Readers’ comments on my free will piece—and my responses

January 3, 2012 • 6:59 am

The readers’ comments on my USA Today piece on free will did show the expected religious pushback, but not as much as I expected.  Before we get to them, I’ll deal with two other religious critics.


Predictably, at his own website the Thinking Christian says that the assumption of natural laws that absolutely determine our choices is an unjustified a priori conclusion, not supported by science itself. (Nope, it’s a conclusion based on experience.) The implicit view is that God interferes in these laws from time to time, and this may determine our “free will.” Oh, and I’m accused of denying free will because I’m pushing atheism:

Why would Coyne care to write about this, anyway? What’s the point, if we’re only “meat computers,” as he said later in the article?

I think he’s flogging (as the Brits would say it) naturalistic atheism here, under the guise of science. Elsewhere and frequently he has demonstrated a strong need to deny God. He is willing to give up humans to do so. For a being who cannot choose is not, as Aristotle described us, a rational animal. Such a being bears no resemblance to anything the ages and the sages have considered human.

At the end of his article he writes,

“. . . by losing free will we gain empathy, for we realize that in the end all of us, whether Bernie Madoffs or Nelson Mandelas, are victims of circumstance — of the genes we’re bequeathed and the environments we encounter. With that under our belts, we can go about building a kinder world.”

There are other, better ways to gain empathy. The Christian way of love and humility gains empathy without sacrificing humanness.

I’m not giving up humans: we exist, we have feelings, we interact with each other, and we act in the world, and those acts have effect. All I deny is that we can, at any moment, behave in any way different from what we did.

And yes, I do deny that there’s any evidence for God or contracausal choice.  If that makes me “sacrifice” humanness, then so be it.  I doubt that anyone who knows me would suggest that I am less than human or treat others that way.  And I deny free will—at least the contracausal form—on the basis of science, not atheism.


At First Things, run by Discovery Institute Fellow Wesley Smith, he has the usual response that denying free will means that “anything goes”:

The attack on free will is an attack on human exceptionalism, religion, and moral accountability–and a way of promoting and justifying relativism.  It is a means of allowing anything and judging nothing because whatever we do, it wasn’t essentially us doing it, anyway.  But somehow the I Robot peddler thinks we will be able to choose to use this information to build a better world! He ends:

“With that under our belts, we can go about building a kinder world.”

What?  We can take knowledge and apply it?  That contradicts Coyne’s entire thesis.

We see clearly here how determinism angers and upsets the religious. That much is predictable.  But Smith doesn’t seem to realize that words can affect actions.  And even though my words about free will were something I had no choice about writing, they can still affect peoples’ brains to help them have more empathy toward miscreants and people who are victims of circumstance.  OF COURSE we can apply knowledge in a deterministic world!



What I did find in the USA Today comments was resistance to the idea of contracausal free will, and this I fully expected.  From the answers, I remain convinced that many or most people are dualists—they really do believe in the ghost in the machine.  So before we begin inundating the average person with more “sophisticated” (i.e., compatibilist) notions of free will, shouldn’t we first convince them that their choice are predetermined by scientific laws?  For some reason some compatibilists aren’t too keen about doing that, perhaps become they sense that people will resist the “sophisticated” notions if they’re stripped of the kind of free will they want.  But it’s not our job to sugar-coat the pill by ignoring convenient and widespread fictions.  Our job is to tell the truth.

Here are some readers’ comments, with my brief responses below them.

This is religiously-based resistance, and the idea of dualism is implicit in boththe citation to Lewis and the obeisance to God as the source of morality, kindness, and mystery. And here we also see the reason for resistance: because free will (like the idea of evolution) appears to strip people of all meaning.  The similarity to religious arguments against evolution is striking!

And, by the way, did I ever claim that I said anything new? My article was trying simply to disseminate the idea that many (but not all!) philosophers and neuroscientists agree on

Two other points:  the fact that our thinking processes arose through evolution doesn’t make them faulty; our senses have evolved by and large (but not completely) to detect truth in the world, and our big brains have constructed the epiphenomenon of science to test the conclusions of our senses.  And we’re meaning-making organisms, too.  Natural selection has vouchsafed us brains that require love, that require activity, that require children, and seek pleasure and enjoyment. Those are all sources of meaning.  The only “meaning” we don’t have is the kind that requires a god.

What can I say about that? That’s similar to this comment:


Enough.  One thing I didn’t expect was to be compared to Nazis and Communists, and I’m not sure what the official Party lines were about free will.  I suspect there weren’t any, but perhaps readers can enlighten me.

This is a common and erroneous objection to contracausal free will: why do anything if everything is determined? First, doing nothing at all—being nihilistic—is also pre-determined. And maybe whether you relapse or not is determined, but that doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily going to relapse.  The interventions of friends, or entry into drug programs, are environmental influences that can change one’s brain in a way that can reduce the possibility of relapse.  Of course whether you enroll in a program, or whether your friends help you, are also actions that are predetermined, but that doesn’t mean that our actions don’t have real consequences, and we should realize that. (See my response to Tom Clark below.)

Another fallacy: determinism means we can’t weigh things rationally because our judgments are “pre-wired.” That’s simply not true. Our prewiring is largely a rational one!

Our brains have evolved to weigh inputs in a way that produces the most adaptive output, and that usually (but not always) involves rational judgment.  If I see the tracks of a big felid on the savannah, and then hear rustling in the bushes nearby, I am going to be wary.  That’s determined, and it’s rational. If we want to eat berries, we avoid those that we know have made other people sick. Rational again.  If we want to persuade someone to do our bidding, we take into account the aspects of their personalities that are amenable to appeal.  We not only have brains that evolved to make “reasoned” judgments (though those judgments, or outputs, are determined completely by the inputs), and we are also organisms who learn, and learning often involves learning how to make rational choices.

This comment, which I hear often, is completely irrelevant to my claims. I don’t care whether the brain processes information the same way a computer does. (And, by the way, computers are capable of learning, too!).  What matters is not how the processing is done, but only whether, given a series of inputs, there will always be one predetermined output (absent any non-deterministic quantum effects). I predict that there will be, and I think most philosophers agree with me here.  They are, by and large, physical determinists, though they might also be compatibilists.

Well, what this person “believes” isn’t what I think is true. I “chose” to write the article only in the sense that I did it instead of anything else, and maintain that I couldn’t have done otherwise given my background: my genes and my environment. And yes, I think we are automatons of a sort.  If Mr. Miller thinks I could have chosen otherwise, let him adduce his best evidence and arguments. I can adduce my own arguments, which I claim are more persuasive, that I could not have done otherwise, and that my “choice” was the only choice I could have made. Therefore, in common parlance, it wasn’t a “choice” at all except that it is one of many things that I could have done in principle according to an outside observer.

I find this incoherent.  What is “limited” free will? A little ghost in the machine? Why would big things be determined or predestined and little ones not.  Still, I prefer this view to one claiming that nothing is predestined.

Mr. Clark has been a respected critic of my views on free will on this site and now at USA Today.  He is a determinist and a compatibilist. I agree with him on the former but not on the latter.  I haven’t read all of his many writings on the subject, but I have read many of them, and do think I understand his viewpoint, which is concisely expressed in the above. (I wish, though, that he’d have stated at the outset for the other readers that he agrees that all of our actions are predetermined by scientific laws. He does sort of imply that by saying “we ourselves are fully caused.”)

I guess in the end Tom and I simply differ in what we think of as “free will.”  I use the term (and I do define it) as the form of contracausal free will that I think most people intuitively accept: at any moment could I have made a different choice?  The answer is “no.”  In that sense, yes, I think it’s true that we “pretend” to make choices: we think that we can decide whether to get the soup or salad, but the laws of physics have decided the salad before I order.  Let me clarify further: I don’t maintain that all phenomena are analytically reducible to the laws of physics. Many have their own form of analysis, including Mendelian genetics, history, and archaeology.  I also agree that there are emergent properties that ultimately devolve to the laws of physics but are more profitably analyzed on a macro level (i.e., the behavior of crowds of humans at a football game).

I am still a bit puzzled by Mr. Clark’s stance. His assertion, for example, that “we retain our causal powers, even as we ourselves are fully caused,” confuses me.  If our actions ultimately devolve to physical laws, then what does it mean to say “we have causal powers”? Does it mean that our actions have consequences? If that’s so, then I fully agree. If I hit someone in the nose, he bleeds. All I claim is that those actions (the hitting and bleeding) are predetermined.  In the same way, the actions of a computer programmed to weld cars could be said to reflect that computer’s “retaining its causal powers” even though its program makes it “fully caused.” In what way, except in complexity, do we differ from such a computer?

And yes, the appearance of human choice making is real, but we have to admit that it’s an appearance alone: we could not have done otherwise.  It’s like consciousness, which is a real phenomenon in some sense, because we feel conscious. But it’s also illusory in the sense that there is no little “me” sitting in the brain, being aware and directing our activities.

Free will is the same kind of illusion. What is important to me is to show how science dispels the contracausal notion of free will (which I believe many if not most people still entertain), and to pass that along.  Clark has a different end, and I don’t fault him for using his own definition of free will..

In the end, Clark and I seem to agree largely on the principles and differ mostly in the semantics.  I define “free will” as I did above, and claim that that is how most people think of it.  And I think it’s part of the job of neuroscientists and psychologists to dispel that notion of free will.

How do Clark and I differ?  He defines free will, I think, as the non-coerced actions of people, actions that have real effects on the world and that “cause” things.  (If I’m wrong about this, I ask him to clarify below.)  That’s fine with me; if that’s his definition of free will, then yes, that definition is compatible with determinism.  My concern has been only to deal with the notion of contracausal free will, and to say why compatibilist stances, while palatable to philosophers, may not be palatable to the general public, many of whom desperately need (often for religious reasons) to believe in dualism. So it comes down to a semantic problem, I guess.  The important issue for me is determinism of “choices”, and I guess most of us agree on that.

Finally, I think I did make the point in my article that we shouldn’t confuse determinism with fatalism, so I can’t be faulted for that.

h/t: John S. (for the cartoon)

224 thoughts on “Readers’ comments on my free will piece—and my responses

  1. Marshall N. Wimberly: “If all is reduced to biochemical reactions and atomic physics, then “meaning” has no meaning.

    So all he has to do is estalbish that “meaning” has meaning, and he’s got an argument. Until then, he has a fallacious argument from consequences: he wants there to be “meaning.”

  2. Quick comment – the link provided does not lead readers to the USA Today piece, but rather a Telegraph article on Neuroscience/Free Will. A good read, but not what I was expecting!


  3. Here’s a question: Let’s concede that there is no free will. Now that this has been discovered, have we lost anything important? If the answer is no, then it seems to me that the compatabilists are on the right track. (We have all the “free will” worth wanting.) If the answer is yes, then could someone tell me what exactly it is we have actually lost?

    I suppose my question stems from the fact that I tend to think that metaphysical free will is an incoherent concept, like many metaphysical concepts.

    1. Well, we never lost it because we never had it to begin with. Like you point out, contra-causal free will is an incoherent concept. But the vast majority of our fellow citizens nevertheless think that we have it.

      I think you’re asking what practical difference it makes. Besides for just understanding how our world works and the pleasure we should take from that, there is the point of how to deal with justice, and that retribution, which many people feel is the whole point of the justice system, has no place in it.

      1. Are you actually of the view that retribution has no place in the criminal justice system, in light of the non-reality of free-will?

        1. Do confuse criminal justice actions and rules as worthless because of lack of free will. The complexities involved in devlopment of the brain from experience and passed on values means mostly people “elect” not to commit serious crimes.

          Sometimes there are cases of diminished responsibility, ( severe drug or brain injury scenarios) but otherwise the person should be punished for doing what they did.
          How that invidual developed to the point of making such a decision or perhaps in making very little thought at all before acting is the bigger question.
          What are the possible outcomes and what influences them ?
          And yes we can as a society still “elect” to educate better within a deterministic world.

          But will we ? Or why why didn’t we?
          No fatalism required.

          My question is does quantum Radomness play a role at some point?

    2. “have we lost anything important?”

      You’ve lost the ability to condemn people to hell for eternity and concluding they only have themselves to blame.

    3. I think if we dispense (completely) with the notion of free will–as I am wont to do–then we can follow Harris’ view and regard moral acts as those which are conducive to “the well-being of conscious creatures” and those which promote “human flourishing.”

      I’ll stop there, although there is quite a bit to unpack with this.

  4. Can you even have an a priori conclusion? I thought the whole point of a priori (and its failing as a philosophical notion) was that it is prior to everything else (and so can be used as an assumption) and not a conclusion of something else (an argument based on assumptions, some of which might be claimed to be a priori). So, anything claimed to be a priori is, in the context used, an assumption and open to challenge.

  5. Something that has always puzzled me about those who insist on the existence of free will is their inability to understand the full scope of the argument. What I will have for dinner tonight has not been decided until I actually eat it, any number of factors could influence my choices, many of those factors would be completely out of my control but it was not decided yesterday (at least not in any measurable way).
    Given the amount of study into criminal behaviour and the nature/nurture arguments I find it staggering that anyone who really thinks about the matter could come up with any other conclusion.
    Losing the true concept of free will changes nothing about human character, just like the knowledge of Darwinian evoloution.

  6. When the battlefield is the internet you really ought to expect to be compared to Nazis at least, if not communists. See Godwin’s Law.

  7. This posting shows what I think is the crux of the conflict, the characterization of ‘free will’ which I see as a philosophical challenge more than a scientific one.

