Monday, April 20, 2009

Evolution: Is Free Will An Illusion?

Every summer I teach a seminar course at Cornell in which we examine the historical, philosophical, religious, and scientific implications of evolutionary theory. This summer our seminar course will consider the question: Is free will an illusion?

On the 15th of July, 1838, Charles Darwin began a notebook which he labeled as “M”, in which he intended to write down his correspondence, discoveries, musings, and speculations on “Metaphysics on Morals and Speculations on Expression”. On page 27 of that notebook, he wrote
“…one doubts existence of free will every action determined by hereditary constitution, example of others or teaching of others. (…man…probably the only [animal] affected by various knowledge which is not heredetary & instinctive) & the others are learnt, what they teach by the same means & therefore properly no free will. [Emphasis added]

In his private musing on the question of free will, Darwin came to the conclusion that human free will is an illusion, and that all of our actions (and, by extension, our thoughts and intentions) are the result of our “hereditary constitution” and “the example…or teaching of others.”

Some evolutionary biologists, notably William Provine of Cornell University, have followed Darwin’s lead and asserted that human free will is an illusion. Most philosophers disagree, asserting that free will is the principle difference between humans and non-human animals. Many Christian theologians go further, asserting that free will is the foundation of all human action, without which no rational ethics or theology is possible.

In our seminar course this summer we will take up this debate by considering two alternative hypotheses: (1) that human free will is real and forms the basis for our morals and ethics, or (2) that human free will is an illusion, the capacity for which is a product of the same evolutionary processes that have shaped our anatomical and behavioral adaptations. Included in this debate will be an extended consideration of the hypothesis that the capacity for ethical decision making is an evolutionary adaptation that has evolved by natural selection. We will read from some of the leading authors on both sides of the subject, including George Ainslie, Daniel Dennett, Robert Kane, Daniel Wegner, and Edward O. Wilson. Our intent will be to sort out the various issues at play, and to come to clarity on how those issues can be integrated into a perspective of the interplay between philosophy and the natural sciences.

Here are some particulars for the course:

INTENDED AUDIENCE: This course is intended primarily for students in biology, history, philosophy, religious studies, and science & technology studies. The approach will be interdisciplinary, and the format will consist of in-depth readings across the disciplines and discussion of the issues raised by such readings.

PREREQUISITES: None, although a knowledge of general evolutionary theory, evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, and the philosophy of human free will would be useful.

DAYS, TIMES, & PLACES: The course will meet on Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 6:00 to 9:00 PM in Mudd Hall, Room 409 (The Whittaker Seminar Room), beginning on Tuesday 23 June 2009 and ending on Thursday 30 July 2009.

CREDIT & GRADES: The course will be offered for 4 hours of credit, regardless of which course listing students choose to register for. Unless otherwise noted, course credit in BIOEE 4670 / BSOC 4471 can be used to fulfill biology/science distribution requirements and HIST 4150 / STS 4471 can be used to fulfill humanities distribution requirements (check with your college registrar's office for more information). Letter grades for this course will be based on the quality of written work on original research papers written by students, plus participation in class discussion. All participants must be registered in the Cornell Six-Week Summer Session to attend class meetings and receive credit for the course (click here for for more information and to enroll for this course). Registration will be limited to the first 18 students who enroll for credit.


Ainslie, G. (2008) Breakdown of Will, Cambridge University Press, ISBN: 0521596947 (paperback: $34.99), 272 pages.

Dennett, D. (2004) Freedom Evolves, Penguin Books, ISBN: 0142003840 (paperback: $17.00), 368 pages.

Kane, R. (2005) A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will, Oxford University Press (USA), ISBN: 019514970X (paperback: $19.95), 208 pages.

Wegner, D. (2003) The Illusion of Conscious Will, MIT Press, ISBN-10: 0262731622 (paperback: $21.95), 419 pages.

Wilson, E. O. (2004) On Human Nature (Revised Edition), Harvard University Press, ISBN: 0674016386 (paperback: $22.00), 284 pages.


Darwin, Charles (E. O. Wilson, ed.) (2006) From So Simple a Beginning: Darwin's Four Great Books. W. W. Norton, ISBN-10: 0393061345 (hardcover, $39.95), 1,706 pages. Available online here.

Fisher, J., Kane, R., Pereboom, D., & Vargas, M. (2007) Four Views on Free Will, Wiley-Blackwell, ISBN: 1405134860 (paperback: $33.95), 240 pages.

Kane, R. (2001) Free Will (Blackwell Readings in Philosophy), Wiley-Blackwell, ISBN: 0631221026 (paperback: $33.95), 328 pages.

Wilson, E. O. (2000) Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (25th Anniversary Edition), Belknap Press, ISBN: 0674002350 (paperback: $44.00), 720 pages

Our summer seminar course is always fascinating, and often quite controversial (see this and this). Over the years we have explored many of the implications of Darwin's theory, and the participants have always found our discussions (perhaps they should be called "debates") enlightening. As always, the intent is not necessarily to reach unanimity, but rather for each participant to come to clarity on where they stand on the issues and to be able to defend that stance using evidence and rational argument.

So, please consider taking our seminar on free will this summer - the choice is yours!


As always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions are warmly welcomed!


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At 4/20/2009 04:26:00 PM, Blogger John Farrell said...

Rats. I don't suppose you ever expect to be a visiting prof at a Boston/Cambridge area college do you?


At 4/21/2009 11:29:00 AM, Anonymous John Wendt said...

Do any of the texts talk about neurobiology? You might add e.g. Freeman, How Brains Make Up Their Minds. or Paul Churchland on neurophilosophy. Evolutionary theory, IMHO, didn't start to make real progress until they started getting into nitty-gritty biology, and I suspect the same thing will turn out to be true with philosophy of mind.

At 4/23/2009 04:51:00 PM, Anonymous ivy privy said...

Intriguing. I notice you haven't put forward a definition of free will. It would be helpful to do so before discussion starts.

Provine has written a couple chapters expressing his views on free will. I suggest you contact him about it, and add those to your reading list.

A student of Provine's, Greg Graffin, carried out a survey of prominent evolutionary biologists, and tallied their views on theism, free will, etc.

At 4/23/2009 04:54:00 PM, Anonymous ivy privy said...

It's good to see you have something by Derk Pereboom on the reading list, no point in overlooking local expertise.

At 5/06/2009 07:51:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

If free will is an illusion, where did the idea of free come from? It seems that "sight" is meaningless in a world where there is no light. And yet we *do* have a meaning of "free" in mind. How can non-free minds have an idea about freedom?

At 5/24/2009 07:53:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"If free will is an illusion, where did the idea of free come from?" - Mike Wagner, May 6

Reply: from the same place from which originates the idea of gain and loss. That very place from where all thoughts issue and not a single word is spoken, not a single sound is heard.

Thank you

At 6/19/2009 04:34:00 PM, Anonymous Per Lindholm said...

Even if absolute free will is impossible, nature can simulate it. Then evolution and time will eventually give us species that takes advantage of this. Humans can be considered such a specie. The questions therefore becomes, why and when did humans and their relatives get the ability that resembles free will?

What type of problems are best solved by "free will" and what type of free will system is enough for the respective specie?

At 10/23/2009 01:33:00 PM, Blogger JNordgren8 said...

If free will doesn't exist how anyone be held accountable for anything?


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