly deterministic.

It may be true to say that your menu choice was determined by events centuries ago but it is not in the least bit helpful. What is most unhelpful about this type of forward projecting determinism is that it has more than a whiff of fatalism about it. Fatalism says that all is pre-determined, that  no matter what actions we as individuals take, the outcome is preordained. An example that illustrates the distinction between fatalism and determinism would be that if you were fated to get a job you could just lie in bed on the day of the interview and still get it. However if you were merely determined to get the job you would’t get it without attending the interview and putting in a good performance, because such attendance and performance forms part of the causal chain  that determined who got the job.


Loch Tarbert and the Paps from Cruib

Decision 2: Compatibilism vs Incompatibilism

The second question is a thornier one. Even those of us who hold that the universe is deterministic have a strong sense of agency, we feel that we decide to do things, and that at any point we could have decided to pursue an alternative course of action. Is this sense of free will compatible or incompatible with a deterministic universe? This is where things get interesting, and debates rage on to this day between compatibilists and incompatibilists. Indeed I find that contemporary thinkers whose work I respect are having public disagreements on this topic, with Dan Dennett arguing in favour of compatibilism and Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne arguing the other side.

The reason that the topic generates such heated debate is because it has applications in moral responsibility and in crime and punishment. Can people be held responsible for their actions? Let’s take the example of someone who has done something very naughty, like molesting a child. If we are truly living in a deterministic universe then their actions were determined by the state of the universe prior to the molestation, which in turn was determined by the state of the universe prior to that, and so on, until we have convinced ourselves that the conditions necessary for the eventual molestation were present before the molester and molestee were born. If that is the case should the molester be punished? There are cases in which the sudden development of urges to molest children have been traced to the presence of brain tumours, the urges vanished as soon as the tumour was removed.  In that case it is easy to say that it was the tumour, not the person, that was responsible. But there is always something like a tumour guiding our actions: a configuration of neurons, a cocktail of  neurotransmitters. We just don’t know what it is and can’t remove it to restore ‘normal’ function. This being the case can we really hold anyone accountable for their actions?

Having immersed myself in the debate between the compatibilists and the incompatibilists I have concluded that the issue is primarily one of semantics, and the only meaningful linkage with the world that I inhabit is the spirit with which we administer justice. Some incompatibilists are happy for people to be held accountable for their actions, but not happy with the idea of locking them up as punishment. They may however be perfectly happy with the idea of locking them up to protect society. The compatibilist worries that sending out the message that there is no such thing as free will is dangerous, because it denies the obvious truth that we can and do shape our futures by the actions that we take and that doing so feels so much like exercising our free will that there is no point in denying its existence.

I have been round the houses on this one. One thing that makes incompatibilism seem appealing is the observation of the readiness potential, the fact that a signal can be detected in our brain before the conscious mind is aware that it is going to act. This is consistent with the window of  consciousness through which we interpret the world being no more than a kind of heads up display of the countless subconscious machinations of the brain, an after the fact rationalisation of the automatic responses of our biology to our environment.

Tempting though incompatibilism is, ideas from a variety of fields make me lean towards the opposite view. The most compelling comes from psychology, via an Aeon piece by Stephen Cave. As evolved organisms we have the ability to make predictions about what is likely to occur in the future and to alter our behaviour based on those predictions. This ability is well illustrated by the famous marshmallow test, in which a person is offered one marshmallow now, or two if they can resist eating the first for fifteen minutes. We become more skilled at delaying gratification as we get older, but some of us are more skilful than others, there is a spectrum of ability within the human population. And beyond the human population into the animal world. Chickens  are also capable of resisting a species appropriate treat in order to receive a double measure, but only for six seconds. Chimpanzees can last for several minutes. This ability is tied up in the idea of a Freedom Quotient, like an Intelligence Quotient or Emotional Quotient, a measure of how skilled an individual is in anticipating future events and modifying their behaviour accordingly. This amounts to a measurement of free will, and that which can be measured is  real in any sense that matters.

So this makes me a determinist, a compatibilist, and also someone who is perplexed at having spent weeks down this philosophical rabbit hole when I actually wanted to write some more about Zen.


Early morning on the water, looking towards the bothy

Back on track

My interest in the topic of free will was piqued by my last post about  Zen and how helpful it had been in rationalising the great sense of peace that I had experienced while climbing the mountains of Morocco and sleeping under the stars. But there was an inherent contradiction at the heart of this attempt to dress my holiday in eastern philosophy.

It was easy to see how I had been immersed in the present moment while actually in the mountains, when the constraints placed by previous decisions left few possibilities but to let the present moment unfold. But what of the planning and preparation? Surely these had been forward looking activities during which I had exercised my will to shape the future. This is exactly what Zen says that we should not do, grasping at the future. It is all very well to say that one should not grasp or try too hard if one is a sage wandering the medieval Chinese countryside, but I feel that much of what is worthwhile in my life has been actualised through effort and the exercise of my will.

It is this contradiction that I want to explore, that these Zen-like feelings of going nowhere in a timeless moment had arisen from the most un-Zen-like activity of forming and investing in a fixed idea of the future and taking deliberate actions to ensure that that particular version of the future rather than any other was actualised.

In ‘The Book: On The Taboo Against Knowing What You Are’, Alan Watts built upon the ideas of Zen, that life should lived exclusively in the present moment, that if we listen to our true self which is not separate from – but a part of – the unfolding universe,  all our actions can be as effortless as the beating of our heart or the breath. We experience thoughts as arising spontaneously in our minds. The trick is to work out which are ours and which have been implanted by society.

This is philosophy at its most useful, its purpose is to teach that anxiety has its root in split-mind, in inhabiting past or future rather than present. The way to avoid anxiety is to listen to our true self and not get lost in the chitter chatter of consciousness. This is where Zen becomes compatible with forward looking actions and the expending of effort for future reward. What matters is the spirit in which it is done. Is it done in response to the calling of one’s true nature or in response to external factors?

Take the example of a situation in which I am sitting trying to relax, but find myself plagued by nagging thoughts suggesting that I should so something. The challenge is to decide whether or not I am acting with spilt mind. Is it the voice of society telling me that I should act, or does it come from the true self, from the effortless unfolding of the universe?

If I want to relax and recuperate then that is what I should commit to wholeheartedly. But if I want to act and expend effort then I should do so immediately without second thought. Getting this call wrong leads to striving counterproductively on the one hand and being lazy on the other.

I think that this detour into free will has been a useful one and has helped me to resolve an apparent contradiction. Is it possible to combine an appreciation  of the teachings of Zen with a compatibilist position on free will? I think that it is, provided that one accepts that what we experience as the will forms a part of our deterministic and unpredictable universe, in which case Zen doesn’t require us to dispense with it at all.

More Jura posts:

Isle of Jura: Backpacking and Snake Charming

Corryvreckan Whirlpool, Breacan’s Cave and Glengarrisdale Bothy

Leave a Reply