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It is an unfortunate fact that many reputable sources and persons make irrational or false claims. Rational skeptics must be ever vigilant to guard against blind acceptance of incorrect information. In the event that the information being given is regarding a topic that we feel strongly about (either one way or the other), then we must be that much more cautious about accepting or rejecting that information.

Recently Marcelo Glesier, a well-known theoretical physicist and contributor to National Public Radio (NPR)[1], wrote two articles on free will and determinism[2][3]. NPR is a major news source commonly associated with highly reliable information and informed viewers[4]. Despite this fact when talking about free will and determinism, deeply personal topics for most Westerners, Glesier succumbed to many poor arguments and logical fallacies in defending his position.

Both articles center around objections to a book by Sam Harris titled Free Will[5]. In his book Harris argues that free will is an illusion. He makes this claim based on neurological evidence that people’s decisions (or choices) can be observed in the brain before people say they have come to a decision (or made a choice)[6]. Based on this evidence Harris argues that our brains make the decisions before “we” do, so we cannot be said to be the authors of those decisions.

In his 1st article entitled The Choice is Yours: The Fate of Free Will[7], Glesier begins by presenting an appeal to ignorance[8], a type of logical fallacy in which a person states that something cannot be known, therefore it is not true. Glesier says that since we have no way of measuring all neuron and synaptic activity, then free will cannot be disproved. However, this argument is not true. It assumes that our ability to track all neurological activity is a necessary condition to prove the likelihood of determinism and disprove free will. In reality all that needs to be proven is that our actions can occur as a result something other than our conscious choice –  that is, when we say we’ve come to a decision.

Marcelo Glesier does not stop at one logical fallacy. He goes on to say that even if this research shows that free will does not exists for simple decisions, it cannot possibly be the same for complex decision (for example, choosing which college to attend). Here Glesier is making the logical error of begging the question[9]. This is a type of logical fallacy in which a person presents an uncertain premise as if it confirms his conclusion. By admitting that basic human choices may not be free, but saying complex decisions must involve free will, Glesier is begging the question of “Based on what data?” as if it is self-evident. The fact is Glesier is not basing this on data; it is simply a statement he makes. Just because something is, or even appears, complex does not make it occur as a result of a different process. Choices like “which college to attend” may very well involve complex decision making, but that does not mean that any final decisions cannot be observed at the neurological level before the conscious decisions is made, at least not necessarily.

Glesier followed up his 1st article on free will with a 2nd article entitled The Problem with a Clockwork Universe[10]. In this 2nd article he defends his stance on free will by talking about determinism. He begins by defining determinism, saying “a system is deterministic if its future (and past) behavior can be fully determined by knowledge of its condition in the present.” This is not determinism, as science typically defines it. Determinism is a basic assumption of all science and it is not defined the way that Glesier says. Determinism in science is when, whatever is being investigated (for example, our choices) occurs as a result of, or is determined by, something else (for example, our historical preferences)[11][12]. That is, anything that happens has a cause, it did not occur willy-nilly in contradiction to all physical law. In essence, determinism says that the world is lawful and anything that scientists are studying is assumed to occur as a result of some lawful relationship, until proven otherwise. If this was not true everything would occur completely by chance, utterly independent of anything lawful, logical, or rational[13][14].

Where Marcelo Glesier goes wrong is by confusing determinism and pre-determinism[15][16] in his definition.  Pre-determinism is when whatever is being investigated (for example, our choices) could never have been different (for example, despite our historic preferences, our genetic makeup, how hungry we are, the physical cost of making those choices, etc.), nothing could change or affect it, similar to fatalism. Determinism just means that anything that happens has a cause, a reason, a preceding event. In pre-determinism no other choice of action could have been made. In determinism a different choice of action could have, but what happened was probabilistically likely to occur, because of the combination of variables that preceded it.

Glasier goes on to say “[i]n practice [in physics], deterministic physical systems are described by equations that allow us to predict precisely their advance in time.” This may make sense in physics where you are talking about the specific, single path of an object or system, but human choices are each discrete events, that are controlled by different variables of various consideration. Glesier follows by saying that since we cannot measure all particles in the universe – which would be needed to determine the course of all particles and prove a pre-determined universe – we cannot say there is no free will. This pre-determined universe is not the world we live in and it is not the world that many of us would want to live in.

