Gazzaniga on free will

February 14, 2012 • 6:34 am

Almost all of us agree that we’re meat automatons in the sense that all our actions are predetermined by the laws of physics as mediated through our genes and environments and expressed in brains.  We differ in how we interpret that fact vis-à-vis “free will and “moral responsibility,” though many of us seem to think that the truth of determinism should be quietly shelved for the good of the masses.

Michael Gazzaniga is a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and director of the SAGE Center for the Study of Mind. He’s written a gazillion books and many articles on cognitive neuroscience, and has a special interest in cognitive functions of split-brain patients.

And over at Big Think, he takes on the idea of free will in a 3.25-minute talk called “Brains are automatic, but people are free.” The title shows that he’s clearly a compatibilist, but what form does he accept? I can’t embed the talk here, but watch it.  I have excerpted the crucial bit (most of the presentation) below.

Gazzaniga’s talk

“If you think about it this way, if you are a Martian coming by earth and looking at all these humans and then looking at how they work you wouldn’t—it would never dawn on you to say, ‘Well, now, this thing needs free will!’ What are you talking about?

What we’re knowing is, we’re learning and appreciating the ways in which we produce our perception, our cognition, our consciousness and all the rest of that. And why do you want something in there that seems to be independent of all that?

The central part of free will that people want to hold on to is the sense that that therefore makes you responsible for your actions, so it’s the idea of personal responsibility.  And I think that’s very important and I don’t think that all this mechanistic work on the brain in any way threatens that.

We learn that responsibility is to be understood at the social level—the deal of rules that we work out living together. So the metaphor I like to use is cars and traffic. We can study cars and all their physical relationships and know exactly how that works; it in no way prepares us to understand traffic, when they all get together and start interacting: that’s another level of organization and description of these elements interacting.

So the same is it with brains. We can understand brains to the nth degree, and that’s fine and that’s what we’re doing, but it’s not going to, in any way, interfere with the fact that taking responsibility in a social network is done at that level.

So the way I sum it up is that brains are automatic but people are free—because people are joining the social group and in that group are laws to live by.  And it’s interesting that every social network—whether it’s artifactual, Internet, or people—accountability is essential or the whole thing just falls apart. You gotta have it.”

No one has anything to worry about, I don’t think, from science in terms of whatever we discover about our nature, and however good we get at describing it: it’s not going to impact that essential value that everybody has to be held accountable, because it’s at a totally different level. And it’s in the social level, which is so crucial and important for the human race.”

I agree with Gazzaniga’s determinism, which he expresses at the outset, but I don’t have any idea what he means by saying “people are free.”  That appears to be a statement that sounds good but is manufactured post facto to put a shiny patina on “accountability” (notice he doesn’t use the term “moral responsibility”, though he uses “responsibility”).  Or maybe he just wants to save the term “free”, as in “free will.”

And yes, for our society to function smoothly we need to punish criminals to prevent further malfeasance and to set examples for other people.  I’m with him 100% here.

Where we diverge is in two places.  First, apparently contra Gazzaniga, I do think science will impact the nature of accountability: how people are treated when they perform bad actions.  If we truly believe, as Gazzaniga does, that we don’t have a “free choice” in what we do, doesn’t that have any implications for punishment? Surely it does, for the legal system already gives special treatment to those whose actions seem to have been compelled by things over which they have ‘no control,’ like organic disease or mental illness.  If we’re also compelled by things whose etiology is less clear, wouldn’t we want to know that, too? And wouldn’t that have some effect on the way we try to punish or rehabilitate people? I find it hard to conceive that the answer is “no.”

Second, I don’t see why on Earth he uses the word “free”?  Why are people “free” if their actions are determined? The phrase “Brains are automatic, but people are free” may sound appealing, but it seems to lack content. We can consider them free if somehow helps us psychologically in assigning responsibility, but we can also assign responsibility if we consider ourselves “unfree” in the deterministic sense.  If you committed a crime, you are responsible for that crime, whether or not you had a choice to do it.  You have to be punished for societal protection and deterrence of yourself and others.

Responsibility isn’t threatened by science, but moral responsibility is. If people want to hold onto that, then they are threatened by science.

And it’s time to get rid of the term “free will.”  “Responsibility for an act” seems an adequate replacement, one less freighted with historical baggage.

h/t: Ant

129 thoughts on “Gazzaniga on free will

  1. What about related terms like “voluntary” and “involuntary,” “intentional” and “unintentional…” How many of these do we keep and which ones?

    This matters because such terms are centrally embedded in our system of law. For example, there is an entire category in tort law of “intentional torts,” and contracts are usually held to be valid only if entered into voluntarily.

    1. “Voluntary” and “intentional” and their negations don’t actually have to change meaning. “Intentional” has to do with whether there was intent and intent does not depend on free will. You can intend things without having a choice in intending them. Likewise, “voluntary” has to do with whether you were compelled, usually by another person (the canonical gun-to-your-head scenario). This is actually why I think we can throw “free will” out, because we have perfectly good words like “voluntary” to fill in for all the ways we might have used “free will.”

      1. I think free will is still an important concept, which is the recognition of individual human autonomy even in the face of coercion. Whether our actions are deterministic or not mechanistically, and I agree they probably are, this “free will” idea still models human behavior very well. It’s a distinction of psychology, vs. neurology, operating at different levels and modeling different things.

    2. You ask a sensible question, and I’m sticking to my opinion that the main difference between Jerry and most compatibilists is simply semantics.

      Yes, as Jerry says, we could and likely should drop the term “free will”. However, we still need words like “will” and “responsibility” and your examples “intentional” and “voluntary” along with “choice” and “decision” and “attempt” and “option” and “plan” and “consider” and many, many others. And we also need “freedom” (e.g. prison versus non-prison; or free speech; or freedom of conscience).

      Thus even the most stringent of determinists has to function as a de-facto compatibilist in everyday life.

      As was said last thread, I’m sure Jerry would use phrases such as “would you like an ice-cream?, you can choose which flavour”. And I’m sure Jerry would see a real difference between a child who asked for chocolate flavour and then declared he didn’t like it, versus one who was given chocolate flavour and declared he didn’t like it.

      But yes, having said all that, we should indeed emphasize to the populace that classical dualist “free will” doesn’t exist, and that our actions and choices are determined by our physical nature and environment.

  2. Hi, I have been following your posts with interest. And have agreed with much of what you say. However, here you claim that the large majority agree that determinism is true – here I have to dispute thus. Many have begun to turn away from the hard determinism you claim to be widely accepted, probably because of discoveries in Quantum Mechanics. I’m relatively new to this area of study and may be wrong, but certainly some respected philosophers have turned their backs on determinism because of recent findings.

    Gazzaniga is, I think talking of the way social interaction and the evolution of certain reactive attitudes have led to the systems we have in place. I’ve recently been trying to make sense of PF Strawson’s paper ‘Freedom and Resentment which tries to reach a compromise between the two (compatibilists and incompatibilists). Written quite a while back. And another paper I’ve read suggests that two different functions of the brain evolving independently may have led to the chance happening of one function undermining another in a totally different area of the “mind” to cause a new function to arise purely by chance. Is determinism not undermined by such things? I’d appreciate your thoughts…

    1. If you’ve followed my posts, I do discuss the possibility of indeterminacy, the likelihood it affects our behaviors (which I think is not great, but I’m just guessing here), and its complete irrelevance to the idea of “free will.” Instead of “determinism”, then, let’s just say our behaviors are completely determined by the laws of physics.

      1. For some reason I feel you and others opposing your view of not having ‘free will’, are actually saying the same things. If you say, ‘our behaviours are completely determined by the laws of physics’ and the laws of physics force us to react with intent, then aren’t we really all saying the same thing? I think communication is difficult and that lead us to believe we are saying different things.

  3. For me free will is just how we experience our chain of actions. That experience tells us no more about the mechanism of our choices than our experience of color tells us about the nature of light. If anything it is misleading.

    The mystery here then isn’t really the nature of free will but the bare fact of experience. If we follow deterministic laws then what is the point of experiencing events that we have no control over? If the bare fact of experience has no effect in the objective world then how can we be talking about it? Isn’t this discussion an objective fact of the world?

    1. Great way to put the problem.

      If we follow deterministic laws then what is the point of experiencing events that we have no control over? If the bare fact of experience has no effect in the objective world then how can we be talking about it? Isn’t this discussion an objective fact of the world?

      I don’t think the first question here has an answer; it comes down to what you mean by “control.” Control systems like avionics in aircraft or microcontrollers in industrial equipment or digital computers are all deterministic input/output systems but there doesn’t seem to be any paradox in thinking they control things. The fact of experience, I think, obviously has an effect on the world and I have some guesses as to what in particular it is for but it’s largely speculative at this point. But I think for the short term it’s OK to think of veridical experience as the input to a computational system — the brain. And the third answer depends on what you mean by “objective fact about the world.” It certainly seems as though we’re having this conversation, but that’s only my subjective apprehension of the bare fact of the experience of having this conversation — I can’t promise it’s an objective fact even if I suspect it is.

      1. But how can experience have any effect not contained in the underlieing chemistry of the brain? If the brain is deterministic on that level then you have no room for experiential causality. It would seem to be only a higher level description of the underlieing chemistry. Yet chemical reactions do not appear to have and certainly don’t need experiences.

      2. Also with respect to ppnl’s first question, it seems like he or she is implying that there _is_ a point to experience if we have control over it, but there is not if we don’t. I’m not ready to sign on to that at the moment.

        (I like ppnl’s post very much; this isn’t intended at all harshly, it’s just something that struck me.)

        1. Actually I’m not trying to imply anything. I don’t know what the answer is. But the questions demand to be asked.

          Maybe we are helpless witnesses to events that we cannot control but if so you gotta wonder how the world would be different objectively if we didn’t have experiences. It almost seems as if there would be no difference.

          Except why would evolution select a species that spends time discussing experiences that it does not have?

          Anyway my point is only that the conundrum is in experience itself not in any model of free will. In that sense the argument between compatibilists and incompatabilists miss the point. The conundrum remains no matter what we decide about free will.

          1. An A.I. that can think about and reflect on what it does/did is probably going to perform better than a machine that can’t reflect on its past actions…

            1. But you can implement self reflecting algorithms without the need for actual experience. The presence or absence of experience adds nothing to the function of the algorithm.

              1. Why bother? Well actually you have no choice. Computers don’t have an “experience this” op code. I know how to make a computer learn from the past. I have no clue how to make it experience its chain of choices.

  4. From someone on Amazon reviewing Gazzaniga’s book.

    “Bottom line: Gazzaniga provides an interesting review of recent neuroscience research but never produces convincing arguments one way or the other regarding the supposed main focus of his book: the existence or non-existence of free will (which as Clarke’s review notes, is never really defined by Gazzaniga). In the end, his conclusion that free will exists seems to be a pre-conceived one, with little convincing evidence to support it. As I mentioned earlier, I am disappointed.”

    I have only scanned the book but found some puzzling things in it that aligns with what this review said.

    Most specifically, he almost spelled out his project in the introduction, by saying something like, “Surely free will exists and we are responsible, let me now try to explain how.” In other words, it does not feel like a very honest, scholarly approach; where we usually take the stance, I am going to be sceptical of this problem and do honest research and thinking to find out what our best conception of this problem is.

    It then seems he does a compatibilist dance of determined world but we have free will, as Jerry was taking issue with above above. He does this without laying out a solid definition as well as making statements (in the book) that were quite puzzling and head-slapping.

    That was just my impression from skimming certain sections and eventually I may read the whole thing, I am sure there are some good things there.

    Any other impressions on the book?

