West London Humanists and Secularists

Epiphenomenism & Free Will"
talk by Norman Bacrac, 19th March 2015: brief summary by Roger Haines

Norman Bacrac explained that Darwin’s supporter Thomas Huxley coined the term ‘epiphenomenon’ to mean something that accompanies a physical process but does not affect it in any way – eg the squeak made by a train’s brakes - and suggested that consciousness is just such an effect. It is caused in some currently unknown way by the behaviour of the neurons, but can have no effect on the physical world, because everything in the physical world that follows from a thought can already be explained by purely physical causes.

The distinction between the physical and the mental is illustrated by “qualia”, conscious states such as the perception of colour. In Norman’s view, the colourless photons from a traffic light just have energy. The reception by the eye of a photon of a particular energy stimulates a certain pattern of neural activity, and this is accompanied by the conscious sensation of greenness or redness. However, describing the light itself as green, say, is normally harmless for all practical purposes; it is just when seeking to explain the underlying processes that the distinction should be made.

Applying this approach to the question of Free Will, Norman argued that a ‘libertarian’ Will (required by religion), i.e. that one’s decisions were independent of one’s history and not dependent on one’s brain, did not exist. What we commonly call ‘free will’ is simply the experience we get when we’re able to decide or choose as we wish, but this experience is an epiphenomenon of brain activity. This interpretation of ‘free will’ is not only compatible with but actually needs the regularities of physics if our desires are to result in successful action.

He thought Humanists, unlike the religions, have no ideological reason not to accept this account (that we are inevitably the product of our history and environment) and its implications. For example, it makes no sense to impose punishment for wrongdoing as retribution, when the cause of misbehaviour lies in the person’s history, although society’s other reasons for deprivation of liberty remain valid. The brain is educable, allowing neural re-connections, so rehabilitation is possible.


I followed Norman’s talk with my own short presentation of an analysis of Free Will that I have been developing – attached here in full with added footnotes. Shortly after the meeting, the Guardian’s book of the week was a new book by Julian Baggini on the same subject: “Freedom Regained – the possibility of Free Will”. I was very pleased to see that Baggini adopts the same position as me on almost every important point – with added eloquence and professional expertise, of course – and is also very much in the same tradition as Norman Bacrac’s account. So, as they say on Classic FM, if you like this (Norman’s presentation and my mini-presentation), you’ll certainly like that (Baggini’s book)!