Critique of Sam Harris’ book Free Will – Part 1 – Man as Robot

Summary: The book Free Will, by Sam Harris (2012), rejects the validity of free will and proposes that man is an automaton whose every thought and action is determined by his brain neurology.  In this and following posts, the fallacies in his argument will be identified, the most basic of which is an arbitrary assertion that the physical state of man’s brain at one time necessitates every future action.

“[M]y mental life is simply given to me by the cosmos.”

This remarkable statement is neither the mumblings of a psychotic nor a mystic’s claim to authority. Rather, it represents part of the argument against free will by a highly respected intellectual, Sam Harris.  His 2012 book Free Will is in the top tier of Amazon sellers in its category.  The favorable reviews of this work, by university professors from several different disciplines, demonstrate that he is not only a popular author but an influential writer promoting ideas well-thought-of by his peers.

Despite the popularity and respect this book has garnered, this and subsequent posts will argue that his primary conclusion that free will is an illusion is wrong, and in fact, self-contradictory.  His arguments are riddled with fallacies and arbitrary assertions, some of which have been identified in a prior post.

The primary argument presented by Harris is that everything in our minds is determined by the activity of the brain.  Because the brain has a physical state, all future actions can be predicted by physical laws from that state (in principle if not right now).  Consider the following excerpts (except as otherwise noted, italics are added to emphasize certain of his key ideas):

  1. He says with respect to a depraved criminal who murdered an entire family: “I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: There is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently or to resist the impulse to victimize other people.” (p. 4)
  2. Harris states that he cold excuse a criminal if the criminal had a brain tumor, and further: “…a neurological disorder appears to be just a special case of physical events giving rise to thoughts and actions. Understanding the neurophysiology of the brain, therefore, would seem to be as exculpatory as finding a tumor in it.” (p. 5)
  3. Again, regarding criminals, he says: “To say that they were free not (his italics) to rape and murder is to say that they could have resisted the impulse to do so (or could have avoided feeling such an impulse altogether) – with the universe, including their brains, in precisely the same state it was in at the moment they committed their crimes.” (p. 17)
  4. “And the moment we see that such [brain-induced] causes are fully effective – as any detailed account of the neurophysiology of human thought and behavior would reveal – we can no longer locate a plausible hook upon which to hang our conventional notions of personal responsibility.” (p. 17)

With phrases like “atom for atom,” “physical events giving rise to thoughts and actions,” “in precisely the same state,” and “brain-induced causes are fully effective,” Harris paints a picture of mental activity as being fully explained by the brain and its chemistry/physiology.  The main assumption here is that a physical state of being is equivalent to a deterministic cause.  That is, if every atom or neuron is in some definite physical state, has some particular describable identity, then every action of the mind must be fully necessitated.  In short, identity invalidates volition.

Nowhere, however, does Harris even attempt to support this claim, let alone prove it.  He assumes it is true without question, and he brings this assumption to his interpretation of everything related to free will.  It is apparent that Harris views this point as so obvious as not to need any validation or even discussion.

But this conclusion is not at all obvious. A being that could choose would also have a physical identity, a describable physical state.  How could it not?  Living beings are not immaterial ghosts.  Beings with no physical specificity are a fiction of the mystics.  Every choosing being would still be a being with a particular orientation of its genes, neurons and brain molecules.  Why does that fact alone invalidate free will?  Why is it impossible for a being to be so constructed physically that it has the mental capacity for choosing? Why can’t the ability to choose be the result of the combination of its physical elements, just as the aroma of a rose is the result of the combination of its atoms?  Why would choosing have to be something “extra?”  Harris neither asks nor answers any of these questions.  He simply makes the assumption that specificity (“atom for atom”) contradicts choice.

A basic premise that is so fundamental as to be taken for granted and not even argued for must have at root some assumptions that seem obvious to the author and to others. We can see a hint of what Harris is assuming by looking at what he emphasizes.  His repeated use of phrases like “atom for atom” and “physical events” suggests that for him the ultimate reality is not a living being and its capacities, but rather the chemicals and small corpuscles that make it up – and particularly their actions.  With a focus not on the resulting being and its observed abilities but on the actions of its building blocks, these actions are what he looks to for basic explanations.

One of the most important activities of science is the study of underlying mechanisms.  It is perfectly legitimate for scientists to do so.  The field of neuroscience, the study of the brain and neural system, has resulted in many valuable discoveries, especially in the field of medicine and health (some examples are: spinal cord disorders, stroke, dementia and Parkinson’s disease).  However, properly, when an underlying mechanism is discovered, scientists do not deny the existence of the phenomenon they are studying.  For example, when it was discovered that the eye’s experience of color is made possible by the existence of cellular structures called “cones” on the human retina, the phenomenon of color vision was not made synonymous with those structures.  No scientist (only certain philosophers) came along to deny the existence of color vision, saying it is just an “illusion.”  Even in the purely physical sciences, observations are not discounted as illusions when underlying explanations are found.  The table in front of you is no less real, and it continues to be flat, hard and level, when you learn that it is composed of atoms, and those atoms composed of protons and electrons.  In all such cases, mechanism does not obliterate the observed phenomena.

Harris and those determinists who agree with him take the unique approach of saying that since there are underlying physical mechanisms that enable choice, choice doesn’t exist.  He is perfectly willing to grant that we observe choice, experiencing it on a day to day basis, but he claims it isn’t really real. “For most purposes, it makes sense to ignore the deep causes of desires and intentions – genes, synaptic potentials, etc. – and focus instead on the conventional outlines of the person.  We do this when thinking about our own choices and behaviors – because it’s the easiest way to organize our thoughts and actions …  Knowing that I like beer more than wine is all I need to know to function in a restaurant.  Whatever the reason, I prefer one taste to the other.  Is there freedom in this? None whatsoever.” (p. 59) Why does Harris believe that there is no freedom in this?  Because it’s enabled by those underlying mechanisms.  In other words, because a capacity has its roots in the brain, the capacity doesn’t actually exist.

The argument Harris presents, it should be noted, would not only invalidate choice, but consciousness as such (this was identified by Ayn Rand in her critique of Kant – see below).

Harris goes further in his attempt to make this plausible.  He argues (p. 25): “How can we be ‘free’ as conscious agents if everything we consciously intend is caused by events in our brain that we do not intend and of which we are entirely unaware?”  He is asserting here that these underlying events do not just enable man to intend things (i.e. make choices) but that those underlying events cause those intentions.  He denies that this is real choice.  The emphasis on actions of the brain as causal is a key theme with Harris, as when he states that “the next choice you make will come out of the darkness of prior causes that you the conscious witness of your experience, did not bring into being.”

This causation argument is nothing more than he has argued so far:  an assertion that everything is necessitated from the prior state of the brain.  He is merely adding that beyond future actions being necessitated, the causes are mysterious and inaccessible to man.

There is a trend in modern philosophy since Kant to view everything regarding man’s consciousness in this way.  Kant’s categories are built-in structures (Harris’ “events in our brain”) that fully determine what we think we perceive.  We only think we actually perceive spatial relations, says Kant.  In fact, that appearance (the “phenomenal” world) is caused by the categories, and isn’t really real.  In addition, Kant’s categories are inaccessible to man (like Harris’ “darkness of prior causes”).  Man cannot get under them, or know true reality (the “noumenal” world).  Harris, then, is simply applying Kantian argumentation to the phenomenon of choice.

The tie to Kantianism adds no validity to Harris’ argument that identity invalidates volition.  The assertion is still arbitrary and presented with no evidence to support it (and as shown elsewhere, Kant’s own argument that identity invalidates perception is also arbitrary and self-contradictory).  The fact that Harris is in the mainstream of modern philosophy merely helps one understand how his underlying premise could be held by him as so unquestionable as to need no discussion.

Harris has many additional and subsidiary arguments.  Several of them, however, involve erecting straw men as descriptions of what free will entails – straw men that he can easily knock down.  These and other arguments will be addressed in upcoming posts.

Faraday and Hamilton

Summary:  Read about men who exercise their free will by choosing to focus, reason and develop new knowledge across their entire lifetimes.  Such a choice, whether made in the physical sciences or the humanities, can move man to unprecedented new levels of prosperity and happiness.  Here are two such exemplary figures.

