Free will: what do we do next?

March 4, 2012 • 5:42 am

In a comment on my post about Sam Harris’s new book (Free Will) yesterday, reader coelsblog said the following:

This whole conversation would be much, much more straightforward if people managed to accept that compatibilists really, really do reject “strong free will”. They are then wanting to have the next stage of the conversation; but that requires that non-compatibilists accept that compatibilism is indeed a rejection of strong free will.

I gather from the discussion, and most of the comments on free will here I’ve read in the past, that nearly all of us reject dualism and the idea that we could, at the point of a decision, have made any choice other than the one we did. Most of us are determinists, accepting that—save for some quantum blips that, even if they exist, can’t factor into free will—our decisions are controlled entirely by the laws of physics, and (if we had perfect knowledge) would be predictable, at least in the short term.

Given that we all agree on these issues, what comes next?

When thinking about this yesterday, it struck me that the “next step” here involves neither theologians nor philosophers, but scientists and experiments.  While philosophers have spent many pages trying to show that determinism is compatible with free will, there is no unanimity on how this “compatibilism” is supposed to go down (for an overview of all the different “solutions” that rescue free will from determinism, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s articles here and here).

I’m not sure where this philosophical lucubration has led, nor whether it constitutes “progress” in any meaningful sense.  I don’t think it’s lead to any increased knowledge about the world, and the average person is going to go on believing in libertarian free will anyway, since that average person doesn’t read about compatibilism. (You could respond that the average person doesn’t read about neurospsychology experiments on volition, either, but at least those experiments increase our knowledge of the world.)

Philosophers will kill me for this, but I think it’s time that free will be considered the bailiwick of neuroscientists and psychologists rather than philosophers.  (They’ll be angry, of course, because they protect their turf fiercely against amateurs like me who lack formal training in philosophy.)  Our real understanding of how decisions are made is going to come not from philosophy but from science.  Here’s where I think progress can be made:

  1. Find out how people really conceive of free will, and whether they’re dualists who believe one can actually choose freely among alternatives at any given moment.  Yes, I know some studies seem to show that many aren’t dualists, but I’ve read those studies and haven’t found them very convincing.
  2. If people are dualists, we need to tell them that there is no free will in the contracausal sense.  This is what I have been doing, and, to a large extent, what Sam’s book does.  Many here seem loath to do that; indeed, some have said that we have to keep the precious knowledge of determinism to ourselves lest it discombobulate the “masses”. I find that condescending and invidious: above all, we must speak the truth.  After all, rejecting contracausal free will does have practical implications, at least for the justice system, as well as for people’s scientific view of how their brains work.
  3. We need more psychological experiments like those described in Daniel Wegner’s book, The Illusion of Conscious Will (I like that book though it’s a bit overwritten), and like the Libet and Soon et al. experiments.  These studies—criticize them as you will—tell us something about how “decisions” are formed in our minds, where the neurons for those decisions lie, and about the time course of how we act.  Other studies like those Wegner describes tell us how people conceive of their agency when acting, and how notions of personal agency can be either increased or deceased by experimental manipulation.
  4. And finally, we need more studies of the brain.  How do diseases, injuries, or manipulations affect our notion of agency? What parts are responsible for the idea that we can really make choices? And, most important, what actually goes into play, neurologically, when we are faced with alternative actions and “choose” one?

While I don’t think advances in our empirical understanding of personal agency will come from philosophy (they can’t, for most philosophy is not empirically based), that is not to say that philosophical rumination on the problem of free will is worthless. It isn’t.  It’s helped clarify our thinking on the problem, particularly about the notion of determinism, though I don’t think highly of the many attempts philosophers have made to buttress compatibilism.  Those haven’t resulted in a widely agreed-on solution, and so we have many conflicting “solutions” with no way to choose among them. That, of course, is reminiscent of theology, and I think that philosophical treatments of free will have indeed paralleled theology in several respects (trying to prop up cherished notions, the production of many conflicting and irreconcilable “solutions,” and so on).

The value of philosophy in this area is to keep our thinking from becoming muddy.  But I think philosophy has, for the nonce, done all it can now on the free-will problem.  It’s time for the scientists to butt in.  And, maybe after science has made some advances, the philosophers can chew those over.

Oh, and one more suggestion.

5. Abandon the term “free will” and replace it with something like “the appearance of having made a decision.” That’s more value-free and less laden with the baggage of dualism. If we insist on using the term, then we should immediately say that “free will” is not contracausal and give our own definition of the term. But I’d prefer to deep-six those two fraught words. “Free” is just too misleading.

Of course I invite readers to either respond or give their suggestions for where the discussion about free will, and empirical studies of the idea, needs to go.

218 thoughts on “Free will: what do we do next?

  1. I usually respond to all related discussions by asserting that there is no unmitigated self. This response does not remove choice from the equation, but it alludes to how the choices are generated.

    Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (non-gratis)

    1. “I usually respond to all related discussions by asserting that there is no unmitgated self.”

      Wonderful summary. There’s your two line solution,no need for PET scans and fMRI. Those are pretty crude tools anyway, I don’t think the time has come for them to replace anything. And Neurology and Neuropsychology are still fairly soft sciences to assume such a load, aren’t they?

      1. I don’t recall saying there is no need for PET scans and fMRI. Contrast imaging results still require colloquial explication when introducing information to a general public that is culturally invested in the idea of gratuitous agency.

        1. Sorry, I was being serious, your statement is a great summary and the only significant thing to take away from this topic. And I’m the one skeptical about conclusions about complex cognitive processes drawn from fMRI and PET studies. They really are crude tools relative to that application.

  2. While we are basically deterministic entities, the concept of something like free will is a useful function. Just as emotions are sometimes the interface between the logical conscious mind and the instinctive ‘animal’ brain, so free will is a fiction that envelopes the very complex decision making process.

    We are extremely adaptive creatures. Inputs like pain or pleasure, social pressure, and even punishment of threat of punishment are all evaluated, and ultimate affect our behavior because we are hardwired to try to optimize our situation (many animals have a similar, though simpler behavior plan).

    It is profoundly simplistic to conclude, as some do, that just because we don’t have classical free will, that personal responsibility does not exist, and punishments or costs are meaningless. Quite the opposite, all the inputs into our behavior change our behavior and this ability to change to make things ‘better’ for ourselves is what makes our life possible.

    1. I don’t know where you get the idea that some people conclude that responsibility and punishment become superfluous if we jettison contracausal free will. I don’t know anyone who thinks that, and I certainly don’t, as I’ve made clear elebenty gazillion times on this site.

      1. I think that idea comes from statements of the form
        “After all, rejecting contracausal free will does have practical implications, at least for the justice system,…”
        What implications? Do you mean we shouldn’t torture criminals because they didn’t have a choice? But we probably shouldn’t torture them even if there is free will. What practical implications are we talking about here?

        1. “What practical implications are we talking about here?”

          Rethinking the retributive impulse of our current justice system–which is based upon the notion that individuals are the authors of their actions.

            1. GoEThe,

              The fact that “the agents of justice also do not have free will” has nothing to do with why the “retributive impulse of our current justice system” need to be re-thought (ironic phraseology here, because that implies that retributive impulses were ever thought out in the first place).

              Justice, in order to be truly just, needs to divest itself of retribution, and become completely rehabilitative (or as rehabilitative as possible) for victim and perpetrator alike. (And where rehabilitation is not possible, it must be a humanely protective in keeping the dangerous and destructive from the benign and constructive.

            2. Not germane.

              “Rethink” is deficient. The word “expunge” works better. The present-day juridical system is designed to require that perpetrators receive the appropriate amount of punishment proportional to their crime. Not, necessarily, to rehabilitate, contain, or punish the criminal, but appropriately punish the perpetrator. It is, still, the demode “eye for an eye” ethical mindset.

              Also, observe how the family members of a victim can influence the judiciary system’s adjudication on whether to release the victim’s assailant on parole.

              A retributive impulse, based on the notion that each individual is the author of his actions is flawed moral reasoning. It has, absolutely, no place in the judiciary system.

              1. Persto,

                Excellent statement… though it doesn’t address GoEThe’s question concerning the lack of free will on the part of the “agents of justice”. No, strike that, you did say his question is not germane, so you did address his question by swatting it aside.

              2. Retributive justice IS a bad idea, but it’s just not the case that retributive impulses are built on notions of contra-causality/libertarian free will. And while retributive notions are often justified (in part) in terms of individuals being authors of their own actions, or something similar, determinism doesn’t mean that we aren’t authors of our own actions. So the committed retributivist shouldn’t be swayed just by a compelling refutation of contra-causality.

                More importantly, there are much better refutations of retributive justice that have nothing to do with contra-causality, and since retribution is such a bad idea, we should probably not be distracted by the “free-will” red-herring when trying to refute it.

              3. @Peter

                You can nitpick my comment, but it appears utterly perspicuous that a retributive impulse, established upon the perception that each and every individual is the autonomous originator of his actions, revolves around “a cognitive and emotional illusion–and perpetuates a moral one.” My point remains well-founded.

                If you don’t opine the retributive inclinations of the juridical system “are built on notions of contra-causality/libertarian free will.” See the Supreme Court’s definition of free will.

                “there are much better refutations of retributive justice that have nothing to do with contra-causality”

                I don’t think so. Not even, the reliable argument that retribution doesn’t persuade the citizenry to behave appreciably superior than they otherwise would.

              4. “retributive impulse, … revolves around “a cognitive and emotional illusion–and perpetuates a moral one.””

                That may be, but it doesn’t revolve around the illusion of contra-causality. There’s at most a tangential relationship between them.

                This isn’t be hard: people don’t subscribe to retributive notions of justice because it’s a solid, analytically compelling consequence of accepting free will (contra-causal or otherwise). They accept retributive notions because they appeal to their intuitions that if someone wrongs them, then they want to wrong that person in turn. It’s just a primitive, instinctual deterrent impulse.

                My brain is melting trying to figure out why anyone would be willing to grant otherwise.

              5. “That may be, but it doesn’t revolve around the illusion of contra-causality.”

                Yes that was the illusion I was referring to.

                “people don’t subscribe to retributive notions of justice because it’s a solid, analytically compelling consequence of accepting free will…They accept retributive notions because they appeal to their intuitions that if someone wrongs them, then they want to wrong that person in turn. It’s just a primitive, instinctual deterrent impulse.”

                The idea that free will is an illusion is very counterintuitive. So, it appears logical and reasonable, from a subjective perspective, that retribution is morally viable if you believe in free will. The retributive impulse is “primitive and instinctual,” but it is directly attributable to believing people are the self-governing architects of their deeds. Why else is the only compensation, in some criminal cases, that seems appropriate requires the perpetrator to suffer or forfeit his life?

                The Supreme Court called free will a “universal and persistent foundation for our system of law distinct from a deterministic view of human conduct that is inconsistent with the underlying precepts of our criminal justice system.” What was that about the justice system not being based on notions of libertarian free will? The justice system was founded upon and supports retribution based upon the idea of free will. The Supreme Court says so! How can you say otherwise? Evidence, please.

                You are saying retribution is instinctual, so free will does not influence retribution. That is just defective logic. I am saying retribution is instinctual because belief in free will is instinctual. They are not mutually exclusive, in fact, they are mutually inclusive! Retribution proceeds from the notion that people are the self-determining designers of their thoughts and actions. Without belief in free will, sane persons cannot justify retribution and have no reason to seek retribution. For example, would anyone feel the same need for vengeance if malaria or a hurricane killed a loved one? Or if a brain tumor-ridden individual killed a loved one?

              6. “it appears logical and reasonable, from a subjective perspective, that retribution is morally viable if you believe in free will”

                Viable, maybe. But again, retributive impulses and reasoning do not *derive* from concepts of free will. They *derive* from the sense that if one isn’t willing or able to retaliate when wronged, one will be more often and more grievously wronged. They are *derived* from an intuition of reciprocity, not contra-causality. “Free will” is tangential to that, and contra-causality in particular isn’t required by that at all.

                As far as the Supreme Court definition: context? I did see the reference to “determinism,” but it’s a legal document, not a formal philosophical paper in a free-will oriented journal. I don’t expect the author to have been as precise with their language as I might in the philo journal. Also, there’s no reference to retribution in particular being justified by free-will. Anyway, I grant there is an assertion there, but you didn’t demonstrate an argument, or leave a citation so I can find the argument myself.

                But please, demonstrate the argument. How would the truth of contra-causality compel us to adopt a retributive justice system, in a way that rejection of contra-causality compels rejection of retribution? And I’m looking for contra-causality in particular. Don’t leave any wiggle room for comptatiblist notions of free will to suffice.

              7. Peter, the victim’s are, in many cases, not the individuals clamoring for retribution, but their friends and family members. Therefore, your argument of reciprocity to avoid future harm is illogical.

                Why do people feel the need to reciprocate harm? In some cases, it is self-defense. This is, patently, not what I am expressing and is, certainly, not pertinent to this discussion. However, in most cases it has entirely naught to do with apprehension of future harm, but inflicting a proportional amount of suffering on the perpetrator because he, as the free author of his actions, harmed me or a loved one. You can’t deny this?

                If the perpetrator is not acting as the free author of his actions–tumor, virus ravaging his medial prefrontal cortex, stampede of cattle–the need for vengeance is all but diminished. Now, these examples are unambiguous instances of perpetrators not acting of their own free will. The best part is that not one person is acting of their own free will, so the need for retribution is dismantled, as it would be in the aforementioned instances.

                As to the Supreme Court case, it was United States v. Grayson, 1978. My point, which was perspicuously made, is that our justice system, undeniably, supports the idea of libertarian free will because it is not “inconsistent with the underlying precepts of our criminal justice system.” Can you not infer what the original quote implies? Maybe not, alas, but removing free will calls into question the ethics of punishing people for their bad behavior. Wouldn’t you say?

                I am going to try this, again.

                (BTW, we already have a retributive justice system.)

                Retribution exists because we are deeply disposed to believing people are acting of their own free will. Remove the illusion of free will and the justification of retribution and the necessity to seek retribution is demolished. What is there to demonstrate?

                Perhaps, belief in free will is ineradicable, but–my original point–it appears utterly perspicuous that a retributive impulse, established upon the perception that each and every individual is the autonomous originator of his actions, revolves around “a cognitive and emotional illusion–and perpetuates a moral one.”

              8. Well, that wasn’t really responsive to my objections, was it? And some of your points are a bit stretching, aren’t they? Reciprocity doesn’t apply when someone seeks retribution for something done to a loved one? Well, of course it does. And restating the Supreme Court’s assertion still doesn’t make it an argument (although at least I have a citation now).

                So still:
                -reciprocity is clearly the intuition behind retribution.
                -Of course it’s not entirely logical, it’s an intuitive impulse.
                -the need for such reciprocity is mostly obsoleted by the capabilities of modern civil justice systems, and today retribution does more harm than good
                -you’ve not shown any *logical* connection between contra-causal, libertarian free will and retribution
                -you’ve not shown any *logical* argument for retribution based on any notions of free will, and my point is that even if you accept free will, retribution is still a bad idea
                -really, I’m not even seeing why you think free-will makes retribution intuitively compelling
                -the only thing you are trying to argue is that if free will is false, then retribution must be a bad idea, but your examples are only claiming (without justification) that free-will is a sufficient condition for retribution, not that it’s a necessary one
                I could go on, but I’m busy…

              9. Sorry, for the long post, Jerry. This is my last on this thread.

                “Well, that wasn’t really responsive to my objections, was it? And some of your points are a bit stretching, aren’t they?”

                Do you have a reading comprehension issue?

                “Reciprocity doesn’t apply when someone seeks retribution for something done to a loved one?”

                Not what I said. Try, again.

                “reciprocity is clearly the intuition behind retribution.”

                Why do people feel it necessary to respond with retribution?

