Did freedom evolve?

August 31, 2010 • 7:13 am

In our discussions of free will, and my continuing puzzlement about how it could really exist, several commenters recommended that I read Dan Dennett’s Freedom Evolves.  There, they said, I’d find a solution to the problem about how free will could exist in a deterministic universe.  So I read it.  And while I enjoyed it a lot, in the end I wasn’t convinced that he’d solved the problem—at least not in a way that was satisfying.

Dennett has always been known for three things: his clear writing about philosophy, his strong stands on contentious issues, and his insistence on undergirding philosophy with science, especially evolution.  All of these are on tap in Freedom Evolves.  Would that all philosophers could write so clearly and entertainingly! (And yes, I know that Dan’s been taken to task for popularizing, but I pay no attention to this.)

To make a long story short, Dan is a determinist who believes that physical events in the universe are, with the exception of quantum events, fully predicted by the laws of physics.  He has no belief in dualism—the ghost in the machine.  And he has no truck with locating free will in quantum indeterminacy, an idea that has seemed pretty dumb to me as well.

But he’s also a compatibilist: one who thinks that we can still have free will in a determined universe.  That’s important, of course, because closely connected with free will is the notion of moral responsibility:  without real freedom to choose what we do, how can we be held responsible for our acts?

Where does Dennett find freedom in a determined world? As his title implies, in evolution.  His thesis is that evolution imposes a new and distinct “cause” of behavior that is superimposed on the laws of physics. That is, through evolved behavior we can make “choices” that wouldn’t be there without natural selection.  He uses, for instance, the act of turning your head to avoid being beaned by a baseball.  That behavior is an evolved one: like many things we do, it enables us to survive.  Those individuals who didn’t react to and avoid oncoming objects didn’t leave their genes behind! We are always making “decisions,” like whether to turn our head, where to find food, whom to mate with, that were built into our genes by natural selection.  In those decisions resides our freedom.

It’s a bit more complicated than this, because Dennett sees free will as something largely limited to humans.  Animals, of course, can also make those kinds of evolution-based “choices”: a squirrel must decide where to look for acorns, a sage grouse female must choose among displaying males. What’s unique in humans is the complexity of our social interactions, which has mediated types of behavior unknown in other beasts. We plot, we scheme, we consider our actions way in advance, we attribute motivations to others, we decide who to treat well and why.  We make long-range plans not just for ourselves, but for our society.  And Dennett also sees this complex behavior as a production of evolution.  Because we have so many choices to make, and because they’re so complicated, this gives us a kind of “freedom” unprecedented among beasts.

This is the way Dennett reconciles deterministic causation with “will” and “free will.”  At bottom, things are still physically determined.  There’s just a new layer of complexity, one added by biology and evolution.

But if our “choices” are still really determined, how can we have moral responsibility?  This is a bit tricker.  As far as I understand it, Dennett’s solution is that we must be morally responsible if we’re to be allowed to take our place in society, and to enjoy all its benefits. Our understanding of this contract is our tacit admission that we’re morally responsible beings.  If we don’t acquiesce, and don’t accept our punishment when we err, then we have no business enjoying the largesse of society.

That’s Dennett’s argument, and he presents it with clarity and panache.  There’s lots of good writing in the book, and many interesting digressions, although sometimes those digressions distract one from his overarching argument.  But in the end I wasn’t satisfied.  Even though evolution tells us why we make certain “choices,” they still are not choices in the classical free-will sense: situations in which we could have decided otherwise.  Even if evolution tells us why we turn our heads when a baseball approaches, it is still a “decision” that must obey the laws of physics.  It’s just that those laws of physics are worked out through fantastically complex and evolved collections of molecules called “organisms”.  We turn our head because our evolved eyes perceive that something is approaching fast, and our evolved neurons, interacting with our evolved brain, make us swivel our skull to avoid collision.  But it’s still all physics and molecules; in the end, we didn’t really choose to turn our head.  It just looks (and feels) that way. Natural selection and evolution, of course, were themselves determined.

In the end, I saw the argument as a type of philosophical prestidigitation, in which our intuitive notion of free will had suddenly been replaced by something that, at first, sounded good, but ultimately didn’t comport with how we see “free” choice.  I felt as though I’d been presented with a cake, only to find that it was hollow in the middle, like a hatbox covered with frosting.  And the argument for moral responsibility seems contrived, as if innate responsibility were replaced by something else: a social contract.  Now I freely admit that I’m not deeply trained in philosophy (viz., Massimo “The Decider” Pigliucci), so perhaps I’m missing some of Dennett’s subtler and more convincing points.  In that case perhaps the readers will enlighten me.

I’m starting to realize that my quest for free will in philosophy may be futile, because I have a narrow notion of what I mean by the term.  I see free will as the way most of us conceive of it: a situation in which one could have made more than one choice. If that’s how you see it, and you’re a determinist—which I think you pretty much have to be if you accept science—then you’re doomed.  You’re left with the task of defining free will is some other way that comports with determinism.

But to me those other ways seem contrived, and avoid the ultimate question: could we really have done otherwise?  It seems to be a philosophical shell game, conducted so that we can conclude that we’re morally responsible agents.  If we didn’t, of course, society would break down, so we really need to find a philosophical justification for moral responsibility.  But this is hardly scientific: we decide what conclusion we want to reach a priori, and then twist the facts, and our arguments, so they lead to that result.  Ubi sunt the philosophers who follow the facts to their logical conclusion:  we aren’t really responsible for anything we do?

Well, there may be such philosophers.  I continue my readings with the very large Oxford Handbook of Free Will (hardly a “handbook” since it’s 550 pages long), which contains many short articles and a wide disparity of views.  I’m hoping this will be fun!

165 thoughts on “Did freedom evolve?

    1. He has a response in the book, already. There is a character in the book that says all these kinds of responses, like ‘but that’s not really free will!’ The response is basically that you can’t have that kind of free will. Not if determinism is true and not if determinism is false. If the compatibilist version of free will is not good enough, then get used to disappointment.

      1. Yeah. Also, the concept of “could have done otherwise” was treated and dismissed by Dennett 26 years ago in “Elbow Room” as a free will not worth wanting. For several (more or less obvious) reasons.

  1. What a relief to hear a thoughtful, intelligent, and well-read person say that they haven’t heard a satisfying answer to this vexing question.

    I’m just glad that my brain has evolved in such a way that each time I seem to be choosing to think about this topic, I seem to decide to relax and continue acting as though I have free will, since it causes less cognitive dissonance.

    1. The alternative of course is to dismiss it all outright as a defective notion. There’s no point in worrying about something which does not exist – just go about your business as you’ve always done.

  2. Wow, so Dennett somehow interprets the circumstance that we are constrained by our evolutionary history as ‘freedom’? That’s Orwellian.

    1. It’s not Orwellian if you’ve heard of epigenetics. AFAIK, DNA methylation and histone compaction both respond to environmental/experiential stimuli (e.g. illness) and won’t be the same even in identical twins… yet those can matter greatly in gene expression. There are many “shades of gray” possible in expression, hence “freedom”.

      So evolutionary history is not a hard, unwavering constraint unless you mistakenly think that there is always a direct route from DNA to behavior. With the exception of SNP diseases like Tay Sachs, that’s just not true.

      1. Oh plus, there’s development and plasticity. Brains can undergo neural pruning, rewiring, or even temporary task reassignment. You can’t just take a set of chromosomes and create a blueprint of the specimen’s brain at age 30. It’s WAY more dynamic than that.

    2. I think Dennet would argue that our evolutionary history has loosen the constraints. The ‘freedom’ of choice that other animals have is far more limited than ours. What freedom we have, we owe to our evolution.

  3. Will Provine has written: “Philosophers who believe in both determinism and free will, such as Dan Dennett or Ted Honderich, on the other hand, cannot find much freedom in determinism. Compatibilist-free will yields so little freedom to crow about in the first place, but the philosophers up on modern science want free will so badly that writing a whole book (or two of them) is the norm. Their usual practice comes in the form of calling human decision-making “free will,” thus weaseling out of the problem. What truly amazes me is the huge trouble this causes the compatibilist philosophers. They have to write whole book after whole book on free will, because they have chosen their problem in such a way as to require “free will,” which cannot be found or defined.

    1. It is naive to call folk psychology (of free will, say) “weaseling”, since there is a natural context outside of philosophy (say).

      Better to call it “unsatisfying” (again, outside of its natural context).

    2. Actually, in the context here, couldn’t one entertain that folk psychology has an evolutionary context? (Not that I particularly fancy evo psych. 🙁 )

  4. I’m not sure I understood “shell game” correctly (I’m not a native English).

    I see the problem this way: psychology is rooted in biology, biology in chemistry, chemistry in physics. As a monist i believe that all our actions have naturalistic reasons, so every decision is based on stimuli and our brain calculations on how to react to them, though we do not perceive them as such because of their complexity.

    Any true “free will” would have to be disconnected from the neurochemistry.

    1. What’s the difference between turning one’s head because a flying baseball is approaching, turning one’s head because a sound is heard, and turning one’s head simply because one chooses to with no purpose in mind other than to demonstrate to oneself one’s autonomy.

      Are all of these actions “determined” in the same way? The first is pure reflex. It’s automatic. The second is passively reflexive. One is compelled to turn toward a curious sound, but the desire can be resisted. The last feels like an act of free will.

      So my question is, if all of these instances of head-turning are equally determined in advance, why do we experience them differently?

      1. I’m in H.H.’s camp right now. The concept of “free will”, the way I see it, is related to predictability or at least the perception of predictability. A human observer will easily predict that reflexes will take over a body’s motor control to prevent the head attached to that body from being struck by a baseball. It’s also easy to predict that an Aplysia’s gill will retract when physically probed. On the other hand, frolicking head movements to a Bloc Party song or watching said Aplysia eagerly show you its latest Lolcat pics is rather unpredictable.

        I appreciate that all of these “responses” to the world are determined by the current physiological state of the subject, the state of its environment, and Boltzmann-style randomness. But perhaps its the mere perception of the randomness, at least for complex behaviors, that for all intents and purposes is “free will”. [Sorry for the shoddy writing… obligatory lab meeting starts now].

    2. george,

      Since nobody else replied here’s my shot at explaining the term. The term ‘shell game’ refers to a swindle or trick played on the street where people are invited to bet on which shell a small object (like a pea) is hidden under. In reality the person who hides the pea manipulates the game so that the bettor can never find the right shell. Usually because the pea has been removed.

      See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shell_game for more details.

      In this context the term is used to describe a debating tactic where the person trying to make a point continually moves their argument so that it’s impossible to refute their position. All the while avoiding the difficult question : which shell is the pea actually under?

  5. Coincidentally, I’ve just finished “Freedom Evolves” about an hour ago, and I agree with Jerry. It was a pleasure to read, but my (layman’s) philosophical position remains largely unmoved by it.

    For those who want to save some moral culpability from the fire of determinism, I recommend “The Fear of Determinsim” chapter in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate. That which remains may not look like much initially, but I think it’s the only reasonable bit we can hold on to. And it’s enough, I think.

    (Briefly, it props up [what is left of] moral responsibility by appealing to the salutary practical consequences that such attitudes have. Interestingly, Pinker points out that if individuals are found to have gene X that predisposes them to violence, this does NOT necessarily imply that we ought to therefore treat them more leniently [“the spectre of creeping exculpation”, as Dennett puts it]. Perhaps we should treat them more harshly in the hope that this exaggerated response will be enough to deter him, and others with the same gene. Fascinating…)

    1. Perhaps we should treat them more harshly in the hope that this exaggerated response will be enough to deter him, and others with the same gene. Fascinating…)

      Perhaps at the moment any particular “decision” is made we do not have a “choice”, but it sure seems that through conditioning, training, learning and or experience that a person’s “decision” making process can be altered. It seems to me that this can be the result of chance, or of intention.

      I don’t know that that qualifies as free will by anyone’s definition. The “problem” of free will does not cause me any angst. I don’t think it is a particularly important problem and I find it mildly interesting at best.

      I am the result of all of the experiences I have had since conception. I suppose you could go much further back than that as well. The tapestry of my experiences is unique. My “decision” making process is affected by that tapestry of experiences. Perhaps that will have to be enough.

  6. “Ubi sunt the philosophers who follow the facts to their logical conclusion: we aren’t really responsible for anything we do?

