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Believing in Free Will - Do We Have Any Choice?

Humanism presumes we are moral beings who can choose to be good, or not.  We all feel we are free agents, and we constantly have the sense that we are making choices intentionally, as acts of free will.  But some philosophers and neuroscientists think free will is an illusion.  Is it?  Are we free to disbelieve in free will?  Or, are we incapable of believing we are not free?
CLHG members Jeffrey Herrmann and Alice Fuller will present two short presentations exploring these classic questions of philosophy and science. There will then be an opportunity for questions and discussion.

Door at 6.30 pm for talk at 7.00 p.m.

Please arrive early to have a glass of wine from our CLHG Charity Wine Bar find your seat and chat with other members.

All our talks are open to the general public and free to attend but we ask those who can to make a donation of what they can afford to cover the costs of room and equipment hire and help keep our talks free to all.



Jeffrey Herrmann is a retired American trial lawyer who has lived in London and been a member of CLHG for five years. Jeff earned two university degrees in physics before attending law school. As a trial attorney, Jeff frequently presented expert witness testimony concerning scientific, medical and engineering subjects to lay juries.  He especially enjoyed exposing “junk science” propounded by unscrupulous expert witnesses. Since retiring and moving to London, Jeff has spent his leisure time pursuing all the scientific and philosophical questions he never had time to study while working.


Alice is a long-standing CLHG member and a former committee member. She studied Philosophy at Bristol University, where she discovered it was socially acceptable, indeed encouraged, to spend one's time considering questions such as 'Are we free?' It was there she discovered that she was a humanist, a revelation which later led to becoming a trustee of theBritish Humanist Association. Alice is now a campaigner for the Motor Neurone Disease Association, and previously The National Council for Palliative Care, and before that worked on a science journal. In her free time she tries to contribute to her local area, and is currently a trustee of a mental health charity Mind in Haringey, member of Camden's SACRE (Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education) and supporting a campaign to improve sexual health servicesin Waltham Forest. She can occasionally be found relaxing in Walthamstow, where she resides with her partner and cat Socks. Alice can be found on Twitter at @AliceFuller.

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  • Michael K.

    The fact that Dennett and Harris may ultimately not be that far apart in their views might well suggest that there is a significant linguistic issue involved in Harris’ initially very strong rejection of Compatibilism, and what he then meant by the term ‘free will’.
    Summing up, I suggest that moral responsibility is possible not just in spite of, but rather because of, the fact that our actions are determined by our beliefs, desires and settled dispositions, our ‘character’, and that it is in this context we can truthfully and more meaningfully talk about ‘free will’. (How about teasing this out a bit more over a pint sometime, Jeff?)

    May 28, 2013

    • Steve C.

      I'd like to listen in on this conversation!!!!

      May 28, 2013

  • Michael K.

    It is interesting to note that Harris thinks that his account should not lead us to ‘fatalism’, and he himself strongly defends an essentially humanistic ethic based on reason and science. He rejects retribution as a concept linked to the traditional concept of free will. (But I think this ugly and philosophically dubious concept can be rejected independently of any analysis of free will. It has more to do with vengeance than with any philosophical idea.) And he has come to ‘agree for the most part’ with Dennett that the latter’s Compatibilist account of free will ‘has allowed him to provide a description of human agency and moral responsibility that preserves many of our intuitions about ourselves and still fits the facts’, even whilst disagreeing with him about ‘the scope and consequences of popular confusion’ with regard to the concept of free will. (Sam Harris Blog April 2012)

    May 28, 2013

  • Michael K.

    Moral agency of its very nature seems, then, to imply acting for and being motivated by reasons, and thus being causally influenced. Even if God existed as the creator of the universe, could we make sense of that first creative act if we saw it as not coming from anywhere, not being done for a reason? Does God, who would appear to fit the bill for your ideally free agent, just ‘find’ Himself creating the universe? Would we want to call that a truly ‘free’ act? I don’t think so.
    You say that the belief in free will ‘leads most naturally to a humanist world view’. I doubt that this is true, since just about every moral creed or ideology, benign or perverse, has assumed our wills to be free. But more significantly, I do not think accepting determinism should necessarily lead you to the conclusion you say you’d prefer to avoid, namely that moral responsibility is impossible for us.

    May 28, 2013

  • Michael K.

