Skeptical of Free Will

Covers writers who are skeptical about or deny traditional libertarian, contra-causal free will, and some of them explore the personal and social implications of this denial.

What follows should at least convince those who doubt the viability of naturalism that is not unique or crazy in suggesting that 1) we don’t have free will and that 2) we’d be better off if we made our peace with this fact and adjusted our beliefs and social practices accordingly.

Paul Breer - The Spontaneous Self: Viable Alternatives to Free Will

Published by the Institute for Naturalistic Philosophy in 1989, this book was among the first for the wider public (perhaps the first) to explicitly challenge the traditional notion of free will and make the case that a fully naturalistic view of ourselves offers significant advantages. Breer examines both the experiential and philosophical views of the self and its freedom, guiding the reader through exercises that expose the illusion of contra-causal agency, and suggesting how the insight that thoughts and actions arise on their own, without need of a supervisory self, might change attitudes and behavior. This book is well written, very well informed philosophically and culturally, but still highly practical in addressing the personal psychology of living without free will. It's still the best single book on the manifold implications of naturalism, well ahead of its time. Here are the contents:

  • Part I - In Search of the Homunculus: An overview of the agency problem; What does it mean to say I?; How do I know that I exist? : an experiment; Linguistic and social origins of free agency.
  • Part II - A Question of Survival: The self-governing organism; Moral responsibility and social control.
  • Part III - Psychological Implications of Giving Up Free Will: Blaming others, blaming ourselves; Beyond pride and virtue; Releasing the wheel; Going gentle into that good night; The will to power; Emotions: torrents of the soul; Love and sexuality; Just who do we thing we are?
  • Part IV- Dispelling the Free Will Illusion: A strategy for giving up the ghost; A dignity we never had.

Daniel Dennett - Freedom Evolves

Dennett has written Freedom Evolves (2003) , a wide-ranging exploration of what it actually means to be free in a deterministic universe. Although Dennett is conservative in drawing any revisionary conclusions about our social practices based on his view of freedom, he is stoutly naturalistic, which means that what he means by free will isn't what's traditionally supposed. Whether retributive justifications for punishment, for instance, are supported by his definition of free will is quite an open question, one which I hope he will explicitly address in future writings. See his interview in Reason magazine.

Ted Honderich - Determinism and Freedom Philosophy Website

Honderich maintains an excellent web page, the Determinism and Freedom Philosophy Website, where you can find many recent articles by major philosophical players in the current debate on free will. His own position is decidedly naturalistic and deterministic, and he questions the traditional retributive rationales for punishment, as for instance in his book Punishment: The Supposed Justifications, and more recently in his essay "Punishment, the principle of humanity, and the death penalty." At his site I particularly recommend Richard Double's recent article, "The Moral Hardness of Libertarians" which takes philosophical libertarians to task for their ascriptions of blame in the absence of good evidence that we have libertarian free will.

Bruce Waller has written some excellent books on free will and moral responsibility, one of which, The Natural Selection of Autonomy, is reviewed at this site. Another is Freedom Without Responsibility. He argues for a naturalistic rejection of traditional free will, and although I disagree with his conclusion that moral responsibility of any sort ceases to exist under naturalism, I'm sympathetic to his conclusions regarding how we might change psychologically and socially once we accept a naturalistic view of ourselves.

