The “new atheists” and the “intellectual dark web” are two of the most interesting circles of thinkers to have emerged in the last fifteen years. In the overlap between the two circles, there is a small cadre of thinkers like Sam Harris and Steven Pinker who oppose both religion and “political correctness” in the name of the “Enlightenment values” of science and reason.
The emergence of thinkers who celebrate reason and critique forms of irrationality on both the cultural “right” and the “left” is an extremely positive development. Enlightenment values gave birth to the United States of America and they have the power to move our culture in a direction of more freedom, innovation, and progress.
And yet, there is a reason that Enlightenment values are now in need of defense. They have come under sustained attack because the thinkers of the original seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Enlightenment failed to fully understand their philosophical roots. If today’s champions of science and reason are to succeed, they need to do more than to recycle the ideas of the past. No doubt they themselves realize that they need new ideas.
If we are to judge by one crucial sign, there is one respect in which the new champions of the Enlightenment are insufficiently radical; indeed, they are downright conventional. This is the stance they take on what I will argue is a crucial presupposition of the values of science and reason: a commitment to the reality of human free will.
How new defenders of the Enlightenment deny free will
The idea that human beings have free will, that each individual is fundamentally in control of his destiny and is not the pawn of deterministic genetic or environmental forces, was a core idea implicit in the Enlightenment period. It’s the idea that made possible this period’s celebration of the individual: of anyone’s ability to become educated, to produce and invent, and to rise by his or her own efforts.
Yet both Pinker and Harris are openly critical of the concept of free will. Harris, for example, wrote an entire book arguing that free will does not exist. He draws on findings from contemporary neuroscience, biology, and psychology to argue that “we can’t make sense of [free will] in scientific terms.”1 While Pinker has not devoted an entire book to the subject, his volume The Blank Slate argues that what we know about genetics is “eroding the concept of free will and personal responsibility” and that our “conscious mind — the self or soul — is a spin doctor, not the commander in chief.”2
Pinker and Harris are not the only figures critical of free will among recent secular champions of science and reason. In essay after essay in the various organs of the intellectual dark web, we see a special predilection for one form of determinism or another. We see an ongoing articulation of the assumption that the only alternative to academic orthodoxy’s explanation via environmental “social construction” is explanation via genetics and evolutionary history. Left out of the conversation entirely is the possibility of a factor beyond “nurture” or “nature”: that human beings choose their paths, rather than being shunted along those paths by either social pressure or ancestral endowment.
But if there’s an orthodox dogma that real intellectual renegades need to challenge, it’s this assumption that free will is unscientific. Drawing on the work of a serious intellectual innovator (Ayn Rand), I will present a view of free will that should clarify why a commitment to the reality of free will is what makes meaningful the very idea of scientific objectivity.
Why reason and science need free will
Suppose you enter a conversation about the relevance of an alleged discovery of disparities in average IQ among ethnic groups. You might argue, as Pinker does, that it wouldn’t make a difference to the case for the political rights of individuals, because “[e]nlightened societies choose to ignore race, sex, and ethnicity in hiring, promotion, salary, school admissions, and the criminal justice system because the alternative is morally repugnant.”3 Surely in saying this, both you and Pinker are saying that members of a society ought to choose to pursue the morally enlightened path, rather than choose the morally repugnant alternative path.
For that matter, think about why you would start such a conversation in the first place. You wouldn’t get involved if you thought there is no possibility that someone in your audience will at least edge his way slightly closer to your view of the truth. To enable this, you might encourage him to look at the facts, for instance facts about what people have in common even though their IQs may differ. In doing this, part of what you are saying and thinking is that he ought to choose to look at the facts and follow the rational path, rather than to choose to ignore them and follow the irrational alternative path.
These two examples illustrate the fact that unless people face real alternatives in their action and thinking, these conversations have no point. That is to say, unless people have free will, the very conversations that defenders of Enlightenment values want to have are pointless.
In fact the same presupposition, that we face real alternatives in life, far from being unscientific, is itself a crucial part of scientific knowledge and practice.
