More on free will: Dr.^3 Pigliucci weighs in, I respond

December 4, 2011 • 7:15 am

The issue of free will continues to inspire discussion among philosophers and neuroscientists.  Since October, for example, there have been two pieces in the New York Times about free will (here and here), and a big review piece in Nature.  And, of course, many websites and blogs are dealing with it.

When discussing free will, some philosophers appear to show an intellectual kinship with theologians. Their shared characteristics are two:

  1.  Turf defense: some philosophers claim that one must read extensively, including the “sophisticated” literature, before one is qualified to even discuss free will. (The parallel, of course, is with “sophisticated” theology, viz., Terry Eagleton’s critique of The God Delusion.)
  2. Making virtues of necessities.  Many theologians rationalize the findings of science post facto as the kind of stuff we would have expected God to do all along.  Now that we know that evolution is true, for instance, theologians like John Haught argue that of course that’s how God would have created life. So many philosophers of free will, now aware of physical determinism at the macro level, and of the complete absence of a nonmaterial “soul” or “will”, argue that that free will never really rested on the concept of a mind/brain duality—on the “ghost in the machine.”  No, we should have known all along that we have free will for other reasons.  In my view, some philosophers engaged in the free-will debates are, like theologians trying to deal with evolution and the Big Bang, engaged in an elaborate form of rationalization.   And theologians and philosophers may rationalize for the same reason: to protect cherished views whose abandonment would cause psychological stress. In the case of philosophy, we must protect our views that we really do make decisions and that we are morally responsible for the results of those decisions (these are, of course, two separate issues).

The discussion continues over at Massimo Pigliucci’s website, Rationally Speaking, with a post about a “Free will roundtable” that involved five scholars.  Here’s Massimo’s description:

The idea was to have a serious discussion about the various concepts of free will, as well as what exactly neuroscience can tell us about them. (I will not address the simplistic take that has predictably been featured on the topic by the usual suspects, among whom are Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne.

On Nov. 6, 2011, the Center for Inquiry-New York City explored these and related questions by presenting a panel discussion featuring:

* Hakwan Lau, Columbia University [cognitive neuroscientist].
* Alfred Mele, Florida State University [professor of philosophy].
* Jesse Prinz, City University of New York [professor of philosophy]
* Adina Roskies, Dartmouth College [professor of philosophy with speciality in neuroscience]
* Massimo Pigliucci, City University of New York [philosopher with three doctorates, one in biology.

Here’s the video of the 1.5-hour discussion, which wasn’t bad.  There’s some good stuff here about the relationship between consciousness and free will, involving experiments showing that human “decisions” in a lab setting can be predicted as long as seven seconds before the subjects are aware of having made a choice:

Unfortunately, in his blog post summarizing the discussion, Dr.3 Pigliucci can’t resist taking a swipe at those of us he considers philosophically unsophisticated:

(I will not address the simplistic take that has predictably been featured on the topic by the usual suspects, among whom are Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne. There are only so many times when I feel like pointing out that someone ought to read the relevant literature before pontificating ex-cathedra.)

Well, I can’t speak for Sam, but Pigliucci doesn’t know how much I’ve looked into the issue, and I have to say that I’m not at all unacquainted with how modern philosophers and neuroscientists deal with free will.  I have, for example, read much of The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, Dennett’s Freedom Evolves, and tons of recent literature from both philosophy and neuroscience. And I’ve also read Adina L. Roskies’s paper from the 2010 Annual Review of Neuroscience,How does neuroscience affect our conception of volition?”, a paper Pigliucci characterizes in his post as “one of the best papers on free will of the last decade.” (It’s not: it’s actually not very good, and I’ll discuss it in the next few days.)

But I’m not here to defend my own good name. Let me just say that you don’t have to have a Ph.D. in philosophy to discuss free will, and that I haven’t noticed that any of Pigliucci’s three doctorates are in cognitive neuroscience (Sam’s of course is).  Instead, I want to raise a few points inspired by Massimo’s post.  There seem to me to be seven distinct issues in the free-will debate.

1.  What do we mean by free will?  So many people who discuss free will don’t begin by defining what they mean by it. That’s a problem, for instance, with Roskies’s paper.  Although she notes that the term could mean many things, she repeatedly argues that the findings of neuroscience do not “undermine the existence or efficacy of the will” nor contradict “traditional views” of free will, without saying what she means by “free will.” My own definition is that if one reran the tape of life up to the moment of “choice,” with every physical atom and electron in the same position at that moment, there is free will if one could have chosen otherwise.  (I exclude different “choices” based on things like quantum indeterminacy.)

2.  Is there a mind/brain duality?  To me, and to many people, the “classical” notion of free will involves us being able, at a given point of time, to choose freely between alternatives, and that “choice” could not rest on any random indeterminicies of physics (e.g. quantum behavior of electrons).  Pigliucci asserts, correctly, that “nobody any longer seriously defends a notion of free will that relies on dualism or, a fortiori, even more metaphysically suspect concepts like souls.”

That’s all well and good, but I don’t think that message has trickled down to the layperson, especially to those of the faithful who think we have a soul.  A soul, of course, must be a nonmaterial entity, since it survives our physical bodies, and so could be the vehicle for free will.  More of us expound the message out that neuroscience gives no evidence for a soul. Sam, whom Pigliucci scorns, has been especially good at promulgating the “no-soul” data.

But if there’s no mind/brain duality, then our will must reside solely in the physical substance of our brain, and that raises the next issue:

3.  Are our decisions completely determined by the laws of physics? I don’t see how the answer to this can be anything but “yes,” barring those decisions that could be affected by true indeterminacies, like those involved in quantum mechanics. (I think the data now show that there really are true indeterminacies in physics—things with no deterministic “cause”. One of these, for example, appears to be when a specific radioactive atom decays.)

But some physicists, Sean Carroll among them, don’t think that this kind of indeterminacy affects our behavior, and thus can’t affect even the appearance of choice.  And even if it could—even if, say, the movement of a specific electron really could affect a decision—that isn’t what we think of as part of a “free choice.” (Further, even if there are true quantum indeterminacies, the fact that arrays of particles adhere to well-defined probability distributions may rule out any effect of indeterminacy on our behavior.) Massimo recognizes this.  But he’s not convinced that determinism holds even on the macro level, and in his latest post declares himself “agnostic” on determinism.

Massimo’s “A handy dandy guide for the skeptic of determinism” lists several reasons why he isn’t convinced that the laws of physics on the macro scale are deterministic. I strongly disagree with his take on this, but since I’ve discussed the issue with Sean Carroll, who knows a lot more about this than do I, and because Sean promises to post on physical determinism very soon, I’ll leave the physics stuff to him.  But I can’t resist noting that Massimo uses the newest post to take yet another swipe at me and Sam Harris, as well as at Alex Rosenberg.  Pigliuccci simply can’t help flaunting his credentials by impugning ours; as he says:

I got so sick of the smug attitudes that Rosenberg, Coyne, Harris and others derive from their acceptance of determinism — obviously without having looked much into the issue — that I delved into the topic a bit more in depth myself. As a result, I’ve become agnostic about determinism, and I highly recommend the same position to anyone seriously interested in these topics (as opposed to anyone using his bad understanding of physics and philosophy to score rhetorical points).

Oh, Massimo, I much regret that the laws of physics have made you such a pompous fellow.

As for Pigliucci’s physics and philosophy on this issue, I disagree that “if you believe in laws of nature you do need to come up with an account of their ontology.” Nope, all we have to show is that those rules hold ubiquitously, universally, and enable us to make predictions that work. (His argument here resembles that of theologians who impugn science because we can’t explain the usefulness of science without God.)  We don’t need to come up with any stinking ontology to accept strict physical determinism at the macro scale.

And I don’t understand this argument of Pigliucci at all:

And one final point: particularly when it comes to discussions of free will, we keep hearing that the latter is impossible because in a deterministic universe the past determines the future. But as Hoefer points out (and he has expanded on this in a 2002 paper: Hoefer, C., “Freedom From the Inside Out,” in Time, Reality and Experience, C. Callender (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 201–222), the “laws” of physics treat time as symmetrical, which means that the present and the future “fix” the past just in the same way in which the past “fixes” the present and the future. No particular area of the time axis has priority over the others. Chew on that for a while.

Maybe I am unsophisticted, but I don’t see how time symmetry has any bearing on whether the future is determined by the past and present.

4.  Is our future behavior completely predictable from the present and past?  This question differs from that above because even a completely deterministic system may not be predictable.  We can never have perfect knowledge of all conditions, and, as advocates of chaos theory (a deterministic theory) know, even tiny differences in initial conditions—differences that may be too small for us to measure—can produce radically different outcomes.  Therefore, even if determinism reigns (and, if it does, there’s no free will under my definition), that doesn’t mean that we can predict our future behavios from what we know now.  But it does mean that there is only one set of behaviors that we can evince in the future: that is, we can never do other than what we do.

5.  Does free will require that we be conscious of having made a decision? In light of the results of studies by Libet and Soon et al. that decisions appear to be made long before we’re conscious of having made them, we need to discuss the relationship of consciousness to free will. This is one area that seems ripe for a confab between philosophers and neuroscientists. I would claim that in many cases yes, we must be conscious.  When you choose a flavor of ice cream at the ice cream counter, if that decision can be predicted an hour in advance, when you first decide to go to  the shop, I would argue that that choice is not “free,” at least in the conventional sense.  Certainly the predictability of decisions made under experimental conditions undermines our traditional notions of free will (Roskies argues otherwise), and philosophers have to take that into account.  Pigliucci and several panel members appear to wave this problem away, saying that free will can involve unconscious “choice”, but I don’t think the problem is so easily dismissed.

6.  If our choices are determined, or at best are subject to the deterministic and indeterministic principles of physics, how can our will be “free”?  This is the big problem that compatibilist philosophers are dealing with, and I won’t reprise their many arguments here.  Pigliucci offers one solution (he appears to be a compatibilist, that is, someone who thinks that free will is compatible with physical determinism):

Many philosophers have located freedom of the will in the ability to choose freely [note: this doesn’t mean “a-causally”] which intentions to form.

That’s a solution I don’t understand, for I don’t know what he means by “choose freely” if the choice is completely caused by physical conditions. What does “free” mean then?  By “choose freely,” Pigliucci mean “the appearance of having chosen freely”?

I have read a lot of compatibilist philosophy, and none of it has convinced me. It all sounds too much like rationalization of what people want to believe a priori.  I am a big fan of Dan Dennett, for instance, but I’m not on board with the solution he offers in Freedom Evolves.  One can, of course, redefine free will so that we have it despite complete physical determinism, but that seems to me a cop-out.  Better to get rid of the term than redefine it in a way that doesn’t comport with how regular people conceive of it, or how it’s been used historically.  That would be like redefining “God” as “the laws of physics”—it completely finesses long-standing discussions of the problem.

7.  If our choices are completely determined by our genes and environments, according to the laws of physics, are we morally responsible for our actions? Again, this is too big an area to cover, and depends on what one means by “moral responsibility”.  My own view is that holding people “responsible” for their acts, whether good or ill, is something that we need to do to preserve an orderly society. (I’m not sure we should consider this a form of “moral” responsibility.) But we should certainly inform our system of justice, punishment, and reward in light of what neuroscience tells us.  We already do this, to some extent—mentally ill criminals are treated differently from “normal” criminals—but we need to do more.

It’s my contention that, in light of the physical determinism of behavior, there’s no substantive difference between someone who kills because they have a brain tumor that makes them aggressive (e.g., Charles Whitman), and someone who kills because a rival is invading their drug business.  We need to reconceive our judicial system in light of what science tells us about how the mind works. And that’s why discussing the bearing of neuroscience and philosophy on free will is far more important than our usual academic discourse.

283 thoughts on “More on free will: Dr.^3 Pigliucci weighs in, I respond

  1. This is a fairly good summary of the questions involved, I think.

    I’m increasingly of the mindset that what proponents of compatibilist free will are getting at is that there comes a point where it makes more sense to talk about the causal forces in a system from a macroscopic and/or meta- perspective. The example that comes to mind for me is from Douglas Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop: Consider a “computer” made of falling dominoes, such that the timing of how the chains trigger each other can perform basic logic operations. Now imagine you have a vast domino structure that computes whether a given input number is prime. If the number is prime, a certain domino will fall; otherwise it will not.

    Now, does it make more sense to say, “That domino fell because the one behind it toppled it, and the one behind that toppled it, and so on”, or does it make more sense to say, “That domino fell because 17 is prime?” Both are true, and perhaps the former is more literally true, but the latter starts to become a more useful model.

    I think the compatibilist assertion is basically that it makes more sense to talk of our choices causing our actions than it does to talk of microscopic events causing our choices, even though the latter is literally true. And I guess this is where some of the recent neuroscience research starts to get really interesting, threatening even this assertion under certain conditions. Still, I would argue that many of our choices are still “chosen” in this compatibilist sense, even if it’s disturbing when we find out how many are not. You will never convince me that when I work out the answer to a calculus problem, for example, that I had the answer in mind to begin with and all the reasoning in between was post hoc rationalization. OTOH, I think if I could really see how many of my perceived decision-making processes were post hoc rationalization, I’d be shocked and disturbed 🙂

    1. I’m not saying you had the answer in mind to begin with; all I’m saying is that the fact that you worked on that problem, and the result of whether or not you got the correct answer, were actions determined before you were born.

      1. Yes, I understand and agree (barring quantum indeterminacy, which I also agree doesn’t salvage jack — and I also agree it’s not clear that such indeterminancies actually affect the macro level in practice, and I look forward to Sean’s post on the topic). I’m saying, though, that there is a separate question that is more debatable, more interesting, and potentially more disturbing: Your example of being able to predict what flavor of ice cream I will choose, for example. If I think I chose Chocolate Brownie Apocalypse because I was planning to share some with my wife and I know she likes brownie ice cream, but it turns out I really chose it because I was primed to pick the third flavor from the left due to some trick of the lighting in the store or something… well, that’s both plausible as well as disturbing if true.

        I gave the calculus example because I think it’s important to remember that at least some of our actions really do have the reasons we think they do. So while that sort of compatibilist free will may not be as universally applicable as we might have hoped, it still definitely exists.

        But of course obviously the libertarian free will idea that the actions weren’t physically determined is just absurd. I don’t think that’s what compatibilists are talking about. If they are, they are idiots.

        1. I just want to emphasize one correction, which is that quantum indeterminacies absolutely can have major impacts on the macroscopic world. This is basically the point of the Schoedinger’s cat experiment—that a single probabilistic quantum even may have macroscopic consequences.

          There are many less contrived examples as well. Here’s one that is crucially important to biology. A slow chemical reactions that occurs only sporadically (e.g. mutations), generally require a quantum mechanical tunneling process as part of its mechanism. Whether such a tunneling process (and hence the mutation itself) is thus a quantum mechanical probabilistic question.

      2. I’m not saying you had the answer in mind to begin with; all I’m saying is that the fact that you worked on that problem, and the result of whether or not you got the correct answer, were actions determined before you were born.

        Here is an example of what I warn about later on: ambiguity in terms and the need to head that off. When you write here that Sweet’s actions were “determined before you were born” theists WILL automatically anthropomorphise it: someone determined what Jim will do. Because that’s what it means to determine something — make a choice. Jerry Coyne believes in God.

        Language is such a bitch. The subtle variations in the meanings of words can slide back and forth too easily. Supernaturalists are sloppy thinkers.

        1. Yes. “Before you were born” is an extremely poor way of phrasing it, because it smacks of fatalism. It implies that nothing you do matters, because the outcome was predetermined “before you were born”.

          But that’s nonsense, of course. Events can be determined without being predetermined. In a deterministic cosmos, each instantaneous world-state is determined by the immediately preceding world-state, and nothing else — certainly not by something that happened years before.

          Granted, there are deterministic causal chains that span years, but that’s not the same as predetermination. Those causal chains flow through us; we are part of the fabric of causation, and what we do clearly does matter to what happens next.

          So if you want clarity on these issues, you should ditch the misleading “before you were born” rhetoric and speak in terms of moment-to-moment causal chains of which our brains and intentions form an integral (if deterministic) part.

      3. Can we really say that a person’s specific actions at a given point in adult life were determined before he was born? Quantum indeterminacy might not play a significant role at the macro scale, but even the tiniest difference in the world could affect change over the course of decades. I’m thinking of the butterfly effect here.

        Doesn’t the entire world—or indeed even a much larger bubble of space-time—around the individual need to be precisely the same to predict precisely the same action being done at a given moment? (I admit I’m way out of my depth here.)

      4. The reply would become “define “determined”, then test that claim”.

        If you mean that all of nature obey causality, I will agree, and the tests are made.

        If you mean that most of nature is constituted by deterministic processes, I will agree, and the tests are made.

        If you mean something else, like predictable outcomes, I would not agree, and I question how you would test that.

      5. I must note that you frequently write here as if we make choices and state that other people are rude, or wrong, or stupid, concepts that have no meaning if reality is predetermined to the extent you claim. Of course, I recognize you would reply you have no choice in the matter, but still the obvious contradiction leaves me unconvinced: you may be correct but I think our understanding is too limited at this point (though “understanding” strikes me as one of an almost endless series of terms with no real meaning if you are correct) to be so certain we make no choices.

  2. I have been having a kind of existential crisis over the last year from my similar conclusions to “free will” as Dr. Coyne. Every time I see a story in the news about someone doing something crazy and/or dumb, where most people feel moral outrage, I find myself feeling mostly pity for the perpetrator, being stuck with his/her mental state that caused such actions to appear rational or acceptable.

    I have internalized this also. I am constantly reflecting on the things about myself that I dislike, my anti-social behavior (which I have plenty of) and constantly probing what environmental conditions might have lead to it?

    It is a radically different way of looking at human behavior, and forces one to suspend the typical responses, which ironically always assume that the agent is always clear thinking and rational, when clearly that is a very subjective thing.

    I don’t think my “crisis” is necessarily bad, I think I’m closer to reality than most people, but I’ve become a bit obsessed by it.

    1. “Every time I see a story in the news about someone doing something crazy and/or dumb, where most people feel moral outrage, I find myself feeling mostly pity for the perpetrator…”

      I suspect this is a pretty much universal response to accepting cause and effect re human behavior. Spinoza said about determinism: “This doctrine teaches us to hate no one, to despise no one, to mock no one, to be angry with no one, and to envy no one.”

  3. I’m still not entirely sure how the question is significant outside of a theological context — or, even then, how it makes sense inside one.

    I can see the value in re-defining the term to mean the mental activity of constructing simulations of the probable outcomes of various courses of action in order to determine the best choice. I also have no problem with those who are unsatisfied with re-apppropriating the term like that.

    That leaves us with a trilemma. Actions can be deterministic, random, or, according to the advocates of free will, somehow “free.” As yet, I’ve never encountered how something is supposed to be neither random nor deterministic.

    Regardless, I think we can all agree that that which is deterministic or random is most emphatically not “free,” whatever “free” actually may be. So, the question then becomes, what, exactly, is this third, non-deterministic, non-random, “free” option that nobody can seem to define?

    (Of course, there are those phenomena that are probabilistic — random but with weited outcomes. But those are trivially seen as a blend of determinism and randomness, and not some third alternative.)

    Even souls don’t escape the trilemma. Do souls follow rules and thus are deterministic? Are they not subject to rules and thus random? If neither…then, what, exactly?

    As to the question of moral resoponsibility…well, so what? I’d like a pony, too, but that doesn’t mean I should plan on riding one to Mom and Dad’s place for dinner tonight — or that thhere’d be much point in getting upset that I won’t be able to.



    1. Even souls don’t escape the trilemma. Do souls follow rules and thus are deterministic? Are they not subject to rules and thus random? If neither…then, what, exactly?

      Yeah, I realized roughly this a few months ago. In the wake of a personal tragedy last year, I was starting to find some of these existential issues especially troubling, and for a moment I thought it might be nice if I could believe in all that stupid crap. Then I tried to imagine what it would be like if I did, and I was like, “Wait a minute… I still have the same fucking existential problems, they’re just all pushed back one layer! Dammit…” heh…

      1. The same (lack of) critical thinking runs through all the foundational principles of theology.

        The prime mover solves the problem of how what we see around us got started, but, as you write, it just pushes it up a level: who moved the mover?

        And maybe we do get our morality from a cosmic lawgiver. But where did the lawgiver get those laws?

        Perhaps some god will mete out justice to the deserving for their actions, but what justice is there for Acts of God?

        When you realize that these perpetually-unanswered questions are the same ones that young children get harshly scolded for asking, you also realize the profound dishonesty that is religion.



