Can you say no to a donut?

[This is the latest guest post by my friend and occasional contributor Rose Woodhouse.  I am hoping to get her added as a full-fledged author here, and am thrilled that she’s agreed to write from time to time.]

by Rose Woodhouse

Dr. Saunders has kindly invited me to contribute occasional posts to his blog. A bit about me: I am ABD in philosophy, and am totally going to finish that D by summer. Especially if I keep my posts short. I’ve been teaching undergraduate philosophy for about seven years now at a ginormous state university. My focus is in aesthetics and cognitive science, but I also have a strong interest in ethics. So I plan to write about philosophy and sometimes perhaps the state of higher education. As indicated in my previous guest post, I am a mom of three kids under five, one of whom is severely disabled (and, as it happens, awfully cute). So I might also find my way around to parenting and disability issues.

But before I address any of my pet issues, I thought I’d have a go at a topic raised implicitly by Dr. Saunders’s post yesterday, and raised explicitly in the comments. Can you actually control what you do? Can a fat person who has gone ahead and eaten that doughnut have restrained themselves? In other words, do you have free will?

Of course you do! Of course you could have said no to that doughnut! – the vast majority of you will say. And this is the primary reason to think we have free will. It feels as if we do. We feel as if we have choices, and could have done other than what we did.

(I will say at the outset that there are mountains of psychological data that suggest that we have much less free will than we believe. Tiny details in our environment, social cues, priming, even our body and facial postures, all affect our choices in ways we don’t consciously recognize. Even if you are a libertarian [that is, someone who believes in free will, not an Ayn Rand adherent], you should acknowledge the degree to which our actions and decisions fail to be governed by a conscious will.)

Another reason that people sometimes cite in favor of the notion of free will is that without free will, we lose our sense of moral responsibility and merit. If someone could not have done other than what she did, how can we possibly blame or praise or punish or reward her? While I agree that this is why the issue of free will is an important one, it is not an argument in favor of the existence of free will. Just because something would totally suck if it were true doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

The primary reason to think there is no free will is if you are a materialist. Not I-would-die-without-my-Louboutin-stilettoes
materialist, but of the philosophical belief that the universe is made up only of material objects. This usually goes hand in hand with the belief that those objects are governed by laws of nature (a view called determinism). So there are no immaterial substances, and there are no exceptions to laws of nature. There is nothing supernatural. With an exception that will be noted below, science has gotten quite far by assuming the truth of determinism. (Faced with a mysterious symptom in a patient, Dr. Saunders will look for a law-governed material cause of the symptom. He will not assume that an angel has intervened in the workings of his patient’s body, and attempt to bargain with the angel for relief.) So according to determinism, each state of affairs necessitates the succeeding state of affairs (material objects + laws = only one possible outcome). And why should our brains be any different? So if the laws of nature govern our brains, the current state of our brain, plus laws of nature, necessitates the next state. We don’t cause our own brain states. And so – the fat person could not have passed up that doughnut.

So can you have your cake (or doughnut) and eat it, too? That is, can you be a materialist and believe in free will? There are two ways one might go about this.

1) Claim that materialism is true, but determinism is not. Work in quantum mechanics suggests that, at the subatomic level, determinism falls apart. Objects and events are not law-governed, but random. So perhaps there is some room in the workings of our brains whereby there are two or more possible actions that could be taken, rather than only one.

Problem: even if events in the brain are random rather than law-governed, we still don’t get what we want, i.e., moral responsibility or merit. We can no more praise or blame someone for a random occurrence in his brain as opposed to one that was necessitated.

2) Embrace compatibilism. Compatibilism is the view that determinism and free will are compatible. An overwhelming percentage of current philosophers are compatibilists. How do we get to compatibilism? By redefining free will.

Free will, on this view, does not mean that you somehow miraculously generate an unnecessitated state of affairs. It does not mean you could have done otherwise. What free will really means is that your thoughts and intentions play a role in the actions that you take. Deciding to indulge your desire for that doughnut is relevantly different from someone holding a gun to your head and telling you to eat the doughnut. When you indulged yourself, your thoughts, beliefs, and desires were reasonably unfettered, and played a role in the action you took. In that sense, you were free to make that choice. (A
recent post in the New York Times nicely explains how recent discoveries in neuroscience do not rule out this notion of free will.)

There is clearly something to this. Thoughts and intentions are relevant to decisions. But I don’t see how compatibilism gets us a nice, robust notion of moral responsibility. Because while your thoughts matter to your decisions, you could not have thought otherwise. In other words: if you had thought differently, you would have acted differently — but you never would have thought differently. So again: how can you really warrant praise or blame? And how could you really have passed up that doughnut? So while recognizing what compatibilists have to say, I still think I am on the incompatibilist side of the issue. You can redefine free will, but that isn’t the free will we’re really talking about. And since I am a materialist, I have to say that I really don’t believe in free will.

As for why we might have such a strong feeling of free will, even if we don’t really have free will, perhaps it serves some evolutionary function of social coherence and behavior regulation. The belief in free will does seem to promote pro-social behavior.

Despite my incompatibilism, I too, have that strong feeling of free will, and I admire and admonish and get morally outraged and feel guilty sometimes and proud of myself at others. Perhaps even if it is true no one could do otherwise, those feelings are not at all a bad thing to have and act on. But it’s also worthwhile to remember, as Dr. Saunders did yesterday, that we have less control than we believe.

And in answer to Will Truman’s question, this is part of the reason I am not a libertarian, of the Ron Paul stripe.

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. Is it possible to take this “feeling that we have free will” and just adopt it as a working fiction? There might not really be free will, but if we all just assume there is and act on that assumption (within limits–all the while acknowledging points where we have less control), can’t we just act and formulate our political beliefs and ethical standards with that fiction as a given? What harm is there in moving the debate from “free will vs. no free will” to “posit free will, now when do we have it and when don’t we”?

    I realize that with what I just wrote, I’m purposefully avoiding the question as well as my dissertation (like you, I’m an ABD who hopes (hopes!) to finish the D this summer).

  2. In what field are you dissertating? And yes, I pretty much live my life according to what you say – that free will is a useful fiction that I refuse to get rid of. But as for what harm there is in moving the debate away from from whether there really is free will – well, we’re philosophers. So we like to figure out what’s really going on, rather than just get through the day. To paraphrase Bertrand Russell, philosophy is all about taking what works in practice, and seeing if it works in theory.

    • Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond. Right after I wrote my comment, I ran a lot of errands and just got back home.

      My field is US history (business, political, and labor history).

      I had never heard the Russell anecdote before. I confess that philosophy is not really my game, but that anecdote strikes me about how I, as an outsider, tend to view it as a discipline.

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