Study the Science & Philosophy of Free Will with Me!

Do we have free will? In what sense? What sort of free will are we supposed to be talking about? Who or what is a will a will of? What are praise and blame, guilt and innocence for? What is fatalism and why is it bad for you?

Challenge yourself by studying these questions with me this February (or anytime in future that suits you: see below). It will help you develop your own worldview and self-understanding. And it will help you combat Christian apologists who try to use bad ideas about “free will” to defend their faith and attack your philosophy of life. Or if you are a Christian yourself, you can benefit from acquiring a more informed perspective on free will, and the underlying science and concepts.

This is still my favorite course to teach! Affordable and fascinating. It goes into both the philosophy and the science. I think everyone should study it. Looking at free will as a subject gets you practiced in studying every aspect of philosophy and with thinking critically like a philosopher.

This course touches on: (1) how to construct a credible non-supernatural metaphysics from the findings of the sciences; (2) semantics and epistemology, and how you can claim to know things, and what it even is you are claiming to know; (3) politics and law—as conclusions about consent, autonomy, and free will entail fundamental assumptions in those domains; (4) and obviously also in matters of ethics and moral theory, like how we judge responsibility and why, and what we can reasonably expect from people, and how they can be manipulated; (5) it even touches on aesthetics, as the lived experience of living with or without freedom is a fundamental component of human happiness—so what is the difference between those feelings, and why do they matter?

In class we will engage in open discussion in private class forums, after reading an array of key documents, from courts of law, medical ethics boards, philosophy and psychology journals, neuroscience, and beyond. We will interact with, critique, and test the merits of Sam Harris’s book Free Will, which you will need to purchase for the course (print or digital, as you prefer). All the other readings will be provided for free.

It lasts one month. You can participate as much or as little as you like, and on any days and at any times of day you like. Use this course to pose all the challenges and ask all the questions you ever wanted of an expert on the matter of free will.

Join us and let’s have an interesting and educational discussion about both the science and philosophy of this central concept in Western thought, morality, society, and law! Come away from it knowing a lot more than you ever did, much of it likely fascinating and new.

New Method of Registering

I am moving all my online courses to a Google Groups platform. They will be more affordable. And I will gradually set things up so any of my ten standard courses will be available in any month. Courses will always start the first of the month and end at the close of that month. For this February, only my first course is on the roster: the Science & Philosophy of Free Will.

Registration for any single one-month course is only $49. Every course also requires you purchase a single course text, in either print or digital format, which you should give yourself plenty of time to receive before starting the course. For the Science & Philosophy of Free Will, the course text is Sam Harris’s book Free Will, which you can procure by following that link.

Students will require a Google Account (creating one is free and easy and has many other uses) and must pay the registration fee using my PayPal portal (you don’t need a PayPal account; any suitable credit or bank card will do). After paying the $49, email me with a note that you’ve paid and what for (the month and course; you can choose to start in any month; and remember to also get the course text, per above). In that email please provide me the same name you used with PayPal, and your Google Account email address, so I can invite you into the course forum. You will be sent that invite by email on or before the first of the month you chose.

Then participate as much or as little as you like! Read the assigned course materials each week, answer the forum challenge questions, and post any questions or challenges you have on the subject. I’ll provide serious and attentive answers and assessments and continue to engage with you as much as you need throughout the month.

14 comments

  1. Thomas Flintstone January 25, 2020, 8:47 pm

    Dr. Carrier, I know this is a question that has nothing to do with this topic, but I wanted to hear your opinion since I think you are a fine and honorable scholar. I wanted to ask what your thoughts are regarding the topic of antinatalism and particularly David Benatar’s book Better Never to Have Been? I think the position of antinatalism is perfectly reasonable as it tries to alleviate and potentially eliminate suffering (abstaining from procreation). I just wanted to see what your thoughts were.

    Thanks

    Reply
    1. It isn’t logical. It’s another example of badly argued utilitarianism (a philosophy rife throughout its history with terrible conclusions based on inaccurate or incomplete premises). All to basically whitewash what is essentially a Cthulhu cult. As Kenton Engel puts it, as a philosophy it’s “sociologically ignorant and vapid.”

      Good critiques with which I concur are by Bryan Caplan and Artir.

      Amusingly, Benatar’s philosophy taken to its logical outcome should demand that we not only extinguish ourselves, but first build a self-replicating fleet of space robots programmed to extinguish all life and every civilization in the universe. In other words, we should become the soullessly murderous alien monsters of virtually every sci-fi film made. It’s obvious something has gone wrong in your thinking if that’s where you’re landing. I am aware Benatar tries to argue against this being the implication of his premises, but his defense is logically invalid.

