Can You Be a Scientifically Educated and Buddha Aware Person, and Still Believe in the Self and in Free Will?

I know this goes against the prevailing winds of both science and Buddhism, but what would it be like to hold a naive view of the self and free will? In other words, what if you were to think that, well, the self and free will actually, you know, exist? Not appear to exist. Really exist. Really.

Science, famously, has dethroned the Earth from the center of creation, and identified it as belonging, in fact, to a lonely, medium sized star hovering in a sparse star backwater between the spiral arms of a ho-hum galaxy. And Stephen Hawking says that we are probably several hundred light years from the nearest intelligent civilization. So basically, for all practical purposes, we are alone.

What’s left to cling to? Well, the self and free will, right? They are humanity’s last delusional refuges from being (in the novelist Walker Percy’s phrase) “lost in the cosmos.” To believe that you have a self with free will is to insist that mind cannot reduce to determinate matter, to chemistry and physics. Period. In other words, there are two things in the universe to contend with: matter and mind. And you can’t, in ultimate terms, explain one via the other. There’s a chasm of explanation between them, and to attempt to reduce one to the other is a category mistake. In other words, to retain belief in the self and free will, you not only have to reject the unifying monistic projects of both science and Buddhism, you’re driven to dualism. But isn’t dualism a long vanquished idea? Sophisticated people don’t believe that there are ghosts in machines anymore, do they?

Do they?

We all live, it seems to me, in a state of total schizophrenia concerning the self and free will. Even if we reject these ideas intellectually, we all act as if the self and free will exist, and most of us don’t look at the issues at stake too closely. We presume the self and free will to exist in our courts, and in the practice of capitalism, and in our pursuits of love. Even the Dalai Lama notices when there is no chocolate mint on his hotel pillow when he visits Dubai or Hong Kong, and he blames the help. John Gray, a professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, in the Forward to the paperback version of his book, Straw Dogs (2003), puts our specifically Western confusion succinctly:

The prevailing secular world view is a pastiche of current scientific orthodoxy and pious hopes. Darwin has shown that we are animals; but—as humanists never tire of preaching—how we live is ‘up to us’. Unlike any other animal, we are told, we are free to live as we choose. Yet the idea of free will does not come from science. Its origins are in religion—not just any religion, but the Christian faith against which humanists rail so obsessively.

Maybe the self and free will are delusions. But I want to think that each individual matters, and that my will is efficacious in the world—that I am a force against matter to be reckoned with. Is this just the irrational protest of another dying animal that has not come to full and unblinkered terms with monistic materialism and nihilism? Am I just one of those dull villagers in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra  who is not quite ready for the new ethic, the new world, and the Superman because I haven’t thoroughly slain God from my psyche?

I don’t know. But I think a reversal may be at hand. We who live in the strict materialist darkness may someday be surprised to see a great light, and discover a quantum enigma at the beginning and end of time: that the self and free will really do exist, exactly as they seem to, and that the mind, however baffling as an ontological mystery, cannot be reduced to matter, and really is efficacious in the world.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Can You Be a Scientifically Educated and Buddha Aware Person, and Still Believe in the Self and in Free Will?

  1. Grad Student says:


    Interesting musings. Let me add one more question. What if the mind really is reducible to matter while still retaining free will?

    -Grad Student

  2. Heuristics says:

    >…you not only have to reject the unifying monistic projects of both science and Buddhism, you’re driven to dualism. But isn’t dualism a long vanquished idea? Sophisticated people don’t believe that there are ghosts in machines anymore, do they?

    Surprisingly no, dualism is alive and well (though “ghost in the machine” is not something I have seen defended) as an intellectual project and is actually growing in akademia. Check out David Chalmers book “The Concious Mind” if you havent read it, it explains very well the whole problem of why some mind stuff (qualia) is not reducible to matter if one takes it seriously.

  3. santitafarella says:

    Grad Student:

    Your question reminds me of a line from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas that runs something like this: “If matter emerged from mind, how strange; but if mind emerged from matter, how much stranger still!”

    I don’t think a fully material explanation of mind and free will would actually vanquish God from the scene for the simple reason that we are still always going to wonder where matter acquired the magical properties that it has. In other words, isn’t it curious that meat ever came to write sonnets? It’s not the kind of universe an atheist might expect to see if atheism is true.

    There is such a thing as “emergent dualism.” I suppose if you google the phrase a bunch will come up on it. It’s how a dualist committed to a fully material explanation of the mind would probably answer your question.

