Consciousness and free will – Part 2

“Free will is an illusion so convincing that people simply refuse to believe we don’t have it.” Jerry A. Coyne (Professor of Evolution and Ecology) commenting on Sam Harris’s book Free Will. An Australian Professor Daniel Stojar is an example of the many people who simply refuse to believe we don’t have free will, saying “It seems as obvious as anything that we have free will. ….. We are free to move our finger. That is neither determined nor random — it’s a choice we can feel in our bones.”

How universal is this belief that we have free will in the ordinary sense, not in the philosopher’s compatibilist sense?

The general public

Surveys of lay public views on free will have been difficult to interpret because of differences and limitations in how the researchers conceptualized and thought about free will. For example, Nahmias and co-authors (2005) carried out a study in which they presented what they saw as a deterministic scenario and asked respondents if the person acted of their own free will. Most say yes, and they interpret this to mean people think free will is compatible with determinism. I think the simpler explanation is that they think people act with free will (in the ordinary sense) even when they are told to consider a scenario in which a computer can predict the act. In fact, some people explicitly rejected that the computer could predict and had to be told to assume it would. But many probably thought that and didn’t make an explicit objection.

Recent research provides clear cross-cultural evidence that a majority of the lay public believe in free will in the ordinary sense – that we are the conscious authors of our own choices. Sarkassian et al (2010) found that subjects from the United States, Hong Kong, India and Colombia exhibited a surprising degree of cross-cultural convergence in belief in free will. An online survey of adults in the USA and Singapore found that 82% of US respondents believed in free will and 85% in Singapore. Other studies have found that few lay people appear to conceptualize free will in the compatibilist sense.

The fact that the Christian religion explicitly requires free will to justify the concepts of sin and eternal punishment, and that the majority of people in Western countries have this Christian cultural background at minimum, means that almost certainly the term free will is not interpreted in a compatibilist way by most people in countries with a Christian history and probably those with predominantly Muslim culture.


David Bourget and David Chalmers surveyed 1,972 philosophy faculty members at 99 institutions and received results from 931 of them. Most of the universities were in English-speaking countries and in other countries were chosen for strength in analytic philosophy. Before getting to free will, I note that they found 73% of philosophers were atheists and 56.5% were physicalists re the mind.

The survey found that 59% of philosophers were compatibilists, 14% libertarians, 12% thought there was no free will, and 15% had other views. As libertarians believe in free will in the normal sense, and compatibilists do not, this means that 71% of philosophers do not believe in free will (in the ordinary sense) and only 14% do. For the sake of figures that add to 100%, I will assume that the 15% “other views” split in the same proportions between free will and no free will, so that overall 84% of philosophers do not believe in free will in the ordinary sense, and 16% do.


Following publication of an article on free will, Scientific American conducted a reader poll and found that 59% of the 4,672 respondents endorsed the idea that free will existed and 41% thought that it didn’t. This is clearly a self-selecting sample of readers of Scientific American, who I would assume to be more determinist than the average person and so have a lower percentage believing in free will. From the respondent comments, it seemed clear to me that most people were interpreting free will in the normal sense not the compatibilist sense.

As noted in my previous post, Einstein did not believe in free will. Other scientists, eminent and not eminent, who have concluded that we do not have free will include evolutionary biologists Charles Darwin and Jerry Coyne, physicist Stephen Hawking, the psychologists Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom, and neuroscientists Wolf Singer, Chris Frith, Anil Seth and Sam Harris. Indeed, a number of philosophers have publicly complained about all these upstart scientists who pontificate on free will without any understanding of the lengthy debates that philosophers have had.

However, its probably not the case that scientists in general do not think we have free will. Some look for chinks in the determinist view in the unpredictability of complex chaotic systems or the unpredictability of quantum events. Roger Penrose is a prominent example of the latter. And many, not given to introspection or meditation simply do not question their felt experience.

Graffin and Provine (2007) carried out a survey of 149 eminent evolutionary biologists on their beliefs about free will and religion. Their questionnaire offered evolutionary scientists only two choices on the question about human free will: A, all organisms are locally determined by heredity and environment, but humans still possess free will; B, all organisms are locally determined by heredity and environment, and humans have no free will. To the authors’ surprise, 79 percent of the respondents chose option A for this question, indicating their belief that people have free will despite being determined by heredity and environment. Only 14 percent chose no free will, and 7 percent did not answer the question.

