Thinking about thinking 3. Free will

John Edward Terrell and Gabriel Stowe Terrell

Please note: this commentary, recovered on 9-Jan-2017, was originally published in Science Dialogues on 24-March-2015.

THE BEHAVIORIST B. F. SKINNER was famously opposed to “mentalistic explanations” for human behavior. By this he meant attributing to the world of the mind an active “top-down” role (Baumeister and Miller 2014) in determining what we think, say, and do. In his eyes, trying to explain our overt behavior by appealing to inner states of mind, feelings, and other elements of an “autonomous man” inside our skulls was utterly foolish, unscientific, and a waste of time. “The ease with which mentalistic explanations can be invented on the spot is perhaps the best gauge of how little attention we should pay to them” (Skinner 1971: 160).

Instead, according to Skinner, the “task of a scientific analysis is to explain how the behavior of a person as a physical system is related to the conditions under which the human species evolved and the conditions under which the individual lives” (1971: 14). As distasteful as some might find such a realization, “the fact remains that it is the environment which acts upon the perceiving person, not the perceiving person who acts upon the environment” (1971: 188).

Even Skinner was willing to concede the “indisputable fact of privacy.” Nonetheless he stuck to his staunch environmentalism. “It is always the environment which builds the behavior with which problems are solved, even when the problems are to be found in the private world inside the skin” (1971: 194).

In a scathing review of Skinner’s 1971 book Beyond Freedom and Dignity, the linguist Noam Chomsky thoroughly rejected Skinner’s scientific claims. “His speculations are devoid of scientific content and do not even hint at general outlines of a possible science of human behavior. Furthermore, Skinner imposes certain arbitrary limitations on scientific research which virtually guarantee continued failure” (Chomsky 1971).

Unfortunately Chomsky’s spirited defense of human freedom and dignity against Skinner’s denial of both offered few concrete hints on why we are not the automatons Skinner said we are. But how are we not controlled by the world around us and by all that life deals us, both painful and pleasurable? How and how much does Skinner’s nemesis “autonomous man” have any real say in what we think, feel, and do? Chomsky left these critical issues unexplored and undocumented.

The mind-body problem

The philosopher Jerry Fodor noted in 1980 that traditional philosophies of mind can be divided into two sorts: dualist theories and materialist theories. “In the dualist approach the mind is a nonphysical substance. In materialist theories the mental is not distinct from the physical; indeed, all mental states, properties, processes and operations are in principle identical with physical states, properties, processes and operations” (Fodor 1980: 114). Since then cognitive psychologists and experts in neuroscience imaging have come down more or less firmly on the side of materialist theories, although exactly how the neurological hardware and software called the brain processes information and arrives at conclusions remains more an educated guess than a demonstrated reality.

Awkwardly what has traditionally been called the “mind-body problem” has often been seen in both science and philosophy as a conundrum about the consciousness of our thoughts and decisions. Yet as Max Velmans (2008) has observed, “it is now clear that ‘mind’ is not quite the same thing as ‘consciousness,’ and that the aspect of body most closely involved with consciousness is the brain. It is also clear that there is not one consciousness–brain problem, but many.” In other words, reading “mind and body” to mean “consciousness and brain tissue” is far too restrictive, too limiting.

Recently Ralph Adolphs (2015) at the California Institute of Technology surveyed what we do and don’t know about consciousness as a mental phenomenon and finds that there is little agreement about what it is and how it works. He helpfully divides the unsolved problems in neuroscience into four basic categories ranging from those that are now solved or will soon be to those that may never be decided. Discouragingly, he puts three key issues in the latter category. (1) How does the human brain compute? (2) How can cognition be so flexible and generative? (3) How and why does conscious experience arise?

His final conclusion is equally sobering. “In a nutshell, then, the biggest unsolved problem is how the brain generates the mind, conceived of in a way that does not simultaneously require answering the problem of consciousness.” However, on a more promising note, he adopts the framework proposed by David Marr (1982) to suggest that memory at least can be understood as the “ability to predict the future by learning.”

This comment is worth emphasizing. Unlike old Father William in Lewis Carroll’s famous poem who elected to stand on his head again and again after learning he had no brain, we see the design and decision-making that are both so fundamental to human niche construction as tangible proof that the human brain is capable of stimulus-independent, self-directed thought (Bonn 2013)—a roundabout way of saying that like Father William, the cognitive manipulations and innovations happening in our minds can lead to top-down, not just bottom-up causation (Foulkes and Domhoff 2014).

Evidence favoring this admittedly far from surprising conclusion can be seen readily enough in what happens on the landscape between our ears during that mysterious cognitive activity called dreaming.

