Earlier in July, Thomas aired two episodes on free will, AS49 and AS50. He shared his thoughts on an exchange between Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. Dennett wrote a review of Harris’ book Free Will. Harris replied to Dennett on his (Harris’) blog.
Free will is a capacity to make choices. Given this very minimal definition, free will sounds rather ordinary. Yet whether anyone actually has such a capacity remains debatable.
Free will skeptics say a truly free decision would be rather extraordinary—even impossible. Often, these skeptics are incompatibilists. They believe that free will is incompatible with determinism. Roughly put, determinism is the idea that present events are fully constrained (i.e., caused or necessitated) by past events plus the laws of nature. Incompatibilists say that if our universe is deterministic, then we don’t have free will.
Thinkers who identify as compatibilists disagree. These individuals believe free will is compatible with determinism. They think free will can exist in a deterministic universe.
Which side is right depends on what it means to choose freely. Incompatibilists propose that being free requires having alternative possibilities at the moment of choice, or perhaps even knowing and controlling all the factors that lead to the choice one makes. In contrast, compatibilists tend to say free will requires only that our conscious plans and deliberations contribute to how we choose and act.
Both camps claim to define free will in a way that best captures what free will feels like or what commonsense tells us it requires.
As I discuss with Thomas, psychologist Daniel Wegner studies the “experience of conscious will.” Wegner believes his research shows that free will is an illusion, no matter which camp’s definition we accept.
Thomas and I also talk about the work of experimental philosopher Eddy Nahmias (whom I studied with when getting my Master’s degree). Nahmias, a compatibilist, has conducted several experiments that suggest most people don’t find incompatibilism intuitive. Nahmias’ more recent research suggests that, contrary to what Harris argues in Free Will, most people don’t believe free will conflicts with (hypothetical) brain scanners that perfectly predict our decisions. Check out Nahmias’ short review of Free Will to learn more.