Ignoring Options in public discussion of free will

Hi everyone, apologies for not being around much
lately, I’ve been chasing a baby around Berlin. At any rate I’m back today and
I’d like to talk again about the quality of public discussions of matters
related to the philosophy of mind. Today, as something a little different I’ll
also point to some serious academic work that faces one of the problems we see
in pop discussions.

Daniel Kostic, graduate of Humboldt University,
recently shared this link with me (link below, it’s not embedding for some reason) on facebook. Now I take it that no one really
needs me to walk them through the errors made here. Errors like not attempting to
make any link between the indeterminacy of the location/velocity of electrons
and human action. Like not recognising that a random event is not a free event.
Like confusing predictability and determination. And what was the rant about
personal identity at the end??? 

What I wish to point out is the limited options
that are considered. In particular only incompatibilist notions of free will are
considered. The options considered are 1) the universe is deterministic and we
are therefore not free or 2) the universe is not (entirely?) deterministic and
we are therefore free. Kaku here seems to opt for option 2. Now some might
object that the kind of indeterminism he talks about is simply not the right
kind to get as free will. If it is related to human behaviour at all it seems
like the most this kind of indeterminism could get us is random action, not
free action. One common conclusion is that if there is indeterminism that gets
us free will it needs to be somehow magic or supernatural, something like agent
causation, say. We are lead to option 3) the universe is determined and we are
free. How are we free? We’re free if actions are determined in the right way, determined
by us. 

This notion of free will, a compatibilist or
soft-determinist notion, has been on the table at least since Hume (he says
expecting to be corrected by someone who knows their history). There are also a
wide variety of approaches one can take to studying it [interested readers are
invited to compare Dennett’s (1984) to the contributions to
Sebanz and Prinz’s (2006) volume]. Yet it is simply not
mentioned in Kaku’s discussion. It seems to not even be an option. This I think
is particularly odd given that for those of us already convinced of materialism
it is the kind of free will that could exist. It’s not that this has to be
true, but if we are interested in providing the public with informed discussion
of these matters the most plausible options should be on the table. 

Perhaps of more concern is that we find some
academic discussions of free will which are similarly limited. Here is
something that Wegner has said on the issue: 

As a rule, these are fighting words, pointed barbs
against free will in the perennial battle between free-willers and
determinists. Free-willers are students of mind who are entirely taken by the
mind’s self-portrait, and who have championed ideas of free will,
self-determination, human agency, and rational choice to say that thoughts
regularly do cause actions. The mind’s self-portrait is accepted at face value,
and other accounts of human action are accepted only to the degree that they
can be fit with this fundamental canon. By this view, there really is a self,
an author of our actions who creates them by consciously willing them. On the
other hand, there are also students of mind who say the mind’s self-portrait is
bad art, no more than a misleading “folk theory” whose main feature is an
impossible homunculus. This is the refrain of classically deterministic
psychological theorists such as Freud and Skinner, of course, and more recently
it is the assumption embraced by most sciences of the mind. The theme comes up
often enough nowadays that Tom Wolfe titled an article on contemporary
neuroscience “Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died.”
(Wegner 2003 p. 2)

Again the options when it comes to free will are
limited. Limited in incompatbilist notions. The idea that one could be free
because actions are determined (or, ultimately better, controlled) by oneself
(the organism not a homunculus!) simply doesn’t get a look in. Much less tested

I don’t want to beat up on Wegner here. The
contributions he and his collaborators have made to our understanding of
intrusive thoughts (Wegner and Gold 1995) as well as the conscious experience of agency are hugely
important (Wegner and Wheatley 1999). They come from good science
and we get good theories. For what it’s worth I think Wegner’s lab produces some
of the best experimental philosophy going (Gray et al. 2007) (you can be involved in an
experiment here). There is no sense in which Wegner is a bad scientist or
theorist. But the discussion of free will is too circumscribed. 

Alright then, perhaps next time I’ll give more
of a description of some form of compatibilism so that you can see why I think
it’s worth talking about in public (and testing!). 




Dennett, D. C. (1984). Elbow room: The varieties of free will worth
, The MIT Press.

Gray, H. M., K. Gray and D. M. Wegner (2007). “Dimensions of mind
perception.” Science 315:

Sebanz, N. E. and W. E. Prinz (2006). Disorders of volition, Mit press.

Wegner, D. M. (2003). “the mind’s self portrait.” Annals of
the New York Academy of Sciences

Wegner, D. M. and D. B. Gold (1995). “Fanning old flames: Emotional
and cognitive effects of suppressing thoughts of a past relationship.” Journal
of Personality and Social Psychology

Wegner, D. M. and T. Wheatley (1999). “Apparent mental causation:
sources of the experience of will.” American Psychologist 54(7): 480-492.

the offending video: http://link.brightcove.com/services/player/bcpid651017566001?bckey=AQ~~,AAAAGuNzXFE~,qu1BWJRU7c26MMkbB19ukwmFB5ysvYz5&bctid=902909907001




  1. I don’t see the point with compatibilism…

    > We’re free if actions are determined in the right way, determined by us.

    If my actions are determined by me, they are not determined by someone else nor by something outside me, nor are they objectively determined -> they are “random” from anyone else’s point of view.

    Free for me, random for someone else.

    I think that the only problematic incompatibilism is the one between “freedom” and “randomness”.

  2. woodchuck64

    Galen Strawson from http://www.naturalism.org/strawson.htm

    The facts are clear, and they have been known for a long time. When it comes to the metaphysics of free will, Andre Gide’s remark is apt: “Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again.” It seems the only freedom that we can have is Compatibilist freedom.

  3. harolded

    Is anyone surprised that Michio Kaku is butchering this particular philosophical topic? On his show “Sci-Fi Science’’ he once suggested he could solve the problem of having a robot/transformer represent things by supplying its memory banks with pictures of everything it might encounter.

    I live in a house occupied by philosophy grad students (several of us are physics inclined), and when Kaku comes on, to quote the Beatles, “we turn the sound down and say rude things.’’ (Actually, we laugh and then cry at the state of popular science television.)

  4. Eddy Nahmias

    Hi Glenn,
    I feel your pain. So much so that a good bit of my work is aimed at responding to the increasingly common (and increasingly publicized) claims from scientists that their work is showing free will is an illusion (I call them ‘willusionists’). If interested, I’ve got several papers and powerpoints on these topics here: http://www2.gsu.edu/~phlean/papers.html

    We also discuss these issues occasionally at Flickers of Freedom: http://agencyandresponsibility.typepad.com/flickers-of-freedom/science-and-free-will/

    I should say, however, that the scientists are picking up on potential threats to free will that are more significant and more intuitive to ordinary people than the stale philosophical issue of determinism. Though the scientists use the term ‘determinism’, they don’t mean it. The threats they are describing are about epiphenomenalism, or some form of what I call ‘bypassing’ of our conscious mental states. The evidence they present does not establish such bypassing, but if it did, it would be a much more salient threat to people than determinism (as defined by philosophers in the free will debate). I do think that neuroscience and psychology are showing that we have less free will than we tend to think. But they don’t show we have no free at all with their vague suggestions that they show dualism is false or with evidence from people like Libet, Wegner, Bargh, etc.

  5. Glenn Carruthers

    thanks for your thoughts everyone.

    @Eddy yes I am familiar with your arguments against Wegner (although I myself focus on the sense of agency- not free will), and thanks for the link to the blog I havn’t come across that before!


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