Determinism and Free Will

One of the most compelling debates of the present day is the one between determinism and free will.  Questions of this issue reach back for centuries. But the current controversy has been sparked by new theories in physics and science that question whether or not the universe is determined and what freedoms humans have as part of that natural system.

There have been many advances in learning how the human brain functions that have put the concept of free will into question. Atheists remain divided on the question of free will. Many secular thinkers do not find the idea of human free will a robust one. Others are convinced of the will’s free agency.  Many atheists now maintain a compatibilist stance that intention and choice are possible within a determinist system.  The issue is complicated for atheists by their mistrust of theistic concepts, particularly the notion of an immortal soul, which is somehow transposed on the body in a supernatural manner and makes choices independent of the material working of the brain.

Atheists generally believe that the mind is the function of the instantiated brain and the idea of a “little man” making decisions somewhere in the brain is not a salient one.  They do not accept the explanations from prominent Christian theologians such as Alvin Plantinga, who maintains that free will is so necessary that it justifies the existence of moral evil.  Plantinga states that it was not within[1] god’s power to create a world containing moral good and no moral evil. Such theological arguments, combined with the mythical fall from paradise when Adam and Eve freely chose to disobey divine command, make some atheists desire to dissociate themselves from any libertarian stance concerning the will.

It is important for secular thinkers to keep in mind that the free will concept was not the only current running through theological thinking.  The theologian and church father, Augustine, was not a believer in free will, although he mitigated his position somewhat with ideas of choice.  Calvin, the 16th Century Protestant reformer and founder of Calvinism, was what is called a hard determinist, stating definitely that man had no free will. The 16th Century theologian, Martin Luther, did not believe in free will, but rather predestination, although his stance was somewhat softer than Calvin’s.  Many Christian theologians found the idea of free will was an antipathetic idea, as it placed too much of a limit on god’s omnipotence.  However, theist philosophy did not reject the idea of the immortal soul, a concept secular thinkers do not consider coherent.  It is important to keep the two strands of Christian thinking concerning free will and predestination in mind.  Quite often, secular discussions of free will and determinism focus on the Christian idea of free will and ignore the determinist stance of many Christian religions.

Moving beyond theology, the question of whether man’s nature is at one with the material, causal world, or whether a person can make decisions and choices of his own volition remains a pressing one for secular thinkers in the present day.  Professor Roy Weatherford states that the problem is really two difficulties: one metaphysical and the other ethical and in many ways attitudinal in kind.[2]  Newton’s discovery of laws of gravity seemed to confirm that not only was the universe causal but determined. This concept was what is termed the “clockwork theory of the universe,” all matter in motion in space, obeying a set of causal laws.  Since humans were part of nature, there was an assumption that they, too, were determined, that not only their past, but their future was fixed.  They were as determined in their movements as the particles of matter moving in the space of the predetermined universe. 

The 20th Century began to move beyond the earlier view of a determined universe.  Einstein’s theory of relativity (1915/1916) began to make scientists focus on the concept that their theories and ideas are devices to organize and understand observations of the cosmos and that scientific conceptions are not necessarily “what really is.” In 1927, Heisenberg published his uncertainty principle, which “implies that it is impossible to determine simultaneously both the position and the momentum of an electron or any other particle with any great degree of accuracy or certainty.”[3]  Chaos theory, too, was discovered in the 20th Century, which maintains that events occur randomly and by chance at the most fundamental level of the material world.  Chaos theory began as a field study in applied mathematics, with applications in physics, economics, biology, and philosophy.  New concepts in physics, brought about by quantum mechanics, opened up a completely new world view.

What the discovery of indeterminacy at the micro level of nature says about human freedom is very problematical.  Indeterminacy seems to operate principally at the micro level, and not extend beyond it.  Furthermore, although the movement of particles does not appear to be determined, it is certainly not what can be called freedom in any salient sense.  It is rather more of a swerve, random and apparently chaotic.  Humans could not function properly if their systems operated in the manner of particles.  Such so-called freedom is virtually useless to human organisms.  Most of the sciences today still work under the assumption of causality and determinism, with physics being the exception.  Determinism seems to prevail at the macro level.