Owen Flanagan - The Problem of the Soul

Flanagan, Duke University philosopher and brain scientist, in his new book The Problem of the Soul, mounts a direct attack on traditional conceptions of self, soul, consciousness, and free will (see my review of this book). For my money, this is currently the most comprehensive, well-argued and well-documented case for naturalism as it applies to ourselves, meaning, and morality. Flanagan says that we should discard the supernatural conception of the self, along with contra-causal, libertarian free will, and get comfortable with the idea that we are entirely physical, natural creatures, who don’t need to be exceptions to causality in order to be held responsible, sustain morality, or find meaning in life. "There is…no such thing as Cartesian free will. But maybe, just maybe, we can abandon that fiction and still get all the goodies we think only it can provide" (145). Flanagan comes out and says what many scientists and philosophers most likely believe, but are afraid to express, given that free will and the soul are such foundational assumptions in our culture. I can’t recommend this book strongly enough. See also "Neuroscience, Agency, and the Meaning of Life" in Flanagan’s book Self-Expressions, Oxford University Press, 1996: "We typically have no accurate and ongoing personal access to proximate causal antecedents of conscious acts of thought and choice, and this can produce a ‘user illusion’ that unmoved volitions precede and guide acts" (p. 56, and see Daniel Wegner’s book discussed immediately below on this point). "I think we know for sure that neuroscience is not going to find any place for metaphysical freedom of the will, since that would involve neuroscientific vindication of the hypothesis that there is a faculty that initiates thought and action without itself having causal antecedents" (p. 58).

Daniel Wegner - The Illusion of Conscious Will

Wegner, a Harvard psychologist, says in his recent book The Illusion of Conscious Will, that the feeling that we will our actions is a pretty reliable guide that an action is indeed ours, but that we shouldn’t suppose that we cause ourselves to behave. It may seem that we initiate action in some sense independently of past and surrounding conditions, but this is because we are largely ignorant of the actual causes of our behavior, which we aren’t in a very good position to observe accurately. True, our conscious intentions often precede our voluntary actions, but where do intentions come from? This is a highly readable and very comprehensive look at how the experience of willing is generated, how it can be modified by manipulating the conditions in which we behave, and what the implications are for our beliefs about human agency. In the last chapter, Wegner draws the conclusion that we don’t have free will, but that the sense of doing is an essential marker of moral responsibility because it reliably corresponds to actions that are voluntary and that flow from our character, concerns and motives.

Derk Pereboom - Living Without Free Will

Pereboom, a philosophy professor at the University of Vermont, argues in Living Without Free Will, that we don’t possess traditional libertarian freedom, and that this fact has significant implications for our attitudes, beliefs, interpersonal relations, and practices related to criminal justice. As he puts it, "Determinism is a threat to retributive desires, and more generally to the reactive attitudes connected to the practice of holding people morally responsible, because determinism is incompatible with origination, and…determinism will serve as a reason to relinquish these attitudes" (134). Although I think we can still usefully talk about moral responsibility within a naturalistic, deterministic framework, Pereboom’s approach recognizes that beliefs connected to the assumption of contra-causal agency must change in important ways, and that practices which assume such agency, e.g., retributive punishment, will have to be dropped, replaced by more humane, less punitive means of dealing with offenders. This book, along with Ted Honderich’s work (see and some of my articles (e.g., at Criminal Justice, Free Will, and Addiction) is among the few recent attempts to actually use the naturalistic conclusion about free will in a critique of criminal justice and social policy, and for this reason it’s an important breakthrough in applied naturalism. Pereboom has a chapter, as do Honderich and Galen Strawson (see below) in Robert Kane’s excellent anthology, The Oxford Handbook on Free Will.

Stephen Morse

Morse, law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has written extensively on free will, determinism, and the law, and concludes that we don't have libertarian freedom. Crucially, he shows that even in a deterministic universe the law still serves the essential function of guiding behavior.Although he advocates certain reforms in criminal justice, he stops well short of Pereboom's (and my own) radical rethinking of the aims of the law. Nevertheless, Morse's work, (along with a few others', such as Michael Moore) represents an extremely important development in legal theory, since it is in criminal justice, after all, where notions of responsibility are most often thought to depend on contra-causal agency. For a nice summary of his position, plus a good bibliography of his work, see Rationality and Responsibility, and for a longer, more technical paper, see Guiding Goodness.

