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 was originally published in 1999 in the Humanist, V50, #3, pp. 18-24, as part of "Free Choice and Naturalism: A Written Exchange" with Corliss Lamont.


As I began reading Corliss Lamont's The Philosophy of Humanism, I was pleased to see his use of the the term "naturalistic". At the same time I wondered just how far he would extend this characterization. Would he balk, as so many others have, at an understanding of mankind as a completely natural creature, and reserve for us some special status? Or would he not flinch, and so conclude that even our highest capacities are explicable, at least in principle, by scientific generalizations?

Having seen so many others falter at this crucial juncture, where the pressure is great to give in to some anthropocentric bias, I was admittedly skeptical. While it may not be terribly difficult to acknowledge that mankind is part of nature, it is rare to admit that we don't have something special going for us which science will never pin down. Often this precious something is thought to be a contra-causal freedom of choice, emanating from an immaterial soul or self, or perhaps a uniquely human mental capacity to independently originate one's thoughts and desires. Despite Lamont's seemingly thorough-going naturalism, I was betting that he too would retreat from science into some comforting reassurance about a special domain of human freedom.

As it turned out, my skepticism was justified. In a section headed "Contingency, Determinism, and Freedom" Lamont argues for an exception to the very naturalism he so admirably champions everywhere else in his book. In what follows I will present a critique of Lamont's thesis (first as it appears in The Philosophy of Humanism and then in his accompanying article, "Free Choice as an Innate Power"), then attempt a diagnosis of his motives, which I believe are widespread in our culture, and finally show why a consistently naturalistic view of mankind need not provoke the "fight or flight" response.

Let me start by stating, in Lamont's own words, the view he rejects, the one I believe follows from naturalism:

The cause-effect sequences in our brains are just as determining, just as inescapable, as anywhere else in Nature... The human will is simply the dynamic urge to carry out wishes and ideas that have become part of our being through the impact of the total cause-effect necessities both within us and without us. True freedom, according to this view, is the capacity for acting according to one's true character, to be altogether one's self, to be self-determined and not subject to outside coercion.1 (emphasis Lamont)

Lamont then recommends against taking this position:

This doctrine deserves careful consideration owing to the intelligence and consistency with which it has been formulated. The majority of naturalist and materialist philosophers have supported it. But I do not think it is a view to which Humanists should give their assent. The sounder position is that we human beings possess the freedom, as Professor Montague phrases it, "to modify and supplement our past by a spontaneous effort not predetermined by that past"; that we are free either to improve upon that past or to fall below its standards. Most men, I am convinced, have an unmistakable feeling at the final moment of significant choice that they are making a free decision, that they can really decide which one of two or more roads to follow. This intuition does not in itself amount to knowledge, yet cannot be disregarded by philosophers and psychologists.2

If, as Lamont says, the feeling of freedom does not amount to the certain knowledge that we are free, where else can we turn for evidence of the human exemption from causal necessity? Lamont explores several approaches. One is that chance, as well as causality, plays a role in explaining behavior; another suggests that there is something inherent in the human capacity for thought which evades deterministic explanation; a third argues that the present has a creative force causally independent of the past.

The appeal to chance claims that since the unfolding of events in nature is often contingent and sometimes random, there exists "an element of indeterminateness at the moment of choosing; and a decisive residue of freedom in the act of willing or volition at that moment which the weight of the past, great as it is, does not offset." Here Lamont bases the radical freedom of free will – its essential independence from antecedent and surrounding conditions – on the notion of indeterminacy. But how can indeterminacy confer upon us the sort of freedom we normally connect with an act of will, namely the freedom to choose according to one's character and desires? If I supposed that my choices were at bottom random, how could I claim them as my own? How could I justify them as rational? Chance may defeat determinism, but it does so by denying us a real connection with our decisions.

Lamont's claim about the special nature of thought is similarly unconvincing. He says "...the enterprise of thinking, with its manipulation of ideas that symbolize things and events, enables men to stand aside temporarily from the flux of existence or at least that sector of it about which they are immediately concerned." It is of course true that the ability to deliberate, plan, and imagine alternative possibilities allows us to mentally rehearse courses of action before embarking upon them. We "stand aside" from immediate overt action in order to act more effectively in the long run. Nevertheless, the realm of thought is special only in these representational capacities, not by virtue of any power to disconnect the thinker from the "flux of existence". Thinking and imagining, as Lamont himself asserts elsewhere in his book, are strictly organic processes, dependent on and identical to the functioning brain, and inextricably tied to other events outside the person. Although neuroscience has far to go before giving us anything resembling the laws of thought, the presumption has to be that the mental world of the individual will ultimately be understandable as part of the larger natural world, not as a haven from it.

