Free Will, the Basics

71wZXjIRXLLby Massimo Pigliucci

[This essay is part of a special “free will week” at Scientia Salon. The Editor promises not to touch the topic again for a long while after this particular orgy, of course assuming he has any choice in the matter…]

Sometimes it’s good, or even necessary, to go back to the basics. This is true of all complex and/or confusing issues, and free will certainly qualifies. Scientia Salon has published a number of essays on free will before [1], and this special “free will week” has begun with a vigorous, neurobiologically based defense of compatibilism and will end (in a couple of days) with a provocative, high-tech, apology for libertarianism!

Yet, underlying all current discussions about the topic is a large and sophisticated philosophical literature on free will, spanning centuries of writings and much more than the three basic positions (incompatibilism, compatibilism, and libertarianism) usually considered in lay summaries. Meghan Griffith’s Free Will: the Basics [2] is a splendid companion for anyone who is either dipping their toes into the debate for the first time, or has become sufficiently confused that they need to step back a little and re-examine the big picture.

The first thing to appreciate about Griffith’s book (other than its brevity!) is that it doesn’t seem to have an agenda. She is not attempting to convince her readers that a particular view on free will is obviously better than another, or that some approaches to the issues are so plain silly that it is hard to imagine why any rational person would even entertain them — contrary, it must be said, to a number of more or less obnoxious books and articles that have come to light recently.

Instead, most chapters follow the same standard outline: an introduction to a particular broad view on free will, followed by a discussion of a number of flavors within that broad view, then an explanation of how that view is supposed to solve the problem of free will, followed in turn by a consideration of objections raised against the view, a summary, and an invitation to further reading. This structure is similar to the one adopted in one of the books that most influenced my early development as a scientist and, later, as a philosopher: Alan Chalmers’ What is This Thing Called Science? [3], a tour de force in philosophy of science covering everything from induction to falsificationism, from paradigms shifts to research programs, from anarchist theories to Bayesian approaches. That’s the way to stimulate someone’s mind: provide them with the basic tools and let them do at the least some of the hard work.

Back to Griffith’s volume: it begins (chapter 2, after the Introduction) by tackling what the author calls “the compatibility issue,” that is the question of how it is possible to have free will within the context of a deterministic universe. In proper philosophical fashion, the chapter starts with a clarification of what “compatible” means, as people often confuse statements of compatibility with statements of factuality (two things can be compatible in principle, and yet only one, or neither, may actually be the case in practice). Griffith then moves to defining determinism, which implies a discussion of the (controversial) concept of laws of nature. Perhaps the most interesting part of this chapter consists in an attempt to separate determinism from causality: as the author says, “we do need to worry about a certain thesis that has often been confused with determinism. This is the thesis that ‘every event has a cause,’” since the two are not the same. More specifically, it is perfectly possible to maintain that determinism is false, but that universal causation holds (indeed, I find myself increasingly sympathetic to that particular position). Still within the same chapter, Griffith proceeds to untangle different conceptions of determinism, and finally begins to layout the territory by introducing the differences among compatibilism, “hard” incompatibilism and “libertarian” incompatibilism.

The next issue, of course, is the one that makes discussions of free will so much more than academic disquisitions: the question of moral responsibility (chapter 3). But, again, one cannot simply assume that we are all on the same page about what, exactly, it means to carry “moral responsibility” for one’s actions, and accordingly Griffith starts out by clarifying that particular but crucial preliminary. She introduces Strawson’s view that responsibility is linked to an agent being the appropriate target of certain attitudes; for instance, if you step on my toes by chance I will not (or should not!) blame you, but if you do it on purpose I am justified in remonstrating. Griffith then engages in a very clear discussion of the so-called Principle of Alternative Possibilities (PAP), the idea that a person is morally responsible for what he has done only if he could have done otherwise. Much hinges, especially for the compatibilist, on how exactly that “could” is cashed out, as the author explains at some length. This in turns leads to a crucial — and unfortunately little known outside of the technical literature — discussion of so-called “Frankfurt-style” counterexamples to the PAP, so named after philosopher Harry Frankfurt, perhaps best known to the general public for his marvelous booklet On Bullshit [4].

There are many variants of Frankfurt-style scenarios, which have of course been subjected to criticism and have accordingly been revised to take such criticism on board. Just to give you a flavor, however, the classic example runs something like this (summarizing Griffith): Kathy really wants to kill Virginia. Ned also wants to kill Virginia (we are not told why so many people want to bump off Virginia, but it’s irrelevant…). Ned figures that he can get away with murder by hacking into Kathy’s brain and implanting a switch that, when activated, will trigger a murderous action on Kathy’s part. Ned’s truly evil plan is to activate the switch only in the event that Kathy doesn’t go through with her own plan, as a fail safe, so to speak. Ned watches what Kathy does when in the presence of Virginia, is about to pull the switch, when in fact Kathy acts and kills Virginia. (I have always wondered why so many philosophical thought experiments are so gruesome, but that’s another story.) Now the question: is Kathy responsible for Virginia’s death? The idea is that we are inclined to say yes, because it was her decision. And yet, she couldn’t really avoid it, could she? Had she not acted, her brain, controlled by Ned, would have forced her to do it anyway. So we seem to have a counterexample to the PAP: someone who appears to be responsible for her actions even though she could not have done otherwise. Yes, yes, there are objections to Frankfurt-type scenarios, as I mentioned above, but also clever retorts. I will leave the reader — as Griffith so often says in the book — to work things out for herself.

From chapters 4 through 6 we are then treated to a survey of compatibilist (ch. 4), incompatibilist (ch. 5), and “other” (ch. 6) positions on free will. I will not go into any detail here, except for presenting what I hope will be a useful concept map of the major positions and sub-positions ably discussed by Griffith:

free will

It is, I think, instructive — and hopefully even a bit humbling — to contemplate just how many possible stances one can more or less sensibly defend concerning the question of free will.

The next to the last chapter (n. 7), before some concluding thoughts, deals with the issue that I’m sure has been on the minds of most readers for the past several minutes: what about science? Griffith begins by clearly stating that of course science is relevant to the problem at hand, just as it is relevant to any philosophical question that is not purely detached from the actual world (like, say, some discussions in modal logic). This, however, does not mean that the issue can or should be simply handed over to the scientists, contra much ink needlessly spilled recently by a number of authors with a clear scientistic leaning.

