Smart responses to my essay on free will

Don Watkins
12 min readMar 3, 2022


Photo by Oliver Roos on Unsplash

In “Sam Harris’s Delusional Case for Determinism,” I argued that free will exists as our freedom to think or not, and that the case for determinism is baseless and unscientific.

Shockingly, not everyone agreed, so I wanted to address the best questions and objections.

What do we introspect?

I argued that, fundamentally, volition is our capacity to regulate our cognitive functioning. It’s a choice about mental processes, not content. Free will isn’t primarily about whether we choose to watch Stranger Things or Veronica Mars — it’s about the level of awareness we bring that or any other decision.

Then I gave some examples of this kind of mental management, and contrasted it with Sam Harris’s account, wherein mysterious forces we aren’t aware of are responsible for our mental activities.

The most interesting objections came from Sarah Constantin, who took issue with my description of what we introspect about our mental self-control.

[S]o, one thing that I don’t agree with is that you have *one* choice at every moment, to focus effortfully or not.

It seems clear that you can, e.g. choose to attend to different senses, or look for different things in your environment.

I actually agree with this. Focus is our primary choice, not our only one. We really can choose between Stranger Things and Veronica Mars, but this presupposes that we have seized our mental reins and aren’t simply going on autopilot.

Focus just means that we’ve taken control of our cognitive functioning. We raise our level of awareness so that we know more clearly what we’re doing and why. But that leaves a lot of optionality for how we exercise mental self-control and where we direct it.

Sometimes we’ll direct our attention to a single task that consumes our mental resources over time, like what I’m doing while writing this essay. Other times, we’ll direct our attention to different things in our environment in a more relaxed, curiosity driven way.

The same is true of our inner life. We can engage in a concentrated effort to understand some emotional reaction we’re having. But we can also daydream, deliberately allowing thoughts and ideas to spring from our subconscious. (A lot of creativity involves this kind of daydreaming.)

What distinguishes these states from drift is that they are purposeful states. When you’re in focus you may be concentrating or you may merely be monitoring, but in every case you’re exercising executive oversight of your mental life.

I also don’t think “volitional” (e.g. effortful) action is the same thing as wise/reflective action, but you seem to think it is, because you describe a drunk person as not acting volitionally. Drunk people do dumb things, but they definitely *try* to do things.

Actual “it doesn’t feel like it’s me doing it” experiences, like out-of-body or dissociative experiences, are rare aberrations. They’re possible but not typical.

Different from ordinary absentmindedness, like “I didn’t notice I was doing it.”

Focus is not an all-or-nothing state. The best way to think of it is as your level of awareness. In every waking moment, you have some baseline level of awareness, and for an adult human being, there’s always some conceptual content to that awareness, including some level of intentionality.

But at low levels of awareness, whatever conceptual content is operative is accidental and whatever intentionality is exercised is short-range and emotional.

A guy has ten too many at a bar. Someone accidentally spills a drink on his shoes, and the guy escalates it into a fight. Those actions weren’t reflexes, in the way that flinching when a bug flies at your face is. But when he wakes up the next day and wonders, “Jesus, what was I thinking?” the point is: he wasn’t thinking. It’s not just that his decision-making was unwise, it’s that there really wasn’t decision-making going on. He felt angry and lashed out without regard for consequences, which he may have perceived dimly if at all.

For someone characteristically in focus, there will often be something of a dissociative feeling about those kinds of experiences, at least in hindsight.

But that wasn’t really my point. My point was much simpler. It’s that at low levels of awareness, our actions are going to be driven by emotions and (dominantly) perceptual-level data about our environment and internal states (e.g., I’m hungry, I’m horny) rather than the self-conscious monitoring and decision-making characteristic of someone in focus.

Some mental phenomena seem spontaneous (like hearing a leafblower) while others seem effortful (like trying to tune it out), but even the effortful ones seem to be sparked by a thought or impulse that arises spontaneously, like “I want X” or “I should Y”.

This is the crux of the disagreement, as far as I can tell.

It may be that when you hear a leafblower you have the thought, “I should pay attention to my work.” But the thought, “I should pay attention to my work” doesn’t cause you to pay attention to your work, just as the thought, “I shouldn’t eat this pie” doesn’t cause you to not eat the pie. (God, that would make dieting so much easier!) That thought has zero causal efficacy unless you willfully endorse it. You have to exert the effort to actually pay attention to your work, and that is caused by you, not by the thought.

If there was a singular “I” controlling all my thoughts, then my thoughts would all be logically consistent with each other and my actions would all pull together for the same coherent set of goals, and clearly that’s not the case. . . .

In the Sam Harris view, free will would consist of the conscious mind determining what thoughts arise from the subconscious. This is the implication of the question he’ll sometimes ask: can you predict your next thought?

