I know this has been discussed before, but I have read Sam Harris' book Free Will and Michael Shermer's book The Believing Brain, and I must say that I agree with both authors. Studies show that our brains make a decision on an unconscious level three tenths of a second and sometimes more before we even consciously know we're going to act. To take a short quote from Shermer's book: "The neural activity that precedes the intention to act is inaccessible to our conscious mind, so we experience a sense of free will. But it is an illusion, caused by the fact that we cannot identify the cause of the awareness of our intention to act".

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My best guess is that neither determinism nor free will is the case. Many forces shape who we are, how we think, and what we do. Some are clearly beyond our control, others not. The important thing is conditioning—the narrowing of choices and the expanision of capacities through training and repetition.

For example, bodily conditioning through exercise. Most people find that once they start to exercise, they enjoy the feeling—the released endorphins—and want to continue regular exercise. In doing so their capacity for exercise is increased. (Not always to their benefit: I once had a student who was addicted to running and could not stop even when he got mononucleosis. His continued exertion during sickness put him out of action for two years.)

The same conditioning effect applies to everything you do regularly. You do not start out each day making new choices of what to eat for breakfast, what to wear to work, or how to get to your job. You repeat the same patterns roughly over and over because circumstances and choices have led to a conditioned response. Can you change that response? Certainly, but usually you do when you need to—new job, new partner, etc.

In your job you do the same things over and over, but with better results and greater reliability, making you a more valuable employee as the years go on. In handling difficult situations and people you become more proficient.

The important thing about humans is not whether or not they have free will, but that they are capable of learning new patterns of thought and action as the need arises and their curiosity impels them.

I find your observations keenly perceptive Dr. Clark. I find you to be very insightful.

Sounds like humor. I don't see how people can not see this.

MEIf hard determinism is true, then behavior is programmed into the mental processes and the person does them instinctively. There is not a choice in the reaction. Being startled by someone is an instinctual response, not one of free will.

If hard determinism is false, then behavior is not programmed into the mental processes and the person does them from choice, one has free will. 

Let's do two thought experiments: 

1) A baby lying in a crib observes an unhappy mother and father, hears fights, feels fear, and is not held or cuddled, or not protected from threats, reacts out of instinct and has no free will. 

That baby, grown up, may have a perception of threatened existence, and behavior may come from fear of engulfment or abandonment. He has no free will in this case, only instinctual reaction. 

2) Let's imagine a baby lying in a crib and observing a happy mother and father, proud of their new baby. They hold him, cuddle him, protect him, teach him things he needs to know, i.e. hot stoves burn, cars kill or hurt if he runs into the street, or is near a car when the driver doesn't know he is there.  

That baby, grown up, may have a perception of existence being an adventure, and behavior may come from learning to know the dangerous acts and things he must do to protect himself. He feels loved, competent, confident, curious, explores, experiments, and when he becomes afraid when adventuring out too far, he returns to a place of safety that he knows is reliable, dependable, and compassionate. At each stage of development he adventures further out, until fear or anxiety sends him back for comfort and reassurance, then ventures out again, only farther each time. Growing up is a safe experience for him and with proper training he can learn to master each difficulty as it emerges. He has free will.  

The baby learns how to cope with fear or with competence. Free will is learned and earned. 

For a religious dogma to state that man has free will is an escape hatch letting god off the hook. It is a conceptual device designed to control others. A child learns how to become a mentally healthy, mature adult by thinking and acting in mentally healthy, mature ways. Parents, extended family, religious dogma, education and peers play an incredible role in the outcome of an individual. 


The real problem here is the assumption that non-instinctual, or culturally or politically correct actions constitute free will.

Regardless of whether it is an illusion or a fact, we still have pretend free will is true to function in reality, so while the mental masturbation is fun it is ultimately moot.

I think that the controlling factors that are acting in that 3/10 of a second go a long way in explaining the differences between what makes someone liberal versus conservative, but I don't have much faith in the theory that they also determine what made Joe Schmo choose roast beef over turkey at Subway on a certain day at a certain time. The minutiae of our day is mired in free will, and there is no such thing as an organism that is completely void of free will. When zealots resort to calling free will a gift from god, that fact makes their assertion completely meaningless. Their god didn't create any organism that doesn't have free will. In that respect, we are no more fortunate than an amoeba.

Agree! Zealots asserting "free will a gift from god" is absurd. No god = no gift. 

I love all Sam Harris books and I am glad you posted this. Thank you

Free will is indeed an illussion. I never thought of it much before I became an atheist, but we do have choices and the chioces are all not the same. What this means is that your "free will" is predetermined by what has went into the brain up until the time the choice is made. Everyone is raised in different areas and with different opertunities so this sets the range of choice. Society also sets the range of choice. Your decission to act and what and how to act are predetermined sort of like with a modern day programmed computer.

So much for god and all this wonderous talk of him not wanting to limit anyone's free will. This is why god will not do ANYTHING in the world. A woman is murdered and god does nothing because of free will. Yes, the murderer had free will to murder this woman, and she had free will to be killed! WTF?  This is the logic of the modern day theist?

Let's throw that Buybull away!

I agree with Sam Harris on this topic. Free will is logically incoherent.

I've written and illustrated my own kindle book on this very topic (started it many years ago and just completed it this year) entitled Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind. In it, I detail out how free will is entirely incompatible in both a deterministic universe (entirely causal) as well as an indeterministic universe (one where some non-causal events take place). I detail why these are the only two possibilities and what makes free will so logically incoherent within both of them.

I also explain what it means that we don't have free will, and why it's important to drop the belief altogether.

These negative conclusions about free will are based on the classical experiments of Benjamin Libet reported in 1983. They may be correct or not, but an enormous amount is missing on the other side of the question: how are decisions made? There is not one single example of a decision traced all the way through the mechanisms of the brain and nervous system. It may be that what Libet's experiments show is not that free will does not exist, but that our notions of what constitutes free will are not correct.

Here's one set of criticisms of Libet's experimental conclusions:




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