The last two posts have asked you to dwell with the bottom feeders who evade the responsibility of thinking, adopt a victim stance, and even deny the existence of choice. This post will let you swim to the surface and breathe the fresh air of men who adopted the opposite approach.

Michael Faraday (1791-1867) and Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804) were two figures of the Enlightenment period.  This was a period in which it was fully accepted that man can think, that reason is efficacious, and that by his own choice and actions he can raise himself to the heights of knowledge, productive achievement and wealth.  In the Renaissance, men had begun to study the ancient volumes newly available in Europe, and now they pushed the boundaries further – in medicine, science, politics, and other practical arts there was a new flourishing, a new outpouring of discoveries, books and improvements.  Faraday and Hamilton, each in his own way, adopted the new philosophy of reason, and built on it to discover and implement the innovative, life-enhancing values of the future.

Faraday was born into a poor family and had only the most basic education until he was 13.  He was apprenticed to a bookbinder, a position Faraday earned by impressing a bookshop owner he worked for.  Unlike other apprentices, Faraday actually read many of the books he bound in the shop, in his spare time after a long hard day as an apprentice.  He read the 2nd edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica and a 600 page chemistry book, among many others.  He spent money from his small salary to buy and experiment with chemicals and chemical apparatus.

A customer at the bookshop gave Faraday tickets to a series of lectures by the famous scientist Humphry Davy at the Royal Institution in London.  After the lectures, Faraday sent Davy a 300-page summary of the series, which so impressed Davy that he ultimately hired Faraday as an assistant.  From this point on, and for several decades thereafter, Faraday performed meticulous and original experiments in chemistry and electricity, invented new equipment (for example, a precursor to the Bunsen Burner), discovered electromagnetic induction and developed the science and practice of motors.  In addition, he was a lucid lecturer, who began the Royal Institution’s Friday lecture series and delivered lectures on a wide range of topics for many years.

Nothing better characterizes Faraday’s mental approach than a description of one of his most influential investigations.  He had been repeating earlier experiments by Gilbert and others related to magnetic fields around electrical coils, looking to see if those fields could induce current in other nearby coils.  Experiments with different materials, different numbers of loops in a coil, or different voltages on the coil, all ended in failure to see any current in a nearby coil.  However, Faraday noticed that a small current was visible when he connected the coil battery wires or disconnected them.  Rather than shrugging that tiny effect off as an anomaly or something impossible to understand, he studied it in detail.  He designed several different kinds of experiments – with different shaped coils, with circuits involving passage of current through brine, with different materials – to evaluate this phenomenon.  Ultimately he identified the fact that it was the movement of a magnetic field that induced a current, not the magnetism itself, and that the effect was proportional to the rate of movement.  These experiments were thoroughly described by Faraday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, in 1832.

Faraday made certain basic choices in life: to devote himself to thought, deliberate observation, experimentation, and conceptualizing scientific phenomena.  He chose to do this not for a week or a year, but for a lifetime.

Hamilton, like Faraday, had impoverished beginnings.  “The bastard brat of a Scottish peddler,” in John Adams’ graphic description, Hamilton was poor in knowledge, money, and position, a youngster stranded in a Caribbean island backwater. He started working at the age of eleven. At one job, as an accounting clerk for a firm engaged in international trade, Hamilton studied accounting and trade, and impressed his employer.  He also impressed a minister and newspaper editor by his articulate letter describing a hurricane that hit the island.  The employer and the minister decided to help Hamilton get a full education by agreeing to pay his way to America.  Once in America, Hamilton’s self-improvement program accelerated.  He studied languages, law, politics and military history and strategy.  Arriving just before the Revolution against Britain, he became convinced of the Patriot cause, and wrote political articles defending and explaining it.

During the war for independence, Hamilton fought brilliantly at the Battle of Yorktown, attacking the British flank in a daring charge.  His ability impressed George Washington, who appointed him staff assistant and adviser.  Hamilton’s self-developed writing ability enabled him to write many (some say most) of Washington’s military orders to other commanders.

A student of military history and political philosophy, Hamilton observed how chaotic the war effort was, with independent militias each contributing to a heterogeneous and poorly trained army.  This was the germ of what later became a conviction that America needed not a loose and disorganized Confederation but a central government.  Such a government would respect the rights of the individual but have the authority to protect those rights adequately.  Hamilton (and the other Founders) thus discovered new knowledge in the arena of political philosophy.  Hamilton ultimately supported, attended the Convention to develop, and promoted the new Constitution of the United States.  His arduous effort to explain the Constitution to the American people in numerous brilliant essays (two-thirds of which he wrote himself), represents one of the greatest achievements in political history, and was instrumental in the Constitution’s adoption.  Besides those achievements, he had a successful law career and became Washington’s first Secretary of the Treasury.

Like Faraday, Hamilton made certain basic choices in life: to devote himself to overcoming ignorance and poverty, to understanding the complexities of law and political science, to explaining those complexities to the world.  Like Faraday, he chose to do this not for a week or a year, but for a lifetime (his tragic early end notwithstanding).

It is common for those of the “you didn’t build that” school to focus on the help men obtained rather than on a) what they did with that help, and b) what they did to deserve that help. Faraday was offered a job by Humphry Davy. Hamilton was offered a formal education in the United States from friends and teachers on St. Croix. Neither man ever denied the help he obtained, or tried to claim his achievements didn’t benefit from it.  More importantly, however, neither man stopped there. Each, starting with that help, built on it.  Further, the help itself is a testament to their self-made value: It was bestowed on them because of the value seen in them by their benefactors, value that preceded the offer of help.  Therefore, for each man, what he built, he did build.

More generally, it is absurd to say that a successful surveyor didn’t build his career because he relied on geometry, which was developed by Euclid in ancient Greece.  By the same argument, it is wrong to say that men like Faraday and Hamilton didn’t build successful lives, just because they relied on benefactors, or on the books they learned from, or on the roads they traveled on to get to their schools.

With regard to free will, there is an even more fundamental point that can be made from observing the lives of these two men.  They were men who discovered new knowledge, one in physical science and one in political science.  Those who deny free will have a serious problem to confront with anyone who discovers new conceptual knowledge:  How did he do it?  Without free will, it is impossible to explain how to overcome error.  Man’s conceptual level is fallible.  It is not guided automatically to the correct identification of essentials, the proper formulation of definitions, unerring generalizations.  These require a definite method, the discarding of error, the awareness of contradictions, sifting, analysis, editing, selection.

The free-will deniers would have a more plausible case if they tried to explain the mind of an animal, whose perceptual level is a product of what the brain automatically does with the external stimuli impinging on it.  They might even have a case to make about the type of mind that spits out un-thought-out tweets or unsubstantiated assertions.  That sort of mind is operating automatically (but only because its driver has, by choice, relinquished control of his steering wheel).  The scientific mind, by contrast, with its unremitting dedication to facts, its continuous error correction, its high level of focus and attention, its discarding of unfruitful methods like tea-leaf reading, cannot operate on automatic.  The development of knowledge requires a certain process, a sequence of steps, often spanning decades, without which nothing of value automatically appears.  Certain men engage in this process, and others do not.  And those, like Hamilton and Faraday, who engage in such a process, are doing something different with their minds than those others who do not.

On automatic, man’s mind produces falsehood, confusion, bull sessions.  When there is conscious direction, man arrives at knowledge, clarity, The United States of America and the electric motor.

Free will and mass terror

Summary: Totalitarian and terrorist movements make a direct, explicit attack on the idea of free will.  Read how intimately connected the 9/11 Twin Towers attack and the issue of free will are, even moreso than you might think.

The previous post identified the kinds of mental patterns at the root of destructive and criminal behavior.  First, the mind is de-focused, so that the context of the consequences of an act is blurred or obliterated.  Next, various thought patterns are employed to justify and sanction the behavior, further shielding the actor from the nature and consequences of the action.  The actor even thinks of himself as a good person: He engages in acts that simulate moral goodness based on a substitute standard that he adopts to help him pretend that he is not the monster he is.  Once the mind is reduced to a state of fog by all of these means, and only when that state is induced, repetition of the criminal acts becomes tolerable to the felon.

