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Intention and free will - Sam Harris Daily Meditation 2022.09.24

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Do we really have free will? Sam Harris says no, and he is often attacked for it. Culadasa agrees with him, but he gives a more refined, cognitive science based approach.

My comment will use Culadasa´s theory of mind to provide a more differentiated view.

Sam Harris

You might be aware of an intention, but doesn't that too simply arise?

This meditation focuses on the concept and experience of intention.

Our experience of intention is the very definition of free will: the Self freely sets an intention. That´s our felt proof of free will.

But Sam Harris points out that we have really no clue from where that intention comes. Experientially, it appears out of nowhere just like everything else. Intention, in this sense, is just like toothache, or love. One Taste.

All that happens is that we have an experience, after the fact, of having "set" an intention freely, and an impression of having had a free will.

But, Sam Harris sais this about free will:

Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have. Free will is actually more than an illusion (or less), in that it cannot be made conceptually coherent. Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them. If a man’s choice to shoot the president is determined by a certain pattern of neural activity, which is in turn the product of prior causes—perhaps an unfortunate coincidence of bad genes, an unhappy childhood, lost sleep, and cosmic-ray bombardment—what can it possibly mean to say that his will is “free”? No one has ever described a way in which mental and physical processes could arise that would attest (Harris 2012, p 5-6)

But the intention and therefore will itself is the outcome of some process into which we have no insight.

On the other hand, intention is also an important concept. Without the intention to meditate, for example, we would not meditate. So it´s worth looking at the more elaborate thoughts of Culadasa, who is aligned with modern cognitive science.


Culadasa, in "The Mind Illuminated", gives the problem of free will only one footnote. In this he too denies that there is such a thing as free will exercised by a Self:

You may ask, “What about personal free will?” “Free will” is essentially the proposition that there is an entity, the Self, that can somehow act independently of causes and conditions. Both modern science and the Buddha’s teachings assert that everything, without exception, is completely subject to causes and conditions. In the Mind-System model, agency lies not with some “Self” that intends, decides, and acts, but at the level of individual sub-minds. They are the agents, and even their behavior is deterministic—not in the absolute Newtonian sense, but in the probabilistic sense of quantum physics. As human beings, we are open, dynamic systems, and thus our futures (Yates (Culadasa) & Immergut, 2017, p 442)

However, Culadasa gives the term "intention" much space in his detailed instructions for breath meditation.

For example, in his definition, he differentiates between conscious intentions and unconscious intentions.

Intention: A determination to act in a certain way to achieve a particular end or goal. Such action may be mental or physical. Intention underlies every movement of the mind, whether or not that movement results in overt speech or action. In the Moments of Consciousness model, intention is present in every perceiving mind moment. The Mind-System model distinguishes between conscious intentions and unconscious intentions. (Yates (Culadasa) & Immergut, 2017, p 424)

This does not imply a free will and "free" setting of intentions. Instead, in his model of "sub-minds" (mental sub-systems), the origin of intention is unconscious, and at this point, it may conflict with other sub-minds.

Let’s look more closely at how the top-down process involving conscious intentions works in the decision to sit down to meditate and focus your attention on the breath. A single sub-mind first gives rise to an unconscious intention to meditate, then projects it into the conscious mind. There, it becomes a conscious intention that gets communicated to other sub-minds. For this intention to become a decision and get acted on requires that enough other sub-minds agree to it to outweigh all the other competing intentions. The result of this “top-down,” collective decision is that you sit on your cushion intending to focus on your breath. (Culadasa) & Immergut, 2017, p 197)

Illustrated, it works like this

How to use intention intentionally in meditation

Well it is confusing, but Culadasa gives instructions to use intention to use intention....and all that originates outside of intention:

Another way to keep the mind energized is through intention. Holding a strong conscious intention to clearly perceive the breath sensations while also sustaining peripheral awareness will keep the mind energized. The intention should be set before the sensations appear. This keeps you attentive. But don’t project too far ahead. For instance, set your intention at the pause before the out-breath to observe the very beginning of the out-breath. At the beginning of the out-breath, set the intention to observe sensations near the middle. And at the middle, set your intention to discern the end of the out-breath. Do the same for the in-breath. This close-up investigation takes practice. However, it energizes the mind and keeps you engaged enough so you don’t as easily slip into drowsiness. (Culadasa) & Immergut, 2017, p 110-112)

But does it really? From where does the intention come, even if we seem to set it consciously?

It is a complex question.


Harris, S. (2012, March 6). Free Will (Rough cut edition) (Trade Paperback). Free Press.

Yates (Culadasa), J., & Immergut, M. (2017). The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness. Hay House Uk.


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