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?

Free will is often the focus here at Naturalism.Org 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.

Where to Start

For a reasonably comprehensive summary of a naturalistic debunking of contra-causal free will, and the benefits of doing that, see Fully Caused: Coming to Terms With Determinism.

Articles in this Section

Sub-sections

  • Three strikes against fatalism.

  • How the concept of time affects the concept of free will.

    Naturalist attorney Bob Gulack explores time and free will in one of his talks for the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County, New Jersey, see here.

  • This section introduces brief mentions and quotes from a selection of recent books and articles that bear on free will, the self, and the implications of naturalism for social policy and personal well being.

Related Content from Other Sections

  • Jailbreak: Ray Tallis and the Prison of Nature, Book Review

    In October 2022, the journal Human Affairs published a symposium on Ray Tallis's defense of free will, Freedom: An Impossible Reality, with commentary from ten discussants and replies by Tallis. In his replies (open access, see here) Tallis begins by giving a useful summary of his book.

    Here's the abstract describing my contribution, and a PDF of the full text is linked below:

    In Freedom: An Impossible Reality, Ray Tallis argues that we escape imprisonment by causal determinism, and thus gain free will, by the virtual distance from natural laws afforded us by intentionality, a human capacity that he claims cannot be naturalized. I respond that we can’t know in advance that intentionality will never be subsumed by science, and that our capacities to entertain possibilities and decide among them are natural cognitive endowments that supervene on generally reliable neural processes. Moreover, any disconnection from the multi-level determinants that account for human behavior cannot augment, but would likely undermine, effective human agency. Our full inclusion in nature, understood in terms of a pragmatic, explanatory determinism, is therefore not a prison from which we need to escape.

    Key words: free will; determinism; intentionality; materialism; naturalism; rationality.

    PDF icon Jailbreak.pdf

  • Causal Responsibility for Addiction, Article
    Pragmatic determinism applied to our understanding of addiction can mitigate punitive blame and stigma.
  • Talk: Coming to Terms with Determinism, External Resource

    A 2021 talk by Tom Clark on pragmatic determinism given for the Keele University & Royal Society of Philosophy Lecture Series.

  • Criminal Justice As Social Justice: Review of Gregg Caruso's Rejecting Retributivism, Book Review

    I

  • Responsibility in Question: Caruso and Dennett's Just Deserts, Book Review

    Freedom is perhaps the paramount value in the West, certainly in America, which was born in the quest for liberty. But how free are we? What matters most are political and economic freedoms – the wide permissible range of belief, speech, and action that characterize open societies. But people also care about perceived threats to their personal autonomy, to their being responsible originators of action who deserve credit for good deeds and – the obligatory downside – blame for bad.

  • Who’s in Charge? Consciousness and Control in the Waking Up App, Article
    In his talks on free will, Sam Harris raises the question of the causal role of consciousness.
  • Determinism and Destigmatization: Mitigating Blame for Addiction, Article
    This paper applies pragmatic determinism to the "choice model" of addiction with the aim of reducing blame and stigma for those with substance use disorders.
  • Determinism and Desert: Caruso and Flanagan's Neuroexistentialism, Book Review

    A cutting-edge collection of essays by scientists and philosophers responding to questions raised by the naturalization of human agency, what the editors call the "third wave" of existentialist anxiety.

  • Free Will: The Last Great Lie, External Resource

    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.

  • Determinism and Responsibility, Article
    Correcting some common misconceptions about the implications of determinism for our notions of responsibility and the law.
  • The Illusion of an Illusion, Book Review

    "The question of free will touches nearly everything we care about...most of what is distinctly human about our lives seems to depend upon our viewing one another as autonomous persons, capable of free choice."

  • The Marionette’s Lament, External Resource

    Sam Harris' response to Daniel Dennett.

  • Reflections on "Free Will", Book Review

    Sam Harris’s Free Will is a remarkable little book, engagingly written and jargon-free, appealing to reason, not authority, and written with passion and moral seriousness.

  • The Coalition of Inner Nations, Book Review

    In The Ego Trick, author Julian Baggini concludes that it’s the combination of our bodies, memories and our nature as social animals that creates the feeling of a unified self.

  • Experience and Autonomy: Why Consciousness Does and Doesn’t Matter, Article
    A chapter for "Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility."
  • The Rise of the New Determinists, Book Review

    Richard Oerton’s The Nonsense of Free Will: Facing up to a false belief  is a delightful read - unassuming, straightforward, philosophically informed and funny.  It will disabuse you of the confusions of libertarian freedom without demoralizing you.

