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Free Will And Religion Essay Topics

Free will and religion are closely intertwined. Many religious perspectives value human moral responsibility and creativity, for which freedom of the will is often regarded as a requirement. Free will is also taken to be required for explaining how the world’s evils are compatible with the existence of God—God gives us the gift of free will, but the risk taken is that we will use it for evil. On the other hand, for a number of prominent religious views, God’s providential control over everything that happens is essential, and this idea potentially conflicts with human free will. Can everything that happens be a part of God’s providential plan if we can freely will our actions?

The issue is complicated by differing ideas about what free will is. It is common to think of free will as the two-fold ability to do something and on that very occasion to refrain from doing it instead. A common thought is that if God’s will were to determine you to do something, then your free will would be ruled out because you could not have refrained from doing it instead. But a prominent tradition denies this: even if God determines you to do something, you would still do it freely if it is something you really wanted to do, and you were not for example, coerced to do it. Free will, on this conception, is compatible with a strong conception of God’s providential control. Still, many people, contemporary religious people in particular, think that this is not real free will. The real thing is not compatible with God’s causal determination, or, for that matter, with natural causal determination—that is, determination by virtue of past states of the universe and the laws of nature.

The prospect of natural determination highlights the concern that scientific evidence is relevant to ascertaining whether we have real free will. It is an open question whether our best physical theories will turn out to be deterministic—and then at least our bodily movements will be determined in virtue of earlier states of the universe together with the laws of nature. Perhaps quantum physics can come to the rescue. On one of several interpretations of quantum physics, natural determinism is false. But real free will requires not only indeterminacy, but also the power to settle which of a number of open possibilities for action actually occurs. Quantum indeterminacy, all by itself, does not come with this sort of control. Another threat to free will derives from contemporary neuroscience; a number of theorists have prominently argued that experimental results cast doubt on the efficacy of the conscious will, by contrast with unconscious neural states.

My own sense is that the neuroscientific argument can be answered, but that the challenges from our best physical theories remain in place. Advocates of religion have resourcefully resisted these challenges. A different response involves accentuating the religious and moral value of denying real free will. One such value is removing a threat to a strong conception of divine providence. The great monotheistic religions emphasize God’s complete providential governance of the universe, which many have found to be of great comfort. Such comfort would be abridged if we act freely in a way that is beyond God’s control.

A further set of relevant values is moral. All of the great religions envision a historical process toward greater morality and justice, typically achieved through divine guidance and grace. Another such theme is the realization of a moral order in which virtue is praised and rewarded, and wrongdoing is blamed and punished. Our conception of the validation of blame and punishment is complex. Some such justifications are forward-looking—the aim invoked is moral reform and reconciliation in personal and social relationships. Other justifications are backward-looking, the most salient of which is retributive, to give wrongdoers what they deserve. Historically, it is this last sort of justification for blame and punishment that is held to require real free will. The core idea is that if a wrongdoer could not have refrained from the immoral action, he does not deserve to be blamed or punished for it. Blame and punishment without free will may still have a forward-looking justification—such measures might result in moral education and reform. But the thought is that the wrongdoer does not deserve it if he could not have avoided the immoral action.

Alongside its moral aims, a characteristic feature of religion is that it offers ways to justify violence that are otherwise not available. This feature ranges from the sacrificial violence widely practiced earlier in human history, to the judicial violence more common in more recent times. The extreme violence that took place in 16th and 17th century Europe between Protestants and Catholics provides a good example. Mayhem was justified on the basis that heretics deserve divinely sanctioned retribution. The response to the crisis was world changing. Many of our political freedoms, including freedom of religious belief and practice, resulted from measures adopted to resolve this crisis of religiously justified violence.

Religion is in crisis again. Over the past 30 years, religion has increasingly come to be viewed as an enemy of social progress, as an opponent of progress toward a more caring and inclusive society. Much of the resistance against movements devoted to eliminating discrimination against historically targeted groups is religious in its justification. Punitive and exclusionary treatment is justified on grounds of having mistaken religious beliefs or an immoral lifestyle, and the assumption is that those targeted freely chose what they are being punished for.

There are many possible routes to a resolution of this crisis. One, which has many current advocates, is rejection of religious belief and practice. Another, for those who continue to value religion and are devoted to its practice, is to retain religiously justified punishment, but to adopt a moderate and enlightened conception for when it is appropriate. One might worry that this balanced view cannot in practice be sustained—once religious justification for violence is available, the tendency to excess will be unavoidable.

A more radical solution is to adopt a view that dispenses with religiously justified violence. There are a number of ways to achieve this result. But one that already has roots in the world’s great monotheisms is to foster a perspective in which history, in all of its detail, is seen as the working out of the divine plan, which aims at a better or an ideal world. Because everything that happens is divinely governed in this way, we do not have real free will. Our actions can still be free in the sense that they can be responsive to the reasons presented to us, and not coerced or compulsive, but they are not free in the sense that retributive justifications for violence requires. The 17th century philosopher Spinoza, writing at the time of the crisis of religious violence in Europe, says about the denial of real free will: “this doctrine contributes to the social life insofar as it teaches us to hate no one, to disesteem no one, to mock no one, to be angry at no one.”

But costs come along with these potential benefits. One is that deserved praise and reward for good deeds would need to be relinquished along with deserved blame and punishment. A traditional response is to accord the praise to God, and to be grateful and to celebrate the fact that it was one’s role to perform these good actions.

