Naturalism, Choice, and Creativity: Transcending Free Will

Presentation at 38 Cameron, February 24, 2004

(Note: those familiar with the the basis and implications of naturalism should start at the Part 2: Choice and Creativity section.)


This talk isn't about literary or artistic naturalism, sorry, but rather scientific, philosophical naturalism. Nor is it to be confused with naturism, so I ask everyone to keep their clothes on during this event.

So what is naturalism? Naturalism says there is a single, natural world, not split into the natural and supernatural, and we are completely included in that world, there is nothing supernatural about us. One way to understand it is to pose a basic question: How do we explain human behavior? There are two standard sorts of explanations we often encounter.

1) Free will. One involves the traditional view that people, although they may be influenced in many respects, choose their behavior using free will, a will which is itself not fully determined by anything else. Persons are in some respect first causes, agents who cause but are not fully caused themselves. To explain behavior we appeal, ultimately, to free will, even though we admit there are various causes and factors that influence people’s character, motives, impulses, and decisions.

2) Science. The other sort of explanation is scientific through and through, which looks at all the factors coming to bear at a certain time, that takes the genetics and history of the person into account, which explains why the person is the way she is, and then explains behavior in terms of how that person interacts with their current environment. If we replayed the tape of history, with all factors exactly the same, inside and outside the person, the same behavior would have arisen. No non-physical or categorically mental agent that escapes being fully caused itself.

The first sort of explanation involves something supernatural, the freely willing soul, or at least some sort of dualism, something categorically mental or non-physical. The second, since its based in science, is entirely naturalistic and monistic.

The challenge that naturalism presents is: can we take science seriously with respect to ourselves? And what would it mean for us if we did?

Outline of talk:

  1. A naturalistic understanding of ourselves, based in science, suggests that what we are and what we do are fully included in the physical, natural universe. This is the basic claim of naturalism.
  2. On this view, even our highest capacities for choice and creativity are entirely caused phenomena, and their full expression depends on our connections to the world. This elaborates the first claim, saying that we don’t have to appeal to something non-physical to explain such things as consciousness, choice, creativity, and the self.
  3. Seeing the causal story behind the self and its choices gives us power to control the circumstances that inspire creativity and help realize our goals. Naturalism, the view that says we don’t have free will, is empowering. Naturalism can give us power, both personally and socially, by virtue of the fact that it doesn’t shrink from the insight that people are fully caused creatures.
  4. But there’s a catch: the you that’s getting all this power is reconceptualized as a fully caused function of the world surrounding it, not as a first cause. So you don’t get to take ultimate credit and blame, to be as egoistic, as prideful, or as blaming, or retributive. Instead, we’re led to be more understanding and empathetic, since we’ll see that there but for circumstances go I. That’s why in challenging the common conception of free will, naturalism helps to shape the values motivating our projects, whether artistic, spiritual, practical, or planetary.

This is of course a tall order, and I don’t expect to convince many of you about naturalism, since it’s so antithetical to our standard ways of conceiving ourselves, especially here in the West, in a culture so saturated with radical individualism, where people are constantly pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. This brand of enlightenment is probably not going to catch on any time soon. I think of it as a naturalism for the 25th century.

But, Albert Einstein once said: "A Being endowed with higher insight and more perfect intelligence, watching man and his doings, would smile about man’s illusion that he was acting according to his own free will." (quoted in Wegner (2002) from Home and Robinson 1995, pg. 172). But you shouldn’t take Einstein’s word for it. I invite your critical appraisal and skepticism about this thesis.

Don’t take my word for it, do as the Buddha said:

"Do not believe in anything (simply) because you have heard it.
Do not believe in traditions just because they have been handed down for many generations.
Do not believe in anything just because it is spoken and rumored by many.
Do not believe in anything (simply) because it is found written in your religious books.
Do not believe in anything merely on authority of your teachers and elders.
But, after observation and analysis, when you find that it agrees with reason
and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it."

There’s one word that sums up the Buddha’s method: science. Observation, analysis, and reason. These are all cognitive traits that can lead to naturalism, so exercising them is just the ticket.

