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Static and dynamic metaphysics of free will: A pragmatic perspective

By Eric Racine, PhD and Victoria Saigle

Dr. Eric Racine is the director of the Neuroethics Research Unit at the Institut de recherches cliniques de Montréal and holds academic appointments in the Department of Medicine and the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine at Université de Montréal and in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery, the Department of Medicine, and the Biomedical Ethics Unit at McGill University. He is also a member of the AJOB Neuroscience Editorial Board.

Victoria Saigle is a research assistant at the Neuroethics Research Unit at the Institut de recherches cliniques de Montréal.

In the public eye, one of the most striking types of findings neuroscience research claims to unravel concerns how decisions are made and whether these decisions are made “freely”. Unpacking the relationship between what is meant by “freely” and other neighboring notions such as “voluntarily”, “informed”, “conscious”, “undetermined”, “uncoerced”, “autonomous”, “controlled”, “uncaused”, etc., is a matter of serious philosophical debate. Much research, either purely philosophical, neuroscientific, or a mixture of the two in nature, has attempted to tease out the mysteries of free will. In spite of being seemingly committed to addressing these questions scientifically, much of the neuroscientific literature clearly holds presuppositions about the nature of free will that stunts its exploratory power. By this, we mean that many neuroscientific experiments surrounding free will have clung to a static metaphysical notion of its existence and it is only recently that a more dynamic view has emerged. The contrast between these two metaphysical beliefs is the focus of our blog post.

From a pragmatic standpoint, Dewey writes with much despair about free will that “[w]hat men have esteemed and fought for in the name of liberty is varied and complex – but [it] certainly has never been a metaphysical freedom of will”,1 i.e., free will is a philosophical Holy Grail. Dewey proposes that what matters to free will is the ability to carry out plans, the capacity to change them, and the power of the individual to be an actor in the course of events. Dewey’s critiques are grounded partly in an analysis of the dead ends produced by static philosophical scholasticism as well as an absence of commitment to scientific inquiry as a source of knowledge and progress for ethics. What is interesting about the latter part is that some key neuroscience-derived messages about free will have remained stuck in a static metaphysic that has wrestled with topics framed in dualism such as the existence of an uncaused causer, mental causation and other impressive philosophic-semantic puzzles. For instance, the findings of Libet’s experiments in the 1980s have perplexed many people and since fueled varying interpretations concerning how readiness potentials could precede the conscious intention to act.2 Since then, more adventurous researchers have claimed that free will is simply an illusion.3 The metaphysical framework in which free will researchers seem to be working is a static one, whereby any findings that challenge the existence of free will could negate its entire existence. While Libet himself tries to save part of free will by introducing the idea of a “veto” power2, most researchers using Libet-type paradigms do not acknowledge this distinction. Instead, conclusions from these experiments are often co-opted in other academic, social, and legal contexts to support, in the most radical interpretations, the notion that humans are not responsible for their actions, lack decisional capacity, and should not be held accountable for consequences of their actions. The problem with this interpretation, again using Libet’s 1983 experiment as an example, is that one’s sense of control over a spontaneous finger movement becomes evidence that one has no free will over more complex, premeditated actions.

Fortunately, a new line of inquiry has begun moving away from the static metaphysical and semantic boxing of free will to actually experimenting with the implications of a dynamic view of the self. A good example of this approach is a study conducted by Rigoni and colleagues who have shown that undermining one’s belief in free will affects brain correlates of voluntary motor control of actions. Their results suggest that “the readiness potential was reduced in individuals induced to disbelieve in free will,” thereby indicating that “abstract belief systems might have a much more fundamental effect than previously thought”.4 The authors underscore the synergetic relationship between beliefs about free will and behavior: “[p]utting less effort into an action might weaken our sense of agency for these actions and lead to a reduced feeling of responsibility. This reduced feeling of responsibility would very likely result in more careless and irresponsible behaviour. The basic assumption of this explanation is that disbelief in free will influences people’s sense of agency.”4