    Also the concept of determinism as a scientific pursuit seems problematic because to form a testable hypothesis demands the characterization of the fundamental particle(s)/wave(s)/energy(s) from which this ultimate reality is formed. As an engineer, not a scientist, I doubt such equipment could be constructed, hence the idea of determinism seems more premise than hypothesis, a belief based on evidence, not unlike the pre-science theism which has been dismissed, rightly, in light of scientific findings.

    It will be interesting to see what new particle/wave/energy findings come from current activities and what new questions they engender. Thanks for continuing this dialog. I’m limping along behind it and relishing the journey.

  8. Well said!

    About why our actions are still meaningful or powerful, I claim that everything we do and postulate and think about is instantiated in brain activity. The only ontologically problematic structure, for me, is relational truths that have an eternal truth value because of their relationality. But even there, such relational truths, like the pythagoream theorem, become much more important only when they become instantiated into brain states and other representational states. Our representing of these relational truths and applying those truths to our interaction with the world is what makes human beings special and powerful. How and why we apply any of our techniques is determined or ultimately out of our control, but that does not take away the efficacy of how we have evolved and what we have culturally and individually learned how to do.

  9. I tend to agree with almost all of the so-called militancy of “new atheism”, in particular, that accommodating weak kinds of religion to gain allies in the attempt to break the hold of religion on our societies, the main objective.

    Also, virtually all the responses to Coyne’s article are easily countered, and it doesn’t interest me to sit around ‘shooting fish in a barrel’, even if it entertains some atheist hangers-on.

    But I really do wonder about racing into public, with recent research plus various philosophical consequences related to determinism. has anything but possibly negative value in advancing the ‘practical’ aims of new atheism. Science will gradually make progress in the study of consciousness and the brain, and I’m sure that will include debunking many of our prejudices about the nature, if it exists in any conscious sense at all, of free will. But the science behind consciousness is surely still in its infancy, and people who are both very accomplished scientists in other fields and very effective advocates for new atheism in other respects are likely to dilute their effectiveness by racing into public debates in the popular press about such issues.

    It might be argued that changing the U.S. penal system to something more rational and humane needs this debate, but it simply doesn’t. One only needs to look at the evidence of other countries in the so-called first world to see how ineffective things like capital punishment and the “war on drugs” have been. Getting the public to take a more scientific view on these matters will help a lot, and there is no need to get into arcane, premature and emotional debates about free will to do that. By all means, scientists and perhaps philosophers should work to understand consciousness better, but maybe USA Today is the the right place today.

    1. i share some of the concerns that Peter does. I bet a lot of the not so scientifically literate readers of Prof. Coyne’s USA today piece, who are not particularly religious, might take Prof. Coyne to be a little crazy. The article was short and provocative, and would be very counter-intuitive to anyone who hasn’t thought of these things before. I’d hate for people to turn away from the so called New Atheists because we “seemed” to be on some mission to satisfy our love for tipping over sacred-cows.

      With all due respect to Prof. Coyne, i hope the readers i alluded to above will read an article like David Eagleman’s “The Brain On Trial” before they read that USA today piece.

      Having said that, i don’t believe that there is any such “Will” that is “Free” and that it’s important we realize this, because there will be a time when we will be faced with an increasingly difficult question: Cure or incarcerate?

    2. Excellent points.
      I certainly hang in the deterministic camp but still feel questions around the concept of consciousness and even life as compared to chemicals in a non religious way are unanswered.

  10. We seem to be tripping up over the meaning of words, including the meaning of ‘meaning’. Another set is ‘choice’, ‘decision’, …

    From the article, “You haven’t. You may feel like you’ve made choices, but in reality your decision to read this piece, and whether to have eggs or pancakes, was determined long before you were aware of it — perhaps even before you woke up today. ”

    Computers make choices and decisions as part of an algorithm. So the (partly) autonomous human machine (specifically its brain) did make those choices, those decisions. I’m not claiming the brain is as simply algorithmic as a computer, but that decision points do occur within the brain that have no requirement for a dualistic or otherwise metaphysical free will. The decision points may well occur prior to conscious awareness of the feeling of making the decision. But choices and decisions are made.

    1. Ron,

      To claim one point as the “choice” is similar to the problem of causality. There is endless analysis and positions to be picked out.

      We can say the vase broke because it was hit by the baseball. We can say the vase broke because she caused it to break. We can say that the outside of the leather hitting this one spot sent force downwards into this section which pushed against the stand of the vase which had no give and then sent force back upwards causing . . . of course picking out one instance and saying the vase “broke” at this instance requires again a metaphorical hypostatization.

      The same thing is going to apply to a brain/computer. To single out one “move,” say from one brain state to the next, and say “ooh, ooh, that was where the ‘choice’ was made” is going to be our categorizing of the situation and not some absolute instance of “decision.” When your calculator takes your input of 22+22 and displays 44 there is no reason to intuit out any single instance in the calculation and say the decision was made “There.” And the same is going to hold on larger calculations- though for humans there is an “aha” moment in our consciousness accompanied by emotional force that encourages us to claim an instance of decision.

      1. Yes, I agree with all this. I just wanted to make the point that ‘decision’ and ‘choice’ are events that occur in any natural system and are not indications of ‘free will’.

    2. Computers make choices and decisions as part of an algorithm. So the (partly) autonomous human machine (specifically its brain) did make those choices, those decisions. I’m not claiming the brain is as simply algorithmic as a computer, but that decision points do occur within the brain that have no requirement for a dualistic or otherwise metaphysical free will. The decision points may well occur prior to conscious awareness of the feeling of making the decision. But choices and decisions are made.

      Yes but they were not made freely (meaning libertarianly free, or contra-causally free). Yes the decision was made within the brain of the individual in question, but the brain was (ultimately) in turn made from genes and environmental inputs from outside of that brain. So the decision made by the brain was 100% a function of determinants that necessitated the decision of that brain: ergo, the brain did was not free to do other than what it did when it decided.

    3. I guess that depends on how you look at it. One way would be to say the computer didn’t make a choice or decision at all.

      When a branch was reached, the program proceed preceded along the path determined by its programming and inputs, the only path that was allowed by the constraints.

      The computer didn’t make a choice any more than the ball in a pinball machine chooses how to bounce. Given a design and exact set of input conditions, the ball bounces left or right, etc. If I drop a ball down a funnel, it either falls though or stops, depending on the size of the ball relative to the opening in the funnel; there’s no choice involved. A computer’s not really any different. The hole is the programming/algorithm and the ball is the input data.

      It can be useful to describe it as a choice, particularly because there is a discrete point in the computer’s operation where a change to programming or inputs can lead to a different path being followed. Choice implies the ability to choose; the computer has absolutely no choice, it can only proceed in one way.

      1. Yes, this is my point. We trip up over the language. Let’s take your point literally, that there are in fact no ‘choices’ or ‘decisions’ because everything is deterministic. Then the words ‘choice’ and ‘decision’ have no meaning whatsoever – they become incoherent.

        But the thing is, we do have language. We do attribute meaning to words, and those meanings have a context. The tricky bit here, with regard to ‘choice’ and ‘decision’ is that they can have meaning within the traditional context of free will, in that a choice or decision is something that a real free will agent can make, or something that a material object, like a computer, does as part of its playing out its determinsitic existence.

        1. I agree completely. While scientists work away and gradually reveal what is going on in our heads when (we think) we make choices, we must analyse and perhaps re-adjust our language in order to reflect this improved understanding. This is part of the philosopher’s job, I would say, and holds true for the notion of a free-willed agent just as much as for other basic intuitive categories such as space, time, and causation.

          Every time we learn that our intuition and our language do not match reality, we don’t just throw away all relevant concepts and words en bloc: we rework them (and yes, redefine them)to better reflect reality.

          (In my professional experience, this happens all the time even the field of enquiry of abstract mathematics, where common intuition is frankly irrelevant or nonexistent; still, we have our own expert intuitions and specialized language that we keep upgrading and refining).

      2. Another example of how tricky the language is. Take this from Jerry’s article:

        “We can’t impose a nebulous ‘will’ on the inputs to our brain that can affect its output of decisions and actions, any more than a programmed computer can somehow reach inside itself and change its program.”

        Well, a computer can reach inside itself and change its program, as long as it has been programmed to do so. It doesn’t have the ‘free will’ to do this, and it is deterministic, if we assume a deterministic universe. But in computing one of the big problems is that a program can be effectively indeterminsitic for a number of reasons, and if a program can change itself, that’s one of them.

        1. Seconded. I find it almost spooky how natural it becomes to ascribe will, choice-making and perhaps even introspection (as in this example) to abstract algorithms and embodied computer programs, the more thy become sophisticated and “intelligent”.

  11. As an aside, I had never seen the movie Time Bandits before, so I watched it a couple of days ago with my 11-year-old son. Near the end of the movie, there was the battle between the Supreme Being and his creation, Evil. The protagonist kid asked the Supreme Being a question, and S.B. brushed it off with “You may as well ask me why there has to be evil.”

    The kid then asked “why does there have to be evil?”

    After hesitating a moment, the Supreme Being said, in a very unsure way, “I think it’s something to do with free will.”

    That was the highlight of the movie for me.

  12. For what it’s worth, I agree that there is no evidence or compelling reason to think there is a ghost in the machine. On the other hand, except as an philosophical exercise, I don’t think it matters at all. It’s like worrying about the fact that a good “random number generator” on a computer is actually deterministic. For all practical purposes, even if you know how the random number generator works, no mistakes occur by assuming “real random numbers” are being produced. We approximate beings with “true free will” so well that knowledge of the reality does not change anything of importance.

      1. even if the random number generator can be “cracked” the results of the simulation (or whatever you’re using the random numbers for) remains valid.

    1. We approximate beings with “true free will” so well that knowledge of the reality does not change anything of importance.

      Well no… I don’t see how you can call the justification of punitive retribution (which comes from such an approximation of true free will, as “so well”. This mistake, to believe that anyone could have done other than what they have done, has only added to additional human suffering, rather than reducing it. This “approximation” has been nothing short of a cosmic tragedy.

      1. I see your point, but I think you can justify non-punative punishment (life in prison) even if there is a ghost in the machine, and punative punishment in some cases even if everything is pre-determined (e.g., to scare others from doing the same crime).

        1. Life in prison would serve two purposes:

          1. To remove a person from society that it has been determined just cannot acceptably coexist in that society.

          2. The hope that the threat of the possibility of permanent detention might encourage similar persons to follow the rules. (Changing the inputs into the human algorithm in the hope of altering the path followed)

          But why have a suicide watch for anyone on death row?

          How (for instance) did Herman Goering “cheat the executioner” by doing their job for them?

          The death penalty isn’t corrective, though both 1 and 2 above would still apply. If it’s not punitive punishment, why must the sentence be carried out by the state?

          1. To keep the paperwork in order, and as a check against opportunistic deceptive murder. They remain prisoners, not “lawless” (in the old sense) toys.

            That is, at least until we can establish some liberty of selftermination for the general public. At that point, revision is in order.

      2. Well no… I don’t see how you can call the justification of punitive retribution (which comes from such an approximation of true free will, as “so well”. This mistake, to believe that anyone could have done other than what they have done, has only added to additional human suffering, rather than reducing it.

        How do you know? As Dennett says in defending retribution, functional human societies seem to require social norms of responsibility and a criminal justice system that enforces those norms through retribution for wrongdoing.

        I think this idea that we could remake society to eliminate the idea of moral agency from human interactions is a fantasy.

      3. Geesh, the idea of retributive justice really does not derive from the concept of free will, not even from contra-causal free will, specifically. The only thing is that free-will concepts make it easier to justify applying retribution: something like, they knew the consequences, and yet they took the risk anyway. That is, the idea of free will might be used to argue that retributive justice is allowable. There is nothing about any sense of free will that should lead one to conclude that retributive justice is desirable, let alone necessary.

        1. There is nothing about any sense of free will that should lead one to conclude that retributive justice is desirable, let alone necessary.

          If people desire that criminals suffer for their wrongdoing, why doesn’t
          that make retributive justice desirable?

          But you don’t need free will — in the sense of contra-causal, physics-violating free will — to make retributive justice “allowable.”

          1. I didn’t say that you *need* free will to argue retributive justice is allowable.

            And “retributive punishment is desirable because people desire it” does not, as far as I can see, appeal to a concept of free will at all.

  13. After reading several articles on this by JAC and others I’m still no clearer on what the empirical evidence is for this view.

    Say someone takes the position:

    1) We start with the view that our senses etc are reliable unless there is strong evidence to suggest otherwise.

    2) We appear to have free will, in JAC’s definition.

    3) What is the empirical evidence contradicting (2)?

    1. TJR: it appears to us, too, that objects actually are touching and not filled with mostly empty space.

      It appears to us that objects of different masses are accelerated by gravity at different rates.

      It appears to us that a mirage in a desert is really there.

      As Neil deGrasse Tyson puts it: these shouldn’t be called optical illusions; they’re brain failures. Lots of things appear to us to behave a certain way but in fact do not. Also to paraphrase Tyson again: our brains are not reliable data taking instruments.

      1. And we have lots of empirical data to demonstrate that these appearances are wrong.

        Again, where is the equivalent empirical evidence that (2) above is wrong?

        1. Well, I don’t know who this ‘we’ of which you speak is then. I certainly don’t start with the assumption that my senses are reliable. I start with the non-assumption that my senses are useful in preventing my death; that they model the world in my brain in a way that lets my brain make decisions about how to navigate in a way that has been successful in previous generations to assist my not dying untimely or anything.