                Retribution by definition is punishment that is considered to be morally right and deserved. So, why do people feel the need to respond with a punishment that is proportional to the crime? Would you feel executing a mentally-ill person was morally right if he had murdered five people? If not, why not?

                Do you remember several years ago when people were responding with “duh” to obtuse comments?

                “-Of course it’s not entirely logical, it’s an intuitive impulse.
                -the need for such reciprocity is mostly obsoleted by the capabilities of modern civil justice systems, and today retribution does more harm than good”


                “you’ve not shown any *logical* connection between contra-causal, libertarian free will and retribution…you’ve not shown any *logical* argument for retribution based on any notions of free will, and my point is that even if you accept free will, retribution is still a bad idea”

                What? I’ll try again.

                Retribution is punishment that is morally right and deserved. Libertarian free will is logically incompatible with a deterministic universe and claims that agents have free will, and that therefore determinism is false. The position of the Supreme Court.

                Since, libertarian free will cannot be reconciled with what we know about the human brain or the laws of physics it is incorrect.

                Retribution is morally right and deserved punishment, which can only be moral if people are the free authors of their thoughts and actions, which they are not.

                So, since libertarian free will is wrong and retribution is fully dependent upon free will being true then retribution is wrong. Retribution is the necessary result of believing people are the free authors of their actions. If retribution isn’t the product of belief in free will then why is it morally wrong to punish the mentally handicapped for their crimes or killer whales for killing their trainers? If reciprocity is the only reason people think it is morally right to punish people then they should punish everyone and everything regardless, right? You’ve already said retribution isn’t logical. Why is it morally wrong to punish the mentally ill? Why would it be morally wrong to punish the bear for eating Treadwell? Tell me, please.

                If this doesn’t explain my point maybe we can get out the coloring book, huh?

      2. I do not claim that you said that.

        However others (not sticking to your blog here) have argued that determinism changes the whole concept of guilt and responsibility.

        I think in general I agree with your position on this

    2. Jay,

      While we are basically deterministic entities, the concept of something like free will is a useful function.

      Are you suggesting that we keep non-free willism a secret? It seems as if people might have a hard time using the concept of free will in light of the observation that it is only an illusion. This is like someone saying the concept of a god works great, look how much one can do with the concept of god with those who believe in the myth.

      I don’t see any gain in pretending that free will exists.

      1. You don’t have any choice, Steve, notwithstanding your claims.
        I have never in my life, seen anyone speak and behave in a manner that they do not have free will, no matter how strongly they believe that.
        Furthermore, no one will ever be able to convince more than a very tiny percentage of the population that free-will is illusory, never.
        You don’t act like you don’t have free-will because you cannot act that way, Steve. And if you and Jerry, et al, don’t act any different than people always have, how do you expect to change anything, especially something so overwhelmingly counter-intuitive, in the masses of people that can’t. or won’t, even understand what it means? It is a fundamental survival instinct to inflict retribution, and even co-operation and trust are fundamentally based on the understanding that actions will not be deserving of counter-actions.
        You people can blab all you want about the social ramifications and justice system, but the fundamental sense of having free will is not surmountable, and people will always see it this way.
        As I’ve said before, I’ve battled narcotics and alcohol addiction my whole adult life, and even before that, I have never, intellectually, thought that we have free will. It’s only lately I’ve started thinking about it deeply. And even though I can attest to seemingly irresistible compulsions dominating my behavior, and even if we don’t exercise freer-will, or volition, 98% of the time, it is because it is easier, not because we have to.
        The fact of the matter is that we have a process that uses %20 – > %50 percent of our energy resources, and this process is part of the physical cause and effect reality we inhabit. This means that our thinking serves a powerfully necessary function for our survival and proliferation, so it not only serves a purpose, it is also a physical cause the has real world effects.
        Or are you saying that our awareness, and mind, has no repercussions to its existence?

        You are the ones that speak of ghosts.

        1. You don’t have any choice, Steve, notwithstanding your claims.


          The enormity of your inability to grasp is astounding.

        2. Mike,

          I am saying that “our awareness, and mind” do not imbue our will with freedom.

          No wait… to make you happy I have to say the above by saying it like this: the matrix of my personal causal determinants has be say that “our awareness, and mind” do not imbue our will with freedom.

          Happy now?

        3. I rest my case. One, you display emotion by being condescending, and two, you failed completely to respond appropriately, by addressing my point that no one can act as if they have no volition or voluntarism.

          You keep saying, and being told, over and over, Steve, that we know what you mean. That you can’t, or refuse to understand, this simple declaration, even after the lengths I personally have gone to in explaining how I understand what you are saying, in numerous ways, with numerous methods, shows an egregious cognitive dissonance and bias in yours, and many others, comprehension.

          I have never seen or heard of anyone suddenly changing the way they act in their personal lives, let alone have a life changing experience, at the realization that their perception of free-will/volition is illusory.

          It is a simple thing, Steve, and then if you can even provide one example of this, how you expect society in general to adopt the stance that what our consciousness is telling is in fact illusory.

          You people talk about the importance, and consequences, of acquiring this understanding that we really aren’t accountable or responsible personally, for our actions, yet you fail to demonstrate the very first step in initiating this change, that of a change in your behavior knowing that you don’t have free will.

          We can discuss ethics until we are blue in the face, but nothing will come of it unless our fundamental and deeply rooted sense of volition is breached.

          It won’t happen, Steve, so go ahead and tell me again that we don’t have free-will, like you only seem capable of doing, and maybe in fifty years, or whatever it would take to convince you that human behavior and understanding and treatment of each other will not significantly change, no matter how many times you and everyone else insist that there is no such thing as freed will.

          You should also realize, which I suspect you do, that I don’t use, or respond, to BS pseudo-intellectual language like “Mike, I am saying that “our awareness, and mind” do not imbue our will with freedom. No wait… to make you happy I have to say the above by saying it like this: the matrix of my personal causal determinants has be say that “our awareness, and mind” do not imbue our will with freedom. Happy now?”

          Why don’t you open up notepad and save your spiel so you can just re-paste your ‘explanation’ to us every time we say anything without explicitly stating “illusion of free will.”

          I didn’t even try to argue one way or the other, I just stated that the illusion, if you insist on calling it that, is so intrinsic to our understanding and behavior, that you will not effect any difference, even if you prove it conclusively, because unless you greatly, greatly, expand the knowledge and understanding of the vast majority of the population, no one will give a shit what you say.

          We already are changing our understanding of brain function and how it is shaped by our experience, to the point that we are, in fact, understanding that we may not be as culpable for our actions as we generally believe, and treatment and prevention are far more effective than retribution.

          Now we can debate to the ends of time how to address and incorporate this understanding, but it will be fruitless because people will always feel like they have free will, and they will always believe in god and universal spirits because that’s what people do.

          1. Mike,

            I have done the best that I can. You seem to think awareness can bring freedom to the human will… I don’t share your view.

  3. “What do we do next?” seems to be the right question. Thanks for this posting.

    My journey has taken me to Mind and Brain by William Uttal who identifies cognitive neuroscience as the ‘new phrenology” due to the chasm between brain imaging and the improbability of neuronal network analysis in any but the simplest lifeforms.

    Also, Who’s in Charge by Michael Gazzaniga where in Chapter 4, Abandoning the Concept of Free Will, he notes his rational with numerous scientific citations.

    Sam Harris’s Free Will is on my list when available. It’s only $5.99 at Amazon and qualifies for their free shipping plan.

    1. Comparing cognitive neuroscience with phrenology is unfair. Phrenology was founded on the assumption that external features of the skull correlated with particular psychological traits. This has been shown to be empirically false.

      By contrast, the cognitive neuroscience brain imaging studies (that you seem to be criticizing) have been validated over and over. (It is true that some neuroscientists overinterpet imaging data though.) The most persuasive evidence comes from the strong correlation between regions of high fMRI activity, and regions of high IEG induction.

      And you need not be pessimistic about the future of neural network modeling. Many labs are developing higher-resolution alternatives to the existing suite of brain imaging technology. Huge advances in mapping the mouse brain (hardly a “simple life form”!) are already underway (

      Once the next generation of human brain imaging technology is available, most of your concerns about validity will be obviated.

      1. That was not my comparison, it is Uttal’s. Please note it’s in quotes. His view, if I understand it is that with the current brain imaging technology and the complexity of the brain’s neuronal network (plus it’s improbability of significant analysis).

        My suggestion is that you read his Mind and Brain for his rationale.

        Thanks for the reference. Uttal opens his book, Distributed Neural Systems: Beyond the New Phrenology with “Let’s get one thing straight from the beginning.Although much of my recent writing has been critical of the development of cognitive neuroscience, I am a firm believer in the importance of this science and the roots from which it grew…” (I’ll quote no more lest his publisher demands payment.)

        As for the use of brain imaging systems to reveal the micro details of neuronal activity, I suspect we have a ways to go since it appears that so much of it may have nothing to do with consciousness.

        Are you familiar with Marcus Raichle’s work? In particular his Two views of brain function at and The Brain’s (Dark Energy) in Scientific American, March 2010, abstract at

        All the best.

  4. “Abandon the term “free will” and replace it with something like “the appearance of having made a decision.”

    I consider myself a compatibilist (and have done since reading Dennett’s “Freedom Evolves”), but I agree with you that the specific term “free will” is best dropped as too loaded with dualist baggage. And the “no free will” message should be conveyed to a population that is still largely dualist (though I wish luck to anyone trying to convince them, you’ll need it!).

    As for what to replace it with, how about “will”? (“the appearance of having made a decision” is a tad long.) We still need words like “will” and “choice” and “decision” and we can’t really re-write half the language, so drop the specific phrase “free will” but keep everything else; and interpret all of this in a compatibilist way.

    1. We can not abandon the term “free will;” we must annihilate it. Any new term becomes something science does and will not be seen as relevant to how Adam and Eve supposedly screwed up our lives.

  5. As some of the comments here already suggest, I think the next important step is to consider the implications of determinism for responsibility, punishment, etc.

    And one of the conclusions I’ve reached is that the idea of responsibility is not, in the end, particularly important. Given our lack of free will, we need to let go of our tendency to demonize wrongdoers.

    In a consequentialist framework, what matters is rehabilitation, protection of society, etc. Beyond establishing which person actually committed the crime, establishing the true nature of accountability and responsibility doesn’t get us anywhere.

    1. I guess you can have a consequentialist framework for legal purposes. But that still leaves us with trying to explain stuff that seems to be going on in our heads, like feeling guilty. Is there anyone who has not cringed at the thought of something he or she did in the past?

      1. If you haven’t yet, you should take a look at some of the studies done on the so-called “trolley problem.” That “feeling of guilt” thing going on in your head seems to be pretty fallible, it gives different results depending on how causally proximate you are to the thing you’re feeling guilty about. For example, a drone pilot would feel less guilt than an old-fashioned bomber pilot would feel less guilty than someone who watched through binoculars while they detonated a bomb from a few hundred yards away (even if the resulting carnage was identical in each case).

        The sense of guilt happens but to assume it’s actually representative of the degree of culpability would be a serious error.

  6. Thanks Jerry, good stuff except for “our decisions are controlled entirely by the laws of physics.” This leaves out higher level laws, including those discovered by biology, cognitive neuroscience and behavioral and social psychology. Those levels are just as real as the micro-physical.

    As to the future of the free will debate, what I hope to see is the hashing out of what the ethical and practical implications are of the general realization, should it ever come to pass, that we couldn’t have done otherwise in actual (as opposed to counterfactual) situations. As you, myself and others like Harris have suggested, understanding that we aren’t causal exceptions to nature might have considerable repercussions for beliefs, attitudes and social policies, many of which are based on the idea that we could have done otherwise, that we are in some sense ultimately self-made (e.g., the rich make it on their own so deserve their riches, the poor could have done otherwise, so deserve their lot in life, the criminal could have transcended her circumstances, but chose not to, so deserves harsh punishment, etc., etc.)

    But of course compatibilists will continue to assert that relatively little or nothing changes in light of not having contra-causal freedom: that even though people are fully caused, they still deeply deserve praise and blame, that radical social inequality and retributive punishment are still justifiable. Exposing the scandal of compatibilism should be part of the next stage of the free will conversation,

    1. I suspect that you are projecting your political opinions onto the free-will debate, rather than actually assessing whether there is much difference between: (a) a dualistic “ghost” which, owing to its nature, makes particular decisions, and (b) a neutral-network which, owing to its nature, makes particular decisions.

    2. I agree, but this will be a hard road, at least as hard as any anti-theistic one people have chosen. Judging by the comments here, even people who are already on board with atheism and who have rejected a ghost in the machine will still react strongly to any criticism of free will.

      For that reason I’m sympathetic and even a little supportive of Jerry’s suggestion to pick a different term. I think that someone should be publicly criticizing “Free Will” because of all of the extra connotations. It is our Free Will that gives God the right – the duty – to punish us mercilessly without hope of rehabilitation. That definitely has implications for our justice system!

  7. How do you all think the work by Roy Baumeister and others fit into this and shapes our image of control, free will and choice? One the one hand, work by social- and cognitive psychologists and behavioral ekonomists like Nisbett, Kahneman, Ariely and others (experiments like seeing how easily one can make the subject think they control the situation) spell out clearly that most of the time A) we do not know what drives us (the introspection illusion; something Dennett already warned about in Consciousness Explained) & B) we do not really ‘have choices’.

    But there is some kind of willful, effortful part of cognition (system 2 if you like) that Baumeister in his new book Willpower talks about, that directs attention, calculates whether or not to bother doing some task, how to do the task etc. And this not so automatic part of cognition seems to be the part we relate to the most (not to say that the brain really is two systems; they’re mere fictions that ease up the language, as Kahneman stresses all the time, also in his new book Thinking, Fast & Slow).

    Is this relevant to our discussion?

    1. Many books talk about the brain/mind as being composed of many competing logical modules, with other modules to weigh the different results. “Fight or flight” might be a misnomer in that animals may always have parts of their brain always looking to fight and flee simultaneously (and eat and romance and groom and everything else), while other parts balance these impulses. In “Drive” (?), Pink talked about rats who were shocked when they tried to get food pelets and researchers could observe the competing impulses, to flee from the shock and then to run for the food. As their distance from the food & shocks changed, the weighting changed and the rats would bounce between these different states.

      From what I recall, he had hypothesized that consciousness was there to help resolve differences that the unconscious modules could not. That doesn’t help much as it makes conscious thought just another mechanistic weighting module, this time the “goal setter”.

  8. I put the question of “free will” into the larger framework of understanding all human behavior.

    Accepting that human beings are nothing more than a “product of their genes and environment” then we should be asking questions about those structures.

    Saliently, for me, the discussion hinges on environmental and social structures. To take one example, the drop rate among inner city and more impoverished schools is much higher continuously than in other more affluent areas. When we start asking questions about why these individuals behave and have the characteristics they do, I am pretty sure that we will find that the reasons for the drop-out rate are in social and environmental structures, and not in genes and not in “free will” or contra-causal choices (it may come from the “choices” of these individuals, but those choices have to, again, be followed back to previous environmental conditions that have structured their character). I think more attention and analysis of socialization/education in light of no “free will” is what is called for.

    In other words, traditionally we move in these discussions from “free will” to moral responsibility and prison sentences, which are important too, but I think we need to be asking more deep questions of human behaviors and characteristics and even identity. There is a lot of psychology, sociology, and philosophy written on these matters, but I also think a lot of it becomes fuzzy as they approach areas of “choice,” self-determination, and the genetically determined basis of “choosing” and characteristics, instead of analyzing the influence of social and environmental structures.

    A few books that attaches to this analysis to some degree: Gladwell’s Outliers, Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods; B.F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity; Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s Social Construction of Reality; Bruce Waller Freedom Without Responsibility.