1. The basis and implications of naturalism

  • Naturalism is based in science – science, in its methods and explanations, inevitably connects phenomena into a single natural, physical world, it’s an inherently unifying perspective. If you take science as your single epistemology, your way of knowing about the world and the way of justifying your beliefs, then you’ll be led to naturalism and non-dualism about humans as fully included in nature. There’s nothing non-physical about us.
  • If you take other ways of knowing (religion, intuition, revelation, superstition, etc.) then you’ll likely end up with some supernatural entities in your world view, things that science finds no evidence for (and if it did, they wouldn’t be supernatural any longer).
  • No knockdown argument that you should take science as your only epistemology, but would recommend it: it simplifies things, it unifies our self-concept, gives us real power, and provides a basis for ethical action and meaning. It’s also non-ideological, shared across cultures, races, and genders, and it's very reliable knowledge.
  • Obviously, naturalism and the denial of free will isn’t new (Buddha, Baron D’Holbach, David Hume, Clarence Darrow, B.F. Skinner).

So naturalism denies the existence of gods, ghosts, angels, or non-physical entities that can’t be confirmed to exist or be explained by its methods. And it denies we have immaterial souls that have free will, defined as the capacity to cause things without itself being fully caused in turn. Having free will is to be causally privileged over nature, it’s to be little gods, with a special power over the world: to be in some important sense self-created, so that we get to take ultimate credit and blame for who we are and what we do.

To transcend free will is to transcend the disconnection between the self and the world that the ordinary concept of free will implies. According to science, and according to the Buddha, we are in no respect independent of the rest of the world. To transcend free will also to transcend a limitation on our thinking, to go beyond a myth that is disempowering. It’s to see that we don’t transcend causality, nor would we want to. It’s our nature to be fully connected to the rest of the world. So determinism and being caused isn’t a threat to our nature, it isn’t for us to be coerced or victimized. We can’t overcome or abrogate our causal connections to the world, nor should we want to, and the desire for such abrogation is simply the expression of western radical individualism, the idea that we are little gods with free will. We don’t need to be little gods. Naturalism says that there are sufficient grounds for ethics, knowledge, meaning, and effective action within the physical world, without resort to supernatural foundations.

So naturalism has many ramifications, e.g., personal psychology, ethics, criminal justice, social policy, and spirituality. I’ll just briefly mention a few implications of naturalism, all with the same message: we refocus our priorities based on the understanding of the causal story, an understanding which gives us power and influences our values. For details, please see Naturalism.Org.

Attitudes about ourselves and others. By understanding ourselves and others as fully caused in what we do, we don’t take the individual as the ultimate source of behavior. This insight can have a strong influence on our day-to-day feelings and behavior as we interact with others and in our own self-evaluations. Our reactive attitudes towards others and ourselves – resentment, anger, blame, contempt, shame, pride, and moral superiority – all the emotional responses justified by the idea of self-origination, are now deprived of that justification, and we become more understanding and more compassionate. Naturalism, therefore, is a very practical philosophy of how to get along with others and with ourselves. See Clayton Tucker-Ladd's online book on self-help, the sections on determinism.

Addiction and behavioral health. Instead of chalking up addiction, mental illness, or obesity as a failure of will, we should look at the actual explanations given by science. Instead of demonizing addicts as first causes, we’ll arrange circumstances under which they can recover. Could addicts, compulsive gamblers, the mentally ill and those with personality disorders simply will themselves not to behave dysfunctionally? No. We’ll move from moralistic responses to productive, compassionate responses. Addictions page at

Criminal justice: Are criminals the root cause of crime, as George Pataki once said? No, criminals, like everyone else, are a function of various conditions, environmental and genetic. Under naturalism, retributive justifications for capital punishment and punitive prison conditions are no longer tenable. Now, to understand is not to excuse, or let killers go free, or to forget about the victims, but it is to become more compassionate and effective in how we deal with criminals. So we move from reactive punishment to pro-active prevention, compassionate accountability, rehabilitation, and restorative justice. We’ll be smart on crime by taking into account its explanations, which lie in family, neighborhoods, social policies, and biology. Dirk Pereboom: Living Without Free Will; Cohen and Greene: "For the law, neuroscience changes nothing, and everything."

