Free Will Revisited

See my last post on the topic of free will.  In addition to posting a response to Coyne's article on the USA Today site, I also posited another copy on to a philosophy blog--'Talking Philsophy.'  You can find this response under a blog post by Russell Blackford that is titled, "Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris on Free Will." at:

My post is a response to a blog response posted by Michael.  You can find his text at the link above (under Blackford's article).

@ Michael...I probably guilty in conflating two arguments.  One thrust of my post/response sought to find weaknesses in Coyne's argument.  The other presented statements supporting the potential existence of "free will."

As to your first question, the randomness argument does not support the existence of free will (nor does it necessarily undermine it).  However, if some human actions are random, it most certainly weakens Coyne's hypothesis which imputes that all human actions have a direct causal antecedent.  One can still posit the that human actions are not free; however, he/she would have to use an argument that did not rely on pure causality.

I think it would be possible to test this hypothesis--actions are predetermined versus actions are sometimes predetermined.  A researcher could take an organism (perhaps a mouse) and place it in the exact same situation more than once (probably numerous times).  The analyst could them stimulate a response using a fear vector and see what happens.  If the organism does not respond in the same way each time, ie. the mouse jumps to the right once, to the left another time, etc., then that provides strong evidence refuting Coyne's hypothesis. 

On evolution: I think Coyne needs to demonstrate that evolution favors the development of human beings with no free will since he relies on evolutionary statements to bolster his hypothesis.

My first attempt at connecting free will and evolution was kind of weak and opaque, so let me try again.  Numerous organisms, such as wolves, chimpanzees, dolphins, etc. engage in complex, social behavior.  None of these organisms exhibit (to the best of my knowledge) self-awareness much less any sense of control over their actions.  They live in the moment.  Ergo, evolution has tended to favor organisms that are non-self aware and at the same time can create complex societies.

With that said, the burden of proof is on Coyne to demonstrate why human beings would differ from these other organisms.  Namely, why would evolution favor the development of a species with an enlarged cerebrum (and all of the problems that come with this development) if the only benefit this organ part provides to human beings is one of deception?  This is an especially pertinent question given that many other, non-aware creatures successfully engage in highly complex social networks.

Also, I think we are all approaching this subject from a biased stance.  However, by acknowledging that fact and trying to overcome it, perhaps we are demonstrating that we are not automatons after all.  :wink:

Finally, I agree with other posters that it is important to define what I mean by free will.  I would equate free will with the ability of an organism to choose from a limited set of possibilities.  This action is not predetermined.  I would also add that it is not important whether the subconscious or the conscious mind makes the decision, as long as the choice is not predetermined (by an internal or an external process). 

I don't think any of the posters have mentioned it and maybe I am incorrect in this assumption--however, I believe that the first question we need to ask is not, "Does free will exist?"  Rather, we need to query, "Can an organism create?"  A free choice (if extant) is an act of creation whereby a predetermined choice, like a birth, is a result of predetermined actions.  If human beings have the ability to create (as defined above), then they have the potential to possess free will.  If not, they do not have the potential to be free.


  1. Sartre and Nietzsche write effectively about free will, as did Mill and Leibnitz. Shakespeare did, too, in Macbeth and elsewhere. Even Macbeth, who may have been controlled by Fate in the form of the Weird Sisters, utters in I.vii.7-10.: "But in these cases,/ We still have judgment here; that we but teach / Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return / To plague the inventor..."

    I wasn't in control of the drunk driver who crashed into me and my car when I was 18, but I'm still with Shakespeare on this. Even when we feel like we're someone else's puppet, we still have judgment. We are the inventors of (most of) our own plagues.

    Thanks for letting me use my (mostly unused) philosophy degree here! Loved it!

  2. You're welcome; thanks for visiting the blog and posting your ideas. I've read tidbits from all of the authors you mention except for Nietzsche. I agree with you that we are owners of our own choices--whether those actions are "free" or not, as they still derive from us.

    On another note, I am sorry to hear that you decided to stop writing about sports topics. Perhaps you will change your mind...

  3. Now it is ok!
    Great! I can comment. I saved what I wrote:

    Hi Anthony,
    I don't know if it was at your blog that I wrote about how scientists and especially neuroscientists are trying to debate questions of philosophy, art, social sciences and how they are failing in doing so.
    Humanities lost incentive and now scientists are trying to co-opt the knowledge when even their own field is not known.
    What is known of the brain is nothing and they claim they know too much just because they have the money from corporations to sell their products.
    It is a serious problem knowledge is facing.
    I started to write a post about it but I still didn't finish it.
    Take a look at this article:
    It is a very good review.
    Your blog is very interesting and I'll come back.

  4. As I could not send the comment here I did one at the article.
    I read some of them and I'm glad that many people are aware of this problem.
    I really fear for the future of the humanities.
    What makes me hopeful is that creativity has no boundaries and is part of human condition.

  5. Anthony, I agree with your definition of free will - God left man a free agent in the Garden of Eden.