But that has nothing to do with free will. We have a subconscious, which constantly feeds us material, just as our senses constantly feed us material. But what monitors and processes that material? Our conscious mind. That’s the seat of our free will.

Our subconscious material can be more or less well organized, more or less consistent, and most importantly, we can be more or less active in how we manage that material. So it’s no mystery why the faculty of free will doesn’t lead to some kind of robot consistency. On the contrary, consistency and coherence of one’s actions and goals is an enormous achievement.

The thing I’m more confident of is the phenomenology, the experience of how thought works. And I’m pretty sure that every “effortful” or (apparently) “volitional” mental phenomenon arises out of an effortless/spontaneous preceding mental phenomenon.

You experience choosing to move your hand — but only after you *happen to notice the affordance* to move your hand in that way. And after you *happen to notice* something advantageous/appealing/desirable about moving your hand in that way.

There simply is not a *continuous* chain of (apparently) volitional phenomena going all the way back without substantial causal influence from spontaneous phenomena.

The mind alternates between spontaneous “happening to notice”/”happening to think” and willed “trying/focusing”.

At least it does for me — if it feels substantially different for anyone else I’d like to know!

I’m also pretty sure that you couldn’t *do* willed/effortful thinking and action if not for spontaneous “happening-to-notice” phenomena that open up possibilities.

It’s not a failure of focus that stuff shows up spontaneously in the mind; it’s necessary.

There’s something right about this, but I think it’s formulated wrongly.

What’s right is that we don’t make choices in a vacuum. Our environment sets a context for choice, and our subconscious presents us with options for how to act in that context. And that happens in a value-laden way. It’s not just, “I could get something to eat,” but “I want to get something to eat,” perhaps followed by, “I should go straight to my desk and get to work.” I take this to be the “effortless/spontaneous preceding mental phenomen[a]” Sarah has in mind.

All of that happens regardless of your level of awareness. At a low level of awareness, there is a sense in which this material has causal efficacy. Namely, you’ll just go with whatever urge is strongest or whatever habitual path is most engrained.

What none of these thoughts or urges do is propel us to rise to a higher level of awareness. That is pure will. If we do exercise that will and choose to raise our level of awareness, then instead of passively going with our strongest urge or most entrenched habit, we’ll ask ourself questions like: what is the most important thing for me to be doing right now? Is it eating? Going to work? Something else? Why? In asking those questions, new material will arise from the subconscious, and we’ll judge that as well, bringing a much richer context to bear on our decision than if we were passive.

So I wouldn’t say that the “mind alternates between spontaneous ‘happening to notice’/’happening to think’ and willed ‘trying/focusing’.” Rather, it’s that a mind in focus is constantly alternating between querying the subconscious and judging subconscious material.

Science, causality, and the validation of free will

A common theme of the responses to my essay was that, even if one grants that I’m accurately describing what our internal experience feels like, the best explanation is that this is an illusion because the laws of physics rule out free will.

From bitbutter:

“Your basic choice, the root of your free will, is your ability to take control of your mind and raise your level of awareness”

none of this escapes the appeal to parsimony that concludes FW is an illusion, though.

awareness management is then another case of (falsely) feeling you could have chosen otherwise. we feel this way bc the inputs that resolve to those choices are perpetually in our blind spot

And here’s from a private message fleshing this kind of view out in more depth:

Think about the universe, your body, brain, etc. They’re made of atoms. You’re made of complexe arrangements of these atoms. Neurons fire for biochemical reasons. Do we really expect biochemistry to work differently based on our conscious experience of it? If we rewinded the universe to this morning and let everything play out, do you really think the reactions in your body have any chance of playing out differently? It’s difficult to see how it wouldn’t be exactly the same. Place all the pieces of the universe in the same spot as this morning and you’re going to be in the same environment, feeling the same feelings you felt, making the same choices in result and everything will fall into the same place we are here and now. How could it happen otherwise? on a biochemical level, atoms and molecules just react as they do.

I’ve argued that exercising free will is, at root, willing ourselves to increase our level of awareness. Why think we could have done otherwise? Because inherent in willing is the knowledge we could have done otherwise. “I had to will this” is incoherent.

So the fact of free will is self-evident. It takes a lot of work to identify what it is that we have control over, but that we have control is something we know directly.

What’s more, this knowledge of mental self-control is foundational.

Anyone who claims to have knowledge presupposes certain foundations. To appeal to scientific experiment, for example, presupposes the validity of the senses. (Even so-called illusions presuppose the validity of the senses, since it’s only by appeal to further sense perception that we can say, “This is an illusion.”)