Janet Radcliffe Richards - Human Nature After Darwin

In this excellent and enlightening introduction to critical thinking, philosophy, and Darwinism, Richards takes a thoroughly naturalistic view of the self, free will, morality, and meaning. I've quoted her at the top of the Criminal Justice page, to the effect that "...if we understand that there are good evolutionary reasons for our wanting people to suffer when they have done direct or indirect harm to us, then we can account for our strong feelings about the appropriateness of retribution without presuming they are a guide to moral truth.... We may be able to recognize our retributivist feelings as a deep and important aspect of our character - and take them seriously to that extent - without endorsing them as a guide to truth, and start rethinking our attitudes toward punishment on that basis" (210). Richards argues forcefully that traditional free will is incoherent, and says: "The need to sort out [issues of punishment and responsibility] is increasingly relevant in practice, as we advance in understanding the influence of both heredity and environment in making us what we are, and claims about criminal genes or the influence of television are brought into court as providers of excuses in particular cases. Confusions have real effects on how people are treated, and if how people are treated matters, it matters to do everything possible to get the arguments right. The philosophical disentangling of such issues is morally essential" (152).

Susan Blackmore - The Meme Machine

Blackmore, in her book The Meme Machine (Oxford University Press, 1999), contends that the self is a construction of memes, which she calls the "self-plex":

"Each self-plex gives rise to ordinary human consciousness based on the false idea that there is someone inside who is in charge…Free will, like the self who "has" it, is an illusion. Terrifying as this thought seems, I suggest it is true" (p.236).

"The self is not the initiator of actions, it does not ‘have’ consciousness, and it does not ‘do’ the deliberating. There is no truth to the idea of an inner self inside my body that controls the body and is conscious. Since this idea is false, so is the idea of my conscious self having free will" (p. 237).

"Dennett (Elbow Room, 1984) has described many versions of the idea of free will and argues that some of them are worth wanting. Unlike Dennett, I neither think the ‘user illusion’ is benign, nor do I want any version of free will that ascribes it to a self who does not exist" (p. 237).

"If my understanding of human nature is that there is no conscious self inside then I must live that way – otherwise this is a vain and lifeless theory of human nature. But how can ‘I’ live as though I do not exist, and who would be choosing not to do so?" (p. 242).

Blackmore goes on to describe various meditative and concentration techniques for extinguishing the false sense of self, which, as it turns out, isn’t necessary for creativity, decision-making, personal responsibility, or any other socially desirable trait (p. 245). In fact, she suggests, ridding ourselves of the user-illusion could have quite beneficial effects by reducing self-concern and increasing compassion and empathy (p. 246).

Please visit Dr. Blackmore's website,, for descriptions of her forthcoming work, including a book on consciousness.

Galen Strawson

"Luck Swallows Everything," Times Literary Supplement, June, 1998: "In order for one to be truly or ultimately responsible for how one is in such a way that one can be truly responsible for what one does, something impossible has to be true: there has to be, and cannot be, a starting point in the series of acts of bringing it about that one has a certain nature; a starting point that constitutes an act of ultimate self-origination. There is a more concise way of putting the point: in order to be ultimately responsible, one would have to be causa sui - the ultimate cause or origin of oneself, or at least of some crucial part of one’s mental nature. But nothing can be ultimately causa sui in any respect at all. Even if the property of being causa sui is allowed to belong unintelligibly to God, it cannot plausibly be supposed to be possessed by ordinary finite human beings…The causa sui is the best self-contradiction that has been conceived so far, as Nietzsche remarked in 1886: ‘it is a sort of rape and perversion of logic. But the extravagant pride of man has managed to entangle itself profoundly and frightfully with just this nonsense. The desire for "freedom of the will" in the superlative metaphysical sense, which still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated; the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui and, with more than Baron Munchhausen’s audacity, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness…’ In fact, nearly all of those who believe in strong free will do so without any conscious thought that it requires ultimate self-origination. But self-origination is the only thing that could actually ground the kind of strong free will that is regularly believed in." Strawson’s article can be found at Luck Swallows Everything.

