Free will or not free will?

It seems that everyone except me currently has a book about free will. As Jeremy Stangroom said when I made a similar remark on Twitter, if I had a new book about free will everyone else would have a new book about secularism. Well, so it appears … but I suppose that’s an illusion.

Be all that as it may, new books on free will or related topics have been (or soon will be) published by Sam Harris, Michael S. Gazzaniga, David Eagleman, Neil Levy, and Mathew Iredale – and there may well be others. This suddenly seems like a very hot topic, both within the academy and among a larger class of educated people.

By the way, the only book amongst this lot that I have yet read is Levy’s, which I found persuasive up to a point, although I do have the Harris book on order. Anyone who’d like to send me/get their publisher to send me review copies of the others is strongly encouraged.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has very recently published a batch of essays about free will – partly, it says, in response to the books by Harris, Gazanniga, and Eagleman – perhaps annoyingly, but not that surprisingly, philosophers Levy and Ireman are not mentioned. It’s not surprising for a number of reasons, including that their books are not aimed at a broad general audience. Or rather, Levy’s book is very much written for fellow philosophers, and more particularly those with some specialisation in this field (its approach is quite technical, which is not true of all Levy’s books), while Iredale’s forthcoming volume is from a relatively small academic press, even it’s written in a broadly accessible way. These books are not likely to receive heavy marketing. Still, it’s unfortunate that important new books on the topic by philosophers haven’t been picked up on by the Chronicle, of all places, mainly because they are too academic.

I’m planning, over the next few days, to look at the six articles in the Chronicle, taking them in order (which will mean starting with the contribution by Jerry Coyne, then, respectively, those of Alfred Mele, the aforementioned Gazzaniga, Hilary Bok, Owen D. Jones, and Paul Bloom).

Do I have a dog in this fight? Well, to an extent. I still tend to think of myself as a compatibilist, although I’ve increasingly come to wonder whether “free will talk” is actually very useful at all, one way or the other, in illuminating our situation. Perhaps everything that needs to be said can be said without actually using the expression “free will” – and perhaps both “You have free will!” and “You do not have free will!” convey false or misleading content, or are simply too unclear to convey anything very coherent at all to the average person. So I’ve become something of a sceptic about the whole concept, or, rather, the expression, while still thinking that there are useful things that can be said in the vicinity, perhaps in other language. Since these things include some of the content that affirmations that we have free will are apparently intended to convey, my scepticism is not so much about whether we have free will, whatever it is, as whether the expression “free will” is especially clear or useful.

But we’ll see. Although I do have a viewpoint that I start with, I’m open to being persuaded by all or any of these six articles. Join me over the next few days as I tackle them one at a time.

Leave a comment ?


  1. Can’t wait for this! We’ve been on the subject of minds and free will in my philosophy class. Personally, I think that Sam Harris’ latest book has been invaluable, but I have as of yet read anything from the opposign point of view. I have access to Daniel Dennett’s “Elbow Room,” but I haven’t had a choice in the fact that I’ve pushed off reading it πŸ˜‰

  2. “perhaps both β€œYou have free will!” and β€œYou do not have free will!” convey false or misleading content”

    More importantly, the people who are arguing about this most vociferously (on both sides) seem to have an agenda.

  3. When we use the term “free will” in everyday parlance, it seems to be opposed to some sort of external influence. For example, “Did he do it of his own free will, or was he coerced?”. When philosophers/theologians ask “Do we have free will?”, they don’t seem to be making a distinction between internal and external causes. So it’s unclear what the alternative to free will is supposed to be.

    I find it often useful with difficult philosophical questions to ask why it matters. What’s really at stake? I don’t see the concept of “free will” being used to explain anything. It seems to have no explanatory value. The main reason people seem concerned about it is because they intuitively feel that the existence of free will is necessary for there to be moral responsibility. But the concept of moral responsibility has no explanatory value either. It seems to me that these concepts are invoked because they have a psychological and motivational value, not because they have any epistemic value.

  4. It seems to me that there are times when we coast along autonomously, with lots of things going on cognitively speaking, without us being aware of it – maybe in the high 90’s % of the time. Perhaps a post narrative/epiphenomenon process is the best way to describe our conscious cognition in those times. Our conscious “will” is not directly part of it, otherwise for invoking heuristics and rules of tried and tested behavior (that might have been reinforced by earlier “free” reflection).