        1. Yeah I figured out most of those as a teenager. The First Cause thing especially. Still boggles my mind, although I’ve finally started to understand what these “sophisticated theologians” mean when they talk about God not being a contingent being and therefore not requiring a cause. (Ironically, I finally “got it” by reading a passage that theologians said unfairly represented the Argument from First Cause — I think they were pissed off because the passage had too much clarity, hahaha… but it at least made me understand that they were asserting something that, while still purely made up and relying on a rather shameless example of special pleading, wasn’t entirely word salad)

          It was somewhat jarring — though also a bit of a relief — to realize much later in life that the idea of a soul, even if it were plausible (or even well-defined, yeesh) does nothing at all to address problems of consciousness, free will, etc.

    2. (Of course, there are those phenomena that are probabilistic — random but with weited outcomes. But those are trivially seen as a blend of determinism and randomness, and not some third alternative.)
      Ben, I don’t understand what you mean by this; could you explain, maybe give an example? Thanks.

    3. “Actions can be deterministic, random, or, according to the advocates of free will, somehow ‘free.'”

      The advocates of compatibilist free will consider this a category error. “Free” is not an alternative to “determined” or “random”; it operates at a different level of description than the micro-level of physical causation.

      Physicists speak without ambibuity of the degrees of freedom of a particle. An electron, for instance, is free to travel along the length of a wire in response to electromagnetic forces. It is not free to travel very far perpendicular to the wire. This kind of freedom is a perfectly coherent physical concept that is independent of whether the underlying forces are deterministic or not.

      Similarly, free citizens are able to exercise their volition and govern their own behavior accordingly, slaves are not, independently of whether the underlying neurochemistry is deterministic or not.

      So it’s not a quesion of determined, random, or free. “Free” quantifies the range of potential responses available to an entity operating within a causal framework. It says nothing about whether that framework is deterministic.

      1. “Free” quantifies the range of potential responses available to an entity operating within a causal framework.

        That doesn’t seem to me to be saying much. I don’t think anyone is disputing that there is a “range of potential responses available to an entity”. The issue under discussion is how one of those potential responses becomes an actual response. It is at this point that the application of the term “free” becomes problematic.

        1. It’s no more problematical for brains than it is for electrons in wires. Again, physicists have no problem with this meaning of “free”. It seems to be a problem only for incompatibilists trying to use physics to prove that will cannot be free. But to do so they must adopt a meaning of “free” that’s at odds with the way physicists use it.

    4. I like the term “random” better than “indeterminate”. I think it highlights the problem with invoking quantum indeterminacy as a possible way to salvage the notion of free will.

      How on earth could a random event confer on an actor power over its actions?

  4. You (and Massimo) may be interested in the “Free Will Theorem” of physicists Conway and Kochen. They show that if free will exists for particle physics experimenters, then elementary particles must have it as well:

    If the choice of directions in which to perform spin 1 experiments is not a function of the information accessible to the experimenters, then the responses of the particles are equally not functions of the information accessible to them.


    Note that they use a highly specific definition of free will: the freedom of choice of measurement to make in an experiment undetermined by the history of the universe.

    Anyway, I just think this is interesting because most of these debates center around whether humans have free will, whereas I kind of feel like the whole issue melts away if you start thinking about whether cats or shrimp or beetles or coffee tables have free will. But if you buy the theorem and its assumptions, then even if we grant a very small subset of humans—experimental particle physicists—just a very small amount of free will, then we have to conclude coffee tables have free will too.

    1. Most would conclude from such a finding that “free will,” even if it exists, is nothing like what what most people think of it to be.

      Chopra, on the other hand, I’m sure will use it to “prove” that the universe has some sort of consciousness. I suspect Dr. Dr. Dr. Pigliucci might not be far behind….

      After all, if one is to conclude that humans have this “free will,” whatver it may be, one also has to wonder if the other apes have it, too. If not, then that instantly narrow the search for where to find it. If so, then what about other intelligent animals like parrots and octopi? At some point, you either find a dividing line and can use it to narrow your search for the part of the body that contains freed willies, or you have to conclude that even coffee tables have free will.

      Really, none of this is hard or sophisticated or should be anything less than obvious. That the philosophers and theologians can’t figure it out does not indicate a great dealt of cognitive abilities on their part, regardless of the number of graduate exams they’ve collectively passed.



    2. It is interesting physics, but I don’t think we need more demonstrations of how empty the philosophic description of minds is.

      I dislike papers that tries to draw in philosophy in a matter of science. But that is me.

  5. Jean Paul Sartre was certain he had proven the existence of free will. I was watching a discussion of Sartre’s work by two scholars of Existentialism many years ago and they explained that when a thug with a gun asks for your life or your wallet, you have a perfect and free choice to choose one over the other.

    I was very young then (and very unsophisticated by The Pigliucci Standards) but it was instantly obvious to me that almost everybody confronted with this choice would opt for keeping their life. Naturally, we’d expect that an observer would feel the need to try and explain why anyone would opt for keeping their wallet and dying instead, by ascribing causes to such behavior (mental causes such as suicidal tendencies, for instance). I don’t think anyone would argue that a “normal” person would willingly and freely choose death over property; when we’re confronted with what we consider inexplicable behavior, the first thing we reach for is causes that can explain such behavior as un-free.

    But doesn’t this mean that the “normal” person with the “normal” response in this situation is as un-free and his decision is also subject to psychological causes he does not control? Freedom to choose cannot mean almost always choosing A over B.

  6. I’d like to think that Dr. Pigliucci knows what ex cathedra means but I also think that particular shoe is on the other foot.

  7. Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris have been very persistent on this topic of the conundrum about free will. I fail to see what the big deal is all about. So our decisions are made even before those decisions become available to our consciousness. So if you could rerun the tape and given exactly the same state and position of every particle, no different outcome would arise. So what? Those are certainly very interesting facts about how the world really works. But those only mean that we can agree that our understanding of free will needs to be revised. Why “revised” and not “abandoned”? Because free will is only a concept (a theory if you will) to explain the behavior of interacting conscious beings. The phenomenon that needs explaining is the behavior of social animals as empirically observed – specifically the behavior of punishing and rewarding, and overall treatment of each individual as if they had free choices in their actions (you can blame evolution how this came about). Think of Martians coming in to observe the social behavior of humans. They would think we have free will because if appears that way. Now upon closer inspection, if we really had no choices (in the sense that if all the particle states were the same, we could still choose a different action), what is the implication? Clearly it must be that the theory (concept of free will) has to be revised. The martians would not say “look these earthlings really don’t have free will, so we must change their behavior”. Free Will is the theory. If the theory doesn’t fit the facts, the theory must be revised.

    1. What’s so precious about this particular theory that it must not be abandoned?

      We abandoned the theory of the Lumniferous Aether when it turned out, on closer inspection, that the facts not only didn’t support it but actually contradicted it. Same with the theory of the Earth being the center of the universe, as well as the theory that disease is caused by demonic posession.

      I utterly fail to see how this undefinable “theory” of “free will” somehow deserved to be salvaged from the scrap heap of human intellictualism more than the “theory” of, say, Intelligent Design.

      Indeed, Intelligent Design is an excellent parallel. Evolved life certainly gives the superficial appearance of design, but that’s a result of mindless evolutionary processes, not any sort of guiding intelligence. Similarly, sufficiently complex minds have the appearance of freedom from the surrounding universe, but that’s merely an artefact of our ability to imagine so many different (yet all unrealistic) alternatives.



      1. i actually agree with your redefinition of free will as the activity of mental simulations. i think that is the revision that would work that would still be useful. what i don’t agree with is the suggestion that since it turns out the original free will concept (with souls doing the free-willing), that we must now rethink our justice system. rewards and punishments work because they become input to the mental simulations of individuals. that is how we salvage free will. i don’t mean we salvage the original idea with souls as the source of the will.

        1. How do you get from, “philosophers and theologians are very confused about metaphysics” to “therefore, we need to scrap the criminal justice system and start over from scratch?”

          Don’t get me worng — there’s plenty about the criminal justice system in desperate need of overhaul. But I realky don’t see what “free will” has had, currently has, or should ever have to do with criminal justice.



          1. ask Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris. They’re the ones making the suggestion (that I don’t agree with). See Jerry Coyne’s point #7 above. Also don’t get me wrong – there’s plenty that needs rethinking in the criminal justice system. But not because it turned out “we have free will” is really just shorthand for “we behave as if we have free will”.

            1. This is pretty simple. Very young kids inherit a primate and mammal species drive to punish anti-social behavior.

              Our legal system is designed to accommodate that childlike drive. Ihe rest is post hoc rationalizations and ideology.

  8. I agree with everything Prof.Jerry has said, and there is one thing that bothers me a bit. If – that is a big if – Prof.Jerry or Sam – the philosopher – are not sophisticated enough by someone’s standard, then s/he can explain to them what is it they think, Prof.Jerry and Sam are missing. Not just say “they don’t know enough”. When I saw Prof.Jerry’s “Locus of Evolution” lecture, I didn’t and still don’t agree with him on it, but I can’t just say because Prof.Jerry is not a developmental Biologist, then he is not sophisticated enough.

  9. …the present and the future “fix” the past just in the same way in which the past “fixes” the present and the future.

    Really? In the same way? The abstract of the paper he cites doesn’t give any hint that this conclusion is in the paper. Not being inside my institution’s firewall at the moment, I haven’t access to the paper. Nevertheless, the mathematical time-reversal symmetry of physics equations doesn’t mean that future events determine past events! This is the case even if we can correctly describe what happened in the past if we have perfect knowledge of the present. (Oddly, if Massimo believes that is true, he ought not be agnostic about determinism at all.) It is Massimo who need to “chew” a lot longer on his physics before he swallows.

  10. My own definition is that if one reran the tape of life up to the moment of “choice,” with every physical atom and electron in the same position at that moment, there is free will if one could have chosen otherwise.

    And most compatibilists will agree that we don’t have “free will” in the sense that you’ve defined it; so why do you get so worked up over a mere issue of terminology?

    I, on the other hand, think that determinism is perfectly compatible with the the claim that “one could have chosen otherwise.” I think you’re misunderstanding what makes a modal claim like this true. (See here if you’d like further explanation.)

    1. One could have chosen otherwise in a counterfactual situation where, perhaps, one wanted to choose otherwise. But not in *actual* situations as they played out. Many folks suppose they could have chosen otherwise in this latter sense. Once they see they are mistaken, certain beliefs and attitudes about responsibility might change, see for instance #3 above.

      1. They’re mistaken only if you take “could” to be a statement about causality. If instead you take it to be a statement about prior knowledge — I know how to do X, but I don’t yet know if I will do X — then “could have done otherwise” becomes perfectly coherent and compatible with determinism.

  11. I just don’t see how you can go from “we have no free will” to “we need to reconceive our judicial system”. How is it possible that we could choose to do that?

    If there is no “substantive” difference between your two killing scenarios. Is there any substantive difference between killing someone and and donating to charity, both are completely determined.

      1. I’d be interested to hear a definition of “better” that would not be made totally meaningless in a world where Jerry’s consequences of determism were true.

        1. There is no question that levels of harm are a bit fuzzy, but I hope even the most disconnected sociopath could distinguish the notable harm levels between murder and charity donations….?

          I find such attempts to muddy the waters simply insulting, personally. You can’t be that idiotic.

        2. It is better if it gives us more of what we want. All other definitions of “better” have always been meaningless, as they recurse to the same.

  12. Regarding free will: If a cog doesn’t have free will, is there any grounds for saying a clock, which is just a collection of cogs ordered in a specific way, does? If protons, nuetrons, and electrons have no free will, is there any reason to say that a human, which is just a collection of protons, nuetrons, and electrons ordered in a specific way, does?

    Regarding Justice/mentally ill patients: Our system of rewards and punishments is ultimately an attempt to condition people to behave in a way conducive to an orderly society. I would argue that individuals who respond abnormally to psychological stimuli (ie. the mentally ill) would have to be treated differently from those who who respond normally. The mechanism of reaching the goal of the justice system just doesn’t work on the former.

    1. “I would argue that individuals who respond abnormally to psychological stimuli (ie. the mentally ill) would have to be treated differently from those who who respond normally. The mechanism of reaching the goal of the justice system just doesn’t work on the former.”

      I think you are right.

  13. Jerry it sounds like for your definition of free will to be true, dualism would also have to be true. Is that your position?

    1. Yes, pretty much. My definition of free will explicitly requires that mind overrule matter. If it can’t do that, then all of our decisions are determined by the laws of physics (and perhaps affected a bit by quantum indeterminacy.

      1. Let’s “push it up a level,” to use James Sweet’s turn of phrase and pretend for the nonce that, somehow, inexplicably, the mind is capable of overruling matter.

        Where does that get us?

        Will the mind’s actions be in accord with some set of rules? If so, how is it free? If not, and it just makes shit up at random…again, how is it free?



        1. I agree, even dualism does not salvage libertarian free will.

          Again, though, that’s not (I don’t think!) what the compatibilists are talking about. And if they are, fuck ’em, cuz iz dum.

          1. The compatibilists seem to be mostly arguing that we abandon the traditional definition (if one can apply that term in this case) of “free will” entirely and instead use “free will” to refer to an entirely distinct phenomenon instead.

            On the one hand, their position is defensible because the phenomenon they propose to substitute is what people actually experience when they’re pointing to what they refer to as “free will.”

            On the other hand, said phenomenon is diametrically, radically, even violently opposed to the classical definition of the term.

            One could make a rhetorical argument for the redefinition, but I think it’s ultimately futile and will only lead to confusion.

            Instead, I would suggest that we simply flat-out reject the notion of “free will” but simultaneously assure people that, when they’re using their imagination to plan for the future, they’re doing what people have always done when they’ve thought they’ve been exercising their “free will.”



            1. A fair point. Your final paragraph is good food for thought. That’s basically exactly the approach I advocate — that libertarian free will is obvious bullshit, but it’s really not so disturbing when you understand what that does and doesn’t mean — except that I have not quite gone as far as saying that using the phrase “free will” in this manner just confuses things. You may be right.

      2. I know I’m not the best communicator, but I said exactly that quite a while ago when you started posting comments on free will. Once you ditch dualism, there really is nothing left.

  14. Well said!

    I can foresee you taking some flak for your last paragraph. The key word is “substantive” but that will be overlooked.

    On a social behavioral level, and on a brain level, there are probably good “practical” reasons for categorizing some brains as diseased (perhaps very difficult to encourage good, everyday social behavior in) and other brains and decisions as being more “normal,” that is, individuals who respond or can respond to certain programming/reward/punishment systems. The individual who develops a brain tumor in certain areas has changed these capacities significantly and thus responds in a sporadic or problematic way.

    By “substantive” here I assume you mean that no one “ultimately” controls what goes into their brain system or comes out and that the normal criminal is determined or compelled by brain structure to commit her crime just as much as the abnormal criminal/brain.

    The other difference between the normal and abnormal may be that with one we opt for a quite permanent quarantine or a close surveillance system or brain surgery (where possible); and with the other we engage in agressive but compassionate rehabilitation.

    I think your emphasis of this point is good because people still attach to the “normal” brain that which they attached to the “normal” mind. With that said, it is still useful to categorize different brains differently.

  15. I don’t know what he means by “choose freely” if the choice is completely caused by physical conditions. What does “free” mean then? By “choose freely,” Pigliucci mean “the appearance of having chosen freely”?

    No, that’s obviously not what the compatibilist means.

    The compatibilist definition of “free” means “without coercion or constraint”, and/or perhaps “following from a persons desires, commitments, and deliberation.”

    It’s great that you’ve read widely on the topic, and intelligent people can disagree — but it would probably help if you addressed the compatibilist position head on.

    1. That’s just a redefinition that, to me, muddies the waters. WHO OR WHAT is doing the coercion or constraining? If the laws of physics are mandating behavior, aren’t THEY coercing or constraining a decision? In that case there are no cases of free will. If a person is doing the coercing, well, it’s the “free” decision of a person to bow to that coercion.

      And of course “following from a person’s desires, commitments, and deliberations,” is just a fancy way of saying nothing, because ALL decisions flow from a person’s desires, commitments, and deliberations, which are simply embodiments of the laws of physics. I can’t imagine a decision that didn’t follow from that stuff.

      If a rotifer moves toward the light, without coercion, does that mean that that rotifer has free will?

      Compatibilism consists, I think, solely of jettisoning what everyone used to think of as free will, but using the same words to express a completely different situation, one which, to my mind, differs radically from how everyone used to think of free will, and most people still do.

      1. If the laws of physics are mandating behavior, aren’t THEY coercing or constraining a decision?

        No, because the physics is not something apart from me and my deliberation. The physical process is me, it is my act of deciding. So the physical laws don’t coerce or constrain (in the relevant sense).

        “ALL decisions flow from a person’s desires, commitments, and deliberations.

        No. Paradigm examples of non-free acts include a case where someone hands over his wallet at gun point, or when an involuntary convulsion causes him to strike someone in the face.

        Of course, it takes a lot of work to spell out precise criteria — and, as you know, compatibilists have spilled a lot of ink in this work.

        does that mean that that rotifer has free will?

        No, because the rotifer does not have desires and does not deliberate.

        Compatibilism consists, I think, solely of jettisoning what everyone used to think of as free will.

        Remember that the compatibilist notion of freedom goes back at least to Aristotle. It isn’t some new notion.

        Yes, most common folk are confused incompatibilists, but the main reason for this is that they’re naive dualists. If you think you’re something non-physical, then of course you can’t be in charge if the physics is doing all the work.

        But if we’re physicalists, then we should recognize that our doing the work is the same thing as the physics doing the work.

        It seems to me that you’re allowing the dualists to define what terms mean. This is as much of a mistake as following the vitalists in saying that if everything is physical then nothing is alive.

        1. No, because the rotifer does not have desires and does not deliberate.


          What, exactly, is the instinct to move towards the light but a desire, and how is the process by which it chooses which direction to move in anything but a form of deliberation?

          Granted, these are not excessively complex matters it is deciding upon, but I fail to see how, lacking some sort of religious bullshit, they are different in any qualitative manner from the conscious choices of any other intelligence.



          1. Can the rotifer consider the possibility of moving away from light?  I doubt it, but if so, then perhaps it does have primitive form of free will. 

            Of course, many compatibilists will require more (e.g. Frankfurt says we need to be able to think about our desires — and it would be amazing if rotifers had this second-order ability). But I’m not inclined to defend particular accounts of compatibilist freedom.

            1. Your post only makes sense if you equate “free will” with “imagining different probable outcomes based on various possible actions.” In that sense, no, I don’t think the rotifer has sufficient cognitive capacity to be said to posess this redefined version of free will.

              But, as I’ve written, this redefinition is perfectly incompatible with the long-standing and popular definition of the term. As such, I would suggest that the confusion demonstrated in this exchange is a perfect example of why redefining the term in this manner is a really bad idea.

              It is, if I may be so bold, as counterproductive as the Christian habit of redefining “love” to mean “the forgiveness of Christ,” as they are so wont to do.



              1. I’m not equating freedom with the ability to consider different actions, but I am saying that this ability is a precondition of free action. This is (I take it) a fairly standard compatibilist position.

                this redefinition is perfectly incompatible with the long-standing and popular definition of the term.

                The compatibilist definition is well over two thousand years old, and has been endorsed over the centuries by a substantial portion of those who have thought carefully about the issue.

                Your argumentum ad populum here carries no more weight than it does when a creationist insists that “theory” really means “unproven hypothesis” or when a dualist claims that the very definition of “sensation” implies that it is something nonphysical.

                And I’d suggest that your analogy rather backfires, since it is you who is insisting on retaining a popular definition that fails to refer to anything in the real world (despite the fact that we obviously do successfully use the term to refer to many real-world circumstances). We shouldn’t abandon the term “love” just because Christianity is false, and we shouldn’t abandon the word “free” merely because dualism is false.

              2. Physicalist,

                You are doing a good job explaining what I’ve been getting at as well. Thanks.


        2. No, because the physics is not something apart from me and my deliberation. The physical process is me, it is my act of deciding. So the physical laws don’t coerce or constrain (in the relevant sense).

          Right. As far as I can tell, this is Douglas Hofstadter’s stance – the definition of “free will” depends greatly on the definition of first-person words. When you say “my act of deciding,” if you mean all of the things that make you “you” – including the physical processes themselves – then you can salvage some form of free will. If I am my physical processes processing bits of the world (including “myself”), then there might be no reason to ask “I might have done differently” questions, except as they relate to models of the world my processes create.

          I guess I echo Ben Goren’s post above (in the #16 thread), that the only reason to salvage the free will idea in the first place is that people experience something and we need to have a name and explanation for what they are experiencing. It’s rather like color vision or nociception. You can propose that nobody really experiences pain because it’s “merely” a bunch of physical processes at work, but in the end we still need a name for and biological/chemical/physical explanation of the phenomenology involved.

