popesco wired up

This review of Julian Baggini’s Freedom Regained and John Gray’s The Soul of the Marionette is published in the summer 2015 edition of New Humanist.

From Tunisia to Tibet, from Russia to Kurdistan, from Syria to the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo – the quest for freedom is central to people’s lives, a quest so vital that many are willing to give their own lives to ensure its success.  For many intellectuals, however, freedom is but an illusion, a self-serving figment of our imagination.

Most of the intellectual arguments against freedom fall into two broad camps. One comprises scientific and philosophical arguments against the possibility of free will, the other political arguments against the desirability of revolutionary social change. In their new books, Julian Baggini and John Gray both link the two kinds of arguments about freedom. But they do so in very different ways and come to very different conclusions.

Baggini is one of Britain’s leading popularisers of philosophy, whose work often brings a measure of nuance to heated debates. Freedom Regained is no different.

There have been, in the last three decades, a series of genetic and neuroscientific studies that seem to undermine the idea of free will. Perhaps the most famous is that of Benjamin Libet in the 1980s. In a series of experiments, Libet asked his subjects to perform a simple volitional act (such as tapping on a button whenever they wished) and to note when they became aware of their desire to act. At the same time Libet measured brain activity through EEG sensors. The experiments demonstrated that brain activity began before the subjects were conscious of wanting to act.

There have been some criticisms of Libet’s methodology, but the broad outlines of his findings have been replicated many times since. For some, such experiments reveal why there is no room for free will. ‘The intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in consciousness’, the American writer and ‘New Atheist’ Sam Harris has argued; ‘rather it appears in consciousness’. Others have tried to wriggle out of such implications by arguing that quantum physics or chaos theory introduces indeterminacy into the system and out of such indeterminacy emerges free will.

Baggini challenges both the free will naysayers and those who locate free will in randomness. Indeterminacy, he points out, provides no basis for free will. If our choices were based on the equivalent of a toss of a coin, there would be no sense in which such choices could be said to be ‘free’.

Equally unconvincing is the argument that science undermines free will. Take the Libet experiment. Why is it so surprising that consciousness of a decision is undergirded by brain activity? Would it not be more surprising if consciousness popped out of our heads without any brain activity?baggini freedom

For many free will deniers, thoughts, beliefs, desires and feelings are just ‘epiphenomena’, by-products of neural processes that are the ‘real drivers of action’. But thoughts, Baggini shows, have ‘causal efficacy’. Ideas, beliefs, desires can all change people’s behaviour. Experiments have shown, for instance, with delicious irony, that the belief that one has free will makes people behave more morally while the belief that they lack it makes them behave less so.

Even if we accept that thoughts are more than epiphenomena, however, a materialist view accepts also that they are causally linked to the past. Every thought is caused by something prior, and that prior cause is itself the product of an earlier thought or event or phenomenon, and so on. Introducing thoughts into the picture does not get rid of the causal chain that runs back eventually to the Big Bang.  And if our thoughts are causally linked to the past, if they are the inevitable products of a chain of prior causes, in what sense can they be ‘free’?

To answer this, we need first to turn the question round. Would you want it any other way? Would you want your thoughts to be unconnected to all the elements that determine who you are? To simply pop into your head at random? Most people clearly wouldn’t. They would want their thoughts and beliefs and actions to be an expression of who they are. ‘No sane person’, as Baggini puts it, ‘would want the ability to choose anything at all. If you are appalled by needless violence, you would want it to be true that you recoiled from torture, not that you would be as free to do it as to not do it… We want many of our choices to flow with a kind of necessity from our beliefs and values.’

‘Here I stand. I can do no other.’ So asserted Martin Luther, defending his right to challenge the authority of the Pope. To most people today, that probably sounds like an expression of Luther’s free will. Luther, however, did not believe in free will; indeed he thought the concept a blasphemy. In his mind, he was defending not his independence of will but his lack of freedom to believe or act in any other way. In one sense, both views are right. Luther was compelled to act as he did because he was acting freely.

There are two ways of thinking about this seeming paradox. The first is well expressed by the neuroscientist Colin Blakemore. When ‘we feel ourselves to be in control of an action’, Blakemore wrote in his book The Mind Machine, ‘that feeling itself is the product of our brain, whose machinery has been designed, on the basis of its functional utility, by means of natural selection.’ According to Blakemore, ‘To choose a spouse, a job, a religious creed – or even to choose to rob a bank – is the peak of a causal chain that runs back to the origin of life and down to the nature of atoms and molecules.’

