Customer Reviews: A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will
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on February 18, 2006
Robert Kane's "Contemporary Introduction to Free Will" is hands down the finest text in its class. Professors who wish to include a component on free will in their introductory courses, or who are looking for a scholarly and accessible text for a class on free will and related issues, will find in Kane's text a thoughtful, subtle, and above all lucid and authoritative presentation of the problem of freedom in its many dimensions, as well as a charitable and well-informed assessment of historical and contemporary stances on the problem of free will.

Most introductory textbooks in metaphysics or general philosophy which include a discussion of free will fall short in obvious respects: the author(s) either present a rather outdated picture of the free will debate or, more commonly, for the sake of accessibility "dumb down" the alternative approaches to free will and the central arguments deployed by proponents of those approaches. Kane's volume avoids both those pitfalls: his book is thoroughly contemporary (without ignoring the historical roots of the free will problem or the continuity that exists between historical and up-to-date debates on the topic), and it is simultaneously intelligible to the beginner and philosophically precise, a very difficult balance to strike. In addition, Kane provides a very useful bibliography for those who wish to pursue further research on the various problems of free will -- including the metaphysics of free agency, the compatibility of freedom and determinism, the relation of freedom and determinism to moral responsibility, and the compatibility of creaturely freedom with divine omniscience -- pointing both the student and the professional philosopher to the most significant traditional and recent contributions to those questions. These features make Kane's book the best choice both for beginning classes and for upper-level and even graduate-level courses. Highly recommended.
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on March 3, 2008
--my point of view: PhD, geology, retired teacher, 74, minor present study of philosophy; main interest--'what's this Free Will stuff?'--
I would suggest that Kane probably wrote this as a introductry college suplement to a philosophy class; as such it is very good. For the non-student, non-philosophy student it is a bit heavy in the technical terminology of philosophy; however, Kane writes well and provides enough explanation to 'slide around' some of the heavy terminology--it is still not a quick read.
For me, this provided both an introduction to technical philosophy as well as some ideas on how experts in the field approach and think about Free Will. In that sense, the book did exactly what I wanted.
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on December 21, 2007
This book gives a clear and concise description of various philosophical positions on the free will debate. Kane opens the discussion by defining the free will problem; he distinguishes between "surface" freedoms, which allow us to do what we want without constraints from external agents, versus "deeper" freedom, which implies that an individual's decision has alternate possibilities available (i.e., if the clock could somehow be turned back--given the exact same causal events of history, individual experience, etc., leading up to a decision--that an individual could possibly make a different decision). In other words, surface freedom entails that individuals can do what they want while deeper freedom means that they can also will what they will. Kane then proceeds to discuss determinism (the idea that all actions/events are determined by previous actions/events) and the position that a deterministic universe is either compatible or incompatible with the notion of free will (i.e., compatibilism or incompatibilism, respectively). Kane also discusses moral responsibility, along with various arguments concerning its relationship to free will and determinism, and the free will problem as it applies to the traditional religious views of predestination and omniscience.

I thought that Kane did an excellent job of presenting the arguments both for and against the various free will positions. He gave a number of bibliographical references in each chapter where the reader could go for more information on a particular position or argument. Kane seems to hold a libertarian view (i.e., he asserts that free will and determinism are incompatible and that free will exists such that determinism is false) but I thought that he fairly expressed the other viewpoints and honestly noted some difficulties with his own position. Also, his personal position does not come into focus until the last part of the book such that the book as a whole seems to provide a fair description of all sides and a fine introduction to the debate.