  • Victor Stenger on Free Will, External Resource

    Physicist Victor Stenger on free will at Skeptic Magazine (link is external).

  • Dennett Review of "Against Moral Responsibility", Book Review

    Bruce N. Waller, Against Moral Responsibility, 2011, MIT Press/Bradford Book

  • Exchange on Waller's "Against Moral Responsibility", Book Review

    An exchange of opinions among Tom Clark, Daniel Dennett, and Bruce Waller.

  • Singling Out the Agent, Book Review

    In his important new book, Against Moral Responsibility (link is external), Bruce Waller claims that although people generally meet the compatibilist requirements for being morally responsible, we nevertheless aren’t morally responsible; no one ever deserves praise or punishment.

  • Freedom from Free Will, External Resource

    Tom Clark's entry at NPR's 13.7 Culture and Cosmos, a blog set at the intersection of science and culture.

  • Scientific Naturalism and the Illusion of Free Will, External Resource

    Tom Clark interviewed by D.J. Grothe at Center for Inquiry's Point of Inquiry.

  • Heading Off the Revolution, Article
    There is now a revolution afoot in how we conceive of our essential nature, which could equally revolutionize criminal justice. But some philosophers, unfortunately, are concerned to head off the revolution.
  • Worldview Elements, Book Review

    "Religion is not really the issue, but rather the incompleteness or tentativeness, the thinness or emptiness, of today’s atheism, agnosticism, and secularism. Living without God means turning toward something. To flourish we need coherent secular popular philosophies that effectively answer life’s vital questions."

  • The Scandal of Compatibilism, Book Review

    Four Views on Free Will is an excellent, engaging resource. Its contributors, all leading philosophers, stake out clearly defined positions that illuminate the traditional views on the free will problem and more recent permutations.

  • Free Will is Dead - Long Live Free Will!, External Resource

    A lively capsule version of Steven Converse's views, showing the futility of supernatural will.

  • Holding Mechanisms Responsible, Article
    A response to bioethicist Walter Glannon's Lahey Clinic Medical Ethics Journal article "Free will and moral responsibility in the age of neuroscience."
  • Choice and Free Will: Beyond the Disease Model of Addiction, External Resource
  • Good and Real , Book Review

    In Good and Real, computer scientist and independent scholar Gary Drescher mounts a mind-bending attack on problems that arise when common sense conflicts with the science-based view that we inhabit a purely physical, mechanistic, deterministic universe.

  • Reforming Criminal Justice: The Case Against Free Will and Retribution, Talk

    A presentation by Robert Gulack and Tom Clark at Touro Law School.

  • Denying the Little God of Free Will: The Next Step for Atheists?, Article
    An open letter to the atheist community.
  • The Personal Benefits of Free Will Skepticism, External Resource

    Tamler Sommers (link is external) on why doubting libertarian free will and ultimate moral responsibility is good for us, practically and psychologically.

  • Evolutionary Enlightenment, Naturalism, and Free Will, Talk

    Radio debate with Andrew Cohen on Equal Time for Free Thought.

  • Naturalism and Self-Control, Talk

    How can naturalism help us make better choices, be more creative, be more productive, and achieve our goals? A presentation for Boston Causality Club.

  • Losing Faith in Free Will, Article
    John Horgan is disturbed that his faith in libertarian free will is wavering. I attempt to defuse his concerns.
  • Science and Freedom, External Resource

    Mainstream science supports a physicalist understanding of human beings and their behavior which challenges traditional notions of self and free will.  But a fully naturalistic, science-based view of ourselves nevertheless provides a robust basis for morality, while pointing the way toward humane revisions in our responsibility practices.

    An article published in Free Inquiry (link is external), Spring 2002.

  • The Problem of the Soul, Book Review

    Although we live increasingly in an age of science, our notions of self and mind remain largely supernaturalistic. In The Problem of the Soul, Owen Flanagan, professor of philosophy, psychology, and brain sciences at Duke University, takes the unpopular position that this is wrong.

  • The Illusion of Conscious Will, Book Review

    In The Illusion of Conscious Will, Wegner sets out to deconstruct, largely from an experimental psychological perspective, the sense we have of consciously willing our actions.

  • The Natural Selection of Autonomy, Book Review

    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.

  • Materialism and Morality: The Problem with Pinker, Article
    Defuses 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.
  • The Freedom of Susan Smith, Article
    Free will, responsibility and punishment from a naturalistic perspective, using the example of convicted murderer Susan Smith.