          Being aware that quite a lot of phenomena are beyond my brains ability to directly appreciate, I am not confident in its abilities. This is why I study mathematics and science, for they are reliable in a way my senses are not.

          In other words, I wrote what I did to attack proposition 1, which forecloses any need to entertain proposition 2 because, contra the proposition, our senses are demonstrably unreliable quite often.

          1. Fair enough. There are shedloads of evidence that our senses are unreliable in many ways, that was the point of the second part of (1).

            However, all of the empirical evidence showing this inevitably goes back to us trusting our senses somewhere, e.g. when we read a book or interpret experimental results.

            For example, we trust the sense-evidence showing that solids are in fact mostly empty space more than the sense-evidence that they really are solid.

            I suppose I’m saying that my (1) and your first two paras above are not contradictory.

            1. Everywhere we look, from the mundane day to day operations of our universe, to the more abstruse areas we find that our senses are inadequate to the task. The Sun not revolving around Earth seems to have stumped the species for quite a long time. Why? Because it looks like it goes around us.

              You are saying there’s no contradiction between my proposition and yours. I disagree. The way we determine what is true from what is illusion is not by staring at the Sun longer; the illusion remains the same even when we know beyond all doubt that it is an illusion. We cannot help but to wrongly see the orbital relationship between Earth and the Sun; it appears even today as it did in yesteryear. So, what do we do? We discount our senses.

              We don’t determine if the mirage is real or illusion by sitting still and wondering if there’s really water there, or if it’s a trick. We have to go check. We have to change the conditions relative to our senses to overcome their built-in deficiencies. When we get there, what do we do? We reject our senses.

              The arguments about free will existing depend entirely on what it appears to be. Why would we trust that given the frequency in our past (and even large parts of our present) where what something looks like is exactly not what it is in fact? We devise instruments to collect information in a way that makes that information available to us by outpacing the handicaps of our senses. What do we do when our instruments tell us something? We discount our senses.

              Yes, to read a set of data requires some sensory input, but it’s augmented by machinery and instrumentation that isn’t vulnerable to the same failures in the same respects as our senses are; it then reports the data to us in a way that we can demonstrate our senses are better capable of accurately perceiving. You do no work by trying to relate augmenting our senses with instruments that work despite our senses being completely inadequate to the task, and our unaugmented senses wrongly interpreting an illusion as real. What do we do in all of these cases? We discount our senses.

              If we really thought our senses were reliable absent overwhelming evidence to the contrary, one wonders why we ever started inventing instruments to tell us anything. The invention of superior data gathering devices are a necessary outcome of our recognizing our senses are unreliable, and our desire to find a way not to be retarded by them.

              1. Except that we don’t discount our senses, we augment them, as you say. Its not turtles all the way down, somewhere it ends up with a sense, usually sight.

                I’m not really disagreeing with anything you say (except as above) I’m just asking where is the raw-sense-wrong augmented-sense-right empirical evidence for this particular case.

              2. Re the orbital relationship between the Earth and the Sun:

                Wittgenstein: “Why do people say that it was natural to think that the sun went round the earth rather than that the earth turned on its axis?”

                I (Elizabeth Anscombe, a friend and pupil of Wittgenstein) replied: “I suppose, because it looked as if the sun went round the earth.”

                “Well, he asked, what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the earth turned on its axis?”


              3. Here’s how I kind of hear your position: the television is capable of showing me programs all on its own.

                I say no. It requires a lot of extra stuff before something intelligible comes across. We discount that the TV itself is a reliable way to watch a program. You need electricity. You need to add in some way of ‘tuning’ the device. You need some reliable way to get the information from point A to the TV.

                And you reply: I’m not disagreeing. I’m just saying that we don’t discount the TV is incapable of doing the work. I’m just asking where is the raw-TV-wrong augmented-TV-right empirical evidence for this particular show.

                At some point in the process of examining things, our senses do come into play at some point. We’re aware of this. We’re also aware that our senses are faulty, and thus we make available the step-wise process we used to get the data to the point of being available to our senses in a way we think is correct and reliable for the entire rest of the world of examine and point out where and how we were led astray so that we can be improved by analysis that isn’t suffering the same individual defect I might have while looking at some data.

                But sure, there’s just no empirical evidence that we’re at all aware our senses are faulty and heavily augmented specifically to leave to our defects as little room for screwing it up as we can manage.

                Ant Allan: I’ve always liked that Wittgenstein question. It would look exactly as it does because that is in fact how we see it. In other words, by virtue of our placement in the system, we have no choice but to see it exactly as it really isn’t.

  14. This post could have been much shorter. All of these people simply didn’t get your argument. That’s really the only summary needed. They probably also didn’t even read most or any of your article. But they did feel the need to formulate responses to what they imagined you said. Such is the way with the internet.

  15. Words and labels point to things (or actions or whatever). What they point to generally exists pretty much as described; if not, we wouldn’t be able to communicate.

    But, sometimes, what they point to simply isn’t there. Or, there may be something there, but it’s not what people think it is.

    Such was the case with the firmament, a dome in the sky with pinholes that let through the light of the realm of the gods. The firmament doesn’t at all exist, nor anything even remotely like it.

    Yet…it’s occasionally useful to invoke the firmament as poetry, or even as a real-world physical tool to simulate the sky such as in a planetarium.

    “Free will” is much the same. It’s as non-existent as the firmament.

    However, just as people who used to believe in the firmament would point to the real sky with real properties (even though it was nothing like what they thought it was), people today still point to a real phenomenon when they’re pointing to their “free willies.” What they’re actually pointing to is their ability to imagine the outcomes of various choices and navigate this internal virtual landscape before setting out on the real-world equivalent landscapes. And, as one would expect, the reality of what people point to is so much richer and more fascinating than the storybook fantasy they believe in.

    So, just as I would argue that the firmament is a figment of imagination while the sky and space are real, I would argue that free will is fiction though imagination and analysis are real.

    One could attempt to co-opt the term, “free will,” to apply to imagination and analysis, but, outside of poetry, that would be as misleading and counterproductive as claiming that the ISS has been set in the firmament by the gods of NASA and Roscosmos.



    1. I like that analogy, Ben. I’d had a similar idea while reading the comments above: We have the illusion of free will – i.e., that we could have made a different choice – because we can imagine making any of several different choices. But each imagined choice (with its consequences) is just another input into the analysis that yields the final, deterministic output: We imagine the consequences of each, and thus determine which imagined choice is most beneficial and to be enacted in the real world.


      1. Thanks. It’s hardly original — indeed, it’s essentially the basic compatibilist position. I think it was Richard Carrier here who first put it forth in a way that made sense to me.

        I disagree with the compatibilists in the appropriateness of appropriating the term “free will” for that phenomenon, for the reasons I outlined.

        But I also disagree with Jerry’s rhetorical approach in simply dismissing the concept of free will out of hand. Were you to tell an ancient that there’s no such thing as the firmament, she’d look at you like you were nuts, point to the sky, and ask, well, what do you call that then? Huh?

        And that’s exactly the position we’re in with “free will” today.

        I think there’s a lot more to be gained in explaining the phenomenon that people have mislabeled as “free will” than there is in telling people all the reasons it can’t possibly exist. My response to the matter would be, “What you’re calling ‘free will’ is a misnomer; instead, that’s your ability to use your imagination create realistic mental simulations of the likely outcomes of different possible actions on your part. But the whole process is exactly as deterministic as a computer playing chess.”

        You can then go on to bolster your arguments with why the contracasual notion of free will is incoherent, but you have to start by explaining the illusion to them.

        Otherwise, well, what do you call that big blue thing overhead?



        1. I agree. Similar to what i said above. I think Prof. Coyne’s rhetorical approach in his USA today piece will not be very effective and i wouldn’t recommend it to someone who is not familiar with the debate.

        2. I don’t think Jerry thinks he has just a semantic difference with compatibilists. He really seems to think we are afraid to face up to the fact that we don’t have contra-causal free will, so we replace with compatibilist free-will which is just a pale shadow of the real thing, and if we were honest with ourselves, we’d admit that it’s not really something worth valuing.

          While compatibilists, of course, think they’ve started by thinking that the contra-causal definition of free will never made sense, and instead try to extract a definition that captures what we really value about the idea of free will. And we find out that physical determinism* doesn’t upset that refined definition.

          *noting again for those following along at home that “contra-causal” is broader concept than merely “physically-indeterministic,” so that one can notice the problems with contra-causal free will without appealing to scientific results at all

    2. On the other hand, once upon a time people thought life was magical. But we didn’t abandon the word “life” when we discovered that it’s really just very complicated chemistry. “Life” is still a useful concept, even outside of poetry.

      1. It isn’t so much life per se that’s been considered magical, as it’s been the “spark” of life, the soul, the animus. And I think you’d agree with me that that’s a concept that belongs with the firmament.

        The question is mainly one of rhetorical effectiveness, and I would argue that applying “free will” to the imaginative decision-making process is causing more confusion than simply telling people that, just as the stars are distant suns in an empty sky rather than holes in the firmament, they use their imaginations to create virtual worlds to aid in making decisions rather than “exercise free will.”


        1. But “imaginations,” like every other mental state, are themselves an effect of physical processes in the brain. On the no-free-will account, “imaginations” don’t have any causal power. They can’t cause you to behave in one way rather than another. So, on your account, why is describing behavior in terms of “imaginations to create virtual worlds to aid in making decisions” any less wrong than describing it in terms of exercising free will?

          1. My point is that what people are pointing to when they say they’re exercising their free will is the process of imagining the results of different choices.

            I think we can agree that people do, indeed, imagine the outcomes of different choices, that that use of imagination is an essential part of the decision-making process, and that it’s this process that people are pointing to when they say they’re exercising their free will.

            That the process is deterministic is somewhat tangential to the question of semantics.

            My argument is that we shouldn’t re-lable imaginative decision-making as “free will,” because that’s as misleading as describing stars as holes in the firmament (even though a believer in the firmament and one who accepts modern astronomy will both be pointing their fingers at the same overhead points of light).

            Instead, we should tell proponents of free will that what they’re pointing their fingers at are not holes in the firmament, but rather incandescant masses of gasses powered by gigantic nuclear furnaces — or, rather, their (deterministic) imaginations predicting likely outcomes of possible options. Leave “free will” out of it entirely, except as minimally necessary to correct misunderstandings (just as you’d leave “firmament” entirely out of astronomy).



            1. Why leave “free will” out of it entirely? We already have the correct usage of it as in the legalese “act of your own free will”. This means un-coerced action. We should continue to use it properly in this meaning, not like the way Jerry defines it such that it becomes non-existent (and counter to everyday usage).

              1. Because, as should be self-evident, outside of the context of legal jargon, the term has almost as many definitions as it does people who use it, with nothing but mass confusion resulting.

                In case you haven’t noticed, almost all the posts in Jerry’s numerous “free will” threads have been arguments over how to properly define the term, not on the nature or existence of whatever phenomenon any particular phenomenon of any of the myriad definitions.

                If nobody can agree on what the term means, using the term can cause nothing but confusion.


              2. “Because, as should be self-evident, outside of the context of legal jargon, the term has almost as many definitions as it does people who use it, with nothing but mass confusion resulting.”

                I’d say the legal meaning is the more common usage by far. Outside of the context of academic philosophizing there is no mass confusion. My point was to not surrender the definition to the incompatibilists. Leaving out “free will” is essentially agreeing with them to re-define it to incoherence and non-existence.

                This is a problem of concepts at the boundary conditions. A silicon computer is far from what we would attribute free will to (uncoerced action). But we can see that it is simply increasing complexity and power that gets from them (silicon) to us (meat computers). As has been pointed out many times the word “life” has the same problem at the boundary conditions. It would be bad reductionism to deny the meaningfulness of emergent concepts/properties because they cannot be applied at the lowest reduction.

            2. But on your account, “the use of imagination to make decisions” cannot influence our behavior any more than “exercising free will” can. The only thing that can affect behavior is physical laws. You’re just substituting one phrase implying that mental states can control physical matter for another.

              If human behavior cannot legitimately be described as the outcome of free will, then it also can’t legitimately be described as the outcome of intentions, choices, decisions, desires, imaginations, or any other mental state.

              1. In this context, I really don’t care if anything is or isn’t affecting anything.

                All I’m observing is that there is a phenomenon associated with the term, “free will.”

                There’s a phenomenon associated with what people used to refer to as “the firmament,” but that phenomenon is stellar fusion, not holes in a metal dome. When somebody uses the term, “firmament,” I’ll tell them that what they’re referring to is really gigantic nuclear furnaces powering incandescent masses of flaming gasses.

                There’s also a phenomenon associated with what people today call “free will,” but it has damned little to do with wills, free or otherwise. About as much, in fact, as bright points of light in the night sky have to do with a holey celestial sheet-metal roof.

                And the reality of that phenomenon is that they’re constructing mental virtual realities and plugging different potential decisions as the initial conditions for each. And, yes. Of course. The laws of physics are just playing themselves out, yes. There’s no more (nor less) deciding going on than there is in a computer, yes. And that’s exactly why the terms “free” and “will” are inappropriate — just as the term “firmament” is inappropriate in modern astronomy.

                But there are stars, and people do construct mental models, and those models do play a role in the decision-making process. But “free will” has nothing to do with it, just as the “firmament” is a figment of ancient imagination.



