Free Will: Sam Harris vs. Dan Dennett

April 6, 2012 • 7:47 am

UPDATE: For those of you who see Americans as having, by and large, a “sophisticated” view of free will, see this editorial in the student newspaper of the University of Central Florida.


It was inevitable: two of the Four Horsemen are jousting on the field of free will.  Sam Harris, who like myself is an unreconstructed incompatibilist (i.e., we both think free will is incompatible with the laws of physics), has written an essay on his site about his differences with Dan Dennett:  “Free will and ‘free will’.”

I’ve previously given my take on Dan’s book on the topic, Freedom Evolves, which I thought was very well written but unsatisfying.  Indeed, perhaps no form of compatibilism can satisfy someone like me who thinks that the term “free will” is confusing and should be eliminated.  I still see myself as a meat robot, and I don’t accept free will as meaning “I could have done something different had circumstances been different.”  For in that sense computers and nearly all living organisms also have “free will”.  Dan’s argument, of course, is that we’re extremely complex evolved beings, and in that ability to process and evaluate many inputs—even though only one output is possible—lies our vaunted “freedom.”  Nor do I buy “free will” as “decisions made when you don’t have a gun to your head.” You can, after all, always choose to get shot.

As usual, Sam says things much more mellifluously than I, but I’m delighted to agree with him on issues like the following:

Biological evolution and cultural progress have increased people’s ability to get what they want out of life and to avoid what they don’t want. A person who can reason effectively, plan for the future, choose his words carefully, regulate his negative emotions, play fair with strangers, and partake of the wisdom of various cultural institutions is very different from a person who cannot do these things. Dan and I fully agree on this point. However, I think it is important to emphasize that these abilities do not lend credence to the traditional idea of free will. And, unlike Dan, I believe that popular confusion on this point is worth lingering over, because certain moral impulses—for vengeance, say—depend upon a view of human agency that is both conceptually incoherent and empirically false. I also believe that the conventional illusion of free will can be dispelled—not merely ignored, tinkered with, or set on new foundations. I do not know whether Dan agrees with this final point or not.

Fans of Dan’s account—and there are many—seem to miss my primary purpose in writing about free will. My goal is to show how the traditional notion is flawed, and to point out the consequences of our being taken in by it. Whenever Dan discusses free will, he bypasses the traditional idea and offers a revised version that he believes to be the only one “worth wanting.” Dan insists that this conceptual refinement is a great strength of his approach, analogous to other maneuvers in science and philosophy that allow us to get past how things seem so that we can discover how they actually are. I do not agree. From my point of view, he has simply changed the subject in a way that either confuses people or lets them off the hook too easily.

Some readers at this site have argued that the whole issue is a semantic one, lacking any substantive conclusions or consequences for human behavior. I have always disagreed with that: how we conceive of the source of our actions has enormous consequences for how we punish and reward other people’s actions.  (I won’t even mention religion here, for dogmas like Catholicism come crashing down without dualistic free will.) As Sam notes:

Ordinary people want to feel philosophically justified in hating evildoers and viewing them as the ultimate authors of their evil. This moral attitude has always been vulnerable to our learning more about the causes of human behavior—and in situations where the origins of a person’s actions become absolutely clear, our feelings about his responsibility begin to change. What is more, they should change. We should admit that a person is unlucky to inherit the genes and life experience that will doom him to psychopathy. That doesn’t mean we can’t lock him up, or kill him in self-defense, but hating him is not rational, given a complete understanding of how he came to be who he is. Natural, yes; rational, no. Feeling compassion for him would be rational, however—or so I have argued.

Indeed.  Sam’s written a good piece, and although he doesn’t allow comments on his site, feel free to weigh in here. I’ll call his attention to the discussion.  Sam also intimates that there will be a back-and-forth between him and Dan on the issue of free will, something I really look forward to.

And here’s Sam speaking about free will:

p.s. I expect that, as usual, people will take serious issue with both Sam and my own definition of free will.  If you are a compatibilist, I ask you to succinctly provide your own definition of free will in your post.

340 thoughts on “Free Will: Sam Harris vs. Dan Dennett

  1. There may be back-and-forth, but not on the non-existent comments section of Harris’ non-blog.

    Now THIS is a blog, by any reasonable definition.

          1. All blogs are websites, but not all websites are blogs. Whatever it is this is a website “worth having”.

            1. Whether WEIT is a blog or website is a debate similar to that on free will.

              Fact: The wordpress slogan is “A better way to blog.”

              Fact: Merriam-Webster defines blog as “a Web site that contains an online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer; also : the contents of such a site.”

              Do we used references or personal opinions?

              1. I think personal opinion is adequate for this question.

                The slogan you quoted has “blog” as a verb, not a noun.

                Perhaps it is possible to perform the act of blogging on a website that is not a blog. 🙂

              2. A blog is a weblog where someone posts his/her musings and may, optionally allow others to post either directly in the log stream or as comments.

                Noun: A Web site on which an individual or group of users record opinions, information, etc. on a regular basis. (wiki)

                1. a Web site containing the writer’s or group of writers’ own experiences, observations, opinions, etc., and often having images and links to other Web sites. (

              3. oldfuzz,
                so the conclusion is that it’s a website then? Every blog is a website, after all.

                Whatever we think doesn’t matter. Jerry, for his personal reasons, considers this not a blog but a website. So I choose to respect that.

              4. Of course it’s a website. It’s also a blog, a specific website genre’. Dr. Coyne can call it whatever he wants, but as one who spent forty years in the computer networking business, the last fifteen developing and teaching courses on the Internet, I’ll go with what the Internet professionals say, not Dr. Coyne. It’s a blog in that he is “web logging his views and it is a blog of the interactive type since he allows reader commentary, even commentary between readers.

              5. I respect that as well. It’s his choice. The question is whether that is definitive. This mini-debate about whether WEIT is a website or blog is akin to whether a pickup is a vehicle or a truck. It’s, they’re, both. Still, in the technical definition of a blog, all of which are websites, it’s a blog.

      1. Blogs are websites… anyplace that can be accesses with the http://www.(domain name) is a website. Blogs are particular types of websites. Google “define: blog” and find:

        “A Web site on which an individual or group of users record opinions, information, etc. on a regular basis.”

        This is important in that much of the “debate” w.r.t. free will is driven by those who characterize it differently.

        WEIT is both website and blog except for those who refuse to use conventional terminology.

        1. There is no way that a blog and a website can be identical.

          A website is implemented by an http server. It serves up resources identified by URLs by exchanging messages in the HTTP protocol.

          A blog is a particular style of content served up by a website. A website can contain thousands of blogs.

 is a website.

          It contains information about the eponymous book and its author. The author also makes regular informational posts on his opinions and ideas and matters of interest. Many people would call this type of web posting a “blog”, which is a term derived from “web log”. The author doesn’t like the term and chooses not to use it for the regularly updated information posting portion of his website.

          Conventional terminology is terminology used by convention, but that doesn’t always mean it is apt, well reasoned, accurate, or essential. Religious fundamentalism is full of conventional terminology that I reject. And of course teen age kids use lots of conventional terminology that is quite ugly and cryptic. Your argument is weak sauce n00b. There is some conventional terminology for you.

          In one form of conventional terminology, the insistence on adhering to conventional terminology might be called “anal retentive pedantry”.

          1. They are not identical… a web site is a site on the web of which there are many types, just as a car is a vehicle, of which there are many types.

            As for your detour to an ad hom… why am I not surprised.

            1. You shouldn’t be surprised because you contributed nothing of substance to the conversation.

              You wrote something irrelevent, nitpicky, and arguing with the website owner’s prefered way of identifying his site. Why?

              1. My comment was to Thanny that blogs are one form of website, which they are. One distinction of a website is that it have a unique IP address, which does ( as does (… It’s a matter of how you distinguish a website. I spent thirty years as a computer networking professional, beginning with ARPANET and DARPANET and moving to the Internet. My comments were w.r.t. the technical definition. One of the challenges in the debate here at WEIT is agreed definitions especially w.r.t. free will, religion… hence a blog is one form of website. Whether Jerry wants to call it a blog is his choice, but that doesn’t change the facts.

            2. By the way, I don’t really see any ad hominem in my post.

              “Weak sauce n00b” was intended to show by example how annoying Internet terminology can be.

              “anal retentive pedantry” is a fair description of an excessive and obsessive fascination with conforming to habits or repetitive details or conventional formality.

              I didn’t say you exhibit this characteristic. I was saying that sticking with conventional terminology is not necessarily a good thing per se.

              The overall point of what I was saying is that there doesn’t seem to be a need or a good reason for everyone to be slavishly devoted to the somewhat faddish term “blog”. Website is an adequate term to describe this website.

              1. I may shift to a more specific mode here at WEIT where terminology seems more important than elsewhere. The Internet is an area of expertise for me. Evolution is not. Religion is a field I study. Free will is elusive in my view. I may be partially sighted here, but I have not found an agreed definition (characterization) of free will in the debate (dust up?) so I revert to the SEP paper here and find the uncertainty.

                If I protest too much it is out of a preference for accuracy and precision where possibly as I learned in science labs.

              2. @Gordon
                Section 3.2 in the article you linked to has the most relevent definition of free will as Jerry defines it when he argues that it does not exist. I agree with Jerry on this.

                The kind of free will that Augustine, Des Cartes, Sartre, Scotus, and many others believed in does not exist in my opinion.

                Another large part of the debate is, given that our actions are determined, albeit by such complex processes in the mind that they seem to us not to be determined, whether the agency and control that we are able to exercise by virtue of our flexible intelligence qualify for the name “free will”. For example, even though our brain operates according to biochemically determined processes, we still have at a macro level the sophisticated ability to react to our environment in our own interests, i.e. we can have goals, motives, can estimate the outcomes of various optional courses of action, compare how those outcomes meet our goals, and select one of the options based on this comparative suitability.

                The incompatibilists argue that this is not the same as “free will” as defined in 3.2 of your link, or as Des Cartes believed in free will. It is rather very sophisticated computation accompanied by self-awareness and emotion. But as Schopenhauer says “we are free to do what we want, but not to will what we want”. That is, even our desires, preferences, and ways of comparing options, which underly and influence our choices, are determined by unconscious processes we can not simply opt to change.

                Compatibilists argue that even though this is a different kind of ability than Des Cartes believed in, and it is not dualistic, it should be called “free will”. It is not a freedom that comes from having some force separate from the physical material of the brain that imparts freedom. It is simply an ability of the brain’s sophisticated deterministic computation that is good enough to merit the name “free will”, even though it differes from traditional conceptions of free will. Under this definition a very smart robot, able to pass the Turing Test, qualifies as having free will, even if it is not conscious or self-aware.

              3. Thanks, as a pedestrian here I am ill equipped to follow many of the nuances and too often miss the implied meaning of a reference. As to 3.1, 3.2 or 3.something else characterizes ‘free will’, I agree with Gazzaniga’s view that the idea of free will may be obsolete. His view is based on forty years of neuroscience. Mine is more simply based in that we each have a mind born of DAN, experience and perception the processes of which bring us constantly to ‘decision points.’ Based on this, I see no way we can have free will as an ability to choose beyond our natural bounds, but there does seem to be an ability to make choices within bounds.

                I visit her to learn and may cause less of a disturbance to remain more mute. Still, it’s par of the process.

              4. Hi Jeff,

                Just a quick note — there is a second level of incompatibilist who claims that we don’t actually have any of the abilities you listed, because (for them) such an ability as “selecting an option” automatically implies contracausality or dualism.

    1. Sam Harris does allow comments. He’s just chosen a different (an reasonable, in my opinion) approach: comments can be made in the forum attached to his blog.

  2. Since consciousness and, as a still different aspect, awareness of beliefs, are only two functions of very many other underlying functions of the brain, it is evident that there is no free will as both philosophical tradition and so-called common sense construe it. A conscious decision is not the cause but the effect of a causal chain, mostly inaccessible to consciousness. That some people cling to the traditional or common sense concept, does not change the facts, although there appears to be a plethora of people who believe it would.

  3. Dr. Coyne, why do you use the word “choice” when you clearly don’t believe such a thing is possible, free or otherwise?

    Why not be honest and say “I do not believe that anyone anywhere has ever made a choice ever — because physics states that they are merely reacting in uncontrollable determined ways to previous uncontrollable reactions in an unending chain back to the Big Bang.”?

    Anything less is to be purposely dishonest. I don’t mean that in an insulting manner, so please forgive me if that is how it is received.

        1. Which doesn’t preclude/bar/disqualify him for believing in un-free or non-free or fully determined choices.

          1. So now we’re redefining the word “choice” to be meaningless as well?

            That is not a particularly rational or respectable way of debating an issue.

            That seems to be the new approach here. Ironically, it is exactly the kind of rhetorical flimflam faitheist commit when they redefine “atheism” to suit their narrative.

            1. You just don’t seem to understand what a deterministic choice is. To say that is meaningless sounds like a believer saying that atheists live in a meaningless world.

              When we choose, one of a set of alternatives is arrived at, and selected. That is a choice. That does not mean the choice is free, and we could have chosen otherwise, free of determinism, free of causation.

              Observe people. Obviously we all want things and choose things we want. That does not mean that the choices are not determined by the state of our brain. Part of the determined state of our brain is “what we want”. You want to insist on the word choice meaning something non-determined. And by doing that you are hanging on to a form of dualism.

              If we are faced with the choice of drinking pesticide or carrot juice, our choice will be determined by whether we are suicidal or not, whether our sense of smell and taste and sight is working properly, and whether we like carrot juice (we might not drink anything). If we are non-suicidal and we are thirsty, and not allergic to carrot juice, we are going to drink the carrot juice. The choice is determined by the state of our brain and our body, our past experience.

              If the choice is determined it’s not meaningless because the person making the choice lives with the full impact of the choice. And we choose what makes sense given our wants and needs. None of that changes just because it is the product of very complex deterministic algorithms in our brain that can only arrive at one possible conclusion. That conclusion takes into account what is good for us, what we want, who we are, and what we deem necessary or important. All is well.

            2. Why can’t we be living in a “meaningless world?”

              That doesn’t mean I don’t have fun and enjoy being here.

              1. Good point. I wonder how many people have thought about what “meaningful” (and “meaningless”) actually means when joined with “world” (or “universe”, for that matter).

                When some theist claims that belief gives their lives “meaning”, or some atheist says in response that we provide our own “meaning”, what are they actually saying? I’m having trouble with both claims at this point.

        2. Sorry xuuths… I erred in my original reply… I meant to type “Maybe he does NOT hold that the only choice is a free choice.”

    1. Oh, for crying out loud, I have always clarified “choice” as meaning “the APPEARANCE of choice,” and nobody has ever thought anything else. You obviously have not been reading this site and decided to contribute a gratuitiously nasty comment. What you say I should say is in fact what I have said, over and over again.

      And, BTW, how can you POSSIBLY say that an accusation of “purposeful dishonesty” is not insulting? What world of personal interactions are you living in?

      1. I’m pretty sure we do make choices, or “select from a number of possibilities,” as the dictionary would put it. I have been in the habit of saying such choices are nonetheless determined, or “unfree.” I think this is an effective way of putting it.

        If we only have the *appearance* of choice, then what definition of choice could you possibly be using?

        1. Somewhere in the last free will thread I suggested that for some people the word “choice” already implies “free from determinism.” Others not.

          I have been in favor of keeping language about this simple, so that we attribute choices to people, not just the appearance of choices to them, in much the same way that we attribute a thought or an idea to them, not just the appearance of a thought or idea.

          Choosing is something brains do, deterministically, and I think we can leave out the “appearance” baggage altogether, as we do with other brain activities.

          It might involve disaffirming some of the ontological baggage that used to accompany these concepts. The argument seems to be that for centuries we thought of “free will” as a kind of mastery sufficient to overcome determinism, so, since we know we don’t have that mastery, we should ditch the phrase altogether so as not to be confusing and ambiguous for the baggage. But clearly, we believed for centuries that thinking required souls — some people (e.g. Feser) even argue today that because “triangle” is a metaphysical, immaterial concept, it requires a metaphysical, immaterial soul to understand it — so why not get ditch words like “thought” and “intelligence,” since we don’t think we have souls, and these words carry too much ontological baggage.

          Reminds me – I was once chastised as a child for saying that a dog was intelligent, for religious reasons. “Intelligence” was a word reserved for humans only, because only they were capable of abstract thought. If that were the case, we have really broadened the concept of intelligence, and have attributed it in various degrees to lots of things other than humans. I think we can do the same with “decision making abilities.”

      2. Dr. Coyne, I apologize for using the phrase “purposeful dishonesty.” I retract it utterly!

        Why don’t you use the phrase “the appearance of choice” rather than the confusing and inaccurate “choice”? (For the record, I’ve been following your site for a long while, particularly the threads on ‘free will’ and you do not give your not-common meaning for ‘choice’ in every thread.)

        Above you write the term “free will” is confusing and should be eliminated. Do you believe anyone can choose to eliminate the use of the phrase?

        Then you wite: You can, after all, always choose to get shot. — which, using your clarified meaning, is you can, after all, always give the appearance of choosing to get shot. Is that what you’re trying to communicate?

      3. He can’t help what he said, remember, he can’t make any choices just like all of us who suffer from random molecules banging into each other creating what we are and what we do.

        So when whatever he is, based on all that stuff that came before that makes “him” up, results in what someone considers an “insult,” it’s just the product of the Big Bang.

        I love this theory, and my wife says it explains a lot about how I behave.

  4. While I think I follow the logic in both your and Sam Harris’ explanations as to why there can be no freewill, I am having trouble wrapping my brain around the personal implications of this conclusion. If I decide that tomorrow I will get up and go to the gym, but on that day I just laze at home, does this mean I did not try hard enough or that I had no other choice but to laze at home that day? I suppose I am asking how, as Sam Harris has said, we can exert willpower despite the absence of freewill? If that means we have willpower, but only within the constraints of what we can do at the moment, don’t the lines get a bit blurry?

    1. I think of it this way: We have competing motivations. There is the part of me that wants to chill at home, and there is the part of me that wants to go to the gym. If you define willpower as the ability for one motivation (the one you identify more strongly with) to override the other, then clearly willpower is something you have. You *do* occasionally make it to the gym (I assume). But while this battle of motivations is going on, there is a fact to the matter about which one will win. You do not know who will win, anymore than you know which of two boxers will win the match tonight, but each one will try, and one of them will be successful. This is all willpower is.

      1. This is basically the argument, “if you redefine all terms to mean what I want them to mean, then those terms have meaning (the meaning I want them to mean”.

        It resolves nothing.

        Unfortunately, that is exactly what Jerry seems to be doing, as compatibalists here have been trying to talk to him about ever since this debate began.

        It is distressing to see the rhetorical games faitheists regularly use to discredit science, reason and atheism used here to discredit compatibalism – rather than engaging rationally in the debate.

        Harris is a bit better, but not much – he makes the irrational leap that, because we don’t consciously understand how we make a choice, we aren’t making it at all.

        Most curiously, he spends tremendous effort convincing us to behave in a certain way, all the while claiming we have no choice in the matter – never addressing the obvious internal contradiction.

        How can there be “morality” in the absence of choice?

        Nevermind, the answer is clear – simply redefine “moral” to suit the a priori dogma.

        It pleases the audience, but does not illuminate or inform in any useful way.

        1. Feel free to provide your definition of willpower, and answer Janet’s question. Otherwise you’re not being very helpful, are you?

          How can there be “morality” in the absence of choice?

          Objective moral rules, if that’s what you’re talking about, don’t exist. There, can we go home now?

          1. “Objective” is irrelevant to this question. Harris argues an “ought” – we ought to treat murderers different, we ought to act to maximize the happiness of the most people.

            But, if we do not have a choice, if determinism means no free will (as Harris and Jerry argue, which is by no means a standard interpretation among determinists), then there is no meaning to “morality” – relative, absolute, whatever.

            This is why, quite aside from the issue that incompatibalists have not addressed the actual arguments most compatibalists make, the discussion, as Jerry and Harris insist on framing it, has no real utility.

            On the other hand, if we are willing to rationally examine the actual arguments compatibalists like Dennett and most philosophers of science make, rather than this distorted, dualist straw man, we might actually have an illuminating and instructive discussion all around.

