Acting on Gaps? John Searle's Conception of Free Will

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We suggest that on the basis of Searle's biological naturalism, the concept of free will can be established in accord with physical determinism and randomness, and also in accord with the subjective experience of freedom.
Acting on Gaps?
John Searle's Conception of Free Will
Kim Joris Boström, Ana Honnacker, Arnold Ziesche
1 Exposition of Searle's conception of free will..................................................................................1
1.1 Gaps in a determined world......................................................................................................1
1.2 Compatibilism is too weak.......................................................................................................2
1.3 Either a mechanical brain or a quantum brain..........................................................................2
2 Questions and problems...................................................................................................................3
2.1 An evolutionary argument against the mechanical brain? .......................................................3
2.2 Do we really experience gaps?.................................................................................................3
2.3 The problem of the “second chance”........................................................................................4
2.4 Free of what?............................................................................................................................4
2.5 Indeterminacy versus randomness............................................................................................5
3 Possible backdoors...........................................................................................................................6
3.1 Explaining the gap....................................................................................................................6
3.1.1 The gap is unavoidable......................................................................................................6
3.1.2 The gap is closed by my self.............................................................................................6
3.2 Avoiding the real question and still solving the problem..........................................................7
3.3 Is free will an illusion?..............................................................................................................8
3.4 Making compatibilism strong...................................................................................................9
We suggest that on the basis of Searle’s biological naturalism, the concept of free will can be
established in accord with physical determinism and also in accord with the subjective experience
of freedom.
philosophy of mind, problem of free will, determinism, biological naturalism, compatibilism,
randomness, self, quantum indeterminacy, first-person ontology
To start with, we want to give an idea of John Searle's conception of free will and of what he
considers to be the problem of free will. Afterwards, we will point to some questions and problems
concerning his arguments in particular as well as his conception in general. In a third step, then, we
want to get focused on some possible backdoors that could be opened to solve the problems and
questions raised before.
1 Exposition of Searle's conception of free will
1.1 Gaps in a determined world
According to Searle, we have two convictions concerning the world and ourselves, that cannot be
: First, we think of everything in nature as determined, which means that every event that
1 See for example: Freedom and neurobiology, 35.
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occurs has antecedently sufficient causes it just had to occur, given a cause plus certain
conditions. To put it more bluntly: If we knew everything about the state of the world at t
, and had
complete knowledge of the laws of cause and effect, we would be able to predict the state of the
world at t
. As this determinism is hold to be true for nature, it is also to be hold to be true for us, for
we are natural beings. Following Searle's biological naturalism
, our mind including our will
makes no exception.
This leads to the second conviction, which contradicts the implications of determinism in nature:
We consider ourselves to have a free will, based on the experience of not being compelled by our
reasons to arrive at a certain decision. Furthermore, our decision doesn't force us to initiate the
action we decided for. At last, even while performing an action we decided for, we can stop that
action or complete it, which demands a permanent confirmation of our decision to act. Searle
denotes these three experiences as gaps in the course of acting and takes them as an indication for
gaps in the course of cause and effect, which usually determines nature. The gaps we find at the top
level, which includes our conscious process of decision-making and action, must be found likewise
at the lowest level, otherwise they are just an illusion: „If freedom is real, then the gap has to go all
the way down to the level of neurobiology.“
1.2 Compatibilism is too weak
One way to handle the problem of free will is to argue for compatibilism, which is the view that
determinism and human freedom do not logically exclude each other. All actions are as determined
by sufficient causes as every other event in the world. A free action, according to this view, is an
action which is caused not by external force but exclusively by internal causes, amongst which are
rational considerations, desires, aversions and some such.
For Searle, compatibilism doesn't address the true problem of free will. The crucial question that
troubles him is rather an empirical one: “Is it the case that for every human action that ever occurred
in the past, is occurring now, or ever will occur, the action was caused by antecedently sufficient
If the answer is positive, then human freedom is an illusion: we just have the strong
feeling to be free, but this impression is unjustified. If on the other hand the answer is negative, we
are truly free, as we are able not only to act on reasons and deliberations, but purely out of our own
will. Apparently, the compatibilist's conception of freedom is much weaker than Searle's, who is
dedicated to the stronger conception of freedom as free will, whereas the compatibilist clings to
freedom as free action. One might say that in the first case, I can want what I want, and in the
second case, I can do what I want, but what I want is determined.
