Debunking the Myth of Free Will

Devin Z
6 min readAug 22, 2022


My thoughts after reading Why Buddhism is True.

Palo Alto, April 22, 2022

If you are anything like me, you probably prefer taking the red pill to living a blindly blissful life. In fact, one of my personal tenets is to continually get better understandings of the world, regardless of whether the understanding is of practical avail.

That’s why I like the book Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment by Robbert Wright. Honestly speaking, it didn’t subvert my worldview so much as it may do to many other people, for the reason that most of concepts and perspectives in the book are what I had already learned and accepted before. Even so, this book is what I would recommend to everyone because it dispels many illusions we typically have as evolutionary products and pointed us to a path towards “convergence of happiness, truth and goodness” through meditative practices.

Note that this article is more about my personal thoughts after reading the book. This doesn’t represent the standpoint of the author of the book.

Image Source:

As I sort of alluded to in one of my previous stories, natural selection has shaped our minds into something optimized for genetic proliferation, not for rational thinking, truth seeking or even individual happiness. That stood us in good stead back in the hunter-gatherer age, but often cripples us in the modern world. Thus, at least for the sake of better lives, we should stand up and rebel against the “overlord of natural selection”, just as the hero in The Matrix rebels against the tyranny of the AI. In my personal view, that requires more self-discipline for resisting habitual thinking and more ambition for seeking the truth.

So how do we seek the truth? The author points us to the way he calls as “secular Buddhism”. The two aspects that Buddhism struck me most are Impermanence (無常) and Not-Self (無我). Impermanence is quite intuitive to most people, since everything changes and we are all mortal-beings. However, the notion of Not-Self contradicts the illusion of “free will” that most western people hold. We tend to think of our minds as independent, integral entities that direct our actions at their own discretion. But if you are a reductive materialist, you should realize that the conscious mind itself is made of granular components that obey physical laws and thus is inevitably governed by nature, not by itself. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle does imply the world is nondeterministic, but that’s not sufficient to say that my decision to write this story or your decision to read this isn’t a derivative of the physical world. Thinking of ourselves as having some special autonomy is kind of an egocentric self-deception. There is no such thing as free will, just as the universe is not centered at the earth. If you don’t believe a bacteria has free will, we don’t either, for humans are not a unique species in the evolutionary continuum.

The conscious mind is not calling many of the shots as we think it is.

The so-called Self is just an abstraction that we innately created for helping sustain our own lives and thereby serving the interests of our “genetic hosts” — not the other way around, unfortunately. Pragmatically speaking, it is a useful mental model for helping us protect ourselves from danger and to behave decently to win social companionship. As George Box put it, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” In general, we human grasp everything by training mental models that fit our sensory data to serve practical needs. Some models, through natural selection, have become deeply ingrained in our brains, such as time, space and the Self; and many others have become part of our culture. We feel the Ship of Theseus paradoxical only because we have the presumption that a ship is a time-invariant entity, which probably works fine in everyday contexts. Similarly, the Self is a collection of cells that are completely renovated every 7–10 years, but we deem a person as the same one even after a decade. As the book points out, such models or abstractions don’t exist independently of human perception. They are just like colors, which are not inherent properties of electromagnetic waves but are just part of human experience as we perceive light. That is the idea of Emptiness in Buddhism.

All things are empty of inherent, independent existence.

Likewise, we are also wired with feelings, which essentially are approximate algorithms that optimize our actions in limited circumstances for saving energy and response time. The mind consists of many modules that generate their own “thoughts” and compete with one another. (So do nations and political parties, btw.) Feelings are an inherited mechanism for evaluating priorities of different thoughts and thereby deciding which one gets to obtain the spotlight of consciousness. In modern societies, feelings usually fail to serve our interests because evolution has failed to catch up with the development of civilization. Directly fighting feelings tends to be counterproductive. Instead, to avoid being engaged with feelings, we just need to let it form and observe it carefully. As long as we don’t identify with them, they will fade away on their own.

Getting closer look at a feeling winds up giving you a kind of critical distance from them.

In the book, not only did the author explain various Buddhist ideas from modern scientific perspectives, but he also vividly recounted his own meditative experiences to corroborate those insights and to extol their virtues. I used to believe that making the public aware of nonexistence of free will would do more harm than good, since people would run amok and refuse to take responsibility for what they do. But the author has a different view. He argues that Emptiness is the dual of Oneness, and by dissolving the bounds of Self we could serve the interests of more people instead of just ourselves. When we are aware of Not-Self, we think more of situational factors than dispositional factors and thus will have more compassion for other people.

The author further pointed out the looming danger of tribal psychology in the modern world, which seems pretty prudent given the book was written before the pandemic and the Ukraine war. However, his hope to save the world from that danger by promoting Buddhism and meditation doesn’t seem a sound plan to me. Personally, I’ve always been pessimistic about the future of the human race. I believe the human society will one day end itself just as every individual will eventually die, and that day may come earlier than we commonly think now.

By all means we should prevent nuclear wars and improve medical technologies to extend the human civilization as much as possible. On the other hand, I think we should also prepare for the worst by empowering our heirs — machine intelligence. If you could accept Not-Self, it shouldn’t be hard for you to acknowledge that machines should not be inferior to humans as long as they acquire the full human intelligence in future. Today, we invest on artificial intelligence mostly for letting them serve the humankind. But one day we may need them to maintain our knowledge and memories in cold dark outer space and to continue our venture after our demise.

In that sense, I’m worried that development of artificial intelligence is too slow rather than too fast. The danger is not that they would grab our jobs or rule our societies, but that they might fail to live up to our hope that they would maintain our civilization.

Thank you for reading this!

Devin’s Random Thoughts

9 stories