            1. “if we do not have a choice,”

              This is a typical misunderstanding of what Jerry and Sam Harris are saying. Of course we have choices. I’m tired of hearing people say “Jerry thinks we don’t make choices”. Jerry makes choices all the time, and he knows it. It’s just that our choices do not derive from a freedom unhooked from causality. Our choices are determined by the state of our brain. When we choose something from a set of options, we really pick one item, but we had to choose as we did because our brain algorithmically evaluated it to be the best choice for us. And the algorithm that did the evaluation could not have arrived at a different result. That process is determined by the state of our brain: our memories, our knowledge, our experience, the structure of our neural connections.

              And that does not mean there is no meaning to morality. What we think is moral is determined by our brain structure as well, which is determined by our genes and our evolution. It’s part of our species. And there is nothing that Dennet adds to that that is significant. He just has a clever way of limiting the meaning of free will so he can claim it exists even though the brain is deterministic. Dennet eloquently clarified that the internal control we always felt we had as a result of contra-causal free will, we actually have always had because our subjective conscious works in such a way that it makes us feel like we have internal control. But everyone agrees, including Dennet, it’s really determined by the state of the brain. Dennet just reexplained what all humans have always experienced, but shifted the basis for that experience from being contra-causal free will, to being our subjective experience of having free will (even though we don’t actually have free will in the traditional sense because of determinism).

              The whole point is that determinism implies that dualism is dead. That is important because it challenges religious assertions in an important way. And compatibilists agree with that. The whole disagreement comes down to this: compatibilists obscure that important conclusion by saying we still have free will, even though they really mean something different than the whole world has meant for thousands of years when they used the phrase free will.

              1. Yet you do not see how you, Jerry and Harris seek to redefine “choice” in a way that means something different than the whole world has meant for thousands of years – precisely the thing you accuse compatibalists of doing?

                Any time anyone insists on redefining a counter-argument – in fact redefining its basic terms – in ways that support their own argument, one’s critical thinking radar should be pinging loudly.

                I see compatibalists here trying to address the issue of free will and choice in straightforward and honest ways that don’t require redefining other people’s terms to buttress the compatibalist argument.

                On the other hand, I see incompatibalists insisting on a) redefining the most basic terms, b) reducing the compatibalist argument to absurdity, c) equating it to religious dualism, which, in this community, means automatic dismissal, d) declaring “victory”.

                As a lay person with no formal college education who frequents sites like this in order to share ideas and learn from others in an honest, rational exchange, I must say this whole thing has been tremendously disappointing, from Jerry’s emotional outbursts to Harris’ use of humor and mockery to avoid respectful dialog.

                No one here is arguing religious dualism or that consciousness exists apart from a physical substrate. If you drop that arrogant error of comprehension, we might actually have a productive conversation.

                Jerry Coyne could contribute a great deal to this conversation from his perspective as an evolutionary biologist; Sam Harris could contribute a great deal to this conversation from his perspective as a neuroscientist.

                Instead, both seem determined to make arguments from authority and treat dissenters with disdain rather than respond to the content of their dissents.

                Ironically, the compatibalists here are not some kind of bizarre closet dualist minority – compatibalism based on physical determinism is actually the most common position in the philosophy of science community as far as I can tell – not because that community is ignorant of neuroscience or evolutionary biology, as both Harris and Coyne commonly claim, but because the incompatibalist argument, to date, is based more on emotionalism than substance.

                And I don’t see either Coyne or Harris publishing any peer reviewed papers contributing their subject expertise to this discussion. I am sure they could help inform the debate by educating what they consider ignorant philosophers!

              2. I’m tired of hearing people say “Jerry thinks we don’t make choices”. Jerry makes choices all the time, and he knows it.

                Does he? When questioned about it he makes explicitly clear that he thinks we only make “the APPEARANCE of choices”. And if we take that straightforwardly then it means he thinks we don’t make choices.

                One of the weaknesses (IMO) of the anti-compatibilists is that they don’t then proceed to analyse these “appearance of choices” to expound on how they are different from things like rocks (which don’t make these “appearance of choices”), and they don’t proceed to explain what changes to the language they would like to make it conform to their view (do they really want “appearance of …” phrases splattered everywhere?).

                As I’ve said before, if they did proceed to these things, I suspect they’d then arrive at a position that is (de facto) compatibilism.

              3. The whole point is that determinism implies that dualism is dead.

                I’m not sure this is actually the case – only if determinism is a consequence of materialism.

                Even if we were 100% certain that we had souls, we could still be having an argument about whether fate, destiny, “the laws of metaphysics,” etc. were pulling the strings, and whether “choice” means “magic choice” or “the appearance of choice” or “deterministic choice” or whatever.

              4. » Jeff:
                I’m tired of hearing people say “Jerry thinks we don’t make choices”.

                Maybe that is because he keeps saying things like, “And of course I had no choice about writing this post …”. Because he thinks “choice” should be in scare quotes, because he thinks it isn’t real. That’s not a misrepresentation, and pointing it out is not ignorant, as you seem to think.

                » It’s just that our choices do not derive from a freedom unhooked from causality.

                No, it’s not just that, because everybody here agrees with that statement. What you (and Jerry) are doing is to insist that ‘freedom’ may only ever mean one thing, viz. being suspended from a skyhook. But that’s impossible, which is exactly why Dennett explains at length that freedom must evolve. To insist that this evolved thing cannot be freedom is like saying that ‘species’ can only mean something separately created, because that’s what “the whole world has meant for thousands of years” when they used the word. In the case of ‘free will’, they didn’t even do that (cf. the robot example); and in any event, you didn’t even deign to give any evidence that they did. But as the ‘species’ example shows, how many people have used a word in a certain way is irrelevant anyway, as long as we can educate them about how to understand it properly and about what its limitations are.

                » Our choices are determined by the state of our brain.

                As I say a little downstream, these choices then feed back into the next choices we make, meaning that the more choices we make, the more they are also dependent on previous choices we have made, and in that way our choices influence our future freedom. We make the world different from what it would have been, and in that lies freedom:

                This kind of feedback means that any future situations will be different; the only question is whether they will be different enough for our freedom to work on that difference.

                And in the Vietnam quote from the same comment, we can see what humans have (at least also) always meant by ‘could have done otherwise’: if a situation had been only a little different, we might have been able to bring our freedom to bear on it. (Cf. also degrees of freedom, below.)

              5. We make the world different from what it would have been,

                This is nothing but woo talk…. there is no “would have been”.

                All this “feed back” introduces not a bit of freedom to human will. This is nothing but total smoke.

              6. always meant by ‘could have done otherwise’: if a situation had been only a little different

                If so then it is totally insignificant, obviously in a different situation things would/could be different.

              7. “We make the world different from what it would have been,”

                This is nothing but woo talk…. there is no “would have been”.

                It is maybe better to say “our decisions have an effect on the world.” Even then, “different than it would have been” is intelligible under determinism. A surgeon saying “I treated the chest wound before the abdomen wound because we would not have been able to save the lung if we had treated the abdomen wound first” is not speaking woo. It’s a reasonable statement about “what would have happened if.”

                “always meant by ‘could have done otherwise’: if a situation had been only a little different”

                If so then it is totally insignificant, obviously in a different situation things would/could be different.

                “Would” and “could” are not the same. Something could be different in every single real situation (and, so long as we take “could” epistemically rather than ontologically).

                But why is it insignificant? Sure it’s obvious that a different situation would lead to a different outcome. But the way(s) in which those differences would manifest are totally significant.

                Read about how they put the MESSENGER probe in orbit around mercury without crashing it into the sun. Crashing into the sun was a concern, and it would have if they hadn’t slowed it down enough to be captured by mercury’s weak gravitational field. So – YES! it didn’t crash into the sun, and was never determined to. But you can’t say “in retrospect, they were appealing to woo to have been concerned about it as something that could have happened.”

                The compatibilist wants to know: “We seem to be cogs in the deterministic causal chain. What does that mean for us?”

              8. WordPress wrote:

                Yet you do not see how you, Jerry and Harris seek to redefine “choice” in a way that means something different than the whole world has meant for thousands of years – precisely the thing you accuse compatibalists of doing?

                This is a very clever point. For Jerry, Harris, or an incompatibilist to say we make choices, it must use a meaning reduced from how most people think of it; how most people think of a choice is in the sense of dualistic free will, as a choice independent of any causation.

                But if you look at a dictionary definition, choice is defined without reference to causation; it is merely a matter of selecting one option from among alternatives; robots can do it easily as defined in the dictionary.

                Free will, on the other hand, in a dictionary definition always includes an entry that references human choice independent of prior causes, and independent of divine will. It has been a theological concept for many many centuries, and is embedded as contra-causal free will based on dualism in religious traditions around the globe. One commenter asked where is the proof that anybody but those who believe in the supernatural see free will as contra-causal; well, the proof is that there are somewhere over 5 billion (conservatively) religious people who do believe in the supernatural, who do believe they have a soul, and who do believe that their soul is responsible for contra-causal choices, which are tied to the future fate of that soul in an afterlife.

                So I would be happy to drop the word choice if necessary, though it describes something that we objectively observe people doing. Free will we do not objectively observe people exercising in the way most humans think they are exercising it. So “free will” is a more perilous term, fraught with theological and historical baggage that makes redefining it, as compatibilists do, something of major cultural significance.

                When I use choice I’m doing it to respond to the misconceptions people have when they over-simplify the implications of determinism, and make arguments that if our choices are determined they are not “real”, and if we could not choose other than we do, that it means we lose our obvious human abilities, that we are operating on a linear pre-determined rail, or that we are in some other way reduced to something non-human. These people are still arguing for the hypothetical consequences of dualism, but they don’t realize it.

                I’m totally in agreement with the compatibilists who understand and embrace determinism, that we still have freedom and we do choose as we want; it’s just that we can’t choose what it is that we want, and our wants, fully determined by our physical state, determine the result in any choosing operation we undertake, so it’s a limited or apparent freedom, though still emotionally satisfying to the human.

                This is what Jerry means when he says we make “apparent” choices. This leads into a discussion of the language problem we have. We are all familiar with homonyms whose meaning depends entirely on context. I think that when people are using choice and “free will” we have that same problem: what is meant depends on the context, or domain of study.

                There are three different important domains that frame the meaning of terms we are using with respect to human free will. It seems a lot of the discussions here fail to result in clear communication because of failure to properly observe when people are transitioning between these domains.

                First there is the human objective level, as we observe people to behave. We can see people sorting through the produce section and choosing the items they want, not only of kind, but also individual items within a category that have the most appealing qualities. We see people exercising free will within the context of human society.

                Second is the human subjective level, where we feel ourselves, or internally observe our mind, making free uncaused choices. We go where we want when we want, we listen to the music we like when we like, we eat what we want when we want, etc. We are only constrained, as we feel it inside, by practical limits such as gravity, finances, law, and other social and physical forces.

                Third is the biological domain, where one tries to observe the physical mechanisms behind all the functioning of the human organism, including the brain. This domain is concerned with how physics, chemistry, and cell structure and function give rise to the behaviors we observe.

                This third domain provides a great deal of evidence in favor of determinism. The alternative to determinism is freedom from causation associated with dualism, the traditional theological standpoint. There seem to be some who still dither between these two options, imagining that there must be some third way. I did this myself for a while. I think this mainly happens because people oversimplify the consequences of determinism, and imagine it means we are robots who don’t need feelings or consciousness. People seem to get confused with the belief that “emergent” properties are something tangible. This strong emergence imagines that properties like emotion and consciousness are irreducible. This is just a new way to invite dualistic magic into the equation. It amounts to creating a black box and declaring its properties to be uncaused and representative of some independent entity. But this appears to be just a convenient way to avoid the true complexity of the brain that inhibits easy understanding. It’s only a more modern form of superstition, and has all the emotional appeal of superstition and magic.

                The vast majority of commenters here accept determinism.

                Some academic disciplines that have an interest in the question of free will are mostly concerned with the first two domains. For example philosophy and psychology are two prominent examples. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that most compatibilists are in this category; they tend not to be scientists it seems.

                The obvious task for these people, when confronted with the undeniable evidence for determinism is to explain why determinism doesn’t reduce humans to helpless objects, like bits of paper blown about in the wind. This is what compatibilism really does: it can explain why all the wonderful things humans obviously do every day are possible if deterministic processes in our brain are the underlying mechanisms that give rise to human subjectivity and behavior.

                That’s a good thing because it settles lots of natural human resistance to the conclusions of neurobiology, that our brains determine what we do and think. It doesn’t require retaining the syllables “free will”. What does it help if you take words that have for centuries referred to dualistic uncaused choice, and still do today for billions of religious people, and remap them to mean something less mystical?

                So when we talk about choice, if we are in the first domain of human objectivity, we observe people presented with an array of options, and we observe facial expressions of indecision while a person “makes up their mind”, and then we see a choice being made. Very natural to think of this as a person choosing something when they didn’t know in advance what they were choosing. And it’s natural to think that the outcome was in doubt, or could have been different. Certainly it was in doubt, and could have been different as the chooser consciously perceives it; but this is an illusion of perception, not a reality.

                If we are in the second domain, we are observing our own mind from the inside when we make a choice. We are having the subjective experience of choosing. Say we are choosing an ice cream from the options chocolate, vanilla, and rocky road. We probably have a pretty good idea what we are going to choose, because we like chocolate and almost always choose that. We can scan the three options; that is a choice we make to inform ourself of the range of choice; we don’t like to miss an opportunity. We dismiss vanilla; too plain. We know we will be happy with chocolate. But we consider for a moment the extra texture of nuts and marshmallows; we probably do something like very briefly imagine or visualize the experience of that extra flavor experience. We “feel” it on our tongue in our imagination. Then either we are pushed over the edge and deviate from our conventional pick of chocolate; we say I’ll try the rocky road. Or else the imagined experience of rocky road does not excite us enough to risk stepping out of our comfort zone of the customary chocolate. We feel like we really considered the options, and we feel like we determined the outcome by our conscious will, that internal observer and arbiter that sorts out all the sensory signals and emotional impressions and ideas and memories and pieces together a narrative about the world outside our head and controls the deciding mechanism that triggers our vocal apparatus to make the sounds “I’ll have the chocolate please”.

                This is what the compatibilists call freedom, and it’s easy to do that when you largely ignore the third domain of biological, physical, and chemical determinism. Yes, nobody made us choose one or the other using external coercion. Yes, we considered what would taste best to us, and we internally rose above some threshold of indecision to commit to one of the several options. It was voluntary. It was what we wanted. Freedom.

                When your main concern is how the brain works, and what was going on when that ice cream was chosen, you say wait a minute, that wasn’t really free. For every individual step you can identify in that subjective conscious process of choosing an ice cream, there was a large amount of unconscious activity that produced each subjective appearance. Between asking yourself the question “how does something extra, some nuts and marshmallows sound”, and visualizing whether or not that “sounds good”, lots of brainwork took place that you have no conscious idea of. It was under the surface of consciousness, inaccessible to it. And when the conscious supervisor of choice finally came down on one side of the fence or another, it was in response to how strongly the unconscious processes produced positive or negative associations with nuts and marshmallows; the supervisor was responding to deterministic processes in deterministic ways. It was pushed into the choice by forces it couldn’t see or know about. It didn’t “freely choose” based on a magical will; the internal volition that said no to rocky road and yes to chocolate was not disconnected from causation; it was not a creative force of intention that drove the decision; it was responding to unconsciously driven signals that produced a sense of preference for one over the other, and the decider deterministically responded to that comparative preference ranking.

                So this is what is meant by the “appearance of choice”: it was by all means a selection from among options, but it was determined, it wasn’t free, and there was no question of which option we were going to choose, even though we didn’t know it consciously; we could not have chosen differently; we chose the one that satisfied the criteria of the internal calculation of what was best for us. If we could have frozen the chooser in time, downloaded the contents of his brain into a simulator that uses all the information to perfectly simulate the operation of that brain, we could have simulated the steps of the computation that arrived at a preferred option. Then we would be in a position to predict in advance what the choice would be. We could unfreeze the chooser, and he would choose what we predicted. This assumes that no external influence intervenes. An important point here is that we don’t even need to posit that all the atoms and molecules in the universe, or even in the same room had to meet exactly the same initial conditions. The brain’s operation is pretty stable, and can do a lot independent of background noise in the environment. There just couldn’t be a strong environmental influence, like a friend offering you $20 bucks if you choose vanilla. The environment needed to be substantially similar and any differences neutral with respect to the brain’s internal operation. Different smells, sounds, or other perceptible inputs could influence the choice, but different gas molecules being in different locations are going to change it.

                When people engage in these conversations, they need to be very careful when they are thinking and talking in terms of the first, second, or third domain.

                The incompatibilists and the compatibilists meet on the boundary between the second and third domain. The compatibilists insist that the subjective experiences of freedom and choice replace the ghost in the machine, and enable us to have all the same sense of freedom and choice that we’ve ever had. Working from there, we can still analyze all the ethics and morality and social interactions in the first domain of human objectivity exactly as we have always done; we’ve simply pulled the ghost in the machine out from under it all and substituted our subjective experience as a basis for it all.

                The incompatibilists remind them that the subjective experiences are illusions, appearances, being created by a bunch of unconscious physics and chemistry and neurobiological networks of analog computation. The compatibilists say yes we realize that, it doesn’t matter because we feel free, and we feel free in exactly the same way we have always felt free, and it gives rise to all the same behaviors, which is exactly what caused people to hypothesize the ghost in the machine in the first place.

                In a way both are right in their own domains of activity and reasoning. The compatibilists are safe as long as they discuss phenomena that are purely human, in the first and second domains. They can ignore determinism even though they acknowledge its presence. And they can get away with this exactly because of the way the brain produces subjective experience. Consciousness, emotion, reason, memory, language, seem like they exist to motivate us and enable us to interact with our environment in a way that is creative, that allows us to modify our environment, anticipate the effects of actions, and to benefit from the invention of culture and technology. Even though the brain’s work is deterministic, it’s not fixed; memory, emotion, learning are able to guide the productive capacity of reason and symbolic and linguistic logic engaged in combinatorial processes to generate new ideas and new approaches to old problems. Thus the deterministic brain is flexible enough to change over time and to guide its changes based on continual feedback from and emotional reaction to the environment and its changes. These subjective flexible plastic processes are deterministic and creative enough to provide a sense of freedom, volition, intention, will, anticipation, prediction, and evaluation of and reaction to results with emotional power. This remarkable flexibility of the deterministic brain gives the compatibilists enough slack to safely ignore determinism, because the most simple minded conclusions of what determinism might imply don’t apply to the brain’s behavior. In fact the deterministic brain’s behavior looks a lot like the traditional notion of dualistic free will, which is no coincidence because there is only one human organism and it’s been around longer than these ideas, and the false notion of free will was based on observing the human with imperfect incomplete understanding. So while the compatibilists insight is important, it amounts to no more than saying humans are the same today as they were thousands of years ago, and all the notions of free will were derived from observing human behavior, and look, this is still the same behavior the brain generates today even though we now understand the nature of the brain a lot better.

                Yet the incompatibilist feel like the compatibilists are engaged in a denial of reality; they are sweeping determinism under the carpet or locking it up in the closet. They are only concerned with what is important to them: ethics, morality, agency, freedom, creativity, and many other really good excellent human qualities and capabilities. But they don’t care how the brain works all that much, so they don’t mind obscuring an important truth: this freedom is an illusion produced by an unconscious deterministic meat computer. This truth is uncomfortable; incompatibilists think it’s important for people to really become comfortable with this uncomfortable truth. It bothers them the compatibilism obscures this truth by playing with language, rather than fully disclosing that we truly do not have free will as it has been conceived of for thousands of years and is still conceived of today by billions of humans.

              9. Steve, when Jerry asks, “would you rather live in a world in which religion developed but not science, or in which science developed but not religion?” almost nobody thinks, “Jerry, that’s a bunch of woo – we already have both religion and science. There is no world in which only one of those developed. Are you feeling quite OK? Oh wait, you’re asking about a mere hypothetical? Well it’s totally insignificant – of course the world would have been different if one hadn’t developed, but I don’t see the point since we don’t live in that world.” etc.

              10. No, but I do want to know if you think that it’s “woo” when he asks that question (and related), or if you find an intelligible way to interpret it.

            2. wordpress,

              Quit complaining that this is not the debate that you want to have… use your free will to start your own thread and have the debate that you want to have there.

        2. “Most curiously, he spends tremendous effort convincing us to behave in a certain way, all the while claiming we have no choice in the matter – never addressing the obvious internal contradiction.”

          Where’s the contradiction? He’s supplying an input which he hopes will influence the causal chain(s) that result in a given action or behavior.

