Freedom from Free Will

Thomas W. Clark

In “Without Free Will” (Free Inquiry, August/September 2009), Tibor Machan paints a dire picture of what we lose if we don’t have free will. But his imaginings are unfounded. He’s right that most philosophers, many scientists, and even law professors doubt that we have contra-causal free will: that we transcend causality in some respect and so could have done otherwise in an actual situation as it transpired. (In what follows “free will” refers to contra-causal free will.) There’s no evidence to suggest that human beings are free from causality in any respect. But Machan is mistaken to say that in the absence of free will, scholars are recommending that morality and the legal system should be revamped “so that concepts of guilt, innocence, responsibility, and so forth can be abandoned.” He provides no citations to back up this claim. Rather, it is widely recognized in the academy that we don’t need to be first causes or uncaused causers to be held responsible and have standards of right and wrong. Holding each other responsible is one important way we are caused to behave responsibly and ethically. However, retributive justifications for punishment premised on the idea that an offender could have done otherwise given his or her circumstances are no longer tenable. This points us toward humane reform of the criminal justice system, for instance as argued by Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen in their Royal Society paper, “For the Law, Neuroscience Changes Nothing and Everything.”

For Machan, only free will can justify such things as regret, pride, praise, and blame. Why? Because without it “no deed is a function of individual . . . judgment and effort.” He grants that in a deterministic universe, the factors that create us have causal power, but not our judgment and effort. This is obviously inconsistent. If determinism is true, we still affect the world just as much as the world affects us, so human agency doesn’t disappear. Still, understanding that we are fully caused, not self-made selves, tends to reduce the guilt, shame, anger, resentment, and contempt that follow from the idea that we could have chosen otherwise, given the factors that actually determined the choice.

Machan also worries that if we are causally determined, we can’t access the truth, “the independent, objective identification of reality by an unprejudiced mind.” But on a naturalistic understanding of ourselves, beliefs about the world are mediated by sensory, perceptual, and deliberative processes that are neurally instantiated and thus fully subject to physical law. There’s likely nothing contra-causal going on at the macro-level of the brain and body, and if there were, that would make our belief-forming mechanisms less reliable, not more. Tracking the world accurately in service to successful behavior requires that our representations, whether conscious or unconscious, reliably and systematically co-vary with the world.

More generally, we don’t choose our beliefs about the world from a causally disconnected vantage point, and rationally we wouldn’t want to. Truth is something imposed upon us by publicly observable evidence and rules of inference, neither of which involves free will. When analyzing arguments and evaluating evidence, we apply rules that we are fully subject to as knowers. That we are likely fully determined in our cognition doesn’t erase the distinction between truth and falsehood. It’s still the case that some cognizers (scientists) are more accurate in their causally mediated representations of reality than others (theologians), as judged by how well their predictions about the world are borne out. A naturalized epistemology needn’t have, and shouldn’t have, any truck with free will.

It isn’t surprising that Machan supposes that we have free will and that so much depends on it; he simply mirrors the culture at large. But none of the supposedly dire consequences of not having free will bear on the truth of the matter. Moreover, it turns out that dropping the illusion of free will has beneficial consequences. When we recognize that we are not causal exceptions to nature, we gain power and control by understanding the actual causes of behavior. This insight also grounds humanistic compassion and forebearance: there is no freely willing self to take ultimate credit or blame; there but for circumstances go I. Freedom from free will not only reveals the facts about human agency, it gives us a practical and humane perspective from which to act in the world.

Thomas W. Clark

Thomas W. Clark is the director and founder of the Center for Naturalism (www.naturalism.org) and the author of numerous articles.


In “Without Free Will” (Free Inquiry, August/September 2009), Tibor Machan paints a dire picture of what we lose if we don’t have free will. But his imaginings are unfounded. He’s right that most philosophers, many scientists, and even law professors doubt that we have contra-causal free will: that we transcend causality in some respect and …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.