Seeing the world causally seems to be part of the human condition.  While David Hume, the skeptical philosopher (See Philosophy-Skepticism) denied causation at the theoretical level, he also maintained that humans must see the world in a causal manner, that it is a habit or predilection which we cannot help. Kant (see Ethics) stated that the principle of universal causation is a fundamental category of the understanding.[4]  Kant believed this was the only way we could analyze the object we sought to understand.  At the same time, Kant stated that freedom is the precondition of our action, that it is necessary when we must act.

Before the Preface discusses the contemporary issues involved in discussions of free will and determinism, it is necessary to define a few terms that most scholars are generally agreed on.  These definitions will help to follow the strands of modern philosophic thought that encompass free will and determinism.  Hard determinism maintains that human actions and character are wholly determined by external factors, that humans have no free will or responsibility.  Soft determinism believes that human behavior is wholly determined by causal events but human free will does exist when defined by the capacity to act according to one’s nature shaped by heredity, society, and upbringing.  Free will is a philosophical term for a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action among various alternatives.  Acting with free will, on such views, is to satisfy the metaphysical requirements of being responsible for one’s actions.  There are many constraints and resistances outside ourselves, so our success in carrying out our ends seems to reside in our “willing.”[5] Metaphysical libertarians state that determinism is false and only free will exists. They are known as indeterminists. Both libertarians and hard determinists are described as incompatibilists.

Kant’s separation of the two ways of viewing our nature still seems to operate in our contemporary world.  We have learned about genetic determination, social and environmental factors and the unconscious part of our minds.  We know the large role such factors play in our development as humans. We know that our minds and thoughts, consciousness itself, are functions of our material brain; we understand the mind and the brain are not separate entities. And yet, we unwittingly think of ourselves as free and our choices as self-determined.  We see alternate choices before us. Robert Kane states that we believe we have free will when (a) “it is up to us” when we choose from an array of alternate possibilities and (b) the origins or sources of our choices and actions is in us and not in anything or anyone over which we have no control.[6]  We believe that other people have free will, also, as can be witnessed by our feelings of gratitude, resentment, and so on when we are the recipients of others’ actions.                                                                                                                                                                                               There is a category of philosophers who believe that free will and determinism do not need to be at odds. They are known as compatibilists.  Thomas Hobbes, the 18th Century author of Leviathan, asserted “that no liberty can be inferred to the will, desire, or inclination, but the liberty of the man; which consists in this, that he finds no stop, in doing what he has the will, desire or inclination to do.”[7] David Hume agreed. “This hypothetical liberty is universally allowed to belong to everyone who is not a prisoner and in chains.”[8]  Hume and Hobbes were both compatibilists.  The Preface will discuss the ideas of a contemporary well-regarded compatibilist, Daniel C. Dennett, below.

The somewhat abstract philosophical terms and concepts that we have been following are actually extremely important concerning ethics and the question of responsibility in the present day.  If everything is caused, how can there be standards for behavior?  This is particularly true for the question of personal and legal responsibility.  There are cases of brain damage on record which have changed people’s personalities. Michael Gazzaniga discusses the famous Libet Experiment in the 1980’s. Libet found that the brain carries out its work before one becomes aware of a thought. “…a subject would stare at a clock and at the very moment he made a conscious decision to flick his wrist, Libet discovered his brain was ready before the conscious thought by about 300 milliseconds.[9] There are other experiments which seem to point to reduced culpability in humans, especially in many violent crimes. (Gazzaniga, The Ethical Brain, 2005. Chapter 6.  See Neuroscience.) Yet Gazzaniga believes that neuroscience will not find the brain correlate of responsibility because he believes that this quality is something we ascribe to people, not brains.  He states that responsibility is a social construct that involves humans interacting with each other.  He concludes that the idea of responsibility…”a social construct that exists in the rules of a society, does not exist in the neuronal structures of the brain…”[10]

Libet himself believes that the idea of the existence of free will is as good as any denial of it by determinists. Since both theories are speculative, he thinks that until real contradictory evidence appears, we can adopt the concept of free will.  He finds the hard determinism that views humans as machines completely controlled by known physical laws a permissive and not robust concept.[11] Colin McGinn, the philosopher, makes a similar point when he states that the identifying the part of the brain that makes a decision tells us nothing about the concept of freedom.  McGinn maintains that freedom is a conceptual problem, not a neural one.[12]

