Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris on free will

Jerry Coyne has an interesting article on free will in USA Today and a follow-up post at Why Evolution Is True. It all seems to be triggered by the publication of a new book about free will by Sam Harris.

Both Harris and Coyne point-blank deny that free will exists. The USA Today piece is well worth reading, but the passage quoted from the Sam Harris book, in the post at WEIT, doesn’t impress me. In particular, I disagree about the “changing the subject” claim as a way of dismissing compatibilism. Come on, Dr Harris, that is a rhetorical tactic to put down thoughtful and intellectually honest opponents, rather than trying to appreciate the real strength of what they are saying. (Of course, you may not have any choice as to whether or not you argue like this.)

It’s just not at all clear that the original “subject” was some spooky power to act contrary to our own desires and whatever physical substrate they supervene on. In fact, I doubt that any serious philosopher thinks of it quite like that, and I doubt that ordinary people do either – though the attempts by some libertarians (in the sense relevant to this debate) to preserve our motivations while giving us a radical power to act independently of the causes that shaped our personalities are, indeed, sometimes baffling. It seems that they want to have it both ways, which places them in danger of saying something incoherent. As for what ordinary people think about all this … well, it’s likely to be very confused.

I agree that there is no free will in any spooky libertarian sense. I don’t think the idea can be rendered coherent, whether physical determinism (at the level of the brain’s functioning, say) is true or not. But this is all a very modern way of thinking about it. It may be what’s bugging some people, but historically the questions were more along the lines of: “Am I a plaything of fate or destiny or necessity or mere chance or the will of the gods?” “Is it rational to deliberate about what I do, if the outcome is fated anyway (or, conversely, a matter of mere luck)?” “Are my attempts to shape my own life and to make a difference to the world all futile?” These are the questions that are at stake in the traditions of myth, literature, and even, to a large extent, philosophy.

Even now, much popular fiction involves themes of, “Can I overcome my destiny?” “Can I forge a better life for myself?” This kind of thing, arguably, is what gnaws at ordinary people outside of any formal theological or philosophical context. Do we have the power (or some power, at least) to shape our lives? It seems obvious that we do, or why bother making decisions at all (unless we simply can’t help it, right?). Why deliberate about what career to pursue, if it’s all controlled by God or the stars, anyway? But we do, ordinarily, think it’s worthwhile deliberating about what career to pursue, what skills to develop, etc. Deliberating certainly doesn’t seem irrational or futile.

This obvious appearance is challenged by various plausible-looking arguments, ranging from arguments about the foreknowledge of God, to arguments about physical determinism, to arguments about living in an Einsteinian block universe, to arguments based on the law of excluded middle (after all, all statements about the future are either true or false … aren’t they?). And doubtless many others. These arguments suggest that our sense of having some ability to shape our own lives is an illusion. That is exactly what Harris and Coyne think it is.

Well, perhaps one of those arguments works, but if you’re going to show why they probably don’t, and why the everyday appearance that we can make decisions, act on the world, and, to some extent, shape our own future lives, is not just an illusion after all … well of course you’re going to have to do what philosophers do. I.e. we make distinctions, try to clarify issues, etc. That isn’t arguing in a contrived or dishonest way, or “changing the subject”. It’s our job. It’s how we earn our supper.

When philosophers try to clarify, and perhaps dissolve, these concerns, showing, perhaps, that the concerns don’t make good sense on closer analysis, we are playing a time-honoured role. Indeed, the Stoics (or certain of them) gave a “compatibilist” answer to the question of whether outcomes can be up to us, in some sense – despite there also being some truth about what we will decide – way back in Hellenistic and Roman times.

The issue of free will in the specific sense that I mentioned in the third paragraph above becomes important in debates about whether God could be absolved of responsibility for evil actions by us. If some sort of spooky free will exists, it’s thought by some theologians and philosophers that this creates a gap between the creative activity of God and the evils perpetrated by us, thus solving the ancient problem of evil.

Others may try to argue for spooky free will in an effort to preserve moral responsibility. They think that we can’t be (morally) responsible for our actions unless we are somehow responsible for them all the way down. Thus, they want to create a gap, not between our actions and God but between our actions and whatever events formed us as we are. Indeed, this issue has become central in the contemporary debate about free will among professional philosophers. It’s now largely a debate about whether and when we are responsible for our own actions.