The first sciency topic is, of course, determinism, and therefore fundamental physics, and therefore quantum mechanics, even though it ought to be clear to any sophisticated reader of the free will controversies that actually determinism has comparatively little to do with the issue. A related but more interesting discussion concerns whether and to what extent quantum phenomena percolate up to the macroscopic level sufficiently to actually influence the way the brain works, thus providing part of the mechanism for free will. Griffith tackles this general topic, and even specific studies, such as one allegedly showing the existence of indeterministic processes underlying the behavior of fruit flies.

The author then moves to psychology, distinguishing psychological from nomological determinism, making the good point that psychological determinism (the idea that our behavior is determined by our psychological makeup) could be true even if nomological determinism is false, and thereby adding yet another layer of complexity to the discussion.

Next Griffith tackles the contribution of neuroscience, beginning with the well known (and much hyped, in my mind [5]) Libet experiments. Thankfully, she devotes a significant amount of space to Alfred Mele’s analysis of Libet’s experiments, which are among the most clear ones to show that Libet’s results, as interesting as they surely are, tell us pretty much nothing about free will.

Griffith also discusses the contention, advanced for instance by psychologist Daniel Wegner, that conscious will is an “illusion,” one of a number of recently popular (and, in my mind, a bit facile) “it’s all an illusion” positions. Again, Mele offers pertinent responses here, together with another philosopher, Eddy Nahmias. The two approach the issue differently: Mele describes a number of experiments that seem to show pretty convincingly that intentions do have causal efficacy; Nahmias raises what we might call the evolutionary conundrum: given how expensive, metabolically speaking, it is to maintain a brain apparatus that produces the “illusion” of consciousness, what, exactly, could justify such extravagance on the part of natural selection? A difficult question, made even more so by the fact that to this day we don’t really have good, empirically testable hypotheses to account for the evolution of consciousness.

Griffith concludes her book by acknowledging that the reader might be a bit confused after the fast paced whirlwind to which she has just exposed him. But that is okay, or indeed even part of the very point, since, as she puts it: “with philosophy, if you are not somewhat perplexed, you are probably not doing it right! It’s like physical training for fitness or sports. You need to feel some exertion in order to make progress. When doing philosophy, you need to break a mental sweat!” Or, as the Ninth Doctor put it (adapted from a different context): “The thing is, [philosophy / time travel] is like visiting Paris. You can’t just read the guide book. You’ve got to throw yourself in, eat the food, use the wrong verbs, get charged double and end up kissing complete strangers — or is that just me?” [6]


Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

[1] Free will and psychological determinism, SciSal 21 October 2014; Free Will Skepticism and Its Implications: An Argument for Optimism, SciSal 22 December 2014 and 23 December 2014.

[2] Free Will: The Basics, by Meghan Griffith, Routledge, 2013.

[3] What Is This Thing Called Science? by Alan F. Chalmers, Hackett Publishing Company, 2013.

[4] On Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfurt, Princeton University Press, 2005.

[5] See Choosing a compatibilist Free Will perspective, by Dwayne Holmes, Scientia Salon, 26 January 2015.

[6] The Long Game, Doctor Who: Season 1, Episode 7, 21 April 2006.

81 thoughts on “Free Will, the Basics

  1. This is my 5th and therefore last comment allowed to anyone according to the house rules.

    Hi Daniel,

    “So, it looks like the law is becoming sensitive to the various senses of “free will,” i.e the ability to do otherwise.”

    So the philosophy professors wish to first make science and now jurisprudence so complex and confusing that only the philosophy department remains functional? (Their function is to assure that every idea and every author is carefully documented and studied before anyone can arrive at the truth. And then, when someone states a simple truth they will sit on the sidelines attempting to undermine it with uncertainty). Hey! What do you mean my “bias”?

    “A volitional excuse is an excuse that removes culpability because the agen’t didn’t have the ‘ability to do otherwise’.”

    Culpability is functionally equal responsibility. It identifies the persons who require correction and informs the judge and jury of the personality of the offender, specifically to get an idea of what penalty it will take to correct the behavior.

    Due to cause and effect, the offender’s decision to commit the crime was inevitable at that point in time. However, that cannot be undone. So the penalty is concerned with preventing future crimes. The only reason we seek information about the defendant and the previous crime, is to determine the most effective remedy for the future. That’s how this thing is supposed to work.

    If we think the defendant can be rehabilitated, then we would emphasize correction and return to society. By rehabilitation we seek to alter his future decision. We want to CAUSE him to choose, of his own FREE WILL, to respect the rights of others as he would have them respect his own rights. Then he can be trusted outside prison.

    But if the defendant is a serial offender with several convictions, the only option might be life in prison.

    The point of justice is to repair, correct, and protect. Any penalty that serves another purpose obviously risks be unjustified. For example, expelling a student who cheats for the first time on a test in order to make the student body appear more honorable will be more than is reasonably necessary in most cases, and cannot be justified. If you seek honor rather than justice, you’ll lose both.

    John, You make a good point about the range of intelligence in different species.


    “Because most of us make a distinction between accidents and deliberate action. Which makes sense to me.”

    The question was why do we treat them differently. The answer is that it is more difficult to correct a person who intends to harm others than it is to correct a person who never wanted to cause harm.

    “As Meghan said in her gracious comment, no, these questions also have very practical import (for instance, on the justice system). ”

    NO THEY DON’T. You don’t want basic questions about what you are doing and why you’re doing it when you come to court. If you expect to justify a penalty that intentionally harms someone else or their rights, you had better have clear, unambiguous operational definitions of the basic concepts of justice, responsibility, penalty, etc. You certainly do NOT want judges and juries hopelessly entangled between “libertarian free will” and “anti-choice determinism”.

    Okay, that’s my last comment in this topic. Thanks everyone who took the time to read my comment and give me your input. I won’t be able to respond to any follow-up, of course. But the house rules are actually pretty good, so thanks SciSal for patiently explaining them.