    There is a philosopher named Tom Clark. He studied under Dennet, and now runs naturalism.org.

    I’ve heard him on a couple of CFI podcasts, and was quite impressed.

  7. Jerry: “We turn our head because our evolved eyes perceive that something is approaching fast, and our evolved neurons, interacting with our evolved brain, make us swivel our skull to avoid collision. But it’s still all physics and molecules; in the end, we didn’t really choose to turn our head. It just looks (and feels) that way.”

    Is there any “we” besides that collection of molecules that make up our brains and bodies?

    Could we have responded differently without a different neurological makeup, different life experiences, and different stimuli? I don’t see how.

    OTOH, I don’t see how any of these constraints absolve us of moral responsibility. We might be complex machines that are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry, but we are generally aware of the likely effects of our actions as well as what other people expect of us.

  8. “It seems to be a philosophical shell game, conducted so that we can consider ourselves morally responsible individuals. If we didn’t, of course, society would break down, so we really need to find a philosophical justification for moral responsibility.”

    How is this consistent with determinism? You are saying that if we sudenly realized that we are NOT morally responsible we would change our actions so that society breaks down, but if our sudden realization wasn’t determined then our subsequent behaviour wouldn’t be either.

  9. The best way to have free will is to ignore this philosophical debate. Just go on about your business making choices.

  10. I’m actually with Dan Dennett on this one. First, I think it’s obvious, as soon as we reflect on it seriously, that we don’t possess what I call “spooky free will” – the sort of free will that theodicists require to get God off the hook for the ills of the world.

    But I also think it makes sense to say “I did that of my own free will.” If we insist that the expression “free will” must refer to spooky free will … well, I think that’s a matter of semantics. Hume, for example, didn’t understand it in that way, and I find that philosophy students grasp the Humean or compatibilist view very quickly and find it plausible. There’s nothing Orwellian about the idea that freedom is freedom to express your own values, not to act in some way that does not express them. What would be so great about that?

    Whatever we call it, we (often) possess something that’s very good to have – the ability to plan and deliberate, weigh up whether courses of action fit in with our values, etc. And we can also hold others responsible – we can say, “What you did expressed your individual values; it didn’t merely reflect your fear of (say) someone who was holding a gun at your head.”

    Apropos of this issue, I often wonder why anyone wants more than we actually have … when the “more” doesn’t even seem coherent. I blame religion, at least in part, though this is probably a case where religion is taking advantage of an illusion that has more deep-seated causes.

    Of course, I also argue that there is no objective morality. But that doesn’t mean that there are no good ways to choose how to live our lives, treat others, bring up children, decide how to vote, and so on. Objective morality, like spooky free will, seems to me to be an illusion that we can do without but which has deep causes that we don’t entirely understand.

    For whatever reasons, we often seem to want to reach for superlatives: a freedom to act that transcends how we are, reasons for action that transcend our own deepest values, and so on. But we can’t have these things and shouldn’t want them. They are mirages.

    1. While I agree that it’s useful to have a term to say that we were acting unforced or uncompelled and “of my own free will” is a nice phrase, can’t we all agree that the term has different meanings depending on the context? I’m reminded of discussions with Christians who keep telling me that their “faith” in God is really just another word for “trust”. “Yes, that’s fine,” I reply, “but it doesn’t change the fact that faith-as-in-blind-faith is a problem and that’s what we’re discussing.”

      So yes, there are meanings of the phrase “free will” which are useful and I agree we can act uncompelled “of our own free will”, but I don’t think this supports what I took as Dennet’s thesis, that we have some kind of genuine, spooky free will that’s not directly driven by biochemistry.

      But I haven’t read the book, so perhaps I’m mistaken.

      1. “what I took as Dennet’s thesis, that we have some kind of genuine, spooky free will that’s not directly driven by biochemistry.

        But I haven’t read the book, so perhaps I’m mistaken.”

        Boy, that’s an understatement … I have trouble fathoming the depths of inattention that could lead to such a conclusion. And why do people have so much trouble spelling the name of one of the greatest thinkers alive today? I think that too speaks to lack of attention and general intellectual laziness.

        Russell Blackford’s comments, OTOH, show a careful attention to detail. Jerry’s notion of free will assumes an autonomous spook, some sort of entity lacking in causal connections to the world. As Russell says, we can’t have that sort of autonomy and shouldn’t want it.

    2. I agree that we don’t have “spooky free will”. I also agree with the compatibilist’s ingenious observation that since our will is part of the (deterministic, for the sake of argument) world, determinism can still produce an “us” that chooses what it wants. We obviously experience this every day, and in this sense we can be called “free”.

      What I’m struggling with is how this version of events preserves any moral culpability at all, since determinism scuppers any hope of any actual alternative paths open to our “free” will to choose from, however much we may feel that this is the case. I couldn’t have chosen any differently, as surely as I can’t levitate! You don’t hold the second failure against me, surely? What am I missing?

      1. About moral culpability. Our brain can simulate the possible consequences of our taking different actions, which is an essential part of our free will (or pseudo free will if one insists on some non material form of free will.) These consequences include impacts on others. We can also simulate how others might feel as a result of the consequences of our actions by putting ourselves in their shoes. That is an evolved capacity. Our moral culpability has to do with the weights we put on these consequences for others in the deterministic process that our brain follows in deciding. These weights come from our biological and sociological history, and includes possible feed-back consequences for ourselves from retaliation, peer disapproval, etc. A person who seemingly ignores the harmful consequences of his actions on others we say lacks moral culpability. We retaliate against such persons, individually or collectively, for our own benefit.

      2. Concerning the “couldn’t have done otherwise” objections, try googling “Frankfurt counterexamples”. Might be interesting.

    3. I’m with Dennett on this one too, and I agree substantially with what Russell says. I think, before we can actually discuss this question, we need to be very clear what we are asking for. Exactly what is missing here for you, Jerry? If you are saying that we do not have free will in any sense, and are, in fact, automatons — as automatic as, say, wind up toys, but a lot more complex — how would this get expressed in your life?

      For example, Massimo can’t help it. That’s the way he’s made. With his inputs, you get those outputs. Same with Francis Collins. Or Jerry Coyne. In fact, Ken Ham can’t help it. His inputs determine his way of responding to the world. He couldn’t, by this reading, have chosen otherwise. And Jerry Coyne. Well, he couldn’t be anything but a geneticist working on fruit flies, teaching at the University of Chicago and arguing against religious belief (and free will). But the arguments themselves are not chosen either, so there is no reason to accept one argument over another one even if one could, since they are spun out of a deterministic system. And as another such deterministic system I couldn’t, at the moment, be doing other than what I am doing, typing a response to a post that really is (for the system “I” am) just another input, determining this output.

      And yet, I keep stopping, and wondering whether I’ve got it right. I go back and change things, so that it says what I “want” to say. That’s a strange thing, if what is happening is simply a straightforward, if very complex, input-output system, like a thermostat. Isn’t this ability to stop and think, to make corrections, and to entertain alternatives, the kind of free will that we have?

      1. Well, if you think that we’re anything other than an input-output system, then do justify it. What else are we but collations of molecules that obey the laws of physics. Yes, indeed, we surely do think that we can make choices, and correct blog postings, but can we?

        I don’t see any conclusion other than that we ARE automatons. But we’d go insane if we really accepted that, so we pretend that we can make decisions. I do, too! (I suppose you could say I have no choice but to pretend, and so on and so on. )

        Just because we have the illusion that we could have decided to do something different doesn’t mean that it’s true.

        1. I think it would be more accurate to say we’re *dynamic* automatons. Neural feedback, developmental pruning, rewiring, temporary task reassignment, and even the influence of chemical tissue gradients mean that we won’t necessarily have the exact same “automatic” responses day-to-day or even minute-to-minute. Rather we have behavior trends, because the feedback tends to reinforce itself and the pruning/rewiring tends to last a while.

          Our behavior is more than just fuzzy logic, it’s downright messy. But certainly not divorced from physics or chemistry. So it’s not “free will”, but more the case of dynamics and nuance that is practically impossible to map.

          1. MoonShark, Why would you place such arbitrary limits on “hand picked” influences without recognizing that those influences are effects of causation, and it goes on and on without any limit. Go back a hundred billion years and change one molecule, and the Universe (and beyond) would be different. Of course, this is hypothetical and could not be done in spite of movies to the contrary.

            Whyevolutionistrue, You have it right. Cause and effect is infinite and encompasses ALL the “other stuff” being discussed here that suggests that there is any choice that doesn’t result from EVERYTHING that has occurred prior to that decision. Certainly, free will exists as a concept, subject for discussion, a “belief,” or anything else one can imagine–but, these are all a consequence of an inclusive and infinite past. Of course, I could be wrong, but that would be the fault of what ever made me who I am–everything!

            Some of you people seem very smart and/or well educated far beyond my abilities, so I would like to learn something new that would make me think differently about this, especially thoughts about the “first” event acting as a cause that all of this can be traced back to–but don’t say Big Bang without telling me what existed before that.

        2. I agree with the sentiments expressed above about the (un)necessity of “spooky” free will.

          We have evolved to have decision-making capacity based on foresight, planning, and incorporating imagined possibilities into current actions. This may involve millions of possibilities. Our decisions may change based on logical precision/fallibility, education, mental state, etc. I can adjust the weighting I put on each of the possible outcomes to come up with several different “decisions.”

          Maybe I choose to cheat on my taxes because I feel the immediate gain seems to outweigh the social gain. Maybe I take care of my ailing parent because the feeling of responsibility and remembered reciprocal kindness outweigh the time and effort involved.

          Regardless, there are enough variables and “possibilities” that I feel I have made a decision. Whether that is a cold calculation or a free “choice” seems semantics to me. I obviously cannot make any choice possible. Physics, chemistry, biology, psychology all limit my choices. But just because all of the “inputs” are determined does not necessarily mean that the output must be PRE-determined. There are enough random factors at enough points (including the imperfections in our ability to foresee possible outcomes) that the decision feels “free enough.”

          That in no way undermines our ability to hold individuals responsible for those decisions. I do believe a social contract informed by evolution and “human nature” can still be binding on individuals. Just because they are not handed down from a creator or even necessarily constant and unchanging over time (the scientific method may inform our contract with new knowledge as times goes on) does not mean they cannot be binding. What philosophy of “ought” (including those based on religion) has truly been unchanging over time anyway? There is no objective superiority to religious morality–it has molded itself to fit with the prevailing culture of the time quite nicely.

          I am no philosopher, but I’m not sure I percieve the angst regarding free will. Just like “god” I’m not sure there is a standard definition of it to discuss/prove/refute.

        3. Input-output systems make decisions all the time. Also, that we’d go insane if we accepted physical reality as it seems/determinism, is a pretty heavy assertion without evidence. A lot of people do accept it and are fine with it, also it’s a logical fallacy when it comes to matter of fact.

          It seems like you want some sort of magic free will, where randomness (unpredictability, indeterminism) is involved. How would that make you a more powerful agent? How would that make you more free?

        4. Is the anti-free will position really that we needn’t bother deliberating over decisions, studying problems, training skills, being disciplined, running through possibilities in our heads, etc, that everything will work out the same whether we do that or not? I’m pretty sure that’s not the position.

          Is it that, oh, sure, some time and effort is required to make good decisions or perform ably, but our interpretation of that time and/or effort as involving acts of volition, weighing choices, training skills, exercising imagination or discipline in meaningful ways is merely an illusion? I don’t *think* that’s what Jerry et al. mean with the anti-free will argument, but I’m not sure.

          Is it that, well, sure, we actually do need to put effort and thought into our actions, and that mental experience is meaningful, but it’s not *free* because it’s determined by our prior experiences and tastes and maybe innate biases? Well, I’m not sure I’d want my decisions to be independent of such things. If they were, I wouldn’t feel like they should be attributed to me.

          Is the anti-free will argument that our mental processes are meaningful, but they aren’t *free* because they’re determined by the laws of physics? Er, so what if that’s the case? I don’t find it as upsetting as some people seem to. Can anyone explain why I should?

        5. Yes, indeed, we surely do think that we can make choices, and correct blog postings, but can we?

          What the heck do you mean by choice here? ISTM it’s a label for an activity beings engage in – it’s trivially easy to find examples and point at them.