A further potential cost is that without real free will we have no answer to why God allows horrible suffering. But free will does not seem to provide a satisfying answer either. Even if we have real free will, most suffering could not plausibly count as a deserved response to wrongdoing. A further proposal is that God cannot prevent evil intended by our freely willed decisions. But that is not credible absent radically restricting divine power. We humans routinely prevent evil of this sort—when we restrain the child bent on hitting his brother or engage in war to defend a besieged population. One might suggest that it is not God’s role to protect us from freely intended evil. But the prayer “and deliver us from evil” is echoed in all of the great monotheisms. The preferable attitude is to see evil as part of a divine plan of which we catch only glimpses, but in which we place our hope and trust.

Our frailty is such as to make it difficult for us to exclude the violent and even demonic elements from our religious practices. Religious justifications for violence appeal ultimately to an authority that is inscrutable, and for this reason it is both attractive and repulsive. We are prone to anger and violence, and apt to seize on a justification whose vulnerability to critical scrutiny is limited. But our rationality is at the same time repelled by justifications with this profile. It might well be better to adopt a perspective that rules out such justifications, and a perspective of this kind—one that features a strong conception of divine providence and a tempered notion of human freedom—is already inherent in the great monotheistic traditions.

Derk Pereboom is a professor of philosophy at Cornell University.

Have something to say?

In reality, I work in a cramped cubicle in Times Square next to a mountain of books that grows daily, only about one in 20 of which I have the time or discipline to read. My job is to call up the authors of these tomes and coerce them into synopsizing their thoughts into a few paragraphs suitable for cobbling together into the newspaper.

Luckily, scientists are good sports and like to talk about their work, or I would be out of a job.

Among the volumes I plundered or should have plundered on the way to this article are “Programming the Universe,” by Seth Lloyd; “The God Delusion,” by Richard Dawkins; “The Varieties of Scientific Experience, A Personal View of the Search for God,” by the late Carl Sagan; “Freedom Evolves,” “Breaking the Spell,” and “Consciousness Explained,” by Daniel C. Dennett;” Quantum Enigmas,” by Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner; and “A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines,” by Janna Levin.

Also I thumbed an old copy of “Gödel, Escher, and Bach, an Eternal Golden Braid,” by Douglas R. Hofstadter. Dan Wegner of Harvard has written “The Illusion of Conscious Will.” Benjamin Libet’s book is called “Mind Time, The Temporal Factor in Consciousness.”

There is also a Web site devoted to discussions of free will, The Garden of Forking Paths, and many readers have reminded me that the last parts of Tolstoy’s epic “War and Peace” are an extended essay on free will.

What follows is more or less me shooting from the hip.

Q. I think to answer this question of free will, one has to begin with the idea of the self. Meaning, that free will cannot exist, if the idea of the self is an illusion. And, I honestly think the studies listed throughout the article already point in that direction. It seems to me the fight is really over the illusion of self, rather than that of free will. -G. Collings

Q. I’ve read about these experiments before, and the basic premise seems flawed. To continue the article’s metaphor, why does free will reside in the monkey, and not in the ensemble of monkey and tiger? As a mathematician, I’m very much aware of a deeper level of my mind that actually comes up with the big ideas. To propose another metaphor, I feel like my conscious mind is a waiter working in a bar, slipping knowledge sandwiches through a slot to the "boys in the back room," and getting theorems back from time to time.

I am as much the boys in the back room as the waiter.

Certain Zen practices seem based on this metaphor, and attempt to put you into better contact with your deeper self. "Zen and the Art of Archery" comes to mind. Is anybody working on this layered approach to mind, and the communication and coordination of the layers? - T. Gaffney

A. Personally, I couldn’t agree with Mr. Collings more. When I googled Zen and neuroscience, I came up with a book called “Zen and the Brain,” by the neurologist James Austin, which suggests that this is an ongoing field of inquiry.

Q. I enjoyed reading your article about free will. In something of a chiding way, I must ask you: did you or did your brain decide to have the chocolate cake?

Does the brain have conscious and unconscious levels of functioning?

Or is it the mind that has those levels? Does giving the brain those levels of awareness make the issue any simpler? What is it that makes the brain "decide" (if it decides anything at all) to do this or that? As a veteran Neuropsychologist for more than 30 years, I would encourage you to give some more thought to these issues, but I congratulate you on bringing them to the light of day in the New York Times. - S. R. Sabat, Ph.D.

A. I don’t think there is any difference between my brain and myself. What I think of as myself is a manifestation of the activity of my brain. We decided on the cake together.

Q. I liked your piece. It created a few questions in that part of my mind that creates questions.

We have a cat named Emmy. Does Emmy have free will? It sure seems like it to me. And does Emmy have a conscious mind? It sure seems like it to me. She is alert, active and interacting with her environment in ways I can’t predict. But if I ask Emmy why she is doing what she is doing, she never gives me a comprehensible response.

Does that prove she has no free will and no conscious mind? I don’t think so, yet when part of our brain makes decisions and we can’t verbalize why, scientists conclude our "unconscious" is controlling us in ways that negate free will. This seems silly to me. The non-verbal part of our brain is much a part of us as the verbal part. It is conscious. If that part of our brain makes a decision, then it is our decision as much as if the other part of our brian makes a decision.

Consider the split-brain experiments where the communication between the two halves of the brain were severed surgically for medical reasons. The unfortunate patients ended up with two conscious and independent minds within one skull, one verbal, and one non-verbal. But did one half of their brains have more free will than the other? It seems to me both halves had free will, to the extent the term has any meaning at all. - F. Townsend

A. My wife, Nancy, and I have been having this argument for some time now, about whether the cats have free will. I myself am happy to ascribe it — that is to say the limited version of being able to veto urges — to dogs, who can at least be trained not to eat the cat’s food. I draw the line at cats, who seem to blissfully do as they please. Others will draw the line someplace else.