Daniel C.Dennett is a well known compatibilist and proponent of compatilibilism in Elbow Room (1984) and Freedom Evolves (2003.)  Dennett’s contribution to the problem of free will and determinism is robust and welcome.  Many secular people have assumed scientific determinism is the correct stance. They accept the as yet unproved concept that we have no volition, and yet they live each day as if we do.  This contradiction can create an uneasy sense of something being not quite correct, not in some sort of balance, even if the feeling is unspoken.  Dennett takes the position that determinism does not mean fatalism. Fatalism is the concept that no matter what one does, both the action and the result are predetermined.  Yet a chosen action can make a difference, as we observe in our everyday living, no matter what the philosophers tell us. 

Dennett explains that different patterns and complexities are being found in all of Nature now.  The more complex a creature becomes, the more freedom it has.  He states that a bird flying has more freedom than a jellyfish which can only float.  By contrast, humans have evolved into very complex organisms.  Our evolution involves the development of language and culture.  Dennett explains that our freedom is as different from a bird’s as language is different from bird song. To understand how humans have arrived at this stage of evolved freedom, Dennett takes the reader back in time to understand freedom’s “more modest components and predecessors.”[13] It is not necessary to believe our conscious life is not a superimposition on our material bodies, including the brain.  We are evolved creatures who have developed emotions and thought patterns that allow us to make choices and take action on those choices.

This lecture has moved from the theological problem of free will versus determinism to the secular quandary on an intellectual journey through the centuries.  The secular thinker has no need to make a rigid choice between free will, often associated with religion, or determinism, too often associated with moral and ethical permissiveness.  There is an apparent compatibility between the two stances.  We have just begun to understand how the mind works in tandem with the brain.  Colin McGinn points out that “…the science of the brain has not yet progressed beyond the most elementary descriptive stages…”[14] Until the time arrives when science will explain the workings of the brain more thoroughly, secular thinkers can be at ease knowing that while the universe may be determined, the human brain has volition in the areas that matter, or as Dennett puts it, we have “any freedom worth having.”

Lecture on Video: Determinism and Freewill

Lecture: Determinism and Freewill

Discussion on Video: Determinism and Freewill

Discussion: Determinism and Freewill

Recommended Books

Clark, Thomas W.  Encountering Naturalism: A Worldview and Its Uses : Center for Naturalism, 2007.

Thomas Clark is the founder and director of the Center for Naturalism.  His small volume (see Philosophy -Naturalism) explains naturalism in very clear, common sense and inspiring prose.  Encountering contains an excellent discussion on the issue of free will versus determinism.  Clark is a compatibilist who does not care for the term free will.  He does not find discarding the concept of freewill harmful to ethical and moral issues.  He states: “The entangled, natural self is what denial of supernatural free will reveals:  not a passive puppet, but a concrete, actualized personal process that nature accomplishes in all its human manifestations.” 

Appendix B has an interesting array of quotations from philosophers and scientists who were not convinced concerning free will, such as Darwin and Einstein.  Clark’s slender volume contains an excellent, short bibliography with titles from many sides of the free will / determinism debate.  It is important to keep in mind, however, that there are many secular people who are naturalists and yet continue to embrace the concept of free will. 

Dennett, Daniel C.  Freedom Evolves.  New York: Viking Press, 2003. 

Daniel C. Dennett has contributed to the great and centuries long debate between determinism and free will with an extremely cohesive argument for his type of compatiblism.  He believes the universe is deterministic, but that humans have evolved from simple life forms to a complex type of freedom that involves culture, cooperation between people and ethical norms. (See The Preface for Dennett’s examples of the freedoms more evolved species have than more primitive life forms possess.) 