          1. the only reason to salvage the free will idea in the first place is that people experience something and we need to have a name and explanation for what they are experiencing

            No, there’s a more important reason:

            We need to be able to distinguish between cases where people do things voluntarily and (i.e., “of their own free will”) and cases where they do things involuntarily.

            It makes sense to try to talk people out of their voluntary actions, but not their involuntary ones.

            It makes sense to punish people for acts that they perform because they want to; it doesn’t make sense to punish someone if she did something she didn’t want to do (e.g., because she was forced at gunpoint).

            And it makes sense to hold someone morally responsible for acts that were free (in the compatibilist sense).

            There is a very important distinction here that the compatibilist is articulating even though dualism is false. (Just like the distinction between life and non-life is important even though vitalism is false.)

            1. Ah ha, thanks for this. I agree totally, and I think this distinction here flows pretty easily from the combination of experiencing that distinction and the further assumption that others have similar experience of their own actions (and then lots and lots of empirical study).

            2. Exactly. You put it well.

              Dualists are sticking things into the term “free will” that are NOT necessarily included in what Jerry calls the “classic definition.” And if dualists are doing this, this means that the average, ordinary person is doing this. We have to address the problem here or be perpetually misunderstood — or mislead ourselves.

            3. I appreciate the distinctions you make here, between voluntary and unvoluntary, and how we have certain tools to prevent voluntary behaviors from happening that do not apply to involuntary behaviors (e.g. reasoning with someone). But what I would like to point out is that reality isn’t a simple choice between voluntary and involuntary. There are a whole range of voluntary actions, some of which will be amenable to certain interactions, and some of which will not.

              Consider the 5 examples of violence Sam Harris talks about here (they are indented; easy to find). ALL of these are voluntary (if we assume the boy in #1 pulled the trigger on purpose). But reasoning with the 4 year old (#1) or the sociopath (#4) or the sick man (#5) would not necessarily have worked. Punishment (for a similar wrongdoing in the past) most likely would not have prevented #1 or #5, and #2 and #3 are questionable as well. A 12 year old boy who’s suffered continuous physical and emotional abuse probably needs long bouts of therapy before his potential for violent behavior (shooting someone who teased him) lessens. The man with the brain tumor, on the other hand, needs surgery. And the sociopath needs confinement.

              So I think “voluntary vs. involuntary” is already too simple a way to look at this. There are many inputs into the human machine that shape behavior. To say that “the will was involved” does not tell us enough. If you want to have one particular term that refers to all situations in which the will was involved, you’re welcome to it. But I haven’t needed it for this comment. Why should you?

              1. I think “voluntary vs. involuntary” is already too simple a way to look at this.

                I agree, and I think many other compatibilists would as well. My sketches are only meant a starting point to show that it’s wrong to assume that determinism rules out freedom and moral responsibility.

                Developing and defending a more realistic account of freedom and responsibility takes a lot more work: One has to figure out what should count as an agent, an action, what grounds moral facts, what makes something rational, and so on.

                This isn’t something I work on myself, but there are plenty of people who are rolling up their sleeves and tackling these tough issues. I like (what I’ve seen of) Susan Wolf‘s account, for example.

                If you want to have one particular term . . .

                I’m happy with a more nuanced and pluralistic approach. But I do insist that there are morally relevant distinctions there — I’m just focusing on one (or two) to push back against hard determinists like Jerry who (as I see it) are throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

                Yes, we might have to think a bit about whether the stuff the kid just swallowed counts as “baby” or “bathwater” — and, yes, there might be some other things in that tub that we should grab too — but I’ll feel lucky if I can just get Jerry to admit that there’s a difference between the screaming kid and the dirty sudsy stuff that we all want to throw out.

  16. I find it difficult to understand what philosophers really mean when they talk about “free will”. Brought up as a Christian I thought free-will simply meant that people had the freedom to choose to accept or to reject Jesus, to live by Christian standards or do their own thing and face the consequences. But then I wonder how much free-will did I have after being brought up in an evangelical Christian home, where all my role models believed in God. It was through doubting, questioning and debating that in later life I came to reject my former beliefs. But now here’s the paradox – did I even have free-will then, since my new understanding drew me inexorably to reject my faith and stand up and be counted as an atheist!

  17. This subject is one of my favorites and by Pigliucci’s definition I am unqualified to speak of the topic. I will say though, that I have read enough on this subject to make two points. I hope they stand on their merits rather than on my personal qualifications:

    1) The term “free will” should be abandoned. Every speaker and writer on this topic has a different definition of the word and entire tomes are written describing some certain version of the definition. It is a philosophers playground and this is why philosophers like Pigliucci LOVE it. They will certainly not sell many books if they claim “free will” as a term should be abandoned. The “deterministic” vs. “free will” debate is one of the only topics left for philosophy (even though most of the discussion is simply definitional).

    2) The Principle of Uncertainty does not really describe “uncertainty.” What it defines is a predictable distribution of predictable outcomes. It should really be called the Priciple of “distribution” or “tolerance.” Using this topic as a driver for a discussion on the function of the mind and consciousness is entirely laughable. Any philosopher who is using the Principle of Uncertainty to make some claims about “free will” should be laughed out of the discussion.

    1. This:

      “The “deterministic” vs. “free will” debate is one of the only topics left for philosophy (even though most of the discussion is simply definitional)”

      I think philosophy these days contributes to ethics ~ it’s essential to it. Beyond that I can’t think of any area where it’s making a POSITIVE difference.

      What I admire about ‘doers’ of science is they try to ask correctly framed questions that have potential answers within reach using a well defined set of terms. It’s a humility thing.

      1. I think philosophy these days contributes to ethics ~ it’s essential to it.

        No. Quite the contrary.

        There are ethicists doing important work. The fact that many of them also happen to be philosophers is largely irrelevant, the exact same way that Kenneth Miller’s Catholicism is largely irrelevant to his work on evolutionary biology. To the extent that it’s not irrelevant, it’s detremential, and for the same reasons.

        Ethics is and absolutely should be an empirical field, just like any other science. Philosophy is anti-scientific in the exact same way that theology is: it rejects empiricism in favor of mental masturbation. Philosophy is just atheistic theology — it’s the exact same meaningless self-important obscurantism, just without the gods and the ancient sacred scriptures.

        It’s only when the philosophers dirty themselves with real-world observations that they ever come up with anything useful…and it’s at the exact same moment that they stop dong philosophy and start doing science.



        1. Philosophy is just atheistic theology — it’s the exact same meaningless self-important obscurantism, just without the gods and the ancient sacred scriptures.


          no, actually +100

        2. No, ethics isn’t an empirical field, because there are no moral truths to be discovered through observation. What would you do? Try to look for wrongness radiation during an abortion?

          1. I have no idea what you mean by “wrongness radiation” or why you think it should or shouldn’t be present during an abortion or what one is supposed to do in its presence or absence.

            However, the medical ethicist will be concerned primarily with reducing harm to patients and secondarily with ensuring the best possible aggregte recovery. To that end, the field is entirely empirical.

            How do different levels of informed consent correlate with patient complains, recovery, relapse, and satisfaction? What types of procedures, policies, and practices are most likely to result in unanticipated harm to patients? What are the best methods for communicating risks to patients and empowering them to choose the option they are most likely to themselves conclude is the correct one?

            Those questions can only be answered empirically.

            If you’re questioning whether or not a blastocyst should be considered a patient…I think you’ll find such matters well outside the realm of medical ethics. The ethicists themselves certainly have personal opinions on the matter, but that’s no more relevant to their jobs than the opinions they might have on any other political matter.

            An ethicist, of course, will be able to tell you how to interact with a patient seeking an abortion, and how best to ensure that the eventual outcome is in the patient’s best interests.



            1. Looks like “ethics” just became “medical ethics,” which is not even nearly the whole of ethics. “Wrongness radiation” was just a joke concept I came up with to mock the notion that moral rights/wrongs can be detected. The medical ethics you just described works under the assumption that well-being is the ultimate good, which is a professional duty they’ve taken on, but not a fundamental truth.

              1. Well, you’re the one who brought abortion into the matter, which falls squarely in the realm of medical ethics. If you think some other flavor of ethics is fundamentally different, I’d be interested to know how.

                And I fail to understand how it can be any great mystery about how the “ultimate good” of medicine can be anything other than “wellbeing.” Why on earth would anybody ever go to the doctor than to enhance one’s own wellbeing?

                One can debate what actually and particularly constitutes “wellbeing,” and it seems pretty obvious that it differes from one person to another. A masochist’s idea of “wellbeing” is entirely different from my own, for example. But that variation is exactly why medical ethics devotes so much to the concept of informed consent. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, so do whatever possible to tailor-fit each solution to the patient.

                I think you’ll find that ethicists in other professions generally devote most of their efforts to comparable forms of transparency and empowerment. It only makes sense — if people are coming to you for a service, it would make sense to do what you can to ensure they get the service they seek.



        3. I think you’re defining “philosophy” far too narrowly. My understanding is that ethics (and science) are subsets of philosophy.

        4. Ugh. This type of post hands ammunition to critics of New Atheists on a big steaming platter.

          — “Ethics is and absolutely should be an empirical field, just like any other science.”

          That is a philosophical position. In other words, to defend it, you will necessarily enter into philosophical debate. So following that with:

          “Philosophy is anti-scientific”

          Is absurd. If the assumptions that underly science are unjustified, then how could science be justified? “It works” would be, of course, only a cogent retort based on other assumptions…

          You are doing, or at least assuming, philosophy. You can’t help it. The fact you might make such claims without trying to be more conscious of your assumptions than someone doing philosophy is hardly a point in your favour. In other words, making assertions while leaving the underlying assumptions unjustified, for fear of doing dreaded “philosophy” is no help for the cause of rational atheism.


          (Any atheist who denies the importance of philosophy, as if he isn’t relying on philosophical assumptions to begin with, is like a Biblical Literalist who insists he is not doing any interpretation, it’s all “God’s plain word” speaking…no interpretation here to see folks..nope…we don’t do such things…).

          1. ““It works” would be, of course, only a cogent retort based on other assumptions…”

            That is a philosophic claim.

            Moreover, it is rejected by observation. Testable theories have no “assumptions”, everything in the theory is validated by the test. Yes, “it works”.

            And it is self consistent. You can easily test testing.

            It is quite silly to claim that most knowledge is based on assumptions.

            Seeing how in math so little can be axiomatized, aka based on “assumption”, it comes as no surprise that even fewer parts of physics can be so. See for instance quantization, that underlies quantum mechanics, that is believed to underlie all of physics: it can’t be axiomatized.

            And in biology? Forgeddaboudid.

          2. I forgot:

            And this is why we claim that philosophy is theological. The claim that everything is based on “assumption” is an untested assumption, and falls apart when compared to observation.

          1. Torbjorn Larsson,

            Ben Goren made this claim:

            — “Ethics is and absolutely should be an empirical field, just like any other science.”

            Now, ought I just accept that assertion? Is that how things work? Well then I can respond with: “Ethics absolutely should NOT be an empirical field.”

            Wee. That was fun.

            But presumably you agree such assertions are not good enough.

            So, how would one JUSTIFY (that is give reasons to accept) the claim that “Ethics is and absolutely should be an empirical field, just like any other science.”

            I’d like to see how you do this without appealing to, or at least implying, any value judgements or without straying into any philosophical areas.

            P.S. I’m not making any claim that science ought to quiver under the shadow of mighty Philosophy. Far from it: I get as impatient with the inability to test many philosophical
            claims as well. However, the type of assumptions that philosophers work to uncover and evaluate seem inescapable and it strikes me as terrifically naive to think this is not the case.

            It’s like Ted saying “I’m entering a race later today.” I say “well, that statement rests upon the assumption that such things as “races” occur..that they can be “entered” etc.
            Ted says “I’m not ASSUMING all that. I’m just saying I’m entering a race, I’m not making statements about the existence of “races” per se. Save all that “assumption” mumbo-jumbo for your philosophy class.

            But, of course, whether Ted wants to acknowledge it or not, his statements ONLY MAKE SENSE on the back of what his statements imply, even if Ted does not make those assumptions explicit.

            So, when Ben says ethics SHOULD be an empirical field, that only makes sense in light of some unstated value judgement. And I’d like to see how that statement could be justified in a way that does not enter the realm of the concerns of philosophy. Even Sam Harris acknowledges this to be the case: that science itself comes born upon value judgements that are not justified scientifically.


  18. I have to wonder whether this ubiquitous proviso, “barring quantum indeterminancy” is invoked a bit too readily because we would like to rule it out, not because we should be ruling it out. I recently read Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer and it is so good, that it’s discussion of cancer comes to my mind in broader contexts. When it comes down to it, cancer seems to result from the accumulation of genetic errors, does it not? Many of the mutations my cells have experienced are the result of radiation damage, aren’t they? And whether that damage occurs and leads to precancerous cells, … is one of those quantum indeterminant events, isn’t it? I’m 56 years old, so there is some non-negligible chance that the atomistic-scale randomness has, so far, spared me a life-ending cancer. If that is so, then my ability to perform calculus problems really may not have been “determined before I was born”, right?

    1. BTW, I don’t mean to say that this rescues “free will” – just that it may be too deterministic to start talking about our lives have been determined by initial conditions that were in place before we were born.

    2. Remember that quantum indeterminacies can add up to a deterministic result. If you’re exposed to a radiation source and get cancer because of that, it’s almost certainly the result of cumulative damage that is the deterministic result of many atomic decay events. Even though a single atom decays without cause, we can be sure that within a certain amount of time a given number will have decayed, and that may cause the cancer.

      1. True, but the number of genetic errors needed is far from “the thermodynamic limit” one would invoke in order tha statistical mechanics can rescue chemistry from quantum indeterminancy.

      2. I also have to wonder whether the amplification of uncontrolled growth characteristic of cancer makes the problem even worse.

      3. But an individual cancer is not caused by a cumulative amount of radiation hits but by specific hits causing specific strand breaks. The only way you would get the same cancer again in a ‘clock rerun’ experiment is if every atom decays at the same point it did during the first run. If you allow the uncertaincy principle to take place (and thus each individual atom may not decay at the same point the second time around) then you won’t get the same cancer.

        1. That’s my point – strong determinism probably doesn’t apply to cancer caused by radiation damage because radiation damage will be subject to quantum mechanical indeterminancy. In fact, a person might well die of something else the “second time around”.

          1. It’s not just cancer to which this principle applies. If you allow atoms to decay in an indeterminate manner then any mutations caused by radioactive particle induced free radical strand breakage – which will be a certain percentage of random mutations (I haven’t got the figure at hand) – thus a lot of random mutations will be unique each time the clock is rerun. Unless you can fix atoms to decay at the same time point, biological evolution itself, which requires these random particle induced mutations to generate a certain percentage of variation, will be subject to different outcomes each time the clock is rerun due to the contingent nature of the decay.

  19. Thanks for this, Jerry. Dr. Dr. Dr. does tend to muddy up things.

    Why can’t people understand that determinism does NOT violate responsibility? If everything is the same on a rewind of the tape, but society added incentives/punishments then things are not the same. Deterministic processing changes if the universe changes in relevant ways.

    It appears that so many people fail to understand free will, determinism and responsibility, including Dr Dr Dr.

  20. I would equate free will with consciousness/sentience; any body with the latter has the former, and vice versa.

    A sparrow will always make a nest of a particular size and shape; I can make my house any size and shape I wish. It seems reasonable to conclude that I have greater freedom of action than the sparrow, n’est ce pas? A million monkeys at a million typewriters would take 10^1022 years to come up with Hamlet, Shakespeare did it in a few months, and without a typewriter. Surely that is significant. Was the text of Hamlet really incipient in Shakespeare’s mind from birth? Could we brain-scan promising young writers to extract their life’s oeuvre, and then turn them into Soylent Green?

    1. Because you have a greater range of options than the sparrow, it does not mean that you are free to make your house any size and shape you wish. You will invariably choose a shape and size according to your taste, propensities, culture, etc. Your choice of house will ultimately say something about your personality, as my choice of house architecture will say something about my own personality. And personality is not something we choose.

      I’d like to see free will aficionados try to explain the consistency of personality in decision making. As a mental exercise it would be fun, for instance, to trace one’s decision to built a modern house vs. a traditional house to one’s personality traits. I’ll venture that your choice of architecture actually betrays a lot about you, from your politics to how you feel about food.

      1. You will invariably choose a shape and size according to your taste, propensities, culture, etc.

        Yes, but it’s a mistake to suppose that this means the choice isn’t free.

        If you think “free” means “uncaused” you’re going to land in a pile of contradictions. (Of course, you’ll find many others in that pile with you . . . )

      2. Of course we all have preferences. I’m always amused by those arguing against free will who make that argument. Of course, if what we did were truly random and patternless, as some seem to demand, they would then argue that such behavior is not evidence of free will either!

        We certainly are able to influence our personality, which I would define as ‘choice’. When I was about 4 years old my mother decided to change her personality. According to all of my siblings, she became a very different person after that moment.

        1. Scott,

          In such proclamations as your last paragraph there are always significant “Why’s” left out. There is a glossing of concepts in the “we” and in the “able to influence.”

          Such “why’s” may be overt psychological conditions, she started feeling an intense longing for a different life (and as such psychology relates to underlying neuro); or it could be a more intense look at the events in the brain. The “choice” to “change her life” was as determined as any other event in her life; and as determined as when, e.g., a human being or a computer gives the answer they do to a Jeapordy question.

          Even though there is a great deal more self-awareness to major human decisions than say those of a computer or that of a dog (mostly because of linguistic structures), human choice is not of a different kind such as to necessitate the label free- even if our decision making or processing abilities are special and powerful skills in this world.

  21. Jerry, I wish you could come up with a better definition of your free will than to talk about going backwards in time. There’s so much extra baggage that goes along with that, not to mention that it might be physically impossible. Perhaps rephrase in terms of the “multiverse”, which is at least plausible.

  22. A thought just occured to me; how does one related this definition of free will (“If you were to rewind the clock back with all the particles in the same place, we’d make all the same choices”) comport with Gould’s thought experiment from Wonder Life (I think that’s the book, where he says something to the effect that “If the tape of life were rewound, life would take a very different course and humans might never evolve?”)

    In other words, why does determinism only apply to free will and not to evolution? If we don’t have something like free will, can we say that modern humans were in some sense predestined to exist from the start of life on earth, indeed from the big bang.

    The problem is this “roll the tape back” idea is IMNSHO a sterile thought experiment. We need the disciplines of evolutionary biology, neurology, psychology and even law to make sense of the necessary ignorances we have on initial states.

  23. The laity always have less advanced understandings of concepts than do academic experts on them. Most people, for example, have a naive realist view of light; they don’t know anything about photons or physics. The physicist knows that certain commonplace notions about light are actually not true.

    Would Jerry say that the physicists are just equivocating? Those physicists, they don’t want to admit there’s really no such thing as light! All these equations–they don’t capture what people really mean when they say “it’s light out.” If they’re going to use all this fancy math to describe something really quite different, they should drop words like “light” and come up with completely different terms.

    That’s how I see Jerry’s argument on free will going. If philosophers won’t vindicate the traditionally religious/dualist view of free will, they are obligated to declare it nonexistent.

    1. What an insane argument. Photons and light is backed by 300 years of experiments and evidence, and fits into the major canon and theories about physics, rigorously tested and re-tested and agreed upon by thousands of physicists (and other people in science), with massive models underpinning their behaviour and existence, and the slightest divergence would prove them false, and yet 300 years later we still are very, very sure they are what we think they are.

      Philosophy haven’t even got the definition of words down right. Your argument is, uh, more than baffling.

      1. But how much evidence underpins the existence of light or free will is not at stake here. What is at stake is the divergence between academic and public understandings of a concept. Physicists don’t have to abandon light as a concept just because the average man on the street holds some misconceptions about it, and philosophers don’t have to abandon the concept of free will just because the average man holds some misconceptions about it. If some consensus were reached that free will in fact didn’t exist, that would be fine, but it wouldn’t make sense to draw that consensus just because most people believe in the human soul.

        1. I still find this baffling. The “average man” (whoever that might be) have a far better and more correct understanding of light (as demonstrated by the use of mirrors everyday) as understood by scientists than of free will used by philosophers.

          And this dismissal of the evidence is also very baffling. What are we to base our knowledge on, if not evidence? The reason “free will” has gotten away with it (“free will” as an identifiable conception) for so long in professional circles (which *is* what it comes down to) is exactly because physics have taken much longer to catch up to the notion of it, pointing out the neuroscientific reality of what it is and what it is *supposed* to be, altering our understanding of what it traditionally has meant and what it become more and more clear to us through science. It is perfectly clear that new evidence alters what we think of “free will”, hence this discussion.

          Light have never really been disputed in such a way, at least not for the last 200 years, neither in layman’s terms or by professionals, and that is why your argument is baffling to me.