Social policy: Do people choose to be homeless, as Ronald Reagan once suggested? Do billionaires deserve their billions? No. Since we’re not self-caused and don’t ultimately deserve our advantages and talents, we’ll move from radical individualism and the winner-take-all philosophy to social responsibility for the least well off. Of course, we need incentives to motivate people, but the vast inequalities the currently exist can only be justified by appealing to free will, which says that those who don’t get ahead in life simply choose not to do so. The reality is that but for circumstances, you too would be homeless. John Rawls A Theory of Justice.

Spirituality: The naturalistic understanding of ourselves as fully embedded in nature can be the basis for a naturalistic spirituality, a spirituality without faith. Science shows the full connection of the person to the universe, that’s what causality is: the pattern of connection. Naturalism, in transcending free will, heals the split between the body and the soul, the ethereal and the mundane, and so connects us to the universe absolutely. So it’s a view that really can inspire the spiritual response. Ursula Goodenough, The Sacred Depths of Nature.

2. Choice and creativity are fully caused phenomena, and depend on our connections to the world

[Showed clip from the film The Matrix here, see here for dialog]

This clip shows fears about causality, fears of victimhood, of being out of control. But it also shows the true power of causal understanding. Shows the ambivalence of our attitudes about causality: the apparent conflict between causality and choice. (There was of course the predictable, inevitable plug for free will near the end of the third installment of the Matrix Trilogy: “Why do you persist in fighting us, Mr. Anderson?” “Because I choose to.”)

Many fears and objections and misunderstandings with regard to naturalism come up, e.g., as shown in that clip. Some think naturalism is a dangerous world view that shouldn’t be disseminated, that we need the illusion of free will to avoid being demoralized (Smilansky, Dennett re environmental impact) and I’ll focus tonight on just two issues among many, choice and creativity. But, in response to the clip we just saw, I’d say that:

Choice is not an illusion, since we make choices all the time, and if we didn’t deliberate and choose carefully, we’d be in big trouble. We can’t wait for determinism to happen (law professor Stephen Morse). Just because our choices are caused, doesn’t mean we don’t make them. If they were uncaused, that would make choices capricious, less effective. But does everything “begin with choice”? No. Choices, like everything else, are links in the unfolding of the causal network.

We aren’t “completely out of control,” since after all our stable characters and motives that drive behavior. We are in control of our actions most of the time. But in turn we are a function of other factors, factors which we can learn to control for our purposes. We have means of increasing self-control. But all this is fully caused, it isn’t magic or miraculous.

We aren’t “victims of causality,” since we remain causal agents ourselves, active agents in the world, we have effects on things. And to be uncaused wouldn’t add to our powers. After all, on what basis would the uncaused part of ourselves make a decision or choice? To have such a part would simply tie us in knots.

A. Let’s look at choice.

Choice-making often involves our higher level capacities for rationality, anticipation, deliberation, the weighing of alternatives. For many, the idea that all this is fully caused suggests that we don’t really choose anything. If I couldn’t have done otherwise in the exact same situation if it happened again, do I really have a choice?

The basic message from science is that consciousness and our capacities for rationality and choice-making are fully physical phenomena supported by the brain. They don’t have to be attributed to some cause-defying agent or soul. Neuroscience is closing the gaps in our understanding, and shows that the brain can do everything that the soul was supposed to do. The idea of free will is often connected with a metaphysical dualism of mind vs. body, and it’s that dualism that neuroscience is undermining. Consciousness and all the capacities that go with it often seem non-physical to most people, so consciousness is often the biggest stumbling block when it comes to accepting naturalism. But science is showing how consciousness might well be explicable within a fully physicalist framework, for instance in theories involving functionalism and representationalism. Thomas Metzinger, Being No One.

Two examples about choice:

1. One person remarked at a talk not long ago: “When I chose what to wear today, I thought I was deciding between a blue suit and a brown suit, but what you’re saying is that the ultimate decision was fixed, that every decision, every creative act, every production of work during the day is fully fixed by the circumstances that surround it and precede it. As a layperson, I find that ridiculous. There are many things we don’t have control over, but when we’re talking about how to decide about something, I think that’s something we do control and we can’t say it just had to come out that way. You’re talking about predestination.”

