In which I reconsider my position on free will

I may well have been wrong. These are words that politicians are loathe to utter, as is anyone who has any sort of voice in the public sphere. To admit you were wrong shows weakness, vulnerability, lack of leadership, and a sense that you don’t have things as fully under control as people think you should. But maybe changing one’s mind isn’t always a vice; perhaps our political and intellectual discourse could use a little more of it, particularly when newly considered lines of evidence challenge one’s previously held conceptions. Perhaps progress isn’t possible without provisionality.

In my March 25, 2012 blog post I took the position that free will is likely nothing more than an illusion. After having read Kurt Keefner’s little 99-cent e-book Free Will: A Response to Sam Harris, I’m now having second thoughts. Though Keefner, a philosophy graduate from the University of Chicago, is an atheist like Harris, he argues that we as humans aren’t simply along for the ride, driven to act entirely by factors beyond our control.

Let me make it clear that my position is still in flux and is subject to change. It may still be the case that Harris is right, that we ultimately don’t have control over our actions, but Keefner’s essay has given me some good food for thought, and perhaps even hope (if I dare call it such) that we can in fact choose path A when we might have chosen path B. Without further study, I’m not quite prepared to come down positively on one side or the other, which in itself is a shift away from my prior positive position that there’s no such thing as free will.

My reluctance to embrace Keefner’s position without hesitation is based on the following:

1) Most of us would like to think we have free will, and we often happen to end up believing what we would like to think is true, regardless of whether true or not. This doesn’t mean free will can’t be true; it just means we should be alert to the possibility that Keefner (and everyone else who accepts free will) has an underlying motive to interpret the evidence in favor of what he wants to be true, rather than what really is true.

2) It’s difficult for me to imagine a purely material mechanism that could support a truly free decision. It seems that the laws of nature will have their way, whether operating on celestial bodies or on the atoms within our brains, and there’s nothing we can do to alter their course. Even if nondeterministic quantum effects are at play in our brains, it just means our thoughts are in part random, not that they are under “our” control. Of course, just because I can’t imagine how free will could work in a material universe doesn’t mean there’s no free will. If the universe were bound by what I could imagine, it would be an impoverished universe indeed!

3) The majority of neuroscientists, i.e., those who are most familiar with the inner workings of the brain, come down on the side of determinism and against free will. Of course, this is an argument from authority and so is not dispositive, but if we don’t have extremely good reasons for our rejection of the expert consensus, chances are we’re on shaky ground.

4) I am reluctant to take a firm position on an issue on which I know so little. The more I learn, the more I come to the realization of how little I know, and I don’t want to get into the habit of taking a position one day and taking the opposition position the next after reading a little e-book challenging my original position.

But enough about me, and on to Keefner’s arguments. Ironically he accuses Harris of lending support to a form of Cartesian dualism, separating the true “me” from “my body.” As Keefner himself acknowledges, Harris wouldn’t admit to being a dualist, yet (according to Keefner) Harris’ arguments reveal himself to be one. I suspect it’s possible that Keefner is detecting dualism merely in the arguments Harris uses against the prevailing religious and cultural assumption that we possess a disembodied soul. I would like to see Harris and Keefner duke this one out so we can have a better understanding of Harris’ true position. In any case, whether or not Harris is an unwitting dualist, the point Keefner seems to want to make is that  we’re not limited to just the following two choices:

1) Because we are governed entirely by physical laws and conditions (most of which we’re not conscious of), we are not truly free to decide one way or another in any matter.


2) We are a combination of an immaterial soul (which makes up our “true” self) and a material body.

Keefner instead argues for a third option:

3) While we are made entirely of physical substances, and while we are influenced in our decisions by external and factors and tendencies beyond our control, we can still deliberate and make free decisions that matter. Even if there are murky antecedent factors that make it more likely we’ll decide one way or another, these do not absolutely determine what we as an integrated self (mind being part of body) will decide.

The kicker that led me to conclude that we don’t enjoy free will was the finding that lab subjects are unaware of their decisions for 300 or more milliseconds prior to the time that brain scans show the subjects actually make their decisions. Keefner objects that these decisions are trivial–for example, choosing between left and right in a sort of video game. This amounts to nothing more than telling your brain to function as a sort of random number generator, something for which true deliberation is not required, unlike deciding where to go to college, for example.

But it’s not the end choice (e.g., whether to attend Harvard vs. Yale) that matters for Keefner; it’s the decision to to explore or not explore the options in front of us, to look at all the angles, to apply weights and rankings to our choices, that matters.  Things happen in the world that lie beyond our control; we’re born here and not there; we have this personality rather than that personality; we have this taste but not that taste. However, I can greet the things that happen to me or the choices that that confront me in any of the four following ways: “I can explore the world, I can react to the world, I can try to evade some fact in the world or I can relax and in a sense become one with the world (as in going to sleep, meditating or lying on the beach)” (Keefner 2012, loc 290).  In other words, I choose the extent to which I’m going to pursue the truth about any matter, and I choose to what lengths I will go to weigh the end results of different courses of possible action I might take. I could choose to choose merely on the basis of my immediate instincts whom I should marry, which car I should buy, where I should go to college, or whether global warming is truly a man-made threat. Or I could choose to make an exhaustive inventory of all the ramifications of opting for one path or another before making my choices. Or I could operate anywhere in between those two extremes. The choice is mine, even if factors beyond my control end up influencing my final decision, whether in part or in whole.