          1. I’m not dismissing “the evidence” at all. We are to base all of our knowledge, unless it is completely abstract (like pure math) on evidence. And of course physical evidence is changing our notion of free will. It might even eliminate the notion of free will entirely. But if it gives us merely a modified notion of free will, that doesn’t mean that the concept is entirely pointless or that we’re just denying that free will doesn’t exist.

  24. Jerry,

    Your opening remarks, equating the other side of the debate (e.g. philosophers arguing for compatibilism) to a religious mind-set, brings up the issue of how our opponents look to us in a debate. It’s fascinating how, even among atheists, that another atheist can suddenly look “religious” to us. It goes both ways.

    As a hard-assed atheist myself who has done battle for years against theology and religion, I’m with you almost all the time when it comes to your views of religion.
    Yet when you start talking about free will, to me it’s like watching someone suddenly switch into a religious person, clinging to a notion of free will that doesn’t make sense, and using it to dismiss other concepts of free will. (In this case, using your definition to dismiss all concepts of free will).

    It’s like the problem of the religious view of morality. The religious view of morality has held sway by the majority for much of human history: “Morality must be based upon a God, and if there is no God there can be no morality.” Yet, when we atheists, and certainly many secular moral philosophers, look at the assumptions underlying this conception of morality, we see it NEVER made sense in the first place (see Euthyphro Dilemma for only one line of reasoning why).
    But we also recognize this does not mean that , therefore, “we can not have something sensibly called morality.”

    The religious person will respond:
    “But, if you argue away God as the basis for morality, the you’ll simply have argued away morality. Because this is the way most people have conceived of morality.”
    And you get religious debaters asserting that to the extent someone has come up with some “other” type of secular morality, it can’t be “real” morality…just some subjective version so why even call it “morality.” The secular person is just fooling himself, trying to make himself feel better, a sort of con-game re-definition of words using “morality” for his actions when that term can’t make sense. Sound familiar?

    However, secular moral philosophers continue to point out that this is simply mistaken. The term “morality” is clearly under dispute, given the competing moral systems. There is no “one” concept of morality, such that if one side is wrong, it makes it impossible for the term to make sense as used by anyone else. Rather, the term “morality” tends to represent a common set of “concerns”: how ought we act toward one another and why, etc. And secular ethicists and moral philosophers point out that these concerns are in fact dealt with in secular moral theories. And because the assumptions associated with the term “morality” are so faulty to begin with in the religious version, the secular version makes much more sense of the issues and concerns that can come under the term “Morality.”

    But…a religious person will deny this and simply cling to the “fact” that “morality” has for most people meant “What a God wills us to do.”

    Jerry, when I look at your arguments concerning free will, I get the same impression from your stance as you do about compatibilists. The notion of “free will” that you cling to, that you say also represents a common notion of free will, is like that of religious morality: it just doesn’t make sense in the first place. It never has. And, to the extent you would want to say: “If you argue THIS common version of free will away, then you’ve just argued away any real Free Will and replaced it with word games” is like the religious person refusing to acknowledge any other legitimate concept of morality.

    I find compatibilism compelling for the same reason you find your view compelling. Not simply because “I want it to be true” but because, like secular morality vs religious morality, it simply makes more sense of the issue of free will. The assumptions underlying common libertarian free will concepts just don’t make sense in the first place. I think Dennett, for instance, does a good job showing this. Free will no more goes away when you detect some bad assumptions have been used by people than morality goes away when you detect the bad assumptions have been used by many people. Like morality, the notion of Free Will is associated with a set of deep concerns for human beings: “Could I do otherwise, in a sense that there is an “I” doing the choosing? And do moral prescriptions and condemnation realistically apply to my choices” etc. The term “free will” embodies those concerns, with a long history of people in different camps. When someone says “Morality is only as I conceive of it – or as most religious have conceived of it – and if you argue for a different version of morality, you are not arguing about morality.” Then it’s hard not to infer I’m dealing with something of a close-minded zealot who refuses to acknowledge other possibilities on the subject. Similarly, when someone argues “Free will is only Free Will if it’s the libertarian version I and many people assume” then…it strikes me the same way: as an almost religious-like dogmatism on a subject that remains valid beyond the narrow version you hold.

    Compatibilism (so far as the arguments would be sound), explains that the set of concerns associated with “free will” – do “I” have a choice to do otherwise in any morally relevant way, etc. – are preserved even within a deterministic world.
    But, says a critic like yourself, even if this were so why call it “FREE will?” Why not just say we have a “Will” and can make choices, but drop the misleading “FREE” part?

    It’s because the word “Free” still does useful work for us. It’s still necessary. Because in a compatibilist/deterministic framework there are ways in which our actions would be “freely chosen” and ways in which we can conceive of them NOT being “freely chosen.” And type of ways in which we’d assign a choice as being “freely chosen” actually comport quite well to our common use of the term. In a sort of informal sense, for instance, if I’m doing what I want, eating at a restaurant, then I have “freely chosen” to do so. But if I’m at a restaurant I hate because someone his holding a gun to my head and he’ll kill me unless I do what HE wants, then we don’t say I’m doing this “of my own free will.” The gunman represents a serious constraint on the “freedom” of my will at that point. (This of course gets stickier when you try to get more formal and nit-picky, but it DOES capture the informal level were many people would apply the term in this situation). Further, we could conceive of scenarios in which we do not act of our free will. For instance if I had a mind-control machine and could make you do as I will, without your decisions being the cause, that would mean your will was not “free” to act. So the notion of “freedom” as it pertains to our will and actions is still useful…and useful in the way we tend to apply it anyway, but in compatibilism, like secular morality, one is replacing the underlying old, incoherent assumptions with sturdier real-world foundations.

    That is NOT the attempt to argue for compatibilism per se. You’ve read the arguments. You don’t buy them. That’s cool. I’m only using the issue of disagreement to observe how we tend to think of people who don’t agree with us. When someone doesn’t agree with us, we can fall into simply attributing the other side’s stance to psychology vs rationality.

    And along these lines, as someone who agrees fully with you on so many subjects, it’s just intriguing to see you find parallels between your compatibilist opponents and a religious mind-set, when that is just the type of parallel that springs to my mind when reading you on free will.

    That’s no to say compatibilism is right, that you are wrong, or even that my observation of your stance on free will is right. My point is how our opponents can appear “like the religious” to us, from each side of a secular argument.



    1. As has been pointed out in other comments above, the question of determinism in no way deals with moral judgments or value claims. Harm is still harm, whether the action was deterministic or not.

      Your attempts to paint determinism as some kind of religious belief is simply weird. Is denial of dualism as religious as claims that dualism must be true? (because the bible says so)

      1. ——“As has been pointed out in other comments above, the question of determinism in no way deals with moral judgments or value claims. “—–

        Of course it does. That is, it does in the context of the concerns that surround the free will debate. It has to do with determinism’s implications for the free will debate.

        If we, for instance, found out that Obama was a
        convincing robot created by aliens, whose actions were determined by the aliens, that would of course impact on our justifications for “blaming” or “praising” Obama for his actions, and for our assessing whether Obama had any real “choice” or not.

        Same goes for the implications of determinism in general for for free will, and it’s implications for whether it makes sense to say we have a “choice” and therefore whether it makes sense to act as if we have choices and to assign moral blame or praise to our choices.

        The compatibilist, along with some strict determinists, assert that determinism does not mean our we don’t make choices and that these have no moral substance.

        “Harm is still harm, whether the action was deterministic or not.”

        Uh…yeah. I know. That’s what compatibilists say.

        ——“Your attempts to paint determinism as some kind of religious belief is simply weird.”

        I didn’t paint “determinism” as a religious belief. Determinists are varied, and use different varieties of arguments and conclusions. I explained how certain tightly held assumptions can give the same impression to me as a religiously defended assumption. In this case, the type of notion Jerry holds for “free will.”

        It’s no more “weird” than Jerry’s equating compatibilists on the other side as sharing traits of religious thinking. Both are kind of weird, which is my point. Even atheists can appear to other atheists as suddenly acting like the religious, when we are on opposite sides of an issue.

        My point is that this may high-light the very nature of what it is like to “reason” about something. In subjective terms, if we think we’ve reasoned carefully, anyone who looks at the same issue and reaches the wrong conclusion can’t be “reasoning” and hence we start to attribute a psychological basis to the other side (see Jerry’s appeal to the other side defending cherished assumptions, rather than reasoning carefully).

        It’s an interesting habit, is all I’m saying.


        1. Sorry for typos:

          Meant to say: The compatibilists, along with a number of determinists, agree: the the fact of determinism does not mean that notions of “choice” or morality disappear or become untenable. Just like Jerry and Sam Harris say.


        2. “If we, for instance, found out that Obama was a convincing robot created by aliens, whose actions were determined by the aliens, that would of course impact on our justifications for “blaming” or “praising” Obama for his actions, and for our assessing whether Obama had any real “choice” or not.”


          That is precisely the point that I do not understand in compatibilism.

          If we accept/posit determinism, then a robot that someone built that goes through the same processes as Obama- that produces choices and decisions based on reasoning and brain/silicon structures, there is no reason to claim that robotObama is not “choosing,” if we are going to say that real Obama is “choosing.”- quite simply no distinction should be made.

          I am assuming a self-propelling robot there, perhaps you mean someone else is driving the Obama machine.

          The robotWatson versus Ken and ______ on Jeapordy last year further stresses such a point. Ken’s brain was not doing something vastly different, as far as producing appropriate behavior, than Watson’s machine brain was. If we have a new roboWatson and a Ken standing before a convenient store asking whether they should rob the store, there is no reason that what the human is doing is different (in major structure) than what the machine is doing: assessing different possibilities of action and choosing between them.

          Do you say that Watson was determing Watson’s answer in the jeapordy game? Would Watson be determining Watson’s behavior standing before the drug store? Watson’s answers were determined by the unique environment that she found himself in, whatever the question was that day, but also by the extensive programming that created how she handled such situations. Ken likewise, though through a much different different process, but in the end you have a machine or brain/machine that sits before a moral situation or before an answer and has to respond to it in the only way that it will based on its structure. Does the compatibilist accept such a position?

          We can analyze programs of socialization and deterence that will put the human brain (or a more complex Watson) in the correct behavioral structure: “do not rob the store” (“you will get caught;” it is the morally wrong thing to do,” etc). But in all that analyzing why is there reason to go around calling any of the individual’s processing of information “free” or to assign such an attribute to our will? We can accept that internal drives and processing is important without the language of “free will,” without setting volition aside as some separate and ubiquitous force acting in the world.

          1. Lyndon,

            My apologies but it’s not my intention to try to debate compatibilism here. I was only using
            the fact of holding an alternate (but sincerely arrived at) view to Jerry’s as a springboard for talking about how we view people who disagree with us.

            —“I am assuming a self-propelling robot there, perhaps you mean someone else is driving the Obama machine.”

            I meant to latter. Obama’s actions, as a robot, would be choices made by aliens controlling his actions, not by his own deliberation or own “will.” (You don’t even have to posit Obama as a robot – but just as someone whose actions have been taken over and controlled by other beings making the decisions).

            I agree with your general direction: It seems to me that there wouldn’t be in principle a difference between a suitably human-like robot having morally relevant choice and a human being. (And it’s along similar lines that I agree with Dennett that the concept of Philosophical Zombies used by people who make consciousness “mysterious” don’t make sense either).

            As I said, the compatibilist retains the word “free” because it does useful work. Are most convicts sitting in prison on their own “free” will? Most of us would understand the answer to be “No.” Certainly they still have a will. But there are obvious constraints placed on their ability to exercise their will. Prisoners (many, anyway) will to be free. They do not “will” to be in prison. The notion of “free to exercise one’s will” vs “not free to exercise one’s will” is helpful here, and does conceptual work for us. It’s not an “illusion;” as we are applying the term “free will;” it describes real facts about the situation of prisoners, and is useful for distinguishing between “free” and “not free” scenarios.


            1. Vaal,

              Who does the “free” do useful work for? It is not for the compatibilist who by defining their self as such probably understands that they can talk about “uncoerced activity” without ever mentioning the banal term “free will.” So it then becomes one of preserving certain conceptions for the lay person as such, and given what the state of the lay person is (one who does not have a ready understanding of the difference between compatibilism/incompatibilism), that seems like a dubious claim. It also makes the claim that most human beings cannot attain the type of nuanced understanding that the compatibilist is able to attain on the conception of “free will,” which also is wrong for most people. (You mentioned in these posts that you realize the ambiguities most people have in understanding the issue.)

              We can and should be analyzing behavior and brain/mind activity until we are blue in the face, making distinctions between physical/psychological coercion and behavior that is not, but why keep using the term “free will,” why are we so beholden to it? What really is lost by letting it slip away? By asking such questions, we realize that this whole discussion has nothing to do with understanding ontology and properties of humans; philosophers and scientists gain nothing by maintaining the term when they could use other terms that do not carry such burdening, blurring weight.

              1. Lyndon.

                Reasonable questions, of course.

                See the string of replies from “physicalist” starting from post #18, which I think address some of what you are asking.

                BTW, the example I gave of prisoners and free will isn’t at odds with how we informally apply the term free will in many practical situations, as if the informal use is wrong-headed. Quite the reverse, the compatibilist concept of “free” in the prison example I gave is consonant with, and supportive of such uses of the term “free.” So it’s not as if compatibilism is too esoteric for the common man. (Admittedly, the arguments for OR against ANY version of free will can get esoteric).

                It’s more along the lines of “Yes, people, we are right to keep on using the term Free Will as we tend to apply it.” It’s just that compatibilism shows which assumptions underwrite our doing so. If this equates for too esoteric, then you could say the same of any secular moral philosophy as well, or of science itself.


        3. “Of course it does. That is, it does in the context of the concerns that surround the free will debate. It has to do with determinism’s implications for the free will debate.”

          Implicating something isn’t the same as changing the results, if that needed saying. Just because the *intent* of an action might be questioned under a different light or paradigm, doesn’t change the physicality of the action, the end result.

          If you get in a fight with someone and break their arm…the arm is broken no matter why you got into the fight. Fights are best avoided no matter what paradigm of reality you prefer.

    2. Well, note that Dr Coyne goes so far as to claim that we don’t actually make choices, we only appear to make choices. Instead, choices are made for us, by physics.

      1. Yes, Jerry’s is the classic mistake of supposing that since human behavior is compatible with the laws of physics, human agents and their decision-making capacities aren’t real: only micro-physical explanations of behavior count. But this doesn’t follow. We’re just as real as our micro-level constituents, so decision-making is just as real as physical laws when it comes to explaining human behavior. But it seems he’s determined to stick to his hyper-reductionism, somewhat like Alex Rosenberg in his unfortunate new book, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.

        1. But, is it so much to ask if you have any evidence pointing your way? Because Jerry’s point – as well as mine – is that the more we find out about the brain and physics, the more there seem to be a mechanism of physics rather than a “will” doing it, that our perception of self is more a result of a mechanistic delay of cognitive processing of the brain rather than some mysterious will or soul or “me” as a singular concept. Just because you think you exists doesn’t necessarily make it true; it could be that we as individuals are just poorly categorised.

          Btw, don’t call it a classic mistake; given the nature of discovery and the age of neuro-science vs. this debate, it’s just plain misleading, possibly wrong. Maybe you meant “typical” for some stereotypical argument some people make you don’t agree with?

      2. Who exactly is this “us” for whom physics makes decisions? If you reject dualism, then you must accept that we are the physical systems that do the deciding. As such, we make decisions for ourselves.

          1. Can I ask if this is actually true? As far as I can see, the argument is that when we reject dualism, hard determinism kicks in because of physics (Jerry’s argument), and the only thing differentiating one play of the universe from the next is if quantum indeterminism (and hence the snipe at it) or randomness changes their outcome. Doesn’t individual decision making in terms of how we normally think of ‘free will’ absolutely require dualism, that there must be this thing separated from the physical world in order for us to be, well, free? (How can you be free from anything if you’re not one thing, but part of a blob? Does a little blob separated from a bigger blob mean free?) Then what part is Jerry missing?

            We still think of ourselves as an individuals, Jerry does not deny this. There’s the “us” as how we feel about ourselves (even if it technically is wrong when we reject dualism), and then there’s the “us” which dualism dictates. I’m not sure neither side has been very clear on this distinction?

            1. I don’t know how you normally think of “free will”, but I think of it as a decision-making algorithm running on a physical substrate (the brain) that works by modeling alternative futures and weighing their desirability. It’s “free” to the extent that the conceivable futures it can usefully entertain are limited only by imagination and not by external coercion. This way of thinking of it doesn’t require dualism and doesn’t conflict with determinism.

              What Jerry seems to be missing when he asserts that we don’t make choices is the fact that we are the machinery that executes that algorithm. Something makes those choices, and that something is contained within our brains and powered by our cognitive capacities, so in what sense is it reasonable to say it’s not us doing the choosing? Yes, at bottom it’s all physics, but that doesn’t mean there’s no role for cognition and volition, which are as much a part of the causal chain as electrons and quarks are.

              1. Hence Dennett’s description of nervous systems as “evitability machines.” He lays it out fairly succinctly in an Edinburgh lecture, which I think you can find on the youtubes.

              2. Hmm, I’d have to say no, this is just another version of dualism. The brain is not a computer, nor a separate thing from the rest of your body, there is no algorithm “running” on it or embedded into it. Maybe it feels like it, but it simply isn’t, and if nothing else, embryology tell us this in no uncertain terms; you are one collection of biological cells that together makes you, with parts of your body having varying degrees of specialized focus, and what your brain perceives as reality and your thoughts are developed over a long period of time into set patterns of interaction between various levels of neural activity.

                There is no difference between the brain sending a signal from one part of it to another part of it, and sending a signal from your fingertip up to the brain; the perceived distance is a misnomer. And the same with thoughts; there is no real difference between wanting a sandwich, and thinking about conceptual models of semantic n-ary graphs in a semi-automatic ontological determined system where the query language has a callback-loop to calculated paths modelled over cumulative histographical summaries of know philosophical stances on knowledge. (Yeah, I’m *that* kinda geek 🙂 ) Everything is connected to the brain, nothing works without it, and its tempting to say that there is no real separation to talk about (except the stomach, I seem to recall?). We’re not robots with interchangeable parts who run some algorithm software on our hardware brain. (And this is possibly an exaggeration of your claim, of course, and I make no claim to have tried to do so)

                There is no separation between our thoughts and our brain; they are the same thing, there is a melding of what feels like a physical act and what feels like a psychological act. The brain works this way, it *is* this way. Me typing on a keyboard physically is just an extension of what I’m thinking mentally, not some mechanistic guidance API between the two for making the physical world respond to stimuli and all that. The brain *is* our thoughts, and it is a physical organ and an integral part of our body. There’s not even any translation going on between some imagined layers of being; the brain and the body and the thoughts it produces are the same blob of biological material coming together in complexity to wax lyrical about things it doesn’t understand.

                Dualism is dead. Will is dead. Soul is dead.

                What’s left is a discussion about what “free” means when you remove the soul, when you accept that dualism is a trap human imagination has fallen into for a variety of reasons. I’m a hard determinist simply because I don’t see thoughts as not bound – hard! – by the physical brain, we’re under the laws of physics, and as such if neurons fire in one way because of the state of the universe at that time I don’t think they would fire in any other way given the same state. I’m really only open to a different state of the universe if there truly is a random undetermined part of quantum mechanics that allow it, but some postulate (see latest by Sean Caroll) that even QM might be fully deterministic. Grab a spoon, and scrape out some piece of your brain, and your thoughts *will* alter, they will be different. This is not because the hardware is damaged and hence the software can’t run properly, but because you truly took the thoughts out of your head. There is no software.

                You know that silly alternative “mind and body are one”? I believe it is absolutely true, albeit not in a spiritual way, but in the most biological, evolutionary kind of way. I think our imagination and self-value systems confuse us into thinking in various dualistic ways, either because that sounds reasonable, or it fits better with some human self image, or we traditionally like it that way, or philosophy require it, or our religious notions needs it, or it feels comforting to us as creatures looking for answers where there is just more questions.

                In short, what I feel you’re saying is that you need / have specific words for certain parts of the decision chain (like ‘choosing’), and that free in the context of those specifics have given meaning (like ‘free will’). But if it’s turtles all the way down, your choice of words are simply semantics provided for a specific scale of things, one that perhaps we humans are comfortable with, and I’m starting to see this as some version of dualism as well.

                Hmm, off to think some more about this. 🙂

              3. Alexander Johannesen said:

                Dualism is dead. Will is dead. Soul is dead. …. and I’m starting to see this as some version of dualism as well.

                Hmm, off to think some more about this.

