John Horgan: we do too have free will

June 13, 2011 • 5:51 am

Most of you have heard of John Horgan, a distinguished and widely published science writer (formerly at Scientific American), author of The End of Science and Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border Between Science and Spirituality (I haven’t read the latter; weigh in if you have).  He’s also famous in atheist circles for having criticized the John Templeton Foundation for trying to slant his writings toward accommodationism when he was a journalism fellow.

While trawling around the internet on the topic of free will, I came across a short piece that Horgan wrote for Religion Dispatches (!) six months ago, a defense of free will called “Dear scientists: please stop bashing free will!”  Because it bears a family resemblance to some recent remarks by Eric MacDonald, who also defended free will (I’ll address those tomorrow), I want to briefly reprise and answer Horgan’s arguments.

It’s one of the better defenses of free will I’ve seen by a scientist or science writer, but still fails completely, I think.  Horgan’s defense is tripartite:

1.  “Science had discovered nothing that contradicts free will,” and our deliberations appear to yield choices.

Science has discovered nothing that contradicts free will. To deny free will’s existence is to deny that our conscious, psychological deliberations—Should I ask my girlfriend to marry me? Should I major in engineering or art?—influence our actions. Such a conclusion flies in the face of common sense. Of course, sometimes we deliberate insincerely, toward a foregone conclusion, or we fail to act upon our resolution. But not always. Sometimes we consciously choose to do something and we do it. Correlation does not necessarily equal causation, but it often does.

First of all, Horgan has just spent the first half of his short article showing evidence that does contradict free will, including research demonstrating that our decisions appear to be made before we’re conscious of having made them.  There’s also this interesting tidbit, of which I was unaware:

Neurosurgeons preparing the brain of an epileptic before surgery can make the patient’s arm pop up like an eager student’s by electrically stimulating the motor cortex. The patient often insists that she meant to move the arm and even invents a reason why: She was waving to that nurse walking by the door! Neurologists call these erroneous, post-hoc explanations confabulations. Some scientists argue that whenever we explain our acts as the outcome of our conscious choice, we are engaging in a kind of confabulation, because our actions actually stem from countless physiological causes of which we are completely unaware.

There is, of course, the reams of knowledge about how brain lesions, diseases, stimulation and the like can make someone behave in abnormal ways, yet in ways that the actor and outside observers would consider as results of “choice”.

But to appear to make choices after deliberation does not really mean that those choices were “free”, at least in the sense that one could equally well have chosen otherwise.  Just as those neurosurgery patients fully believe that they chose to do something that was actually physically determined, so we feel (and, indeed, may have evolved to feel) that our choices are free.

Yes, we do take in information from the environment and process it both consciously and unconsciously (see below), but that does not mean that, after processing, we are still free to decide what to do.  And yes, perhaps there are “random” or quasi-random events that affect those deliberations (quantum fluctuations in molecules and the like, which are a). unlikely to influence decisions and b.) can’t be considered part of “free will” anyway), but in the end we are simply federations of molecules, tissues, and neurons whose morphology, physiology, and behavior are determined by interactions between genes and environments.  Where, exactly, does the conscious interposition that goes by “choice” reside? If there is one, it involves not only a rejection of physical determinism, but one that is incoherent. If our thoughts can influence our choices, then that still involves molecules affecting molecules, and these interactions must still obey the laws of physics and chemistry.

Horgan summarizes this argument by saying, “Sometimes we consciously choose to do something and we do it.”  This assumes what he’s trying to prove.

The onus for those who believe in “free will”—as in “I could have done otherwise had I chosen”—is to specify on a physical level how it would work. Horgan, at the end of the article, simply punts on this:

Theologians have proposed that science still allows faith in a “God of the gaps,” who dwells within those shadowy realms into which science has not fully penetrated, such as the imaginary time before the Big Bang banged. In the same way, maybe we can have a free will of the gaps. No science is more riddled with gaps, after all, than the science of human consciousness.

Yes, but there is no God (Horgan says he’s a “Catholic turned agnostic”), so all is molecules.  Even those big gaps in our understanding consciousness will be plugged by things that must obey physical laws.

2.  “Free will must exist if some creatures have more of it than others.” This is a common argument: Eric MacDonald has made it, and in a sense it’s the backbone of Dennett’s argument in Freedom Evolves (granted, Dennett’s thesis is far more complex and sophisticated).

My teenage daughter and son have more free will—more choices to consider and select from—than they did when they were infants. They also have more than our dog Merlin does. I have (on my good days) more free will than adults my age suffering from schizophrenia or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Yes, we have more responses to stimuli than do dogs or squirrels, but to say that some species have more complex behaviors than others says nothing at all about free will.  It simply conflates the concept of “free choice” with that of “more complex relations between inputs and outputs.” A bacterium can either move toward or away from food or light.  When we move toward food, we can go to  McDonald’s, to Chez Panisse, or to the grocery store.  Does that show we have free will? No, it shows only that we have more varied tastes, as well as the evolved ability to process our environment in ways that cater to those tastes.  The more complex the species, the more choices it will appear to have.  But that doesn’t mean that those choices are free.  It means only that evolution has favored the acquisition and weighting of more and different kinds of environmental information that feed into behaviors.

3.  We need the concept of free will to promote good individual behavior and well-oiled societies.

We also need the concept of free will, much more than we need the concept of God. Our faith in free will has social value. It provides us with the metaphysical justification for ethics and morality. It forces us to take responsibility for ourselves rather than consign our fate to our genes or God. Free will works better than any other single criterion for gauging the vitality of a life, or a society. Choices, freely made, are what make life meaningful.

There are other justifications for morality, ethics, and moral responsibility besides free will.  And what makes life meaningful is not the existence of free choice, but the idea of free choice.  Who can live thinking that they’re a pure automaton—a puppet on the strings of DNA and environments?  I know that I have no free will, but behave as if I do.  I also know that I’m going to die, but if I dwelt constantly on that my life would be miserable (as it is, I do this far too often!).  In this sense we do operate on “belief in belief,” but the difference between religious ideas and that of free will is that I am nearly 100% certain that there isn’t free will, and my life isn’t predicated on thinking that it’s real.

Horgan cites some research:

When people doubt free will, they are more likely to behave badly. After reading a passage from a book that challenged the validity of free will, students were more likely to cheat on a mathematics exam. Others were less likely to let a classmate use their cell phone.

Maybe this is so, but to say free will really exists because that notion makes people behave better is no different from saying that God exists because that idea also makes people behave better. (I know of no evidence God-belief promotes better behavior. But even if it did, it wouldn’t demonstrate the existence of a God.)

I’m starting to see realize there are striking parallels between belief in God and belief in free will.  There is no evidence for the existence of either, and plenty of evidence against both.  Belief in both makes people feel better.  And people argue that belief in both God and free will is salutary—indeed, essential—for society to operate properly.  This hypothesis of parallelism, which is mine and belongs to me, is buttressed by Horgan’s last sentence:

I don’t believe in God—at least, not a God described in any text I know of—but I do believe in free will.

135 thoughts on “John Horgan: we do too have free will

  1. “…in the end we are simply federations of molecules, tissues, and neurons whose morphology, phyisiology, and behavior are determined by interactions between genes and environments.”

    But are we really? The fact that we’re evolved animals is not in dispute, but the idea that our behaviour is purely determined by gene-environment interaction is, I think, an open question. Some behaviours might be, and some might not. I recall your discussion of altruism, where you point out the unlikelyhood that “true altruism” might be aselected for. If it’s not, then how does it come about? Horgan, btw, has had some very pointed things to say on hi SC blog on the issues of genes and behaviour i.e. he tends to see casual links between genes and certain behaviours as weak and mostly unsupported. Is he also wrong in that respect?

    1. How does football come about? If you think you have to justify true altruism with selection, it would be one human behavior on a very long list that would need selective explanations.

      Selection is not fast or precise enough to design a brain that perfectly benefits its genes at all times. These behaviors we do that aren’t selected for are, from the genes’ point of view, bugs.