Insofar as it is true, the idea that our actions or beliefs are merely one link in a causal link that runs back to the beginning of the universe is making a trivial claim. Insofar as it is saying something profound, the claim is untrue.

magritte the false mirror

It is trivially true that every event is part of a causal chain. But the fact that it is tells us little about the nature of human behaviour or beliefs, except that we live in a world in which things don’t happen by magic. Insofar as the claim implies something profound – that a causal chain denies agency – it is untrue. This leads us to the second way of thinking about this issue. Every individual is a concatenation of a host of formative elements. Those elements include my genetic make-up and the biological structures of my brain, but also the books I have read, the experience I have imbibed, the ideas I have come across. When all these elements form into the organic whole that is a person, that whole is able to take its constituent parts and create out of them something new and unique. Something new and unique that I call ‘me’ that can respond to the world in a way that turns me into a causal element in the chain, that allows me to change things.

Those that deny free will in principle nevertheless act in practice as if it exists. They write books, give talks, want their beliefs and thoughts to change people’s minds. Sam Harris, for instance, wants not just to convince us that free will does not exist but also to transform our moral thinking and to revolutionize the criminal justice system, in particular the ways in which we punish people. What is that if not an expression of agency?

The logic of the denial of human agency has perhaps in recent years been best developed by the philosopher John Gray. Former Professor of Modern European Thought at the LSE, and one-time acolyte of Margaret Thatcher, he has over the past decade produced a series of books ferociously challenging the basic ideas underpinning modern conceptions of liberty, morality and the human.

‘Humans think they are free, conscious beings’, John Gray wrote in Straw Dogs, the 2002 book that turned him into a public figure and established his contemporary public persona, ‘but in truth they are deluded animals.’ Since, ‘we do not speak of a time when whales or gorillas will be masters of their destinies’, he asked,  ‘why then humans?’ Only, he suggested, because humanists deny what Darwin taught us: that humans are animals, and like all animals we are ‘only currents in the drift of genes’. Morality is a ‘sickness’, freedom an ‘illusion’ and the self a ‘chimera’.

Leave aside Gray’s misreading of science and the befuddlement of his argument. (Science, he tells us, reveals that ‘humans cannot be other than irrational’ and that ‘the human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth’; in which case, one might ask, on what basis do we accept the science, given that it, too, is a product of irrational minds that serve evolutionary success not truth?) What has turned him into a contemporary prophet, lauded for his profundity by everyone from Will Self to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is the bleakness of his vision and the depth of his anti-humanism.

gray marionette

In his latest book, The Soul of the Marionette, Gray maintains that sense of bleakness and despair. He has little to say on metaphysical ideas of free will but much on what he regards as human illusions of freedom. Like many of his recent works, The Soul of the Marionette is less a sustained argument than a buffet of intellectual canapés, ranging from a reading of 18th-century Prussian writer Heinrich von Kleist’s enigmatic essay ‘The Puppet Theatre’ to a discussion of Aztec human sacrifice, from an exposition of Gnosticism to an analysis of sci-fi writer Philip K Dick’s work, from the unearthing of Dorset writer TS Powys’s 1931 short story ‘Unclay’ to a retelling of the 1978 kidnapping and murder of Italian prime minister Aldo Moro. The thread that loosely runs through all this is a desire to reveal what Gray regards as the follies of modern human self-aggrandisement.

Drawing on Kleist’s argument in ‘The Puppet Theatre’ Gray argues that humans lack freedom not because they are puppets but because they are not. A puppet is free in a way no human being can be, precisely because it lacks consciousness.  Freedom requires one to possess ‘either no consciousness or an infinite amount of it’. Only puppets or gods are really free.

The Ancients largely accepted that their world was constrained by fate. But the curse of modernity is a refusal to accept our limitations. Modern science, according to Gray, reveals humans to be products of unconscious forces and biological impulses over which we have no control. But modern ideologies are rooted in the struggle to transform the world, to challenge fate and defy our limitations.

Moderns imagine that knowledge will allow us to transcend our given nature. Modern Western liberals, in particular, have adopted, even if they don’t realize it, Gray argues, a Gnostic view of the world. Gnosticism describes a complex web of Ancient religions, most influential in the first two centuries AD, that held the material universe to be evil and the spiritual world to be good. Gnostics lauded Adam and Eve eating the forbidden apple and regarded the Fall of Man as a fall into freedom. ‘The Gnostic faith that knowledge can give humans a freedom no other creature can possess has become,’ Gray argues, ‘the predominant religion’ of our age.

What Gnostics, both ancient and modern, fail to understand, Gray continues, is that truth can never set us free because we are nothing more than deluded animals.  What is unique about humanity is not consciousness or free will (‘self-awareness may exist’, apparently, ‘not only in other animals but in plants, jellyfish, worms’ – Prince Charles will no doubt read this book with interest). It is, rather, ‘inner conflict’. ‘No other animal seeks the satisfaction of its desires and at the same time curses them as evil’, Gray claims.

