I know this has been discussed before, but I have read Sam Harris' book Free Will and Michael Shermer's book The Believing Brain, and I must say that I agree with both authors. Studies show that our brains make a decision on an unconscious level three tenths of a second and sometimes more before we even consciously know we're going to act. To take a short quote from Shermer's book: "The neural activity that precedes the intention to act is inaccessible to our conscious mind, so we experience a sense of free will. But it is an illusion, caused by the fact that we cannot identify the cause of the awareness of our intention to act".

Tags: Free, Harris, Michael, Sam, Shermer, Will

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Trick, I ask because ten years after I graduated college my political activism showed me a world much larger than the world I had studied in the required philosophy courses and the chosen physics classrooms and laboratories.

After I retired I started taking art courses and glimpsed a world with no boundaries.

Try either or both of those.

I think boundaries are important. ;o)

Even if our lack of true free will meant that things were somehow determined or predestined, it would make no difference. We do not know the future, and therefore we don't know what will really happen despite our plans tomorrow. If each of us, and all of us as a collective, have our way somehow fixed, it would be no different than if we did, indeed, have free will, at least for the most part. So, whatever the case (and it may never be answered to everyone's satisfaction), it doesn't matter about determinism or free will. I do not believe in free will, but I live just like a person who does believe in it. We all do. Go with it.

Also, even if the universe is mostly deterministic on a macroscopic level, a tiny, unobservable difference in the universe could result in you making a different choice.  Maybe if one neuron does or does not reach the threshold of firing, you would make a different choice. 

...a tiny, unobservable difference....

Yes. As someone once said, a devastating hurricane in the South Atlantic requires only a butterfly in China to take to the air.

A whole lot of things change with the understanding that there is no free will. The free will belief embeds itself into a number of extremely important topics: ethics, economics, criminality, religion, politics, how we think about and treat others, what we place on ourselves, and more.

The recognition that a person isn't blameworthy in a certain sense...or isn't more "deserving" than another... means a whole lot in regards to how change needs to happen in the world. The recognition that people couldn't, of their own accord, done otherwise... is quite a progressive recognition that could literally change the world if it was widely understood.

So when people say we will or should act the same as if we had free will, I couldn't disagree with that sentiment more. 

I'm not sure if you'd be interested in this, but there is this phenomenon that the psychedelic culture refers to as "ego death." People who take an effective dose of a psychedelic compound often will report this phenomenon of, in a way, feeling your fatedness. You have an experience that you feel was in some way inevitable, that if hard determinism was the case, then you're somehow able to feel that your free will is entirely a hoax. Michael Hoffman writes about this phenomenon at his website "EgoDeath.com".

If you wanted to produce this with psilocybin mushrooms, for instance, it's recommended by Terence McKenna for a person who weighs 140 lbs to take five dried grams of psilocybin-containing mushrooms. I was urged to try this by reading McKenna's books, and it took about 2 years before I finally found a mushroom connect to even attempt this. As a result of the experience, coincidentally enough I became highly fascinated with religio-philosophical conecpts, the notion of free will, etc. I believe I had this "ego death" phenomenon occur, and when I ran to Google to see if anyone else was experiencing this, lo and behold, I find that it's a common experience when you take the "full dose." That's how I found the EgoDeath website in the first place. I was astonished to see that this wasn't specific to my experience, but many had reported this phenomenon of somehow being able to feel a hard determinism.

For the people who think free will is an illusion - whatever do you think making choices "should" feel like?  If your experience weren't an illusion? 

I'd have to be some extraordinary being that saw all of the variables that cause my actions for it to not be an illusion. It's the very fact that we don't see those variables that gives us this "feeling" as if "we" are what's doing it, rather than every single variable that we have no control over, including our genetic dispositions and the very environment we grew up in.

Like I said, if you were Hitler atom for atom, quark for quark, if you were born at the same time as Hitler, to the same parents, and every genetic and environmental factor was identical (from your brain chemistry, to friends, to pets, to the weather, etc)...you would do nothing differently than Hitler. You would make no different decision.

Yes, but you are not Hitler and there is no way that you ever will be Hitler. We do not deal with the "what ifs." We deal with what really is. What we can prove and demonstrate.

That is what determinists believe, but how well established is that belief? We can never make the experiment of repeating the exact circumstances that brought Hitler into power and drove him to terrible deeds. How then do we know that the determinist position is the correct one? What determinists have to offer us is a plausibility argument, not a proof.

If we cannot choose between ideas and ideologies, there is little hope as time goes on that more and more people will adopt reason over myth. Given the necessity of iron fatalism, nothing can be expected to improve. We might get lucky or we might not. Religious belief seems to have immense appeal, which can only be overcome by choosing reason at every step, but maybe that will not happen.


We can prove and demonstrate that free will is logically incoherent. What we can't prove or demonstrate is that free will exists. And we certainly can use thought experiments to help assist people in understanding the basics. The case against free will is, however, in the logical analysis.

Dr. Allan,

Again, if the universe is entirely causal (determinism), it logically follows that this is the case (as X cannot both be the cause of Y and not the cause of Y, a self-contradiction). Hitler is just a thought experiment, but it follows that if nothing were "causally" different, we could not act differently - logically.

If acausal events do happen (indeterminism), it could be the case that something was done differently, but such a change would never be of our own accord (acausal events can never be wiled events). In other words such is equally as logically incompatible to free will as determinism (and more detrimental).

This isn't "plausibility", this is the case: if we are to be logically coherent. Perhaps one can make a case against logic itself, but then we simply can't know or communicate anything as all word identity is lost. We can only work reasonably within the confines of logic (deduction and induction).

Also, it must be noted that determinism is not the same thing as defeatism or fatalism. Determinism understands that our conscious actions are part of the causal process.


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