  5. I just finished the book (Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain), and I also listened to and watched his Gifford lectures in which he discusses this over 5 lectures. The neuroscience of individual brains is easy to follow, but the anthills (or, to use his analogy, traffic) that emerge from those brains bumping into each other is quite a bit softer, and so, problematic, because we want to be able to see it, even in our mind’s eye (to coin a phrase). I kept thinking about Steven Pinker’s theses in The Stuff of Thought: the problem may be that our language constrains our ability to understand concepts, such as this one, that are emerging in science. As Gazzaniga himself notes: Free will? Free from what?

    1. I just started Gazzaniga’s book on Saturday and I am only about 100 pages into it. There are some interesting concepts there but I will need to finish it before I can really comment.

      What I want to do is to briefly discuss the implications of Gazzaciga’s interesting question “Free will? Free from what?” Physicists rigorously use the term freedom as in “degrees of freedom”. I think examining and applying the concept of freedom in the way physicists apply it to inanimate objects to the examination of free will in neuroscience and cognitive philosophy may help in defining the problem. I think it would definitely help with the examination of the concept of autonomy. I don’t know if this is how Gazzaniga approaches it. Haven’t got there in the book yet.

  6. I don’t have any idea what he means by saying “people are free.”

    In the context Gazzaniga gives us, I think that is taken to be that people are free to choose another social group with other laws.

    Not much as freedom, but sufficient for his purposes.

    Second, I don’t see why on Earth he uses the word “free”? Why are people “free” if their actions are determined? The phrase “Brains are automatic, but people are free” may sound appealing, but it seems to lack content.

    It lacks philosophical content, but computer science has used the term autonomous agent for a long time:

    “software entities that carry out some set of operations on behalf of a user or another program with some degree of independence or autonomy, and in so doing, employ some knowledge or representation of the user’s goals or desires.” [My bold]

    More general agents are intelligent agents and rational agents.

    Note that they don’t have “determined actions”, for example a rational agent “is an agent which has clear preferences, models uncertainty via expected values, and always chooses to perform the action that results in the optimal outcome for itself from among all feasible actions.”

    Since they incorporate stochasticity, contingency et cetera, you can’t predict which way they jump. (Say, an autonomous “free” agent.)

    I think we landed there a couple of iterations back, it is down to definitional issues and matter of taste. If “free will” is raising a dualist strawman, say autonomous agent then.

  7. Re: Free Will

    I agree with you that “free will” is an illusion. The fact that it cannot be precisely defined attests to its non existence.

    However, I disagree with you that the Universe is deterministic. Quantum mechanics assures us that the lowest scale base of existence is stochastic. Granted that for any described subatomic condition, quantum mechanics probability equations are always the same, but the actual outcome is always different (though following the probability predictions exactly). Unless, there are underlying hidden variables this is true. And I take if from Bohr, Heisenberg, von Neumann, Wheeler, et al. that there are no hidden variables that make this causally deterministic.

    1. Gasper Sciacca, try this simple substitution:

      “The fact that Science cannot be precisely defined attests to its non existence.”

      Our frequently poor powers of precise definitions does not make something non-existent.

    2. Quantum mechanics does not affect mechanisms that create thoughts and actions originating in the brain. An analogy might be rusting on the hull of a ship in the ocean. While we can never be certain, in sum, if one area of the hull is rusting more or faster at any given moment than another, the course of the traveling ship will be more absolutely determined by the also-rusting rudder than it ever will be by the uneven rusting going on at a microscopic level.

      1. Quantum mechanics does not affect mechanisms that create thoughts and actions originating in the brain.

        Given our current level of understamechanic “the mechanisms that create thoughts and actions originating in the brain”, that seems quite a bold statement.


  8. What came to my mind was a new label… since “pseudo-dualism” didn’t fare to well… he seems like a squishy-determinist. (This is where one’s acceptance of determinism gets squished so you can prop up free willism, a kind of “let’s all have our cakes, and eat them too” frame of mind.)

  9. When pressed for clarification, people often speak about free will in terms of possibility and necessity. e.g. I COULD have chosen differently…I didn’t HAVE TO decide that way, etc. Possibility and necessity are curious concepts, and depending on how you think of them they can be difficult to square with a physical, deterministic world (i.e. if everything is completely determined, does that mean nothing besides what actually happens is possible?).

    In philosophy, one popular way to think about possibility and necessity is in terms of possible worlds. For example, to say that 2+1 necessarily equals 3 is to say “in every possible world, 2+1=3”. To say it is possible for pigs to fly is to say that “there is at least one possible world where pigs fly”.

    This view of possibility and necessity can be very useful and clarifying (though it does open the rather murky question of what is meant by ‘possible worlds’). You can even narrow down types of possibility by specifying different sets of possible worlds. For instance, “Hitler might have won WW2” could be understood as saying “in all possible worlds with the same physical laws as ours and approximately the same history as ours up to the 1940’s, there are figures recognizable as Hitler who won the conflicts recognizable as WW2”.

    The ‘approximate’ in that sentence is used to square pure determinism with different outcomes in different possible worlds. Thus, in those possible worlds there are slightly different arrangements of atoms from ours –differences which have existed since the beginning/forever– but there is still a recognizeable Earth, and there is still a Germany, and (due to slight differences in atomic arrangements) in the period comparable to our 1940’s the conflicts very similar to WW2 turn out differently.

    Free will –if you define it as the making of choices that ‘could’ have been different– can thus be understood (and easily squared with determinism) as talking about sets of possible worlds.

    For example, “I could have chosen to eat Thai food for lunch instead of Italian” can be understood as saying “Out of the entire set of possible worlds in which the only difference at lunchtime today was my mental state, there is at least one such world where I ended up choosing to eat Thai food for lunch”. Which is to say, the outcomes of my actions depend solely on my mental states (desires, beliefs, emotions, etc).

    To say that I could NOT have chosen differently –that I necessarily had to eat Italian– is to say that “Out of the entire set of possible worlds in which the only difference at lunchtime today was my mental state, there is no possible world where I ate anything other than Italian”. Or more simply, no matter what I wanted or believed or intended or was in the mood for, I ended up eating Italian; that my action was not caused by my mental state. One can imagine for example a mind control machine external to me that forces me to eat Italian regardless of my mental state.

    I personally think actions are typically caused by mental states, and thus I believe in free will understood in the above way, even as I also believe in determinism.

  10. JAC – just a note, I am really enjoying your discussion of these issues. I think it’s a natural fall-out of religious scepticism and “scientism” and I do think it’s time that more people spread these ideas. Thanks for spearheading it.

    And it’s time to get rid of the term “free will.” “Responsibility for an act” seems an adequate replacement, one less freighted with historical baggage.


    “Free will” is a the spiritual trait that God bestowed upon us which lets us choose between good and evil. It’s the reason that the religious can justify God eternally punishing people and God denying us any personal contact today.

    When philosophers and atheists try to adjust the definition, it feels like people trying to redefine “God” to be “nature” or “awe” or something. It only serves to strengthen the hard-core religious, and obscures any serious points we may wish to make.

    1. Tyro,

      For much of history, a great deal of humanity has associated morality strictly with their God – morality was defined via their God. Many religious still feel the same way – if you aren’t talking about their God when you say the word “morality” then you aren’t REALLY talking about “morality.”

      Following your logic about the concept of free will, does this make secular conceptions of “morality” silly and illegitimate?

      Or…is it possible the term “morality” when carefully considered can be seen to comprise a similar spectrum of concerns, not simply one view of it, and hence when we find out there is no God, this does not mean that the concerns generally associated with “morality” disappear with God. Right?

      Same thing with Free Will. There have always been various conceptions and arguments about the concept. When you examine the issue, free will, like morality itself, tends to be a Big Tent concept that relates to specific types of concerns (e.g. “am I free to choose? Did *I* do the choosing? Am *I* responsible for my actions or does this responsibility fall away if I find external causes for my actions…etc).

      Just because we’ve found reasons to shed incoherent conceptions of morality – God-based – this has not led us to abandon the concept of “morality,” because the set of concerns that the original version of morality REMAIN, and are addressed by other secular theories.

      Similarly, just because any portion of humanity has held an incoherent or paradoxical notion of free will, this does not mean we need to abandon it once we identify it was held on the wrong basis.
      The set of concerns associated with Free Will REMAIN and can be addressed by a real-world approach.

      (BTW, if your response will be “but you are just going to re-define free will…” then you will have missed the point made above)


  11. The problem is that punishment is not effective in treating or remediating the brain disorders that cause, mainly, self harming behaviors.

    Antisocial behaviors we now know are symptoms of inherited brain disorders. Ideas about responsibility and punishment are focused on symptoms which is rarely effective.

    If we look at social and personal costs to individuals and groups, like with any disease, early diagnosis and treatment appears to be the most effective, efficient and economical.

    However, a medical model runs up against of natural impulses for revenge and punishment from childhood.

  12. If we truly believe, as Gazzaniga does, that we don’t have a “free choice” in what we do, doesn’t that have any implications for punishment?

    Of course not.

    It could only have implications for punishment if we believe that we are free to choose otherwise when we mete out punishment.

    1. Punishment? “Incapacitation, retribution, or rehabilitation are the three choices society has for dealing with criminal behavior.” Gazzaniga, Who’s in Charge?, p. 181. Often, even now, “incapacitation” is a primary driver behind a sentence imposed on a criminal offender, to protect society and deter others. Even if the law evolves such that “retribution,” which would qualify as “punishment,” might be a factor affected more by developing neuroscience, felons can still be sentenced to prison for purposes of deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation.

    2. Ugh. Did you think about that at *all* before you posted it?

      We *are* free to choose otherwise given different inputs to our brains. If your beliefs about when to punish are different today than they were yesterday, you will mete out punishment *differently.*

      1. I don’t think we should mete out punishments differently, regardless of our beliefs regarding free will. I think we should mete out punishments in the manner that results in the greatest wellbeing for the members of society. If that means that a dangerous person spends many years in prison, even though they couldn’t have chosen not to commit their crimes, that’s just the way it goes. So, I disagree with Jerry in his first divergence from Gazzaniga.

        1. From what Jerry has posted on this matter before, I’d say he agrees with you (as do I). But currently, our (USA) judicial system is too disinterested in rehabilitation, and too interested in retribution (the death sentence cannot be seen as anything else, given the facts of its use and effectiveness).

          Simply throwing people in jail for their misbehavior is not a great solution to societal ills. Once we have a better idea of *why* people commit crime, we’ll have an easier time of preventing it, and preventing recidivism.

          1. And you think the best description of why people commit crime is that their brains are made of atoms? I tend to think it makes more sense to describe it in terms of social forces rather than physical forces. I’d even go so far to say that the facts of the physics of the brain (and hence whether or not we have contra-causal free will) are almost irrelevant to why people commit crimes and punishment.

            1. I think social forces and psychological forces are the most apt level at which to describe what makes humans do what they do.

              But it’s necessary to understand that our brain is simply a physical system in order to understand the fact that humans are made to do what they do, if you get my meaning. We cannot override the cumulative effects of our genes and our environment and our previous choices. If you believe, as some people do, that humans have a will that is free of physics or causality, then you simply cannot believe that “social forces” have any force – because, at the end of the day, you believe that the supernatural human will can override the forces that act on it. Perhaps you believe that this can only happen under certain circumstances, but this still allows for wiggle room to you to visit moral reprobation on people irrespective of their circumstances and the forces that were acting on them. This will not do. The truth is that the human will cannot do anything independent of the physical forces of which it is made. To have a conversation like the one you want to have, it is necessary to at least know this much.

  13. Thanks as always for keeping this topic on your radar. Couple of comments:

    “The phrase “Brains are automatic, but people are free” may sound appealing, but it seems to lack content.”

    In spades! I’ve analyzed Gazzaniga’s misguided contrast between people and their brains (at least in terms of freedom) at He also has some rather regressive ideas, including that mental illness and other brain-based defects in cognition and impulse control shouldn’t count as excuses – Yikes!