  2. The term “free will” is so loaded with bad metaphysical baggage that the term should be dropped, but there are still interesting questions to be asked about agency. One of the big problems with “free will” is that it’s assumed that you either have it or don’t. It’s a crude binary distinction. Agency is a complicated natural phenomenon and its clear that I’m not always an agent in the same way and I’m not an agent in the same way that a dog is an agent, and it isn’t an agent in the way an amoeba is. The answer isn’t saying that there is no free will because that’s still using the term “free will”. Instead, we need to kill the term “free will” and study agency.

    1. Yes, I agree. Discussions about ‘free will’ as contrasting to ‘genetic’ or ‘social determinism’ were quite popular when I was studying biology in the sixties and seventies. I did not like these discussions, mainly because of the fuzziness and the plasticity of the terms ‘will’, ‘free will’ and ‘determinism’. If I am not mistaken the term ‘free will’ was coined by theologians: human ‘souls’ supposedly being equipped with ‘free will’ which is a prerequisite for the concept of ‘sin’. This idea has played, I think, a big role in legitimizing religious intolerance and sadism. In juridic contexts the term is mostly avoided, and replaced with somewhat less fuzzy terms like ‘accountability’ and ‘responsibility’ (for one’s deeds). Then we have terms like ‘choice’: having freedom of choice depends from (a) the social and cultural restrictions prevalent in specific groups, and (b) of actual material limitations (‘sorry, we are out of vanilla, strawberry and chocolate, there is only banana left’).
      Yes, I agree that it would be beneficial and clarifying trying to avoid as much as possible the use of the concept of ‘free will’ as a key concept in biological and bio-sociological discussions about decisionmaking and choosing.

  3. I wrote a blog posting on how a neuroscientist did an experiment on himself using a transcranial magnetic stimulator, where he had an involuntary movement induced, and he found himself reasoning away the involuntary part by insisting that he changed his mind about not wanting to move.

    Fascinating, and can be induced without surgery. Hmm… Jerry, do you have access to a transcranial magnetic stimulator and some time on your hands? 😉

  4. Gilbert Ryle, in his book The Concept of Mind (1949) points out how we sometimes make the error in trying to apply concepts to reality. It seems to me, that free-will is a concept, and not a reality. However, to conclude the opposite, that we’re robots with no freedom or self is equally fallacious.

    Because concepts describe reality, without being real themselves, they’re descriptive of what is going on. Just like the concept ‘truth’ or ‘eleven’ or ‘beauty’ or ‘freedom’ or ‘self’ are descriptive.

    Since concepts don’t exist in the real world, that is not an excuse to banish them, doing so is as absurd as getting rid of mathematics.

    1. Banish might be too harsh a term. There are many nonsensical language constructs, and I am evolving my thinking to surmise that the term “free will” belongs alongside “North of the North Pole”. Both terms are linguistic constructs that fit language rules, but offer no value. They have built-in premises that are found to be in the final analysis, self-destructive.

      Similar as to attempting to create a mayonnaise and motor oil sandwich: it’s not the proportion of the ingredients, it’s that one element a priori is in the wrong environment. While motor oil is useful, not as a food.

  5. There’s another parallel between God and Free Will based on your description. Both require something beyond the physical. For Free Will to exist it would have to be unaffected itself by the universe of cause-and-effect, yet somehow have an input into the universe. Is that correct?

    Our psychological deliberations are otherwise open to being as determined as the flow of chemicals or electrical impulses in any other system.

    1. “unaffected itself by the universe of cause-and-effect”. Excellent observation, in my opinion.

      In a similar vein, I have posited that, to have a “soul”, it would have to mean perpetual awakedness, a conscious being concurrent within you that never slept or became unconscious. No one has told me why my opinion of this feature of a “soul” is incorrect.

  6. For those who don’t like the idea they lack free will, I propose a free-will substitute: the pursuit of random ideas.

    Given the power of ideas to change our lives, acquiring ideas on an intellectual random walk should result in correspondingly unpredictable behaviors. Flip a coin to decide what you’ll minor in, read a book whose title offends you, watch a movie you have no interest in seeing.

    Your life experiences might not be any less deterministic, but they might be less predictable, and probably more interesting too.

    1. This doesn’t correspond to how people behave who become millionaires (sorry, billionaires). Their strategy, usually started during the early twenties, is far away from a “random walk” .

      Not that I think that an early obsession with making money made you more of a happy person.

      1. Indeed, research indicates that a single-minded pursuit of riches, fame or other status tokens does not produce happiness. Such lives are in fact less happy, the researchers found, even if the pursuit is successful.

        1. Does asking the question about “happiness” help mold the response? Unlike taking someone’s temperature, which can be done independently with the same results, I feel that getting the accurate “happiness temperature” is a self-fulfilling pursuit.

          1. Some dismiss all happiness research on the grounds it is attempting to measure that which cannot be measured. For what it’s worth, though, many of these happiness research findings are peer-reviewed, and said peers are presumably satisfied with the measurement methodologies. Further, given the importance of happiness to human existence, we have got to at least attempt to gauge it. Keep in mind too that at one time wind, electricity, light and gravity were immeasurable.

  7. Perhaps somebody who asserts that we have this “free will” — whatever it is — can answer a question that’s been bugging me: is the free will deterministic or random?

    And if that’s somehow a false dichotomy, please explain it this way: does a free will rationally operate according to a fixed set of rules, or does it just arbitrarily pick from a set of options? Perhaps it’s a weighted average, where you don’t know how it’ll behave in a one-off choice between A and B, but you know that, over a series of a thousand choices, it’ll go with B 20% more often than with A?



  8. I agree with Bernard Ortcutt above, particularly his remark on the crudity of the opposition that seems to excite so many. Quite honestly, I do not know what is meant by ‘free will’, and I wish that both those who believe it exists and those who don’t would make the attempt to define what it is they are talking about. Sam Harris and now this chap – it’s really rather like mediaeval theologians and their interest in angels and the points of needles; it seems a peculiarly sterile debate, one that is best eschewed in the interest of the almost certainly more fruitful approach to the question of agency, as Bernard Ortcutt says.

  9. Hi Jerry.

    Thanks for the fascinating discussion!

    Has anyone put forward the following simple argument in support of free will?

    (1) If I have no free will, then I am a physically determined, natural process, and vice versa.
    (2) No natural process can generate prime numbers
    (3) I can generate prime numbers (look: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, 37, 41…)
    (4) Conclusion: I am not a natural process, and therefore do possess free will.


    1. Selection on the emergence periods of periodical cicadas has produced prime numbers: the broods come out either every 13 or 17 years, and there are no variants. Some scientists think that selection for prime-number emergence durations reflects the avoidance of predators who would find it hard to synchronize with those emergences, but it’s unclear.

    2. Wha…?

      Where on Earth did you come up with #2?

      You do know that computers spend all day generating prime numbers, don’t you? Every time you visit a secure Web page, there’s all sorts of prime numbers being thrown about, and I can assure you that no mere human created them.

      Are you asserting that computers have free will?



    3. Computers can generate prime numbers much faster than anything else we know of. Are computers not natural processes? Do they possess free will?

    4. @Ben & Deen, no, computers (like my post above) are simply the result of the expression of our (my) free will decision to generate the primes.

      @Jerry, thanks for the Magicicada example. It’s inevitable that some of the billions of numbers that appear in nature and the greater universe will be prime, but it’s pretty tough to imagine a natural process that will generate the *sequence* of primes, no? Yet, here they are: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17…

      1. Natural processes cannot produce prime numbers? Excuse me, how do you know that? Did you learn it in chemistry class?
        If you have not seen some natural processes produce prime number it doesn’t mean others like the ones in human brain can’t do it.

      2. To say that (most) natural processes do not generate a sequence of prime numbers lends no support to the claim that natural processes cannot generate a sequence of prime numbers.

        Computer programs are absolutely deterministic, to the core of the hardware they run on (unless you burrow down to the quantum level, where any stochastic properties are irrelevant, and in any case perhaps deterministic anyway). If they aren’t natural, nothing is.

      3. computers (like my post above) are simply the result of the expression of our (my) free will decision to generate the primes.

        This is a common ID argument — that computers somehow “borrow” or “inherit” our free will through the process of being programmed by us.

        Sorry, but that is not how computers work. Computers are relentlessly mechanistic, deterministic phenomena. They do not do what you INTEND or WILL them to do, they only do VERY PRECISELY what you tell them to do. They read code, not minds.