  2. Just a few replies.

    1. Socratic — Failure is, indeed, a good part of the reason, and not just failure, but the *manner* of failure — i.e. yielding either skepticism or insoluble dilemmas. (I would not agree with your characterization that there hasn’t been failure, but rather, lack of information. No amount of neurological information is ever going to tell us anything useful about why certain behaviors are characterized as carrying certain sorts of social significance, such that we speak of them as “free”) But it is also because in my view, free will discourse is only productively engaged in at the social level of description — construed broadly, as I have construed it, which, of course, includes moral discourse. And to respond to an earlier point, I do *not* think that the free will question is like the consciousness question, for which I do *not* think a Wittgensteinian solution is appropriate.

    2. Sci Sal — I find your responses to be pretty thin, although I understand that you are trying to reply to an awful lot of people at once. That said, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that what you have patience for or “can stand” isn’t any sort of indicator of the soundness of any philosophical position. And of course, contrary to what you suggest, neither Ryle nor Wittgenstein reject the distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions — they simply disagree with the common philosophical account of “what’s left over, when I subtract my arm raising from raising my arm.” You and the majority of others, think that what’s left over is some special antecedent cause of some kind or another. They — and I — do not. And given their reasons for thinking this, not to mention their substantial development of the idea that free will belongs to the social level of description, rather than the psychological one, I see no reason why this view should not be among the viable views in play.

    As for your reply to Jarnauga, Ryle and Wittgenstein — and I — *deny* that science makes a valuable contribution to this particular issue. You can call this “anti-science” if you wish, but its an epithet whose content is misleading, insofar as we are quite pro-science in any number of areas, where science has productive contributions to make to knowledge. After all, you too reject the relevance of scientific inquiry to certain philosophical questions, but that does not make you “anti science.”

    Also, what’s this business about “hitting a nerve”? Of the meager handful of people who are sympathetic to the Wittgensteinian treatment of this subject, none of us have replied intemperately or even with unusual energy.

    Yes, I read and loved “Wittgenstein’s Poker.” I recommend it to everyone.

    3. Daniel Tippens — I would echo Asher’s suggestion that the best way to get Wittgenstein is to read Wittgenstein, and I would also agree entirely with his suggested *way* of reading it. Crispin Wright was also a professor of mine — when I was at Michigan as an undergraduate and he was visiting — but I don’t think he is right about Wittgenstein being a deliberate obscurantist. The fact that people like Kripke write books, in which they tried to turn Wittgenstein’s work into traditional style analytic philosophy, is precisely why they get him so terribly wrong. I have found the best commentators on Wittgenstein to be Peter Hacker and G.P. Baker, who have coauthored a number of papers on the subject.

    I am not going to proselytize on this issue, as I don’t really have all that much interest in it. It never even makes my list of subjects for the Intro courses I teach. But once I do weigh in, it seems indecent not to reply to questions and criticisms.


  3. Meghan Griffith writes:
    “I think some philosophers want to defend the deeper notion because it seems to them that there are cases in which it would be useful to blame someone but intuitively unjust to do so (if this is right, there may be real world reasons to care about the desert notion).”

    I don’t why, but the remark triggered in me a memory of the moment in Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” when William Munny kills the sheriff at the end. The sheriff pleads “I don’t deserve this,” and Munny remarks “Deserving’s got nothing to do with it.”

    Of course Munny at the moment is a drunken outlaw bent on revenge. But the thematic of the film place it well within the tradition of what might be called ‘post-Calvinist existentialism’ in American thought, probably the most important text of which is “Moby Dick.” Basically (oversimplifying for brevity’s sake) it’s the view that ‘god was cruel and god is dead.’ There’s a real sense that the universe is unjust by nature and any justice has to be imposed on it; and since this means the universe is unsympathetic, there need be no sympathy in meting out justice. It is a very deep vein of thought in the American consciousness.

    In this line of thought, ‘blame’ as understood as a burden of responsibility, doesn’t go deep enough. Instead, ‘blame’ equals judgment, not of act, but of character fault. It is the very person that is judged, not the act or motivation. If so, the question of free will vs. determinism may only be parenthetically remarked in passing. If one is ‘born wrong’ into a ‘bad universe,’ what does it matter if one’s will is free or pre-determined? One can only keep doing wrong and getting bad results.

    This suspicion lies at the heart of much of what I hear from co-workers concerning their view on suspected criminals and convicts; it is also carried in the heart of people I meet who fret anxiously over the suspicion that they may be among those ‘born wrong.’ I wonder that when many people say of a suspect or a convict, ‘they deserve punishment,’ if they aren’t really saying, ‘they’re born wrong; nothing else to do with them.’

    If so, that would seem to complicate the discussion concerning moral responsibility, since one aspect of the discussion is how to take it out to the public for political suasion….

    I would be interested to find out if there is anything in the literature in that discussion concerning the problem of ‘being born wrong’ as it applies to the problem of blame and justice.


  4. Massimo,
    I think the reason the term will is popular is because there are two aspects of it. There is the primary desire/motivation and then there is the ability to control, or steer it. As analogy, the elemental motivation is like the motor of a car, while “free will” and volition, are like the steering and brakes of the car.
    The term “will” originally applied to that primal motivation, as in “the will to power,” because it was seen as a function of survival. Who lived and who didn’t presumably due to who had the greater will.
    I would say free will is more analogous to the steering, as in do we really have the ability to chose between options, while volition is more the brakes. As in retrospective, did we have the ability to, or not to, take a particular course of action.
    My concern with the term free will is that the term “free” gets taken to extremes, such that it cannot be at all causal, because then it must be deterministic and there was no real choice. My issue is that we should understand and desire that causality. That there are particular and specific choices to be made, with many factors leading to and from whichever direction is taken and thus our ability to make conscious choices is an important element of the resulting consequences, i.e. what is determined and thus becomes the past, from which future actions arise.


  5. Hi Aravis,

    But the Wittgenstein/Ryle view — and mine — is not a view about the will at all, but rather about the different ways in which we classify behaviors, in a variety of social contexts.

    Again, this seems wrong to me on so many levels so that I am not sure where to begin.

    But, again, a way of classifying behaviour in any social context can simply be wrong. Take the social context of a middle class situ in the early 1970’s, someone suffering from depression would be told to ‘pull yourself together’ and the sufferer would often think he or she was weak for not being able to.

    But this way of classifying behaviour was plain wrong, the sufferer cannot just pull himself or herself together, he/she is suffering from a mental illness and needs treatment. Not only was the ‘social context’ answer wrong, it was also harmful.

