May Online Course on Free Will

I will be teaching an online course on the science and philosophy of free will for the Center for Inquiry Institute this May. Anyone can register. Fee varies (from $30 to $70 depending on your status). Details on the course and registration options are provided at the CFI Website. It is one month only, four modules, with readings and discussions. Learn at your own pace. My co-instructor will be the philosopher John Shook, but I will be fielding most of the work. This is one of many courses offered by the CFI Institute throughout the year. I have taught several myself (on the philosophy of naturalism and the origins of Christianity and the historicity of Jesus).

As CFI explains:

There is no specific time that you must be online. There is no “live” part to these courses, and you cannot miss anything even if you can only get online at 6am or 11pm — you can log in and participate anytime, day or night, 24/7. A certificate of course completion is available to students who do participate online (as opposed to only lurking and reading, which is also an unobjectionable option for some students). Completion of eight courses at the Expertise 200-level is rewarded with the Institute’s Certificate of Expertise.

As to the content of this new course specifically:

This four-module short course discusses the intersection between science and philosophy in defining and understanding free will, with the aim of learning the latest science on the nature and existence of free will and how to critically approach philosophical uses of it. Students will not only learn about the relevant elements of brain science, but also how to identify common philosophical fallacies in reasoning about free will.

To that end, course topics will include:

The varieties of free will and the differences among them; identifying causes and the role of personal identity in making decisions (and what the latest brain science has to say about both); the nature and purpose of assigning responsibility to personal agents (in law and daily life); the difference between determinism and fatalism, and the importance of addressing both personal and genetic-environmental causes of decisions when thinking about social, political, and moral systems.

So if you are interested, check out the details at CFII and consider taking the course (even if only to lurk, and just read what gets discussed and not participate, which is fine). The course begins on May 1 (which is next Wednesday).



    • says

      I don’t know what you mean by “beats” it. It doesn’t even pertain to it and thus doesn’t answer it at all. If instead you mean it’s of really good quality, I don’t agree, since it ignores abundant contradictions and complexities in the evidence, and even says things that are outright false (such as that “Phlegon” dated the death of Jesus, much less that he dated it to the year 33, neither of which is true). That paper is a work of tendentious and occasionally incompetent apologetics. Not objective scholarship.

  1. robotczar says

    I don’t really want to seem contrary or overly negative, and, everybody has to make a living. But, I find your effort to promote the concept of free will a bit, well ,let’s say, inconsistent. It IS something that people desperately wish to believe and therefore a good thing to sell. But, I would like to raise a few points.

    First, free will seems to me to be very much a religious concept. I suggest the idea arose when religious philosophers needed to explain that we must be responsible for our choices or we cannot be judged by a god. So, this topic seems a bit contrary to some of your positions about religion and gods.

    Second, I don’t see you as either a philosopher or a scientist, so I sort of wonder why you consider yourself qualified (i.e., have expert knowledge) about this topic. Maybe you do, but I haven’t seen such qualifications from the talks I have heard you give. I don’t see historians as experts on free will, though maybe they know about the history of the idea.

    Third, I would argue that most scientific evidence we have suggests that fee will is a construct without much validity or use. Perhaps that is what you are going to tell people, but I doubt it. They would demand their money back (and claim that their free will led them to do so).

    Lastly, let me just give my view that the concept is merely one of those ideas humans invent because it makes sense to their limited minds. For example, primates like us seem especially prone to see cause or causal agents in every event. So, we see ourselves as causal–causing events by some sort of intention. Nature and the universe may not need our invention at all. Shit happens, but it is not necessarily chosen or “caused” (implying a causal agent rather like creationists see creators). The idea of fee will may make no real sense, sort of like the idea of “nothing” (which if you think about it cannot make sense as it implies the existence of something that does not exist) or asking what happened before the big bang.

    If a tenuous deterministic chain of events is not determining our choices (as implied by quantum mechanics), then stochastic probability IS (as implied by quantum mechanics). All the new age hokum people spew really is not going to make our “will” “free” no matter how much it makes us feel good.

    My real point is that it is useless and pointless to talk about free will.

    • says

      (1) Free will is not a religious concept. It was first discussed by secular philosophers (most especially Aristotle and the Epicureans and Stoics).

      (2) I have a Ph.D. in the history of philosophy and have published in peer reviewed philosophy journals (plus one formally peer reviewed chapter in philosophy), in addition to a great deal more writing and study in the subject besides. Does that make me more of a philosopher than you?

      (3) My course will refute all your false claims and assumptions about what free will “is” (and what its utility is). And it will do so by citing a number of professors of philosophy who agree with me.

  2. says

    I missed the registration deadline. When will the next class be so I can keep a watch for it?

    ….and check the blog more often.


    • says

      I won’t know. I will announce any future class I teach here on my blog (so you can subscribe to its RSS feed or something, options are at the bottom and down the left margin), but for others, you should contact the CFI Institute and ask if they have a newsletter or email list for announcing classes.

    • says

      That’s the best data we have on what philosophers think. But since, IMO, most philosophers suck (as in, aren’t consistently logical, don’t know half of what they’re talking about, and have no reliable standards for determining whether they are wrong), I don’t place too much weight on that data as far as deciding what the correct view of things is. But if all you want to know is “where philosophers are” as a whole on certain conclusions, regardless of whether they are right, then that poll is the thing (note this polling project does get updated over time, e.g. here is what the results were in 2009).

      As to where I am, I agree with more majorities on that list than not (even, e.g., on both politics and normative ethics: I am in the “other” column, along with the small majority), but not with all majorities (e.g. I am certain Platonism is false with respect to abstract objects). But as to free will, I do share the majority view: I am a compatibilist.

  3. spicyhippoplankton says

    This was a great course. I ended up only lurking (chickened out at the last minute!) but learned a lot from reading the discussions. Having been critical in the past of compatibilism (after reading Freewill by Harris), I have come to a better understanding of this view. I will have to re-think my position on this. Thanks!

    • says

      Just FYI, to you (since you might want to lurk in future CFII courses) and anyone else reading this, “just lurking” is totally fine in those courses. In fact, I think that’s a considerable asset to them. They allow people to learn things they might not otherwise, at an affordable price, and at their own level of involvement, whatever they want and feel comfortable with. Yours is a good case in point: you learned a lot, and didn’t have to do anything but listen in. So thank you for posting that.