There is  ‘no convincing scientific theory’, Gray observes, as to ‘how this split personality came about’.  Instead, Gray turns to the Bible, suggesting that the ‘best account’ of the divided human soul is ‘in the book of Genesis’.

dali the persistenc of memory

Gray is well known for his claim that much of modern humanist thinking is really a ragbag of reworked religious myths, that ‘all modern philosophies in which history is seen as a process of human emancipation’ are ‘garbled versions’ of the Christian narrative. What is striking is that his own argument is but a secularised version of the Christian story of the Fall. Indeed, for Gray, ‘the Fall is not an event at the beginning of history but the intrinsic condition of self-conscious beings.’

Because it is ‘divided against itself’, so ‘the human animal is unnaturally violent by its vary nature’. Humans, Gray insists, need protecting against themselves. The premodern world understood this, recognising the world as constrained by fate and violence as an inherent part of human nature. Many premodern societies contained the darkness of the human soul by ritualising violence. Gray provides a gruesome account of Aztec rituals of human sacrifice. He sympathizes with their reasons. Aztecs practised human sacrifice ‘not to improve the world’ but ‘to protect them from the senseless violence that is inherent in a world of chaos’. It was a means of ‘giving meaning’ to their lives.

Modern humans, on the other hand, abhor violence, and want to create a better world cleansed of violence. But in trying to create such a world, they often unleash more violence, through wars and revolutions. The very attempt to make the world a better place can, Gray insists, only lead to mass slaughter and corrupt the human spirit. It ensures that ‘we do not accept our lives for what they are but instead consider them always for what they might become’.

Aztec human sacrifice is, for Gray, more rational and more in keeping with human nature than the people killed in the struggle for freedom in, say, contemporary Syria. ‘Those who struggle to change the world,’ he wrote in Straw Dogs, are merely seeking ‘consolation for a truth they are too weak to bear’.  Their ‘faith that the world can be transformed by human will is a denial of their own mortality’.  We’re all going to die anyway, so why bother with grand schemes of social change?

At the end of The Soul of the Marionette, Gray observes that freedom is slipping away in much of the world. ‘New varieties of despotism are emerging’ while, in democracies, essential props of freedom, such as habeas corpus, open courts, the rule of law, ‘are being compromised or being junked’.

So what should we do about it? Nothing, says Gray. For to do something would be to create an even worse world. ‘If freedom of any kind can be found in these conditions, it is some version of the inward variety that was prized by the thinkers of the ancient world.’ He suggests that in ‘some future turn of the cycle’, freedom may return; in the meantime ‘it is only the freedom that can be realised within each human being that can be secure’.

There is such an absurdity to Gray’s argument that it is difficult to believe that he is not parodying himself. A decade ago, on the eve of the Iraq war, Gray published an essay in the New Statesman entitled ‘A Modest Proposal for Preventing Torturers in Liberal Democracy from Being Abused, and for Recognising their Benefit to the Public (with Apologies to Jonathan Swift)’. It suggested that there should be a universal right to torture enforceable by regime change and that torturers should receive counselling for the mental traumas they suffered. Few readers got the joke. ‘Months and years later,’ Gray subsequently complained, ‘I continued to receive protests taking me to task for my indecent suggestions.’

The episode might say something about the sense of humour of New Statesman readers (or lack of it). Or it might just be that, when it comes to Gray’s writing, it is genuinely difficult to separate the serious from the satirical.

syria posters

How does Gray think that the freedoms whose loss he bemoans were won in the first place? Through people turning inwards and waiting for a ‘turn of history’? Or through people struggling for human betterment, often risking everything to achieve it?

Gray may laud the Aztecs as having a better understanding of human nature than Enlightenment philosophes. But it was the philosophers whose work helped lay the foundations for many of the modern arguments about liberty and tolerance that Gray claims to prize.

‘Rather than trying to impose sense on your life… be content to let meaning come and go’, Gray advises. A retired philosophy professor living in Britain might be able to live off such gnomic pronouncements. But it is not a ‘freedom’ likely to provide much solace to people in Syria or Libya, or Ferguson or Baltimore

‘Inner freedom’ and ‘outer freedom’ are not as easily separated as Gray imagines. Humans are social beings. What Gray calls ‘the freedom that can be realized within’ can only be realized in relation to others. It is true that throughout history, some people – hermits and hippies, mystics and monks – have tried to realize themselves by withdrawing from society. But that is not a luxury open to most.

That is why, as Baggini acknowledges, the questions of free will and of political freedom are inextricably linked. Free will expresses our capacity for ‘autonomy and self-regulation’. Political freedom describes ‘the external condition of fully expressing an internal condition we all have’. It is in engaging with the world, not withdrawing from it, that we come to realize ourselves.


This review is published in the Summer 2015 edition of New Humanist.

New humanist summer 2015 cover

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The images are, from top down, ‘Wired up’ by Inga Popesco, winner of the ‘Best Representation of the Human Connectome’ in the 2014 Brain Art competition; René Magritte’s ‘The False Mirror’; Salvador Dali’s ‘The Persistence of Memory’; a poster from the Syrian uprising, from 3aref 6ari2o’s Flickr photostream.