Q. Your article briefly referred to "the monkey making up a story about what the tiger had already done." Am I supposed to know this reference? My philosopher professor nephew is on vacation in Antarctica right now and this is to whom I would usually ask this kind of question. Would you please enlighten me? - A. Hawkins

A. I made it up.

Q. In your article on free will you stated early on that experiments had shown that actions such as finger flicking occurred half a second before human beings were conscious of deciding to make them. Later you quote Dr. Dennett as saying that "we have the power to veto our urges and then to veto our vetoes." My question is this: When we are vetoing our urges -- say to flick our finger -- does the action occur before we are conscious of deciding to veto as in the other experiments, or after? I would be very impressed (i.e., surprised) to see results of "veto" experiments that were any different from the results of the "non-veto" flicking of a finger experiments. Perhaps I am missing something. - R. Mazzoni

Q. I’m missing something in the Dr. Libet illustration. Libet wired up the brains of volunteers to an electroencephalogram and told the volunteers to make random motions. Dr. Libet found that brain signals associated with these actions occurred half a second before the subject was conscious of deciding to make them. The order of brain activities seemed to be perception of motion, and then decision, rather than the other way around.

When I think of free will, I think not of what happens first in the brain. I think first of whether or not the commands are carried out. In other words, when Dr. Libet told the volunteers to make random motions, I think of the decision on the part of the volunteers to do what he asks or not. Free will, at least what I think of as free will, is the act on the part of a volunteer to do what the good doctor asks ... or not. Help me out here.

Q. Regarding the Benjamin Libet study, showing that the conscious brain merely plays catch-up with the unconscious brain, I understand that he was dealing with the electrical activity between synapses, which have been shown to occur BEFORE we consciously make a decision. But what about the more esoteric chemical interactions occurring throughout the brain? Would these slower, chemical events manifest themselves as analysis and something we might call free will? Is anyone addressing the chemical by-play within the brain? - R. P. Smolin

Q. Dear Mr. Overbye,

I enjoyed your essay on free will in the Jan. 2 online edition of the New York Times. You covered a lot of philosophical ground in a small space, and gave more or less equal time to the compatibilists and incompatibilists. It provided me with material for my weekly engineering ethics blog ( However, what you didn’t do (with the possible exception of the quotation from I. B. Singer) was to cite any sources of insight from a religious perspective. My question is, why not?

Granted, your essay appeared in the science section, but when you address issues that have aspects beyond science per se, I think it is a weakness to limit your sources to scientists or philosophers who are at best indifferent to religion, and at worst, explicitly hostile (e. g. Daniel Dennett).

Many religious traditions, especially Judaism and Christianity, both assume the reality and meaning of free will and make arguments in favor of it. The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church cites St. Irenaeus’s words that man "is created with free will and is master over his acts." The choice that Moses presents to the children of Israel in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy (30:19) when he urges them to follow God and to "choose life," is rendered meaningless if free will is an illusion.

Perhaps you assumed your readers, most of whom probably have some religious affiliation, would be familiar with these points of view, and so repeating them wasn’t necessary. But the elephant in the room which neither you nor most of your sources mentioned is the fact that if we undertake to act as though we do not have free will, we either paralyze ourselves or become amoral monsters. And since the nominal task of science is to describe, not prescribe, the least you could have done with regard to the religious perspective was to interview an intelligent spokesman (not Jerry Falwell!) for the religious point of view which takes free will as a foundational truth of human reality. - K. D. Stephan

A. The meaning of Dr. Libet’s experiments is still being debated. It is hard for me to see how they are not bad news for any traditional sense of free will. The conscious brain seems to be deciding to do, or bless, what it is already doing. It is true that I and not some outside agency am responsible for raising my arm, but if I’m not conscious of deciding, I can hardly say I am in conscious control or could have decided otherwise, essential elements of libertarian free will. These and other experiments are deeply subversive of our sense of autonomy and responsibility.

Surely science has barely scratched the surface of consciousness, whatever it is. I am limited in the space I have in the newspaper and so some aspects of the story must be foregone, for example the role of freedom in religious faith. In a lot of those areas, there isn’t much new to say that Kierkegaard didn’t say 100 years ago. So, as a way of keeping myself sane, I limit myself to more recent news and arguments. Which is also why Freud and B. F. Skinner — to mention a couple of names that came up in this correspondence — got left out. I admit I can never resist an Einstein quote, however.

Q. I read your article on free will, but after reading it I feel confused about whether (1) it is true that at any moment, we are being pulled in two or more directions. To eat the chocolate cake or not? To write this e-mail or do the work that I am supposed to be doing?

(2) And the more aware we are of this multi-directional pulls, more options we have to exercise the free will? Does it mean that if we simply become more conscious of our own thoughts at every moment, we can enjoy greater free will unlike someone who lives without much paying much attention to the present --say, absent minded--but always either looking back or forward?

(3) Do you think techniques like positive affirmations and visualizations (used by athletes) helps to program your unconscious in such a way that you consciously act as you desire? I mean, can we tame the tiger to tame the monkey? -A. Mathur

A. Yes, Robert Kane, a philosopher at the University of Texas at Austin, has argued that free will depends on the existence of such moments of indecision, which he calls “self-forming actions.” He is the author or editor of a number of books on free will, including the “Oxford Handbook of Free Will,” another book one could add to the list above.

As for the third part of your question, I think we can certainly train ourselves to play music and shoot jump shots, mainly by doing these things over and over again until they become automatic. Whether you can do it to be a better person, I think it’s hard at best. It sounds a little like wishful thinking to me, and maybe a bit lazy. But what do I know? Go for it. I myself always imagine the worst.