        There is no contradiction involved in a situation in which a computer programmer thinks he’s telling a computer to do X, but the program he wrote actually generates the sequence of primes. Computers almost never do exactly what their users intend, and sometimes do things very different from the intention of the users. The possibility of this scenario demonstrates that computers CAN possibly generate primes without any corresponding will or intent on the part of the user.

      4. @Ben & Deen, no, computers (like my post above) are simply the result of the expression of our (my) free will decision to generate the primes.

        I think we can all agree that computers are purely physical objects without any free will, and yet they generate prime numbers just fine (better than you can, in fact). This refutes premise #2.

        In your response, you’re trying to rescue this premise by asserting that computers only generate prime numbers because the builders, programmers and users of computers used their free will to make it so. But then you are using the conclusion of your argument to support one of its premises, which is a massive logic fail.

        Generating the sequence of prime numbers is an odd example to show that free will exists anyway. It’s not like you have any choice in which number will be the next one in the sequence, do you?

    5. Theo,

      On this argument aren’t you are a natural process, thus disproving #2. Now, do we natural processes or our consciousnesses generate prime numbers or simply recogize them?

    6. “it’s pretty tough to imagine a natural process that will generate the *sequence* of primes, no?”

      I suppose if you’re a Cartesian dualist, maybe, but who cares about the limited imaginations of dualists?

  10. John Horgan wrote:

    To deny free will’s existence is to deny that our conscious, psychological deliberations—Should I ask my girlfriend to marry me? Should I major in engineering or art?—influence our actions.

    But this does not provide an argument for free will at all. Aren’t the answers to these questions entirely determined by the information you have about your girlfriend? By your preferences? By your best guess of future developments? By your mood at the time (optimistic, pessimistic)? Based on these facts and guesses, could you really have come to a different conclusion?

  11. There remains a desire among free will advocates for a “cosmological constant” version of self that is immutable. There is no unmitigated, unencumbered self, so Causa sui is akin to striking a wet match.

  12. Anyone who has quit smoking can describe the sustained, determined, conscious and difficult decision-making that goes into a successful effort to quit, dozens of times per day. The individual struggle is not the same for everyone, but no one who is an ex-smoker is anything less than expert on the subject of choice and free-will.

    1. I’d suggest you take a look at studies on the effect of nicotine on the brains of rats They have opened the door to new and novel methods for smoking cessation.

    2. I’m an ex-smoker. I do not believe in free will. I do attest to the fact that I once smoked and no longer do so but using that fact as evidence of free will is no different – not one whit – from saying that “I feel like I have free will” is evidence.

      That’s my ‘expert’ testimony anyway.

    3. Interesting…I think of free will in terms of different parts of our brains wanting different things at the same time and our choices are whichever desires come to the top. This is exactly that situation — the number one piece of advice I get on quitting smoking is “I wasn’t able to until it became more important to me not to smoke the next cigarette than it was to smoke it.” There’s parts of your brain trying to maintain chemical homeostasis, and those parts want cigarettes. There’s parts of your brain trying to keep the whole mess going on the scale of decades and those parts want fresh air. At any given instant, one or the other is on top. Where’s free will come in again?

        1. Awesome! Maybe we can start our own Chopraish new age woo industry, but instead of quantum consciousness we have

          CHAOS CONSCIOUSNESS!!! HAHAHA..cough…sorry.

          1. You may mock, but this idea is not woo: Any sufficiently complex physical system behaves chaotically. So why should the brain be different.


            1. Aww, I wasn’t mocking, I’m with you 100%. I just thought “chaos consciousness” sounded like some of Chopra’s nonsense and was amused.

              1. If you’re trying to imply that Chopra’s thoughts are best characterized as “complete disorder and confusion” (which is how the Apple dictionary defines the term), then I don’t think you’ll find very many here who will disagree with you.



      1. Dennett describes something like that in Consciousness Explained, due to Marvin Minsky, IIRC: The “multiple drafts” model.

        This might answer Ben’s question above. Possible choices aren’t always equally weighted or binary. Ten parts of the brain may say “A”; seven, “B”; and one, “C”.

        (Possibly I’m conflating two different ideas from that book.)


        1. Just because the weighting isn’t equal or easy to calculate doesn’t open wiggle room for something that’s neither deterministic nor random nor a blend of the two.



  13. Jerry:

    “Who can live thinking that they’re a pure automaton—a puppet on the strings of DNA and environments? I know that I have no free will, but behave as if I do.”

    This forgets the fact that you as an organism contribute directly to the control of your own behavior, whereas the influence of DNA is rather remote. Don’t forget about you-the-agent; you’re just as causally effective as the influences that created you, We are not automatons, but autonomous, self-controlled cybernetic systems. Determinism doesn’t disempower us,

    Plus, we don’t need to behave *as if* we have contra-causal free will, that is, as if we could have done otherwise in an actual situation. That would mean ignoring the actual causes of our behavior, bad policy indeed! And as you say, “There are other justifications for morality, ethics, and moral responsibility besides free will.” So we don’t need to live as if we have it.

    “I’m starting to see realize there are striking parallels between belief in God and belief in free will… This hypothesis of parallelism, which is mine and belongs to me…”

    Respectfully disagree, see my 2006 piece on the “little god” of free will, addressed to the atheist community,

    But still, many thanks for taking up the cause of no contra-causal free will, very important stuff.

    Btw, I’ve been arguing with Horgan about free will for years, see

    1. I wouldn’t have the first clue how to act as if I have contracausal free will anyway. There’s not much to acting as if one’s choices are “only” more links in the Great Chain of Causality either.

  14. The upcoming Green Lantern film will resolve the question. Just how could the ring be powered by will that isn’t free? Answer me that!

    Seriously, unless we maintain that the mind is not a manifestation/property/whatever of the physical brain, just how could the mind or “will” be free of physical constraints? Of course it’s incredible complex, but physical it is, and this means it’s “determined” by physical laws. And as many have said, throwing in some quantum indeterminancy does make the system “free”, either.

    1. That’s why freedom from physical constraints is such an bad way to think about agency. Compatibilists have been hammering on this point since the Stoics, but for some reason (mainly bad theological ones) Incompatibilism’s commitment to action outside the causal order still seems to frame the way that ordinary people (i.e., non-philosophers, including a lot of scientists) think about agency.

      N.B. I can’t bring myself to use the awful term “free will”. See above for a partial explanation why.

  15. From reading Horgan’s quotes here, I’m to the point where I think we should prohibit discussion of free will until we can properly define it.

    Horgan seems to think that if you process information with your prefrontal cortex, then the subsequent decisions that your brain arrives at are based on free will.

    I think we all would agree with pretty much everything he says, except we have different definitions of free will. It’s now all just an argument about semantics.

    What he calls free will is not what I call free will. Sure, the reasoning part of my brain evaluates its inputs to come up with choices/decisions, but my prefrontal cortex does its work based on physical laws of cause and effect. Where’s the free will in that?

    1. Doesn’t this mirror somewhat the problems between the ineffable, metaphysical morality of the theist and the concepts of secular moral values that arise from societal interaction?

    2. I’ve never had a discussion about free will that didn’t spiral down into bickering over semantics.

      It can still be interesting though in that it can cause me to identify unexamined assumptions.

  16. As I remember the philosophical consensus when I was in school was that philosophy was unable to prove that free will existed or define a mechanism for it but that every person acted as if free will existed.

    That is, in broad terms everyone acts as if other peoples’ actions have consequences and within limits are a matter of choice. Although we often accept that there are limitations or “mitigating circumstances” to peoples choices, we assume that people bear responsibility for there.

    With computers on the other hand, we blame the programmers or designers for what appear to be bad actions.

    As a middle case, we don’t blame ants for their actions, (Bad ant!) but we tend to blame dogs and cats with mitigation.

    I would classify this as something which science is unable to explain at this point but may be able to in the future, like the problem of where the other socks go in the dryer.

    1. […] the problem of where the other socks go in the dryer.

      Oh, that’s an easy one — but it’s not science which has the answer.

      You see, The Invisible Pink Unicorn (MPBUHHH) raptures socks. You should feel blessed by the favor She has shown unto you by rapturing yours.