They considered whether the respondents who chose option A were thinking of free will as choice in the compatibilist sense, but noted that this view was not mentioned in the interviews with selected respondents or in the many comments generated by the free will question.

One of the authors had been polling his undergraduate evolution class each year on belief in free will. He found that year after year, 90% or more favoured the idea of human free will for a very specific reason: They think that if people make choices, they have free will. The professional debate about free will has moved far from this position, because what counts is whether the choice is free or determined, not whether human beings make choices. People and animals both certainly choose constantly. Comments from the eminent biologists suggest that they were equating human choice and human free will. In other words, although eminent, the respondents had not thought about free will much beyond the students in introductory evolution classes.

Free will and moral responsibility

Sam Harris discusses in some detail the issue of how belief or lack of belief in free will affects people’s judgements of moral responsibility and impacts decisions about penalties and punishments by society. He makes the point that a person remains responsible for their acts whether or not they have free will, and that society should impose appropriate consequences for a number of reasons: to deter such acts in future, to protect society from dangerous people, to compensate others for harm incurred. What would be different is that there would no longer be a justification for punishment as retribution for making a wrong choice. All of this struck me as sensible and, like Harris, I think that we would be better off as a society in eliminating retributive punishment for the sake of retribution alone.

Last week I was discussing free will with a friend who said that he had also come to the conclusion that free will was an illusion. He had explained this to his teenage children who responded that in that case they no longer had to do their homework. I was quite puzzled about this reaction, it made no sense to me at all except as a typical teenage response of seeking to use anything they could think of to try to avoid unpleasant activities. But logically, I could not see why ceasing to believe in free will would lead you to stop doing things you had been doing up till then.

In do a review of the empirical literature on free will belief, I discovered a large body of research which has shown that changing a person’s belief in free will does result in behavioural change. Studies using deterministic arguments to undermine people’s belief in free will have led to a number of negative outcomes including increased cheating and aggression. It has also been linked to worse job performance, a reduction in helping behaviours and lowered feelings of gratitude. As with my anecdote about children and homework, I have trouble understanding why this would happen.

One strand of explanation looks at belief in free will as necessary to supply the requisite motivation to maintain a strong sense of ethical duty and responsibility ( an argument made by Smilansky here). Others assume that people decide if there is no free will “they cannot be held accountable, no one’s to blame, and everything’s permitted, right?”  Which of course, does not follow at all.

Both these proposed explanations would apply only to people for whom the threat of punishment or the promise of reward are primary determining factors for actions. These are people at stage 1 of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. People at stage 2 and stage 3 of moral development would not change their behaviour if they ceased to believe they had free will.

A third interpretation of people changing behaviour when they cease to think they have free will is that they are confusing determinism with fatalism. That what will happen will happen and their choice of action will make no difference to the result. Again, this is a completely incoherent reaction.

A number of philosophers such as Daniel Dennett and Saul Smilansky have concluded that, in Smilansky’s words “We cannot afford for people to internalize the truth” about free will”. Smilansky is convinced that free will does not exist in the traditional sense—and that it would be very bad if most people realized this. He argues that the fact that free will is an illusion is something that should be kept within the ivory tower.

Nietzsche called free will “a theologians’ artifice” that permits us to “judge and punish.” And many thinkers have believed, as Smilansky does, that institutions of judgment and punishment are necessary if we are to avoid a fall into barbarism. Like Harris, I think that relinquishing a belief in free will in the ordinary way could allow society should move away from barbaric and ineffective punishments based on retribution, in favour of evidence-based penalties and other responses which protect society, deter bad behaviour and maximise rehabilitation.

Its difficult not to conclude that free will is a concept with religious roots that should have been discarded ages ago. Accepting this would also free us from hatred. Blaming people makes us angry and vengeful, and that clouds our judgment. Harris’s book makes this argument in more detail as does a 2016 article in The Atlantic.

The philosophers however are probably right in thinking that the illusion of free will is so strong that there is really not much need to worry about possible negative consequences of people seeing that it is an illusion. The general population in most countries has a long way to go before most adults are beyond Kohlberg Level 1 or 2 morality.

Consciousness and free will – Part 1

Like most people, it seemed obvious to me that we have free will and up until about three years ago, I had not thought about it much or questioned it. Then I read Sam Harris’ small book Free Will (2012, Free Press) which made the case that we do not have free will. In my previous posts on consciousness, I noted that Annaka Harris, David Chalmers and Anil Seth all had some discussion of free will in their books. So I re-read Sam Harris’s book, now with a much deeper understanding of its relationship to consciousness, and came away largely convinced that he is right in seeing free will as an illusion.

