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Free Will


"How might we be changed by dwelling intensely on the view that ultimate responsibility is impossible?"  - Galen Strawson, "Luck Swallows Everything," Times Literary Supplement, June 26, 1998

Why the focus on free will at the Center for Naturalism?

A word of explanation is in order about why free will is so often the focus at the Center for Naturalism (CFN) and Naturalism.Org. It's simply because debates about free will centrally involve human nature and human agency, matters of considerable practical and existential importance. The naturalist doesn't suppose human beings, complex and multi-talented though they are, transcend causal laws and explanations in their behavior. The naturalist view is therefore directly at odds with the widespread culturally-transmitted assumption in the West that human agents have supernatural souls with contra-causal free will. Souls are causally privileged over their surroundings, little first causes, little gods: each of us has the power to have done otherwise in the exact situation in which we didn't do otherwise. Since this assumption expresses itself in our concepts of blame, credit, responsibility, self-worth and deservingness, to challenge it has all sorts of ramifications, personal, social and political. To my knowledge, the CFN is the only organization that is drawing out and publicizing the progressive, humanistic implications of the science-based denial of contra-causal free will. Until other organizations get involved, we remain the only non-profit advocate of no free will enlightenment, of freedom from free will. Which explains our emphasis on it here and at other pages at Naturalism.Org. - TWC

For a reasonably comprehensive summary of where the CFN stands on free will, see
Fully Caused: Coming to Terms With Determinism.

Contents (most recent at the top):

  • Sam Harris replies to Dennett

  • Dan Dennett reviews Sam Harris's Free Will

  • Experience and autonomy: why consciousness does and doesn't matter - chapter for Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility, Greg Caruso, editor.

  • The Rise of the New Determinists - review of Richard Oerton's The Nonsense of Free Will

  • Physicist Victor Stenger on free will at Skeptic Magazine.

  • Juno Walker reviews Julian Baggini's The Ego Trick

  • Daniel Dennett reviews Bruce Waller's Against Moral Responsibility

  • Exchange on Waller (Clark/Dennett/Waller)

  • Tom Clark reviews Bruce Waller's Against Moral Responsibility

  • Juno Walker reviews Sam Harris's Free Will

  • Three Threats to Autonomy: Why Consciousness Does and Doesn't Matter

  • Scientific Naturalism and the Illusion of Free Will - interview with D.J. Grothe at Center for Inquiry's Point of Inquiry.

  • Free Will Roundup, 2010 - commentary on recent developments.

  • Freedom From Free Will - blog at NPR's 13.7 Culture and Cosmos.

  • Scripting the Future - spacetime and the nature of control.

  • Free Will Skepticism: Where Are the Skeptics? - a good debunking needed.

  • Fully Caused: Coming to Terms With Determinism - universal determinism may very well not be the case, but the assumption that there are reliable cause and effect relationships among events is indispensable.

  • Heading Off the Revolution - should criminal justice be reformed in light of our not having contra-causal free will?

  • The Personal Benefits of Free Will Skepticism - Tamler Sommers on why doubting libertarian free will and ultimate moral responsibility is good for us, practically and psychologically.

  • Don't Forget About Me - avoiding demoralization by determinism.

  • Holding Mechanisms Responsible - even if consciousness isn't all its cracked up to be, we must still hold each other responsible, compassionately.

  • The Scandal of Compatibilism - a review of Four Views on Free Will.

  • Free Will is Dead - Long Live Free Will! - a lively capsule version of Steven Converse's views, showing the futility of supernatural will.

  • When Choice Is King - supposing that human choices are the unconditioned causes of action keeps us in the dark about behavior.

  • Denying the Little God of Free Will - an open letter to the atheist community.  

  • Is Free Will Incredible? - not at all, says Tibor Machan, but his doubts are showing.

  • Soul and Free Will Roundup - seems as if there's growing public awareness of the naturalistic challenge to free will, and of the benefits in giving up the dualism of the soul.

  • An Overview of the Agency Problem - chapter 1 of The Spontaneous Self: Viable Alternatives to Free Will, by Paul Breer. 

  • Doubting Free Will: The Argument from Celebrity-Authority - the extent to which some of our most famous philosophical and political progenitors, including Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, were skeptical about contra-causal free will is not widely known.  This needs fixing.

  • Free Will: The Last Great Lie - A terrific debunking of contra-causal free will that explores the humanistic implications of naturalism, by attorney Robert Gulack, presented to the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County, NJ.   Among other things, we discover that Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson were skeptics about free will.  Other good talks by Gulack are here (on time) and here (on ethics). 