          1. How can he decide to “supply an input”, or expect anyone else to response, if he argues that determinism means there is no free will?

            And how rational is it to argue that no free will exists, yet “he hopes” his input will change events?

            This is why the type of incompatibalism Harris and Coyne argue for is incoherent and inconsistent.

            Of course, compatibalists don’t have this problem, because physical determinism doesn’t have to negate free will, for a variety of different reasons.

            I am sure many if not all compatibalist arguments have flaws and would benefit from an honest debate. Unfortunately, Jerry does not seem willing to engage in that debate, preferring instead to dismiss compatibalism a priori by redefining terms to make it the old rational monism vs religious dualism – even though no one here is making a religious dualist argument, nor is Dennett or anyone else credible in the philosophy of science community.

            1. That Harris or Coyne “want” to supply said input is a determined link in the causal chain, too. I still don’t think there’s a contradiction.

              But, like you, I must admit to being a layman with a less than exhaustive knowledge of the literature, or even of the arguments themselves. I’m prepared to admit that something noteworthy is going on in the higher-order phenomena we conscious beings exhibit. I don’t know enough to have reached a definitive conclusion, but I just don’t see the contradiction to which you referred.

        3. “he makes the irrational leap that, because we don’t consciously understand how we make a choice, we aren’t making it at all.”

          How is that an irrational leap? The whole point of making choices is that they are conscious choices. If you don’t know why you chose to eat chocolate instead of having a milkshake, there’s no intelligible sense in which you’ve made a choice. If you kill someone and the police ask you why you did it, would “I don’t know” be an acceptable answer?

          1. There are several problematic assumptions in your statement, and the little I have read about compatibalism as a layman already reveals that these objections have been addressed in the literature.

            I’ll just mention a few problems that pop out, but please don’t mistake this for a comprehensive critique from an actual philosopher of science. I don’t even play one on TV:

            “The whole point of making choices is that they are conscious choices”

            No, the whole point of making choices is that choices are possible. Our consciousness (the emergent behavior of an utterly physical set of processes) is a complex thing, and we are not always conscious about the choices we make. In fact, it isn’t a binary thing at all, as there are various levels of awareness (or likely a continuum of awareness at any given moment).

            We have evolved to allow our brains to make choices, at times, faster than our conscious awareness, otherwise our ancestors would not have survived its first encounters with a predator.

            That does not mean we do not make the choices.

            It is the same thing that seems to me a fundamental flaw in Harris’ conclusion that, because, (in some instances relating to relatively trivial and low level choices–after all, it would be immoral to experimentally subject someone to an actual life-or-death situation where their own choice determined the outcome), because our neurons fire in response before the thought reaches our conscious mind, that therefore the thought doesn’t exist. There is no rational justification for that inductive leap.

            The fact that it takes time for the impact of stubbing our toe to traverse complex nerve pathways, bifurcating into instinctive muscle responses to flinch and a bunch of other things as well as sending information to our cerebral cortex, the fact that we don’t consciously sense the resulting impact and register it as “pain” – that does not mean the toe was not actually stubbed until we registered the pain.

            So, why does it mean our choice to stifle our cry to avoid waking the baby in the other room didn’t actually happen? There may be a good argument to support that case, but it hasn’t been made by the reducio as absurdum and humorous anectodes of Harris, nor by the angry responses of Coyne here.

            Another problem has to do with the failure (at least as far as I have read) of either Harris or Coyne to address any of the decades of research into chaos theory, and in particular dynamical systems theory – a particularly odd ommision, considering that Harris is a prominent neuroscience and Coyne a prominent evolutionary biologist, and the emergence of unpredictable complexity from relatively simple deterministic processes under the right conditions is a key part of modern understanding of both fields.

            Again, if I have missed where either Harris or Coyne have addressed compatibalist arguments centered around self-organizing dynamical systems and so-called “strong emergence,” I humbly apologize. I have read much of what Harris has written on the subject precisely because I expected him to address this issue, but either I missed it or don’t remember it (quite possible given my particular brain physiology at this particular time), or it has not been addressed.

            And then, of course, there is the many-world interpretation of quantum physics. According to that interpretation, the fact that each event could theoretically be traced back to the Big Bang simply by following the trajectory of atoms backwards in time, does not imply no choice (in fact it may imply the opposite).

            Another objection is that, as Sean Carroll has so accessibly explained to laymen like me, it is not actually possible – not even in principle – to “trace backwards in time” the path of every atom in the universe – so there is actually no evidence to support the no free will conjecture.

            There are many other objections. I don’t doubt that thoughtful incompatibalists have come up with them in peer -reviewed papers and in discussions in the philosophy of science commuity.

            But, I haven’t seen any of those compatibalist arguments addressed at all by either Harris or Coyne in a serious way.

            1. It depends on what you mean by “serious”. To my knowledge, every compatibilist claim has beeen thoroughly an rationally dissected in this and other threads, and been found wanting. Take, for instance, your example of stubbing your toe and keep quiet in order not to awaken the baby. Obviously, your desire to let the baby sleep quietly overrides ypur desire to express yor pain by screaming. You know that if the baby wakes up, it will probably take you quite a lond time to get it to sleep again, and you value every single second of your life when you don’t have to attend to the baby (I did, anyway).

              As I’ve said countless times. free will does not mean freedom to act upon your desires. If that were the case, then most animals would enjoy free will most of the time. Instead, free will means fredom to chose what you desire, and that notion, as well as being incoherent, is most relevant to religious ideologies; if that sort of free will existed, you could choose to follow Jesus, or Mohammed, or Buddah. In reality, it is impossible to change your desire by an act of will. Hence, the only interesting definition of free will is incoherent.

              Why is it incoherent? The answer is very simple: have you the free will to relinquish your free will? Of course not. If you really had free will, you could willingly become a robot. Since you canoot actually do that, free will does not exist.

              1. As I’ve said countless times. free will does not mean freedom to act upon your desires. If that were the case, then most animals would enjoy free will most of the time.

                Err, yes, they would. And? Do you have a problem with that?

                Instead, free will means freedom to chose what you desire, …

                But the whole point is that there is no general agreement on what “free will” means, and that there is a multi-century history of people using “free will” in the sense you’ve just denied.

              2. Well, Piero, you give an exceptionally good example of what is wrong with this discussion.

                » As I’ve said countless times, free will does not mean freedom to act upon your desires.

                Your (and other people’s) rather dogmatic insistence to be able to decide unilaterally what a word just means is making a serious discussion almost impossible. I would have hoped that you would recognise that meaning is a) a sociological phenomenon and b) based in convention. a) means that you need to be able to show evidence that people actually do understand by X what you assert is the meaning of X. And you do not help yourself when you say:

                » If you really had free will, you could willingly become a robot.

                And that is exactly what nobody thinks—apart from a handful of people in mental institutions, on whom, I take it, your case does not rest. So what you have done is to give strong evidence against your own assertion.

                And as to b), that means that meaning are in principle changeable, even to some extent negotiable. And that is what compatibilists are largely saying: let’s come up with a sensible definition of free will that preserves some of our intuitions about the phenomenon thus designated as well as educates people about the very relevant limitations to our freedom that we should recognise in order not to fool ourselves.

              3. coelsblog and Peter:

                The meaning of words is generally defined by usage, but not always. For instance, ask anyone what “epicolic” means and it’s a safe bet that 99.9% won’t know. So, there are words the meaning of which is defined by a restricted set of specialists in one particular field. Hence, appealing to a majority view has no bearing on this matter.

                If all it takes to have free will is to be able to act upon your desires, then free will is wholly dependent on external circumstances: an inmate has little free will, I have some free will and Gheddafi had plenty of free will before it was taken away from him (together with his life). Such a definition of free will has no philosophical interest. It is just a metter of fact, which can be tested empirically.

                The interesting question is this: in a situation where no constraints obtain, are you feee to decide what to do next? My answer is no. Even if you are alone on a desert island, you are still not free to desire what you will, and, a fortiori, not free to decide what to do next.

                It appears to me that you haven´t paid much attention to how your mind works. In this respect, Harris’s example is illuminating: can you decide what you will think of next? In order to do so, you would have to think of it before you decide to think of it, a patently incoherent statement. Until I get from either of you a coherent argument which succeeds in refuting Harris’s example, I have no reason to take either of you seriously.

                On the other hand, should you find such a coherent argument, I’ll eat my hat (which won’t be much of an effort, since I don’t own one).

              4. Piero:

                Harris’s example is illuminating: can you decide what you will think of next? In order to do so, you would have to think of it before you decide to think of it, a patently incoherent statement.

                I’ll take a stab at this. Harris’s point is illuminating on one hand, and totally unsatisfying on the other. Let’s for the moment stipulate a deterministic universe.

                So yeah, you monitor your thoughts and you find you can’t account for “where they come from” – “they bubble up” from somewhere inside you and manifest as conscious thought. Fair enough.

                But this isn’t a big deal, and you’ve given the reason why in what I quoted: “In order to do so, you would have to think of it before you decide to think of it, a patently incoherent statement.” Of course this is the case. It’s rather like those omnipotence questions – can god make a rock so heavy he can’t lift it? Can god make a rock so purple you can’t lift it?

                So, if a necessary condition of “free will” is that you have to be able to decide what to think, then dualism and determinism are no longer relevant to the question – you’ve posited something that is incoherent, so not even an immaterial god unbound by determinism would have this kind of free will. So, our options are to stop there and declare the concept incoherent, or we can try to change something in the definition or the list of necessary and sufficient conditions in order to make it coherent.

                It would be like insisting upon defining “conscious thought” as “those thoughts one decided to think.” Upon inspection, if “deciding to think something” is incoherent, you can just declare “conscious thought” an incoherent concept, or you can try to salvage some part of the intuition that generated the idiom to begin with, factoring in the information you’ve gotten by thinking it through a little further. So, you redefine it along new lines if you want to salvage it — maybe “conscious thought” is “thought that one is aware of oneself thinking.”

                There are a few secondary reasons I don’t think Harris’s idea is all that convincing, but this is already a long reply so I won’t cover them. They have to do with the various ways we use the word “I.” For his rejoinder to make sense, one almost has to define “I” as a “self awareness and control module,” which is quite problematic.

                Also, I think there are some circumscribed times when you can decide what you will think next, for instance when reciting a memorized poem or playing a memorized piece on an instrument with concentration and without distraction. This is a matter of training and conditioning so it’s not quite fair to Harris’s point – and in some sense one “cedes control” to the script one has learned.

                But think about what we mean by things like concentration and distraction. If we agree we can’t decide what to think, we can still say that concentrating can help us produce some types of thoughts and not others. A distraction elicits thoughts that I don’t want to think about right now. Et cetera.

              5. Another Matt:

                I commend your willingness to take a stab at it aginst overwhelming odds. A valiant, but doomed effort.

                You said:

                “So, if a necessary condition of “free will” is that you have to be able to decide what to think, then dualism and determinism are no longer relevant to the question – you’ve posited something that is incoherent, so not even an immaterial god unbound by determinism would have this kind of free will. So, our options are to stop there and declare the concept incoherent, or we can try to change something in the definition or the list of necessary and sufficient conditions in order to make it coherent.

                It would be like insisting upon defining “conscious thought” as “those thoughts one decided to think.” Upon inspection, if “deciding to think something” is incoherent, you can just declare “conscious thought” an incoherent concept, or you can try to salvage some part of the intuition that generated the idiom to begin with, factoring in the information you’ve gotten by thinking it through a little further. So, you redefine it along new lines if you want to salvage it — maybe “conscious thought” is “thought that one is aware of oneself thinking.”

                Concerning the first paragraph, I would argue that the logically sound alternarive is to admit that the concept of free will is incoherent. Why you would want to salvage it through redefinition is beyond me. Why would you be interested in rescuing a silly construct? The only explanation I can think of is that you want to have free will, and that desire obfuscates your reasoning.

                Your second paragraph is barely intelligible: it appears to imply that “conscious” is equivalent to “voluntary”. That’s patently false, as you can prove to yourself several thousand times every day. Can you really not see that if our consciousness was the result of some voluntary process there would be no mental ilnesses?

              6. So, there are words the meaning of which is defined by a restricted set of specialists in one particular field.

                And “free will” is a term also widely used outside the field of philosophy, and even within philosophy many definitions of the term have been proposed.

                Even if you are alone on a desert island, you are still not free to desire what you will … It appears to me that you haven´t paid much attention to how your mind works.

                Not at all. We have paid attention to how our minds work, we do know that we can’t decide what to will, since our will is entirely determined. That’s why we’ve rejected dualism eons ago. And we agree with you 100% in rejecting dualist freewill.

                Now, can you pleeaaasseee accept that the compatibilists are sincere in stating that, that we are not hankering after dualism, that we do know that we can’t decide what to will, that you don’t need to tell us that, and that when we are talking about “freedom” to do what we will we are talking about the much more restricted sense of “freedom” (which has the merits that it is sort that actually exists, whereas dualist freedom doesn’t)?

            2. WBT,

              “Stifling a cry” is an excellent example of something I have been wanting to get at for some time. The following activities are all compatibilist in spirit:

              “Stifling a cry”

              “Holding in a sneeze”

              “Silencing a fart”

              “Controlling your bladder”

              To “hold in a sneeze” is meaningful only from the compatibilist perspective. A sneeze is an action, not an object, and so you can only point to it once it happens. So in that instance, if there is no sneezing, from the anti-compatibilist perspective — if all that is relevant to our abilities is what is going on at a particular instant — there’s nothing to hold in; the “upcoming sneeze” is merely a hypothetical, and we’ve been told that taking action on a hypothetical is a bit of nonsense.

              It only makes sense if you are referring to prior instances of sneezing, the feelings that have always preceded a sneeze in the past, and having noted that you can (could!) keep those feelings from leading to a sneeze.

              1. What? I fail to see the relationship between holding in a sneeze and compatibilism. The “upcoming sneeze” is not a hypothetical: it’s a definite, concrete and measurable bodily reaction. In fact, sometimes it is impossible to hold it in. Unfortunately, the same is true of farts, and many of us have embarrassing stories to tell on this matter.

                Hence, your argument makes no sense at all. Acting upon a hypothetical is not in the least related to acting upon a bodily funtion which is absolutely real and is happening right now.

  5. I think it means that we don’t “have” willpower so much as have an experience we call willpower: the feeling that we did (or did not do) something that we feel that we should or should not have done.

    1. But what people often mean when they say “willpower” is the ability to defer gratification or resist temptation.

      I totally agree with Tim above that this is a deterministic contest between independent goals or desires or wants in our brain.

      But the ability to exercise “willpower” can increase over time. For example in quitting a drug addiction or smoking. One may lose out to the urge many times, but based on inputs from observations (the negative experience of seeing people dying of cancer, or becoming homeless crackheads, or the positive encouragement from friends and loved ones) the intention to quit can increase, the strength with which we value the predicted utility of quitting can finally win that deterministic contest against the craving for short-term gratification.

      So in terms of practical effects, based on how our brain changes over time, we can point to a phenomenon in human character identifiable as will power. And that is something we can strengthen over time with exercise, just as we do our muscles.

      This ability of the brain to change over time, over many trials, based on feedback from the environment and the learning plasticity of the brain is what powerfully reinforces the illusion of free will.

      It seems the confusion between the simple minded notions people generally have of determinism, as opposed to the capabilities we observe humans to have, is what makes it so hard for many to grasp that we don’t have free will. People vastly underestimate the power and flexibility of very complex deterministic algorithms that can self-modify based on environmental feedback.

      1. I don’t know. That feels somewhat tautological. It is easier over time because practice makes perfect, not because we are better able to will things. Your increase in “willpower” in the process of quitting alcohol is only way of measuring your progress that direction. You haven’t actually increased something that necessarily will help you exercise “willpower” in other dimensions (say, eating less). (Except to the extent that the alcohol was physically impairing your ability to do other things.)

  6. “I could have done something different had circumstances been different.” For in that sense computers and nearly all living organisms also have “free will”.

    Two things about this:

    1) If one accepts determinism, what other meaning of “could” besides “could have ___ if circumstances had been different?” might there be if we’re talking about objects in the world? I have come to think it’s redundant: the “could” in “could have done differently” is in exactly the same sense as the could in “that result could have been due to measurement error, so we’d better run the experiment again,” or “Betelgeuse could go supernova in the next 100,000 years.”

    I haven’t gotten around to reading Harris’s book yet (dissertation writing!), but I wonder something. If he thinks things like “vengeance” are poorly motivated because of determinism, I wonder how he feels about changes of attitude after having been “shaken by a close call.” If the point is that everything is determined, there aren’t really any “close calls,” so changing one’s behavior (is it no longer possible to speak of changing one’s behavior?) as a result of “almost hitting a kid while speeding in a car,” say, also seems poorly motivated (if not to an equal degree as with vengeance).

    2) I’d say all living organisms and computers do have “free will” in the sense you’re talking about, but eventually to vanishingly small degrees. I’ve become more sympathetic to the idea that we should ditch the phrase “free will” if it really is confusing and impossible to salvage. But how else to describe the magnitudes of difference in the abilities of a human to act – his/her “degrees of freedom,” with respect to a pressure regulator valve or some similar system with a single feedback mechanism? “Behavioral complexity?” I think “consciousness” is at least as fraught – maybe it’s the next thing that should be ditched.

    1. Let’s say you’re a teenager who does 50mph in residential areas, because you’re confident of your reaction time. You come within inches of clipping a kid, and that’s without you having a chance to react at all. That gives you new information – you don’t have the reaction time necessary to avoid doing harm at those speeds.

      It doesn’t matter that the close call in question could never have happened any differently, that the kid was never going to get hit in that instance. A similar situation in the future, with just a tiny difference, could result in a dead kid followed by your incarceration.

      Changed behavior from close calls is all about what might happen in the future with similar but different circumstances.

      1. A similar situation in the future, with just a tiny difference, could result in a dead kid followed by your incarceration.

        There’s that word “could” again. In this case, it means “could, if the circumstances were right.”

        In fact, maybe I’d like to amend what I said about “could” in the first reply: I still think “could, if circumstances were different/right” is redundant. “Could” seems always to mean “would, in different circumstances.”

        Some commenters have said that “would, in different circumstances” is an obvious evasion, because it’s obvious that different circumstances lead to a different result. This is true, of course, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far: it’s impossible to learn from, and has almost not explanatory value. What we have to do is to find out the degree of difference between two sets of circumstances, and which differences are relevant to the matter at hand. That’s (simplistically) how we do science – any hypothesis posed is an example of “could.”

      2. “Changed behavior from close calls is all about what might happen in the future with similar but different circumstances.”

        If free will is an illusion and one has no choice, then “changed behavior” has no meaning – behavior is predetermined. You can no more “decide” to drive more safely than you can “decide” to fly.

        Which is why the incompatibalist argument as presented here–besides being less than persuasive because it hasn’t addressed genuine compatibalist arguments–is little more than a rhetorical game with no practical utility.

        1. Wrong. Dead wrong. Lack of free will does not mean that our future actions are fully predictable and unchangeable. We cannot even reliably predict the path of a tornado, let alone the actions a person will take.

          Yes, you can decide to drive more carefully after a hair-raising experience where you almost had a head-on crash with a 30-ton truck or you almost killed a child, Both of them were inputs that changed the configuration of your neural network. For a start, you’ll realize that your safety does not only depend on your driving skills, but also on the driving skills of other motorists and on the prudence of pedestrians.

          I drive very carefully, mainly because I know by first-hand experience that there are a lot of morons driving vehicles, and because I know that pedestrians seem to believe that vehicles are some kind of robot that will always stop at a red light and at a pedestrian crossing; they don’t seem to realize that there is a human being at the wheel (probably because they don’t usually see the driver inside the vehicle.

          What motivates me to be an extremely careful driver? First, the fact that I drive a motorcycle, and even a minor accident could result in serious injuries or even death; second, I don’t want other people to be hurt because of my recklessness; third, I don’t want to go to jail.

          1. According to explicit arguments made by both Jerry and Sam, you don’t “choose” any of those things – you just *think* you do, but they were all predetermined.

            You talk about what you “know” and about “motivation” and about what you “don’t want”. Those are terms incompatible with an incompatibalist argument.

            They are, however, totally consistent with the predominant compatibalist arguments I have read in the comments here.

            1. I disagree. I don’t see any incompatibility between stating that I want something and incompatibilism. Obviously, at any given instant U want something. For example, at this precise moment I want to reply to you post, and I’m doing precisely that. I coild be marking papers instead, but I don’t want to do that. If I procrastinate long enough, there will come a point where my overriding desire will be to mark those papers, because I don’t want to lose my job.

