by Russell Blackford
First published, in slightly abridged and
different form, ABC Religion and Ethics Portal, 26-27 April 2012. Available at
The long conversation
of years, myth-makers, poets, philosophers, theologians, novelists and others
have wrestled with a daunting question: whether, or to what extent, our lives
are in our own hands (or minds).
people, future events seem to be laid down independently of any say that we
might have in the matter. This characterized the worldview of Greek mythology.
In Homer’s Iliad, the will of Zeus is depicted as binding on men and
women, however much we mortals struggle and complain. Human attempts at
rebellion are futile.
is one mortal who struggles against his fate: he flees Corinth for Thebes,
seeking to escape a terrible prophecy that he will kill his father and marry
his mother. But, once again, his attempt is futile. The very act of journeying
to Thebes brings him to a fatal (in every sense) confrontation with his true
father, Laius, and to marriage to his true mother, Jocasta.
theme in the long history of recorded thought finds popular expression even
today, whenever we hear talk of how some important life event – when Jack meets
Jill, perhaps – was “meant to be” and in the widespread, though perhaps only
half-believed, idea that our days are numbered, with an appointed date of death
for each of us (decided, perhaps, by God).
expression in many ways in literary narrative and popular culture, as well,
though most often the idea is resisted, as when Sarah Connor in Terminator
2: Judgment Day uses a knife to inscribe the defiant words, “NO FATE.”
this lies the fear (or the assurance, depending on your disposition) that the
future comes about in a way that is uncoupled from our deliberations, choices
and actions. How might this be?
an obvious way – or, at least, one that has seemed obvious to many people and
cultures – is that our choices or their outcomes are controlled by overriding
forces, such as the stars or the gods or a reified Fate or Destiny.
are, however, other ways in which our deliberations, choices and actions could
be, as it were, bypassed by events (to borrow from Eddy Nahmias).
Thus, our deliberations would be futile on some portrayals of the relationship
between mind and body.
(as I tend to think) mental events just are, at another level of description,
physical events in our brains, they can have causal efficacy much like any
other physical events. Similarly, an interactionist form of mind-body dualism
does not entail any scary sort of bypassing of our deliberations and choices.
the situation is rather different on other dualist theories of the mind. If our
thoughts, emotions, and choices are mere epiphenomena, they cannot affect our
bodies or the external world; nor can they do so if, as Leibniz believed, the
mind and body are like parallel clocks in a pre-established harmony, but
exercising no causal influence on each other. On either of these views,
deliberation and choice cannot reach out to touch the physical world. So it goes.
some thinkers, the very fact that there are facts (by which I simply
mean true statements) about future events is sufficient reason for a kind of
fatalism. Imagine that I am sick, for example – should I call for my doctor?
Well, presumably there is a fact as to whether or not I will recover from my
illness. If I am going to recover, then this will happen (so the doctor has
nothing to do with it). Conversely, if I am not going to recover, it will
happen this way (so the doctor has nothing to do with it). In either case,
events will reach their conclusion whether I call the doctor or not. Thus, it
is pointless for me to call her, as it cannot affect my fate! By similar
reasoning, it is pointless to take any action at all.
is the conclusion of what was known in antiquity as the Lazy Argument. Fatalism
about the future leads to a recommendation of passivism, though, really, we
have no say in that either.
some philosophers deny that there are facts about the future, the idea seems
intuitively appealing. Moreover, Einsteinian relativity theory seemingly
entails that the universe is a four-dimensional space-time manifold; in that
case, there are facts about events that are (relative to us) in the future.
Such facts also seem to be entailed by any theory of comprehensive causal
determinism, since the current state of the world precisely determines all
states of the world in the future.
philosophers knew nothing about Einsteinian theory, of course, but they were
familiar with many such considerations, and they produced sophisticated responses.
In particular, some Stoic philosophers developed arguments to counteract
fatalist thinking and show that our actions really are “up to us.”
is not the place to explore all the tendencies of Stoic thought, but the
general idea was to accept causal determinism, and even to refer to the causal
series as “fate” – and yet argue that our actions proceed by means of our
this approach, our beliefs about the world, our desires, our ingrained
dispositions – in short, the motivating elements in our individual
psychological make-ups – are the features that bring about our choices and
actions, and thereby affect the course of events. If I am offered food, for
example, my action of eating it (or else declining it) will be brought about
partly by the circumstances of the offer, but also by the way I respond, which
will result from my beliefs, desires, character, etc.