Q. The historical problem of discussing free will is that it is a “mental construct” and subject to the limitations of language and logic. As Gödel proved that basically any system is incomplete and this includes out language and logical theories. Like a snake eating its tale, logic always devours itself. If I say that I believe in free will then I am either correct, or not. If I am correct, then good for me. If I am not correct, then my belief in free will is predetermined anyway and I have no choice but to believe in free will. So, how could I go wrong by having this position? Current brain science will find no answer to this problem, it is not it its realm. It is in the arena of philosophers. - J. Cooper

Q. I read with interest your piece in today’s Science Times on free will and determinism. It reminded me of a quote of Paul Tillich’s which puts these issues in an interesting light. Tillich wrote, "Man resists objectification, and if his resistance is broken, man himself is broken." Is it possible that deterministic, materialistic thinking -- irrespective of its verity -- is maladaptive for individuals of our species? Has there been any serious scientific study of this question? - A. Chun

Q. Will you please briefly respond to the ideas contained in the lyrics of Rush’s song "Free Will"? Was Geddy Lee consulted for this article during the course of your research? - M. Nutt

A. My own feeling is that free will is an adaptive illusion, we wouldn’t be here if our ancestors hadn’t had the feeling that they could actually do something, control and shape their environment. Nobody is a determinist when they walk into a restaurant.

Mike Nutt asked me to comment on the lyrics to the Rush song “Free Will,” which expresses much of the same spirit. I was not familiar with it before, but I endorse its feeling.

Q. About quantum mechanics as a basis for free will, a British Marxist (who died in Spain with the International Brigade) had the last word, as far as I’m concerned. He used an analogy. It was at a lecture in London.

“Tomorrow morning 50 of you will be in Calcutta, the other 50 in Rio de Janeiro. At this moment none of you knows where you’ll be tomorrow morning. Now tell me you have ‘free will.’”- M. Nadler, PhD

Q. Are you familiar with John Conway’s free will theorem? Any thoughts on it? - D. Brown

A. It’s natural to want to bring quantum mechanics into the debate over free will, both because it seems to posit randomness and thus a kind of indeterminism at the root of things and because it was once thought that consciousness had some connection with resolving the fuzz of uncertainty and “collapsing” the wave function and deciding, say, whether Schrodinger’s cat is alive or dead. But quantum theorists have long since concluded that a conscious observer doesn’t need to be part of the scheme.

As for quantum randomness, as Dr. Conway seems to suggest (he did not respond to an e-mail) it is at best a “god-of-the-gaps” kind of solution to free will. As Daniel Dennett said, the last thing you want is a coin flip. You want to be in charge, choosing on the basis of your values and your wisdom. Every time I’ve tried to make a decision by flipping a coin, I have been disappointed with how it came out and wound up doing the opposite of what the coin said.

The real mystery about quantum mechanics in my opinion is that the microscopic randomness does not add and create macroscopic chaos. On the contrary, the world on the macroscopic level is amazingly robust and stable and predictable, allowing us to thread spacecraft through the rings of Saturn.

Q. Hope you enjoyed your molten chocolate cake.

My question is with reference to Michael Silberstein’s comment on the possibility of fanning out ‘culture wars’ by imparting the knowledge of what free will is & whether we have it.

I am unable to fathom the contradiction here as ’monkey’ my conscious mind may be BUT the ’tiger’ is still me too. - Gaurav S.

A. If it’s the tiger in the driver’s seat, then the conscious moral you doesn’t know what is going on, or at best is tagging along. Traditional free will doesn’t like that.

I’m still waiting for the molten chocolate cake.

Q. I have long learned as an owner of a small business there is no real free will in managing a business but only choosing between a limited set of options. Usually it is choosing between things that I would rather not do but is required for the successful operation of the business. Now that I have teenage daughters and am a elder in the congregation i.e. life getting more complicated, this is part of my personal life. The vast majority of the time I do not have the lucky position of controlling my own life but riding the big wave it has become. Only when I get too exhausted to perform proficiently at the tasks required of me that I am forced to choose taking time to go to the beach that is 10 min. from my house and relax in the waves. (I live in Puerto Rico.) That is one of the least onerous task I have. Free will and freedom of choice only exists in those who do not care about anything but them selves and they have become slaves of their carnal instincts. - G. Perkins

P.S. I wrote this out of compulsion for my frustrations to be heard.

A. As the father of a four-year-old, I hear you very loud and clear.

Q. Free will may be an illusion, but self-discpline seems to be a lot stronger in some than in others. It also seems to be learned behavior as is evidenced by the ascetic Shramana of India. Are there any studies out there that show that the strongest manifestation of free will, self discipline, has a genetic component? Ken Bertschy

Q. I wonder about the related subjects of "will power" or the ability to deny oneself the chocolate. Some people have lots and some have none. Does this come from personality types--strong willed vs. wishy washy? Is it taught? It seems clear that we can learn (or better yet, be taught in childhood) to have/use will power. Then there’s the addictive personality, the people who seem to have no will at all, or perhaps only the "will" to non-power. - Penny Villegas

A. There probably are studies on the heritability of will power, since just about everything else has been mapped in that regard. I just don’t know about them. One is certainly used to hearing things like “You’re just as mule-headed as your father.”