  1. Arguing for or against free will is like arguing for or against the existence of a soul. It is simply a nonfalsifiable hypothesis. It is beyond the realm of science and of any form of objective proof.

    It is simply that we experience free will, at least some of us do, but it is important to point out that people exist who don’t experience free will. There is some of evidence that people in the past may not have experienced individual free will at all (e.g., Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind).

    All we can do is speculate about free will, but ultimately it is an argument no one can win. Free will is no more objectively real than God, although more people these days experience the former than the latter. Anything we experience is real to that extent, but our experience can never be anything other than our experience. It proves nothing else.

  2. I sympathize with some of Gray’s points, though not with his conclusions (some of which are expressed more effectively, from the position of a theist, by Chris Hedges). There is, after all, a psychologic theory accounting for the evolution of human irrationality. Daniel Kahneman summarizes it very convincingly in ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ — i.e. that our decisions are often unconscious, made implicitly, intuitively, by association and immediate experience, rather than through the explicit, logical and deliberative process appropriate in a complex society. The former automatic decision-making process would have been vitaal in our long Paleolithic development, but is judged much less so in the brief modern period during which we’d like to believe we’ve become more cerebral. I am not entirely optimistic that we will evolve into purely rational beings, who through the force of logic, can create a utopia free of irrational (or at least nonrational) impulses.

  3. veil_of_ignorance

    I have never read Gray and I don’t plan to do so, because he always seemed like a huge bullshitter to me. Therefore, it is possible that I seriously misunderstand or misrepresent his argument in the following paragraphs.

    But for me, it seems that the existence of this book in itself shows that Gray’s point of view is essentially self-defeating. If we would assume – as Gray seems to do – that humanity possesses no free will, is irrational, violent, shaped by forces outside its control and unable to achieve any kind of real progress; then we also have to assume that the humanistic struggle for freedom and justice is simply a socio-psychological and ideological phenomenon shaped by unconscious forces outside of our control. But instead of doing nothing, accepting things for what they are at the moment and letting the fate of humanity work its way (like he advises), Gray throws himself into the current and tries to argue against one of the most dominant social and ideological forces in the modern world. And as expected, he does it with clear ethical intentions. There is actually not too much which separates Gray from every archetypical “freedom fighter”.

    If Gray would take his own pessimistic anti-humanism seriously, he would argue that the modern struggle for freedom – with its dialectic of revolution and counter-revolution – is just another version of ritualized violence on par with Aztec human sacrifice. He could argue (again in analogy to his argument about the Aztec) that the fight for freedom and justice – even if it is just “the struggle itself towards the heights” – gives humanity meaning and nothing but that. And he would certainly refrain from voicing a preference for the less deadly Aztec human sacrifice vis-à-vis “modern human sacrifice” because as soon as he would do this, he would again argue for the kind of social transformation which he seem to think is impossible anyway. He would simply say: we’re all going to die anyway, so what does it matter whether we use the Aztec or modern methods of human sacrifice. But yet he doesn’t.

    The thing with Gray thus seems to be that under the thick layer of pessimistic and romantic language, he is just a cold, rational pragmatist. Gray is not a categorical anti-humanist; he just argues that humanism fails in its own terms. But to make such an argument, you have to take at least some of the normative premises of humanism seriously. Gray argument as it is just seems to be a variation of the old Popper quote “Those who promise us paradise on earth never produced anything but a hell.” wrapped in shallow anti-humanist imagery. Philosophically very unexciting to say the least.

    Kenan, how wrong am I?

    • Veil, I think you’re right about Gray (even though I haven’t read him either). From the review above, though, he sounds like a fatalist. What little I know of “pragmatism” (recently re-reading William James’s “Pragmatism”) suggests it is an optimistic view of reality that believes ideas are to be judged by their utility, and that free will is boundlessly useful while inevitability is spectacularly useless.

      Any determinism that excludes free will ends up becoming fatalistic, in my opinion.

      I ran into the paradox when I was between high school and college, nearly 50 years ago. I think Spinoza took me down the rabbit hole and one of the pragmatists, either Dewey or James, got me out.

      The problem is that the word “inevitable” so often implies “beyond our control”. But determinism must recognize ALL relevant causes which bring about what inevitably happens next, and one of those causes happens to be our own decisions and actions on our own behalf, and on behalf of others. Inevitability doesn’t actually do anything, but rather sits quietly on the sidelines, waiting to see what we will do next.

      For example, if we throw Mr. Gray into the deep end of a swimming pool, will he sit back and wait to see what will inevitably happen next? If he does, he’ll drown. And it will be caused by his own choice not to act. Despite the concept of inevitability, everything pretty much remains in our own hands, and when you’re in a “sink or swim” situation, you’d best take hold of your own destiny.