But once again, compatibilists who are involved in this debate are not engaging in any dishonest or contrived reasoning. It is strongly arguable that no spooky gap between us and the events that formed us is required for us to, quite rationally, hold each other responsible for our choices and actions. You may disagree with this, but it’s inevitable that a question like that is going to require both sides to engage in attempts at conceptual clarification. This is not “changing the subject”.

Jerry Coyne rightly points to these – i.e. theodical reasoning and arguments about moral responsibility – as two areas of discourse where a spooky gap is invoked. Since he evidently thinks that spooky gaps are needed for moral responsibility, he denies, if I read him correctly, that we have moral responsibility.

Let’s set aside the theodical arguments. I agree that the free will defence is unpromising as a solution to the problem of evil. But what about (moral) responsibility? Surely getting all this clear requires that we examine what the concept really amounts to – and that is a non-trivial exercise in conceptual analysis, since the concept of (moral) responsibility, as it appears in everyday discussion, does not look straightforward, or even coherent, and it is tied up with many other difficult concepts, such as concepts of fairness, justice, and desert. There’s conceptual work to do here, and the best approach is simply not obvious.

Leave a comment ?


  1. “In particular, I disagree about the “changing the subject” claim as a way of dismissing compatibilism. Come on, Dr Harris, that is a rhetorical tactic to put down thoughtful and intellectually honest opponents, rather than trying to appreciate the real strength of what they are saying.”

    I think there’s a legitimate identity problem between what Dennett calls free will, and what my childhood preacher would. I know that when a term is incredibly unclear in its meaning, as is free will, it is standard philosophical practice to try to come up with a more coherent meaning. But that doesn’t get you past identity problems.

    In fact… I’d go so far as to say that I think that sometimes, when faced with these issues, philosophers reason like this:

    1. X is, as popularly understood, incoherent.
    2. To answer, I’ll need a better definition of X.
    3. Y is the most plausible definition of X, in particular, in terms of the criteria of not being an incoherent definition.
    4. So Y is the definition of X I will use.
    5. So anyone who says that X doesn’t exist (because it is incoherent) is wrong, because Y isn’t incoherent.

  2. I posted this comment on the ‘USA Today’ site and on another blog; however, I think it’s worth copying here. Even though I do not have a degree in philosophy or in neuroscience, the topic of free will is an important one to me. I would posit that most Americans feel the same way and have devoted a significant amount of time to pondering the matter. With that said, I hope that my comment inspires dialogue on the issue.

    Jerry Coyne’s hypothesis seems to be flawed. I have listed some of my reservations to Coyne’s analysis below. Perhaps, apologists in the “no free will” camp can provide valid rejoinders to these queries. As an aside, this list represents my immediate concerns with Coyne’s article; I could probably posit a more erudite, lengthy list if I had the time to devote to research the issue.

    From an Evolutionary Perspective:

    1) If I recall, isn’t 1/3 of the human brain devoted to higher-end, thought processes (ie. not subconscious but conscious actions). If that is the case, and assuming no free-will, human minds are horribly inefficient. We should have been out-competed by organisms which utilized more efficient means to overcome the problems inherent in living in complex societies (mentioned in Coyne’s piece).

    2) From my view, wouldn’t evolution favor organisms with free will over animals whose behavior was wholly determined by their genes and past experiences? The more dynamic and fluid a creatures have the best chance of overcoming unique environmental occurrences long enough to maximize the number of off-spring they produce.

    From a Statistical Perspective:

    Even in closed systems, it is impossible to predict some outcomes, which is due to the inherent randomness in these systems. The existence of this randomness calls into question Coyne’s view that all human actions are predetermined. It is impossible to say that something is foreordained if the same object placed in exactly the same conditions behaves in differently in each test.

    From a Biological Perspective:

    It is possible that free will, as such, could be an emergent trait and thus is “more than the sum of its parts.” While this may seem unrealistic, it is worth noting its possibility, given the existence of another emergent trait–consciousness. In regards to consciousness, it really should not exist. Its antecedents cannot be traced (ie. it does not seem to emanate from any part of the brain), and it does not seem to derive its powers from any particular grouping of cells.

    From a Sociological Perspective:

    Even if we assume that people could not make free choices if they were closed entities (ie. made up of and controlled by genes and environment, it is worth noting that human beings are not closed systems. Individuals interact with each other and transmit ideas, information, feelings, behaviors, etc. via these social interchanges. Further, these interactions are dynamic. In other words, people don’t act as passive entities in these interactions; they respond in both active and passive ways. Their open-ended relationships provide them with the impetus and occasions necessary to make decisions which run counter to their internal programming.