To illustrate the true problem of free will, Searle offers two hypotheses, one of which gives a
positive, the other one a negative answer to the question of antecedently sufficient conditions being
there or not.
1.3 Either a mechanical brain or a quantum brain
In Hypothesis 1, Searle presents us a purely mechanical brain, which is a deterministic one. As the
mind, and with it our will, is a higher biological function of the brain and causally reducible to it, it
will be determined, too. There are no gaps to find in the causal chain in which our mind is
embedded, so there is no place for free will.
To leave room for gaps, Searle has to construct the brain as an indeterministic system. The only
part of nature we know that shows that feature is quantum mechanics. So in Hypothesis 2 we are
introduced to a quantum brain. The indeterminacy at the quantum level leads to what Searle calls an
2 See for example Biologischer Naturalismus.
3 Mind, 238. See also Freedom and Neurobiology, 58.
4 Mind, 222.
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“indeterminacy of a nonrandom kind”
at the level of the mind. Free will would be real.
2 Questions and problems
2.1 An evolutionary argument against the mechanical brain?
The only argument Searle provides against Hypothesis 1, which he considers much more plausible
than Hypothesis 2 in the light of what we know about nature, is an evolutionary argument. The
experience of gaps and its consequences for human behavior is said to be just too expensive in
terms of biological economy to be a mere epiphenomenon: “Across time we spend an enormous
amount of time, effort, money, etc. in preparing ourselves and in training our young so that they can
make better decisions rather than worse decisions.”
If everything was determined, this engagement
would be to no purpose. Evolution would not have favored it in its selectional processes: „It would
be like supposing that vision or digestion played no evolutionary role.“
In case this is actually the only argument against Hypothesis 1, and so indirectly the only
argument in favor of Hypothesis 2, the defender of an undetermined free will is in serious trouble,
as the argument does not hold. Although it is indeed plausible to assume that rational decision-
making is evolutionary expensive, it is misleading to conclude that the process of deliberation is
undetermined for that reason. Right on the contrary. According to Darwin’s principle of natural
selection, those organisms are selected that fit best into their environment. In particular, those
animals are selected that generate the most adequate action in a given situation. There can, however,
be no adequate action if this action was undetermined, right because then it would also be
independent from the environment. What we understand as “free decisions” might play a role for
those actions that require a certain amount of conscious reasoning in order to be adequate in the
given situation. But any kind of decision, be it considered free or not, would have to be adequate in
the given situation and therefore in a very strict sense be dependent on the environment. The
evolutionary viewpoint thus definitely strengthens Hypothesis 1 rather than weakening it.
2.2 Do we really experience gaps?
Searle identifies a gap between the antecedent causes and the final decision taken in our brain,
even if antecedent causes within the brain are taken into account. Now what are these gaps and how
are they experienced? Looking inside, I am actually feeling no gaps but rather a continuous stream
of sensing, reasoning, decision-making and acting. But that is not what Searle means. Before
making a conscious decision, I am sighting pieces of knowledge, memories, emotions, sensations
and I am imagining the potential consequences of my decision. However, at no point I feel
compelled by these reasons. I feel that I could go on forever in sighting pieces of information and
imagination over and over, thus delaying the final decision to an arbitrary point in the future. And
what’s more, I feel that I could override all the reasoning if I only want to. None of the reasons so
well prepared by my mind forces me to decide in a particular way. Thus, it feels like my actions are
not determined by antecedently sufficient causes. This is the first of the three gaps that Searle
identifies, and it is the most important one since it expresses the freedom of choice without which
all other freedom appears rather meaningless. In the following we will concentrate on this particular
Some people might insist that they do not experience the gap. But apart from asking whether or
not these people did fully understand what kind of gap Searle is speaking of and where to look for
5 Mind, 232.
6 Mind, 232.
7 Freedom and Neurobiology, 70.
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it, there should be one thing totally clear: If there was no experience of having a free choice, then
there would be no discussion about free will altogether. It is exactly that very gap experience”
which lets us cling to the concept of free will, despite all the talk about physical, psychological,
neurobiological, sociological, or whatever sort of determinism.
