The Question of Free Will Is a Gateway to Philosophy & Social Justice

Cover of Sam Harris's Book Free Will, which is the course text we will be using next month, red puppet theatre box showing the letters of the title hanging from puppet stringsPreparing to teach my online course on the science & philosophy of free will in a couple days reminded me, as I looked over the reading materials and thought-provoking questions I’ve prepared: this is my favorite class. Anyone who joins in will find in it a fascinating way to introduce yourself to the whole of philosophy, as it touches on everything from semantics to metaphysics to epistemology to political and moral reasoning, even aesthetics (such as through analyzing the lived experience of feeling free or trapped), and even leads you to a better understanding of consent, and the social role and value of personal autonomy, and the substantial reality of what it means to increase your own self actualization, and what it actually takes to do that (and what it actually means to fall short of it).

I think these are really good reasons to remind people again to take my course, if exploring these things with an experienced expert interests you. If so, you can register anytime from now through the first few days of August. You’ll also need to have or get a copy (print or electronic) of Sam Harris’s Free Will. The course officially starts this Saturday.

Study the Science & Philosophy of Free Will with Me!

Logo for Partners for Secular Activism. The letters PSA in blue, in an art decco font, over a light grey watermark of a compass pointing near to north, all on a white backround.Join an affordable one-month online course in August, where I’ll teach and discuss the philosophy of free will, including the scientific facts relating to it, the legal evidence relating to it, the medical ethics relating to it, and more. Let others know, too! Anyone you know who might be interested. This is one of the ways I support my work in history and philosophy. And it’s useful. And fun!

This is your chance to ask a published philosopher and historian of philosophy all the questions you have about the subject, and also to become more informed about it and how to discuss it with others, as well as just hone and exercise your philosophical mind in general, on an important subject in law, morality, and life. A better understanding of this subject will benefit your personal life, your political thought, your attitudes toward prison reform, your understanding of consent and personal autonomy, and a great deal else.

The course begins next month (in roughly two weeks). It requires buying only one small, affordable textbook (Sam Harris’s Free Will, print or electronic). All other materials will be provided. The approach to Harris will be critical, but constructive, and backed with further materials showing the actual application of free will as a concept in the real world, not just in the ivory tower.

Among things covered will be:

[Read more…]

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.

Free Will in American Law: From Accidental Thievery to Battered Woman Syndrome

For my last class on naturalism and free will I composed some readings on Sam Harris’ mistreatment of the concept of free will in American law. I already deal with the legal aspects of “free will” in some detail in Sense and Goodness without God (III.4.5, pp. 109-14), and really any discussion of the subject here must begin there (where I cite and explain key Supreme Court rulings as well as standard concepts like the criteria of guilt and the insanity defense, things the public often gets wrong because they think TV legal dramas accurately portray them). I also cover the whole free will debate generally (in the whole of section III.4, pp. 97-118), and explain the reasons compatibilism provides a more fruitful understanding of free will than any alternative. (I have also blogged on free will several times before.)

But to supplement all that, I’m here reproducing one of those course readings I composed, where I address cases not mentioned in SaG (United States v. Grayson – 438 U.S. 41 (1978) and Morissette v. United States – 342 U.S. 246 (1952)) as well as a legal concept also not mentioned there, “Battered Woman Syndrome” (as a legal defense), which supplements my discussion of the insanity defense in SaG. All of this was compiled in response to Sam Harris’ (IMO awful) book Free Will. I have a lot of problems with that book. But here I’ll be addressing only one claim in it. (For those who are curious, much better books recently on free will, though still flawed, are Gazzaniga’s Who’s in Charge? and Kane’s A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will.) [Read more…]

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).