    However, if, for whatever causal/acausal reason, we choose to reflect deeply on those thoughts, we can interrupt that process, we become aware of the drifting/coasting in our thoughts and inclinations – and can challenge them. We might talk about them with others, go to check things out online, and through these new experiences get non-predetermined info that helps us change our minds. This process is non-deterministic and not settled by the state of our minds prior to the decision to review/reflect. If we never exposed ourselves to these opportunities to reflect and change, we would be be acting without free will, but when we do we might as well say that we did our best in good conscience to act freely with new data. For me that’s the essence of free will.

    I have other arguments in favor of free-will, e.g., when one thinks about thinking and acting deeply in a non-local acausal manner (via quantum entanglement argument and NOT a quantum uncertainty related one). This generates a “strange cybernetic loop” that bypasses the objections of physical deterministic causal arguments against free-will, but I thought I would leave that for another day. πŸ˜‰

  5. swallerstein (amos)


    I think that you’re on to something in your rejection of the terms of the debate about free will.

    We need a new way of focusing on or viewing the issues of choice/autonomy/responsibility, which probably should not be lumped together as they often are, and perhaps you can come up with some ideas on that.

    I’m looking forward to seeing your thoughts on this subject.

  6. Here is one more new book to consider (sorry for the shameless plug!):

    Gregg D. Caruso, Free Will and Consciousness: A Determinist Account of the Illusion of Free Will (Lexington Books, 2012).

  7. Okay, another one – thanks for that Gregg. This thread might at least be a resource for someone searching for recent/new literature related to the topic.

  8. @Russell: I’ve increasingly come to wonder whether β€œfree will talk” is actually very useful … Perhaps everything that needs to be said can be said without actually using the expression β€œfree will”

    Pretty close to my own position. I am not skeptical about the freedom part. The weak point in all arguments “fer and agin” is the will itself. Until someone can describe what “the will” (or “willing”) actually is, no discussion is necessary about whether it’s free or not.

    And you’re on the right track, suspecting the dialog itself: it’s possible to talk all day about freedom (and choice /volition /autonomy /decision /accountability) without mentioning “will” at all.

    @Pieret: More importantly, the people who are arguing about this most vociferously (on both sides) seem to have an agenda.
    Wise words. I agree with that. There always have been axes to grind all around this issue. If choices are made by DNA rather than reflection, that puts a different slant on accountability for actions, for instance — with consequences in everything from child-rearing to law-making, no?

    @Richard Wein: The main reason people seem concerned about it is because they intuitively feel that the existence of free will is necessary for there to be moral responsibility.
    That’s it, mostly. If you are skeptical about “moral” in that phrase, you’re probably also skeptical about responsibility in that phrase: what do these words mean? Actually, “responsibility” is not the best word choice there; the issue is more “accountability” — do my actions belong to me, or to something outside my control? The issue IMHO is not whether I’m “responsible” (there’s a pre-loaded moral connotation there), but whether I actually own my actions. My own position, without reference to “willing” at all, is: of course I do. If I don’t own them, who does?

    “Free will” is just a lot of icing with no cake inside. But evidently it will sell a lot of books. LOL.

  9. Picking up on the moral reponsibility bit, if people don’t have free will punishing them wont change their behaviour will it?

    So open up those prisons and let the chaps out! They aren’t responsible for being father-rapers and kiddy fiddlers after all!

    OTOH I cannot be held morally responsible for wanting to see them kicked to death can I?

    Oh joy!

  10. Stephen Lawrnce


    “OTOH I cannot be held morally responsible for wanting to see them kicked to death can I?”

    What you don’t understand, is that you’re delight in the suffering is sustained by the belief it’s deserved.

    The question is would there be less suffering if we stopped believing this?

  11. well I am not morally responsible for my beliefs either, am I? :mrgreen:

  12. Stephen Lawrence

    That’s irrlevant Leo. Belief in ultimate responsibility is an erroneous belief and erroneous beliefs can be harmful, Which is a good reason to be concerned about it.

  13. alQpr » Blog Archive » Is Free Will an Illusion? - pingback on April 8, 2012 at 4:15 pm

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