Q. Only scientific confusion and human hubris would think that our unconscious wasn’t part of ourselves. Obviously evolutionary success would require that the unconscious acted before the conscious--quick is safe--but isn’t it rather absurd to think that we haven’t had an impact on the unconscious and how it reacts, to think that experience counts for nothing, to not understand that the unconscious is clearly a blend of intuition AND learning? - N. Fox

A. That’s what education and training are all about, I think.

Q. Proving that part of our decision process occurs at a non-conscious level seems not to disprove free will, though it pushes aside simplistic models. What would it take to prove the existence of free will? What is the experiment on which everyone could agree? This strikes me as a difficult question. Maybe defining the experiment is, in fact, the test of free will.- K. Moberg

A. I think the neuroscientists are indeed approaching the beginning of a consensus, but it might be a long time before they get there. And there is everybody’s subjective experience standing in the way. This would be a much bigger and perhaps more devastating revolution than deciding that the Earth is round or that the universe had a beginning. But contrary to what you might think, it isn’t necessarily a demotion to regard ourselves as meat machines. Rather it is an impressive illustration of just how awesome nature can be, and what untapped possibilities still exist in assemblages of atoms subject to those boring old laws that we denigrate as materialistic.

Q. I don’t understand why this article repeatedly asserts that free will is nonexistent. Here is a quote from the article, which gets to the crux of the issue for me:

"In short, the conscious brain was only playing catch-up to what the unconscious brain was already doing. The decision to act was an illusion"

Your conclusion that the "decision to act" was an illusion is wrong - the correct conclusion is that the decision to act was made by the unconscious brain. Your article does a great job of explaining the fallacy of "conscious will", but falls FAR short of debunking the concept of "free will". - R. Tarantino

A. Traditionally part of the definition of free will is that it is conscious and thus completely under our control — whatever that means.

Q. In the early dark ages of computers, I had a Star Trek game that was a duel between you (Kirk) and a single Klingon ship. You could turn, fire front phasers, fire rear phasers, fire photon torpedos, etc.

It was extremely difficult to score a hit on the Klingon, while the seemed to be able to knock the hell out of me no matter how I maneuvered. Almost all my shots were rewarded with "The Klingon commander easily avoided your attack."

I worked very hard to learn to maneuver that ship and point my weapons accurately, but I just couldn’t crack the game. Finally I realized that the code was in Basic, so I looked at it. There was a RANDOM statement for my hits and a RANDOM statement for the Klingon’s hits. My random value was 1/30 and the Klingon was blessed with 1/5.

The point is, I could not tell from the behavior of the program that the Klingon was not attempting to predict my next move and then calculate a counterattack.

I’m afraid that Godel’s insight applies to us as well. We have no way of knowing whether we have free will. On the other hand, we have a heavy propensity to believe in our ablilty to see patterns. So we will believe in free will anyway.

Or, at least, that’s what I think. Or what I think I think. Or what I think even though my thinking is predetermined. Or... - A. Sapiro

A. Exactly. You have no choice.

Q. Israeli philosopher Saul Smilansky <">>;

(Free Will and Illusion) thinks it’s a big mistake to educate people about the fact they don’t have libertarian free will, since by doing so we rob them of what he thinks is the necessary basis for human dignity, worth, moral responsibility and meaning. What’s your guess: Can the human species manage to cope with the truth about ourselves, and find that life’s still worth living without free will? - T. Clark

A. We are tougher than that. Anyway, luckily, we have no choice except to go on living. In that regard evolution has been wise, and kind. Never underestimate the power of denial.

Q. My name is David Easton and I am a teacher at the Brooklyn Free School.

We are a democratic school with no compulsory classes, grades, assessments or homework. The students are in charge of their own learning and progress and are able to structure their school day in line with their interests. Today a group of students and I read your article "Free Will: Now You Have It, Now You Don’t" in our philosophy class and enjoyed a lively discuss. We especially liked your tiger and monkey

analogy. After talking we were wondering a couple of things. We were wondering what your thoughts were about free will and education. If we are really monkeys riding tigers, is it better to constrain and train the tiger with outside structures (like traditional schools) or should the tiger and monkey be allowed to explore and roam? If the real question of free will is one of morality, how does the monkey know what’s right and what’s wrong and when it should stop the tiger?

We have lots more questions but these seemed to be the most prevelant ones. Thanks for the article and any consideration you may put to our questions.

Sincerely, David Easton and the Brooklyn Free School

A. It seems to me that much of education is aimed at training or educating the tiger, so that you don’t have to think about these things, but just respond correctly, or at least in a way that society believes is moral. A wonderful example is Wesley Autrey, the construction worker who dived under a subway train in Manhattan to save a young man who had fallen onto the tracks. If Mr. Autrey had had to debate moral issues in his head, the other guy would have been run over by the approaching train. Mr. Autrey acted out of instinct to save a fellow human and only instinct could have acted fast enough, the result of a good education in the things that count.

Train your tiger and then trust it.

Q. I know that your article was on free will alone, but it does not address what may be an even deeper dilemma: are we really conscious? If consciousness is an illusion (which Dennett, one of your sources, has argued), then free will is but a footnote: our consciousness is creating scenarios that make us think we are free.

A. Actually, we are a flea on that monkey riding the tiger.

Q. I would approach the question of free will through biology and genetics rather than through the more abstract disciplines of philosophy and mathematics. (And, to materialists like me, the ideas of individual philosophers and mathematicians would be considered byproducts of their biological and genetic make-ups.) Of course, this approach raises questions about free will (or the act of human willing in general, whether "free" or not), among which would be:

-To what extent are we inherently inclined to make one "choice" rather than another?

- Are we genetically "pre-programmed" toward one course of action in any given situation?

- How do our physical or psychological addictions influence our "decision making"?

What role does free will - or the lack of it - play in artistic creation? Are artists more free or less free than non-artists? Is the correct definition of artistic genius the ability to thwart or at least subdue inherent biological/genetic pre-dispositions?