There is a nagging question that immediately arises, namely, How come there be a gap between
my inner reasoning and my final decision if, as the compatibilists claim, the former is an already
sufficient cause for the latter? It seems that my direct intuition is in stark contrast to the solution
offered by the compatibilists.
2.3 The problem of the “second chance”
We will now show that the problem of free will is actually not a problem of determinism being
true or not. In order to illustrate this, let us consider the following thought experiment.
Alice has made a terribly wrong decision that she regrets very much. By a lucky twist of fate, she
encounters Merlin, the magician, who sends her 2 days back into the past, right before she made the
regrettable decision. To avoid inconvenient inconsistencies, she is not duplicated but rather
“awakes” in her own body in exactly the situation that the world including herself has been 2 days
ago. Question: Will she act differently? Will she bring the course of the world into a different
Immediately, we see the problem: If Alice awakes in exactly the same situation she was in 2 days
ago, she will also be in exactly the same mental state. Especially, she will have lost all memories of
her “time travel” and also all intentions to change the course of the world. (Strictly speaking, she
does not even lose those memories and intentions, for they haven’t simply been there at that time.)
Anyway, we still ask, Will she act the same? There’s two possible answers, none of which is
satisfying with regard to the problem of free will.
Answer 1: No, she won’t act differently because she has already acted in a particular way in that
very same situation and in that very same mental state. There is no physical or psychological
reason, yet literally no reason whatsoever, to act differently. Ergo, Alice’s decisions and actions are
Answer 2: Yes, she will act differently or at least might do so. Despite the fact that there is no
mental, psychological, physical or neurobiological cause for her action being different, she might
act differently. But then, how could her action, which is completely independent from any
conceivable reason, be called anything but random? There is no objective way to tell Alice’s action
from one that is governed by, say, a random generator implanted in her head. Ergo, Alice’s actions
are random.
The first answer would reflect determinism, the second answer would deny it. Both answers
appear unsatisfactory, hence the problem of free will is really not a problem of determinism, it’s a
logical problem. It is a direct and unavoidable consequence of the inadequate application of the
notion of freedom. Neither answer 1 nor answer 2 satisfies our intuitive concept of free will. In the
former case, because Alice’s actions are determined by the state of the world, and in the latter case,
because they are random.
2.4 Free of what?
The thought experiment of the second chance makes us suspicious that there is something wrong
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with our intuitive notion of free will.
In the first place, freedom is not an absolute notion. Instead, it is a relational one. If I am out for
claiming that somebody is free, I must specify of what he or she is free.
Freedom and dependency are complementary notions in the following sense: It is impossible to be
at the same time free of and dependent on the very same thing. I can, however, bee partly free and
partly dependent, if the things that I am free of are not the things that I am dependent on. I cannot
say, Alice is dependent, without being clear about what she is dependent on, be it on drugs, on
money, on her parents, on social acceptance or whatever. Though who interferes when I say that
Alice is free, has free will, or is acting freely, and poses the obvious question, Free of what?
So let us tackle the question, What is a free action supposed to be free of? In the first place, a free
action should certainly be free of external enforcement. On the other hand, what it should certainly
not be free of is her own decision. If a free action would be completely free of anything, including
her own decision, it would inevitably be a random action, and as such not count as an action
anymore. Now the same goes for the decision. Alice’s decision cannot be completely free of
anything, otherwise it would be a random decision and as such not count as a decision anymore;
rather, the decision must be dependent on her will. So who or what is that ominous will? Who or
what makes Alice’s decisions and in what sense, if at all, can this entity be considered as free?
2.5 Indeterminacy versus randomness
Searle explicitly distinguishes between randomness and indeterminacy, in that he speaks of an
“indeterminacy of a nonrandom kind”
. He actually does not corroborate this distinction but rather
tacitly presupposes it. While random events are intuitively attributed to inanimate matter,
undetermined events seem to denote a broader class including free decisions of conscious beings.