    From a Neurological Perspective:

    It appears that Coyne’s article conflates two types of choices that human beings make. He refers to scientific research (which might or might not be flawed; I have not reviewed the literature) to debunk instantaneous choice-making. It would make sense that human beings would rely on their subconscious when making quick decisions, ie. which button to push. One wants to be able to process a decision quickly (ie. via the subconscious) when making instantaneous choices. However, I think it would be more difficult to prove (or disprove) that human beings utilize free will when making decisions after thinking on the matter for some time.


    Personally, I think that this issue is complex. On some occasions, we certainly rely on instinctual behaviors to guide decisions. In these instances, our choices are foreordained (not a free choice). In other instances, we do not consciously make a decision; however, our unconscious choice is not predetermined (so the choice is free to some extent). In both of these cases, our conscious minds trick us into believing that we made conscious, free choices. At other times, we are able to exert some conscious control over our choices; however, we make a decision from a limited set of possibilities (greater freedom of choice). Finally, I cannot conceive of it ever happening, but it is always possible that someone, relying on the input of numerous other individuals, is able to make a free decision from an almost unlimited set of potential choices (absolute freedom of choice).

  3. Free will and determinism both depend on the lack of random events, in fact, they each may be equivalent to the lack of random events. So, for a while now I’ve been searching for hints of the latter, and I feel I now have a number of arguments, though unprovable, but then again determinism is unprovable, which must throw some doubt on the truth of determinism. Ill list only three (none directly requiring quantum physics):
    1. Dreams. Is there proof that dreams are results of some ordered configuration and interaction of atoms, or molecules or cells? Not being a professional in the physics of the brain, the reading I’ve managed to do on the subject, leaves me strictly with the conjecture the answer is no. If dreams have a random component then their results will produce randomness.
    2. Whether a primary string of amino acids on its way to producing a protein folds correctly can be the difference of whether the organism involved lives or dies. Yet, one can take such a string in many configurations before it attempts to fold and it will fold one of the two (or several?) ways, showing it’s not the force field surrounding the string that influences the shape. It’s unknown how the folding is managed.
    2a) What takes place in a cell to do the multitude of jobs it must do, simultaneously, is extremely complicated. I doubt if there ever will be proof that it is accomplished simply by physical laws.
    3. The interaction of simple particles, protons for example are well described physically in the case of a few particles under relatively straightforward conditions. It seems reasonable that we could keep adding particles and using big enough computers to describe their motions and positions. But does that inductive reasoning allow us to jump to multitudes of particles in extreme conditions, e.g. at the sun’s surface or at the horizon of a black hole?

  4. @Anthony

    1. I don’t think we can rightly say what evolution “should have done.” It seems like we got here the way we are through the process of evolution. We can certainly think of ways that the human brain could work better or more efficiently, but that’s not evolution’s “goal” if we can rightly talk about evolution having a goal. And this probably isn’t your fault, but I’m not following how this relates to free will. I’m probably being dense, but would appreciate it if you would elaborate as to it’s relation.

    2. It seems like point 2 begs the question. “From my view, wouldn’t evolution favor organisms with free will over animals whose behavior was wholly determined by their genes and past experiences?” As I understand it, from the point of view of the opponents of the idea of free will, it’s a nonsense term that doesn’t relate to anything in the known world, so evolution couldn’t favor it.

    The statistical: Randomness in closed systems doesn’t support most notions of free will. If our will is random, as opposed to determined, well, it’s still hard to tell in what sense it’s free. Certainly not free in the sense we would want it to be.

    Sociological: Most opponents of “free will” probably wouldn’t disagree with anything you said in regards to the sociological element.

    I feel like I have to agree with Harris. I haven’t read Coyne’s stuff. I really enjoyed reading Dennett’s books on free will, but I did feel like all he did was redefine free will in a way that suits him. His notion of free will certainly wouldn’t suit (most) religious types.

    My one question for the defenders of the notion of free will would be thus: What is it free from?

  5. Well, just for a start it’s free from astrological influences, Ananke, fate, karmic residues, the overriding will of Zeus, Moira, destiny, divine predestination … all the things that human beings have feared for centuries or millennia, and which threaten to render human choice futile and human deliberation irrational.

  6. The term “spooky” is an interesting one in terms of the nature of reality. Einstein famously derided quantum entanglement as “spukhafte Fernwirkung” or “spooky action at a distance”. However since Bell’s non-locality we seem to be empirically obliged to view the universe as more of an idealism, in that all points in space-time can be considered to be potentially connected.

