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Congrats on your first week, and a question about free will

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Hello everyone!

Today wrapped up the first week of school at Mizzou. I hope everyone is getting settled into their classes and meeting some good people, likes their professors, and is excited about the coming year.

A small group of us had lunch at Heidelberg, and then we had the Ask an Atheist table out for a few hours this afternoon. I’d like to continue doing the table as often as possible throughout this year; it’s a great way to meet people and have some really interesting discussions with people who might not ordinarily be interested in attending meetings (FYI: our meetings are open to all!).

As an aside, I want to pose a question to our readers:

I think most of us in the group are metaphysical naturalists, that is, we agree with the statement, “There is nothing but natural elements, principles, and relations of the kind studied by the natural sciences,” i.e. all alleged miracles can (in theory, if not necessarily in practice) be explained using science.

My question is, “Can free will be reconciled with metaphysical naturalism?”

If we start with the presumption that there is no such thing as a spirit or soul (the “mind” is simply an emergent property of sufficiently complex brains), then how can we separate our “will” from what the chemicals in our brains simply do of their own accord (from randomness, or external stimulus, etc)?

Scott Adams of “Dilbert” fame explains it well in this strip:

Social psychologist Daniel Wegner, in his book, “The Illusion of Conscious Will,” explains how our sense of control over our actions is actually imaginary, and in a statement, our actions happen to us, and the feeling of will is created by the brain. This helps us have a feeling of control and authorship over our actions, but ultimately, our actions are the consequence of our brains doing their thing – which, if you think about it, is something we really already knew. It’s carrying things out to their natural, logical conclusion, as jarring as the implications might be to other things we take for granted. Take, as one very important example, our legal system: How might that be affected by the idea that free will is illusory?

Curious for your thoughts.

Until next time!

– Dave

Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, he posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is

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About MU SASHA Administrator

University of Missouri SASHA (Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics) University of Missouri-Columbia

5 comments on “Congrats on your first week, and a question about free will

  1. Brian
    August 27, 2011

    Is this when we are supposed to argue about determinism or does that come later? Can we consider “supernatural” to refer most accurately to “unexplained natural”, much in the same sense that magicians don’t do “real” magic, but exploit your perceptions to make it seem as if the rules of the natural world have been defied? A good starter, Dave!

  2. Scott Weber
    August 27, 2011

    Perhaps free will is an emergent property…and one whose sum is greater, and perhaps even different – than it’s elemental parts?

  3. jlayk
    August 27, 2011

    The free will question is difficult only because people won’t accept that their will, like everything else, is subject to natural law. People postulate ad hoc hypotheses to maintain the sense that we’re different, that we have several paths from which we can choose. We do not.

    As for crimes, we should look at it as protecting the population, not punishing the criminal.

  4. Scott Weber
    August 27, 2011

    I think perhaps free will (ie, the phenomena we CALL free will) could be completely natural, and, exactly what it seems to us (ie, non-determined actions/choices.) It could simply be a more complex level of natural reality (perhaps similar to the uncertainty thing in subatomic-level physics?) in which a property emerges that is simply another, seemingly quite odd and at-odds facet on the universe, especially, in this particular case, in us human animals. No ‘spiritual’ or being ‘different’ metaphysics needed. Perhaps we might have Newtonian physics, particle physics, and x? physics. One wouldn’t necessarily rule out the other(s).

  5. Jerry Winn
    August 28, 2011

    “As for crimes, we should look at it as protecting the population, not punishing the criminal.”

    Certainly we can see it as both, and even more than just that. There’s a famous essay that contends that incarceration serves four purposes– the two you mention, as well as to make an example of the criminal, and to protect the criminal from the retribution of others. Punishment certainly is not merely vengeful behavior– behaviorism/conditioning is one of the most basic “laws” of psychology. Punishment can be very effective at deterring or correcting undesired behavior.

    I think the implication of determinism is that we should begin to evaluate our actions based on their consequences (re: how we react to unacceptable behavior) rather than act on emotion. As well, the emotion we should feel, if any, is sympathy and due forgiveness for our fellow pawns.

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This entry was posted on August 26, 2011 by in Author: Dave Muscato, SASHA Events, Web Links & Videos and tagged , .
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