Using Beethoven as an example, did he become one of mankind's greatest geniuses because he was able to sort and organize musical notes more "freely" than other composers, who could not make Beethoven's leaps beyond a pre-programmed acceptance of conventional compositional standards? - M. Moore

A. Beethoven did it better than most other composers. In art, as I understand it, there is an interesting interplay and tension between formal rules and improvisation. I have heard musicians often speak of songs “coming to them,” which would argue to me that it is another creative process that occurs when you are in the groove and have relaxed or forgotten your own self consciousness. Sometimes I write poetry and the same thing happens. As I lamented, however, it almost never happens when you write a newspaper story, and when it does it turns out that you have gone on too long and it’s the first thing the editor cuts.

Those are all wonderful questions.

Q. After reading your article, I can't shake the feeling that its purpose was summed up by its last paragraph, the desultory discussion of Dr. Dennet notwithstanding. The absence of moral responsibility--and the asserted freedom from it that must naturally result--will doubtless be greeted as welcome and perhaps useful in certain circles. That's their choice. It nevertheless remains ugly and contemptible. - B. Murdich

A. Nobody that I know advocates the release of people from their moral responsibility. There does tend to be a schism of attitudes however, according to Michael Silberstein. Believers in the traditional free will tend to emphasize punishment for crimes, he said, while those who favor a more limited view of free will, or no free will, lean toward rehabilitation and prevention of criminals and crime.

Q. I find this a ridiculous article because your basic assumption seems to be that science has discovered and explained all of reality, which is defined by physics. In my version of the universe, there is much to be discovered. Are scientists just as blind in their faith as religious people? Can't they see that just because they have created explanations for some or even most of reality, there are still questions that cannot be answered by their explanations? There is so much that science cannot explain, (yet may explain at a later date) such as the basic question... where did it all begin?... that it frustrates me to read an article like yours that reduces life to machinery. Someone who believes in machinery perhaps is not in touch with creative potential and cannot conceive of more to life, but just because free will is damn hard to activate does not prove its nonexistence. I definitely experience free will. It takes energy, and if you decide not to use that potential in you, well that is your choice... or should I say your expression of free will. The scientific views on free will, as presented in your article, are simply lazy and self-limiting reflections on what we already know, instead of what we still have to investigate, and it does such a disservice to the scientific spirit to begin with. Though we inhabit a mechanistic body, we are not just a body. The fact that science cannot yet explain conciousness, does not mean there is no conciousness. Science cannot prove or disprove conciousness, so perhaps, at this time, we must defer to the poets, the artists, the musicians to reach for that aspect of reality that exists beyond the mechanistic schools of thought you have presented. - A. Williams

A. I could not agree more that science and physics is far from explaining everything, or even most things. But whatever is in the world is governed by the laws of physics, whatever they will turn out to be. Unless you believe in a dualistic world of both spirit and matter, nobody and nothing gets a pass from material law.

Q. I recall a quotation of Dr. Howard P. Rome, the esteemed late professor of Psychiatry at the Mayo Clinic, who had a succinct formulation for many of the imponderables debated by fellows and others during our various discussions. During a discussion of the individual's responsibility for his behavior, whether in the presence of personality disorder or mental illness, regarding the operation of free will Dr. Rome had stated, "You can want (or not want) to choose something and you can will (or not will) to choose something. But you cannot will to want (or not want) to choose it." - S. Wendell Obetz, M.D.

A. That sounds like Schopenhauer again.

Q. I was puzzled by the serious omission in the article about "happiness" and its implication on free will. All of us want to be very-happy all the time, we have no choice in this matter at all. This is simple and plain as the light of the day. Can anyone honestly say that he wants to be sorrow-full. The chocolate cake is eaten because it makes one "happy", and the chocolate cake is not-eaten because it makes you "happy" in seeing the wife "happy." So it looks like all activities have their basis in "happiness," a subjective experience. By this we are lead to the inevitable conclusion that all reality is nothing but a subjective-experience with its basis in "happiness." This worldview has been held for ages in Indian-Philosophical school of thought know as "Advaitha Vedanta." According to this school, as all reality, being subjective, is "in-you". One who has personal-experience of this "subjective reality" is called "the enlightened one" and he has the absolute freedom of choice to do whatever he wants. - R. Krishnaswamy

A. Happiness sounds like a good idea for a whole new article. I know people, and perhaps I am one of them, who seem happiest when they are miserable.

Q. How does all this figure in mate selection which, according to everything I read, is an unconscious process on the part of both partners, each responding to the other based on emotional programming they received from the primary authority figures in their early childhoods? - R. Cahall

A. A great idea for another article or a book. I never heard anyone say they fell in love out of choice. The cliché is that you “meet cute” and then fall in love with people you hate.

Q. The question dogging me throughout your article can be summarized through a look at Libet's "make a random move" experiment. It appears that the subjects of the experiment were only perceiving free will in making those random moves, but what, then, led them to participate in the study in the first place? In other words, when asked, "Will you participate in this study?" was their assent also just a perception of free will--but in fact their subconscious impelled them to do it? And if so, what impelled Libet to devise the experiment, to ask for participants, etc.? Was his very experiment the product of deterministic processes? In short, where does the chain end? Or is both "physics all the way down" and "physics all the way back [i.e., to the primordial soup]"? --B. Hawkins

A. Good question. Einstein said that scientific theories were “free inventions” of the mind. Quantum theorists say that their experiments presuppose free will on behalf of the experimenter, who will choose freely whether to measure an electron as a wave or a particle to decide which axis to measure its spin about.

