The Philosophy Cafe


Free Will:
Do we have it, and what are the consequences for personal accountability and moral responsibility?


March 21, 2012
7:30 PM


Used Books Department
1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138


This event is free; no tickets are required.

The Philosophy Café at Harvard Book Store is a monthly gathering meant for the informal, relaxed, philosophical discussion of topics of mutual interest to participants. No particular expertise is required to participate, only a desire to explore philosophy and its real-world applications. More information can be found at

The Philosophy Café is held on the third Wednesday of each month, from 7:30-9:30 pm, in the Used Book department on the lower level of Harvard Book Store.

This month:

We each have a sense of choosing what we do, of being the deciders of our lives, at least in cases where we are sane and not externally constrained. Yet there has always been a worry that this sense of agency is just an illusion and that all our choices are actually fated or predetermined. In this cafe, our presenter Bob Doyle will describe the historical arguments behind the doubting of free will as well as his two stage model, an original theory which shows how free will is possible and how it operates. In the discussion, we will also explore some of the implications of the free will debate for concepts of moral responsibility and  criminal justice.

Why Doubt Free Will?

Historically, determinists have held that free will is incompatible with causality. If all outcomes have definite causes (that is, are determined), then all outcomes can, in principle, be predicted by knowing  the full set of conditions that exist at any given time. That means that the conditions which existed in the remote past -- say at the time of the big bang -- have completely determined everything that has happened since and will happen in the future. We are thus not free agents but are simply playing out our predetermined fates. 

Other schools of determinists credit determinism to different sources, such as to the will of god or to our hormones, cravings and obsessions. But the conclusion of all these philosophical schools is the same: there is no free will. 

But perhaps the most crucial part of the debate concerns personal responsibility. Incompatibilists generally believe that personal responsibility is incompatible with determinsm -- that if determinism is true people cannot be held accountable for their actions. On the other hand compatibilists believe that determinism does not matter, that as long as one is acting sanely and is free of coercion, one can be held responsible. 

Of course the above is just a very tiny foretaste of the centuries-old free will debate. The Wikipedia Free Will article provides a good introduction. For an in-depth treatment of the topic, see Bob Doyle's website,  (See Readings for links.)

The Doyle Two-Stage Model

Bob Doyle has developed a two-stage model of free will that is being mentioned in the literature as a plausible and practical solution to this ancient problem in philosophy. It combines limited forms of determinism and indeterminism. He seeks the critical reaction of Philosophy Cafe participants to its plausibility.

In the first stage of the decision-making process, the mind generates alternative possibilities for action. This stage involves chance. Random thoughts may come to mind. Although most alternatives probably come from past actions taken, some may just pop into our heads, perhaps as new combinations of older actions. These thoughts are the "free" stage in free will.

In the second stage, the mind evaluates the alternative possibilities, considers them in the light of reasons, motives, desires, feelings, all of which normally "cause" one of them to be "chosen." We can say that our reasons determine our actions. The second stage is only "adequately" determined, because the universe contains a fundamental indeterminism at the microscopic quantum level (Heisenberg indeterminacy). Our actions are the adequately determined "will" stage in free will.

Indeterminism in the first stage makes our thoughts free, but does not make our actions random. Determinism in the second stage does not make our actions pre-determined from the "fixed past" just before we began to generate ideas, let alone back from before we were born. The two-stage model attempts to explain not only free will, but creativity as well. We are originators of some of our ideas.

Implications of the Free Will Debate

If free will is in fact possible, are there other limits which are relevant? For instance to what extent are environmental factors, economic incentives, hormones and brain chemistry limiting? How about media messages, cultural norms, and social expectations? On balance, how morally accountable should we hold individuals? What are the implications for our judicial system? To what extent do concepts of retribution, deterence, rehabilitation and restraint to prevent further crimes make sense. On what mix of these concepts should we base our system of justice?


Wikipedia: Free Will:

Bob Doyle's Blog:

Bob Doyle: InformationPhilosopher Web Site

Comments and reviews of Free Will: The Scandal in Philosophy by Bob Doyle.

Review by Tom Clarke: 

Comments by Jennifer Leonard: 

The Buck Stops Where: Interview of Galen Strawson on Free Will

Used Books Department
1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138

Walking from the Harvard Square T station: 2 minutes

As you exit the station, reverse your direction and walk east along Mass. Ave. in front of the Cambridge Savings Bank. Cross Dunster St. and proceed along Mass. Ave for three more blocks. You will pass Au Bon Pain, JP Licks, and the Adidas Store. Harvard Book Store is located at the corner of Mass. Ave. and Plympton St.

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