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Of My Own Free Will

by Rudy M. Baum
April 14, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 15

As editor-at-large at C&EN for the past 18 months, I have primarily been responsible for writing book reviews and soliciting and editing book reviews from staff, freelancers, and outside subject experts. It’s been very enjoyable.

One of the perks of being a newsmagazine’s book review editor is being able to ask publishers for review copies of new books. Some releases that came to my attention were obvious candidates for reviews in C&EN—Dan Fagin’s “Toms River” comes to mind. Others were not so obvious, but turned into interesting reviews—Andrea Barrett’s “Archangel,” a collection of interrelated stories concerned with scientists is a good example.

Anyway, a book from MIT Press popped up in a catalog of soon-to-be-released books that I received late last year: “Free Will” by Mark Balaguer, a professor at California State University, Los Angeles. Balaguer is a philosophy professor who doesn’t write like a philosophy professor. His style is breezy and accessible, no small feat for a topic as intellectually challenging as free will.

I’ve been fascinated by the question of free will in a deterministic universe for most of my life. I’m not sure the universe is actually deterministic, but I am sure that humans—and all living creatures—are entirely subject to the fundamental laws of nature. We are biochemical entities, pure and simple. So how does a biochemical entity affect nature? I am sure that all sentient beings can do that, but the mechanism for exerting that influence is not at all clear.

I’ll admit that I haven’t read enough about the subject. I’m not alone in pondering this fundamental question, of course, not by a long shot. People have been pondering it for several thousand years.

Balaguer opens “Free Will” with the observation that, in the past several years, some researchers have argued that scientific studies suggest strongly that humans don’t have free will. This evidence has come from psychologists and neuroscientists, especially the latter, and “supports the claim that our conscious decisions are completely caused by events that occur before we choose, that are completely out of our control, and indeed, that we’re completely unaware of,” he writes.

In the slim volume—all of 140 pages—that follows, Balaguer addresses a number of questions. Chapter 3, for example, is titled “Can Religion Save Free Will?” (Answer: No.) Chapter 4 is titled “Can Philosophy Save Free Will?” (Answer: Yes, but not in a very satisfactory way.) In Chapter 6, Balaguer addresses the question: “What Is Free Will, Anyway?” and observes that “the scientists who argue against free will are often rather confused about what free will is supposed to be.”

The discussion of “four confusions” many people have about free will gets pretty tricky, but Balaguer is deft at constructing clever and often humorous anecdotes to illustrate his points. (“Lucy Hey, Charlie, would you like me to jab this fork in your throat? Charlie No, I think I’ll pass on that, Lucy.”) It turns out that, in many situations, we don’t really want free will at all, or at least the kind of free will that actually matters. That is what Balaguer calls “non-predetermined free will.” “People who argue against free will are often in a state of total confusion about where exactly free will is supposed to be located,” he writes. “In other words, they’re confused about the exact times, during the course of your day, that you’re supposed to be exercising free will. … They write indiscriminately about having free will over what you think, what you do, and what you choose, as if these were all the same thing. But they’re not the same thing.” You don’t really want free will when you’re driving your car or walking down the street, Balaguer maintains.

Balaguer makes a strong case that we do, in fact, have free will and that the scientific experiments that people cite to argue against free will are not nearly as airtight as their proponents maintain. His book is well worth reading if you’re interested in the subject.

That said, my return to C&EN as acting editor-in-chief was entirely of my own free will.

Thanks for reading. Again.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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