    Wittgenstein has a style which, it seems to me, could best be classified as ‘thinking out loud’ and I think having “Investigations” in the title bears this out.

    But in this case it seems to lead nowhere. If ‘voluntary’ is simply a way of classifying behaviour in various social contexts then it is clearly a word whose meaning is entirely dependent upon social contexts which are many and varied and so will lead only to an endless list of meanings, most of which will have a very limited lifetime as social conventions shift.

    And what, then, does it mean to someone (like myself) who lacks the neural mechanism to process social cues? Nothing at all? Or is the absence of a social anchor itself a social context for the purposes of this kind of analysis?

    In any case, this path can have no interest for me in the kinds of questions I have about the topic. I agree that philosophers tend to be confused about the terminology. For example the ‘dilemma’ you keep mentioning is entirely an artifact of such a confusion. Which is why I prefer the path of asking simpler, more direct questions. There can be no perfect language but we do what we can. If we can’t clarify a term then we abandon it and find another way of asking the question.

    Sometimes it is a case that when we have no answer, we just don’t know.


  6. John Smith,

    Sorry, no, by the customary use of the word even cabbages decide how many resources to channel toward root growth and how many towards shoot growth, so there is no reason why an unconscious decision would not be a decision.

    But that is all besides the point anyway, which is that your (and other incompatibilists’) position depends on considering the higher consciousness, and only the higher consciousness, to be “me”. But that is just mind-body dualism through the back door. You have unexaminedly accepted a faulty, religion-derived premise and reason from there. In reality, I am the whole body, and thus a sentence like “my subconscious brain circuits make a decision for me” is as much gibberish as “this flame here does the burning for the bushfire”. It should read “I make a decision for me” because I am also my subconscious brain circuits. Perhaps reconsider my examples about seeing and walking?


    Funnily enough, I see the question-begging exactly on the other side.

    At the very best I can see that people would want to restrict the concept of consciousness to those decisions that we make at the highest level of awareness: choosing a major at university or deciding what we estimate to be the most efficient travel route as opposed to ducking instinctively when a ball is hurled at our head. But if we use this definition then a question like “why or how did it evolve” sounds rather silly. There is an obvious trade-off involved between the speed with which a decision can be reached and the soundness of the decision. To arrive at better decisions in a complex environment it is advantageous to be able to cogitate more carefully.

    I guess those who think that it is utterly astonishing that consciousness exists would ask at this stage why an organism cannot do that careful cogitation without being conscious. But that is where they are begging the question, because to me it seems as if that is simply impossible. The careful cogitation is consciousness. They could just as well ask why organisms cannot respirate without exchanging gases; and then, when confronted with the reply that respiration is gas exchange, they would perhaps say, no, that isn’t sufficient, there must be something extra because respiration is so terribly mysterious. Well, the burden of evidence is on those who postulate an extra for which there is no evidence, no need, and not even a clear definition.


  7. Massimo,
    You may not be a fan of Sartre (or Nietzsche or Heidegger) but I think that a book that calls itself Free Will: the Basics is somewhat benighted if it fails to discuss the philosophers whose thoughts on the subject have been more influential on pervasive attitudes of Main Street towards action and choice for the last century than anything coming from the analytical tradition.


  8. Marvin,

    “So the philosophy professors wish to first make science and now jurisprudence so complex and confusing that only the philosophy department remains functional? (Their function is to assure that every idea and every author is carefully documented and studied before anyone can arrive at the truth. And then, when someone states a simple truth they will sit on the sidelines attempting to undermine it with uncertainty). Hey! What do you mean my “bias”?”

    I have absolutely no idea why you think that because the law is recognizing the importance of the philosophical discussion on free will philosophy departments/faculty have some kind of malicious intent for academic dominance (they want to be the only department that remains functional). Additionally this could quite literally be a textbook example of an ad hominem..

    As for the rest of your post, I am sorry but I really don’t understand what any of it has to do with what I was telling you- that its clear that the law is becoming much more complicated than you seemed to think in regards to free will (as indicated by your first, or one of your first, posts).

    Maybe this has something to do with the concerns I had for summarizing the relevant parts of the paper for you..oh well.


    Thanks for the reference. I will check out the book so that I can offer informed comments when you bring up wittgenstein on here.

    p.s- that’s pretty cool that we both shared Crispin Wright as an undergrad professor. Small philosophical world 🙂


  9. Daniel Tippens & Marvin Edwards –

    “A volitional excuse is an excuse that removes culpability because the agen’t didn’t have the “ability to do otherwise.” ”

    “In summary, you said, “In the judicial system (and pretty much any other meaningful communication between non-philosophers) free will simply is a decision you make on your own without the coercion of someone else.”

    However, it looks like since what it means to “make a decision on you own” has clearly different senses being appealed to in the law, the matter of free will in the judicial system isn’t so “simple” after all.”

    Dr Novella in his blog Neurologica a couple of weeks ago went through “another” study on persuasion with awful results for Harvard student given false memories. The details of the persuasive techniques escape me, and they will inevitably escape the law “at times” too, because they are legion! But the law will look at them.

    If a bunch of Harvard student can devise techniques to fool their colleagues with something like 78% embedding of false memories, from memory, by novel techniques for a new experiment, then ponzie schemes will never die. There will always be someone to buy Brooklyn Bridge.

    One thing is for sure, there is no general excuse for succumbing to “persuasion”. In civil law, the loss lies where it falls, and the law takes no part unless it falls within fairly well known limits . In criminal law it is no excuse for wrong action, but you can always plea on sentencing. The traditional notion of coercion arises when there is no “ability” to do otherwise,

    As I said earlier, persuasion is a fact of life for humans. We are continually open to our own neural cycle being interruppted, because at the exact moment you interface a hypnotist, you are unaware of the moves you make. Mind you, he is likewise, because he faces the same delay to his own processing of exact interfaces, but he knows it, and and he relentlessly pumps you in his preset direction. Poor audience, Harvard student, or man ofn the Clapham Omnibus – all open at all times. Not a problem. “Sufficient” discipline required. “Sufficient” identity! Never perfect, often persuaded, loves its species, so what? Take care!


  10. “As for the existentialists in general, I always thought they subscribed to a naive view of human nature, way overestimating the actual degrees of freedom we have to make decisions and shape our lives.”