              2. But there are stars, and people do construct mental models, and those models do play a role in the decision-making process.

                Again, on your account, mental models and the decision-making process don’t influence how people act any more than free will does. Imagination and mental models and decisions are just states of mind with no causal power over behavior. So I don’t know why you think describing behavior in terms of these things is any less misleading than describing it in terms of free will. On your account, all causation is physical, and free will, imagination, mental models, intentions, etc. are just irrelevant byproducts of physical processes.

              3. Again, on your account, mental models and the decision-making process don’t influence how people act any more than free will does.

                Eh, I think you’re taking things more than a bit too far.

                If we can state that the amount of fuel supplied to an engine’s injectors is (most significantly) what determines a particular car’s acceleration, or the presence of a particular gene that determines a person’s eye color, or the programming and inputs of a particular computer that determines the output of its calculations, then we can equally reasonably state that it’s a person’s decision-making process that determines the person’s actions.

                Or would you toss out all the rest of that as irrelevant byproducts of physical processes, too?

                There may be some sort of pedantic correctness in such fatalistic nihilism, but I really don’t see its utility.


              4. Imagination and mental models and decisions are just states of mind with no causal power over behavior.

                I think this is wrong.

                Being able to imagine a particular decision and to have a mental model that shows you the beneficial outcome of that decision enables you to make that decision, to select that action amongst other options. If you can‘t image a particular decision (“cut the knot”) you cannot make it. In that sense these things do have “causal power” over behaviour. (Of course, these things themselves are caused. What caused Alexander to even imagine cutting the knot rather than untying it? Maybe being the only one presented with the puzzle to be tutored by [?] Aristotle… But in any case, imagination preceded the act.)



              5. then we can equally reasonably state that it’s a person’s decision-making process that determines the person’s actions.

                The word “decision” implies freedom of choice. “He decided to buy the book” implies that he could instead have decided NOT to buy the book. That’s the difference between deciding to do something and being compelled to do it. So your language of “decision-making” implies freedom of choice just as the language of “free will” implies it.

                And this goes to the fundamental problem with your position. If you deny that “free will” is a meaningful framework for describing human behavior, because we’re not “really” free, then you must also abandon all other language implying such freedom — intentions, choices, decisions, and so on. On your account, we simply do what we do in accordance with the laws of physics and we don’t have any control over it. There are no decisions or choices, except in the sense of mental events (like “exercising free will”) that have no causal relationship to our actions.

              6. The word “decision” implies freedom of choice.

                I would submit that computer programs make decisions, and yet there is only one possible decision for any given combination of program and input.

                If you would agree with me that computers make decisions, then, Shirley, you must agree that people do, too.

                “He decided to buy the book” implies that he could instead have decided NOT to buy the book.

                You’re leaving off an important part of the phrase. Yes, he could have instead have decided NOT to buy the book had the circumstances been different. But, of course, for a given set of circumstances, there’s only the one possible choice — but such is also the case for computers, too.


              7. I would submit that computer programs make decisions, and yet there is only one possible decision for any given combination of program and input.

                But the common understanding is that decisions imply free will. Deciding to do something is not the same as being forced to do it. If it’s a decision, you’re free to choose between different alternatives, instead of being forced. So unless you’re attributing free will to computer programs, you’re using the word “decision” in a way that is radically different than how most people understand it. You’re not reducing confusion, you’re adding to it.

              8. Ant Allan,

                Being able to imagine a particular decision and to have a mental model that shows you the beneficial outcome of that decision enables you to make that decision, to select that action amongst other options.

                It may enable you to mentally “select” the action, but it cannot cause any physical action to occur. Imaginings and mental models are just mental states generated by physical processes. They have no causal power over matter. They can’t influence your behavior.

              9. I don’t get your objection, Gary. How can they not be part of the causal chain? How can the Gordian knot have been cut without Alexander first imagining that it could be? “The thought is father to the deed” and all that.


              10. So unless you’re attributing free will to computer programs, you’re using the word “decision” in a way that is radically different than how most people understand it.

                That sentence tells me you’ve not paid attention to a single thing I’ve written.

                I no more attribute “free will” to computer programs than I do novae to the claws of a celestial hound on the other side of the firmament. And I’ve repeatedly made the point that what humans do is conceptually no different from what computers do.

                I’m sorry that you’re having so much trouble with basic reading comprehension, but I don’t think there’s much more I can do to help at this point.


              11. How can they not be part of the causal chain?

                Because mind cannot influence the behavior of matter. There is no ghost in the machine. “Imagining” or making a “mental model” cannot change the way you behave. Those phenomena are effects of physical processes, not causes of them.

              12. Ben Goren

                The point is that you’re using the word “decision” in a way that is radically different than most people understand it. As most people use the word, “decision” implies the freedom to choose between alternatives. As opposed to having one of the alternatives forced on you. But you are using the word “decision” to refer to an act that does not involve freedom. Which makes your objection to the term “free will” on the grounds that it is confusing all the more bizarre.

              13. @ Gary

                Where was I suggesting that there was a “ghost in the machine”? Anything that you imagine, any mental model you have is just a certain configuration of brain chemistry — and one which is causal as well as caused.

                Again: How could Alexander have cut the Gordian knot without first imagining that he could?


              14. If by terms like “imagining” and “mental model” you mean kinds of physical process in the brain rather than kinds of subjective experience, then yes, those physical processes may be causal. But then what’s wrong with using the term “free will” in the same way? If “imagining” is a physical phenomenon with causal power, why can’t “free will” be a physical phenomenon with causal power too? That’s what compatibilism means.

              15. What’s wrong is using the term “free will” at all, in the same way as it’s wrong to use the terms “firmament”, per Ben’s original comment, or “luminiferous æther”, or “phlogiston”, &c., &c.


    3. The problem is that Jerry’s position on free will has led him deny choice:

      “And even though my words about free will were something I had no choice about writing…”

      Really? Most people would get a picture of somebody pointing a gun to his head while he was writing the op-ed.

      I’m sure he will by necessity have redefined “choice” to non-existence. But then what word do we use for the deliberate actions done by thinking agents analysing alternatives?

      What is clear is that Jerry wants to deny the existence of the immaterial soul as the source of “free will”. Dennett denies as much. We don’t have “free will” in the non-deterministic, contra-causal sense – as Dennet says that is not a freedom worth wanting. The freedom available to us is so much richer and fascinating. And in fact were it not for the world being deterministic, choice would not be possible.

    4. I don’t think it’s a matter of disagreeing about nomenclature.

      The compatibilists, despite claims of allegiance to materialistic determinism, seem to want to argue that there’s still some way that we can imagine and deliberate over possible outcomes outside of the flow of cause-and-effect governing everything that’s not “us”.

      But we do not freely choose what possible outcomes to imagine. Our deliberation is mapped out for us.

            1. Done! If this italic problem happens again, or anything similar, I won’t notice it because I get the comments on email. Just shoot me a quick email about the problem and I’ll fix it.


        1. Nobody, explicitly.

          I just think it’s implicit in some of the compatibilists claims.

          Not that they’re purposely engaging in deceit. Far from it, I’m sure.

          But the implication looks like it’s there, to me.

          1. No it’s not there.

            Compatibilism is basically an explanation of two facts: 1) the psychological truth that you feel you are a free willing agent capable of making choices, and 2) determinism.

            It gives a new understanding to what it really means to have free will. It replaces the old understanding that free will requires dualism.

            Anticompatibilism throws the baby out with the bathwater. Faced with the fact of determinism, it rejects the existence of free will and choice and responsibility! (Can you believe it?) It is bad reductionism, choosing only to look at the problem at the lowest reduction, and denying the meaningfulness of emergent properties and concepts.

  16. Jerry – “Therefore, in common parlance, it wasn’t a ‘choice’ at all except that it is one of many things that I could have done in principle according to an outside observer.”

    This expresses the indeterministic nature of a complex deterministic system. If the system is so complex that the observer cannot determine (analyse, see, work out, predict, …) the behaviour (the outcome of the decision) then the system is, to all intents and purposes, to the observer, an indeterministic system. In our case the ‘observer’ is not only someone else observing us, but each of us observing our selves.

    That our personal ‘chocies’ seem to appear out of one’s mind, without any detailed prior explanation, gives the sense that they are ‘free’ – free of the deterministic substrate.

    1. What you describe is the illusion of free will. Any statement that we have free will is the myth of free will.

  17. Interesting that God botherers get upset about lack of free will when the bible has many verses endorsing predetermination of salvation or damnation (the default position).
    I particularly like the bit where god takes away the pharaoh’s free will to allow him to send plagues and kill babies (Exodus 9).

  18. One wonders what Michael Barrett would say if confronted with the number of Nobel prizewinners that UC can claim (if he’s ever heard of the prizes).

  19. I read the USA Today piece yesterday morning, and was thinking about it while driving to work (Jan 2nd was not a universal holiday!). As I was driving there was a piece on NPR about the high success rate in curing heroin addiction in soldiers in Vietnam, with much of the credit given to the fact that the men were detoxified in Vietnam before being repatriated to the US. The change in environment was credited with the relatively high success rates (as compared to addicts who continued to live in the same environment). A few moments later I turned a corner and nearly ran into a dog standing in the middle of the road, the dog survived because I had hit the brakes, before I had time to make a conscious decision on whether to stop or not.

    I have always been convinced that there is no such thing as true free will, this is hardly a new concept but it is good to hear it more widely discussed. And it’s really hard to get through the illusion to some form of truth.

    A conditioned reflex, like hitting the brakes to avoid a dog cannot be practically overcome (at least without some strong training to drive straight through objects in the road). And that just tells us that we can condition ourselves to respond to specific stimuli in predictable ways. It’s not free will – I suppose making a decision to hit the dog would have been an exercise of free will but I it would probably have required pre-knowledge of the situation to avoid a reflexive action. So no free will there. Can we exclude reflexes from this discussion? I think so.

    Did the Vietnam vets who broke their addiction (around 95% apparently) act of their own free will? Versus the low number who break addiction to heroin while continuing to live in the situation under which they became addicted. Their changed environment apparently helped them to change their behavior, so assuming that on average the level of free will in addicts is similar (and I realize that’s not a given) it would seem that in this case the exercise of free will has only a marginal effect on a pretty profound behavior.

    So I’m left to wonder, is my decision to behave in a manner that I consider “moral” an act of free will? My gut instinct is to say no – I can do what I will, but not will what I will – per Schopenhauer. However contemplation and discussion of issues can certainly change the way that one reacts to an issue – there are certainly many things that I have significantly changed my position on over the last 30 to 40 years. And I can recognize that my “visceral” (i.e. immediate and unthinking) reactions to these have changed. Is that an exercise of free will, or just another form of conditioning. Or just one posing as the other. It doesn’t feel like it, but I’m not sure.

    Sorry to ramble on so long without reaching a conclusion!

    1. No need to apologize (to some of us), ultimately you were caused to ramble. (Of course you were caused to apologize too.) (And of course, in all sincerity, I was compelled to reply to you in this manner.)

  20. Jeff Richardon’s comment on USA Today underlines an interesting fact about our minds. First, the relevant part:

    …if they are correct in their theory, then the scientists who developed the theory didn’t actually arrive at it due to logical rational processes or by freely evaluating and choosing the conclusions…

    The interesting thing about our minds is that belief isn’t a choice. For example, if you offered me a million dollars right now to believe that there’s a pink elephant in my office, then try as I might, I could never do it. I want the money, but I can’t convince myself of something so obviously false. Belief is very much a determined process – what we find convincing does, in a real manner, force us to believe. Fortunately, the conclusions we are forced by our neurons to make are often good ones. Which is pretty cool. Too bad Jeff only gets it half right.

    1. Tim,

      Your observation is 100% correct. Those who believe in free will, would necessarily have to believe that they could freely chose to believe that free will is only an illusion. (Whereas a non-free willist believes this is not possible. A non-free willist knows he has no choice but be convinced (at that point in time) that there is no reality to free will.)

      But ask any free willists if they can demonstrate their free will by freely choosing to believe in non-free willism… and you will find that they are not free to do so.

      1. Silly. Free will is not about freedom to believe. Belief is not and has never been a matter of choice. You are compelled to believe by the evidence, logical persuasion, authority presented to you based on your susceptibility to be convinced by these things. You cannot choose to “believe” otherwise, although you can pretend or lie and “say” otherwise. What you can choose are your deliberative actions.

        1. DV, this is nearly exactly what I have said before about my lack of belief in god. It’s not a choice, which is one of the many reasons why Pascal’s wager is utter BS.

        2. “You are compelled to believe by the evidence [and] logical persuasion”

          …just as you are compelled to choose deliberative actions based on what conforms to your inherent goals.

  21. Nazis and communists have enjoyed a stable of tamed “scientists” ready to testify that men have no free will.

    That would be news to Hitler, who explicitly based his “Führer concept” on the “free will of … those being led.” The entirety of Hitler’s, Marx’s, Lenin’s, Stalin’s, etc. writing is online and translated. Checking this stuff and invalidating statements like this takes all of two seconds, but most of your critics aren’t interested in the truth, but only in defending their own peculiar superstitions.

    Search The Essential Hitler: Speeches and Commentary for all instances of “free will”:

    Leadership is always based on the free will and good intentions of those being led. —Hitler, 27 January 1934, Frankfurter Volksblatt

    Now cue the Christian response that Hitler didn’t really mean this, just as he didn’t really mean all his positive statements about Jesus.

