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Myths of freewill

By John Burnheim - posted Friday, 11 November 2011

Brian Holden rightly debunks the indeterminist conception of freewill, but the conclusions he draws involve other myths.

The myth is that our notion that we are free to act differently from how we in fact act, presupposes that there is such a thing as choice that is completely uncaused. But this is not what we mean in practice by free choice. What is at stake in practical terms when people think of themselves as making a choice freely? The central issue is whether they are in fact acting for the reasons for which they think they are acting and would act differently if they held different beliefs. Sometimes we are in fact pretty sure that this is the case. I do not doubt that Brian Holden is guided by the reasons he expresses, nor, I assume, does he.

That does not mean that our acting is uninfluenced by a multitude of causes of which we are not conscious.  Most of the time we act without reflecting consciously on the reason for which we act. Consciousness is, and has to be, very selective. So it is easy to deceive ourselves.


Sometimes we are quite clear that another person’s decision, that purports to be made on certain considerations, is decisively influenced by quite different and irrelevant thinking of which they are not conscious. Sometimes we may even, in retrospect, suspect this of ourselves. Did I dob my colleague in out of concern for the harm he was doing, or because I wanted his job?

It gets pretty murky. Often those interfering reasons relate to deep emotional needs that are overwhelming but very obscure in their import. So the fact that I think I am acting for certain reasons is no guarantee that that is what I am doing. Nevertheless, there are ways in which we can produce powerful rational evidence on one side or the other in many cases, especially in examining the consistency of the logical and factual consequences of a person’s choices with the intentions he/she is supposed to have. Of course, when we assess actions on these grounds, we often disagree.

We can’t be sure of all the relevant factors, but sometimes, at least we have very good reasons for a positive verdict. The decision is free, in the sense that it is sufficiently free from extraneous influences to be regarded as genuinely what it purports to be. It is coherent with what it is supposed to be. I believe my physician when he/she tells me I need to undergo certain treatment, because I have evidence that the physician is guided by clinical evidence rather than irrelevant motives or beliefs. They are acting freely and responsibly.

That does not mean that there are no emotional or habitual or genetic factors involved. There always have to be. They do not interfere with our freedom as agents as long as they do not distort our perception of what we are doing. In many instances we can have good reasons for believing that they do not do so by looking at patterns of behaviour, people’s responsiveness to argument and ability to look at a matter from another point of view.

The other myth that bedevils discussion of freedom is that of determinism. The universe gives us elbowroom. It involves a multiplicity of causal lines that intersect in ways that are not determined to a single pattern. We are complex organisms, and complexes of all sorts, from crystals to animals, have properties that their individual components do not have. Molecules of water are not wet, oxygen and carbon do not grow, and so on.

Complexes also have means of insulating themselves against their environment, or absorbing what they need to function and rejecting what is dysfunctional.  The result is that most of what happens within an organism is explicable both in terms of the functioning of that organism, and in terms of the physics of its components.


We have now learned how to construct computers that can perform reliably much more complex calculations than we can. Nobody argues that those calculations are invalid because they can be explained in purely physical terms. Nobody pictures the computer as simply the product of blind chance or inexorable determinism. At the level at which we interact with computers we do so in terms of themeanings of the operations they carry out. We assess their performance in terms of our conceptions of mathematical reasoning.

Even where we are able to explain that functioning in terms of very complex interactions of the organism’s components, the explanation is only works if we understand the organism’s properties in terms of their functions in the organism. That requires special models for different organisms, often-different models for different functions within the one organism. The heart is a pump, but nerves are transmitters of information.

Simplistic “stimulus-response” models of human action are absurdly inadequate. Any input we receive from our environment goes through a very complex, mostly unconscious, processing before it issues in a response, and part of that process is reasoning, which involves the possibility of reflective criticism as soon as it is conscious. Any belief is as such open to question. Its contradictory is always conceivable. Is it consistent with other beliefs? Is it really meaningful? What are its consequences? What are the alternatives? Similarly, our habits can be changed to a certain extent over time, as we assess whether they are habits we desire to have and modify our patterns of behaviour. Even computers can monitor and in certain programs evaluate their own operations.

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About the Author

John Burnheim is a former professor of General Philosophy at the University of Sydney, Australia.

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