May 12 2014

Join My June Course! On the Science and Philosophy of Free Will

This June begins my online course on the science and philosophy of free will, from a naturalist (atheist) and secular perspective. Please spread the word and let people know, anyone you think might be interested. It will be useful to anyone wanting to understand the concept and science better, and even more so anyone who has use for more understanding of free will as a real-world applied concept in legal practice, medical ethics, the penal system, political policy, personal relations, and beyond. And especially if you want to know what’s wrong with common treatments of the subject (as for example by Sam Harris, whose book on it will be the course text, mostly to analyze its mistakes, as a useful way of understanding the subject better).

You can learn all about the course and register here. But this is the gist:

Description: We will study 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, and the real-world application of the analysis of free will in diverse fields, from law to medical ethics.

Course topics: 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, ethics, 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, legal, and moral systems.

Schedule: June 1 to June 30 (2014). Specific reading and discussion goals are set for every week, completing four units in four weeks, but within that framework you can participate in every element on your own time. There are no live events to be missed. One book by Sam Harris is required reading (see below). Everything else about the course is provided inside the classroom website. Course lectures, academic papers, links to websites, and forums for discussions with the instructor and students are included in the Moodle website classroom. Visit the class anytime to contribute your posts and receive [my] replies in discussion forums. There is nothing “live” you can miss – log in and participate anytime day or night, 24/7, throughout the month.

Required Course Text: Sam Harris, Free Will (2012). Students must purchase their own copy (print or electronic) before course begins. Additional readings will be provided electronically at no cost to students.

There are also a bunch of other courses offered by other experts you may have interest in June. Check out the current list here. And this will continue, month by month. So I recommend everyone who might ever be interested, should any future course cover a topic you are keen to learn more about, to follow PSA (Partners for Secular Activism) on twitter and facebook.


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  1. 1

    Sounds interesting! Any discounts for co-bloggers?

    1. 1.1
      Richard Carrier

      Sorry, no. I don’t much control the tuition. I’m on contract with PSA. I can only have some influence on general pricing, and PSA itself can make exceptions (but it has to pay me as if it didn’t).

  2. 2

    Off topic, but please: are you planning to review Ehrman’s new book on the blog? (A normal person wouldn’t have time to get to it, but you’re Richard Carrier, so who knows.)

    1. 2.1
      Richard Carrier

      Yes, I have decided to (and am reading it now), but with my upcoming weeks of travel, and so many demands on my attention for blogging (the Lowder critique, the Crook debate, this; plus several other things), I can’t say when I will get to doing a write up.

      I can say already that it has merits and flaws (mostly of over-simplification, a few fallacies), and ironically supports my case for mythicism (without his realizing it).

  3. 3
    Brian O

    I probably don’t have the time to do the course but I am interested in the Sam Harris book, I was more sympathetic to his arguments on science informing morality than most of his reviewers.

    1. 3.1
      Richard Carrier

      His book on free will is every kind of wrong. But it’s a very typical example of how scientists (and some philosophers) get it wrong. So it makes a good teaching tool.

  4. 4

    I’m glad to see that you’re bringing this course back. I’ve always been interested in this topic and hope I won’t be too busy to participate this time around.

    I also think it’s great that you’re basing the course on Sam Harris’ book. I’m a big fan of his work and in this particular area the scientific perspective he brings makes all the difference (IMO). For those who are unfamiliar with his views — or the topic in general — his recent exchange with philosopher Daniel Dennett might be of interest. Earlier this year Dennett published a lengthy, highly critical, and highly entertaining review of Harris’ book, and Harris shot back in characteristic style. Both essays are interesting and can be found on Harris’ website. The Dennett review is here: http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/reflections-on-free-will ; and Harris’ response here: http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-marionettes-lament .

    Contentious stuff!

    1. 4.1
      Richard Carrier

      Yes, thank you for that. People will find that quite illuminating.

  5. 5

    Hi Richard

    I have just signed up (paid) for your course. What’s next? Also, I am trying to find that critique you wrote of Sam Harris perspective on free will. Can you direct me, please?

    1. 5.1
      Richard Carrier

      (1) You should have received an email with your access credentials and where to go. If you have not, then please email our techs at [email protected] explaining your situation.

      (2) I have not published a critique of Harris on this. You will get exposed to it all in the course.

  6. 6

    If you haven’t already considered them, the texts listed below offer fairly accessible views on free will from a more scientific perspective (i.e., by scientists, from neuroscientists to physicists), and as they are all edited volumes rather than books or monographs by some author or author(s) you can select papers/chapters from them. Also, many are easily accessed if you have access to e.g., SpringerLink or know someone who does. In no particular order:

    N. C. Murphy et al. (Eds.) (2009). Downward Causation and the Neurobiology of Free Will (Understanding Complex Systems). Springer.

    Baer et al. (Eds.). (2008). Are We Free? Psychology and Free Will. OUP.

    Blackmore, S. (2006). Conversations On Consciousness: What the Best Minds Think About the Brain, Free Will, and What It Means to Be Human. OUP.