  9. Maybe “free will” is free as in beer, not as in freedom, or so a Gnu Atheist might say. 🙂

    1. That’s funny. I also started thinking about beer after I read this column and the comment thread. I think it’s a defense mechanism against the oncoming headache that philosophical discussions inevitably cause me.

  10. I largely agree. But rather than spend time on my agreements, let me just get to what I don’t agree with. Suggestion #5 is just fatuous. We have the term “free will” to label a phenomenon, not to provide a mechanistic explanation of it. I see nothing wrong with keeping the term free will. But if we are to propose a substitution, at the very least, come up with something less unwieldy than “the appearance of having made a decision.”

    This whole discussion reminds me of people that carp on the supposedly “shocking” revelation that most of matter is “empty space” and that our sense of “solidity” is illusory. No, that’s wrong, wrong, wrong. Our sense of “solidness” and “solidity” at a macro scale is real and derives from atoms and molecules being arranged the way they are and interacting the way they do. It doesn’t matter that a nucleus is less dense than gnat orbiting a baseball 100m away. It was our demand that solidity mean “tightly packed fermions” that was wrong, not the term solidity itself.

    Similarly, that our interpretations of free will (contra-causal and the like) are often very wrong doesn’t invalidate the phenomenon of free will itself.

    1. “Appearance of having made a decision” isn’t just unwieldy, it’s actively misleading. In most cases where a decision appears to have been made, a decision was in fact made.

      1. I agree. If we had to come up with a new term (something I’m not entirely on board with) I would suggest something like “individual will” or “self will” or “autonomous agency” or something like that. This is intended to indicate that the deterministic material process that is the proximate cause for action is centered on an individual and is self-aware.

      2. Agreed, we are deterministic decision-makers, and to say we only appear to make decisions is to apply a contra-causal criterion for agency. Jerry still pays indirect allegiance to a supernatural conception of ourselves while at the same time denying it. Same thing when he says we’re merely puppets of the laws of physics. We aren’t. We may be deterministic creations of factors we didn’t choose, but we ourselves are just as causally effective as those factors. Otherwise seems to me Jerry has it pretty well nailed on free will.

  11. I think one is an implicit compatibilist any time one speaks of “repeating an experiment.” Without some form of compatibilism — the kind that says “there are other things that could have happened but which didn’t” — there’s no way to design controls to find out what the relevant inputs are.

    There are other things that could have happened but which didn’t “this time,” so we need to “repeat” the situation with as many things “the same” as possible to find out what is likely to vary “each time.”

    I suspect the perception of dualism and contracausal free-will stems from empiricist instincts, but it doesn’t have to. We can do away with “could have done differently,” but compatibilists still want to retain epistemic, if not metaphysical notions of “could.” There are other options that my brain “could” have chosen but didn’t.

  12. “I think it’s time that free will be considered the bailiwick of neuroscientists and psychologists rather than philosophers.”

    Here’s one philosopher that’s perfectly cool with that, and I know there are many others. (You think Dennett is going to be up in arms over the suggestion that we need some science to figure out how the mind works?)

    Of course, we’re only going to be happy if it’s good science. If you get a bunch of philosophically naive neurologists pontificating about how we don’t have moral responsibility because they didn’t find a supernatural ghost in the brain, you can expect some philosophers to show up with a can of whup-ass.

    As you know, there are plenty of philosophers of science who take on the dirty job of attacking bad science. No one gets a pass on bad reasoning just because they happen to run an empirical study.

  13. “I’ve read in the past, that nearly all of us reject dualism and the idea that we could, at the point of a decision, have made any choice other than the one we did.”

    The second part is the one that really muddies the thinking. If one rejects the idea that we could have made any other choice, then how do you blame muslims for taking offense when the prophet is drawn?

    Unless… oh i get it! Free Will is what our enemies have, and what we don’t have.

    1. Oh don’t be so snarky. Blaming people can change behavior, too–that’s well within the purview of determinism. And we can bloody well lock them up if they kill people. I don’t care if they take offense, anyway–I care what they DO about that offense. And if they do anything, then we can take action.

      Do you really believe in libertarian free will?

      1. I don’t believe in libertarian free will.

        I simply think that the backward-looking approach (as in looking at the past instead of the future) of looking at freedom of will and choice muddies up the way we talk about responsibility. It leads to exactly the kind of double-speak that we see here where people end up excusing their past actions because they reason that they really had no choice, but then hold other people (who don’t belong in their “in” group) responsible for acting the way do.

        I see the givens as: 1) we live in a deterministic world and 2) choice and responsibility are important concepts in the way we conduct our lives. The problem is how to create a philosophy that reconciles these two givens. The problem with incompatibilism is that it rejects or purports to reject 2), and gets in trouble right away with how we talk about real behavior.

        1. Incompatibilists needn’t jettison either choice or responsibility, see for instance the work of Derk Pereboom, mentioned in the review at ‎ , and of Bruce Waller, see his book, The Natural Selection of Autonomy reviewed at What’s difficult to reconcile with determinism are responsibility practices based in the idea of just deserts, and it’s their pointing this out that makes Pereboom and Waller incompatibilists. Waller’s latest book, Against Moral Responsibility, is a strong critique of compatabilism.

          1. You mean this Waller? Sounds like compatibilism to me.

            “In his discussions of free will, Waller demonstrates that it is possible to have real autonomy (the capacity to select among anticipated alternatives) and real authenticity (the capacity to form deep, character-based commitments) without supposing that we have a “miraculous freedom from environmental influences and past causal history.” The freedom most of us normally have isn’t a “libertarian mysterious choice” but a high degree of naturally given cognitive flexibility, operating within the constraints of our naturally derived character and our available options.”

    2. I don’t think anyone would say that a Muslim who knifes a Prophet cartoonist is any less a product of his genes and environment than any other psychopath. That doesn’t mean we don’t have the right, nay the duty, to rail against the system that brought him to that point, in the strongest possible way.

      Determinism doesn’t make ideals any less worthwhile fighting for, on any side of an argument.

      1. The issue of free will applies to both judge and felon – both are determined. The judge who finds an individual not guilty of terrorism,say, is as “proper” in his action as a judge who finds the individual guilty.

        1. Well, I guess the propriety of the decision will be viewed according to local societal standards, so a judge who lets a failed underwear bomber off scott-free will be viewed by society at large as acting improperly, assuming the consensus of that society is that blowing up planes is a bad thing. The judge’s actions may have been entirely deterministic, but that doesn’t mean it will be viewed subjectively as acceptable by the larger society.

          I think the questions of law and punishment are amongst the thorniest, once you accept that everyone’s actions are entirely deterministic. The answer lies in considering the aggregation of behaviors of the societies that individuals inevitably act within.

      2. Your talk of “right” and “duty” implicitly assumes you have freedom to will and can choose to act towards a particular ideal. “Right” and “duty” don’t make sense otherwise.

        That’s the kind of free will that we have.

        1. True. It’s very difficult (for me, at least) to consistently use the language of strict determinism when referring to human interactions. A better way of expressing it might have been to say that those who find themselves on the other side of the ideological fence from Muslim extremists are bound (not by duty, but by environment and genes) to fight it.

          For me the difficulty is that, deterministic or not, the systems we’re talking about, both at the level of an individual mind and the societies that comprise those minds, are so immensely complex that any description of behavior inevitably lapses into using terms that imply “free will”.

          1. Pete,

            This effect of inevitably lapsing into use of terms that imply “free will” is a result of language being developed while under the affect of the free will illusion.

    3. DV,

      Were you being flippant? Non-free willism applies to everyone at all times, nothing less has ever been claimed or supported by non-free willists.

  14. “Free will” essentially is everyone’s personalities/identities.

    1. Our brain stuff are made of the same atoms that all follow the laws of physics.

    2. Brain cells of individual persons contain different genes and also the way they are connected to one another differ from person to person.

    So essentially if you want to see this “free will” then look at identical sets of conditions that individuals are faced and look at the choices they make. Now obviously it’s way more complicated than that. Stuff that goes on in the brain are not static and are always changing, however, slight it may be.

    Also, it’s very hard to study how a person may choose or behave different when you present them with identical situations in the past since they can remember what it is that they did or what happened.

    Probably a good place to start is to study people with very strong OCD. Since they have that compulsion to repeat certain behaviours over and over again and in a sense, they are not “free” to stop doing those behaviours.

  15. “like me who lack formal training in philosophy,” Jerry Coyne, Doctor of Philosophy. Science of course being one of the traditional “wisdoms.”

  16. “[G]ood stuff except for ‘our decisions are controlled entirely by the laws of physics.’ This leaves out higher level laws, including those discovered by biology, cognitive neuroscience and behavioral and social psychology. Those levels are just as real as the micro-physical.” – T. Clark

    There are different theoretical levels of description and explanation, but there are no different levels of being or reality, or there is only one such level. A human organism is nothing over and above a system of elementary particles, i.e. the elementary particles composing an organism are (identical with) it, and it is (identical with) them. Therefore, the organism as a whole exists at the same ontic level as its fundamental parts.

  17. Abandon the term ‘free will’ and replace it with something like ‘the appearance of having made a decision.'”

    “Experimental work by Libet is worth mentioning in this connection, because it’s been cited in support of the view that we never really make choices or decisions in the present moment of consciousness in the way we think we do. …Strongly put, the claim is that the neurophysiological evidence shows that the experience of conscious choice is strictly speaking illusory; it occurs only when a choice that has already been made and has already begun to be acted on is (as it were) presented in consciousness. This undermines an intensely natural picture of agency according to which it is, essentially, the ‘conscious I’ that is the agent. We take it that in so far as we are deciders and choosers and initiators of action, true exercisers of agency, we are so as conscious beings who are present in the present moment—essentially so. Yet it seems, as Norretranders says, that ‘it is not a person’s conscious I that really initiates an action…The I does not want to accept this. The thinking, conscious I insists on being the true player, the active operator, the one in charge. But it cannot be’ (1991: 257).
    Is this true? There is, it seems, a sense in which it is—although it isn’t really an empirical question whether the onset of the readiness potential should count as a choice. If it were true, would it undermine anything that matters? No. Even on their strongest interpretation Libet’s results do not in any way threaten the view that we really do make decisions and choices, and are indeed the authors of our actions. For our decisions and choices and actions, mental or bodily, are not in any sense not our own, or in any way less our own, because their original occurrence isn’t conscious (the same goes for our thoughts, reasonings, judgements). Libet’s results don’t threaten any defensible sense in which we can be said to have free will or to be responsible for what we do. The experience one has of being the author or origin of one’s decision or choice is mistaken only in so far as it may not be oneself considered narrowly as the ‘conscious I’ present in the moment of the conscious experience of making the choice or decision that actually makes the choice or decision. The choice or decision is, to repeat, no less one’s own for occurring outside consciousness (it is certainly no one else’s). It flows from oneself, from one’s character and outlook, from what one is, mentally. The most that Libet’s experiments show is that one doesn’t make one’s choices and decisions or initiate one’s action consciously in quite the way one thinks one does or at exactly the time one thinks one does.”

    (Strawson, Galen. Selves: An Essay in Revisionary Metaphysics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. pp. 195-6)

    1. “Abandon the term ‘free will’ and replace it with something like ‘the appearance of having made a decision.’” – J. Coyne

  18. I think the next step in understanding “free will” may come from computer science and artificial intelligence.

  19. I won’t say too much that I haven’t said already, for example, about what I think are decisive, unanswered criticisms of the Libet experiments as applied to free will.

    Here I just want to point out that probably, most average people (at least in the United States) are compatibilists:

    Nahmias, E. & D. Murray (2010), “Experimental Philosophy on Free Will: An Error Theory for Incompatibilist Intuitions,” in J. Aquilar et al. (eds.), New Waves in Philosophy of Action (Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan), 189-216.

    You can read a prepublication here:

    If words get their meaning by how people use the words, then “free will” is probably compatible with determinism, and so compatibilism is correct. Then again, you may be right that it’s useful to stop talking about “free will” per se.

  20. No less a philosopher than Dan Dennett has ceded that philosophy is about determining what questions to ask, and that once you have the questions it’s up to the appropriate branch(es) of science to take it from there.

    Despite his compatibilist stance, I’m sure Dennett would agree that neuroscience will have the most to say about this issue.

  21. 2. If people are dualists, we need to tell them that there is no free will in the contracausal sense. This is what I have been doing, and what Sam’s book does.

    But if point 1 (“Find out how people really conceive of free will”) has not yet been accomplished, then aren’t you putting the cart before the horse? I’m all in favor of telling people that brains don’t violate the laws of physics. But I suspect that most people would agree with that statement if you put it in those terms. That seems to me a better place to start the conversation than saying “Free will doesn’t exist” before you know what their notion of free will is. Speaking the truth requires that you first establish a common vocabulary.

    These studies — criticize them as you will — tell us something about how “decisions” are formed in our minds…

    My main criticism is that at best they tell us only how impulses form in our minds, which is a far cry from knowing how decisions in general are formed. The studies themselves are fine as far as they go; it’s the interpretations that are flawed.

    I do agree with you that we need more science on this. Part of the value of philosophy, I think, is in proposing hypotheses for scientists to test.

  22. Most of us are determinists, accepting that—save for some quantum blips that, even if they exist, can’t factor into free will—our decisions are controlled entirely by the laws of physics, and (if we had perfect knowledge) would be predictable, at least in the short term.

    Thanks for putting it clearly enough that I now know I strongly disagree.

    I challenge anyone to explain how they can factor those “quantum blips”
    out. Quanta are the “laws of physics,” and to pretend otherwise must entail some kind of magic. And our decisions would be predictable
    if we had “perfect knowledge” of what? The results of the next quantum (and therefor probabilistic) neurotransmitter binding event in the physical

    I find myself extremely frustrated by the nonsensical attempts of biologists and
    philosophers (and even physicists) who wish to banish quantum indeterminism
    from discussions of physical free will.
    Even Dennett tries to do that, and then re-invents the same situation, as is
    clear (at least to me, if not to him) in his story of the possible evolution of free will in
    a deterministic “game of life” (in his book Freedom Evolves). His
    “free will worth having” depends upon the existence of a wider “life” universe
    which is in principle unpredictable, since at any time the evolving system may
    (indeed will) have to respond to gliders impinging from that part of
    the “life” universe that is beyond its current horizon of knowledge. Such lack
    of knowledge and true indeterminism are eqivalent, as are the Copenhagen and Bohm

    Free will exists because we do not have, and cannot, in principle, have “perfect
    knowledge.” We have knowledge of the predictability of ourselves and our
    immediate surroundings sufficient to the immediate preservation of the biological systems
    that support our minds. They evolved for exactly that purpose, through the
    workings of “selfish genes” that, themselves, deal with a world about which they
    can store useful information, but not “perfect” information. It is in that
    imperfection that will is to be found. As Dennett says, it requires that we
    embrace the enlargement of our concept of ourselves (“if you make yourself small
    enough, you can externalize everything”), and allow freedom to evolve in the
    real non-deterministic world we live in, and in which an enlarged “we” does indeed
    make real decisions (not the appearance of making decisions) that incorporate all those quantum blips and gliders, and in so doing creates the
    future of our world.

    1. @Tom – What do you make of the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics? Would having a (potentially infinite) set of largely deterministic parallel worlds that add up to a multiverse not change what you refer to as “indeterminism”?

    2. Imperfect information also includes the creative, as yet unthought of, abstract planning and considerations of any situation. Random thoughts, ‘aha’ thoughts, etc., these things are always introducing new knowledge into the stream of consciousness.

      The issue I have not heard commented on is that if our consciousness is part of the causal chain, and it must for the reason you stated – evolved mechanism for survival, then it can be, itself, a cause of the so called next event – a decision.

      Further, the ‘decision event’ is a multi-directional stream of blips and gliders and new abstract choices. It is in no way a linearily describable event with a specific resolution point.