      It obviously follows that it’s the Purple Oyster (of DOOOOOM!) who ruptures socks. For your sake — and for the sakes of your socks — I hope your socks are all raptured before they’re ruptured.



    2. I suspect this just pushes the question back to how we’re conceiving of “choice”. I think I’ve got choices – I mean by that that there are various possibilities and one will be selected based on my judgment of their merits. I just don’t think there’s something outside the natural, law-governed order that’s making that judgment, or that, given precisely the same physical conditions, it would have been different.

      That still leaves it <i<my choice because it’s my judgment, and the critical physical conditions include me being myself.

      1. Another way to conceptualize this would be to envision an anthropomorphic star-nosed mole (a mole with a hominid-like brain) reacting and responding to an increasingly complex social environment and preferring to think of those responses as “choices.” If consciousness is a byproduct of a bigger brain, it is no more free than the very conditions that gave rise to its existence to begin with.

    3. With computers on the other hand, we blame the programmers or designers for what appear to be bad actions.

      Perhaps it is because I am a programmer myself – but I don’t do this. Even in the days before I learned a lick of code, I didn’t do this.

      If I’m playing chess against a computer-controlled AI and get my butt-kicked, I think two things.

      1) The AI was responsible for kicking my butt.
      2) The programmer was responsible for creating an AI that is able to kick my butt.

      It doesn’t follow from this at all that the programmer is any good at chess – only that they are good at creating artificial intelligences.

      In the context of a bug:

      1) The program is responsible for the bug.
      2) The programmer is responsible for creating a buggey program.

      “Fuck – MS Word crashed when I was trying to save, and I lost all my hard work!” First, I am blaming Word.

      “If those lazy shits at Microsoft had tested properly, this wouldn’t have happened!” Second, I am blaming Microsoft.

      (Note: I’m just picking Microsoft because they’re easy to pick on. I understand all too well the difficulties in 100% bug-proofing an application in an uncertain world. Believe me.)

      Perhaps I am a strange outlier in this – but even so, I think I’m not entirely lonely.

  17. I understand (I think) the nuances in this argument, but I also think – agency? – that we’re talking past one another most of the time. Here, definition is essential, and seems not agreed upon. Maybe that’s just me, and a measure of my ‘free will’ in determining what I understand. Got that?

  18. Far as I’m concerned, free will is just the escape hatch for the religious to jump thru when challenged with why their omniscient and benevolent god could have allowed X to commit some horrible act.

  19. I suspect that we ‘learn free will’ as very young children. Babies and toddlers learn to model human behaviours as part of their development. Babies learn cause and effect through inanimate objects (throwing the rattle out of the buggy etc.) and then learn to predict behaviour of animate objects.

    I expect that babies learn to refine their predictions of behaviour through inference of hidden causes (happy woman will cuddle, angry woman will shout etc.). Once they learn to associate patterns of inferred hidden causes with behaviour it is a short step for them to consciously explain their own behaviours with the models of hidden causes and agency they have already modelled in others. But since the ‘model’ is unconscious it is explained as ‘free will’.

    Just another cognitive illusion that promotes fitness better (on average) than predicting the behaviour of other agencies on a case by case basis.

  20. Let’s say you’re helping a friend finish a longish term paper when the computer screen suddenly goes blank. There’s been a critical error. The paper is gone. The person you’re helping, upset by this, strikes the laptop. You say: “Now, now. That won’t accomplish anything. You’re just going to have to resign yourself to the fact that you have to start over.” You’re dissapointed in your friend’s repugnant behavior.

    Now let’s imagine your friend is in a physically abusive relationship. During the course of a beating, your friend strikes back at the abuser, perhaps in part our of self-defense, but also out of the same sense of “you bastard!” that motivated the striking of the laptop. This time you do not perceive the behavior as the result of a character defect.

    As I remarked on the last free will thread, I can see that, at bottom, we must be material, un-minded cause-and-effect. And the thought that I don’t have free will doesn’t make me uncomfortable. That’s not a reason I’d want to hang on to the idea of free will.

    But I do think something’s not adding up when, say, we atheists rail against religious misbehavior, but would tell our laptop-striking friends to “calm down! It can’t be helped.”

    I know a response to this would be that we atheists are only trying to fix the religion “virus”, just as we’d do w a malfunctioning computer.

    Something still doesn’t add up.

    1. Why do you suppose that striking back at the abuser won’t accomplish anything? Abusers may hesitate in that case, where the laptop won’t give the lost data back.

      Similarly, when we rail against religious misbehavior, we’re under the impression that that may cause a difference in it, the reduction of it in the offender and/or others.

      1. Yes. I acknowledged that response in the penultimate paragraph. I meant to focus on “your” reaction to your friend’s behavior. In the first instance you see the “you bastard!” striking of the laptop as a serious flaw. In the second, it’s almost heroic.

        Now, we can say “well, this is just how we behave, human foibles and all that. No need to jettison our reflex judgments.” But if we conclude there’s no free will, no real agency, why shouldn’t we drop the other shoe and in fact jettison our reflex judgments? We shouldn’t perceive a difference between your friend’s behavior in the first and second instances.

        1. But if there are different consequences for striking back at the abusive person and lousy computer, then there’s a reason to judge the reactions differently.

          Strike back at the abuser – maybe make things better – merit approval.
          Strike back at the laptop – certainly don’t make things better – merit chiding.
          Point out, firmly and perhaps angrily, religious misbehavior – maybe make things better – merit approval.

          We get disappointment when people are being pointlessly harmful. That’s the heart of it in each case, and preserves the reasonable, mature, and even typical reactions in the cases above.

          1. I knew by posting that first comment I was risking seeming a bit dense.

            I understand that much of what we actually do, the ways we actively react, including punishment, remain valid even in the absence of free will. Punishments, and other reactions, serve as inputs themselves, as causes that will hopefully bring about desired effects. I get that.

            Here’s the thing: I’m seeing a lot of commenters write: “yeah, there’s no free will, but that doesn’t change anything.”

            Well, I’m not so sure it doesn’t. Perhaps, as I admit above, it doesn’t change the way we actively deal with things. But I’m not convinced it doesn’t change quite a lot of more conceptual things.

            As I pointed out on the last thread, if responsibility is an illusion, why on earth would we speak of skills or talents? What becomes of the notion of respect, or admiration? We may recognize that certain behavior needs correcting, but why would we be disgusted by it? Or by its perpetrator? You’re not disgusted by a malfunctioning computer. You just fix it. Or toss it.

            As I type this, I realize a possible response would be: “showing disgust is one way we try to “fix” others’ behavior. But that still leaves respect, and a host of other conceptual ways we interface with the world. I’m not convinced by the people who are effectively saying “we need to lie to ourselves.” If we’re going to do this, we should face the music and go whole hog!

            (Please note that I’m not arguing for free will. Just trying to show that things would change.)

            1. “If we’re going to do this…”

              Conclude we really, truly are “federations” of un-minded, material cause-and-effect, I mean.

            2. Hey, I know I must seem dense. Hopefully it’s not because either of us really are. I think it’s more a matter of having divergent ways of looking at things when it really does seem very simple – very possibly just as a matter of it being a familiar way of looking at things, from either side.

              I at least – I can’t speak for everyone – don’t think we need to lie to ourselves. We may not even have to change our minds. I just take it as an effort to get straight about what what merits respect, condemnation, admiration, and so on.

              I’m not sure just where freedom of the will would enter into thinking about skills or talents in the first place. It’s a matter of being well able to do something. If that’s one excellent way to be a human being, then there’s appropriate recognition of that.

              Respect, (moral) disgust – again, these can be appropriate to the recognition of being an exceptionally good or bad human being, or at least demonstrating exceptionally good or bad behaviors. Being an exceptionally good or bad human being – or acting like it – is important insofar as that really makes a valuable difference.

              Is it that humans don’t seem valuable without something supernatural going on between their sensations and their behaviors?

              1. No. It’s not that. I can see perfectly well how value isn’t dependent on anything supernatural.

                It just seems that many folks are saying “we’re material cause-and-effect, like anything else – like computers, for instance!”. But then they turn around and say, all anthropism-like “but we’re still different in a special way,” and that for one reason or another we can still behave as though we have free will and are truly, ourselves responsible for whatever we do (whether that’s writing fugues, inventing calculus, or murdering somebody.