  • Call Off the Hobbits - some think that by acknowledging our causal connections to nature, naturalism threatens human freedom, power, dignity and creativity.  But that’s only if we suppose we have the logically impossible freedom of being self-caused selves.  Natural autonomy gives us everything we might reasonably want as human agents.

  • Hodgson's Black Box - A reply to David Hodgson's target article "A plain person's free will" in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, V 12, #1.

  • Darrow and Determinism:  Giving Up Ultimate Responsibility - Tamler Sommers at the University of Houston argues that Clarence Darrow had it right: we aren't ultimately responsible for ourselves, and seeing that can help free us from indignation, outrage, resentment, and hatred 

  • Davies' Really Dangerous Idea - An analysis of physicist Paul Davies’ worry about free will in which two types of freedom are described, one supernatural and one natural.  Only one, it turns out, is necessary for all we hold near and dear.  And the other is widely discounted by scientists and philosophers developing a naturalistic view of ourselves. 

  • Free Will in the News - A selection of excerpts from news stories that refer to free will in various contexts.  They illustrate how the term is used, and how beliefs in free will function as a background assumption in justifying attitudes and social policies.

  • Living Without Ultimate Moral Responsibility - Philosopher Galen Strawson is interviewed by Tamler Sommers on what it would mean to free ourselves from mistaken beliefs in ultimate freedom and moral responsibility.   Living with the truth that such things don't exist, although perhaps difficult at first, might bring considerable psychological and social benefits. 

  • Free Will Panic - Sheldon Richman, of the Future of Freedom Foundation, illustrates the sometimes panicked reaction to neuroscience ("the muck of reductionism") by those who suppose that without contra-causal, ultimate freedom, all is lost.  But on due consideration, there's no need to panic.

  • Losing Faith in Free Will - On the last day of 2002, science writer John Horgan wrote a piece on free will for the New York Times science section, entitled "More Than Good Intentions: Holding Fast to Faith in Free Will."   However, under pressure from research that challenges the notion of a mental agent independent of deterministic neural processes, Horgan admits that his faith in free will might be wavering.  My recommendation, of course, is that he lose this unnecessary faith altogether, and get comfortable with the idea that our freedom and dignity don't require us to be uncaused, non-physical, or otherwise mysterious agents. 

  • Is Free Will a Necessary Fiction? - Philosopher Saul Smilansky thinks that belief in free will, which he concedes doesn't exist, is necessary to provide essential support for morality, meaning, and the worth of human beings.  I argue that he is mistaken on all counts, and that we would be better off morally and existentially without believing the falsehood that we have free will.   Moreover, Smilansky's view entails a massive, world-wide project of systematic deception about our causal connection to nature, which is neither possible, necessary, nor desirable. Free will is not a necessary fiction, and making known the naturalistic truth about ourselves is a far better basis for human flourishing.

  • Recent Writings on the Self and Free Will - These writings by mainstream authors show that Naturalism.Org is neither unique nor crazy in suggesting that 1) we don’t have free will and  2) we’d be better off if we made our peace with this fact and adjusted our beliefs and social practices accordingly.

  • Science and Freedom - Some fear that science, by revealing the causes of behavior, will undermine traditional concepts of freedom and responsibility, leaving us with no moral recourse.  Science indeed undermines the traditional libertarian notion of free will, but there are viable concepts of freedom and responsibility which are compatible with a scientific understanding of ourselves.  The compatibilist view of moral responsibility underwrites moral judgments, but it also suggests we invest our energies in addressing the causes of evil and criminality instead of imposing unnecessarily harsh punishments which simply perpetuate the cycle of violence.  Published in Free Inquiry, Spring 2002.

  • Exchanges on Free Will - 1) Unitarian Reverend Joel Miller provides a thoughtful essay in which he grapples with the ominous implications of science for the sort of free will he supposes we must have.  But is it really the case, as he puts it, that "if free will is an illusion, then this church and this nation exist for nothing?"  To see why not, click here.  2) William R. Clark, co-author of Are We Hardwired? suggests that free will is a matter of indeterminacy or unpredictability generated by chaotic processes in the brain.  But how can such free will give us moral responsibility if we ourselves can't predict what we'll do next?  This dialog explores a naturalistic alternative to the rather dubious liberty that might be conferred by randomness.

