"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 at the Center for Naturalism?
A word of explanation is in order about why free will is so often the focus at
the Center for Naturalism (CFN) and Naturalism.Org. It's simply 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. To my knowledge, the CFN is the only organization that is drawing
out and publicizing the progressive, humanistic implications of the
science-based denial of contra-causal free will. Until other organizations get
involved, we remain the only non-profit advocate of no free will enlightenment,
of freedom from free will. Which explains our emphasis on it here and at other
pages at Naturalism.Org. - TWC
For a reasonably comprehensive summary of where the
CFN stands on free will, see
Fully Caused: Coming to Terms With Determinism.
Contents (most recent at the top):
autonomy: why consciousness does and doesn't matter -
Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility, Greg
The Rise of the
New Determinists - review of Richard Oerton's The Nonsense of Free
Physicist Victor Stenger on free will at
reviews Julian Baggini's The Ego Trick
Daniel Dennett reviews Bruce Waller's
Against Moral Responsibility
Tom Clark reviews Bruce Waller's
Against Moral Responsibility
reviews Sam Harris's Free Will
Three Threats to
Autonomy: Why Consciousness Does and Doesn't Matter
Scientific Naturalism and the Illusion of Free Will
- interview with D.J. Grothe at Center for Inquiry's Point of Inquiry.
Roundup, 2010 -
commentary on recent developments.
Freedom From Free Will - blog at NPR's 13.7 Culture and
Scripting the Future - spacetime and
the nature of control.
Free Will Skepticism: Where Are the Skeptics? -
a good debunking needed.
Fully Caused: Coming to Terms With Determinism
determinism may very well not be the case, but the assumption that there are
reliable cause and effect relationships among events is indispensable.
Heading Off the Revolution - should criminal
justice be reformed in light of our not having contra-causal free will?
Benefits of Free Will Skepticism
- Tamler Sommers on
why doubting libertarian free will and ultimate moral responsibility is good
for us, practically and psychologically.
Don't Forget About Me -
avoiding demoralization by determinism.
Mechanisms Responsible - even if consciousness isn't all its
cracked up to be, we must still hold each other responsible,
The Scandal of Compatibilism - a review
Four Views on Free Will.
Free Will is Dead - Long Live Free Will! - a
lively capsule version of Steven Converse's views, showing the futility of
When Choice Is King - supposing
that human choices are the unconditioned causes of action keeps us in the
dark about behavior.
Denying the Little God of Free Will
- an open letter to the atheist community.
Is Free Will Incredible? -
not at all, says Tibor Machan, but his
doubts are showing.
Soul and Free Will Roundup -
seems as if there's growing public
awareness of the naturalistic challenge to free will, and of the benefits in
giving up the dualism of the soul.
An Overview of the Agency Problem - chapter 1 of
The Spontaneous Self: Viable Alternatives to Free Will, by Paul
Doubting Free Will: The Argument from
Celebrity-Authority - the extent
to which some of our most famous philosophical and political
progenitors, including Thomas Jefferson and Abraham
Lincoln, were skeptical about contra-causal free
will is not widely known. This needs fixing.
Will: The Last Great Lie -
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.
Other good talks by Gulack are
(on time) and
Off the Hobbits -
some think that by acknowledging
our causal connections to nature, naturalism threatens human freedom, power,
dignity and creativity. But that’s only if we suppose we have the
logically impossible freedom of being self-caused selves. Natural
autonomy gives us everything we might reasonably want as human agents.
Hodgson's Black Box
- A reply to David Hodgson's
target article "A plain person's free will" in the
Journal of Consciousness Studies,
V 12, #1.
Darrow and Determinism: Giving Up Ultimate Responsibility
- Tamler Sommers at the University of
Houston argues that Clarence Darrow had it right: we aren't ultimately
responsible for ourselves, and seeing that can help free us from
resentment, and hatred.
Really Dangerous Idea -
An analysis of physicist Paul Davies’ worry about free will
in which two types of freedom are described, one supernatural and one
natural. Only one, it turns out, is necessary for
all we hold near and dear. And the other is widely discounted by
scientists and philosophers developing a naturalistic view of ourselves.
Free Will in the News - A
selection of excerpts from news stories that refer to free will in various
contexts. They illustrate how the term is used, and how beliefs in
free will function as a background assumption in justifying attitudes and
Living Without Ultimate Moral Responsibility
Philosopher Galen Strawson is
interviewed by Tamler Sommers on what it would mean to free ourselves from
mistaken beliefs in ultimate freedom and moral responsibility.
Living with the truth that such things don't exist, although perhaps
difficult at first, might bring considerable psychological and social
Free Will Panic -
Sheldon Richman, of the Future
of Freedom Foundation, illustrates the sometimes panicked reaction to
neuroscience ("the muck of reductionism") by those who suppose that without
contra-causal, ultimate freedom, all is lost. But on due
consideration, there's no need to panic.
Losing Faith in Free Will -
On the last day of 2002,
science writer John Horgan wrote a piece on free will for the New York
science section, entitled
Good Intentions: Holding Fast to Faith in Free Will." However,
under pressure from research that challenges the notion of a mental agent
independent of deterministic neural processes, Horgan admits that his faith
in free will might be wavering. My recommendation, of course, is that
he lose this unnecessary faith altogether, and get comfortable with the idea
that our freedom and dignity don't require us to be uncaused, non-physical,
or otherwise mysterious agents.
Is Free Will a Necessary
Fiction? - Philosopher Saul Smilansky thinks that belief in
free will, which he concedes doesn't exist, is necessary to provide
essential support for morality, meaning, and the worth of human beings.
