Two Truths: Causation and Choice

An earlier version of this post was published in Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings [1]

Trying to reconcile the objective truth of causation with the experiential truth of choice is exceedingly difficult.  Buddhism insists, however, that we find a middle way between these irreconcilables, and that dismissing the reality of either causation or choice is an error.

Our everyday functioning requires that we talk in terms of choice, but the language of choice doesn’t yield the deepest understanding of the way things are.   The experience of choice is like the computer “desktop” metaphor: we can talk about “desktops,” “folders,” and “files,” but at a deeper level there are only photons or electrons that either change state or don’t in a binary fashion.  The desktop is semi-real: one can see it and do things on it.  At another level of discourse, however, there is no desktop.  This is similar to the disjunction between our everyday perception of common objects and what physicists say about them.  They appear solid, but at the atomic and subatomic level are mostly empty space.  Our everyday perception is good-enough for most purposes, but the physicist’s description of reality opens up powerful new ways to see and use the world.

Many of our actions occur without our being aware of either the actions themselves or our reasons for them.  We mostly operate on automatic pilot.  A moment ago I noticed my hand rubbing my eye.  I didn’t “choose” to do it.  Some part of my brain must have registered some irritation around my eye, and my hand was there in an instant.  Most of the time that my hand is touching my face I’m not aware I am doing it.  Similarly, I don’t usually “choose” to swing my arms when I walk, or decide what to look at and notice while walking.  Our experience of most behavior is that it “just happens.”  When we retrospectively try to come up with the reasons why we did one thing or another, our answers are often only guesses based on what we think we must have been experiencing.  Our guesses are often no better than an outside observer’s guesses.

When do we become aware of “choosing” our actions?  When a snafu has developed in the automatic pilot program; when our usual way of resolving a problem non-consciously is not working and a metaphorical warning light blinks on.  Perhaps there’s a conflict between two equally strong action tendencies, or an awareness that the action we’re about to engage in has had painful consequences in the past, or an awareness that what we’re about to do conflicts with a high priority goal.  When that warning light blinks on, the brain allocates more workspace to the problem,  putting more of its computing power in service of a solution.   The brain does this because when conditions like this occurred in the past, allocating more resources led to a happier outcome.  As a fuller range of associations, memories, and acquired problem solving algorithms are brought to bear, we are more likely to succeed.  This is the process we experience as “choosing” which feels so different from our automatic pilot behavior.  But the main difference between “choosing”  and “automatic” is the greater degree of resources involved, not some newly acquired freedom from cause-and-effect.  A bigger computer is being used to solve the problem, but the solution still relies on the structure of the brain and our past experiences.

One reason why the experience of “choosing” feels “free” is that we’re unaware of most of the antecedent processes that go into making a “choice”. The brain doesn’t receive feedback from most of these antecedent processes, and their final product just seems to pop into our heads from the void, uncaused as far as we’re aware.

While our internal decision-making process isn’t free from causality it can be relatively free in other senses of the word.  For example, it can be relatively free from the salient pushes and pulls of the immediate stimulus context, or from the influences of parental, social, or religious authority, or from short-term self-interest.  Our capacity to have larger segments of our brains go on-line as part of the process of  “making decisions” makes these kinds of relative freedoms possible, and these freedoms are the most crucial freedoms from the point of view of ethics and morality.

So we don’t have to choose between causation and choice.  There is an experiential process of choice which feels real and suffices for everyday understanding, and a “deeper” process underlying it which is based on causation.  I use the term “deeper” with trepidation, because the word implies one reality is more true than another, whereas they are really just two different levels of description of reality,  just like chemistry and quantum physics are two different levels of description.

  1. [1] Segall S. (2003). On Being a Non-Buddhist Buddhist: A Dialogue With Myself in Segall, S. (2003). Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings. SUNY Press: Albany, NY

6 Replies to “Two Truths: Causation and Choice”

  1. There’s free will, but it is free only to a certain degree. However, I have no doubts that when I say to myself, “I’m going to raise my hand,” and then I do it, that it is a choice I made. I think a lot of our behavior can be explained deterministically, but I don’t buy the argument that there is only an “illusion of choice” or that it “feels real.” It sounds like a good way to relinquish responsibility, and in effect, karma.

    1. Well what are the choices, from the materialistic point of view: either the rising hand is random, or deterministic, or something that is outside of materialistic causation. (Randomness is also a problematic concept, for it implicitly refers to a state of knowledge, but let’s not go into that.)

      A buddhist would ask: what is that “I” you refer to. Isn’t it supposed to be an illusion?