How do we answer this? Well, the person was really choosing and really deciding between a blue and brown suit, it’s just that this is a fully causal process. If everything is not fully fixed by the circumstances that precede and surround a choice, we have to ask: where do decisions come from? That gets back to the question I opened with: how do we explain behavior, including choices? To say that something is involved in a choice besides various causes (motivations, desires, anticipating outcomes, the situation you’re in) is to say that science does not explain us, there must be something more. That’s fine, but what’s the alternative explanation, and is it plausible? As soon as you embark on this explanation of how choices get made, you’ll be led back to science, at least if it’s an explanation that can be tested and verified, and doesn’t involve mysterious processes and entities.

So, it’s not that we don’t make choices, or that the person vanishes. Naturalism does not imply a reductionism that makes the person disappear. To explain the process of deciding isn’t to explain it away. The brain is an amazing system, subject to physical, chemical, and biological laws, and we’re beginning to discover other regularities at higher levels of organization, for instance at the level of neural nets and cognitive modules. The neural patterns corresponding to the deliberation about what suit to wear were what his brain was doing at that moment, and the way it unfolded was fully a function of who he was and the situation surrounding him. He was controlling the decision since he consisted partially of the neural decision-making process, and no one else was deciding the question. Science assumes as a working hypothesis that it’s more or less a deterministic process, although of course this isn’t a simple clockwork determinism of pulleys and gears, but an extremely complex and perhaps partially chaotic causal process that pretty much defies straightforward prediction.

And if it weren’t fully caused, what would this mean? It would mean some random, indeterministic element would be playing a role. And would we really want that introduced into our deliberations? After all, any causal disconnection from the world as mediated by our senses and our rationality would worsen, not improve our choice-making behavior. We want our choices to reflect the conditions we’re in, or will be in. And, as I asked earlier, on what basis would a choice be made if it depended on something that was uninfluenced or uncaused? Further, if such a decision did get made, could we take credit or blame for it? Not really, since it wouldn’t have arisen from our character, our motives and our desires, it would have been the result of something random. We won’t get free will by being uncaused. So, the conclusion is there’s no reason we should want to be uncaused in our choice-making, since good choices are simply the careful weighing of possible outcomes against each other, and in that weighing process we don’t want an arbitrary hand on the scales.

2.a. Another example about choice: "could have done otherwise"

Someone else remarked at a talk that “If I tell my wife, making excuses for myself, that I couldn’t have done otherwise, she’ll say to me, 'of course you could have done otherwise.' And she’s right: there’s considerable evidence that I could have acted otherwise. That’s why I sometimes feel sorry for what I do, and that’s how I learn to do better.”

The issue of “could have done otherwise” is vexed, and this objection has to be analyzed carefully. As Daniel Dennett points out in his book Freedom Evolves, there are two sorts of situations to consider when we ask the question, “could I have done otherwise?” In one, what Dennett calls the narrow version, we conduct a thought experiment which says, rewind the tape of history, put everything back exactly as it was, and ask, given the exact same situation (hence the term “narrow”), could you have done otherwise? The answer, according to science, is no, since after all, your character, motives, impulses, reasons – all these would be the same, and by hypothesis your external situation is the same too. So there’s no reason to suppose you would have acted differently, putting aside any random quantum effects.

But, you can also imagine yourself in a situation that’s somewhat different than the one that actually occurred, what philosophers call a counterfactual situation. Had things been somewhat different, could you have acted other than the way you did? The answer is, usually, that yes you could, since we’re very smart, flexible creatures, we’re able to respond to changes in circumstances. This is what Dennett calls the wide sense of possibility or “could have done otherwise”. For example, imagine someone with a serious case of Tourette’s syndrome, who happens to yell “god-dammit” at odd intervals, goes to a concert, and sure enough, he yells god-dammit. Now, if we imagine the situation slightly changed, say we offered him $100 not to yell, could he have done otherwise? Probably not, because his yelling isn’t under voluntary control, it isn’t responsive to incentives or disincentives. It’s a good bet that at some point this person will god-dammit during the music. On the other hand, let’s say I go to the same concert, and I keep quiet. Now, imagine (counterfactually) that someone offers to give $10,000 to my favorite charity if I yell god-dammit during the performance. It’s quite possible that under these changed circumstances, I’ll do otherwise, namely yell god dammit. So unlike the person with Tourette’s syndrome, I could do otherwise in this counterfactual situation.