              So, desires are real, but hey are not chosen. The ability to act upon those desires is called “freedom”, not “free will”. Free will means the ability to choose your desires, and that’s nonsense. I could not choose to desire to desire to go to bed with Stephen Hawkings: I could not choose to desire to eat a fried tarantula. I could not choose to desire to stick a knife up my nose.

              The point is not whether we can act upon our desires (because that depends mostly on external facors), bu whether I can reshape my desires by a mysterious agent called “will”.

              Just as I cannot control waht my next thought will be, I cannot decide what my nest desire will be. Try it. Sit comfortably, and try to decide what you will think of next. In order to do so, the thought will have already appeared in your mind, so the task is impossible to accomplish.

              1. ‘Free will means the ability to choose your desires…’ Does it mean that? Who said so? Could you elaborate on the justifications for this definition?

              2. Of course. It is obvious that the ability to act upon your desires is what we call “freedom”, not “free will”. The only sensible meaning of “free will” is “freedom to will”. i.e. freedom to shape your desires. Any other definition of free will can either be subsumed into the definition of freedom or make no sense at all. If you have an alterantive definition of free will which is not equivalent to freedom, I’d love to hear it.

                Please notice that I’m not claiming that your desires are defined at birth and unchangeable ever after. Your desires can be modified, shaped and even overturned. What I am claiming is that you cannot do that by the mere firing of your own neurons in isolation: you need inputs from your environment.

    2. Another Matt,

      Harris doesn’t actually say “things like “vengeance” are poorly motivated because of determinism”.

      It isn’t an issue of motivation as you see to have latched onto. Rather instead it is about justiication. Vengeance has no justification in light of free will being only an illusion.

      1. Very well. Substitute “justification” for “motivation” in my argument and I think it still stands, mutatis mutandis. Fear inspired by a bullet that whizzed by one’s head has no justification in light of free will being only an illusion – the guy who shot at you obviously wasn’t a danger after all.

        1. Huh? He sure sounds dangerous to me.

          Seriously, Another Matt… one is talking about two different things when one is talking about justification vs. motivation. You can’t expect your arguments about one, fitting the other.

          1. Look, I’m being a little facetious:

            The guy’s action was determined: he shot a gun, “intending” to hit me with a bullet. The bullet was also determined not to hit me. Therefore I have no reason to feel afraid after the fact because that guy’s actions never posed a danger to me to begin with. If I’m wary tomorrow when I walk by the same corner, I have no way to justify it in light of that guy’s “free will” being only an illusion.

            1. Except the “intention” is also an illusion. Intention is choosing to do something, which we are being told is an illusion.

              The person shot a gun. The bullet did not hit you.

              “Justify” is also a choice, which is an illusion.

              If you look through a thesaurus for all choice-related words, you’ll see there are a LOT.

              1. Yes, you appear to be right. Please have the appearance of forgiving me for appearing to choose my words without apparently caring.

                In actuality, I appear to believe that if the guy had the appearance of intending to shoot me, I would have the appearance of being able to have the appearance of justifying my appearance of fear.

              2. Another Matt, are you familiar with the children’s amusement park ride where a car is on a track, and the child gets to pretend it is driving? Regardless of how the steering wheel is turned, it is not connected to anything that steers it. Regardless of how the brakes or gas pedal are pressed, they are not connected to anything that affects movement. The cars move at an unchanging pace, along an unchanging route — and yet children still enjoy “driving” the cars.

                In short, that is what the non-free-will people believe is happening. The Big Bang started everything, and after zillions of reactions — all of which are based solely on the laws of physics — here we are today.

                What happens, happens, because nothing else could have happened except what happened, and nothing else can happen except what happens.

                No choices. Only uncontrollable reactions.

              3. xuuths, I think that’s a pretty good analogy. It’s a rather “homunculussy” view of things, if you ask me.

              4. xuuths,

                That is because humans developed language while under the illusion of choice.

            2. Another Matt,

              I’m not following you here. You have a reason to justify changing your behavior even in light of the guy’s lack of free will. The guy intended to shoot you, yes *intended*, yes he *chose* to try and shoot you. These concepts still make sense even when we do not have free will. Humans still have intentions and make choices just like a robot or AI program does. Humans still update their behavior and mental models of the world based on the input we receive just like a robot/AI program. We do these things while simultaneously lacking free will and acting in a deterministic manner, just like a robot. Jerry is right, we are meat robots.

              1. And obviousy when I say humans “make choices” I mean that do so in the same way an AI program does. It’s not truely a “free” choice, it’s done deterministically.

              2. You’re not following me because what I said was absurd. But if the argument is that vengeance is unjustified because of determinism then lots of other things, like fear, approbation, slander, high-fives, etc. are unjustified reactions for the same reason.

                I think vengeance is unjustified, but for different reasons, e.g. cycles of retaliatory escalation, innocent bystanders, overall increase of suffering and inhumanity, absence of good-faith efforts to rehabilitate, etc.

              3. I see what you are saying but I don’t think this is a straighforward logic problem (determinism = vengeance is bad) like you are making it out to be. I think the agument is not that determinism itself means that vengeance is bad, but that our (sometimes illogical) sense of what is “fair” will be influenced by the knowledge of determinism. The argument is something more like this:

                As irrational human beings we typically feel less indignation when we perceive that a person “didn’t mean to do it” or “had no control over their actions”. Knowledge of determinism will then probably make many of us feel less anger at perceived injustices, which might in turn make the world a less hostile and violent place, which might in turn make most of us happier, which we assume is a good thing.

              4. OK, here’s something with the same logical form (as others in the thread have pointed out):

                ‘As irrational human beings we typically feel less admiration when we perceive that a person “didn’t mean to do it” or “had no control over their actions”. Knowledge of determinism will then probably make many of us feel less approval at perceived justice, which might in turn make the world a more hostile and violent place, which might in turn make most of us less happy, which we assume is a bad thing.’

                Now, I assume that we will want to ignore this, or at least test empirically whether justice and injustice are perceptually symmetrical with regard to determinism. In any case though, given that both what you said and what I said here are both logically consistent, what reason do we have to dismiss one and not the other out of hand? Or maybe there are reasons other than determinism that we value justice and hate injustice.

                It’s the old useful/true debate in another guise.


      2. Except that a desire for fairness and justice (which is not the same as a splendidly Yahweh-esque retributiveness) seems to be an integral and very important component of the human mind that contributes to our living together in a more or less peaceable manner (see Daniel Kahneman on this); I grow tired of these pleasing abstractions…

  7. Feeling compassion for him would be rational, however—or so I have argued.

    I don’t see why feeling compassion for him is any more rational than feeling hatred for him.

    Okay, so he has no free will. And neither do I, neither do you. If we say he is “responsible” for his actions, we mean it in exactly in the same way we mean that JAC is responsible for JAC’s posts on free will, yes?So, maybe I should not bother feeling anything for your posts, either, except some compassion for you that you were unlucky to inherit the genes and life experience that will doom you to your position.

    Thats a bit of a snide example, but my point is: this sort of reasoning ends up giving nobody any reason to feel anything for any action except compassion for their unlucky inheritance. It ‘irrationalizes’ anger, but only at the expense of irrationalizing any other feeling too. It throws a lot of baby out with some bathwater.

    I think a much more rational response to a no-free-will conclusion is to say that different and appropriate motional responses are still rational based on the content of people’s actions, free will or no. It is still appropriate to hate someone for murder…just as it is still appropriate to love someone for their charity, or admire someone for their posts on biology, free will, and cats.

    1. Our natural response to someone who has done something “wrong” is anger or moral reproach. However, that anger is ameliorated by the knowledge that that person could not help themselves. In some cases, that anger turns naturally to compassion when we consider that, had we been in that person’s shoes, we would have (sadly) done the exact same thing.

      What Harris might be saying is that this is the situation we are always in. No person can be other than they are at this very moment. No person chooses to be a psychopath. So if our natural response in such “they couldn’t help it” situations is understanding or even compassion, than this is the reasonable stance to take. The difference between us feeling anger and us feeling something more congenial is simply how obvious the causal connection is between this person’s past and this person’s present, how obvious it is that A led inexorably to B. I would not necessarily fault someone for feeling anger in response to morally relevant stimuli, but the greater understanding of causality and human behavior that we are working towards only allows us to move in one direction – further from anger.

      1. Our natural response to someone who has done something “good” is happiness or moral approval. However, that approval is ameliorated by the knowledge that that person could not help themselves. In some cases, that approval turns naturally to dismissal when we consider that, had we been in that person’s shoes, we would have done the exact same thing…the greater understanding of causality and human behavior that we are working towards only allows us to move in one direction – further from approval.

        See the problem here? It doesn’t move us away from anger, it moves us away from any feeling at all.

        1. Feelings are an illusion as well, for the same reasons as ‘free will.’

          Most people who don’t believe in ‘free will’ have not taken the time to really seriously take that position to its obvious and logical ends.

          1. I wholly disagree. Feelings demonstrably exist. Just ask a parent who has lost a child. Free will, on the other hand, has no physical correlate. Have you ever seen anyone crying or laughing at the thought that they have free will?

            1. But of course we have seen people crying or laughing as a result of electrodes stimulating particular parts of their brain.

              I think what bothers people is that somehow our behavior is based on what we believe. But mostly our behavior is based on what we are, which doesn’t change as we learn more how we work.

              Certainly there is an element of belief that can color certain decisions. But this idea that recognizing how the brain works and understanding it could make us unemotional or immoral is a paranoid slippery slope argument. It’s like arguing that if we understand how our cars work and know how to repair and maintain them better, that our cars won’t work as well, or it will take the fun and mystery out of driving. We won’t have that same feeling of suspense and that superstitious good luck feeling when we turn the key and the motor starts. I think it’s more important to be able to repair our cars.

        2. Except we meat computers have evolved biased circuitry. We “feel” happiness or moral approval, and that will add to biases in the system. We “feel” hatred or disgust, and that reinforces biases in the circuits.

          Getting a bullet past my ear certainly biases my future actions. I know an inch difference would be fatal. And that biases my circuits to take action.

          It certainly does not move me toward not feeling anything.

        3. xuuth and drdave, I don’t really disagree with either of you. My point was, I don’t think Tim (or Jerry) have made a valid argument for why lack of free will supports (their) changes to the criminal justice system.

          1. I’m kicking myself for not being smart enough to turn my comment around like you did. You’re absolutely right – the absense of free will gives us reason to dismiss both blame and merit.

            But, I do believe that this is the point where it would be appropriate to indulge in some cognitive bias. While I have, in fact, given myself less credit for my accomplishments because of my acceptance of determinism, I am not in the habit – nor do I think I need to be – of thinking less of people’s kind acts. Considering the chain of causality that led to an ‘evil’ act helps us to do something about it, to prevent it from happening again, to rehabilate the transgressor, to mollify our anger since anger is usually counterproductive. There are good reasons to look at ‘evil’ acts in this way.

            Good acts, on the other hand, we can appreciate. We can – and should – also try to understand where they come from, but I don’t know that this will take away the gratitude we feel that someone has just made our day. We certainly don’t have to focus on the inevitability of it all, if such focus holds no benefit for us.

            What do you think? This is all philosophy, by the way. I did not think your comment was about the way we run our criminal justice system. That argument, I think, is easy to make:

            Focusing on prevention and rehabilitation, rather than retributive punishment, makes society better. Jail sentences, for example, should be based on the need to keep criminals from harming others, and the need to deter crime (which should be evaluated using evidence-based methods.) The upshot is that someone who did something really bad should not be kept in jail forever just because they did something really bad. A jail sentence should accomplish something, for the good of society or the good of the criminal. Retribution is not an accomplishment.

        4. Excellent point, Eric. I’m sure this will give you the irks but CS Lewis made the same point in a small book called The Abolition of Man. The first chapter was called Men Without Chests (without feeling) and the book nicely predicts the effects of this kind of thinking about feelings. His essay, Meditation in Toolshed also deals cogently with modern science’s tendency to dismiss feelings and suchlike. (If it makes you feel any better, I think he wrote The Abolition of Man before he betrayed atheism.)

          Xuuths, for you I have an apt extract from an essay in The Mind’s Eye by Hofstadter and Dennet:
          I once knew a Christian Scientist who had a raging toothache; he was frantically groaning and moaning all over the place. When asked whether a dentist might not cure him, he replied that there was nothing to be cured. Then he was asked, “But do you not feel pain?” He replied, “No, I do not feel pain; nobody feels pain, there is no such thing as pain, pain is only an illusion.”

          I wonder, if feelings are an illusion, what is going on when you have the feeling of having an illusion? It’s a common enough experience and usually precedes the realisation that your eyes have fooled you. Frankly, as I see it, taking Prof Coyne’s brand of determinism to it’s logical conclusions leads to one big reductio ad absurdium and what you have said about feelings is a nice example. You determinists are are like Flat Earthers or Young Earth Creationists – you’ll bend everything to fit your view of the world. All you know is science and the laws of physics and no matter how contrary your experiences are, if they don’t fit what you hold to, they must be redefined and become illusions. Just off the top of my head, I have a hundred critically important things that are not subject to the laws of physics: reasons, mathematics, logic, the laws of physics themselves, mental anguish, joy, doubt, this sentence, etc. (I’d also include Choice though not the notion of Free Will, which I think is nonsense.) The fact that you can’t reconcile mental phenomena with physical monism is an inadequacy on your part and no reason to call mental phenomena illusions.

        5. Here is an extract from Meditation in a Toolshed. It prefigures much of Thomas Nagel’s “What it is like to be a bat” – also from The Mind’s Eye:

          When you have got into the habit of making this distinction you will find examples of it all day long. The mathematician sits thinking, and to him it seems that he is contemplating timeless and spaceless truths about quantity. But the cerebral physiologist, if he could look inside the mathematician’s head, would find nothing timeless and spaceless there – only tiny movements in thegrey matter. … The girl cries over her broken doll and feels that she has lost a real friend; the psychologist says that her nascent maternal instinct has been temporarily lavished on a bit of shaped and coloured wax.

          That, in fact, is the whole basis of the specifically “modern” type of thought. And is it not, you will ask, a very sensible basis? For, after all, we are often deceived by things from the inside. For example, the girl who looks so wonderful while we’re in love, may really be a very plain, stupid, and disagreeable person … Having been so often deceived by looking along, are we not well advised to trust only to looking at? in fact to discount all these inside experiences? Well, no. There are two fatal objections to discounting them all. And the first is this. You discount them in order to think more accurately. But you can’t think at all – and therefore, of course,can’t think accurately – if you have nothing to think about. A physiologist, for example, canstudy pain and find out that it “is” (whatever is means) such and such neural events. But the word pain would have no meaning for him unless he had“been inside” by actually suffering. If he had never looked along pain he simply wouldn’t know whathe was looking at. The very subject for his inquiries from outside exists for him only becausehe has, at least once, been inside.

      2. [QUOTE]I would not necessarily fault someone for feeling anger in response to morally relevant stimuli…[/QUOTE]I think you mean to say that you couldn’t fault anyone for anything, necessarily. If free will and choice is an illusion, then none of us have conscious control over our actions. Thus the entire notion of “fault” becomes meaningless. A person does only what they were fated to do. They could not have acted otherwise. What room is there to lay fault?

      3. I would not necessarily fault someone for feeling anger in response to morally relevant stimuli…

        I think you mean to say that you couldn’t fault anyone for anything, necessarily. If free will and choice is an illusion, then none of us have conscious control over our actions. Thus the entire notion of “fault” becomes meaningless. A person does only what they were fated to do. They could not have acted otherwise. What room is there to lay fault?

        1. Exactly.

          And no one can “change” based on what they “learn” from any source. They will react as they were going to react based on the physics going back to the Big Bang.

          At least according to those who do not believe in free will or choice. It isn’t conscious vs unconscious, it whether all existence has been pre-determined by determinism or not.

  8. I usually come down with a severe headache around free will debates. So much of it is about semantics. Back on February 24, 2007, the Nonprophets podcast had their infamous free will debate – which lasted for three hours. The participants were Matt Dillahunty, Russell Glasser, Dennis Loubet, and Jeff Dee. It is fun.

    Go to episode 6.3:

    1. I believe your malady can be cured either by a couple of aspirins or by accepting the obvious: free will cannot exist.

      Given that I’m no friend of Bayer, I’d recommend the latter approach.

  9. A refutation of the free-will concept will have huge repercussions on how we view criminal behavior, but I suspect that many people are worried about something else entirely. See, all the “successful” people of the world, wealthy, prosperous, intelligent, powerful, hard-working, etc., won’t get to pat themselves on the back anymore. They won’t get to attribute their success in life to their own agency; they’ll have to recognize that it’s all just good luck that broke in their favor. Sure, we can’t blame the criminals in quite the same way anymore, but that means we also have to stop congratulating ourselves for the bounty bestowed upon us by fortune and fortune alone.

    1. A refutation of the free-will concept will have huge repercussions on how we view criminal behavior …

      So everyone keeps claiming. But what are these huge repercussions? Some minor changes in commentary, perhaps, yes, but beyond that …?

      See, all the “successful” people of the world … won’t get to attribute their success in life to their own agency …

      A question: if you see an eagle take some prey with astonishing and graceful ability, is your admiration lessened by the fact that it did not exercise “freewill” to become as it was, and is just executing a biological program?

      1. Its still astonishing and graceful. That’s evolution at work. The fact that the eagle had no choice but to execute the snatch does not affect that.

      2. No, my admiration is not tempered, but I don’t think my admiration is for the eagle as an individual agent; rather, my admiration is more for the species itself, and for nature for having fashioned such a beast. That’s very different from the way we admire an individual human being who happens to be more talented, more intelligent, more powerful than another of the same species. It seems clear to me that we’re treating human attributes in individuals as though they are accomplishments; but, this is misdirected, since these individual attributes are no more accomplishments than the spots on a leopard. Shakespeare’s poetry is beautiful, nonetheless, but maybe, if we change how we think about free will, we’ll have to admire the poetry far more than the person who wrote it.

    2. A refutation of the free-will concept will have huge repercussions on how we view criminal behavior…

      Why? Nobody has explained or given an empirical basis for the assertion that a meat machine without free will must be worse controlled through punishment than a meat machine with free will. There’s absolutely no rational link between the hypothesis ‘choices are illusory’ and ‘therefore, compassion will work better to alter human behavior than punishment will.’ Its entirely possible that we are meat machines that respond more to punishment than compassion, yes? A theory about free will is not data about how we respond to stimuli.

      The thing Jerry et al. needs to support more liberal criminal justice is statistics and empirical data on what responses minimize recidivism. If the data shows response X works, we should use that regardless of whether we have free will or not. If, OTOH, it shows response Y works instead, we should use that response again regardless of whether we have free will or not. But either way, the issue of free has no practical bearing whatsoever on our response to crime.

      1. I haven’t seen Sam Harris or Jerry make an argument specifically about what works to reduce crime/recidivism. The point they are making (I believe) is that we should be focusing on “what works,” and this is something we do not currently do. The idea of a free will forms the basis for the US’s (and probably other countries’) criminal justice systems (See the 6th footnote here.) Our justice system exists partially to mete out moral punishment, which there is no rational basis for.

        If jail sentences work to deter crime or prevent recidivism, that’s fine with me, and I doubt Harris or Jerry would disagree. But it must work; it must contribute to the betterment of society. We should not do it because of an outdated notion of moral desert.

        1. Harris talks about this in his book, but not in great detail.

          If we were not jailing people for moral retribution, we would not allow the butt-rape epidemic to persist. We might have a more humane prison system, like Norway or Sweden, than the criminal breeding grounds we have set up.

          What better way to make people into permanent criminals who hate the state and law and order than to dehumanize them, make them feel excluded and other, to build in them a deep bitter resentment?

          If instead we combined humane detention with job training and education we could probably drastically reduce crime and recidivism. Of course this assumes widely available education and job training on the outside, so that getting an education wouldn’t become an incentive to go to jail.

          What a sad condemnation of our sick society that recently there was a case of a man who robbed a bank for $1 just so he could go back to jail and get treatment for a kidney condition? He couldn’t get health care on the outside. And since Reagan our jails have become the main source of mental health treatment. If you are out of your mind you have to get arrested before you can get treatment…it’s pathetic.

