Is Free Will an Illusion?

free will

Many scientific pundits take a fiendish glee in attacking free will. These pundits are hard-nosed, scientific reductionists. The argument made against free will by scientific materialists tends to take the following form: Conscious choices are preceded by unconscious events in the brain; therefore, free will is an illusion. Anyone with the scientific backbone capable of squandering pseudoscience and other voodoo is worthy of admiration. Yet the highlighted reasoning purported by many scientific reductionists to dispel free will is equivalent to a college freshman who has just taken a course in philosophy 101.

There has been a plethora of interesting work in the study of action and choice. Free will deniers tend to reference the Libet experiments to hammer their point. The Libet experiments were conducted by the psychologist, Benjamin Libet, in the 1980s. Subjects were requested to strike a button at their own command. An electroencephalograph (EEG) monitored the subjects’ brains. The EEG revealed a spike in brain activity prior to subjects pushing the button. In other words, before the subjects consciously pushed the button, the brain unconsciously determined their actions.

In addition to citing Libet experiments, some free will deniers argue that the definition of free will is incoherent. Usually, free will is defined as the ability to do otherwise. That is, between choices A and B, person C can freely will choice A over choice B. If determinism is true—the view that all events are the corollary of prior, physical causes that could not have been otherwise—then human actions were set in stone at the big bang. If indeterminism is true—the view that there is an inherent randomness to the universe—then human actions are preceded by erratic, unconscious events. In either scenario, the definition of free will is incoherent.

Yet just because we do not have absolute free will does not mean free will is an illusion. This is the equivalent of saying that because color is in the eye of the beholder, then color does not exist. A more appropriate response is that color is not what our preconceived notions of color led us to believe. Likewise, there are a variety of limited forms of free will that are perfectly compatible with scientific data and worth wanting.

One form of free will worth wanting is known as compatibilism. Compatibilism has many different branches. In its most generic form, compatibilism is the view that free will is compatible with determinism. In other forms of compatibilism, free will can only exist if determinism is true. For all intents and purposes, the prior form of compatibilism will do.

One form of compatibilism is offered by the philosopher Daniel Dennett. According to Dennett, free will (perhaps a better term would be free choice) is the ability to foresee future events, and then take steps to avoid undesirable events. Under this description, free will is not a static constant but a variable that can fluctuate over time. The more events a person can anticipate, the more likely they can take steps to avoid undesirable events. Within this conception of free will, whether or not determinism or indeterminism is true is irrelevant. In either scenario, the future is inevitable, but that does not mean certain events are unavoidable. Of course, one cannot avoid avoiding. But who would want to?

More importantly, the notion of free will grounds ethics. Morality is a conceptual framework used to determine (and there is that irritating word again) about what we ought to do, not what we do. In fact, research has shown that students are more likely to cheat on an exam when informed that they don’t have free will. In short, hard-nosed reductionists who claim free will is an illusion are equivalent to a schoolyard bully who is eager to inform everyone that Santa Clause does not exist. Rather than upholding these bullies, the illusion of the free will illusion must be squandered.

By Nathan Cranford


Scientific American
Be Thinking
Philosophy Now