  23. “Free will exists because we do not have, and cannot, in principle, have “perfect

    This is precisely why I think bringing up determinism in the first place is a red herring. To put as your premise that EITHER strong determinism is valid OR we have free will is a false dichotomy if ever there was one. EVEN IF quantum indeterminacy could somehow influence the outcome of a choice (I leave it up to the physicists to judge how plausible that is), this would only add an element of randomness to the whole process, which is by definition NOT under will’s control (HAPPENING to want – and therefore choose- something BY ACCIDENT does not seem like a very convincing act of free will).

    To demonstrate “free will” in the sense that Jerry, Sam etc. are talking about it is not sufficient to refute strong determinism. You would have to demonstrate that your will ITSELF was the ultimate, uncaused cause of that outcome.

    1. I am sorry, but it seems to me you are “making yourself small”. Quantum indeterminacy does not “add an element of randomness”, unless you are laboring under the misapprehension that there is something in this world that does not already have randomness built into it. Saying that the randomness “is not under will’s control” means that you are defining self and will as independent of randomness. Why? What is the phobia about embracing ourselves as physical beings that do not exist without randomness? Why do so many people who otherwise seem to be atheist physical materialists and naturalists nevertheless want to purge themselves of this essential part of their physicality? Why diminish yourself in that way? Purging “ACCIDENT” from will seems to me to be a reversion to a longing for supernatural determinism. I thought the point was to get beyond that.

      1. Sigh… yet another version of “free will” to deal with…

        So, if determinism is valid, that means we have free will, and if determinism is NOT valid, that ALSO means we have free will. (Its’ tempting to ask what would NOT support any kind of “free will”, but I guess that would be philosophically unsophisticated…). At least those of us who don’t feel the need to call anything “free will” basically seem to agree what we are talking about, whereas the only common theme that unites the bewildering wilderness of competing and mutually exclusive concepts of “free will” – just like the competing concepts of “God” – seems to be the sense that SOMETHING has to go by that name.

        There’s a reason I added the qualifier “in the sense that Jerry, Sam etc. are talking about”. There’s also a reason I wrote: “I leave it up to the physicists to judge how plausible that is”. I do accept quantum indeterminacy, but it does absolutely nothing to rescue the concept of “free will” that was the topic of this thread.

        1. One might also say: So, if determinism is valid, that means we evolved, and if determinism is NOT valid, that ALSO means we evolved. (Its’ tempting to ask what would NOT support any kind of “evolution”…) Free will is about life: complex information-transducing reproducing objects evolving through natural selection (CITROENs — Leslie Orgel).

          “[Q]uantum indeterminacy.. does absolutely nothing to rescue the concept of ‘free will’…”

          (a) I don’t see that human will needs “rescuing” any more than our souls need “salvation”.

          (b) The “freedom” part is relative to the stored information in our genes, brains, and culture, and the limits on that information.

          (c) Quantum physics only comes into it because it is a limitation of our possible knowledge.

          (d) Leaving quantum physics out (or to “leave it up to the physicists to judge how plausible that is” that the indeterminism that is part of everything else might actually affect us) is as pointlessly contra-factual as to set out to discuss Venusian steam hockey.

          I am sorry, but I see much of this discussion as a reinvention the same follies that infest religion.

          1. “So, if determinism is valid, that means we evolved, and if determinism is NOT valid, that ALSO means we evolved.”

            Except that no one to my knowledge has argued that evolution is true BECAUSE of either determinism or indeterminism. What you said was that “Free will exists *because* we do not have, and cannot, in principle, have “perfect knowledge” (which I take to be a reference to the indeterminacy principle). That’s a major difference right there.

            And it is very honest of you to cut out the end of my last sentense from your quote (the part where I specify in what sense I am using the phrase “free will”) and answer AS IF I had argued against “human will” in general. Ben Stein would be proud of that one.

            1. Except that no one to my knowledge has argued that evolution is true BECAUSE of either determinism or indeterminism.

              Neither did I. The important point is not indeterminism per se, but (as I said in point C, above) that it is a limitation of our possible knowledge. As I said elsewhere in this thread, Dennett may have convinced me that a deterministic universe would still have uncertainty and “free will worth having,” but I just say that it is incoherent to talk about it in such contra-factual “deterministic” terms — Our world is NOT deterministic. Most people who engage in this “compatibilist / non-compatibilist” debate seem to accept that, but want to make an exception for human beings, saying quantum effects are “blips” that make no nevermind in human affairs. That is just hogwash.

              And, if you want to get into the nitty-gritty, yes, evolution works because of uncertainty and quantum randomness — have you taken a genetics course? Mutations are random. Base-mismatches (as well as other mutation mechanisms) are due to quantum effects. Dennett could have meant his book title completely literally: Freedom Evolves.

  24. What do you think of two-stage models, à la Popper’s or Searle’s? If I’m not mistaken, I don’t think I’ve seen those mentioned in any of the posts on your blog.


    1. I recall a “3-stage” model, to replace dualism, in Popper and Eccles’ “The Self and its Brain (1977) (they wrote separate sections of the book). My wife and I thought it was a hoot when we read it about 30 years ago. I also recall what we dubbed “Eccles’ Folly”, where he argued that life was so unlikely that it had to have been helped along by God. Then a few pages later he also argued that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence was pointless, since life was so improbable. Apparently, God could only have done it once. Bad science and bad theology all rolled up into one.

  25. Haven’t read all the comments and am breaking my resolution to stay out of the comments on this topic, but just wanted to mention that I think the particular debate here — between the defined meanings of compatibilism and determinism — is not going to be resolved through neuroscience because it’s a semantic debate. When you get down to it, we’re just arguing over words.

    Is the supernaturalist interpretation of the term “free will” so embedded into the meaning that a compatibilist-naturalist interpretation is sort of like trying to redefine “God” as the universe, or religion as “whatever is most important to you?” Someone is kidding themselves if they think this will work.

    Or does the concept of “free will” rest primarily on secular experience so that no, insisting on the compatibilist interpretation is more like saying that life has meaning even if there is no God, or that atheists can indeed have “morals” or get “married.” No damn way we’re allowing the religious to steal away perfectly reasonable secular concepts and pretend they only make sense if you accept the spiritual view of reality.

    I go for the second view. But I also think that semantic debates are quicksand. They can surprise you and suck you in and down and ruin what should have been a nice walk in the park.

    1. Agree entirely, and also with most of Vaal’s comments.

      When people write “contra-causal” or “libertarian” free will, do they really just mean dualist, ghost-in-the-machine, immaterial-soul free will?

      Clearly in a religious (esp xian) context you would expect people to believe in that definition of free will.

      However, in anything resembling a scientific context I doubt it would even occur to me that anyone would believe in that definition of free will.

      “Dualist free will” seems a much clearer and more descriptive label for this.

      1. TJR,

        Not sure what it matters… but from whatever/wherever that pool free willists comes from, free willists are out there in numbers. The push back against the assertion that free will (libertarian free will) is an illusion is quite common (in my experience at least). The belief in the free will myth is quite prevalent.

  26. Sam Harris does feel that free will is mostly an illusion. I believe we can make choices, but seldom freely. In my (free) ebook, “the greatest achievement in life,” is a chapter called “Outside the box.” Here are three paragraphs from it:

    What if you had to make all your decisions about living while detained in a jail cell? The cells may be open for brief periods each day, but the prisoners are still surrounded by walls. There are also walls around cells of everyday life. We are restricted by our ability to control our emotions, mind and body. Even with full command of our “self,” we must live within the restraints of Nature and society. Freedom is relative.

    “Free will” is really quite limited, despite belief that we control ourselves and our lives. We think we have endless choices…until we try to make them. Each decision must not only be based on what we “want to do,” but also on our own capabilities and what is expected of us. Nature and society imprison us, whether we like it or not. The key to release is mystical realization. All in One and One in All, the divine unity, opens the gate between a universal consciousness and most people’s constrained awareness.

    Outer walls are the boxes of Nature and of society. Inclement weather, lack of sunlight, gravity, and/or other natural phenomena may restrain our movements. Our own natural aptitudes, practiced talents and learned skills are always lacking in some areas. Human nature is controlled mostly by society. What we believe that other people expect of us greatly influences how we feel, think and act. Considering the reactions of our family, friends, business associates, community, and/or nation determines much of what we do. Those “laws” of Nature and society govern our lives, usually more so than we wish. Mystical awareness can allow us to obey divine law here and now.

    Sam Harris wrote ““I see nothing irrational about seeking the states of mind that lie at the core of many religions. Compassion, awe, devotion and feelings of oneness are surely among the most valuable experiences a person can have.”

    1. Are the “divine unity” and “divine law” of which you speak an attempt to apply religious terms to the physical development of human culture? Or are you postulating a non-physical, unevolved, pre-existing conscious entity? If the former, this is an even tougher re-definition attempt. If the latter, I await evidence.

      1. While both interpretations don’t exclude themselves, the problem you’ll have is in the waiting.

        How could someone else provide you an evidence about the uncreated nature of consciousness? About its unicity? How could you prove scientifically “uncreateness”?

        How our average limited mind would be able to deal with a phenomenon that would simultaneously objective and objective?

        You would need to change in order to get the evidence you are asking. But since you want first the evidence, the change that would make possible the evidence to be seen won’t come.

          1. It can be asserted with evidence. But not the way you think the evidence has to be shown. Not only you don’t believe that the evidence exists, but it would also need to fit with your expectations about it.

            Popper who isn’t at all a spiritualist explained well the problems that come with he belief that true knowledge can only be measurable. He just looked objectively at the problem…

            1. Your formula of “believe first, then you will see the evidence” is an age-old recipe for fooling yourself. Popper had some useful insights about science, but was himself quite capable of indulging in foolishness. Are you familiar with his “three worlds” nonsense, where he takes dualism and pushes it one layer further, the better to insulate human affairs from the ravages of material monism?

              1. I like Poppers 3 world theory. But it is been a while that I’ve read about it. And from what I remember, it has noting to do with atheism, theism or monism.

                Bu is an entrepreneur who starts his first business guilty of that age-old recipe too?

                It is just normal that when you are engaging yourself on a path you don’t know well, you have to believe you can do something about it.

                You may believe that all the people and the testimonies we have about those who were able to change themselves after following a zen, buddhist, or any non-dual teaching are false.
                But you understand that this would be just your belief.
                And since the change in question involves a shift of perspective, that concerns the core of consciousness and perception, it just can’t be measured. Consciousness can’t be measured.

    2. “Mystical awareness can allow us to obey divine law here and now.”

      How do I become more mystically aware? Or how do I reach a mystical realization?

      These concepts are immeasurably indistinct, deficient scientifically, and superfluous.

      1. I do not like the words mystic, mystical or mysticism…they are to vague and often misconstrued. Perhaps you can refer to universal awareness or realization.

        In my ebook is a quote by Albert Einstein: “…most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and most radiant beauty – which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive form – this knowledge, this feeling, is the center of all religion.”

        1. Wait…what? Didn’t you write mystical? I am confused. Where is the quote from?

          No matter. Universal awareness is considerably vague, deficient scientifically, and superfluous. Same problems as mystical.

          Can you clarify your position?

          1. Science can be vague and deficient, too. According to NASA astrophysicists: “More is unknown than is known. We know how much dark energy there is because we know how it affects the Universe’s expansion. It turns out that roughly 70% of the Universe is dark energy. Dark matter makes up about 25%. The rest – everything on Earth, everything ever observed with all of our instruments, all normal matter – adds up to less than 5% of the Universe. Extracted from

            Read my ebook. It’s only 88 pages of essays and quotations and it is free. Maybe it will shine some light on your darkness. Also, see the bibliography on pages 100-101. There are scientists who support my position (and those who support yours, too). Right and wrong are relative (there is also a gray are in between).

            1. “Science can be vague and deficient, too.”

              Science is not nearly as vague and deficient as your quote.

              What worldview are you comparing to science? Do you know how we know about dark matter and dark energy? What is your viewpoint contributing that could make it, even remotely, comparable to science?

              There is gray area, but the entire discussion is not in the gray area.

      2. That “these concepts are immeasurably indistinct (and) deficient scientifically” prevents them to exist?

        The belief that valuable knowledge can only be measured is something that Karl Popper called scientism.

          1. You can be stuck with your belief if it pleases you but if I were you, I would check the problem that comes with scientism. Popper is just an honest philosopher who knew about a lot about science.

            As for what allows you to measure things, i.e. your own consciousness, it certainly help you to split into objective and
            subjective categories what it grasps, but both categories exist for real.

            But you certainly cannot measure consciousness…

            1. Yes, there is a problem with scientism. It used to mean something (treating a piece of science as sacred dogma), but it has become a popular epithet meant to shame those who believe that truth can be approached (but not necessarily found) only by making every honest attempt to avoid deceiving oourselves. Self-deception, being a booming industry with both an ancient and modern history in religion and politics, resents that.

              1. From where I come from, atheism is no big deal and politicians don’t talk about religion. I used to be a very convinced atheist and it didn’t take any sort of courage to speak about it in family reunion. Al this to say that I was absolutely sure that it was purely by accident if humans if were intelligent beings. So for me, words like religion and spirituality we just crutches for those who couldn’t stand the evidence of death.

                It is only after reading about buddhism and other traditions that I slowly realized I was taking a lot of things for granted about the nature of my self. I continued to investigate and found more surprising things about how I was grasping the world.
                We can’t realize that we grasp the world through a certain mode that has specific limitations and that is far from being absolute until we can compare with another mode of perception. That is what non-dualism is all about.

        1. Yes, they don’t exist, at least scientifically, which is actually existing, if they can’t be verified, falsified, and measured. I guess, they could exist philosophically or theologically, but what is the relevance of philosophical ideas if they are not contributing to the scientific discussion. And godology contributes nothing of value to science. That quote is just ostentatious, vague, and superfluous jibberish.

          Of course, literature and art, are valuable, but they aren’t valuable in a scientific discussion. I can’t use Asimov or Dostoyevsky to make claims about the cosmos. Just like you can’t use florid language and anecdotal evidence to make claims about consciousness.

          I am not saying art and science are entirely different. Artists are practical and scientists are imaginative, but the artist can produce almost any imaginative work with no scientific evidence. However, the scientist must possess a vibrant imagination, but he requires evidence, proof, and measurement to validate his imaginative solutions.

  27. I agree that there is a lot of quicksand here. Trying to change concepts that are virtually built into the language is difficult. Even something as innocuous as saying we “have choices” seems to imply that the choices are something that is brought to us, like a someone showing up at the door with a clipboard; while, to a large extent, our choices comprise what we are, (and do) rather than what we “have”. Sort of like expecting God to provide us with a “calling”, versus taking responsibility for our own decisions, what we make of all the urgings of our nature and nurture, and making it part of ourselves, rather than “God’s will”.

    If a deterministic interpretation of (non-) free will just means that instead of “God hates fags,” we can picket funerals with signs saying “The universe has determined that I hate fags”, has anything much changed?

  28. I get frustrated with the people that redefine what I, and others, are saying. It’s bad enough trying to avoid the quicksand red herrings of defining ‘free’, but being told, or asked, ‘then you believe in libertarian free will,’ and/or, ‘where does this uncaused cause’ originate is mind numbingly improper and tantamount to saying, “you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  29. Good post by Jerry. It’s nice to see the responsiveness to the points made by “the other side.” And I like the call to action, to see what people believe etc.

    Good points are being made all around, so for my part I’d just wish to isolate what appears to me to be a problem that follows from first concluding that “there’s no free will” and THEN going on to use prescriptions, that is recommend courses of actions, what we “ought” or “should” do. Take one of Jerry’s statements in this post, which I’m assuming we can take to be a recommendation for an action:

    “If people are dualists, we need to tell them that there is no free will in the contracausal sense.”