Free Will is a very short book, 66 pages of main text amounting to around 15,000 words. It is very well written and jargon-free and makes a very strong case that free will is an illusion. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. Well worth reading, whatever your views on free will.

For most people, consciousness not only involves a sense of self but also the feeling of being in control of your actions, of being the author of your thoughts. In other words, you have free will, the ability to consciously choose among potential decisions or actions. I refer to this as free will in the ordinary sense. This idea of free will emerges from a felt experience, and most people do not question it. That included me until relatively recently.

Three main positions on free will

Harris notes that in the philosophical literature we find three main approaches to the problem: determinism, compatibilism and libertarianism. Determinists believe that our thoughts and actions are fully determined by internal and external background causes and free will is an illusion. Compatibilists accept determinism and redefine “free will” as being free from any outer or inner coercions that would prevent the person from acting on his actual desires and intentions.

Libertarians (no relation to the political philosophy) believe that free will occurs outside of physical causation, whether as the causal action of consciousness on the physical brain or perhaps via metaphysical entities such as a soul. While both determinists and libertarians believe determinism and free will are incompatible, I will refer to libertarians in this review as incompatibilists to avoid confusion with the extreme right-wing political libertarians. Harris notes that our modern understanding of brain and behaviour strongly supports a determinist view and that “today, the only philosophically respectable way to endorse free will is to be a compatibilist”.

David Bourget and David Chalmers surveyed 931 philosophy faculty members at 99 institutions in many countries and found that 12% of philosophers were determinists, 59% compatibilists, 14% incompatibilists, and 15% had other views. Leaving other views aside, this means that 71% of philosophers do not believe in free will in the ordinary sense and only 14% do. This means that almost three quarters of philosophers agree with Sam Harris’ case that (ordinary) free will is an illusion, except that some are quite angry with him for not accepting their redefinition of free will as the freedom from coercion (more of this later).

Objective evidence

Harris’s case rests on objective, scientific observations on the one hand, and subjective evidence from introspection and meditation on the other hand. The scientific evidence includes:

  • Observations that brain activity occurs a significant time interval before conscious awareness of the intention to do something.
  • Given the right experimental manipulations, people can be led to believe that they consciously intended an action, when they neither chose it nor had control over their movements.
  • Hypnotized people who are asked why they have done things that were suggested by the hypnotist will confabulate reasons for their actions that have nothing to do with the actual reason.

To this I would add the experiments done with split brain patients, where an action is requested to one side only of the split brain. When the patient is asked via the other side of the split brain why they did that action, the other side will invent a plausible reason that it believes.

Subjective evidence

Sam Harris devotes more of his book to discussion of our subjective experience, arguing that free will is not only an illusion, but it doesn’t even correspond to any subjective fact about us. Introspection soon shows us that thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. Seeming acts of volition merely arise spontaneously and cannot be traced to a point of origin in our conscious minds. As an experienced meditator, I am well aware that my thoughts appear spontaneously in my mind, and I can no more decide what I will next think or intend until a thought or intention arises in my mind. To directly observe this is to understand that we are not the authors of our thoughts and actions in the way that people generally suppose. You might respond that you can think connected chains of thought, but meditators know that these arise and cease for reasons outside our conscious control.

Part of the felt experience of free will is to feel that you could have chosen to do something other than what you did, to think the thought “I could have done otherwise” after doing whatever you did do. But it is not possible to go back and make a different decision. This is an untestable belief. The perception that you could have, is actually an understanding that you could make a different decision if similar circumstance arose in the future. And that is likely true, particularly if what you did do last time had undesirable consequences. Read Harris for a fuller discussion of this.

What do the authors of the other books on consciousness that I have been reading think about free will? Anneka Harris agrees with Sam Harris and summarizes the same case, probably just as well since she is married to him. I briefly discuss the views of the other authors below.

Daniel Dennett

Daniel Dennet is a compatibilist who agrees with Sam that we do not have free will and our choices are determined, not free. But he redefines free will as the freedom to do what is determined and is very aggressive about attacking Harris for claiming there is no free will (even though Harris is talking about the type of free will he agrees is an illusion). Einstein expressed this compatibilist view very clearly as follows:  In a 1929 interview in The Saturday Evening Post, he said: ‘I do not believe in free will. I believe with Schopenhauer: we can do what we wish, but we can only wish what we must.’

