Are my beliefs about free will freely chosen?

by Emrys Westacott

In Homo Deus, the 2017 follow-up to his widely read Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari dismisses the idea of free will in cavalier fashion. Contemporary science, he argues, has proved it to be a fiction. In support of this claim, he offers several arguments.

  1. Everything we do is fully determined by our “genes, hormones, and neurons,” and these “obey the same physical and chemical laws governing the rest of reality.” So from a scientific point of view, if we ask why a man performed any act, “answering ‘Because he chose to’ doesn’t cut the mustard. Instead, geneticists and brain scientists provide a much more detailed answer: ‘He did it due to such-and-such electro-chemical processes in the brain that were shaped by a particular genetic make-up, which in turn reflect evolutionary pressures coupled with random mutations.”[1]
  2. The concept of free will is incompatible with the theory of evolution. According to Darwin’s theory, we came to be what we are by passing on genes that proved useful in the struggle to survive. If human actions (e.g. eating and mating) were freely chosen, then we couldn’t explain our evolution in terms of natural selection.
  3. Recent laboratory research proves that our feeling that we make free choices is an illusion. Subjects whose brains are being monitored are told to press one of two switches. They think they are making a free choice; but a scientist watching a brain scanner can predict which switch they will press before the subject is even aware of having made a choice. This shows, says Harari, that “I don’t choose my desires. I only feel them, and act accordingly.”[2]
  4. The idea of free will is bound up with the idea of an individual self that constitutes the inner essence of each human being. This modern notion of the self is really just a hangover from the religious concept of the soul. But all these notions–soul, self, essence–are outmoded; “so to ask, ‘How does the self choose its desires?’ …[is] like asking a bachelor, ‘How does your wife choose her clothes?’ In reality there is only a stream of consciousness, and desires arise and pass away within this stream, but there is no permanent self that owns the desires…”[3]

Harari advances these arguments with great confidence. Yet they are far from conclusive.

Regarding (2): The story of human evolution may not require free will; but it doesn’t rule out the possibility that some of our actions are free. In fact, if the mental deliberation leading up to a decision is a free-spinning wheel that has no actual influence over our decisions, it is hard to understand how nature selected in an organism that expends so much time and so many calories on a pointless process.

Regarding (3): The neuroscience purporting to show that certain so-called choices are made before we are even aware of having made them, is also a thin reed on which to base a wholesale rejection of the idea that humans have control over their decisions. After all, the arbitrary choice over something as inconsequential as which of two switches to press may be quite different from decisions made over important matters after sustained deliberation. And in fact there is no consensus among either philosophers, psychologists, or neuroscientists over what the findings in question might mean. The phenomenon in question is known as the Bereitschaftspotential (readiness potential). It consists of an uptick in neural activity immediately prior to a choice being made. But as a recent article in The Atlantic reported, the assumption that the Bereitschaftpotential represents the cause of a choice has been persuasively criticized by other scientists in the field.[4]

Regarding (4): The claim that the idea of free will stands or falls with the idea that each of us is–or has–a unitary self makes prima facie sense. Without some notion of a self, it is hard to see how we can think of acts as performed by an agent, decisions as made by a decider, or beliefs as held by a believer. But does this notion of the self really deserve to be held in such disrepute. To be sure, the metaphysical view that each of is essentially an immaterial, indivisible, indestructible soul-substance is today endorsed by few philosophers who don’t also have strong religious convictions. But that doesn’t mean that we have no use for a more down-to-earth notion of the self as the entity, principle, network, structure, complex–call it what you will–that somehow unifies an individual’s experiences over time, integrates their beliefs, attitudes, and values, and is understood by themselves and by others as in some way and to some extent responsible for their actions. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how we could function without holding onto some such notion of the self. It’s the notion of the self that Harari himself presumably uses when he banks the royalty cheques to which he is entitled for conceiving, researching and writing his books.

That leaves us with the first of the above objections to free will, which is really just a blunt assertion of common or garden determinism, a position Harari identifies with the “scientific point of view.” Philosophers have been discussing the apparent incompatibility between free will and determinism ever since the scientific revolution. A common rhetorical device, used by many of those who are skeptical about free will, is to write as if the matter is essentially settled to the satisfaction of all scientifically informed scholars, implying, thereby, that anyone inclined to defend the notion of free will is sitting in the dustbin of intellectual history alongside Ptolemaic astronomers and anti-Darwinians. But this simply isn’t true. There are plenty of informed thinkers who continue to take the idea of free will seriously.

