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RS39 - The Science and Philosophy of Free Will

Release date: July 17, 2011

In this episode we tackle the never ending debate about free will, which David Hume famously defined as “a power of acting or of not acting, according to the determination of the will.” We do this with a couple of twists. We begin by examining the concept of free will from the standard philosophical perspective, then ask what — if anything — modern neuroscience can tell us about it, and come back to the interface between philosophy and science to explore how the two approaches may complement each other.

Comment on the episode teaser.

Julia's pick:  "Fluid Concepts And Creative Analogies: Computer Models Of The Fundamental Mechanisms Of Thought"

Massimo's pick: "Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale : The Moral Limits of Markets"

Reader Comments (12)

Julia asked a question about philosophical consensus on compatibilism/incompatibilism, and Massimo had a general impression but no firm data. For future reference see the PhilPapers Survey of philosophers, a rich source of such data. Massimo's impressions seem accurate, by the way, as 59% of respondents accepted or "leaned towards" compatibilism.

Incidentally, one of my favorite results from the survey is the finding that philosophers of religion are so radically different from their views from all other philosophers that it's questionable whether they really belong in the discipline at all.

July 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEvan Harper

Really good job this time. Its hard to hear a reasonable discussion on this topic since there are so many more people with misguided opinions than actual insight. Particularly with online discussions there is a high noise/insight ratio with this topic. I think that most of the discussions are not fruitful partially because there is lack of agreement on terms and concept of free will, and people end up talking past each other. It sometimes ends up being an argument over dualism, but with one or both sides not realizing it. I agree that the definitions of free will that most people think of are incoherent concepts which is a large part of the problem.

July 17, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterccbowers

Interesting survey, Evan, thanks.
I'm surprised that more philosophers choose two boxes in Newcomb's paradox than one box. That means they think they can outsmart the perfect predictor and put their money on free will.

July 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMax

Those interested in the topic may want to listen to my earlier interview with Marcel Brass, one of the current researchers on the topic of The Neuroscience of Free Will.

July 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLuke

I always get a bit confused when trying to follow the free will arguments. I experience my own exercise of free will on a daily basis so subjectively I do have free will. I also subjectively experience consciousness, moral intuition, etc.

When a dualist and a materialist get into a debate about consciousness, they both agree that it exists. They just don't agree what it is.

Materialist: "Consciousness arises from the processes inside the brain and can be fundamentally modified or destroyed by changes to the brain."

Dualist: "The seat of consciousness is the undetectable, immaterial soul. Consciousness will appear to be affected by damages to the brain. When the brain is completely destroyed however consciousness returns to full function and will commune with God forever... But only if you worship the same god as me."

Observer: "What an idiot."

The free will debate could go the same way except for problems of terminology. By letting "free will" be a shorthand for "contra causal free will" the materialist must start off defending a straw-man of his own making.

Dualist "Do you believe that free will exists?"

Materialist "No. Of course not."

Observer "What an idiot."

I think the discourse on free will has been greatly hampered by a linguist accident. If instead free will was defined as the subjective experience of free will, which is the common definition anyway, we could avoid a lot of confusion. It would probably eliminate compatibilism (or 1.5-ism as I like to call it.)

July 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlan

Giving up the belief in free will is difficult for most individuals because their sense of self worth, dignity, individuality, and freedom is compromised by the idea of no free will. How can they be "proud" of themselves and their accomplishments, how can they feel "moral" if they but instead that they were "determined" or simply

July 27, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdjd

(continued)....or simply products.

July 27, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdjd

Massimo comments that he can veto a thought such as "I want a beer," however, didn't the thought to veto come from the same place as the original thought? This seems obvious to me.

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDerek

Sam Harris argues against not only free will, but also the idea that we should find people responsible and punishable. It's a real eye-opener.

April 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan Wooldridge

Sam Harris, in his book "Free Will", has stabbed free will in the heart.

April 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterraysaurus

I just discovered your podcast last week while doing an itunes search for ‘free will.’ Thanks so much for what you are doing here. I’m looking forward to digging in and listening to many more.

I know the free will podcast is a couple years old, but what the heck, I’ll start here since this question has been in my sights for a time.

BTW thanks for the explication on the Libet experiments! Great stuff!

1) I think I followed along quite well and then got a little lost when the following comment was made:

[“it seems like some people say: if you find the neuro-biological correlate of ‘X’ then you have explained ‘X’”.......“NO, you've just explained which part of the brain is in charge of doing ‘X’”]

Does this issue touch on the mind-brain identity theory?
Could this be used as an argument against mind-brain identity theory?

(BTW...I've always had a hard time feeling like I really understood the difference between token-token and type-type identity theories.

2) The ‘introspection illusion’ reminded me of a phenomenon I learned about in college called the ‘fundamental attribution error,’ except that at first glance it seemed to be the opposite phenomenon. Then I thought about it a little more and decided it is not necessarily the opposite

3) Do you have any comments on the idea(s) presented in the book “Against Moral Responsibility” by Bruce Waller. I thought his book was good, a bit lengthy so I didn't finish it

I’m planning on looking into what "moral realism" entails.

Thanks again.

S. Martinelli

August 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSteven
Free Will seems like a supernatural phenomena. Julia's conception of mental decisions as the result of the confluence and interaction of multiple parts of the brain seems correct. Julia's theory also seems deterministic. Free Will may not exist, and blame and retribution certainly have no place in civil society in any event.

Free Markets in prostitution and kidney sales should exist since they would benefit everyone directly and legal markets in these services and goods would eliminate all the problems of illicit trade.
January 30, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

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