    I may be a hopeful existentialist at heart: We humans can create more of our future than many may think. (And I don’t want to get the idea that the Koch brothers direction of $889 million into the 2016 election will be what shapes our lives.)


  11. Actually the term ‘free will’ seems like a fairly reasonable description of what we, at least, seem to have.

    ‘Will’ because we seem to be intentionally acting and ‘free’ because it always seems as though there is more than one thing we can do and no obvious reason why there isn’t.

    Meanwhile I am starting to read Meghan’s book.


  12. Gadfly,
    Dennett … the older I get and the more he writes, the less he impresses me
    As I’ve said before, if there is no Cartesian meaner, why is there still a Cartesian free willer?

    I am afraid you have missed the point and gone off at a tangent. I was pointing to the book by Alfred Meler (Free: Why science hasn’t disproved free will) and merely used a review by Dennett as a conduit to that end. What you think about Dennett is beside the point. Did you read the review?

    In the conclusion to his book, Meler says (page 91)

    There are people—including some philosophers—who say that modest free will isn’t really free will; it’s too modest. Some readers may agree with them while others disagree. In my writing on free will, I’ve always been officially neutral on this issue. But I’ve argued (in Autonomous Agents and in Free Will and Luck) that the claim that free will exists is more credible than the claim that it doesn’t.
    In a more recent book, Effective Intentions (2009), I’ve argued that this position of mine isn’t undermined by the allegedly most threatening scientific discoveries—discoveries that are supposed to show that free will is an illusion. I’ve argued for the same thing in this book. If there is an illusion in the neighborhood, it’s the illusion that there’s strong scientific evidence for the nonexistence of free will.
    So, you ask, does free will exist? If you mean what I call modest free will, I say yes without hesitation. If you mean what I call ambitious free will, I say the jury is still out. In fact, this point about the jury is the main moral of this book. Scientists most definitely have not proved that free will—even ambitious free will—is an illusion. For all we know now, ambitious free will is widespread. If it isn’t, at least modest free will is.

    For space reasons I cannot reproduce even a summarised version of his arguments, so I can only recommend that you read the book. It is simple, short(112 pages) and accessible.


  13. Hi Aravis,

    … substantial development of the idea that free will belongs to the social level of description, rather than the psychological one, …

    I agree with you that the proper starting point for thinking about “free will” is that it is a social construct all about social interactions. This is the standard compatibilist account, where “free will” is exemplified by phrases such as: “did you sign this confession of your own free will or were you tortured?”.

    I also agree with you that is it completely wrong-headed to look for some “special” sort of causation, such as a dualistic soul or quantum-mechanical nondeterminacy, that distinguishes “free will” actions from other actions.

    They are denying that “voluntary” and “involuntary” describe antecedent mental events …

    But, I don’t agree that psychological and neuroscience levels of description are entirely irrelevant. Social-interactions result from individual psychological states, and the different psychological state of a person signing a confession out of guilt, versus their signing a confession under torture, is entirely real and pertinent.

    Further, those psychological states will be particular patterns of neural-network activity, and thus — in principle — a sufficiently advanced account of the neuroscience might be able to tell you the person’s state of mind, and hence whether the person signing the confession did feel coerced.

    Thus, a complete account of all of this would involve all such levels, since there would not be a difference at the social-interaction level without differences at the pattern-of-neural-activity level. The idea that there could be no difference whatsoever, at the neural-network level, and yet significant differences in social interactions, could be labelled “anti-science”, since it conflicts with basic scientific ideas about how the world works (e.g. supervenience physicalism).

    Having said that, I reiterate that I agree that the primary level of properly understanding “free will” is at the social-interaction level.

    … I don’t actually think compatibilism is a viable position.

    Where do you see your position as differing from compatibilism and why do you see compatibilism as not viable? As other commenters have said, what you’ve outlined seems fairly close to a standard compatibilist account.


  14. @Coel

    Where do you see your position as differing from compatibilism and why do you see compatibilism as not viable? As other commenters have said, what you’ve outlined seems fairly close to a standard compatibilist account.

    He’s explained this a couple of times. You can’t be a compatibilist if you reject the whole framing of the issue as being about the antecedent causes of actions. To be a compatibilist at all, you have to accept this framing. I don’t know how much more different something could be than rejecting the entire way the problem is framed.


  15. Robin: I’m afraid I really don’t understand your criticism at all. I don’t see why our social descriptions have to be infallible in order for it to be true that our ascriptions of free will are bound up with certain other descriptions we make at the social level, rather than referring to antecedent states of mind. But that’s OK. As I said, I don’t really care enough about this issue, as it is traditionally conceived, to proselytize.

    Coel: Certainly, neurology will tell us why my arm moved at T1 and why it moved at T2 and perhaps, the reason for its moving at T1 will be different from the reason for its moving at T2. What it cannot tell us, of course, is why the movement at T1 carries the sort of social significance that’s involved with calling it “free”, while the movement at T2 does not. And notice, by the way, that the descriptions you invoke — “signing something” “out of guilt” “under coercion” and the like, are not physical descriptions, but social and moral ones. What makes a series of motor movements *count* as “signing something” or a series of neurological events *count* as “guilt” is not anything the physical sciences can tell us — yet another reason why reductionism is false.

    As for the rest, I do not accept your brand of reductionism, so your label of “anti-science” is just that … *your* label … and thus, I am afraid, is of little interest. As for why Wittgenstein’s view isn’t equivalent to compatibilism, I’ve explained that several times already and will not explain it again, so you will have to find an answer elsewhere.


  16. I am enjoying all the differing viewpoints and expect I will be processing them for sometime.

    One thing that often bothers me in the many free will (or volition) discussions I see is the emphasis on active notion of ‘making’ a choice. It think discussions might be more productive if the emphasis of the application of our awareness or will went the other way towards being ‘receptive’ to possible choice options.

    I remember seeing some research from psychology a while back that showed posing the question to ourselves ‘will I – do whatever ‘, was more effective in overcoming procrastination than attempting to take an affirmative ‘I will – do whatever’ intentional stance. The former allows the wisdom of the better long term choice to come to us, while with the latter we are forcing our will which may be to difficult to sustain and also less effective with regard to eventually aligning our intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. I think choices that emerge from a receptive mindset are no less ‘mine’ than those we think of actively ‘making’. I guess I am suggesting that the greatest freedom in choice making lies not in the ‘making’ of the choice but in our capacity to consider alternatives.