Logically the problem is that Glesier’s redefinition of determinism is a straw man argument[17], which is another logical fallacy. A straw man argument is when someone misrepresents or redefines a position and then attacks the redefined position as proof of the falsehood of the original position, as if they are the same. This may seem confusing, but let me explain. By saying that determinism cannot be true because – the way he defines determinism – it would be impossible to determine everything, Glesier attacks his redefinition of determinism as if it is the same thing as the determinism that Sam Harris and others’ position of “there is no free will” rests on. (That is, there is a preceding event or condition that determines our choice of action outside of our conscious choice.)  The science we do today could not occur under Glesier’s requirement. If this is how science was done, it would mean we only had to determine the cause of some kind of event and we could predict all future actions. However, if science had no (actual) deterministic assumption it would be pointless; because the assumption would be that there is no cause to anything[18][19].

Marcelo Glesier concludes in both articles that the existence or nonexistence of free will is not black and white. He does this by repeatedly presenting logical fallacies. The truth is that in science if something can be studied, then we assume it is determined (at least probabilistically) until that assumption is proved otherwise – and to date, it hasn’t been.

However, the biggest flaw of Glesier’s arguments may be the use of data from physics to present a proof of free will. Physic is for sure, a fantastic natural science, but free will is a question of whether our actions are determined by our agency (as human beings) independent of any other variables. Physics is the scientific study concerned with matter and energy[20], though the study of these variables is important, it is overly reductionistic to answer the questions about the choices of human beings. It is a question about our behavior of making choices, which occurs at a level far above matter and energy, to the actions of human beings. As a result, it is only through psychology, and more specifically the science of behavior, that these questions can in any way be answered scientifically; specifically the analysis of human behavior – accounting for its findings as outside of the evidence found in related areas of science that affect behavior, such as biology, neuroscience, physiology, genetics, etc.

So, how should human behaviors and choices be assessed to account for the probability of free will? It may be helpful to start by defining human behavior in a manner that encompasses these different types and levels of choices. By behavior I mean the large scale definition of anything an organism does in space/time[21][22]. In this sense all thoughts, actions, and feelings can be assessed. Though this definition is broad, it follows the assumption of radical behaviorists (those following the tradition of B. F. Skinner) – that the only difference between observable and unobservable behaviors is that only you can see your unobservable behavior (for example, your self-talk).

Next in our investigation of free will, all the possible events and conditions that affect behavior must be considered. Genetic endowment has been shown to effect behavior; including all physiological structures and systems- this is where the neuroscientific data is placed[23][24]. Current environment has been shown to affect behavior[25]. Personal history has been shown to effect behavior[26].

Some claim  that conscious decision making affects behavior, but the findings in neuroscience[27], biology[28], and economics[29], challenge this notion by finding situations in which choices are predictably determined by other conditions and events and do not require an account of the effects of consciousness. Hank Schlinger wrote a fantastic article in Skeptic that suggests the most parsimonious reasoning concludes that consciousness does not exists as anything but our own thoughts, feelings, and observations[30][31]. Also, despite the suggestions by cognitive psychologists, philosophers, and neuroscientists that thoughts determine our actions[32][33][34], behavior analysts view thoughts as just more behaviors that need explanations[35][36][37]. To assume that thoughts are different from other behaviors is to assume they are of some different substance, but there is no reliable evidence of this at all[38]. It could be that thoughts affected something that other behavior do not, but again there is no reliable data to suggest this, so the assertion by Schlinger may be a better place to start.

The only data we have that thoughts precede behaviors, tells us that neurological responses are detected before muscular response[39][40]. However, in these cases the same part of the brain is responding as those that are active during the muscular response[41]. This can be seen as evidence that the response starts at the brain, but it is all part of the same action for the organism, so this is not the kind of evidence that verifies thoughts control behaviors in any special sense.

So, what do behavior analytic scientists have to say about free will and determinism? Well, they have not found any behavior without relations to other events and conditions. As far as they know all behavior is determined, which means no free will – at least not in the classic sense[42][43]. This does not mean we do not make our own choices. It simply means we don’t make those choices for no reason, logic, function, or purpose.

Also, even if thoughts do affect behaviors, that doesn’t mean those thoughts would not be determined by some preceding events or conditions. In this framework your choices may have some determining factors, but you are still you and your choices are still your choices. In this sense you can still “feel free” and this feeling may be what is truly important[44].