In the last part of the book, Kane argues for the deeper sense of free will by postulating what he terms as self-forming actions (actions that, in some sense, allow individuals to shape their own wills) and argues that these actions translate into ultimate responsibility (in the sense that because our wills would be our own creation, individuals are ultimately responsible as opposed to genes, environment, a creator, etc.). I understand the appeal of such an argument but it seemed to me that the rationale was molded into an initial assumption of freedom of the will (in the deeper sense defined above) while the argument for the existence of this deeper freedom seemed lacking to me and remained non-intuitive based on opposing arguments in preceding chapters. Regardless, I liked this book very much and I would recommend it to others who are interested in learning about the various philosophical positions concerning freedom of the will, determinism and their relationship to moral responsibility.
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on April 13, 2009
As a neurobiologist interested in the philosophy of free will I found this tremendously helpful. Kane is perhaps the world's leading exponent of libertarianism, but this book is not at all biased towards his own position. He gives an even-handed account of all the major positions with great clarity. He somehow manages to combine the precision of the analytical philosopher with the comprehensibility of the teacher.
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on July 3, 2009
Let me warn the reader, Robert Kane's Book is "A CONTEMPORARY Introduction to Free Will", not an Introduction to free will.The Book focuses mostly on contemporary debates whose origin usually does not go back beyond the last quarter of the twentieth century. It is the reason that Kane's book is so relevant. It sums up for a wider public the collection of essays published by various authors in his "Oxford Handbook of Free Will".

Kane is considered as one of the leading contemporary philosophers on free will and he has developed his own theory. Kane considers alternative possibilities as a necessary but insufficient condition of free will which requires "ultimate responsibility", i-e a moral or rational control of the subject on his action. A free act is an act we can claim responsibility for and there must be sufficient reasons for acting the way we act. All chapter 12 is devoted to this question. Although Kane describes himself as a libertarian, his position often come close to compatibilism and when reading the first chapters of the book I found that the general tone of the book is leading more toward compatibilism than libertarianism.

The contemporary discussion on Free Will is so complex that usually the public never hear about that important debate. Nevertheless Robert Kane has made a wonderful job, guiding us through all the arguments and counter arguments. It gives the impression of watching a chess contest by world class players. Each move seems to be decisive until comes the counter move. In another essay Kane has called free will a "labyrinth" and the general impression given by the book is that the debate will remain inconclusive. It is not to surprise me. McGinn in is book "Problems in Philosophy" has demonstrated that the problem of free will, like the problem of consciousness, will never be solved because of our cognitive limitations. It does not mean that the debate is not important. Even if the problem does not have a rational solution, no one can be a serious thinker without embracing one of the three positions between libertarianism, determinism and compatibilism because adopting one these positions determines the type of moral theory one might adopt.

I do not give five stars to the book because of two weaknesses. The first weakness is the lack of proper definition of determinism. Kane gives a very narrow definition of determinism that makes determinism almost synonymous with necessity. In fact he is mostly referring to singular determinism, the determinism of local events that can be inevitable or necessary, not of general determinism that see determinism as the general structure of the universe. For him determinism is "a kind of necessity, but it is a conditional necessity". This is very different from general determinism which is the belief that any event the world, including human behaviour, is the result of an unbroken causal chain. By choosing this narrow approach Kane brush away all the problem of determinism in science. The chapter on "Free Will and the Modern Science" is extremely weak, probably because Kane is not personally interested in this kind of debate.

The second weakness is a consequence of the first one. Although the book claims to be an introduction to the contemporary debate on fee will, it is far from covering all the spectrum of recent theories. Kane does not present a convincing description of the naturalist and physicalist view on free will that present free will as "a post hoc rationalization, a delusion" (Ramachandran). Once again it is not that Kane is ignorant of the subject. Occasionally we find a few references to Smilansky's Free Will and Illusion, and Double's The Non-Reality of Free Will. But I did not find any reference to Wegner important book "The Illusion of Conscious Will" which was published three years before Kane's Introduction.