The point of all this is that humankind has engaged in a sophisticated discussion over many centuries as to whether, in some sense, our choices and actions, and the predictable consequences of our actions, are up to us, or whether, at some point in the order of events, we are bypassed, leaving our efforts essentially futile. The great cultural conversation certainly did not end with the Stoics, and it has continued to the present day. Throughout the medieval period, the issue became entangled with theological considerations, and to some extent this remains so.
surprisingly, recent analyses by professional philosophers have become
increasingly fine-grained and technical, particularly, though not solely, where
arguments about the role of causal determinism are
What is “free will”?
we sometimes say to each other, “That’s up to you,” the usual English term for
the up-to-us-ness discussed by Greek philosophers is “free will.” Whether or
not this expression is very apt, it does capture one aspect of the long
conversation – the idea that we are free from the control of Fate or other
generally, it might be said that we are “free” if we choose on the basis of our
own beliefs, desires and characters. If these things are unencumbered, then we
can be said to be acting as we want to act, at least within the limits
of our opportunities, physical and cognitive capacities, resources and so on.
many expressions that have become subjects of philosophical inquiry, “free will”
may seem rather vague and elusive. However, there has now been a fair bit of
empirical research (by Nahmias and his colleagues, among others) that provides
some clues about the way that the idea of free will relates to the concerns of
ordinary people who are not philosophers or theologians (“the folk,” as
philosophers like to say).
the published research is open to interpretation and, at this stage, it appears
unlikely that there is a single “folk” conception. The folk, or many of them,
do seem to have concerns about causal determinism, but mainly when it is
described so that it sounds like fatalism or epiphenomenalism.
very generally, ordinary people are most likely to deny the existence of free
will when they see our deliberations, choices and actions being overridden or
bypassed in some way or another. For the folk, or most of them, the dominant
idea in attributing free will to themselves and others seems to be a denial of
people are likely to affirm that “we have free will” if they dispute our
subservience to forces such as the gods, the stars and Fate; and they are
likely to say, in a particular situation, that “X acted of her own free will”
if, in addition, X was not subjected to some more earthly kind of coercion
(perhaps a gun at her head) or certain other kinds of frightening pressure
(perhaps being required to make an important and complex decision in a very
short time). Note, however, that I do not claim that these are the only
ideas of free will existing among the general population.
philosophers have what may or may not be a more stringent concept of free will:
we possess free will only insofar as we can be morally responsible for our
conduct. It is the capacity to act with moral responsibility. This conception
of free will has dominated modern Western philosophy – though, again, I don’t claim that it is the only
philosophical conception of free will (for more, see the Stanford
Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on the
responsibility for our actions may well require the absence of spooky
controlling forces, coercion, unusual pressures and so on, but perhaps it also
demands something more. The current debate among philosophers revolves around
the circumstances under which people are, or should be held to be, morally
we are very demanding about what capacities are required for moral
responsibility, we may find ourselves denying that human beings possess free
will in the philosophers’ more technical sense, but we might still mislead the
folk if we say to them, evoking their understanding of the expression,
“You do not have free will.” This is likely to convey the false – and perhaps
demoralizing – claim that fatalism is true.
Could I have acted otherwise?
the question of whether I had free will when I acted in a certain way is said
to be a matter of whether I could have acted otherwise – say, could I
have had coffee this morning instead of tea? In this example, it seems clear
enough: yes, I could have chosen tea instead of coffee. Intuitively, the “could
have acted otherwise” formulation works here.
this formulation is problematic because we sometimes seem, intuitively, to be “free”
even when we cannot act otherwise, provided that we actually acted as we
wanted to. At the very least, any intuitions to the contrary are rather
I was offered coffee or tea, and I chose coffee (for no particular reason other
than my preference for the taste of coffee). Unknown to me or to her, however,
my host had accidentally filled both pots with coffee, so my counterfactual
choice of tea would have been ineffectual: I did not have a live option of
acting otherwise, in the sense of actually drinking tea (perhaps there was no
time to make some tea even if we’d discovered what went wrong).
consider the situation: I thought about it briefly – “coffee or tea?” – and I
chose what I wanted. Furthermore, I received the coffee I asked for, and I
happily drank it. I don’t know about your intuitions, but it looks to me as if
I acted of my own free will, in the everyday sense of that expression.