      The only reasonable option is to acknowledge universal inevitability and then ignore it. At best it is a useless fact. At worst it’s misuse causes false conclusions and confusion, often in the most intelligent minds.

  4. Simon Ashton

    Yes, great stuff Kenan. Personal capacity for freedom and individual possibility is intrinsically wedded to social change, we can choose our causes. I’ll put the Baggini on my list.

  5. A paradox is a trick.
    To be meaningful, the idea of a ‘free will’ need only distinguish from an ‘unfree will’ for a single, meaningful constraint. When we say someone ‘acted of their own free will’ we mean they were not being forced by someone else to act against their will.

    A parent tells the child he must wear his jacket when he goes out. So he wears it, but against his will. When he is older, and allowed to make his own decision, he will choose for himself whether to wear the jacket or not, and live with the consequences of his choice.

    The ‘free’ in ‘free will’ is pretty much the same as the ‘free’ in ‘the prisoner was released from jail and is now free’. While in prison, others tell him when to eat, when to sleep, and when to go out in the exercise yard. When he is free, he chooses for himself when to eat, sleep, and what he will do.

    The puzzler who creates the paradox pulls a “bait and switch” con. He replaces your ordinary ‘freedom’ with an idealistic, mystical, and non-existent ‘Absolute Freedom’. Then all that is needed is to give you a single real constraint which cannot be escaped and convince you that you must deny that constraint or deny your ordinary ‘freedom’. He gives you a false choice.

    There are three ‘constraints’ which no one can claim to be free from:

    1) Determinism is the belief in the reliability of cause and effect. All of science rests upon this reliability. Not only all of science, but all of freedom. Free will requires a deterministic universe. Without reliable cause and effect, one’s will is impotent to effect any intent and becomes irrelevant and meaningless.

    But the puzzler has somehow convinced you that you must choose either determinism or free will, even though you already have both. Step around the trap. Do not fall into it.

    2) No one can be free from one’s own self. In fact, one evidence of free will is that your decision reflects who you are at that moment. Based on your own reasons, your own feelings, your own beliefs and values, what you’ve learned and incorporated into your own viewpoint, you make a decision that represents your will at that moment.

    But the puzzler turns you against yourself. Instead of your reasons and feelings being about you, they become foreign causal agents compelling your choice, robbing you of your freedom. It is a false spin of the facts, of course. If the cause of your choice is you, then there is no external compulsion.

    3) No one can be free from the real world. Your options to implement your will must take into account the real obstacles in your environment and your willingness and skills to find effective ways to deal with them. For example, suppose there’s a stream you must cross to get where you want to go. You may choose to change yourself (step carefully from stone to stone) or you may choose to change your environment (build a bridge across the stream), but you can’t choose to walk on water.

    The puzzler will point out that these constraints mean your will is not ‘truly’ free, and suggest to you that you stop insisting you have ANY freedom since you clearly do not have ALL freedom. But that is an irrational requirement. A person’s freedom is never so absolute as to be free from causality, free from one’s own self, or free from reality.

    Determinism is an undeniable fact. It is a characteristic of the rational universe. Free will is also an undeniable fact. It is a real phenomenon that occurs every day within the context of a physical and deterministic universe.

    The puzzler says “free will is only an illusion”. But the only illusion is the one presented by the puzzler, who insists you must choose one truth and deny the other. Don’t fall for the con.

  6. @veil_of_ignorance

    Gray seems to have a similar problem as those he is arguing against.

    If I understand him correctly, he isn’t merely stating that a free will can’t be proven. He isn’t even just passively considering a free will as lacking. Rather, he is making a positive assertion of the existence of the opposite of free will. So, such an argument against would fail for the same reason an argument for fails.

    It is pointless trying to prove or disprove free will. All that we can say is that, on a personal level, we either experience free will or we don’t. If Gray doesn’t perceive free will in himself, he should own his own experience and humbly state that he can only speak for his own experience.

    It is strange how some people want to turn free will or its lack into an ideology, whether political or religious.

    @Simon Ashton

    No, all change, social or otherwise, doesn’t require free will. Both the advocates and adversaries of free will are incorrect in trying to link the two. There just is no logical connection.

    Even freedom, in the social sense, doesn’t require belief in personal free will. We don’t have to know our psychological motivations in order to argue that we should have some basic freedoms to act on our own psychological motivations, however we choose to interpret them. All we need to do is acknowledge and demand is our desire to act freely, but we don’t need to justify the existence of that desire.

    For modern Westerners, belief in free will gets treated as the new foundation to replace the belief in natural law. As secularism grows, such things as natural law seem less tenable, with their roots in traditional theology (even many American founders were uncertain about natural law). But exchanging one belief for another doesn’t fundamentally alter the equation.

    Belief was never the fundamental issue, per se. If one wishes to understand freedom, this would require digging deeper into human nature and society. It brings us to dark and messy territory that we aren’t prepared to deal with, as many studies of ancient societies shows us. But none of that is necessary for the defense of a free society. It’s probably best to keep it simple for our purposes here.

