Now, I don't think there's any scientific grasp, any hint of an idea, as to how to explain free will. Suppose somebody argues that free will is an illusion. Okay. This could be the case, but I don't believe that it's the case. It could be. You have to be open-minded about the possibility. But you're going to need a very powerful argument to convince me that something as evident as free will is an illusion. Nobody's offered such an argument or even pretended to offer such an argument.


I was quite surprised by the last sentence. I wanted to exlore his views on the topic, so I did a quick google search and I found this interview.

In the last couple of years ago, there were experiments showing that, when people make decisions, for example when I decide to pick up this cup, milliseconds before I make the decision, there is activity in the brain in the areas where you are going to act, i.e., milliseconds before I make the decision, the motor areas of the brain are already organized to pick the cup up. That evidence was used widely to conclude that this shows that we don’t have free will. But this doesn’t show anything of this sort. This just shows that decisions are unconscious. We all know that, if we think for a minute: of course decisions are unconscious. Some of them reach the level of consciousness, some of them we can’t even act on, but there is a lot there going on unconsciously, probably everything of interest, and we don’t know how to deal with it.

(Page 231)

I don't understand what he means by unconscious decisions. Why is it so obvious to him that decisions are unconscious. To be honest, I don't understand his answers at all. His whole answer to the question "What is complexity in language? And in thought?" (Page 230) is beyond me. Any clarification of his position would be helpful.


I think his main point in the interview in question is that the "decision" to pick up the cup isn't really the sort of free will most people mean or care about. It's kind of a straw man version where showing certain trivial reflex like actions don't require the sort of reflection that is necessary for some version of rational free will.

The point he's trying to make in the earlier quotation (I'm not sure which is from the interview and which is from the book the way you write it -- or if the book is an interview making them both interviews) is that we definitely experience ourselves as having free wills and it's up to the denier to explain away this apparent phenomenon of consciousness.

Who exactly has argued that they can prove free will is an illusion and that our experience is false? I'm not in philosophy of mind as an AOS or AOC, so I can't say for certain either, but I haven't seen any arguments that are just utterly convincing. So many of the proofs against free will are just like the referred to in the first paragraph.

A true defeating argument would have to tell us that the virtue and other attributes built up that make it so some people didn't commit holocausts when others did is to be wholly explained away as dependent on deterministic factors -- not one that shows on brain-only level that whether or not a person would catch a falling cup is a decision that does not engage free-will parts of the brain in fashion timely enough to make them causitive of the decision...

Or to put it another way, the true free-will denying argument is going to have to convince us that moral outrages are just bad reactions on our parts to events determined in ways we cannot influence or control.

(I'm not really interested in arguing the point -- I'm just expanding of what I take Chomsky to mean).

  • Sam Harris has a whole book on the topic, but it's not very convincing. But I'd guess he would be in the "free will is an illusion" camp, and has been there, publically, for at least a couple years. – Rex Kerr Jan 28 '15 at 21:03

Chomsky is merely pointing out that the fact you can measure some sort of response, prior to making the decision, tells you nothing about free will becuase we know nothing about the mechanism. If you knew the mechanism of how decisions are made and these measurements were consistent with determinism, then it is a rational theory. However, we have no clue as to how our brain does its decision making, so these experiments tell you nothing about whether decisions are deterministic or non-deterministic.


Although I don't agree with Chomsky's arguments, I think I can clarify them.
1) Some people have used the results of some experiments to "prove" that we don't have free will.
2) the experiments show that prior to the time of making a decision, like grabbing a cup, there is activity in the motor areas of the brain a few milliseconds prior to making the decision to grab the cup. This is used as "evidence" that we don't have free will.
3) Chomsky thinks that the experiments only prove that decisions are made unconsciously, and since he agrees with that, then for him, the experiments prove nothing. This is his way of dismissing the results of the experiments.

I find statements 2 & 3 false. Number 2 is false, because the decision to grab the cup started the activity in the motor areas of the brain in the interest of saving time in case of an affirmative decision. Number 3 is false, because Chomsky is confusing a reflex with a decision. I believe that decisions are made only when you are conscious.


I think it's far more obvious than what you're trying to make it out to be. He is essentially saying he has no idea, and neither does anyone else.

I don't particularly agree with him, and it may just come down to semantics. That is to say, what he categorizes as "unconscious thought" may very well be part of the "no free will" argument.

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