Unsurprisingly, philosophers have developed many other examples of situations
where I had no actual prospect of acting other than as I did, though
intuitively I seemed to be acting freely.
if my choice is about something morally significant, rather than about whether
to choose coffee or tea for breakfast? Should I, or shouldn’t I, save this
nearby drowning baby? Imagine that I don’t like babies, so I deliberately let
the baby drown – but I would have failed to save it in any event, since,
unbeknown to me, an invisible monster with a taste for adult humans was
swimming between me and the baby. I might still be considered morally
responsible for my conduct, since I actually acted as I wanted.
upshot is that the idea that notions of free will are best conveyed by talk of
“could have acted otherwise” is out of fashion among philosophers, though we
still see this sort of talk in many popular discussions. Accordingly, it is
worth saying a little more about it.
that the idea that I could have acted otherwise in a situation is ambiguous. In
one sense, it is merely a formula that conveys roughly the following: I acted as
I wanted, given the opportunities available to me. Here, saying that I “could”
have acted in some other way means that I had whatever capacities, resources,
equipment, proximity to other people and things, and so on were needed to do so
(and, of course, I was not constrained by, say, another person’s coercion or an
overriding spooky force).
what action I took depended upon my beliefs, desires, character and so on. If
these psychological aspects of me had been different in some relevant
way, my choice would also have differed. This idea does seem to capture much of
what is meant by ordinary talk about “acting of your own free will,” and to
reflect much of what is found in the cultural conversation dating back to the
Stoics and beyond.
this first conception of “could have acted otherwise” has problems when tested
against sufficiently ingenious counterexamples, perhaps involving people who
suffer from inner compulsions, phobias, or special blocks on their ability to
form certain desires. In some of these cases, we seem to get a “wrong” (that
is, unintuitive) answer to whether someone acted of her own free will.
this weak form of “could have acted otherwise” talk may be a harmless way of
thinking about free will for many purposes. It conveys a rough idea of ordinary
conceptions of what it is to act freely, though it probably can’t be used as a
strict definition. At the least, it would need to be refined.
another sense, however, to say that I “could have acted otherwise” might mean
that, at the time of my action, there was some non-zero probability of my
acting otherwise, even given my beliefs, desires, character and so on.
That is, there is some non-zero probability of something different happening
even if everything that could conceivably influence the outcome is the same,
including everything that seems relevant about me and my motivations.
this interpretation of “could have acted otherwise,” it might be argued that I
am never able to act otherwise. I fail to do so even when I act as I
want, perhaps with alternative opportunities available to me, and in
circumstances where ordinary people would say unhesitatingly that I acted “of
my own free will.”
is this idea of “could have acted otherwise” even intelligible? What
could possibly make a difference to how I act when seemingly everything
that could affect my choice has been stipulated as being exactly the same? This
is very mysterious.
the weak interpretation, then, the idea of being able to act otherwise has
problems as a strict definition of when actions are “up to us” or “of our free
will.” However, unusual examples are needed to bring out the problems, and
perhaps the idea will do as a rough indication of what we’re getting at with
free will talk.
we must not do, however, is adopt “could have acted otherwise” as our
definition of free will, attracted by the common sense in the first, weak,
meaning of the phrase, and then claim that human beings lack free will because
(we triumphantly point out) no one can never “act otherwise” in the far
stronger, more mysterious, perhaps unintelligible, second meaning. We’d be
tying ourselves in logical knots.
Free will and Free Will
this brings me to the short book Free Will by
Sam Harris. Throughout, Harris argues two things.
- We can never
act otherwise in the strong and mysterious sense, mainly because this is
precluded by the fact, as he sees it, of causal determinism.
- We are not
“the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present.”
appears, then, to think that free will means acting (1) in circumstances such
that I could have done otherwise (in the strong, mysterious sense), and (2) by
means of a process of deliberation that is entirely conscious. Since, this does
not happen, he concludes, we do not have (what he calls) free will.
always, Harris writes clearly, persuasively, and with a certain rhetorical
flair. In particular, he has an enviable gift for describing opposing views in
ways that make them sound ridiculous – whether they are or not. Free Will
– the book, that is – is entertaining and easy to read, and I’m sure it will
sell plenty of copies.
