The best books on free will

5 authors have picked their favorite books about free will and why they recommend each book.

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Stories of Your Life and Others

By Ted Chiang,

Book cover of Stories of Your Life and Others

After reading “Story of Your Life” in The Year’s Best Science Fiction in 1999, I sat in my chair for a while, in wonder and tears, trying to take it all in. Many people know the basic plot, since it was filmed as The Arrival, but as good as the movie is, it can't come close to the novella. Chiang deftly tells the story in a way that reflects how the protagonist learns the language of the aliens—and how it changes her and the way she thinks, quite literally. It is probably the single best story I know for the way the narrative strategy reflects and supports the subject matter. 


Who am I?

Since discovering Ursula K. Le Guin in high school, I have loved the kind of science fiction that is more about thought experiments than rocket ships and space exploration. When I went on to get a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, I often encountered skepticism regarding this predilection, but I continued studying and teaching speculative fiction anyway. Now I am no longer in academia, and I write science fiction and fantasy myself. Looking Through Lace is my attempt at the kind of thought experiment I've been such a fan of for so long.


I wrote...

Looking Through Lace

By Ruth Nestvold,

Book cover of Looking Through Lace

What is my book about?

As the only woman on the first contact team, xenolinguist Toni Donato expected her assignment on Christmas would be to analyze the secret women's language—but then the chief linguist begins to sabotage her work. What is behind it? Why do men and women have separate languages in the first place? What Toni learns turns everything she thought they knew on its head.

Originally published in Asimov's in 2003, "Looking Through Lace" was a finalist for the Tiptree and Sturgeon awards. The Italian translation won the Premio Italia for best work of speculative fiction in translation in 2007.

The Illusion of Conscious Will

By Daniel M. Wegner,

Book cover of The Illusion of Conscious Will

One of the most penetrating illusions is that of free will, the feeling that some immaterial consciousness—an “uncaused cause”—controls one’s body and behavior. Our notions of self and society are founded on this idea. We ascribe agency and moral responsibility to a soul or an “I” at the center of the storm. But conscious experience, including the feeling of causing things, may be just a side effect of the brain’s operation. The late psychologist Daniel Wegner argued that unconscious stirrings in the brain are responsible for it all. Even if you don’t give up on free will, you’ll call into question some of its purported powers. 


Who am I?

I’m a freelance science reporter and Contributing Writer at The New Yorker, with degrees in cognitive neuroscience and science writing. Growing up, I wanted to understand the fundamental nature of the universe—who doesn’t?!—and grew interested in physics, before realizing our only contact with outside reality (if it exists) is through consciousness. Today I cover psychology and artificial intelligence, among other topics. Can machines be conscious? I don’t know. Why does consciousness exist at all? I don’t know that either. But if there’s anything at all that’s magic in the universe, it’s consciousness.


I wrote...

The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane

By Matthew Hutson,

Book cover of The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane

What is my book about?

What is so special about touching a piano John Lennon once owned? Why do we yell at our laptops? And why do people like to say “everything happens for a reason”? Drawing on cognitive science, anthropology, and neuroscience, my book shows that magical thinking is hardwired into our brains through evolution. It helps us believe that we have free will and an underlying purpose, as it protects us from the paralyzing awareness of our own mortality. Interweaving stories, reflections, and research, The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking reveals just how this seemingly irrational process informs and improves the lives of even the most hardened skeptics, the author included.

Freedom Evolves

By Daniel C. Dennett,

Book cover of Freedom Evolves

The issues of free will and consciousness are, to my limited mind, inextricably linked. And so, while Dennett somewhat overpromised and underdelivered with his well-known Consciousness Explained (tremendously hard not to underdeliver with a title like that) here I think he’s much more on the money. I think of all the books that I’ve read which address, either directly or tangentially, the issue of how the mind works, this is the one that gave me the clearest new insight into how we might think about, well, thinking. Dennett is a fine thinker and an excellent communicator but he tends to lose nuance when he goes combative. This is one of his gentler books, and all the better for it.


Who am I?

I’m an educator at heart and have been teaching in high schools for over thirty years now. I get a kick out of helping young people see the world anew and think about ideas in ways that at first seem strange and challenging to them, both in the classroom and through my novels. Of course, to be any good at that, I have to be inquisitive and open myself, and there’s nothing like the topic of consciousness to make you feel feeble-minded and ill-informed. It’s such a wondrous topic because it sits at the precise meeting point of so many of our scientific, cultural, artistic, religious, and philosophical traditions.


I wrote...

Genesis

By Bernard Beckett,

Book cover of Genesis

What is my book about?