But is there truly a distinction possible between indeterminate events and random events? The
answer to this question depends on the precise definition of randomness. In the first place, a free
decision is, at least tentatively, considered to belong to the class of undetermined events but not to
the class of random events. Both classes, though, have one thing in common: their elements are
unpredictable. To fill this word with meaning, we must characterize to whom something is
unpredictable. For example, if I am about to roll a die then the result is unpredictable to me but not
to someone who has complete knowledge about the initial state of the die, of my hand, of the air
molecules, of the table, and who has complete knowledge about the exact equations of motion of
the entire system. This kind of unpredictability is of the classical kind, it is identical to randomness
by ignorance. A classical, or pseudo, random event is predictable to somebody who has complete
knowledge about the present state of the world. This involves an infinite amount of knowledge and
is therefore beyond the capacity of any conceivable organism or apparatus. However, it is at least in
principle possible to predict the outcome to an arbitrary precision, given a finite but large enough
information processing capacity.
In a second example I measure the spin of an electron. The outcome is unpredictable even to
someone who has complete knowledge about the present state of the world. This kind of
unpredictability is of the quantum kind, it is identical to randomness by measurement. The
important difference to randomness by ignorance is that it characterizes true randomness, it denotes
those events that are unpredictable to anybody.
Let us cast these considerations into an explicit definition of randomness. An event shall be called
truly random or simply random if it can in principle not be exactly predicted.
It is clear that on the basis of this definition there is no difference between an undetermined event
and a random event. For an undetermined event is, by the very meaning of the word
“undetermined”, in principle unpredictable and hence random, and vice versa a random event must
8 Mind, 232.
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be undetermined, otherwise it would be predictable by someone who has complete knowledge about
the determining factors and therefore the event would not be truly random. Hence, the existence of
an event which is undetermined but nonrandom at the same time is logically impossible.
If one is out to distinguish between indeterminism and randomness, one has to find a definition of
randomness that makes the distinction possible. Many people, if not most, have in mind that
“randomness” is somehow related to events that occur in a “mindless” manner. The Oxford English
Dictionary defines “random” the following way.
Having no definite aim or purpose; not sent or guided in a particular direction; made,
done, occurring, etc., without method or conscious choice; haphazard.
This definition makes no reference to predictability but rather to intentional terms like “aim”,
“purpose” and “conscious choice”. Based on such a definition of randomness, human decisions and
actions are nonrandom by fiat. Let us for the moment accept the definition, so a nonrandom decision
or action is distinguished from a random decision or action by means of having a specific aim or
purpose. Then the decision or action cannot be independent, since it obviously depends on that
particular aim or purpose. If this aim or purpose is grounded in the momentary mental state and
thus, according to Biological Naturalism, in the physical state of the brain, then it is not physically
indeterminate. Moreover, it is determinate to exactly the extent that makes it nonrandom in the
sense of the Oxford definition, namely its dependency on a particular aim or purpose. That is, the
less physical determination to allow for more freedom, the more randomness. In the extreme, a
completely undetermined decision or action would, again, be completely random and thus cease to
be a decision or action.
Thus also on the basis of the Oxford definition of randomness, without reference to predictability,
we end up with the “indeterminacy of a nonrandom kind” being an untenable oxymoron.
3 Possible backdoors
3.1 Explaining the gap
3.1.1 The gap is unavoidable
One starting point of Searle’s conception of free will are the perceived gaps which, according to
his view, do not go along with determinism. A possible solution for reconciling both would be to
explain the existence of the perceived gaps in a deterministic framework. So let us think about a
scenario in which we would not experience any gaps of the three kinds introduced by Searle. Let us
be in a situation in which we are about to make a decision. We have a certain set of reasons and
dispositions which, since by assumption the world is deterministic, together are a sufficient cause
for our impending decision. In order to not experience a gap between the reasons and the decision
we have to become aware of at least a part of this causal chain. Let us say that we are really
good at introspection and physics and what else we need to figure out this causal chain prior to the
decision. Now, because this is a thought experiment, we succeed and we know the causal chain
which will lead us to our decision so that we can prepare ourselves for it and thus get rid of the
experience of a gap. In happy anticipation we await our decision. When it comes, we will
experience no gap because we are aware of the whole process which led there. However, this will
not work. The moment we start to anticipate our inner processes we alter the conditions which are
the grounds of these processes. For example, by making myself aware of all the reasons for my
upcoming decision I will certainly give some of them more weight. Thus I am not capable, even
under best circumstances as in this thought experiment, of filling the gap before the decision. The
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only way to think about my decision without the risk of influencing it, is after I made it. But then I
cannot change the experiences which I had or did not have before the decision any more.