          We only think we can make choices…can you give me a non-self-contradicting definition of what you mean by ‘choice’ here, where we don’t really make choices but only think we do? I don’t see how a ‘choice’ is inherently a ‘magically determined and non-determined at the same time’ kind of thing.

    4. I’m not sure that the concept of moral responsibility follows ineluctably and automatically from this diluted view of “freedom.” After all, we already make allowances for determinism: the law (and our ethical feelings) partially exculpates those who might have been impelled to commit a crime by external circumstances. So what do we do if ALL of our actions are of this type?

      Rather than consider this seriously, it seems that many people just assert that we’re morally responsible. I’d like to see it justified, at least in a better way than it has been.

      1. You say in the post that “in the end, we didn’t really choose to turn our head. It just looks (and feels) that way.”

        But the fact that it feels that way is not “just” but all-important, no? We can’t really undo that. We can perhaps lack it in the first place; maybe some autistic people do; but we can’t really not feel that way. So in that sense, we do have “free will.” The feeling doesn’t need to be more than a feeling to work the way it does.

        Is that just a cop-out?

      2. Aren’t you just chasing your tail? After all, how can you ask for justification? We’re just automatons, no?

        And yet yesterday you argued, compellingly, that some biologists had made a mistake about kin selection and natural selection. Were you right, or was it just automatic writing?

        My question still is: What do you think free will is? What do you expect from it? What would free will enable you to do that you can’t do now (since you don’t think you have it)?

        The point about the evolution of free will is that, gradually, we evolve capabilities of choice, choices that we can justify. We can make an argument to show that we were right, just as you did when you gave us your judgement of the Wilson, Nowak and Tarnita paper.

        An important aspect of that response is that it was not a response to physical stimuli, but to meaning. You think that the three authors of the paper are wrong. They made a mistake. This is very different from the reflex turning of your head to avoid getting hit by a baseball. That probably is strictly input-output. But your criticism of the paper in Nature is different. The paper was, in your view, not only wrong: you even think that Nature should have a better way of vetting papers. That’s what freedom looks like. That is why I mentioned going back and making corrections as I went along. Why is this just an illusion?

        Read Consciousness Explained and see how Dennett deals with consciousness in a similar way. It will seem unsatisfactory, somehow failing to capture what you want to think of as the essence of consciousness, the spooky thing that Russell mentioned above. Perhaps you think free will has to be spooky in the same way, otherwise it will only be an illusion. But think of it as an evolved skill that humans have, the spinoff of part of the human phenotype, namely, language and meaning, and perhaps you won’t have the same sense of absence.

        What you are experiencing, by the way, is what religious people feel when you tell them there is no god. They cannot understand. They cannot understand, because that is what makes life real to them, instead of just an illusion, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, as MacBeth so aptly said.

        1. Macbeth so aptly said it but of course he was a sick bastard, so we shouldn’t read it as Sxhpr’s considered view, just as we can’t read Edmund’s terrific speech on superstition (“this is the excellent foppery of the world etc”) as Shxpr’s considered view, given that Edmund is a cruel bastard.

          1. Ah, now, that’s why I said MacBeth, and not Shakespeare. He was a sick bastard, and by this point, all his reasons for living have simply dissolved, because of the foolish power game he was playing. He was no longer in control, and it seemed to him that he never had it to begin with.

        2. But your criticism of the paper in Nature is different.

          Well it is and it isn’t. It’s different in practice but not in principle, perhaps. You know how Dawkins says certain things may not be explainable in practice because they are so complex, but that doesn’t mean they’re not explainable in principle? Maybe it’s like that. Jerry’s criticism of the paper in Nature really is the same kind of thing as turning the head to avoid a projectile, but so much more complicatedly so that mere humans can’t do all the sums.

          And for the same kind of reason, we can’t see the chain of causation that ends up with me typing these words here, so we don’t fully believe in such chains, or at least we forget about them most of the time.

          1. I think it’s different in principle, and the principal difference is meaning. Like Dawkins, I think that meaning gives us the ability to fight against the selfish replicators. Obviously, however, I haven’t thought this through, so I haven’t much more to add at this point. But I do think that structures of meaning are not like simple deterministic inputs, and they do provide room for making real choices. After all, if they don’t then language, as a evolutionary product would scarcely be useful.

            The other side of this is the way that religious meaning is, in some sense, a product of deterministic inputs. Take Boyer’s theory that the belief in agency, plus the fear of predators, contributes to the development of beings which are outside of the everyday empirical structure of meaning. So, in a sense, religious beliefs are not chosen, and you can tell that when there is nothing that could falsify them. But other beliefs, like ones concerning kin selection, say, can be falsified by more information, more data, better experimental controls, etc., and so we can choose the right answer and reject the false one.

            This seems to me like an access of freedom, an evolution of freedom, if you like. What other kind of freedom do we need?

          2. Hmmmm. That’s interesting. Could meaning be the product of (rather than “like”) a lot of simple deterministic inputs? Or do you think meaning is different from simple deterministic inputs all the way down?

            This might be the place where we meet Sam Harris, too. His point is (if I have it right) that human happiness is ultimately the product of simple deterministic inputs and we can at least in principle find out what they are. My point in disagreeing with him, I think, is partly that that isn’t quite right…Maybe that’s because I don’t think it’s simple deterministic inputs all the way down. But I’m not a bit sure I don’t think that.

          3. No, I don’t think that meaning can be simply the product of determinstic inputs. Meaning is somehow supervenient upon deterministic inputs, since meaning arises in use (as Wittgenstein pointed out), that is, in the relationship of units of meaning with each other. Meaning is, as Susan Blackmore points out, a new replicator. And while it is true that meanings can be viral, it seems also to be true that meanings themselves contribute to the possibility of choice. But, as I say, I’m just firing away on automatic here, because I really haven’t thought this through. However, if meaning does not contribute to the possibility of choice, that is, of having been able to have chosen otherwise, then truth must be figment of memetic imagination. Then Plantinga would be right, wouldn’t he?, and naturalism would simply self-destruct.

          4. At the level of fundamental physics, it doesn’t make sense to talk about a person. A person isn’t a particular collection of particles, or a configuration of fields, or a unique state of motion of some ensemble of particles.

            Talking about persons only makes sense at higher levels of abstraction, and at those levels, it can also make sense to talk about free will. For this reason, I don’t see how you can dismiss the idea of free will by pointing to physical determinism, since that’s not the sort of thing it was ever meant to refer to.

  11. Much as I admire Dan Dennett I was also left unsatisfied by Freedom Evolves. If all actions are the result of previous actions then even if previous actions were random (ie quantum) there is still no room for free will. Like theology the arguments can be incredibly abstruse and subtle but if the foundation is wanting (ie no evidence for a god) then the superstructure is irrelevant.

  12. I felt as though I’d been presented with a cake, only to find that it was hollow in the middle, like a hatbox covered with frosting.

    The cake is a lie!

    I agree with you completely, Dr. Coyne. After reading Freedom Evolves I was left with a profound feeling of “that’s it??”, as if nothing had been resolved adequately (because, indeed, it hadn’t). Free will still doesn’t exist, and what to do about morality is still an open question.

    Of course, the logical process that led us from “we don’t have free will” to “how do we deal with morality?” is itself just physics and molecules. If our “choices” don’t count because they’re determined, should our logical deducations count any more? They are physically determined as well.

    Very quickly we reach an impasse that prevents us from thinking anything about anything….

    1. One might hope of course to find a pie inside that cake.

      I don’t see how our inability to make decisions that somehow aren’t dependent on our neurobiology, life experiences, stimuli, etc. is any problem for moral responsibility. Our minds, or sometimes unconscious parts of our nervous systems, sort through a lot of data and enacts some response that it judges to have some expected outcome (like not getting clobbered or whether my wife will like this gift — or will I get caught/punished for doing something that’s “unacceptable”). I don’t see how we could choose anything different or respond differently unless we were a different person or in different circumstances.

      Anyway, I’ll have to read the book despite its limitations. I liked Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and Breaking the Spell.

      1. I’ve explained this a couple times on the various threads about free will here. The reason free will is implicated in moral responsibility is because humans intuitively make moral allowances for people who “couldn’t help themselves.” That’s why we look less harshly on sins committed by children, or by people who were going through something very emotional when they committed some improper act. In other words, the more we interpret someone’s will as having been constrained by circumstances beyond their control, the less severe we are in our moral judgements. However, since all of our thoughts and actions are just “physics and molecules,” the upshot is that ALL circumstances are, effectively, beyond our control. We are all just robots running programs in our heads.

        (By the way, the increased leniency for minors and those who commit crimes of passion is in direct contradiction with those who say human legal systems are based on deterrence and not moral responsibility. If children and emotional people have difficulty controlling their impulses, the logical thing to do in a deterrence-based legal system would be to impose more severe penalties for such crimes, as that would give the offenders greater motivation not to commit them. But we do the opposite. We give greater leniency because it is part of the human moral intuition to make allowances for extenuating circumstances.)

        1. Surely part of why we regard children and the mentally ill as having less or no responsbility for their actions is that they aren’t able to accurately predict the consequences of their actions — or in some cases, they had little or no idea what they were even doing.

          If I (a reasonably sane adult) know that my action has a high probability of harming someone, and I take the action anyway, I would be considered guilty and liable for punishment. It doesn’t really matter how I internally came to take that action — and even today, I expect we don’t understand the details of how the mind works all that well. If my actions are determined, or if I somehow exercise a contingent or even spooky free will, it doesn’t seem that it makes much difference in how the consequences should be treated.

          And I don’t think it really matters all that much in how we live unless we cling to the notion that “we” are something separate from our brains and bodies.

  13. But to me those other ways seem contrived, and avoid the ultimate question: could we really have done otherwise?

    It’s not clear to me what you mean by “otherwise” here. We can ask whether, given a particular brain state, Prof. Coyne would choose A or B in a given event. But you can only have chosen “otherwise” relative to the choice you did make. You can only choose “otherwise” in hindsight; in the moment, you simply choose.

    Another point is that “decision” is a fuzzy category. For example, we can ask whether the Canadian rock band was right that not deciding constitutes a choice, or in general whether not doing whatever you’re doing or doing whatever you’re not doing are choices you’re not making. So I think it’s easier to think about this in terms of actions — you’re constantly taking actions of some sort (and I’d include directed thinking or imagination as actions) in response to a continuous stream of sensory stimuli.

    So at any given moment, there’s only one action you can take chosen from an incredibly large number of possible actions. But it’s only after you’ve acted that you can ask the question, “what would things be like now if I had acted differently?” More specifically, it’s only after you’ve chosen that you can ask “what if I had chosen differently?”

    I think the sense that we’re truly “free” to choose from among these possible actions arises more from the periods of cogitation that often precede decisions that don’t need to be made immediately and whose consequences aren’t immediately obvious.

    In these cases, we’re able to let our imaginations run rampant. We try to predict what the probable results of the various courses of action will be so that we can compare and hopefully find one that suits us best, and then follow the course of action that we hope leads there. This is, in my mind, what most people mean by “choosing.” And of course, after the choice is made, we can always wonder what would have happened had we chosen otherwise (especially if we were wrong about the result). But it’s only in light of the actual results of the choice that we second-guess that choice. If we got a second chance, we might not make the same choice — but that’s only in light of knowledge about the results of that choice.

    Basically, I’m not so sure there’s an answer to the question “could we really have done otherwise?” — it strikes me as the sort of question that becomes a lot less mysterious and important when you state it precisely enough to be able to give a real answer.

    1. I’d like to add that the question of how to ground morality without free will is completely irrelevant to the fact of whether or not we have free will.

    2. Dan L, just an aside regarding the Rush lyric you referred to – I think it’s clear that the song is not really about free will in the sense that it’s being discussed here – it’s more of a traditional argument against religion on the basis that if there is an all-knowing higher power, then there can’t be free will. The argument fails now, since Peart hadn’t taken the next step and concluded that there is no free will even without God.

