Owen D. Jones on free will

We come to the fifth of six pieces about free will recently published in The Chronicle of Higher Education – this time from Owen D. Jones, who ponders the relationship between constraints on our volition and the operation of the law. Jones has a forthcoming book, Law and Neuroscience, which I look forward to reading when it appears in 2013.

While Jones’s project certainly sounds interesting, my feeling is that the article doesn’t take determinism with sufficient seriousness. Perhaps this is partly to do with restrictions of space, but Jones never really responds to arguments based on comprehensive causal determinism. He acknowledges that there are constraints on our choices, but does not appear to consider the possibility that our choices are absolutely determined by the states of our brains at the particular times when choices take place. Consider, for example, this passage:

Evolutionary proc­esses pre-equip brains in all species with some information-processing predispositions. Generally speaking, these increase the probabilities that some combinations of environmental circumstances—immediate physical and social factors, contexts, and the like—will yield one subset of possible (and generally nondisastrous) behaviors rather than others.

Okay, so the idea here is that the range of choices available to creatures like us – with an evolutionary history, some kind of evolved species psychology, plus individual socialisation, plus simply the obvious constraints of circumstances – is rather limited. In any situation involving a human choice, there is only a narrow range of possibilities as to how she will end up acting. Actually, I doubt that anyone denies this if I express it in such general and vague terms.

However, current attacks on free will go much further. In essence, they suggest that the process of choosing is an illusion. This is supposedly because there is only one way that I can choose in any situation (at any three-dimensional cross-section of space-time, we might say). I must deliberate, if I do so at all, and choose in the way that corresponds to (or correlates with, or is identical to) a transformation in my brain state that is directed by exceptionless scientific laws. It’s not just that my possible choices will be constrained within certain boundaries established by human nature and personal nurture. Rather, there is one way that I will choose, and therefore only one way that I can choose. If it turned out that I (tenselessly) choose in some other way, then I have violated the laws of physics – something that I obviously cannot do. Thus, I have no power to make genuine choices, and free will is an illusion.

While the above is not a valid argument (it is relying on equivocations about the meaning of “can” and/or conflating the meanings of “can” and “will”), talk of constrained choices from evolutionary psychology and the like don’t do the apparent force of the argument full justice. In Jones’s defence, however, that is presumably not his intention. Perhaps he could say that he does not have to deal with every argument that is currently in the Zeitgeist, irrespective of how relevant or otherwise it might be to his own project. Still, I can imagine a lot of people who are interested in current debates about free will claiming that Jones misses the point … or at least that he misses their point.

Conversely, I can well imagine many people thinking that arguments based on causal determinism are missing the point. After all, philosophers have been prepared to entertain the possibility of causal determinism for a long time now – ever since classical antiquity. This is not a new idea to us at all. A common view, and one that I tend to share, is that arguments against free will based merely on causal determinism at the level of the brain, not on something more specific such as Freudian accounts of how far our own desires are supposedly alien to us, are either addressing the wrong question or are simply invalid.

  1. The question of free-will is now moving beyond the realm of philosophy into that of science and neurology. Let’s leave causal determinism aside for a moment.

    Neural recordings are now showing quite conclusively that, in some instances at least (more work yet to be done), our brain decides before awareness of our choices kicks in. Thus negating the freedom of conscious will, the top down imposition of conscious will onto the brain.

    This, to me, is the real and fascinating challenge.


  2. Stephen Lawrence


    “Thus negating the freedom of conscious will, the top down imposition of conscious will onto the brain. ”

    I just don’t think we experience conscious will, free or otherwise.

    What we experience is being conscious of our desires. so I am conscious of a feeling, in my body, mostly the stomach area and this feeling I interpret as fancying an egg sandwich. I also notice I’m relaxed and smiley, which I interpret as meaning I’m not worrying about the calories or cholestral in the egg sandwhich.

    I expect I’ll go and make one in a minute.

    But what this thing conscious will you are talking about, I have no idea.

    So before looking to science to answer this, I’d check if we even experience it first!

  3. “I just don’t think we experience conscious will, free or otherwise.”
    Perhaps. But as you know, experience is subjective and we could debate your point for centuries (as it has been). Science enables us to move beyond what you and I “think”.
    What the work of Fried and others is pointing to, possibly unequivocally, is that the conscious causal will (let’s call it like that) is an illusion. An after-the-fact rationalization of unconscious processes. Likewise for recall of images, and perhaps, for everything else.
    If this is verified beyond these few experiments, including for deeper, self-reflective processes, it will be the ultimate revolution in human understanding. Hard to measures what the consequences might be.
    The mystery of consciousness, by the way, will lose most of its luster.
    Who cares what consciousness is and why we have it, if it’s just a flashy delusion atop a zombie.

  4. Roger Butters

    It appears to me, perhaps mistakenly, that the article and comments assume the laws of physics to be themelves deterministic. It is not clear to me that this is necessarily so. Reality may or may not be continuous, it could be discrete. So that relations may be direct or statistical. Certainly at the quantum level there appears to be uncertainty.

  5. Stephen Lawrnce


    “Science enables us to move beyond what you and I “think”.
    What the work of Fried and others is pointing to, possibly unequivocally, is that the conscious causal will (let’s call it like that) is an illusion. ”

    Pay attention to the experience and the illusion goes away.

    It’s only if science were telling us the experience were an illusion that I’d find it interesting.

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