    On the Bolshevik side, Alan Wood’s well-received survey of Marx’s view on human nature says this:

    I know of no text where Marx explicitly addresses the issue of free will and determinism, and doubt that he has any firm opinion on the issue. … I doubt that Marx or Engels ever have much thought to the metaphysical issue of free will and determinism. Why should they? Nothing in their theory of history turns on this issue.

    For my part, I am not convinced by your incompatibilism, and believe that you botched the “meat computer” argument: “We can’t impose a nebulous ‘will’ on the inputs to our brain that can affect its output of decisions and actions, any more than a programmed computer can somehow reach inside itself and change its program.” Yes, computers can be programmed to program themselves, and can do so based own their own state. Following a more serious discussion of free will viewed as the illusion of choice making, Hofstadter humorously contradicts the point of view expressed in your USA Today statement in his dialog between Crab (incompatibilist), Achilles (compatibilist), and Tortoise:

    Tortoise: It doesn’t really matter whether you have a hardware brain, Achilles. Your will can be equally free, if your brain is just a piece of software inside someone else’s hardware brain. And their brain, too, may be software in a yet higher brain …

    1. It always (slightly) surprises me how the arguments by the faithful, that involve the nazi’s or marxist, almost alway 100% backfire with the slightest research.

  22. Whyevolutionistrue:

    “And I deny free will—at least the contracausal form—on the basis of science, not atheism.”

    Do I detect a slight weakening in the anti-compatibilist rhetoric!

    “So before we begin inundating the average person with more “sophisticated” (i.e., compatibilist) notions of free will, shouldn’t we first convince them that their choice are predetermined by scientific laws?”

    Yes! (And ditto!)

  23. “The Christian way of love and humility gains empathy without sacrificing humanness?”

    Oh, I just love that sh*t!

    These idiots are literally blind, blind not because they can’t see but blind because they lack the optic neurons connecting their eyes to their brains, thus making sight possible.

    Perhaps the “Thinking x-tian (oh, what an oxymoron that word is!) can explain all the love that went into making the stretchers, Iron Maidens and, oh yea, those comfortable little chairs that were made expressly for the purpose of strapping the objects of their love and sympathy and humility into before lowering them over their little boats and into their sacred lake.

    Please, tell us more, Your Brilliance. I’d love to hear all about it.
    ~Rev. El

    1. I said the same thing at #39.

      Fundie-ism, the most visible form of US xianity, is based on hate, lies, hypocrisy, and ignorance.

      They are cafeteria xians. They took anything possibly construable as benign and tossed it out of their version.

      I’ve never been able to tell the difference between fundie xianity and satanism, except satanists more or less don’t exist.

  24. Imagine, if you will, asking someone to “stop thinking”. It can’t be done (although some claim it can be achieved through meditation, but not tested, as far as I know).

    If we can’t control the “stream of consciousness” itself, then do we really think we are in control of the content of it?

    Even the surrealists who might think of something “random” (green elephants, say) think about green elephants because something in their brain was wired to think of that particular thing at that particular time. In other words, all ideas must be derivative and we are not really “free” to choose what we think about.

  25. Jerry, let me start by saying that I agree with you about our lack of free will. But I have a feeling that this idea, if true, is what we could call “dangerous knowledge.” The implications for society would be hugely disruptive, and for the average person, nihilism would be sure to follow.
    Nietzsche believed that the necessary stage following the rejection of God, was nihilism. Well, what’s the next stage after discovering that our most cherished attribute, namely our free will, has vanished in a puff of smoke? There are some who argue that it makes no difference whether we have free will or not, since we’ll continue to act as though we did have free will anyway. But, this overlooks the fact that what we believe can have large effects on how we behave, on how we feel. For many, the truth of evolution is enough to send them into a deep existential crisis; what will it do to them when they discover the strings connecting them to some deterministic puppet master? This may be knowledge we’re better off not having, and it almost embarrasses me to say this since I believe we must follow the truth wherever it leads. This is hard to accept.

    1. So just what are you proposing, JT? A secret group of people that know the truth of the free will illusion but keep it to their selves?

      I am really sincerely curious.

      BTW, would you say this is a more dangerous knowledge than the knowledge of atheism? I suspect most theologians (maybe all theologians) are really atheists that, believing atheism to be dangerous knowledge, put on the show of theism.

      If I might be so bold as to suggest that you side with your inclination that we must follow the truth wherever it leads.

    2. “Well, what’s the next stage after discovering that our most cherished attribute, namely our free will, has vanished in a puff of smoke?”

      Compatibilism. Simples!

    3. You start with:
      “Jerry, let me start by saying that I agree with you about our lack of free will.”

      And end with:
      “This is hard to accept.”

      Make up your mind, and choose already. Do you agree that you cannot make choices or not?

    4. If – IF – it’s a dangerous truth, then it’s only dangerous because so many people are crazy and incapable of, or otherwise averse to, penetrating thought. It would be dangerous in the same way atheism would be.

      But the perceptive among us realize atheism should actually increase the premium we put on enjoying this life, and on exhibiting good behavior in this life.

      So it is with admitting the non-existence of FW. Jerry explained that it should temper the way we treat criminal offenders, for instance.

      I think it’s always better to embrace the truth. You just have to hope that humanity will figure out how to deal with it.

  26. It utterly infuriates me how so many people operate under the assumption that the universe gives a monkey’s about their beliefs. So much of the ‘opposition’ to your position on free will is born out of dislike of the implications rather than flaws in the reasoning. Why can’t these people see how stupid and illogical they are being?

    1. Rudi,
      Ironically the answer to your lament is because people have no free will to do other than what the matrix of their determinants cause them to do.

  27. “I’m not giving up humans: we exist, we have feelings, we interact with each other, and we act in the world, and those acts have effect. All I deny is that we can, at any moment, behave in any way different from what we did.”

    I must be dense because I can’t understand how this can be consistent with the no-free-will stance. What are the “effects” of our “acts?” Might an effect be to change someone’s mind? When striving for such an effect isn’t one intending to change another’s mind? It’s incoherent.

    It seems to me that the no-free-will position, taken seriously, forces one to give up all language referring to intentionality; or, if not, to admit that intentional mental states are pointless illusions.

    1. How can I read this and not conclude you are rather dense? (rhetorical question).

      In my appraisal, you do exhibit denseness. I have no choice in this conclusion, even though I almost can’t believe it is possible to be so dense. No wait, emotionality can interfere with a person’s acceptance of a challenging or threatening new thought, so maybe it’s not so unbelievable.

      In any case, there is nothing about the will lacking libertarian freedom that would preclude it from being caused to form an intention. Just now my matrix of determinants caused me to intend to communicate to you this message…

      Try to elaborate on how you get that non-free willism precludes intentionality, maybe you’ll spot the flaw in your thinking if you try this exercise.

      1. Try to elaborate on how you get that non-free willism precludes intentionality

        It doesn’t preclude it. But intentionality is just a state of mind created by physical processes in your brain. On your account, it doesn’t have any causal powers of its own. It can’t cause you to act one way rather than another. You just act in whatever way you do as determined by physical laws. Your intentions don’t matter.

        1. That’s precisely what I meant. Intentionality, if it exists as anything other than a meaningless, futile illusion, implies free will. Denying free will must also deny all significance of intentionality, so free-will deniers cannot with honesty (ironically, an intentional stance) use intentional language.

          1. You haven’t done anything more than restate your assertion. Having an intent does not establish freedom of will. The intent can be completely caused and still be an intent.

            1. The point is that, on your account, intentions cannot influence behavior. Intentions are just mental states generated by physical processes. So describing behavior as a consequence of intentions (or choices or decisions) is just as “wrong” as describing it as a consequence of free will. If human behavior can only properly be attributed to physical causes, there’s no place for any of these terms.

  28. We should thank Dr. Coyne for bringing to our attention the observation that no matter how much we try we can not get past our insistence on seeing ourselves as having non-corporeal reasoning minds that are overlords that live inside our bodies. With any reflection we have to come to realize that the memories and needs and desires that we have do not come as a result of perceptions bubbling up out of brain into our free-will — our memories, needs, desires and perceptions come from the brain itself. No one has shown any evidence that our thinking can come from anywhere else. Despite the fact that all evidence seems to indicate that free-will is simply an illusion we are still determined to hold on to the idea of free-will.
    It is time we accept what the evidence shows. We should not fret though. That does not seem to mean that life is meaningless. Our daily determination for learning and experiencing life still result in our brain changing. This will bring us the growth we seek.

    1. Yes, but is self-change possible? What will this do for the self-help industry? Will this put Oprah Winfrey and her minions out of business? These are pressing questions.

      1. Obviously the key here is how ironic the title “self-help” is… if the help was truly coming from within the self, there would be no industry. Self-help must mean help for the self… not help from within the self.

  29. I suggest you consider the comments section of Gilson’s post before so glibly settling on the emotional need to rid yourselves of free will.

    The contracausal understanding that free will cannot exist because it is not free of the causes that create the need to exert will against those causes is absurd–not least of all because, if we follow Coyne’s deeply eliminativist pseudo-philosophical interpretation of observed human phenomena, then even the contracausal concept of Coyne’s is itself reducible to complex, time-dependent electro-chemical signals crossing synapses… which means it bears no logical truth or falsity. It is sad that most of those commenting here cannot distinguish between logical beings and real beings… which makes Coyne’s missing that boat breathtakingly ignorant.

    The other reason the contracausal conception is absurd is the a priori and utterly non-scientific presupposition that all causes are reducible to efficient physical causality. You can’t depend on the modern empirical sciences to assert “there are no causes other than physical causes” because of the buried circularity.

    1. “reducible to complex, time-dependent electro-chemical signals crossing synapses… which means it bears no logical truth or falsity”

      I don’t understand. When my computer is rendering graphics, is it not performing complex, time-dependent, electrical signals crossing hardware? If it is doing this, how it follow that something which is neither false nor true seems to rather accurately render a virtual world in which I reliably interact with predictable responses?

      Is there something mystical about the electricity being created chemically, or the hardware being synaptic in my head rather than a circuit in a graphics card?

      Similarly, “You can’t depend on the modern empirical sciences to assert “there are no causes other than physical causes” because of the buried circularity.”
      Well, you could certainly disabuse everyone here of thinking this is true by pointing even a single exception. Have you any handy?

  30. Jerry, many thanks for your reply, some points in response:

    I’m not a compatibilist, in that I don’t think that desert-based retribution is compatible with determinism/naturalism, which is what most compatibilists maintain. See my review of Four Views on Free Will, which I titled “The Scandal of Compatibilism” (linked at ) because I see no good compatibilist justification for punishing people independently of considerations of consequences, which is what retribution demands. Nor do I recommend talking about free will in the compatibilist sense since that just confuses people, many of whom (but not all – see the experimental philosophy literature on beliefs about free will) assume free will is contra-causal. When I talk about free will, it’s usually in the context of denying contra-causal free will (CCFW), which you do as well, which is great. It’s also great that you and Sam Harris have drawn out the progressive policy implications of this for criminal justice, something that Naturalism.Org has been doing since 1998, see the criminal justice page linked at (there are many other progressive implications, see the social justice and addiction pages there). I would love it if other free thought and atheist organizations took up this cause, and but it means they have to join us in denying the “little god” of CCFW, which is tougher than giving up big God in some respects.

    I’d say many people are under the illusion of having *contra-causal* choice (that is, our choices might *appear* to be contra-causal), but that choice-making, although fully determined, is still a real and causally effective process. As you say, choices have consequences, that is, effects. So yes, we as identifiable agents do indeed have causal powers to make things happen; we’re just as causally effective as the determinants that caused us. It seems to me you can’t logically attribute causal power to our determinants but not to us. I think we basically agree on this, although I don’t agree with your emphasis on the laws of physics at the expense of higher level scientific explanations of behavior (although you’ve now qualified your position on that somewhat).

    Given that choices have consequences, I hope you (and Sam) would eventually agree that we aren’t puppets or victims of circumstances who lack control, for instance in achieving our New Year’s resolutions. As I pointed out in comments in the earlier thread here about your USA Today article, puppets have no internal source of behavior control – their movements are a function of external forces only, e.g., strings. We, on the other hand, have tons of internal processing that makes us radically autonomous by comparison, acting on the basis of our own motives and desires. Determinism doesn’t erase the distinction between people and puppets, between acting autonomously and proactively on the basis of one’s own character and desires and being passive, with no sense of internal locus of control. Paradoxically, accepting determinism – that we could *not* have done otherwise in actual (as opposed to counterfactual) situations – gives us *more* control, since we’re led to examine very closely the causes of behavior, see for instance the paper on weight loss naturalism linked at It also makes us more empathetic and compassionate, something I’m very glad you’ve highlighted in your critique of CCFW. It’s no coincidence that scientists tend to be liberals.

    People really don’t want to think of themselves as passive puppets, so if they get the impression that the naturalistic denial of CCFW entails this, as you said in your USA Today piece following Sam Harris, they won’t accept naturalism. So it’s crucial for the prospects of humanistic naturalism that people *not* suppose naturalism entails puppethood, which it doesn’t, as argued above and see and So I hope you and Sam will change your minds on this point and let it be known.

    Thanks again for debunking CCFW and for the opportunity to comment here.

    1. People really don’t want to think of themselves as passive puppets, so if they get the impression that the naturalistic denial of CCFW entails this, as you said in your USA Today piece following Sam Harris, they won’t accept naturalism.

      I suspect here is the crux. I’d also note a suspicion that the puppet metaphor is not only unappealing, but deleterious to “self-control”, and socially destabilizing.

