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Buddhism and free will

by Denis Wallez (@DenisWallez)
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Scientists and philosophers have criticized the notion of “free will”, and most notably by caricaturing1 the conclusions of Benjamin Libet and colleagues' experiment, on the nervous system's “readiness potential”. Lost in confirmation bias, it's easy to then conclude e.g. that the experience of intentionally willing a deed is nothing more than a post hoc causal inference (that our ‘thoughts’ caused some behavior), or e.g. that our minds perpetually rewrite history (fooling us into thinking that some unconscious act resulted from a choice that we had made all along2).


As a practitioner of several martial arts, some of the conversations have always seemed to me hugely biased, by limiting causality to the shortest of time scales.

If I sufficiently train in e.g. aikido, then… should I spring in action in a given context, it's likely to be quick, unconscious, at the level of ‘reflexes’! No deliberation, no complex weighting of consequences, no hesitation, pure automatism: that's the very goal of the training! One trains in martial arts precisely so that the technique becomes automatic, fast, intuitive.

So, at the shortest of time scales, the reliance on e.g. a kote gaeshi to respond to a chudan tsuki attack (video) might then be seen as automatic, programmed, without ‘will’ involved.

And yet this automatic response only arose due to a prior ‘choice’ not only to learn a martial art, but also to learn aikido specifically. And such a choice to learn aikido specifically (vs. e.g. karate or krav maga) might well be the result of ethical thinking, as aikido is primarily a defensive art (where the goal is to cease the fight with minimal damage to the attacker while some other arts might preferably dispose of an opponent via ruthless destruction).

Looking at such a situation through

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