    If we are concerned about actually making sense, not just making physical noises, this is something we have to confront – do our arguments MAKE SENSE taken all together?

    And in this case it revolves around whether we “really” could “do otherwise” (“really have a choice”). IF (notice the “if”) it turns out this is something you deny, THEN it seems in tension with going on to prescribe courses of action, because in doing so it requires we could “choose to do otherwise” to even make sense of the recommendation.

    The problem is, the retort that “Even if everything is determined and we don’t have ‘real’ choices to do otherwise, my making the recommendation can still have a physical effect on your future behaviour”…just doesn’t answer this problem.

    Say “Fred” makes a recommendation: You should go visit your brother (**Pssst: you don’t REALLY have a brother).

    Surely the addition of that second “fact” about not really having a brother makes nonsense of Fred’s recommendation to go see your brother. When this is pointed out, Fred replies: “Well, it’s still a fact that my physically telling you things like that can have a physical effect on your future behaviour.”

    Well…uh…sure. People are obviously motivated into action by all sorts of bad, nonsensical recommendations and arguments.
    But that doesn’t answer the actual question at hand: Does what Fred recommended make ANY SENSE? Is it coherent? No.

    Similarly, IF one takes the conclusion that in any situation it is merely an illusion that one could have chosen otherwise – that we REALLY “can’t” ever “choose otherwise,” THEN you get the same type of incoherence:

    You should choose to tell people they have no free will (***Pssst, you don’t REALLY have a “choice”).

    That makes no sense. And the retort I keep seeing as justifying the prescriptions someone like Jerry makes is “Even if we ‘really’ can’t do otherwise, Jerry’s reasons for actions still act as physical inputs into your system, and can influence your behaviour.”

    Which no more answers the question of whether Jerry’s prescriptions sit coherently with the denial of “real choice” than the previous example.

    Adding the claim that “Determinists like Jerry don’t deny we make choices – we DO make choices, physically” doesn’t answer the question either. Saying we “do” make choices doesn’t answer whether someone has coherently told us what choice we “ought” to make (prescription).

    So if you deny our having “real choice” there seems to be this problem in actually maintaining good, coherent arguments that prescriptions follow from this conclusion.

    But, then, if you want to get out of this and say “Well…we DO have real choices we can make…”

    Then this seems to come back and start denying the very premise you started with: that we don’t have “real choice.” So, now, which is it?

    I’ve yet to see someone solve these issues from a truly non-compatibilist viewpoint.


    1. “I’ve yet to see someone solve these issues from a truly non-compatibilist viewpoint.”

      If there is no actual difference between the positions of compatibilists and incompatibilists with respect to the FACTUAL CLAIMS (only with respect to the choice of words), how can those very same issues be solved any BETTER from a compatibilist viewpoint? Do we still believe in the magic power of words?

      1. I submit that the differences here are indeed only semantics, and that incompatibilists are de-facto compatibilists in their everyday life. The compatibilist description just seems clearer and more useable (even though the incompatibilist account is identical in terms of physics).

        Here’s a challenge for incompabilists, following from previous threads and from Jerry’s desire to use phrases such as “appearance of decision”.

        Take this compatibilist conversation and translate it into incompatibilist-speak:

        Dad: Would you like an ice cream, you can choose your flavour?
        Child: I want strawberry!
        Dad: OK, here you are.
        Child: (Licks ice cream) But I don’t like strawberry.
        Dad: Well you chose it!

        Here goes:

        Dad: Have your past experiences placed you in a situation such that an ice cream would be aesthetically pleasing? No doubt you will report to me which flavour would maximise your aesthetic pleasure.
        Child: I report the appearance of a decision in favour of strawberry.
        Dad: OK, here you are.
        Child: (Licks ice cream) But strawberry is not registering the aesthetic appreciation I had expected.
        Dad: Well it was your information about your appearance of a decision that led to you receiving strawberry.
        Child: But I had no choice! Waaaahhh!

        Anyone whose conversations resemble the former more than the latter is a de-facto compatibilist!

        1. coelsblog! I spent hours showing explaining that we all agreed exactly on what was going on physically, yet had different conclusions about free will. Then someone called me a pseudo-dualist and JAC used that as an example for another discussion!

          Some people seem to have tremendous difficulty in incorporating the idea that they all talk and act like we have choices and free-will even while they’re trying to ‘prove’ that we don’t!

          1. Mike,

            It is not the case that non-free willists talk as if anyone has free will. That would make non-free willism quite a farce. You would have to show JAC implying that you could have done other that that which you did in order for you to substantiate that he has acted as though he thinks you have free will. I feel quite confident that he does not expect you to be able to do other than that which you do.

        2. I beg to differ. In order to be a “de-facto compatibilist” (with respect to free will) I would have to think and act as if what *I* mean by the phrase “free will” (i.e. the contra-causal variett) was compatible with a purely naturalistic view of the world, not what *you* mean by the same phrase.

          1. You still have the meaning of “compatibilist” WRONG! If you held that contra-causal free will was compatibile with naturalism then you would NOT be a compatbilist!

            Compatibilism is a REJECTION of contra-causal free-will, followed by the adoption of a notion of “will/choice” that is compatible with determinism.

            (And I can only think that incompatibilists have been deterministically programmed with an inability to get this point, considering that it has been explained 200 times on these threads and there are STILL people who don’t get it!)

            1. Cole,

              Just what is the label compatibilist suppose to signify? What are the two elements that are claimed by compatibilists to be compatible?

              You say they are not claiming contra-causal free will to be true, so compatibilists therefore aren’t really saying free will is compatible with determinism. And if they agree then that libertarian free will is an illusion, they really must be non-free willists.

              But let us be clear about one thing, there either is freedom to the will or there isn’t: there is no way for there to be both.

              1. “What are the two elements that are claimed by compatibilists to be compatible?”

                “Free will” and determinism. Now, very obviously this is NOT “dualist, contra-causal free will”, it is a deterministic conception of will/choice.

                “they really must be non-free willists.”

                Yes. If you define “free will” as “dualist, contra-causal free will” then compatibilists are non-free willists.

                This has been stated 200 times on these threads! Why are we still having to explain it? Just stick the word “compatibilism” into a wikipedia search and read the first paragraph.

                “there either is freedom to the will or there isn’t: there is no way for there to be both.”

                OK, but whether the will is “free” or not depends ENTIRELY on how one defines “freedom”!

                You are wanting to reserve the word solely for something that does not exist (dualist, contra-causal free will); compatibilists want to use the word in a context that is 100% determined!

                And yes, we DO KNOW that that definition is DIFFERENT FROM the dualist, contra-causal definition. At least our use of the word relates to something that does exist!

              2. “Free will” and determinism. Now, very obviously this is NOT “dualist, contra-causal free will”, it is a deterministic conception of will/choice.

                If this is true then compatibilists aren’t even talking about the same thing that non-free willists are talking about when non-free willists say there is no such thing as free will. So.. why are the compatibilists adding their noise, which only serves as a distraction from this very important message: there is no freedom to the human will?

              3. At least our use of the word relates to something that does exist!

                It’s a sham to slam non-free willists for saying that free will doesn’t exist, with the charge that what we claim is non-existent does not exists… duh! That is our message: free will is an illusion.

                Hardly: “your” use of the world is that of free that is devoid of freedom. Unfree free is not something that exists.

                And this is why it doesn’t matter how many time you speak in these terms, it is going to be rejected.

              4. “If this is true then compatibilists aren’t even talking about the same thing that non-free willists are talking about when non-free willists say there is no such thing as free will.”

                Exactly! As has been explained 200 times on these threads! Why oh why is it so hard a concept? Compatibilists are indeed NOT talking about dualist, contra-causal free will!

                “So.. why are the compatibilists adding their noise, …”

                Because, once we accept that there is no “free will”, we then can do two things: (1) rigorously remove the words “freedom”, “choice”, “decision”, “will” etcetera from the language, or (2) interpret these words in a deterministic way. I submit that as a matter of practicality we humans do need words for (determined) “choice” and (determined) “decision” etc.

                We agree with you that “no dualistic free will” is an important message. But then we have to decide what to do next

              5. The first thing would be to not confuse the issue by saying anything close to “but human do have free will” or “but there is a free will that is compatible with determinism”.

                Face the fact that historically humanity has meant libertarian free will when it has talked about free will, and that therefore any attempts to redefine free will as something less than this erroneous belief, is only going to obfuscate the conversation.

              6. “That is our message: free will is an illusion.”

                That’s our message also. Dualist contra-causal free will is indeed an illusion.

                “Hardly: “your” use of the world is that of free that is devoid of freedom.”

                That’s ok, but I’d like someone to follow you around in your everyday life and record how many times you use the words: choice, decision, free, may, consider, plan, aim, attempt, etc. I bet you’d then see the point that we need a deterministic interpretation of them.

              7. “Face the fact that historically humanity has meant libertarian free will when it has talked about free will …”

                I’m personally happy to drop the term “free will” for exactly that reason (see my first post in this thread, posted under my “coelsblog” email).

                However, the compatibilist conception also has a long history, for example Schopenhauer’s (1839) “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills”, and similar stances before that by Hume and back to some Greeks.

                If we drop the specific term “free will” are you then happy to use the words “choice”, “will”, “decision” etc with a deterministic interpretation? That is really all that the compatibilists are asking for.

              8. I always have thought of Schopenhauer as simply pointing out the non-free willists reality in that quote. To paraphrase, you sometimes get to realize what your will would have be, but since you never get to will that will in to being in the first place, you don’t have the freedom you might think you have. I am not sure that statement alone identifies Schopenhauer as a compatibilist, only a free will (libertarian free will) denier.

              9. Well realise that “compatibilism” is also a brand on “non-(dualistic)-free-willism”, and differs from other non-free-willers only in what language we are willing to use (“choice”, “decision” etc, in a deterministic framework).

                And since I’m willing to bet that all non-free-willers do indeed use “choice” and “decision” in their everyday life, I’m still asserting that we’re all de-facto compatibilists! (And that 50% of these threads is largely pointless semantics, based around misunderstanding what compatibilism actualy is.)

            2. Exactly what in my last post (apart from the fact that my english sucks) to seems to suggest that I believe compatibilists accept contra-causal free will? I have gathered that you don’t, and that’s a very good thing.

              What I said was that contra-causal free will is what *I*, not you, mean by the phrase free will therefore, that’s the thing that would have to be compatible with a purely naturalistic world view for *me* to be a “de-facto compatibilist”.

              1. “What I said was that contra-causal free will is what *I*, not you, mean by the phrase free will therefore, that’s the thing that would have to be compatible with a purely naturalistic world view for *me* to be a “de-facto compatibilist”.”

                “Compatibilism” has an accepted meaning in this context (it means rejecting dualist, contra-causal free will and defining will/choice in a way compatibile with determinism).

                Now, unless you are using “compatibilist” in a private way, for you to be a “de facto compatibilist” requires you to be in accord with the ACCEPTED definition of “compatibilist”.

                If you made YOUR contra-causal definition of freewill compatible with naturalism then you WOULD NOT BE A COMPATIBILIST! That is because compatibilism is a rejection of contra-causal freewill! How many times does that need stating?

              2. Coel,

                It will need to be stated until this compatiblist word gaming is ended.

                There is no tree needing to be barked up by compatibilists as the non-free willist position has always explained that human will is compatible with determinism (and also indeterminism) that being the reason free will is only an illusion.

              3. “it means rejecting dualist, contra-causal free will and defining will/choice in a way compatibile with determinism […] for you to be a “de facto compatibilist” requires you to be in accord with the ACCEPTED definition of “compatibilist”.

                Ooops, sorry! I Was under the impression that we were talking about “de-facto compatibilism” with respect to “FREE will/FREE choice”, not just with respect to “will/choice”. How silly of me…

              4. “Ooops, sorry! I Was under the impression that we were talking about “de-facto compatibilism” with respect to “FREE will/FREE choice”, not just with respect to “will/choice”. How silly of me…”

                Yes, silly of you not to realise that the difference there depends entirely on how one defines “free”, which is a word that can take different meanings.

                For example, you’d presumably accept the usage of someone “being set free from jail” without interpreting that as a dualistic contra-causal “freedom”.

              5. “You do yourself a disservice with such a tactic.”

                I was just reflecting his own langauge. All along I’ve been trying to explain things and reach agreement. It seems to me that Bjarte is being argumentative and sarcastic.

                Sorry, I might also have been lacking in patience, it’s just that it’s somewhat frustrating that in each of these threads (a dozen of them now) compatibilists have to repeat the explanation of what compatibilism is about 20 or 30 times.

              6. “Yes, silly of you not to realise that the difference there depends entirely on how one defines “free”, which is a word that can take different meanings.”

                Oh, I WAS aware of that bit (as should be obvious from my long debate with Vaal over at, which is how I know that what *I* choose to mean by the phrase “free will” is NOT compatible with a naturalistic understanding of the universe (or even simple logic).

                I have said my last word in this particular debate. Feel “free” to come up with as many negatively loaded adjectives as you like in the mean time. (“philosophically unsophisticated” is my personal favorite).

              7. “Oh, I WAS aware of that bit … which is how I know that what *I* choose to mean by the phrase “free will” is NOT compatible with a naturalistic understanding of the universe”

                Why yes, we know that! Your error is in thinking that anyone else using the term “free” about will must also be using the same dualistic, contra-causal definition.

                If we think of phrases using the word “free”:

                A free press.
                Freedom of speech.
                Freedom from jail.
                Buy one get one free.
                She was free with her money.
                Free radical (chemistry)
                Free energy (physics)
                A free ride.
                Free of contamination.
                Free as the wind.

                Lots of uses of the word “free” do not imply violations of the laws of physics and are entirely compatible with determinism. That’s why some people (compatibilists) also see free (tee hee) to use the term “free” about (deterministic) human volition and will.

              8. Coel, et al; I’d like to note that “compatibilism” is not just about free-will but about how to view and interpret things that happen in the world. Compatibilism is very similar to common empiricism.

                Say I flip a coin 100 times in 15 minutes; the incompatibilist view would hold that as a single, flat 15-minute stream of activity — no two slices of time from those 15 minutes are the same event in spacetime. The compatibilist view allows you to single out specific events from those 15 minutes, call each one a “flip,” and find out how a coin behaves. It allows you discard the irrelevant parts of the activity, like when I scratched an itch on my head or said hello to my dog.

                Both views are suitably deterministic. When I say of a flipped coin, “It came up heads, but it could have come up tails,” this is not to say that in that particular instance it could have come up anything but heads — it’s to say that based on what I know about coins, when they are flipped, there are two ways they come up. It necessitates making analogies between some features of previous situations, calling each one “a coin flip” and discarding every other piece of information as noise.

            3. “I always have thought of Schopenhauer as simply pointing out the non-free willists reality in that quote.”

              I’ve not read the entire essay, but from the wiki page on it he does seem to reject dualistic free will and then go on to accept compatibilistic uses of “freedom”/”will”.

      2. Bjarte, (and anyone else interested)…

        I would say the difference is that the compatibilist isn’t stuck saying we have no “real” choices. The compatibilist says “IF you want to say that we would be required to have contra-causel free will to say we have a ‘real choice,’ THEN we agree, we wouldn’t have real choices. However, there is no necessary reason to construe the concept of “choice” that way, banishing it into non-existence. We can have a useful, workable conception of “choice” that acknowledges the reality of determinism/causation, and which still allows us to describe the real behaviors we normally describe with the word ‘choice.'”

        In other words, it begins with the acknowledgement that our conceptual tools and language need to be formed in response to reality, and hence be practical.

        An analogy I’ve used before: Take the concept of “knowledge.” My son displays the “knowledge” of how to solve the Rubik’s cube.
        He can solve it over and over, every time. I can’t solve it once. To say that my son has this knowledge is to usefully describe a very real difference between us, a difference in competency in solving the cube.