                That seems to me like trying to have cake, and eat it, too.

                I suppose one reason I’m having trouble thinking about the responsibility issue is that, as a composer, I really want to be responsible for what I produce. And not in a superficial, “I happened to be the physical conglomeration of stuff that resulted in the music” kind of way.

              2. It depends on what special sort of way is had in mind, I suppose. If it’s a special way unlike the natural universe, it’s both unlikely and unrequired. If it’s special like not being available on the shelf at Walmart for $49.97, than I feel very special!

                I think you can reasonably aspire to being a physical conglomeration of stuff that is the only remotely likely source of the production of your music. And that the music should be good. Furthermore, you’re responsible – from my point of view, anyway – when your music is tied to the particular causal nexus that constitutes you.

        2. So. You really see no difference between the two scenarios?

          Your point is “People react to different things differently therefore free will.”?

          You’re right something doesn’t add up. But it has nothing to do with your examples or free will.

    2. Regarding punishing a computer for losing your files, in ways we can compare it to our human sense of justice.

      For crimes, there are different justifications for punishment. The first is incapacitation – put someone somewhere where they can’t do the crime again. If you have a computer that loses your stuff, we would probably put it in a role where it can’t do that again.

      Then there’s rehabilitation. Prisons don’t do this well with humans, but I think they should. And this would map to getting your computer repaired, and not using for work until it’s fixed.

      Another justification is retribution. We would not strike out at a computer in retribution, but similarly, the justice system is not for retribution either. Most of us view retribution as an uncivil way to deal with criminals.

      Finally, there’s deterrence. The idea of spending time locked up is supposed to be a deterrent against others doing the same crime. In the case of computers, there’s not really a mechanism for other computers to know that if they lose your stuff they’ll be sent off to the toddler’s room to play Tuneland, so there’s nothing really analogous here.

      So I think there are good parallels between how we should deal with misbehaving computers and misbehaving humans.

    3. Abusers are learning-capable decision making agents.

      Typical applications such as MS Word are not.

      So it is not certain that lashing out at a person will not accomplish anything. It might.

      However, in the context of the lashing-out thing there are other difficulties in the context of contrasting vengeance to justice. Vengeance is problematic in its own right, and in the interest of dealing with one problem at a time I’d like to use a different example.

      I like the old story of Xerxes whipping the sea. I’m not sure if it’s historic or just a story – but it’s a good story for our purposes all the same.

      The story goes that Xerxes wanted to move his army over a strait, so created a bridge of boats to cross. The strait however was consumed by a storm, and the boats were lost.

      Xerxes sentenced the sea to three hundred lashes, and having a set of manacles thrown in it.

      This seems absurd to us, because we don’t think water is the kind of thing that can:

      a) Feel pain
      b) Change future behavior in response to pain

      But if we wanted to justify punishment of humans (corporal punishment is still problematic, mind) then we might be able to provide a justification that the incidence of undesired behavior on the part of the agent may reduce after punishment is inflicted, and that the threat of punishment may have a detterent effect on future criminal behavior.

      Neither of which can be said to apply to the sea.

      So, moving back to your example: Similarly so for the laptop.

      Punching a laptop will do little more than damage expensive electronics. The contemporary word-processing applications of which I am aware are not capable of learning, so there’s no point in trying to train or threaten them.

      People, on the other hand, might alter their behavior to the threat (or experience) of punishment. This is not guaranteed, but in the general case it is at least possible.

      Which to me provides a significant distinction between the laptop and the abusive boyfriend in the context presented.

      1. I do see how certain kinds of punishment remain valid for conscious creatures capable of learning, even in the absence of free will. Take a look at my two responses to Jeff Engel.

  21. From the 1st Horgan quote above: “To deny free will’s existence is to deny that our conscious, psychological deliberations—Should I ask my girlfriend to marry me? Should I major in engineering or art?—influence our actions.”

    I see this argument often – that the fact we deliberate over a choice is evidence for free will. But this seems a non-sequitur, what evidence is there that the act of deliberation is contra-causal? Deliberation could very well be a determined process which the brain uses to balance competing desires and select an optimum ‘choice’. Possibly, consciousness evolved as a tool which provides the organism the advantage of rational selection via complex but determined algorithms?

  22. Then there is the problem of discovery of more “advanced” brain capacities in primates, e.g., “Chimps Capable Of Insightful Reasoning Ability” Darnit! —

    Also, how is consciousness and volition different from language? And language doesn’t seem that important — all other animals do fine w/out it.

  23. Okay, I think it’s time to put this thing to rest once and for all.

    At least as far as the religious are concerned, “free will” must extend to the choice of whether or not to believe in the divine.

    I ask all of you: do you honestly, really, have any choice in the matter of belief?

    Considering the murkiness of the questions of goalpost-moving deities, let me make this even simpler.

    Could you choose to believe in Santa Claus?

    I’m not asking you if you could be convinced of Santa Claus’s existence. This isn’t a matter of, “If you were shown the secret entrance to the underground factory at the North Pole and given a flying reindeer-powered sled ride, would you then believe?”

    No. Not at all.

    It’s also not a question of, “Could somebody torture you into believing in Santa Claus or otherwise persuade you to profess belief in Santa?”

    What I mean is, “Could you, right now, of your own free will, simply decide to believe in Santa?”

    Now, think back to when you were young enough to still believe in Santa (if you ever did). Do you think you could have simply stopped believing? Again, this isn’t a question of, “What if somebody showed you the cash register receipts?” but rather, “Could you have decided, on a whim or perhaps a dare, to stop believing in Santa?”

    Here’s the final twist of the knife: could you choose to believe that 1 + 1 = 3? (And, as always, using normal-sized values of 1, of course.)

    If we have no choice in what we believe, of what sense does it make to say that our “wills” are otherwise somehow “free”?



  24. Professor Coyne, I greatly appreciate your blog and the perspectives you so very well reason-to and articulate! I WANT to give you great credit for them, but if indeed ALL the credit really goes to the initial conditions of the cosmos (by way of a looooooooooong rigorous, strictly mechanically-linked chain of causality rather than to any cognitively exercised volitional choices made by you in your life), then I suppose the initial conditions of the universe have also given ME no choice but to profoundly doubt (present evidence bearing on the issue notwithstanding) that ALL cognitive volition is mere realistic illusion and that ALL the credit for your fine work goes to the initial conditions of the cosmos some billions (or more) years ago.

    1. Why fling credit to beginning of the universe? Ceiling Cat knows, people can use credit (and blame) a lot closer to home!

      One also wonders why the initial conditions of the universe get it “rather than” JAC.

    2. That is not quite right. Based on theory of chaos, it is totally impossible to predict human behavior based on the initial condition of the universe.

      1. Eh, you’ve got chaos and randomness somewhat confused.

        A chaotic system, in theory, is perfectly predictable assuming a sufficiently detailed simulation. In practice, you need a computer even more complex than the system you’re modeling. It’s practically impossible, not logically possible.

        A random system is, even in theory, impossible to predict.

        The curious bit is that it’s generally easier in practice to predict random systems in the aggregate than it is to predict deterministic systems in the aggregate. You don’t know when any particular sample of a radioisotope will decay, but you can know to within astounding levels of precision how much will have decayed over the course of a year (if it lives that long). There’s nothing random about the paths of billiard balls on a table, but I don’t think we’ve got a supercomputer yet that could analyze a video of the time from the cue ball leaving the cue to when it first hits the first ball and, from that, predict the final resting places of all the balls in the set to within the measurable limits of precision.



    3. “Giving credit” is simply a name we give to a certain social interaction. It’s a public recognition of social status, that serves to reinforce behavior we consider beneficial. It really doesn’t matter whether that behavior was due to free will, or due to an inborn desire to seek recognition, or calculated by an algorithm that maximizes social status at minimal effort.

      Also, if you recognize “giving credit” as a social interaction, “giving credit” to the initial conditions of the universe makes no sense at all.

      The absense of free will doesn’t mean that minds can’t influence each other, including by giving credit or assigning blame.