      The hard question for professor Coyne, thus, would seem to be what metaphor (if any) he would use to present determinism in a way that would disentail the “puppet” metaphor.

      1. “…the puppet metaphor is not only unappealing, but deleterious to ‘self-control’, and socially destabilizing.”

        Right, which is why some scientists think its necessary to protect the folk from belief in determinism – they will get demoralized by supposing that determinism robs them of control. But determinism does no such thing. The dangerous demoralizing belief isn’t determinism, it’s the false inference that without contra-causal free will we lose self-efficacy, see

        Given that Jerry and Sam and others have drawn this inference, it shows we can’t be too careful in how we present science and worldview naturalism. We have always to make sure people understand that they, just as much as their causal determinants, are real, causally effective participants in the natural order.

        1. I’m not sure your concept of self-efficacy and “causal power” translates well to my understanding — probably mostly due to idiosyncrasies in my sense of “self”, but also some quirks in my conception of “choice”.

          Further, your conception of “will” (as in “controlled by our wills”) also seems to rely on (or at least encourage) an implicit and sloppy dualism; which dualism I consider to have higher immediate levels of societal risk than the hazard to self control Coyne’s approach presents. YMMV.

          That said, my weltanschauung approach is certainly weirder than most.

        2. After reading Tom’s links, I find the position below which I have been arguing is fairly close to what Tom is saying (He just does it more eloquently).

          I accept determinism, but reject that this implies a loss of agency. We are very, very active little puppets. We are part of the universe. When my self concept, intentions and actions align, it is what is commonly referred to as free will. It is more accurately called self will. The universe creates us, but once created we become part of the creative wave.

    2. “People really don’t want to think of themselves as passive puppets”

      Yes, this is what prompts all those emotional reactions and has people stick to dualistic CCFW against all evidence.

      Thanks for (again) expressing so well the ideas that I have been vaguely forming in my head for some time. Also, by the way, many thanks to Jerry Coyne for reigniting and popularizing this important debate.

  31. Why would Coyne care to write about this, anyway?

    Well, first of all, it’s Dr. Coyne. YOU people are always quick to tack the appellation onto anyone with Dr of Divinity paperwork, so let’s reciprocate. K?

    Now to the why. If it were not for YOU people always throwing this out in response to why do people do bad things if the skydaddy is so omnipotent, this would not be an issue. The question would, instead, be simply how do we think, which is exactly what’s been addressed in the studies that back Jerry’s contention up.

  32. From the article: “True “free will,” then, would require us to somehow step outside of our brain’s structure and modify how it works.”
    I guess that’s what means of communication are for, whether literate or chemical. After all, I didn’t step inside JAC’s brain while reading, and may well have missed what he really wanted to say. I think Dr. Coyne counts such communicative devices as environmental, but they are (kind of) associated with an in-group.
    Another point: Perhaps the question diagnostic of a decision is less “everything else being equal, could I have chosen differently” than “everything else being equal, could someone (who in all really important aspects is my equal) have done something differently”. (And if one really accepts the same aspects as important, but the choice suggested in the communicative example is different, then communication can change the decision, or free the will, so to speak.)

  33. Jerry C wrote: “I use the term (and I do define it) as the form of contracausal free will that I think most people intuitively accept: at any moment could I have made a different choice?  The answer is “no.”

    As I and others have argued, it is quite debatable that your version of free will represents the common view.

    A compatibilist could write essentially the same version of free will, but the answer would be “yes.”  That is because it’s fundamental to answering the question what we really mean when we write such things.

    When asked “Well, Jerry, what EXACTLY do you mean by “I could have chosen otherwise?”

    Once pressed on the details we get a version of “Free will means that if at moment “A” every single atom in my body and every single causal influence were precisely the same, I still could have chosen differently.”

    I submit that this is not how the “average” person thinks of free will, because most people don’t bother to actually think through the idea even to that extent. So Jerry has already driven the concept to a realm the average person hasn’t necessarily accepted as being “What it means to have free will.”

    Further, if we are to stay with a non-detailed conception of free will, that one could have chosen differently if one so wished, then the merest pushing on Jerry’s definition shows it actually ends in contradiction to this average sense of free will. Because – as I and others have pointed out earlier – Jerry’s version of free will entails that one would exhibit free will only when one is acting contrary to one’s wishes.

    Do the math. That’s how his position works out given his explication of what he means by “free will.” (Though I’d be happy to be shown otherwise).

    So for Jerry to assert he is defending the common notion of free will, when it is arguable he is doing anything but…and using such a starting point to essentially ridicule compatibilism…well…it’s not terribly cogent.

    Nonetheless, big props to Jerry in general. I love his blog and I love to see him bringing up such interesting issues for us all to chew on. more thing: Jerry, it seems to me you generally have a pretty dim view of philosophy (please correct me if I’m wrong). However, would you admit that in entering the free will debate, you are necessarily doing philosophy?

    (Note: That you or anyone would be drawing your inferences from scientific studies does not automatically entail you are “only doing science” and not doing philosophy, of course, given so much turns on what we mean by our terms, and examining our assumptions etc.).


  34. @Justicar:

    You did not read my comment carefully, and hence you continue to have a brain-block in not being able to distinguish real beings from logical beings. I will not repeat myself, but do suggest you read–carefully please–the comments on Gilson’s that address this point precisely: your a priori reductionist comparison of the mind (as opposed to the brain) to the operation of a circuit board or computer is a non-starter because, for among other reasons you’ve failed to make a further distinction: a computer is, technically speaking, an accidental unity (an artifact) wholly dependent upon an outside “maker”; a human being is a substantive unity in possession of immanent capacities.

    And, please, don’t fall for Coyne’s sophomoric and mechanistic “ghost in the machine” characterization of dualism: notice how he intentionally avoids addressing hylomorphic dualism… more likely, he simply doesn’t understand it.

  35. Suggestion: Stop saying “predetermined” when you mean simply “determined”. “Predetermined” is the language of fatalism, and implies that nothing we do matters, that we are not part of the causal chain of events, since the outcome has already been written before we have a chance to act.

    But of course that’s nonsense. We are part of the causal chain, and what we do does matter, because that’s how determinism works. The determinism of physics is moment-to-moment cause-and-effect, a continuous unfolding of events in which our actions are inextricably embedded, and the only way to know how things turn out is to wait and see. It’s emphatically not the predeterminism of fatalism in which our actions are seen as somehow standing apart from the flow of history and therefore of no ultimate consequence.

    This may seem like a nitpick, but in fact many of the comments you cite above are objecting to the apparent implication of fatalism in your article. So if you want to avoid that implication and give readers a clearer picture of what determinism really means, it would be wise to eschew words like “predetermined”.

  36. Some sayings or even cliches have been used in these discussions. One is “throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” which I subscribe to. If there is no free will, where did all this stuff come from — language, art, culture? Was it implicit in the initial conditions of the universe? That seems implausible, to say the least. The onus is on the no-free-will people to explain it.

    Another saying, which I also subscribe to, is “having your cake and eating it too,” which I think applies to the no-free-will camp. They (including, prominently, Jerry) insist on using intentional language to describe processes that their philosophy excludes.

    1. If there is no free will, where did all this stuff come from — language, art, culture? Was it implicit in the initial conditions of the universe? That seems implausible, to say the least.

      You underestimate the complexity of results possible from simple rules and simple starting conditions, given sufficient steps. While a lot of the notions in it are (IMHO) crap, the illustrations in Steven Wolfram’s “A New Kind Of Science” might help in grasping how simple starts can give complex-seeming ends.

      The next step for an advanced grasp would be an introductory text on complexity/automata theory, such as Linz or Sipser — although that might be too steep a climb, barring some prior or incidental background in discrete mathematics to render the math accessible.

      1. Spare me, please. I’m famaliar with those texts, and I’m verersed in discrete mathematics. They fail to impress with respect to this discussion.

        1. So, you do understand that recognizability implies recursively enumerable complexity?

          And you do understand that classically RE-complex pattern generation can be done with a rule set for three states and eleven symbols? And that the more general sense that Wolfram uses, generation requires at most two states and three symbols?

    2. Was intelligent, conscious life implicit in the initial conditions of the universe? Does that seem implausible, to say the least?

      I hope you’re not suggesting that cosmology, biopoiesis or evolution have free will? 😉


          1. You have a link to the research papers that categorically prove that to everyone’s satisfaction? 🙂

            Seems to me that absent those it is still somewhat of a conjecture or hypothesis or open question at best, an article of faith at worst. And one that is clouded by, at least, various questions of semantics as others have noted.

            1. No… I was being facetious, but omitted the “ 😉 ”!

              My conviction is that CCFW doesn’t exist, per Jerry, Tom, &c.

              As far as we have something that we think of as “free will”, I think it goes along with consciousness and problem solving, so likely it isn’t unique to humans, but shared with other apes, corvids, octopodes, etc.


  37. The important issue for me is determinism of “choices”, and I guess most of us agree on that.

    I suspect the key is the perspective on choices, and possibly a subtle distinction between deterministic and determined. I’m not sure Tom and Jerry are playing with the quite same sense of “determine”.

    So, as a thought experiment, I consider a “black box” with input and output signal lines. The input represents the arbitrary information environment in which a choice interaction is made, which may or may develop delayed modifications resulting from the output signal; the output, the choice made. The black box may be stateful or have other “memory” capability. In so far as the black box corresponds with a function mapping between the set of input signal “strings” and the set of output signal “strings”, it serves to “make a choice”. (The math is easier for finite strings, or at least countably infinite, and the term “string” usually reserved for such; however, this limitation is not a philosophical necessity. There’s some additional complications from quantum physics as to what extent the division between whole and part, and the degree that the input and output signal can be considered as discrete rather than fuzzy information, but as nondeterminism does not increase the effective power of Turing computation, I suspect it’s qualitatively unimportant in a mathematical sense.)

    The function may be involve a trivial mapping: no matter what input, the output is entirely zeroes. This is considerably less exciting that the range of “choices” exhibited by the typical anvil, which will react differently when whacked with a sledgehammer if first dipped in liquid helium. Alternately, the function may be some disgustingly Enumerable non-Recursive abomination that makes weather systems look butterfly-resistant. Philosophers other than mathematicians may not like the sense the former is considered a “choice”, preferring more interesting cases like the latter; I refer any such objectors back to the historical and philosophical import of the recognition of zero as a “number”, with a dessert of Rice’s Theorem as to how hard a line “interesting” would be to draw.

    From an informational-and-computational frame of reference that knows the entire state of the black box function and the entire information state of the input signal and appropriate (IE: arbitrarily large) computation, the output signal is fully deterministic and may be fully determined. However, from an informational-and-computational frame lacking one of these, while the output signal is still fully deterministic, it is not necessarily possible to fully determine. (I would thus disagree subtly for semantic reasons on the frame of reference at which breakfast “was determined”, rather than “was deterministic”.)

    I would say that in the sense of a “free variable”, choices may be said to be “free” to the extent that an information frame is incomplete — that some of the bits of function and/or input are not specified. The traditional view corresponds to an additional input bit stream, inside the black box; this, however, is merely a subcase. The added bit stream also involves a non-parsimonious assumption, unjustified from evidence, unnecessary thereunder and (in so far as is-questions can be answered) probably wrong.

    Thus, from the vantage of the entirety of the universe of space-time-and-whatnot, the choices aren’t free. However, from a human (bounded computation) vantage, they have a degree of freedom. This in part contributes to my suspicion that Tom’s dismissal of retribution may be jumping to an erroneous conclusion.

    1. I’d say that breakfast was fully determined, but not determinable by anything other than the the full system – the mind in the brain in the body in the environment at that moment.


  38. The Christian way of love and humility gains empathy without sacrificing humanness.

    That Christian way barely exists.

    The god of love is a modern invention, not really found in the bible.

    The fundie version, the loudest one today, is based on hate, lies, hypocrisy, and ignorance. All of which produces exactly what anyone expects.

    1. Never in the entire course of the history of religiosity has there been anything but outright repression and murder of human-ness. Acceptance of dogma is demanded the moment one is asked to “believe.” And dogma demands enforcement to survive.

      Ignorance breeds ignorance. It’s a hopeless pit once entered. You can’t easily talk the dolts out who feel comfortable lying in the pit. After all, caves and pits were comfortable domiciles for the clans that conceived of this holy book nonsense from the get go. It’s part of the DNA we all share.

      As a wise man once said: Where the sun is worshiped, surely it will be illegal to examine the laws of thermodynamics.

  39. at any moment could I have made a different choice? The answer is “no.”

    How do we have any empirical basis for determining the answer to this question? One may as well state that whatever happens is the precise and inevitable will of Vishnu. This notion is un-testable and un-falsifiable, and as such is meaningless. The answer is not that free will does not exist; the answer is that the concept has no meaning.

    I suspect most theists are upset at the notion because it makes them feel less in control and ruins the go-to ad hoc rationalization for the problem of evil.

    I have discarded the term, except for perhaps legal definitions that more or less equate to decisions “reasonably free of coercion”. There, at least, we have some concrete evidence to consider, instead of baseless conjecture.

  40. FWIW, the Calvinist xians say there is no free will either.

    Everything is Predetermined. Nothing you can do in your life can change that.