      But anyway, my take on the “choose not to decide” line is this: Let’s say you’re trying to make sense of whether there’s a God and whether there’s free will and you just don’t have enough evidence to figure it out, so you decide, “I’m not going to take sides; I’ll stay out of the debate”. So you’ve chosen “not to decide”. Well, from the Christian viewpoint (and probably other religions as well), you have made a choice anyway – you’ve chosen against that religion. This is because in order to choose, say, Christianity, you have to take some action to accept and believe it. If you don’t take that action, then by default you’ve chosen the opposite. I think when Peart wrote this line he was “complaining” about that situation. Basically, saying, “look, I didn’t want to take sides, but when I try to stay out of it, the faithful tell me, ‘Well, you’ve chosen anyway’, and that’s not fair”. And it may not be fair, but that’s the way it is given how religions define themselves.

      1. I wasn’t bringing up the song to discuss Neil Peart’s take on philosophy of mind (though I bet he has some good thoughts). I brought it up because it’s a well-known statement of an important problem in delimiting the category of “choices.” From a philosophical point of view, what is the status of a choice you did not make? Is there a difference between not choosing to hold your breath and choosing not to hold your breath? Have you made one of these two choices if you simply continue breathing? Which one?

  14. @ russell;
    this seems to me no more than wish fulfillment (which I personally share). There is no REASON to think that there is free will but it shore would be nice.
    I am prepared to “believe” in it for practical reasons until a better alternative arrives.

    1. I guess I don’t really “get” what all the fuss is about how great it would be to have “free will.” Why would I wish for it if I don’t currently have it? What would I be able to do with it that I cannot currently do? Would I be more “satisfied” with my “decisions” than I currently am? Would I feel more “in control” of my life than I do now?

      What exactly does everyone think free will is? How do you define it? Making a decision in a vacuum with no circumstances or history or memory or physical being or knowledge of previous errors? How do you separate free will decisions from the ones we currently make? How do you test if we have this thing called free will? How does it change what we “ought” to do?

      I think for morality purposes, it is more important that we have something called foresight (the ability to judge potentialities) than it is that we have something called “free will.” Why would we have evolved the ability to foresee different futures if we were naturally able to choose among them? It is the ability to choose among them that improved our fitness. Why isn’t this basis enough for developing a social-moral responsibility?

  15. Jerry, you ask if there are philosophers “who follow the facts to their logical conclusion: we aren’t really responsible for anything we do?”

    There are several out there, including Derk Pereboom at Cornell, author of Living Without Free Will. But even he says there are good reasons to *hold* each other responsible, even if we couldn’t have done otherwise when doing wrong. If we didn’t hold each other responsible, moral norms couldn’t be taught and behavior couldn’t be shaped for the better. And if we were uncaused causers in the way you seem to wish were the case, our responsibility practices wouldn’t work, since the causally uninfluenced core of the self could simply ignore them.

    More generally, why judge the question of whether we can be morally responsible by what you admit is an impossible standard? Why regret the non-existence of a logically and empirically untenable notion of human agency? Why hold on to it? We don’t need a philosophically deep or ultimate sense of agent origination to be moral agents, those who know right from wrong and are capable of responding to the prospect of social approval or sanctions. Morality as the essential social glue survives the death of libertarian free will quite handily.

    Like many, you refuse Dennett’s offer of what seems a cheap substitute for what you take to be *real* freedom and *real* choices, the capacity to have done otherwise in the exact same situation. But why would you want such freedom? It wouldn’t buy you more control since an *ultimate* originator has no reason to choose one way or another, precisely because no influences are coming to bear. We should simply drop the contra-causal requirement in deciding what counts as real choices and real responsibility. In doing so, we’ll be led to more enlightened, less gratuitously punitive responsibility practices, and we’ll pay more attention to the actual causes of why people end up morally good or bad, instead of chalking behavior up to an uncaused originator. As philosopher Galen Strawson puts it: “How might we be changed by dwelling intensely on the view that ultimate responsibility is impossible?” http://www.naturalism.org/freewill.htm

    1. “Like many, you refuse Dennett’s offer of what seems a cheap substitute for what you take to be *real* freedom and *real* choices, the capacity to have done otherwise in the exact same situation. But why would you want such freedom? It wouldn’t buy you more control since an *ultimate* originator has no reason to choose one way or another, precisely because no influences are coming to bear.”

      These discussions can make my head hurt, but I agree with this.

      There’s always some reason why we choose A rather than B. “I chose A just because I felt like it” is a choice which has causes just like any other, even though it seems like we have chosen “on a whim” or “freely.” The causes might be complex or nearly impossible to untangle (like the state of our brains at any one moment, or the complex and varying stimuli we receive from the environment and how our brains react to it), but the causes still exist, and are deterministic in hindsight.

      Since no decision we ever make happens uncaused in a perfect vacuum, in that sense our will isn’t “free.”

      If I choose vanilla at the ice cream stand today, there are always reasons why I do so. And those reasons would be exactly the same if we could replay the universe over again – identically. I’ll choose the vanilla an infinite number of times on infinite universe replays. The fact that I can imagine choosing the chocolate instead, doesn’t mean I will under those identical circumstances.

      Dennett makes a point that “identical conditions” and “virtually identical conditions” are NOT the same thing. If I go to the ice cream stand tomorrow, even though the conditions might seem exactly the same as when I went today, they aren’t. My brain state is different, I had vanilla yesterday, etc.

      If I choose the chocolate tomorrow, there will be reasons why I do so. I certainly won’t choose the chocolate because some homunculus in my head “decides” on the chocolate, independent of causes or the laws of nature.

  16. While the lack of spooky free will does raise interesting philosophical questions about punishment and justice, I don’t think the problems are as difficult as people make them out to be. We may be biochemical “robots”, but we’re very complex robots with the ability to act on our conjectures of the future responses of others. Punishment and the threat of punishment can affect our actions even without spooky free will. And even with that aside, I have no problem with the idea that some people have proved that they’re unable or unwilling to conform to societal norms and for the safety of the remainder they should be segregated (and hopefully rehabilitated). We do this with rogue computer programs so even under the extreme versions of humans-as-robots we have good rationale for our justice program.

    And if this means that we have a little bit more sympathy for criminals and treat them like good people with defective parts or defective training rather than people who are inherently, irredeemably evil as many countries do now, then all the better.

  17. Well, with all due respect and please forgive the analogy, I think you’re making the same mistake as those who claim evolution is impossible because it violates the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.

    Of course the universe will behave as the universe behaves on a gross level (though there is randomness in the system that belies a strict determinism). And we have no choice but to follow the laws of physics.

    However, you appear to be saying that because the laws of physics works, that means all of our actions are pre-determined. It’s the fallacy of hasty generalization (or over-generalization).

    The universe will continue to behave as the universe behaves, but it cares not one whit whether I have the fish or the chicken for dinner. Or whether I covet my neighbor’s ass, or his wife’s ass. Because in the grand scheme of things, the end result will not be changed.

    But on a local level within the tight temporal constrictions of a human lifetime, we have perfect freedom — within the aforementioned confines of the laws of physics — to act with individual intent and conscious choice (or supra-conscious choice, as discussed earlier).

    Are we the only animal that “chooses” certain actions as opposed to operating under tight behavioral constraints? I think that bees, ants, and other social insects certainly do not appear to be able to do anything other than follow the program hard-wired in their brains. But further along the evolutionary pathway, surely there are animals that exhibit choice-related behaviors. Chimps choosing to use a stick to retrieve termites? Cats choosing to use a litter box (after training) rather than poo in your shoe?

    It seems to me that learned behavior, as opposed to instinctual behavior, is the boundary between the kind of determinism you advocate and “free will” that seems to vex philosophers so much.

    So, do we have behaviors that appear pre-programmed? Sure. But that doesn’t mean that every action, every behavior, every turn of the head or glance at a pretty girl was written in my “book of life” 13.7 billion years ago.

    And now I “choose” to get some work done…semi-free will, as it were.

    1. I think that bees, ants, and other social insects certainly do not appear to be able to do anything other than follow the program hard-wired in their brains.

      Since we can’t talk to these other animals let’s treat all animals the same. Can you please tell us how you can observe the presence of free will by observing only behaviour?

      1. Well, it’s not “talking” to the animals…but we certainly can observe them, test their instinctual-behavioral programs, and on and on. Jane Goodall certainly made a living doing this kind of field work, and as far as I know, she did not exchange one word with the subjects of her observations.

        I don’t see how you can treat all animals the same when there are clear differences in the size, structure, and indeed function of the brains of the various species.

        Again, you’re trying to create a “one size fits all” solution for the entire universe and all the creatures that live within it.

        Sorry. I think you’ll have to supply evidence that our brains are no better than bee brains in order for that argument to gain traction.

        1. Since you sound so definitive (and because your statements require significant alterations to chemistry, biology and physics), I’m merely asking what observations we can make to confirm or reject your bold statements.

          You say that other animals are merely following their instincts but humans do not. So what observations could we make which might tell us if, say, one specific human was just following instinct? What could we observe which would lead you to say that a given animal was not merely following their instinct?

          These are pretty basic tests, things anyone that took your position should be ready to provide.

          1. Am I making a “bold statement”? Really? Seems to me I’m making a routine observation that there is a continuum of brain structure and functional ability among creatures with brains.

            How is *that* controversial? How does it change the laws of biology? Seems to me the laws of biology — particularly evolutionary biology — predict such a thing.

            My philosophical argument is that “free will” is a function of higher-functioning brains, and that animals will display varying degrees of “free will” based on the relative size, capacity, and sophistication of their brains. In other words, that “free will” is merely a manifestation of the ability of animals to think and reason. And that one should be able to demonstrate a continuum of such behavior ranging from none (bees) to lots (us).

            It seems to me to be almost a trivial conclusion based on our knowledge of comparative neuroanatomy, cognitive sciences, and other relevant fields of inquiry.

            It would seem to me to be relatively easy to design experiments to test the proposition. I would be shocked if the literature was not already rife with experimental evidence.

          2. First, I apologize for miss-reading your initial post. When I went over it again, I see you were arguing for a continuum when I had thought you weren’t. In that case, you were right and I was hastily jumping to the wrong conclusion.

            I don’t see any sign that what we think of as a “choice” is really “free” in the sense that it’s not governed by our biochemistry. Of course it’s not governed by our DNA or something, but our environment and our heritage all shape our brain development and given the the state of our brain, when presented with a choice, is there any evidence to think that we could choose any different than we do? There’s no evidence to that effect, and any hypothesis which argues that there is must posit the existence of some extra-physical/supernatural aspect of ourselves (a “soul”), and some mechanism for this interacting with our all-too-biological bodies. That’s a lot to swallow and I think we need some compelling evidence before we say that biochemistry is insufficient to explain our actions.

            So prepared to be shocked: the literature is not rife with experimental evidence.

    2. @Kevin: “I think that bees, ants, and other social insects certainly do not appear to be able to do anything other than follow the program hard-wired in their brains.”

      How do you do anything than follow the program in your brain? Since you mentioned using tools to make a job easier, let’s take that as an example.

      Say you’re building a deck. You have a lot of screws to screw into the wood. You choose to use a screw gun to do this job instead of a screwdriver. You say you weren’t following a program when you made this choice? Here’s a sample dialogue between you and me:
      Me: So why did you choose a screw gun over a screwdriver?
      You: It’s easier and the job will go a lot faster.
      Me: Why would you choose something that’s easier?
      You: Uh… because it’s easier.
      Me: Yes, I understand that. Now why would you choose the easier option? What caused you to make that choice?
      You: Um, common sense?

      “Common sense,” indeed. That would be your program, sir. Organisms are programmed to choose the easier of two options, all other factors being equal. Or take another example. Let’s say you’re over my house for breakfast and I offer you the choice of an orange or a mango with your food. Let’s also posit that you hate the taste of mangos. So, you choose the orange. Why did you choose the orange? Because you like the taste better. Why would you choose the fruit that tastes better?

      Why would you do that?

      Because your program tells you – unless you have some alternate reason for choosing the mango – go with the one that tastes better.

      You cannot avoid the way your mind works. Nor should you – without a a deterministic If/Then statement in your brain that says “if this one tastes better, choose it” your brain would never be able to decide on an output! There has to be a point where “the buck stops” – a point where all the factors have been weighed and some output is required by the machine. That output can only be provided by a set of instructions that says “when this happens, do this.” That is your program. That is why you make the decisions you do. Given your input, you cannot help what the output will be.

      1. Well, you certainly have narrowly defined “free” and certainly have carefully programed a software program that you THINK I follow.

