Does Free Will Really Exist? Your Thoughts

Stephen Cave sparked a ton of reader discussion with his essay “There’s No Such Thing as Free Will,” and you can wade into the robust comments section if you’re determined to do so. Here’s one of the more fascinating findings in Cave’s piece:

Many scientists say that the American physiologist Benjamin Libet demonstrated in the 1980s that we have no free will. It was already known that electrical activity builds up in a person’s brain before she, for example, moves her hand; Libet showed that this buildup occurs before the person consciously makes a decision to move. The conscious experience of deciding to act, which we usually associate with free will, appears to be an add-on, a post hoc reconstruction of events that occurs after the brain has already set the act in motion.

For an in-depth interrogation of that idea, here’s a video of neuroscientist Sam Harris (whom Cave quoted extensively in his piece) on Joe Rogan’s podcast, and it opens with Harris defending the sort of research pioneered by Libet:

Nick Clairmont—our bright young Politics fellow who wrote his master’s dissertation on the philosophical concept of semicompatibilism—contributed his own note to our discussion and took Cave’s title a step further: “There’s No Such Thing as Free Will and Determinism.” Nick addressed a number of reader emails, as did Cave in a followup note, “Free Will Exists and Is Measurable”—which introduced a new concept, FQ:

We already have tests that assess people’s reasoning skills, creativity, self-control and the likes, all of which are essential components of psychological free will. In another essay, I have suggested that we could therefore meaningfully talk about a “Freedom Quotient” or FQ, which would allow us to rate your or my free will, and identify ways in which we could make it even freer.

Several more readers are joining the philosophical fray. Here’s David in Tallahassee with “my case against free will”:

You don’t decide where you are born. You don’t decide whether you win the lottery of birth, and you don’t decide whether you are born a minority and/or with certain abilities/defects of the brain (ADD or something on the autism spectrum, for better or usually worse). For the most part, you don’t decide your diet and the interactions you have with adults and peers (in your most formative years). Add all of this to the fact that our actions and the way we see the world are governed by chemicals in the brain.