About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

RS podcast #39: The Science and Philosophy of Free Will

In this episode we tackle the never ending debate about free will, which David Hume famously defined as “a power of acting or of not acting, according to the determination of the will.” We do this with a couple of twists. We begin by examining the concept of free will from the standard philosophical perspective, then ask what — if anything — modern neuroscience can tell us about it, and come back to the interface between philosophy and science to explore how the two approaches may complement each other.



  1. Hi Massimo,

    Just wanted to make a comment about that 1970s study mentioned in the podcast. I just took issue that the label of 'consciousness' only kicked in after the subjects acknowledged that they had hit the button. To me, that seems to be an exaggerated account of consciousness which brings the Free Will vs. Determinism argument down this slippery path of higher order thinking - which then takes neurologists strictly into the brain when they may not need to go there.

    I would argue that consciousness could be recognized simply as an awareness of something exemplified as a sort of differentiation the subject makes between themselves and the world around them. This sort of differentiation could take place the moment they hit the button, and doesn't require any higher order mental states of acknowledgement.

    To digress a bit further I just wanted to see what you thought of the Satrean account of consciousness - in that there is no actual consciousness "substance" to speak of. Is this taken seriously in the academic spotlight up there or is it simply dismissed as there is no materialistic element to give Sartre's idea credence?

  2. mentalfloss,

    not sure about Sartre's account. Certainly modern neuroscience doesn't talk in terms of mental substance, consciousness is an effect / outcome whatever of the way the brain works and interacts with external stimuli. I'm not sure whether Sartre would be happy with that or not.

  3. As far as I understand, he probably would not take issue with the idea that consciousness is not a mental substance, but I think he might be a bit weary of consciousness being described as a repercussion or outcome rather than the source of human action and thereby the source of Sartrean free will.

    I'm still trying to digest the Existentialism 101 course I took a few years ago, so that might not be entirely accurate, but as far as I can gather, he would attribute consciousness essentially to "nothing".

    This "nothingness" actually having some functional value both to the individual and the universe. Physically the nothingness around the universe allowing it to expand, and similarly the nothingness of the future as a scatterplot for an individual's "infinite possibility".

    While there may still be a deterministic environment that reduces future probable outcomes, it is this infinite possibility granted to all conscious beings that is his basis for free will.

    Again, I'm not sure how accurate that description is, but that is how I have come to understand it.

    Do you think this lends any credibility to the free will side of things?

  4. Well, in that sense I actually think Sartre got it wrong. I do think consciousness is the source of (some) human agency and decision making, but the existentialist idea that we have effectively unlimited power of action is not consistent with much of what we know from both biology and cognitive science. We are much less free than Sartre & co. would have liked.

  5. Massimo wrote: "the Science and Philosophy of Free Will"

    Unlike some readers of this blog, I do not "move into" assault position -- like the New Atheists (but without the stupidity), I am ALWAYS IN assault position. So, with that having been said, here it comes: "free-will" is not a scientific question; it is a purely logical question -- one which has been definitively relegated to the dust-bin of self-contradictory concepts, where it gets caught somewhere between "square-triangle" and "thing in itself". For an exposition of the facts, one might consult Galen Strawson's "Luck Swallows Everything"

  6. I sympathize, but I doubt things are that easy. Yes, some senses of free will are indeed incoherent, but there still are substantive questions about what cognitive scientists call volition, and generally the distinction between conscious and unconscious decision making.

  7. Ah free. The word is so very emotionally evocative and so very meaningless. All of our lives we hang from our chains and when one or more of them is cut our lives end. Let the man or woman who can travel to any of the stars in the sky that they wished to visit make the claim that they are free, and let all others acknowledge that they live in a prison. A prison called Earth.

    Even our very thoughts are chained - by our culture, by our development, by our environment. What is called 'free will' is simply the name we apply to the fact that while everything is already written our brains are not powerful enough to model what is coming with any accuracy so it remains unknown and may indeed be unknowable. Ignorance of the future however does not free will make.

    The idea does make a fine way to torture yourself however with the shadows of all those things you 'could' have done but were never actually going to do.

    If you disagree with me naturally you were destined to do so.

  8. Another way I have come to understand free will is that it is less linked to the action and rather more instrinsically linked to the desire or yearning for action.

    For instance, if I was gagged and tied, then I am completely free to will to be out of these bonds even if it is literally impossible to do so.

