Despite this apparent logical contradiction, professor WR Klemm makes this very claim in his post, “Free Will is NOT An Illusion“. Klemm argues that contrary to the positions held by such noted scholars Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, the subconscious mind cannot be said to control human “intentions, choices, and decisions”. He goes on to debunk empirical support for this position provided by a series of experiments conducted in the early 1980s by Benjamin Libet. These experiments purport to demonstrate that electrical potentials of the brain can be recorded which predict how a person will act up to several seconds before that person can consciously state his intention to act.
I won’t deny that many scientists and philosophers have used these experiments to infer that free will is an illusion. I am not one of them. Even taken at face value, I agree with Dr. Klemm that the evidence provided by Libet’s experiments do not logically support the position that the subconscious mind controls human actions.
What still remains unmentioned is that Klemm stated at the outset that “Free Will is NOT An Illusion”. In fact, this statement is a non-sequitur.
Klemm does not make clear how he defines free will, nor even whether such a term is definable at all. For example, I agree with Klemm when he states that “subconscious and conscious minds interact and share duties”, but this statement is entirely irrelevant to the concept of free will, unless one assumes a priori that the conscious mind is free and the subconscious mind is not. This assumption is flawed.
Even if we take the position that the conscious mind is free, we are still left to wonder exactly what this means. Indeed, one might assume based upon Klemm’s statements that the answer to this question determines “whether we are victims of genetics and environment or bear responsibility for our intentions”. This again does not follow. How could the conscious mind be free from the constraints of genetics and environment, whereas the subconscious mind is not? Is Klemm arguing that the conscious mind does not rely upon the brain, whereas the subconscious mind is what subsists within the thick encasement of our human skulls? By defining free will in terms of a mind which is controlled either by conscious or subconscious forces, Klemm presents his readers with a false dichotomy–a straw man which he swiftly and effectively debunks.
The more important questions on this topic deal not with competing minds but with the concept of causality. There is a long historical debate which pits free will against a deterministic reality which is similarly mired in irredeemable conclusions. As with Klemm’s arguments, even in a universe which is not deterministic, it is unclear how free will could exist: in fact, inherent in the definition of free will is the idea that the universe is deterministic and free will represents a human escape from these constraints on reality.
I have mentioned in the past far more convincing empirical arguments that the brain is a critical determinant of how the human mind functions. Therefore, if we accept that the brain is subject to causal laws (such as destruction from physical injury or disease) and that the mind is also affected when the brain is injured, then we must reasonably conclude that our choices are constrained by the same genes and environments which affect our brains. This isn’t proven in the mathematical or philosophical sense, but it’s the closest thing we have to a reasonable position, given what we know. In this context, free will is essentially incomprehensible and therefore doesn’t offer a reasonable alternative.