Dennett prefers to call his stance naturalism, a synthesis of philosophy and natural science.  Freedom Evolves discusses determinism, emphasizing that it need not mean fatalism or inevitability.  Dennett spends some time examining free will concepts, particularly Robert Kane’s theory of libertarian free will. He finds theories such as Kane’s lacking.  The idea of libertarian free will is rejected by Dennett and he makes a sound case for rejection.  Too many libertarians attempt to counter some vague idea of deterministic fatalism with the concept of quantum indeterminacy, which would only result in “swerves“of random behavior in humans.    Instead, Dennett makes a cogent case for compatibility of evolved free will combined with determinism.  Our minds and bodies work in tandem; there is not a detached soul doing the driving, as Descartes thought.

Freedom Evolves is a very important addition to the free will versus determinism debate, and whether Dennett is correct or not will hopefully be answered as we learn more about the brain.  There is no guarantee of settling the question once and for all; however, as some thinkers, such as Colin McGinn, maintain that we hope to answer the conceptual question of free will with neural information.  They do not believe it can be done.  

Freedom Evolves is highly recommended with one quibble:  Dennett could have left the “meme theory” out of this book and it would not have done his ideas any harm.  Memes are a type of units of cultural viruses that supposedly carry ideas, such as songs, god, popular phrases and so on and are spread like bacterial viruses from one person’s mind to another.  Memes supposedly produce behavior patterns for good or ill in culture.  The meme concept is not considered scientific in some quarters of science but has caught on as a rather glib explanation for complex cultural exchanges and patterns.  Dennett did not really need to reinforce his explanation of freedom evolving with meme theory. Dennett is a very clear and lively writer who is never boring and states his ideas with verve and style.

Double, Richard.  Metaphilosophy and Free Will.

Metaphilosophy and Free Will is a tantalizing new look at philosophy and the question of free will and determinism.  Double looks at what he terms four philosophical positions of metaphilosophy and tries to demonstrate how their differences may contribute to making the free will problem unsolvable.  In this volume, the author describes the varied metaphilosophical views of what the point of philosophy is.  He maintains that the free will/determinism debate cannot be discussed intelligibly until the aims of metaphilosophy are understood.  His four putative stances are: philosophy as conversation, to say interesting things; philosophy as praxis (practice) to create improvement rather than search for truth; philosophy as underpinning, which attempts to underpin such things as common sense and tries to protect such concepts by making them immune from criticism; philosophy as world view construction, where the aim is to discover the truth, no matter how dull, unedifying or outrageous to common sense. The non truth tracking philosophies are one to three.  Double claims the adherents of such stances won’t give up their views even if they are shown to be false.  He believes that they place some other aim above truth.  This argument is too theoretical.  Would the proponents of the one to three philosophies not give up their ideas if they were shown to be untrue?  Double claims they would not but does not prove it.  Indeed, proof of such a charge is very difficult.

Double maintains that determinists want to attain a clear and true description of the world.   He believes that free will proponents are bent on preserving free will because they feel they are protecting morals and ethics and that their position has very little to do with objectivity.  He spends the last part of the book arguing for his position of free will subjectivism which he believes will bring some balance to the issue of free will and determinism.  Double’s book is jargon free and his arguments cogent.  Whether the reader agrees with the volume’s conclusions or not, it is an interesting look at how philosophic generalities may be influencing the free will question more than we realize.

Gazzaniga, Michael S.  The Ethical Brain: The Science of Our Moral Dilemmas. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006.

Michael Gazzaniga is a well known neuroscientist who served on the President’s Council on Bioethics.  The entire chapter six of The Ethical Brain discusses the issue of responsibility, particularly legal responsibility.  What we have learned about brain functioning in recent years has directed us to issues of diminished capacity.  There are also considerations concerning the fact that our body frequently moves to carry out a task or to reach for something a few milliseconds before our brain registers the conscious thought. (See The Preface for the Libet Study.)  In addition to the Libet Study, Gazzaniga discusses the Platt and Glincher study of monkeys’ brains.  As in the Libet study, “the brain acts on its own before we become consciously aware of its actions.” Gazzaniga describes some of the experiments in his own laboratory that reinforce the earlier studies.  As related in The Preface, he is still convinced that responsibility evolved as a social function as people interacted with other people.  He maintains that it may never be able to measure responsibility scientifically.  He believes humans are not robots, but practical reasoners. 