    What Gray seems to ignore is that so many humans desire freedom. He’d prefer to believe that this is a superficial ideology. What he can’t explain is why this desire for freedom is so persistent over centuries and millennia, if it isn’t fundamental to human nature and hence human society. Although only one part of who we are, it is an important part.

    I’ll end by pointing out that freedom within and without is a false dichotomy. Humans exist and express a singular experience of reality. That experience isn’t built on logical arguments. It is simply what we are and what we know.

    I don’t care one way or another about the belief in free will. But I do think we should take quite seriously the human desire for freedom, in all the ways it gets experienced and expressed.

    • Simon Ashton

      >>>It brings us to dark and messy territory that we aren’t prepared to deal with, as many studies of ancient societies shows us<<<

      Have you read any books by Kenan Malik?

      • No, I haven’t read any of his books. But I’ve read his online writings for years. I’ll get around to books one of these days.

        Anyway, I didn’t mean that statement as a criticism. The implication was that it is a tough nut to crack. Venturing into the dark and messy territory can bring us extremely far afield, into diverse and complex areas of knowledge (with plenty of ignorance mixed in, as is our inevitable fate in life).

        This became increasingly clear to me recently. Besides reading further about Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism, I was looking into some other views of ancient minds and historical development of self and society, along with views of psychology and individualism. Some authors I was looking at are Bruno Snell, E.R. Dodds, Bernard Williams, Daniel Shanahan, Ciaran Benson, Michael Gazzaniga, Tor Norretranders, etc.

        I’ve come to realize how much debate of such things as free will overlooks some truly deep and maybe even troubling issues. It’s not even necessarily intentional. It’s just that in our society we have certain shared assumptions and shared experiences of reality. We tend to see the world similarly. For this reason, it is hard for us to step outside of the framework of our own society.

        This applies to me as much as to anyone else. I’m not holding myself above others. It’s because of my doubts and uncertainties that I’m a free will agnostic. I’m not claiming to have the answers.

  7. My sense is that Gray is just making a fancy, convoluted argument for negative freedom and against positive freedom. But if he stated it straightforwardly, it would be less impressive. So, he takes a long winding path through free will, a symbolic battlefield that is a distraction from the real issue. Then again, maybe Gray is incapable of stating things simply and that is just how his mind works.

  8. Opponents of free will define it in such a way that it would be impossible: free will, they say, means that if circumstances were exactly the same it would be possible to make a different decision.

    Their emphasis is entirely on freedom and entirely ignores the concept of will.

    Of course, if this morning was repeated exactly I would still chose cornflakes over bacon and eggs. I prefer something light and healthy, that takes seconds to make and involves minimum cleaning up. Those preferences inform my will and my will determines my actions.

    Likewise, my decision not to murder my neighbour is determined by my lack of will to cause him harm.

    To claim that I have no freedom because my will determines my choices is to define free will in terms that could never be satisfied.

    What opponents of free will are claiming is that, for free will to exist, it would be indistinguishable from random chance.

    If I was equally likely to eat bacon and eggs as cornflakes that wouldn’t be exercising free will, that would be a random act.

    • @Marvin Edwards

      An interesting perspective. I can’t say I strongly agree or disagree. But I appreciated your putting a different spin on the debate.


      Out of curiosity, how do free will agnostics such as I fit into your scheme? Is determining one’s belief in free will or its lack simply a matter of defining one’s terms in a particular way? Is it about actual experience or just the interpretation of experience? Can we ever separate our experience from our interpretation?

  9. We ourselves are substantially influenced by the social and physical environment in which we develop, but free will is freedom OF the self to decide on actions, not freedom FROM the self—which is insanity.

    Of course ‘our decisions are often unconscious, made implicitly, intuitively, by association and immediate experience, rather than explicit, logical and deliberative . . .’ but they are still ‘ours’ — freely generated by our own individual characters, our ‘selves’. And they are subject to that further level of freedom; the freedom of conscious inspection. The point is that you CAN turn your attention to your own thought processes, and check your impulses, calculate the advantages of alternatives, determine which motivation takes precedence.

    It is a general truth of humans that we can always alter our behaviour without regard to the situation or environment. Human reasons (rather than strict rationality) never specify only one possible reaction to a situation, we can, and sometimes do, make decisions which are contrary to our interests. This is because we follow our own reasons, however those reasons were derived, whether or not we are aware of them at the time. And that seems to me to be a definition of free will.

  10. There is an illusion that universal inevitability is at odds with free will. But universal inevitability is a “useless fact”. There are no helpful implications that can be drawn from it. And the implications some people wish to draw are usually falsely derived by mental errors. For example:

    1) Knowing that our choice will turn out to have been inevitable provides no help in making any decision. We cannot know for certain what we would have chosen until we actually finish our deliberation and make the choice. After our decision, if we reflect upon our thinking, we may then see that our reasons and feelings did inevitably lead us to this choice. But we still had to go through that mental process to get there. The fact of inevitability was useless to us.