    I think we can jettison the implicitly metaphysical accompaniment to our ordinary sense of having free will, the ‘uncaused cause’ idea, without losing the core insight that we are the originators of our actions. As agents, in the absence of compulsion, threats, etc., we act upon the world in an effective and free way. For how coherent is the concept of free will you believe has been demolished by scientific evidence? Could it be instantiated in any possible world? What would it be like to be the ‘absolute’ originator of an action? You say we’d need to have control over all antecedent conditions governing our personality and the world we act upon to be really free. But would an agent who hypothetically enjoyed such control make decisions purely randomly, or for reasons? If the former, this cannot be free will but rather pure chance, and if the latter, isn’t acting for reasons a causal process? We decide to do this because of this consideration. We don’t just ‘find’ ourselves doing it.

    May 28, 2013

  • Michael K.

    Hi Jeff,
    Thanks for your lengthy reply. I now more clearly understand your position. We are on the same side in accepting Determinism and rejecting Libertarianism. I too believe in the universal laws of nature and accept that human cognition and volition are entirely governed by the laws of cause and effect. However, we reach importantly different conclusions about the implications of this for morality (and for Humanism). The fact that we cannot choose our ancestry, the conditions into which we were born, etc. leads you to conclude that we do not have free will, for this must operate ‘outside the laws of nature’. My own favoured position, Compatibilism, elaborated by Frankfurt, Davidson, Dennett, and others, holds that we can, and should, reject the metaphysical concept of free will (‘contra causal freedom’), yet hold onto the core meaning of the concept by relating it to the centrally intentional and pivotal notion that human beings act for reasons, unlike animals.

    May 28, 2013

  • Jeffrey H.

    Reply continued and concluded:
    Discussion always slides from the factual question of whether free will does or even can exist into the moral question of whether we can be held responsible for what we do. The questions are distinct, but the answer to the first affects how you think about the second. Without and good arguments or data to suggest that free will exists, I am sadly dubious about whether we can be held to be responsible agents.
    I wish you could persuade me otherwise but so far, no one has.

    May 27, 2013

  • Jeffrey H.

    Reply continued due to length restriction:
    All the data and all the reasons I have considered say that our minds are the "states" of our physical brains, which obey the laws of physics and chemistry and therefore do not admit of forks in the road of the history of the world, at which we can choose the course of history by the exercise of some "free" act of will.
    Harry Frankfurt's idea that we have a "second-order" level of cognitive ability that allows us to view and reflect on our "first-order" desires doesn't add anything to the debate, because cognition, whether first-, second- or n-th order is still the product of the states of our neurons and their patterns of interconnection. And they are not outside the laws of Nature.

    May 27, 2013

  • Jeffrey H.

    Replying to Michael's two posts:
    Does the absence of free will undermine Humanism? Well, that was just the question that prompted me to suggest to Helen that a presentation on free will would be interesting to our membership.
    I would like to believe that I (and you) have free will. It is a pretty thought and leads naturally to a humanist world view. And then I could pat myself on the back for being a mostly virtuous person most of the time. But my preferences about what should be true were not consulted when the Universe came into existence nor when life originated on earth nor as Homo sapiens evolved. I have to trust the data and the reasons available to me when I think about whether free will actually exists and put aside my wishes.

    May 27, 2013

  • Michael K.

    3. The Compatibilist or Soft Determinist position espoused by Hume and latterly developed by Frankfurt and others perhaps answers this challenge to the possibility of morality (and by extension, to Humanism as a moral ideal). Put negatively, for an action to be free is for it not to be unduly influenced by threats, pathological impulses, drugs, etc. More positively, it may be, as Frankfurt suggests, that the fact that we humans can reflect on our 'first order' desires, and desire them to be otherwise, gives us a form of freedom not possessed by animals. This fact, when combined with the absence of the other kinds of constraints mentioned above, may render decisions 'free', at least in a sense sufficient to preserve moral responsibility and moral agency. In this way, Humanism can remain a possible moral ideal, without resorting to the implicitly otherworldly Libertarianism and its 'uncaused causes'.
    Sorry about the length of this contribution, but the topic is a thorny, age-old, one.

    May 27, 2013

  • Michael K.

    I've been away, so a belated contribution, if I may, to the commentary on the Free Will presentation, handled by Jeff and Alice in a very thought-provoking and lively manner:
    1. Humanism, as a secular philosophy is a natural bed-fellow of Determinism, which eschews transcendental explanations of events and rejects both miracles and contra-causal agency (interpreted as an ‘uncaused cause’).
    2. The scientific evidence adduced by Jeff serves to confirm the increasingly plausible thesis that all our decisions are determined (i.e. are at least theoretically predictable). However, if this implies, as he appeared to suggest, that as persons we do not possess free will, then would this not undermine Humanism itself? For Humanism is more than just a rejection of theistic beliefs, it also purports to embody an ethical position, a commitment to human values and the betterment of the human condition. And it is hard to see how one can be thus ethical without also being free. (Point 3 to follow.)