        Now, imagine we put really severe constraints on our use of the term “knowledge.” Students taking Philosophy 101, sometimes become drunk with the power of (radical) skepticism, challenging their friends “But how do you REALLY KNOW THAT?” and offering alternate possibilities that their friend’s can’t strictly disprove.

        So take the case of my son and the Rubik’s cube: How do I “know” my son has knowledge about solving the cube. Well, I’ve seen him do it many times. But wait: Can I DISPROVE the proposition that when my son is near a Rubik’s cube, his thoughts and actions come under the full control of aliens controlling him from another dimension, solving the cube through him. Hence my son doesn’t “really” know how to solve the cube?

        No. I can’t strictly disprove that proposition, or any other of countless similar explanations for my son’s competency.
        The super skeptic may want to say “Well, unless you can disprove all the other possibilities, it’s unwarranted for you to say your son has this thing you call “knowledge.” In other words: utter, absolute, incontrovertible, logical certainty is made the requirement for “knowledge.”

        Now, we can MAKE such criteria for knowledge…but given it would mean we pretty much NEVER would meet such a burden, it pretty much renders the concept of “knowledge” useless for all practical purposes. What good motivation would there be to go this route? I can’t think of any.

        Not only that: even IF we went with a concept of “knowledge” that would invalidate my claim that my son “knows” how solve the Rubik’s cube, we are STILL left with the same phenomenon to explain and describe: my son’s competence in solving the cube. So what would this wild version of “knowledge” have done for us and what words are we going to use to describe my son’s competence anyway?

        The rational approach is to have a working concept of “knowledge” in which the apparent realities of our epistemological situation are built in. No, we can never have such absolute proofs – but it’s reasonable and practical (and parsimonious) to use the term “knowledge” to describe the competency my son shows with Rubik’s cube, and any other similar instance of apparent predictive competency.

        I would say the same goes for our conception of “free will” and “choice” and in particular the question of “could we have done otherwise?” Yes, we agree on the facts insofar as the contra-causal free will doesn’t “exist” and makes no sense. That is GIVEN the concept of “I could have done otherwise” demands that we could have done otherwise in precisely the same physical moment/condition.

        BUT…like the radical skeptic’s demand for the concept of “knowledge,” the above demand placed on “could have done otherwise” is just incoherent and impractical in the first place. Why bother with it if it renders itself into uselessness? Instead, like “knowledge” we should notice that we can understand the question “could I have done otherwise?” in the context of reality, of determinism, and in THAT context we can make use of the concept.

        How so? In the same way we make use of that very concept to describe the nature of everything else that really exists!
        When we say of anything that “it could have happened otherwise” it is to mean “it could have happened otherwise” given some alteration in the conditions, some “shaking” of the conditions as it were.

        If water boils into vapor because a flame was turned on beneath the pot, does that mean that it makes no sense to point out that same water “could” have remained liquid or “could” have frozen? If we are going to say “No, since it boiled it was never going to do anything else, hence it’s illegitimate to say the water “could” have ended in any other state!” Do we say it’s only legitimate to say the water “could” have frozen if it WOULD have frozen under precisely the same physical state?

        Not only would that render every statement about the nature of water impossible, it would disallow us from describing something REAL about the nature of water (that it CAN stay in a liquid state, or alternately CAN boil into vapor, or freeze…)

        Similarly, if I miss a golf put and declare “Damn, I could have made that put”
        it would be just as paralyzing to demand that I mean “If every physical state in the universe were the same, I could have made that put.” Obviously I COULDN’T have made the putt, given that criteria. But what I mean is “could have made the putt in roughly similar situations – HAD the situation been roughly similar but not identical.” And what am I drawing upon to make such a statement? Why…my empirical experience of past events, being in roughly similar situations in the past where I’d often made the putt. In other words, my claim draws reflects REAL empirical phenomena (my successful putts in the past) to make a statement about my potential (could have made the putt). Just as we make the same claims about the REAL potential of water, or any other physical entity.

        Same goes for my saying I “could have chosen otherwise” when choosing a burger over a hot-dog on the menu. I don’t mean “given precisely the same state of the universe.” I mean I have this competency that can be expressed in roughly similar situations, and it is based on past empirical experience of being in similar situations.

        So compatibilism says it makes more sense to have our concepts and language formed with reality in mind, and not ask those concepts to “do things they can not really do.” Hence, we don’t make impractical demands on being able to express that we “could have done otherwise.” But we nonetheless use the concepts to relate to real life phenomena (I have made a different choice in roughly the same circumstance before, from which I infer I have this particular power or competency, that will help explain my actions in the future as well).

        That’s my best shot, I think, at trying to give my take on this.



        1. “..anyone else interested”.. Yes. Thanks. I liked that. “I could have done that” is nonsense when couched in terms of “if the universe was exactly the same in every respect, except ‘I’ acted differently…” precisely because it separates “I” from the rest of the universe. That’s what bothers me about both compatiblism and incompatiblism. Is “free will” compatible or not with a deterministic universe? Dennett may have convinced me that it is.. but so what, if the universe is not deterministic (and I do believe that it is not)? The “I” that concerns me is a physical “I”, and is PART of the physical universe.

        2. Yes, thanks Vaal. Not only that, but three seconds later is plenty of difference in the initial ‘state of the universe’ that would facilitate you making the putt.

          In fact, the whole scenario of someone not being able to make up their mind and just ‘pick something for god’s sake’ is expressive of the reality of ‘could have done otherwise.’

        3. “However, there is no necessary reason to construe the concept of “choice” that way, banishing it into non-existence. We can have a useful, workable conception of “choice” that acknowledges the reality of determinism/causation, and which still allows us to describe the real behaviors we normally describe with the word ‘choice.’”

          I do accept the concept of “choice” (for this I was recently accused of being incoherent, to which my response was only if you make counter-causal free will part of the definition of choice). I think Jerry is a bit of an outlier in this respect, which is fine as long as he makes it perfectly clear how HE uses the words.

          Since it is now clear that compatibilists have nothing to say about the real world (only about the meanings of words) that is different from what “incompatibilists” say, I have nothing more to add except to say that anyone who thinks there are important real world implications to the compatibilist position believes in word magic.

        4. Vaal,

          I have a slight problem with the burger-hot dog menu choice and it has to do with phenomenology, especially the transparency or opacity of brain processes (and the historical/genetic determinations of those particular brain process) to the conscious self.

          As you go to “choose” what you feel is this “I” that is forced to choose, in a Sartrean-like fashion, and that cannot begin to ascertain the underlying brain structures that are influencing the choice and creating the conscious experience. This Sartrean-like absolute freedom is what the conscious “I” experiences every time it makes these innocuous choices; it feels there is a sense in which it is wholly “up” to that conscious I but cannot ascertain the underlying brain, psychological, and historical structures that are going to actually determine the choice. I feel like the phrase “I could have chosen otherwise” is probably hooking up, for most people, with that problematic of phenomenology.

          Perhaps with the expansion of accepting the link between brain/mind/consciousness we can see through this absolute type of freedom of choice, but I feel like most people are just coming to grips that as their thoughts are wandering/wondering so is their brain structure. I think it takes even more to overcome that phenomenological sense that the “I” wil absolutely determine my self’s next move. And it is the I if by I we include all of the other brain structures.

    1. This is interesting, Beth. How often do you think you employ randomness as a break from determinism?

    2. I have been meaning to watch again “No Country for Old Men”; I will have to keep this idea in mind, it may help me to understand.. (Or it may just increase the heebie-jeebies that movie gave me the first time.)

  30. The problem doesn’t lie in how scientists and philosophers can ruminate about free will, the problem lies in the belief that language is being capable to figure what is out there.

    “We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there. To say that the world is out there, that is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states. To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations.”
    -Richard Rorty

    We could learn a lot of things about our self and the world out there if we knew how to bypass language, and all this empirically. But that could only be done individually by our selves. That is what buddhism, zen and all non-dual teaching are proposing btw…

    (Don’t worry, I won’t repeat this eternally. But when it comes to concepts like determinism vs randomness, or free will vs no free will, it can be useful to realize that we fall in a big wide open semantic trap that only exists in our intellect…)

    1. Yes! We have to reinterpret our thoughts into verbal language which artificially approximates the actual ideation taking place.
      Think of Einstein describing how he thought in terms of symbols and shapes. Is that an attempt to express a direct experience of thought?

      I said it before: There are two realities, the subjective and the objective, and never the twain shall meet. They are different, and can only be described ‘in terms of.’

      1. I do agree that “we have to reinterpret our thoughts into verbal language which artificially approximates the actual ideation taking place”, especially in the everyday life.

        But it is also very useful to know about the dualistic boundaries of language, to realize that language is a dual mode of communication that works by oppositions, a mode that isn’t absolute in itself.

        You believe there are only 2 realities, objective OR subjective. Is this real because this is how we are programmed to think (since Eve was intoxicated by the fruit of knowledge of what is Good and Evil (a revealing myth about dualism)) or it is real in itself?

        Even if I tell you that there is a superjective reality where things can be seen neither objectively or subjectively, you couldn’t be able to imagine what it would be like because no words could carry the paradox I’m talking about. But it doesn’t mean the paradox can’t be experienced, in a non-dual state where the subject-object relation has disappeared.

        And that is why you’d need to be egoless to have this perspective. And this is why language fails to describe “who” is there when that “you” becomes egoless.

        1. I also might not be able to imagine what it would be like because it is not real.

          And I said there are two realities, or viewpoints, not one or the other. Our self IS separate from ‘other’ stuff.

          Meditating, zen Buddhism, blah blah, is an altered state of perception, not ‘the real’ state of being. I’ve done it lot’s of times – by taking acid!

          Contending that some state of being that we can’t understand or explain that pertains to reality is worse than pointless. We are back to discussing the fairies that live in the garden.

          1. It has nothing to do with fairies in the garden.

            I am sorry. I didn’t know you detained an absolute perspective on the matter and that proved non-dualism perception to not exist.

  31. The two main criticisms of Libet’s data–that the time interval between act and the precursor unconscious brain activity prior to act was too small to definitively rule out measurement errors, and that Libet’s team had not shown that the early brain activity was a predictor of a specific decision–were resolved by Soon’s fMRI study–which showed that some conscious decisions can be predicted up to 10 seconds before they enter awareness. Soon and Libet’s data demolish the conventional concept of free will.

    The infancy and preeminence of neuroscience and other sciences of the mind on queries of human happenings cannot be repudiated. “Human experience shows every sign of being determined by, and realized in, states of the human brain.” So, as the science advances we will, indubitably, procure a superior cognizance of our condition. (I surmise, as does Jerry, we all concur on this aspect of the discussion.) However, until then, the dispute is semantics, but this doesn’t generate an inconsequential confabulation because the semantics of the free will debate is of real-world importance.

  32. As an interested spectator in the advances of cognitive neuroscience, I sense one of the problems is accuracy of language. It seems that terminology becomes less precise as we move up the science ladder which I see as moving from base to top rung from physics to chemistry to biology to psychology (including cognitive neuroscience) to sociology. [Is this close? Where have I erred?]

    As for free will being truly ‘free’; i.e., unconditional, I doubt that possibility since our brain is finite, albeit beyond present comprehension, with each one being of only a general biologically similar form and probably beyond even slight person to person correlation at the network level.

    The great challenge for neuroscience seems to be the seemingly impossible task of quantifying consciousness at the neuronal sub-network level.

    For me, cognitive neuroscience research is the new frontier. I am eager to follow the progress. As for the existence of free will, I don’t know what is meant by the term, but I know there’s something that gives me the sense that I am responsible for my behavior and accountable for my actions. Whatever that is is a human essential and postings like this with the cooperative postings forthcoming is helpful toward that end.

  33. The issue is that the term “free will” was defined — invented, actually — by the religious as a dodge.

    It’s the ultimate theist response to why there’s evil in the world, why god lets bad things happen to good people, etc.

    The religious concept of free will is crap. It’s nothing more than an excuse for the impotence of the deity du jour.

    But the deterministic viewpoint that we are predestined from the instant of the Big Bang to be doing exactly what it is that we’re doing each and every second of our lives is also crap.

    That’s just the way it is. There is a certain amount of uncertainty built into the system. All systems. Especially biological systems. Otherwise, you’re trying to tell me that I had no choice but to have the turkey chili for supper — and that choice was made for me before my parents parents parents parents were born. Before, even, there were homo sapiens on the planet.

    Sorry. I’m not buying it.

    I’ve seen all the research into neurology and neuropsychology. I understand that our conscious mind may not (not always) record a decision until after it’s been made by the mind. But that doesn’t mean that the mind was predestined to make that decision — or that the conscious mind can’t change the subconsciously made decision. We are not automatons. Nor are we nematodes, merely moving toward or away pleasant or unpleasant stimuli.

    Free will (of the philosophical sort) is not dualism. There’s no ghost in the machine. How many times must this be said? Honestly, it’s quite insulting to be told that if you believe in the philosophical concept of free will, that means you’re a substance dualist. No. Wrong answer. Stop building strawmen.

    YOU are making those decisions and YOU are unmaking them. It’s just that your brain is more wonderful than you think it is and it works whether or not you’re aware of it working. Or whether or not you “will” it to work. The constraints of physics, biology, culture, time, location and all the rest come into play; but ultimately, you are the “decider” for a large portion of your destiny.

    Seriously, how many times do we have to cover the same ground?

    1. Bravo!

      (I would only add that there is probably a lot more of the roots of “consciousness” and “free will” in a nematode than most people would recognize.)

    2. Kevin,

      Non-free willism is not easy to fully grasp. It is right here within you own post, a striving to have your cake and eat it too.

      There is no ultimate you the decision maker, nobody can transcend their personal matrix of causal determinants, no matter how badly they want to.

      1. “There is no ultimate you the decision maker, nobody can transcend their personal matrix of causal determinants, no matter how badly they want to.”

        I certainly wouldn’t want to.

        My personal matrix of causal determinants IS “me.”


      2. “nobody can transcend their personal matrix of causal determinants”

        Buddhism and zen (and other schools) are precisely teaching how to transcend the personal matrix of causal determinants…

        1. JF,

          They can teach what ever they want, but that doesn’t mean they actually accomplish it. Mediums claim to channel the spirits of the dead, that doesn’t mean they do it.

          1. “They can teach what ever they want, but that doesn’t mean they actually accomplish it.”

            You have a traditions that work exactly on transcending the personal matrix of causal determinants, that developed technics to do so and avoid all the traps you will meet on this path, which can take you years of hard labor.
            In the end, when some finally succeed, you prefer to believe that it is not true.

            Because it can’t be measured?

  34. It’s obvious from the comments that neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists are exceedingly rare around here.

    If free will belongs to science why are we only hearing from the old guard?

  35. The concept of free will seems most useful to me for thinking about the subjective experience of doing other than you wanted to. This might have been “a failure of will” about losing weight or not drinking alcohol or reading a blog when you should have been doing work. So one is disappointed about one’s own actions, and believes there was a possibility that you could have acted differently. Furthermore, you might resolve to act differently if that situation recurs. If you subsequently and repeatedly act differently in that same situation, we label this as an act of will, one freely made.

    1. But David, what you lay out here is pure fiction, a fantasy out of touch with reality. It is the illusion of free will that lies at the heart of human misery.

  36. Professor Coyne,

    I’ll take the implied invitation to defend the philosophers’ turf on free will. If my comment gets any responses, I’ll try to limit myself to only a few replies per day.


    I’ll start with two lemmas. I’m prepared to defend both of them, of course, but I recognize that that might take us far afield.

    Empiricism of Science (ES): Science without philosophy can only ever give us empirical knowledge.

    Descriptiveness of Empirical Knowledge (DEK): Empirical knowledge can only ever be of descriptive truths, not of normative or prescriptive or evaluative truths.