    Which brings up your point that

    “…contra Gazzaniga, I do think science will impact the nature of accountability: how people are treated when they perform bad actions. If we truly believe, as Gazzaniga does, that we don’t have a “free choice” in what we do, doesn’t that have any implications for punishment? Surely it does…”

    Indeed. Naturalism.Org has a major section on how naturalism might impact criminal justice, including dropping retributive justifications for punishment, see

    1. Maybe I should spend more time with the links you provided before I comment, but why should “brain-based defects in cognition and impulse control” count as excuses? Can you give me an example of a defect in impulse control that is *not* brain-based?

      1. Since freedom and responsibility are not a matter of being uncaused, but a matter of one’s actions being unconstrained (that is, uncoerced) and caused by a disorder-free brain, one would suppose that the brain’s health would figure in our ascriptions of responsibility. And indeed it does, since we don’t ordinarily hold people responsible who suffer from neural defects that seriously compromise rationality and impulse control. People with such defects are incapable of conforming their behavior to the law since they can’t properly anticipate or fear criminal sanctions, so it would be unfair to punish them. Rather we treat them (occasionally curing them) so that they become capable of behaving responsibly.

        But strangely, and despite such commonsense considerations, Gazzaniga says that “In neuroscientific terms, no one person is more or less responsible than any other for actions” (pp. 101-2, The Ethical Brain). Now, why would a neuroscientist who specializes in understanding the difference between normal and abnormal brains say that the state of a person’s brain is immaterial to responsibility? After all, such a claim is manifestly counter to all our intuitions and practices concerning the mentally ill. And it’s neuroscience that makes clear the connection between brain defects and the irrationality and impulsivity that sometimes count as exculpatory.

        1. Tom,

          I have found both the good and the muddling in Gazzaniga’s work.

          I think when he says things like “abnormal” brains should not be exculpated he is giving into an idea also expressed by Eagleman (I believe) that, in essence, any brain that commits a crime has some “faulty wiring,” is broken.

          Which quite frankly just pushes the analysis to: Well, this brain is broken but will/should respond to simple mechanisms of deterrence, of reasoning, of normal and better socialization or social responses, so to speak; whereas this brain with a “tumor” is broken as well but it has some deep fundamental structural flaws that will not respond to such “conditioning” or socialization or deterrence.

          In other words, I think the message that all brains that break the law are broken or “mis-wired” is okay to some degree, but such a message seems to blur what we have come to know about certain brain tumors and the fundamental problems they create for normal social abilities.

          Of course the fact that Gazzaniga would take such a line and then seem to blur other parts of the discussion on responsibility and free will makes me think his positions on this subject are somewhat untenable. On the other hand I’ve read some of his work that I like and is quite informative.

        2. “And indeed it does, since we don’t ordinarily hold people responsible who suffer from neural defects that seriously compromise rationality and impulse control.”

          My point is that *all* failures of human beings to control their impulses have neural correlates. If you agree with that assertion, then assigning the word “defect” to certain points along the continuum of impulse-control ability is arbitrary and I don’t think it should be a factor in society’s approach to crime and punishment. If you do not agree that all failures of impulse control have neural correlates, then we might have a longer discussion on our hands!

          To be clear, I’m talking here only about government policy on crime and punishment. I’m not talking about “holding people responsible”, which I don’t think should be a goal of government policy.

          1. “My point is that *all* failures of human beings to control their impulses have neural correlates. If you agree with that assertion, assigning the word “defect” to certain points along the continuum of impulse-control ability is arbitrary”

            That *all* failures of human beings to control their impulses have neural correlates doesn’t mean that some failures aren’t due to defective impulse control capacities. There are defective engines, pumps, cars, etc. Likewise there are defective brains due to abnormal “wiring” or neurotransmitter imbalance, which in turn leads to generally compromised impulse control. This is true even though normal brains sometimes deliver less than optimal control. Gazzaniga seems to think diminished capacity shouldn’t influence our judgments of responsibility, quite the regressive stance. But maybe he’s thought better about this. Have to read his new book.

  14. I don’t think causal determinism necessarily means “predetermined”, so I guess I’m not among the “almost all of us” that Jerry is talking about who agree that all of our actions are predetermined.

    I think “predetermined” is a much bigger claim that mere causal determinism. That you can trace in principle a causal chain from a present action to remote causes in the past, doesn’t mean all of those causes in the chain are predictable or knowable in advance even in principle.

    1. Except, DV, that if it is caused, it is clearly knowable in principle, just not by us currently.

      Predetermined is just the natural outcome of determined, as distasteful as it may seem — which is one reason why I believe it to be false.

      Ask yourself what evidence you would accept for free will?

      1. >>Except, DV, that if it is caused, it is clearly knowable in principle, just not by us currently.

        I assume you are talking about Omniscience. I think there is some problem with definitions here – omniscience is not compatible with randomness, so one or the other has to give way. Think about the emergence of humans (and more specifically you, reading this sentence now) being predetermined from the initial conditions of the Big Bang. Are you making this kind of claim? Tracing back the chain of causes is quite different from predicting the chain of effects. There is no more randomness involved in tracing back the past because everything has already happened.

        >>Predetermined is just the natural outcome of determined, as distasteful as it may seem — which is one reason why I believe it to be false.

        First of all, truth or falsity has nothing to do taste. Second of all, I’m not sure what you believe to be false – determinism, predeterminism, or that the latter naturally follows from the former.

        >>Ask yourself what evidence you would accept for free will?

        How is this question relevant? I use “free will” in the everyday sense of “did you sign the contract of your own free will”? By definition it exists. Incompatibilist define free will such that it doesn’t.

  15. Jerry:

    If we truly believe, as Gazzaniga does, that we don’t have a “free choice” in what we do, doesn’t that have any implications for punishment? Surely it does, for the legal system already gives special treatment to those whose actions seem to have been compelled by things over which they have ‘no control,’ like organic disease or mental illness.

    I still don’t see how your view leads to any sort of social policy change. Your examples point to a difference between how the law treats people with damaged brains vs. undamaged brains – no free will need be posited to justify different punishments for these two groups.

    Here’s about the best social policy argument your non-free will position supports: 1. Our historical presumption of free will has lead us to prefer certain responses to crime in the absence of any definitive, scientific studies of what actually does work. 2. Because our justice system is functioning on premises we suspect are untrue, we should reexamine how we respond to crime. Specifically, we should throw out the assumed effectiveness of punishment and use empiricism to determine the most effective responses to crime. 3. I (Jerry Coyne) believe that when we do that, we will find that harsh punisment does not have the deterrent or redecidivism-reducing impact we assume it does, since the assumption that they work is based on a belief in free will.

    But, and this I think is the crux of the matter, your free-will claim does not provide any evidence that punishment doesn’t empirically work or that some other system works better. You have at best here an argument for doing the study, but your scientific argument against free will is not data on the question of what public policies will most effectively prevent and reduce crime.

    1. >>1. Our historical presumption of free will has lead us to prefer certain responses to crime<<

      I don't think this is true. That's giving too much credit to us (humans) as if we actually did the groundbreaking thinking about a solution to the problem. In actual fact, threats and retaliation for "bad" behavior is nothing new in animal life. Evolution invented the solution to the problem, not us.

      1. Okay fair enough. But doesn’t your point undermine Jerry’s policy claims even more than mine does?

        I think the point he’s trying to make is that the ‘harsh punishment works’ assumption is based on a premise of free will. No free will means we should address crime in other ways. But if you’re telling me that harsh punishment works well in dogs, cats, birds, prarie dogs, etc… then this would seem to be worse for Jerry’s argument, not better.

    2. Well, I should have read this post before making my posts above – well said! We should be employing those responses to crime that, on the basis of empirical evidence, *work*. Whether or not we have free will is not relevant.

  16. Many of you seem to be forgetting that Dr. Coyne has already admitted that no one is actually making any choices at all, free or otherwise.

    So there is no point in arguing about what society will do — that was already decided (or set into unchanging motion, or predetermined, or predestined, or preordained) back at the Big Bang, and will play out as dictated by the forces, angles, vectors, waves, etc. that began chain-reacting then in an unending stream to now.

    I hope the more you use the actual language of what it is you are arguing for, the more you see how silly it is.

  17. I have to agree with Xuuths. All of you are trying to argue that “rational” thoughts arise from non-rational physical processes and entities. The geneticist J.B.S. Haldane put it nicely in his book Possible Worlds. “If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. . . . and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.” Another quote of his I found on a site dedicated to him was this from his book The Inequality of Man. “If materialism is true, it seems to me that we cannot know that it is true. If my opinions are the result of the chemical processes going on in my brain, they are determined by the laws of chemistry, not those of logic.
    — J.B.S. Haldane
    The Inequality of Man (1932), 162.
    This purely reductionist view of the brain/mind leads nowhere. There is no good/bad, just one’s unique perceptions of what works for you. And that is all determined by the laws of physics, not any measurable or debatable rationalism.
    Nothing therefore is “knowable.” My Christian theism was determined by my unique genetic composition, unique environment, and unique personal experiences. As Professor Coyne has said, I had no choice but to do and believe what I do.
    My question is simple. Why do you care what I think? The motions of atoms in my brain are different from yours. So what? When you simply boil it down the laws of physics, all beliefs are equivalent. There simply is no true or false.
    In a graduate class in the department of ecology and evolution at UNT back in the late 70s we discussed as a department E.O.Wilson’s book On Human Nature. (The previous semester we walked through chapter by chapter his tome, Sociobiology. In one chapter Wilson makes it clear that the only purpose in life is to survive and reproduce. Humans are just another animal species so it’s true for us. So I asked a hypothetical question. “Suppose I am dead and in the ground, decomposers are doing their thing. What difference does it make to “me” now whether I reproduced or not?” After a few seconds of silence, one of the 5 professors present said,”I guess that ultimately, it really doesn’t matter.” I responded by saying that “First you all agree that survival and reproduction is all that matters, now you say even that doesn’t matter. So what’s the point? Why go on living? Why stop at red lights? Who cares?” After another somewhat longer silence, the same professor responded by saying that “In the future those who will be selected for, will be those who know there is no purpose in life but will live as if there is.”
    Richard Dawkins was once challenged why he was taking credit for having written his new book and claiming it’s a good book if our minds are just machines? He replied; “I can’t bring myself to do that, I actually do respond in an emotional way and I blame people, I give people credit.” He was further challenged that this was inconsistent with his worldview. Dawkins replied, “I sort of do, yes. But it is an inconsistency that we sort of have to live with – otherwise life would be intolerable.” (Saving Leonardo, Nancy Pearcey, p. 153 – from a recorded conversation at a book signing for The God Delusion)
    If your worldview forces you to lie, deceive and pretend, something’s GOT to be wrong.

    1. What difference does it make to “me” now whether I reproduced or not?

      Making yourself small, I see (see post 19, below)

      Seriously, folks. The guy is right. This “pretending” to have free will while claiming to live in a deterministic universe is embarrassing.

      Of course that nonsense about not being able to trust a material brain (or a society made of material beings) to generate “true beliefs” could come only from someone who hasn’t learned to live with the uncertainty of the real world. The very highly probable beliefs that comprise science are the best that exist, because that’s all that exists. And, yes, that means this one, too, is only highly probable.

    2. To your point about ‘rational thoughts’ arising from ‘non-rational processes’…I hope you would admit that purely material processes can be truth-preserving (produce true outputs given true inputs), and can ‘follow the laws of logic’ even as they slavishly ‘follow the laws of chemistry’. Or do you think that calculators are inhabited by tiny invisible demons who do all the actual calculating work?