In keeping with the theme of these posts, all of these mental patterns are chosen.  If a person has a normal brain, he has the capacity to focus his mind, to choose to see the nature of his actions, or not.  Piling on mental defenses and substitutes for self-esteem is chosen as a means of, first, avoiding effort, and second, blocking the pain that would result from awareness of his true character and the nature of his actions.  This person’s actions are both explainable and chosen, in the sense that the defenses help explain the lack of awareness, yet fundamentally the defenses themselves are chosen.

Despite all these mechanisms, the choice to adopt awareness, to focus one’s mind, to repudiate and change past thinking patterns and past actions, is always possible.

There are actions, however, that are so morally repugnant, and require planning over such a long time with a sustained effort, that there are repeated reminders to the actor of the nature of his actions, reminders that threaten to break through all the defenses so far discussed. One such action of this type is mass murder and/or mass terror, characteristic of totalitarian movements such as communism, fascism and Islamic fundamentalism. In these cases, further mechanisms are adopted to help the actor in his effort to block awareness of reality, lest he see what he is doing and recoil from the sight.

What are those further mechanisms?

Terror requires first and foremost a moral sanction of mass murder.  Each of these movements has an enemy, and grudges, that it claims justify the movement’s actions (similar to the criminal described in the last post, but on a much wider scale).  They derive the sanction for their horrific actions from fully developed ideological systems.  Such ideologies do not always originate with these movements.  They may derive from the writings of an “ivory tower” philosopher of previous decades or centuries, whose thoughts are only now being translated into their logical conclusions.  Hegel, with his argument for the primacy of the State, led to both communism and Nazism. Nietzsche’s emphasis on the Superman and the remaking of the human race also contributed to both movements.

A very powerful and necessary adjunct to a moral sanction is an explicit rejection of free will.  These movements tell their storm troopers:  You are both justified in engaging in murder and you cannot do otherwise.  Each of these movements actually makes a concerted attack on the idea of free will.  Communism has as part of its ideological foundation Hegel’s historical necessity, by means of which history unfolds in a predetermined pattern and requires (in the Communist’s view) the deterioration of capitalism and its development into its opposite.  Fascism has various flavors, but the Nationalist variety practiced by Hitler, Mussolini and other Nationalists requires the unfolding of a historical plan or “destiny” to justify the plunder and expansion by conquest.  Islamic fundamentalism takes literally and fully seriously those (many) passages in the Koran that speak of Allah as all-powerful, and history as evolving according to His plan for Islam to conquer the earth.

Few people realize it, but the issue of free will was of fundamental importance in the lead-up to the 9/11 Twin Towers attack.  The worst terrorist attack of the fundamentalist Islamic variety (communism has done much worse), 9/11 involved a group of four terrorists who were managed by their leader, Mohamed Atta. The personal effects of Atta contained what the FBI called a “spiritual manual,” a numbered instruction sheet in which he exhorts the other terrorists to stick to their purpose and not let the difficulties or any moral repugnance deter them.  This document, full of quotes from the Koran and references to past battles in the history of Islam, contained these words under the section titled “Last Night”:

(#9): “…remember that you will return to God and remember that anything that happens to you could never be avoided, and what did not happen to you could never have happened to you.”

(#14) after suggesting some practical steps to succeed in their plan, says “[…although God decrees what will work and what won’t] and the rest is left to God, the best One to depend on.”

These instructions, given to followers who were presumed to be committed Islamists, testify to the fact that the planners of the carnage were themselves worried that those who implemented it might change their minds at the last minute, either aborting the mission or compromising it with weakness and lack of resolve.  The propagandizing in Islamic fundamentalism had been progressing for these men all their lives, and certainly in recent times before the attack.  Yet they were still subject to choice.  And the planners, knowing that, needed extra tools to continue the “instruction,” and to further sustain the acolytes in continuing their out-of-focus submission to the plan.

Although the most dramatic example, 9/11 is not unique.  Suicide bombers have testified when their plots were foiled that they believed they were already dead – even before the act.

It was explained earlier that choice is axiomatic.  Even in the act of denying it, free will is confirmed to be true.  The example of the 9/11 attackers illustrates a further aspect of this point:  The choice is not a one-time event but continuous.  Each and every moment, a person has the choice to assert mental control, process data rationally, think – or to refuse to do so.  Danger lurks around every corner for those who choose the foggy state of mind, with an unyielding reality ever-present and threatening to break through the fog, stopping the deliberately unaware individual in his tracks.  Continuing evasions are needed at each moment.

The philosophic systems that reject choice, and build into their ideologies justifications for doing so, are merely using weapons to trap the mentally passive, giving such individuals excuses for further evasion.  Such evaders, when confronted with the order to imprison, torture and murder enemies, carry out the instructions without conscious qualms.  That is why those philosophical ideas are so dangerous.  The systems can’t make terrorists perform their acts but they provide terrorists with ready rationalizations for choosing to do so.

The will is free even in the face of powerful emotions

In the last post, it was shown that an emotion cannot be willed out of existence.  The reason is that an emotion is a consequence, and so it cannot be controlled directly.  What can be controlled are the thoughts and values that underlie the emotion.  These are within one’s power of choice.  Once the thoughts leading to an emotion are changed, even with the same object observed, the emotion changes accordingly.

There is a further aspect of emotions that needs to be addressed: What about overpowering emotions, emotions so powerful that in the moment of experiencing them they seem to control one’s action to the point where one is not free to do otherwise (the idea behind the “crime of passion” defense)?  What about what people call psychological “addiction,” according to which a person is compelled to act in a certain way, such as to overeat, to stay in an abusive relationship, to be the aggressor in an abusive relationship, or to gamble to the point of financial ruin?  Are these counter-arguments or qualifications to the existence of free will?

The first point to make about these questions is that there is a fifth step after the four steps previously discussed in regard to emotional responses.  The four steps were, in their necessary order: perceive, identify, evaluate and respond emotionally.  For the current discussion, there is a fifth and critical step: action.  This is a separate step, and never subject to becoming fully automatic.  No matter what emotion one experiences, nothing can make a man actually lift his fist to his wife.  He might feel like doing it, want desperately to do it, but is always free along the way and even just before the action, no matter how powerful the emotion seems, to stop, “take a deep breath,” and reconsider his action.  Recall that the neuroscientist Benjamin Libet, most often quoted for his scientific experiments allegedly proving that free will doesn’t exist, himself very strongly defends free will precisely because of this possibility of aborting the action: As he himself stated: “The existence of a veto possibility is not in doubt.” (Libet’s critics have argued against this conclusion by stating that if neurons caused the onset of the action, they caused the veto of it as well, so even the veto is not “free.”  This and other arguments of the neurological determinists will be addressed in upcoming posts.)

You, the reader, have experienced this situation many times in your own life.  Perhaps you have had a passionate desire to go to the movies when you knew you should study for tomorrow’s exam.  In the times when you exercised the proper control, you have seen yourself say, “No, I can do that tomorrow night (or this weekend), but right now I must study or I’ll do poorly on the exam.”  Even prior to this reassertion of one’s values, there is a more basic step: putting one’s mind in focus, deciding to think about and address the issue of the conflict.

In cases where a person did not exercise the proper control in the face of a powerful emotion, he could also see a different choice or set of choices being made: He could see himself, if he slowed his thinking processes down to slow motion, saying “F** it – I wanna see the movie, so I’m going out with my friends.”  What has happened here?  This individual has chosen to ignore the context of the situation, to force from his mind the need to study, to de-focus his mind and literally not think, taking his emotion as a primary.  All of these actions are precisely what is in the realm of free will.  Free will, as was stated in the first post, consists fundamentally of the choice of whether and how a person will use his mind.  It can be easily seen from the above description that the individual did make a choice, though in this case the individual chose not to think or exercise his mind.  He engaged in a process of actively avoiding such thinking and evaded the knowledge that such thinking was required.

The emotion in the situation just described is not as powerful or all-encompassing as some emotions.  What about “overpowering” emotions?  It is inadvisable to even call these “overpowering” emotions because such terminology already presupposes that control is impossible in the face of them.  However, there are emotions that stem from deeply rooted patterns of behavior, perhaps years or decades of evasions of the type just described, that can seem overpowering to those experiencing them.  Still, they are not.