    I the more ‘receptive’ approach may also better fit with the physics & neuroscience descriptions like the two phase model Marko was alluding to on the other thread where will might be associated with the generation of novel options.


  17. Aravis Tarkheena: “Free will, in my view — and according to my understanding of Wittgenstein and Ryle — is misplaced as a concept belonging to the philosophy of mind or psychology. Rather, it is a concept that belongs entirely to the social levels of description and discourse — …”


    With the tongue in cheeks, one can always make zillion infallible evidences for a totally wrong idea. Yet, none of those infallible evidences is able to make contact or connection to any known facts. Thus, a conclusion which is reached via many different pathways increases its chance being right zillion folds right the way. Aravis has reached a conclusion via linguistics while it is also the conclusion of many other pathways; then, Aravis cannot be wrong.

    Does any deterministic framework (strong causal/effect, absolutely determined laws, etc.) must result a predetermined outcome? Absolutely NOT.

    During a mountain climbing, a rock fell with the trajectory of hitting Mr. John. Yet, it was bounced by a small tree branch, and it killed Mr. Smith who was only one foot on the left of Mr. John. The rock trajectory is totally deterministic; yet the outcome is altered by a boundary condition.

    In fact, in every POINT on the arrow of time, it has only one history (past, as the collapse of probabilities) but with zillion (infinite) probabilities as the future pathways. This simple fact was and still is mistaken as the ‘superposition’ in quantum physics and as multiverse, etc.

    No, not only is deterministic framework not demanded to produce a predetermined outcome but the variety of probabilities must be the consequence of deterministic. The mutability can only emerge from the immutability. This is not a philosophic idea or a metaphysical hypothesis; it is the physics-process (mechanism) which provides the STEPS for the calculations for the precise values of all nature constants. I have showed this many times and thus will not repeat it here.

    Thus, any argument about the determinism for the free-will issue is not needed and is wrong.

    “Free” and “Will (= intelligence + consciousness)” are physics issues. The empirically perceived free-will in human is only an expression of the Free/Will of physics. The ‘will to live’ of an apple tree is also such a manifestation. Thus, the decisions and choices are only expressions, not the essence. Then, the brain is only a device which implements these expressions; the brain is many tiers removed from the essence of free-will.

    Furthermore, the only way to understand this free-will device is by knowing two points.

    One, what is intelligence and consciousness (IC).

    Two, what kind of mechanism can implement this IC?

    The Libet type of work does not touch these two points. A paper on this was recommended by Dr. Paula Tallal and Dr. Ian Creese of Rutgers University, see .


  18. Hi Aravis,

    Certainly, neurology will tell us why my arm moved at T1 and why it moved at T2 and perhaps, the reason for its moving at T1 will be different from the reason for its moving at T2. What it cannot tell us, of course, is why the movement at T1 carries the sort of social significance that’s involved with calling it “free”, while the movement at T2 does not.

    Here I would disagree — though the disagreement stems from our differing views on reductionism. If the two movements do have different social significance, then, I assert, it must be because they are accompanied by different brain states.

    Thus, I assert, the brain state — the neurological pattern-of-material in the brain — is very different in the case of a bank cashier who is moving her arm to place money in a bag because a bank-robber is pointing a gun at her, from that of the bank cashier who is doing exactly the same action illicitly in order to pay for her holiday.

    That difference in brain state, being a different pattern of material, is in-principle detectable and analyzable by neuroscience. Thus I disagree with your suggestion that there is no brain-level mental correlate to “free-will” actions and other socially significant actions.

    And notice, by the way, that the descriptions you invoke — “signing something” “out of guilt” “under coercion” and the like, are not physical descriptions, but social and moral ones.

    Yes they are social and moral prescriptions, but they must have physical correlates. The different states such as “feeling guilt” versus “feeling coerced” must be caused by different patterns of ions whizzing around neural networks. Thus they are also physical states, in addition to being social and moral ones. Each level of description meshes with and complements the others in a full analysis.


  19. Alexander Schmidt-Lebuhn “No, I am not just a conscious mind being carried around by a body, I am the body doing the carrying, the seeing, the digesting, and the deciding.

    Does that help?”

    I forgot to respond to that part of your reply. I disagreed with the “decision” definition, but you have the interpretation correct on the Homunculus. Its just the body using neurons to do the thinking. Your arm, along with all other parts, is continributing to thought and benefitting from it inevitably to function nicely. Neurons within anatomy to facilitate psychology within biology to represent it). The only issue is ascribing correct value to each anatomical site of function to concepts – eye clearly spatially sliced, ears clearly temporally sequenced, all across anatomy for their conceptual contributions.

    Neurons reveal the value of your body when representing it faithfully, automatically, rapidly, continually, for those functions to work at maual rates in a manual world – including thoughts (quickly created, but pretty slow, manual stuff, like bodily movement). There is great value in it, but it wouldn’t be indpendent “up there”, with control by a Homunculus little man “brain” making conceptual decisions – just automatic fidelity. But it is intact, and it can be disabled, diseased, and strangey conditioned. Not independent, but we are completely dependent on its intact capacities for automatic processing, subject to conditioning. Autonomic functions might be sufficient for conceptual though using established patterns by pasticity, such is its intact flexibility, in a coma!

    Thats my 5 comments done


  20. Hi Aravis, Wittgenstein has always been esoteric to the point of opaque to me, so I’m glad you are able to give me a better insight into his work.

    While (I think) I understand the social angle at this point, I guess I would disagree with (him) on an entirely social understanding of free will. Your description of a neuroscientific view I think is a bit unfair.

    Let’s say someone has seizures. Neuroscientists are pretty good at identifying that phenomena as something not in keeping with normal brain function, though it may produce many limb movements. People report that it is not within their control. Is this not something indicative of a loss of will, in a physical sense?

    Wittgenstein may have the ability to say he will raise his arm and it raises. What of those who say they will and can’t, or those who say they won’t and do? Is there no use peering under the hood for this?


  21. dbholmes: “What of those who say they will and can’t, or those who say they won’t and do?”