Q. I wonder, in response to Dennis Overbye's examination of the relationship between free will and determinism, why there is no mention of, nary a nod at, psychological determinism and psychoanalytic theory of mind. Surely psychoanalytic thought explores beautifully and effectively (i.e., in a way that translates into a means of change and increased psychological freedom) those conflicts and causal convictions that lie within the unconscious (the underpinning of what Overbye refers to as the tip of the ice berg of conscious thought and experience, the tiger beneath the monkey), the very same conflicts and convictions that interfere with our freedom to make more rational choices, in both thinking and behavior, that can function in our best interest over time. - L. Yonack

A. Nicely said. My research simply didn’t take me into encounters with any psychoanalysts.

Q. “I could skip the chocolate cake, I really could, but why bother? Waiter!” Excellent concluding sentence to a very well-written and entertaining analysis of a difficult concept. I realize that you wrote this sentence with humorous intent, but it nevertheless illustrates perfectly what most people view as their “free will”. The sentence encapsulates neatly the view of those who believe that they can choose their actions. In contrast, those who do not believe in free will, like myself, would argue that your sentence is an exercise in self delusion. I would argue that each human’s neuronal assembly is, in a very real sense, a computer that, at any given moment, can produce only one response to any given stimulus. I would further argue that, given exactly the same circumstances, you would make the same dessert decision every single time. The key, of course, is the meaning of the phrase “same circumstances”. To me it implies the same time, same location, same cosmic array of electrons and atoms, etc. In other words, if, after you have chosen the chocolate cake, there was a way to rewind time and restore you to the same moment of decision, you would make the very same decision every single time, no matter how many times you rewound. Similarly, I feel that you would write the very same concluding sentence every single time that you rewound to the moment of its writing.

Obviously, no mechanism currently exists to prove or disprove this hypothesis. Still, this debate is very much worth having. I am trained in biology but have no expertise in this area, so my opinion carries no particular weight. Like others, I have had numerous similarly unresolved debates with friends and colleagues about the nature of free will, and was therefore very happy to see someone tackle so effectively this very controversial issue in the popular press. As Dr. Silberstein states in your piece, the legal and social implications of the absence of free will can be very unsettling to most of us. For example, murderers would claim that they could not control their actions because they acted as automatons. Nevertheless, we cannot avoid such debates if we want to understand who we are. Many thanks for a very interesting and timely article.- H. Fliss

A. Your hypothesis about the repeatability of my decisions reminds me of Heraclitus, who famously said that we never step into the same river twice. You would have to rewind the entire universe very precisely, too precisely to measure, in order to test your assertion, but I don’t have any problem saying I would probably always have the cake.

Q. I read your article in this morning’s Times with some interest. Leaving aside the absurdity of the notion that a subject that has fascinated mankind since the beginning of organized thought can be discussed much less explained in 2800 words I do have a question for you to ponder, a non-physicalist question that is.

I was unsure if it was Dr. Dennett or you who drew the conclusion that ‘moral responsibility’ was what everyone cared about visa vie free will but the very concept of morality presumes consciousness or self awareness, if you will. You say that “ According to deep mathematical principles, they say, even machines can become too complicated to predict their own behavior and would labor under the delusion of free will."

This leads to my question - Are you saying machines are also concerned about moral responsibility or are there two kinds of free will, one for machines and one for us? (assuming that we are equally deluded) - C. Quinn

A. I think there is only one kind of free will, or perhaps more accurately one illusion, that would be shared both by people and by suitably complex machines. The idea that what everybody cares about is moral responsibility is my own impression of the debate.

Q. Ok. Then free will is an illusion, and the inconscious mind commands our actions long before our conscious decisions. But still, what is the unconscious other than ourselves? Why would a decision made at unconscious level be considered not our own? Instead of deterministic, I believe that choice is a result of a very effective and quick analysis of memorized data, and yet, it exists. The unconscious is still us.

How could free will exist if biology is based on chemistry and then on physics? When and where does some mysterious thing intrude that allows a human mind to override what seems to me to be the lockstep of physical and then chemical and then biological events? Free will implies that our minds do not have to obey the same "laws" that rule our bodies, our cars, our electron microscopes. and all the other physical elements of our world.

Free will is an attractive idea, and one that seems to be natural. Just like the shadows on the wall of the cave in ancient Greece. If we didn't know better, because we are not confined to the cave's interior, we would think the shadows are reality.

I cannot see any way to allow free will that will avoid breaking the chain of inevitability or consistency demanded by all the physical events that we can see and describe. Free will cannot be described nor tested nor confirmed by any known method. It is a lot like religious faith, it seems to me.

Even to me, I cannot imagine not having free will, therefore I have faith that I do have and use it. Intellectually I know better. Don't I? - C. L. Hopkins

A. I agree and I like to think that I know better. But I have no choice.

Q. Your "Free Will" article in the Science Times today is magnificent: clear, clever and well-balanced. And the illustration is a gem. If there is a prize for explaining human understanding, I nominate you and Jonathan Rosen. - E. E. Murphy, Jr.

A. I believe Mr. Murphy is referring to Jonathan Rosen, a novelist and journalist, author of the 2004 novel, "Joy Comes in the Morning" about Jewish faith and identity.

Q. Your article struck me as far too glib -- as if you really didn't take any of this very seriously. I would like to know what Dr. Lloyd really means when he says “If I ask how long will it take to boot up five minutes from now, the operating system will say ‘I don’t know, wait and see, and I’ll make decisions and let you know.’ ” I have no idea of how one "asks" a computer how long it will take to boot up five minutes from now; even less idea of what it means for a computer to "say" back to me "wait and see". (I do computer programming for a living). Is this a metaphor for something? If so, it seems a poor metaphor to me -- what is the literal truth of the matter here? He ought to have spoken more precisely; and you ought to have coaxed it out of him.

