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Free Will, Buddhism, and Mindfulness Meditation - interview with Terry Hyland
Hank Pellissier   Aug 8, 2015   Ethical Technology  

Terry Hyland is Emeritus Professor at University of Bolton, UK and Lecturer in Philosophy at Free University of Ireland, teaching courses in mindfulness. He has written over 150 articles, 19 book chapters and 6 books. His book Mindfulness and Learning was published by Springer in 2011. I interviewed him via email.

What is your opinion of Sam Harris’s book, Free Will?

Terry Hyland: Sam’s little book was shamefully attacked by certain professional philosophers (most of whom - I am convinced - are insanely envious of his fame and wide following!) but was a creditable and courageous attempt to get to grips with problems which have exercised the minds of philosophers for the last 2,500 years.  My main criticism is that, although he claimed to posit a hard determinist position, he ends up with  a form of compatibilist position (based on freedom through mindfulness invesigation of our inner drives and intentions) which is not unlike the soft determinist accounts he criticises.

Hank Pellissier: What’s your opinion of Daniel Dennett’s critique of Sam Harris’s book?

Terry Hyland: Dennett’s response was inadequate - a barely disguised rant informed by the pique of a professional philosopher who is angry at being usurped by a very talented “amateur” with a vast number of faithful disciples.  I thought that Harris answered him fully on his website and exposed Dennett for the absurd professionally vain philosopher displayed graphically in his response to Sam.

Hank Pellissier: Do you believe human beings have Free Will?

Terry Hyland: Given the fact that we have no control over most of the factors which determine our lives - DNA, parental upbringing, schooling, life experiences, the very thoughts and emotions passing through us every waking (or sleeping) minute - my view is that we have far less free will than we imagine that we have.

Hank Pellissier: What about Mindfulness meditation? Do you see this as a technique to develop Free Will?

Terry Hyland: Yes, as I argue in the paper in Buddhist Studies Review (31(1), 2014)  mindfulness can a seen as mind training, the cultivation of insight into our internal drives, cravings, etc., and this insight allows us to exercise some (very limited) control over our lives.  However, we always think (subjectively) that we have more control than we actually (objectively) have over any aspect of our lives.

Hank Pellissier Is there a particular type of meditation that you recommend? What do you practice?

Terry Hyland: Any form of vipassana (insight) meditation - breath, mindful walking/movement - can be effective is offering greater access to the internal working of our minds and, thus, to the possibility of some form of freedom. I have practised breath and walking meditation for the last 12 years and Tai Chi (also very beneficial) for the last 5 years.

Hank Pellissier: How has mindfulness changed your life, and your experience of being in the world?

Terry Hyland: My life is different in the sense that I am aware of all the ways in which are freedom is restricted by greed, hatred and delusion - and how difficult it is to fight against these poisons! However, I know for sure that I have been helped by the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion.  There is no doubt that these virtues help to reduce suffering and potentially enhance freedom.

Hank Pellissier: Are there disciplines, other than meditation, that can also help us attain “mental freedom”?

Terry Hyland:  Yes, physical excerise of all kinds seems to help us to gain a little more control - just recently I have found that Tai Chi can be effective as meditation in this respect.  Reading philosophical books about free will also helps greatly!

Hank Pellissier serves as IEET Managing Director and is an IEET Affiliate Scholar.

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