  • Fear of Mechanism: A Compatibilist Critique of "The Volitional Brain" - This essay appeared in the Journal of Consciousness Studies' special issue on free will, The Volitional Brain: Towards a Neuroscience of Free Will, later released as a book with that title. The article is largely a commentary on the issue's contents, with a partisan objective.  It serves somewhat to balance the influence of editor-neuroscientist Benjamin Libet, as well as some other libertarian contributors, who are bent, it seems, on discovering contra-causal free will somewhere in the brain.  The libertarians and their evident fear of mechanism are a good foil to showcase a humanistic determinism which has all the necessary resources, I argue, to support our ethical intuitions and which might also soften punitive and ego-driven attitudes that permeate our culture.

  • How to Cope with Creeping Mechanism - This tries to take the curse off "creeping mechanism" by showing that nothing vital depends on our being independent of natural cause and effect.  Some equate determinism with genetic determinism, but this ignores the fact that environmental factors contribute equally to shaping human characteristics.  An earlier version of this essay appeared in an issue of the Philosopher's Magazine with a special forum on free will, entitled "Human Machines?".

  • Review of Bruce Waller's The Natural Selection of Autonomy - What would it be like to conceive of ourselves and our moral systems as completely contained within the natural realm, the contingent products of Darwinian evolutionary processes? Is it possible to accept our status as complex animals, deterministically connected to the rest of nature, and still take seriously our ethical commitments? If we don’t have free will, and the individual is not seen as ultimately morally responsible for his or her actions, how do we carry on moral discourse and justify moral judgments.  Bruce Waller takes on these important questions in this eminently readable and for the most part persuasive account of a naturalistic, non-objectivist morality.

  • Free Will and Naturalism: A Reply to Corliss Lamont -  The late Corliss Lamont, one of the grand old men of American humanism, is taken to task for supposing that human beings are exempt from naturalistic causality.  His arguments for free will are rebutted, and reasons are given for why we don't need even the illusion of free will in order to have what we value.  Several other present day philosophers, scientists, and writers are quoted on the free will problem.  This paper provides an overview of the naturalistic attack on free will, since it examines (albeit briefly) several standard arguments and several of the psychological difficulties encountered when giving up the human exemption from causality.  This paper originally appeared in the Humanist.

  • The Freedom of Susan Smith - This focuses on free will, responsibility and punishment from a naturalistic perspective, using the example of Susan Smith, who was found guilty of drowning her two children in a South Carolina lake.  A central point is that plausible explanations of a crime rule out the existence of a freely willing agent that could have done otherwise in a given situation.  This means that retributive justifications for punishment can't find a footing in free will, therefore the retaliatory motive for the death penalty is likely to diminish.  Nevertheless, a full causal explanation of Susan Smith's act does not constitute an "abuse excuse", since we must enforce sanctions to ensure a civil, safe society.   This paper originally appeared as a cover story for the Humanist and has been reprinted in The Critical Reader, Thinker, and Writer, Mayfield Publishing, 1997.

  • Materialism and Morality: The Problem with Pinker - This takes a broader view of the seeming threat of naturalistic materialism to morality, using some passages from MIT cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker's How the Mind Works as a target.  Pinker, like his colleague Marvin Minsky, supposes that we must "idealize" ourselves as uncaused creatures in order to have morality.  That is, he thinks we must pretend to have free will, even though science shows we don't.  Naturally, and naturalistically, I take issue with this and try to show that we need not compartmentalize science and ethics.  I suggest that this is not merely an academic issue, but has real world consequences for how we approach social deviance and destructive behavior.

  • Three Strikes Against Fatalism - These are three brief sallies against the plausibility of fatalism, one by Bob Miller of Charlottesville.  They are designed to prevent any plunge into pessimism that determinism might engender among those who suppose we must have free will for life to be worth living.  Fatalism is pretty obviously false, but we want to make sure no one gets demoralized by a naturalism that understands all our behavior as fully a function of environment and heredity.  It's important (and not difficult) to avoid the false conclusion that determinism disempowers us.  It doesn't in the least; rather it shows us how to make the most of our abilities.  If after reading these, you find yourself depressed about not having free will, please be in touch.

  • Luck Swallows Everything - This reading is Galen Strawson's contribution on free will to the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which was reprinted in the Times Literary Supplement, June 26, 1998. He provides a concise, not too technical, and (to my mind) persuasive overview of the issues on free will, coming to the conclusion that the facts simply do not support our sense of being the radically autonomous, originative cause of our actions.


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