  41. I apologize if this point was hidden somewhere in the comments, but I couldn’t find it, and would like to note that a “ghost in the machine,” even if such a thing existed, would do nothing to “rescue” counter-causal free will. Anything this ghost did would still be part of a causal chain; the ghost didn’t get to set any boundary conditions, nor select all its experiences. It’s easier to SEE determinism when watching something like billiard balls ricocheting around, but mental events (or theoretical “spiritual” events) are no less part of causal chains for being non-physical. The choices available to a ghost still boil down to caused by something, or random. If someone has a notion for how dualism entails free will that strict physicalism does not, I’d like to see it.

  42. My problem is this (and probably someone above has had a similar problem – I haven’t read the 99 comments that are here as I write this):

    How do we test this hypothesis? What would disprove it? I’ll repeat a thought experiment which I’ve mentioned here before: four identical sand pits, with four identical ants (clones) placed in the center. Two go north, one goes east, and one goes south. Would that result change Dr. Coyne’s mind? I expect not, I expect he would say subtle differences which we could not measure pre-determined each different course. But in that case, we have an unfalsifiable hypothesis – so it is a waste of time discussing it.

    I predict the four identical ants in four identical circumstances (assuming there is no external stimulus whatsoever, such as a scent trail to follow) would in fact follow different paths – because if I were running evolution, I would evolve a random or pseudo-random number generator somewhere in the nervous system which would figuratively flip a coin to decide what to do next when all else fails. Wouldn’t you? Otherwise the ant might freeze in place until it starved, like the fable about the donkey halfway between two piles of hay.

    As I’ve also mentioned before, it would be possible to design such a system to be influenced by random quantum effects (such as the number of photons hitting a retina since the last random number was generated). So, while I’m not sure what free will means (and don’t think it is very important), I doubt if our actions are all pre-determined. My hypothesis is that if we could rewind the tape of history and push “play” again, the story would be different. (I would test this hypothesis with things like the ant experiment.)

    1. How can the four sand pits be identical? They’d have to be in different locations, which would introduce differences in, say, EM radiation, which might affect the behaviour of each ant. (Ditto the ants. Any slight change in the environment, such as the amount of sugar they ate, beyond the accuracy of the scales the experimenters used, might affect the way they behave.)


      1. Indeed, I’d think that the ant-in-a-sandpit example would be far more chaotic than the archetypal examples of a game of billiards or n-body orbital mechanics.


        1. I agree the 4 ant sandbox experiment is about as good as random number generators get. But the original point he made stands.
          How would it be possible to falsify the deterministic claim ?
          Untestable claims arent my favorite ones. Stink like string theory.

    2. How is a random number generator related to “free” will? “Free” does not mean haphazard. Having yu choices determined by predictable external factors or by unpredictable ones still leads to the same conclusion: you have no free will.

      1. How is a random number generator related to “free” will? “Free” does not mean haphazard. Having [your] choices determined by predictable external factors or by unpredictable ones still leads to the same conclusion: you have no free will.

        Your formulation seems to place that generator separate from the self and only another causal determinant of it. But instead of that one might argue, for example, that the acausal events at the core of the random number generator are the essence of the conscious self per se.

        A more specific example or explanation of a somewhat different nature is afforded by the phenomenon of emergent properties – apparently one of the leading contenders for providing an explanation for consciousness, one of the more salient and relevant ones being that of phonons. The indicated article has a nice illustration of the process by which a group of particles in a structure can vibrate at the same frequency, though at different phases if I understand the process at least somewhat correctly, which in turn, as a consequence of that process, has “particle-like properties in the wave–particle duality of quantum mechanics”.

        By which token one might argue that a conscious self, as a consequence of some core processes operating or elements vibrating at the same frequency – a known characteristic of the brain, manifests a process or element that is not a causal consequence of any one process or element – the whole is more than the sum of its parts as might be suggested if not proven by Cantor’s diagonal argument – and is in fact an autonomous causal agent – an acausal agent in fact and anything but haphazard – exhibiting some limited degree of freedom that might be construed as a limited amount of free will.

  43. Prof Coyne may I ask, if “choose …” was replaced by “came to the conclusion that …” would a lot of the differences between you and those who believe in free choices disappear?

    I do not feel that the mind is a passive actor in coming to a conclusion. It is actively a part of the process – if the mind had operated differently the conclusion would have been different, and, as a mind weighs up an opinion, it can gain by introspection knowledge to change a point of view. The mind is an environmental influence upon itself.

    The mathematics of recursice systems means they are generally open and though deterministic, not predictable.

    No doubt, what will be, will be, and if everything was the same, then everything would be the same. Plus, I fully agree with the physical foundation of the brain, but I am very doubtful that determinism has much relevence. Even deterministic processes can produced indeterminate results – Alan Turing showed this with his work showing the impossibility of knowing generally whether a Turing Machine will stop.

    This Ian Stewart piece from Scientific American deals with many of these issues:

    Beyond these classical problems with determinism, Quantum physics and the butterfly effect show that overtime effects from unknowably small scales (intrinsically unknowable due to the uncertainty principle) can grow to have macroscopic effects. The future is unknown not only to us in our ignorance, but to the universe itself.

    The future is open, no thing knows what will result, and our mind has to follow its path, influenced by itself, and its environment, to come to a conclusion.

    I do not think of myself as an automaton, I am very much a part of the process of coming to a conclusion.

    I agree at its base free will is often a religious preoccupation, but feel determinism is also overly concerned with omniscience knowing what we will do in the future.

    Classical mathematics via Turing, and Quantum physics via Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle are double nails in this coffin.

    I hope you do not mind me going on so long, but I basically feel worrying about determinism is of little worth! We have to struggle with the intrinsic unknowability of the universe. We will do something, make some choice, come to some conclusion tomorrow, but there is no way of knowing what that will be, and we have to go through all the introspection we are want to do prior to it occurring.

  44. Ah, we have diverse determinants! Some of mine tell me one thing and others somethng else: so ichoose which to follow [ Or do I,since I don’t know beforehand what I’m thinking?].
    WEIT, not just physical determinants but also what ideas impinge on us count.
    As prison isn’t as good a determinant as it ought to be against future wrong-doing, how might we better it?
    I refer to causal free will-choices- in my compatibillism. How could I choose without any determinants- a blank state? Yes,ti’s a matter of semantics.
    Tom and you, vouchsafers of reality!

  45. I am going to post knowing that the thread is huge and I haven’t read what’s come before, so I apologise for not fully taking part.

    Obviously we have no free will. But the fact that what we do is determined doesn’t mean that it’s determinable.

    We appear to have free will because it’s impossible to work out what it is we’re going to do because there’re too many inputs.

    Maybe it’s theoretically possible to do, but that’s fine with me because practically speaking, it’s impossible for the forseeable (and all?) future.

    Therefore it doesn’t matter that we have no free will because it appears that we do.

  46. I use the term (and I do define it) as the form of contracausal free will that I think most people intuitively accept: at any moment could I have made a different choice? The answer is “no.” In that sense, yes, I think it’s true that we “pretend” to make choices: we think that we can decide whether to get the soup or salad, but the laws of physics have decided the salad before I order.

    I was wondering what “contracausal” was referring to here. It seems Coyne has moved his hypothesis from the philosophical claim of the hypothetical (and physically unrealizable) idea of “contrafactuals”, i.e. replaying a large enough system exactly as it was. Now it looks as if it has turned into a claim of the existence of block universes, where the future is always set in stone.

    However, as the recent FQXi conference on Time showed, now we move into the borderland of putative physics and many hypotheses abounds. Some that were mentioned were absence of time or the growing block universe.

    A really large problem for block universe ideas is that decoherence theory is now testable, see the same conference. Decoherence removes the idea of a global moving local “present” as decoherence, and observation with it, is reversible and reinterpretable up to a point. Hence making many local “presents” lag the global moving front.

    Whatever time is, it doesn’t lend itself to put up general “contracausals” any more than “contrafactuals”. They are both unphysical notions. It may even be that the future is not set in stone. What is clear at the moment is that “the present and the future” are dynamical concepts as seen from observers.

    Maybe this confusion on the notions was why the commenter Paul Gomez objected, quite rightly, that stochasticity means “an array of inputs” do not result in a causally “predetermined output” but a causally stochastic output.

  47. If Jerry is right (and I do not think he is), then there are no actions, only reactions.

    Actions imply choice, and he believes there are no choices.

    “Imagine” is an illusion.
    “Consider” is an illusion.
    “Choose” is an illusion.
    “Test” is an illusion.
    “Plan” is an illusion.
    “Attempt” is an illusion.
    “Succeed” is an illusion.
    “Learn” is an illusion.
    “Justice” is an illusion.
    Great portions of our language are illusions.

    If Jerry is right, then we are merely aware of what is happening without our actual input — providing input implies the possibility of not providing input, which is a choice, which he denies happening.

    It really is binary — either we make choices, or not. If not, then the logical repercussions are fatalistic regardless of whether you want to accept them.

    I do not believe that Jerry is right, nor do I believe that he actually believes what he’s writing. I think it is an interesting thought experiment he writes about, but certainly not his true belief.

    I agree with those who believe “free will” is an emergent property, just like “solid.”

    1. “Solid” is not an emergent property. It’s just what we choose to call matter in crystalline form. But it’s still atoms all the way down.

      Free will, on the other hand, would not be an emergent property, but a whole overturning of the laws of cause and effect. By accepting the existence of free will we would logically be forced to accept the existence of uncaused causes. Now, where is my cassock?

      1. Incorrect. The space between molecules is vast, easily allowing other molecules to go through that space — as they do with liquids and gasses.

        Exchanging the word “crystalline” for “solid” does not help your case. (Crystalline is a special kind of solid, not all solids are crystalline.)

        They do not give cassocks for inaccuracies in science. Check out theology…

        1. I notice you did not address the gist of my post, choosing instead to focus on an irrelevant detail, such as the distinction between crystalline and amorphous solids.

          However, I don’t blame you for posting an utter irrelevancy: after all, you couldn’t help it.

  48. If not having free will means in some sense accepting determinism. So be it. Considering the alternative; who would want to suddenly be transported to an existence where everything is non-deterministic? All of our emotions have ultimately evolved through a deterministic process. Therefore, on the whole, i wouldn’t want it any other way. Naturally, i’m happy to exist where the imagining process can be constrained. That way, i can make sense of things. And i’ve evolved with the desire to make sense of things.


  49. CJ, yes!
    Now, let’s go after Plantinga’s argument from reason-the self-refutataion of naturalism! Does he imagine that Satanpossible makes for our errors as he does for him possibly to make for natural disasters-evils?
    He spouts farragoes of peevish,puerile perversity of solecistic, supercilious sophistry of wily, woeful woo! That’s theoglogians at work!
    No matter in abstruse language and symbolic logic, theological woo ranks with that of paranormalists!
    Before Plantinga, F. Ewing and that twit Clive Staaples Lewis used that argument.

  50. Sorry for the typos. I forget no editing exists here.
    No divine intent exists for us to have contra-causal free will per Lamberth’s teleonomic argument! God to be God would have to manifest intent in the Cosmos, but scientists find none, despite Miller, Haught, McGrath,Reid and all the other superstitious theologians whining that wide creationism is compatible with science and thus allows for divine purpose so that we’ll have what they promise for us.
    ” Life is its own validation and reward and ultimate purpose to which neither God nor the future state can further validate.” Inquiring Lynn

  51. A nonsensical correlation. I was trying to explain recently to people that seemed interested in the concept, why Keynesian economic predictions were justified by Americas build up in WW2, and kept being told in no uncertain terms that warmongering is a horrible horrible thing no matter what your rationale.

    Once the moral card was played by the other side, it was like talking to a brick wall. I was supposedly trying to justify war, and therefore my arguments were invalid.

    Extremely frustrating, since all I was point at was, stimulus obviously leads to low unemployment, no matter how you justify the stimulus. They miss the point because they are blinded by (misplaced) moral outrage.

    This is the same thing. They think this argument diminishes moral obligation, so everything you say is irrelevant after that. They aren’t willing to consider their assumptions on moral obligation are false. End of discussion, you’re a bad person. Find Jesus.

  52. Ireally do not see a method by which these arguments can be tested. We cannot rewind the clock and see if we would make a different decision the second time around.
    but what worries me about all our choices being determined is that we do not always make rational choices, I understand that we can reason that the non rational choice is due to deterining factors but it brings us back to the fact that it cannot be tested and until such time as it can the argument is about how many angels can dance on a pin head.

  53. So what is the upshot, WEIT? Did I choose to come here just now,because I wanted to see newer posts or did my subconscious tell me to do so? I can tell myself to think about something but don’t know exactly what I’ll think.
    Again, all kinds of determinants act upon me so that I have to choose which to follow, but then again maybe some win out over others without my so choosing,eh?
    Jerry, how about a book expatiating on seeing and believing in wide creationism= all theism?
    Ruse belies what I was to think that he was otherwise than an upholder of objective morality like Brink. I use objective as public viewing: the old we disagree on what to do about the facts. I propose that the consequences of actions on humans, other animals and the environment are objective and with our evolved moral sense that we ever refine see that murder,slavery and misogyny are wrong. We transcend tribalism to the planetary ethic of which Paul Kurtz admonishes to have.
    It can’t be absolute due to newer notions of what is ethical or moral; it is certainly situational.
    Our moral sense is a determinant as are parental and other human influences and physical matters.So, the moral sense cannot be due to supernatural causes, and to so aver would be to beg the question as supernaturalists are wont to do.
    ” Logic is the bane of theists.” Fr. Griggs
    Their prime logical fallacies are the arguments from personal incredulity and from ignorance. Rationalists on the other hand use the conservation of knowledge to find matters credible or incredible.

