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.

Comments are closed.