    When some contemporary philosophers call on quantum mechanics to get an “out-of-jail-free-card” they mostly assume this is to do on quantum uncertainty. Uncertainty however does not make a deterministic system free. But entanglement may.

    Consider if your decision process is not only a function of CNS state events prior to an action event (if we limit it to that we have a determinstic hard-problem of consciousness). If CNS events have evolved to take benefit from entanglement, then the CNS “will event” is not necessarily localized in decision functions locally in space-time, it may be considered non-local and free.

    Do entanglement effects occur in nature? – some recent studies suggest it does. If the eye has evolved to take into account the photo-electric effect, perhaps there is “substance” to the “spooky” quantum mind and free-will.

    When people come to the aid of a conviction (that underpins an anti-theist position) I smell a rat, as much as I smell a rodent when I hear a counter argument that tries to justify a dualism of mind.

    I would rather we all humbly admitted that we do not as yet understand consciousness or free-will. There is lot more work to be done to make a reasonable conviction based on scientific methods (and accept we may not be able to even in principle).

  7. Ha. Thanks, Russell, for deftly making clear certain assumptions I was making, without realizing it, when I asked the question, “What is it free from?”

    One assumption was that very few people reading and responding on this blog site would put much stock in astrological influences, Ananke, and the like. There are so many answers to my question, though, that it was just silly of me to ask without being more precise in regards to answers I was concerned with.

    My simple question was intended to relate my feeling that the idea of free will, as far as I understand the phrase, doesn’t even make sense. Even if it is free from astrological influences, and divine providence, etc., there is still so much that it doesn’t seem at all to be free from.

    In Coyne’s article, he refers to his idea of what most people intuit when they think of free will, and it’s that if you were able to rewind time to a point where you were making a particular decision, with all your past history being unaltered, could you choose differently? What reason do we have to think you could?

    It seems to me that free will is a notion that was created or intuited before we became equipped to delve deeply into things like neuroscience and start combating our intuitions with impartial observation. Because of this, it was able to be expressed as an idea that wasn’t limited by certain facts about the universe that, once discovered, would very much seem to limit it indeed. It might have been reasonable, at one time, to conjecture that we were free in some sense, especially before we were even able to discover what shackled us, but in this modern era it seems as reasonable as still thinking that the Sun revolves around the earth.

    So, instead of asking, simply, “What is will free from?” I want to ask, “What is an idea of ‘will’ that is free from cause and effect, not random, not shackled to genetic predispositions, and still seems to describe something that could exist within the limitations of our known universe?”

  8. Michael: “In Coyne’s article, he refers to his idea of what most people intuit when they think of free will, and it’s that if you were able to rewind time to a point where you were making a particular decision, with all your past history being unaltered, could you choose differently? What reason do we have to think you could?”

    Do you mean, “could” or “would”? The word “could” is equivocal. In a perfectly familiar sense, yes you could choose differently. I.e. if you didn’t choose differently it would show that you didn’t want to. You can’t say, “I had no choice in the matter; I had to act as I did.” The obvious response is, “No, you wanted to act as you did.”

    But if we assume that determinism is true it is not the case that you would choose differently. You would have the same desires, etc., and the sane beliefs about your situation, so you’d act in the same way. So what? You still acted on your own desires (which were encoded in some neurological form, but again so what?).

    Look, I’m not even sure that “free will” is such a great term. Other terms have been used, historically. When these arguments first came up in antiquity the Greeks talked about (what translates as) whether our choices and actions are “up to us”. This makes it clearer that some choice/action may depend on our characters and values, our wants, beliefs, and so on, and may fall within our powers, even though the constitution of “us” might be the result of past events.

    Thing is, if you don’t really want to know that we are free from external forces and reified ideas such as Ananke, karma, divine predestination, etc., you are kind of begging the question against compatibilism. You’re assuming that the compatibilist has nothing salient say about the world because these things are unimportant. But the fact, if it is a fact, that some things (some of our choices and actions) are up to us (even though the composition of us has a causal history); that deliberating can lead us to make better decisions; that we can, indeed, affect our futures and those of our loved ones by the choices we make; and so on … is a pretty important one. And it flies in the face of what many people have believed in the past, and what many people continue to believe. You can’t just say that all those things are irrelevant, or that they’re all false just because determinism operates at the level of our brains (or because a mixture of determinism and randomness does).

