Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Free Will debate...

Any of you who have read my "I-Illusion" piece or followed this blog will know that I have a continuing interest in the issue of free will. The science section in the Jan. 2 issue of The New York Times has a beautifully written essay by Dennis Overbye - "Free Will: Now You Have It, Now You Don't" - which gives the views of Dennett, Wegner, Libet, Silberstein and others. I'm tempted to give you huge chunks of the article, but will retrain myself to just a few clips:

Overbye: A bevy of experiments in recent years suggest that the conscious mind is like a monkey riding a tiger of subconscious decisions and actions in progress, frantically making up stories about being in control.

Silberstein: If people freak at evolution, etc., how much more will they freak if scientists and philosophers tell them they are nothing more than sophisticated meat machines, and is that conclusion now clearly warranted or is it premature?

Dennett: When we consider whether free will is an illusion or reality, we are looking into an abyss. What seems to confront us is a plunge into nihilism and despair.

Overbye: one of many who have tried to redefine free will in a way that involves no escape from the materialist world while still offering enough autonomy for moral responsibility, which seems to be what everyone cares about. ... Dennett argues, it is precisely our immersion in causality and the material world that frees us. Evolution, history and culture, he explains, have endowed us with feedback systems that give us the unique ability to reflect and think things over and to imagine the future. Free will and determinism can co-exist.

Dennett: All the varieties of free will worth having, we have...We have the power of imagination, to see and imagine futures...That’s what makes us moral agents...You don’t need a miracle to have responsibility.

Overbye also reviews the idea of freedom as a possible emergent phenomena that grows naturally in accordance with the laws of physics - like stock markets, brains, or the rules of democracy - that play by new rules once they are here.


  1. It was a nicely written piece and certainly a fascinating topic. Several of the thinkers referenced were unfamiliar to me and I was glad to be introduced. As I remarked in my recent post, though, I was troubled by the complete ommission of reference to the contribution psychoanalysis has made to the discussion.

  2. There were some suggestions in Overbye's article that questioning free will is a *good* thing. Einstein said seeing we don't have free will keeps us humble, and psychologist Dan Wegner suggested it would allow us to understand evil and prompt us to reform people instead of merely paying them back. There's a roundup of recent articles on free will, including Overbye's, at .


    Tom Clark
    Center for Naturalism