    2) There is no way to take the fact of inevitability into account while making the decision. If it appears that option A is to be our inevitable choice, can we decide in spite to choose option B instead? Well, if we do then option B was actually inevitable. So now we choose option A … etc. It is an infinite loop. Again, inevitability is a useless fact.

    3) Some people think deterministic inevitability removes free will. But here we are, thinking and choosing what we will do next. We cannot simply sit back and watch the inevitable happen, because our choices cause what happens next, and choosing to sit and wait is also a choice that changes what happens next! What becomes inevitable is unavoidably still in our hands.

    4) Some people think that inevitability means that no one can be held responsible for what they do. But it cannot serve as a “get out of jail free card”, because it always operates equally on both sides. If you say, “But judge, it was inevitable that I did the crime”, the judge will say, “And it is also inevitable that you be penalized”.

    The only reasonable option is to acknowledge universal inevitability and then ignore it.

  11. “The Ancients largely accepted that their world was constrained by fate. But the curse of modernity is a refusal to accept our limitations. Modern science, according to Gray, reveals humans to be products of unconscious forces and biological impulses over which we have no control. But modern ideologies are rooted in the struggle to transform the world, to challenge fate and defy our limitations.”

    Maybe this is putting it in the wrong order. Maybe our refusal to accept our limitations is an expression of something else, a change in how our psychology (or even our neurology) operates. Maybe John Gray is suggesting we should take that ancient mentality seriously, as still speaking to present human realities.

    Malik, here, seems to be suggesting that we’ve left that all behind and that we’ve fundamentally changed. Have we?

    To my mind, what is most important is the subjective experience of free will and what that might mean. How did people go from not experiencing it to experiencing it? Does simply believing we are free actually make us free? If so, free from what? Are we truly less socially constrained and influenced than were the Ancients? If so, how did that happen?

    “For many free will deniers, thoughts, beliefs, desires and feelings are just ‘epiphenomena’, by-products of neural processes that are the ‘real drivers of action’. But thoughts, Baggini shows, have ‘causal efficacy’. Ideas, beliefs, desires can all change people’s behaviour. Experiments have shown, for instance, with delicious irony, that the belief that one has free will makes people behave more morally while the belief that they lack it makes them behave less so.”

    What is the point?

    People who believe in free will in a society that idealizes free will are more socially well adapted to act morally according to the social norms of that society. Um, yeah. So? How is that surprising? Wouldn’t the opposite be true in a society that doesn’t idealize free will and the corollary hyper-individualism?

    In neither case does that prove causal efficacy of ideas, beliefs, desires, etc. This is jumping too quickly from correlation to causation.

    Social factors are powerful in creating the context for human behavior. But how do we go from that understanding to getting at more fundamental insights into human nature?

    By the way, this discussion touches on the issues debated between Malik and McGilchrist. The concluding remarks stood out to me:

    “A final point: In a previous post on Oriental Enlightenment I mentioned briefly the tendency to think about East and West as ‘opposed ways of thinking’, to insist on what the Indian historian Raghavan Iyer has called ‘the dubious notion of an eternal East-West conflict, the extravagant assumption of a basic dichotomy in modes and thoughts and ways of life’, to create the self-serving distinction between, in the words of another Indian historian Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the West’s ‘rationalistic’ and ‘positivistic’ mind and ‘the Eastern mind [which] is more inclined to inward life and intuitive thinking’.

    “McGilchrist takes this trope, reverses the value assumptions (placing greater store on what are traditionally seen as ‘Eastern’ ways of thinking) and transfers the schism to the brain. Indeed, at the end of the book, McGilchrist suggests that his critique of left-hemispheric thinking ‘would be more intuitively understandable within an Oriental culture’. According to McGilchrist, ‘The pattern of psychological differences between Oriental people and Westerners suggests the possibility of a different relationship between the hemispheres’. Orientals’ ‘experience of the world is still effectively grounded in that of the right hemisphere’. They have ‘a more holistic approach’. The ‘differences between the way in which Westerners and East Asians see the world’ are to ‘do with the balance of the hemispheres’. In other words, McGilchrist writes, ‘the emissary appears to work in harmony with the Master in the east, but is the process of usurping him in the West’. McGilchrist has taken a long-standing dubious argument about cultural differences and modernized it by locating it in the brain. Doing so has not made a dubious argument any less dubious.”

