Jamesian Free Will - The Two-Stage Model of Free Will
On August 15, 2010, at Harvard's William James Symposium, the Information Philosopher explored the idea that William James, in 1884, had found today's most plausible and practical solution for the 2400-year old problem of free will and determinism.
This page includes six videos of that lecture, links to the presentation slides, which you can open alongside the video to read the slides clearly while watching the lecture, the William James Studies paper that led to this lecture, and links to several other resources on the Information Philosopher website for those studying free will.
We hope this lecture will stimulate fresh debate in philosophy courses and move beyond the confusing and fruitless linguistic philosophy debates over compatibilism and incompatibilism that John Searle has called a "scandal."
James's model of "mental evolution" was based on Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, in which a random and spontaneous variation in the genes may lead to a new species by an adequately determined process of natural selection.
For James, alternative possibilities for action "present themselves" randomly and one of them is "granted consent." It is a two-stage process of first chance, then choice - first thoughts, then action, - first possibilities, then actuality - first "free," then "will."
In part 1, we review what James called hard and soft determinism, the latter known today as compatibilism. He called it a "quagmire of evasion." We see that James proposed that thoughts could "present themselves" to us randomly as "alternative possibilities" for action. To one of these possibilities, he said, we "grant consent" by fixing our attention on it in the stream of consciousness.
In part 2, we see how James was inspired by Charles Darwin to incorporate chance into his model of free will. The standard argument against free will is that neither randomness (indeterminism) nor determinism can explain freedom. We examine the flaws in this classic argument. David Hume reconciled freedom with determinism. William James reconciles it with indeterminism.
In part 3, we look at other thinkers who might have thought of the two-stage model for free will before William James, and find no evidence that anyone did. That includes Epicurus, Lucretius, Charles Darwin, Charles Renouvier, and Alfred Fouillee. Since James based his model of "mental evolution" on Darwin's evolution, it is surprising that Darwin apparently did not think of it, regarding the mind as determined.
In part 4, we look closely at James's close friends Charles Sanders Peirce and Dickinson S. Miller (who wrote a landmark article in Mind on determinism under the pseudonym R. E. Hobart). Then we review other thinkers who discussed the two-stage model, including Henri Poincaré, Arthur Holly Compton, Karl Popper, Daniel Dennett, Henry Margenau, Robert Kane, Alfred Mele, and Stephen Kosslyn.
In part 5, we look more closely at Martin Heisenberg's 2009 idea that even lower forms of animals and prokaryotes like bacteria have behavioral freedom. We see how behavioral freedom in animals has evolved to become free will in higher animals and humans.