Dennett has written a book Freedom Evolves (2003) in which he defends his compatibilist view that that the concept of free will should be redefined so that it no longer involves a free choice among alternatives but rather refers to our freedom to do that one thing that we must wish to do, in other words our freedom from coercion. I think even this definition is incoherent, since if there is external coercion, it is just one of the external determining factors in the determination of our choice (either to change it because we are coerced, or to not change it and suffer the consequence of the coercion). As Eyal Moses’ 2010 review of his book stated:

“For Dennett, the significance of free will is that it is the basis of morality and moral responsibility, of engaging in moral judgment and holding people responsible for their actions. His thesis is that while free will in the ordinary sense is an illusion, these consequences of free will are real and compatible with his deterministic model of the universe, so free will should be redefined to refer to these consequences. Dennett suggests that calling an action “freely chosen” should not mean that the person had some other possible alternative action (which Dennett claims is never true), but rather should mean that we are justified in holding the person morally responsible for that action.”

Dennett has written a long, condescending and incoherent review of Sam Harris’ book. Harris has responded to this here, and Daniel Miessner has written a devastating critique of Dennett’s arguments and examples in his review of Harris’s book. Miessner summarizes Dennett’s position as (1) We have free will because we feel like we do and (2) It’s useful to hold people responsible for their actions, so we must tell people that free will is real.

If you want to dig a little deeper into the issues around understanding the true nature of free will, I can recommend reading Dennett’s review, Sam Harris’ response and Miessner’s detailed critique.

David Chalmers

Chalmers made a fairly strong case in his book that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of mental functioning and itself has no causal role. But he resisted drawing this conclusion, saying he is agnostic and hopes to find some subtle role for consciousness in causing behaviour.  Annaka Harris identifies such a potential causal role for the behaviour of someone who is reporting on their experience of meditating on their empty consciousness (formless awareness). Its hard to imagine how a zombie could exhibit such behaviour.

Chalmers examines a number of potential strategies for avoiding epiphenomenalism but concludes that none of them justify rejecting the conclusion that consciousness is mostly epiphenomenal, perhaps with some subtle exceptions.  This clearly is fundamental to the issue of whether or not we have free will, and I find it odd that Chalmers does not discuss free will directly. He is on record as saying he does not have strong feelings about free will. For some reason, he appears to act coy around expressing a view on free will, though he is clearly sceptical and tending towards compatibilism, saying in the Scientific American interview that “If it just means you can do what you want to do, then, well, that seems pretty straightforward. If it’s the ability to do something completely non-deterministic, well, I don’t know if we have that.”

Anil Seth

Anil Seth also comes down very clearly on the side of no “spooky free will” (free will where consciousness causally intervenes in the flow of physical events). He discusses in some detail how intentions are formed in the brain before we become aware of making a decision and the very strong feeling that our “self” has made the decision and is causing the action. He is also a compatibilist, also quoting Schopenhauer in slightly different words “Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.”

But Seth, somewhat like Dennett, is clearly unwilling to state that free will is an illusion.  Indeed, he says that the conscious experience of volition is as real as any other conscious perception, such as a visual experience of colour. I find it somewhat difficult to take him seriously after he has just reviewed at length all the neurological experiments showing brain activity a significant time before a conscious volition is experienced and that people will experience volition if they are fooled into thinking they are controlling a series of events or the real cause is hidden from them.

What Seth actually means by saying the experience of volition is “real” is that it is indeed an experience we have, even though it does not reflect a reality in which our “self” makes choices from a range of options, any of which the self could have chosen. Seth argues that the reason we have this experience of volition is that it is indispensable to our survival and assists us to realize that we can learn from our previous “voluntary” actions, to possibly make a different choice next time. He may well be right.

In conclusion

The objective evidence, well discussed in some detail by Anil Seth, and the subjective evidence, well laid out by Sam Harris, and which I have also examined in some depth, together make a strong case that free will in the ordinary sense, is an illusion, or as Sam Harris puts it more strongly, even the illusion of free will is an illusion. It seems to me very likely that not only are free will and the sense of a conscious self illusions, but that consciousness is largely along for the ride, and plays at most only a limited causal role in behaviour and thought.

I have not touched on the implications of this for moral responsibility. Sam Harris spends quite a bit of time discussing this in his book, and Daniel Dennett sees moral responsibility as necessary and that it justifies redefining free will so people can be told they have it. There is quite a body of empirical evidence around this issue and I will examine it, as well as evidence on the free will beliefs of the general population and specific groups, in Part 2 of this post on free will.