  9. Is there a post where Julia explains why she isn't a moral realist?

  10. I hope Julia will answer this, but here is what she wrote about morality early on during her tenure at RS:


  11. I like Julia's dissolution of the problem. Free will might be just about protecting the intuition that our minds float "somewhere nearby". Or Free Will is really an attempt to populate Heaven and Hell. It is necessary if you want to make moral judgements, to say a person deserves blame or approbation. Other than that, it's a problem with no hope of a solution, and no practical application. The compatibilist and the incompatibilist both order from the menu with as much deliberation. There is no fixing that. On a more psychological level, I guess it all comes down to how much you like your parents and want to admit their hand in your choices.

  12. OneDayMore
    >"It is necessary if you want to make moral judgements, to say a person deserves blame or approbation. Other than that, it's a problem with no hope of a solution, and no practical application."
    Wonderful summary.I would simply add that there is the consideration of the individuals sense of self worth, dignity, individuality, and freedom. How can they be "proud" of themselves and their accomplishments, if they do not believe in free will, but instead that they were "determined"
    This is what B.F.Skinner was referring to in his book "Beyond Freedom And Dignity". Some individuals cannot emotionally handle the ideas in Skinner's book. If you haven't read it, I suspect that you would enjoy it.

  13. Giving up the belief in free will is difficult for most individuals because their sense of self worth, dignity, individuality, and freedom is compromised by the idea of no free will. How can they be "proud" of themselves and their accomplishments, how can they feel "moral" if they but instead that they were "determined" or simply "products".

  14. I've thought the question: Is there free will? must be a surrogate for another actual (understandable) question like: Is there a ghost in the machine? and this podcast made me think I'm right. M and J seem to agree that the word "will" is problematic - should be volition - and that "I" is too because it implies there is a ghost in the machine.
    I don't understand the significance of the Libet experiments at all. It seems to me that they simply point out that our brains have a subconscious component, which isn't news. The brain is just a machine and it has a subconscious aspect. Does my recognition of that mean I don't believe in "free will?"
    So people are biological machines, which of course run according to the laws of nature (not by a "soul"). Do philosophers express that simple (and obvious) idea with the term determinism, which suggests everything we do was set in place (determined) in a sort of Newtonian fashion at the beginning of the universe like a long series of billiard ball collisions with predictable trajectories etc.?
    Why not just say: All living things are biological machines that run according to the laws of nature, instead of: Free will is an illusion and what you think you're choosing to do was actually predetermined?
    Curt N.

  15. PS ...And why suggest that our actions are predetermined by the laws of nature when determined by them seems to make more sense? The weather can't be predicted a few days out, why would anyone believe our eventual actions were imbedded in the stuff of the early universe, especially with its quantum uncertainty and probabilistic nature?

    Curt N.

  16. CurtN
    Very few will allow themselves to seriously consider what you say. They have a mental block.
    Giving up the belief in free will is difficult for most individuals because their sense of self worth, dignity, individuality, and freedom is compromised by the idea of no free will. How can they be "proud" of themselves and their accomplishments, how can they feel "moral" if instead they believe that they are"determined" or simply "products".

  17. Thanks for the feedback DJD, but I have to say I'm perplexed by the lack of answers (dammit, I want answers) to my sincere questions about free will.

    Why are the Libet experiments significant? Why is a demonstration of subconscious thought a big deal? Conscious or subconscious, it's all us - our brain. Why do people take seriously the idea that our actions (our will) were embedded in the early universe? What example is there of anything specific being predetermined, much less all of our actions? Instead don't we see that chaos confounds our ability to predict even short term physical behaviors?

    Isn't the question "Is there free will?" even ridiculous? Doesn't it actually mean "is there a ghost in the machine?" And shouldn't that be translated to "Do you believe in god?"

    Curt N.

  18. CurtN
    >"Isn't the question "Is there free will?" even ridiculous? Doesn't it actually mean "is there a ghost in the machine?" And shouldn't that be translated to "Do you believe in god?"
    I believe that questions such as "Is there free will?" should always be answered with "It depends upon what you mean by 'free will'" Then...after a particular person has explained what they mean....the question can be dealt with....but not before. If the question is asked of a group of people, as it is asked in most discussion boards..the discussion devolves into debates about what 'free will' actually means, and the discussion goes round in circles and people speak past one another....sometimes without even knowing that they are doing so. There IS no "actual meaning".There is only what a given speaker means at that time, in that usage. For me...being a person that thinks in terms of cause and effect...I find it difficult to think of an action with no cause.


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