Denis Noble: Free will is not an illusion

How our bodies give us freedom

“My genes made me do it” encapsulates how many geneticists, following the footsteps of Richard Dawkins, think of our genome’s relationship to us: complete control over our mind and body. That seemingly leaves no room for free will, relegating it to a mere illusion. At the HowTheLightGetsIn festival in London last month, distinguished biologist Denis Noble sought to dismantle this picture. Our bodies, argued Noble, exhibit agency, an ability to choose between alternatives, even at the cell level, dispelling the idea that we’re mere automata, programmed by our genome.


You do what you do because of who you are, and you are who you are because of your genes and your environment. That’s how a contemporary argument against the existence of free will usually goes. The first claim, about the way our genes determine our fate, has come out of an interpretation of Darwin’s theory of evolu

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Frank Smith 1 22 October 2022

Free will cannot be derived from a biological basis or social conditioning, though the emergence of free will partly depends on those conditions. One cannot possess perfect free will, though one can increasingly approach perfect freedom, as a hyperbola approaches its asymptote. But insofar as we already possess some degree of freedom in the real sense of the word, that freedom can only be a characteristic of mind, mind considered as irreducible to matter. A pure materialism cannot coherently account for freedom. To deny the existence of freedom is a self-canceling denial, since belief in the validity of the denial assumes that one's consciousness has access to truth and that one spoke the denial not because of causes hidden from one's consciousness but because one was convinced the denial was true and that one's consciousness can determine itself freely through conscious consideration of truth. Denial of the existence of freedom is based on trust in reason as a potential purveyor of truth. If we have an awareness, however imperfect, of truth, then our choices need not always be caused by things outside our own consciousness. Our consciousness has some access to truth, and to that extent our choices can be truly free, based on a conscious and accurate knowledge of what we value and why we value it. Genes, cell membranes, the human body, and conducive social circumstances are necessary but not sufficient conditions for freedom. If the floor beneath me gives way, I may disappear from view, but that doesn't mean the floor caused my existence. The body is an essential "instrument" of consciousness, or rather an expression and coagulate of consciousness, not the cause of consciousness. That the body is a coagulate of mind is manifested by the relatively free passage of the mind throughout the body. Few would agree these days that matter, over strange eons, came into being as coagulations of mind or spirit. But that seems to me the best way to understand the "dualism" of mind and matter: it is not a mere dualism. More like a differentiation of two aspects by the sedimentation of the one out of the other. The course of evolution is mind or minds continually working over and developing the "sediment" from simple to increasingly advanced life forms capable of evere more fully expressing mind.

Richard Oerton 21 October 2022

Free will, in the non-compatibilist sense, is a meaningless idea, but belief in it entails the consequential belief that we really might behave out of character in ways in which we don't want to behave. Why does anyone hanker for it? Partly because something that is labelled "free" sounds like a good thing. Partly because it seems to justify the judgmental moralistic cruelty which we like to direct at others.