Being myself more a compatibilist than a libertarian I do not think that Kane has made a good job in presenting a neutral description of determinism of the kind you expect to find in an introductory book for students and the general public and by ignoring some of his adversaries main objections he has weakened his own defence of libertarianism. However, this sort of book being so rare I consider that its reading is mandatory for any one interested in the question of free will.
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on March 26, 2012
Kane's introduction to free-will is impressive due to the highest degree of clarity that elucidates one of the most difficult subjects in Philosophy. What makes the subject of free-will so difficult is not merely the complexity of the debate but rather that the nature of the debate on free-will can be so counter-intuitive or so different from our everyday common-sense notion of free-will. A beginner who aspires to study the topic on free-will might be bewildered or perplexed by the notions of free-will presented by different philosophers; in other words, most people aren't familiar with the varying distinctions that leads to different understanding of what free-will could mean because we are use to our vague yet homogeneous understanding of free-will. Kane is probably aware of this, so in the beginning of the introduction he begins by introducing different definitions or meanings of free-will (i.e. Surface Freedom vs. Deeper Freedom). In the conclusion he overviews different conceptions of free-will in the philosophical debate. By going through these differences, Kane both clarifies and explains the complexity of the issue which in turn shows why the conception of free-will is problematic and perplexing even for philosophers.

Another impressive quality of Kane's writing is that it is almost purely introductory. From what I've seen in Amazon, it seems many writers (from the religious to the most scientific) desires to present their own conception of free-will, hence they announce their biases. Robert Kane, who is a Libertarian (Someone who believes that a person is the ultimate source of responsibility for will and action, and tries to show that probability and free-will are compatible)certainly has his own biases but was able to present the problem in a very impartial and balanced manner. Even though he occasionally reference his own sources and his own arguments that criticizes certain positions or supports other positions (namely, Libertarianism), he nonetheless was able to present the strengths and weaknesses of every position as fairly as possible. This enables readers to reflect on the issue better since the reader is more acquainted with different perspectives thanks to Kane.

The analysis and clarification of different arguments was also very helpful since Kane was able to capture the reasoning behind each position which really allowed me to appreciate different philosophical positions of the debate. His reiteration of the Basic Argument by Galen Strawson and Consequence Argument by Peter Van Iwagen really opened my eyes as to why free-will might be in deep trouble. By presenting arguments and counter-arguments with clarity and rigor really made the debate more lively and stimulating than I previously thought. Before I read this book I am truly intimidated by the subject due to it's notorious complexity, but as i read through this book I am absolutely fascinated with it. Kane's introduction has really helped me fall in love with the subject of free-will.

Overall, I strongly recommend this introductory book to any beginners who aspire to understand the subject of free-will, including what the fuss is all about. I know some people may dislike the subject since it implies that their ordinary view on free-will would be turned upside down by disturbing arguments, but In my opinion I think this debate is very important precisely because it challenges us to re-examine the our fundamental beliefs which we hold sacred. Otherwise, it becomes mere prejudice without much substance.
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on November 26, 2012
I bought a used copy of this book and it came within days, way before I was told it would arrive. I devoured it right away, and it exceeded my expectations. I have given free will a lot of thought through the years, but the twists and turns and alternate views the author presents expanded my mind enormously. Not only is it intriguing and thoughtful, it is as entertaining as, well, hell. I literally had trouble putting it down, like to sleep. What fun! The best chapter is 12 in which the author presents his own theory of free will, on which he does and excellent job. But all the chapters are great. Anyone who likes to think will love this book.
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on June 22, 2015
If you have any interest in free will, this is definitely the place to start. Kane's book is wonderfully written, clear, and insightful. He lays the groundwork for all major theories in the field, explaining why people find such theories compelling and why others find them wanting.

As far as introductory texts go, this one is excellent.
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on July 30, 2012
With a relatively minor background in philosophy and logic I was able to dive right into this book.

The author is incredibly fair when discussing compatibilism, incompatibilism, and libertarian free will. Kane gives an argument for his own position in a chapter at the end of the book. I bought this book hoping to get a fair introduction to the free will debate, and this book delivered. I didn't sense any pervading bias on the part of Kane throughout the book. As a matter of fact, I was quite surprised to discover that Kane takes a libertarian position of free will given his brutal honesty in regards to the theory when discussing it earlier on.
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on January 16, 2015
This is a very good resource for anyone looking for an overview of the issues surrounding free will. Guarantee that if you are interested in the topic and an introduction book right for your level of knowledge that you will be happy with this book.
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