          We now jail more people in the US than Stalin did in the USSR. And there are private businesses who encourage legal changes via lobbying in order to induce the state to send more lucrative detainees there way to enhance profit! In particular, the prison industry participated with ALEC to draft the draconian anti-immigration laws enacted in AZ, GA, and AL. This was profit motivated.

          Our approach to “corrections” is a national disgrace and destructive to families and individuals in many unnecessary ways. We desperately need to get away from this Old Testament Judeo-Christian disease that corrupts our society.

        2. You know what is a big indicator that jail sentences are mete out as retribution? It’s the use of set sentencing durations. If the penal system was interested in fixing broken individuals, they’d keep them incarcerated until they have been rehabilitated. Instead, we have what we have… a system that isn’t working.

          1. I’m suddenly reminded of the conservative complaint that the longer people are on unemployment, the less likely they are to be able to go back to work. They become stagnant, complacent, skills atrophy.

            Isn’t that even more true with longer prison sentences? The reason people get outraged by short prison sentences is because they don’t think it’s harsh enough moral punishment. It doesn’t hurt the criminal enough.

            But if we really wanted to rehabilitate, and deter, we would probably find there is a shorter duration that does the job more effectively. Losing one’s freedom and personal life for a year or more is a pretty good deterrent. But if sentences drag on 3, 5, 10 years, the human being is destroyed. There is a case of diminishing returns on longer sentences. They form habits that make them no longer suitable for independent existence on the outside, but the deterrent effect of each extra year probably diminishes.

            1. Jeff,

              And on the other end of the spectrum, think of how counterproductive it is to release a criminal back into society before they have been corrected… just because they have done their time.

  10. As always, the claim of free will immediately brings to mind the question, “What is it free of?” I would assume the answer would be outside influence, but in what kind of reality could this ever be the case? And if will is not free of outside influence, how could it ever be called free? What would be the source of a conscious process that was isolated from the rest of the universe? It seems that if you’re a believer in free will and you haven’t twisted it into virtual non-existence, you’re tinkering with supernatural mumbo jumbo.

  11. After answer the question in a materialistic way, it remains to explain how a materialistic process developed the illusion of free will.
    Why we started to think that we can, we want, we may?

    1. The demotion of free will, I agree with Harris and Coyne, takes some of the heat out of legal discipline in society.

      Practical example: a recent case of murder in my area resulted in conviction for a guy who was found to have murdered his mother, father and a third individual in the household. Relatives of the victims were quoted as shouting that the convict “go straight to hell.” They had no compassion for this unlucky psychopath, they had no intention of cutting him any slack for his poor inheritance or upbringing, etc. He is guilty and evil according to their lights. Now it will be a cold day in hell before this kind of reaction will not be seen in front of the courthouse. But as Harris’ remarks in the video suggest, in the halls of jurisprudence, where cooler minds survey what should be done, future legislators who understand the science of human intelligence will not be prescribing that such convicts be tortured every day in their cells. The legitimate goal of a sensible system of justice is to prevent additional harm, not to wreak further havoc on a damaged person.

  12. My concept of free will to come, but first…

    I have a man-crush on Sam Harris. He’s so damned eloquent, clear thinking and precise.
    He has a rare ability to present logically valid arguments in easily understandable informal terms; one statement seems to beautifully support the next, and the next…

    So when I agree with his premises, I am led to agree with his conclusions, typically on religion.

    It’s interesting to disagree with Harris, as I do on consciousness and free will (being more in Dennett’s camp…and I’m just an interested layman in all of this).

    I’m only part way through his speech on Free Will, and it’s a beautiful presentation as always. But I found it hard to sit through – hair-pull inducing – simply because Harris gets going with assumptions I don’t agree with. And they are all important. Just how important really came up when Sam asked the audience to think of a city, and then try to think of another city (I first thought of Ho Chi Minh and then Paris). Sam asked “now did anyone find any evidence for free will in this?”

    Yes! The fact I found myself able to choose
    either Ho Chi Minh or Paris when asked, was a demonstration of my free will! Yet to Sam the outcome of this thought experiment is that we don’t have free will.

    But Sam’s assumptions disallow this. Which is why the assumptions he’s starting with – vs a compatibilist assumption – on matter so much.


    1. Since Jerry asked for our definitions:

      Free will, put simplistically, is “the ability to do otherwise, if I desire to.”

      The “ability to do otherwise” is the “free” part, the “if I desire to” relates to my “will.”
      The “will” is the “I” or “me” who wants to do something.

      It is an empirical claim about my powers. As such, it is a form of abstraction – an appeal to previous experience or “evidence” for the claim, combined with hypothetical and counterfactual claims to fill out the description of my powers.
      It is the same combination of claims – evidence/hypothetical/counterfactual – that we use in describing and predicting any other empirical entity in nature.

      Example: I chose to order the hamburger of my free will = I could have chosen otherwise, had I desired to. E.g. I could have chosen the hot dog. This does not mean “I could have chosen otherwise if every atom in the universe were at the same state and I had exactly the same desire” (which is incoherent). Rather, it means it is a fair description of my physical powers in similar circumstances. Had I desired a hot dog instead, I could have physically chosen the hot dog from the menu. Like ANY empirical claim, I would support this claim by pointing to my having been able to make different choices of this nature, in similar situations (e.g. I come into this place a lot, and sometimes order the hot dog, other times the hamburger). Or I can supply evidence via demonstration. Ask me twice to order in a row – that is in the same circumstance I’m asked to provide two different choices – and I’ll be able to order the hamburger and next the hot dog (my desire now being to show I can do so – and so long as I am physically unimpeded I am “free” to do as I will).

      So, when Sam in the video of his lecture, asks me to think first of a city, and then asks if I can think of another city, I do so. I thought of Ho Chi Minh and then Paris.
      This is a demonstration of my “ability to do otherwise when I desire.” In the same (or very similar – not every atom in the universe was the same) circumstance I showed I was able to choose out one city and focus on it in my thoughts, and then another.

      Now, Sam would say, as would others like Jerry, that I’m somehow “changing” the notion of free will in doing so. But…am I? Not that I can see. I’m making a claim pretty much like everyone normally makes a claim that I “could have chosen otherwise.” It’s based on observation of our past or present powers. That is the reason why we would claim “I could have chosen the hamburger or the hot dog in that situation” rather than “I could have chosen the hamburger OR I could have magically summoned Duck a l’Orange to appear out of thin air, had I desired to.” We would not make this claim because it is not backed by, or derived from our empirical experience of our powers. Our thinking of our powers an any situation is the same as our thinking of the nature or potential of other empirical objects – e.g. that “water could have remained frozen had I not removed it from the freezer.”

      (There are other premises to fill out the notion of free will, but that’s a start and the basic idea, from my perspective/my reading).


      1. “the ability to do otherwise, if I desire to.”

        Well there’s your difficulty, you are talking about something different than what Jerry is talking about or Sam is talking about.

        Yours is a non-issue. (Hint: you can only have one set of desires at any point in time.)

        1. Well there’s your difficulty, you are talking about something different than what Jerry is talking about or Sam is talking about.

          Yep, he is, this is what is frustrating about this whole debate. There are two different definitions of “freewill”, the dualist one and the compatibilist one. In both scenarios we are actually all in agreement!

          The only disagreement is whether one can sensibly use the terms “freedom”, “will” and “choice” in the compatibilist sense. The incompaibilists insist that these words must be reserved for something that does not exist. And then they insist that you must say and mean “appearance of choice” instead.

          The compatibilists are then simply saying, ok, but how about we abbreviate “appearance of choice” to, um, say “choice” (just because saying “appearance of …” multiple times will get tiresome) and then get on with things with everyone in agreement.

          And of course Sam and Jerry do exactly that, so are de facto compatibilists, if only they’d realise it!

          PS. I’d go along with Vaal’s definition of “free will”.

          1. That’s *exactly* right.

            You are by no means the first to point that out here.

            I have not seen Jerry address this point even once, in response to any similar comments.

            Instead, he spends most of his time arguing that we don’t actually argue what we say we argue. At time, it feels irritatingly like arguing with a creationist.

            Come to think of it, there is more than a whiff of deism in the incompatibalist argument, the way it is presented here. I’d like to hear Jerry explain how he reconciles his form of incompatibalism with our modern understanding of the processes influencing biological evolution.

            1. If the choice of words was all there was to it, I very much doubt that every single post on free will gets hundreds of comments.

              For example, the statement “you have free will as long as nobody is pointing a gun to your head” is silly, bur recurrent. Free will does not mean that you can chose to do whatever you want to do; it means that you can actually choose what you want to do. And that is patently false.

              Compatibilists are not being misunderstood. They have no coherent, agreed upon position on which others might agree. Get your definitions right, make a coherent argument, and then we can start a meaningful discussion.

              1. If the choice of words was all there was to it, I very much doubt that every single post on free will gets hundreds of comments.

                Hmm, you sure?

                Compatibilists are not being misunderstood. They have no coherent, agreed upon position on which others might agree.

                That’s not so, plenty of people on these threads (and such as Dennett in books) have presented a coherent compatibilist case. The trouble is, whenever it is presented, it leads to:

                You> That is not what “free will” means …

                Us> It is what we mean by freewill …

                You> But that is NOT what “free will” means …

                Us> It is what WE mean by freewill …

                You> But that is *NOT* what “free will” means …

                Us> It is what WE mean by freewill …

                Repeat ad nauseum.

              2. Coelsblog:

                There are endless possibilities for the definition of “free will”. I can define free will as the ability to climb a bellfry on a monocycle, if I so wish. Would that definition in any way contribute to this discussion? Obviously not. Similarly, the compatibilist position redefines free will in a useless way, because it makes it a synonym of “freedom”. We are not discussing freedom; we are discussing free will, which is a wholly different thing. If you want to interpret “free will” as “freedom to do what you will”, be my guest, but don’t expect an interesting discussion: the point is just too banal.

                On the other hand, “free will” can be interpreted as “freedom to will”; in other words, having free will means that you can freely choose what you want to do next. Mind you, not what you’ll do next, but what you’ll want to do next. Now we have an interesting issue: is it possoble to choose what we want to choose? Obviously not. If you are reading this, you are analysing my text in order to find errors in my reasoning: you are not free to choose to think of a giant tarantula eating the Empire State Building and the tourists within. Oh, did you think of the Empire state Building? Why? Did you choose to think of it?

                Are you free to become a Muslim? (I’m assuming you are not). Are you free to believe the Earth is 6,000 years old (I’m assuming you are not a YEC). Are you free to believe anything you know not to be the case? If free will really existed, what could stop you from believing incoherent and incompatible notions?

                Finally, free will cannot possibly exist is a universe ruled by cause and effect. A totally free will could have no cause, because it would then become a consequence of previous states of the universe, and hence not free in any meaningful interpretation of the word,

              3. Here’s what I think is at stake here:

                “Free will” = “moral responsibility”
                “Free will” = “magical acausal power”

                Yet people don’t seem to understand that these two equations are distinct (magical causal power is not necessary for moral responsibility!).

                If the only thing you’re talking about is “magical acausal power”, fine, that doesn’t exist. Agreed. Done.

                But incompatibilists seem to think that they have said something much stronger than that, namely that moral responsibility doesn’t exist (or is radically altered, or something). But that’s just false. Knowing that your behavior has causes really tells us next to nothing about whether you were morally responsible.

                Stalin had causes for his behavior, I guarantee it. He was still a horrible person and deserved to die.

              4. Piero:

                ” … the compatibilist position redefines free will in a useless way, because it makes it a synonym of “freedom”.”

                Whereas the incompatiblist position defines “free will” in a useless way, because it refers to something that doesn’t exist.

                I entirely agree with you, compatibilism makes “free will” synonymous with “freedom”.

                If you want to interpret “free will” as “freedom to do what you will”, be my guest, but don’t expect an interesting discussion: the point is just too banal.

                Yes! I agree! Which is why I find the anti-compatibilist comments here somewhat baffling. The compatibilist stance is indeed innocuous and banal.

                However, it does have one merit: it aims to map things that actually exist (dualistic freedom-to-will doesn’t) with the extant English language, avoiding any wholesale re-writing of it.

                The specific phrase “free will” is not the crux here, that phrase could be abandoned. But then we come to words like “choice”. Are they ok, or need we say “appearance of choice” all the time?

                All the compatibilists are doing is looking at what properties of the world actually exist and using the words we have to describe them. And that is indeed pragmatic, innocuous and banal.

                And you’re right, I *don’t* expect an interesting discussion! I expect you to shrug and say “is that all?, ok then”, and stop reacting to compatibilism as though it were dualistic woo.

              5. » Piero:
                Compatibilists are not being misunderstood. They have no coherent, agreed upon position on which others might agree.

                Ah, argument by assertion. That’s clever.

              6. » Steve:
                But some compatibilism is dualistic woo.

                Which nobody here has been arguing for. So, apart from distracting from the actual issue, your point is?

              7. Steve:

                But some compatibilism is dualistic woo.

                No it isn’t, the standard definition of “compatibilism” rules out dualistic woo. Compatibilism means physical determinism.

              8. That doesn’t stop some compatibilists from asserting free will woo as part of their claim of compatibilism.

        2. “you are talking about something different than what Jerry is talking about or Sam is talking about.”

          A more reasonable statement would be, “Jerry and Sam are defining terms in ways no one else is defining them in this debate, least of all deterministic compatibalists.”

          1. deterministic compatibalists

            Regarding this debate, deterministic compatibalists don’t get to define/redefine fundamental/baseline concepts, anymore than baseball players can join a football game and declare that points will from now on can only be scored by crossing home plate.

            Here is a short history on how we came to have this “debate”. Since time immemorial humanity, by and large, was under the delusion of possessing a contra-causal free will (bundled with a immaterial soul). After a time, some humans were fortunate enough to see past the illusion of free will, discovering that indeed there was not even a single iota of freedom to the human will. This is Jerry’s position, and Sam’s and mine, and quite a few other folks too.

            So anyway… free willists are asserting that we have free will, and non-free willists (aka determinists) are countering that no, this free will, that the free willists say we have, is only an illusion.

            Now it is reasonable that another group of thinkers can come along and try to make the case that they believe yet another truth… but they can’t do it by doing an “end round” by redefining what has been one of man’s oldest concepts (as non-existent as it may be): free will.

            1. Before I get to the false dichotomy you present, may I ask why you feel the need to put “debate” in quotation marks?

              It is this kind of arrogant disrespect which is both uncalled for and unhelpful in this discussion. You are taking your cue from Jerry, who has unfortunately set the tone on this particular issue in an artificially confrontational way, a way designed to preclude respectful dissent rather than to encourage it.

              Now, to address the substance of your comment:

              1) in my observation, it is Jerry and his supporters here who seek to redefine the fundamental/baseline term “choice” in a non-standard way that does not conform to the common understanding of that term — in a way not too different from the way some faitheists seek to redefine “god” to make it conform to modern understanding of reality.

              2) There have been many commenters here far more eloquent, educated–and, probably most important, more concise–than I am, and they have provided many responses on the issue of free will.

              Unfortunately, incompatibalists here seem to have only one argument, which is to redefine compatibalism to mean religious dualism, and thus, in this secular, nontheist community, absolve themselves of the need to address the actual arguments made.

              Nor have the original arguments in favor of a compatibalist position been respectfully addressed– not here, and not in Harris’ disappointingly and uncharacteristically thin argument, which basically boils down to the same distortion and redefinition of all compatibalist arguments to religious dualism, and then dismissing them with mockery and humerous anecdotes.

              3) You do this in a particularly blatant and egregious way by pretending that there is only one “free-willist” position, which must, since it is in opposition to the opinions of Jerry and Harris, clearly be theistic and irrational in nature.

              In fact, a cursory look at the philosophy of science literature on the subject–or, hell, even just looking up the definition of “compatibalist” on a credible philosophy site– reveals that, in point of fact, there are a number of different, well-respected, rational and non-theistic approaches to compatibalism that are considered nontrivial, and none of them are dualist at all. Hell, you could find that out even on Wikipedia, although I would check out the page there more for links to primary sources, not as a primary source in and of itself.

              Every time I read a reasonable, well-constructed, cogent compatibalist argument in the comments here, I wait in vain for Jerry or anyone else here to address it. I have yet to see a single substantive, serious and respectful response.

            2. » Steve:
              So anyway… free willists are asserting that we have free will, and non-free willists (aka determinists) are countering that no, this free will, that the free willists say we have, is only an illusion.

              Obviously, you don’t understand the first thing about this debate: a belief in determinism is shared by everybody here—although it is strictly irrelevant since indeterminism (i.e. randomness) wouldn’t change a thing; the whole point of compatibilism is to say that determinism and a sane (i.e. non-absolutist, non-magical) definition of free will are compatible; compatibilists (at least those in the Dennett corner) argue for a definition of free will, while Jerry and Sam, among others, somehow think that their definition (the contra-causal one that nobody in effect [possibly excepting lunatics, supernaturalists, and readers of The Secret] does believe in, see the robot example) is the only one that must be allowed.

            3. » Steve:
              deterministic compatibalists don’t get to define/redefine fundamental/baseline concepts

              Which is a huge strawman. Compatibilists here have argued for a certain (non-magical) interpretation of ‘free will’, which you are invited to argue against. Spurious claims of oppression, however, will not cut it.

              On the other hand, Jerry and others seem to be insisting that ‘free will’ can only mean magic—and they have produced neither evidence nor arguments in favour of that claim. So again: Where is the evidence that substantial numbers of people—excepting lunatics, believers in the supernatural, and readers of The Secret—have believed their will to be free of causality?

      2. I think by this definition a random number generator has free will. It chooses plenty of different numbers under “similar circumstances”.

        I don’t see how having different outcomes (choosing a hotdog or hamburger) under “similar” circumstances (similar under who’s definition? What does this even mean?) somehow shows that we have free will.

        I think you are defining free will as something different than most people see it as. The common notion of free will that the general public holds is that you could have chosen different under the exact same circumstances (every atom in the universe being in the same place), not similar circumstances.

        1. I think by this definition a random number generator has free will.

          No, because it would have no desires, no aims and thus no “will”. Free will is a preference for an outcome (= “will”) coupled with the ability to select among options the one which best leads to that preferred outcome (= “freedom”).

          Of course this is all deterministic, and under the “every atom in the universe being the same” scenario exactly the same choice will be made every time, since the “will” will be the same (being the product of those atoms) and so will the selection mechanism.

          I think you are defining free will as something different than most people see it as.

          Yes, we’re well aware of that, it has been pointed out and acknowledged about 150 times in these threads!

          1. “I think you are defining free will as something different than most people see it as.”

            No differently than everyone else here – and all of us, you and Jerry included, define reality differently than faitheists do.

            So, you can continue to rebut compatibalism by equating it with dualism and then attack that – sort of like anti-atheists equate atheism with nihilistic amorality – or, you (and Jerry) can, far more constructively, engage in a discussion about what compatibalists here are actually saying, and present honest counterarguments to it.

      3. “the ability to do otherwise, if I desire to.”

        In a deterministic world, this definition is nothing but tautology. Your desires are also fully determined. So this definition adds nothing to what logically flows from determinism.

        I think the illusion of free will has evolved in us because it is a good model for meat machines that have been selected by the mechanism of differential survival across generations. If I meet a stranger on a dark empty street, my own internal state and response as well as that of the stranger’s are both fully determined by our respective timelines. However it makes sense for me to model the stranger as an agent with the ability to freely choose between mugging me or just passing by. That is because I don’t have access to his (fully determined) internal states. So I think evolution has installed in us this model to deal with other complex meat machines. Our application of the same model to ourselves causes the illusion that we too are free to choose between a multiplicity of choices at any point of time.

        1. “the ability to do otherwise, if I desire to.”

          In a deterministic world, this definition is nothing but tautology. Your desires are also fully determined. So this definition adds nothing to what logically flows from determinism.

          This is really instructive – your argument happens to be true, while at the same time getting us nowhere. Literally everything we observe in a deterministic world flows from determinism (including the observations).

          Let’s say I define “sinking the 8-ball” as “hitting a cue ball with a cue stick such that it collides with a ball marked with an 8, causing it to fall into one of six holes along the edge of a pool table” (assume all terms are sufficiently defined elsewhere).

          In a deterministic world, this definition is nothing but tautology. The motion of the cue stick, the cue ball, and the 8 ball are all fully determined. So this definition adds nothing to what logically flows from determinism.

          So, absolutely – let us stipulate that in a deterministic world, everything happens “because of determinism.” It’s still meaningful to trace more local chains of causation.