    What specifically is dubious? Is Malik denying that there are cultural differences between Asia and Europe? I ask because this is an issue that has been the focus of some intriguing research, which Malik is apparently unaware of.
    I wrote about this in a post:

    In that post, I offer this from The Invisible History of the Human Race by Christine Kenneally:

    “In all the tests the researchers found that, independent of a community’s wealth or its exposure to pathogens or to other cultures, the people whose ancestors grew rice were much more relational in their thinking than the people whose ancestors were wheat growers. Other measures pointed at differences between the two groups. For example , people from a wheat-growing culture divorced significantly more often than people from a rice-growing culture, a pattern that echoes the difference in divorce rates between the West and the East. The findings were true for people who live in rice and wheat communities today regardless of their occupation; even when subjects had nothing to do with the production of crops, they still inherited the cultural predispositions of their farming forebears.”

    A primary difference suggested by this research is that the cultural differences are based on differences of social practices, as necessitated by different agricultural systems. These differences aren’t directly between East and West, but between rice and wheat, which so happens to generally correlate to East and West, even though it can also be found within rice-growing and wheat-growing regions within a country like China.

    Considering these differences are real, what then is dubious? Is it how McGilchrist applies it to a neurological perspective? How does this relate to Malik’s criticisms of the interpretations of neurological research in terms of the free will debate? All of this seems closely connected to my mind, the disagreements and confusions being similar in the two debates.

  12. A few words regarding Malik’s points: While I don’t plan on wading into such a difficult discussion, I have a few concerns about your presentation of your disagreements with Gray’s points. You routinely point to the absurdity of his arguments (which may be entirely true; I cannot honestly comment), but there is a lack of any substance to your criticisms. I would caution that it is not enough to rely on any authors seemingly dubious, or even ridiculous, arguments without a systematic exploration of why they are so; I have some ideas of why you find Gray’s position false, but I struggled to find arguments for why this was the case. In a few cases you point to some possible contradictions in his work – his criticisms of modern humanist positions reworking of religious dogma while simultaneously taking a similar position himself, etc. – but there is still open questions to while these seeming contradictions are true contradictions that are fatal to his arguments. Finally, most of your assertions are left without any substantive support. For example, when you speak of ‘inner’ and ‘outer freedom’ you assert that they are not as extricable as Gray holds within his view, but you do not give any argument for why this is the case. You merely talk about how human beings are social animals, which remains unclear why it is relevant to the point you are trying to make. There is never any connection made between the two other than maybe relying on some intuitions that the reader will agree the two are linked. There are several other similar worries throughout the review.

    You defend, in my opinion, a position that is laudable and defensible for myriad reasons, but I have to admit to being unsatisfied with the defense. When discussing something so complex and intangible as free will, I would urge you to be more rigorous in your presentation of your opinion. While it is clear what you believe, I am left guessing as to what the justifications are.

    • “You defend, in my opinion, a position that is laudable and defensible for myriad reasons, but I have to admit to being unsatisfied with the defense.”

      That isn’t dissimilar to the motivation behind my own response.

      I was offering criticisms here, but they aren’t criticisms of an opponent. I almost always agree with what Malik writes.

      I’m not a conservative, right-winger, or reactionary. Rather, I’m an ardent defender of liberalism and progressivism, in my general attitude about life, although I borrow insights from many views.

      “When discussing something so complex and intangible as free will, I would urge you to be more rigorous in your presentation of your opinion.”

      I agree. I think this issue deserves extremely careful thought.

      “While it is clear what you believe, I am left guessing as to what the justifications are.”

      It’s as important, if not more important, how we get to our positions as to the positions we hold.

  13. Nomen Nescio

    Free will is an illusion. Furthermore, it’s an incoherent idea.

    The problem is really a matter of language. For practical purposes, a person might begin a sentence by saying, “I chose…”
    Yet, consciousness, or “the self,” is an illusion and the idea of choice is an illusion. Hence, communicating in such a manner is really just an issue of pragmatism.

    Do I really have to re-state the old arguments? Suppose we have free will. Suppose we can “choose” to do things. Well, the word “choose” only has meaning if we can attach responsibility to the person who did the choosing. You wake up one day and you think of chocolate. Did you choose to think of chocolate? How? How do you make yourself think of something?

    Does it make any sense to consciously think, “Man, I’d like to think of chocolate” and to then believe that only after having that idea expressed in your consciousness is when you FIRST started to think of chocolate? No, because the urge to have that original conscious thought must have occurred before you started to think it. How can you make yourself think the thing you want to start thinking about? With what mechanism? It’s absurd.

    Thoughts are dependent on three factors: the environment of the brain (e.g. the storied memories you already possess and the actual matter that your brain is composed of), the external factors that act on the brain and body (e.g. it’s hot outside, so you get thirsty and start thinking about where to buy a drink), and randomness (e.g. bursts of electrical energy unpredictably moving through your neural network) .

    That’s it.

    Determinists recognize the logical impossibility of free will, while compatibilsts, libertarians (not to be confused with the political philosophy of the same name), and the like selfishly want the notion of responsibility so bad, that they ignore reason.

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