    So, even if you want to conclude at the end of the day that hard determinism is the correct view, you can’t do so by just dismissing compatibilists as changing the subject. There is no single subject in this debate, but a whole cluster of issues; what compatibilists say is very much addressing these issues.

  9. Martin, science discovers all sorts of things that are hard to make sense of and are hard to reconcile with our existing knowledge. In that sense, sure, it finds out things that seem spooky.

    It doesn’t follow that spookiness is a virtue in a claim about the world. If you make a claim that is difficult to make sense of and is difficult to reconcile with out existing knowledge, there’s a pretty heavy burden on you to show how it is intelligible and to back it up with actual evidence.

    So far, no one has done a very convincing job of making the views that I label spooky even intelligible, let alone warranted by evidence.

    Most claims that seem spooky are not actually true, you know, much as you might like to wheel out Einstein in the way you did. There are no ghosts, ancestor spirits, demons, and so on. Being in company with spooky claims is not good company, even if science does have surprises for us – I’m sure it will have many more, but we shouldn’t pretend we know what they’ll be.

  10. It is extraordinary ambition to make “factual” conclusions on the “true” meaning and understanding on many things, even on gravity, electromagnetism etc(where billions of dollars have been spent in scientific research), let alone “free will”. who knows?

    However, our current understanding of humans, our world and universe(s) – gives us sufficeint knowledge (some of which have been eloquently articulated above) to say, with a high confidence level, that “free will” is more likely than not. And proposing, there is no “free will” is currentlly & evidentially (to-date) harder to argue.

  11. I think Russell and Jerry are both right in seeing that at the heart of this dispute is the question of what “free will” means. There is no point in arguing whether it exists before we’ve decided what it is we’re talking about.

    When a term causes as much difficulty as “free will” does, I find it helpful to step back and ask whether our use of the term provides any explanatory benefit. If it doesn’t, then the term is best dismissed as epistemically useless. And I think that’s the case with “free will”. How does the conclusion that we have “free will” help us understand the world any better?

    I know it feels as though the question of “free will” is an important and meaningful one. But when doing philosophy I find I must constantly question such feelings. Our reification of words leads us to feel they must be meaningful. And their psychological hold on us often leads us to feel they represent something important. But these feelings are often misleading. We are bewitched by our language. We can’t avoid using language, but we can attempt to avoid the most bewitching elements of it, and “free will” is one of those.

    I think there’s something in what Coyne says. I believe we all do have an illusory sense of being a unitary self with ultimate causal agency. And to me, at least, the term “free will” seems to be tied up with this. If a convinced materialist like me associates “free will” with this spooky sense, I find it hard to believe that most other people don’t. It’s still questionable whether our use of the term “free will” is so committed to this spooky sense as to justify a full-blown error theory. But I do think it’s misleading to use “free will” in the sort of non-spooky sense that compatibilists invent. Whatever we want to say, we can express it more clearly if we avoid such a disputed term.

    That said, there may be psychological and social reasons for reassuring people that they have “free will”. While I doubt it’s possible to completely lose our illusion of ultimate causal agency, a weakening of it may tend to lead to existential angst and more anti-social behaviour, so there’s something to be said for fostering the illusion. Whatever the fact of the matter, it’s probably a bad idea to loudly proclaim that we don’t have free will.

  12. “But if we assume that determinism is true it is not the case that you would choose differently. You would have the same desires, etc., and the sane beliefs about your situation, so you’d act in the same way. So what? You still acted on your own desires (which were encoded in some neurological form, but again so what?).”

    The only “so what’s” that I can think of are the “what’s” that would be posited by the religious sort, at least in my experience. You haven’t said much that I would disagree with now, but back when I held beliefs that were much in line with The Southern Baptist Convention (very fundamental Christian) those “so what’s” would be very big deals, indeed. I have not read any compatibilist notions of free will that mach up in any important way with the common notion of free will, and all I’ve been trying to argue/discuss is vs. the common notion.

    As I’ve said, I really enjoy reading Dennett’s take on these ideas, (he’s probably the only compatibilist I’m really familiar with), but I think Harris accuses him of the “bait and switch” only because his working definition of free will is just not in tune with the common definition of free will. So, I don’t think I would argue with a compatibilist, only because I think I’m familiar enough with his vernacular and his position makes sense to me. But when I discuss free will with people who aren’t immersed in philosophical traditions, they don’t ever seem to express compatibilist ideas, but rather spooky ones.