John Bargh and Melissa Ferguson

In "Beyond Behaviorism: On the automaticity of higher mental processes," Psychological Bulletin, 2000, v 126 #6, 925-945: "It is not necessary to invoke the idea of free will or a nondetermined version of consciousness as a casual explanatory mechanism in accounting for higher mental processes in humans" (p. 939). "…[T]he feeling of volition does not require the existence of an act of will and so cannot be taken as evidence for the existence of volitional acts" (p. 940).

Irving Kirsch

"Volition as believed-in imagining," in Believed-In Imaginings: The Narrative Construction of Reality, Rivera and Sarbin, eds., 1998 American Psychological Association, 157-168: "The concept of volition as anything more than an introspective judgment invokes the magic of free will…It requires abandonment of the law of conservation of energy and of an explanatory science of behavior. Once one concludes that a behavior was genuinely chosen, one necessarily gives up the right to inquire into its determinants" p. 165.

Francesco Varela

Here are excerpts from "What a Relief! I Don’t Exist: Buddhism and the Brain," an interview with cognitive scientist Francisco Varela (co-author, now deceased, of The Embodied Mind) in Inquiring Mind, V16, #1, Fall 1999, special issue on What We Know About Ourselves: Dharma and Science:

Q: "One of the most interesting, and somewhat shocking, conclusions currently emerging from cognitive research is scientists’ apparent inability to find a ‘self’ or director in the brain who runs our personal drama." Varela : "…With few exceptions, cognitive scientists have come to understand the egolessness of self. What is surprising, however, is how little their scientific conclusion is taken personally, or really applied to the individual’s life." p. 7

Varela: "What science can do…is to give the notion of selflessness a stamp of authority or validity. In some cases, at least, this may motivate people to look at themselves with fresh eyes." p. 8

Q: "If we see clearly how the process is taking place without any self, and therefore see very little free will within the process, we could certainly be led to a kind of despair or futility."

Varela: "Well, one possible reaction is to say, Oh, my God, I don’t exist. But from a dharmic perspective you might say, What a relief! I don’t have to hold onto the illusion of self. One of the things you realize in meditation practice is that once you let go of the belief in self, there are no terrible consequences. You do not cease to function or even thrive." p. 8

Robert Wright - The Moral Animal

In a chapter entitled "Blaming the Victim," Wright argues that the increasing success of scientific explanation must shrink the domain of libertarian freedom to the point where we might as well admit that "we are all machines, pushed and pulled by forces that we can't discern but that science can." Wright quotes Darwin’s journals which show that Darwin himself didn’t believe that free will exists, although he kept this opinion carefully to himself.

VS Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee

Phantoms of the Brain, 1998 Quill/William Morrow NY, pp. 246-257 on self, esp. as representation; "our sense of having a private, non-material soul ‘watching the world’ is really an illusion" p. 256

Thomas B. Czerner, M.D.

What Makes You Tick? 2001, John Wiley and Sons, NY; chapter on "The Ghost in the Machine": "It is more than mildly disturbing to think of free will as an illusion." In this chapter Czerner explains why there isn’t an internal homunculus in the brain that witnesses or controls or that could have free will. He doesn’t, however, deal with the issues related to this discovery that might disturb us, such as responsibility and control.

Tom Wolfe

"Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died," Forbes magazine, 1996: "Neuroscientists involved in three-dimensional electroencephalography will tell you that there is not even any one place in the brain where consciousness or self-consciousness ( Cogito ergo sum ) is located. This is merely an illusion created by a medley of neurological systems acting in concert. The young generation takes this yet one step further. Since consciousness and thought are entirely physical products of your brain and nervous system--and since your brain arrived fully imprinted at birth--what makes you think you have free will? Where is it going to come from? What ‘ghost,’ what ‘mind,’ what ‘self,’ what ‘soul,’ what anything that will not be immediately grabbed by those scornful quotation marks, is going to bubble up your brain stem to give it to you?" This essay was also reprinted in Wolfe’s book Hooking Up.