    May 27, 2013

  • Jim

    It was a very interesting and informative double-act. Congratulations to both speakers who pitched it, in my opinion, at exactly the right level. It has certainly set me thinking.

    1 · May 17, 2013

  • Alice F.

    Had fun presenting, hopefully you had fun listening! Thanks all for coming

    1 · May 17, 2013

  • Mary G.

    What a brilliant evening - and a great presentation by Jef and Alice! Click on the photo album above to see the pics I took. Enjoy!

    1 · May 17, 2013

  • Alan P.

    Thanks to Jeff and Alice for their excellent presentations and leading a discussion that could have gone on and on - and did later on at the pub where many of the 100-strong audience gathered afterwards.

    May 17, 2013

  • Steve C.

    Well done to Jeff and Alice. It's good to see evidence (even if I have read it before) presented in an accessable manner. I need the repetition to help me to understand it, just like I need to be told about Darwinian evolution repeatedly to enable me to understand. Wow, 7 seconds before!!!!!

    The graphics and diagrams really helped. Is there any chance that we can access the presentation?

    Good to see Alice's mum and dad, and Jeff's son

    May 17, 2013

  • Jason

    Good content and well presented. Thanks to Jeff and Alice. Had to dash off but perhaps there will be another time to discuss the "it's not my fault, it was my atoms" conclusion. I strongly suspect that determinism vs. freewill seems like a paradox only because we are smuggling in unjustified assumptions, vestiges of dualist thinking we don't even notice. As when we asked "is it a particle or a wave" the question needs reframing before we can expect a sensible answer. I imagine that at some point those proposing wave-particle duality seemed like they wanted to have their cake and eat it too.

    May 17, 2013

  • Olly W.

    Another fascinating talk at the perfect level

    May 17, 2013

  • Robert C.

    Still thinking about it, a really interesting presentation!

    May 17, 2013

  • Bruce B.

    Great topic and very good presentations - tag team tactic worked well. I do feel a more lengthy and focused Q&A would have topped it off.

    May 17, 2013

  • Ian S.

    Che sera sera, I guess ... so long as you don't believe it's being directed by anything/one/etc

    May 16, 2013

  • terence f.

    ibteresting but fragmented with somehow strange conclusions

    May 16, 2013

  • Shaun L.

    Really enjoyed the presentation and debate that followed.

    May 16, 2013

  • Andrew G.

    Does anyone have the details of the flash mob tomorrow??

    May 16, 2013

  • James

    Working :(

    May 16, 2013

  • roger

    Responding to Sanjay's question, if invited to (only!) I will be happy to argue from the point of view of a non-religious spiritualist.

    May 16, 2013

  • Sanjay K.

    Will any theists be there to debate ?

    May 15, 2013

    • roger

      If invited to I will be happy to argue from the point of view of a non-religious spiritualist.

      May 16, 2013

  • Sanjay K.

    Just arrived in the UK for work 2 days ago. Is the venue far from Westminster ?

    May 11, 2013

    • Steve C.

      Hi Sanjay, Red Lion Square is near to Holborn Tube station. Looking forward to meeting you

      May 16, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    What was the title of the book?

    May 16, 2013

  • Jason L.

    Free Will... It's one of his short book(lets) and is worth reading: http://www.samharris.org/free-will

    May 16, 2013

  • Michael K.

    Given the topic, I've simply got no choice but to attend! More seriously, I'm really looking forward to it.

    May 15, 2013

  • David Hill and Margaret S.

    should be fun. controversial topic.

    May 15, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Will be helping out on the wine bar

    May 15, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Yes, we have freewill but not nearly as much as we think. Please see http://www.academia.edu/2564374/THE_DRIVERS_OF_HUMAN_BEHAVIOUR for my own take on this issue.

    May 15, 2013

  • Alice F.

    I'd like to clarify that my cat Socks is not also my partner

    1 · April 4, 2013

    • Alice F.

      She's got a thing going with a fox that frequents our back garden

      May 14, 2013

    • Sanch

      haha - I'll come to the "tail end" of this talk tomorrow as I have uni.

      May 15, 2013

  • Richard P.

    I saw the film..

    May 13, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    I have another commitment on 16 May.

    May 11, 2013

  • Shaun L.

    The illusion of free will, should be interesting, looking forward to it

    May 2, 2013

  • Sanch

    Will come late after uni

    April 8, 2013

  • Jeffrey H.

    I have no choice.

    3 · April 4, 2013

  • mark

    Great topic! Can't wait

    April 3, 2013

  • Mish

    I don't have a choice

    1 · April 3, 2013

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