3.1.2 The gap is closed by my self
As we have discussed earlier, free actions cannot be completely free but must depend on
decisions, and decisions need to depend on something else in order not to be random. This leads us
to the question, What are free decisions dependent on? Any of my decisions is based on a set of
conscious rational considerations, conscious but irrational sympathies and aversions, and
unconscious motives and dispositions. This being said, there is still something lacking. It is, as
Searle correctly points out, not enough to cite all the reasons, motivations, aversions etc. which flow
into my final decision. These are all necessary but not sufficient to invoke or explain my final
decision. There is still something lacking, and it is that very gap that Searle identifies, the gap
between my inner motives towards a decision and the actual decision. The gap is filled out by
nothing but – myself. Me, my conscious self, the one that says “I”
So this is our suggestion. The reason why I don’t feel compelled by my inner reasoning is because
I myself am the instance which has the last word about my final decision. I am the most important
part in the decision process, the one that can override any reasoning, the one that acts on reason. I
am filling the gap. Of course I notice there is a gap, because I cannot see myself from a third-person
perspective, just like I cannot see my own eyes. I thus cannot include myself into an objective,
third-person description of the entire decision process. The element within the description which is
always lacking, the gap, is my self, and the power of my self to take decisions is my will.
Now it all boils down to the question, Is the conscious self a part of the world? If yes, then
determinism does not contradict free will. My decisions are completely determined by my
conscious self, and since my conscious self is part of the world, my decisions are completely
determined by the state of the world, just as required by determinism. As long as my decisions are
still determined by my conscious self and not by some external forces, they count as free. The
remaining question would then be in how far external forces can be brought to irrelevance, hence
whether or not there is always some non-negligible influence of the environment on my decisions.
But whatever the answer, it would be in agreement to determinism.
If, however, the answer is no, that is, if the conscious self is not a part of the world, then we avoid
the problem of free will as Searle puts it. The self simply does not underly the determinism in
nature. Apart from this advantage, there immediately arise a lot of questions. To what kind of world
does the conscious self belong? To another world different from ours? If so, in how far are these
two worlds different from each other? What is the relation between the worlds, and are there also
more worlds out there, and how do they interact, if at all? And if they do not interact, how come my
conscious self in one world have any impact on my decisions in the other world? To put it shortly,
we would get into a deep and inescapable labyrinth of multi-level dualistic theories which tend to be
inconsistent or unnecessary or, most probably, both.
3.2 Avoiding the real question and still solving the problem
It was laid out before that in Searle's view compatibilism does not answer the real question about
free will, namely: Are all of our decisions and actions preceded by causally sufficient conditions,
conditions sufficient to determine than those decisions and actions will occur?
This question, let
us denote it by Q, is about the determinacy of human action. However, Q is actually irrelevant from
a compatibilistic point of view. There are two types of compatibilism.
The exclusive compatibilist
9 A similar conception is proposed by Searle himself in “Freedom and Neurobiology”, pp 64-65.
10 Mind, 221.
11 See for example Quante, Philosophische Freiheiten, 19.
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assumes that the answer to this question is yes and begins his argument from there. The inclusive
compatibilist claims that also for the case of a (partially) undetermined world, free will is possible.
As we saw, in the case of a positive answer to Q the compatibilist can reconcile determinism with
the freedom of will as he defines it. Let us shortly have a look at the case of a negative answer. We
will sketch a possible route for this case: Take the compatibilist's argument, read it differently, and
adopt it for a partially undetermined world.
