Eric M. Van (ericmvan) wrote,
Eric M. Van

The Science of Free Will, a Talk at the Watertown Library ...

... on a date and time in August to be determined by you, the potential attendees!

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Here's the description of the talk.

Got Free Will?

We feel we have free will, because we feel we have the ability to choose what we do. Science says that’s an illusion: our choices may seem to be free, but they are in fact utterly determined by the past and the laws of nature. Our brains are calculating what to think and do next, with no more freedom of will than our smartphones.

Most philosophers agree. Either “free will” means something other than what we think it does, or it doesn’t exist at all.

I say: it’s real … and it’s spectacular.


The problem of free will is likely the thorniest in all of philosophy. Yet it is a fundamentally scientific problem, and the philosophical debate largely reads like science rather than philosophy. (Geeks rejoice!)

We all possess an innate understanding of free will. It derives from our apparent capacity to “choose otherwise,” and seems to be necessary for moral responsibility. As just mentioned, however, science tells us that the laws of nature seem to preclude free will. There seems to be no actual capacity to choose otherwise. This is the problem of determinism. (The repetition of “seems” in this paragraph seems to be necessary, too.)

If human beings do have free will, then one of two things must be true. Either science is wrong about determinism, or our innate concept of free will and moral responsibility is incorrect—but correctable. And these are problems in physics and psychology, respectively. More science!

I open this talk with a summary of the second chapter of my work-in-progress, Mind as Matter: A Comprehensive Theory of Phenomenal Consciousness and Actual Free Will. I explain the basics of the philosophical scientific debate, and outline the essential arguments of the opposing philosophical camps—those who believe the science of determinism must be wrong, and those who believe that “free will” must mean something other than what we think it means.*

Once I’ve done that, the talk takes an unexpected direction.

“Only for a conscious agent is there a problem of free will, and if free will does exist, it can only exist in conscious agents.”—John Searle.

And I would add: the only thing that only consciousness can do is provide a mechanism for free will.

In the talk’s second half, I explain how consciousness works, and how it serves as a way to introduce genuine free will into an otherwise deterministic universe.

Oh, and if I have time, I’ll explain how quantum mechanics makes sense.

* Immanuel Kant (1781) famously disapproved of the latter option: “Some try to evade [determinism] by … a comparative notion of freedom … as we call the motion of a clock a free motion, because it moves its hands itself … so although the actions of man are necessarily determined by causes which precede in time, we yet call them free … This is a wretched subterfuge with which some persons … think they have solved, with a petty word-jugglery, that difficult problem, at the solution of which centuries have labored in vain.”
Tags: neuroscience

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