One of the best proofs of that fact is the example of rehabilitation of criminals and addicts.  By “rehabilitation” here is not meant the kind of walk-in-the-park programs where such individuals are forgiven their calumnies and dealt with tenderly.  The rehabilitation referred to here is real rehabilitation, where a career criminal or a life-long addict is changed to the point of never committing such actions again.

In criminal science, a multi-volume work by Samuel Yochelson and Stanton Samenow titled The Criminal Personality demonstrates the method and the process of such fundamental change.  These two psychologists (Yochelson is also an M.D. and is the one who first developed the methods they describe) performed their research and practiced at Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital and George Washington University Medical School.  Their program participants were, indeed, “reluctant converts,” (the title of their first chapter): career criminals.  Such men are not simply petty thieves but rather men who have devoted most of their lives to committing thousands of property crimes, and even murder, stopping only when they are imprisoned.  Yochelson and Samenov discovered a consistent pattern of thought among such criminals.  For example, one thought pattern was the view that anything belonging to someone else was really the criminal’s own property being kept in good hands by its current “caretaker” until the criminal could come along to relieve him of it (the authors call this thinking pattern “ownership”).  Other examples are “fragmentation,” a “rapidly fluctuating mental state” in which the criminal chooses not to focus or concentrate, and “victim stance,” in which the criminal considers himself the victim of forces outside his control.

Fundamental to the criminal’s approach are habits of thought that facilitated the other criminal thoughts and behavior.   These criminals engaged in a process of what Yochelson and Samenov called “cut-off,” which is basically the same action of evasion described above with respect to the student who went to the movies instead of studying.  Cut-off is blocking of one’s own thoughts.  If he does begin to think about the fact that the property of another person is really and rightfully that person’s own and not the criminal’s, or if he does begin to have empathy for the person who would be subject to the criminal’s depredations, the criminal cuts those thoughts off.  That is, he evades them so that he can continue with his actions and not be consciously confronted with the horror of his chosen form of life.

Further, such a criminal has the thought that he is “really” a good person, even though other people “think” he isn’t. Of course, a criminal who has spent the majority of his life preying on others, who has no respect for life or property, who has evaded rational thought time and time again, cannot authentically experience that he is a “good person.”  The criminal is engaging in yet another evasion when he repeats to himself that he is a good person, when he gives money to charity or helps others, all in an attempt to falsely construct the appearance of the self-worth that he lacks and that can only come from thinking and achievement.

In rehabilitating such individuals, Yochelson’s method is to fully confront them with the depravity of their actions.  He tells them that they are morally corrupt, and doesn’t let them get away with any evasions, soft-pedaling or substitution of pseudo-self-esteem for their true moral worth.  Then Yochelson systematically rebuilds their thinking processes by observing and confronting them with their facilitating thoughts, session after session, week after week, month after month.  He requires them to re-think and re-state the actual truth of the situation, and to act accordingly.  Needless to say, there are many drop-outs from the program, since criminals have choice not only about their behavior before prison but also about whether they are willing to endure the grueling psychological makeover Yochelson’s program requires.  However, those who make it through the program do live a non-criminal life afterwards.

The same sort of total makeover is required for those addicts (such as alcoholics) who choose to change.  The thought of the alcoholic, for example, when he thinks about never drinking to excess again, might be that it is too overwhelming to contemplate such a massive goal as “never.”  When programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous tell him to re-orient his thinking to set a goal of “not drinking today,” they are focusing on a change in the destructive thought patterns that stop many who drink excessively from being willing to change.  (Which particular program an alcoholic enters is not the subject of this discussion.  However, the specific contents of some of these programs are certainly open to challenge, for example the goal of seeking a “higher power.” What is relevant here is that the change in a person’s actions is a consequence of a change in his underlying thinking.)

Nothing demonstrates the fact that thinking controls emotion, and that action is always under one’s control, more than examples like these of such extreme personality change.  Excuses, evasions, pretenses at really being good, or “being able to stop drinking at any time,” are what makes the previous destructive behavior possible.  By contrast, the full conviction that one can choose how one thinks and acts, and the commitment to doing so, are what makes the subsequent productive behavior possible.

Free will cannot include willing an emotion to disappear

Recall in the introductory post that willing an emotion to disappear is not included in free will.  Why is that, and what is the relation between emotion and free will?  Do those who say that an emotion “made” them do something have an argument against free will?  In this post, the first of these questions will be addressed.

Emotions are self-evidently present in our awareness – in fact, they represent a large part of man’s conscious life.  Emotions are the means by which we experience an evaluation of the objects of perception.  A man is reading a news story.  Is the subject discussed (a new law, a recently opened play, a technological breakthrough) for his values or against them, or of no relation to them, and in what way?  Those differences in the evaluation would determine whether his emotional response is positive, negative or neutral.  If the new law discussed in the news story represents a cherished value to the man, he will feel elation.  If the law has no particular significance in the hierarchy of his values, he will experience no emotion.  If the law is opposed to his values, or he considers it nonsensical, he will have a strong negative emotion.  Both the positive or negative relation of the law to his values, and the importance to him of those values, determine the specific emotion and its strength.

For the same reason – the connection to his values – the story about the new law may generate a very strong emotion, whereas the story about the recently opened play may generate nothing but a yawn.   A single individual will therefore react very differently to different objects.   Further, the very same object will produce different emotions in persons with different values.   Another man may read the exact same news story about the law and experience boredom, skipping to the next story.  That second man might be excited about the opening of the new play because it’s plot is about a topic that he values highly.

These examples demonstrate  that the emotion is a consequence of a perception of some object and of one’s evaluation of it.  The key here is that it is a consequence.  Emotions are not primaries, but require these two antecedents.  The emotion is a consequence of the value-significance of each set of facts to each individual, a consequence of the entire mental context of the person who experiences it.

It is not hard to see, therefore, why man is not “free” to will an emotion to immediately disappear:  If it is a consequence of the object and the value, as long as both are present the emotion will be present.  To change the emotion requires a change in either the value(s) or the fact pattern (for example, the man excited about the opening of a new play might have his emotion diminished when he reads at the end of the story that the opening is in a distant city).  Absent one of these, an emotion cannot be willed to disappear, or even to be modified in its intensity (as in: “Don’t feel so sad…”).

The “fact pattern” as described in the previous example is really a combination of two steps: perception and identification. For example, the man reads the story about the new law – that is just a perception.  The meaning of the perception is: something I consider fundamentally important has just been enacted into law.  This occurs before any evaluation, and hence before the emotional response.  All of these steps – perception, identification, evaluation and emotional response – are conceptually separable, but normally some of the steps are automatized subconsciously, and not immediately differentiated in our awareness.  This automatized combination of several steps may make it difficult to untangle complex emotional responses.

Though an emotion cannot be willed away, it may dissolve due to a person’s analyzing the underlying premises and changing one or more of them.  This is common in stressful situations.  An athlete experiences high anxiety, but asks himself the source of the emotion.  He sees himself thinking “I’ll never win this event. The competitors are so strong.” He then reminds himself that he has trained for this event, and has every reason to expect a good outcome.  The emotion of anxiety that he’d experienced moments before, prior to analyzing and correcting his mistaken premise, is immediately resolved to a normal level of healthy stress.

In such cases as this, however, an emotion has not directly been willed away.  On the contrary, a conclusion has been changed, an idea rejected and replaced with another one – in the athlete’s case, a better one, one representing the truth.  In the new context, with the new premise leading to a new identification of the meaning of the situation, the emotion changes.

What has just been described is the correct approach to emotional change, as opposed to attempting to directly will the emotion away.

The primary historical advocacy of willing emotions to disappear is religion.  Consider the following from two of Christianity’s most admired men:  St. Francis, when he was tempted by sexual desire, would “plunge into a ditch full of snow, that he might both utterly subdue the foe within him, and might preserve his white robe of chastity from the fire of lust.” (St. Bonaventure’s account). Or St. Benedict, on an occasion when he was tempted by sexual desire, dealt with it this way, according to Gregory: “Seeing near at hand a thick growth of briars and nettles, he stripped off his habit and cast himself into the midst of them and plunged and tossed about until his whole body was lacerated. Thus, through those bodily wounds, he cured the wounds of his soul.”  When emotion was opposed to religious edicts, the heroes of Christianity simply attempted to emasculate the emotion.  Such counsels are not confined to past centuries.  A twentieth century theologian, Josemaria Escriva, is famous for this saying: “To defend his purity, Saint Francis of Assisi rolled in the snow, Saint Benedict threw himself into a thorn bush, and Saint Bernard plunged into an icy pond… You – what have you done?”

