Is Free Will an Illusion? An Argument in Favor of the Possibility of Free Will

A recent article published in The Atlantic ( presents the case against free will-the idea that what we think of as self-determination is merely an illusion.  This is a point of view that the article claims is becoming more and more accepted. It presents the case for hereditary factors alone as determinative of our behavior, but, to my mind, doesn’t make a very convincing case. Perhaps the strongest argument it contains that free will is merely an illusion starts with the reductionist view that all our thoughts have a neurological (electrical) component. The argument that follows is, then, that if you somehow had all possible knowledge of all parts of a person’s brain and mental states it would be possible to predict what they might do or say next.

This seems like a very sophisticated (and vastly complicated) way of viewing the mind in the same way as you might view the possibility of predicting the trajectory or a cannonball. But the better model for comparison in this case would be a machine-a machine such as a computer. The behavior of computers can be predicted in principle. Moreover, because computers function strictly according to their programming and circuitry, free will seems impossible for them-as it would for us, were our minds the same as a computer in all respects. But the important question is whether consciousness would add something to the operation of the machine that can’t be reduced to simple stimulus and response-crucially, something that doesn’t come from without-from the environment-but something determined from within.


If a robot could be created to respond in multiple different ways to a single stimulus according to whatever is most advantageous, we would have something very much like a robot with “free will” so long as it also possessed self-awareness-something that might prove either difficult or impossible. With the ability to respond with any number of random responses according to perceived advantage it would be able to generate a response not automatically determined by environmental factors (or stimuli). In this case, its response would be unpredictable and would come from within. If such a machine were possible, then, in principle at least, it would have free will.  It would follow that free will is not merely an illusion, and, at the same time, something we could understand.

Finally, randomness as part of the machine’s set of possible responses provides some insight into our own sense of freedom.  Our own responses to external stimuli could be said to be programmed to various degrees, but the possibility of randomness in our behavior (doing something irrational, out of the box, creative) would undermine any final attempt to completely program our behavior.  In the case of the machine above, randomness could be introduced mathematically (the digits of pi are an example) so that any future response would be non-predictable.  The possibility of randomness would defeat the argument that our behavior could be seen as completely determined (something that the anti-free will argument requires to make its case).  The machine could be programmed to respond with either a standard or a random response (it could “decide” to show “Free Willy” at any moment.  Just as the machine has these two kinds of responses, programmed and non-programmed, so do we.  If we had only programmed responses, our “will” could not possibly be free.  From this perspective it can be seen than it is randomness in our own behavior that makes our own freedom possible and helps make sense of it.  It is through our irrationality and creativity that our freedom is affirmed.


A Few Simple Questions for Phenomenologists, Husserlians, and Heideggarians or those Who Otherwise Claim to Be “In the know” Regarding their Views:

Kutal-giving-away-the-metaphor Giving away the metaphor by Firuz Kutal
“Giving Away the Metaphor,” by Firuz Kutal

Phenomenology is often credited with broadening the range of discussion of what is involved in perception. But what philosophical issues does it really resolve?  One major aim of the phenomenological movement is its attempt to resolve philosophical issues about subjectivity as a way to find a sure footing for knowledge.  Husserl attempted to find a way to ground our experience in the surest possible way.  The simple answer was to embrace our subjective experience as that ground and as the only possible ground for evaluating our experiences. But certainly not everyone has felt that subjetivity was sufficient : certainly Descartes, for example, wanted to get beyond subjectivity as the ground of experience.  Later, Husserl discussed expanding the range of subjedtive experience into the realm of intersubjectivity. Are there any compelling reasons for discontent with subjectivity?

Descartes, again, provides a foil.  Descartes famously attempted to find an objective basis for his subjective experiences in his faith in a benevolent God (one who would not decieve him).  To many, such an approach might appear extravagant, but it should be remembered that a) Descartes most likely did believe in God and b)his whole project was about finding a once-and-for-all  objective basis for knowledge.  At worst, his appraoch makes objectivity possible for those who believe in God.  But that doesn’t seem to satisfy philosophical minds who don’t buy his proofs for the existence of God.  But why was objectivity important for Descartes in the first place?

What he was after was a special kind of knowledge-a knowledge the truth of which could not possibly be doubted.  Such a knowledge would be based upon inbuditable first principles.  Its value? We could KNOW things.  But what on earth does such KNOWING amount to when it comes to our sensory experiences?  Apparently, that when I see a tree, I not only know a) that I am seeing a tree (uncontroversial) and b) (more exciting) that THERE REALLY IS A TREE THERE.  It seems odd to think that our subjective experiences couldn’t take us to that knowledge (can’t I just feel it, taste it, smell it, etc. to confirm its existence?).  Answer: not if you are Renee Descartes, who has found ways to doubt the truth of such experiences.  But if you are Descartes, presumably you can also reflect that God wouldn’t decieve you and that, therefore, there IS a tree there.


Is there anyone who does not find this silly?  It is, nevertheless, a problem that those who followed Descartes had to deal with and is, arguably, the setting for the split between continental and analytic philosophers.  Continental philosophers who follow Husserl bracket the question of the existence of their perceptions, putting it outside the parameters of what we can know.  Analytic philosophers often assume (e.g. Russell) that everyday objects do generally exist unless everyday perception can falsify that fact.  One can go further back: John Locke assumes that everyday objects must generally exist since something must have caused our perceptions.  Russell agreed that the problem was insoluble.  What, then does this dispute amount to?

Both sides agree that the problem of whether objects exist outside our perception is insoluble, but one side decides to assume that everyday objects exist whereas the other refuses to do so.  The Husserlians might claim to be more firmly grounded since they do not make an unwarranted assumption, but do so at the cost of maintaining a worldview that doesn’t even embrace the real existence of the phenomena they find present in it.

Husserl attempted to bridge the gap between subjectivity and objectivity through the idea of intersubjective analogical experience, with special implications for the realm of aesthetics.  A difficultly for this view is that it doesn’t take into account that there are certain things that we can never fully grasp even by analogy. Qualia are an example: no matter how empathetic one might feel, one may never really know what it is like to feel another person’s depression (or itch, or pain, etc.).  There remain gaps in our experience that leave us bereft (if it does matter to us) of any possibility of knowing certain things as they are in themselves that limit the boundaries of intersubjectivity that only add to the question of existence that must, at the end of the day, also be bracketed.                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Many people who study Phenomenolgy, however, do seem to think that it has put the question to rest by focusing our attention on the phenomena as they exist (in the mode of their presentation to us as existing phenomena (as it were)).  But Husserl explicitly brackets the question of existence and thus, in fairness to Husserl himself, it should be said that Phenomenology does not claim to solve the problem.  A preliminary question then is, if Phenomenology does not claim to solve this problem, does it make any progress toward solving it by bracketing it?  The answer should be straightforard.  If it does not, and it merely takes objects “as if” they really exsited, is it not making the same assumption as analytic philosophers do?  Analytic philosophers (Russell et al.) do not attempt to answer the question and thus bracket it in their own way.  They assume that objects exist.  Don’t their views on the problem of perception and existence really amount to the same thing in that case?  Lastly, if that is so, what greater claim to knoweldge, based upon its method, can phenomenology claim to make, besides the many caveats it enters against “objectivity” on the side of our subjetive experience?  While such caveats as the need for an awareness of the way that the past experience of an individual shapes his/her present experience are enlightening in some ways, do such caveats take us closer to the firmly grounded basis for knowledge that Phenomenolgy aspires to?