                Hmm, do I detect a turning of the tide? … 🙂

                Quoting Massimo Pigliucci from his Nonsense on Stilts:

                Or, as Sherlock Holmes famously put it in The Sign of the Four, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” [pg 11]

  25. As I sit in my chair right now, I can regulate my breathing(within limits), but not my heart rate (given my level of activity). For example, I can hold my breath, but I cannot stop my heart from beating (thank goodness).

    No doubt, all processes in my body are regulated by my brain, in accordance with the laws of physics. But my brain forbids its conscious part from even having an illusion of control over certain processes. Others it allows the conscious part to control, or have the illusion of controlling.

    There are obviously good biological and evolutionary reasons why my brain allows the conscious part to control (or have the illusion of control) over my breathing or the movement of my hand, but not my heart rate and other autonomous nervous system processes. Any theory of free will (I prefer volition–less charged) needs to confront this distinction.

  26. Haven’t read all the comments, but will put in a couple quick observations:

    My own definition (of free will) is that if one reran the tape of life up to the moment of “choice,” with every physical atom and electron in the same position at that moment, there is free will if one could have chosen otherwise.

    Although I’m a compatibilist, if this is your definition of free will, then I agree with you and am a determinist.

    I am a compatibilist, however, because I think there is ambiguity in how people interpret the phrase “could have chosen otherwise.” They mentally add in the qualification “… there is free will if one could have chosen otherwise had they wanted to.”

    The problem there is that ‘what we want’ is PART of the deterministic stream upfront. Determinism, ironically, seems to assume that “we” ought to be levitated above nature, and since we’re not then we’re caught up in forces which take away any “real” ability to choose.

    One can, of course, redefine free will so that we have it despite complete physical determinism, but that seems to me a cop-out. Better to get rid of the term than redefine it in a way that doesn’t comport with how regular people conceive of it, or how it’s been used historically. That would be like redefining “God” as “the laws of physics”—it completely finesses long-standing discussions of the problem.

    We’re not re-defining free will: we’re describing it more accurately in order to get rid of dualistic baggage. The term “Free will” encompasses too many real things that determinism doesn’t throw away — but the word ‘determinism’ has historically been used by regular people to mean that it DOES throw them away. Uh oh. Better to get rid of the term ‘determinism’ and keep ‘free will’ rather than trying to get people to redefine “determinism.”

    You see, something’s got to be redefined — or, at least, refined.

    Bottom line, I think the disagreement between determinists and compatibilists comes out of the ambiguities in the terms we’re using: “free will,” “self,” “choice,” etc. Libertarian Free-will Dualists (the group we are both refuting) want to take the decision-maker OUT of nature — and compatibilists want to EMPHASIZE that no, the goals and personality and desires of the decision-maker are included in nature, inside of determinism.

    Do we have free will?…
    Do our lives have meaning?

    Compare those questions. They deal with a similar ambiguity. The better analogy than ‘re-defining God to keep a bad God-concept around’ is ‘re-explaining meaning to get rid of a bad-God concept.’ We humanists have a better explanation for what it means for our lives to have “meaning” … and we use it in order to refute those people who say that if there is no God — no cosmic meaning to life — then “life has no meaning” and there is no reason to do anything good or useful or enjoyable or whatever.

    A determinism-style answer would be to agree with the frame: if there is no cosmic meaning to life in general, no overall purpose it was ‘created for,’ then nihilism is true.

    A compatibilist-style answer would be that no, the cosmic sense of a-meaning-to-life or a-purpose-for-life is not the one we actually use when we think about the meaning or purpose of life. OUR meaning or purpose is what is meant. There is no reason to adopt nihilism just because we are atheists. We reject the theist’s frame.

    And then the theologians sneer that we’re re-defining what ‘life having meaning’ means and nyah nyah nyah atheists ought to be nihilists.

    Your determinism stance is too open to the same sort of misinterpretation. People who believe in dualistic ‘souls’ will lick their lips over the fact that you seem to be joining in with them by throwing out “free will” and conceding that humans are either mindless robots or helpless flies caught in the trap of the web of natural law. Don’t accept their frame.

    1. Slight revision on re-reading:

      “I am a compatibilist, however, because I think there is ambiguity in how people interpret the phrase “could have chosen otherwise.” They mentally add in the qualification “… there is free will if one could have chosen otherwise had they suddenly wanted to at that moment.”

      Dualists assume that the moment of decision-making is a precise point in time unconnected to anything else outside of it. Determinists/Compatibilists don’t lift the moment out.

    2. Sastra: “A determinism-style answer would be to agree with the frame

      Right, but it might be better to refer to Jerry’s position as “incompatibilism” or “hard determinism” rather than as “determinism.”

      As compatibilists, we accept determinism as well (or at least, it doesn’t bother us) — we’re just saying that it’s compatible with freedom.

      We all agree on (effective) determinism — so we’re all determinists. The debate is over the question of what is or isn’t implied by determinism. Jerry’s a hard determinist (which, like libertarianism, is a form of incompatibilism).

  27. Sastra,

    Well put. And it makes a similar point, a similar analogy as I did: that “morality” is a useful word that embodies a set of concerns that can be addressed in a wider context than “Morality derives from God or it’s not morality.” Throwing out a widely believed assumption about morality (derived from a God) does not mean having to throw out any possible basis underwriting the issues with which morality is concerned.

    Same with “Free Will,” as you point out as well.

    It’s just somewhat disheartening to notice how quickly we can see our fellow atheists as “being just like the religious” when they don’t agree with us. I think we atheists can be so used to dumping on the religious mind as irrational that when another atheist is not agreeing with us on a topic – e.g. Free Will – well since that atheist obviously can’t have good reasons on his side, we must attribute his irrationality to something else. That person must have some psychological bent, something cherished he is protecting. I mean, it couldn’t just be that the other sides view satisfies their intellectual questions better. Hence we see Jerry making connections between his secular opponents in the Free Will debate and theologians. (And that includes my own example as well).

    I say it’s disheartening somewhat because one holds hope that reason is our best route to coming together on issues, vs emotionalism or sharing superstitions. And it still seems to be (I don’t know what could be more promising). And yet, there seems to be some inherent qualities to the way people reason that may be as good at building walls as building bridges.


    1. Above, physicalist gives another apt analogy: vitalism. Saying that if there is no contra-causal free will then there is no ‘free will’ is like agreeing that if there is no vitalistic life force then there is no such thing as “life” — or, as you put it so well above, if there is no Divine Authority then there is no such thing as “morality.” In each case one is unnecessarily conceding that the narrow supernatural interpretation of common terms is the one and only real one.

      And in all 3 cases I think I notice a similar sloppy habit of thought: greedy reductionism or “smallism.” If free will/life/meaning of life/morality can be broken down into parts that no longer have the same qualities, then it isn’t real anymore. Like comes only from like. Bottom-up cranes destroy whatever looks like it came down on a skyhook.

      I don’t think the tendency for each side to accuse the other of “being just like the religious” has to do ascribing moral motivations — such as protecting a cherished belief — though. I don’t think Jerry’s emotionally connected to his position. I think it’s just that sloppy habits of thought are human and as humans we atheists are heir to such habits. We see them not only practiced but entrenched and exalted in religion — so religion is a good comparison.

      But both sides are aware of the ravenous religious nipping at our materialistic, physicalist, naturalist heels, however — and cautious about adopting any position which may accidentally be seen to be throwing them the baby. It won’t slow them down it will only encourage them.

  28. Coming in late to the thread, and lacking time right now to read all the previous comments first, I’ll just make a few quick points on some of your numbered questions:

    3. Of course quantum indeterminacy affects our macroscopic behavior. This is trivially demonstrated by the sequel to Schrodinger’s Cat: if, on opening the box, you see a live cat, feed it. If you see a dead cat, bury it. Your feeding-v.-burying behavior (and everything that comes after) has been determined by a single quantum event: the decay of the atom that triggered (or not) the breaking of the poison vial.

    More generally, any quantum event that leads to macroscopically divergent world states must necessarily affect our behavior. The only way to avoid this is to argue that no quantum event can have macroscopic consequences, which I don’t think even Sean Carroll would endorse.

    5. If I mull over a tough decision all day, and go to bed still undecided, then wake up the next morning with a clear course of action in mind, does that somehow negate the previous day’s mulling-over? Of course not. That conscious deliberative activity was instrumental in pushing me toward an eventual decision, even though I happened to be unconscious at the precise “moment of decision” (which I suspect is as fictional as the “moment of conception”).

    6. “What does ‘free’ mean then?” What does “free” mean in the Emancipation Proclamation? Certainly not freedom from the laws of physics. It means freedom from external constraint or coercion, freedom to follow one’s own will (within the limits of the law) rather than someone else’s. Everyone understands this ordinary, everyday meaning of “free”. What makes you think the “free” in “free will” means something else?

    7. Since you want to discard the term “free will”, maybe you should discard “responsibility” as well and talk about accountability instead. Clearly it’s in society’s interest to hold people accountable for their bad behavior, whether or not any metaphysical “responsibility” attaches. If we are merely programmable robots, then it behooves us to program each other well rather than haphazardly. Moral accountability is how we do that.

  29. Jerry, you touched on this but I think a reader at Pigliucci’s place actually made the point a little more clearly that some compatibilists and Pigliucci himself seemed to ignore. The existence of a non-deterministic universe even at a macro scale in no way saves free will. Imagine connecting your brain to Schroedinger’s box so that the decay of a radioactive sample dictates whether you choose chocolate or vanilla ice-cream at the store. This is non-deterministic, but I don’t think any definition of free will can call this “free”. Note also that this is functionally equivalent to any claims that indeterminacy in the firing of neurons due to quantum effects saves free will. The presence or absence of determinism is completely irrelevant to any reasonable definition of the “free” part of free will.

    1. “The existence of a non-deterministic universe even at a macro scale in no way saves free will.”

      Yes, I don’t understand why the issue of determinism in physics is important in this context. Even if it isn’t deterministic, that doesn’t mean that there is a little man in your head controlling those laws.

      Perhaps determinism in this context is more aptly defined as “the laws of physics completely determine your behavior.”

    2. Exactly. (And this is noted by many compatibilists as well).

      Why would a choice ultimately derived from a “random” non-determined event be any more “my choice” than one that was determined.

      Non-determinist physics are a red herring in the same way Gods and souls are red herrings in terms of the free will issue. The issue is more about the implications of causation and non-causation than it is about determined/non-determined physics, and hence this problem applies anywhere you have personal agents.

      For instance how does (as many religious people believe) our mind being “non-material” (soul) actually address the problems of free will. Are our soul-choices determined by prior chains of events? If so, you still have to account for why it would be “our” choice or “free willed.” If our soul-choices are non-causal in nature, same problem: how is an uncaused choice “our” choice in any rational, moral sense. I’ve debated this with theists and challenged them to insert exactly where the “uncaused” part would happen wear having a soul makes the choice “ours” and “free.” They can’t do it without the house of cards collapsing. So they ignore it.

      You can’t escape these issues by appealing to “non-material” souls in the same way you can’t escape the issues by appealing to quantum indeterminism.


  30. Massimo and the other philosophers just seem to be defending their paychecks.

    The “panel” is packed with philo types and the one scientist is constantly apologizing and backpedaling to not appear impolite.

    While Massimo texts on his iPad!!

    It’s interesting how much of the discussion is about emotions. Who cares?! And that old war horse, justifications for punishing people. Ho hum

    Buddha forbid we give up on that great strategy.

    Philosophers, along with economists and theologians, are showing themselves as just disingenuous apologists for pop ideologies — and paid thusly.

    You would expect more intellectual honesty one would think. Human nature.

    The golden rule — whoever has the gold gets their ideas promoted.

    1. —- “Massimo and the other philosophers just seem to be defending their paychecks.”

      That’s the type of depressing B.S. assertion I wish we could rise above, here.

      How about, just like you and me: Massimo actually does believe what he is saying. That he has tried to make sense of the issue like we have, and like us his conclusions are based on what makes the most sense to him.

      Not that he’s lying for a paycheck.

      C’mon. We can disagree, even point out someone’s argument is terrible, without resorting to this stuff.


      1. Agree.

        Besides, if someone was the sort of person to lie for money, I doubt they’d have gone into the field of philosophy. Hard to make the big bucks there, I imagine.

        1. Besides, I just remembered that Massimo was recently lauded here for his principled stance on rejecting money from the Templeton Foundation. For crying out loud, he should be the last one accused of mercinarily following the “golden rule” or whatever you want to call it.

          1. No, the principal is that your utterances exist within a context of self-interest. That’s inevitable and OK. This is not a matter of how much money. If your basis for your argument is in supporting your professional ideology. Just be transparent and hold that aside.

            If I make my living as a philosopher and “science” makes this irrelevant and unproductive (as steam power) claiming to be an intellectual, you need to engage with that hard reality rather than special pleading (dishonestly) and packing your panel with fellow travelers.

            And if you are bored with the panel you’re moderating, by all means leave the chair or don’t text for 30 min!? duh lol

    2. I agree with Vaal and Sastra that these folks are NOT being disingenuous; there’s no indication that they are espousing anything other than what they really believe. However, one could say that if they’re defending their own turf against interlopers like me, that might be characterized as “defending their paychecks.”

      But it’s really not on to accuse these scholars of saying what they don’t believe to earn a buck.

      1. Sure they are. It’s like a cultural anthropologist labeling and tagging a physicist, with their =isms and categorical labels.

        These are all implicit ad hominem attacks — “Look, you’re adhering to an irrational personal belief system (-ism) like me!” The ethnic food fallacy — “Gee, it’s all about personal preferences!”

        It’s not. The dishonesty is that philosophers refuse to meet scientific claims on their own, and only terms — data. There is no such thing as “science” there is only specific data from specific studies. duh

        Philosophers, dishonestly again, insist on ordinary language arguments — because their appeals are always to naive realism (“logic”) and pop ideologies of the moment.

        As Stalin asked — “How many divisions does the Pope have?” How much predictive data do philosophers have?

        Really they are better to cede the field and avoid further embarrassement.

        Ordinary language keep wanting to dismiss data and claims from data as “science” or a world-view or belief system. That’s a simple lie — or dull headed misunderstanding.

        Finally, the predictability of any empirical claim or utterance is not correlated with anyones W-2. But when you find special pleading it is reasonable to “follow the money” and self-interest. That’s fine but, again, let’s be honest and transparent.

        “interlopers!?” What human is interloping on what in trying to understand and predict experience? Who owns experience?

  31. Jerry,

    I admit to using a critical language in your respects, which I think you richly deserve. But in the area of smugness and sarcasm you must have gotten two additional doctorates in those fields.

        1. I wouldn’t use the expression “hatchet job.” While it provides a slightly unflattering impression of Massimo, is does so without offering any substantive criticism.

          1. *Slightly* unflattering? C’mon. But you do have a point about lack of (articulated) criticism. Will happily exchange “hatchet job” for “character assassination”.

            The larger point being, of course, that it is not exactly “rapier wit” either to use blatantly disingenuous third-party articles to score a point against an opponent.

            1. “that it is not exactly “rapier wit” either to use blatantly disingenuous third-party articles to score a point against an opponent.”

              I agree. We mustn’t become so blinded by partisanship that we embrace invalid arguments or methodology in attacking our “enemies”.

              I embrace Jerry’s worldview more than Massimo’s, but I still enjoy Massimo’s podcast and website. I wish they wouldn’t bicker.

            2. Yep, you’re right. I withdraw that comment (but leave it up to shame myself) and regret citing that Observer article. But I still deplore Massimo for sniping at me twice on his website, without provocation, for my supposed naivité.

              1. “Massimo for sniping at me twice on his website”

                Yes, he did that and I thought it was a bit churlish. Although I like Massimo, I think he does tend to “poison the well”.

              2. “I withdraw that comment … and regret citing that Observer article.”

                Jerry, if you “reran the tape of life up to the moment of choice”, would you do it again?

    1. Can we interpret this to mean that Massimo Pigliucci Phd. Phd. Phd. feels confident that Jerry Coyne deserves to have critical and hostile language directed at him, but that he is incapable of imagining himself to be deserving of the same in return?

      This is an obvious failure of imagination.

  32. Jerry, you wrote:
    “It’s my contention that, in light of the physical determinism of behavior, there’s no substantive difference between someone who kills because they have a brain tumor that makes them aggressive (e.g., Charles Whitman), and someone who kills because a rival is invading their drug business. We need to reconceive our judicial system in light of what science tells us about how the mind works.”

    There is no substantive difference in this sense, and this sense only: that it was physically impossible for both to happen otherwise. Otherwise, there is all the difference in the world.

    The problem here is that you have not naturalized “choice,” and so choice appears to you as something supernatural, therefore nonexistent. So you say something like “an agent’s decision was predetermined, so they didn’t have a choice.”

    This is a similar mistake to saying “my car’s engine is bound by physical law; therefore, the engine will not start.” On the contrary, the engine will start, and moreover it will start BECAUSE of the physical law that governs it. Similarly, humans can and do make choices, because we INSTANTIATE the physical process of choice WITHIN determined physics.

    I don’t disagree that this is counterintuitive, but it is correct. Just to make the claim that I am making as counterintuitive as possible, let me say this.

    The following two propositions can both be true at once:

    (1) I could kill Ted, if (counterfactually) I had reason to.
    (2) It is currently physically impossible for me to kill Ted.

    The first statement is telling you something about how my decision algorithm works (IFF it has reasons, it performs actions). The second statement is telling you that there are no reasons to kill Ted, so it is physically impossible for me to do so. Again, when we are talking of choice we are talking about an abstract *algorithm* implemented in a physical system, not directly about the physical system. It’s like the difference between talking about addition, and talking about the physical object known as the abacus.

    Likewise, when we talk about the difference between a brain tumor’s causing you to kill people vs killing people because of a drug turf war, the reason we assign moral responsibility in the second case but not (or not very much) in the first is because your drug dealer is capable of responding to reasons, whereas the tumor patient isn’t. You can give the drug dealer reasons not to kill, such as “killing will harm your victim” or “you’ll go to jail” – these may not IN FACT sway him, but they might. Whereas giving reasons to the tumor patient is in some sense like giving reasons to a rock.

      1. What’s “silly” are facile dismissals.
        It’s not presupposing compatibilism to point out people can respond to reasons.

        It’s a fact people respond to reasons. Given certain reasons, they will change their behaviour. Not all the time, but often.

        If you have a date planned to meet your wife at a restaurant, and the police give you solid reasons to believe she has been killed in a car accident earlier, are you still going to keep your plan to meet her at the restaurant? No.
        You’d be crazy. That’s because your behaviour is capable of responding to reason.

        As opposed to the rain, which will not respond to reasons “Hey, wind, you shouldn’t rain on my party, here are the reasons why…”

        If you do not acknowledge these facts, and these are the types of facts cited by Ian Pollock, then it’s not the compatibilist who is being “silly.” And if you accept these facts, then you ought to actually show how Ian Pollock’s argument doesn’t work, rather than simply dismiss it.


        1. Dang!:

          As opposed to the rain, which will not respond to reasons: “Hey, RAIN, you shouldn’t rain on my party, here are the reasons why…”


    1. “Likewise, when we talk about the difference between a brain tumor’s causing you to kill people vs killing people because of a drug turf war, the reason we assign moral responsibility ”

      Jerry’s point is that the drug dealer isn’t responsible for the person he became, nor is he responsible for whether or not he’s responsive to arguments. Those things will be determined by his environment and genetics. His “tumor”, in other words.

      This “moral responsibility” is a meaningless concept. In reality, these two people are black boxes that have various input and output mechanisms. As a society, we merely want to provide the required inputs to produce the desired outputs. The needed inputs will vary from one black box to another.

      1. Ian,

        I think Jerry is fine with the point that some of us can be persuaded by reasons and others (with tumors) cannot: everyone accepts that rocks cannot respond to reasons while most humans can. But the “normal” individual is not responsible (does not control) the “reasons” she has at any given point, nor the reaction/behavior that she is going to make in that instance. The “normal” individual who commits a certain crime is as diseased as the tumored individual. The disease in the normal individual is the prior socialization/environment/other genetic factors that have structured her brain as it is at the moment of the crime (including past “decisions” that this brain/individual has made). That is, this individual’s “reasons,” essentially synonymous with her brain structure, is outside of one’s control. In that sense, both of these brains are diseased and determined/structured to commit this crime within their particular environment. There are differences to be taken into account, including how we respond to the capacities of such brains/individuals, but both brains were equally incapable of “good” reasoning as it regarded their crime. In that sense, moral responsibility does not attach to either brain, though we may take differing actions in trying to prevent these individuals from committing such actions again.

        A lot of this gets obscured by fairly broad accounts of agency, much because it is the easiest and most socially pragmatic way to organize society and maintain order, but that also means that our conceptions on human behaviors and capacities suffers, including ways to better society.