    “Look, I’m not even sure that “free will” is such a great term.” I completely agree with you here, and that’s what I’ve been trying to get at when I say things like, “the idea of free will doesn’t even make sense to me.” It is most certainly not a great term, but a lot of people commonly use it as if it is a great term, and that seems the impetus for this entire discussion.

    So, just for the sake of clarification, is the purpose of this post to get people’s responses to the commonly heald notion of free will, or the compatibilist notion of free will?

  13. s. wallerstein (amos)

    I think that by “free will”, people often mean not something “spooky”, but what the psychologist Daniel Kahneman refers to as “system 2 thinking”, that is, the ability step back from, revise and criticize our immediate reaction (system 1 thinking) to a situation, to face a situation creatively, to invent new parameters for new situations.

  14. You might be right, Mr. Wallerstein. The more I think about it, the more I think I might be inaccurately conflating my own experiences growing up in the southern and midwestern U.S. with what happens in general. My experience with the religious folk is that they do, absolutely, wrap up their idea of free will with something supernatural or “spooky.” I’m sorry if my conflation has muddled or confused what I’m trying to get across.

  15. s. wallerstein (amos)

    Michael F:

    Actually, I haven’t any data on what the average person thinks about free will.

    When I refer to what people often mean by free will, I’m referring to people with whom I’ve discussed the subject and that may be far from a representative cross section of society.

    In fact, most of my conversations and most of the conversations I have listened in on on the subject in the last 5 or 6 years have been in blogs dedicated to philosophical or related topics.

  16. @ Michael…I probably guilty in conflating two arguments. One thrust of my post/response sought to find weaknesses in Coyne’s argument. The other presented statements supporting the potential existence of “free will.”

    As to your first question, the randomness argument does not support the existence of free will (nor does it necessarily undermine it). However, if some human actions are random, it most certainly weakens Coyne’s hypothesis which imputes that all human actions have a direct causal antecedent. One can still posit the that human actions are not free; however, he/she would have to use an argument that did not rely on pure causality.

    I think it would be possible to test this hypothesis–actions are predetermined versus actions are sometimes predetermined. A researcher could take an organism (perhaps a mouse) and place it in the exact same situation more than once (probably numerous times). The analyst could them stimulate a response using a fear vector and see what happens. If the organism does not respond in the same way each time, ie. the mouse jumps to the right once, to the left another time, etc., then that provides strong evidence refuting Coyne’s hypothesis.

    On evolution: I think Coyne needs to demonstrate that evolution favors the development of human beings with no free will since he relies on evolutionary statements to bolster his hypothesis.

    My first attempt at connecting free will and evolution was kind of weak and opaque, so let me try again. Numerous organisms, such as wolves, chimpanzees, dolphins, etc. engage in complex, social behavior. None of these organisms exhibit (to the best of my knowledge) self-awareness much less any sense of control over their actions. They live in the moment. Ergo, evolution has tended to favor organisms that are non-self aware and at the same time can create complex societies.

    With that said, the burden of proof is on Coyne to demonstrate why human beings would differ from these other organisms. Namely, why would evolution favor the development of a species with an enlarged cerebrum (and all of the problems that come with this development) if the only benefit this organ part provides to human beings is one of deception? This is an especially pertinent question given that many other, non-aware creatures successfully engage in highly complex social networks.

    Also, I think we are all approaching this subject from a biased stance. However, by acknowledging that fact and trying to overcome it, perhaps we are demonstrating that we are not automatons after all. 😉

    Finally, I agree with other posters that it is important to define what I mean by free will. I would equate free will with the ability of an organism to choose from a limited set of possibilities. This action is not predetermined. I would also add that it is not important whether the subconscious or the conscious mind makes the decision, as long as the choice is not predetermined (by an internal or an external process).

    I don’t think any of the posters have mentioned it and maybe I am incorrect in this assumption–however, I believe that the first question we need to ask is not, “Does free will exist?” Rather, we need to query, “Can an organism create?” A free choice (if extant) is an action of creation whereby a predetermined choice, like a birth, is a result of predetermined actions. If human beings have the ability to create (as defined above), then they have the potential to possess free will. If not, they do not have the potential to be free.

  17. Addendum: I think we also have to define random and try to do a better job linking our definitions of randomness and free will.

    In thinking about it, if the mouse in my hypothetical experiment (see last post) reacts differently to the same stimuli/same context, then one could use that to support a theory of “free will” where free will is an autonomous action. Obviously the mouse did not deliberately choose to go left once and then right the next time. However, his/her brain made that decision. In other words, some aspect of its mind “chose” one way or the other when each was as likely. The choice did not derive from a predetermined set of causes nor was it caused by an external force. So, in this instance, randomness = autonomous choice.