Taking another tack, Lamont seeks to exempt human behavior from causal necessity by establishing the temporal present as the unconditioned source of all activity:

Human beings and their actions, like everything else, constitute the advancing front, the surging crest of an on-going movement that never stops. Living, doing, thinking men, together with the natural forces under their control, are an unceasing wave of the present. And this dynamic, creative present, however conditioned and restricted by the effects of prior presents, possesses genuine initiative...3

Here the implication is that because we participate in the ineluctable present moment we cannot avoid being free, at least in a vague metaphysical sense. We are as free as everything else in nature, for whatever that's worth. But even if this kind of freedom is intelligible, which I doubt, it conflicts with our basic intuitions about order in the world. For if each present moment did contain some fundamentally unconditioned initiative then the linking of these presents into a chain of events would result not in the more or less orderly patterns we observe, but in chaos. To claim this sort of freedom implies a skepticism about science which contradicts Lamont's otherwise enthusiastic naturalism.

The impulse behind Lamont's cogitations is plain enough: human beings must gain exemption from being causally embedded in the world. In his view, all sorts of terrible things follow from a deterministic picture of ourselves, hence his great pains to carve a loophole. In his book he worries that "if [determinism] were true, man would be a species of robot", crippled by passivity, a mere puppet of fate. The mistake here lies in equating determinism with fatalism, the supposition that since my actions are determined, (that is, amenable to scientific explanation and prediction), they don't make any difference in the outcome of events. But it is clear that my actions do make a difference and that only the regular, law-like patterning of my behavior and its effects permits the achievement of what I desire. True, I do not choose to want what I want from some undetermined vantage point, but my actions often make all the difference in whether I get it or not. Fatalism, since it is patently false, is not a threat, and need not make us fear that science will demoralize us as it advances into the domain of behavior and cognition.

Lamont also supposes that determinism threatens our capacity to make ethical choices. In The Philosophy of Humanism he says: "The act of willing this or that, of choosing among various courses of conduct, is central in the realm of ethics... I believe firmly that in making ethical decisions, man has the prerogative of true freedom of choice." If free acts of will are essential to ethical systems, it is no wonder that Lamont is committed to reserving a special place for moral agents, even at the expense of a consistent scientific world view. But again he is struggling with an illusory problem. It is possible to construct a system of right and wrong without recourse to the traditional notion that each of us is an independent, unconditioned source of good and evil. In such a system all behavior is understood to flow out of genetic and environmental circumstances, yet it is still judged according to normative standards. While the person may not be praiseworthy or blameworthy in the sense of being the first cause of his acts, we can justify praise and blame, rewards and punishments as the means of shaping and maintaining the behavior we want. Therefore we need not deny, as Lamont thinks we must, the individual's causal embeddedness in order to establish an enlightened social order.

Although Lamont never states it explicitly, I think his real motive in defending free will is his desire to preserve some special capacity by which we evade complete connection with the world, a connection which he believes would threaten some of our most fundamental values. If we find his defense unconvincing this is hardly surprising, since any true understanding of a phenomenon, whether it be the genetic code or human behavior, proceeds by fitting it into a context of law-like regularities involving other events. But a free will is that which by definition cannot be related to outside factors, so obviously it is not explicable from a naturalistic standpoint. In fact, by claiming this causal exemption, free will is opposed to the basic explanatory stance of science. The analysis Lamont presents is unsatisfactory because he tries to have it both ways: he wants to tout science on the one hand and yet establish a refuge from empirical knowledge on the other. True naturalism, that which understands mankind as an organic part of the world, must reject the traditional concept of free will as a lingering anthropocentric conceit. In so doing it will reinforce the lesson of the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions: we do not occupy a privileged place in the larger scheme of things.


To round out my necessarily sketchy account of the naturalistic position on free will I will address some points raised in Lamont's article, "Free Choice as an Innate Power". First, by listing our constitutionally guaranteed rights, Lamont hints at the sort of freedom I believe human beings are capable of and sometimes achieve. This is not the radical, unconditioned freedom to act without causal antecedents, but rather the freedom to act without being coerced or constrained by the direct imposition of another's power. Our choices are free just in so far as they are selected from among the alternatives we desire, not those forced upon us. Although the Bill of Rights goes far to assure this liberty, there is no additional, special liberty which allows us to create our own desires ex nihilo. Our motives and character are bequeathed to us by our genetic inheritance, our past and current environments, our culture, schools, and family – not by an unconditioned internal agent.