I argue that he is mistaken on all counts, and that we would be better off
morally and existentially without believing the falsehood that we have free
will. Moreover, Smilansky's view entails a massive, world-wide
project of systematic deception about our causal connection to nature, which
is neither possible, necessary, nor desirable. Free will is not a necessary
fiction, and making known the naturalistic truth about ourselves is a far
better basis for human flourishing.
Recent Writings on
the Self and Free Will -
These writings by mainstream authors show that Naturalism.Org is
neither unique nor crazy in suggesting that 1) we don’t have free will and
2) we’d be better off if we made our peace with this fact and adjusted our
beliefs and social practices accordingly.
Science and Freedom
- Some fear that science, by revealing the causes of
behavior, will undermine traditional concepts of freedom and responsibility,
leaving us with no moral recourse. Science indeed undermines the
traditional libertarian notion of free will, but there are viable concepts
of freedom and responsibility which are compatible with a
scientific understanding of ourselves. The compatibilist view of moral
responsibility underwrites moral judgments, but it also suggests we invest
our energies in addressing the causes of evil and criminality instead of
imposing unnecessarily harsh punishments which simply perpetuate the cycle
of violence. Published in
Free Inquiry, Spring
Exchanges on Free Will -
1) Unitarian Reverend Joel Miller provides a
thoughtful essay in which he grapples with the ominous implications of
science for the sort of free will he supposes we must
have. But is it really the case, as he puts it, that "if free will is
an illusion, then this church and this nation exist for nothing?" To
see why not, click here. 2) William R. Clark, co-author of
Are We Hardwired?
suggests that free will is a matter of indeterminacy or unpredictability
generated by chaotic processes in the brain. But how can such free
will give us moral responsibility if we ourselves can't predict what we'll
do next? This
dialog explores a naturalistic
alternative to the rather dubious liberty that might be conferred by
Fear of Mechanism: A Compatibilist Critique of "The
Volitional Brain" - This essay appeared in the
Journal of Consciousness Studies' special issue on free will,
The Volitional Brain: Towards a Neuroscience of Free Will, later
released as a book with that title. The article is largely a commentary on the issue's contents, with a
partisan objective. It serves somewhat to balance the influence of
editor-neuroscientist Benjamin Libet, as well as some other libertarian
contributors, who are bent, it seems, on discovering contra-causal free will
somewhere in the brain. The libertarians and their evident fear of
mechanism are a good foil to showcase a humanistic determinism which has all
the necessary resources, I argue, to support our ethical intuitions and
which might also soften punitive and ego-driven attitudes that permeate our
How to Cope with Creeping
Mechanism - This tries to take the curse off "creeping mechanism" by showing that
nothing vital depends on our being independent of natural cause and effect.
Some equate determinism with genetic determinism, but this ignores the fact
that environmental factors contribute equally to shaping human
characteristics. An earlier version of this essay appeared in an issue
of the Philosopher's Magazine
with a special forum on free will, entitled "Human Machines?".
Review of Bruce Waller's The Natural Selection of Autonomy
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.
Free Will and Naturalism: A
Reply to Corliss Lamont - The
late Corliss Lamont, one of the grand old men of American humanism, is taken
to task for supposing that human beings are exempt from naturalistic
causality. His arguments for free will are rebutted, and reasons are
given for why we don't need even the illusion of free will in order to have
what we value. Several other present day philosophers, scientists, and
writers are quoted on the free will problem. This paper provides an
overview of the naturalistic attack on free will, since it examines (albeit
briefly) several standard arguments and several of the psychological
difficulties encountered when giving up the human exemption from causality.
This paper originally appeared in the Humanist.
The Freedom of Susan Smith
- This focuses on free will, responsibility and
punishment from a naturalistic perspective, using the example of Susan
Smith, who was found guilty of drowning her two children in a South Carolina
lake. A central point is that plausible explanations of a crime rule
out the existence of a freely willing agent that could have done otherwise
in a given situation. This means that retributive justifications for
punishment can't find a footing in free will, therefore the retaliatory
motive for the death penalty is likely to diminish. Nevertheless, a
full causal explanation of Susan Smith's act does not constitute an "abuse
excuse", since we must enforce sanctions to ensure a civil, safe society.
This paper originally appeared as a cover story for the Humanist
and has been reprinted in
The Critical Reader, Thinker, and Writer, Mayfield Publishing,
Materialism and Morality: The
Problem with Pinker - This takes a broader view of 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. Pinker, like his colleague Marvin Minsky, supposes that we
must "idealize" ourselves as uncaused creatures in order to have morality.
That is, he thinks we must pretend to have free will, even though science
shows we don't. Naturally, and naturalistically, I take issue with
this and try to show that we need not compartmentalize science and ethics.
I suggest that this is not merely an academic issue, but has real world
consequences for how we approach social deviance and destructive behavior.
Three Strikes Against Fatalism
These are three brief sallies against the
plausibility of fatalism, one by Bob Miller of Charlottesville. They
are designed to prevent any plunge into pessimism that determinism might
engender among those who suppose we must have free will for life to be worth
living. Fatalism is pretty obviously false, but we want to make sure
no one gets demoralized by a naturalism that understands all our behavior as
fully a function of environment and heredity. It's important (and not
difficult) to avoid the false conclusion that determinism disempowers us.
It doesn't in the least; rather it shows us how to make the most of our
abilities. If after reading these, you find yourself depressed about
not having free will, please be in
Luck Swallows Everything -
This reading is Galen Strawson's contribution on
free will to the
Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
which was reprinted in the Times
Literary Supplement, June 26, 1998. He provides a concise, not too technical, and (to my
mind) persuasive overview of the issues on free will, coming to the
conclusion that the facts simply do not support our sense of being the
radically autonomous, originative cause of our actions.