      He or she could continue: “If you see through the processes producing “I”, you find out that “I” is an illusion, an unnecessary step in the chain of causation, a harmful illusion that prevents seeing the [nonsubjective] truth. Everything is impermanent, selfless, fundamentally unsatisfactory, and empty by its inherent existence. There is awareness, but objects in your experience manifest it all by themselves, without a need for an observer. ”

      I’m not a buddhist in the religious sense, but neither do I believe in ghosts. So the causal “I” *must* be an illusion, and the view of the hypothetical buddhist above fits this well.

      Ethics can exist without the observer. With no subject, the ethical or unethical behaviour just happens. Certain mental processes tend to be for the good of other humans or beings. In your head multiple processes compete, and some of them are more ethical than others. Then yet other processes see the committee, and are to a degree able to regulate the parts.

      It would be great if there were a process that would see what happens (mindfulness), would have the power (concentration), and that would bring the right intention (metta). So dharma is a very special meme.

      From this point of view nobody ultimately tells what is right or wrong. Such things are relative, emergent properties, partly created by evolution and partly by culture. It is strictly speaking not *my* responsibility to advance good things. But there are some processes in me that feel the responsibility.

      The birth of goodness is not different from the birth of atom, DNA, species, or multicellular organism. Multicellular life must have been an odd, almost unnatural, arrangement at the start, but in the long run it has done quite well. But even now there are genetic conflicts within us, probably including selfish sex chromosomes trying to destroy part of the offspring.

      Responsibility is a good heuristic in social communication. I don’t know what karma means.

      1. Janne,

        Thanks as always for your very thoughtful contributions!

        I don’t think our hypothetical Buddhist monk would be saying that the self is an illusion; just that it is impermanent and not separate from other ongoing processes. Our hypothetical Buddhist monk would also believe that one can chose one’s actions, and that the process of choice is not illusory. I don’t think that Buddhism gives a coherent description, however, of how this choice can occur given dependent origination and karma. Unfortunately, Buddhism is caught up in the same difficulties as all other philosophies and religions.

        I agree, the Dharma is a wonderful set of memes, a true life-raft. Having the good fortune to be exposed to its teachings is one of the causes that then affects our behavior. The Dharma itself then becomes part of the chain of cause-and-effect in our choices. If one lives according the Dharma, guarding the sense doors, choosing companions wisely, cultivating mindfulness, learning discerning wisdom, these all become part of a bootstrapping operation that leads to improved actions with resulting postive feedback that then, in turn, reinforces more such behavior. Its a benevolent cycle.

        I also agree with you that morality is an emergent process of life and consciousness, and as such, is a real existent in the world, just as atoms and cells are. I haven’t tried to think this all the way through, but it has immediate appeal to me as an idea.

        1. Yes, my hypothetical buddhist seems to have been a mixture of Theravada doctrine, Daniel Ingram and my imagination.

          In Ingram’s “Hard-core dharma book”, observer is a central concept to what he refers as enlightenment. His observer is probably the same as the “I” experiencing free will. Self in the sense of a mental structure is of course not an illusion, but it is not always clear what self means – the observer, a conditioned structure, or something else. This confusion is present in my earlier reply, too.

          (Just to clarify – too much speculation on this may not be practical or fruitful.)

    2. Steven,

      Having a little bit of free will seems a lot like being a little bit pregnant. Our choices have to be part of the chain of cause-and-effect; we wouldn’t really want to make choices that have no reason for them anyway. Buddhism teaches its own versions of cause-and-effect in dependent origination and in its teachings on karma. When I first began studying Buddhism I entertained the hope that I would find some ingenious solutions to the problems that bedevil Western philosophy, especially the mind-body problem and the free will-causality problem. Unfortunately, Buddhism is just as mired in these problems as Western philosophy. The Buddhism teaches dependent origination — because of this, than that — all things arise from causes and conditions — but then miraculously also asserts that we have the power of choice.
      In the model I present in my post I try to suggest there is a way to have it both ways if we look at the biophysics of choice and the experience of choice as two different levels of description of the same process. Each level of description has its own use, and none is really “deeper” than the other, just different. I also suggest that our decisions, while not free of cause-and-effect, can be free in other senses of the word: free from being the prisioner of immediate impulse, for example. Or free from coercion, to give another example. These are the kind of freedoms that are really important in terms of morality.

  2. Thanks for the excellent post and comments. I have been particularly stuck on this dilemma lately, and your take makes sense. It is a particularly tricky concept on a semantic/ intellectual level, which is probably why there is little direct discussion of it in Buddhist teachings.

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