Dennett’s point is that most of us are rational and flexible enough in our cognitive capacities and behavior to have done otherwise in a situation had it been somewhat different, and it’s this sort of rationality and flexibility that justifies our practices of holding people responsible. The prospect of being held responsible makes future situations different for you in a way that shapes good behavior. But the point I want to make is that when that person’s wife said: “Of course you could have done otherwise”, it’s vital to distinguish what sort of situation we’re imagining, the narrow or the wide. If we’re imagining the situation exactly as it arose, the “narrow” situation, the answer is no: his behavior was fully caused, and there’s no reason to suppose things would have unfolded any differently, if we take science seriously about ourselves. If you say they could have unfolded differently in the exact same situation, then you have to explain why, and there's no good explanation forthcoming. But if we imagine the second counterfactual sense of wide possibility, then it’s true to say he could have done otherwise had the situation been different. But this isn't because he has contra-causal free will but because he’s smart and flexible. After all, being smart and flexible are capacities that are entirely compatible with being fully determined creatures.

So, choice-making is a very sensitive process, it’s sensitive to reasons, previous experience, and to anticipated outcomes. So we’re very effective choosers, but this process is fully caused, it’s not supervised by a non-physical agent with free will. The upshot is that naturalism, the idea that we are completely included in the natural world, is no threat to the notion of choice, nor does it threaten the efficacy of our choices: we make things happen that can happen in no other way. Naturalism just explains why we’re so good at negotiating the world.

B. What about creativity?

The example of the violinist. Someone said at a talk: “I was thinking about that wonderful violinist we heard this morning, and I was thinking about her in the context of what you were saying. Your literature says: 'Naturalism denies that people have traditional, contra-causal free will – something capable of acting as a self-created first cause.' Now, I think about that violinist and really have problems with your thesis. The fact that she’s not acting as a self-created first cause, that’s the problem I have. Because she is creating that interpretation. She may have been told by her teachers what was good taste, what was not, and how to express the feelings in the music, but that has to be internalized and directed by her. It’s true that she was trained and practiced hard, but there was also something creative in this performance: trying to make something as gorgeous as possible.”

This is a common response to naturalism: that creativity must in some sense be uncaused, or that the creative agent must be self-caused, or a first cause. It’s to say that without free will, creativity can’t exist. It’s to say that to be a real creative agent doing something, we have to transcend causality, or be souls in addition to bodies.

But is this plausible? There’s no basis in science for anything being a first cause, certainly not human beings, and it’s logically impossible that anything could be its own cause. You’d have to exist first before you’d be in a position to create yourself. This is a bit of a problem.

The fact that she isn’t a first cause doesn’t detract from the marvel of the violinist’s performance, or change the fact that she, a particular, unique individual, did it. In fact it’s all the more a marvel that what she did didn't involve anything supernatural, miraculous or non-physical. To understand this is to re-enchant the physical world, and it’s to fully value the person. The person, the agent doesn’t suddenly disappear once we naturalize her. Dawkins: Unweaving the Rainbow

To say that something is caused doesn’t in the least imply that it might not be entirely new, that is, never before seen on the face of the earth. After all, new things arise on their own all the time, some of them intentional and some of them not. Creativity is for something new to arise by means of intention and skill, and of course sometimes chance. And again, all this is fully compatible with being fully determined creatures, with being fully explicable by science, if we knew enough.

To say that we have to invoke a non-physical freely willing agent is to put down the “merely” physical, it’s to suggest that the natural world, in its unfolding through us, couldn’t possibly have done this, and so it’s to relegate the physical and natural to a second class metaphysical status. And the result, of course, is to alienate us from this world and our bodies, in favor of something better and more elevated and ethereal. And that’s a big mistake, because the natural world is in fact capable of all these wonders.