      2. Greg,

        —-“Jerry’s point is that the drug dealer isn’t responsible for the person he became, nor is he responsible for whether or not he’s responsive to arguments. Those things will be determined by his environment and genetics. His “tumor”, in other words.”

        That’s similar to saying it’s wrong to say a car’s spark plug is responsible for igniting the mixture of fuel and air, because after all,
        it’s just following a bunch of deterministic processes. Or that it’s really just underlying physics at work.

        Well, yes the processes are deterministic, and determined well before-hand (by a car designer…and one could say even before that).

        But that doesn’t make it “wrong” to point out the role the spark plug plays. It is indeed responsible for igniting the fuel…if it weren’t there, the fuel would not be ignited.
        There are physical facts about a spark plug that help us identify why IT would be the locus of fuel ignition, vs a camshaft, or carrot, or…

        Same with human beings. The fact the system we call “human being” would consist of pre-determined elements does not mean we can’t identify the human role in “decision making” and the specific qualities that make terms like “having a choice” and “responding to reason” and “moral responsibility” quite meaningful.
        Human beings can reason. We can respond to reason, change our behaviour based on encountering reason. Whereas a rock can not.
        Identifying that humans have necessary characteristics for choices to be made, for reasons to have effects and outcomes, is what it’s about. And we can make sense of how we use the terms “choice,” “responsibility” and “free will” by doing so. The previous environment that influenced a person can’t change it’s behaviour in response to the reasons for doing so: a PERSON can, though.
        Hence it’s no matter that a non-choosing environment ultimately led to any particular person. The fact is the person has the characteristics necessary for evaluating actions and choosing between actions based on reasons for actions.

        —-“This “moral responsibility” is a meaningless concept. In reality, these two people are black boxes that have various input and output mechanisms. As a society, we merely want to provide the required inputs to produce the desired outputs. The needed inputs will vary from one black box to another.”

        Of course moral responsibility is meaningful.
        You’ll say such weird things in a debate, but won’t act or speak like that in real life, which is telling.

        Do you not think we “ought” to do anything?
        Try going through life actually making no prescriptions for behaviour. That will prove impossible (or bizarre) because we all in our real lives understand we can give reasons-to-do-things, and hence reasons why we “ought” to do X vs Y.

        It’s not like we are reduced to only “big stick” type of influence on one another, physically threatening and beating one another to produce the behaviour we want. We have the capacity to reason, and to influence via reason. And this produces notions of responsibility – insofar as there are reasons
        we can give that one “ought” to do X under Y conditions, then we can say it is someone’s moral responsibility to do X under Y conditions.

        And because humans have the capacity to reason where rocks don’t, moral responsibility would occur in humans, but not in rocks.

        And insofar as a person could not meet certain conditions in moral scenarios, the notion of “responsibility” helps us talk about these problems: e.g. if someone watched a child drown without helping the child, but that person was a paraplegic, then that person would NOT be morally responsible for the child’s death, whereas an able-bodied person could be responsible.

        Your notion of trying to simply reduce things to “required inputs/outputs” is short sighted. It’s true in a very general sense, but it’s not a tenable way of actually talking in the real world, because when you get into the details the notions of “moral responsibility” DOES do meaningful work.

        Obviously one of the “inputs” we will be using will be the power of praise, condemnation, persuasion, reasoning etc. And it is the very “oughtness” of reasoning that makes it efficacious on our behaviour. (Why change your behaviour to reason if you are not given any reason you “ought” to change your behaviour. And once we are talking about what we “ought” to do…notions of responsibility, being able to do otherwise etc, follow).


        1. “Do you not think we “ought” to do anything?”

          I find the word “ought” meaningless, too, other than a word used to control the behavior of others. That’s why I think there is so much argument about what we “ought” to do; there is no clear definition to the word.

          As for the spark plug analogy, I’m afraid I don’t really get it.

          1. “I find the word “ought” meaningless, too, other than a word used to control the behavior of others.”

            Seriously? In every context? If I were to say to you right now, “You ought to get a flu shot,” you would be mystified by this otherworldly pronouncement?

            1. “If I were to say to you right now, “You ought to get a flu shot,” you would be mystified by this otherworldly pronouncement?”

              Why yes. What does “ought” mean in this context? As you explain, you will most likely turn the statement into a hypothetical imperative:

              You ought to get a flu shot if you don’t want to get sick.

              I would agree that “ought” has meaning in this context, but not the former.

              1. Greg,

                But even if we just stick to “ought” in terms of hypothetical imperative, it’s still the case the “ought” implies “can” and therefore how can you use reason to persuade anyone (a form of “input” as you might put it) WITHOUT the assumption they could do otherwise?

                In other words, if a terrible flu were hitting the world but there was a reliable flu shot, then you could say to your child “you ought to get a flu shot.” (Presuming the child would rather not get the flu).

                And if your child replies: “But Dad, that implies I could choose to get a flu shot or not. Unfortunately everything is determined, which means I’m not free and no such choice is possible. Thanks anyway for the advice.”

                What would you say? How do you convince your child that he in fact is free to choose to get a flue shot if he desires? I think you will quickly see the irrelevance of the fact of the previous environmental facts leading up to your son, in doing so.

                (That isn’t to say there weren’t preceding causal facts that lead to the type of person your son might be…but that in of itself this does not obviate the fact your son is a being amenable to reason, and who nonetheless CAN choose between A and B etc).

                People look for “reasons for actions.” Or are at least amenable to them. And all reasons for actions are prescriptive. If they weren’t, no action would ever be recommended. Once you acknowledge that humans are amenable to having their choices influenced by reasons-to-do-X, then that automatically assumes prescriptions, and prescriptions only make sense in light of “the possibility to decide to do otherwise.” And the “possibility to decide to do otherwise” is a lynchpin in the issue of free will. You’ve opened the door.


  33. Regarding Jerry’s definition of free will involving the thought experiment of re-running the tape, you might want to consider the case of temporary amnesia, stunningly portrayed in the the Radiolab podcast on loops:
    In which a person who temporarily loses her ability to form new memories repeats the same conversation over and over, with every nuance identical, every 90 seconds.

  34. Neuroscience is an area with important social effects, among them effects on the legal system and the strife between philosophers & theologians on one side and empiricists on the other. For the latter issue governs “what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”.

    An empirical definition of free will could be “the algorithmic behavior of free agents that are sufficiently complex that we can’t easily derive the algorithm”. That would be compatible and deepen the folk psychology idea, while being testable.

    If this is “compatibilist” in a philosophical sense so be it. Who cares? If it should be called something else, despite the effort to align an efficient description with already existing folk psychology, it is also acceptable I guess. Maybe we could call it “decision theory” or “choice model”.

    However, despite the laudable efforts of Coyne in this matter, I don’t see how the definition of “if one reran the tape of life up to the moment of “choice,” with every physical atom and electron in the same position at that moment, there is free will if one could have chosen otherwise” is useful. It isn’t testable, so “can be dismissed without evidence”.

    The problem is, what I can see, that it is based in the philosophical nonsensical idea of “counterfactuals”.

    A counterfactual is “a conditional (or “if-then”) statement indicating what would be the case if its antecedent were true (although it is not true)” [Wikipedia]. If we replace the obligating-to-nothing term “true” with “fact”, we can easily see that it is a completely open statement of the type “god creates everything”. Signifying everything it signifies nothing, and can’t be tested.

    Only by specifying outcomes (pathways) in a theory we can study distributions and their individual events. That is the general area of statistics, not physics. As an example, in the realistic Many World Theory of quantum mechanics there are no counterfactuals, outcomes of observations don’t exist before the observation is made.

    Other issues:

    I think the data now show that there really are true indeterminacies in physics—things with no deterministic “cause”. One of these, for example, appears to be when a specific radioactive atom decays.

    Quantum mechanics is a deterministic theory in the sense that states are propagated causally.

    I don’t think the stochastic part, the effective outcome of decoherence, can rightly be called “indeterministic” in an empirical sense. To come back to the discussion of statistical processes above, we can specify the relevant distributions and they obey causality.

    The problem is the philosophical conflation between philosophical “cause” and physical causality.

    But as Hoefer points out … the “laws” of physics treat time as symmetrical, which means that the present and the future “fix” the past just in the same way in which the past “fixes” the present and the future. No particular area of the time axis has priority over the others. Chew on that for a while.

    Hoefer is a philosopher, for FSM sakes!

    Yes, physical laws are time symmetrical on microscales. This is the reason why chemical reactions can _have_ an equilibrium, for instance.

    But physics is time asymmetrical on macroscales: entropy increases, standard cosmology results either in an expanding eternal universe or a re-collapsing shortlived one. This is the reason why chemical reactions can _attain_ an equilibrium, for instance.

    Trust philosophers to make ridiculous mistakes on the very subject they claim they know better than the professionals. I guess the good Dr.^3 feels free to abstain from basic thermodynamics 101 or metabolism. However, we others have no choice in the matter. Chew on that for a while (but take care if you have no metabolism for it).

    1. Sorry; what “ridiculous mistakes” are you referring to? I don’t see you saying anything that contradicts Hoefer paraphrase.

      1. The paragraphs just before, obviously. (Or I hoped it was.)

        “Yes, physical laws are time symmetrical on microscales. …

        But physics is time asymmetrical on macroscales …”.

        Hoefer quite ridiculously, if we accept Pigliucci’s account, or Pigliucci, if we don’t accept it, claimed that “the “laws” of physics treat time as symmetrical”.

        As others commenter before me, I just pointed out that this isn’t true. And those asymmetrical cases is undergraduate physics.

        You would think that anyone interested in discussing “free will” of minds would be conversant with some of the relevant science!

      2. Oh, maybe you are asking for a “law” instead of a system, but I already gave that: the 2nd law of thermodynamics gives time a direction, so is time asymmetrical. (Technically this time pseudo-vector is caused by standard cosmology expansion, but it is still “a law” in Hoefer’s sense.)

        1. Hoefer is quite well aware of the time asymmetry of thermodynamics (and other macro-physical laws). If you scan the entry that Pigliucci is referring to, I think you’ll find your outrage is misplaced.

          (Do keep in mind that Hoefer is writing for a general audience.)

          I’m not even convinced that we need to read Pigliucci’s paraphrase as referring to all physical laws. The time reversibility of microphysics (let’s say quantum field theory) is enough to raise the point.

          (Although I actually don’t think Pigliucci’s point is very very strong; the question of time symmetry or asymmetry isn’t particularly relevant to the debate here. But that’s hardly Hoefer’s problem.)

    2. I think that jac’s counterfactual is simply a way of saying that the brain has a certain physical state at the time it makes a choice,and given that physical state, it would have to make the same choice again. To deny that seems to me to deny cause and effect, regardless of the inability to implement “counterfactuals”.

  35. I don’t believe in mind-body duality. But I think the tape analogy used in #1 of your 7 points is an oversimplification.

    You write about re-running the tape of life up to “the moment of “choice,” with every physical atom and electron in the same position at that moment, there is free will if one could have chosen otherwise. (I exclude different “choices” based on things like quantum indeterminacy.)”

    What is the moment of choice? This thought experiment relies on being able to break the work of the mind up into discrete states such that one state can be identified as the beginning of a decision making process in the brain.

    What is the resolution of our state definitions, and how do we determine the state when the choice in question is completed? Do we use time as a unit for sampling and comparing discrete states? Or a statistical measure of the degree of change to position and momentum of all the particles in this brain system?

    If we use time, it is not clear what units make sense to define a transition from physical state P to physical state P + 1. If we look at the smallest measurable changes in the position and momentum of all particles, or by using a granularity based on recognizable changes in chemical bonds, then from the standpoint of conscious decisions, hardly anything happens between physical state P and P + 1. It may require many many billions of state changes before we reach the end of the decision making process.

    On the other hand, if we try to define states of mind such that a decision starts at logical state L and by logical state L + 1 (or some reasonable integer number of transitions later) the decision is complete, then we are really no longer looking at the brain on the level of physics or chemistry, but we are analyzing it in terms of an information processing model instead. This information processing model could consist of states that that are very complex compositions of many billions of underlying physical events.

    I’m not sure it’s safe to assume that there is a firm deterministic causal relationship between these two levels of analysis for mental processes. In other words, if we replay the tape of life from physical state P to P + (billions of physical/chemical events) twice in a row, will the transition from logical state L to L + 1 always be exactly the same? Isn’t it possible that the information model used by our conscious and unconscious mind has some statistical relations of probability to the billions of underlying physical/chemical state changes?

    I’m not talking about quantum indeterminacy here. I’m suggesting that given the exact same deterministic sequence of physical events unfolding twice in a row, how reliably can we say that the sequence of logical informational transitions would be exactly the same?

    Let’s consider some alternate thought experiments. Say a person lies in a sensory deprivation tank, and say we can at any moment clone the tank and the individual in the tank into a thousand parallel experiments with identical physical states. Then assuming the hypothesis of determinism is valid, if at some time t later a thousand identical loudspeakers ask the thousand individuals to choose a number between 1 and 15, every single individual will choose the same number, say 8. Now lets delay the question by some tiny delta t, say 1 nanosecond. Will the thousand all still pick 8, or will they all pick a different number? At what delta t will the aggregate of biochemical events in the brain cause a different logical choice? What significant biochemical events actually define that transition point when the brain is in a different logical state and will choose differently? And how do we know that transition point will always be the same every time we replay the physical and chemical events?

    What if the sound is modified in each of the thousand cases, so that at one extreme the sound is unambiguously the word 15, and at the other extreme it is unambiguously 50, but the intermediate sounds progress incrementally so that some percentage of the thousand subjects interpret the number to be 15, and some percentage interpret it to be 50? Will all of the subjects who decide the sound is 15 choose the same number, or will the varying auditory processing tasks also influence the part of the brain used to select a number?

    I think these considerations suggest that until we better understand exactly how the enormous number of chemical events in the brain translate into conscious thought and unconscious decision making, we can’t really be certain that the deterministic laws of physics translate into a parallel deterministic sequence of events at the conscious level of information processing.

    The complex networks in the brain may give rise to fuzzy probabilistic effects that may indeed lead to different choices if we replay the tape a thousand times.

  36. I have to say, Jerry, your discussion of quantum uncertainties continues to be bad. It has been repeatedly pointed out in almost every thread of these discussions that quantum uncertainties have macroscopic effects. The chaotic dynamics of complex systems means that infinitely small variations in initial conditions lead to large variations in later trajectories.

    The answer to your Question 3 is unequivocally NO. Even barring the influence of quantum events in the brain (which, according to my calculations, can be large enough to affect behavior), quantum uncertainty in the world at large leads to arbitrarily large uncertainties in the world’s state, and because our behavior is influenced by that indeterminate world, it is not predictable by any physical laws (except in a statistical sense).

    And in your treatment of Question 4, you say there is only one set of behaviors we can evince. This is false; the laws of physics are indeterminate and as I just explained, even the smallest indeterminacy leads to big enough effects to influence our behavior.

    1. 1) It is generally very hard to get systematic large-scale macroscopic effects from quantum events. This is one reason that experimental quantum mechanics is difficult. Typically one needs very cold and rigid experimental conditions. The brain is neither cold nor rigid.

      (In technical terms, the point is that we should expect rapid decoherence in the brain, which will prevent individual quantum events from producing a large-scale effect.)

      2) Even if quantum indeterminacy were to impact our behavior, this would not change the issue that Jerry is considering. Quantum indeterminacy would merely introduce an element of chance, and all parties agree that mere chance is irrelevant for freedom.

      (Or, more precisely, to the extent an action is the result of chance, we are not responsible for that action.)

      1. (In technical terms, the point is that we should expect rapid decoherence in the brain, which will prevent individual quantum events from producing a large-scale effect.)

        I gather that several physicists – Max Tegmark and Victor Stenger, at least – had argued that point, but some fairly recent results indicates that quantum coherence effects can exist – and are used – in biological organisms at their normal operating temperatures.

        Although it is, of course, apparently still an open question whether similar processes exist in the brain and are the source of consciousness – and some limited degree of free-will. However, I’m certainly sympathetic to dualism of some sort or another, which may find some support in quantum mechanics, and likewise with an argument of Herman Weyl that “… this secret [of consciousness], by its very nature, lies beyond the cognitive means of natural science”. [Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science; pg 216]

        Quantum indeterminacy would merely introduce an element of chance, and all parties agree that mere chance is irrelevant for freedom [free will].

        Definitely an interesting interplay between “quantum indeterminancy” and choice. Stuart Hameroff – and others – certainly seems to think there’s a connection.

      2. Physicalist, you miss my central point. Tiny uncertainties, of the kind that are present everywhere in ordinary matter at ordinary temperatures, are regularly magnified by ordinary dynamics. A particle that has a tiny momentum uncertainty hits another particle with a tiny uncertainty, and they both both off with an increased uncertainty. Eventually, even if they are not in a coherent state, their positions at some later time will have a huge uncertainty, and the laws of physics (even as applied by an infinitely powerful intelligence) will not be able to say much about them. These particles go on to affect others, with eventual macroscopic consequences, and these affect behavior. Therefore behavior is not rigidly determined by physical laws.

        Even ordinary billiard balls exhibit macroscopic quantum uncertainties after enough bounces. “It is generally supposed that distinctly quantum-mechanical effects do not show up on the macroscopic level. However, it is shown here that the uncertainty principle imposes a drastic limit on the predictability of the detailed motion of a collection of colliding hard spheres, or ‘billiard balls.’ ”
        [ How Determinate is the “Billiard Ball Universe”?
        (D.J.Raymond, 1967; American Journal of Physics; Feb. 1967; Vol. 35, Issue 2, pp. 102-103) ]

        People here are also mixing up quantum coherence (which is difficult to maintain in macroscopic objects) with indeterminism. Even after decoherence, there is indeterminism, because there are no laws telling us which state the wave function “collapses into”. The many-worlds idea may give us a way out of this indeterminism, but at the cost of saying that every possibility actually happens. Maybe that’s reasonable, I am not sure, but here I am only addressing Jerry’s argument in his Question 3. I agree that indeterminism may not have much to do with free will, but Jerry always frames his discussions as if it does. It is only his incorrect assumption of macroscopic determinism, his incorrect dismissals of the role of quantum mechanics in everyday life, that I am arguing against.

        1. So it seems the spinning off into the most arcane topics in physics in discussions of brain functions and processes and behavior are what?

          Ducking and dodging to avoid the facts of brain science? Attempts, like Deepak Chopra, to spread woo all about? Just a smoke screen for a lack of understanding of brain functions and mechanics?

          Probably all of the above. Silly but predictable.

          What it does effectively do is deflect and block any serious discussion of brain processes or evolutionary models of the same and behavior.

          Well don ethat.

          1. What a strange comment. I am simply pointing out some physics. Jerry has misconceptions about determinism and quantum mechanics. Just because I point that out, you assume I am a fan of woo and Chopra? Why not just tell me what specific thing I wrote was wrong, in your opinion?

              1. This discussion is about determinism and free will. Quantum mechanics is relevant to discussions of determinism, and Jerry is the one who brought it up.

              2. How? Jerry was just referencing this straw man trick used by other folks.

                Why does anything at the Planck scale length need to be even mentioned in discussing brain and behavior and evolution?

                It’s silly, a la Deepak Chopra.

              3. You clearly haven’t read what I wrote, or looked at the reference I cited. I’ve explained three times that even the tiniest quantum uncertainties magnify into macroscopic uncertainties. The distinction between microscopic and macroscopic indeterminism is artificial and false.

                For example, my brain’s state now was not completely determined by the conditions of the universe on Jan 1 1975. I built a quantum-mechanical random number generator in 1976, and its output influenced my actions and memories, which had consequences not only for me but for many people with whom I interacted. The same thing happens to anyone whose behavior changed due to some chance event that was quantum mechanically uncertain. If it ever happened to anyone, over time the ripples from this would cause the whole remaining course of human existence to be contingent on quantum-mechanically indeterminate processes.

                Finally, the synapses between neurons are quite small, and the diffusion of neurotransmitters across them is stochastic; there will be some uncertainties in firing times, and these would be multiplied in successive neuron layers. Of course our brain is not a random number generator, it is mostly causal, so there must be feedback and redundancy to eliminate the randomness. But it is not impossible that some of our thoughts or behaviors are sometimes quantum-mechanically indeterminate.

              4. This is all silly woo and disingenuous.

                Furthermore parsimony demands we avoid Planck scale length stuff to learn and discuss much more about basic brain processes and macro molecules of neuro-transmissions and evolutionary processes in shaping behaviors.

                This has all been debunked by neuroscience and physicists.

                It is not impossible that a large birthday cake is controlling the universe either.

                It is dishonest for the ideological to jump to extreme physics to dodge the very good neurocognitive work on no free will while remaining completely ignorant of basic biology.

                The only reason woo physics ideas are used is because they are easily and cheaply available in pop media and no one wants to do any work to learn basic biology.