        But I don’t believe the decision-making process is anything like the simplistic model you describe.

        And I certainly have no such thing as “common sense” when it comes to tool choice. I have training and experience. If I had never seen a hammer before, it’s quite doubtful I would pick it up without guidance contra a tool I am familiar with (a big rock, a frying pan, whatever).

        It’s not the software that’s at issue; it’s the hardware and the OS.

        I find it fascinating how vehement the defense of determinism is here; versus the defense of free will in places where the “leader” believes in free will.

        I wonder; do you have a choice in which sites you follow based on free will or is that pre-determined as well? Are you just following your software? Do you have no choice?


        1. “But I don’t believe the decision-making process is anything like the simplistic model you describe.”

          So let’s discuss. Where have I gone wrong? Can you answer the very basic questions I put forth: Why would you choose that which is easier over that which is harder? Why would you choose to eat something that tastes good?

          “I wonder; do you have a choice in which sites you follow based on free will or is that pre-determined as well? Are you just following your software? Do you have no choice?”

          Not sure if this is just rhetorical; I’ll answer anyway.
          1. Free will is a nonsensical idea; it means that people choose things for no reason whatsoever.
          2. I do have a choice which sites I follow. That choice is based on something – my interests, my values, my time constraints, and more. I weigh these factors and make a choice. The fact that I make the choice that seems the most sensible to me is a direct result of my brain being programmed that way. Imagine if I made the opposite of the choice that seemed the most sensible, or convenient, or rewarding. Or imagine if, given the choice between a fruit that I like and a fruit that I hate, I chose the hated fruit a full 50% of the time, even though I absolutely couldn’t stand eating it. That would be some inconvenient programming. Instead, I’m programmed to base present decisions on past outcomes, the inevitable result being that, given a certain past, I will always make the same choice in the present.

          1. Except sometimes we choose broccoli…if we’re losing weight, if our doctor has told us to eat healthier, if our spouse is nagging us, if the damned stuff just comes with the Chinese take-out (what IS it with the Chinese and broccoli?).

            So, the inevitability is nothing of the sort.

            Given choices at a buffet, I would gladly gravitate to desserts and liquor. Often, however, I eat a salad and the grilled chicken. That’s me choosing ‘freely’ (consciously with purpose) based on local conditions, my education, my current weight-waistline status, and on and on IN ADDITION TO my taste preferences.

            And then sometimes I take all of that information and still choose to “cheat”. And given my history at the buffet, I would say my track record may just well be 50-50.

            I just don’t see how any of that is “predetermined”, or how that matters to the universe, which will cool by the same predictable rate no matter which serving spoon I dip into what buffet tray.

            Predetermination is, in my humble opinion, fundamentally a position of human egocentrism. We can’t imagine how unimportant we are to the universe, and therefore imagine that every action has an impact on it. And by extension imagine that our temporary arrangement of molecules are somehow ‘guided’ to perform certain actions.


            We’re not that important. The universe does not care enough about us to predetermine our actions. Local short-term chaos doesn’t change the long-term outcome.

          2. Often, however, I eat a salad and the grilled chicken. That’s me choosing ‘freely’ (consciously with purpose) based on local conditions, my education, my current weight-waistline status, and on and on IN ADDITION TO my taste preferences.

            Our decisions are complex and involve our evolved preferences for fat, salt and sugar, our desire to fit in, our social situation, our beliefs about the relative values of long-term health vs short-term pleasure, our obligations to our spouses, our desire to “get our money’s worth” and a myriad of other pressures. It’s very complex and so distilling it down to saying that sometimes you eat your veggies and sometimes you doesn’t so therefore your choices are unconstrained by biochemistry seems very simplistic.

            We can’t imagine how unimportant we are to the universe, and therefore imagine that every action has an impact on it. And by extension imagine that our temporary arrangement of molecules are somehow ‘guided’ to perform certain actions.

            It is egocentric to say that masses are attracted to each other or that hydrogen and oxygen bond to form water? That’s the extent of the argument, that our biochemistry is compelling us to make the decisions we make, that our choices are not free but are entirely governed by the state of our brain & body at that time.

          3. I agree with Tyro, and you’ve missed the point entirely.

            First of all, you ignored my original statement that humans will choose the tastier food all else being equal. That means nutritional differences, what your spouse is nagging you to do, and any other mitigating factors NOTWITHSTANDING, you will choose the tastier food. And you have yet to tell me why this is so.

            But we can complicate the picture by talking about all these other factors, if you want. Because that’s all they are – factors – pros and cons that your brain assigns different values to based on your own personal value system, and then weighs them against each other. So let’s say you don’t like broccoli very much, but you don’t hate it, and your doctor wants you to eat better, and the way they cook the broccoli at this restaurant isn’t bad at all. You decide that the advantages to eating broccoli outweigh the disadvantages. Now, having decided that the scales are in fact weighted toward the side labeled “eat the broccoli,” you go ahead and do just that.

            My question to you at this point is essentially the same as my simpler one before: Why do you do the action that your mental scale has deemed the more advantageous one? Why do you consistently, after deciding that Choice A is better than Choice B, choose Choice A? Why not choose Choice B? You cannot introduce other mitigating factors at this point, because the premise of this question is that you’ve already weighed all of them. You’ve reached a decision about what is best. And your actions, strangely, almost as if you had no choice in the matter, coincide with your decision. Explain why that should be.

            “The universe does not care enough about us to predetermine our actions.”

            Here you are quite confused. “Determined” does not mean “decided by someone.” It means that given X, Y is going to happen, guaranteed.

  18. People similarly complained about Consciousness Explained, calling it “Consciousness Explained Away.” Dennett says this is what consciousncess is, it just isn’t what you THOUGHT it was or what it feels like to be conscious. Similarly here, he seems to say that you have free will, it just isn’t what you thought it was.

    I think there is something to this… there is no reason to assume our folk categories and subjective experiences of “consciousness” and “free will” will match up with the biological reality of the phenomena, it’s a subjectivity problem.

    Of course, the subjective experience is what people want explained.

    I don’t have a problem with these famous free will fMRI experiments. My foot is “me.” The parts of my brain I don’t have conscious access to are also “me.” I assume there are many ongoing dialogues between the “conscious” parts of my brain and the rest of it in some kind of crazy, shifting flux. This creates behavior that feels directed, free, willful, and uncoerced to the subjective me. The fact that my mind is in actuality deterministic at the level of physics is a detail I really couldn’t care less about.

    Saying people won’t have “moral responsibility” or whatever because of determinism is the same as Christians who say people can’t behave morally without heaven and hell. “Moral responsibility” is something our deterministic brains made up, so we have it.

  19. The baseball analogy is useful: having played ball, I know there is a time and place to stand in the box and choose as I have done – in spite of every neuron screaming at you to move your head – to have the ball hit you! The same ‘choice’ is amply evident in combat, where in spite of the biology giving you overwhelming directions to protect your own ass, you act contrary to that input only by sheer force of will.

    1. That’s a good point. Maybe by free will people really mean “the ability to commit to a course of action with unpleasant short-term results.”

    2. Well, that’s true, but we wouldn’t go against our first inclinations (like ducking!) if we hadn’t been impressed/conditioned about the importance of doing just the opposite. Usually we have train to do that sort of thing reliably.

      Generally we do admire those who press on “against baser nature” to achieve something difficult, and we do think of as a moral “choice”. I’m not sure that it follows that the person could have actually done anything differently. Could we have “given up” if we valued the outcome just as much, had the same abilities/feelings/memories, etc?

  20. The part of Dennett’s argument that won me over to his way of thinking was the notion of a God’s eye view. If there was the capacity to see all events after they’d already unfolded, then of course you could say, “Well, it couldn’t have happened any other way. Look how it ended up.”

    Since none of us has that capacity, we make individual choices to turn our heads left or right, which affect the branching future decisions. By the end there could not have been any other way, but by the beginning there were at least the right and left choices–as well as many others.

    To me, that looks like we have free will and determinism.

    1. Since none of us has that capacity, we make individual choices

      That simply doesn’t follow at all. A ball in a pinball machine doesn’t have the capacity to see all events, but we don’t say it “chooses” to hit certain bumpers. Your statement confuses ontological reality with epistemic limitations. Just because we can’t see how we don’t have choice doesn’t mean we do have choice.

  21. So, what does it mean to associate free will with “one could have made more than one choice”? Time plays through and we get a shot to make any particular choice once. So, practically speaking, that’s never an issue. But even if we could rewind the clock and replay it, are you saying that free will would imply that through multiple playbacks one could make different choices each time?

    Clearly in such a case, you’d have to ensure that the chooser wouldn’t have any knowledge about the rewinding, otherwise, it would simply be Groundhog Day, with each rewinding of the tape being profoundly influenced by prior experience (and such experience could have a deterministic effect just like regular living does).

    But what would it mean to make a different choice under identical (or virtually identical) conditions? Would that really be a satisfying requirement to impose upon free will? Perhaps for decisions that we consider unimportant or alternatives that are already very equally balanced in our minds, it might be reasonable to expect different outcomes for different tape rewindings (depending on whether or not stochastic variation plays a part in each iteration). But even if you assume that there is minor stochastic variation from playback to playback, what kind of important decisions would be subject to change in virtually identical re-plays? Or does free will operate only in “toss up” situations?

    The way I see it, free will indicates that the decision making process is concentrated inside the agent that acts and is observable by the consciousness. Perhaps it would be more consise to say that actions buided by a decision making process concentrated in the consciousness are products of free will. So, a remote-controlled car isn’t exhibiting free well and autonomic functions of the body aren’t examples of free will. And actions of agents without consciousness aren’t guided by free will.

    Now, even though the consciousness is subject to inumerable inputs and may be strictly determined by them, I consider this to still be free will. Maybe by necessity of my NOT being a dualist, I have pushed the question of “free will” into identifying the locus of decision making rather than imposing certain requirements on how labile that decision making was in the first place.

    However, I don’t think that this concept of free will has a detrimental effect whether we are morally “responsible” (or at least competent) agents. It seems to be a non sequitur to imply that our presumptive inability to “do otherwise” means we aren’t at least able to become morally competent. Although if you walk us through the reasoning again, maybe it will be clearer.

    In any event, is secular human morality not frequently seen as a social question about how we treat others and how others perceive such treatment? That an agent can be influenced by the opinions and reactions of peers and laws of society presumably influences that agent seems to imply individual agents can be trained in “moral behavior”. We can be trained in moral behavior, we can become morally “competent” agents even when we don’t start out that way. I’m not sure that using the term morally “responsible” is any more than a way of hiding the dualistic notion of “free will” inside the word “responsible”.

    Anyway, nice post to keep me thinking on my way to work.

  22. “Ubi sunt the philosophers who follow the facts to their logical conclusion: we aren’t really responsible for anything we do?”

    –Bruce Waller is one. Check out his books, “Freedom Without Responsibility” and “The Natural Selection of Autonomy”

  23. BTW, ignored in all of this, but not in Dennett, is the fact that there is a self-referential strange loopiness involved. My material brain not only considers the consequences of different actions, it is aware that it is deciding–deciding to decide, if you like.

    When you reduce the problem to whether or not to twitch your finger (which has no consequences), this loopiness is paramount. Still deterministic, but loopy.

  24. I agree with Russell Blackford’s excellent response and would only add that the ‘cake’ will always feel hollow to us because there is an insurmountable gap between the godlike types of freedom our imaginations can conceive of having and the actual freedom science informs us we probably have. It’s humbling to consider that even if we were suddenly ‘gifted’ Prime Mover freedom, our ‘underprivileged’ neurology (if it didn’t change with the gift) would probably not be sophisticated enough to even notice our new magical power. Dennett’s point remains: our inner Napoleon may stomp and snort at our imagined mental impotency, but the freedom that we do have, given the calibration of our biological machines, is actually one well worth having.

  25. To me, free will can only mean a ghost in the machine. In order for the will to be free, it has to be uncaused – a ghost.

    It appears to the mind of necessity that it is uncaused since, until it is caused by the neuronal processes that cause it, it doesn’t exist.

    If you want to know what the world would be like if there were no such thing as free will, just look around. It would be exactly as it is.

    Would it be harmful to the organism or to society for the mind to know it’s true nature, that it’s not a causal agent? No. The organism is liberated from ignorance, intelligence is augmented and science progresses. Society will deter whatever society wishes to deter by whatever means it wishes to employ.