Defenders of science like Pinker and Harris will surely agree that good scientists don’t base their theories on ancient tradition or popular prejudice. This is why they side with Galileo against the church and with Darwin against the creationists. Surely they will acknowledge that good scientists will even resist the conventional prejudices of their own scientific colleagues, as Franz Boas did when he worked to overturn the racist theories cherished by the leading anthropologists of the nineteenth century.4 But what’s common to all of these cases of good science is the scientist’s choice to observe the facts on his own and then to use dispassionate logic to test his theories against the facts, not fantasies or feelings or entrenched assumptions about what “everybody knows.”
Scientific objectivity requires even more than simply resisting the prejudices of others. It also means choosing to resist one’s own idiosyncratic hunches or musings. Consider Johannes Kepler, the great astronomer. After many dozens of attempts to save the idea that the orbit of heavenly bodies must be circular, he chose to give it up. He realized the only shape that could make sense of the astronomical data was an elliptical orbit, even though he had long cherished the idea that the motion of the heavens must be perfectly circular.5 Then the physicist Isaac Newton used Kepler’s data and conclusions to formulate his own law of universal gravitation, but famously chose to refuse to speculate about the cause of gravity. He knew he didn’t have the data to infer it, even as other scientists like Descartes famously erred on the same subject as they failed to resist the temptation to speculate.6
Every one of us faces the same choice of looking at the facts or not, and we face it constantly. This is what it means to have free will. You can observe your free will in action any time you take a moment to introspect your thought processes. Your free will is your choice to focus or not, your choice to be rational or irrational, your choice to be objective or subjective. It’s what Ayn Rand called the choice to think or not to think.7 I agree with her that this is the real essence of free will.
The fact that free will is implicit in the practice of science is part of what made it an implicit core tenet of the Enlightenment. Science, reason and objectivity are values — norms that are regarded as ideals to be pursued. But to regard them as normative, action-guiding values implies the possibility of choosing them or not. If we are determined by our genetics or environment, there is no such alternative. We will do whatever we are determined to do; no other outcome is possible. This means that determinism is at odds with the deepest commitments of the Enlightenment.8 But the position they argue for is that we can’t help what we do, so we have no choice about whether we do or don’t look at the facts. The allegedly scientific argument against free will undercuts itself.9
Free will is consistent with the scientific worldview
Even though it is demonstrable that science requires free will, the allegation that there is something mysterious and unscientific about free will is widespread, and it warrants a response. It is an allegation with a long history and many facets, but addressing a few of the representative allegations should suffice for our purpose. (In the concluding section, I will also try to explain why this worry about free will has been so enduring, in spite of its shortcomings.)
One concern is that the idea of free will is in tension with a principle that is central to the scientific worldview, the principle of cause and effect. Harris, for example, argues that just as we cannot be held responsible for things we may do as a result of neurological disorders, we also cannot be held responsible for anything we do with a normal brain, since both are cases in which our actions are caused by prior physical events.10 What’s more, he argues (following a popular argument by dilemma) that if our decisions and actions are not determined by any antecedent factors, they would then be random, causeless accidents, and still not things for which we are responsible.
The obvious source of observational data about free will is our ability to introspectively observe ourselves making choices. Interestingly, Harris regularly claims that he himself cannot introspect any conscious cause of his actions: he notes that he does not understand why he makes various decisions (like tea versus coffee).11 Yet as we have illustrated, the choice of tea versus coffee is not the central kind of choice in which our free will consists. It is our choice to raise or lower our level of awareness, the choice to search for the truth or not, a choice that any scientist should realize he or she faces in any process of investigation.
Any theory of causation needs to be reconciled with this introspective data. The idea that the only alternative to mechanistically determined causation is random chance assumes that causal relationships hold only between present actions and antecedent events. But there is an alternative to this view of causation. In another conception of causation, a causal relationship is the simultaneous relationship between the nature of an entity and its actions. This is fully consistent with the idea that it is in our nature as human beings to be able to choose from a finite array of definite possibilities, and that it is the person or agent, not any previous state, that is the cause of his chosen actions.1213 His concern is buoyed by the worry that the idea of free will is inherited from religion, not science.