              5. There you go again with your insults. My comments are mathematically-demonstrable facts (you still haven’t bothered to look up the physics article I cited). No woo is involved, and no dodging of neurocognitive work.

                I resent your assumption that my arguments come from media and pop physics, and that I know nothing about biology. As a physics grad student specializing in the interpretation of quantum mechanics, in a department with two Nobel Laureates (Steven Weinberg and Ilya Prigogine), I spoke with people like Eugene Wigner, John Wheeler, David Bohm. Since then I have also written a fair number of articles in ecology and genetics. Of course I could still be an idiot, but if so, you should be able to tell me why I am wrong instead of just tossing insults.

                And reread my posts–where is the woo???

              6. OK, have at it peer-reviewed data on Planck scale length effects on macromolecule neurotransmitter.

                Sorry arguments by authority don’t count.

                If you want to hold forth on the brain you need to know something about the very analog and Newtonian processes which drive the bran and biology. And evo processes duh.

              7. There were no arguments from authority; I was just refuting your assertion that my observations were based on pop media.

                Quantum indeterminacy is not restricted to Plank length events. Why do you keep repeating that? I gave the example of my quantum-mechanical random number generator, whose macroscopic output is quantum-mechanically indeterminate. Chaotic systems also will have macroscopic states that are quantum-mechanically indeterminate, because arbitrarily small changes in initial conditions result in large state changes after a sufficient time. I am not saying the macroscopic system is in a coherent state, just that its state at time t is not completely determined by its state at time 0.

                As I said, even if the brain were strictly determinate, its connection to external quantum or chaotic systems in the world makes its own state equally indeterminate, in the sense just mentioned.

                Stop beating an imaginary enemy. There is no woo here. You are so blinded by your woo-fear that you aren’t even reading my arguments carefully.

              8. I didn’t say a word about their respective positions on QM.

                I gave you a simple citation showing how even billiard balls exhibit macroscopic indeterminism after enough bounces. You still haven’t read it. I have given you clear real-life examples of how quantum indeterminacy in the world can have macroscopic consequences. I showed how a human who interacts with those macroscopically indeterminate events will have a brain state that is itself quantum-mechanically indeterminate, in the sense that its macroscopic state cannot be predicted from its state prior to contact with the external indeterminate quantum process.

                To ward off more of your insults, let me emphasize that I am not saying anything about consciousness or quantum coherence. A completely deterministic robot could replace the human in my example. If its state is a function of an external quantum process like my QM random number generator, its state after interacting with that process cannot be completely determined by its state (and the state of the universe) before the interaction.

                You seem unwilling to follow that very simple argument and point out specific errors. You prefer to insult and run. Try reading the preceding paragraph, where humans are replaced by robots, and I bet you will realize that there is nothing here to object to. There is no woo at all.

              9. If you read Jerry’s post, you’d see that determinism was an element of the discussion. Jerry had said that macroscopic actions were surely determinate. I am showing that they are not.

              10. I didn’t talk about evolution because it is irrelevant to this issue involving determinism.

                Why is every comment of yours devoid of actual information? They are all basically insults.

              11. Simple, there are no substantive comments from most commentators — they are all meta comments.

                Then, as ideological people always do, when they called called on their rhetorical tricks — they tske it personally. It’s not. We are talking about ideas, not people.

                Evolutionary mechanisms underlie every biological thing. Free will at the deterministic, practical level we are discussing it here and elsewhere is driven by evolutionary processes inherited from other animals.

                To even ask why evolution is relevant is deeply uninformed. It’s like communicating with HS students! Boring.

              12. I can’t see that biological evolution has anything to do with questions of whether humans and the rest of the universe are deterministic (which is the only part of the post that I was addressing).

                If you think this is wrong, add some evolutionary insight or tell us how evolution is relevant to this question.

              13. Sweet Jesus! Amazing but this pretty much summaries the level of (mis)understanding of basic biology by philosophers and physics type.

                This is VERY simple. What we call “free will” is behavior. Behavior is a biological trait caused by the brain. All biological traits and physiological system (the brain) are inherited from other animals via evolutionary mechanisms. Unbelievable this even needs to be said on a website dedicated to evolution.” Disturbing.

                What do meta issues of extreme physics and philosophy have to do with biology?

              14. Sleeprunning, you seem not to have evolved the behavior that leads to sociability. Because a person does not know or understand something you know or understand does not make them an idiot.

                There are billions of people alive who know important and useful things of which you have no clue.

                You seem to have much to offer intellectually, but I’ve noticed you being a little bit too confident by remarking on posts you have not thoroughly read, and by being viciously dismissive of comments once you believe you understand them, and once you think it is contrary to your impenetrable wall of mental certainty.

                Your attitude of absolute certainty makes you vulnerable to missing things that might be new or interesting perspectives. Of course you will dismiss this with derisive sarcasm because you are already certain that you know everything there is that is worth knowing.

              15. Ad hominem and the “Santa Claus Argument” the idea brings so much joy to billions of parents and children all over the world……

                It’s silly and childish.

              16. Thank you Jeff. And you were right about what his response to you would be like.

                Sleeprunner, just because somebody brings up physics here (where it definitely is relevant to the discussion of determinism) doesn’t mean he or she is ignorant of evolution. Though my background is mostly in physics, I am a biologist now, with publications on evolution and ecology. Your blind rage at anyone who talks about physics or philosophy is bizarre.

              17. Really? Post/comments on physics = many. Post comments on bio = 0

                Ad hominem posts comments on someone’s personality = many. lol

                Apparently, this is a self-help thread with physics and philosopher types spooning out personal advice.

                Anything to avoid talking about the data and facts of brain science and what triggers behavior in humans or other animals.

              18. Look harder. Most of my comments on this website (and all my scientific publications) are about biology. But what difference does it make?

        2. @ Lou Jost

          I could quibble on some points, but I agree with the core of what you say here.

          Yes, determinism is something of a red herring — but it’s the traditional way of framing the debate, and recasting the worries to account for the (possibly) stochastic nature of quantum mechanics doesn’t really change change things (on this point Jerry is in agreement with most philosophers).

          The real point is that modern physics tells us that to the extent that any event is actually determined, it is physical facts that are doing the determining. There is no room for any supernatural intervention.

          If the physics doesn’t decide what happens then nothing gets to decide it. So there’s no room for the sort of libertarian choice that Jerry insists is necessary for responsibility.

          I think the problem with Jerry’s position was diagnosed well by Ian Pollock above: “The problem here is that you have not naturalized “choice,” and so choice appears to you as something supernatural, therefore nonexistent.”

          So yes, determinism isn’t really what’s at issue. The real question is whether physicalism (or naturalism) is compatible with freedom and responsibility. This is shown by the fact that indeterministic physics doesn’t help the libertarian.

          The question that’s really relevant is whether our control of our actions exceeds the control of physics (or of the laws of nature more generally — if one rejects physicalism but accepts naturalism).

        3. @Lou Jost

          I feel like we’ve had this conversation before, but I think the reason compatibilists invoke determinism is this: if their point stands under hard determinism, then it will stand also in a world with quantum indeterminacy. The latter is mostly an interesting wrinkle to the question at hand.

          1. @Another Matt

            Yes, we did have this discussion before. If Jerry had said “Let’s just assume determinism for the sake of argument and develop a compatabilist argument,” that would have been unobjectionable. He instead makes a fact claim about it: “3. Are our decisions completely determined by the laws of physics? I don’t see how the answer to this can be anything but “yes,” barring those decisions that could be affected by true indeterminacies, like those involved in quantum mechanics.”
            My point is that even the smallest quantum uncertainty can quickly become world-changing, and Jerry’s answer to this question is wrong. That’s all.

  37. When it comes to “responsibility” or at least justifying the use of praise, blame, punishment, and reward, I think consequentialism stands the best against free will. A (properly designed) penal system can be rationalized in terms of reducing overall societal harm, rehabilitating criminals, disincentivizing future crimes, and preventing those beyond repair from harming innocents again. The current judicial system, of course, is far stretched from this ideal and is based *way* too much on vengeance.

  38. My own definition is that if one reran the tape of life up to the moment of “choice,” with every physical atom and electron in the same position at that moment, there is free will if one could have chosen otherwise. (I exclude different “choices” based on things like quantum indeterminacy.)

    That’s an awful definition of free will. It only applies if there is no immaterial reality. If reality is physical-only, then the definition is specifying the entire past history of ‘you’ as a condition at the moment of choice. If reality is physical+immaterial, then it isn’t. It’s apples and oranges.

    If one reran the tape of life up to the moment of “choice,” with every feature of reality (including you, regardless of whether you are body or body+soul) the same up to that moment, there is free will if…

    A hypothetical soul cannot give you libertarian free will any more than physical brains can. Either the ‘choice’ is determined by reality up to that point, and therefore not ‘free’, or the choice is not determined by reality (including you) up to that point, and therefore not willed by you.

    Your definition makes it sound like a soul could give you more ‘free will’ than a completely physical person can. Even adding a hypothetical soul cannot do that.

  39. Jerry sez:

    “My own view is that holding people ‘responsible’ for their acts, whether good or ill, is something that we need to do to preserve an orderly society. (I’m not sure we should consider this a form of “moral” responsibility.)”

    We shouldn’t, and thanks for raising this important point, see Bruce Waller’s new book Against Moral Responsibility. He sets out to debunk the compatibilist moral responsibility system and its insistence on retribution, leaving other sorts of responsibility intact.

    “But we should certainly inform our system of justice, punishment, and reward in light of what neuroscience tells us.”

    Absolutely – this is the progressive implication of getting scientific about human agency. In the panel Massimo hosted, philosopher Jesse Prinz drew out the implications of questioning contra-causal free will (CCFW) for criminal justice and tax policy. Here’s a fairly accurate transcript of Prinz’s remarks between 1:11:30 and 1:13:30, with a few elisions:

    “The problem is that we have some choices that are affected in ways that lead to consequences that I think we need to revise. Take two examples. One of them is punishment. We send people to prison, we deprive them of their liberty, their autonomy, and we make them suffer terribly where in many cases we can identify social forces that might have played a major role in leading them to engage in this criminal behavior. So the method of shaping behavior through incarceration is not only not a terrifically effective one to alter behavior, but it might be unjust or unethical given that it’s a strong form of punishment, a strong form of cruelty, for behaviors that might have originated in a person’s social environment rather than in their evil soul. [Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen say this too, see their paper “For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything” online.]

    “Second example, and here my own New York liberalism will come out. Taxation: we have a lot of people who make a lot of money, and some people make a lot of money because they are particularly clever, but a lot of people make a lot of money because they were born in the right circumstances….There’s a lot of luck of birth right that goes into having the fortunes that some of us have, and if your success in the world is partially a function of that privileged position that you had nothing to do with, then the notion of redistribution, of distributive justice that involve putting people who are in this particular position of privilege in a tax bracket that makes them give away some of that to people who might not have been born in such a position of privilege seems to look more justified than it would look if we didn’t have a correct picture of the determinants of action….Having these conversations about the kinds of sources of behavior control might help usher us toward policy changes that would have a huge impact on how we conduct our lives.”

    What’s notable is that none of the other panel members took exception to this. Maybe the progressive implications of questioning CCFW are finally starting to propagate.

    1. Here’s a problem. It appears:
      – Punishment is an instinctive impulsive found in very young kids. Do we want childhood impulses to be a basis for social action? Maybe.
      – Punishment doesn’t work against bad actors since they are brain damaged. Think. If deterrence worked with them — they wouldn’t be bad actors? duh
      – Punishment also probably blocks further study of how to really affect these, largely genetic, brain impairments.

      Anything that needs childish moralizing/magical thinking to justify, probably ain’t empirically useful.

      1. Under the rules of your determinism, there is no such thing as “instinct,” “impulses,” “deterrence,” “study,” “affect,” “moralizing,” “justifying” — just to name a few. All of those things would require some kind of choice, which you claim not to believe in.

    2. Reminds me of a passage in Sagan’s Broca’s Brain in which Sagan is discussing phrenology and how “savants of earlier days had hoped there might be some anomaly, some telltale sign in the brain anatomy or cranial configuration of murderers”:

      Phrenology was a graceless nineteenth-century aberration. I could hear my friend Ann Druyan saying, “The people we starve and torture have an unsociable tendency to steal and murder. We think it’s because their brows overhang.” But the brains of murderers and savants – the remains of Albert Einstein’s brain are floating wanly in a bottle in Wichita – are indistinguishable. It is, very probably, society and not heredity that makes criminals. [pg 6]

  40. Although I share Coyne’s hard deterministic nonacceptance of free will, I feel that point 7. about moral responsibility and justice is completely irrelevant and unapplicable.

    If we have no free will, then all actions are determined. So yes, a criminal committing a crime has no choice to act in any other way. Coyne then discusses how we as a society should be informed about the criminal’s neuroscientific predicament about lack of choice, and change our views about how we treat him.

    But all reactions are also actions. If there is no free will, then the societal reaction to the criminal action is also determined, and we have no choice but to punish the criminal in the way we are determined to punish him.

    Coyne paints out the situation as if the criminal had no free will but had to commit his crime, but yet we as observers to his crime have despite that the free will to choose how to react to the crime. Which is contradictory.

    1. Sebastian, you are precisely correct!

      Hard determinism allows only for reactions, no actions (as they indicate choice).

      Hard determinism views reality as if it were already preset into a DVD — look at any spot, and there is only one frame before it, and one frame after it, no choices involved.

  41. [quote]When discussing free will, some philosophers appear to show an intellectual kinship with theologians.[/quote]

    At least in Germany, this is no coincidence: Both the Catholic and the Protestant Church have the right to appoint professors for philosophy at several German universities (while the state has the right to pay in full).

    So basically, if you ask a theologican (Who also may teach at a university, appointed by the church and paid by the state), you get “Free will does not mean that you can chose between Coke and Pepsi, it means that you can chose between good and evil”. His friend from the philosophy department will tell you “Free will does not mean that you can chose between Pepsi and Coke, it means that you can chose between right and wrong”. Which surely isn’t theology at all… As John Edwards said in post #19:

    [quote]Brought up as a Christian I thought free-will simply meant that people had the freedom to choose to accept or to reject Jesus, to live by Christian standards or do their own thing and face the consequences.[/quote]

  42. I’m undecided as to whether it’s better to say there’s no such thing as free will, or that the question of whether there’s free will is not suffiently meaningful to have an answer.

    What I would ask is why the question matters anyway? If our aim is simply to understand the world, then we should only employ terms that are useful in explanations and predictions. But those who think this question is important are not trying to explain or predict some phenomenon. They are only trying to justify their belief or disbelief in “free will”.

    Some people also care because they think that without something they can call “free will” there can be no “moral responsibility”. But, as a moral error theorist, I think there can be no such thing as moral responsibility anyway. So the question doesn’t arise. In any case, we should ask what use is the concept of “moral responsibility” in explaining and predicting reality. It doesn’t seem to have any such use.

    Terms like “free will”, “moral responsibility” and other moral terms have come into existence not because they are any use for describing reality, but because they are useful for non-epistemic psychological purposes, such as for motivating ourselves and others.

    1. “But those who think this question is important are not trying to explain or predict some phenomenon.”

      Sure they are. Our brains make decisions every day. How do they do it? That’s a phenomenon that wants explaining. Compatibilism seeks to explain it without invoking anything spooky, and without waving the complexity away by saying “It’s all just physics/genes/neurochemistry.”

      1. Compatibilism is a position on the existence of free will. It doesn’t explain our decisions. Determinists (whether compatibilist or incompatibilist) agree that our decisions are caused by physical processes, and they are not in any disagreement over the nature of those physical processes. Please see my new, longer comment which I hope makes my meaning clearer.

    2. Compatibilists and incompatibilists agree on the relevant physical facts: human decisions are caused by physical processes in the brain, and there is no mysterious uncaused causer involved. Since there’s no dispute here about the substantive facts, it seems the dispute is a semantic one about whether it’s appropriate to use the term “free will” in describing those facts. The dispute is over the meaning of “free will”. But why bother having that dispute when we can describe the facts perfectly well without using the term “free will”?

      The compatibilists I’ve read seem motivated primarily by concern over whether we can be said to have “moral responsibility”. But, if we can describe all the relevant facts without using the term “free will”, then we should be able to decide the question of moral responsibility without using that term. Yet compatibilists seem to feel there can’t be moral responsibility unless there’s something they can call “free will”. This suggests they are conflating two senses of “free will”. They are taking it in a weaker sense when they argue that the relevant facts justify the conclusion that free will exists. And they are using it in a stronger sense when they use the existence of free will to justify the conclusion that moral responsibility exists. Effectively they seem to be committing a fallacy of equivocation.

      Even if compatibilists are conflating two senses of “free will” (let’s call them the weak and the strong sense), it could be the case that one of those senses is a well-established sense appropriate to the context, and the other is a misguided non-standard sense. In that case it would still be reasonable for the rest of us to continue using the word in the well-established sense. It’s reasonable for us to say “the Earth is 4.55 billion years old”, even if there are a few people who insist on using the word “billion” in the obsolete British sense of a million millions.

      I think moral naturalists are doing something similar to compatibilists. Moral naturalists typically attempt to define moral terms as a function of non-moral terms. For example, they may define “morally good” to mean “that which tends to maximise well-being”. But this is a misguided definition. It gives a meaning which is quite different from the ordinary meaning, established by common usage. Moral naturalists then conflate this meaning with the ordinary meaning, using their (weaker) sense to convince themselves that some moral claims are true, and then accepting the truth of those claims in the ordinary (stronger) sense.

      As a moral error theorist I say that, given the normal meaning of moral terms, moral claims cannot be true. Or, to put it crudely, moral properties do not exist. So why am I willing to say confidently that moral properties do not exist, but more ambivalent about saying that free will does not exist? It’s because I think the meaning of moral terms has been pretty well established by common usage, and we have sufficient evidence of this meaning to conclude that moral properties do not exist. I’m not so sure this is true of the term “free will”. Moral terms are in much more frequent everyday use, so we have more evidence of their meaning. And the sorts of moral claims that philosophers are concerned with are broadly the sorts that people make in everyday discourse.

      What do people say about “free will” in everyday discourse? It seems to me they mostly say things like, “Was he coerced or did he do it of his own free will?”. But “free will” here is being used in opposition to the possibility of inappropriate external influences on his decision, and this is not the issue that philosophers are concerned with when they ask, “Does free will exist?”, or “Do we have free will?”. It seems to me that “free will” has a different meaning in the context of discussions about its existence than it does in everyday discourse. But that means we can only look to discussions about the existence of free will for evidence of its established meaning. And it’s no use looking at philosophers’ discussions since the compatibilist-incompatibilist question arose, since philosophers since that time have been using the term in conflicting senses. With regard to common usage (by the philosopically uninformed) I think Eddy Nahmias’s experimental philosophy suggests that there’s too much variation to say there’s an established meaning. (But IIRC he wasn’t primarily concerned with meaning, and I would like him to have asked other questions.) With regard to earlier philosophical discussions, I don’t know enough to judge confidently how the term was then used. Nevertheless, given my conclusion that compatibilists are conflating meanings, I have a lot of sympathy for Jerry’s judgement that the original meaning was a stronger one, and that compatibilists have adopted a weaker one in order to hold on to the idea that free will exists.

      1. Philsophers and physics-selling types are just lazy on the free will question. They are like the drunk that only looks fo the answer under the streetlight.

        Free will is a problem or biology and brain science — not philosophy or extreme physics. Ultimately it is also related to evolutionary mechanisms.

        But instead of even studying enough to be conversant with basic biology and brain science, the philosophers and extreme physics crowd wallow in the cant of irrelevant solipism. This is all a significant waste of time.

          1. Before careful chit chat (“thought”) about biology, brain science, animal ethology, physiology, evolutionary mechanisms!?

            Extreme physics and philosophy are trivial meta issues.

            Basic biology is conspicuous by it’s absence on a site dedicated to evolution, duh.

            1. Perhaps you could enlighten all of us pathetic losers, myself included, and end all of this discussion today. Why on earth would you withhold all of your wisdom?

              So please explain why evolution evolved consciousness? If our decisions are already determined by the chemistry and physics of the reactions that collectively comprise our brain and nervous system, what is the value as an adaptation of our conscious sense of deliberating?

              For example, let’s say an attractive person is flirting with us, and indicates a desire to engage in sex. We would have many considerations, including factors of safe sex (our health), possible emotional complications, are we already in a relationship or marriage, can we get away with cheating, do we want to risk getting caught, wouldn’t it be better not to emotionally hurt our mate, do we value our present relationship more than a momentary pleasure, etc.