What is consciousness

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been thinking more and more about the nature of consciousness. My Zen meditation practice basically involves letting go of thoughts, letting go of the self, and simply experiencing consciousness without content. I have direct experiences from my meditation practice, as well as a reasonably wide reading of Zen and Buddhist masters and their experiences and understanding of consciousness, self and reality.  At times, I feel like I have had openings to experiences which have “enlightened” me about the nature of self, consciousness etc, but I have not really integrated these tastes of non-self into any sort of stable or mature understanding of reality.

I had read a few articles by philosophers who have explored the nature of consciousness, particularly the so-called hard problem of consciousness and last year read a review of a new book by Anil Seth which led me to think he had made advances from the neuroscience perspective.

Apart from my direct explorations through Zen meditation, breathwork and psychedelics, I also have worked with several Zen teachers and read extensively on consciousness in Buddhist literature and in the works of Ken Wilber, who has explored and mapped states and stages of consciousness in his writings. More recently, I read and reviewed Sam Harris’s book Waking Up, which also discusses the nature of consciousness and self.

So I decided I would read some of the key books and articles on consciousness from the philosophers and neuroscientists, to complement my experience and understanding gained from meditation and psychedelic explorations.

I bought the following books:

Anil Seth is a neurologist, Peter Godfrey-Smith a biologist and philosopher of science. Annaka Harris is a science writer (fun fact: also the wife of Sam Harris). Lewis-Williams and Pearce are both archaeologists. The final three are all philosophers. I guess the other relevant discipline I am missing is artificial intelligence research. I’ve read a little in this area and have found it mostly irrelevant to the issues relating to consciousness that I am interested in, and tedious reading to boot.

I browsed Chalmers book on consciousness and discovered the entire book ignores the entire knowledge base on states of consciousness, meditation, nondual states, etc. As if it’s irrelevant. So I quickly browsed the books by the other two philosophers, and the book by Anil Seth the neurologist. Not a single mention of meditation, altered states, psychedelics. I had bigger problems with Seth’s ideas, but will leave that to a separate review.

My initial reaction was to dismiss the philosophers as inhabiting a limited sterile corner of academia ignoring large parts of human experience. But then realized if I did that, I would be no better than them.

Ken Wilber has gone down this same path of integrating Western psychology and philosophy with Eastern first-person methods and understanding and has been largely ignored by academia and philosophers.  In part, because he does somewhat go over the top, and despite his focus on empirical methods, does seem to uncritically accept aspects of Tibetan Buddhism at more or less face value. Such as rebirth.

Sam Harris seems to get it more right. And his conclusions are very much aligned with mine. And even he gets dismissed by Western commentators as being arrogant. By telling them they cannot just critique from the outside, without trying the methods for themselves. So much for open-mindedness to all the relevant evidence.

For consciousness per se, which is a subjective experience, its clear that the objective methods of science are going to be at best marginally relevant. What is most relevant is the actual massive domain of experiences of consciousness. Particularly those focused not on the contents of consciousness (as the psychologists and neuroscientists like to do) but those focused on the exploration of consciousness per se when the contents are out of the way. The recent book by Anneka Harris is the only other one on my list above which examines what meditation tells us about consciousness.  And when I started reading it, I found it a superb discussion of the various issues and theories about consciousness.  So my next post will be a closer look at Harris’ book, and then I will dive into the philosophers.

Links to my later posts on consciousness are given below:

Anneka Harris on the fundamental mystery of consciousness Oct 6 2022

Consciousness Explained…..or Consciousness Ignored? Oct 16 2022

Atheism and Spirituality

Late last year I volunteered to participate in a research study on psilocybin-occasioned mystical experiences.  I completed an online survey and later was interviewed by the principal researcher in a more than hour long semi-structured zoom interview. In the survey, I had answered a question on religious affiliation with “Atheist”. During the interview, the interviewer expressed surprise that I practiced Zen meditation as she equated atheism with a materialist philosophy.  I in turn was surprised at her assuming that a spiritual practice implied a belief in God or gods, particularly as my practice was to a large extent within a Zen Buddhist context, which does not treat the historical Buddha as a god or invoke concepts of gods.

I refined my thoughts on this topic in several online discussions, where I found both religious believers and some other atheists were very hostile to the idea that an atheist could have a spiritual practice. And I noticed that some of the atheists who did say they were spiritual, defined “spiritual” in terms of experiences like the enjoyment of a sunset or a moving piece of music, or the feeling of being part of nature.  

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