Like the senses, free will is foundational to human knowledge. To see why, consider the conclusion that Bill Gates didn’t implant tracking chips in the COVID-19 vaccine.

People obviously disagree about this. And I’m going to assume that you think the Bill Gates conspiracists are wrong. But why? If your conclusions were determined by mysterious forces you aren’t aware of, then why think your mental process was any more rational than the conspiracists?

For any cognitive process open to error, free will is the precondition for concluding that you haven’t made an error. A person on my view can say, “I’ve fully committed myself to understanding reality, and I’ve deliberately followed the best thinking methodology I’m aware of, therefore I’m entitled to regard my conclusion as knowledge.” A determinist can’t say that. He cannot claim to know anything–including that determinism is true.

Here’s how Harry Binswanger explains the point:

One’s volitional control over one’s conceptual faculty indeed passes the test of re-affirmation through denial. Suppose someone states, “I do not have volitional control over my mind.” If so, then he cannot claim that statement is true or represents knowledge, only that whatever runs his mind forces him to believe it. He has to assume he is free to consider the facts on the subject of free will vs. determinism, in the very process of denying he is free to do so. . . .

A determinist cannot escape this self-invalidation by maintaining that what runs his mind are facts and logic. How, on the determinist premise, could he know that this was the case? After all, other men reach different conclusions, opposite to his, on many subjects. He is claiming to be, in effect, programmed to think in a certain way. How can he assess the validity of his programming (vs. the invalidity of others’ programming)? Any attempt validating his “programming” is doomed to failure. If he asserts that his programming is validated by a given test, that will merely raise the question: how do you know that? A deterministic mind could be programmed to announce that it passed a test when it actually failed, or to accept an invalid test as valid. And any further sentences he utters to defend against this objection would simply raise the same question over again: what makes you say that that is logical, if whatever you say is merely a reaction to the forces impinging on you at the moment?

The determinist is asserting he cannot be objective–that his mind is in the grip of something that runs it. If so, then he also cannot be objective about his meta-beliefs–i.e., beliefs about what determines him and what its nature is. By his own theory, he cannot judge either facts or his own judgments. Instead of judgment, there is only stimulus and response.

This isn’t proof of free will. As I said, free will is self-evident. Rather, this is proof that free will is foundational. If you claim to know anything, you’re presupposing it.

Why is this important for what we can call the Argument from Atoms? Because it means that we can’t appeal to non-foundational knowledge, such as the existence of atoms or the laws of physics, to overthrow free will. The validation of scientific knowledge presupposes we can validate, i.e., it presupposes we can willfully maintain contact with reality.

Free will is a fact we have direct awareness of, and so the goal of science has to be to explain it–not explain it away.

Consider an analogy. When Bell established nonlocality, one response could have been: no, nonlocality must be an illusion because it conflicts with relativity. But the right response is: even though this is weird, it’s a fact and so we have to formulate the laws of physics in a way that’s consistent with this fact.

My claim is that free will is a fact, and any theory about how the world works has to be consistent with that fact.

This includes any formulation of the law of causality. As I said in my earlier essay, I do believe in the law of causality. Causality, like free will, is self-evident and foundational. But what’s not self-evident is how to formulate the law of causality.

Sarah argues this is a definitional issue:

And that’s not even getting into the causality business, where I just get very bewildered.

The Aristotelian idea of “the behavior of a thing is caused by its nature” is like…ok but what is a “thing” and are you sure you drew the boundaries in the right place?

Anyway that seems like a definitional issue; you define causality one way, determinists define it another way, therefore you don’t believe that causality necessitates determinism and they do.

Well, yes, but the point is that the determinists are wrong because they are defining causality in a way that rules out a form of causality we know exists.

To take the other side of the coin, if it turns out that the Aristotelian formulation of causality rules out quantum phenomena, then we’d have to revise the Aristotelian formulation. Not declare that quantum phenomena are an illusion.

Closing thoughts

I’ve said that free will is our power to raise our level of awareness and engage in mental management. I’ve said that in exercising this will it’s self-evident we could have done otherwise, i.e., that it is free. And I’ve said that all later knowledge presupposes free will, so we can’t appeal to the current state of physics (or any other science) to overthrow our direct awareness of being organisms that choose.

So what of the response several people raised that our will only feels free, but maybe that freedom is an illusion?

I don’t regard that as a real objection. It is tantamount to Descartes’ argument that maybe everything we perceive is an illusion created by an evil demon. There’s no argument here, just an arbitrary assertion.

The whole appeal of determinism is supposed to be that it is the rational, scientific perspective. But arbitrary “maybes” are the antithesis of science and rationality. They are the Alex Jones of epistemology.

If the appeal to illusion is the hill determinists want to die on, by all means, go right ahead.

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