      Let me guess — your response (or at least one common response) would be to say that something more intelligent than the calculator had to arrange its matter appropiately in order for it to act ‘rationally’, and that no other non-intelligent process could possibly cause that arranging. This admittedly seems true of calculators, which do not reproduce or compete for resources or imperfectly pass their characteristics onto successive generations. But to apply this by analogy to living creature like humans (who do all those things) is to presuppose that the theory of evolution is false.

      True beliefs (beliefs that accurately reflect the state of the world), and in particular true beliefs about the location of mates and predators and food and terrain features, are obviously more consistently advantageous than false beliefs, which could only be randomly advantageous. For example, one time in a billion you might by happy happenstance evade a tiger while under the delusion that you were running to catch a bus. But that sort of coincidence isn’t reliable enough over thousands of generations. Creatures with brains capable of consistently identifying when tigers are around are much more likely to be able to consistently avoid them than creatures whose brains are racked with delusions totally unmoored from reality.

    3. Good Lord…

      This old fallacy. Why won’t it die?

      “The geneticist J.B.S. Haldane put it nicely in his book Possible Worlds. “If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. . . . and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.”

      Well, if my computer is determined “wholly by the motions of atoms in it’s structure, then I have no reason to think it is actually computing anything.”

      And if this book I’m holding is really just “paper, chemicals, and ultimately just matter in motion, then there’s no reason to think it communicates anything on it’s pages…”


      See the huge, gaping problem with these types of inferences? It’s that vagueness, that massive non-sequitur: deflationary language pretending to be an argument.

      All these types of statements do is ignore all the pertinant details. It’s like saying that cherry pie is “determined wholly by the atoms in it’s structure.” That doesn’t tell you a damned thing about what cherry pie is, and referring to cherry pie only by reffering to it at the level of atoms, as if it would imply something invalid about the nature of cherry pies is simply ridiculous.

      Similarly: what does the phrase “determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain”
      even MEAN? If someone wanted to describe the nature of the brain, or any part of it, would the phrase “determined wholly by the motions of atoms” get even close to all the explanatory detail of how it works? Of course not. You can’t get at anything accurate or significant with such vagueness.

      There is just so much left unsaid, and unargued for, and unaddressed in that statement attributed to Haldane it is ludicrously impotent at establishing what it purports to establish. You’d have to look at how atoms interact to form chemicals, and then biological structures, and then how those structures form a nervous system, and how that nervous system operates, and how the brain operates, and how we seem to percieve and react to the world, and how we seem to reliably interact with much of the world and manipulated it etc. And once you have a real picture of what atoms-in-the-form-of-human-beings are doing, THEN you can try to say “And here’s why there’s no reason to think this system can reason accurately about the world.”

      But merely waving slogans like “we are made of atoms…atoms don’t do logic or reaosning…so oh, no, neither can anything made of atoms reason…”

      That is just desparately inadequate.


      1. “Good Lord…” Seriously? Capitalized and everything! Sorry, just couldn’t pass that one by.

        “This old fallacy. Why won’t it die?”

        Hardly a fallacy. You’ve shown no reason to alter reducing things to “the laws of physics” as Professor Coyne likes to say. You almost sound like your arguing for some emergent power at each new stage of complexity. University of Virginia post modern philosopher, Richard Rorty, sums it up well;

        “truth is made, not found.”
        “Keeping faith with Darwin” means that all our beliefs and convictions “arise by random variations in the brain, just like Darwin’s random variations in nature.”

        Rorty might go on the argue that those “beliefs” which aid survival might hang around as long as their useful. Hence Dawkins Meme concept. BUT that only pertains to utility. What utility do abstract notions such as “evolution” have for the individual in aiding personal survival and reproduction besides gaining an education, position and job. But those needs can be filled by adopting g completely opposite views. So the utility crutch dies away.

        What I’m seeing is naturalists on this blog maintaining their own fallacy that truth can be found by science. The naturalistic worldview makes that an impossible task. I quoted others who got that and they simply try to find ways to live with it.

        1. Ray,

          “Hardly a fallacy. You’ve shown no reason to alter reducing things to “the laws of physics” as Professor Coyne likes to say.”

          Actually I did: I showed how it is both special pleading and inadequate to use the type of inferences you quoted from Haldane as if they were any sort of reasonable argument.

          Because the same reasoning can be made to support absurdities – e.g. reasoning from the lack of characteristic of the part to the whole, as you have quoted Haldane, we can use that same “logic” to argue: “Atoms aren’t tall, therefore there is no reason to expect a building made of atoms can be tall”.

          You are simply ignoring your duty to show your stance isn’t special pleading, and inadequate in the ways I explained.

          “Keeping faith with Darwin” means that all our beliefs and convictions “arise by random variations in the brain, just like Darwin’s random variations in nature.”

…that’s ridiculous and makes the standard creationist mistake of looking only at the “random” element of the evolutionary process, ignoring the selection process which means…as Dawkins is at pains to continually point out…the end result is not a “random” process.

          Our beliefs don’t “arise at random.” They arise from the process of brains that have been meticulously selected (via evolution) with some success at tracking and predicting the world. THAT explains how we can get so much right, and how we can so often successfully predict and manipulate the world. The idea that our beliefs arise ranomly is not only NOT implied by evolution theory, it would not be able to explain how any creature depending on beliefs could even have survived!

          (I’m sure you’ve likely quote-mined Rorty out of the context he would give to such a quote, and that Rorty was likely less ignorant than your quote implies. Either way, the quote you give is nonsense in terms of doing the work you want it to do).

          Finally, your “utility crutch” comments just continue your getting evolution theory wrong.
          Nothing about evolution theory denies that characteristics evolved for reason A (e.g. hands to grasp food, manipulate our environment) can not be employed for another reason B (e.g. playing the piano). In fact, it’s PART of evolution theory that physical structures or characteristics can become useful in novel ways that they were not originally
          naturally selected for.


          1. Vaal,well maybe my unique brain wiring just doesn’t work like yours. But here is what I see as the problem. In your analogy of atoms to tall buildings, it doesn’t take much of a special arrangement to make something tall. It’s just atoms piled on top of each other. Any kind of operational function or utility must be imposed from the outside to align the atoms to make a tall building. Also in your earlier example of ink on a page, there is no information in ink on a page. Something outside the ink and paper arranges the ink on the page into a sequence that can be interpreted.

            I see the same problem with your notion of being able to determine truth from “meticulously” selected arrangements developing a brain that can be used to determine truth. I would agree with you if it was only applied to “ideas” with real physical consequences. I agree, running away from someone chasing you with a knife is a good idea. That can be tested in a way by experience as to whether it works or not. That’s just not true with more abstract ideas as I tried to say earlier. Let’s try the statement, “President Obama has the country on the right course and needs to be reelected.”

            Now there is no way to amass physical evidence to decide if that is true or false. There is no survival utility to agreeing or disagreeing. Our brains, through selection have not the experience to arbitrate the truth or falsehood of that statement. Certainly both sides would surmount what they would assert is overwhelming evidence to support or deny the claim. Our brain is not able by simply evolutionary events to decide this issue.

            Your example of grasping hands and playing the piano also doesn’t work for me. Grasping hands do have survival value, but piano playing hands, which may make you a living, but it’s certainly not necessary for all humans to be able to play the piano. My guess is that humans are the only animal that is able to arrive at some function or utility that has almost no utility for survival.

            In Jerry’s USA Today commentary last month he ended by trying to show how absolving us all of free will and making us all victims of circumstance, we gain empathy and “we can go about building a kinder world.”

            Is there some universal definition of kindness determined by evolutionary events? Why wouldn’t we all go about being more aggressive or lazy or deceptive. He is unconsciously appealing to something outside himself to highlight this value over others. Perhaps he does believe Jesus that you should love your neighbor as yourself.

            As I tried to point out in my initial reply, the evolutionary worldview ends up in absurdity since there is no meaning and in order to go about life we have to pretend we have choices, we deceive ourselves that we can objectively judge one book better than another and ultimately we have to lie to ourselves every morning that there is a purpose to my life that day.

            I’m certainly not looking to change anyone’s mind, but I am curious to bounce my responses around and see what people say. You’ve done that for me in a reasonably congenial tone and I appreciate it.

            1. Ray,

              “Also in your earlier example of ink on a page, there is no information in ink on a page. Something outside the ink and paper arranges the ink on the page into a sequence that can be interpreted.”

              Exactly. See what you are doing? You are pointing out that the “argument” I gave was insufficient. You intuitively recognize that, just because books can be described as a “mere collection of atoms and chemicals,” and because atoms and chemicals themselves don’t communicate anything, that makes for a poor argument that, therefore, books couldn’t communicate anything to us. As you point out, such an “argument” simply misses all the relevant details on the level of symbols, human communication etc. To ACTUALLY argue against the possibility of atoms ever arranging in a way that could “communicate” something, an argument would have to address the facts of how, at the macro level, pigment changes can occur on physical paper, it can be manipulated by humans, and that humans create and manipulate symbols etc.

              That’s what I’m saying about the Haldane quote. SIMPLY pointing out that our bodies may be made “merely” of atoms no more argues against our being rational than pointing out that a book is “merely atoms” argues against a book being a form of communication. There is so much more work to do to establish that argument against naturalism. And, frankly, no one has ever done it. (Plantinga included).

              I’m afraid I don’t see the point of your Obama claim. You seem to be saying “some things are difficult or impossible for us to know.” Erm…so what? How is that an argument against naturalism in the least?

              Re the piano example: Of course it’s not necessary for anyone to play the piano, and there’s not reason to think piano playing ever had a part in our evolutionary history. That is the point! There is nothing about this fact that contradicts either evolution or naturalism. We’ve evolved a nervous system that has been very beneficial in terms of allowing us to model, predict and manipulate the world. The complexity of our nervous system which has been great for predicting and dealing with novel situations (intelligence is our niche) allows allows us to manipulate all sorts of other things in the world to fulfill our desires – be it making ice cream, creating music, whatever. Evolution is blind. It doesn’t have a “roll” for us to play, or a rule-book. There is no “demand” from the nature of evolution that everything we do is of “utility” in being directly related to survival. In evolutionary terms, this is only a problem insofar as, for instance, piano playing would act against the survival and reproduction of our species. But…it doesn’t…so we can enjoy playing the piano.

              Evolution also does not suggest we must be “aggressive, lazy or deceptive.” It turns out that being social and reciprocal, and having rules of behaviour, is a good survival strategy for some social animals like us. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. (Also, again, not every single element of human behaviour need necessarily be tied to survival and reproduction).

              Finally, it’s simply incorrect to infer that a worldview that accepts evolution (and no God) implies there is “no meaning.” Just the opposite: Meaning comes from beings who have desires and who can rationalize about what would fulfill those desires. That is why, after all, that even theists understand that they want a Personal God as the basis of the universe, because a “magic rock” wouldn’t have the necessary attributes of having desires and rationality to produce “meaning.” But WE are just such beings! We are by our very nature “meaning generators” so the world is absolutely FULL of meaning. No God required – no God was ever required for this to be the case.



              1. Vaal, honestly words fail me. Even Plantinga has failed. You must be some kind of brilliant philosopher.

                Your close has to be one of the most jaw-dropping incoherent statements I have ever read. You would probably say the same about me.

                “But WE are just such beings! We are by our very nature “meaning generators” so the world is absolutely FULL of meaning. No God required – no God was ever required for this to be the case.”

                You make us all out to be gods. The idea of a meat computer being a generator of meaning just seems plain silly. If free will is indeed an illusion and there is no “me” making decisions, and I can’t have chosen differently then one’s “meaning” is entirely personal and unchangeable according to one’s genetics, environment and experiences. Every meat computer will create its own unique meaning and to try to say that any one’s meat computer’s meaning is somehow more rational than another is itself without meaning apart from your own personal meat computer. It’s a vicious downward with no way out. Just because you call a blue ball red, doesn’t make it so. If free will is an illusion, so are your desires and your ideas for obtaining them.