Disappointingly, Keefner does not offer much meat to those of us curious to know how our ability to “choose to choose” arises from a purely physical brain obeying all the laws of nature. He does briefly mention that emergent properties (e.g., consciousness) can be expected to arise from lower-level systems (e.g., atoms) in ways that cannot be tied to the behavior of the lower systems themselves. A classic example of an emergent property is the wetness that arises from the combination of non-wet hydrogen and oxygen gas molecules when they form H2O (water). Perhaps Keefner is right; perhaps our brains give rise to free will in ways we can’t currently explain as a product of neuronal interactions. Perhaps, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet reminded his friend, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Perhaps Keefner is wrong and Harris is right, and perhaps we’ll never know either way. Until free will can be definitively ruled out, however, I’ll live as if I have genuine choices to make. If science can rule out free will, I will resolve myself to accept that, as I had already done before. In the meantime, to the extent that it helps me be more conscientious about my decisions, and to the extent that I (along with most of my fellow travelers on this planet) feel within me that I have a free decision to make, I will embrace my ability to choose. At the same time, though, I wish never to lose sight of the extent to which others’ actions are influenced by their genes and environment, retaining a sense of compassion for those who lose their way in this world. It’s a balancing act that I’m sure I’ll never master, but I will choose to make a conscious effort to that end.



Filed under Uncategorized

6 responses to “In which I reconsider my position on free will

  1. “The kicker that led me to conclude that we don’t enjoy free will was the finding that lab subjects are unaware of their decisions for 300 or more milliseconds prior to the time that brain scans show the subjects actually make their decisions.”

    I think Keefer’s response is on the right track. The experiment in question was conducted by Libet who told his subjects to “let the urge [to move] appear on its own at any time without any pre-planning or concentration on when to act.” In other words, subjects were told to wait until some part of their physical bodies felt the urge to twitch in some manner (e.g. flick their wrists, push a button, etc.) and then note the time when they became conscious of this urge so that even from a dualist perspective it would have been expected that there would be some activity in the motor cortex of the participant’s brains prior to the moment when they became conscious of a bodily urge to twitch. To wit, it’s not as if the participants were asked to perceive an urge to twitch stemming from their own consciousness but were asked to note the time when their consciousness perceived an urge to twitch stemming from their own physical body apart from their consciousness.

    Of course, it goes without saying that one can hardly draw a comparison between a conscious perception of a bodily urge to twitch and a freely willed conscious decision regardless of how the latter is understood.

  2. I always think a interesting way to think about free will is not to ask whether we have it (though that’s important) but whether ANY entity could have it in any possible world. Is what we presumably lack something we couldn’t have at all? Or if others could have it and we don’t what does that say about their world as opposed to ours. (FWIW, I’m inclined to think we MUST have it and that we have a priori knowledge of this fact, though we cannot conceptualize it outside of itself, at least with the brains we have.)

  3. It is so interesting that even in the midst of discussion of the subject, we can’t get away from language that indicates, deep down, that we believe we can choose. See your fascinating sentence “If science can rule out free will, I will resolve myself to accept that, as I had already done before.” Resolve? A synonym for “choose.” If science rules out free will, I CHOOSE …”

  4. Hi Ken, I am the author of Free Will: A Response to Sam Harris. I wanted to thank you for your comments on my essay. They were fair and thorough.

    I’m very glad if I had an impact on your thinking. I regard determinism as a tragic position, one which good people feel they are driven to by a misguided notion of what science requires. I certainly believe in science, but I also there are things in the universe, such as consciousness, that science cannot yet account for. As such determinism is a presupposition of a certain kind of science, not a finding.

    There are other authors who would agree with me. One you may find interesting is Raymond Tallis, an English physician who has written a number of works in philosophy and other fields. I’m just finishing his book Aping Mankind where he challenges the misuses of neuroscience and evolutionary thinking. I’m still thinking about his defense of free will, but his overall approach to issues is wonderful. He is also quite funny.

    I gather from your post on why you’re closing your blog that you are a busy man, but I was hoping for a favor: Is there any way you could adapt your blog about my essay to a review for Amazon? I don’t think you would have to change it much. I think my essay is being hurt by the lack of a thorough positive review. I would be really grateful and would be glad to reciprocate in any way I can.

    Thanks again,
    Kurt Keefner

    • Hi Kurt,

      It’s an honor to have you visit my (now suspended) blog. I’ve come “out of retirement” long enough to massage my post and to turn it into this Amazon review. Best of luck on your endeavors; I look forward to following this topic (from the sidelines) in the coming decades, as I’m sure it’s not a question that’s going to fade away any time soon.


      • kkeefner

        Hi Ken,

        Thank you for turning your post into a review. I know you still have reservations about free will. Perhaps we can discuss them some time. My email is Just remember, whenever you pay attention, follow a line of reasoning, make yourself present to a situation, you are being more you, and that is your free will in a nutshell.

        Best regards,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s