New Scientist on free will

The current issue of New Scientist  gives pride of place to place to an article by Tom Stafford with the title: ‘It’s not an illusion, you have free will. It’s just not what you think’.

Libet’s research

Stafford refers to the famous experiments carried out by Benjamin Libet in the 1980s (see Freedom Evolves by Danel Dennett and The Illusion of Conscious Will by Daniel M. Wegner). Libet seemed to show that brain activity precedes conscious choice by an appreciable interval and many have take this to mean that free will is an illusion. But Stafford disagrees.

These results aren’t the great challenge to free will that they might seem at first. Their apparent force relies on misguided intuitions about what it means to have free will…. The misconception arises because we have difficulty comprehending causation in complex systems.

In a complex chaotic system, Stafford says, you cannot predict the outcome because there are innumerable possibilities, and human beings are so complex that they will always be unpredictable.

To illustrate this Stafford has created an interactive essay which you can tweet; a bot will then allow you to explore “your own unique path through the story, following the areas that most interest you”. This will convince you that “we are free to make real meaningful choices”.

Yes, our thoughts are caused by our brains, our environment and our history, but this causal mix is unique to each individual at each moment. That explains why human behaviour is so difficult to predict.


I shan’t be following this invitation to tweet, partly because I’ve already made my free choice not to subscribe to Twitter. But in any case I don’t need to do it; I’m already persuaded of Stafford’s argument, so far as it goes, but I don’t think it gets to the heart of the free will paradox.

Galen Strawson

As Galen Strawson has pointed out, whether determinism is true or false isn’t the important question. The choices you make depend on the kind of person you are, and that is outside your control. True, you can decide to become a better person – more loving, more patient, more selfless or whatever – but the goals you set yourself are themselves choices and arise from from the kind of person you are. You can never get beyond this, so ultimate freedom must always be unobtainable. Stafford’s article exemplifies the psychological difficulty of accepting this conclusion, yet it’s inescapable.

Since I first encountered Strawson’s treatment of free will I’ve felt it to be extraordinarily liberating. Free will had been something I’d been thinkinga about much of my life,since my late ‘teens. I had a Catholic upbringing, in which much was made of our free will. But we were also told that any time we gave way to temptation and sinned, that made it more likely that the next time we encountered the same temptation we would fall again.

If that was true, it seemed that we were inevitably sliding down a slope from which there was no escape. What decided the very first transgression – chance? That would hardly be much of a freedom. The religious aspect of the problem fell away after I ceased to believe in Catholicism, but the puzzlement about free will remained.

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