Free Will from Neurobiology?

Searle, J., Freedom and Neurobiology, New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.

This book contains two essays, one on the neurobiological basis of free will and one on the ontology of political power.  There is no need to wonder what these have to do with each other:  not much, Searle frankly says.  As he explains, the book was originally published in French from two independent lectures he delivered in Paris.  The book was then translated into several other languages, and here is the English version.


The benefit of publishing two unrelated essays in one book is that to link them together, Searle reviews his whole oeuvre.  In 35 introductory pages, we get a survey of Searle’s views on philosophical methodology, naturalism, consciousness, intentionality, language, rationality, free will, society and institutions, politics, and ethics.  This may well be the shortest and most accessible introduction to Searle’s philosophy, by the author himself.


I will only comment on Searle’s essay on free will.  Searle does not cite any of the considerable literature on free will and proceeds largely independently of it.  His stated goal is formulating the problem of free will clearly enough that it can be solved scientifically.  But the crux of the philosophical debate is the metaphysical question of compatibilism vs. incompatibilism (i.e., whether free will is compatible with determinism).  Does Searle think that question can be answered empirically?  Never mind.  Searle simply assumes incompatibilism (i.e., free will requires indeterminism) without argument.  In fact, he even defines free will in a way that amounts to “the negation of determinism” (47).


The shortcomings of such a definition have been known for a long time.  Acting randomly – genuinely randomly – would falsify determinism, but it would hardly qualify as an expression of free will.  Searle is well aware of this.  He says that “quantum indeterminism gives us no help with the free will problem, because that indeterminism introduces randomness into the basic structure of the universe, and the hypothesis that some of our acts occur freely is not at all the same as the hypothesis that some of our acts occur at random” (44).  So if quantum indeterminism is not going to help because free will is more than indeterminism, then what kind of indeterminism would supply us with free will?  Searle doesn’t say.


Given incompatibilism, Searle sees only two options.  (Others are discussed in the literature, but Searle does not consider them.) 


The first option is epiphenomenalism, according to which free will is just an illusion.  This may seem to fit well with our naturalistic worldview.  (Recent work by Daniel Wegner is highly suggestive in this regard.)  But Searle feels strongly that we have free will.  For him, epiphenomenalism is the option of last resort.


The second option is that human actions are non-deterministically caused by “the conscious self.”  According to Searle, the conscious self is “caused by and realized in” the brain.  This sounds a lot like what is known in the literature as an agent causal account, with Searle’s self playing the role of the traditional agent.  Searle, however, does not use this term, nor does he cite any of the many agent-causal theorists. 


If the self causes actions in a nondeterministic way and the self is realized in the brain, then there must be some source of indeterminism in the way the brain causes action.  Quantum indeterminism!  Wait, didn’t Searle say quantum indeterminism was not going to help?  Yes, but it turns out that Searle thinks the self is a feature of nature and the only natural source of indeterminism is quantum indeterminism.  Unless we accept epiphenomenalism, by Searle’s logic, quantum indeterminism had better help.  Here is how it helps:  “The indeterminacy at the micro level may … explain the indeterminacy of the system, but the randomness at the micro level does not by itself imply randomness at the system level” (76, emphasis original). 


To make this theory stand up, Searle should now explain two things:  how randomness at the micro level is consistent with indeterministic-though-non-random agent causation at the system level, and how the resulting kind of indeterministic agent causation constitutes free will.  Unfortunately, Searle does not give us these crucial parts of the story, at least in this essay.


I do not see that Searle has broken new ground on the free will debate.  But if you are looking for his view on free will, this essay is for you.


Acknowledgments: Thanks to Carl Craver for comments on this post.


  1. Eddy Nahmias

    For more on Searle’s view on free will, you can read his Rationality in Action. There’s a short summary of his view at New Scientist.

    His view is very problematic for the reasons Gualtiero nicely outlines. I would also add that Searle relies heavily on the suspect phenomenology of what he calls “the gap” (one might say his entire argument relies on the gap). The gap is the experience, which he takes to be quite evident, that when we act, we do not experience our reasons as sufficient for our decisions nor our decisions as sufficient for our action (so there are two gaps). Then he argues that free will must be what fills the gaps. For now, I would simply suggest that his phenomenological evidence seems suspect both in its accuracy and its relevance to the free will debate. (I discuss some of these issues in “The Phenomenology of Free Will” [JCS 11]).

    Consider, for instance, whether you experience free will if, deliberating between vanilla and chocolate (see Searle’s book cover), you decide you really feel like vanilla, decide to order it, and then order it. Where’s the gap?

  2. Ya gotta admire the guy for trying to preserve contracausal free will and naturalism.

    There has been recent very strange work on free will in quantum mechanics by very good physicists (I know that this doesn’t mean their work on free will is good). The main technical paper, The Free Will Theorem is by by Conway and Kochen. It would be interesting to hear comments from someone with technical competence in this stuff.

    I agree that the leap from phenomenology ot metaphysics is lame. I don’t think that is Searle’s motivation (indeed he has a wonderful paper called The Phenomenological Illusion that takes such leaps to task). I think his motivation is mainly political/ethical.

  3. To me, Searle is a living legend, he is contributing brutally and timely to the philosophy of language, mind and the social sciences particularly in relation of how our “language in action” builds the social reality; but i think that all the empirical evidence provide by neurobiology not deny free will conclusively, though many important neurobiologists and neurophilophers say the contrary and the widely used mechanistic explanation in science points to determinism (Wolf Singer, ¿Libet?, Churchland…)

    A special case in the patient literature colud be in the right track to distangle and shed light in future developments of the free will debate and neurobiology, that is, drug addiction: how and addict changes his biochemical profile shaped by the heavy use of psychoactives but finally recover form his illness or viceversa (becomes an addict). To me a fruitful answer is in this line of reasoning and is higly related with the systems-levels interaction, habits, attitudes, desires, beliefs… all of them instances involve in any conception of free will.

  4. This doesn’t seem too far off from Searle’s view of minds. He wants a middle ground between reductionism and what he calls radical emergence (and others call ontological emergence)

    Ontological emergence in the free will debate is fairly established with proponents appealing to chaos theory to do it. I don’t buy it, mind you, but I’m surprised Searle doesn’t mention the fair bit of literature already written and argued that takes this position.

  5. soluman

    I’ve never been able to see why Searle is so highly regarded. It seems like all of his arguments beg the question. For free will he simply assumes incompatibilism and for phenomenal consciousness he simply assumes that consciousness is a brain process… also metaphysical concepts can’t be proven naturalistically, so why does everyone want to use empirical evidence to prove them? What’s wrong with good old fashioned philosophy… it’s gotten us this far.

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