From SMBC Comics

Interestingly, this research, and that of others,5 6 is consistent with a much more dynamic view of free will in which concepts describing the self are fluid self-interpretations influenced by factors such as social contexts, knowledge acquisition, experience, and culture. Dewey’s work captures this interpretative and “instrumental” slant of self well. In fact, he states that, “the meanings of such words as soul, mind, self, unity, even body, are hardly more than condensed epitomes of mankind’s agelong efforts at interpretation of its experience.”7 It seems likely that fluidity in self-understanding also implicates differing ways in which free will can manifest itself. So long to the dream of a static metaphysics and essences and hello to the complexity of social psychology! Interestingly, this view is consistent with recent research,4-6 which, similarly to the pragmatists, argues for the importance of experience within ethics and the recognition that ethical thinking is itself contrived by concepts about the self. Therefore, a key task of philosophy and science is to deconstruct the implied assumptions found in “common-sense” concepts through criticism and experimental research to refurnish them with enriched meaning based on inquiry. However, as Dewey warns, contrary to sweeping reductionist neurophilosophy, “it will be a long time before anything of this sort will be accomplished for human beings. To expel traditional meanings and replace them by ideas that are products of controlled inquiries is a slow and painful process.”4 (Dewey is, in this case, comparing research on human nature to the physical sciences in which technical language is vested with new insights and power because of the research supporting them).

In a sense, the whole-packaged fallacy of static and essentialist metaphysics applied to free will has previously been considered benign because of its lack of impact on daily life and human affairs. However, the cost could be better captured as an “opportunity cost”. By being stuck in philosophical scholasticism and focusing on outdated metaphysical and semantic debates, neuroscience research (and philosophical reflection on it) has not delivered large amounts of usable knowledge to inform ethics. With the increasing use of neuroscientific findings to support healthcare innovation, policy implementation, and decisions within legal contexts, the problem of a static metaphysical vision of free will could translate to these realms as well. If research based on this static view informs decisions in the public sphere, these decisions could themselves become less fluid and potentially incapable of responding to nuance. Neuroscientific research has the ability to inform ethics, but to do so would likely require a few nudges and budges to (1) resist the “philosophical fallacy”, i.e., of speculating on “essences” and semantics and then luring oneself into thinking that this speculation (in itself) becomes universal knowledge; and to (2) reach out to other disciplines, such as social psychology and qualitative research, to bring experiential perspectives to the endeavor of uncovering self-concepts such as will and voluntary action. However, a continued focus on narrowly defined philosophical puzzles will offset possible dialogues and contributions because of the disciplinary buy-in they entail.

Acknowledgements: Writing of this article was supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada held by Eric Racine as well as a career award from the Fonds de recherché du Québec – Santé.


1. Dewey J. Human nature and conduct: An introduction to social psychology. New York: Holt, 1922.

2. Libet B, Gleason CA, Wright EW, Pearl DK. Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity (readiness-potential). The unconscious initiation of a freely voluntary act. Brain 1983;106 (Pt 3):623-42.

3. Wegner D. The illusion of conscious will. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002

4. Rigoni D, Kuhn S, Sartori G, Brass M. Inducing disbelief in free will alters brain correlates of preconscious motor preparation: The brain minds whether we believe in free will or not. Psychol. Sci. 2011;22(5):613-8.

5. Baumeister RF, Masicampo EJ, DeWall CN. Prosocial benefits of feeling free: Disbelief in free will Increases aggression and reduces helpfulness. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull. 2009;35(2):260-68.

6. Vohs KD, Schooler JW. The value of believing in free will – Encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating. Psychol. Sci. 2008;19(1):49-54.

7. An address delivered before the College of Physicians in St. Louis, April 21, 1937. Published in Intelligence in the Modern World: John Dewey’s Philosophy, edited with an introduction by Joseph Ratner, New York, The Modern Library, 1939, p. 817-34 and republished in Gouintlock J, editor. The moral writings of John Dewey. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2002.

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Racine, E. and Victoria Saigle (2014). Static and dynamic metaphysics of free will: A pragmatic perspective. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


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