You state "Another implication is there is no algorithm, or recipe for computation, to determine when or if any given computer program will finish some calculation. The only way to find out is to set it computing and see what happens." This is a misleading oversimplification. The truth is that there is no single formula that can be universally applied to any and all computations to determine whether they will ever complete -- Turing's famous "halting problem". But for many algorithms -- for the overwhelmingly vast majority of computations carried out by computers for all manner of practical problems -- it is quite possible, even simple, to determine when they will halt. If it were not so, not a single useful computer program could ever be written.

Similarly, the assertion “There are no shortcuts in computation,” is by no means universally true; it applies only to that peculiar realm of undecidability. Plenty of actual programming is given over to finding shortcuts -- "optimizations", more efficient algorithms.

I don't understand your assertion "A knowledge of quarks is no help in predicting hurricanes — it’s physics all the way down". This seems backwards to me: if it WERE physics "all the way down", then particle physics could be used to predict the weather.

I wish you had consulted some philosophers from a different philosophical tradition, one derived from the European phenomenolgical philosophy of Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, etc. (Hubert Dreyfus of the University of California at Berkeley is one such person). They have attempted to investigate human experience in such a way as avoid the paralyzing, dead-end dualisms (e.g., free will vs. determinism) that have plagued mainstream philosophy for centuries and that seem forever unresolvable in the terms in which they are conventionally posed. I don't say that they have solved all the issues once and for all; but I believe they may point the way to sharpening our perceptions and concepts of what is really involved in these issues. - R. Rotstein

A. Particle physics can’t be used to predict the weather, partly because of chaos, but if we are patient, it can be used to explicate the weather. If I understand the claim correctly, some people say that you can’t use physics even to explicate human behavior. My own view is that sociology can be explicated by psychology, psychology by biology, biology by chemistry, and so on. So you are never classically free.

Q. Thanks for your coverage of the free will argument. As a writer of technical mathematical papers and books on the subject of decision making, and thus free will, I can't imagine trying to cover such a complex subject using the confusion of vague philosophic terms of found in our written language. You are a brave sole!

I wish you would refer to "The End of Time," Julian Barbour, Oxford 1999. Julian has expanded Plato's belief in reality and free will using a modern view of quantum physics. His book, although difficult to understand, contains a unusual physicist's view of space that has, or needs, no concept of time. Such a timeless space eliminates the problems of considering causal events as evidence of reality and retains the human concept of free will as a sequential decision making fantasy. Plato yet lives!

As a writer of science fantasy fiction (as Ray Emerson) in my novel, "ultimate WMD," I used Julian's ideas to "explain" the fantastic adventures of my characters passing through an Egyptian underworld. As you so rightly point out, fiction writers find it a pleasant experience to freely dictate the actions and voices of their characters; and, I often need to write fiction to free myself from the strait jacket of mathematical papers and books.

Thanks again for your article, I have filed it away in my "free will" folder for future reference. Meanwhile, let's both enjoy that chocolate cake, Roy E. Murphy, Ph.D. (a.k.a., Ray Emerson)

A. Mr. Murphy is referring to what is called in some physics quarters the “block universe.” This is a sort of superdeterminism in which the universe exists as a four-dimensional object, a sort of jewel in extra-dimensional something. We are simply passing through it or along it as time goes by, sort of like flying over a mountain range. History is fixed in all directions. This notion was popularized by Kurt Vonnegut in his novel “Slaughterhouse 5.” It was the way Trafalmadorians experienced the world.

Q. First I would like to (egotistically) remind you of my previous email dated 3/16/06, in part: "I can see how the perspective of scientific determinism can lead one to conclude that free will is an illusion, but doesn't the fact that randomness is an integral part of the current scientific view of reality contradict absolute determinism and allow for the existence of freewill? My view is that the more randomness there is (up to a point) the greater is the amount of freewill we can exercise and that our reality is a combination of deterministic and random functions that allows us as rational beings to make choices within the limits of what is physically possible."

I am happy to see your current article addresses this perspective and I am not at all surprised that some scientists/philosophers still want to see things as black and white. Wouldn't you agree that generally in life when a party claims that something is absolutely one way and another party disagrees and says it is absolutely the other way, and they get stuck in their arguments because the absolutist views are mutually exclusive, that eventually (sometimes after they are both long dead and gone) the argument is resolved by recognizing that the reality is more complicated than allows for a "black and white" view of things?

On the subject of "illusions: Recently I've started saying (whenever it's germane) to anybody who will listen that "Despite Copernicus and Galileo the sun still rises in the east and sets in the west, and despite Columbus I still don't roll out of bed in the middle of the night and my carpenter's level still works." What is most relevant for a human being, the daily lifelong experience of a flat earth and a sky through which the sun travels or the view from outside the solar system that is the so called "greater reality"? Isn't recognizing an illusion as such just the realization that another perspective exists which presents a novel and startling picture of things? But what if that different perspective isn't particularly useful and relevant? Einstein showed that time is subjective, that hasn't allowed us to manipulate it or ignore it. I suspect that at the quantum level time becomes particularly illusory, but I don't operate in the quantum environment.

Here's the kicker: You are a rational, scientific minded person, I've always considered myself to be one also. You are married so this question should be pertinent. What is more important, the objective reality of a situation or the way someone feels about it? (I'm divorced twice, so I know the answer!)

In closing I really want to express how strongly I agree with Isaac Singer's take on freewill. A person could find religion in the view that even the smallest amount of free will is an astonishingly great and valuable gift, ...from someone(?). Thanks for writing this article with such evenhanded open-mindedness.- M. Gassner

A. As far as quantum randomness goes, it is a poor substitute for conscious will. As for the reality versus illusion. I think we want to know. I think we are brave, and anyway I want to know what it is I am in denial of. You have to read every book and explore every block in order to know what to avoid.

Thanks to everybody, including those whose letters I did not understand, for writing.

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