              2. Ray,

                This post may be appearing above your comment because there was no “reply” button below your latest reply.

                Anyway: Yes, Plantinga gets it wrong. You don’t necessarily have to be a professional philosopher to spot his errors, but some acquaintance with philosophy and evolution theory help a lot. (In a nutshell: Plantinga’s “defeater” only works insofar as he can present a plausible alternative to a cognitive system that can deliver true beliefs. However, his examples in support of his “beliefs-that-are-adaptive-but-untrue” are utterly unsustainable as plausible alternatives. I’d go into why, but I get the feeling you aren’t all that interested in what I’d say).

                BTW, I don’t think free will is an illusion. I think the concept of free will is compatible with determinism. That’s another conversation which many of us have been having on these threads. Suffice it to say that your starting with my holding free will to be an illusion is wrong, which makes much of what you wrote moot.

                As to this comment: “You make us all out to be gods.” This shows you failed to take in my point and still have things backwards.

                A God would need OUR characteristics in order for that God to generate any “meaning,” not the other way around!

                Have you ever actually thought hard about what “meaning” and “value” might be, and how they actually arise? As I said, they only make sense if you have beings who have desires – “X has value” only makes sense if someone or something desires X. And something can have “meaning” (in the value-laden form) only insofar as a being has desires and can rationalise about what fulfills a desire. Think about ANYTHING you would say has “meaning” and then take away ALL desires and all rationality, and then try to make sense of it. As a thought experiment, imagine the universe were only populated by rocks (and there is no God). What sense could it make to think anything has “value” or “meaning?”

                Like I said: think about why you (presumably a theist) think we need a Personal Being to be at the bottom of existence, rather than a non-being, like a random quantum flucutation or a magic universe-spawning-rock.

                What are the pertinant characteristics that a Personal Being has that a rock doesn’t have, in order for meaning and value to arise? Obviously when you think about it, it’s things like having desires and intentions. A Being would never have reason to ever create anything if He never had any desire to create anything. So being able to “have a desire” is necessary to value arising. And being able to have intention, rationalise actions toward goals, is how actions and results have “meaning.”

                But the very characteristics that separate a Personal God from a Magic Rock, the ones ESSENTIAL to generating value and meaning, are characteristics that WE HUMANS possess.
                For exactly the same reasons, on exactly the same logic, our human characteristics of having desires and rationality and goal oriented behaviour generates value and meaning. So you only need beings like us in the universe for value and meaning to occur, no God is necessary.

                You can shake your head at this…or actually try to address the reasoning and show it is wrong. Good luck 😉

                (BTW, if you want to say “Well, then, this would still mean that good and evil are subjective opinions, then by the same logic it would be the same with God: He would be just one more opinion. As it happens, I think moral statements can be objectively true, but that is yet another conversation…)


  18. Warning: Rant coming up. I’ve read too many of these “free will” threads to keep quiet any longer. Like any lifelong scientist and amateur philosopher, I have my opinions, and can’t see why everyone doesn’t already share them. Must be some reasons. Please enlighten me.

    As we know, the term “Free Will” has a spotty history, because it originated in theology, and was the “gift” a deterministic God supposedly gave mankind to absolve Himself of any responsibility for whatever they (the humans) did. (And of course the humans return the favor and use God to absolve themselves of any responsibility for their own hatreds and prejudices. Which is what the concept was for in the first place.)

    But then it escaped somewhat from theology, when physical naturalists started using Free Will as a term to separate themselves from the determinism of a supposed billiard ball universe. Then quantum mechanics took the determinism out of physics, and “free will” became unglued. What’s will? What is it free of? To me the answers are “biology”, and “ignorance”, and I think that those answers are robust enough to justify retaining the term.

    OK, so I understand that Jerry considers human brains to be deterministic. Like clockwork. I don’t know about you, but my clocks always seem to gain or lose time, and aren’t as deterministic as I would like them to be. My “atomic watch” keeps good time on the east coast, but fails to connect to the NIST servers to update itself on the west coast. Humans are also like clocks, predictable only within some tolerances. And atomic. And quantum. Personally, I came to terms with the Copenhagen Interpretation as an undergraduate 50 years ago, and I have wondered ever since where people get this “determinism” stuff.

    And yes, I have heard whole herds of philosophers (and even physicists) protesting that a “quantum hiccup” can’t provide the “freedom” in “free-will”. And I’ve read Dennett’s “Freedom Evolves,” and understand that he thinks that even in a deterministic world that the necessary freedom could still exist. OK, I can agree with that, but I still think he’s talking about a world that doesn’t exist (or, at least one that we don’t know and can’t know if it exists).

    Dennett’s notion of freedom depends on our not being able to predict the physical future precisely: of not, in principle, having enough information to do so. Fine. If you prefer the Bohm interpretation to Bohr (actually completely equivalent, except the former seems to lend itself better to delusions of omniscience), that’s what you’ve got — in that case the quantum ignorance is not in “true randomness” but rather in the correlation of the world here and now with everything that affected it back in the Big Bang, including stuff that is now beyond our horizon of our relativistic light cone. How’s that for enforced cosmic ignorance?

    But it just drives me up the wall when Jerry Coyne or Dan Dennett (or Phillip Kitcher, or.. so many!) say that quantum effects can’t affect the “macro” world. (Though maybe Jerry isn’t completely sold on that — he seems to vacillate).

    Everything is quantum, from the quark to a baseball to the Earth to a Galaxy. Nothing happens that is not “quantum.” In considering the electron shifts that lead to a base mismatch that leads to a mutation that leads to a new phenotype, we can see that quanta, and randomness (or unknowable quantum correlations, if you prefer), are an inescapable part of biology. And we don’t need to look at special cases to understand that quantum is the rule, not the exception. It is nonsense to talk about quanta not being an issue in brain function, and ask rhetorically “where do you put it in”. The thing that’s striking about clocks, is how hard we have to work to get the randomness out of them. Same in biology. It’s not a hiccup, it’s the way the world works.

    So you’re still going to ask, Why does randomness (or ignorance of the future) give us some “freedom”? Because we are “free” to keep expanding our horizon. I am not free today to avoid the mistakes I made yesterday (since I can’t go back in time); but I am free to learn to not make the same mistakes again.

    Jerry is impressed with the experiments that show that the decision to press a button can be predicted several seconds before a person is aware of his own decision to do so. I read about that 30 years ago, and to me, it’s always been mildly interesting, but “What is the superlative of ‘so what?'” What did you expect, that a decision was going to be made in the last chronon before the button is pressed? It’s a brain, it occupies space, and works by electrochemical signals; of course it’s decisions take some time. What Jerry seems to be trying to do is exactly what Dennett warned against: Making yourself small. (“Make yourself small enough, and you can externalize everything.”) Jerry chooses time as the scale on which to try to become small, and is surprised when he fails.

    The “self” is an extended concept that goes far beyond that little blob of neurons, in both space and time. The decision to press that button began long ago, when the experimenter described the situation and you flexed your fingers in anticipation. Before that, when you took typing lessons and learned how to press buttons. Before that, when your ancestors learned to eat fruit, and to use their fingers to grasp. And even when a single cell organism developed a chemical tropism that made it change direction more frequently when its cilia moved it away from nutrients instead of toward them. We are what we are and what we have been; the only question is how much of that we want to “own” up to. Where do you draw the line, and say “beyond this, all is puppet strings, and is no longer a part of me?”

    Jerry (or someone in one of these threads) once asked “is a cat free? Is a worm free? Is a bacterium free?” Whoever it was was thinking “of course not!” I, however, was laughing up my sleeve. Of course they are free — as are any Earthly biological entities or other evolved dissipative structures that (1) feed upon an environmental energy flow, and (2) harness random fluctuations and entropic irreversibility to store memories, and (3) have also evolved mechanisms to use that memory (genetic, chemical, neurological) to help mold the algorithms of its future behavior.

    Are you a puppet of that biological memory? No, you are that memory! Own it. Freedom is not an absolute, but (as Dennett says) evolves. Today I am more free than I was yesterday (as I keep learning), and at the same time, in other ways, less free (as my biology keeps constraining me). I am both increased and diminished by time.

    And ditching “free will” in favor of “Responsibility for an act” is, it seems to me, clouding the issue.

    1. Well the free will debate is often in the context of asking if a computer program can be conscious and have free will. The thing is a computer program can be as deterministic as you want. Great pains are usually taken to guarantee determinism and bad things usually happen if it fails to be deterministic. And you can run the same program with the same inputs over and over and get the same results. Is that free will?

      And I don’t think you have made your point about quantum indeterminacy. It is true that everything is at bottom level quantum. But that does not change the fact that a computer is designed to and is expected to run deterministically.

      1. And does your deterministic computer never crash? A truly deterministic machine is an unattainable ideal. But the real point is that people, like all living things, are not “designed” to eliminate the indeterminacy (they couldn’t evolve if they were). And the computers that eventually become conscious will have to incorporate randomness at some level (many already do).

        1. Yes a computer can crash but I don’t see how that fact adds any more to the discussion than the fact that I can suffer a brain aneurism. We can reduce the number of crashes as low as you wish in principle. For example if we have one crash in a thousand years it is hard to see it as relevant.

          And yes there are fault tolerant models of computation being developed. Randomness just injects noise into the lowest level that may give free will a place to hide but cannot explain it or even justify a claim to free will.

          But bottom line… would you accept the possibility of a deterministic computer program having free will? If yes then we can assume determinism as a simplifying assumption in discussions of free will. If no then you need to show the mechanism by which random noise lead to something qualitatively different deserving the name free will.

          1. Very good questions. Thank you.

            Your computer can crash, but the process by which that crash contributes to learning may be obscure, requiring that you report a bug to the humans at Microsoft, or in your IT department. Eliminating the noise of errors (or reducing them to one in a thousand years) is just another way of making the “self” of the computational system small — Which is what most of us want in a computer (we don’t want it thinking for itself).

            The learning to be had from a brain aneurism may be a bit clearer: do you know the symptoms? Maybe you should learn them…

            Bottom line: I don’t accept the possibility of a completely deterministic computer program (full stop). They are designed by humans to be as deterministic as they can be, to serve our purposes: the preservation of pre-existing truth assessments (I work in data archive management). They are not designed, in general, to explore for new truths, which means that they cannot expand their horizons of probable truth, cannot modify their own algorithms, and cannot, in a meaningful way, learn. Until the engineers allow for that capability, to allow “noise” to contribute to the generation of new (probable) truths, as it does in the process of evolution, computers will not have consciousness, and will not have what I would call free will. “Random noise”, or new possibilities from outside the artificial deterministic firewall is essential, and does indeed lead to something qualitatively different from the contra-factual myth of determinism.

            1. Computer crashes has as little to do with computer learning as brain aneurisms have to do with human learning. Aneurisms usually lead to Intracranial hemorrhage and death.

              If you want a model of computer learning using randomness look at things like simulated annealing and genetic algorithms. The source of randomness us usually algorithmic so technically the program is still deterministic. These have actually been used to design things like new turbine blade designs.

              I have personally written programs that use mutation and selection to allow game strategies to evolve. I also wrote a program that used natural selection to evolve a Conway game of life starting pattern with certain attributes.

              You may not accept deterministic computer programs but my programs did the same thing every time I ran them given the same random seed. I depend on that determinism. Errors at the hardware level are very rare and add nothing to computer learning.

              I agree that as a practical matter it is impossible to build a computer that can never crash. I just don’t see the relevance to either the free will debate or computer learning. Computers can change their own algorithm and explore new and unexpected domains. I know this because I have written programs that do this. I also know that they do not do this by crashing.