              Presumably what might be a prolonged and agonizing decision for a person, including waffling and back and forth changes and self-doubt, has a conclusion that is predetermined by physics. It would be much more efficient in terms of time and energy if the brain had no conscious experience of deliberation with all it’s attendant emotional ups and downs. Why did we not evolve to simply act on impulse, either immediately accepting or rejecting the offer of sex with no further ado?

              At some macro-level in the brain we experience a kind of bargaining process or a competition between emotions, desires, and logical reasoning about the projected effects of a contemplated action. We can also experience hormonal changes, accelerated pulse, shortness of breath, precursors to sexual excitement, clamminess, etc. Somehow this internal bargaining or competition, if the final choice of action is already determined, amounts to nothing more than scalar arithmetic that could instantaneously determine which impulses or mental factors win out and determine our behavioral choice.

              Why, from a behavioral evolutionary standpoint do we engage in all this foolish behavior and self-deception?

              Also, at the outset of some decision process in response to a stimulus, given an initial state of the mind from a physical perspective, let’s say knowing the position and momentum of every particle in the brain, body and environment, how many small perturbations are possible that would result in an identical decision being made at the conscious level of experience? I think that in the complex network of hundreds of billions of neural connections there may be enough tolerance and stability that many initial conditions could result in the same decision being made. If this is true there is not a simple 1-1 mapping between initial conditions and behavioral results.

              Is it not also mathematically possible that an analog algorithm of sufficient complexity, one sufficiently complex to produce the conscious sense of deliberation that we experience, could create a mapping between initial conditions and behavioral results that is not even a function, i.e. there is not a unique result for every initial condition? If it is not possible, kindly point me to the mathematics that proves it is not possible.

              1. How did we get on sex!? Well it’s better than billiard balls.

                It’s amazing how supposedly smart folks would rather spin out silly hypotheticals and stories about billiard balls than biology.

                Data, “Show me the data!”

              2. Show me the math…

                So far you’re non-responsive to the questions I asked. If you don’t know the answers, that’s understandable. If you do know, why don’t you answer?

      2. Richard,

        I always enjoy your comments and stand with you on moral nihilism.

        The thing on free will, and “choice” for that matter, that is the crux for me is the phenomenology of the self, of the “I”, and experience of the decision making process. Constantly throughout our day, and even for long-term decisions, we experience all sorts of reasoning and thought processes and emotional responses surrounding our self and its choices.

        We (the I, our consciousness) feel our self making choices, forced to make decisions, and we experience many of the reasons and rationalizations (and I believe our consciousness at least at times taps into the important ones) but it is always made under conditions of uncertainty. What we feel, what the I is conscious of, is only a small portion of all the processing. Furthermore, if that decision is wholly determined (as most of us posit), the “I” could never experience it as such, it can always posit the counterfactual that “of course, I could have done otherwise” (even if such a decision would have resulted in death). With that problematic of our phenomenology I feel like we have to be on guard about seeing where our language and our conceptions are misreading that naive phenomenology and misleading our understanding of the human condition.

        The absurd definition of free will uses that naive phenomenology uncritically. At least some versions of compatibilism can innoculate free will from such problematic language, but there is no reason to continue using the term free will as long as it helps maintain an uncritical attitude toward our experiencing, at least for a vast number of people.

        I find it difficult to believe that people without solid backgrounds in our present understanding of the brain/mind and the free will debate can see through language and their phenomenology and make unproblematic statements such as “I could have chose the tuna instead of chicken.” The concept of “choice” will always be burdened by what is presented and, especially, what is not presented (the deterministic bent of the choice) to the self.

  43. I’ll make this repetition whenever I have the time:

    The term “will” is less confusing and more to the point.

    The addition of the prefix “free” is of no use, and I think it harms the productivity of the discussion. It’s dead weight. Am I wrong? Does it actually add a bit of meaning or description to the item in question? More importantly, is that bit the intended bit?

    “Will” is sufficient for what any determinist – compatibilist or incompatibilist – wants to express, judging by earlier discussions.

    1. The question is, why would you special plead to remove “free” as a useful term applied to human will, while allowing it is a useful, descriptive word everywhere else?

      If, because everything is ultimately determined we shouldn’t use the term “free” to to describe when someone is free to express their will (vs being constrained from doing so), why stop there?

      What do you propose to do with the term “free” in every other use?

      “I’m free to go to the party this Friday.”
      “The prisoner was set free.”
      “Now that my arthritis is under control, I’m free to walk around.”
      “The bird was set free.”
      “You are free to choose whichever desert you wish.”
      “The driver was freed from the wreckage.”
      “The camshaft is now moving freely…”

      Ad infinitum.

      After all, if “in reality” all things are determined and nothing is “really free” then why ever use the term “free?” It’s horribly misleading.

      Unless, of course, even under determinism “free” is a useful description.

      Which is it?


      1. But it’s not a useful description if you’re (third person “you”, not second person) using it to describe EVERY will. Save it for schedules, prisons, diseases and what have you.

        1. I don’t think I’ve said anywhere that every will is free. The point is that when Jerry and others say that free will doesn’t exist, what they mean is that no will is free from the laws of physics. While that’s trivially true, it ignores the fact that some wills are free, at least some of the time, in the everyday sense of “free” that Vaal and I are advocating. That everyday sort of freedom seems sufficient to me to conclude that free will does indeed exist. I don’t see how omitting the word “free” from that argument clarifies anything.

        2. That’s just it: It’s NOT used to describe every instance of will. “Free” Will is used (in a compatibilist sense) pretty much like we use it in everyday scenarios, in which we are able to deliberate on a choice and act on a choice based on our will, vs our will being constrained or coerced otherwise. The fact we can’t express our Free Will at all times is part of what makes the descriptor “Free” vs times when we can say we are “Not Free” useful.

          Do we have Free Will? Yes…that is the ability to make choices that express our will under certain circumstances, though not all circumstances.

          Do we have the ability to eat breakfast cereal?
          Yes, we do, under some though not all circumstances….


    2. “Free” is a quantifier. A citizen’s will is freer than a slave’s, because citizens are free to act on their will in ways slaves are not. “Free will” indicates a lack of coercion by someone else’s will.

      1. I know it’s a qualifier. But it isn’t being used as a qualifier in this discussion. It’s added reflexively. There’s a false dichotomy going around that there is either a “free will” or no will at all.

        Just look at this thread. “Free will” is invoked regardless of social status. It is not being used to describe the difference between a slave and a master, or a lack of disease, or the outside of a cage. In the case of compatibilists, it’s not even used to describe a lack of causality. What is it “free” from? What info does it add to the phrase? Nothing in particular.

        I didn’t ask what the word “free” could possibly signify in the general english language in any context. I’m asking what it’s supposed to add here that “will” alone doesn’t already cover.

        Does a slave have free will if he cannot excercise it? No, the will is not free. Does that mean that the slave doesn’t have a will of his own? No, it doesn’t.

        (If the slave is released, but too infirm to do what he wants, his will is free from the master’s interference, but still not free enough. “Free” is a qualifier. Freedom isn’t an inherent property of wills. That point was mine.)

        1. Should add that he’s still free enough to have a will while not free enough to excercise it. I just don’t think it’s very useful to describe every existing thing as “free” to exist. We don’t habitually talk about “free cars”, “free falls” or “free pandas” that way.

          1. Whether someone is coerced by external forces is irrelevant. The extent to which a person in a given environment is afforded freedom is an entirely different question than whether human beings in general have free will.

            Even the slave can choose small details, like deciding between different techniques of carrying a heavy burden, or deciding at which moment to shift it from the left shoulder to the right shoulder.

            The two most common usages have “free” implying either:

            1. radically disconnected from the constraints of initial conditions, i.e. unbounded choice. This is “ghost in the machine” territory.

            2. When a person perceives themselves to be making a choice, the physically constructed deliberative process provides a non-illusory possibility of selecting a second or third option.

            It seems to me that all the arguments really focus on the question, after you reject #1, is there still some form of #2 that is not simply an illusion?

            (Also many seem to worry that discussing free will in the form of #2 creates the confusing impression that #1 may exist.)

            Even if you answer this question about #2 with a firm no, it is still interesting in the social sciences to talk about human choices and decisions, in the same way in physics it’s interesting to “ask” where photons or electrons “decide” to go after passing through a diffraction grating. It is interesting to imagine in advance a range of possible results of human behavior and compare those with the observed result, and ask why that result and not others. In this case the usage of “free will” truly is only context related semantics.

            We have encountered no other machine like the brain. Obviously I could be wrong, but it still seems premature to simply say “of course it behaves like all the other machines we know of” until we better understand the details of how it works.

  44. Pigliucci and several panel members appear to wave this problem away, saying that free will can involve unconscious “choice”, but I don’t think the problem is so easily dismissed.

    How (in Ceiling Cat’s Name) could anyone tell the difference between unconscious choice and no choice? What could such a distinction possibly mean? If you are not conscious of making a choice, what does “making a choice” possibly mean? It’s a ridiculuous assertion!

  45. Pingback: Known and Unknown
  46. Here we go again! Alva Noe says really silly things in NYT – and people read it!!

    Aren’t philosophers, or their wives and mothers and kids, getting embarrassed for them!?

    Hold your nose: “Art and the Limits of Neuroscience” Our Jerry is right philosophers are being revealed as crypto-theologians and ideologues — just like economists!

    Really dum things he wrote:
    – “neuroscience has yet to frame anything like an adequate biological or “naturalistic” account of human experience — of thought, perception, or consciousness.

    The idea that a person is a functioning assembly of brain cells and associated molecules is not something neuroscience has discovered” Now this is just a lie.
    – “the fact is we don’t actually have a better understanding how the brain might produce consciousness than Descartes did of how the immaterial soul would accomplish this feat; after all, at the present time we lack even the rudimentary outlines of a neural theory of consciousness.” We do — it’s trivial. Gee, about 100+ years of medical science and we know nothing?
    – Here’s a crowd pleaser “…it would be simpler, and more accurate, to allow that it is people, not their brains, who think and feel and decide. It is people, not their brains, that make and enjoy art. You are not your brain, you are a living human being.” A respected philosopher goes on the NYT to tell people they are “human beings” aka social beings. Yes, Alva just like bacteria and insects.

    OK, we’ll stop the silliness just compounds to this “money shot” literally — “In short, the work of art, whatever its local subject matter or specific concerns ― God, life, death, politics, the beautiful, art itself, perceptual consciousness ― and whatever its medium, is doing something like philosophical work.” Ah, protecting self-interest really and the ideology generating his W-2. That human nature.

    Essentially these folks know nothing about evo bio and don’t seem to want to learn even what a HS kid knows.

    To talk about art, philosophy “work” (whatever the heck that is} religions, magical ideas, experience without at least referencing the data on evo-bio-brain has to be dishonest. He must know some of this stuff, right?

    BTW, we have evo-bio-brain explanations because the solipism and professional conceits of experience as feelings produced nothing and predicted less — over thousands of years of human effort.

  47. Here’s the thing we see with all spiritual types, they don’t take the time to learn anything about biology, the brain and evolution. Same with philosophers. It’s just being lazy.

    All of these matters are about the brain. The brain is a biological mechanism. All human biological mechanisms are inherited from other living things via the principals of evolution.

    This is neither a revolutionary set of statements nor complicated — the details are however.

    The rest is solipsistic, self-referential and self-serving chit chat.

  48. My take on the matter is that the universe is mechanical and would be deterministic if not for the presence of random quantum effects — such as atomic decay — which the universe accommodates.

    What this means is that the future is not written in stone, which suggests that our purely mechanical decisions actually make a difference.

    So as far as I can tell, we are robots marching into an open future. That’s good enough for me.

    (Lest one think that quantum effects are confined to the microscopic realm, just ask yourself if you would be making the same decisions now if, for instance, Abraham Lincoln had died of cancer as a small child because some atoms decayed in just the wrong place at just the wrong time.)

  49. If you want a determined life, come back as a plant. Determined is simply not an option for animals with brains. Blame evolution. With the integration of sensors (eyes etc.) and locomotion, local decisions were required in lieu of a catalog of maps (choreographed responses for the environments encountered). Determined responses would not be able to anticipate the variety of terrains, limiting such forms to the niche they evolved in: the food sources, competitors and predators. An agile predator, one who could adapt its attack on the fly and learn response patterns of prey, would make quick work of consistency. The prey too must evolve agility in its behavior. Our perception of ‘will’ is an evolutionary extension of this agile behavior.

    The clearest simple example of free will expressed I have is language. Not a syllable passes your lips save for a choice of will. Not a keystroke to your computer. That it ‘seems’ so natural and almost automatic is because your brain works so well and remembers so much. Save for our history of choices (and yes, these choices ripple through thousands of generations, but each had a choice) this discussion could have been in any of thousands of languages. It still could be, as we have that choice. I could also have chosen alternate words for any here posted. Next time I will.
    The studies that claim to refute free will that I have read are simply being misinterpreted – confusing speed with choice. Our brains are fast because the prey and predators we evolved with were fast. Fast, but not reliably predictable. As such, we too are evolved to make choices – sometimes really fast ones.

  50. Tip — If you are only social media and (your brain) can’t take strong disagreements with your ideas and principled (non personal) arguments against your ideas as anything other than personal attacks — stay off of social media.

    You will just embarrass yourself publicly.

    This is all about ideas and not at all about people.

  51. Tip 2 for freethinkers everywhere:
    “There is a basic truth about framing. If you accept the other guy’s frame, you lose.”

    “Progressives need to learn how framing works. Bashing Luntz, bashing Fox News, bashing the right-wing pundits and leaders using their frames and arguing against their positions just keeps their frames in play.”
    George Lakoff

    We have to stop accepting and talking about philosophers tagging with “-isms.” Just say NO to your opponents frames and labels.

    Same is true of the label “atheist” it’s a con.

  52. For the question of biology and determinism, what might Mother Nature say about this situation? MN: ‘Evolution solves the problems the ancestors’ faced.’

    What are the ‘tests’ in discussion: Student with EEG helmet sits on chair at desk. Professor/researcher asks question. About point one second later EEG records a response of ‘press button A’. About 5 to 7 seconds later, student says ‘I think it’s A’, then presses button A.

    Professor then says: that response was so fast (EEG vs. conscious action) it must have been pre-determined!
    Lets think about that.
    Was the student’s response appropriate for the situation? I think completely appropriate – his was not simply random/spontaneous reaction to stimulus. Somehow an appropriate answer was decided.
    Was there anything in the scenario appropriate to a Paleolithic hunter-gather? The chair, the professor, the conversation in English, a button or anything at all labeled ‘A’. I think not.
    A biologically determined response would require an intelligent designer who was anticipating chairs, English, buttons and etc. hundreds of thousands of years into the future. I neglected to mention, but you should have guessed that there were other buttons available, so any ‘pre-determined’ response had to be very specific – both to the questions asked and the responses elicited.

    If the test had run differently, the results would have been more ambiguous:
    Student sits at desk, professor asks question as a lion leaps in window. Point one second later student leaps up, kicks table over to provide a makeshift blockade and begins swinging his chair around hoping the lion chooses to eat the professor or leaps back out the window in search of another student who is reading his book on the lawn, and has no chair to hand.
    The student’s response is still appropriate, but now the situation is relevant to the Paleolithic.

        1. Thanks. For us, we need more:
          – experimental evidence
          – evo bio understandings of the value of these “mistakes”
          – animal ethology down to the level of bacteria and social insects on same behaviors

          All these behaviors are inherited over billions of years from our earlier ancestors.

          The problems of individual and group exchange of resources is the central problem of life and nature has been working on it a long time.

          1. Life, the universe and everything? You might want to focus on one piece of that to start with, but strategies change with features and I don’t think you will find much will in a sunflower or jellyfish. If it really is will you are looking for, start with man and work backwards. If you cannot recognize it in man, you won’t find it anywhere.

              1. Just trying to help, dude. In humans it is blindingly obvious, in an ant the expression of will will be far more subtle. If you can’t find it when it is in your face, you have not narrowed down what to look for, so probably won’t find subtle expressions of it. It will be much harder to test for will in an ant. You can identify it in yourself over coffee in the kitchen (a double-blind verification would take a bit more work). It always helps to first figure out what you’re looking for. I also doubt will developed more than about 300,000 years back, so looking further may not be fruitful. If you want to throw consciousness into the mix (will is likely to express rather differently without conscious awareness) your list of suspects gets a lot shorter and a lot younger.

              2. No, the problems of life, which include:
                – How to exchange energy with the immediate environment
                – How to do so with conspecifics in the same environment goes back to single cell organisms and social insects, etc.

                That’s billions as in “B”

              3. Ya’ll need to read Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Dennet (if you haven’t already). Good good stuff and right in line with this topic.

              4. We are studying bacteria re: economics, communications, group behavior, etc. — some good parallels. Glad to provide cites.

                Not a fan of Dennet’s. He’s a bit too accommodationist for our taste. We find philosophical writing/speaking a waste of time.

                The problem of life is straightforward. Getting and spending energy from the immediate environment, by definition. Since this is always a communal problem, communications and sharing are critical. We probably highly overstate the importance of individual in anything other than reproduction.

                There is almost no way to get or spend resources without others of your own and other species and competitors and relatives. Also, since resources are always embedded in a time and space matrix (you have to aim and “shoot”/reach to hunt food and mates) targeting behaviors are critical.

                All seems basic thermodynamics and electron flows.

                The brain has been described as a self-fueling bio-machine.

  53. “there’s no substantive difference between someone who kills because they have a brain tumor that makes them aggressive (e.g., Charles Whitman), and someone who kills because a rival is invading their drug business”

    I see the more lenient treatment recieved by the former compared to the harsh approach given to the latter as partly pragmatic. You can discourage drug barons in general from killing with long jail sentences (at least a little), you can’t discourage anyone from getting an aggression inducing brain tumor.

    But additionally we punish people according to how much their actions define them. An aggression inducing tumor can potentially be removed, presumably returning the individual to his non-aggressive state. A personality trait which sees murder as a business strategy is an integral part of that individual and cannot be removed without changing the individual more fundamentally.

  54. “My own view is that holding people “responsible” for their acts, whether good or ill, is something that we need to do to preserve an orderly society.”

    But per your understanding, we won’t need to do it, it either will happen or it won’t based on the current make up of the physical universe.

  55. Free will exists because true randomness exists in the realm of physics, therefore in all realms affected by physics. If randomness is genuine, then any response to a random event cannot be predetermined, because the randomness includes any and all possible responses to the event. Consciousness sees many more possibilities than the unconscious, which is based on ancient survival mechanisms. The evolution of human consciousness is a movement from pragmatic, survival-based determinism toward imaginative freedom, and therefore of incalculable importance.

  56. Re #7, I think an important thing to recognize is that science is not just a set of propositions about the world, it is also a human activity and human institution, and susceptible to the same pathologies and abuses as any other human endeavor.

    Given this, a crucial distinction between traditional morality and science is that whereas the former is concerned with rewards and punishments, the latter is concerned with making predictions and controlling the environment.

    So if the court system is conceived as enforcing a traditional set of morals, its domain of authority and power is limited to a post facto hearing of what happened and a consequent assignment of moral blame (and punishment). This means that the authorities are involved only if a crime was committed, and only if the actions of the accused are deemed morally relevant to the crime.

    But if a court system is instead conceived as a scientific institution that regards all actions as morally indistinct from other actions–if a tumor is morally indistinct from revenge as a cause of a killing–then suddenly all human interactions are within the purview of “justice”, and the imperative becomes not to punish crimes after the fact, but rather, to prevent them from happening at all. And this raises a number of concerns about state power and the abuse of that power.

    Keep in mind that this doesn’t have to be a scenario drawn from science fiction. Already the technology and knowledge of neurology to definitively determine if someone is lying is just around the corner. And scientific institutions already play a large normative role in shaping behavior of individuals to preemptively eliminate “problematic” or “anti-social” tendencies–children are now regularly medicated for ADD, for example. But do we really want to live in a society where we cannot lie to the government? Do we want to live in a society where alternative ways of behaving and living are drummed out of existence for being incompatible with a certain notion of a “productive member of society” (someone who gets good grades, in this case)? How far can we go and still call ourselves free?

    I’m not saying, of course, the science shouldn’t inform the justice system. Of course it should. And of course there are cases where people should be medicated for pathological behavior. But the point is, we have to be careful not to simply cede our traditional domain of morality and folk wisdom to the domain of science because scientific institutions are not only corruptible, but also not built specifically to mitigate for corruption like our current civil institutions of morality, which feature a long list of checks against state authority and intrusion into our lives.*

    *Of course since 9/11 this has become increasingly untrue in America, but that’s a whole other topic. 🙂

    1. In fact, there is no such thing as “science” or even the “scientific method” these are false labels — there is just specific data from specific studies.

      Meanwhile how about back to biology? Here is a way kool video on will power/consciousness/decision making in humans from NIH: “Metabolic and hedonic drives in the neural control of appetite: who is the boss?”

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