  25. Regarding the last point, I think there is a way out of it: I “believe” in free will as a model that I use to interact in day to day life, even though when you ask me about it I of course will tell you it’s hogwash. Or in other words, I believe in free will except when you ask me about it.

    This is not so much double-speak as you think. By way of analogy, I am a geocentrist in the same way I believe in free will. If you ask me about it, of course I know the Earth goes around the Sun rather than vice-versa. But when I’m not thinking about it, I spend 95% of my life walking around “believing” that the Earth is a flat plane which the Sun revolves around.

    When I look up in the sky to get an idea of what time it is, how horribly inconvenient it would be if I had to picture the actual solar system, with the Earth rotating whilst also orbiting, and reconstruct where the Sun should appear in relation to me at any given time of day! It would surely be possible to do so, but it is far easier — and usually just as accurate — to just assume the Sun is going around me and look at how “low” or “high” it is in the sky.

    Similarly, when trying to decide whether it’s okay for me to be pissed that (let’s say) a co-worker stole from the coffee fund, it would certainly be possible to make a case for that even if her actions were deterministic — but it’s a lot easier to just say, “She freely chose to steal from the coffee fund, what a jerk!”

    I agree that the myth of free will is rather important for our day-to-day functioning, but I don’t think we have to give up on telling the truth in order to reap that benefit. It’s a myth we all “believe” in”. What’s the problem with that?

    1. There are a few problems. By attributing a quality to human beings that has no parallels anywhere else the thrusts open the door to “the ghost in the machine” which doesn’t exist, and then to afterlife.
      Free will is an illusion. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

      1. I think that’s all only true if you lose track of the fact that it’s just a model. Which is a danger, of course.

        And in my sort of heuristic approach, I don’t think ONLY human beings have it. It sure “seems” to me like my pets do. I know they don’t really, no more than I do, but it’s useful to behave as if they do have some limited free will (although not enough cognition to be held as “responsible” as a human would be).

        It would be like saying that any talk about the sun “rising” throws open the door to the idea of sailing off the end of the earth… heh..

    2. Bingo. We all know the Bohr model of the atom isn’t true. Electrons do not cruise around the nucleus in neat rings; they occupy a quantum cloud. But the Bohr model is useful for making sense of any number of chemical interactions, and is useful in making accurate predictions. It is therefore a useful model, even if it’s false. I do not “pretend that neat rings exist,” except in the sense that I use the model as a tool. Same with “free will.” It’s a false model in the nuts-and-bolts physical sense, but it also provides a very good working model for what happens at the scale that we observe in our day-to-day affairs.

  26. I will not comment other than to say that I am suspicious when people throw the term ‘common sense’ around as Horgan does in the first paragraph you quote. Watch The Philosophy Dude (if you can get past the strange organ music in the background) –

  27. I find the whole free will/no free will argument nearly as tedious as the God/No God argument. First, there are presumptions that “free will” is limited to consciousness. We don’t talk about one part of the liver determining the fate of the entire liver. Nor the kidney. There are a lot of neural activities going on, some conscious, some not. The brain is a complete organ; consciousness is only a part of it.

    Second, we really don’t know what consciousness or free will is so we like to argue about it. This is arguing religion, folks. This is arguing about faith on one side or the other. The *only* thing we can say is we think we’re conscious. What that means or what it implies is still unknown. Speculations on it are fine but acting as if we really know what’s going on is an article of faith. Belief in one or the other is the state for those who don’t like to admit they don’t know.

    Finally, there’s the whole pre-conscious decision nonsense that keeps coming back in the literature. Saying a decision has been “made” prior to consciousness of the act requires a definition of the word “decision” and the word “consciousness”– neither of which have been adequately explained.

    In the experiment in question there are signals in the brain that statistically predict the outcome of a subject’s choice prior to when the subject admits to the choice being made. The choices are made are trivial and have no consequences– they are to push a button and when.

    Is it a surprise to anyone that a choice that requires little or no conscious thought shows up in an experiment as requiring little or no conscious thought?

    Let’s say you are considering proposing to your future husband or wife and you agonize over it for weeks. You go to sleep and the next morning you know your answer. Does that mean the decision happened that night? I respectfully suggest the entire thinking process was involved in that decision. All of those weeks. To say it happened that night is to ignore all that came before.

    I tend to think of consciousness as the little programmer in the back office trying desperately to solve problems using an archaic, difficult and complex computer with an arcane programming language only half understood. He tries this method and that method. The internal workings of the machine are hidden from him; all he gets is a ream of paper tape filled with signals he only half understands and smudged beyond recognition the other half. He muddles through as best he can.

    Does the programmer have free will? Does the machinery he’s interacting with? Can one really be considered separate from the other? If they do how will it change anything? If they don’t what will it matter?

  28. “There are other justifications for morality, ethics, and moral responsibility besides free will.”

    Well, trivially, free will itself doesn’t “justify” morality (having a Humpty moment, Jerry?), but sans free will, none of morality, ethics and moral responsibility (in a normative sense) make any more sense applied to the actions of human beings than they do applied to the actions of a rock tumbling down a scree slope or a drop of rain hitting a leaf. Under the hypothesis of determinism, you had no more choice to write this post than I to make this comment, the rapist to rape or the rock to tumble.

    Until you either take up the issue of the moral responsibility of rocks or admit there’s none for humans either, there’s no reason to suppose you actually take determinism seriously.

    1. You need more steps in an argument to get from determinism to the lack of choice. You’re just assuming Incompatibilism rather arguing in favor of it. Lots of smart people think that Incompatibilism is false, so you certainly can’t just assume it.

    2. “but sans free will, none of morality, ethics and moral responsibility (in a normative sense) make any more sense applied to the actions of human beings than they do applied to the actions of a rock tumbling down a scree slope or a drop of rain hitting a leaf.”

      If you put a rock in prison for tumbling down a scree slope it will not alter its behavior afterwards to not tumble down scree slopes, so what does it have to do with human behavior or morality?

  29. “After reading a passage from a book that challenged the validity of free will, students were more likely to cheat on a mathematics exam.”

    Doesn’t this show that they did NOT have free will – they were influenced to change their behaviour so easily?

  30. Do we have free will? Well… yes and no. For me, it depends on what you mean by free will. As a non-scientist I read the Sam Harris is characterization of free will as a scientific view; i.e., a hypothesis to be formed and tested to determine whether falsification is possible. Free will, as a philosophical term, has to do with “capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives…” per the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy at
    So much of this depends on one’s reference. For me, Jasper’s view that everything new thought begins as philosophy, then, after appropriate examination and proofs becomes scientific knowledge, is an interesting premise. The question here is how free will is to be characterized.
    If I don’t have free will, your criticisms will be observed and ignored since niether of us is free to choose.

  31. I think there is “free will” but my concept has nothing whatever to do with contracausal free will. I think it is incoherent to posit “I could have chosen differently than I chose”. My concept of “free will” (which may put my version in a very different category than the one Jerry criticizes) involves response to stimuli, self-awareness, and a degree of autonomy. It doesn’t mean that my responses aren’t conditioned by a long chain of causality combined with the most recent stimuli I’ve received. I think of it more as a richer set of responses involving a sense of self and a memory. Basically, my version of free will involves at least in part a component of “me” reacting to stimuli (whether stochastically or deterministically doesn’t matter), where “me” is defined as the collective experiences of my human body stored in my material brain.

    1. What, exactly, do you mean by “autonomy”? According to your definition, lots of species could have free will, because they respond to stimuli and are self-aware. Do cats have free will? Birds? (How do you know they’re not “self-aware”?)

      1. As a matter of fact, I don’t see free will need be a peculiarly human feature. So, yes, I don’t see anything wrong with granting free will to other organisms or even computers. Humanity isn’t that special.

        As for autonomy, clouds don’t have autonomy and rocks don’t have autonomy, for example. Humans do. Where to divide the line between those two obvious extremes becomes a matter of debate. At the very least, “free will” responses (by my concept) ought to involve a processing of stimuli by an agent with some degree of self-awareness. I can’t be sure, but I suspect that autonomy would be an emergent property of these two ingredients.