    There is no morality in the sense that an action is inherently good or bad. Actions are good or bad for something, not in and of themselves.

    Ultimately, to the individual, all his actions are good for himself one way or another. The individual has no motive, nor the free will, to be bad for himself.

    Immorality, at its root, is self-betrayal. No such thing imho.


    1. Funny, I would argue exactly the opposite.

      Determinism is the “ghost”. The puppet-master pulling your strings and giving you no choice in the matter. I’m hungry, therefore I eat a pizza, even if I don’t want a pizza.

      Free will is your own brain deciding for itself what to do without coercion from the puppet-master. Within the confines of our human abilities and the natural laws of physics, chemistry, and biology, of course.

      In other words, there are constraints on what we can *do*, but no constraints on what we can *decide* to do.

      1. Please explain how the brain “decides for itself,” and how this is different from eating food because we have the urge to eat food.

        “there are constraints on what we can *do*, but no constraints on what we can *decide* to do.”

        Can you decide to believe that there is an elephant in the room with you right now?

        Can you decide to write on your boss’ face with a marker? Can you really? Is there nothing, maybe, constraining you from making that decision?

        1. Of course: I can *decide* to be rich, famous, and the center fielder for the Yankees. My brain can *imagine* virtually any scenario. That’s why fiction writers write fiction.

          The limitations are of being able to *do* what we imagine.

          The problem with predetermination is that it discounts the obvious randomness in the universe and in individual behaviors.

          It’s a long story, but I can state with 100% certainty that I would not be sitting at this computer had I not randomly broken my arm about 30 years ago.

          That’s not predetermination…it’s chaos. The fundamental fallacy, I think, is looking at random chances and choices made on the basis of random events and retrospectively assigning some sort of inevitability quotient to them.

          1. 1. You did not explain what the brain “deciding for itself” means.

            2. You cannot decide to be rich. You can decide to try and become rich, but willing it does not make it so.

            “The limitations are of being able to *do* what we imagine. ”

            Why did you ignore my question? Can you decide to write on your boss’ face with a marker? I am not asking you if you can imagine it. I’m asking if you can make the decision to do it. I mean really do it, not just be like “oh yeah I could do that, sure.” I mean really decide to do it. Tomorrow. It should be easy, if you really aren’t limited in any way, as you say.

            “it discounts the obvious randomness in the universe ”

            You have quite an incoherent view of what “random” means. You “randomly” broke your arm? You mean, something impacted your arm with great force and God rolled a die in the sky to see if your arm would break? Because what I think happened is that given the force of what impacted you, the angle at which it impacted, and the strength of your bone at the point of impact, your arm had to break. In the same situation, it would have broken every time. It’s a completely rule-based physical reaction, with nothing random about it. Everything that happens in the universe is like this. Chemistry, which is what goes on in our brains, isn’t random. It follows laws.

          2. I’m on your side, but careful as to what you call a law. A natural law is just a semantic construct we humans use for repeated observations that yet hasn’t yielded results outside its scope.

            I think this whole business of randomness in the universe is the most interesting aspect of this whole debate. If there is no randomness (and I don’t agree with the previous poster that randomness in the universe is obvious) then we live in a static universe that couldn’t have looked or reacted any different, that everything from the beginning of the universe until now is predetermined, and we, mere humans of limited comprehension, don’t realize we’re stuck, we are fooled into thinking we’re free, that these are real choices we make. I personally *need* there to be randomness in the universe, because that would make the universe a bit more, hmm, liveable for my purpose-driven brain, but we may, in fact, all be living a predetermined pattern that’s playing out. We might be mere observers of patterns we have absolutely no control over. Even our own observations aren’t observations.

          3. Be careful with how you use the word random, a wholly random universe can also be deterministic: Just roll the dice beforehand.

            Subatomic particle measurements are NOT random, they are undefined until measured – a very, very different thing.

  26. It seems to me that the absence of free will is a interesting and obvious fact without utility. Saying that, as a consequence, there can be no real moral culpability is the same as saying that there can be no real moral culpability unless mind is immaterial. I have a problem with saying that.

    1. To me, “free will” and “immaterial mind” are more or less the same thing. Only if they are uncaused themselves, they they can act as a first cause on the organism.

      To me there is no real moral culpatility because I don’t think any action is inherently good or bad, but rather an action is good or bad for some purpose or other.

  27. To be honest, I can’t even think of a coherent definition for the term, “free will.”

    If events are deterministic, then there can only be the one possible outcome.

    If events are random, then they are undirected.

    If they’re a bit of both, then they are undirected within certain constraints. For example, there will be probabilities that describe the relative proportions of total outcomes, but each individual event could still go any which way.

    That really only leaves room for a ghost in the machine…but what of the ghost? Are its actions deterministic or random?

    At this point, I can only conclude that the question, as with so much derived from and dependent on religion, is simply meaningless. We might as well ponder the prime factors of the largest whole number.



  28. Free will is in some ways like the self. The self is an illusion, but we feel as if we have a (real, unified) self, and we pretty much have to feel that way to be properly human – to make use of all the faculties we have evolved to have. We could try to pretend to think we’re fragmented robots, but it would be so boring and frustrating. What can we do but live inside these illusions?

    1. I don’t know about you, but I chat with my trillions of gut bacteria all the time. They’re not so good about answering though, so it’s still a bit lonely…


    2. It’s actually quite lovely outside.

      Wouldn’t you enjoy watching yourself happen?

      Wouldn’t you enjoy knowing that you’re exactly the way you’re supposed to be?

      Wouldn’t you enjoy the utter freedom of knowing that it is right to want whatever you want?

      Come on out and play for awhile and see how you like it?

    3. For my money, Ophelia wins the thread with this one.

      If nothing else, it’s fun to think I’m me and that I’m in control of my own destiny. I can’t see any downsides to acting as if I do, and there are plenty of advantages to doing so — so that’s what I do.

      Free will is an illusion, but it’s a useful and entertaining one.

      So long as you know you’re fooling yourself, fooling yourself can be a very good thing to do.



      1. Yes, “we” – yes I’m extrapolating from myself but not just that; issues with free will and a unified self are in opposition to the folk or “common sense” view, so there is a “we” of some sort. I could have the nature of it wrong of course; by all means correct me.

  29. One thing that I find perplexing about discussions of free will is the part about how we must have free will (or the illusion of it) because we must have moral responsibility. And we must have moral responsibility because without moral responsibility, society would descend into chaos. Inherent in this is the assumption that societal (moral) norms are always good and lead to good behavior. I’m not sure that I agree with this (or at least not all of the time). First, many societies are actually fairly chaotic already. I know it could be worse (things can always be worse), but in the US right now, the majority of people probably believe strongly in free will (and those of us who don’t, still feel like we have it), but things seem pretty chaotic (e.g., failing economy, a lot of people living in dire circumstances, extremely hostile political rhetoric–Glenn Beck, et al.).

    Second, moral expectations don’t necessarily lead to good behavior (at least not after childhood). They can as often lead to posturing and lying and trying to create an impression of good behavior, rather than the good behavior itself. Third, what constitutes good behavior is a relative thing. It can mean not committing crimes or physically harming other people, but it can also extend to things that aren’t necessarily anyone else’s business (e.g., health behaviors, how you manage your finances, how you raise your children). Responsibility judgments aren’t just about ethical behavior, they are about enforcing conformity, which may be good, but may also be bad (depending on your point of view and situation in life).

    Finally, I think that compatibilists sometimes have this sort of attitude where they seem to be saying, “Hey everybody, we don’t have free will. Now, here’s what we’re going to do.” And what follows is their prescription for how we should all live. It’s kind of sanctimonious.

    I don’t think that we can ever stop feeling as if we have free will. We are stuck with the feeling, even though it isn’t real. But would it be so terrible if we could be rid of it? Maybe societies wouldn’t descend into (more) chaos. Maybe people would be less judgmental and just generally nicer. Maybe we could all relax.

    1. To believe we are free to be against ourselves feels bad.

      To believe that we are powerless to be against ourselves feels good.

      It is possible to believe the latter because the latter is ascertainably true.

      And yes, it is relaxing.

    2. “without moral responsibility, society would descend into chaos”

      No, no, where on earth is that a fact? Look to nature and you’ll see that moral responsibilities – at least in the ways we human understand them – are not something that is needed for structure and control. What I suspect you mean is by the word “chaos” really you mean “something you don’t like.”

      1. Actually, I don’t think we disagree. My point was that this is an argument that people often make, but I don’t think it is a good argument.

  30. Russell nailed it in #12.

    The task now is purging ourselves of that nagging intuition that real free will requires spookiness.

    Perhaps an analogy would help.

    Someone (call him “Fodor” or “Searle”, if you like) says that real selection requires an agent to do the selecting, and that nothing can have a real function unless some conscious being assigns that function. Therefore, hearts don’t really have the function of pumping blood, and they weren’t really selected by nature.

    We reply that there are perfectly good senses of “function” and “selection” that require no consciousness, and we tell our familiar biological stories.

    But they object that such stories appeal only to chance events or blind mechanisms: there’s no real selection, no foresight, in any of this.

    We point out that this is beside the point; we don’t need a conscious agent. Or, if they do insist on using words that way, then we’ll just use some other words for natural selection and biological function.

    Same thing with free will. There are important phenomena that do not conflict with determinism at all that deserve to be called “free acts” or “having free will.” If you (perversely) insist that only spooky (indeterministic) freedom is real free will, then you’re right that we don’t have that sort of freedom. But there’s absolutely no reason we should care.

    1. I think Russell has some good points but he got them by redefining “free will”. It reminds me of Wright’s “Evolution of God” and Karen Armstrong’s books – they salvage the word “God” and some of the concepts but it is quite different than what people generally understand.

      Russell is talking about choice that’s not forced by external pressures while not addressing the issue of whether our choices are determined by our biochemistry. While this free-from-compulsion concept is valuable, it is a big distraction/diversion when we’re discussing the spooky free-will.

      1. I think Jerry et al. have some good points but they’re trying to inflate them by insisting on some irrelevant and ridiculous standards of freedom of will.

        1. I guess we differ here. I agree that free will as Jerry is using it is ridiculous yet this is the standard, well-accepted meaning of the word. Like “faith” (and as Russell observed) there are cases where it has a different definition but as soon as anyone starts talking about compatabilism and determinism, they’re making it clear that they’re talking about the spooky free will.

          As wikipedia defines it, “Free will is the purported ability of agents to make choices free from constraints. Historically, the constraint of dominant concern has been the metaphysical constraint of determinism. The opposing positions within that debate are metaphysical libertarianism, the claim that determinism is false and thus that free will exists; and hard determinism, the claim that determinism is true and thus that free will does not exist.”

          You may think that this is all ridiculous yet this is what theologists and philosophers continue to debate.

          1. You keep saying “free will as it is traditionally defined” or the like. But there is no traditional, precise definition.

            The wikipedia definition has a problem already discussed on this page: making decisions “without constraints” would at best render our “free will” an insensible or at best incomprehensible source of randomness. It’s actually worse than that, since it’s pretty obvious (to me anyway) that no one has ever made a decision free of constraints. If there’s no constraints, there’s nothing to make a decision about in the first place.

            So I propose that, like “immaterial substance” and a few others, “free will” as it is commonly understood is a coherent concept only inasmuch as it is defined imprecisely, informally, metaphorically, etc. If we actually tightened the definition to wring the ambiguities out of it, my conjecture is that we would end up with something self-contradictory, or possibly even obviously wrong.

            Someone above asked the right question. How would humans with free will be different from humans as carbon-based automata? Answer that question and we can ask whether “free will” is a useful or even coherent concept.

          2. The wikipedia definition has a problem already discussed on this page: making decisions “without constraints” would at best render our “free will” an insensible or at best incomprehensible source of randomness.

            I agree, I think the whole thing is incoherent but this is what it is.

            It is very like the discussions about “god”. Many observe that god is also incoherent or at least badly flawed yet it is still accepted by billions of people. Some people have tried to redefine “god” to make it more sensible and they’re roundly attacked (see discussion about “The Evolution of God”). Ultimately it’s worth asking: why try to salvage this badly broken concept, especially since any attempt will just be used by the majority to defend their still incoherent, broken concepts.