Gazzaniga is a very clear and interesting writer.  He communicates ideas without condescension and the entire book is well worth reading.  (See Ethics and Applied Ethics.)  His discussion of free will rivals longer, more esoteric volumes.  There is also a chapter on drugs for brain enhancement that demonstrates how far along the way humans have come and how they are beginning to nuance brain function. 

Kane, Robert.  A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will.  New York:  Oxford University Press U.S.A., 2005. 

This volume was designed as a textbook and many readers and critics find it an excellent one.  Kane is one of the foremost philosophers undertaking a defense of libertarian free Will.  His book is even-handed, presenting explanations of determinism and compatibility as well as free will. 

Kane discusses self-forming actions, actions that allow people to shape their own wills.  These actions translate into ultimate responsibility.  A free act is an act we can claim responsibility for and we must have sufficient reason for choosing it.  Kane takes the position of people having ultimate power over acts.  He argues that our free wills are made by us, that they are our creation.  This deeper freedom differs from surface freedom, which consists of choosing without physical or legal restrictions.  When people exercise deeper freedom they demonstrate that they have responsibility rather than having their actions determined by genes, environment or a creator.  Kane discusses free will as it applies to religious views of predestination and omniscience.  Some readers find that Kane’s argument concerning the deeper freedom is not as robust as they would have wanted.

Most readers appreciate Kane’s even-handedness when discussing determinism and compatibility.  The book is also a technical introduction to philosophy and its terms, which is helpful to armchair readers on the debate between free will and determinism.

Kane, Robert. ed. The Oxford Handbook of Free Will.  New York: Oxford University Press U.S.A., 2002.

Kane is an excellent editor of this thick volume of essays by top scholars in the field of free will and compatibility.  The book is an excellent contribution to the discussion of free will versus determinism.  Kane’s introductory chapter allows the reader to become acquainted with the array of topics in the field and the book emphasizes the most recent research.  The essayists are all highly regarded scholars in their respective areas of study and the writing is clear and relatively easy to understand.  There is a very thorough bibliography at the end which helps readers who want to pursue more books in the free will and determinism dispute.  The cost of the book is another strong advantage because though not inexpensive, its price is relatively economical when compared to many scholarly volumes on free will and determinism.

The eight chapters encompass vital issues for readers involved in the contemporary free will debate.  Included is the recent work on the theological implications of the debate, the latest scientific thinking (quantum and chaos theories,) consequence (important indeterminism,) compatibilist theories, Frankfurt and other moral responsibility concepts, libertarian views of free will, non- standard views, such as Saul Smilanksy’s stance that free will is a necessary illusion, and the recent thinking of neuroscience on the issues.

Some of the writers are Daniel Dennett, Derek Pereboom, Peter Van Inwagen and other well known scholars.  This Handbook brings the reader up to date on the philosophic issues of free will and compatilibilism. 

Smilansky, Saul.  Free Will and Illusion. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000.

Saul Smilansky’s concept of free will is termed a non-standard one.  He claims that illusory beliefs are in place in humans and the role they play is largely positive.  He maintains that he neither thinks we need to induce illusory beliefs or claim that we live with beliefs we fully realize are illusory. He finds the latter two propositions improbable. (497.) 

Smilansky finds libertarian free will improbable and incoherent.  He is inclined to agree with determinist thinking.   He finds compatibility theories, that some human free choice is possible despite a causal universe, inadequate.  Smilansky is not happy with his conclusions.  He maintains that libertarian free will does not exist.  Although he is a determinist, perhaps a hard determinist, he argues that without free will, there is no real grounding for morality and responsibility.*  He does not want the bubble burst for people who have the illusion of free will. He does not believe that naturalists have much reason for their claim that life would go on as usual if the concept of free will were not in place.  Most secular thinkers will not find Smilansky’s thinking on the necessity of illusion robust.  There is a price to be paid for living with a belief that is not corroborated with hard evidence, a gnawing unease that thinking people experience. Here is his statement, which is chilling: “Humanity is fortunately deceived on the free will issue, and this seems to be a condition of civilized morality and personal value.”