There is also a persistently troubling problem with determinism that, at least to my mind, has never been adequately dealt with: the problem of how and why determinists, according to their own account, come to hold the beliefs they do. Or, what amounts essentially to the same issue, what they think they are doing when seek to persuade other people by means of rational arguments to adopt their views.

Here is what Harari has to say about rational deliberation. Faced with any decision, such as whom to vote for in an election,

“there are many possible trains of argument that I could follow, some of which will cause me to vote Conservative, others to vote Labour, and still others to vote UKIP or just stay at home. What makes me board one train of reasoning rather than another? In the Paddington of my brain, I might be compelled to embark on a particular train of reasoning by deterministic processes, or I might hop on at random. But I don’t ‘freely’ choose to think those thoughts that will make me vote Conservative.”[5]

Presumably, this description applies to any “train of reasoning,” including the one that leads people to believe or not believe in free will. But either rational deliberation is a process that, so to speak, leaves causal determination behind; or it can be identified with causal determination. In the former case, the process is the kind that allows free choice; in the latter case it doesn’t. But identifying reasoning with causal determination, or reducing the former to the latter, as Harari seems to do (except if the connections are random), is decidedly odd. We talk about reasoning and causation in completely different ways. They are distinct spheres of discourse. An argument can be assessed as valid or invalid, sound or unsound. Evidence can be judge relevant or irrelevant, weak or strong. These concepts apply to the relation between premises and conclusion; but they don’t apply to the relation between cause and effect. It makes no sense to say that one neural event fails to logically entail or provide sufficient justification for a second neural event that it happens to trigger. That would be like saying that the moon rhymes with a spoon. Moons and spoons, being physical objects, not words, can’t rhyme with one another. Only “moon” and “spoon” can do that.

None of this is meant to suggest that thought processes can occur independently of brain processes. If I read Harari’s books and conclude that his arguments against free will are unpersuasive, a certain sequence of physical events will have taken place in my brain. The question isn’t whether thoughts can float around free of any material medium. As far as we know, they can’t. The question is whether we can dispense with the idea of rational reflection as something that, while it necessarily involves brain processes, is not reducible to them. And as far as I can see, we can’t.

Harari presumably wishes to persuade us to share his beliefs. He does this by offering evidence and arguments. But suppose another method is available to him. Suppose he could induce in us the beliefs in question by administering a certain drug, or by means of hypnosis. What grounds would he have for preferring persuasion by argument over these other methods? If we are simply comparing alternative “deterministic processes,” what makes one method superior to the others?

Suppose I said to Harari, “I accept that your premises are true; I accept that your arguments are valid; but I don’t accept your conclusions.” How would he respond? The natural response would be to accuse me of being unreasonable. But what would that mean? If a train of reasoning is just a “deterministic process,” what makes one process more reasonable than another? Besides, it wouldn’t be fair to “accuse” me of anything. My brain simply operates the way it does. I don’t have any control over its operations. If anything, I should be pitied for holding (through no fault of my own), false beliefs.

This way of criticizing determinism doesn’t dispute the findings of neuroscience. There is nothing wrong with the scientific project of trying to understand what happens in the brain in terms of causal connections between biochemical events. But there is also nothing wrong with viewing ourselves as rational beings, capable of assessing arguments, and sometimes exercising what we call freedom in the process of deciding what to believe and how to act. In fact, this way of thinking about ourselves, for the time being at least, seems to be unavoidable and indispensable. So too, therefore, are key concepts that it involves, such as “self,” “free choice,” rationality,” and “responsibility.”

Readers familiar with the history of philosophy will recognize that the position I am adopting here is quite similar to that defended by Immanuel Kant. Kant had great respect for natural science, and believed it had to proceed on the basis of a deterministic view of the universe. But he also held that human beings could not function on the basis of the scientific outlook alone. We are doers as well as knowers. We therefore cannot avoid thinking of ourselves as free, responsible, rational agents. These two perspectives don’t fit very easily together. But that’s just the way it is.

Why Harari and other scholars are so ready to throw out, in the name of scientific rigour, the perspective that employs our ordinary notions of freedom, rationality, and responsibility, is an interesting question. Of course, it may just be the effect of specific events in their personal histories. But I suspect it has more to do with the tremendous prestige that science enjoys in contemporary culture. This is certainly a powerful environmental influence on all our thinking. But whatever the reason, the temptation to think of the scientific picture as one that negates or excludes other useful–even indispensable–perspectives is one we should resist.


[1] Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (New York: HarperCollins, 2017), p. 284.

[2] Harari, p. 287.

[3] Harari, p. 287.

[4] Bahar Gholipour, “A Famous Argument Against Free Will Has Been Debunked,” The Atlantic, Sept. 10, 2019.

[5] Harari, p. 286.

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