    [I hate the last of one, as it's far too sensationalist popular science for me and far too little substance, but it consists of interviews with everyone from Francis Crick to Roger Penrose and is highly accessible]

    Tuszynski, JA. (Ed.). (2006). The Emerging Physics of Consciousness (The Frontiers Collection). Springer.

    Pollack, R. (Ed.). (2009). Neurosciences and Free Will. Columbia University.

    Suarez, A. et al. (Eds.). (2013). Is Science Compatible with Free Will: Exploring Free Will and Consciousness in the Light of Quantum Physics and Neuroscience. Springer.

    [The last again is a bit too sensationalist, but includes a good paper on Libet's studies, a paper by Gisin (the guy who, after Aspect, is most associated with empirical realizations of violations of Bell's inequality)]

    Balconi, M. (Ed.) (2010). Neuropsychology of the Sense of Agency: From Consciousness to Action. Springer.

    Walach, H. (2011). Neuroscience, Consciousness and Spirituality (Studies in Neuroscience, Consciousness and Spirituality, Vol. I). Springer.

    [The latter of these I include only because it may contain arguments you'd like to tear to shreds]

    Pockett, S. et al. (Eds.). (2006). Does Consciousness Cause Behavior? MIT Press.

    Baumeister, R., et al. (Eds.). (2010). Free Will and Consciousness: How Might They Work? OUP.

    1. 6.1
      Richard Carrier

      Scientists have an infamous problem writing about free will: they often suck as philosophers. Often by simultaneously treating all philosophy with contempt, and then immediately trying to do philosophy, a behavior they would lampoon if science were treated the same way (but detecting irony is also something scientists sometimes suck at). See my talk Is Philosophy Stupid? for examples. Others I am providing in the course.

      So we can’t assume these are all that great. More to the point, Harris already surveys the typical views in the science lit (e.g. Libet, QM args, etc.). In the class I provide survey articles from philosophers on the subject. Between those, I doubt this bibliography (far too daunting for an intro course) will have much to add. But I appreciate the list. It can’t hurt to have it. Indeed, what my class is designed for is specifically to arm readers for exactly how to approach other books just like these in a critical and informed fashion (and not simply assume each author actually knows what they are talking about, much less is correct in what they say).

      In other words, my course trains people in how to read books such as you list more informedly and logically.

      So, thank you. I’ll direct students to it.

    2. 6.2
      Richard Carrier

      Someone independently recommended:

      Belaguer, Mark, Free Will (from The MIT Essential Knowledge Series)

      As per my remarks above, I have not read it so I can’t vouch for it beyond that.

  7. 7

    No problem. I certainly didn’t expect that bibliography to provide more than (at best) 2-3 useful papers. And I certainly agree that scientists in general suffer from a serious and seriously problematic lack of familiarity with philosophy and the relations between the sciences and philosophy. Science without philosophy is at best bad science and at worst a waste of time, money, and energy that can have deleterious effects far beyond the “ivory towers” of academia. The main reason I thought I’d offer such a list is because Harris’ treatment of work in the sciences on consciousness & free will is woefully inadequate. Libet, for example, devoted much of his book Mind Time to how free will works, while of such findings Harris says that they are “difficult to reconcile with the sense that we are the conscious authors of our actions”). He spends a few lines on quantum uncertainty but fails to address any of the quantum “theories” of mind. His sampling of research is extremely one-sided and mostly relegated to endnotes. However, I have no doubt your instruction (the only, really important component of course) will ensure the necessary compromise between accessibility and comprehensiveness. It’s just that as someone who feels physical agony when journals like NeuroQuantology appear or garbage neuroscience is published in leading journals, reading Harris was like torture. I felt compelled to suggest some possible sources even though I was pretty certain they weren’t needed.

    I would also add that, while again I certainly agree that scientists are in desperate need of greater exposure to and education in philosophy in order to be scientists, there are fields which are notable exceptions, the cognitive sciences (at least its core) being one. Instead of a dismissal of philosophy as irrelevant we find intro. textbooks on cognitive science devoting entire sections to work by philosophers like Searle, Fodor, Quine, etc.; founders of the field include philosophers, and philosophers are considered essential contributors; philosophers sit on editorial boards, from Chalmers and Searle positions on the board for the series Advances in Consciousness Research to philosopher Shaun Gallagher’s position as co-editor of the journal Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences; university and academic publishing companies publish books in “cognitive science/philosophy”, such as Putnam’s Representation and Reality; finally, the list I gave includes contributing authors as well as editors who are philosophers, such as Alfred R. Mele, Shaun Gallagher, Timothy Bayne, Peter W. Ross, and others (not to mention those for whom such distinctions are impossible; Adina L. Roskies, for example, received her Ph.D in Neuroscience & Cognitive Science yet has been a professor in the department of philosophy at Dartmouth). Whether these are good philosophers or there contributions good philosophy is obviously another question entirely, but in the clip you linked to (thanks for that! I enjoyed your talk) you mention qualia, a central concern in the cognitive sciences because (again) philosophy is. However, I’m clearly biased here.

    1. 7.1
      Richard Carrier

      …reading Harris was like torture…

      Is there an emoticon for sympathy?

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