    Actuality of Empirical Knowledge (AEK): Empirical knowledge can only ever be about actualities, not about mere possibilities.


    Now for some terminology:

    Necessitarianism: Whenever S chooses x at t, it was physically impossible for S not to choose x at t. (I’m using this term since some people quibble about whether ‘determinism’ means the same thing.)

    Probabilism: Prior states can make it more likely that S will choose x, but do not necessitate that S will choose x.

    Now I think these are the most interesting questions about or relevant to free will:

    (Q1) What are the neurobiological correlates of decisions?

    (Q2) What do ordinary people mean when they say ‘free will’?

    (Q3) What do philosophers mean when they say ‘free will’?

    (Q4) Given necessitarianism, should we hold people responsible for their actions, legally or morally?

    (Q5) Is necessitarianism about decisions true, or just probabilism, or something else?

    (Q6) Is the physical world causally closed?

    (Q7) Is dualism or physicalism true?


    Now given (ES), (DEK), and (AEK), we can see that science can answer (Q1) and (Q2), and philosophy can answer (Q3)-(Q7). (Q3) obviously requires surveying philosophers; (Q4) requires normative knowledge, which (ES) and (DEK) prevent science from delivering, and (Q5)-(Q7) require a priori knowledge (such as of mere possibilities), which (ES) prevents science from delivering.

    Are (Q1) and (Q2) interesting? Not really, to me. (Q1) is only relevant to the free will debate if (Q6) and (Q7) have answers. After all, merely finding physical correlates with decisions does not tell us whether those decisions are free or even indeterministic, and does not tell us whether they were caused by anything other than those physical events in the brain. And as many people have emphasized, merely finding that people are aware of their decisions after the decisions have been made tells us nothing at all about whether those decisions are free. I haven’t yet seen a successful response to either of these points from anyone.

    And (Q2) is a bit of demographic lexicography, little more. (Q3) is more interesting because philosophers use the term ‘free will’ in other arguments that have other relevance beyond this debate.

    So that’s why I think that science without philosophy cannot answer the interesting questions about free will.


    I do think science can help us detect what the physical causes of various decisions are, where in the brain they occur, and what influences them. That’s perfectly relevant for understanding and controlling people’s behavior, of course. But these sorts of questions bear very little resemblance to the traditional questions about free will that philosophers pursue.

    Therefore, again, maybe you’re correct that “we” should stop thinking or talking about ‘free will,’ if “we” means ‘scientists.’ Thanks for the opportunity to post some responses.

    1. Sorry, but it looks as if you have your own website, and I’d prefer that you reply there (with a link here) than you post several of these very long posts per day.

      I am trying to get readers to write comments, not essays.


      1. Certainly, I’d be happy to. I actually thought you’d be against people “advertising” their own Web sites in the comments here.

  37. I really think the way forward is for you to do an official review of, for example, Dennett’s Freedom Evolves. You make many worthy points, but I think you are missing the actual cogent case for compatibilism that you claim to attack. Make the target more concrete and more distinct. Take the best-stated and most well-argued comprehensive case you can find and try to poke some holes into that—without taking any points as already settled, like for example your definition of “could have done differently”.

    That is something I would love to read here, because it might actually get all of us out of the intellectual trenches we seem to have dug ourselves into.

  38. Jerry Coyne says that most of his readers are determinists, since they accept that–save for some quantum blips–“our decisions are controlled entirely by the laws of physics.”

    But how can a decision be controlled by the laws of physics when no such law refers to a decision? The laws of physics control things like protons, masses, and gravitational forces, not brains, persons, or societies–unless you can reduce the higher-level laws to the lower-level ones.

    Compatibilists assume that psychological and social laws aren’t so reducible, which is what they say makes room for freedom as an emergent property. It does the determinist no good at all to reply that brains, people, and societies are all physical objects and so are controlled by physical laws. This is because the names referring to those objects may be only extensionally rather than intensionally equivalent, which is to say that a brain, for example, may be physically identically with some set of molecules and physical processes, but that the two sets may be explainable in at least two independent ways, depending on which level of processes you’re interested in at the time. Again, to get intensional equivalence, you need an explanatory reduction of one theory to another.

    For example, you need to show that the psychological categories used in explaining a person’s process of coming to a decision, as such, are really just physical categories, so that “decision” becomes a notational variant of some expression, say, in General Relativity. Good luck with that.

    Short of that reduction, what the compatibilist says is that physical determinism applies to physical objects and processes as such, and that freedom applies to persons as higher-level psychological and social beings. Do free persons break the laws of physics? Asking that question is like asking whether the characters in Moby Dick violate the rules that govern the world of Shelly’s Frankenstein. When you have different universes of discourse, you shouldn’t equivocate by leaping arbitrarily from one to the next–again, unless you have a way of explanatorily reducing the one to the other.

    1. Compatibilists assume that psychological and social laws aren’t so reducible, which is what they say makes room for freedom as an emergent property.

      Oh yeah? Well that would be news to some of the compatibilists posting here of late. It’s posts like this, that end up causing compatibilists to have to post once again just what the compatibilist position is. (Much to their consternation.)

      1. Granted, I over-generalized. I was thinking specifically about Dennett-style compatibilism. (See section 5.2 of the Stanford Encyclopedia article on compatibilism.)

        Still, I suspect that any form of compatibilism implies that psychology isn’t reducible to physics or that the psychological properties that are relevant to freewill are emergent forms of complexity. Whether all compatibilists would be aware of the implication is neither here nor there.

        Anyway, my main point is that physical laws don’t control nonphysical properties, neither directly nor indirectly unless psychology is reducible to physics via information theory, neurology, chemistry, or whatever.

        1. And my point is that there are some compatibilist that do assert free willism. (Libertarian Free Willism.)(Also not to be forgotten, there are free willists who also assert free willism.)

          1. “And my point is that there are some compatibilist that do assert free willism. (Libertarian Free Willism.)”

            That’s a simple contradiction in terms.

              1. Asserting both “compatibilism” and “libertarian free willism” (presuming by that you mean dualistic, contra-causal free will) is a contradiction in terms.

          2. I’ve not seen a single compatibilist here assert the slightest inclination to libertarian free-will.
            We all maintain that ‘free’ means voluntary and volitional, not unconstrained.

            Myself, I am pretty close to Dennet as described in section 5.2, except that I maintain our consciousness ultimately has a purely physical explanation that is, at least, theoretically describable, whereas Dennet does not.
            I, more or less, see our thoughts as self causative and influential…

            Also, I find Harry Frankfurt’s hierarchical mesh theory very interesting. I wonder if he was a heroin addict like me, for he sure describes the second order will exquisitely.

            And, Steve, there is but a microscopic difference between where I stand, and pure, inanimate determinism, believe me. Most of my life I have believed we don’t have free will.

    2. The laws of physics don’t stop at gravity and electron orbitals. The laws apply to large objects like brains and suspensions bridges. The rest of your comment is kind of silly. The laws of physics at play in the brain are those dealing with chemistry. What does this have to do with general relativity? GR deals with gravitation. SR deals with inertial reference frames and comes out of Maxwell’s Equations for electromagnetism. None of this has to be invoked at the cellular/neuronal level. That’s like saying you can’t investigate a strand of DNA without taking into account the wave functions of the pipets under the influence of a gravitation at relativistic velocities. You don’t have to perform renormalizations or Lorentz Transformations. You don’t have to work with Lie Algebras, Minkowski spaces, hyperbolic space time geometries, or quantum field theories to understand how the brain works.

      1. The laws of physics do apply to brains and bridges, but not as such, which is to say that the laws don’t refer to any such things. To learn how a brain or a bridge works, as such, you look into neurology or architecture, not physics. Physics applies to a brain or a bridge only in so far as those objects are construed as masses in acceleration, quantum probabilities, etc. Likewise, to understand human decisions, as such, you study psychology not physics, because “decision” isn’t a physical category, meaning that “human decision” isn’t a notational variant of some Newtonian or other physical term.

        Why is this important? Because Jerry errs when he says that the laws of physics control our decisions. The laws of physics don’t refer to human decisions and, strictly speaking, they control only what the laws talk about such as masses, velocities, and so on. The laws are universal only in the extensional sense that a person is identical with some set of physical entities, but that identity is hardly informative without a theory of how one level of explanation reduces to another. Without an intension-sensitive reduction of psychology to physics, Jerry’s statement that the laws of physics control our decisions is vacuous or at best his statement amounts to a promissory note.

        Regarding General Relativity, you missed the key word, which was “say.” I used GR simply as an example of a theory with physical laws. So put aside GR. Do you have a theory on hand that reduces the psychological category “human decision” to a category in the physical theory dealing with chemistry?

        1. John,

          Just to clarify, are you saying that libertarian free will is not an illusion, i.e., free will exists?

          1. My criticism of Coyne’s defense of determinism doesn’t really presuppose a defense of libertarian freedom. But I think we’re freer than Coyne thinks we are. When the determinist says that freewill is an illusion, he or she’s likely using “illusion” as a weasel word, since in the same sense that the appearance of freewill is illusory (i.e. an effect of perspective, or phenomenal in Kant’s sense, filled with what Locke called “secondary properties”), most everything in the universe is illusory except perhaps for the fundamental physical relations.

            Now, if libertarian freewill is the ability to do otherwise, in the sense that if the “tape” of everything in the universe were replayed exactly as before, a person would be able to make a different choice so that the person would be effectively outside the universe of natural cause and effect, no I don’t think we have that supernatural freewill. That kind of freewill would be miraculous and so just as useless as the notion that God somehow acts in nature even though God isn’t a natural being.

            No, as Massimo Pigliucci has said in one of his responses to Coyne, we find room for natural freewill by looking at the different levels of causality, at how levels of complexity emerge with their own regularities and appropriate explanations. This is pretty much Dennett’s view as well. Determinism is really a Newtonian notion that doesn’t apply to biology, psychology, or to the social sciences, because what Dennett calls the “patterns” we see at those levels cry out for nonphysical forms of explanation, appealing to nonphysical but still natural categories like “decision.” As Jerry Fodor has pointed out, the “laws” of biology aren’t much like physical laws. For example, biological laws are loaded with ceteris paribus clauses and biological processes are much more dependent on time. And so biology isn’t airtight like physics (although quantum physics isn’t as airtight as higher levels of physics).

            Granted, indeterminism in the sense of randomness isn’t useful to a notion of freewill, but not all kinds of imprecision amount to randomness. Folk psychological explanations aren’t as precise as Newtonian explanations, but that hardly means a statement like “Fred decided on his own to drink a beer rather than a glass of water” posits nothing but chaos. The higher levels of order are less ordered than physical regularities, but they nevertheless include patterns susceptible to their own levels of understanding. We understand psychological patterns by positing selves, moral agents, and relatively autonomous persons, and we say they have self-control in a way that something like a rock or a proton lacks.

            The inexactness of psychological and social explanations means that even if the underlying physical processes were repeated, the higher levels dealing with minds and societies would still be ambiguous and thus subject to alternative explanations. Did Fred really choose the beer or did he act on his greater preference for water by preserving that glass? Like all the ambiguous patterns that allow for only inexact explanations, freewill is largely subjective and epistemic rather than metaphysical; i.e. freewill is “illusory” according to the determinist’s weasel word. But by demanding a strictly metaphysical answer, the determinist begs the question of whether all regularities or patterns are as transparent as strictly physical ones. Once we appreciate that a physicist’s standards of explanation aren’t suitable throughout the sciences, freewill looks less dubious.

            1. John,

              If there isn’t really freedom to the human will, but it feels like there is freedom to the human will to some people, then I have to say that those people are experiencing an illusion. I do this without any inclination to weasel. (I looked it up 3: : a sneaky, untrustworthy, or insincere person).

              You don’t believe in a supernatural freewill, so you get points for that, but there is no coherence to something along the lines of natural freedom of will, so you are no better off than someone who believes in freewill via magic.

              Freewill couldn’t look any more dubious if it tried.

              PS Would you accuse a heliocentric proponent of using illusion as a weasel word to describe the illusion of the sun going round the earth?

              PPS You don’t have to be a determinist to be a non-free willist.

              1. The feeling that “‘I’ have ‘free will'” in the sense John Hue is describing is an illusion to almost exactly the same extent the feeling that “‘I’ ‘see’ a ‘dog'” is an illusion.

                If you insist on a “flat” level analysis of free will, you will also need to do so for other parts of perception. There’s no “real” pain – pain is “merely” an illusion. So is “the sensation of blue” or “the sound of mom’s voice,” and even “advantageous mutation” — all “mere illusions.”

                Except that’s not how we usually the word “illusion,” and why it’s a weasel word. In this case “illusion” is more a metaphor for the idea that matter can do stuff on its own, even up to the point of emergent qualia, and still be “mere” matter.

                And it’s why the incompatibilist view of this seems to me to be unnecessarily dualist and essentialist. It’s like saying “those ‘tendons’ in your arm aren’t real tendons – they’re just an illusion because they’re made of atoms,” as though a “real tendon” would have to be made of “tendon essence” all the way down.

                Maybe instead of the phrase “free will” we should just discuss things in terms of “capabilities.” What do we have that makes our complex organization of matter different than a slug’s? I agree with others here that even to ask the question is to already presuppose the framework favored by compatibilists.

              2. No, Matt, I don’t agree with your analysis here.

                The feeling that “‘I’ have ‘free will'” in the sense John Hue is describing is an illusion to almost exactly the same extent the feeling that “‘I’ ‘see’ a ‘dog'” is an illusion.

                No it is not. It is more in line with the I see the sun setting illusion.

                If you insist on a “flat” level analysis of free will, you will also need to do so for other parts of perception.

                OK… but we have to guard against conflating different types of perception. BTW, I never said anything about “flat” level analysis, that must have been someone else.

                There’s no “real” pain – pain is “merely” an illusion.

                This is your assertion. Just what would you call “real” pain?

                So is “the sensation of blue” or “the sound of mom’s voice,” and even “advantageous mutation” — all “mere illusions.”

                I am not ready to concede any of these assertions of yours. You are piling up straw here. What is at hand with the issue of freedom of will, is not analogous to your wanting to think of and label the experience of color or sounds as illusions.

                Except that’s not how we usually the word “illusion,” and why it’s a weasel word.

                No, that is how you would use the word illusion. You are conflating very different thing to all be illusions, if you are doing this deliberately, then you are the weasel. I don’t know of any non-free willist that has likened the illusion of free will to be like any of these other things that you have identified as illusions.

                In this case “illusion” is more a metaphor for the idea that matter can do stuff on its own, even up to the point of emergent qualia, and still be “mere” matter. And it’s why the incompatibilist view of this seems to me to be unnecessarily dualist and essentialist.

                If by incompatibilist you mean free willist, I of course agree they are not only being unnecessarily dualist and essentialist, but they being fundimentally dualist and essentialist.

                It’s like saying “those ‘tendons’ in your arm aren’t real tendons – they’re just an illusion because they’re made of atoms,” as though a “real tendon” would have to be made of “tendon essence” all the way down.


                Maybe instead of the phrase “free will” we should just discuss things in terms of “capabilities.”

                Well it is not up to me to say: as long as people assert that humans have freedom of will, it will need to be said that we don’t.
                Non-free willism is a response to the positive claims of the existence of free will.

                I agree with others here that even to ask the question is to already presuppose the framework favored by compatibilists.

                OK… not sure what to make of this declaration, but nice to know. I am not sure I have identified a favored framework for compatibilism… (hard to do, given that there seems to be a few different stripes of compatibilism).

              3. OK Steve, I’ll accept your critique. Let’s try it another way. Here’s the problem as far as I see it:

                Compatibilist: “Hi Joe, I decided to buy the red car and not the blue one.”

                Incompatibilist: “But, of course it wasn’t a *real* decision because the behavior of the atoms in your brain are causally determined. Decision is just an illusion.”