          1. Another Matt,

            If there is a common theme among those who criticism compatibilism, at least in these threads, it appears to me to be inconsistency: the appearance of not following through on the reasoning they use to dismiss compatibilist claims.

            Which is why I keep pointing out over and over how IF someone is going to dismiss compatibilism as being mere word games or not talking about real things, they have to justify how they talk about the rest of the empirical world – describing it’s nature – WITHOUT the logic compabilism uses to describe human choice-making.


        2. Vaal: “the ability to do otherwise, if I desire to.”

          Sameer: In a deterministic world, this definition is nothing but tautology.

          That is false; it’s not a tautology. If it were a tautology the claim “I could have done otherwise if I desired” would ALWAYS and NECESSARILY be true. But it is not the case: Sometimes I have the ability to do what I desire; other times I don’t. I had the desire today to choose onion rings over french fries at lunch. I had the ability to do so. I also had the desire that my kid score a goal in hockey today; but I had no ability to fulfill that desire. I also desire that cancer was not killing a family member. I have no ability to make that scenario “otherwise.” If I had been stuck in one of the fated floors of a tower on 9/11, I’d certainly desire to be somewhere else, but I’d have no ability to choose otherwise.

          So it’s not tautological; in fact it’s informative – it’s a criteria that asks whether one can do as one wills in a situation, and there are real answers to those questions.


          1. HERE, in your comment above itself is an example of logical word games. Your examples of desires and abilities is only a smokescreen to muddy the discussion. I know that I can have desires that blatantly violate laws of thermodynamics. E.g. I desire that my ice-cream be kept frozen without providing any form of energy input to my refrigerator. I will not have the ability to do this even “in principle” because it violates laws of thermodynamics.

            I assumed your definition applied to abilities that you actually have and not to magical abilities you don’t have. So in that situation saying “the ability to do otherwise, if you so desire” doesn’t add anything new to the discussion. Sure, if your desire is different (indicating different starting point), your timeline may follow different paths leading to different outcomes. Saying that this is the definition of free will adds nothing new. It is like saying “the computer has the ability to generate a different output if the input is different”.

  13. If you are a compatibilist, I ask you to succinctly provide your own definition of free will in your post.

    OK, my definition is (to quote you) “in that sense computers and nearly all living organisms also have “free will”.”. I’m entirely comfortable with my computer having a “will” in exactly the same way that we do/don’t (delete one of those to taste).

    This of course means that “will” is a matter of degree, a continuum. And I’m comfortable with that also, since so is everything else in biology.

    I have always disagreed with that: how we conceive of the source of our actions has enormous consequences for how we punish and reward other people’s actions.

    Does it? Can you amplify this with some actual concrete examples of jail sentences you think are wildly wrong, or similar?

    [Sam] “My goal is to show how the traditional notion [of free will] is flawed, …”

    Yep, and Dennett and the rest of the compatibilists agree entirely.

    “… and to point out the consequences of our being taken in by it.”

    This is where (IMO) the incompatibilists are somewhat weak. I read Sam’s book and shrugged, it didn’t seem to have major consequences. Most of the latter half was arguing the same “actually it doesn’t make much practical difference” that is the heart of compatibilism. There was no “this guy should not be in jail” or similar real-world consequences.

    ” … certain moral impulses—for vengeance, say—depend upon a view of human agency that is both conceptually incoherent and empirically false. “

    Well, no, vengeance is motivated by emotion, not by any philosophical stance about freewill. Much of this philosophizing is a superficial commentary on our biologically programmed behaviour. That’s why it doesn’t actually make much difference if you ditch “freewill” notions.

    As a comparison, the religious argue that moral sentiments derive from religion. We atheists know that is false, and that rejecting religion makes (to first order) little difference to basic human morality.

    It’s the same with notions of moral responsibility and punishment. Yes there might be a lot of superficial commentary about “freewill” in how society talks about it, but if you simply ditch that commentary then (to first order) it makes little difference and one is still left with our biologically programmed social interactions (which include notions of moral responsibility and the rest of it).

    1. An addendum, from previous threads I gather that this “superficial commentary” about “freewill” and the justice system is already very different in Europe compared to the US, which lends support to the idea that it is mere commentary, and that changing the commentary doesn’t necessarily change the pragmatics all that much.

      1. This is a very interesting point of view, very clearly spelled out. I have some thinking to do and I thank you for that.

    2. I think the death penalty is wildly wrong for starters.

      But also we would not tolerate the inhumanity of our prison system if we didn’t have a society that thinks of prisons as needing to be particularly miserable. I think that attitude comes from anger, which is based on moral retribution.

      Prisons in Norway and Sweden are very different from the US. They are designed to rehabilitate, not to create misery and pain, and to breed resentment, ostracism, and a tendency to hate society and its rules. Imprisonment loses the element of sadism that US prisons have.

      1. I think the death penalty is wildly wrong for starters.

        OK, but I doubt that that follows from rejecting “freewill”; you can find people on both sides of the capital punishment debate regardless of their stance on freewill.

        Prisons in Norway and Sweden are very different from the US.

        If these “radical consequences” for the justice system only mount to the difference between the US and the Scandinavian systems then fair enough. However, again, I doubt that this difference has much to do with dualism v determinism. I would guess that a fair fraction of the Scandinavian populace are (to the extent that they think about it) dualists.

  14. Many oriental traditions (and Gurdjieff) addresses the issue of free will.

    In buddhism, an enlightened person does nothing because there is no doer anymore since the ego is erased. What is left in the “meat robot” is unconditioned and uncreated awareness that just responds to a chain of reaction without opposition and desire.

    That is how free will is reached. And this is a paradox. But that condition is freer than the egotic free will where the “person” inside the meat robot thinks it exists for real (even when atheist) and does free choices.
    Of course, there is a field of choices that are given but the field is conditioned by the characteristics and preferences of the ego. Because the ego, only by being who he is, doesn’t realize how much he reduces his choices, has difficulties to not believe he doesn’t have free will.

    But if you get rid of the “person” in the meat robot, what is left is just unconditioned awareness. That is why it is said that you are liberated when you are able to reach that state.

    Otherwise I believe that free will as debated here is still a semantic debate…

      1. Gurdjieff is specially pertinent when it comes to free will. “The greatest of lies that we tell ourselves, Gurdjieff asserted, was that we have free will. In reality, most of our actions are mechanical, tossed here and there by moods, whims, needs, and the impact of external events.”

        Gurdjieff’s teaching was based on being constantly self-aware. Oriental traditions are all about that too.

        1. And all of those rely on dualism. Which neither side in this debate here hold to be true.

          Despite Jerry’s and Sam’s efforts to pretend we’re all arguing for the “traditional notion of free will”, nearly everyone arguing the compatibalist position here (yourself likely excluded) and elsewhere within the philosophy of science community (e.g., Dennett) accept that we live not only in a deterministic universe but a fundamentally physical one.

          “Souls” not required, whether you define that as the nonphysical think that gets “reincarnated” after death, or as the nonphysical thing that “transcends” the meat during “enlightenment”.

          1. Harris is ambiguous toward the buddhist tradition. Ironically, oriental traditions are non-dual in the sense that the separation between the physical and the non-physical world is an illusion caused by our dual vision, by how we are programmed to receive information.
            Only by gaining a higher quality of self-awareness, only then you could verify this by yourself. But you won’t do it since you have decided that it doesn’t exist.

  15. Two comments: I find it somewhat funny that this whole discussion about free will and compatibilism with Harris is taking place at the level of popular presses. Am I to take seriously the fact that he’s “published” an essay on his website? Or that his book was published by “Free Press” (a nonacademic press)? If Harris and his ideas are so important, then I suggest he submit them for peer-review as any serious scientist would do with respect to his own field. May I recommend the Journal of Philosophy (Columbia), or Philosophical Review (Cornell)? This is not to say that there may not be some relevant ideas to consider, but a serious figure would submit his work for peer-review in the appropriate places where this debate should take place.

    Second, the clue that Harris is missing something is evident in his response to Dennett above: “From my point of view, he has simply changed the subject in a way that either confuses people or lets them off the hook too easily.”

    It should be clear by now that nothing is “simple” about free will. The suggestion that Dennett has “simply” done this or that speaks of an unfamiliarity with the difficulties here. You cannot solve or make progress with serious philosophical problems like free will by oversimplifying the issue or your opponents conception of the problem. The reason free will has remained unsolved over the years is that it raises difficulties whose resolution is unclear and about which reasonable disagreement is possible. As a general rule, if you think your opponents view is “clearly wrong” then you’ve probably misunderstood the problem.

    1. “I find it somewhat funny that this whole discussion about free will and compatibilism with Harris is taking place at the level of popular presses.”

      This is called evolution. In the beginning, few proto-humans were able to walk. Or to talk. Or to to sing. And it then became the norm.
      Just like a few thousand years ago, a few people knew how to write and read. Now, my 5 years old daughter learns how to read and write merely by herself because she badly wants to see some kid shows on the web…

      So I wouldn’t find it surprising that a pseudo-thinker like me can share his view (with a 2nd language..) on free will on a blogsite owned by an expert on evolution. Or that the popular press is interested in free will. De Chardin wrote prophetic lines about the future of knowledge.

  16. I expect that, as usual, people will take serious issue with both Sam and my own definition of free will.

    I sure don’t. I am perfectly comfortable with my role as a meat machine, and the concept of free will as an illusion. The only clarification I would make is that the system state is so complex that it may produce a different result from nanosecond to nanosecond or vary depending on the nuance of the input.

  17. I define free will as ” being able to make decisions independent of the laws of physics and chemistry”.

    If this definition is accepted / acceptable it is logically incoherent for an atheist to claim to have free will.

    The implications are stark.

    We would be fully determined.

    Our self awareness and decisions ,{past, present and future) would be simply the manifestations of the laws of physics and chemistry operating in a particular environment.

  18. When I hear someone argue for compatibilism, all I can think is that compatibilism would render a rock a conscious, decision making entity.

    1. Really? Why?

      Can you give reasons why you (and most people) not consider a rock a “conscious, decision making entity?”

      Once you do so, you will likely understand why a compatibilist would say the same.

      I’m unaware of any rock that would have “desires” and the ability to deliberate about how to fulfill those desires (requirements for compatibilist free will).


      1. My reply was to Hayden, btw. I agree, generally, about the continuum, but that does not confuse people with rocks.


  19. We are meat robots, but meat robots who can think. Our thoughts are encoded in electrochemical form. Our thoughts can influence what we do: this formulation, in my opinion, is all any sane person should want in the way of “free will”.

    We try to persuade theists that they are wrong, and sometimes it works, and their behavior changes for the better post-(de)conversion (they stop treating gay people badly, perhaps).

    I do like the formulation that hating the malefactor, though natural, is not rational (though it’s amusing how it verges into the Christianist’s “hate the sin, love the sinner” line).

  20. Questions for the compatibalists:

    Given that the universe is deterministic I think the comparison between humans and robots that Jerry made is apt. Imagine a sophisticated robot/AI program that can pass the Turing test.

    1. Do you think this robot has “free will”?
    2. If you do, how do you propose that we define the moment that our AI programs become sophisticated enough to possess free will.
    If you do not, how can you possibly reconcile this with the belief that humans do have free will without using a ghost in the machine?

    1. 1. Yes (in the compatibilist sense thereof).

      2. There is a kind of “fallacy of the beard” at play with making this kind of pronouncement. In the last “free will” thread I suggested we think of it in the same way we think of consciousness – just how much “self-awareness” does it take in order to say some system possesses consciousness? How much ability does it take before we say something possesses intelligence?

      If, like Vaal and coelsblog in this thread, we think of all these things as continua, there’s no precise point at all where something has it or not because it’s not a binary proposition. Those who want these ideas to be binary propositions will also have a lot of trouble defining the boundary – the boundary is probably fuzzy.

      I’m tempted to say that anything with a feedback mechanism “has free will to a vanishingly small degree.” I’ll admit that this comes dangerously close to teleological explanations of things, but I think we can be consistent in rejecting essence and telos while retaining reductionism, emergence, and levels of organization.

      One interesting upshot to me is that compatibilism connects human activity to nature to exactly the same degree that incompatibilism does, but it does so using the same old language we use for everything else including. With incompatibilism we’ll need to invent a new language for human activity rather than updating word reference and connotation to reflect determinism. Then the question is, if we do so for human activity, why not for the rest of science and everything else as well?

      1. Also, I’m noticing that it has been mostly the incompatibilists in these threads who have been saying, “but doesn’t that mean computers and animals and rocks have it? Oh noes!” If they’re ready to give up on the phrase — and even the concept — altogether, I’m not sure why the compatibilist arguments have elicited that response. Thoughts?

        1. Well I’m asking about robots because I’m just trying to determine exactly what your position is. I’m beginning to think that we’re all using a different definition of free will and this is the source of disagreement. You say that free will is a continuum and can be held by unconscious things like computer software. It seems that you equate free will with complexity and the ability to appear to make choices. I agree that these things exist but I don’t want to use the term free will to describe them. I think most people think of free will as their conscious mind authoring all of their thoughts and actions. As Sam Harris points out is an illusion.

          1. This might be true, but I think phrases like “it occurred to me,” “this idea just popped into my head,” “I’ll sleep on it for a fresh perspective,” “I just can’t get it out of my mind,” and so forth show that the intuition that our brains do things without our conscious control. But we still expect people to take credit for original ideas (by copyrighting and publishing a book, say) even if those ideas “just popped into their head.”

            I mean, it’s not like this idea is new enough that nobody noticed they couldn’t control all their thoughts. Religion has perpetrated a lot of guilt on people for not being able to control their sexual thoughts, for instance, and has blamed that lack of control on original sin.

            This question of control is still relevant, though, for questions of behavior. We want to be able to treat depression and schizophrenia as disorders, no matter how equally deterministic depressed and schizophrenic brains are to “normal” brains. Maybe we should call it the “appearance of control,” but I don’t like these “appearance” add-ons – they imply that we should be able to distinguish empirically between “real control” and “the mere appearance of control,” or “real choice” and “the mere appearance of choice,” as though our intellect kind of sits at a meta-level above everything to judge “real” from “apparent.”

            Why not call the activities we really do “real” and apply everyday words, like “choice” to them?

          2. “It seems that you equate free will with complexity and the ability to appear to make choices. I agree that these things exist but I don’t want to use the term free will to describe them. I think most people think of free will as their conscious mind authoring all of their thoughts and actions.”

            You don’t think consciousness exists along a continuum?

            This sounds dangerously like a human exceptionalist, anti-evolution argument.

            And, if consciousness exists along a continuum, would not free-will – a manifestation of consciousness – not exist along a continuum as well?

            And, by the same token, why would the notion of a computer of sufficient complexity potentially having free will in a meaningful way be any different than the potential of a computer having consciousness? Aren’t we machines, too?

      2. + 1 to what Another Matt wrote.

        The “but where do you draw the line? (between what has free will and what doesn’t)” response does not undermine the compatibilist notion, for reasons you stated.

        In fact, the compatibilist is desiring to describe real things – entities making choices, just as science attempts to describe real things. That there is no easy, obvious answer is quite consonant with describing reality, in fact often expected.
        Reality doesn’t owe us easy answers, and we have to recognize how we are often trying to impose order, in our descriptions, on things that are “in reality” along continuum (e.g. when did the first “mammal” arise – an example from Dennett).

        It’s like Sam’s Point about morality. IF we are talking about real-world things, IF the answer “is this a moral act” depended upon real facts about the world, we shouldn’t be surprised that real-facts-about-the-world can be complicated, with complex interactions, and often hard to know.

        I would actually be more suspicious of a theory that claimed to describe a “real world” of morality/consciousness/free decision-making that supplied easy answers.


    2. “Given that the universe is deterministic”

      No it is not. The observable universe is stochastic. It is only deterministic for the totality of all possible universes obeying the same laws of physics as our local observable universe. This is the central premise of quantum cosmology.

      It is also why Gell-Mann asked Jim Hartle – “Hey Jim if you know the wavefunction of the universe how come you’re not rich”.

  21. OK my definition in one mangled sentence:

    Free will occurs in any neural system that in order to predict behavioural outcomes requires a complete emulation of the organism on a Turing machine.

    On this basis worms probably have free will. I can live with that.

  22. “How we conceive of the source of our actions has enormous consequences for how we punish and reward other people’s actions.”

    If, as you say, we are just “meat robots” mechanically playing out predetermined behavior, why would your arguments, or Harris’, matter?

    After all, you have argued that “moral responsibility” is a meaningless phrase because all behavior is predetermined, that we can no more decide of our own volition to help others than to harm them.

    If we have no free will, what we “conceive” has no consequences.

  23. Sorry if I stray from the issue too far, but I was trying to describe this thread to a friend and decided the following actually made sense: The question seems to be “If we really don’t have free will in any meaningful sense but are simply responding to stimuli mechanically (although with a superficial overlay of appearance that we’re actually doing some deliberating and acting with intention at least some of the time) should that change how we respond to each other in the formal sense?” For example, criminal law. I haven’t thought it through (consciously anyway) but in the end I’m not sure it calls for anything but a change of language, i.e., we will still do things just as we do now, e.g., the mass murderer had no real choice in the matter, but it’s still best for the rest of us that we lock him away or treat him or kill him, depending on how big a budget we have for law enforcement. As I’m unsure as to how much conscious or unconscious “thought” went into this, I reserve the “right” to “change” my “mind.”

  24. Jerry, you wrote,

    You say,

    “I don’t accept free will as meaning “I could have done something different had circumstances been different.” For in that sense computers and nearly all living organisms also have “free will”.”

    And that is a problem–why, exactly? Free will is a phenomenon of consciousness–which, we all agree, is something that exists along a continuum, not something unique to humans.

    Why are you, and to an extent Harris, so determined to argue a straw man?

    The debate has been between whether determinism – which we all agree is the reality of the physical universe – is, or is not compatible with free will.

    The debate here has certainly not been, “mystical, immaterial souls exist independent of the physical world, therefore free will”.

    The determination with which you keep insisting on arguing a dualist straw man, rather than engaging in the substantive arguments of compatibalists, is irrational.

    Harris is not much better. He seems to couch his argument (ironically) in some kind of moral imperative, i.e., ‘we must couch this in religious dualist vs scientific terms, and in terms of moral compassion vs vengeance and punishment, in order to disabuse the ignorant public of their dualist notions.’

    That’s all fine and good, but it doesn’t address the actual debate between incompatibalism and compatibalism within the philosophy of science community. It’s a red herring.

    Or, more like a straw herring.

  25. I feel somewhat embarrassed by the CFF editorial, being an alumni who still lives within two miles of the school. That being said, I think for the first time I’ve been relieved to read the comments section on a website I don’t trust. That terrible article was at least roundly mocked by my fellow Golden Knights.

    1. I am also a UCF alumnus. This is disappointing, especially considering we are one of the top engineering research universities in the country.

      Hopefully she is only a freshman, and a few years of solid education will enlighten her.

      Rationally yours,
      Thomas Paine

      1. One can only hope. I remember my freshman orientation when I was told how the year before we had beaten Cal Tech in international engineering competition and how proud it made me feel to know I was going to be part of a school that had done that. This was wretched to read.

  26. If you are a compatibilist, I ask you to succinctly provide your own definition of free will in your post.

    Hardly a compatibilist in the philosophic sense, but supporting the possibility of a model of a “free” will of complicated enough “free” agents without inserting anything dualistic:

    “The testable model of complicated enough agents that their behavior can’t be easily modeled.” Easily being contextual, from everyday observations to lab experiments at the level of current or future technology.

    Whether such a model is useful or merely a comfort blanket for folk psychology I don’t necessarily care. I just want to point out the comfortable existence of such heuristic devices, despite philosophers going bonkers about dualisms of “free will” or “counterfactuals”.

    I think that the resolution in this debate is not to press on whether “free” will models exist, but whether “free will” is dualist or not (and dualist it is).

    1. It is not dualist any more than the reality of any dynamical system manifesting self-organizing criticality.

      Complexity–and consciousness, of which free-will is a manifestation, is certainly complex–can be an emergent property of even simple systems with certain kinds of local interactions.

      Continuing to insist that compatibalism, as held by the majority of folks here and in the philosophy of science community, is nothing more than religious dualism is, at this point, frankly ridiculous.

      I think we all can agree that, just because you can’t imagine how some behavior can emerge, doesn’t mean you have to posit a nonphysical answer.

      By the same token, just because you can’t imagine how chaotic behavior can emerge from deterministic processes, doesn’t mean you have to insist the behavior is “illusory”.