  18. @Russell,

    Spooky is what spooky does.

    The inconvenient truth for empirical realists is that quantum entanglement does lean towards a best interpretation/inference that reality is an idealism. Cherished prejudices about what is spooky, from a physical/realism perspective, and can be safely ignored, can not be so easily dismissed.

    With a wave of your hand you state categorically that a set of spooky fringe phenomenon are able to be dismissed by all reasonable people. Is it not better to have an open mind over “spookiness”? Reflect on why you dismiss certain phenomenon, and dig deep as to their root axioms that you take for granted as solid. A Socratic method of self-questioning may lead you to acknowledge that it is merely you prejudices being played out, and what was thought solid is a mirage.

    As Arthur C Clarke was fond of saying… “When a mainstream scientist/philosopher states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

    The point of referencing Einstein (no intellectual slouch) is that he was WRONG on what he considered outlandish and spooky. Could it be possible so are you my friend?

  19. brain activity at least seven seconds before the subject is consciously aware of having made it. … “Decisions” made like that aren’t conscious ones. And if our choices are unconscious, with some determined well before the moment we think we’ve made them, then we don’t have free will in any meaningful sense.

    Jerry seems to think that his unconscious choices are not made by him. The illustrated studies show that decision-making as occurring in the physical brain as an extended process. Does Jerry want to argue that the “self” is different from the brain? Do I have a brain, or is it that I am a brain?

    And I don’t see that Morality requires or presupposes Free Will.

  20. Or you could just be a Calvinist, and none of this is a surprise to you.

  21. “It is strongly arguable that no spooky gap between us and the events that formed us is required for us to, quite rationally, hold each other responsible for our choices and actions.”

    But the substantive question is what sorts of responsibility practices are justifiable if we don’t have spooky contra-causal freedom, but are fully determined creatures? Is it fair to *retributively* punish (that is, without appealing to any beneficial consequences to justify punishment) someone who is fully caused to act badly? Compatibilists say yes, but thus far I haven’t seen a good argument for the fairness of retribution, plus the compatibilist criteria for being responsible are all forward-looking, having to do with guiding future behavior via rationality, see The Scandal of Compatibilism at

  22. Tom, depends on what “retribution” is. I certainly don’t think that anyone “deserves” anything in a way that transcends our desires and institutions. If that is an assumption in theories of retributive punishment, then those theories are based on a false assumption.

    People may, however, “deserve” something relative to our social institutions … and the institutions themselves may have some kind of utilitarian or similar justification.

    Martin, I’m sure we are all intelligent enough to work out what your point was in mentioning Einstein.

    As for your, “Could it be possible that I [Russell] am wrong?”, d’oh … since I don’t claim to be infallible, and have never claimed to be infallible, of course there’s a sense in which I could be wrong about this or anything else, and I freely admit this. Why suggest anything to the contrary?

    Perhaps you should look in the mirror when you ask this sort of question, rather than addressing it to me, given your habit of turning up here with ex cathedra pronouncements. Yes … you, too, could be wrong, “my friend”.

  23. @Russell,

    I am not being condescending in my remarks, or biased to my POV, I merely think an aspect of your thought is in error, and wanted to point that out in charity and civility.

    Of course I acknowledge we can all (and often are) in error. My asking you to reflect on it was because I consider you set out an unsupportable statement relating to “spookiness” as a something to be safely dismissed and avoided as a taboo subject, i.e.,

    “There are no ghosts, ancestor spirits, demons, and so on. Being in company with spooky claims is not good company.”

    That is a dogmatic position reinforced with a warning that it is career limiting to consider investigating such phenomena. I think that is wrongheaded. I might agree with you on some aspects of unwarranted “spookiness”, but not others (an that is why the Einstein quote/error is worth being repeated until it undertood).

    Please, if you have time and consider my point potentially valid, look at this link, it directly relates to spooky phenomena that are held as taboo, despite some interesting, important empirical support…

    PS: I trust your remark that “…given your habit of turning up here with ex cathedra pronouncements…” is not suggesting you feel my input is not welcome. The sense I have is that it is an emotional outburst based on my daring to consider you to be in error. Something you might reflect on my friend (and why not say “friend” – I feel no ill-will towards you).