    1. I accept determinism is the sense that my determinats influence me. I found that my nerve medicine let me use the better ones over the worse or worst ones.I did’nt feel all that free! I’ve more freedom,but my determinants still war anomngst themselves.
      How could we ever act without determinanst? Despite Locke, we aren’t born with a blank state- determinanst ar birth- nature and ones afterwards nature and nurture.
      The quesion is can we change our determinants instead of do we have contra-causal free will. As determinism, sort or hard, isn’t fatalism, how do we make choices? Neiter God nor Nature has a plan for us!
      How does our thought influence us? How do we improve ourselves? How can our thought be valid if blind forces determine them ask supernaturalists, avoiding the evidence that logic kicks in.

      Society and personal responsibility both have to work for us to get ahead.We liberals perforce have to be determinists!
      Yes, Dionigi-rational choice.

  54. The problem with understanding free will has always arisen due to misunderstandings on THE SELF. Dr Coyne perpetuates this error.

    Free Will is best understood as the alignment between our definitions of our self, our intentions and our actions. The squishiest one of these to define is actually the self. For example, when I open the refrigerator and see a piece of cake I can identify with my hungry self, or my desire-to-be-thin self. If I eat the cake or do not eat the cake, it can be defined as free will or not based upon which self definition I choose. Indeed I can switch back and forth between definitions. Both are valid interpretations of the same event.

    Harris’ puppets on a string comment implies that the cause and effect goes one way. But, if we are puppets, then we are puppets that are on both ends of the string.

    There is no discrete, permanent object called the self. There is no fixed, absolute, metaphysical border between the puppet and the environment. The universe does determine an action, but we are a part of the universe. Therefore we can determine actions. When our self definition, intentions and actions align, we call it free will. A better term would be self will.

    1. “The universe does determine an action, but we are a part of the universe. Therefore we can determine actions.”

      Wrong. Absolutely and hopelessly wrong. A ball is a part of the universe. Does that mean that the ball can choose not to follow a parabolic trajectory when thrown (or an elliptical one, if you take into account air resistance)?

      The only way to rescue your argument would be to posit a hitherto unknown physical force arising from consciousness. Good luck with that, and may you become president of the telekinesis association.

      1. The only way to rescue your argument would be to posit a hitherto unknown physical force arising from consciousness.

        Not necessarily. That, using your example, pushing a car down the road just with the power of telekinesis has not been demonstrated does not mean that it – or something roughly equivalent to it – is not the operative factor at the beginning of some causal process, some long and intricate sequence of dominoes falling and levers operating, that culminates in the classical process of turning on the car’s ignition and driving it down the road. Or, as Archimedes said, “give me a place to stand and I will move the Earth”.

        As for what that “rough equivalent” might be, one might postulate instead a force mediated by an unknown particle:

        Dark matter is believed to constitute 83% of the matter in the universe and 23% of the mass-energy. …. Dark matter is widely believed to be composed primarily of a new, not yet characterized, type of subatomic particle.

        Given that state of affairs I would say, since what physicists don’t know about the universe literally fills, supposedly, some 80% of it, and considering the case of a British physicist, William Thompson (Lord Kelvin), who said in 1900 that “physics was over” – except for two clouds on the horizon which turned out to be the tips of the “icebergs” subsequently known as quantum physics and relativity, that it is entirely plausible that consciousness might depend crucially on some unknown particle that would be as central as the electron is to the current Standard Model of physics and as equally unexplainable in terms of any other parameters of that model.

      2. Piero,

        I believe you are misunderstanding my argument. I am not suggesting any unknown physical force. I am suggesting that when our definition of our self, our intentions and our actions align we refer to this alignment as free will. This does not negate determinism.

        With the above definition, I can “choose” in a deterministic universe. How? Because I can (deterministically) flip back and forth between interpretations where it was driven by my will (I wanted to eat cake) and it was something I could not resist (I didn’t want to eat the cake). Both are valid interpretations of the same event.

        Another way of saying it is that I agree common sense interpretations of free will make no sense. I believe we do influence the universe, just as your ball does. The reason is because we are part of the universe.

        1. I’m sorry, Cardiffkook.I couldn’t make sense of your post. What kind of “alignment” are you talking about?

          The rest of your post was simple incomprehensible to me. Could you explain it in other words? (not Welsh words, if possible).

          1. Piero,

            I am sidestepping the issue by suggesting that the confusion around free will can best be understood by focusing on how we define the self.

            I believe people assume there is a fixed, absolute subject called the self. I suggest that it is a VERY fuzzy and constantly changing concept. In my original comment I suggested I can identify my self on either side of the free will debate. If I ID my self with my hunger, eating the extra dessert is an act of free will. If I identify my self with my want-to=stay-thin social self, I can view it as an action that I could not resist.

            How do I align my self with my intentions and actions. By saying I was hungry, I wanted dessert, and I ate it. These align. I do not suggest that this alignment is due to some mysterious force. It is simple cause and effect. However, I can also fail to align my self. I can say I wanted to be thin, I did not want to eat the dessert, but I did it anyways. It was against my will.

            The point I am making is that we can toggle back and forth between both definitions. For the above action, it can be viewed both ways. Free will is the (admittedly poorly named) alignment of self, intention and desire.

            Broadening the example, my final point is that however we identify the self, it is a deterministic part of the universe. When the part of the universe that we identify as self, the part of the universe we call our intentions, and the part of the universe we call our actions align, we can refer to this as free will.

            I hope this helps.

        2. cardiffkcook, I think I agree.

          I post here of my own determined choice!Nature gives the parameters of my choices whlist nurture adds determinants. How then do I choose? Which determinants get the upper hand, WEIIT?
          Determinants change. My shyness and paranoia have lessened considerable from using Citalopram hidrobromide, and where I live influences me and what I read influences me. How then my “choices” come about? Why do certain ones predomniate at one time and others at other times?
          God has no free will due to His omni-attributes as He can putatvily only do the good! Of course, all the evil points to no God anyway.
          How could He be Himself without using intent in the Cosmos? He cannot. To aver otherwise is the sophisticated Omphalos argument that to make for John Hick’s epistemic distance for our free will,by making the evidence ambiguous about Him. No, no such amibuity exists no intent appears, or else ,as with, Gosses’s Omphalos one, He deceives us!
          John L. Schellenberg had the corresponding skeptical argument the one from hiddenness.
          And how could He exercise intent had He it since as a disembodies mind, He’d have no mind anyway as the argument from physical mind so notes. To postulate Him as that being relies on the argument from ignorance. No evidence, not a priori, establshes that point.
          Furthermore, per Reichenbach’s argument from Existence, as Existence is all, He cannot transcend it and thus, He cannot exist.
          Transcendence anyways precludes His omnipresence so again, He cannot exist.
          As nothing exists for Him to do, so much for Him anyway!
          Per Angeles’s infinite regress argument, event,cause and time presuppose previous events,causes and times so that He cannot be that Primary Cause.
          Alexander Smolzyk, German jurnalist, prattles that He is neither a principle nor a persoanl being nor an entiy. Should He not be either of the last two, how can He instantiate Himself as the Ultimate Explanation ?
          Yes, sophisticate theology makes for great mirth!
          Yes, theologians cannot overcome Flew’s presumption of naturalism!
          Read Pter Adams’s ” The Problem of God: a Short Introduction to Philosophy of Religion,” a thoruough work, and to know why His attributes makes the ignostic’s case ,read Michael Martin’s ” Atheism: a Philosphical Justification,” wher Martin notes how HIs attributes just don’t do the job as being incoherent and contradictory. We have weighty tomes and more accessible books to defend atheism and eviscerate theism.

            1. God is the cosmic robot! He cannot act other than as He acts,because His omni-qualities won’t permit otherwise.
              This applies to the problem of Heaven: if free will and a guarantee not to do wrong in Heaven is possible, then it would be no hobgoblin of little minds to insist that supernaturalists be here consistent, but they ever rationalize! Faith doth that to people!
              So, no contra-causal free will here, then none there for for the denizens of Heaven.
              And how can per the argument from physical mind could He exercisr His free will had He it as He’d be mindless and ti’s no begged question to maintain that as we know only of embodied minds.
              Contra-causal free mind even for Him cannot exist!
              Note: I combine and permute my arguments!

  55. This is religiously-based resistance, and the idea of dualism is implicit in both the citation to Lewis and the obeisance to God as the source of morality, kindness, and mystery.

    Seems to me that that qualifies, in general and on the part of the religious, as a false dichotomy in insisting that there are only two choices: either God and morality or immorality and the savagery of animals. Which, of course, studies on the evolution of morality in various animal societies and species adequately disproves.

    So before we begin inundating the average person with more “sophisticated” (i.e., compatibilist) notions of free will, shouldn’t we first convince them that their choice(s) are predetermined by scientific laws?

    That might be a reasonable plan of attack if that was really the case, but that also seems to be very much of an open question. You argued earlier that, paraphrasing, “there are natural laws that absolutely determine our choices”; as if to say that everything is always strictly a case of one domino tipping over another extending back to the beginning of time and forward to the end of it. Parenthetically, it seems that one might reasonably argue that that also is a false dichotomy argument on your part, and on the part of incompatibilists in general, apparently predicated on the apprehension that there may be in fact a ghost in the machine, of some unknown scope, which must, in the words of Richard Lewontin, let the “Divine Foot in the door”: either strict determinism or the “Divine Foot”.

    And it seems that the way off the horns of that dilemma is provided or at least suggested by quantum mechanics. For example, the German mathematician Hermann Weyl – no slouch in the mathematics and physics departments, having made any number of significant contributions in both fields, including quantum mechanics – argued that:

    Modern quantum theory has done away with strict causal determination for the elementary atomic processes. It does not deny strict laws altogether, but the quantities with which they deal regulate the observable phenomena only statistically. Quantum theory is incompatible with the idea that a strictly causal theory of unknown content stands behind it – in the manner in which it may be true that strictly causal motion of individual particles stands behind the statistical-thermodynamical regularities of a gas consisting of many particles. What is thinkable for the laws of a collective is demonstrably impossible for the elementary quantum laws. [Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science; pg 253]

    In which case one might argue that if there is some sort of a quantum random number generator or some other similar “mechanism” that is not “strictly causal” that is a significant part of our neurochemistry that then tips over a bunch of other internal and external dominoes, then it seems rather inconsistent at best to say that “we ourselves are fully caused”. Those individual and unique “generators” or “mechanisms” are presumably part of each of us and nobody else and so, by that token, it seems perfectly reasonable to argue that we ourselves, to a limited degree and with a certain limited degree of freedom, are causal agents. And ones which, being conscious of consequences, have only weighted the odds of that generator but have not thrown it overboard or out with the bathwater.

    But given that Richard Dawkins has characterized consciousness as “the most profound mystery facing modern biology” in which free-will seems part and parcel, it seems a little dogmatic, to be asserting that either A or B is the case, particularly when C or D seem a viable option, rather than accepting that they are all hypotheses which we, dutifully following the scientific method, will endeavor to prove or disprove.

  56. Suppose, given a set of antecedent causes X, I reliably respond with action Y. We now introduce an observer, say JC, who comments that I have no free will, as I always respond to X with Y. If on the next occasion I encounter X, and instead carry out Z, is my behaviour being determined by a new cause JC?

    This kind of contracausal willfulness (I’m afraid I was predetermined to make this joke) or perversity in actually not acting in one’s best rational interests (Y might be the most sensible thing to do) is one feature of our behaviour that gives one the impression of free will. And if Z involves tossing a coin and performing one of two activities, we can further think to ourselves that we may be completely determined in our actions, but not particularly predictable.

  57. Am I think I’m right in thinking that christians have to submit there will (free or otherwise) to god anyway. So why does it matter to them if we have free will or not if they give it up anyway?

  58. The black hole information paradox calls into question the epistemology of strict causality on which the no-free-will position depends. This is unsettled physics.

    Information may be conserved when a black hole evaporates and disappears, or it may not. We have no fucking idea, and the answer is crucial to the meaning of causality, and therefore to the free will question.

    I see the no-free-will advocates as blissfully content with their naive physics. They may be right, or they may be wrong, but they certainly aren’t justified in their conclusions.

      1. Seems to me that it does. It’s actually the whole point — the no-free-will stance rests on causality. The claim, simply put, is that we have no free will because our conscious, intentional mental states are ineffective — we have no choice. Our actions are causally determined, regardless of our will. That’s the argument, as I see it.

    1. Does the no free will argument actually
      Allow for quantum variation at all points on a hugely complex chain. Not to mention blackholes, time direction and the nature of consciousness itself.

      Is it stating there is a deterministic probability drive, I think therefore a might be?
      As an areligious person. the notion of choice from pragmatic almost legal view,
      Seems to play out, if only for the sheer number of input variables.
      if I consider my options long enough or with more information and conclude differently a day later on a journey in making a big Decision. Was that Deterministic? Maybe.
      But even that argument is hard to support.
      The individual view should remain non fatalistic until we are shown otherwise.
      Philosophically speaking, I’m not sure the full implication of determinism is easily described.

  59. I think you and Tom Clark are not far from each other really (from what I’ve read of him). He likes to stress the point that we *participate* in causation and since we have epistemic limitations that don’t allow us to be directly aware of each causal link in the chain of motivation, in one sense it isn’t “pretending” to choose freely- that’s just how we experience it. He is a determinist though and I think the only freedom he really proposes is not metaphysical, but local(subjectively perceived)/semantic/metaphorical.

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