According to his article, Lamont now holds that the feeling of freedom does amount to certain knowledge that we have free will: "the intuition [of free will] gives us the truth." But why should we accept the deliverances of intuition, especially when they conflict with so much of what we know about ourselves and our place in nature? If the simple, immediate conviction that something is the case is allowed as the criterion for knowledge, then evidence, experiment, logic, and intersubjective agreement, in fact all the elements of rational inquiry, are rendered superfluous. Feelings are important and real, but notoriously subjective, and no substitute for scientific and philosophical scrutiny. The centuries-old controversy surrounding free will shows precisely that it is not obviously an "innate part of our psycho-physical organism."

As for the feeling of freedom, I concur that it is undeniably there, but it results from doing what we want, as opposed to doing what we are forced to do. Although all behavior is determined (except for that which is traceable to quantum indeterminacy) we can still distinguish between the behavior that arises out of our desires and personality versus that which is clearly imposed upon us. The feeling of freedom which we treasure so highly is characteristic of the former. The fear about not being the source of our desires and personality dissipates once we realize that our values still remain values, even though they arise out of circumstances, rather than will. Knowing that all my motives have their causal antecedents has hardly diminished my zest for food, drink, and a good argument.

In quoting Machan's article Lamont brings up three important issues which I can only touch on here: identity, originality, and mechanism. Free will, according to Machan, is "simply the capacity to initiate one's own actions." The implication is that there exists, in each of us, an agent separate from action with the power to initiate, or not initiate, this action. Our fundamental identity rests not in what we do or think, not in our bodies or brains, but in something above all these which has power over them. If, as Machan and Lamont suppose, this inner agent is not supernatural, not an immaterial soul or spirit, then we would expect to find physical evidence of it. But there is no evidence that anything besides the brain and its associated capacities is "in control". The brain is a limited physical system, with no miraculous power to initiate behavior which is in some respect unconditioned by external and internal factors. Consciousness, memory, anticipation, and rationality itself are the brain in action, and thus aspects of an extremely complex but nevertheless naturally embedded network. There is no evidence for any agent, mental or spiritual, standing apart from this network which either witnesses or supervises it. We are just our experience and behavior, nothing more or less – from the first glimmer of an idea to its expression in overt action. This experience and behavior arises on its own out of the myriad circumstances which constitute our bodies and the world.

For those accustomed to thinking that action must have a supervisory agent behind it, the theory of identity I propose can at first seem bleak and outlandish. How, for instance, do new ideas and creative inspirations arise if there is no one "inside" making things happen? Doesn't the fact that we, as Machan puts it, "formulate original ideas and carry out original actions", prove that there is a freely willing agent? Not at all. The false supposition is that determinism and novelty are incompatible, that what is new is new by virtue of being exempt from law-like explanation. In fact, given the massively complex interaction of natural forces and objects, fresh, never before seen configurations of phenomena are commonplace and inevitable, whether they be on a sub-atomic, galactic, or human scale. Persons, along with their original theories and actions, are part of this unfolding process, and the fact that the genesis of these theories and actions may someday be rigorously understood only establishes their natural heritage; it does not compromise their originality.

Thus, as Machan says, there is no inconsistency between science and the unforeseen and new. Yet there remains, as I have tried to show, a serious inconsistency between science and free will. For many, this conflict is expressed in the fear that we may be nothing but machines, organic robots programmed for survival. If we don't have free will, are we not then "mechanistically determined", to use Machan's phrase? If by "mechanistic" we mean machine-like in the sense of pistons, levers, and bearings, then I think this is clearly false. On the other hand, if we mean that there exists at some level (or levels) a potentially discoverable account of our experience and behavior which involves no extra-physical factors, then in that sense we are gloriously complex mechanisms. My preference, however, is to avoid the term "mechanistic" because of its pejorative overtones, and simply say that we are causally determined. In this way our intimate tie to the natural world is made clear without at the same time associating ourselves with what some consider to be the least attractive of our creations.


Although more than thirty years have passed since The Philosophy of Humanism was first published, much current thinking reflects the same attitude, and open challenges to the orthodoxy of free will are quite rare. B.F. Skinner, once voted Humanist of the Year, mounted a highly controversial attack from a behaviorist perspective in his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity, but the impact has thus far been small. For a culture so deeply committed to the techniques and benefits of science we are still remarkably fearful of surrendering our privileged place as agents in, but not completely of, nature. Consequently, there continues to be a huge gap between the naturalistic philosophy of science, which seeks a unified knowledge of the world by means of hypothesis and careful observation, and the entrenched folklore of free will.