John Tierney, a political libertarian who writes science articles for the New York Times has written an article for the Tuesday, March 22, 2011 issue of the Times concerning free will.  He cites some studies that seem to show that when people are under the belief that they are determined, they cheat more on exams.  Another study claims that workers who believe in the concept of free will have better job performance ratings.  Some researchers see a connection between cheating in college in recent decades and the weakening of the popular belief in free will. This theoretical connection does not seem robust. 

Tierney quotes Alfred Mele from Florida State University concerning the default position of free will on the part of most people. Professor Mele and Professor Lucyle T. Werkmeister head the “The Big Questions in Free Will Project” at Florida State. Unfortunately, this project was funded by The Templeton Foundation with a 4.4 million dollar grant in 2010. Many secular thinkers are wary of The Templeton Foundation’s association with theistic concepts.  Theists are known for misusing free will concepts to reinforce their religious position. Mele’s project position states that it is looking into the science of free will, the underpinnings of a concept of free will, and the theological issues concerning free will.  Professor Mele  wrote a Templeton essay not too long ago, that stated if we find proof of determinism we will have to live with it, but he did not think that would be the case.  He maintained that free will is both true and morally beneficial. 

Sunny Bains, Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Imperial College of London, United Kingdom has written a paper questioning the objectivity of the John Templeton Foundation.  Bains claims that there is a tendency in Templeton studies to be pro-religion and anti-science, and therefore calls on cosmology colleagues to boycott Templeton and not take part in its studies or calls for papers. The full article may be found in Evolutionary Psychology Vol. 9 (1) 2011. (Link)   

See John Tierney. “Do You Have Free Will? Yes, It’s the Only Choice.”  Science Times. The New York Times. 22 March 2011.  Tierney quotes extensively from Shaun Nichols’ article, “Experimental Philosophy and The Problem of Free Will,” Science 18 March 2011.

Wegner, Daniel M.  The Illusion of Conscious Will.  Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003.

Richard Wegner tries to demonstrate how the feeling of “willing” arrives for people.  He explains that if our thoughts happen before an action, are consistent with that action, and we don’t see other likely causes, we decide that we did the action.  Wegner proceeds to demonstrate, with many examples, that this so-called causation on our parts is just not so.

Wegner cites examples from past studies showing how we think our free thoughts cause an action, such as movement on Ouija boards.  The movement we believe our thoughts caused is in actuality muscle action, or what is called ideomotor influence.  Wegner cites a telling contemporary study.  Two participants wearing headsets hear names of objects while pushing a computer mouse around a board filled with pictures.  They can make the mouse stop any time they want.  One participant, however, is a confederate tester, and sometimes stops the mouse on a particular picture. The true participant rates how strongly she believes she chose the stopping place. At any time the picture’s name was heard before the mouse stopped, the “innocent participant” believed she had caused the stop.

He also demonstrates that once people are told not to think of white bears, they have a hard time not thinking about white bears.  This little experiment is resonant of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, The Imp of the Perverse (1845) in which the narrator states: ”We stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss—we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink away from the danger. Unaccountably we remain… it is but a thought, although a fearful one, and one which chills the very marrow of our bones with the fierceness of the delight of its horror. It is merely the idea of what would be our sensations during the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height… for this very cause do we now the most vividly desire it.”

Professor Wegner is a clear and entertaining writer and his book is replete with interesting examples of how our brain “tricks “us into thinking our conscious thoughts cause our actions.

Other Books on Free Will and Determinism

Randolph Clarke. Libertarian Accounts of Free Will. (2006.); Peter van Inwagen. An Essay on Free Will. (1986.); Ted Honderich. How Free Are You? (2002), Mind and Brain (1990) and Consequences of Determinism. (1990.); Harry G. Frankfurt. The Importance of What We Care About. (1988.) Keith Stanovitch. Robot’s Rebellion. (2005.) Derek Pereboom. Living Without Free Will. (2006.); Richard Carrier. Sense and Goodness Without God. (2005.) Gregg Caruso.Free Will and Consciousness: A Determinist Account of the Illusion of Free Will (2012). Gregg Caruso is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Humanities Department at Corning Community College, SUNY. “In this book I examine both the traditional philosophical problems long associated with the question of free will, such as the relationship between determinism and free will, as well as recent experimental and theoretical work directly related to consciousness and human agency.”

