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Do we have free will?

By Peter Bowden - posted Wednesday, 29 May 2024

The debate over whether humans have free will is a debate that has been raging in academic departments, as well as the public sphere, for centuries. The fundamental question is whether humans (or other animals) have free will.

There is a multitude of eminent people who have argued whether or not we have free will. This paper sets out the assertions of these writers, both for and against, and then outlines the author's observations and conclusions.

On top of the list is Sam Harris, a neuroscientist, philosopher, and author of five New York Times best sellers, including Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. In his book Free Will Sam Harris confidently declares "we know that determinism, in every sense relevant to human behavior, is true." In effect, we are nothing more than biochemical robots whose thoughts and actions are dictated by causal forces we don't control.


Determinism, one of the several new words that you will learn from this article, is the concept that everything that happens in the world is determined completely by previously existing causes. In his book Free Will Sam Harris confidently declared"we know that determinism, in every sense relevant to human behavior, is true. In effect, we are nothing more than biochemical robots whose thoughts and actions are dictated by causal forces we don't control."

Determined: Life Without Free Will by Robert M Sapolsky is a book with a similar theme.

Free Will? People define free will differently. Many focus on agency, whether a person can control their actions, act with intent.

Wikipedia tells us:

Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will" is a 2023 book by American neuroendocrinology researcher Robert Sapolsky professor of biology, neurology, neurological sciences, and neurosurgery at Stanford University, concerning the neurological evidence for or against free will. Sapolsky generally concludes that our choices are determined by our genetics, experience, and environment and that the common use of the term "free will" is erroneous. The book also examines the "ethical consequences of justice and punishment" in a model of human behavior that dispenses with free will.

Sapolsky also wrote:

Behave. The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

Why do we do the things we do? Over a decade in the making, this game-changing book is Robert Sapolsky's genre-shattering attempt to answer that question as fully as perhaps only he could,

Sam Harris' Waking Up has also been praised by critics. Frank Bruni of The New York Times wrote, "Harris's book ... caught my eye because it's so entirely of this moment, so keenly in touch with the growing number of Americans who are willing to say that they do not find the succour they crave, or a truth that makes sense to them, in organized religion." He notes that since publishing The End of Faith in 2004, Harris has shifted focus to some extent from criticizing religion to trying to understand what people seek in religion and arguing these benefits are possible without


James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, #1 New York Times bestselling book also a free will sceptic, stating:

We do not have the freedom and free will that we think we do. Yes, you can make conscious choices, but everything that makes up those conscious choices (your thoughts, your wants, your desires) is determined by prior causes outside your control. Just because you can do what you want does not mean you have free will because you are not choosing what you want in the first place.

Jerry A. Coyne Professor of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago, and author of Why Evolution is True is yet another who argues that we do not have free will:

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About the Author

Peter Bowden is an author, researcher and ethicist. He was formerly Coordinator of the MBA Program at Monash University and Professor of Administrative Studies at Manchester University. He is currently a member of the Australian Business Ethics Network , working on business, institutional, and personal ethics.

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