Anax thinks she knows history. Her grueling all-day Examination has just begun, and if she passes, she’ll be admitted into the Academy—the elite governing institution of her utopian society. But Anax is about to discover that for all her learning, the history she’s been taught isn’t the whole story. And the Academy isn’t what she believes it to be. In this brilliant novel of dazzling ingenuity, Anax’s examination leads us into a future where we are confronted with unresolved questions raised by science and philosophy.

Centuries old, these questions have gained new urgency in the face of rapidly developing technology. What is consciousness? What makes us human? If artificial intelligence were developed to a high enough capability, what special status could humanity still claim? Outstanding and original, Beckett’s dramatic narrative comes to a shocking conclusion.

Free

By Alfred R. Mele,

Book cover of Free: Why Science Hasn't Disproved Free Will

In order to be moral and responsible agents, our will must be free in the sense that we make choices animated by our individual consciences. Much of the neoliberal consumer world uses big data sets and our personalized digital fingerprints in order to cater to our every wish and desire, and to sell merchandise. Research shows that individuals disregard ethical responsibility when they believe that humans are not free, and that we are instead governed by innate drives and biological functions. Mele challenges recent research that uses cognitive science to argue that the human will is not free and instead exists as an illusion. This book provides a deep analysis of why we have grounds to be confident that we can act freely, governed by our internal beliefs, commitments, and goals.


Who am I?

I have been studying neoliberal political economy and its future transformations since I wrote Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy. One major insight has been the deep entanglement of neoliberal political-economic practices with de facto power relations. The liberal normative bargaining characterizing Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations yields to coercive bargaining in which threats of harm are the surest and best means to get one’s way. If one seeks to understand how systems will evolve when governed by strategic competition, then orthodox game theory is useful. However, if one seeks to live in a post-scarcity society in which genuine cooperation is possible, then we can enact solidarity, trust-based relationships, and collective moral accountability. 


I wrote...

Prisoners of Reason: Game Theory and Neoliberal Political Economy

By S.M. Amadae,

Book cover of Prisoners of Reason: Game Theory and Neoliberal Political Economy

What is my book about?

Is capitalism inherently predatory? Must there be winners and losers? Is public interest outdated and free-riding rational? Is consumer choice the same as self-determination? Must bargainers abandon the no-harm principle? Prisoners of Reason recalls that classical liberal capitalism exalted the no-harm principle. Although imperfect and exclusionary, modern liberalism recognized individual human dignity alongside individuals' responsibility to respect others. Neoliberalism, by contrast, views life as a ceaseless struggle. Agents vie for scarce resources in antagonistic competition in which every individual seeks dominance. Money becomes the medium of all value. Solidarity and goodwill are invalidated. Relationships are conducted on a quid pro quo basis. However, agents can freely opt out of this cynical race to the bottom by embracing a more expansive range of coherent action.

The View from Nowhere

By Thomas Nagel,

Book cover of The View from Nowhere

Perhaps my favourite philosophy book of all time. Humans have the unique ability to take a detached view of our lives and actions. Call this an objective perspective. Thomas Nagel argues that many of our philosophical problems – such as the attempt to understand free will, or consciousness – stem from a clash between the subjective and objective standpoints. For example, we believe (subjectively), that we are free, that we have free will, that we can raise our right arm, or choose whether or not to go to shopping. But from an objective perspective we might reflect that, like everything else in the universe, we are governed by causal laws. A beautiful writer, Nagel can make the most complex issues seem simple.  He will make you feel cleverer than you are! The View From Nowhere is my model for how philosophy books should be written.


Who am I?

David Edmonds is a philosopher, podcaster, and curry fanatic. A distinguished research fellow at Oxford’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, he is the author of many books including Wittgenstein’s Poker (with John Eidinow), The Murder of Professor Schlick, Would You Kill The Fat Man?, and Undercover Robot (with Bertie Fraser). If you eat at his local restaurant, The Curry Paradise, he recommends you order the Edmonds Biriani.


I wrote...

Wittgenstein's Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers

By David Edmonds, John Eidinow,

Book cover of Wittgenstein's Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers

What is my book about?

On October 25, 1946, in a crowded room in Cambridge, England, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper came face to face for the first and only time. The meeting did not go well. Their loud and aggressive confrontation became the stuff of instant legend. But precisely what happened in those ten minutes remains the subject of intense disagreement. Almost immediately rumors spread around the world that the two great philosophers had come to blows, armed with red hot pokers. What really went on in that room? And what does the violence of this brief exchange tell us about these two men, modern philosophy, post-war culture, and the difference between global problems and logic puzzles?