Compatibilism may be understood as an analytic argument. Freedom always has to be freedom of
something. In the case of my free will I want it to be free of being forced by something outside of
me. For the compatibilist it is acceptable that my actions have sufficient causes, as long as they lie
not outside of me. In one sentence: The bad thing, the determinacy, does not endanger my free will
as long as it does not force me from outside of me.
The opposite of a deterministic world is a world in which events at least partially are
determined by pure chance. As we have discussed above, such a world poses problems for free will
as well.
Now the compatibilist who has to deal with a world with (partial) indeterminacy could
adopt a similar argument as in the deterministic setting by saying: I do not care if the world contains
processes which are undetermined. What is important is that my actions are not forced by processes
lying outside of me.
If this argument works, Searle can give a negative answer to Q and still establish a stable
conception of free will. The problems that arise for free will in a partly indeterministic world can be
solved in a compatibilistic manner. In the end, there is no difference between the positive and the
negative answer to Q, because either way free will, in the compatibilist sense, would be possible.
But if free will was the only reason to advocate an indeterministic picture of nature, and
compatibilism is the view one has to adopt to get free will nevertheless, then one could be
compatibilist from the beginning.
3.3 Is free will an illusion?
Earlier on, we have put forward that the gap between internal reasoning and final decision is
closed by the conscious self. Does it follow, then, that the gap is an illusion? The answer to this
question depends on what is understood as an illusion. If we understand it as something that is
perceived by someone but which is not objectively there, then yes, the gap is an illusion. It is a
systematic illusion, that is, an illusion that cannot be avoided and that always appears in a
repeatable, law-like fashion. As an example consider the observation that parallel sides of a road
melt together at the horizon. Parallels do in fact not melt together anywhere, yet there is not even
such thing as a horizon, but the laws of perspective predict that it will visually appear so to any
observer. Another example is a rainbow. The rainbow is a phenomenon caused by the way sunlight
is reflected by small drops of water and by the way the eye interacts with the reflected light, but the
rainbow as the colored arc in the sky that we perceive is not objectively there. As a third and more
radical example consider the flow of time. There is no physical basis for the existence of a
distinguished point on the time axis, called the “present”, which moves from the past into the future.
There is no criterion to attribute to an event in the past or future less reality than to those events that
we perceive as happening right “now”. Consequently, the flow of time is, to our present scientific
knowledge, an illusion.
Evidently, the conception of an illusion which is used here is rather liberal. It also includes things
that we might not like to be counted as illusions. Amongst these things are in particular mental
states like, say, feeling hungry or being in pain. For Searle, these things are not illusions. Rather,
they belong to the first-person ontology of someone. Pain, hunger, etc. are to that someone as real as
any objective entity and they have to be treated as real, albeit in a different sense than objective
12 See also for example Freedom and Neurobiology, pp 44-45 and 75.
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entities, which belong to a third-person ontology. It might well be that first-person and third-person
ontology contradict each other with respect to certain entities. A particular painful experience is real
only to one person, while to all other persons it is not real. The decision gap, so we suggest here, is
exactly of that kind. It is real to only one person, the one who makes the decision. From the outside,
from a third-person perspective, the gap is not there because it closed by a specific type of brain
activity that corresponds to the action of the conscious self of that person.
Say, Alice is making a decision. On simultaneous introspection, she experiences a gap between
her own reasoning and the final decision. From the perspective of brain researcher Bob measuring
the brain functions of Alice while she is making the decision, there is no gap. Brain activity here is
followed by brain activity there, the causal chain is nowhere interrupted, the final motor command
corresponds to Alice carrying out the decision. Some of the intermediate brain activity, so Bob
knows, corresponds to the action of Alices conscious self. A gap, though, is nowhere to be found in
the neurobiological activity.
In view of these insights let us reconsider Searle’s statement: „If freedom is real, then the gap has
to go all the way down to the level of neurobiology.“
If we take this statement serious, then since
the second clause is, in our view, wrong, the first clause must also be wrong. Ergo, freedom is not
We do, however, not believe that this is the correct conclusion, because we do not take Searles
above cited statement to be true. Instead, we suggest a solution which we believe is actually in line
with Searle’s biological naturalism: The gap is real in a first-person ontology, and it is an accurate
indicator for the freedom of a decision, hence this freedom is also real in a first-person ontology. In
a third-person ontology, however, the gap is not real and the corresponding decision is determined
and in this sense it is unfree. But it is not unfree in the sense that the conscious self would have only
a passive role. When taking a decision you are not merely observing yourself closing the gap. The
role of the conscious self in the decision process is in both the first- and third-person ontology an
active one, so you consequently experience yourself as actively closing the gap. In other word, you
do in fact make the decision. In this sense of actively and consciously generating your own action
you are free.