              1. Thank you for the feedback. I can see that the role of randomness in life and learning is obscure to you, and probably to others. But it seems to me that you are continuing to make yourself (or the “self” that you are hypothesizing for computers) small.

                Computer crashes don’t help that particular computer to learn. They help the larger system (including the human hardware and software designers) to learn. Crashes lead to new hardware/software designs. In a similar manner, human hardware failures help us as a learning community to recognize the early signs and devise new behaviors to prevent or ameliorate damage.

                As a software creator you depend upon the artificially high level of determinism that the creators of the hardware have built into the computer to facilitate your exploration of algorithmic possibilities. But does the Creator of the Universe make living things deterministic, and include a pseudo-random mutation generator to make evolution (the ultimate learning machine) work as a simulation? Your simulated annealing and genetic algorithms learn, but only to the extent that the pseudo-random number generator you have built into them will allow them to try new possibilities. You get exactly the same results every time you run the experiment. Many years ago, when I did real-world annealing experiments with DNA-DNA hybridization, I never got exactly the same results twice.

                A single computer doesn’t learn by crashing. A single animal doesn’t learn by dying. But the biosphere does learn from that death, and the human computational community learns from the computer crash. A particular DNA strand learns nothing by losing its annealing grip on another DNA strand and floating away from the filter matrix that holds it, but the process as a whole, the entire vial with millipore filter, bound DNA, unbound radioactive DNA, and buffered salt solution at just the right temperature to allow both successful and non-successful binding, does learn. Without the failures, learning doesn’t happen.

                Stop making yourself small. Stop looking at the smaller system (the single psudo-deterministic computer, or the single dying aneurism victim) and look where the learning really takes place, in the larger evolutionary system. The order found in the living world is a subset of randomness, the result of learning, through random mutation and natural selection. So, too, the order found in our scientific notebooks is the result of trial and error, success and failure, mutation and natural selection.

                What I don’t understand is why the recognition of the relality, power, necessity, and ubiquitousness of randomness has become heresy in Western culture. Oh, yes. Religion.

                Computer crashes has as little to do with computer learning as brain aneurisms have to do with human learning. Aneurisms usually lead to Intracranial hemorrhage and death.

                If you want a model of computer learning using randomness look at things like simulated annealing and genetic algorithms. The source of randomness us usually algorithmic so technically the program is still deterministic. These have actually been used to design things like new turbine blade designs.

                I have personally written programs that use mutation and selection to allow game strategies to evolve. I also wrote a program that used natural selection to evolve a Conway game of life starting pattern with certain attributes.

                You may not accept deterministic computer programs but my programs did the same thing every time I ran them given the same random seed. I depend on that determinism. Errors at the hardware level are very rare and add nothing to computer learning.

                I agree that as a practical matter it is impossible to build a computer that can never crash. I just don’t see the relevance to either the free will debate or computer learning. Computers can change their own algorithm and explore new and unexpected domains. I know this because I have written programs that do this. I also know that they do not do this by crashing.

              2. OOPS — Accidentally included your whole post in mine. Sorry. My comments end with the gripe about religion.

  19. Moral responsibility is the only kind of responsibility that actually matters. Not sure what Jerry meant by “moral responsibility is threatened by science”.
    How does the absence of free will nullifies moral responsibility?

    1. Use of the word “moral” implies the existence of “immoral” (or “amoral”), and the ability to choose between them. Otherwise it is merely a characteristic, like color.

      We don’t speak of an avalanche as having the moral responsibility of killing the people it pounds into smithereens (haven’t used that word in a long while). Why not? How is that different from a deterministic human being?

      1. I would hazard the guess that the difference is because there wasn’t a widespread belief that avalanches operated via libertarian free will.

      2. Are you seriously equating human beings to inanimate objects? Even a fully deterministic human being knows about pain and suffering, and can empathize with those of others. That’s the basis of human morality. Again, I don’t see how “no free will” implies absence of moral responsibility in the light of what we already know about our own neurobiology.

        Bringing snow, tornadoes or plate tectonics into the same arena seems rather silly, to be honest.

        1. Pablo M.H., if you are arguing for determinism, then you are stating there are only uncontrollable reactions based on previous uncontrollable reactions in a chain reaction going back to the Big Bang.

          No choices.

          Without the possibility of choices, there is no functional difference between human beings and inanimate objects — they are both merely experiencing uncontrollable reactions based on previous uncontrollable reactions. An avalanche is no more able to choose not to crush someone than a person is able to choose something other than what they choose.

          That is what determinism clearly states. While humans have the illusion of consciousness to “experience” events and “experience” emotions about them, they have no capability to choose otherwise.

          I hope you see how silly the full ramifications of your stance are, and how they appear to run counter to what you obviously believe.

          1. The main problem that I see in your argument is the assumption that all deterministic processes end up in the same kind of result or have the same implications, which is demonstrably false. In other words, the canonical definition of determinism is way too simplistic and narrow to account for all possible behaviors of physical systems.

            Research in cellular automata and Turing machines shows that it is possible for a system operating under a simple set of deterministic rules to behave in ways that appear free of those rules to the observer and that are computationally irreducible (i.e. can only be “figured out” by direct observation). I’m not saying that humans are equivalent to those systems but rather that the possibility of deterministic systems behaving in ways counterintuitive to the very idea of determinism clearly exists.

            1. Pablo M.H. I believe you are mistaken about the meaning of determinism.

              However, feel free to provide evidence to support your different definition.

              I also believe you are incorrect in your description of Turing machine results. Again, feel free to provide evidence to support your position.

  20. “And yes, for our society to function smoothly we need to punish criminals to prevent further malfeasance and to set examples for other people. I’m with him 100% here.”

    If I’m getting this right (which is open to question,) this implies that punishment of criminals somehow changes the brain chemistry of those observing the punishment which then results in a lower inclination for the observers’ brains to act in a criminal manner.

    1. Well yes all learning can be seen as changes to the brain. It seems to make no difference if these induced brain changes are deterministic or if they have a statistical component.

      Forget punishment. If you saw someone fall off a cliff would you be more likely to stay away from cliffs? Nothing really stunning here.

  21. I like the fact that you are prepared to face the facts about free will and acknowledge that free will as it is understood by most people in society does not exist. Too many scientists realise this but will not commit to the full conclusions of this fact. Like Gazzaniga they are desperate to find some way of supporting the current ethical basis of our society even if it is based on a fallacy. Surely at some point we have to accept the facts and start asking what impact it will have on our lives.

    1. In your deterministic universe, there is no “realizing”, no “accepting”, and certainly no “asking” or “committing”.

      There are only reactions, based on previous reactions, stretching in an unbroken and uncontrollable chain reaction back to the Big Bang.

      It is like watching a movie, and looking at the frames individually — no choosing is happening, regardless of what the characters on the frame “believe” is happening.

      1. Xuuths,

        From this post, I must surmise that for you unless realizing happens via some contra-causal means, then it doesn’t count as “real” realization. Unless accepting happens via some contra-causal means, then it doesn’t count as “real” acceptance. Unless asking happens via some contra-causal means, then it doesn’t count as “real” inquiry. Unless committing happens via some contra-causal means, then it doesn’t count as “committing”. Please elaborate on why you hold this to be true.

        1. Steve,

          Committing to something is a choice based on either committing or not. Asking is based on choosing to know more. Accepting is based on choosing not to reject.

          Clearly, since determinism means there are no actual choices, only uncontrollable reactions based on previous uncontrollable reactions, there can be none of those things.

          Realizing is also an illusion in a determined universe, as a function of the illusion of consciousness.

          1. So to you unless choosing happens via some contra-causal means, then it doesn’t count as “real” choosing. You haven’t really enlightened us as to why you hold this to be true. Why should anyone accept your view in this matter. Is it not just as valid to call completely determined choices, choices? If not, then defend your position.

            1. Steve, unless there is an actual choice, there is no actual choice. You believe in determinism, which only allows for uncontrollable reactions based on previous uncontrollable reactions in a chain reaction going back to the Big Bang. No choices.

              Choices by definition imply the ability to choose between at least two things. Since your deterministic universe only allows what happens to happen, there is no choice there, or possible.

              Why continue to inaccurately call them choices? Your position is the one needing defending.

              I chose to respond to you. You have not proven that I did not.

              1. Steve, unless there is an actual choice, there is no actual choice.

                Duh. Upon what does a choice qualify as actual? A determined choice is not necessarily not an actual choice. This is what you need to defend.

              2. Steve, read the definition of “choice” and then look at your post to see the contradiction.

                I mean, really.

              3. P.S. It is also up to you to prove that you could have chosen to not reply to me. Non-free willism maintains that given everything in your personal matrix of determinants you were caused to reply. Your choice to reply was fully caused, yet we still can refer to it as a choice/decision point.

              4. Once again, Steve, get the best dictionary you can find that you trust. Look up the word “choice” and see how it implies the ability to choose between at least two items.

                Then ponder on how that contradicts your deterministic beliefs.

                You state again and again that someone could not choose otherwise from what they chose — hence making it not a choice, but merely a reaction. They are completely different things.

                You have not proven that I could not make other choices than what I did. Asserted, yes. Proven, no.

                Your continued use of the word “choice” in a way that contradicts your stated beliefs demonstrates that you don’t really believe in a deterministic universe as it applies to your personal free will. If you did, you would use different words — much like someone who said they truly were not racist would choose to use words that were not racist. Your choice of words betrays your stance.

              5. Your continued use of the word “choice” in a way that contradicts your stated beliefs

                You don’t get it… I am completely, out of hand, rejecting your assertion of how the word choice is allowed to be used. I am claiming that completely determined choices are still choices. You are trying to build into the word choice the existence of free will, by in effect claiming that if there is no free will within a choice then it is not a choice.

                There must be a zillion IF…THEN computer statements that direct a zillion computer programs to make choices… none of them are freely willed.

              6. P.S.

                Your choice of words betrays your stance.

                If this means that you are saying I have proven that I believe in libertarian free will, because I talk of people making fully caused choices, then you are beyond conversation.

              7. Steve, it’s really simple, and binary. Either you make choices, or you don’t.

                You claim that we live in a deterministic universe — which means there are only uncontrollable reactions based on previous uncontrollable reactions in a chain reaction back to the Big Bang. At any point, there will only be one way forward. You may stand before 10 doors, but you will only open one of them (or do something else, or do nothing) which you claim was already set in stone by the universe’s state at that instant.

                There is no choice in that scenario. If the universe’s state was that you would open door 1, then all the other doors were not choices, because you could not have chosen them. They are like set dressing in a movie. They cannot be chosen.

                You may choose to coin whatever definition for “choice” that you want — but you would not be using the definition found in authoritative resources or used by everyone. I dare say that even those who claim to espouse determinism actually believe in choices (although determinism says they don’t exist).

                Your making up definitions for existing words is what makes for confusion.

                For clarity’s sake, since you refuse to use the existing verbiage that would convey your stance, and don’t seem to like having the contradiction pointed out to you, please coin new words. Otherwise, accept responsibility for purposely causing confusion, and appearing like a hypocrite to anyone who hasn’t bought into your alternate definitions.

                This conversation officially bores me.

      2. Whether there is any accepting, asking etc doesn’t alter the fact that free will is an illusion. If you choose to define those words in that way then fine they don’t exist. You can’t argue against a biological reality because of the effects it will have. I however do think they exist even if we accept the fact that free will is an illusion. For me they still have meaning.

    2. Larry

      You are correct. I would add to the desire to support the current ethical basis, three more desires: the desires to retain a sense of personal control over the living of ones life, to continue feelings of pride and nobility for ones actions (even if that carries with it the downsides of guilt and blame), and a possible final desire to bolster what they may perceive in humanity the inability to “handle” the truth of free will being nothing but an illusion. More than once, I’ve been confronted with the belief that the proposition that free will is an illusion is a dangerous thought that for safety’s sake ought not be propagated.