Even though the West has secularized since the Renaissance and such men are not universally revered as moral models, the West has never fully jettisoned their approach towards morality or their approach towards emotional conflict.  Men still retain many attitudes about how to be moral that are rooted in those earlier times.  With regard to emotions, it is not unusual even today for a parent troubled by a child’s fear or pain to counsel the child with phrases like “don’t be so afraid” or “cheer up.” Such advice cannot help but be interpreted by a vulnerable child as a suggestion to rid himself of the emotion, any way possible.

This mistaken approach to dealing with threatening emotions can lead to only one of two outcomes: 1) the emotion is apparently willed away, though in fact it is simply submerged so one is not aware of it consciously.  In such cases, the emotion is not actually eliminated because its antecedents are still present, though forced into the subconscious.  The emotion often re-emerges at some future time. Or 2) the emotion continues despite the attempt to will it away (as happens in the case of deep-seated fears such as phobias). The emotion remains due to a person’s not analyzing and eliminating the subconscious premises and values that gave rise to it.

The proper approach is, first, to reject the idea that free will includes omnipotent power over emotions.  There is ample evidence to reject that idea, and every reason to avoid the harmful effects of adopting such a policy.  Second, in trying to change a destructive emotion, one should analyze the ideas and values underlying the emotion, and correct mistaken ones.  Trying to suppress a consequence cannot work.  And living with an intolerable consequence (such as unanalyzed emotional conflict) cannot be justified when it can be corrected and lead to emotional harmony.  As the example of the athlete in competition illustrates, such harmony is achievable if one uses the correct method.

Intellectuals do not believe in free will

If you have been reading the posts presented here, you will have seen that the leading arguments against free will have been sympathetically presented, and answered one by one.  You may recall that free will was argued to be so fundamental to any argument, discussion, or train of thought that it cannot be denied without in fact re-affirming it (see argument #4 and the answer).  You, the reader, can introspect and find yourself choosing in all kinds of situations, and you can see yourself choosing one way at one time and another at other times (and you are aware also of the more fundamental choices – to focus or not, to think or not – that underlie your specific choices).  You may regret or be proud of your choices. And you know, implicitly if not explicitly, that you have the choice to change your course of action if you regret past choices (and you know that if you are not careful you may make choices you regret in the future).

Would you be surprised, however, to find out that almost none of the intellectuals in our culture accepts the existence of free will?  In a recent Atlantic Monthly article, entitled (surprise!) “There’s no such thing as free will,” the arguments are presented for their “skeptics” viewpoint.  Well, actually, there really isn’t much in the way of argument, as will be seen – the position is breezily assumed to be true, and most of the article is about the implications of that “fact.”

The Atlantic article presents a variant of only one of the arguments answered earlier, namely argument #3, that free will violates the law of cause and effect (the Atlantic variant simply substitutes electrical impulses for the usual mechanical stimulus as the causal mechanism).  The article focuses on the recent developments in neuroscience:

“In recent decades, research on the inner workings of the brain has … dealt a further blow to the idea of free will. Brain scanners have enabled us to peer inside a living person’s skull, revealing intricate networks of neurons and allowing scientists to reach broad agreement that these networks are shaped by both genes and environment.  But there is also agreement in the scientific community that the firing of neurons determines not just some or most but all of our thoughts, hopes, memories, and dreams.”


“It was already known that electrical activity builds up in a person’s brain before she, for example, moves her hand; [The American physiologist Benjamin] Libet showed that this buildup occurs before the person consciously makes a decision to move. The conscious experience of deciding to act, which we usually associate with free will, appears to be an add-on, a post hoc reconstruction of events that occurs after the brain has already set the act in motion.”

For the author of the article, this appears to be decisive:  If a physiologist shows that electrical activity builds up in the brain “before” the person consciously makes a decision to move, then for the article’s author that justifies the following:

“The contemporary scientific image of human behavior is one of neurons firing, causing other neurons to fire, causing our thoughts and deeds, in an unbroken chain that stretches back to our birth and beyond. In principle, we are therefore completely predictable. If we could understand any individual’s brain architecture and chemistry well enough, we could, in theory, predict that individual’s response to any given stimulus with 100 percent accuracy.”

There are many fallacies involved in drawing these conclusions from this experiment, not the least of which is mischaracterizing the experiment and the findings.  Libet’s findings are much more complex than stated.  He identified several stages of a decision of subjects to move their wrists. Indeed, an electrical precursor (called the “readiness potential” or RP) accompanies such decisions.  But there are several stages to the decision, and the most important one is that conscious awareness of the act takes place before the act (but after the first RP).  Thus, the subject has the ability before the action of moving the wrist takes place to veto the movement, i.e. to simply not act.  Thus whatever this readiness potential is (perhaps it is simply a physical concomitant of preparedness to assess options, or a felt urge to act), it is not “neurons firing causing other neurons to fire, causing our thoughts and deeds.”  So what if electrical activation occurs in the brain a few hundred milliseconds before an action, if the action does happen to occur?  As long as the subject has the ability to act or not act as he decides, then his action is free.

Indeed, Libet himself (and he is not alone among neuroscientists) is a proponent of free will, and does not think his experiments prove the invalidity of free will.  His response to those who drew such conclusions is published, and those interested in the subject can read his entire published interpretation of his own experiment (see Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6, No. 8–9, 1999, pp. 47–57).  As he says:

“Potentially available to the conscious function is the possibility of stopping or vetoing the final progress of the volitional process, so that no actual muscle action ensues.”


“The existence of a veto possibility is not in doubt. The subjects in our experiments at times reported that a conscious wish or urge to act appeared but that they suppressed or vetoed that… A large RP preceded the veto, signifying that the subject was indeed preparing to act, even though the action was aborted by the subject.”

Despite the flimsiness of the “evidence,” as well as the consistency of the Libet experiments with free will and the researcher’s own explanation of that consistency, the Atlantic article uses its abbreviated description of the experiment to reject free will.  The article goes on to cite experiments showing the consequence of that rejection.  Researchers find that when free will is rejected, people are more inclined to act immorally, concluding they have no choice in the matter – so why not act on their urges?  Researchers also find that when free will is rejected, people have more compassion for miscreants, since they believe those miscreants had no choice in their deeds.  Finally, researchers find that without the idea of free will, people who achieve success are given less credit because it is believed they didn’t choose their actions – the actions were inevitable.  None of this should surprise anyone, and why research needed to be performed on the matter is a serious question.  A lot of research dollars were wasted to find out the obvious:  If people don’t believe in free will, they won’t make the effort to focus their minds on the consequences (to them and others) of acting immorally.  And further, people who reject free will won’t blame or praise others for an action those others supposedly had no choice in committing.

The article next ponders what to do about the “paradox” that free will is an illusion, yet we “need” free will to avoid the breakdown of civilization – to avoid crime and to encourage people to be moral.  There’s no need to cover the circumlocutions involved in attempting to reconcile this contradiction.  What matters is only that a prestigious intellectual magazine in the mainstream of our culture is advocating the broad generalization that no one can make choices, based on dubious evidence from a narrow discipline in one science.

A “narrow discipline in science” is the key.  The question to ask is:  Why would an interpreter of neuroscience experiments not pause and check his underlying premises when he came to the conclusion that free will doesn’t exist?  Shouldn’t he see that such a conclusion contradicts the entire discipline of science?  A narrow science cannot refute a fundamental like free will, precisely because that science itself rests on that fundamental.  Truth doesn’t come automatically – man’s conceptual faculty is fallible (such is demonstrated a million times on any day by the nonsense spouted from every corner).  To arrive not at nonsense but at knowledge, science develops methods to avoid errors and correct them when they are made.  In this case, scientists are described as deliberately weighing experimental design, as choosing one such design over others because it is more objective, as conducting experiments, assessing results, and communicating to others who will assess, repeat and check their results.  All of these steps rely on the fundamental choice scientists have to choose valid methods (and reject invalid ones), and therefore arrive at truth.  Otherwise, why should anyone pay attention to what these scientists say or do?.  The conclusion denying free will thus contradicts its own base, pulling the rug out from under the entire structure supposedly leading to the conclusion.