As I have described it, there’s nothing supernatural about free will. On the contrary, free will is just an aspect of the human mind’s natural capacity to be conscious of the world. It’s a power that requires first and foremost a biologically healthy, functioning brain. It’s a power that goes out of existence when the brain is damaged or when the body ceases to function. It’s a fact about what it means for a human being to be conscious, not an attribute of some immortal soul.
We do not need to invoke the supernatural to explain the human mind’s power to think or not. On the contrary, the idea that an all-powerful divine being knows the future and controls our destiny has always been at odds with the idea of free will. Historically, the first advocates of determinism were religiously oriented thinkers (in particular, the Stoics and St. Augustine). Those same religious thinkers struggled to make room for the idea of moral responsibility in a universe governed by a supernatural power. They gave “compatibilistic” definitions of “freedom,” stripping it of any implication of real alternate possibilities (just as many contemporary secular determinists do).14
It was only after religious thinkers invented determinism that philosophers like Alexander of Aphrodisias, Pelagius, and Thomas Reid came to free will’s defense.15 They were religious themselves, so they had a devil of a time trying to reconcile the free will they defended with the existence of a divine power.
Free will is consistent with discoveries in neuroscience
Of special interest today is the allegation that specific scientific findings, especially in the field of neuroscience, reveal facts about the brain that rule out the presence of free will. In particular, Sam Harris showcases studies like those done by Benjamin Libet as refuting the existence of free will.16 These studies surely demonstrate important facts about the brain, but their results should be unsurprising to anyone who takes free will seriously. (Note that this section can be safely skipped by anyone uninterested in the details of neuroscience.)
The Libet experiment helpfully demonstrates that human action is a complex product of the interaction between the conscious mind and the physical brain. This should be a surprise to no one, except for those who think free will is a capacity of a disembodied soul that floats free from the body and has the power to affect it without mediation by the brain. But as mentioned above, the power to raise or lower our degree of awareness is a power that depends on and is mediated by the physical brain.
Philosophy alone cannot predict how the brain mediates the powers of the conscious mind. But it can help us understand the significance of those scientific discoveries by defining the scope of those conscious powers.
But intentional actions count as intentional, even when spurred by subconscious beliefs and desires, because those subconscious mental states were themselves programmed by your previous choices, about the extent to which you choose to think or not about your factual knowledge and about what you value.17 This has important consequences for how to interpret the Libet experiment.
Someone who feels an urge to flick his wrist randomly in a Libet-style experiment has already made many conscious choices leading up to this point. First, he had to choose to use his mind or not to answer the question of whether to participate in the experiment, vs., say, simply accepting the invitation passively as a result of social pressure. Having made the choice to use his mind to answer the question, he then deliberated about whether participating in the experiment was worth his time. Having decided to participate and strap on the apparatus, he then decided to comply with the instructions, rather than simply daydreaming through the experiment. This point is of special interest: it is when he consciously chose to instruct his subconscious mind to pick a random moment at which to flick his wrist.18
The decision to instruct oneself to act spontaneously certainly happens well before the measured readiness potential, and yet it is not a moment measured by the experiment itself. Nobody has ever done a Libet-style experiment showing brain activity preceding and determining this prior decision, or any of the other decisions leading up to it that are more obviously cases of the choice to think or not. I don’t think they ever will.
Any Libet-style experiment asks subjects to introspect their choice so as to record its timing. But the possibility of measuring the precise timing of such an event is rendered notoriously difficult, if not impossible, if it is the choice to engage or re-engage the use of one’s consciousness, or not.
If one begins in a semiconscious daze, one is not alert enough to record precisely when one raises one’s level of awareness. If one is already fully conscious and chooses to maintain that state, it is not clear at which point one should mark the beginning of a choice that is made continuously. And because the choice to focus means focusing primarily on facts other than the choice itself, one’s ability to monitor the choice itself would involve divided attention and would likely be imprecise.
The imprecision here matters. Experiments of this type attempt to identify the brain activity that allegedly causes our choices mere fractions of a second before we make them. No self-report about the timing of a choice to focus could be precise enough to be compared meaningfully to brain activity measured on the scale of thousandths of a second.
Those looking to the Libet experiment for anything of significance about free will are simply looking in the wrong place.