      1. Yes I agree. And I do understand it when people say it is dangerous to propagate the idea that free will is an illusion however to not do it is basing so much on a lie and I have difficulties with this too. There is so much more we should be doing to improve the environment of people and by doing so improve their lives and the lives of future generations. I think though that such a fundamental change is many lifetimes away.

  22. Having just finished reading Dr. Gazzaniga’s book Who’s in Charge,” it seems that several of his key points are missed. First, heargues that while brains are mechanistic, social behavior is an emergent property of many brains interacting. He discusses complex and chaotic systems in this regard. Second, that the development of broad, nonkin cooperative behavior in human societies is a case of “niche construction”–“the process in which an organism alters its own (or other species’) environment, often but not always in a manner that increases its chances of survival” [per Wikipedia].

    Although I wish he could have been clearer at times, I think his discussion of neurobiology and the law was useful in setting out the issues.

      1. Xuuths,

        If emergent properties are not predictable from the lower-level mechanisms, then a strict, mechanistic determinism cannot be used to predict the behavior of objects (people) interacting in mass. Per Wikipedia (Emergent Properties):

        In philosophy, systems theory, science, and art, emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. Emergence is central to the theories of integrative levels and of complex systems.”

        Gazzaniga spends much time in his book describing the deterministic modules underlying brain activity, including inhibitory feedback. He also discusses how social interactions can have feedback on the behavior of individuals, with the possibility of influencing selection of alternatives (“choices”).

        1. “Social behavior” is merely many non-free-will people, according to determinists. Your wikipedia entry does not counter that.

          Your quote from wikipedia does not counter determinism or explain what emergent properties have to do with free will.

          I happen to believe that consciousness and free will are emergent properties, but you did not provide the evidence to support that contention.

  23. If free will isn’t what’s the case if fatalism (that everything is inevitable) is false, then it’s a pointless term.

    As such, it is entirely obvious that the future is not inevitable.

    All it requires is that we are able to learn to do various things – think about our actions, imagine other possibilities, and so on. Our ability to learn language is all that is required – and can physics tell us that we cannot learn language?

    That what you believe about free will changes how you act is the proof of the existence of what Dennett calls the kind of freedom worth having.

  24. The irony can be a bit heavy here.

    Most people do not go around thinking their actions are purely determined; they use the word “choice” with the understanding that there were alternate actions possible. The Incompatibilist/Determinists here want to say there never is any real alternative options to what we do. But they still want to hang on to the word “choice.”

    It’s always fascinating to see Incompatibilists accuse Compatibilism of “re-defining” free will.

    Yet they turn around and help themselves to re-defining the word “choice” – something that happens despite there being no real alternatives – so they can still use that word.


    (Jerry has denied in some places that “real choices” occur, but insofar as he still allows himself to STILL use that term, he is doing so contrary to how most people understand the concept of “choice,” and hence he can hardly cast the “that’s not how people think of free will” stone at compatibilists).

    1. Vaal,

      I think your analysis is okay but I think on these threads there has been heavy analyis over the term “choice” with both compatibilist and incompatibilist (and the confused) claiming multiple definitions of “choice.”

      Here has been where I struggle with Compatibilism. Should not the compatibilist, if they have accepted determinism, not also accept your statement “there never is any real alternative options to what we do. But they still want to hang on to the word ‘choice.'”?

      Are you implying that (some) compatibilists claim that the “alternatve options” are “real,” are more than “weak free will,” more than just different places that the internal mechanisms would determine where its body went based on those internal mechanisms?

      In fact, I believe it was those of a compatibilist bent that screamed the hardest when Jerry talked about determinism also meaning an end to “real choices,” but thats because compatibilist were already heavily set on a “weak free will” that lines up nicely (even in a determined world) with “non-real choices”. If some incompatibilists also joined the fray it is because they were trying to soften the blow, trying to avoid fatalism, and make sure people know that the internal brain processing is still important for how the body/self will act. I think that line of softening is wrong; and I agree with you that the phenomenology of “choice” making means that our definition and use of the word “choice” is going to be problematic, as well.

      Some of this goes back to the intuitions that separate compatibilist and incompatibilist. People reject compatibilism by saying things like well under your definition the rat or tortoise has free will. Similarly, under some intutions my calculator or computer will “choose” the answer, and they have clearly decoupled “choice” from any “real alternatives.” I think both compatibilist and incompatibilist have that last intuition at times; but I think that intuition is problematic, because our word “choice” as it applies to humans has almost always carried the phenomenological aspect of the naive self being forced to choose, and only feeling and understanding that the “conscious I” was the one choosing.

      1. Lyndon,

        Thoughtful post! I hope you are still around to read this. I’m assuming not a lot of people are still reading this thread, but I’m going to answer via 2 replies.

        First, the issue many of us defending compatibilism is we point to a continuity that the arguments for incompatibilism seem to lack. In other words, the incompatibilist positions seem to make incongruent exceptions in their reasoning. I’d like to use an analogy:

        Take the concept of “knowledge” (and it’s impact on warranted beliefs). There’s a common bad argument that we atheists often get from theists: “You have no business saying ‘There Is No God’ because you can’t PROVE there is no God, and without knowing there is no God, your atheism is simply faith.” (Some agnostics will give a similar charge at atheists – and both agnostic and theist can put forward versions of Gods that are, indeed, not strictly disprovable).

        What rejoinder do we give this “argument?” Well, we point out how it relies on an impractical and inconsistent demand for what would constitute “knowledge” (and/or a warranted belief). An undetectable, supernatural Elvis pushing the moon around the earth isn’t strictly “disprovable” either, but it would be ridiculous say “It’s arrogant to claim such an Elvis does not exist.” People pushing this argument against atheism seem unaware that, strictly speaking, virtually EVERY belief we have about the world is not 100 percent “provable” or “absolutely certain” insofar as
        there are always wild, alternatives we can dream up that can not be disproved (e.g. everyone else is a demon in human form, but me…). If we demanded absolute, irrefutable certainty in order for any belief to be held as “knowledge,” then knowledge would be pretty much rendered moot. Everything would go.

        Under THIS conception of “knowledge,” virtually nothing we currently hold to be “knowledge” would be “real knowledge.” But what is the use of a conception of knowledge that is utterly unattainable and impractical? The sensible person says: We need to have a concept of knowledge that is based on the real world, and thus we START with the scenario of uncertainty, our epistemological limitations, and within that reality we say “Ok, these are the types of things that we will count as knowledge.”

        Because even GIVEN ultimate uncertainty, there are still very real phenomena to describe. My son can solve a rubiks’ cube every time. I can’t solve it even once. There is a phenomena there worth describing and using the phrase “My son has KNOWLEDGE about how to solve the rubik’s cube and I do not” is a perfectly practical, reasonable way to state this difference between us. It is informative as well, as it tells us the phenomenon of his solving the cubes isn’t just luck.

        The fact I can not disprove that my son is utterly ignorant of how to solve the cube, and that instead aliens are secretly controlling him to solve the cubes, is not an objection that any sensible person raises to this use of the term “knowledge.”

        And, as it happens, the people pushing this “You can’t prove a God doesn’t exist” argument know this, when they are not arguing against atheism. They do not, in fact, demand absolute certainty (of the sort they demand of the atheist) in order to identify someone having “knowledge” or a justified belief. So such an argument against atheism is both incoherent, insofar as it says only something utterly impractical and unobtainable should count as “knowledge,” and also inconsistent, special pleading, insofar as these people are making an exception to atheism – putting a demand on atheism that they do not do elsewhere.

        And that is what compatibilists believe they encounter with incompatibilists: incompatibilists hold to a concept of free will that is utterly impractical and incoherent when you examine what it entails (just like the demand for absolute certainty for “knowledge”). And it’s the only conception of free will they will accept as “being free will.” And since no one can “prove” they have this version of free will, well then the incompatibilist concludes: free will doesn’t exist, and it is invalid to go calling anything “free will.”

        This is to stick with some utterly impractical notion of free will. But why do it when, like knowledge, we can look at our real circumstances (in this case: agree with causation/determinism) and note that there are still, nonetheless, real phenomena which need to be described…people doing X and not Y, varying competences in planning and avoiding, etc. And that it turns out that “free will” and “choice” and “could have done otherwise” are useful concepts in describing real phenomena, and disparate forms of competence, avoiding, etc. And, it turns out, that the phenomena we need to describe capture pretty much all the important concerns that were wrapped up in the term “free will” anyway. So it’s not like “free will” in this sense is disconnected from how most of us use the term. Just like “knowledge,” “free will” still describes the things most people ascribe to free will.

        But incompatibilists make these exceptions when it comes to free will, that they do not make elsewhere.


      2. Reply to Lyndon cont’d:

        “Should not the compatibilist, if they have accepted determinism, not also accept your statement “there never is any real alternative options to what we do. But they still want to hang on to the word ‘choice.’”?

        The issue is that there are different senses, different contexts, in which to evaluate the claim “there never is any real alternative options to what we do.” And the answers can be “right” depending on the context.

        Sorry, but I think another analogy can be useful here: Take the term “solid.” Is my desk “solid?” Most people would answer “yes.” But then you can get smarty-pants science types saying “Actually, no, that’s just an illusion. Our advancing understanding of physics has actually proven this to be incorrect. Desks (and rocks, and chairs, and people etc) were never really “solid.” Physics has irrefutably uncovered that matter is mostly empty space, so solidity is an illusion.”

        But does referring to the properties of physics at the atomic level REALLY render the concept of solidity invalid, to be dismissed into the “illusion, not real” bin? Why would it? Even if you accept what physics tells us about matter at the atomic level, there remains the phenomena for which we use the term “solid objects.” I can not pass my hands through my desk as I can through the air. It will hold up a coke can; air will not. I can’t see through my desk as I can see through the air. etc. Even IF it were the case people had always conceived of desks as being PERFECTLY SOLID and even IF physics have told us that conception is not true at some level, it still IS TRUE that my desk exhibits characteristics in need of description, and “solid”….in the way we practically experience solid things…suits this need very well.

        So back to whether there are any “real” alternative options. In one context, no: in the sense that determinism implies that in every circumstance only one specific outcome will obtain.
        (Just like physics, in the context of describing the atomic level of matter, will point that it could be described as mostly empty space).

        In another context: Yes. Alternative or “could have done otherwise” describes real phenomena.
        Because even given determinism, we still have real phenomena to describe and explain. Hypotheticals are used to do this, but if hypotheticals are invalid for describing and understanding real differences and phenomena, then to be consistent one would have to throw out ALL descriptions of the world, scientific or otherwise, which rely on the same type of hypothetical reasoning. So, like the concept of “knowledge” discussed earlier, to be consistent we must allow the use of hypotheticals.

        Stand 30 feet from my house and slowly lob a baseball at my house. It will hit my house. Could my house have avoided being hit? Could it have “done otherwise?” No. It does not have the necessary characteristics to have avoided being hit, or to have “done otherwise.”

        Now slowly lob that ball at me. Could I avoid being hit? Yes. I can choose to move out of the way of the ball. I have the necessary characteristics to “do otherwise” whereas my house does not. I am “free” to choose not to be hit by the ball in a way my house is not. Now, if someone were holding me still AGAINST MY WILL then I would not be “free” to avoid being hit by the ball. In both cases I will to avoid the ball, but in only the first I am “free” to act on my will, not in the second where I am being held against my will.