            “Free will” as a concept is flawed, incoherent, broken, busted, ridiculous, you name it. We can try to redefine it to make it more sensible but to what end? Let’s say “free will is incoherent and ridiculous” and if there are still phenomena that need explaining like Russell’s example of unforced choices or our illusion of self and choice then let’s talk about them but picking one of these and calling it “free will” creates more confusion, not less.

  31. I think your problem is that you are too much a scientist to have made more than one choice re philosophy.

    The area is too badly defined to be empirically interesting. My own definition is the ability to choose because that is how we choose to perceive (model) it. So processes like evolution or algorithms have “free will” too.

    For what it is worth, with his definition Dennett is correct.

    Emergence adds mechanisms that can’t be predicted from the substrate, so they are abstract and can be “mindful” (characteristics of the mind only). And we can never distinguish between a deterministic, say, pseudorandom, and stochastic series in finite cases (like our choices under a lifetime).

    So free will is “free” in the sense that we can never determine which is the case. (And this is precisely why the particular definition of philosophers is utterly uninteresting and inconsequential. And trivially so, of course – what else? :-D)

    physical events in the universe are, with the exception of quantum events, fully predicted by the laws of physics.

    This is wrong, of course quantum mechanics predicts its events (as long as it is correct).

    In the case of a single universe quantum theory it so happens that while the states propagate deterministically measurement outcomes are genuinely stochastic. But perfectly well characterized stochastic distributions from the wavefunction.

    In the case of many world quantum theory (a pet theory of many cosmologists), the full determinism of the wavefunction, containing all information of the system, is fully realized.

    That this theory is possible implies that QT is in fact fully deterministic, since it has the same outcomes as other valid theories.

    [QT is still degenerate, despite decades of attempts to distinguish between theories. Decoherence, now experimentally tested if not absolutely water tight, resolve some of that though. Interestingly in this context, it is required for many world theory, while for example standard Copenhagen theory is falsified.]

    1. “QT is in fact fully deterministic” – as a theory.

      Again, as a theory of a single universe it is somewhat lacking in that area (measurements), as seen from the universe environment.

    2. How is Copenhagen outright falsified? It’s mathematically equivalent, makes the same predictions experimentally…I didn’t realize there was any difference between the interpretations except for the philosophy of it.

  32. I think you need to dwell on what you could possibly mean by “decision” and “choice.” That’s the source of your confusion. You say we only have free will if we “could have decided otherwise” or in “a situation in which one could have made more than one choice.” So what exactly do you mean by “decision” and “choice” here? What would a decision be without the ability to have decided otherwise? It surely wouldn’t be a decision at all. And what would it mean to say you made a choice in a situation in which one did not have more than one option available?

    A situation in which one could have decided otherwise is just a situation in which one did decide. A situation in which one could have made more than one choice is just a situation in which one made a choice. These are truisms. The negation of these truisms – i.e., a situation in which one decided but could not have done otherwise – are contradictions. The alternative is therefore not logically conceivable and your presentation of what we need in order to have free will is meaningless.

    The reason for this, I think, is obvious. “Decision” and “choice” are not empirical posits, they’re logical concepts. We say somebody made a decision when their behaviour meets the logical criteria of having made a decision. Their behaviour is not empirical evidence for having made a decision that can be undermined by contradictory evidence. A decision is not a theoretic posit but a concept we ascribe according to logical criteria. Or, to put it a different way: these are just words we use in the game of giving reasons, analysing our behaviour, assigning responsibility and blame, and so forth, and they don’t have to “match up” with our empirical view of the world. That doesn’t mean free will is an illusion, since this is not a revisionary account of free will, but rather is merely describing what we actually say and do without all the confusing nonsense philosophers have added after the fact.

  33. The key essay in The Oxford Handbook of Free Will is Galen Strawson’s “The Bounds of Freedom”.

    Strawson’s NY Times review of “Freedom Evolves:

    His recent NY Times presentation of the Basic Argument for the impossibility of ultimate moral responsibility:

    His entry “Free Will” for the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

    The forthcoming revised edition of his classic work “Freedom and Belief”:

  34. Whoa – I’d just like to ask: what is your definition of freedom?

    When I look at nature I see nothing but freedom. Every parasite is free to infect a host, every animal is free to eat what it can, including other animals. Animals are free to kill other animals for no apparent reason.

    So first we have to define this “free will”, and personally I believe it’s a load of crap because “free will” tends to be mentioned only when a person violates the norms of society. “Oh, he’s behaving no better than an animal – he should be able to do better, he’s human and has free will.” We know that at least some other animals can also act in an unselfish way (and humans find it amusing that animals can act ‘human’ – yet another defective perception of nature). So for me it makes much more sense that at some point in the evolutionary tree (or perhaps even several points), the brain has evolved enough to respond to imagine that some behavior may be curbed – just because. In humans it has previously been assumed that this is entirely due to threats of punishment and promises of reward – something which religions often exploit. And yet we see other animals behaving in a similar fashion which we have always assumed that only humans were capable of. So the question is, do animals behave unselfishly simply because they do – with no need for punishment and rewards? It would be a challenge to devise such experiments. It has already been established beyond a doubt (and many centuries ago) that punishment and reward can modify behavior, but the myth still persists that this is the only thing which determines behavior. (And in religion, the god thing is the ultimate punisher and rewarder, which is why many believe that godless people cannot be moral.)

  35. I want to add my vote for Russell Blackford’s comment at #12 about spooky free will and the lack of any sensible reason for us to desire such a thing.

    Let’s say I make a decision X, and let’s stipulate that I could have done otherwise in the philosophically strong sense. That is, you can rewind the tape of the universe to that moment and then play it back, and even with my brain being in exactly the same state, even with all the same causal forces operating on me in exactly the same ways, the second time around I choose something different, Y.

    Well, then that begs the question: If all the causes operating on me weren’t enough to decide whether I chose X or Y, then what did decide that? By stipulation, it wasn’t anything about my surroundings. It wasn’t anything about my mind, my personality, my preferences, my background, my upbringing, my character traits, my genetic makeup, or my learned experiences. In fact, there is no fact that was sufficient to determine the outcome. What’s left over? Only one thing, as far as I can see: the outcome was random. It was simply a matter of chance.

    Is that free will? Hardly! Randomness isn’t free will; it’s just randomness, acting without rhyme or reason. Having my decisions dictated by randomness wouldn’t make me free, any more than if my brain could be wired to a roulette wheel so that my choices were dictated by its spins. In fact, this view annihilates moral responsibility even more thoroughly than determinism: it means that sometimes, you or I might choose to do evil for no reason at all, and that no amount of moral education could have changed that. In a world like that, training in ethics would be pointless, and attempting deterrence through punishment would be an exercise in futility.

    I do believe in free will, but in the compatibilist sense: we choose what we choose because of who we are, and freedom is acting in accordance with those desires. We are morally responsible for our actions to the degree that we understand their consequences and to the degree that they’re undertaken in the absence of coercion. And in this model, moral education and punishment do make sense, because they change the kind of person that you are, and thus affect the likelihood of you performing good or evil acts in the future.

    Yes, if you were a Laplacean demon who could magically comprehend the totality of every subatomic particle in the universe and run the simulation one step forward, you could predict in advance what a person would do, but so what? There are no such demons. And it’s a subtle fallacy to think that determinism means that physical laws control your actions in spite of you – as if you could prefer one outcome while the laws of the cosmos preferred another, and you might struggle with them but inevitably lose. As it’s often said in different contexts, the laws of the cosmos aren’t prescriptive but descriptive – not commandments to subatomic particles dictating how they’ll behave, but simply descriptions of the ways that particles do in fact behave. The same is true, on a more complex scale, of human beings. “Determinism” means only that we act in accordance with our own natures and desires. Put that way, I think the conclusion is both inescapable and obvious.

    1. +1

      Although, with ““Determinism” means only that we act in accordance with our own natures and desires” you’re kinda shifting the problem into the definition of what our natures and our desires might be, and we’re none the wiser.

      As I see it, our nature is embedded in just the determined biological complex machines that we are, and we’re unable to differentiate static determinism from magic anyway, and treat it as the latter. We have free will in as much as we cannot fathom it being any other way, correct or otherwise.

      On a related note, some people question the value of randomness in the universe when dealing with the many constraints that underlie the choices we make, but if we follow the red tape of physical constraints all the way down to the quantum level there’s a glimmer of random mix that enables both spooky free will and determinism without the need for compatibilism, and I kinda like that idea ; understanding consequences of both static and dynamic changes are the very essence of what the debate on “free will” is all about. If randomness do happen, they do affect determined reactions, which can be acted upon in terms of free will if – and only if! – there is more randomness associated with that reaction. When we track (or if we can at all) the randomness of quantum physics down to the inner workings of our brains, we’ve got something, that ultimate pipe dream; the random choice made by a state not embedded in the physical world, ie. free will. And this is where the divide lies as religion puts the state of mind outside the physical box we live in. Free will makes perfect sense in the religious world, and make no sense in the real one. (And no wonder the religious version can look tempting at times …)

  36. It looks like we are “determined” to be free. That is, we are really designed to make choices while being determined (both externally and internally)as to what they are. I don’t take “could have done otherwise” seriously. That kind of freedom, do do uncaused things, is not one anyone needs to have, and obviously not one anyone could have.

  37. If someone invents a brain implant that performs an unbiased quantum coin flip and then fires some groups of neurons based on the result of that flip, would such a prosthesis grant someone free will?

  38. Wow! I just returned home to find this sent to me by a friend (he and I had discussed this subject recently). I think that I will respond in more depth later after I read all the responses and have the time to write something that might be more worth reading, but since this is a favorite topic of mine and I’ve given it much thought, I will briefly say:

    Their is no such thing as free will, including the evolutionary aspect mentioned (it’s simply the same thing, really), with the only near exception (and it’s not really an exception) being that we should live our lives as though free will does exist. Society will hold us accountable for our decisions, and so, we accept the responsibility for what we do even though we only can do exactly what we do because of EVERYTHING that has occurred up to that point. The more interesting question is: When did it all begin? Lately, I believe it never began–it always was. This is an abstract concept that I find hard to comprehend. However, no better answer comes to me, yet.

    I live responsibly, and I also know that I am not responsible. Being who I am (and everything else, of course) determines my decisions. I think the Catholic “confess and start over” principle is rooted in this truth. My personal favorite is “Live life as though every instant is a new beginning.” I follow these philosophies (best I can) while, at the same time, I know I will do EXACTLY what I will do as it IS determined by what has previously occurred.

    Sorry, if this is not very clear or sounds simplistic of sophomoric. It works for me and answers all my questions other than a firm understanding of “always been” as the answer to when all this determination began. Gee, maybe I don’t need to write any more. Anyway, I’m tired, now.

    Interesting subject–glad to read others’ thoughts.


    One more point: If one chooses to accept the truth that we are not responsible for our decisions, which would be totally justified by the absolute truth that everything is determined; or if one chooses to believe that free will exists, either way that person makes the only choice possible. I have no trouble accepting two seemingly opposing/contradicting views as both simultaneously being true.

  39. Jerry,
    “Rather than consider this seriously, it seems that many people just assert that we’re morally responsible. I’d like to see it justified, at least in a better way than it has been.”

    if your objection, to the determinist argument that there is no contra-causal free will, is that we need contra causal free will (perhaps as a necessary fiction) in order to hold someone morally responsible for their actions and punish them (presumably because if the person could not have done otherwise there is no point in exacting retribution for their crime, i.e. a Retributive justice).
    the determinist would agree that Retributive justice is incoherent but propose a utilitarian justice one for which punishment is forward-looking, justified by its ability to achieve future social benefits, such as crime reduction. that will leave the justice system largely unchanged.

    1. You need to distinguish between the hard determinist, who believes we have no moral responsibility and hence retribution makes no sense, and the soft determinist, who believes we are morally responsible. According to the soft determinist, the lack of contra-causal free will is no reason to reject retribution (though, of course, there might be moral reasons for rejecting retribution).

  40. I haven’t done too much keeping up with the literature, so maybe I’ve missed something by not reading Dennett’s book, but ITSM that all this conversation is about “could have done otherwise”, when the (wrong about his positive thesis – his neuroscience makes no sense – but interesting) R. Kane points out some people really want another thing out of “free will”, namely self-origination, that *they* did something, and were not “pushed around” from outside. Does Dennett address that at all?