    The failure of execution of a will does not annihilate that will. The over-powered will is not an annihilated will. There is a total confusion about the will and its power of execution and success.

    Will is a stance, not a decision nor a choice. Free will is a stance which cannot be annihilated by all means, and that is that.


  22. I didn’t want to enter the discussion concerning Wittgenstein, but I thought a different perspective would, if not clarify the matter, provide a variant articulation for consideration.

    Semiotically, Wittgenstein is right. “Free Will” signifiers (and related semiophores) form part of an explanation of behavior that (per Morse Peckham, following clear indications in Peirce, James, and Mead), directs responses to the behavior explained. Thus in common usage, it matters not whether there is any such thing as free will, but what responses are expected given the ascription. Such response is not univocal or universal, since the significance is always produced within a context of other signifiers, and contingent upon these. This means that there are always other explanations possible, and other explanations to be accounted for. ‘Sam moved my arm’ or ‘neurological damage leaves me unable to move my arm’ are such possible other explanations. They can be produced to support free will: ‘I would move my arm but neurological damage prevents me’ – or to deny it: ‘obviously neurology proves no free will’, but again this depends on the context. The significance of the former claim appears in fairly common contexts, such as, ‘help me out of this chair,’ the latter occurs usually in intellectual discussions such we are having here. But in common practice, there is no difference between ‘I raise my arm’ and ‘my arm is raised,’ except within a given context, which. assuming it would be understood by those involved, would then follow ‘language game’ protocols, per Wittgenstein.

    I have always wished Wittgenstein had used the word ‘semiotics,’ but he never did.

    At any rate, the question, ‘what has this to do with whether there is free will or not?’ is answered with another: ‘is the question of whether or not there’s free will a meaningful question?’ Pragmatically it is, in the sense that people are asking it, but its intrinsic value may be found lacking – since the issue is human behavior, ‘free will or not’ may simply be the wrong question to ask of it.

    Two other notes: I agree with Massimo that we should discuss volition rather than ‘free will’ since that term clearly has a lot of unfiltered baggage.

    I also think astrodreamer raises an important point. Whatever one thinks of Nietzsche, or Sartre, or even Heidegger, these thinkers have had considerable influence on the arts, and through the arts the general culture. Perhaps not a healthy influence, as Bloom argued concerning Heidegger, but influence nonetheless. So it’s not clear that refusing to engage them on the topic of free will works in the interests of Analytic philosophy. There have been novels and films and paintings and poetry clearly influenced by these thinkers; name one film influenced by Fodor or one novel influenced by Dennett.

    I think a discussion worth having here is how the Analytic tradition can (re)integrate with the arts and the larger culture that forms the audience for the arts.


  23. Hi Tienzengong, to be fair I wasn’t claiming it was annihilated. The fact is that some mechanical actions of the body are not the result of a “decision being made” by the normally functioning system. This doesn’t have to be disease either. You have reflexes which are built in. I wouldn’t say that my leg jerking when the area under my kneecap is struck is an annihilation of my will. Just that it has nothing to do with my will at all.

    In some cases there are gross movements/behaviors of the body (epilepsy, Tourette syndrome) which have nothing to do with with an execution of your will, and can act counter to it. This is not an annihiliation of Will, but certainly becomes and impairment of a “free” will. So the Tourette’s patient can rightly say I didn’t mean to do that, it was not my decision to do that, and it was beyond my ability to stop it.

    While I would agree that (at least while one is alive and with sufficient brain capacity) one’s will cannot be annihilated, I think there are conditions (locked in syndrome) which effectively annihilate “free” will.

    Hi ejwinner, that was an interesting analysis of the language-context involved.

    “I agree with Massimo that we should discuss volition rather than ‘free will’ since that term clearly has a lot of unfiltered baggage.”

    While I wouldn’t fight such a move, I disagree that it would be of much use and so it should be done. I believe it was pointed out in another free will thread that volition is simply switching the etymological language base for the same word. It basically means the same thing. That said… volition sounds cooler.


  24. Dwayne, I think using the word volition would accomplish more than just a cosmetic change: it would get rid of the persistent implication that the will is “free,” particularly of the contra-causal implication that is so often associated with the word.


  25. Hi Massimo, while I understand the intention, I have a feeling that it will end up back in the same place we are now.

    Let’s say we use volition, then LFW proponents introduce “true” or “ultimate” or why not “libertarian” volition. I guess one advantage is that I don’t need an extra word (compatibilist) to differentiate it from LV, but then (I suspect) there will be Coyne types who accuse me of trying to prop up some sort of ‘volition” at all. How can one have volition, when it is the brain doing the controlling… and then I am back where I started from.

    Ok, so maybe I am being too pessimistic? Like I said, I wouldn’t fight that move. And it sounds cooler. Do you see ways around the above issue?


  26. Using my last reply to correct some points made by Coel:

    1. Your comment regarding the person who confesses something while being tortured, versus someone who confesses something, under no such circumstances, reveals that you simply don’t understand the Wittgensteinian/Rylean point. It is precisely statements like “so and so was being tortured, before he confessed” which, if true, lead us to say things like “the confession is inadmissible” and “it’s not his fault.” But not because of the underlying neurology. Suppose that in the case of a human, being tortured causes the occurrence of neural state H. On your view, the *reason* why we absolve the person, regardless of his confession, is because he was in neural state H. But, of course, suppose we met aliens, who behaved in exactly the same manner that we do, with the same culture and the like, but suppose they are made of a different material, such that when tortured, they are in silicon state S. We would still absolve them, regardless of their confession. And that’s because the relevant issue is whether they are being tortured and the *role* that being tortured plays in the language game of moral and legal responsibility. It’s *not* because of the juices moving around their respective heads.

    2. You continue to mistakenly allege the possibility of type reduction, despite your constant insistence that yours is nothing more than a “supervenience physicalism,” which, given the number of times this has been explained to you, can only suggest a profound lack of understanding of the relevant concepts. There are *no* one-to-one correlates of physical state types to psychological state types or sociological state types, because psychological and sociological state types are physically heterogeneous. For every mental token, certainly, there is a physical token correlate — we’re not substance dualists — but this gets you very little, other than the weakest, supervenience, and certainly does *not* get you any sort of relationship between psychological/social *laws* and the laws of any physical science. And where there is no correlates of laws, there are no correlate *explanations*. Hence, the *autonomy* of social scientific explanations.