As the authors unravel these events, your students will be introduced to the major branches of 20th-century philosophy, the tumult of fin-de-si cle Vienna--the birthplace of Popper and Wittgenstein, the events that led to the Nazi takeover of Austria, and Cambridge University, with its eccentric set of philosophy dons, including Bertrand Russell, who acted as an umpire at the infamous meeting.

Time and Free Will

By Henri Bergson,

Book cover of Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness

It is in Bergson's Time and Free Will that I first encountered an inspiring way to think of time. A way of thinking about time that does not focus on the time of clocks and calendars; that does not emphasize the physical homogeneous aspect of time, but rather reveals the relation between time and human existence. This book opened up not only an entirely new way of thinking about time, but a new way of approaching life: instead of focusing on the spatial, static, exterior, homogeneous milestones of life, I rather focus on the temporal, fleeting, inner, heterogeneous qualities of my life. Bergson writes in a relatively clear style, and his texts are accessible also for the interested layperson.

Who am I?

I have time, save time, spend time, waste time, write, and teach time. I am fascinated with the question of time both as a cosmological phenomenon and as an aspect that is inseparable from our existence. I channeled this fascination into a PhD dissertation, books, and articles examining the relationship between time and human existence. But like Saint Augustine, I am still baffled by the question of time and like him: "If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it …, I do not know."


I wrote...

The Intersubjectivity of Time: Levinas and Infinite Responsibility

By Yael Lin,

Book cover of The Intersubjectivity of Time: Levinas and Infinite Responsibility

What is my book about?

The essential theme of my research is the deformalization of the notion of time,' asserted Emmanuel Levinas in a 1988 interview, toward the end of his long philosophical career. But while the notion of time is fundamental to the development of every key theme in Levinas's thought - the idea of the infinite, the issue of the alterity of the other, the face of the other, the question of our ethical relations with other people, the role of fecundity, speech and language, and radical responsibility - his view of time remains obscure.

Yael Lin's exhaustive look at Levinas's primary texts, both his philosophical writings and his writings on Judaism, brings together his various perspectives on time. Lin concludes that we can, indeed, extract a coherent and consistent conception of time from Levinas's thought, one that is distinctly political.

How Physics Makes Us Free

By J.T. Ismael,

Book cover of How Physics Makes Us Free

Philosophers for thousands of years have wondered how we can have free will in a deterministic universe. If all events are explained by natural laws, then isn’t the future inflexibly determined by the past? Philosopher Jenann Ismael argues persuasively that (1) human freedom and control over events is only possible if all events are caused, and (2) that giving up on the objective passage of time is to acknowledge a world where the future determines the past just as much as the past determines the future. The actions of human beings help tell the story of both the future and the past, and so our own decisions help form the timeless patterns in the universe that we then call its “laws”.


Who am I?

I am a professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University, with a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. I teach courses in the philosophy of space and time, the history of philosophy, and the philosophy of science. In addition to several authored and edited books on the philosophy of time, I have published many scholarly articles on time, perception, knowledge, and the history of the philosophy of time. I have always been attracted to the philosophy of time because time is quite simply at the root of everything: through the study of time we confront and illuminate the deepest possible questions both as to the nature of the physical world and as to the nature of human existence.


I wrote...

A Brief History of the Philosophy of Time

By Adrian Bardon,

Book cover of A Brief History of the Philosophy of Time

What is my book about?

A Brief History of the Philosophy of Time is a short introduction to the history, philosophy, and science of the study of time-from the pre-Socratic philosophers through Einstein and beyond.

A Brief History of the Philosophy of Time covers subjects such as time and change, the experience of time, physical and metaphysical approaches to the nature of time, the direction of time, time travel, time and freedom of the will, and scientific and philosophical approaches to eternity and the beginning of time. I use illustrations and keep technical language to a minimum in bringing the resources of over 2500 years of philosophy and science to bear on some of humanity's most fundamental and enduring questions.

Tiny Habits

By Bj Fogg,

Book cover of Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything

When I’m feeling overloaded with life it seems like making changes is impossible. Fogg’s amazing M-A-P strategy helped me lower the bar and make real progress on improving my personal health and ability to focus. I loved his real-life stories (especially about flossing) and simple approach to turning any routine into a habit.


Who am I?

Way back in 1994 I decided to build my career on the mission of helping people make better choices with their time. And my goal has always been to keep the solutions simple. I believe we have way too much in our lives that is complex and hard. While my primary work is as a keynote speaker, I have chosen to devote a significant amount of my professional hours to being a coach. I love helping people develop a plan for improvement that is aligned with their values and goals, and then walking with them through their season of change.


I wrote...

Juggling Elephants: An Easier Way to Get Your Most Important Things Done—Now!

By Jones Loflin, Todd Musig,

Book cover of Juggling Elephants: An Easier Way to Get Your Most Important Things Done—Now!