        Now suppose “Bob” passes by a dumbbell and leaves the gym. Bob did not lift the dumbbell. But I say: “Bob could have lifted the dumbbell.” Surely I mean as we all do that Bob could have lifted it if he’d tried to. The fact Bob didn’t lift the dumbbell does not make this analysis invalid. Bob didn’t lift the dumbbell, however he COULD have lifted the dumbbell (done otherwise). In that sense, Bob was “free” to choose to lift, or not lift, the dumbbell (in a way a rock or a worm would not be). Alternatives were “possible.”

        For the incompatibilist to object to this type of language is to amount to special pleading, inconsistency. If the incompatibilist wants to say “But looked at in the big deterministic picture, Bob was never going to lift the dumbbell, so he REALLY COULDN’T have lifted the dumbbell and no REAL alternative was possible”…then that is like sticking to a concept of “knowledge” that is impractical and useless, and sticking only to a concept of “solid” that is true at one level, but is utterly inadequate to descriptions at another level.

        If we can not refer to the language of “possibility” and “alternatives” and “free to do X but not Y” then what language is left to describe the difference between me dodging a ball and a house being unable to do so? Between someone who can pick up a dumbbell and an entity that can not? Between different outcomes (different choices) in similar circumstances (e.g. Bob didn’t pick up the dumbbell yesterday, but did so today. If that does not speak to a REAL potential Bob had yesterday,which is aptly captured by saying Bob COULD have picked up the dumbbell, then how DO we describe the natures of things, and real differences in phenomena?

        I never see incompatibilists get into the nitty gritty of this problem that is entailed by their rejection of compatibilism. They seem to just reject the logic of compatibilist language on the subject of free will, but either don’t work out a suitable replacement language, or they just help themselves to compatibilist logic in all their other areas of description, without noticing or caring about the inconsistency.

        Anyway…sorry for the length. I’m sure there’s only a few of us left looking at this thread. Hopefully there was something worthy of chewing on in there…(and maybe spitting out).



  25. Free will does exist…only as a ppssibility and only in the realm of our thoughts, when we have a decision to make. When one considers a choice between two or more options, because of the fact that multiple options exist, free will is true. However, once a decision is made/a possible course chosen/an action is taken/etc. determinism rules. And how could it not be so? Everything expressed within or by the physical universe must obey its’ laws. In other words, all living entities are perpetually proving the fact of determinism in their physical journey through time. The only possible way of disproving it would be for two decisions (etc.) to be made in the same instant, to the same inputs. Basically two analyzable realities must branch off from the same instant in time. Impossible.
    Our thoughts are a natural phenomenon, but outside the realm of the physical universe. The electrical firings that produce a thought are in the realm of the physical universe, but they are not, for example, the conceptualized image of a deceased friend. Consider a dream. Even writing this I’m tempted to change my mind from staunchly determinist to accepting of free will. imagine the brains electrical firings produce the thought ”I can either go this way or that way.” Free will is created by this thought because two choices are realized. Free will then .merely describes the process of possibilities becoming actualites in reality. One choice will be the probablistic outcome of the inputs, but still a choice is required to prove the probable truth.

    This touches on other philosophical ideas, such as the idea that our thoughts define a personal reality. Only one reality exists, but each.individual has a personal one (a lie affects a person’s thoughts which causes that person to have an incorrect picture of reality).

    This has been an exercise in brainstorming and stream of conciousness. I know that ideas are repeated, unclear, or imprecisely communicated. My next post will be crafted.

    1. Our thoughts are a natural phenomenon, but outside the realm of the physical universe.

      You really do have to prove this assertion (in two parts, first that there is another realm that is not that of the physical universe, and secondly that thoughts are in this other non physical universe.

      Even writing this I’m tempted to change my mind from staunchly determinist to accepting of free will.

      So, what is your position: free will or not?
      It seemed to me as if you were arguing for the existence of libertarian free will.

      I am interested in your answers… hopefully crafted.

    2. I’m fascinated by the idea that Free will does exist…only as a possibility (sic) and only in the realm of our thoughts….

      I think this means that free will exists in the same way that invisible pink unicorns exist. Right? If so, they are equally worthy of pursuit.

      1. GBJames, atoms don’t have color, so how can a large collection of them have color?

        (Yes, I’m kidding, but using the kind of logic that I’ve seen here about how atoms are fully deterministic, so we have to be fully deterministic as well, since we’re made up of atoms.)

        1. I’m not sure I catch your drift, Xuuths. But then I had trouble with my closing italics tag, too, so I may just be a little slow this morning.

          Are you wondering where the pink of the unicorns comes from? That’s a question that has occupied generations of theologians and we still don’t have a good answer.

          1. I suppose I should ask your opinion on whether color exists, or rather it is the perception of color that exists?

            You might want to do a little research before answering.

            It may be germane to this discussion.

  26. i think it’s obvious everything web do is based on inputs and we could never do otherwise than as we did. to believes we can be presented with two or more options and make a decision totally independent of any causal influence is absurd. when a person is presented with a choice, there are an infinite number of “possible” courses of action. “Yes,” “no,” “uhhh,” “hmmm.” oBut because every input is precisely what it is, only one solution exists to the equation. dominant mother + slightly dull – handsome + stoned = “uhhh.” the realm of possibilities then is not real and does not exist in the material universe, but how can one deny that any considered possibilities exist in thought? incompatiblist assure us that there is only one way, and any other is impossible; that we only have the illusion of choice. logically it follows that any other choice but the one made doesn’t exist and never did. so, how can something non-existant influence the physical world? you say “vanilla or chocolate,” and I given the exact same circumstances and time, i will always choose…say chocolate. but as I considered my options, i imagined the scenario of choosing vanilla, imagined holding the cone in my hand, imagined tasting it. the end of this sweet, creamy daydream left me unsatisfied, and made contrasting chocolate my final choice. if possibilities don’t exist and only a single course is inevitable (meaning any other course will not and can never exist, because the structure of the big bang was defined at the instant of it’s initial expansion, and from then on cause and effect), then what was this impossible, immaterial and illusory choice/thingy that strongly influenced the course of the physical universe? the unchosen option MUST be possible for it to have the influence necessary to make the inescapable reality manifest and truth.

    there is certainly a realm of thought, and sensation, which exist outside the physical universe. how can it be denied? the nerves in my finger send signals to my brain when they are burned. the brain interprets those signals and creates, as a reminder to be careful with useful digits, pain. so, sensed by the fingers, signals forwarded to brain for design and assembly, brain conceives pain… and your fingers feel it. our senses are not necessarily real either! amputees feel pain in missing appendages, schizophrenics can hallucinate, and a sudden smell may be inspired by the mere image of an object associated with that scent. the universe has only one truth. that pain can be felt in the spatial area of a nonexistent leg is a bold contradiction of reality! thoughts, feelings, emotions, and senses are all created materialistically and according to the natural laws, but then exist beyond such parameters. when we wonder if free will is real, we are wondering if thoughts are real. incompatibilists only believe the concretized manifestations of our “choices,” as expressed by action, to be the fundamental truth of reality, and they are philosophically correct for the material universe. if something is oxygen it is not hydrogen. oxygen is precisely expressed by the universe. compatibilists accept a distinction between the realm of thought and that of matter. now take love and you will agree that completely different inputs define love uniquely as many times as there are people on the planet.

  27. Another interesting book on the Mind/Brain Problem is Mind and Brain by William Uttal, who has referred to neuroscience as the new phrenology by noting the impossibility of analyzing brain activity at the neuronal level and the distributed processing nature of the brain which allows macro activity observations possible, but specific conclusions unlikely.

    1. I had not read Gazzaniga’s latest work, Who’s in Charge when I posted earlier. In it he makes this statement, “We are personally responsible agents and are to be held accountable for our actions even though we live in a determined universe.” (p. 2) The remainder of the book is a discourse on why he holds this view.

      We still have the problem with what is meant by free will. Maybe separating the variables would help. Do we have will? What is meant by that? Is it free? At all? If all answers are, “No.” then I am doing what is determined and any rewards or punishment I must endure are determined as well.

  28. When Xeno, a stoic philosopher, was about to beat his slave for stealing the slave said, “But master, it was fated that I should steal” whereupon Xeno replied, “ And it was fated that I should beat you.” About thirty years ago I encountered Xeno’s report of his experience with his slave.

    I converted to determinism fifty-four years ago after studying the brain in medical school. Soon after converting, I had replicated Xeno’s experience. Xeno and I and any other determinist will soon find herself saying, “I know I shouldn’t blame that guy for cutting me off in traffic. He’s not responsible, he only did what his brain made him do”. But in the heat of lived life, my brain made me to do and held him responsible though I knew that’s irrational.

    After a few such experiences, the determinist notices that the delicate abstraction that she doesn’t have freewill is blown away in practical life and replaced by a kind of obligate illusion that she and everybody else has freewill. Evolution didn’t build us to act like we are determinists because, if we did, our ability to socialize is disabled and life becomes impossible.

    I think Gazzaniga correctly points out that there is a level of experience that must be lived and will be lived as if we have freewill. Of course that doesn’t mean that we’re biological machinery in the lab and we stop being biological machinery when we socialize. It just means that an adaptive illusion takes over and we find ourselves acting “irrationally” but adaptively. Incidentally, something similar happens in other cases where evolution gave us false beliefs and it has been eons before we discovered the “truth” as in relativity or spherical earth. We adaptively retain illusions in place of these facts in lived life.

    What I’ll call “Xeno’s illusion” is extremely important because it allows us to retain our moral values and moral aspirations. Scientific cosmology tells us that cosmic mechanics is responsible for reality and every event in it. What Xeno called “fate”, is “the history of cosmic mechanics” for us. The history of cosmic mechanics is responsible for every instant of conscious experience and every behavior any creature emits.

    Telling a naive individual that everything she ever does is the only thing she can do is a violent assault on feelings of autonomy and dignity. “What’s the use of trying to do anything if it’s not me but the cosmos that’s going to make it happen?” Xeno’s illusion is small comfort to non-converts; all they can do is refuse to credit determinism. But, if you have been educated to understand why we are machines but feel you must resist conversion to avoid nihilism and despair, you’ll find there is nothing for determinists to fear in this regard.

    Xeno’s illusion protects us determinists from feeling helpless because we retain unchanged ambitions, motivations and aspirations. You’ll forget about being a machine when somebody threatens your grandchildren. If you fear getting nine billion people on the globe with your grandchildren, you’ll continue to feel it’s urgent to establish climate control and zero population growth for the same reason.

    Would Xeno’s illusion protect the great masses of people from a loss in confidence in freewill indefinitely?
    My guess is that there will be significant numbers of converts from the population of scientists and philosophers. The march to reverse engineering the brain is well along and computational capacity grows apace. The closer we get to completion the harder it will be for the cognecenti to avoid conversion. But I’ve never been able to imagine the great masses of people converting.

    On the other hand it’s not hard to imagine a scenario that could begin to threaten the stability of freewill confidence of many laypersons. Let’s suppose Gazzaniga is called to serve as expert witness in the trial of a defendant that’s certain to be convicted by overwhelming evidence. The defendant has pleaded not guilty to a burglary. The defense rests on the defendant’s assertion that his “genes and environment” made him do it. The defense elaborates the defendant’s statement, “The defendant means that his gene-informed body interacted with his environmental circumstances past and present compelled him to commit the burglary.”

    Gazzaniga is called to testify on the veracity of the defendant’s claim. If he testifies that the claim is correct, a media firestorm would surely follow. The meritocracy and criminal justice is legitimated by freewill and personal responsibility.

    1. Reality is not a popularity contest, there are no votes — that’s salesmanship/ideology.

      Of course, 90%+ of individuals will never comprehend the facts of existence. The brain simply didn’t need to to feed, flee, fight, reproduce, etc.

      Noe the less, facts is facts. Not sure referring to ancient mythic individuals and books does much of anything — except as a sales pitch.

      Anyway it appears the “cheap” data that comes form consciousness and verbal behavior is trivial — regardless of the age.

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