The experiment described above is not the only such case in the literature: Sam Harris’ book on free will, widely praised by professors, references three such experiments.  They all, however, fall into the same category, and Harris’ interpretation of them as refuting free will suffers from the same fallacy of contradicting its own base (as do all his other arguments).

This fact should provide intellectual ammunition to defenders of free will when they are confronted by scientific experiments that purport to contradict it.  One may not be able to understand all the details of some technical discipline, nor find what errors have been made in the generalizations drawn from it.  But one does know, with certainty, that free will is the foundation of all knowledge, and no so-called “knowledge” can contradict it.

Method trumps everything

The fundamental choice is to focus or not, to think or not, as discussed in prior posts.  However, that is not man’s only choice.  To succeed in life requires innumerable choices, among them being values, goals (in career and leisure), friends, jobs, a city to live, a neighborhood within it and housing within that (to name just a few).  Men make those choices every day, and those choices are only possible once the fundamental choice to think is made.

The number and complexity of choices to make would be impossible to cope with unless we had criteria and methods to organize them.  Method is critical here.  Consider a daily situation familiar to everyone:  you have a list of things that need to be accomplished.  What should you do now?  The simplest method, outlined in most books on time management (e.g. Alan Lakein’s How to get control of your time and your life) is to ask yourself: “What’s the best use of my time, right now?” and then to prioritize the list of things that need to be accomplished accordingly, based on your values (Lakein recommends an A, B, C grading to prioritize).  Other recommendations, from Lakein and others, are to break each task into a manageable set of sub-tasks, such that each sub-task is achievable in, say, an hour, or 15 minutes, or some short-enough time period so that one can see progress being made and not have the tasks seem overwhelming.

That one technique, as simple as it is, has helped people in all fields from all walks of life improve their ability to work, accomplish worthwhile goals, and enjoy life better because they have more time and less stress.

It is not hard to understand from this example how method trumps education, starting position, inheritance, etc.  Here are two real-life examples (modified in some details to protect the privacy of the persons involved): A man in a high-tech company, who may not be as highly educated as his colleagues, but because he uses methods of organization and thinking not practiced by his tech-savvy co-workers, he always has his work done on time, and has extra time to learn the technical details he needs to in order to function effectively in that organization.  Or: A woman in a large international firm, who studied accounting 35 years ago and then raised a family.  Now, back in industry after all these years, some wondered why the manager hired her to be a technical assistant, choosing her over several younger candidates who were familiar with more recently popularized accounting techniques.  What the manager saw, that others did not, was that she was very strong in the fundamental principles of accounting, very well organized, and could think in essential terms about any problem.  These are three methods (operating on fundamental principle, organizing and prioritizing your work, and thinking in essentials) that trump all the skills and training of her competitors.  These methods, adopted by these two individuals, helped them succeed in situations where others, with more starting advantages, would not.

Methods are hierarchical – they grow in abstraction from narrow to broad, as in

  1. Specific techniques, like the time-management technique mentioned above
  2. Tactics (a collection of integrated techniques, e.g. negotiation)
  3. Strategies (broad plan or direction, e.g. what business should my company focus on?)
  4. Scientific method (responsible for many of the general scientific laws discovered by the experimental method, such as laws of motion, fluid flow, electromagnetism)
  5. Epistemology, a branch of philosophy, is the science of knowledge.  It studies such questions as the proper method of forming concepts and definitions, methods of (deductive and inductive) logic and reasoning in general.  Scientific method, in fact, is a subcategory of epistemology (it is a method of inductive reasoning).

One can see that starting with simple, easily graspable techniques, a person in quest of improving his life could choose to expand his horizon to encompass broader and broader types of methods. How far he pursues them depends, of course, on his goals, his motivation, his development of prior enabling methods and his intelligence – but most fundamentally it depends on his choice.

The whole self-help industry is predicated on the necessity of finding proper methods. Any bookstore has shelf after shelf of books directed at teaching methods to help people succeed.  Unfortunately, much of what is written in this vein is either not new, or patently wrong.  Thus a proper method of selection represents one of the most important enabling methods in using such resources effectively and thus improving oneself, rather than getting bogged down in error, contradiction and confusion.  The most important method of selection is reasoned analysis – carefully reading, asking questions, forming proper concepts and definitions, and putting any proposed method to a rigorous test of integration with known facts and ideas.

Although one might “explain” a person’s success by the fact that he uses one of the above techniques, tactics, strategies or epistemological methods, these methods don’t “cause” him to succeed.  He is the cause, first and foremost because to select and employ any of them takes the fundamental act of focus (often sustained across many years), and second because while the methods are the “efficient” or immediate cause, his deliberate choice to use one or another method is the ultimate cause.  To quote Leonard Peikoff in a slightly different context:

“Man’s actions do have causes; he does choose a course of behavior for a reason – but this does not make the course determined or the choice unreal.  It does not, because man himself decides what are to be the governing reasons.  Man chooses the causes that shape his actions.”

There is even a higher-level activity in which an individual not only chooses (proper) methods but is active and passionate about method.  He deliberately seeks out method, identifies gaps in his methodology and is continually on a quest to fill them and grow in methodological ability.  He thinks in principle (which is one of the most important philosophical methods), seeks to develop new methods of his own from his experience, and puts all proposed methods to the test of logic and experience. Hence he grows, over the decades, into the kind of goal-accomplishing powerhouse that any employer (or any customer if he has his own firm, or any friend in the personal realm) would pursue.  Such a principled pursuer of method may be a rare type of person, and he deserves our admiration, but we see that the activities he engages in are open to all men, on any level of ability.  He should be an object of emulation as well as admiration.  He is an end-member of a continuum, and how far any individual rises in the continuum (within one’s own potential) is up to that individual to choose.

1001 Knights – the rarely mentioned men whose names are on the brands we use every day

Pick any product or company name you think of – IBM, Johnson&Johnson, Gillette, Oscar Mayer, Hallmark, Baskin-Robbins, Rolles-Royce – and there is a story behind it, a story of men who founded the company, often more than a century ago:  With entrepreneurial spirit, hard work and a dedication to producing something worthwhile to make a profit they’d be proud of.  Sometimes there was a patented invention behind it, as in the case of the razor blade or the tractor, and sometimes there was simply the commitment to making a product better than had been done before.  We benefit from these products every day, but how often do we think of the story behind them, the men who created them or the effort it took to make a product that could last, not weeks or months, but decades or centuries?

The book Entrepreneurs, The Men and Women Behind Famous Brand Names and How They Made It, by Joseph and Suzy Fucini, covers 51 such brand names, and the book They Made America by Harold Evans covers many more.  But one can often find the story on one’s own, simply by going to the website of the company (usually in the “Our History” section, or something similar, though sometimes one has to do a little hunting to find it).

A sampling of what can be found if one selects some brands at random and looks at the company website:

  • In 2011 SINGER® celebrated the 160th Anniversary of Isaac Singer’s patent on the first practical sewing machine.
  • In 1883, Barney Kroger invested his life savings of $372 to open a grocery store at 66 Pearl Street in downtown Cincinnati. The son of a merchant, he ran his business with a simple motto: “Be particular. Never sell anything you would not want yourself.”
  • William Procter, emigrating from England, established himself as a candle maker in Cincinnati. James Gamble, an immigrant from Ireland, apprenticed himself as a soap maker [in 1837]…“The Procter & Gamble Company never has gone in circles, never followed footsteps, but rather has continually broken new trails, entered new fields, set new records, even raised its own high standards.” — R. R. Deupree, 1936.

The first point to make about these books and this sampling is that an entrepreneurial history and a lasting product is not limited to a select few individuals.  The sheer number of such men and women documented in these and many other stories is huge.  With the freedom that America afforded in the 19th century, in particular, companies were continually emerging (flooding Americans with new materials, new products, new means of transportation, more food, better housing, and greater sanitation).  More broadly, where the freedom to create exists in any country in the world, today and in the past, men and women form companies and produce products of value. The large number of individuals involved relates to the answer given to argument #5 in the five arguments against free will:  those individuals who succeed are not freaks of nature but simply men who exercised free will and actualized their potential – to think, act and persevere through hardship to achieve success in life.

