By “free will,” Stephen Cave seems to mean the ability to choose with no constraints whatsoever. In that sense, free will of course does not exist; there is no such thing. While this was not apparent to many past thinkers, modern social and natural sciences have exposed numerous constraints on our choices. In making them, we are restricted by our historical time, ethnic/cultural background, educational achievement, economic and social status, gender, age, temperament, and, yes, our genes and brains, among other influences. We have incorporated such new knowledge in our judicial systems by treating offenders differently on the basis of age, mental capacity, and other factors.
But this does not mean we do not make choices. Cave, after all, chose to write his essay and to make the points that he made. The researchers he chose to reference chose their experiments. Sam Harris surely doesn’t believe that his philosophical position is only the determined outcome of his neural processes, nor that his readers’ brains will determine their acceptance or rejection of his claims. Determinists presuppose choice even as they choose to argue for its nonexistence or its impossibility.
One can sensibly hold that neither past, present, nor future brain research will have any bearing on this issue. Choice is a defining attribute of what it is to be a human being. To think of our ability to choose as being totally free is to ignore what we have learned about human beings. But to think of it as totally the result of neural activity is to deny the centrality of choice in the way we fashion our lives.
Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Lake Forest College
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(On TheAtlantic.com, readers answered September’s Big Question and voted on one another’s responses. Here are the top vote-getters.)
5. Welton Academy, in Dead Poets Society, where the English teacher John Keating urges his students to “carpe diem” and “make your lives extraordinary.”
— Joseph L. DeVitis
4. Raphael’s School of Athens, from which I would promptly be thrown out for lack of brainpower.
— Tamara Grant
3. The best party college ever—Faber College, home of the irreverent frat in Animal House.
— Dan Fredricks
2. Starfleet Academy. It represents a world of possibilities, scientific wonder, fairness, equity, and toleration. I’m blind, but that wouldn’t have been counted against me in the United Federation of Planets bastion. Who knows? Maybe with their medical know-how, I’d not be blind.
— David Faucheux
1. Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I’d receive an owl, meet with the sorting hat, and enroll in potions class!
— Kelly Swims
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The illustrations for Nathaniel Rich’s “When Parks Were Radical” (September) mistakenly did not include a credit for the artist, Gaby D’Alessandro. We regret the error.
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