I submit that the views Harris ridicules are not, in all cases, ridiculous at
all, and that readers of his new book should subject it to sceptical scrutiny. Free
Will provides neither any useful historical context (it ignores the long
cultural conversation) nor any state-of-the-art analysis of the current
philosophical positions and their respective problems (it ignores most of the
the concept of free will that Harris attacks so relentlessly bears little resemblance
to either the dominant folk ideas (roughly speaking, that fatalism is false,
and that we commonly act without coercion, with adequate time to think) or the
technical concept used by most philosophers (we have the capacity to act in
such a way that we are morally responsible for our conduct).
fairness to Harris, some philosophers who define free will as a capacity to act
with moral responsibility think that we can have moral responsibility only if
we can “act otherwise” in the mysterious sense that I’ve discussed, one that
makes us the ultimate sources of our own actions (somehow preceding or
transcending even our own beliefs, desires and characters). However, this is
neither a consensus view among philosophers today nor a view that especially
dominates the long conversation about free will and related concepts. Nor does
Harris himself offer much of an argument as to why anything like this is part
of the very definition of free will.
be fair, again, some philosophers do seem to resist the idea of unconscious
decision-making. However, the idea that we are the conscious source of
most of our thoughts and actions is not the standard philosophical definition
of free will. Nor does it seem to dominate the thinking of the folk.
fact, no plausible story could be told in which we make any of our decisions
entirely consciously. Many are probably made entirely unconsciously.
And I find it difficult even to make sense of consciously choosing my next
thought. How is that supposed to work?
defines “free will” as he does because he thinks that it is “the popular
conception” or “the free will that most people feel they have” while offering
no evidence to support these bold assertions. Thus, even if he succeeds in
showing that “free will,” as he defines it, does not exist – I agree that it
doesn’t – that will not entail that either philosophers or the folk are
incorrect when, employing their definitions or conceptions, they claim
that we have free will.
me be clear on this: Harris may, indeed, have isolated one tendency in the
thinking of some philosophers and some ordinary people. Perhaps he has met
people who think about free will in a way that matches up with his definition,
and I’m sure some readers will find that the definition rings true for them (the
evidence suggests, remember, that ordinary people do not all think alike about
free will – and philosophers certainly do not).
Harris does not claim to be attacking one tendency, perhaps a
dangerous one, in ordinary thinking or the philosophical literature. Nor does
he limit himself to claiming (against the evidence to date) that it is the
far as he is concerned, he is writing about the true conception of free will,
and anyone who disagrees is changing the subject. They are not talking about
free will, he thinks, but only about “free will” – about an intellectual
construction of their own making. That is almost the reverse of the truth, and
if anything it is Harris who wants to change the subject by insisting on his
own pet definition.
Harris on compatibilism
Harris turns to the views of compatibilists, philosophers who think that the
existence of free will is logically consistent with causal determinism, he
accuses them of changing the subject, but that is unfair and untrue.
the views of the compatibilists, whether correct or not, have been a key
component of the conversation for over two thousand years. He accuses them of
producing a body of literature that resembles theology, primarily aimed, he
suspects, at “not allowing the laws of nature to strip us of a cherished
how offensive compatibilists ought to find this will depend, in part, on how
they regard theology. If I think that theological discourse frequently contains
clever, distracting rhetoric, duplicitous manipulations of standards (such as
interpreting texts literally when it suits the theologian’s agenda to do so,
but interpreting them in some other way whenever this is more convenient to
her), and other slippery methods of argument, I might well think that I’ve been
insulted if told that I write like a theologian.
does not spell out the features of theological writing that he has in mind.
However, it seems clear enough that he does not intend the comparison as a
compliment, and that the thrust of his remarks at this point of his book is to
accuse compatibilist philosophers of some form of intellectual dishonesty or at
least wishful thinking.
however, is unfounded. From ancient times to the present day, compatibilist
philosophers – whether Stoics, early modern thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes,
Enlightenment figures like David Hume, or contemporary successors to the
tradition such as Daniel Dennett – have attempted to do what philosophers do at
their best: they have tried to reason clearly and carefully about a deep but
elusive topic of general importance.
doing so, they have needed to make distinctions, examine and refine concepts,
and reveal nuances (and possible inconsistencies) in everyday thought.
Unfortunately, this process can lead to a thicket of new conceptual problems.
– so it goes – compatibilist theories have become more detailed and ramified
than the relatively brief pronouncements from earlier writers such as Hobbes.