A second point to make is that many of these men were immigrants to America, escaping poverty and sometimes despotism to succeed where they were free to create and benefit from their creations.  These immigrants exercised choice in a particularly heroic way: They chose to leave behind the familiar, including friends and family, to face an uncertain future.  They did not need to be guaranteed success but were undergirded by the knowledge that where they were going had fewer restrictions (social, religious or governmental) and more opportunities to succeed if they worked hard.  None of these men had any illusions that life would be easy, or that success would be immediate or automatic.

There are many other implications, including political ones, that could be drawn from these stories, but the relevant point for our purpose is clear:  These men can and did choose to “build it”, and there were not just a few isolated “freaks” but a massive wave of them, whether they came from abroad or chose to follow their dreams having grown up within a mile of their first factory.

Top five arguments for rejecting free will – and answers to them

Discussed below are the arguments offered by average people, intellectuals and even many in the scientific community for rejecting free will and embracing its opposite – in philosophy, what is called “determinism.”  As background, however, consider the positive case for free will.  Free will is not something that one must derive by a lengthy chain of reasoning using abstract concepts.  Free will is something every single human being out of infancy experiences every day. You can see yourself choosing between one shirt and another, or how to spend the next hour, or what app to use on your mobile phone, or how to get to work during rush hour.  Underlying these specific choices is the fundamental set of choices about how you will use your mind – will you deliberate or go by raw feeling? Will you think, or avoid the effort? These fundamental choices make possible all the rest, and you can see yourself making them as well. Free will is an object of direct perception – perception directed internally at one’s mind instead of externally.  The same introspection that lets one see he is thinking about tonight’s Superbowl party provides all the evidence needed to be convinced of the existence of free will.  For that reason, because free will is directly evident and fundamental (at the base of every other kind of thought or action), it is in fact axiomatic.

Some people, usually academics or college students who have had a philosophy class, deny free will’s axiomatic status.  The fourth objection below will present and respond to their arguments.  First, several everyday types of objections will be answered.


Objection 1: How can you say there are self-made men, or that men can choose to be successful on their own, when everyone knows that what we make of ourselves depends on the conditions of our birth, our families, our social and economic status, even what country we were born in?  Can a person who is born in Syria during a bloody war choose the same path as a person born into a well-to-do family in the United States?  For that matter, can a homeless or desperately poor person in the United States have the same choice as the person born into the well-to-do family?

Response: The details of a person’s path through life are no doubt affected by his start.  However, the fundamental trajectory is not.  For example, there are countless instances of those born or raised in war-torn countries escaping to safer lands, and of desperately poor persons raising themselves up the economic ladder by hard work, saving, and perseverance.  No one has the choice of his start – that would be an absurdity implying he had choice before he existed.  What one has the choice of is what to do about it.  Does one accept one’s situation in dejected resignation, or does one act to change it?  Does one plan, take risks, make the effort, or refuse to think, play it safe and stay in the unsafe or poverty-stricken state one starts in?  When Andrew Carnegie started working as a boy of 12, he earned the equivalent of $1.20 per week.  When he succeeded, he earned $1.20 per second.  Did he allow his pitiful initial state as a penniless immigrant to hold him back, or did he overcome it, by thinking, acting, looking for opportunities, making his own opportunities, and taking advantage of opportunities as they came?  Every immigrant who has left a country enduring war or famine to live in the United States is a testament to the possibility and consequences of choice.  Similarly, every person born into a decent family in America who chooses a path of crime, alcoholism or begging over productiveness is proof of the fact that where you start not only doesn’t guarantee failure but it doesn’t guarantee success either.  A person’s choice is decisive.
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Objection 2: Even if I accept what you say in the introductory post that free will consists of the choice to focus one’s mind and think, as contrasted with evading and not thinking, even if I accept that everyone possesses such a choice, how does it explain a person’s success in life or career? Maybe he can focus on the problem before him, whether a crossword puzzle or a test problem in school. But that oversimplifies the totality of what is required to succeed across decades.  Such success is a combination of thinking, luck, help from others, being in the right place at the right time, being born with natural intelligence, etc.

Response: There are, often, a combination of factors in the details of any individual’s success, but the question is:  which factors are fundamental and explain the others?  It is true that focusing on a crossword puzzle involves the same type of mental activity that leads to success in life, but one instance of that kind of thinking and acting won’t make a successful life, just as one instance of solving a crossword puzzle doesn’t guarantee you’ll solve the next one if you drift, get distracted and down a few scotch whiskeys to allay anxiety about whether you’ll solve it.  A successful life requires one’s commitment to rational thought in principle, at all times, across the decades, in every area of life.  There may be help from others or from chance, but how many have squandered such benefits and chosen not to take full advantage of them?  Louis Pasteur said that chance favors the prepared mind, meaning no amount of luck will help the mind dulled by passivity or drugs.  The time spent thinking and planning is never wasted because it is the precondition of success, whether success is precipitated by a “lucky” unexpected event or by one’s own action.
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Objection 3: Doesn’t free will violate the law of cause and effect?  Effects are determined by their causes, so how can a choice, which is by definition not determined, exist?  Isn’t choice, therefore, something causeless?

Response: This charge is based on a false view of cause and effect.  Cause and effect are properly viewed as a relationship between an entity and its action, between the kind of thing it is and the kinds of things it can do.  A feather floats, a billiard ball rolls, a dropped ball falls, a helium balloon moves upward when it is released.  With regard to living beings, each kind of being has certain potentialities, and those potentialities are a consequence of the kind of being it is. For conscious animals, potentialities include sensing, perception (integrated sensation) and reacting to their environment. For the most advanced conscious being, man, the potentiality is vastly greater: it includes conceptualization, the viewing of entities not as isolated perceptions but as integrated with other similar entities into a mental unit called a concept.  Every single achievement of man – from the development of tools to the development of farming, to the discovery of individual rights, to the development of manufacturing, to IPhones, to space travel, to cancer treatment – is a consequence of that fundamental potentiality of conceptualization.  On the higher levels, simple conceptualization (grouping of entities by similarity into a unity) is augmented by complex methods such as logic, scientific study, and engineering, but all these methods stem from and rest on conceptualization.

From the perspective of free will, the most important fact is that conceptualization is not automatic, as perception and sensation are.  Conceptualization requires an act of choice, a choice to focus one’s mind on the entities or phenomena of interest, a choice to sustain a process of reasoning across time, a choice to keep mental clarity and form proper definitions to keep concepts distinguished (as opposed to fuzzy in the “I kinda know what they mean” sense). In short, reason does not function automatically but rather requires an act of choice.  Man is always free to engage in that process of focus and sustained effort, or to unfocus and drift.  But because of the kind of entity he is, he must always make that choice.

Thus for man, his reasoning faculty is “caused” not by some prior action, like a billiard ball moving because another ball hits it.  It is simply his nature – in effect, he must make that choice (to focus or not, either one being within his power).  And his potentiality to focus or not is “caused” by the kind of entity he is, not by some prior action.  Thus there is no contradiction between cause and effect and free will, if both cause and effect as well as free will are understood properly.
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Objection 4: The advocates of free will say that free will is an axiom, a basic philosophical premise at the root of everything regarding man.  Well I reject your axiom.

Response: It could be responded, amusingly, that rejecting free will is your choice.  And, indeed, it is.  But as the first sentence in response demonstrates, your rejection of free will in fact is a validation of free will, for when you say “I reject” free will you are actually saying “I choose to reject free will.”  And that is one of the characteristics of an axiom: it re-affirms itself in every attempt to deny it.  Axioms, because they state fundamental facts about nature or man, are self-evident in every act of awareness, in every thought or statement, even in attempts to deny them. This “re-affirmation through denial” was identified by Aristotle (who called it “proof by refutation”) in the process of answering those critics who denied the axioms of logic.