In the meantime, we should welcome with a warm embrace all of the facts discovered by neuroscience. But we should remember that good science doesn’t just passively record facts, it actively interprets them, making an effort to avoid prejudice. However we eventually interpret the data of neuroscience, one thing will be sure: if scientists are going to identify its truths, they’ll need to choose to focus their minds to do it. That means using their free will.
The unactualized potential of the Enlightenment
I mentioned earlier that the concept of free will was an idea implicit in the achievements of the Enlightenment. It was implicit because few if any Enlightenment thinkers were willing to defend it explicitly.
So it is not an accident that today’s neo-Enlightenment figures are skeptical of free will: many of the greatest defenders of science and reason in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were themselves determinists (e.g., Spinoza), or at least ambiguous in their promotion of free will (e.g., Locke). Those who came the closest to defending the idea that human beings make genuine choices, undetermined by antecedent factors, packaged their arguments with untenable metaphysical doctrines like mind-body dualism (e.g., Rene Descartes), faith-based epistemologies (e.g., Thomas Reid), or both (e.g., Immanuel Kant).19)
For many reasons we cannot explore here, Kant’s philosophy was instrumental in bringing the Enlightenment to a close, and his packaging of free will with the notions of God and the immortal soul is just one of the reasons.20 When he popularized the claim that free will, a key presupposition of the scientific method, was itself akin to these other religious concepts, he engendered secular skepticism about free will that led to a torrent of philosophical determinism in the nineteenth century (from Hegel, Marx, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and many, many others), which in turn went on to set the scene for today’s intellectually orthodox secular skepticism about free will.
You can see the remnants of Kant’s package deal among the advocates of Enlightenment values today. Because they see themselves as advocates of science and reason, they are rightly skeptical of the claims of religion. But because they accept Kant’s package deal, they assume that consistently scientific thinkers should reject free will on the same grounds.
The new “back to the Enlightenment” thinkers have much to recommend them. But until these champions of science and reason think more deeply about the ideas that made the scientific revolution both meaningful and possible — chief among these being the concept of free will — they will not be able to appreciate what made this period so revolutionary. They will remain entrenched in the intellectual orthodoxies that have prevented a return to Enlightenment values since approximately the time of Kant. This means they themselves will not be able to become the renegades they would like to become. They should make a different choice.
Have a question? Send it to us.
Image credits: Sam Harris: Cmichel67 (Christopher Michel) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]. Steven Pinker: Rose Lincoln/Harvard University [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)] Libet experiment: Createaccount [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]
Do you have a comment or question?
- Sam Harris, Free Will (New York: Free Press, 2012), 64.
- Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate (New York: Penguin, 2016), 177, 43–44.
- Pinker, The Blank Slate (emphasis added), 145.
- Lee Baker, “Columbia University’s Franz Boas: He Led the Undoing of Scientific Racism,” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, 22, Winter 1998–1999: 89–96.
- Gerald James Holton and Stephen G. Brush, Physics, the Human Adventure: From Copernicus to Einstein and Beyond (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004), 40. For more on the fanciful philosophical theories that informed Kepler’s initial views, this clip from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos is illuminating.
- On this topic, Newton famously remarked: “I have not yet been able to deduce from phenomena the reason for these properties of gravity, and I do not feign hypotheses.” (Isaac Newton, General Scholium, in The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, I. Bernhard Cohen and Anne Whitman translation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 943.
- For surveys of Rand’s theory, see Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1991), 55–62; Harry Binswanger, How We Know: Epistemology on an Objectivist Foundation (New York: TOF Publications, 2015), 321–29. See also Onkar Ghate’s useful online lecture “Seize the Reins of Your Mind: The Objectivist Theory of Free Will.”
- It’s very interesting that Pinker himself makes the same style of argument in defense of reason. In Enlightenment Now, he argues that skeptics and relativists who reject the efficacy of reason undercut their own positions, since they themselves attempt to present arguments in their defense:
But all these positions have a fatal flaw: they refute themselves. They deny that there can be a reason for believing those very positions. As soon as their defenders open their mouths to begin their defense, they have lost the argument, because in that very act they are tacitly committed to persuasion — to adducing reasons for what they are about to argue, which, they insist, ought to be accepted by their listeners according to standards of rationality that both accept. Otherwise they are wasting their breath and might as well try to convert their audience by bribery or violence . . . . Just as the very fact that one is wondering whether one exists demonstrates that one exists, the very fact that one is appealing to reasons demonstrates that reason exists. It may also be called a transcendental argument, one that invokes the necessary preconditions for doing what it is doing, namely making an argument (Enlightenment Now, (New York: Penguin, 2018), 351–52).