      This is not to be confused with ZPG however. Seeking a smaller sustainable population within the available environment-space by humane means is the correct utility target. But extinction is as immoral (and irrational) as suicide ever is. It bears an analogy to the equally foolish argument “our government’s policies are bad, therefore we should eliminate government” rather than what is actually the correct rational response, “our government’s policies are bad, therefore we need better government.” One can say exactly the same of the entirety of human society. We already have working examples of good communities on good trajectories, so we know the failure to extend that globally is an ethical failure of action on our part and not some existentially unavoidable fate we should run away from like cowards.

      As for animals, anthropomorphizing them to the same status as the existential awareness of humans is pseudoscience, so it doesn’t even get off the ground there, although for animals antinatalism is actually a credible goal in the right context: we depend on animals now (alternatives are far more wasteful of resources and damaging to the environment), but eventually there will be no animals in the present sense; when humans go live in virtual paradises (a target outcome only ~100-1000 years away, a blink of time in cosmic perspective—humans have been around over 100,000 years now), the only animals that will be replicated there will be immune to disease, abuse, and predation, and that will be a laudable achievement—but notably, not achievable if humans childishly extinguish themselves first.

      Reply
  2. I tentatively lean towards absolute determinism. I read an interesting article by a Physiologist called Benjamin Libet who did a study where he wired up subjects with EEG electrodes and asked them to carry out small movements with their hands, and note down the exact time they became aware of their urge to make those movements (I’m oversimplifying it). It turns out there was unconscious activity that preceded their awareness of their urge to move, every time. Obviously, we have no control over our unconscious processes (at least not directly) and if our decision-making originates outside our awareness then I don’t see how we have free will. But this begs the question, are Benjamin Libet’s findings absolute and universal?

    Another interesting idea I heard concerns the nature of our relationship to the universe. If we do live in a UNIverse – a one world – then free will is an impossibility since everything is interconnected on a fundamental level. I think the reason why this points to determinism is that in an interconnected reality we wouldn’t be able to make voluntary decisions to think or act since the parts of our brain that govern thoughts and decision-making depend on the state of everything else in the universe. It’s as if the universe is the puppeteer and we are the puppets. But maybe this isn’t a good way of looking at it since in that scenario we would also be an integral part of the whole and therefore the rest of universe would also be dependent on us.

    Moreover, people who believe in free-will (on some level at least) often say things like, wouldn’t it be unfair to lock up a serial killer if he had no control over his actions? It would… But do you know why we shouldn’t feel bad about it? Because our decision to condemn him would also be determined!

    Reply
    1. You’ll want to take my course then. Libet experiments are misused, for example; they don’t show what you seem to think. This is all discussed in the course, with scientific and legal and philosophical readings. Likewise your other points won’t hold up on closer examination. This course can help you see that, or present the best steel man you’d have to overcome to continue in your belief. Either way, it can be quite useful to you.

      Reply
      1. But don’t you think that for someone who is a complete novice like myself, it would be better to start with a course in Epistemology/Logic? It seems that should be the foundation for everything else because that teaches you how to think critically and reasonably. If you ask me this should be a mandatory course for high school as well – most people need this!

        Personal confession: I wanted to study Philosophy but I decided not to due to the limited career opportunities I would have as a Philosophy graduate. The most likely path (probably the only one) would be to become a professor in a University which isn’t something that appealed to me. But I will always love philosophy – my favorite area is Metaphysics, followed by Free-Will. Epistemology is also fascinating but I view that as a tool for understanding other areas of Philosophy and subjects.

        Reply
        1. You could start with logic and epistemology. But you don’t necessarily have to. You almost certainly already have a basic toolkit in both that will suffice to grasp and evaluate the evidence and concepts in this course, as much as in any other.

          I also don’t think the reason to study philosophy is to make money or develop a career. We all need to be good philosophers to develop a responsible and reliable worldview so we can be better neighbors and citizens and more capable of achieving a satisfying life for ourselves. All human problems are better solved and goals better achieved with a sounder philosophy of life.

          I teach an introduction to philosophy course as well. Which includes a unit on epistemology. I also teach a critical thinking course, which covers logics. Both will be offered later this year. You might find those of interest as well.

  3. I have attempted to sign up by clicking on the paypal portal link above but I am taking to a page on paypal that says the session is invalid or expired. Any tips?

    Reply

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