  24. Typo: (and that is why the Einstein quote/error is worth being repeated until it’s understood).

  25. I’m not interested in turning this into a flame war for Jeremy to clean up, but “Could it be possible that you are wrong my friend?” sounds pretty damn condescending. As I said, I never claimed to be infallible.

  26. Well all I can say it was not meant that way, and apologize if my wording lead you to think that. Let me replace it with… “I think you are in error”

  27. Okay, accepted. No worries.

  28. Get That Chip Out of My Brain! | Talking Philosophy - pingback on January 9, 2012 at 9:26 am
  29. Per this article, I see two problems.

    The first, starting with Ryle, the “ghost in the machine,” the rejection of a Cartesian theater, etc., is that if there’s no conscious Cartesian demon running the “screening room,” then there’s no conscious Cartesian free willer, either.

    We may have something kind of like “free will” arising from interplay of subconscious subselves, but a fully conscious free will? I kind of doubt it.

    A second problem is that free-willers (of various stripes) and determinists both view this issue in terms of polarities.

    And, I don’t think that’s necessarily valid. Why can’t I have a degree of free will, or “free will,” especially if, as I say above, any “free will” we have ultimately arises from subconscious levels, but after a struggle between various subselves?

  30. @SocraticGadfly

    “Something kind of like ‘free will'” is autonomy. Many systems, biological or not, can have degrees of autonomy – defined for this purpose as the extent to which their behaviour is a combination of complex memory and internal ‘events’, and to which it distances the entity from other systems and the general environment.

    My fridge has some small amount of autonomy. It controls its internal temperature withing its capacity to deal with failing power supply, someone leaving the door open, and the ambient temperature of the room.

    Honda’s Asimo has a greater degree of autonomy.

    It appears humans have the greatest degree of complex autonomy, and the gap between us and other autonomous systems seems to have fooled us, historically, into thinking this experience is something special in us.

    There’s also the issue of the emergence of our decisions, apparently (to us) un-caused by physical effects. Well, the brain has no internal nervous system that can detect this sort of stuff, so what would we expect it to feel like when thoughts simply emerge out of fresh air? It feels like what we call free will.

    And, decisions are not the domian of free will alone (should there be any such thing as free will). Decisions are made by any system that performs behaviour based on logical comparison.

    “We may have something kind of like ‘free will’ arising from interplay of subconscious subselves”

    But those interplaying sub-conscious selves are just more physical brain stuff going on. Not free will.

  31. All this worry about determinism is futile.

    If the universe is deterministic (and quantum non-determinism doesn’t help here), and if we don’t have free will, then this is how that feels. We cannot tell whether we have free will or not from our personal feelings on the matter. We can only make inferences from evidence. The evidence is that the universe is physical to the extent that science has found so far. There is no evidence of any extra magic.

    Given how all of science is based on causality: physics, chamistry, biology, then this is how we would anticipate everything works until it is found otherwise. The null hypothesis is ‘no free will’.

    Free will is the alternative hypothesis because it is claiming something different, something other than basic physics. That human history has been filled with the notion that we have free will isn’t good enough. We have thought many other things to be the case that havn’t stood up to scientific scrutiny. Why bow to the desire that free will be a fact?

    So, what’s the evidence for the alternative hypothesis?

  32. @ANTHONY:
    That is one of the finest analyses I have ever seen on this problem. With a few tweaks it could be a stellar article. You’ve pretty much nailed it. Amazing.

  33. Get That Chip Out of My Brain! « More Interesting Things - pingback on February 12, 2012 at 1:41 am
  34. Stephen Lawrence


    “People may, however, “deserve” something relative to our social institutions … and the institutions themselves may have some kind of utilitarian or similar justification.”

    Is this true? If it is true does it fit with the ordinary sense of “deserve” that people have? I’m sure it doesn’t, which is why it’s important to deny we have libertarian free will.

    Utilitarian justification for inflicting harm on some are that it reduces harm over all.

    But deservedness seems to include the idea that it is fair to those we do it to.

    How can it be fair that some had a past that led to a good future and some had a past that led to a bad future?

  35. Ultimately, I agree with Harris and Coyne, but I think that’s irrelevant to all the other philosophical issues you raise. An illusion of free will is all we need to properly address them. We do have power over our lives, we just don’t have a choice about how, when, or why we use it. And if that’s a contradiction, then so be it.

  36. Hate the belief, not the believer | Critical Thoughts - pingback on July 27, 2013 at 2:22 pm
  37. Hate the belief, not the believer | Crommunist - pingback on September 20, 2013 at 12:27 am

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