    Also, I have noticed that what people really want when they say “moral responsibility” is punishment. Why should punishment the only alternative? Perhaps rehabilitation (esp. in the limit as we learn better how) is more suited to a (what most philosophers call) a largely deterministic world. (On the latter, see Bunge, _Causality_ in any of its editions.)

  41. I prefer to think of free will as possessing “a sense of dynamic, behavioral agency.” Without at least feeling as though one has a sense of agency, neurosis will surely follow (i.e., Axis 1 & 2 disorders). I like the idea of “controlled collapse,” as introduced by Peter Atkins, to explain the role primates possess in the context of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. We can ephemerally manipulate form in the wake of ultimate entropy and cosmic determinism — even if the “we” is a collective assembly of determined molecular interactions.

    1. Right, the sensation of agency is just that: a very important sensation that we can’t really live without.

      Existential fretting over the lack of some distinct concrete physical phenomenon that corresponds to “agency” (whatever that would even mean in that context) is just pointless hand-wringing.

  42. I still don’t understand the “without free will, how can you have moral responsibility?” argument. It continues to seem like a nonsequitir to me. Determinism does not undermine responsibility any more than it undermines causality.

    I might as well ask, “How can Roger Ebert review movies when the movies are nothing but a bunch of static pictures shown in rapid succession?” Explaining what a movie is does not undermine our ability to evaluate, and even to “punish” some movies (by not watching them) while “rewarding” others.

    I mean, how can you say that Plan 9 is a “bad movie” when the static pictures didn’t actually choose to be bad? Right?

    I guess I just don’t get it.

    1. The argument is basically that within strict determinism, how can anyone be punished for doing what they did when they could have done no different? How can we punish people for being who they are? Are we simply punishing clumps of organic matter for coming together in the shape of a person that does exactly what it should be doing? What is the purpose of punishment if not to communicate dire consequences for something bad you chose to do?

      The counter-argument is of course even more interesting; isn’t doing the punishment also part of the determined universe?

      The universe seems determined to create false impressions of free will, but you cannot punish anyone in a determined universe. Punishment only makes sense *if* we have free will, when our free will actions create consequences we can act upon with more of our free will.

      1. Sure, but the obvious presumption is that the expectation of punishment is part of what determines the actions of a would-be transgressor.

        There does seem to be an idea of retributive punishment such that a person who violates social norms has forfeited their place in the moral order, and so society gets to punish them either just for shits and giggles or maybe to balance cosmic karmic scales or something. A lack of spooky free will would, I think, obsolete that sort of punishment, but it doesn’t obsolete all theories of punishment and justice.

  43. Reality is very important to me, it drives my curiosity and I find great joy in trying to understand it. Fantasy is fun at times but I don’t find it ultimately fulfilling because it has no constraint; if I can’t think of some fantasy, someone else can so fantasy as a basis for living life, for me, is along the lines of blah blah so what. That isn’t to imply that I don’t like me some really good fiction and cool dreams that appear while asleep or acting out a fantasy just for fun.

    Most of my life has been under the assumption that free will was reality and I have on numerous occasions made clear decisions then acted differently in an attempt to prove my free will. However, as anyone can guess, my “proof” failed and occasionally produced rather undesirable experiences (which were unavoidable in order to do a meaningful “test”). Just because I could act knowingly illogically didn’t prove that I could have chosen otherwise.

    Jerry’s topics on free will are interesting as are the comments. Just because we are rather compelled to and can justify living life as though we have free will, it doesn’t satisfy my desire to understand reality. I agree with Jerry’s questions and think that if answers can be found the insights could lead to meaningful adjustments to our societal structures.

    So my new self experiment is to get my brain to understand life without free will not that I intend to live that way but I want to know reality. The answer may not be possible to know, for me or anyone else, within my lifetime but where is the fun in not trying.

    1. “So my new self experiment is to get my brain to understand life without free will not that I intend to live that way but I want to know reality.”

      Me too, Notagod.

      In fact, I’ve been striving in that direction for a couple of years now.

      Not only has such a perspective been unharmful to me, I have to say it has improved my subjective expericence of life enormously, and, I think as a further consequence, it has also markedly improved my ability to thrive materially.

      I see no reason why you wouldn’t realize similar benefits.


  44. “If we didn’t, of course, society would break down, so we really need to find a philosophical justification for moral responsibility.”

    I don’t get it. You’ve got the philosophical (moral) justification right there – in the same sentence! An ethical justification for the concept of moral responsibility is the preservation and well being of our species.

    “You’re left with the task of defining free will is some other way that comports with determinism.
    But to me those other ways seem contrived, and avoid the ultimate question: could we really have done otherwise?”

    You’re being inconsistent here. Of course ANY definition of “free will” that comports with determinism, will (by definition) answer the question “could we have chosen otherwise?” with “no”, otherwise it wouldn’t comport with determinism. There’s no answer that could satisfy your demands.
    You even say so yourself: “I’m starting to realize that my quest for free will in philosophy may be futile, because I have a narrow notion of what I mean by the term.”
    And you’re exactly right.

    Regarding your ultimate question: “could we really have done otherwise?”
    I would answer: no. (For the reasons you say, because we would have to deny scientific facts, for absolutely no good reason. What we’d “like” to believe is irrelevant.)

    I would go a step further though, IF for some acausal/indeterminate reason we actually could have chosen otherwise: what does that mean for the “will” in the “free will”? If your “choice” does not actually fully depend on your “being who you are”, what does executing “your will” even mean? It’s either not yours or it’s not willful (but it certainly is free, if not random).

  45. Apologies in advance if this is embarassingly naive or already been raised, but….

    We all feel as though we have free will. What is the evidence that we do not?

    We all feel as though we have direct, unmediated access to the outside world via our senses, but there is loads of evidence that this is not in fact the case.

    What is the equivalent evidence against free will?

    1. Its a good question, maybe this will help some as Joshua’s comment below does, which I agree with generally. I’m certainly not the expert here so hopefully others will help.

      So far there isn’t a complete understanding of the brain but there is a basic understanding. We know the basic components and the chemical and electrical interactions that occur that show brain activity and what parts of the brain ‘light up’ when specific thought process are occurring.

      There is also very good specific knowledge about most natural processes. The understanding that we have yields accurate (sometime astonishingly) results when tested.

      The problem with truly free will is that our understanding of the processes doesn’t have any mechanism that would support undetermined choice. We don’t know anything that could generate thoughts that couldn’t be predicted. At this time it just doesn’t appear that truly free will is possible.

      Its all because Dr Coyne wants to believe it was actually a creative process of a great mind that created WEIT, instead of the forced process from the bits and pieces that are currently inhabiting his shell. I’ve just made this part up, kidding of course.

    2. I think the evidence that we do not have free will can be found by asking ouselves: What made me decide that? -or why did I do that? Whatever our answer is, we must ask: why did that make me decide that way? -and so on, and so on all the way back to the beginning of time and beyond…

      There are not many paths that the Universe (and beyond) have taken–there is ONLY one and EXACTLY one path.

  46. We don’t have free will in a deterministic universe. But this doesn’t mean that we should stop punishing criminals – if we did stop, there would be detrimental affects to civilization, and our deterministically evolved brains don’t want that. Further, the detrimental affects deterministically follow from the ceasing of punishment.

    1. There’s a false dichotomy going on here; if we don’t have free will, the punishment we lash out is also determined. We may *think* we deal with punishment in response to actions, but they are nothing more than determined reactions. There’s a bad notion of recursive faulty logic here somewhere, and it doesn’t add up.

      On the other hand, I don’t think free will is well defined; there’s the religious notion of a mind outside of the physical world which fits free will fine, but to everyone else it won’t. In the physical world the mind is locked into constraints that do not allow for the lay-man’s concept of free will to even appear.

      However, the physical world is so complex that – for us mere humans! – any determination is pretty much indistinguishable from magic, ie. free will.

  47. My dishwasher appears to have free will. Although I set the program, and although each program has a factory set duration, I can’t tell what the actual duration of the dishwashing cycle will be. This is because each time the dishwasher completes a cycle it adjusts the ‘duration setting’ depending on the amount of soiling it has had to deal with. There is some algorithm which adjusts the duration according to the history of previous cycles, plus the soiling level of the current cycle. Since I have no visibility of the inner working of the machine it *appears* to me that it chooses its own behaviour. If the plates are clean the decision was valid. If the machine broke mid-cycle I wouldn’t blame the decision it had made about the planned duration.

    Now imagine that I am approaching an Ice Cream van. I can choose vanilla or chocolate. To the people watching I have the free choice (they think I have free will). I will choose my favourite flavour (I think I have a free choice because I am unaware of what history and current observation are influencing my favouritism). But in fact I am no more capable of free will tham my dishwasher. My free will is a characteristic inferred by other people because they have no view of my deterministic subconscious history. I infer I have free will because my ‘choice’ feels unconstrained because I have no conscious view of my deterministic subconscious.

    If I grabbed an Ice Cream and ran away without paying for it *other people* would judge that I had chosen to do wrong – even though they believe that I have been educated about the immorality of such action. They would blame me. If, on the other hand, I was clearly disturbed the watchers might believe that I was ‘broken’ rather than ‘bad’.

    So there you have my proposal. Everything is deterministic. There is no true free will as such. But because a huge amount of the deterministic factors are historical and hidden from each individual (and all the watchers) it is pragmatic to act as if free will exists.

    1. Not meaningless at all.

      There is sufficiently qualitative difference between events among those coherent objects that we call “classical” and the rest to warrant the intended distinction.

      For example, only “classical” objects are known to be able to exhibit exponentially divergent paths on phase space. The rest is too close to native quantum mechanics, which has linear evolution of states over time.

    2. Only isolated theoretical models of quantum chaos (with no decoherence) do not exhibit exponentially divergent paths on phase space.

      Anyway. What I mean is that a “classical event” is nothing but an approximation of “quantum events”.

      Either you are in a classical description or in a quantum description of events, it may depend on the scale of observation, but once you choose your description, you cannot say that there are “quantum events” all along with “classical events”.
      The formulation “with the exception of quantum events” is thus unclear,and I would say incorrect.

      1. The appropriate formulation would be: “Physical events in the universe are, in the approximation that quantum events are insignificant, fully predicted by the laws of physics”.

        But even then, “approximatively fully predicted” is a bit contradictory.

        Moreover it’s false. If we acknowledge that non-linear/chaotic behaviours are almost everywhere in the natural world, we must also acknowledge that unpredictability is not at all confined in atomic scale.

        The brain is especially unpredictable, since neurons exhibit chaotic evolutions, and neuron networks as well.

        Some people are still attached to the vision of an algorithmic reality, which was mainstream back in the XIXth century, and apparently, some still use this as a philosophical argument. I think it’s more than time to go beyond this simplistic conception of the world.

  48. Russell and Tom have pretty much summed up all the relevant points that I suppose Dan would make himself. Just to add one more thought about ‘responsibility’: Why do we think about this as a kind of property of somebody who makes a decision? Even if we deny that there is any meaningful free will, we should most certainly want to prevent a murderer from killing again—whether or not he could have done differently has absolutely no bearing on a society’s interest to prevent something like it happening again.

    Notions of ‘responsibility’, ‘guilt’, etc. as a property of a person are not just unnecessary but are a positive distraction from the realisation that the goal has to be to prevent the repeated coincidence of a certain person in a certain state of mind with a certain external situation. This kind of perspective, so long blocked from view by, I suspect, generally religiously motivated ideas of ‘free will’, would be a most welcome change in attitude towards a constructive and progressive way to handle breaches of societal norms.

    1. A distraction indeed. In my opinion, nothing better explains the Catholic Church’s handling of child abuse by its priests.

      “Your guilt is forgiven. Go now, my son, and sin no more.”

  49. I don’t see a problem with the idea that degrees of freedom have evolved, and that Free Will is a meaningful concept, but it is not what seems generally understand by the term.

    Free will – the ability to make morally significant ideas, morality also having evolved.

    If you make yourself very small you can externalise almost everything.

    I like Dennett

    David B

  50. Can someone please help me? Here’s the message I get when trying to contact the administrator.
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    Bruce Delaplain

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