As an apologist for this folklore, Lamont is hardly alone. Although many philosophers, psychologists, and cognitive scientists have recognized the problem, most have skirted the issue, or tried to concoct formulations that justify at least the semblance of free agency. Like Lamont, they are haunted by the fear that we will become soulless automatons, that ethical systems will crumble, that we will be swallowed up into a mechanistic, meaningless and amoral universe. The philosopher Thomas Nagel characterizes the view that I have been recommending as "the brutal inclusion of humans and everything about them in a world from which they cannot be separated and of which they are nothing but contents."4 For him such inclusion means that "The area of genuine agency, and therefore of legitimate moral judgment, seems to an extensionless point." He too seems not to consider the possibility of a naturalistic ethics, one in which acceptable behavior flows not from unconditioned agents, but from socially taught standards.

Robert Nozick, in his book Philosophical Explanations, is similarly distressed by the ascendancy of the scientific view of ourselves, and its threat to our special place in nature:

Without free will, we seem diminished, merely the playthings of external forces. How, then, can we maintain an exalted view of ourselves? Determinism seems to undercut human dignity, it seems to undermine our value.5

Here, at least, the motive is made explicit, and Nozick goes on to construct an unconvincing case for the sort of freedom he thinks we must have. Nowhere, however, does he question the premise that free will must be defended, nor does he suspect that we might actually be better served by a philosophy in which we do not have an exalted view of ourselves. I believe that our dignity and value need not depend on an anachronistic dualism which sets us apart from the world, rather it comes from our natural inclination to protect and nurture ourselves. And determinism hardly makes us the playthings of external forces. Rather we are the forces themselves, concentrated and directed in patterns whose regularities we are just beginning to discern.

A third position recently taken against naturalism, and one of the most interesting, is found in Marvin Minsky's The Society of Mind. Minsky first admits that free will is an illusion, that chance and causality alone account for our actions. But then, in a startling display of double-think, he advises us against using this knowledge in our everyday lives. Why? Because he feels that the concept of free will is too deeply ingrained and too functionally irreplaceable to let go.

No matter that the physical world provides no room for freedom of will: that concept is essential to our models of the mental realm. Too much of our psychology is based on it for us to ever give it up. We're virtually forced to maintain that belief, even though we know its false...6

Minsky is saying that, with regard to ourselves, we can be scientific in theory, but in practice we must stick to the traditional falsehood. It seems to me that this refusal to follow the truth of the matter into the real world betrays the honesty which characterizes the scientific spirit, and forecloses the beneficial consequences which could result from adopting an explicitly naturalistic view of ourselves. The burden is on Minsky to show why we must lead the double life, why we could not assimilate the knowledge that we are causal creatures, and even turn the public acceptance of this fact to our advantage.

These examples show that variants of Lamont's thesis and its underlying concerns are still widely held, even in academic circles where science is the dominant culture. Outside academia free will is practically a universal, if unstated, assumption, with roots in our dualistic Christian and Cartesian heritage. To question it still remains a controversial business, despite all the evidence against it. In fact, for many the belief in agency is not a matter of evidence at all – it is a matter of faith, of revealed truth, or of an unexamined secular conviction. As an evidentially suspect concept, often defended by means inimical to scientific method, the dogma of free will represents the antithesis of naturalism. For this reason it is difficult to find common ground with those committed to this belief, and even more difficult to convince them to consider the naturalistic alternative. Nevertheless, there is a significant minority, mostly within the scientific community, that has already embraced this alternative, and there are far more who need only to see that Minsky's pessimism is unwarranted, that we can live quite happily without the illusion of free will.


What kind of positive case, then, can we make for a whole-hearted naturalism? First, naturalism appears to be the best approximation to objective truth. Although a commitment to scientific method and ontology as the road to reality needs justification itself, which would lead too far afield here, there seems to be no other explanatory system which has the intellectual rigor, self-critical capacity, and universal application of the scientific enterprise. This recommendation assumes, of course, that the truth about material existence is a primary value, something to be sought as an end in itself, and worthy of defense against purely pragmatic considerations. Because the practical implications of the naturalistic thesis in the human realm may seem, at first glance, uncongenial, there is a strong tendency to deny the truth of our deep connection with the world. But once we become convinced on empirical grounds that indeed we do not exist as unconditioned agents, we might be willing to explore these implications more thoroughly. We may discover that they are much less to be feared than welcomed.