3.4 Making compatibilism strong
Considering what has been said so far, Searle could dispense with his strong conception of free
will and give compatibilism a chance. In most of his examples, he is talking about freedom of
action anyway (this is, I can do what I want), not about freedom of will (this is, I can want what I
want), and freedom of action is indeed preserved by compatibilism. You are not forced by your
reasons, you act on them: You choose to vote for a certain candidate, not the other, you decide to
implement this choice and actually make a cross for him on election day. If you get the feeling of
acting amiss while you hold the pen, you can put it down. But you don't do all that without
sufficient reasons, which means, in a naturalistic worldview, sufficient causes. This would be
arbitrariness. Why should you decide otherwise given all things being equal? Physical determinism,
so we suggest, is not a barrier to free action but rather the very bridge to free action. For without it,
action becomes arbitrary, aimless and unpredictable, thus random in every sense of the word. It is
physical determinism that enables our conscious self to transform reason into decisions and then
into action, and it is physical determinism that enables our senses to supply our conscious self with
reliable information from the external world so that we can actually have reason. And as long as it is
truly the conscious self that does the transformation of reason into action, and not some external
13 From this perspective, it would be no problem that [t]here are no gaps in the brain” (Freedom and Neurobiology,
62), it's just a matter of stance.
14 Mind, 238.
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manipulative force, the entire process of transformation represents an act of free will.
Biological naturalism takes mind to be causally but not ontologically reducible. We suggest that
the same is true for will. It is a phenomenon with a first person ontology, which makes it special to
us, and also extraordinary in nature, but not something over and above nature. Searle does not
exclude the mind from nature. With this, he saves mental causation
. But the price he has to pay is,
ironically enough, free will in the strong sense he originally had in mind. The good news are that,
all in all, Searle's biological naturalism could easily go with compatibilism and thereby provide a
stable conception of human freedom. Free will, in this view, is just another element of a first-person
ontology. It is no more and no less real than pain, happiness, colors, music and the flow of time.
Searle, John: Mind. A Brief Introduction. Oxford University Press (2004).
Searle, John: Freedom and Neurobiology. Reflections on Free Will, Language, and Political
Power. Columbia University Press (2007).
Searle, John: Biologischer Naturalismus. In: Sokupp, Thomas / Vollmer, Gerhard (Hg.):
Naturalismus: Positionen, Perspektiven, Probleme. Mohr Siebeck (2007), 71-74.
Quante, Michael: Philosophische Freiheiten. Eine systematische Landkarte zur Einleitung. In:
Mischer, Sibille / Quante, Michael / Suhm, Christian (Hg.): Auf Freigang. Metaphysische und
ethische Annäherungen an die menschliche Freiheit. Münsteraner Philosophische Schriften Bd. 11.
Münster [u.a.]: LIT (2003), 11-37.
15 Mental causation is a necessary condition for every conception of freedom, see Quante, Philosophische Freiheiten,
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  • Freedom and Neurobiology. Reflections on Free Will, Language, and Political Power
    • John Searle
    Searle, John: Freedom and Neurobiology. Reflections on Free Will, Language, and Political Power. Columbia University Press (2007).
  • Auf Freigang. Metaphysische und ethische Annäherungen an die menschliche Freiheit. Münsteraner Philosophische Schriften Bd
    • Michael Quante
    Quante, Michael: Philosophische Freiheiten. Eine systematische Landkarte zur Einleitung. In: Mischer, Sibille / Quante, Michael / Suhm, Christian (Hg.): Auf Freigang. Metaphysische und ethische Annäherungen an die menschliche Freiheit. Münsteraner Philosophische Schriften Bd. 11. Münster [u.a.]: LIT (2003), 11-37.