                Once you say “that wasn’t a real decision” of someone who picked salmon instead of tuna, what else is there to say about his behavior? Without calling it “a decision” how do you distinguish it from singing or sleeping? You’d have to get rid of language like “he selected it from a list.”

                What does “the appearance of having made a decision” even mean? What would a *real* decision look like? Compatibilists just want to use the word “decision” to mean the plain old “pick a card, any card” or “I’ll try the cabernet” kinds of decisions we make all the time — fully determined if the universe is deterministic — but still “decisions” for lack of any other language to describe it. There’s no need to cling to the extra metaphysical “real decision” to contrast with what it is we actually do.

                Saying “there were other options my brain was not caused to choose” is meaningful, not illusory, and it actually says more about the situation than to get rid of all “option” language completely. I’d argue the whole empiricist project depends implicitly on looking at things this way, but if I’m wrong about that, I’m wrong.

              4. Only if by incompatibilist you refer to those that DO NOT believe in free will.
                There are incompatibilist who DO believe in free will and they would not say the things your incompatibilist says… really it is not the case of being an incompatibilist that is the heart of the issue.

                Your use of terms is unnecessarily cumbersome.

                You wouldn’t object to calling non-free willists, non-free willists, would you? And we can call the other position free willists.

              5. Following up on Another Matt’s response, I’ll just repeat that the sense in which what’s often called an illusion is actually real is given by the philosophers Locke, Kant, and Dennett (not to mention centuries of Eastern philosophy). The notion of a weasel word has nothing to do with a personal attack. The allusion is to a weasel’s practice of draining an egg without much cracking the shell, leaving a hollow egg. A weasel word is thus a hollow use of a use or a stretching of the word’s use so that it loses all meaning. If you call the appearance of making a self-controlled decision an illusion, you have to stretch the meaning of “illusion” so that it becomes useless, because a great many perspective-dependent phenomena thereby become illusions.

                Regarding your question of whether the sun’s appearance of going around the Earth is an illusion in the same sense as the appearance of making a decision, we’d need to distinguish between the earth-bound appearance of the sun’s movement, and the empirical, objective, third-personal explanation. The sun really does appear to us on Earth to go around our planet, but astronomers aren’t interested in that subjective, phenomenological fact; they want to get at the objective fact of the relationship between the sun and our planet.

                Now you might say the same holds true in the case of human decisions: on the one hand, there’s the subjectively felt freedom of making a decision, which is illusory, and on the other there’s the objective fact of the brain’s causal connection to the rest of nature, which makes the choice deterministic. But note the disanalogy: in the case of a decision, psychologists are actually interested in the subjective appearance, because the topic of inquiry is a mind, which is the very subject in question. So whereas the astronomer doesn’t illegitimately change the topic, by going from the subjective appearance of the sun to the physical relationship between the sun and the Earth, there would be something underhanded about taking a neurological explanation to supplant a psychological one that takes into account the feeling of what it’s like to make a decision. This assumes, of course, that we don’t happen to have a theory that reduces psychology to neurology. Were anyone to understand, for example, how consciousness itself is a neurological or physical property, we really could just replace the phenomenological talk with talk of the brain.

                The upshot is that the geocentric theorist’s error wasn’t so much that he fell prey to an illusion as opposed to a reality, but that he became fixated on the reality of the sun’s apparent motion, to the detriment of empirical astronomy, which should be focused on another reality entirely, namely that of the physical, mind-independent relation in question.

              6. John,

                I don’t think calling CCFW an illusion will result in illusion becoming a hollow word.

  39. I’m not entirely convinced that philosophy has ever clarified language or thought on anything beyond dismantling philosophical and theological positions.

  40. Where do we go from here? The same place we always go… to what’s next. For me, the idea of free (total, unconditional) will is a non issue. That concept suggests infinite possibilities from a finite neuronal network with it’s 10,000,000,000 or so neurons each with their 1,000 or so connections to others meaning only some 0.000001% of all possible links exist, hence, the idea of free will is moot.

    The question is, what are we debating and what do we call it. My preference is to call it self will if the idea of a self is acceptable.

    The more I read and think about this, knowing I am poorly equipped scientifically, but open to new information, the more I wonder how the idea of emergence is not being mentioned.

    Since knowing the periodic table doesn’t predict the consequent chemistry which does not predict the consequent biology which does not predict the consequent psychology which does not predict the consequent sociology… how does determinism support or deny self will which seems to be an emergence?

    I really want to know.

      1. Where? In whose post? I’m old and have strong corrective lenses and used my ‘find’ function and I find ’emergence’ three times: twice in my post and once in your reply.

        The question remains: Is emergence an issue in this discussion of determinism and will?

      2. Sorry for the miss. This is a new area for me and my search for it missed the reference. I’m off to study the subject(s) noted at SEP and elsewhere. Thanks for noting my oversight.

  41. It’s a mistake to think that compatibilism is offering some completely different notion of “free will” and “could have done otherwise” than is often conceived by people. In one sense, yes there is the ex extremely important distinction we have emphasized – it’s not a contra-causal account of free will. But in another at least as important sense, compatibilism shows that normal, everyday usage of the notion of “free will” in the sense of “could have done otherwise” is not mistaken and needs overturning – it’s actually warranted.

    Another Matt gave the example of how we comment about the nature of coins being able to land either on heads or tails, extrapolated from past empirical experience, and that this is essentially what compatibilists are saying of “free will” and the human capacity to “do otherwise.”

    Which is exactly the point I keep making: that far from trying to smuggle in, or justify some “woo,” compatibilism takes a hard look at what really exists, looks at how we can, and do talk cogently about what exists, and keeps that empirical consistency when talking about human choices. It’s the furthest thing from “woo” possible: it’s being a more consistent empiricist! That is, not making some sudden, special exception in our language for human beings – saying it’s a mistake to suddenly change the notion of “could have done otherwise” to some incoherent, supernatural-type criteria only for human beings.

    Yet this is what even incompatibilists want to cling to as being “free will” (which they then go on to reject).

    Another mistaken critique made over and over of compatibilism here is that it is sneakily “re-defining” free will. But that is only possible if there was actually was one universally accepted version of free will.
    And that simply isn’t the case. It’s like someone living in modern times proclaiming that “Vitalism is the standard conception of life, and you scientists who deny vitalism are just re-defining life.” Actually…no…the scientist points out that
    the vitalist notion of “life” is not the only conception of life…there exist OTHER conceptions of life (a more monistic/materialistic conception of life).

    The scientists is not sneakily “re-defining” life, he is pointing out it’s simply wrong for the vitalist to think his concept of “life” is accepted as THE definition from which all else is a deviation.

    That’s what the compatibilists keekp pointing out to incompatibilists. We know which version YOU cling to as being “free will,” and we aren’t re-defining specifically THAT version- we are pointing out there are ALTERNATE conceptions of free will.

    Then, of course, some incompatibilists will declare that, nonetheless, free will as they have defined it represents how the average person thinks of free will. And, again, will think that, this being the case, compatibilism is wholly “re-defining” free will.

    But this too is a dubious claim, challenged by compatibilism. Compatibilism looks not only at how we COULD conceive of freedom of choice, but how we DO talk about freedom of choice.
    And the compatibilist points out that the context of causation/determinism actually underwrites, supports, our very common use of “could have done otherwise” when you really examine it.

    Like I have said, it’s like the concept of “morality.” A secular person and a theist can both use the term “morality.” In ONE sense their conception of morality can be mutually exclusive, insofar as the secular person rejects that morality is derived from a God. But in another very important sense, we are still talking about the SAME THING when speaking of morality, since morality can be sensibly construed not simply as an answer, but as a set of questions, the same set of concerns e.g. “How ought I treat other people?” And hence both secular and theist are offering answers to the SAME question, the same subject, that has not changed.

    Same with free will. The set of concerns contained in “could I have done otherwise?” (just like “How ought I treat others?”) is the same object of inquiry. And we ARE talking about essentially the “same thing” in that sense.

    So back to the claim from some incompatibilists (like Jerry) that the type of free will (contra-causal) they are talking about represents our common notions of “could have done otherwise.”
    The compatibilist points out: no…not when you really look into it.

    Take the example again of making a Golf putt. A standard scenario: John just misses a 6 foot putt. We ask John, “could you have made that putt?” John declares “yes!” Now, what does John, who is making a common claim about his powers, MEAN by that? What is the BASIS for his making that claim?

    If asked why he thinks he COULD have made the putt, if you say “But you are wrong. You didn’t make the putt, which in this deterministic world demonstrates you WOULD/COULD NEVER have made that putt!” This would surely get a puzzled look from John, or anyone else making his claim.

    Did John actually mean “I could have made the putt had my every atom, and every atom and circumstance in the universe been precisely the same?” I’ve never seen anyone who made everyday claims on such a basis.

    When challenged to support his claim, when you ask John “why do you think you could have made that putt?” John will of course not appeal to some bizarre notion of “being in precisely the same moment and having a supernatural contra-causal relationship with physics.”

    Rather, John will appeal to his PAST EXPERIENCE of being in roughly similar circumstances where he has made such a putt! It’s an extrapolation about his physical potential, inferred from a collection of SEPARATE past experiences.
    That is, in fact, the ONLY foundation on which he would, or could, derive his claim.

    And that is exactly what compatibilists point out: Not only is that generally how we DO base our claims of “could have done otherwise” – they are comments on our potential for action derived from always distinct past experiences. But it is also the only coherent, sensible way to approach the question as well. So our normal method of inference far from being “utterly mistaken” and something that needs overturning, is actually warranted!

    And in that sense compatibilism isn’t overturning some common notion of “could have done otherwise.” It’s showing we are JUSTIFIED in such claims, insofar as we talk aout the nature of ANYTHING empirically.

    But, incompatibilists seem so worried about ever letting “woo” through the door, and associate “woo” so inextricably with “free will” and “could have done otherwise,” that it’s incredibly difficult to even get them to take in what compatibilism is saying (as is demonstrated by the need in these threads to correct incompatibilist’s mischaracterizations of compatibilism over, and over, and over…)


    1. Nice post Vaal, the “putt” example is a very good way of making the point. (I hope Jerry doesn’t object to your length, I liked the post.)

      1. Well, I still feel a need to apologize for it’s length. Sorry Jerry, I promise to do my best to produce shorter comments…


  42. I am all for taking the notion from philosophers and put it in the hands of neuroscience (“will”), computer science (“agents”) and even folk psychology (“personal choice”).
    Some notes, perhaps already mentioned in the many interesting comments above:

    – “Free will” is the philosophical term that has been pushed onto the rest of us. It is an excellent idea to rename it “will” (or something equivalent).

    Mind that “free will” goes well with “autonomous agents” of computer science. But maybe that would have to give.

    – Will is emergent, so is scale dependent.

    If you use coarse graining, it may well appear uniformly (or otherwise) stochastic: ”our decisions are controlled entirely by the laws of physics, and (if we had perfect knowledge) would be predictable, at least in the short term” would not necessarily hold. That is the whole point of modeling ”will” in the first place, as opposed to simple automatons.

    At finer graining processes like deterministic chaos can still prevent predictability even in principle. We will have to see what the neuroscientists comes up with.

    – There is even less empirical ”contracausality” than free will. You can’t observe it while you can model will. ”We need to tell them that there is no free will in the contracausal sense.”

    Of course, but mind that it is a matter separate from science of neuroscience.

    1. As a retired computer network professional my interest in cognitive neuroscience builds on my network knowledge where I see the mind as the consequent results of the operating rain which consists of some ten billion or more neurons each connected to a thousand or so other neurons.

      In reading Uttal, Gazziniga and Raichle I am struck by several things:

      1. The chasm between what brain imaging reveals (a macro view of activity by location) and the impracticality (impossibility?) of micro-neural network analysis. [Uttal]

      2. That neural activity is in two forms, signs (activity that provides no conscious perception) and codes (activity that is perceived). [Uttal] That when daydreaming the neuronal activity is quite high even though consciousness (perception) is absent or minimal and widely distributed and twenty times greater than that when being jolted from daydreaming by a fly landing on you. [Raischle]

      3. The spiny lobster problem where Eve Marder has determined there are 100,000 to 200,000 neuronal tunings out of an estimated 20 million which cause the same behavior. [Gazzaniga]

      For me, this suggests that neuroscientists have only the faintest idea of what’s happening at the neuronal network level when analyzing brain scan images… and even if they could measure activity to the synaptic level, there are too many patterns that yield the same result.

  43. I guess the question to ask is, ‘Could you have acted the same under different circumstances?’
    Perhaps that puts some perspective on that stupid question. The hot dog stand argument above inspired this, and leads to the question, just how different does a repeat circumstance need to be to answer this question?

  44. “I think it’s time that free will be considered the bailiwick of neuroscientists and psychologists rather than philosophers.”

    Is “free will” not outside of the domain of all three? (neuroscientists,psychologists and philosophers)

    Does it make any difference where “choices” are made? So what if we decide something in our subconscious seconds before we are aware of what we decided – If out subconscious excerted free will, the choice would be “free” – if it was determined by “causes” and “programming” (which I believe it must be) then where and when in the brain this happens is, IMO, irrelevant.

    Surely, the salient question is: Is there ANY possible mechanism by which ANYTHING in this universe can act in a contra-causal manner? If one clear example can be found, verified, and repeated, THEN there is a possibility that free will is not an illusion… And a whole load of other rather major LOL issues will arise!

    IMO, the only role for neuroscientists and psychologists is in evaluating the mechanisms by which the free will illusion is managed, and the implications of this illusion and dissillusionment.

    Also, I personally do not feel that the “strength” of this illusion is a constant – it varies from person to person. Perhaps this is something for neuroscientists and psychologists (and perhaps biologists / genetecists) to look at.

    As for philosophers – cant think of a job for them! 😉

  45. Has it been only four days since this began? Seems longer. The discussions here have been ‘very’ (an adjective to be used only as a synonym for damn according to my J teacher) helpful for me in my new hobby of drilling down into cognitive neuroscience findings.

    No, I don’t have a position on free will except to wonder what at the cognitive reality yet to be discovered. In my study I found an interesting paper, “Prosocial Benefits of Feeling Free: Disbelief in Free Will Increases Aggression and Reduces Helpfulness” at

    which posits that “Laypersons’ belief in free will may foster a sense of thoughtful reflection and willingness to exert energy, thereby promoting helpfulness and reducing aggression, and so disbelief in free will may make behavior more reliant on selfish, automatic impulses and therefore less socially desirable…”

    Therefore, until I know otherwise, I will continue to believe I have the self-will–limited by natural endowments, experience and objectives, of course–to choose born of physical determinism, but seemingly free from strictly natural constraints.

    This has been a great posting. Thanks.

    1. OF,

      The way you state “Therefore, until I know otherwise…” it sounds like you are swayed by desirability of consequence what to accept as truth. In your opinion, do you think this portends catastrophe for humanity if it is true that man does not have freedom of will?

      1. No. My point is that whatever the ‘ultimate reality’ human cognition beyond present knowledge, I see sufficient evidence to expect humanity to succeed as it chooses; e.g., the reported reduction in violence worldwide.

        For me, the central issue is to know more about the knowledge gap between macro-neuroscience (what we know about the mind’s functioning regarding how we think and behave) and micro-neuroscience (how neuronal networks form thoughts and consequent behaviors).

        There is sufficient evidence for me to conclude that brain imaging–which is helpful in assessing disease and disorder–may reveal nothing about how a healthy brain functions. Couple that with the improbable (impossible?) task of monitoring the ten trillion or so synaptic connections at the neuronal level, having only a gross idea as to the neuronal map, which is unique to each person and what have you got? A wonderful opportunity to explore, possibly the most exciting scientific opportunity to date.

        My only point is that human cognition is what it is and trying to tie down a quality called free will is presently more philosophy than science. Thanks for asking. 😉

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