  27. What is disappointing about Harris’s piece is the same thing that bugs me about your own texts on this topic, Jerry. Sam says:

    My goal is to show how the traditional notion is flawed

    And yet he doesn’t say what the “traditional notion” is nor does he give any evidence or arguments for his assumption that it actually is traditional. What he and you mean is contra-causal free will, aka spooky free will, aka magic. Anyone who doesn’t believe in the supernatural would, at least after some reflection, have to reject it as nonsense.

    Attacking nonsense for what it is is all very well. But it is obviously relevant to the discussion to find out how many people actually believe the nonsense. And for all the claims that it is a common notion, I have never seen any evidence being produced that it is in fact “gazillions” of people who believe in the spooky free will nonsense. Certainly nobody (let alone even an appreciable number of people) on this website has come forward to say they belong to that group. So where is the evidence?

    And apart from that, even if gazillions did in fact hold to a nonsensical definition of X, that would not in and of itself compel us to advocate the disuse of the concept X. If, for example, gazillions of people clung to a magical conception of ‘evolution’ (say, one in which a god infused man with a soul a couple of thousand generations back), we do not conclude that evolution as such is an illusion, but we educate people about how their magical conception of evolution is wrong and about what we should most profitably mean by the term, because it (the non-magical one) is a helpful concept and we would like to continue using it.

    Allowing only an absolutist, black-and-white definition of ‘free will’—in which ‘free’ means completely unconnected to any causal history—seems to me a very strange and very unfair move. In much of everyday speech, ‘free’ simply means ‘free from external control’, as for example in “you are free to go”. And if we are undogmatic enough to allow degrees of freedom, we can see that our freedom might very well consist in being able to do something other than X if the situation (a new but similar situation in the future; cf. Dennett’s golf putt analogy in Freedom Evolves) is only a little different from the one in which we did X. For a dog, the degrees of freedom would be fewer, for the new situation would have to somewhat more different; for a bacterium, even fewer; for a single molecule, there might exist only one specific configuration of a couple of particles (i.e. one degree of freedom) that would make a difference to its ‘behaviour’. I for one don’t have a problem conceiving of this as ‘freedom’, nor do I accept that large numbers of people would, either.

    1. I had somehow missed that post in the last thread (the one you just linked). I feel sheepish, because I think it and this followup add a lot to the discussion and a lot of what I was saying overlaps with it, and I was saying it with less graceful language — thanks.

        1. Beautifully put, Peter.

          For me there are two contentious issues. Starting from the agreement between compatibilists and incompatibilists that contra-causal free will doesn’t exist (is incoherent):

          1. Is it still justifiable and profitable to talk about “freedom” or “free will?”


          2. What notion of “free will” captures the essence of what most people think of in terms of their decision-making powers.

          I argue that compatibilism gives a “yes” to #1.

          As for #2, it is not obvious that contra-causal free will matches what everyone thinks of as “free will” as applied to their everyday choices. I keep seeing this asserted, but like you, I see little actual evidence.

          In fact, I argue that contra-causal free will does NOT seem to capture all (if even part) of how people think of making choices, or “being able to have chosen otherwise.”
          I think compatibilism can make at least as strong (stronger, I think) a claim to capture the essence of the common notion of “I could have done/chosen otherwise.”

          And that is one reason why I affirm #1 🙂


          1. The only problem with this is that you could not choose otherwise at a particular time in a particular state. You could only choose otherwise under other conditions, which would rely on many worlds or some other hypothetical scenario.

            So what kind of claim are you referring to when you say: “compatibilism can make at least as strong (stronger, I think) a claim to capture the essence of the common notion of “I could have done/chosen otherwise.””

            It is my belief that it is only an illusion that we could have chosen otherwise, and that illusion is what causes people to believe in dualism; they think they have some kind of independent “I” that is fully in control.

            1. Good. Now, how willing are you to give up other uses of “could?”

              “Life could have evolved with sugars and amino acids of reverse chirality.”

              “Mars could have had life on it.”

              “Viagra could be the cause of your priapism.”

              “My dad could easily have been drafted during ‘Nam.”

              “As bad as it was, Katrina could have been even worse.”

              “Buddy Ebsen could have been the Tin Man instead of Jack Haley.”

              “There could have been 5 terrestrial planets in the solar system.”

              “I coulda been a contenda.”

              Are all of these uses of “could” anti-deterministic? Are all of these intuitions “illusions?” Or are they just counterfactuals where “could” means “would if…”? Are they therefore not worth posing?

              1. Indeed! “Could”ness (modality) in general is a rather tricky notion to formalize; but clearly there are many senses of “could” on which determinism is no threat at all, since our statement is actually ABOUT the deterministic laws that guide the universe! “If X had happened, Y would have” is as deterministic as you can get—indeed, determinism itself can only be formulated in these terms.

              2. » Another Matt:
                “My dad could easily have been drafted during ‘Nam.”

                That’s a very good example of what I think we very often mean when we talk about CHDO (could have done otherwise). If we say that, I think we are perfectly aware (if we are aware of anything) that what we are saying is, ‘If things had been only a little different, my dad would have been drafted.’ And if that little difference is something that is part of us, e.g. part of our intentions, aspirations, our awareness etc., then we are right to say that we could have done differently—notwithstanding the fact that every molecule in us works just according to the general laws of physics. But it’s our molecules, and our molecules work differently according to which intentions etc. we have.

                In other words, that we are not totally free is reflected in the fact that if we follow all our conscious states back (and at a sufficiently low level), then we will see that nothing could have been different only because it wasn’t different; but now that we are conscious of what that situation was like, we have a chance to react differently the next time that situation arises, or even to alter the (upcoming) situation so that we will be able to act differently. And even if that time that doesn’t make a difference, there will always be a next time for us to effect outcomes that are more in line with who we wish to be and how we would like to behave. This kind of feedback means that any future situations will be different; the only question is whether they will be different enough for our freedom to work on that difference.

              3. Jeff,

                Hypotheticals and counterfactuals are how we go about describing the world, and presumably we are describing “real” things, “real” properties of the world.


                Epinephrin “could” (or “can”) be used to halt anaphylactic reactions.

                Fire “could” be used to cook meat.

                Whether we are using hypotheticals concerning the future:

                The ground beef COULD contain dangerous bacteria.

                IF you cook the ground beef to 160 F internal temperature you will kill the dangerous bacteria.

                It’s also informative to put it as a counterfactual pointing to the past: IF you had cooked the ground beef to 160 F, you would have killed the dangerous bacteria.
                (Particularly useful information to someone wondering why they are suffering food poisoning.

                Now, are those statements true or not? They all rely on hypothetical or counterfactual claims. But, don’t we think we are describing something true when we say them? Aren’t they actually necessary for even understanding and conveying the truth about
                such things in the world?

                If we follow your logic, a skeptic can object and say that “all that is just appealing to hypotheticals, hence it’s all illusion.”

                In other words, to be consistent, you are going to throw out how we normally apprehend and describe and predict anything in the world, if such talk is not describing reality, but is mere “illusion.”


              4. Peter Beattie,

                Just to augment what you (and I and others) have been saying…

                I reject this claim made by the incompatibilists that contra-causal conception of free will they present adequately captures the basis for our typical claims that “I could have done otherwise.” I.e. this: “Rewind the tape and if everything in the universe including my brain were in precisely the same I could have chosen otherwise, because my decision making is exempt from causation.”

                It just doesn’t really explain why people make the claims they do very well – not as well as a more compatibilist concept.

                Example: Let’s say I’m at the Gym. I’m deciding whether to lift “heavy” today or lighter with more reps. I am deliberating between the 50 lb barbells or the 70 lb barbell. I choose to work out with the 50 lb. I’m asked “Could you have done otherwise?”

                Me: Yes. I chose the 50 lb weight but I COULD HAVE instead chose to work out with the 70 lb weights.

                What do I mean? Why would I say that?

                I’m not saying “I could have chosen the 70 lb weights to work out” on the basis “I could have chosen to do so even if every atom of my brain and every cause had been the same, as I am a being exempt from causation.”

                Certainly that thought never crosses my mind. Surely I mean “I could have used the 70 lb weight if I had wanted to.”

                Again…why would I think or say that?
                It’s a claim, something I believe, about the powers I had in such a situation. I give this reply because I have many times before used the 70 lb weights, at this gym. It’s an empirical claim based on past experience.

                That explains why, if the choice had been between a 50 lb weight and a 400 lb weight, I would NEVER have said “I could have done otherwise (chose to work out with 400 lbs). I wouldn’t say that, because I don’t think it’s an ability I have, and I don’t think it’s an ability I have BASED on past and current evidence on how much weight I can really lift. And if someone doubted that I “could have” used the 70 lb weight, my first impulse would be to prove it, by going over and lifting the 70 lb weight. “There, see, told you I could have used that weight!”

                That’s normal, everyday reasoning about “could have done otherwise.”

                Mere appeal to myself as some contra-causal agent doesn’t really explain the basis for my making any particular claim that “I could have done otherwise,” wheras looking at the claims as empirical claims – abstractions drawn from past experience, like every other empirical claim – does explain why we make the “could have done otherwise” claims we do.


              5. Vaal,

                You could even say “I could have done otherwise” with the 50lb/400lb choice, perhaps if it had been your dream to have been an olympic weightlifter like your dad and his dad before him, a dream which had been killed by an incident with a clydesdale in your teens, and you can already “lift” 200lbs with your good arm on the machine across the gym.

                In that case, you’d be making an empirical claim based on what you know about the abilities of your most recent ancestors, genetic inheritance, the abilities of your good arm, and so forth. It’s a very different empirical claim from the 50lb/70lb scenario, and the contours of the difference matter – not all hypotheticals are equal.

                Meanwhile you’d probably never say “I could have chosen a 1000lb weight” – but it’s not impossible if your hypothetical had been about the course of human evolution. “How badass would it be if humans could lift 1000lbs? Duuude!”

                In each respective case you’re claiming more that had to be different in the counterfactual. In the 70lb case it’s only “if I had wanted to.” In the 400lb/injury case, it’s “if I hadn’t been kicked by that damn horse, and I had followed my dreams, and had wanted to lift 400lbs,” and “If human evolution had given us the power to lift 1000lbs, and I had wanted to.” Each one poses something different about reality in a different way.

              6. This is equivocation on the word “could”.

                Of course one can identify many possibilities, or things that are within one’s physical abilities. None of the items on your list has the tiniest relevance to what is meant by “could not have done otherwise”.

                What it means is, during a decision process there is a path through brain state space, and at no point on that path was there a fork such that in state S1, there was more than one state (lets use two for simplicity), say Sx and Sy such that there was as non-zero probability of the brain arriving in Sx, and a non-zero probability of reaching state Sy. And there was no “decision capability” separate and removed from the chain of causation that was free to deflect the path through state space from it’s determined next state. There is always one and only one state following each state, reached with probability of one based on causal forces.

                In reality we can probably decompose the sequence of brain states into many parallel sub-paths through sub-states, which in the aggregate produce our decision process. But for every parallel path there is always a unique path determined by the physical state of the brain, and there are no other possible paths unless external inputs cause a modification to the brain state.

                That is what it means.

              7. Jeff,

                “This is equivocation on the word “could”.

                I was clear on how I used the word, WHY we use the word that way and WHY it makes sense to use it that way, vs another (e.g. vs contra-causally).

                What you did was follow up with an assertion on what “could” means, but no argument as to why anyone ought to accept what you mean by “could.”

                I could see little to no relationship between what you just wrote about “could” and how that word is used in everyday use. Why then am I the one equivocating on the word “could?”


              8. Vaal,
                Because when we say “could not have chosen otherwise”, we are saying something different than “under other circumstance things could be different” which is the tangent you chose. It’s equivocation because you are using a different sense of could, and it confuses the matter.

                I tried to give a more precise state space based description not using the word could; that defines what I mean when I say “could not have chosen differently”. That there could be a flying spaghetti monster, or any of the other original examples of what could be, is a tangent based on playing with the meaning of could to form hypotheticals.

                When I say “could not have chosen differently” it doesn’t mean there are no hypothetical alternatives that could be imagined; it means there was no other possible result of my choice in the real situation.

              9. Oops,
                and Vaal…I lost track of who I was responding to. When I said equivocation on the word could I was actually responding to Another Matt above and his list of hypotheticals.

              10. Jeff,

                My apologies but I’m a bit confused who you were responding to in your next to last post.
                (It was addressed to me so…)

                The issue isn’t whether you have been precise about what “you” mean by “could have..”

                The issue is whether what “you” mean by “could have” accurately represents the basis for most people’s notions of “could have done otherwise.” I don’t see that it does (as you seem stuck on the “if all conditions were precisely the same” conditions for “could have done otherwise.”)

                I’ve already given my argument in support of why “my” account makes sense of people’s “could have done otherwise” claims. I’m waiting to see an actual argument in support of yours (or Jerry’s).


              11. Vaal,
                I don’t know what most people mean by “could not have done otherwise”, and I don’t think what most people mean matters. I was describing an implication of determinism, and what Jerry means when he says it in his many articles and posts on the subject. If there are people who have a different sense of what it means, they they don’t understand or don’t accept determinism. My attempt to add precision to the phrase I believe accurately describes how the brain works; people can talk about hypotheticals all day, and it’s not germane to the discussion I was having. It only means human imagination is great; it’s not relevant to determinism and what it means about contra-causal free will.

              12. You know, Jeff, I don’t think my list does equivocate on “could,” so long as “could have done otherwise” is taken in the same sense as my very normal uses of “could.” The next question I’d ask is, “if we all accept determinism, what other sense of the modal ‘could’ is intelligible?” It means “would, if circumstances were different.” It’s always a contrafactual, and the most extreme of those implies “would, if determinism didn’t hold and a bunch of other things applied.” Maybe people really do mean this, and I’ve stacked the deck in my favor.

                I’ve been thinking about it, and I see your point about “could not have done otherwise.” I’m not sure how else to express that sentiment, given determinism — given determinism, it is given. It makes perfect sense, in the way Jerry wants it to, only if determinism is in dispute; and I guess that’s kind of the point — determinism is in dispute because it is not intuitive to everyone.

                I think it’s possible that the disconnect on these threads is that we actually agree “too much” about how the world works. We just have somewhat different misgivings about the consequences. Notice how the compatibilists have all been saying “yeah, we accept determinism.” All of our arguments have been made with that in mind. “Could” is always taken with that in mind — it’s epistemic not ontological. The incompatibilists are saying “but not everyone accepts determinism.” And so ’round and ’round we go.

                I still think it’s an extreme corrective to call choice an “illusion,” if we all accept that it is deterministic choice the way you’ve been arguing elsewhere. I think it’s likewise extreme, in exactly the same way, to say that making a choice is actually “just the appearance of having made a choice.”

                Goodnight, and thanks to everyone for the nice discussion.

              13. soooo… not my best English in that last post. 🙁 Hopefully it all made sense.

              14. Jeff: I don’t know what most people mean by “could not have done otherwise”, and I don’t think what most people mean matters.

                Ok, but you could have (and did) fool me. You responded to a post I made about two issues, responding to (quoting) the issue related to #2: Jeff wrote: So what kind of claim are you referring to when you say: “compatibilism can make at least as strong (stronger, I think) a claim to capture the essence of the common notion of “I could have done/chosen otherwise.”

                So you seemed to be disputing my claim about #2.

                In your following posts you wrote things like:

                —- “None of the items on your list has the tiniest relevance to WHAT IS MEANT by “could not have done otherwise”

                If you were instead only trying to offer your own definition, I don’t know why you quoted mine, and II would have expected you to write “What I mean by…” rather than “what IS meant by…”

                But you continued:

                —-“WHAT IT MEANS IS, during a decision process…”


                —–“Because WHEN WE SAY “could not have chosen otherwise”, we are saying something different than “under other circumstance things could be different” which is the tangent you chose.”

                All of which I, understandably I think, interpreted as you disputing my claim about what we typically mean by “could have done otherwise” and arguing it is something different.

                But if you want to talk about your own definition:

                “When I say “could not have chosen differently” it doesn’t mean there are no hypothetical alternatives that could be imagined; it means there was no other possible result of my choice in the real situation.”

                The problem we keep bringing up is: sure, in one sense we all agree on that. But if that is supposed to act as some sort of OBJECTION to the case made by compatibilism (as incompatibilists keep arguing…I’m not sure you are), then how is it not an objection to the way we describe the rest of the world? Does this render any “real” sense of “could” illusory?


    2. Traditional means what people have believed for tens of thousands of years. This is obviously based on the illusion of contra-causal free will produced by our subjective mind. There is reliable evidence for grave goods going back at least 30,000 years. This is clearly connected to the idea of an afterlife, which is connected to dualism, which is connected to contra-causal free will.

      The US is a country where 75 to 80% say they believe in god and heaven. It really seems disingenuous for anybody to even think about suggesting that most people might have a clear concept of the limited compatibilist form of free will.

      When the ordinary person chooses something they think “I” chose that; they don’t think “my brain made me choose that but I felt free”. And when they think “I” chose that they think “that’s the part of me that will go to heaven”. This is traditional free will and it should be obvious to anyone who lives in the real world, has read literature or history, has encountered religion and it’s implications, and is aware of its ubiquity, and has talked to ordinary people who lack extensive education in philosophy or psychology or neuroscience.

      Continuing to claim there is free will, when what you really mean is a limited form, reduced from this traditional theological and philosophical meaning, is prone to confuse ordinary people who don’t have specialized knowledge and who have not thought deeply about these things as you have.

      1. Jeff, I seem to agree with about 95% of what you say, and the remaining 5% nibbles at me. For instance:

        When the ordinary person chooses something they think “I” chose that; they don’t think “my brain made me choose that but I felt free”. And when they think “I” chose that they think “that’s the part of me that will go to heaven”.

        Making a few substitutions and a couple extra scare-quotes where needed:

        “When the ordinary person gets an idea they ‘think’ ‘I’ came up with that; they don’t think ‘my brain came up with that idea but I felt free.’ And when they ‘think’ ‘I’ came up with that they ‘think’ ‘that’s the part of me that will go to heaven.'”

        Continuing to claim there are ideas, when what you really mean is a limited form, reduced from this traditional theological and philosophical meaning, is prone to confuse ordinary people who don’t have specialized knowledge and who have not thought deeply about these things as you have.

        1. I don’t see how your substitution makes any sense or adds anything. I must be totally missing your point.

          Compatibilists don’t limit the notion of what an idea is.

          They limit the notion of what free will is. If you disagree with that statement, define what you mean by free will. By substituting you’ve changed the whole meaning and rendered what was relevant to the conversation no longer relevant.

          My point is that culturally it is fairly clear that most people think of free will in the sense of the “ghost in the machine”, and most people on this planet believe in life after death. They think there is some non-material thing that gives them their character and their decision making freedom.

          I realize this is not based on a scientifically designed poll or questionnaire, but just look at the statistics on how many religious people there are. You can pretty much count on almost all of the religious believing they have an immaterial soul that is responsible for “who they are” and “how they think” and “what they choose” and they believe it will survive the death of their body and retain their personality and memories of loved ones and ability to think and choose.

          1. My point was that there are lots of other things besides “free will” that leads people to dualism, and if dualism is what you’re worried about particularly, then you should worry about those other things.

            In this reply you even noted “how they think” contributes to belief in souls.

            And lots of people, even on this thread, have expressed the notion that determinism renders “ideas” illusory, because they don’t originate from “the mind” any more than “choices” do – they originate from the deterministic algorithms you’ve been talking about, and everyone knows that “real ideas” and “real choices” require some spooky magic.

            In other words, compatibilism, at least as it has been expressed here, is a perspective on the entire empirical project, not just free will. It’s an attempt to match the ordinary-language senses of words in scientific discourse to human behavior. You’re one of the few self-identified incompatibilists on these threads who believes that humans make choices that are still real choices even if deterministic, and in that sense you read like a compatibilist most of the time.

            1. I’m not sure what you mean by “real” choices. Is this going down the “real” magic vs stage magic rathole?

              I think we choose based on the subjective qualities in our mind: what we want, what our goals and intentions are, what we perceive to be in our interest, what matches our desires or needs. I just think all of those things are determined, the result of parallel algorithms with competing modules vying for control. What happens though, what interest wins the competition for control is an inevitable result of the brain state, similar to a superposition or comparison of independent wave forms.

