Free will and consciousness: how might they work?

During the time I was reading this book, I came across an article in my daily newspaper suggesting that people should begin to worry that free will is an illusion. According to this book, the reporter fell victim to the ill-sketched portrait of the topic drawn by some of the leaders in the debate. The collection of essays (13 of them) in this book emphasize that the discourse concerning free will is still lively and heterogeneous in content and offers a overview of what science can bring to the debate that has been predominately a realm of philosophy.

The ensemble of authors, each from different academic disciplines, were asked to “refrain from arguing whether free will exists and whether consciousness has any effects, to assume a positive answer to these questions, and to tackle questions how free will and consciousness might work”. And indeed most of the essays, offer a innovative view on a discourse that seems to be stuck on philosophical and definitional problems. The authors approach the debate from different angles, such as the philosopher J. Searle who cautiously speculates how quantum mechanistic brain processes could offer a solution to the problem of free will. Also psychological sidesteps are taken, by investigating the functionality of believing in free will, disregarding if it exists or not. The philosopher Alfred Mele poses second thoughts on well established experiments of neuroscientist Libet, who argued that brain potentials precede the actual feeling of choosing, showing quite elegantly that this does not have to be the case. Other essays concern, for example, the phenomenology of free will and judgments of moral responsibility, showing the multidimensional aspects that can be treated by either scientific or philosophical inquiry.

People who are unfamiliar with the discourse of free will should be able to follow the reasoning of the authors; however, sometimes I got the feeling that the essays were missing a sensible chronology, since the definition of free will changes when approaching it from a psychological or philosophical point of view. For example, an essay by the psychologist Roy Baumeister addresses the question how consciousness and free will could be related, offering a nice overview of the self-regulatory qualities of human beings because of conscious deliberation. However this has nothing to do with the philosophical question, whether people are able to act differently than they did at particular Time X. This makes the volume seem inconsistent at certain moments, but the authors are nevertheless fully aware of this concern and lead you trough their arguments quite smoothly, leaving a innovative collection of essays that address this difficult existential question in an innovative way.


Baumeister, R. F., Mele, A. R., & Vohs, K. D. (2010). Free will and consciousness: how might they work? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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