For some people this may be uncomfortable. The idea that we aren’t as free as we thought we were can seem very unpleasant. A quick look at the history of deterministic ideas can make it clear why[45]. However, to be rational skeptics we must look at the evidence despite our feelings. Logical fallacies will not change the world and believing in ideas that make us feel better won’t either. Just remember, nothing has actually changed. If our actions and choices are determined, then they’re still just as free as they have always been. We have never lived in a freer world than we do right now.

Marcelo Glesier may feel like this doesn’t make sense. That he does not have free will – in that sense that philosophers have thought of it for generations – may seem unfathomable[46]. Yet, our thoughts, feelings, and personal experiences can be wrong. Any undergraduate research methods textbook can tell you not to rely on testimonials[47]. We also cannot rely on poor logic. The best we can do to maneuver through the world as rational skeptics is to accept the strong data in front of us and be wary of weak data that confirms what we already believe.


[5] Harris, S. (2012). Free Will. Free Press, New York, NY.

[6] Ibid.

[8] Hurley, P. J. (2008). A concise introduction to logic (10th ed.). Thompson Wadsworth, Belmont, CA.

[9] Ibid.

[11] Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis. Merrill-Prentice Hall, Columbus, OH.

[14] Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis. Merrill-Prentice Hall, Columbus, OH.

[15] Ibid.

[17] Hurley, P. J. (2008). A concise introduction to logic (10th ed.). Thompson Wadsworth, Belmont, CA.

[19] Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis. Merrill-Prentice Hall, Columbus, OH.

[21] Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis. Merrill-Prentice Hall, Columbus, OH.

[22] Johnston, J. M., & Pennypacker, H. S. (2009). Strategies and Tactics of Behavioral Research, (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge.

[23] Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis. Merrill-Prentice Hall, Columbus, OH.

[24] Harris, S. (2012). Free Will. Free Press, New York, NY.

[25] Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis. Merrill-Prentice Hall, Columbus, OH.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Welberg, L. (2008). Free will? Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9, 410-411.

[28] Montague, P. R. (2008). Free will. Current Biology, 18, 584-585.

[29] Foxall, G. R., & Sigurdsson, V. (2013). Consumer behavior analysis: Behavioral economics meets the marketplace. Psychological Record, 63, 231-238.

[30] Schlinger, H. D. (2008). Consciousness is nothing but a word. Skeptic, 14, 58-63.

[31] If you would like to see video of the conference talk on this paper go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qbknecc1rWg&feature=player_embedded  graciously shown to me by Karola Dillenburger

[32] Schlinger, H. D. (2008). Consciousness is nothing but a word. Skeptic, 14, 58-63.

[33] Chiesa, M. (1994). Radical Behaviorism: the Philosophy and the Science. Boston: Authors Cooperative.

[34] Harris, S. (2012). Free Will. Free Press, New York, NY.

[35] Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and Human Behavior. Free Press, New York, NY.

[36] Schlinger, H. D. (2008). Consciousness is nothing but a word. Skeptic, 14, 58-63.

[37] Chiesa, M. (1994). Radical Behaviorism: the Philosophy and the Science. Boston: Authors Cooperative.

[38] Schlinger, H. D. (2008). Consciousness is nothing but a word. Skeptic, 14, 58-63.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Harris, S. (2012). Free Will. Free Press, New York, NY.

[41] Schlinger, H. D. (2008). Consciousness is nothing but a word. Skeptic, 14, 58-63.

[42] Johnston, J. M., & Pennypacker, H. S. (2009). Strategies and Tactics of Behavioral Research, (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge.

[43] Schlinger, H. D. (2008). Consciousness is nothing but a word. Skeptic, 14, 58-63.

[44] Skinner, B. F., (1971). Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Hackett  Publishing, Indianapolis, IN.

[45] Malott, R. W. (2008). Are women, people of color, Asians, and southern Europeans inherently inferior to north-European males? A history of biological determinism—A cultural, spiritual and intellectual disgrace—And the implications for understanding “mental illness”, Behavior and Social Issues, 16, 134-169.

[47] Goodwin, J. C. (2007). Research in Psychology (5th ed.). Wiley, Hoboken, NJ.

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