        For example, do bacteria have autonomy? They do have a limited “memory” of the past in terms of signaling molecules and recent genetic responses and they do respond individually to stimuli. But, as far as we know, their ability to process information completely lacks a sense of self, so I would say they lack free will. Cats on the other hand certainly seem to have many aspects of free will including at least some limited sense of self.

        It is almost universal that humans have a strong sense of possessing something that we label “free will”, even if they, like you, feel that this sense is false or misleading. So, I take a non-philosophical approach. Something which could bear the label “free will” clearly exists. The problem is in defining exactly what that is. A philosopher might object that this is question begging, but I disagree. I see no point in deriving a proof free will from axioms. There exists a phenomenon that begs explanation, not a conclusion that begs proof.

        Of course, my perspective may be different enough from historical concepts of free will to deserve a new label. However, I’m of the opinion that free will is an experience that we are struggling to describe rather than a free existing concept that may or may not apply to reality. I think that this experience of free will is subject to causality and that free will is an emergent property of material processes that is subordinate to those processes. So naturally, I reject the pseudo-religious incarnations of free will. But I think there is something important about how certain types of brains process information that is what we mean when we say “free will”.

        For example, if I were offered a job with a certain salary in a certain location, the materialistic lump of organic matter between my ears would be goaded into processing data collected over my lifetime, including my relationship status, my preference for lifestyle, my previous experience with the location of the job, etc. It may be true that, given the same stimuli and exactly the same initial conditions, I would always make the same decision. However, it is also true that a complex calculation which was tightly integrated into the history of a single individual played a very important part in determining that action. This is what I take to be free will.

        Also, I’m rambling.

        1. I agree with most what you say. I think what we call “free will” evolved just like our intelligence, or our capability to speak, do mathematics and discuss abstract concepts. I agree with the idea that animals also display a form of “free will.” My dog will decide to go out and walk or not, and there is no way to find out why she decides one way or another.

          I don’t agree that computers will have free will; you could imagine them to be linked to a random number generator, but decisions based on that would be for 50 percent disastrous.

      2. Birds and cats are certainly agents. I would want to ask someone who studies animal cognition what sort of agents they are. Are they agents in exactly the way that humans are? No, they aren’t language users and that has profound effects on their ability to deliberate and reason. Can birds and cats form intentions and make plans to achieve those goals? I’d want to check the literature before saying for sure. It’s an interesting empirical question.

        I’m no fan of the term “free will”, but I think that deliberative choice is a real natural phenomenon (in humans, possibly other animals, and computers sometime in the future), and I worry that people denying dumb contracausal accounts of “free will” are denying deliberative choice as well.

        Philosophers and cognitive scientists have done decades of work developing Compatibilist accounts of agency, and we are still talking about “free will” as a form of action outside the causal order. It’s insane.

  32. I just don’t get it: it is obvious that free will cannot exist, because it would entail a supernatural interference in the chain of causation. Why are we still discussing this, as though there was something to discuss?

    I urge anyone who thinks free will exists to consider this: what independent, untied, “free” mechanism could account for our decision to carry out an action?

    Further, I urge anyone interested in this topic to examine Alonzo Fyfe’s blog ( We act upon desires, but we don’t choose what we desire. If I’m given a choice between two different brands of cola, there is a limited range of choices available to me:

    I choose brand A, because I actually like it better (I did not choose to like it better; that just happens to be the case);

    I choose brand B, though I don’t like it so much, just because I want to prove a point (I did not choose to want to prove a point; it just so happens that proving a point mattered to me at that moment);

    I flip a coin, because I don’t care one way or the other (I did not choose not to care. I want to show that I don’t really care. I did not choose not to care, nor to want to show that I don’t);

    I choose the opposite of what I really want, just to confuse matters. (Is that at all possible? Can I choose to do what I DON’T want to do? If you think you can, then I suggest you explore Newcomb’s paradox).

  33. The analogies with other theories are interesting but the real gold standard is, how does adopting or abandoning the concept of free will change our decision-making in the future? What will we do differently tomorrow or next year if we do or don’t accept it as a coherent applicable concept? It’s not clear that accepting or rejecting free will would produce any such differences. For what it’s worth, I’m on the “something like free will exists” side of the fence but if there’s no observable effect of taking one position or the other, that militates for the whole idea being hot air that seems coherent to a human nervous system but is really just animal vocalizations. In this sense “free will” is very much like “God” or “soul”.

  34. If even all cognitive volition is illusion and is strictly rigorous mechanically determined, when did that strictly rigorous mechanical determination begin? That is, back to what/when does the strictly rigorous mechanically determined causal chain for any given (seemingly cognitively volitional) action stretch?

    If not all the way back to the initial physical/(mechanical) conditions of the physical universe’s beginning, then back to where? FURTHER back than the initial conditions of the universe? Not as far back as to the initial physical/(mechanical) conditions of the physical universe’s beginning?

    And if not as far back as the initial conditions of the universe, what uncouples the more recent origin of strictly rigorous mechanically determined causal chain from the initial physical/mechanical conditions of the universe?

    And regardless of where the strictly rigorous mechanically determined causal chain for all even (seemingly cognitively volitional) actions began, why would the doer of any such action be entitled to credit or blame for the results of such actions?

    I mean, if there is NO LEVEL of exercised cognitive volition that is genuine (uncoupled to SOME even teensy degree from some ancient or not so ancient physical state of cosmic affairs) rather than rigorously strictly mechanically determined sometime in the past, then is not ALL all pride, blame and responsibility mere chimera? And if not, why not?

    Honest, I am not trying to be argumentative — something from the dim past is inexorably MAKING me post this comment and these questions…

    1. Frank, there’s two obvious ways to approach the problem. You can say, “Hey, I have direct experience of being able to make choices — I MUST have free will because I experience it first hand!” Or you can say, “Well, what would it mean to have free will? What sort of capabilities would an entity have before I granted that it had ‘free will’?”

      The history of science is all about how these two approaches basically never match up, and that the second approach — trying to figure out how to actually make such a thing work — is a better source of reliable knowledge than going by how things feel to you personally.

      We can take heat as an example. People have been measuring temperatures for at least a few hundred years. And for most of those few hundred years they thought that there must be some “stuff” that they were measuring — for a long time, scientists actually thought they were measuring the density or saturation of one material with another material called “caloric.”

      But there’s no such thing as caloric. If you like, you could describe caloric as an illusion caused by our system of measurement. We later found out that measuring temperature is indirectly measuring the average speed of the molecules in the material rather than the presence of some other material.

      That’s not to say heat itself is an illusion. We experience heat all the time, it has a great many effects. But it isn’t a special kind of stuff all to itself, it’s really a kind of cognitive packaging for a behavior.

      So I think part of your problem may just be with the negative connotations of the word “illusion.” What I think we’re trying to say with that word is that “free will isn’t what it feels like,” or “isn’t what people naively assume it is,” or “isn’t what our intuitions tell us it is.”

      So even though caloric doesn’t exist, heat is still real in every way that matters. And even though free will doesn’t exist, human agency is still real in every way that matters. Denying the existence of free will isn’t to say “pride, blame, and responsibility [are] mere chimeras,” it’s saying “the concept of free will does not constitute an acceptable explanation for the phenomena of pride, blame, and responsibility.”

      1. Oh, that’s an intriguing perspective. It gels with a line of thought I’m pursuing in a conversation with Phosphorus99 in the older post on free will, about the adequacy of theories of gravity (Newton’s, Einstein’s), which only model what gravity “really” is, but accurately enough for certain purposes: A mutual attraction proportional to inertial masses on a “human” scale, a curvature in space-time on an astronomical scale. Gravity may turn out to be as “illusory” as heat. (In that conversation, the analogy is to the “illusory” nature of morality…)


      2. I agree with this perspective. This is basically one of my points a few posts up thread. Whatever we believe about the properties of free will (heat) there is no question that free will (heat) describes a real phenomenon. However, our intuitions about that phenomenon may be very misguided. In this case, contracausal free will might be equivalent to caloric.

  35. “why would the doer of any such action be entitled to credit or blame for the results of such actions?”