More deeply, when one asserts that free will does not exist, he wants us to take him seriously, to believe that he has given thought to the matter, engaged in a process of reasoning, and as a consequence rejected our positive statement advocating free will.  However, the nature of the position he is taking is that everything one does is caused by factors outside one’s control, and so the conclusion being asserted actually contradicts his implied deliberation.  If man doesn’t have free will then his every thought, idea and action is programmed for him by his genes or brain or upbringing.  And that is true not only of “other men” but also of the very individual who is rejecting free will.  Thus he wants us to believe his position is worth considering because he has engaged in a process of reason, yet at the same time he is saying that he does not have the capacity to choose his ideas or conclusions – they are simply programmed for him.  Why, then, would we even take him seriously?  If he is not offering a real reason for his conclusion but merely saying he has no power to escape that conclusion, why should we care?  Why would we give his conclusions more weight than we do the mutterings of an insane person?
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Objection 5: You may cite examples of individuals choosing to make their own way, to succeed on their own, raising themselves from far lesser circumstances to wealth or career achievement.  But those individuals are exceptions, essentially freaks of nature. Statistics show that in the overwhelming number of cases, where you come from determines what you’ll become. Given those statistics, how can you say that it is the nature of man to have free will?

Response: Man is man.  There are not two kinds of beings – man, the regular guy and man the Superman – contrary to what the philosopher Nietzsche says.  If man as a man possesses a certain potentiality, then all men do. As stated in the answer to objection #1, there are countless examples of men choosing to think and act to raise themselves beyond their initial circumstances.  And there are also countless examples of men born with great advantages choosing to squander those advantages and coast as parasites on their relatives or on other men.  This large number of examples demonstrates that overcoming poverty or other disadvantages is possible to man as a man (not just to a few unique men), just as starting with wealth and advantage and degenerating into drugs, lassitude and eventually poverty and homelessness are also possible to him.  The difference is a man’s choice to think and act.  Neither the man who elevates himself nor the man who degrades himself are freaks of nature – both are actualizing a potentiality of man, i.e. both are exercising choice. And the enormous numbers of men who do one or the other belie the claim that they are something other than … men.

Those who rely on statistics, however, don’t analyze the causes of man’s state.  Thinking in terms of faceless collectives, without analyzing the individual circumstances underlying a poverty-stricken state, is the kind of context-dropping that permits one to view raising oneself as hopeless.  For example, a substantial number of people are homeless in any large city in the developed world (fewer, however, than most people believe). The welfare advocates present these people as all helpless victims of fate who need to be rescued by society.  Yet it is known that half of the homeless are in that state due to substance abuse (see, e.g. “Substance Use: Pathway to homelessness? Or a way of adapting to street life?” by E. Didenko and N. Pankratz, Visions Journal, Vol. 4, No. 1, Summer 2007, where several scholarly studies are cited). Thus their homelessness stems not from “fate” or causes outside their control but from their own prior choices and actions.

Another ludicrous example often cited is the plight of those who have a large student loan balance.  This author has heard people complain that they can never get ahead because they have large student loan balances that they’ll never pay off – and that, therefore, man is helpless in a practical sense.  Ignore for a moment that even having the opportunity to have a student loan and go to college already puts one in the top echelon of economic advantage – this is not something afforded to the homeless or to drug addicts or to people in war-torn countries.  This objection would have you believe that having a large student loan is some horrible act of nature (like a tornado) that was visited on a person through no fault of his own. The fact that he had to apply for, sign and commit to paying off the loan is not mentioned in this person’s sob story.  Nor is the fact that he received a college degree as a consequence, which underlies his current employment and ownership of a house.  The fact that people may, indeed, make unthinking choices, relying on range-of-the-moment feeling or wishful thinking rather than logic in deciding to take such loans, the fact that they may over-commit themselves to paying off too many loans given their prospect of earnings, is proof not of man’s lack of free will but of exactly the opposite.

Exercising choice doesn’t guarantee success.  That lack of a guarantee is precisely the meaning of free will.  It is precisely the root of the requirement that one use the most scrupulous process of reasoning, refusing to act recklessly or on the range-of-the-moment, in making all decisions, whether to take a loan, or drugs, or a certain job, or a certain train, or a certain romantic partner.  Even the right course of action and thought doesn’t guarantee success in a particular case, but rejecting the proper method does guarantee failure (whether immediate or over time).  Man’s only protection against failure, or more positively, man’s only possibility of succeeding over the long run, is to use his mind properly and act in accordance with his reason, consistently and in principle.  Although not part of this discussion of free will, that commitment to principle is the entry into the realm of moral choice and the root of a proper moral code.
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What this blog stands for

“You can and did build it.”

This blog will define and defend the idea that man can choose and achieve goals, and that when he does he deserves the credit, in justice, for “building that.”  The title of this blog stems from a debate started by President Barack Obama in his 2012 speech in Roanoke, Virginia, in which he stated that

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

This and other quotes from Obama sympathizers – particularly Elizabeth Warren, who a year earlier had said: “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody,” ignited a firestorm of debate about whether it was true that the individual achieved success on his own and therefore deserves to keep the fruits of his effort – his salary, his business, etc.

The debate, however, focused on the second half of this blog’s title, the idea that man did build that.   There were excellent responses to these attacks on men’s right to pride in their own achievements, the most cogent of which appeared in a Forbes article titled “President Obama vs. My Grandfather.”  Under the covers, however, was a premise shared by not only the Left, but also those who opposed the “you didn’t build that” chorus: the premise that man really can’t achieve goals on his own.  The entire apparatus of the welfare state is predicated on the idea that the individual can’t make it on his own but must be given a hand up by government or society.  Even those who oppose the welfare state often call on everyone to help the disadvantaged as a duty – this sentiment is echoed by almost every church parson as well as by almost every American.  The Conservative response to “You didn’t build that” was that America is great because we all have a sense of “community” that helps us survive because on our own we couldn’t.  The modern declaration that people really can’t do things on their own has grown enormously decade by decade.  The disadvantaged went from a very small minority of those so incapable of surviving that they needed a “safety net” (Ronald Reagan’s oft-used phrase) to a larger and larger group of people incapable of surviving because of reasons like: 1) they are not given a living wage, 2) they are burdened by student loans, 3) prices of drugs are rising, 4) jobs are disappearing overseas.

This blog’s entire purpose is to fully reject the idea that man cannot succeed, and, put positively, to prove, defend and promote the idea that he can choose his direction, make his own life and succeed on his own.  Fundamentally, it will defend the idea that man has free will, or volition.  This is a broad philosophical abstraction, and as such needs to be defined, put in context and concretized, which this blog will do over the course of many articles – supported by philosophical argument, as well as historical references and concrete news stories.

To begin, let us be clear about what is meant by “man has free will.”  Many arguments against free will stem from a mistaken idea of what it means, and what is included in it.  A formal definition of free will:

“A course of thought or action is ‘free,’ if it is selected from two or more courses possible under the circumstances.  In such a case, the difference is made by the individual’s decision, which did not have to be what it is, i.e., which could have been otherwise.” (Objectivism, The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (OPAR), by Leonard Peikoff, p. 55.  The section of OPAR in which this definition appears, and the two sections following it, are a complete philosophic description, and defense, of free will.  The author of this blog is indebted to Dr. Peikoff for his work in this area and recommends any interested reader follow up by reading these passages of OPAR.)

More specifically, here is what free will does and does not mean:

It means man can choose (and here, as everywhere in this blog, “man” refers to men and women, all human beings):

  1. whether and how he will think and use his mind,
  2. what ideas he will accept
  3. what goals and values he will pursue
  4. how he acts

What free will does not mean is choosing to:

  1. violate the laws of nature
  2. attain immediate success in any complex endeavor
  3. achieve any irrational or impossible goal (such as a person of modest intelligence winning a Nobel Prize in the next ten years, or a quadriplegic signing an NFL quarterback position).
  4. literally will an emotion to disappear (attempting to do that is what psychologists call “repression”)

From the simplest concrete act of choosing, such as what to cook for the next meal, to the far more complex acts of choosing a lifetime career or a romantic partner, almost everyone grasps that “possible” is the most important qualifier in the definition of free will.  What is literally impossible cannot be the subject of an act of choice, even if a person wishes fervently for it to be so.  Hence, the entire list of what is not included in free will consists of things that are impossible – violating the laws of nature chief among them.

There will be occasion to discuss in this blog why so many people feel as though they don’t have free will, even though in fact they do.  But one very important reason, it will be seen, is that they have an improper understanding of what is included in free will:  They try to achieve the impossible, and failing to do so, they “feel” as though their will is not free: they feel they are victims of circumstance.

The next installment of this blog will present the top five arguments people give for rejecting free will – and an answer will be provided for each.