    Well, that’s my last reply. If you come back — as undoubtedly you will — I will not be able to respond. While I have no illusions that this will convince you, given how many times we’ve gone around this merry-go-round, hopefully, it will help others to not be confused.


  27. Asher Kay,

    Thanks for the link to Adina Roskies on Philosophy Bites. I like her distinction between the timing of conscious intention and the timing of the meta-cognition which is awareness of the conscious intention. But that said, I think the foremost issue in Libet’s study is that the RP is probably something very like an urge to move. Given the experimental setup, the subject is implicitly directed to move only when she feels a “random” urge. So we should very much expect to see a brain process which precedes the conscious intention.


    Nice review, thanks. And thanks to Meghan Griffith for writing the book in the first place.


  28. @Aravis

    We would still absolve them, regardless of their confession. And that’s because the relevant issue is whether they are being tortured and the *role* that being tortured plays in the language game of moral and legal responsibility. It’s *not* because of the juices moving around their respective heads.

    I think the question a lot of people will have here is why an explanation at the level of social discourse should be considered complete. Someone being tortured has a role (or several) in the language game of responsibility, but the reasons why it has this role are also important to us, because we very often end up justifying it in terms of physical facts. We would probably ask, for example, if silicon beings felt pain, and we’d appeal to physical facts to support our judgements. So I think a lot of people would see a sort of explanatory vaccum here between the causal world and language games.

    Which is not to say that the Wittgensteinian/Rylean view is wrong – but I don’t know if your explanation will help to clear up confusion on the matter.

    There are *no* one-to-one correlates of physical state types to psychological state types or sociological state types, because psychological and sociological state types are physically heterogeneous.

    Though this is the lynchpin of a certain kind of anti-reductionist argument, I think it strikes people intuitively that mental processes can be similar while still heterogeneous in their physical particulars, and that similarity might be sufficient to make “laws” (or at least behavioral biases) generalizable for complex systems. In philosophy, work on trope nominalism – one way to make sense of token heterogeneity – is not easily dismissed.

    Though I don’t expect Coel to make a trope-nominalist case ;).


  29. Morning Aravis,

    On your view, the *reason* why we absolve the person, regardless of his confession, is because he was in neural state H.

    Well no, not “the” reason, as though that level of description is privileged over others. Let me quote myself saying: “I agree that the primary level of properly understanding “free will” is at the social-interaction level”, and “each level of description meshes with and complements the others in a full analysis”.

    Thus I would say that the reason why we absolve the person *can* (in principle) be described at the neural-state level, and it can be described at other levels (e.g. social interaction), and that all of these descriptions need to mesh consistently.

    And that’s because the relevant issue is whether they are being tortured and the *role* that being tortured plays in the language game of moral and legal responsibility. It’s *not* because of the juices moving around their respective heads.

    Your stance treats the neural-level stuff as independent and irrelevant. My stance treats all levels as relevant and intertwined. For example, most of us would agree that if a person acts criminally out-of-character owing to a brain tumour, then the moral culpability is lessened. How can one explain that unless the neural-level juices flowing around is equally pertinent?

    You continue to mistakenly allege the possibility of type reduction, despite your constant insistence that yours is nothing more than a “supervenience physicalism,”

    No I don’t, I really am asking for nothing more than supervenience physicalism. Given that, the different mental states of “feeling guilty” versus “being tortured” must have physical correlates at the neural-network level. Given that, one can also (in principle) describe the system at that level.

    There are *no* one-to-one correlates of physical state types to psychological state types …

    So? I don’t ask for a one-to-one mapping! You keep accusing me of asking for this, and regularly rehash your refutations of the idea. But I’ve never asked for it in the first place!

    For every mental token, certainly, there is a physical token correlate …


    … but this gets you very little, other than the weakest, supervenience, …

    Which is all I’m asking for!

    And where there is no correlates of laws, there are no correlate *explanations*. Hence, the *autonomy* of social scientific explanations.

    Well no, I don’t agree that physical heterogeneity is sufficient to break all explanatory links and thus produce autonomy of the higher level.

    Early on when we first discussed this I pointed to the example of a phonon, a physical phenomenon that is multiply realisable in many different physical substrates. Despite being multiply realisable, the higher-level description is sufficiently similar in the different contexts (the same mathematical description can be used) that we can sensibly talk about a “phonon” as being the same phenomenon but in different substrates.

    But this multiple realisability does not break chains of explanation; indeed the whole power of physics is in linking explanations across these levels of descriptions, upwards and downwards. No-one treats sound-waves in lattices as an “autonomous” subject from the rest of physics, just because it is multiply realisable.

    While I have no illusions that this will convince you, given how many times we’ve gone around this merry-go-round, hopefully, it will help others to not be confused.

    In the hope of moving the conversation on, any chance you could note that I am not asking for one-to-one mapping, that I’m entirely ok with multiple realisability (as my phonon example, first mentioned in a reply to you months ago, should make clear), and that I really am asking only for supervenience physicalism?

    That, alone, has profound consequences for understanding the world. In this context it means that there will be physical correlates to different mental states, and thus that one can, in principle, produce a complementary description in those terms.


  30. Using my last comment, I would repeat the point that our decision making process is a factor in that which reduces probability to actuality, i.e.. what was future becoming past. Are we free to make decisions? Yes. Are we free from the consequences of those decisions? No. When one is driving down the road, can one simply steer off into the field. Yes. Will one suffer the consequences of that decision, to make it not worth the experiment? Yes.
    We exist in that complex state between the “chaos” of the future and the “order” of the past. Even cellular automata have shown that there can be no shortcuts to processing the outcome of what is presumably a deterministic result. As Wolfram put it, It would take a computer the size of the universe to compute the universe. There are no shortcuts. Determination is an effect of causality, not the basis for it. There is no grand bloc time, along which we are destined to travel. Time is an effect of the changing configuration of what physically exists, i.e. the present. There are causal factors, but until the input into these events arrives at the point of occurrence and that event actually happens, there is no determination. It is effect!
    We can project that narrative of hindsight onto the future, but that doesn’t make it determined. It is just how our minds like to work. Chaos is physically disturbing and we like to extract signals from it, to create mental order, as well as physical order.


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