The Teaching Company offers a course in Great Philosophical Debates: Free Will and Determinism. There are 24 lectures in the class, of about a half hour each. (

Sam Harris. Free Will.  Free Press, 2012.

Sam Harris is a master of the polemic.  He has written very eloquently and convincingly concerning atheism in his books, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. Mr. Harris  is an important force for secularism in the United States.

But his latest offering, Free Will, a scant 66 page essay in book format (with some 7 pages of notes,) is lacking in many essential ways, particularly in the matter of evidence for his claims. Harris states there is no free will, that it is an illusion, but offers no proof for his assertion.  In fact, on Pages 13, 38, 39, and 40, he states that the sources of our intentions, desires, actions, and wants are unknown, a mystery, inscrutable or obscure.  He seems to be asserting that because we do not know the sources for our thoughts and actions, it necessarily follows that we do not have free will.  Such a flimsy connection is not proof.  He cites some well known experiments, such as the Libet, all of which are inconclusive, and does not provide the reader with strong scientific evidence to back up his assertions.

Mr. Harris critiques compatibilism by too often, for such a short essay, emphasizing the differences between himself and Daniel Dennett, the philosopher who has written Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves.  In fact, Dennett makes a very cogent case for the compatibilism and coexistence of determinism and free will in human beings.  One of Mr. Harris’s breezy dismissals of compatibilism on Page 16 is that the “free will compatibilists defend is not the free will most people feel they have.”  Such a statement seems to imply that Mr. Harris sets aside the fine and scholarly work of many philosophers such as Dennett, because it does not accord with some popular misconception of free will.  Populism would appear to trump scholarship in this book.

On pages 10 and 24, Harris apparently infers that if we had exceptional machines and brain scanners to monitor our action sequences and choices, we would be astounded to discover that we were not in control of them.  However, we do not yet have experiments that might be conclusive. To state that one knows the outcome of future experiments is nonsense. In fact, neuroscience is at the beginning of a long voyage of discovery about the brain, the mind and consciousness. 

Another difficulty with Free Will is the author’s shift to prescription rather than description. Such a segue is yet another example of the philosopher David Hume’s famous and much discussed Is/Ought problem concerning Ethics.  Harris suddenly advocates what the justice system should do. On Page 54, he writes: “Our system of justice should reflect an understanding that any of us could have been dealt a different hand in life.  In fact, it seems immoral not to recognize just how much luck is involved with morality itself.”  Why should any of us assume, given Mr. Harris’s assertion that choices are not in our control, that most citizens will agree about changes to our justice system?  Many people, if not in conscious control of their belief and ethical systems, may reach opposite conclusions.  Mr. Harris is not the only champion of determinism who seems to dismiss reason as a motivating factor, and then to advocate change based on conscious reasoning.

My opinion, after reading this small book, is that Sam Harris has done very little to advance understanding or forward the argument in the contentious and knotty issue of free will and determinism. With all due respect, I regretfully cannot recommend his Free Will to readers.

Daniel Dennett’s Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves are excellent starting places for a discussion of the argument.  The problem of free will vis-à-vis determinism reaches back to Ancient Greece and Israel, and is not quickly or easily perused.  Galen Strawson, Saul Smilansky, Peter Strawson, Manuel Vargas, Robert Kane and Daniel Wegner are excellent sources.  Robert Kane has edited the Oxford Handbook of Free Will, with superb essays on both sides of the divide.  Professor Shaun Nichols, from the University of Arizona, offers an excellent DVD course from the Teaching Company on Free Will and Determinism that is very balanced, thorough and essential for the appraisal and understanding of the multitudinous opinions and experiments concerning free will and determinism.


[1] Plantinga, Alvin.  God, Freedom and Evil. Grand Rapids, MI.: William B. Eerdmans, 1974.  54.

2 Weatherford, Roy C. “Determinism.” in Ted Honderich,  ed. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. 292.

3 Wiki.

4 Garvey, James. “Determinism.” In Tom Flynn, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007.

5 “Free Will.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. 29 Oct. 2010. http://plato.Stanfordedu/entries/freewill

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