So, naturalism implies that the processes underlying choice and creativity do not transcend causality or our connections to the world, but rather depend on those connections.

3. The naturalistic view of choice and creativity empowers us

If we stick with the traditional view of who we are and we suppose the will is really metaphysically and radically autonomous, that just introduces a mystery that blocks access to creativity and successful choices. We have to transcend the traditional notion of free will in order to discover the real key to behaving effectively, whether as artists, technicians, policy makers, researchers, or whatever it is we do. Otherwise we’ll become victims, not of causality, but of our own myth of being uncaused.

We must understand the conditions of successful choice and productive creativity – knowing the causes, we can set up conditions in which creativity flourishes. So the very deliberate design of our work environments and our play environments, the learning of techniques and skills, set up the conditions under which creativity can flourish and in which we can be productive. Twyla Tharp: The Creative Habit. B.F. Skinner: be Skinnerian.

The will, like everything else, is a function of conditions: so we have to understand the causal dynamics of motivation. What are the conditions that will inspire me to stay on task and finish a project? What sorts of situations are most likely to sustain motivation? We’re not controlled by some non-physical mental agent, but we are controlled by our motives that are in turn controlled by various conditions. This gets into the advanced technology of self-control.

It’s often said that people (e.g., prisoners, addicts, the obese) have to want to change before they can be helped, as if the desire to change is itself some independent factor undetermined by conditions. But obviously the will (desire) is itself a function of conditions, so that we can work to create conditions that can bring about the very desire to change.

Even the so-called “political will” to do things can be understood as a function of circumstances, like everything else. So we will know better how to motivate people for a cause, which again is empowering.

So by transcending the myth of free will, we are empowered - we’re given access to the methods and tools by which we can become more creative, be more productive, and which help realize our goals. To do this, we have to study human nature carefully, and make sure our strategies, tactics, methods, and frameworks of understanding are based in science.

4. Naturalism helps shape the values that inform our projects.

As mentioned at the start, naturalism helps to shape values that inform our choices and creative activities. Seeing ourselves as being fully caused undercuts the egoistic view of the self as a first cause, and seeing exactly why others behave as they do helps us to become more empathetic, and therefore it influences our choice of projects and goals. By undercutting radical individualism based in free will, naturalism can help to prompt a moral engagement driven by compassion, making us less ruthlessly competitive in advancing our own interests. Not that these interests disappear, but we’ll hold them differently. By connecting the self to everything else, naturalism helps to increase our sense of shared responsibility. We’ll see that other’s sufferings are just as real and important as our own, and there but for the luck of circumstances go we. So we might work to improve the circumstances of those that aren’t as lucky as we are.

As suggested in part 1, this view has significant implications for our policies related to criminal and social justice, especially for the vast differences in social and economic advantages, advantages that can only be justified by appealing to the idea that people ultimately deserve to be super rich or to be homeless. But, if we take science seriously with respect to ourselves, that idea simply isn’t sustainable. So we might be led to work for social and economic justice, to reduce inequality. And inequality is arguably among the biggest threats to global stability.

Naturalism is not the only route to compassion, since of course many other world views hold compassion as a central value. Rather it’s an alternative route that will appeal to those who are committed to science and critical thinking as the basis for knowledge. So naturalists can join forces with others who share the same goals. But naturalism has the great virtue of being non-ideological, since it’s based in the shared methods and knowledge of science that apply universally. And ideology, of course, is another big threat to global stability.

Naturalism, in its appreciation of causality, makes the consequences of our acts vivid, thus motivating choices that take into account the future.

What happens to the planet largely depends on our choices. To survive and flourish on this planet, among other things we have to reduce social inequality and reduce the prevalence of destructive ideologies, whether religious, political, or economic - ideologies that ignore the empirical facts about who we are and what best leads to human flourishing here on earth.

But how do we make the right choices? Well, we need to face the facts about ourselves, and about the determinants of choice. Naturalism, based in a scientific understanding of human nature, is a world view that takes these issues as paramount. By challenging the fundamental beliefs about who we are, it can help us make the right choices, both in terms of shaping our values and giving us the power to achieve the goals we choose.

TWC, November 2004

Tuesday, February 24, 2004