    Confused as always, I don’t know if I’m a mental monist (reducing all to mind), a materialist (reducing all to matter), a traditional dualist, or an emergent dualist. I’m still thinking, and stumbling along my winding way under the dubious puttering horsepower of my half-assed figurings out.


  4. santitafarella says:


    I know that some Christian philosophers try to defend dualism, but I didn’t know that there were many secular philosophers that did so. I don’t know Chalmer’s book, and will check it out. Thanks for that suggestion.


  5. santitafarella says:


    I see that Chalmer’s has YouTube videos. (I love YouTube!) I’ll make a new post from one of them. Thanks again for the book tip.


  6. Heuristics says:

    Yeah, David Chalmers escapes the “offcourse you would be a proponent of dualism, you are a christian!” criticism quite well by being an atheist :). He really is the most talked about philosopher in the philosophy of mind today and his book is the one credited with bringing attention to the fact that it is easy to explain how matter can give rise to problem solving or memory and so on (after all computers can do it) but giving an explanation for why seeing light of a certain wavelength gives rise to a red inner experience is a whole other kind of problem all together, one we don’t have any clue on how to solve at the moment. Basicly, unlike Daniell Dennet (who argues that experiences of red do not infact exist) David Chalmers actually takes conciousness seriously and this is a breath of fresh air with regards to the boring “sweep it under the rug” style of reductionist materialism (a school of thought David originally started in).

  7. ben says:

    Good question, really appreciate your thoughts about it, my humble answer to that is no. Please see my blog entry about it. Cogito Ergo Sum

  8. proximity1 says:

    RE: …”To believe that you have a self with free will is to insist that mind cannot reduce to determinate matter, to chemistry and physics. Period. In other words, there are two things in the universe to contend with: matter and mind. And you can’t, in ultimate terms, explain one via the other.”

    There are other available hypotheses. I prefer this one: from our perspective, we don’t possess the physical means to detect any measurable distinction between a universe in which we have “free-will” (that is, a set of circumstances which are not bound by logical and physical necessity to pre-existing conditions which, themselves, determine the next instant of physical reality’s make-up.)

    To test this view, consider a thought experiment: ask yourself how you (or anyone else) could know of whether any discrete act was willed freely or, on the other hand, the product of aggregate preconditions’ ineluctable outcomes at work?

    I see no means –present or conceivable in the future–where we’d ever possess the physical means to take in and account for the countless variable factors which could impinge on any discrete physical fact of the universe. To do so would presume literally perfect and complete knowledge of all factors, contingent and non-contingent, and how, in the most minute detail, these interact. And that level of knowledge would have to extend thoughout not just the tiny part of our visible universe but, rather, throughout the entire extent of the universe.

    Such demands are vrey far beyond our capacities now and I see no sane prospect for these demands’ requirements ever being satisfied. What that means practically is qutie simple:

    we cannot tell the difference in any practical sense–from our human-scale’s level of existence–between what the universe would look like if everything were predetermined and, on the other hand, what it would look like if we (and, why not?, many other intelligent vertebrates) had what’s usually meant by “free-will”.

    In short, and in other words, these circumstances would be, for all practical purposes, and would look to us exactly the same in either case.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      If I understand your argument, what you’re saying is that we don’t see with sufficient resolution to determine whether matter goes (at the atomic level) of itself, deterministically, at every moment, or if (periodically) nomaterial minds somehow interfere, nudging the atomic cascade this way or that. Thus whichever is the truth of the matter, the universe comes out looking exactly the same to us either way.

      I like that. It is the same thing that could be said of the origin of the universe as a whole: an infinite multiverse that periodically produces a complex cosmos like ours by chance looks the same as a designer god that produces such a cosmos in a one shot creation. Complex symmetries and life are improbable (far from entropy), but here we are (by chance or by God) without any way of telling the difference.

      The universe, in other words, does not speak. It is a riddling sphinx, stony silent.


