I'm doing a detailed personal study of possible explanations for free will and morality (the existence thereof). My starting impression is that these notions can't exist in a completely material world. In other words, doesn't it take something supernatural or immaterial to produce original thought and make a value decision? I'm looking for the generally most widely accepted book on the matter to dig deeper. Seems like Sam Harris and Dan Dennett get a lot of attention, but I'm open to reading other authors as well.

What's the flagship atheist book on the topic at the moment?

  • 1
    Something that may help you as you approach the topic: in a completely material world, one must define what a "consciousness" is, or what a "Self" is before discussing the freewill of a consciousness or Self. The definitions will seek a balance between the intuitive feeling of "freewill" and the needs of determinism (which is popular amongst purely material world theories). Expect the interesting part of your study to be there.
    – Cort Ammon
    Jan 29 '15 at 0:57

I will cover only free will here, as I don't believe anyone has a good enough handle on what morality even is or ought to be for there to be a "widely accepted" view; people seem to do a lot of talking past one another, and also a lot of confirmation of whatever particular cultural and personal notions of morality they have ended up with. The problem is not that you can't have morality in a completely material world; there are just too many different ideas about what "morality" should be.

But with free will, I think one can get something close to satisfying, even if there is not perfect agreement.

I have been unimpressed with the rigor and groundedness of Harris' philosophical arguments thus far, so I would not recommend e.g. his book Free Will (calling it "No Free Will" would have been nearer to his thesis). If it is the flagship book (I wouldn't know), it would be rather sad, as even if he ends up being correct, you probably couldn't know it from that text.

I am somewhat more favorably disposed towards Dennett's stance, though I wouldn't get them from Freedom Evolves (a long book, and one which in my opinion has more than Dennett's usual share of slightly odd conclusions). An article will suffice, e.g. this recent one in Prospect Magazine which doubles as a sort of book review for "Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will" by Alfred Mele (which sounds worth reading, though I haven't done so).

To really understand free will in the context of mind-as-a-thing-implemented-by-brains, it helps to have a good understanding of what the consequences are of having mind implemented by brain. Patricia Churchland has, I think, the clearest and most scientifically and philosophically accurate account of this at the moment in Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain. This also nicely treats the free will problem in a quasi-compatibilist way (chapter 7). And covers morality also (Chapter 4) in probably as fair of a way as you'll find anywhere. (She also has a whole separate recent book devoted to morality.)


A moral landscape was exceptionally poor. Probably the more mainstream defenders of secular humanism is where you want to look. They seem to think morality is possible under a naturalistic world view (Even if there is no objective basis for such a belief.)

A.C. Grayling is probably a good place to start.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.