Dreams and dreaming
Sir John Tenniel’s hand-colored proof of Cheshire Cat in the Tree Above Alice for The Nursery “Alice”, ca. 1889.

It is an enduring folk belief that we live our lives on-again off-again in dichotomous ways. We are either happy or sad, awake or asleep, conscious or unconscious, rational or emotional, and so on.

Cognitive psychology today, however, is discovering that a great deal that is happening in the brain instrumental to our survival, success, and emotional well-being is (1) largely disengaged from our conscious awareness of what’s going on both inside and outside us (e.g., Mudrik et al. 2014; Soto and Silvanto 2014), and is (2) more dependent on our feelings and emotions than conventionally seen (e.g., Inzlicht et al. 2015).

Dreaming, like consciousness, is one of those arenas of mental life about which much has been written and yet much remains to be understood (Domhoff and Fox 2015). Here we offer two observations. First, dreaming is more a top-down brain activity than generally envisioned (Foulkes and Domhoff 2014). Second, nobody who has ever recalled a dream needs to be told by anyone else that our brains are capable of creating often credible but truly off-the-wall situations, scenarios, and storied experiences that may not only have lingering emotional impact long after awakening, but can also be a source of great inspiration and creative insight. In short, cognitive niche construction does not need to be either conscious or wakeful.

Free will

Saying you know for sure what free will is or isn’t has long been a reliable way of provoking debate (Monroe et al. 2014). Nonetheless, here are three claims based on what we have been discussing thus far in this SCIENCE DIALOGUES series. First, human beings can think about things and actions—past, present, or future—without being aware that they are doing so (Bonn 2013). Second, human beings can act in accord with the worlds they construct for themselves in their Leslie minds. Third, free will does not have to be rational if by rational we mean “makes sense” in terms of the external world and the laws of physics, etc. Cognitive niche construction may begin with our own experiences of the world, but it does not have to end there. And as we shall discuss in later commentaries in this series, therein lies a problem.

Forthcoming in this series: "Thinking about thinking 4. Our social baseline."
Previously in this series: 
"Thinking about thinking 1. Cognitive niche construction"
"Thinking about thinking 2. Through the looking-glass"

Adolphs, Ralph (2015). The unsolved problems of neuroscience. Trends in Cognitive Science, in press.

Buschman, Timothy J. and Earl K. Miller (2014). Goal-direction and top-down control. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 369: 20130471

Bonn, Gregory B. (2013). Re-conceptualizing free will for the 21st century: Acting independently with a limited role for consciousness. Frontiers in Psychology 4: 920. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00920

Chomsky, N. (1971). The case against B. F. Skinner. The New York Review of Books 17: 18-24.

Domhoff, G. William and Kieran C. R. Fox (2015). Dreaming and the default network: A review, synthesis, and counterintuitive research proposal. Consciousness and Cognition 33: 342–353.

Fodor, Jerry (1880). The mind-body problem. Scientific American244/1: 114–123.

Foulkes, David and G. William Domhoff (2014). Bottom-up or top-down in dream neuroscience? A top-down critique of two bottom-up studies. Consciousness and Cognition 27: 168–171.

Inzlicht, Michael, Bruce D. Bartholow, and Jacob B. Hirsh (2015). Emotional foundations of cognitive control. Trends in CognitiveScience 19: 126–132.

Marr, David (1982). 9 Marr, D. (1982) Vision: A Computational Investigation into the Human Representation and Processing of Visual Information. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.

Monroe, A. E., Dillon, K. D., and Malle, B. F. (2104). Bringing free will down to earth: People’s psychological concept of free will and its role in moral judgment. Consciousness and Cognition 27: 100–108.

Mudrik, Liad, Nathan Faivre, and Christof Koch (2014). Information integration without awareness. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 18: 488–496.

Skinner, B. F. (1971). Beyond Freedom and Dignity. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972.

Soto, David and Juha Silvanto (2014). Reappraising the relationship between working memory and conscious awareness. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 18: 520–525.

Velmans, Max (2008). How to separate conceptual issues from empirical ones in the study of consciousness. In R. Banerjee and B. K. Chakrabarti (eds.), Models of Brain and Mind: Physical, Computational and Psychological Approaches 168: 1–9.


We thank Tom Clark and Kevin Kelly for their comments and suggestions for improvement.

John Edward Terrell is Regenstein Curator of Pacific Anthropology at The Field Museum, Chicago, IL 60605. His latest book A Talent for Friendship: Rediscovery of a Remarkable Trait was published on December 1, 2014 by Oxford University Press. Email address: terrell[at]

Gabriel Stowe Terrell is a free-lance writer living in Madison, Wisconsin.




© 2015 John Edward Terrell and Gabriel Stowe Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

Leave a Reply