      • proximity1 says:

        I have a hypothetical view of the universe as well (see below). As I (and others, I suppose, since I don’t claim this view is oiginal to me) see it, it’s not quite as you describe above. It isn’t that–or isn’t simply that –we lack the degree of resoulution in our observational apparatus. I accept that human and other animal minds are phenemona which are entirely materially (i.e. physically) based–that is, they don’t and can’t exist in any sense apart from the physical brain matter and all that goes with it and I view them as emergent phenomena, such as descibed by Antonio Damasio in Self Comes to Mind. I accept, too, that these are products of eons long evotlution by natural selection exactly as Darwin’s work presents it to us. Finally, I accept as a working view that our universe is real, as are we, in an objective sense–that is, there’d be (indeed there was!) the universe long before anything such as we call “life” or living organisms appeared, and, if we weren’t here, our absence wouldn’t (and didn’t, prior to our advent,) alter the basic facts of the universe’s reality. I take it that the universe is a physical reality– a space-time “event” which has always existed but as a series of matter’s explosion from a “tiny” point of ultra density —-> expansion to some arbitrary and variable “limit” (that is, the univserse is a finite space-time event in eahc of its discrete serial iterations) —-> then slow-to-stop-and-collapse, all of these recurring without end, and each instance a unique, never exactly the same space-time event. In this view, the universe is a series of unique non-repeating “discrete events” without any origin point. I hypothesize that the manner in which each universe event unfold ( explosion–expansion–collapse) is variable but always unique from all previous such events.

        None of this precludes, as far as I can see it, the possible and more or less probable veracity of scientific reasoning and of our developing a true and factual account of physical reality–so I take science as a valid approach to discovering facts about the universe as a more or less (depending on the topic under discussion) objective reality. Thus, it doesn’t matter that the universe may not, (and I agree, does not) “speak” to us. The universe, properly speaking, doesn’t “do” anything and is not “aware”. I’m not a proponent of pantheism. All the same, I think that physical reality is available to us–to the extent of our limited means of grasping it.

        Thus, yes, I think that you have it correct in this:

        “Thus whichever is the truth of the matter, the universe comes out looking exactly the same to us either way.”

        But that is emphatically due, it seems to me, to the happenstance facts about our actual human scale, our physical size as creatures and our ability to fabricate and use observational devices for inspection of the world around us. If we were, say, creatures whose size was measured in many millions or billions of light-years, the same universe-event would appear to us very different than the way it does but would not actually be different in its actual reality. This, in sum, is simply another way of saying that space-time is a relative experience—relative to what?, to the physical size of the particular observer(s) in question. We calculate the speed of light and, its rate is, by our standards of measure, incomparably fast. But, if our size was nearly that of the universe as a whole, and if our view could take in all at once nearly everything occurring everywhere throughout that expanse, then correspondingly, our view of light would be that of a progression entirely visible in its plodding progress. We’d view light (photons or waves) everywhere at once in the same present moment— in other words, “the present” would, by definition, be something very different at that scale of existence– and so, there’d be no relative variance in the apparent time of one event versus another.

  9. adambnoel says:

    The above comment reminded me of an argument I’ve been formulating for awhile. Instead of trying to prove free will perhaps we could attempt to formulate an argument against the notion that we will ever have enough evidence to conclude otherwise? To my knowledge it is impossible to know the state of the universe because you would need all the knowledge in the universe. We will never (At least… we cannot see a way right now) be able to simulate even the most simple of cells without making reductionist claims that affect the behavior of our model.

    Without empirical support we are then left with arguments of determinism versus indeterminism. If combined with a reductionist mind set we can try to state one of the two but even then I think we lack sufficient fire power to achieve what we want. This is ignoring the seeming incompatibility of biology with chemistry, of psychology with biology and of mind with psychology. Chomsky has said before we did not unify physics with chemistry during the advent of quantum physics but we rather expanded physics to include chemistry.

    If that is the case then it may be if we have enough empirical firepower we’d eventually be able to expand our frames of reference but not in a reductionist method. Instead, we encompass more of the whole into our reduced framework but maintain that our framework is still reductionist. It’s like how there is no coherent definition of what matter is. Matter is basically whatever we deem explicable. The mind body problem is just as incoherent from a body perspective as it is from a mind perspective. If we cannot define what matter is… how can we hope to explain how it interacts with mind? Even if matter and mind make up the same stuff we still have no idea what that stuff is.

    As an aside, free will is compatible with evolution and could work (This is all speculative). The qualitative character of experience seems to play a role in the evaluation of experience. If there is a thing called the self it is first person phenomenal consciousness upon which conscious experiences are pressed into. From there, choices are made based on the subjective character of the options in front of us. Evolution maps certain subjective experiences to be more pleasurable and some less so as a means to coerce the degrees of freedom in the first person phenomenal consciousness towards the desired outcome. If someone argues this is not compatible with naturalism… I see no reason why it isn’t since we have no coherent definition of matter and mind anyway.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s