    Because “credit” and “blame” aren’t ghostly essentia floating around our heads and condensing on behaviors originating from Real True Free Will. They directly relate to complex ways in which cognition and behavior are modified by external stimuli. “Blame” is not some nebulous concept having to do with dualist notions of responsibility that exist entirely independently of human brains. It is a way of determining which system is at fault for the moral transgression and how to fix it so it doesn’t happen again. “Credit”, too, is a way of determining which system should receive positive reinforcement to encourage similar future behavior.

    By the same logic, how could you blame mechanical failure for a plane crash, when everything was set in motion at the big bang? Every gear and wire was pre-ordained to break in its due time! Nothing can be changed! Now we have entered a realm where all is ghosts and shadows!

    Or… assigning blame in a plane crash is just a way of finding which components need to be maintained better or differently to keep the plane crash from happening again.

  36. I read this whole discussion as I am not sure what “free will” means. I always thought that I decided on what I was going to do based on my experiences prior to that particular decision….Until a day…this was years ago…when my car broke down on the DC beltway. This was before I had a cell phone so I had to walk to somewhere to call my husband to come and fix this problem. As I started walking I thought if someone stops and offers me a ride, should I take it…I decided I would not…too dangerous. So a pick up stopped with two men in it and offered a ride…and I got in and they drove me to a phone. To this day I am amazed that I did that. So does that prove free will does not exist? Or does it just prove that I am an idiot!

  37. In all the discussion, it’s important to draw the distinction again that saying “free will does not, in a strict sense, exist,” does not therefore mean that “people, as a practical consideration, have no choice and no volition in what they do and so should do whatever they ‘want’.”

    I might be annoyed at the person next to me; my so-called “decision” not to bludgeon that person to death might be pre-determined and out of my hands in a strict sense, but at the same time, it doesn’t do for me to bludgeon the hell out of him and then say, “Well, it wasn’t my fault at all, because there’s no such thing as free will.”

    Even if behavior is not ultimately the result of free will, it can still be changed with the right input — this is especially true if input is all that determines behavior. If input along the lines of “control yourself” is enough in some cases to tip the scales of determinism, then that’s all for the better, even if it’s impossible in a very narrow, strict sense.

  38. Determinism has a long history of support from pseudo-science, from astrological heimarmene to Calvinist predestination, to new age fate.

    If we are not responsible for our own decisions, who or what is (and I am perfectly happy to consider anything that happens in my brain, unconscious or not, as ‘me’)?

    1. A topic I keep coming back to is: What does ‘responsible for’ actually mean?

      To me, it is self-evidently a fancy kind of causation.

      Let’s say I steal your ice-cream. Then we can say:

      1) Daniel Schealler is responsible for stealing Helena Constantine’s ice-cream

      This is very nearly equivalent to the statement that:

      2) The hominid labelled as Daniel Schealler caused the ice-cream, formerly in possession of the hominid labelled as Helena Constantine, to move into the former’s possession without the latter’s permission that this should occur

      The only difference between the two statements is that my brain calculated potential future states where I both did and did not possess your ice-cream, then applied a heuristic that indicated that me possessing your ice-cream was the preferable course of action to take at the time. And thus the action was determined.

      A causal chain must include this (and probably other assumptions as to what I knew at the time, what I falsely believed to know, etc) in order to qualify as attributing responsibility to Daniel instead of simple causation.

      This wouldn’t qualify if, for example, a particularly strong wind blew your ice-cream off its cone and into a river – because wind does not evaluate potential future-states.

      As I said above, all of this seems self-evidently true to me.

      But as is always the case with things that seem self-evidently true to someone – that this does not always transfer.

      The issue I’m trying to challenge/discuss with you is the following:

      What is the connection between determinism/indeterminism and responsibility?

      Are we more responsible, or less, or the same in an indeterministic universe as compared against a deterministic one?

      Because personally? I cannot see what determinism has to do with responsibility…

      And no-one seems able to present a case as to why they suppose the opposite, other than a similarly embarrassed admission that it just seems self-evidently true to them, just as my position can only be reduced to seeming self-evidently true to me.

      Frustrating perhaps, but interesting to talk about all the same. ^_^

      1. “A topic I keep coming back to is: What does ‘responsible for’ actually mean?”

        Judging by the responses from people who think determinism obliviates morals and justice and ethics and responsibility, responsibility is a magic thing that lets you figure out if a person is Bad or Good by finding whether the causal chain that led up to an event started with the Big Bang or with Souls Bonking Atoms.

  39. Did I really just see a person use the term “God of the Gaps” in relation to his own claim in an effort to bolster its credibility?

  40. I’ve read Rational Mysticism and found it be well worth the read. The main topic of the book is the mystical experience, induced by such methods as meditation, prayer, fasting, psychedelics, and a transcranial magnetic helmet called the “God Machine.” The “experts” of these fields Horgan chooses to interview are as colorful and entertaining as Horgan’s writing. Susan Blackmore and Terrance McKenna stand out.

  41. It simply conflates the concept of “free choice” with that of “more complex relations between inputs and outputs.”

    Ironically, from where I stand it is the philosophical discussion of “free will” that conflates concepts with the idea of “[too] complex relations between inputs and outputs.”

    Empirically “free will” models is a folk psychology concept, its existence and properties testable by such observations as the described decisions-before-awareness, confabulations and the putative evolutionary cause. All it says is that there are observable situations where populations of organisms can and will take different pathways in a sufficiently complex manner that it doesn’t look algorithmic (automated).

    And I believe WEIT elsewhere has claimed, sensibly, that philosophical definitions of “free will” doesn’t make sense.

    In fact, philosophical “free will” is worse than “gods”. We don’t need to be able to define the latter to reject them, all we need is to know what works (materialism) to reject what not works (supernaturalism).

    But here we have the situation that what works is an “effective” folk psychology model which we know isn’t mapping naturally to facts. (Since we can observe decisions-before-awareness.) Which results in that ill defined philosophical “free will”, and its discussion, is a really steaming dung heap of nonsense.

  42. The problem with free will, as I see it, is that people have the wrong impression of what it means. Free will is not all it’s cracked up to be but there’s no doubt we have a modest form of it. I prefer to call it “self-determinism”. This self-determinism is empirically proven every time we conceive and execute a plan. I’ve found this is hard to explain because so many people assume that any free will must contradict causality and, thus, determinism. I claim that the only free will we have is actually self-determinism and that it isn’t in conflict with causality: in fact, it’s a product of human intelligence interacting with causality. I’ll try to explain . . .

    I maintain that “free will” is an awful term to express the independent agency humans possess to define purpose for themselves and pursue it. Our choices aren’t free in a libertarian sense: they’re free within the constraints of our heredity and experience (which are both products of causality). Perhaps Arthur Schopenhauer summed it up best: “Man can do what he wills but he can not will what he wills.” We can do, in the present, whatever our experience has prepared us for.

    Experience represents the past. Experience — what we’ve learned — is all we know. With the exception of instinct and reflex, I believe it’s virtually impossible to think or act beyond our experience. Even inspiration comes from experience. Where the rubber meets the road is in the present. This is where our human brains interact with the world around us to form the conceptual continuity of consciousness: our identity. Experience influences us so much because it’s been layered into our identity just as the present will be. THAT is the self in self-determinism.

    Don’t get me wrong . . . causality rules. We might think we’re in control until that fire or disease or earthquake or tsunami or accident or economic crash changes our lives. Causality is the ultimate big dog. We can make choices to maximize security but we can never be sure we’re secure. We can’t anticipate everything.

    So how do you explain the fact that, despite the pervasiveness of causality, we can still map out our own futures and achieve our plans (if they’re any good)? How do you explain how we, for the most part, hack our own paths into the future?


    Mental feedback is the key. Without it, we could not have memories or analyze problems or learn or make plans. Without it, we could not understand causality or anticipate it. Intelligence and consciousness itself hinge on mental feedback. Mental feedback gives us a temporal advantage over causality by allowing us to anticipate it and plan for the future accordingly. THAT is the determinism in self-determinism.

    It lacks the flourish and romanticism of unbridled, libertarian, free will but self-determinism has its own beauty revealed in the paradox of independent agency in a clockwork universe. Causality determines the scope of our abilities and actions and we use those abilities and actions to hack our own paths into the future. We’re so good at it, we’re getting cocky. But we’re not masters of causality . . . merely expressions of it.

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