In my critique of Lamont's position I have touched on some of the ways in which we can reconcile the truth of inclusive naturalism with our desires for personal effectiveness, a stable ethical system, and our dignity as human beings. There is no root conflict, as some suppose, between what we want and what science says we are. The pragmatic consequences of giving up the free will illusion, far from being dehumanizing, may well be liberating. Paul Breer, in his book The Spontaneous Self, has explored many of the personal and social implications of a naturalized view of ourselves, and concludes that on balance such a view serves us well. While we lose the special status of being the first cause of our actions, we gain tremendously in seeing just how our behavior arises out of environmental and genetic circumstances. The mental or spiritual agent we once supposed ourselves to be can no longer generate the guilt, pride, and anxiety bound up with being the sole originator of our acts. Breer suggests that this change in our self-concept will have dramatic consequences:

Much of the behavior that Western religion defines as virtuous and exhorts us to emulate will arise spontaneously when we give up our belief in agency. I refer to humility, patience, forgiveness (acceptance), turning the other cheek (non-defensiveness), not craving or clinging to objects or people, not seeking our own glory, and not protesting adversity. If "virtues" of this kind seem out of reach to most of us, it is primarily because we insist on seeing ourselves as the causes of our own behavior... That premise is perfectly designed to breed arrogance, egocentricity, defensiveness, pride – qualities just opposite of those we are taught to value most highly.7

Breer also addresses the supposition that even if a belief in free will is false, it is necessary for maintaining the social order:

Despite the obvious restraining influence of guilt and pride, it can be argued that free agency represents one of the primary sources of the very anti-social sentiments against which civilization must defend itself. Teaching our children that they cause their own behavior and thus must take responsibility for it, leaves them open to far more than guilt. For those who do not succeed in love and work, a belief in agency invites self-loathing, bitterness, isolation, and spite. Those are all feelings that can alienate one from the world; they are also feelings that easily lead to violating social norms. Not strangely, they are the very feelings that arise in response to retributive punishment and that often induce offenders to commit further crimes. Given these considerations, one is on tenuous ground arguing that free agency, despite its fictional status, is essential for avoiding the collapse of Western civilization.8

Not only does the naturalistic view of the self give us a more accurate picture of our place in the world, it can, according to Breer, make our personal and social goals easier to attain. Such a claim needs to be tested, of course, but it has the refreshing feature of dealing with the facts of the matter instead of concealing the truth of our causal connectedness, the course that Minsky would have us follow.

There are others who have begun to explore the possibility of living without the free agency illusion. In his book Reasons and Persons , Derek Parfit, an English philosopher, considers the advantages of non-agency in dealing with our fear of death and in formulating ethical judgements. And in I: The Philosophy and Psychology of Personal Identity, Jonathan Glover, another Englishman, presents a plausible naturalistic alternative to the traditional concept of moral responsibility based on free will.9

Such examples indicate that naturalism, even when applied to ourselves, can be productive and humane, as well as being a true philosophy. On the other hand, if we refuse to include ourselves completely within the scientific domain we end up, like Lamont, caught in a contradictory dualism, and we deny ourselves the best means for self-understanding and self-realization. Thorough investigations into the real causes of our problems, both social and personal, are cut short by the supposition that each individual exists, in some mental or spiritual respect, as the unconditioned source of behavior. Truth and pragmatism are both compromised if we continue to act on the belief that we are anything more, or less, than completely natural creatures.

Let me close by saying that in recommending the naturalistic view of ourselves, I am certainly not espousing any sort of anti-individualistic or authoritarian stance, rather much the opposite. The desire for a secure, sustainable society, within which persons are free to express their individuality while respecting the rights of others, is a value I share. While naturalism cannot directly justify any particular set of values, I believe it generates a world view consonant with these goals. Science the truth-giver is not to be feared even as it approaches the once sacred domain of our own minds and motives.


1. Lamont, Corliss, The Philosophy of Humanism, New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 1988, p. 162.

2. Lamont, C., The Philosophy of Humanism, p. 162-163.

3. Lamont, C., The Philosophy of Humanism, p. 165.

4. Nagel, Thomas, Mortal Questions, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979, p. 38.

5. Nozick, Robert, Philosophical Explanations, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981, p. 315.

6. Minsky, Marvin, The Society of Mind, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985, p. 307.

7. Breer, Paul, The Spontaneous Self: Viable Alternatives to Free Will, Cambridge: Institute for Naturalistic Philosophy, 1989, p. 143.

8. Breer, P. The Spontaneous Self, p. 104.

9. For another alternative to moral responsibility, see Breer's chapter entitled "Moral Responsibility and Social Control" in The Spontaneous Self.

Additional References

Glover, Jonathan, I: The Philosophy and Psychology of Personal Identity, London: The Penguin Press, 1988.

Parfit, Derek, Reasons and Persons, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984.

©  Thomas W. Clark