What Pinker doesn’t seem to realize is that the same style of argument shows that it is also futile to offer a rational argument against free will, since the very fact of wondering whether one has free will demonstrates that one does, since free will is also a necessary precondition of the act of wondering how to settle one’s mind about any question, including whether one has free will.
- The argument that determinism is self-undermining is one with a lengthy but sporadic historical tradition, stretching from Epicurus to Kant to other advocates in the twentieth century. For representative contemporary summaries, see James N. Jordan, “Determinism’s Dilemma,” The Review of Metaphysics, 23 (1), September 1969: 48–66; Joseph Boyle, Germain Grisez, and Olaf Tolefson, Free Choice: A Self-Referential Argument (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1976). Ayn Rand’s philosophy has unique resources for making sense of this argument, since it identifies the locus of free will as the choice to be objective in one’s thinking or not, which accounts for why objective justification is impossible without the presupposition of free will. See Nathaniel Branden, “The Contradiction of Determinism,” The Objectivist Newsletter, 2(5), May 1963: 17, 19–20; Peikoff, Objectivism, 69–72; Binswanger, How We Know, 355–59; and Edwin A. Locke, The Illusion of Determinism (Bookbaby, 2017), 77–82. A recent book by a non-Objectivist contemporary philosopher comes close to the Objectivist position of identifying the locus of free will with a kind of cognitive self-regulation and explaining the argument that determinism is self-refuting from this perspective: Robert Lockie, Free Will and Epistemology: A Defence of the Transcendental Argument for Freedom (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019).
- Harris, Free Will, 5.
- Harris, Free Will, 6–7.
- Numerous philosophers have made headway in showing how the concept of free will is readily accommodated with this view of substance or agent causation. For treatments of the connection by Objectivists, see Peikoff, Objectivism, 68–69; Binswanger, How We Know, 347–52; and Jason Rheins, “Objectivist Metaphysics,” in Allan Gotthelf and Gregory Salmieri, eds., A Companion to Ayn Rand (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2016), 260–62.
- Steven Pinker, “On Free Will,” June 1, 2011.
- Most philosophers recognize that the Stoics were compatibilists who sought to reconcile some conception of “free will” with the allegation of determinism. It is not as obvious or uncontroversial that Augustine is a compatibilist as well. In my view, a persuasive argument for this position has been advanced in Katherin A. Rogers, “Augustine’s Compatibilism,” Religious Studies, 40(4), December 2004: 415–35. In essence, Augustine thinks that an action is free if it is in accordance with one’s will, even if God has implanted an impulse in one’s will. For more on why such compatibilist proposals are not workable, especially for free will understood as a form of cognitive self-regulation, see my article “The Elusiveness of Doxastic Compatibilism,” American Philosophical Quarterly, 52(3), July 2015, 233–251.
- For more on this interesting history, see my course “A Brief History of the Concept of Free Will.”
- Harris, Free Will, 8–9. The original study, which has been widely replicated, is Benjamin Libet, “Unconscious Cerebral Initiative and the Role of Conscious Will in Voluntary Action,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 8(4), December 1986: 529–39.
- See Binswanger, How We Know, 329–44; Onkar Ghate, “A Being of Self-Made Soul,” in Gotthelf and Salmieri, eds., A Companion to Ayn Rand, 104–29.
- For other criticisms of the anti-free will interpretation of the Libet experiments using this point, see also Al Mele, Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 8–25; and Locke, The Illusion of Determinism, 68–76.
- See especially, Immanuel Kant, “Review of Schultz’s attempt at introduction to a doctrine of morals for all human beings regardless of different religions,” in Practical Philosophy: The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant, Mary J. Gregor (transl.) and Allen M. Wood (ed.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1999), 7–10.
- See especially Leonard Peikoff, The Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America (New York: Plume, 1983), 117–35.