At a minimum, recent compatibilists have had to elaborate and qualify their
views as they’ve encountered objections, baffling science-fictional examples, and
troubling classes of cases (such as whether psychiatric patients have free will
if they are physically unimpeded when acting on their delusions).
incompatibilists must face the same sorts of problems, and the resulting garden
of competing analyses, each one making finer points than its predecessor, is no
different from what we see in any other area of philosophy. If compatibilist philosophers
write like theologians in some (unexplained) sense, so do their opponents.
is there anything that, to a fair critic, “seems deliberately obtuse” about the
idea of someone acting freely on her desire to commit a murder. Harris is
correct that we often have conflicting desires, some of which we would rather
not have (that is, we have second-order desires about our desires). But this is
old news and exhaustively discussed in the philosophical literature.
related point about psychic fractures could indeed be developed into a problem
for free will, so let me flag that for later, but there is nothing obviously
obtuse (let alone “deliberately” so) about assuming that the murderer acted on
her strongest desire, and that her action revealed something important about what
she was like as a person.
the same passage, Harris goes on to claim that the deeper problem for
compatibilists is that there is no freedom in doing as I want, such as when I
reach for a glass of water to quench my thirst.
really, where is the unfreedom? Where, as Hobbes would have
put it, is the stop? Where is the thing that impedes me from doing
what I want to do? Are there any spooky forces (the gods, the stars, Fate) in
the vicinity, preventing me from acting as I want? How has anything in the
situation, as described, led to my efforts being bypassed or blocked, or to my
desires being frustrated?
I am employing my own pet definitions, or unless, perhaps, I am one of those
philosophers who is haunted by a very demanding notion of what is required for
moral responsibility, I will have no good reason to see my action in drinking
the water as other than having been up to me – or as a “free” one.
compatibilism is false, but the various attempts by Harris to dismiss it with
little argument should not convince anybody – however robustly or amusingly he
words them (“changing the subject,” “resembles theology,” “seems deliberately
obtuse,” “a bait and switch,” “nothing to do with free will”). This sort of
dogmatism and abuse can be fun, but it does little to advance philosophical
The future of free will
me to confess, at this late stage, that I think that the concept of free will
has problems, perhaps many of them, although I am not at all persuaded that
causal determinism is the important issue.
problem relates to the nature of coercion. How do I draw a principled line
between actions that are coerced, or otherwise brought about in circumstances
that seem to overwhelm me, and those that are not?
some extent, this looks like a moral or even political judgment, and it is very
arguable that, although not simply arbitrary, these
sorts of judgments are not objectively binding. In some cases, at least, there
may be no determinate answer as to whether I was coerced or acted freely.
the folk (and perhaps philosophers) are not worried only by outright coercion
but also by other circumstances, such as whether there was adequate time to
think. But where do we draw the line with something like that – for example,
how much time is “adequate”? Again, how should we handle such things as
compulsions and phobias – are they just another part of our desire-sets, or are
they more analogous to external barriers to our actions?
problem relates to the largely-unconsciousness nature of our decisions. No one
should doubt this, and Harris is correct to emphasise it and discuss the actual
phenomenology of choice. Still, taken by itself it is not necessarily very
for a moment that my unconscious mind makes decisions in accordance with the
same beliefs and desires that I endorse consciously, and imagine, more
generally, that my unconscious and conscious minds are closely “in character”
with each other. If that is so, delegating a great deal of decision-making to
unconscious processes might even be an efficient use of scarce time for
issue that Harris ought to press more strongly – and I foreshadowed this
earlier – is that our unconscious minds may be rather alien to our conscious
egos. I suspect that Freudian theory is largely bunk, but a large body of
social psychology literature can be interpreted as confirming that our psyches
are more fractured, and some of our true motivations stranger to us, than we
like to think.
this is so, we may be at the mercy of alien forces after all, at least to an
extent – these are not external powers, and not exactly spooky ones, but
actually components of ourselves.
even if we press such points as hard as possible, folk ideas of free will might
survive. Perhaps whether we act freely becomes a matter of judgment and degree,
and the question of whether we do so in various particular cases does not have
an entirely compelling answer.
it might remain more false than true if we tell the folk, “You do not have free
will.” On the other hand, philosophical ideas of moral responsibility might be
in more trouble as we insist on the
difficulties. Much more needs to be considered
I acknowledge that some intuitions may favour incompatibilism. On the other
hand, it remains the case – doesn’t it? – that we are not controlled by spooky
powers, that our beliefs, desires and characters are not bypassed in some other
way (as they would be if epiphenomenalism were true), and that these aspects of
us appear to have causal power: they lead to choices, actions and
is nothing especially arcane about these key points, and they are consistent
with causal determinism as far as it goes. The worst problems for free will, I
suggest, come from elsewhere.
some two thousand years, the basics of a compatibilist approach remain
attractive, and the burden of going forward seems to fall on opponents of free
will, and particularly on incompatibilists such as Harris.