What is my book about?

Juggling Elephants tells a simple but profound story about one man with a universal problem. Mark has too much to do, too many priorities, too much stress, and too little time.

As he struggles to balance his many responsibilities without cracking under the pressure, Mark takes a break to attend the circus with his family. There he has a surprising conversation with a wise ringmaster. He leaves with a simple but powerful lesson: Trying to get everything done is like juggling elephants—impossible. So Mark begins to think about his work, family, and personal life the way a ringmaster thinks about the many acts in a three-ring circus. He discovers that managing his various acts can be fun and easy once he changes his attitude and follows his new friend's ongoing guidance. 

Havah

By Tosca Lee,

Book cover of Havah: The Story of Eve

After reading this imaginative story, I never thought of Eve in the same way again. Havah is a stunning depiction of the first woman—one created, not born. Tosca Lee takes us on an original journey into the life, choices, and emotions of the first woman. It is a story of sin, but more than that, it is a story of creative love and the gift of free will. This story allows us to sympathize with Havah, and even ask ourselves what we might have done in her place. Enthralling and inspiring!


Who am I?

I’m a writer who has traveled the world in real life and traveled through time in my research and imagination. In the past dozen years, I’ve researched historical women of the Bible for my own novels and have come to realize that women of the ancient world were much like women of today. Biblical women had dreams and fell in love. They worried about their children, politics, and the world around them. They wished for security and happiness just as we do. I have a special regard for historical fiction that brings these ancient women to life—honoring their lives and their struggles.


I wrote...

The Tomb: A Novel of Martha

By Stephanie Landsem,

Book cover of The Tomb: A Novel of Martha

What is my book about?

In this captivating retelling of a classic biblical story, Jesus shocks the town of Bethany with Lazarus’s resurrection from the dead, but what will this miracle mean to the risen man’s sister, Martha?

Martha of Bethany comes to life in surprising and vivid detail as a woman “worried and anxious about many things” and one carrying long-held and dangerous secrets. When her brother, Lazarus, lies dying she must risk all to send for the one man who can save him, Jesus of Nazareth. But when Jesus does not arrive in time, will Martha’s secrets come to light—and her faith in the Messiah fail? The Tomb is a poignant tale of the power of secrets, the strength of love, and the freeing power of grace.

Philosophical Investigations Into the Essence of Human Freedom

By F.W.J. Schelling, Jeff Love (translator), Johannes Schmidt (translator)

Book cover of Philosophical Investigations Into the Essence of Human Freedom

Schelling’s 1809 Freiheitschrift is one of Žižek’s favorite philosophical works of all time. Schelling therein strives to develop an account of evil as a positive ontological reality unto itself, rather than a negative rendition of it as a simple privation of goodness. In so doing, he is led to elaborate a metaphysics in which determinism, à la a Spinoza-inspired ontological monism, and freedom, à la the self-legislating subject of German idealism, are rendered compatible. As part of this vision, Schelling distinguishes between “ground” and “existence”—with free subjectivity depicted as the resurgence, within the pacified, stable reality of existence, of the unruliness of shadowy, primordial ground. Žižek’s repeated recourses to quantum physics for ontological insights are heavily reliant on this Schelling in particular.


Who am I?

Thanks to developing interests in both psychoanalysis and German idealism during my time as a student, I came across Slavoj Žižek’s writings in the mid-1990s. Žižek immediately became a significant source of inspiration for my own efforts at interfacing philosophies with psychoanalysis. By the time I began writing my dissertation – which became my first book, Time Driven: Metapsychology and the Splitting of the Drive – I had the great fortune to meet Žižek. He soon agreed to serve as co-director of my dissertation and we have remained close ever since. I decided to write a book demonstrating that Žižek is not dismissible as a gadfly preoccupied with using popular culture and current events merely for cheap provocations.


I wrote...

Zizek's Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity

By Adrian Johnston,

Book cover of Zizek's Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity

What is my book about?

Slavoj Žižek is one of the most interesting and important philosophers working today, known chiefly for his theoretical explorations of popular culture and contemporary politics. This book focuses on the generally neglected and often overshadowed philosophical core of Žižek’s work—an essential component in any true appreciation of this unique thinker’s accomplishment. His central concern, Žižek has proclaimed, is to use psychoanalysis (especially the teachings of Jacques Lacan) to redeploy the insights of late-modern German philosophy, in particular, the thought of Kant, Schelling, and Hegel.

By taking this avowal seriously, Adrian Johnston finally clarifies the philosophical project underlying Žižek’s efforts. His book charts the interlinked ontology and theory of subjectivity constructed by Žižek at the intersection of German idealism and Lacanian theory.

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