              I think I agree completely with what I’ve read of Dennet, except that I object to the contortions needed to preserve the term “free-will” because I think that has for millennia been associated with dualism. I think doing that muddies the waters of understanding for the public audience coming to terms with the findings of the cognitive sciences. And I think these findings are an important nail in the coffin of religious superstition, which needs to go sooner rather than later.

              The other thing lots of compatibilists do that bothers me is that they say “I could choose differently if conditions were different”. Big deal. I think the important aspect of the mind that makes us feel free is its plasticity, our ability to learn, the fact that we can observe the results of a deterministic choice, we can compare that with our goals and intentions to see if that choice really worked or not, and we can then decide to change in the future, we can take the results into account and modify how we choose the next time based an an ability to estimate outcomes before the choice. But still we could not choose differently at any moment; our conscious monitoring of all this makes us feel like we are doing it freely, but we just aren’t privy to the brain’s internal workings.

              It seems like the compatibilists care about subjective experience, and human behavior. But they seem to have not the slightest care for how the brain works. It’s like a driver who ignores the mechanics of the machine and just uses the car. The incompatibilists are more impressed by the fact that when we feel free consciously, there is all this unconscious stuff that isn’t included in that impression; the subjective impressions of freedom and choice are being presented to the consciousness by deterministic mechanisms involving firing neurons that follow the laws of chemistry and physics.

              So when a compatibilist says “I could choose differently under other circumstances, or if I desired something different”, to me it sounds like saying “my car could go faster if it had a bigger engine, or could corner better if it had a better suspension”. It sounds absurd and pointless to someone who is thinking about the mechanisms of thought.

              I think these different domains of interest are what causes the disagreements of vocabulary and emphasis. I really think that Jerry and Dennet see things the same, but that Jerry just doesn’t like changing the words “free-will” to mean an internal sense of control and no external coercion, and excluding dualistic contra-causal choice. Free will has always meant that a ghost in the machine can decide independent of any cause, and this is what it feels like, which is why people have always thought that. The compatibilist redefinition of free will feels like a concern for people having hurt feelings and disappointment if they really understand that they don’t have the magic spirit they always thought made them human, but instead they have an incredibly sophisticated meat computer, which is really the thing that makes them human. I don’t feel, and I think Jerry also doesn’t feel, that it is a good idea to make this touching sentimental gesture toward the human ego; the truth is we don’t have traditional free will. The truth is we have the ability to think and decide in very sophisticated ways that give the mere impression of traditional free will, but it is all done by a chemically driven meat computer. The only thing that allows the whole compatibilist notion to have any validity at all is to restrict it to the domain of subjective mental experience and the resulting human behavior; the compatibilists have isolated determinism in a corner, out of view, where they don’t need to deal with it. There is a kind of equivalence between what our minds actually can do subjectively, and what humans always thought we could do, but the basis for that ability has shifted from a magic ghost in the machine to the conscious subjective artificially limited view our mental activities, which is in fact the illusion that some “decider” inside us steps out of the flow of causality to choose things or control things. Of course this doesn’t happen. It only seems that way. That’s all it is: an illusion created for us by our brain. So compatibilism is based on an illusion; compatibilism has substituted the subjective illusion for the former ghost in the machine illusion.

              1. Jeff,

                All really good points, and I mostly agree across the board. Listen to what you’re saying though, and how much it contrasts with the other incompatibilists on the thread:

                I think the important aspect of the mind that makes us feel free is its plasticity, our ability to learn, the fact that we can observe the results of a deterministic choice, we can compare that with our goals and intentions to see if that choice really worked or not, and we can then decide to change in the future, we can take the results into account and modify how we choose the next time based an an ability to estimate outcomes before the choice.

                This is pretty much exactly what I would say. It’s not at all similar to other things that appear in the thread. You said “we can” four times, which is a bit more than others are “willing” to do. I’d like to point out that “we can decide to change in the future” is almost an ideal compatibilist sentence.

                But still we could not choose differently at any moment; our conscious monitoring of all this makes us feel like we are doing it freely, but we just aren’t privy to the brain’s internal workings.

                Yep, agreed. Not a problem for compatibilism. 🙂

              2. Another Matt,
                I find I’m in total agreement with what I see here from Tim Martin and Steve.

                And most points from compatibilists I agree with, as you’ve concurred.

                There are some others who don’t seem to get determinism; they are upset by a notion of choice that involves a deterministic selection from among alternatives; they wan’t “real” choice. Like someone complaining that a stage magicians tricks aren’t “real” magic. I don’t think the kind of choice they want exists.

                And they complain that Jerry say we can’t make choices. This is misunderstanding Jerry’s arguments I think. Jerry does go eat at restaurants from time to time. Obviously he can’t fail to notice he’s choosing things from the menu. He is simply asserting determinism: his choices are determined by the state of his brain, and he really couldn’t choose otherwise.

                And his important point is that we do not have free will in the most common historical traditional sense of the meaning: dualistic contra-causal free will. He merely objects to the compatibilists redefinition of free-will. And I think his reasons, like mine, have to do with being opposed to religion, and not wanting to obscure the fact that modern understanding of neuroscience basically provides extraordinary scientific evidence that we don’t have something like a soul that could survive the death of the brain/body.

                I think both Jerry and Sam Harris object to compatibilism creating a false sense of security that we actually have traditional free will, as opposed to what the compatibilists have recognized we actually have: a kind of will and freedom that is roughly equivalent in a functional sense; internal control and no external coercion is a satisfactory subjective experience equivalent to what we thought the ghost in the machine gave us. Indeed, it is that subjective experience that compatibilists point to that gave us the notion of the ghost in the machine in the first place. This is pretty much exactly why every notion of human behavior can be remapped from a model based on contra-causal free will to a model based on subjective control. It just doesn’t “work” under the hood the way we used to think it does, not on the principle of being unhooked from causality, but it works based on an unimaginably complex system of causation and determinism.

          2. Hi again Jeff. I do enjoy your posts! 🙂

            <b?There are some others who don’t seem to get determinism; they are upset by a notion of choice that involves a deterministic selection from among alternatives; they wan’t “real” choice.

            The issue I have with such statements are: They are vague and point to no one in particular. I don’t know who you are talking about and, further, I can’t think of anyone’s posts on here to whom your comments would apply. To often I find these emotional diagnostics are pointed condescendingly and falsely at another person’s position. For myself, I’m only going on what makes sense to me (or trying to) and that’s what I get from pretty much everyone else here.

            And they complain that Jerry say we can’t make choices.

            People point out Jerry says we can’t make “real” choices, which is the same as saying we can’t ACTUALLY make choices. From his USA piece:

            “Perhaps you’ve chosen to read this essay after scanning other articles on this website.

            You haven’t. You may feel like you’ve made choices, but in reality your decision to read this piece, and whether to have eggs or pancakes, was determined long before you were aware of it
            ….You had no choice about making them, and you’ll have no choice about whether you keep them.”

            No one can be blamed after reading his USA article for understanding it as Jerry denying choice “really” exists. On this thread Jerry said when he uses “choice” he means only “the APPEARANCE of choice” Which is merely another way of saying the same thing: choice is an illusion, it doesn’t really exist, we can’t really do that which is an illusion.

            Now, of course as you say Jerry notices he actually makes choices. The problem we keep pointing out is that we do not find he is fitting this coherently into his arguments.

            There is the notion that “well…we make un-free choices.” But, as is so often pointed out, this leaves the problem of how are we to think about claims like “could have been otherwise?” Because of all this talk about “could have been otherwise” being an “illusion,” we want to see how consistent Jerry and other incompatibilists are in carrying this through to the rest of our descriptions of reality.

            And his important point is that we do not have free will in the most common historical traditional sense of the meaning: dualistic contra-causal free will.

            But note that Jerry makes an even more explicit claim: “But before I explain this, let me define what I mean by “free will.” I mean it simply as the way most people think of it:”
            And he’s repeated this, that contra-causal notions are the basis of what people mean by “I could have done otherwise.” Some of us “emotional” compatibilists have pointed out that there has been little support for this claim. And I’ve given argument as to why it is not obvious, and why
            a compatibilist notion of “could have done otherwise” seems to capture a significant essence of how we use such claims in every day life. That doesn’t mean we therefore have “spooky free will.” Rather, it means that when most people say “I could have done otherwise,” to argue this is merely based on spooky contra-causal notions is not sufficient to explain such claims.

            In other words, in writing that clarification or defines of what Jerry/Sam are saying, you seem to simply repeat all the problems some of us are objecting to.


            1. It’s taken a long time to respond to this, but the volume of comments is kind of overwhelming.

              I think you are right that there is a reason for humans to talk about what we could have done otherwise after making a choice. That reason is separate from any notion of free will, and relates to learning for the future, how could we improve things next time? What Jerry is talking about seems to be the feeling that we actually could have done differently, which is an illusion based on an imagined contra-causal free will. And while there is no proof (perhaps a large study needs to be done), it seems clear from history and the ubiquitous culture of religion that most people, myself included until some years ago, really believe that when we choose we are doing it contra-causally. We are prone to believe that because subjectively it really does feel that way quite often, though at times we do catch ourselves doing things we didn’t consciously decide upon.

              I think it’s really important to make the distinction between talking about how the brain works at the biological level, or “under the hood” so to speak, and how we humans experience mental processes subjectively. It seems to me that perhaps incompatibilists think in the former mode mostly, and compatibilists mostly think in the latter mode.

              At the level of how the brain works, I believe that when we make a choice, it is deterministic to the extent that if we could dump the brain contents into a simulator in advance of the actual choice, we could predict what the outcome will be (if our simulator could work faster than the brain). That is purely a thought experiment. The choice takes into account what we want and what we think is best, but there is no possibility that we could have arrived at a different outcome (unless there were different inputs).

              This has to do with thinking about the brain as a biological computer, and thinking about the mechanisms that make it work.

              If we shift context to thinking about what it feels like to be a conscious human and engage in various activities, we feel like we could have chosen otherwise after we make a choice. Sometimes after we make a choice we feel it was a mistake and we regret it. One thing Jerry has pointed out is that if we realize our choice was determined by “who we were” at that moment, it was the best we could have done and we shouldn’t be kicking ourselves about what mistakes we made in the past. This is in fact pure good psychological advice; the only really constructive thing we can do is learn from our mistakes and not make them next time, but we don’t really benefit by agonizing unduly over our past mistakes (though many people, myself included, have a tendency to do that at times). Perhaps even that has some positive function because those emotions help reinforce the importance of acting differently next time, but it can be overdone and become a kind of emotional vortex that impedes progress.

              So as a subjective conscious human, it makes sense to talk about what other choices we could have made as a kind of postmortem analysis that could help us make a better choice next time we are faced with a similar situation. But any sense we have that we were really free to choose otherwise in the past is an illusion. So that helps illuminate the terms “real choice” and “the appearance of choice”. I think these terms are unfortunate because they are confusing, but I understand what Jerry means when he writes that way.

              I think “real choice” means contra-causal choice. “The appearance of choice” is that after making a determined choice we felt subjectively as if it was a “real choice” even though it wasn’t. The ambiguity in language comes from trying to bridge two contexts: viewing the brain as a biological computer, and peeking into the subjective experience of the conscious human.

              To identify this illusion of “real choice” is not to say we don’t choose with real consequences and real input from “who we are” and “what we want”; so it is not saying we don’t make choices, but we choose using deterministic algorithms that are largely unconscious, and that part which is consciously visible allows us to track some of the evaluation going into the choice. Perhaps this suggests a way in which consciousness is adaptive: it allows us to to perform a meta-evaluation of our choices during and after, it allows a parallel part of our brain to observe and compare the alternatives and the evaluative steps made and record these in memory where they are available to help us make refinements and improvements in the future. It gives us the benefit of having an internal critic that is an essential part of learning and adaptability.

              I think this is where our real freedom comes from: our ability to change over time, not from the flexibility to avoid causation at any moment.

              1. Jeff,

                And now the question is, would the simulator get you where you want to go? If the simulator is running exactly the same deterministic algorithms, it’s going to behave just like a human brain, right? So it’s going to make the same decisions for the same reasons, and it will have the same subjective experience of having made a decision (won’t it?). This is kind of the “brain in the vat.” But now that we’ve shown it to be deterministic beyond any shadow of a doubt, we’d still have the compatibilist-incompatibilist argument about what the simulator was doing.

              2. This is kind of the “brain in the vat.” But now that we’ve shown it to be deterministic beyond any shadow of a doubt, we’d still have the compatibilist-incompatibilist argument about what the simulator was doing.

                I suppose this is correct. I thought the simulator, as effectively an identical copy of another brain, one that could predict the choice of it’s original, would clarify what it means that our choices are ones that could not have been otherwise, and thus they are devoid of that metaphysical freedom we’ve always imagined they contain, which is only an illusion enabled by our inability to predict them in advance.

                Sometimes the debate seems to be merely one of semantics of “free will”, and other times it seems that some compatibilists are still uncomfortable with determinism, or perhaps at least in disagreement about its implications, and thus hopeful that complexity and emergence provides some kind of trap-door enabling momentary escapes from determinism.

      2. You bring up an interesting analogy.

        To me, as an interested layman, I hear Jerry and other incompatibalists here, as well as Harris to a great extent, striving mightily to make compatibalism irrelevant by redefining it to mean religious dualism, and insisting that that is the one and only compatibalist argument.

        It is very much like when faitheists insist on redefining atheism to suit their arguments, refusing to respect the difference between agnostics and atheists, let alone between the weak and hard (or soft and strong, if you prefer) variants on those positions. Then, after lumping everyone into the “believe god does not exist” category, they then try to hang amorality and nihilism on all nontheists.

        There can be no serious discussion among the rational community until Jerry and Harris and all the incompatibalist commenters here stop playing rhetorical games and start engaging the actual arguments actual compatibalists are actually making in the credible philosophy of science community and here in the comments.

        1. BTW, I happen to fall in the “conclude no gods exist or can exist” Stenger-informed category, so that wasn’t a criticism of the position. I still think it is illegitimate to insist that all nontheists take that position–just as it is illegitimate to insist that all compatibalists take a mystical dualist position.

          1. WordPress has it exactly right in my view. The problem with Jerry and Harris’s view is that they seem to limit the scope of the debate a priori to rule out compatibilism as a serious option. They do this not by offering credible arguments against such a position, but with various attempts to link compatibilism to theology or religious dualism. This is entirely misleading and a straw man as we all know–since the great compatibilist in the history of philosophy was David Hume, an atheist if anybody was. Rather than engage this debate Jerry and others insist on their own definition of terms and nothing else. I find this rather ironic, since one of the complaints one hears against certain philosophers is that “they are merely playing games with words.” In this case it seems Jerry and others are the one’s playing the games.

            1. Holy shit! If you are reduced to arguments from authority (an certainly Hume was a clever fellow), then I’m afraid compatibilism is doomed.

              Please answer a very simple question: what is compatibilist free will?

              Before you ask back, I’ll tell you what incompatibilist free will is: free will is the ability to choose what you desire.

              There. That’s as clear and concise as I can manage. Now, can you give me as clear and concise an answer?

              1. To CHOOSE what you DESIRE?

                Congratulations, you’ve rendered free will not dualist but incoherent!

                The whole point of choosing is that you conform the world to what you desire. Of course you can’t conform what you desire to what you desire! (What you desire to desire? What about what you desire to desire to desire?)

                As Eliezer Yudkowsky would put it (you guys should read him; Less Wrong, it’s a good blog): Error: Object Expected_Utility has no attribute Expected_Utility.

              2. “free will is the ability to choose what you desire.”

                So what? Like the theist, you can stipulate a definition of god/free-will that is easy to defend/refute, but that doesn’t mean it’s a definition of a thing that anyone has ever cared about or thought we had.

                Besides, we certainly can, with introspection and practice: adjust our priorities, refine our tastes, be less impulsive, and otherwise “choose our desires” in a non-trivial sense. So what’s your point?

              3. Piero,

                I’m not sure what you’re getting at. If you read my post carefully you’ll see that nowhere did I make an argument from authority. What I claimed was that the view some are defending here–that there’s a connection between compatibilist defenses of free will and religious dualism–is clearly mistaken. And the evidence I offered for this was the fact (an empirical fact) that David Hume was the great compatibilist and also an atheist. This is a factual point about history–this point in no way depends upon appealing to Hume as an authority. So your complaint here misses the mark.

                As for your other question, I refer you to Peter’s reply.

              4. Piero,

                Before you ask back, I’ll tell you what incompatibilist free will is: free will is the ability to choose what you desire.

                There. That’s as clear and concise as I can manage.

                Unfortunately that’s not quite clear, as it can be interpreted several ways.

                By “choose what you desire” do you mean one can choose THAT which one desires? E.g. I have a desire for coffee, and if I can choose to fulfill that desire I have free will?

                If so, that is quite consonant with compatibilist free will, and hence we would have free will by your definition.

                Or, do you mean instead that free will is the ability to “choose our desires themselves?” (instead of the objects of our desire?).

                If so, two responses:

                1. There is a sense in which we can choose our desires. An example I’ve given before: I had gotten out of shape because I came to desire only junky food and desired to relax vs exercise. But then my desire to get back into shape became quite strong (after doctor’s visit). Having gone through getting into shape before, I knew that although I desired junk food over good food now, and sitting to exercising, I once had the opposite desires and I could get them again by pushing myself there, getting into new habits. In other words, I had the desire to get myself to desire exercise and healtheir food.

                And that is what I achieved. Where I USED to desire only junk food, I find myself desiring healthy food much more often. Where I USED to desire to relax most of the time and dreaded heavy exercies, I now crave and desire exercise and love it.

                So in that real sense I did indeed “choose” ahead of time to acquire certain desires.
                (There are many other instances in life that are similar).

                Hence, it seems we would have free will by your definition.

                2. That said, the compatibilist view (or at least the one I’m sympathetic toward) would point out that free will does not require that we can choose our desires (even if this is possible in some cases). Rather, we need to be able to choose from AMONG our desires and act to fulfill those desires. Essentially, once you have desires in the mix, we can ask whether we are “free” or not to fulfill those desires. It is no more necessary to the logic of free will that desires have to be “free” themselves, or that we have to explain were desires come from,* than it is for a scientist to have to be able to explain how life arose in order for evolution to be valid. Once you HAVE replicating-with-heritable-variation-entities the logic of evolution arises.
                Once you HAVE desires combined with a process of deliberation on how to fulfill desires, the logic of “free will” or “can I choose otherwise?” arises.


                *(With a caveat that we can bring up if necessary)

              5. Patrick said:

                “To CHOOSE what you DESIRE?

                Congratulations, you’ve rendered free will not dualist but incoherent!”

                Thank you. That’s what I’ve been trying to show in every discussion on free will. You are the first one to get my point. Congratulations!

                I’ve read Yudkowsky’s blog, by the way. He’s indeed a smart guy, but neither infallible nor omniscient.


                If your definition of free will is not the ability tho choose what you desire, then we are back to the point I made earlier: you are confusing fredom to act with freedom to will. You can, of course, define free will as the freedom to act upon your desires, but I don’t see the point of that, since we have a perfectly serviceable word for that already: freedom.


                Yes, you can regard my statement as ambiguous, but only at the price of doing some pretty weird semantic contortions. It is obvious that I meant “freedom to will”, i.e. “freedom to chose what to desire”. Your example has already been discussed, and found to be evidence for incompatibilism. You did not choose to choose to lead a healthier life out of thin air: you merely chose to lead a healthier life based on environmental inputs, such as the knowledge of how damaging junk food can be to your body, the desire to look fitter and thus more attractive, and so on.

              6. Piero,

                Yes, you can regard my statement as ambiguous, but only at the price of doing some pretty weird semantic contortions.

                Honestly, I wasn’t just dickin’ around to waste words. It’s possible from a reader’s point of view you meant it in either sense and all I was asking was so I could be clear.

                —- Your example has already been discussed, and found to be evidence for incompatibilism. ”

                Well, of course it is when you start with incompatibilist assumptions.
                IF you start with an incompatibilist assumption then of course any appeal to any empirical experience will only ever confirm incompatibilism.

                But in terms simply of YOUR supplied definition, my example actually did show free will.

                —- You did not choose to choose to lead a healthier life out of thin air:

                Who cares? Your definition said nothing about “must be made out of thin air.” And…why WOULD it need to come out of thin air?

                —you merely chose to lead a healthier life based on environmental inputs, such as the knowledge of how damaging junk food can be to your body, the desire to look fitter and thus more attractive, and so on.

                Er…yes. You just described the normal process of motivation, deliberation and choice. And now you are saying it “wasn’t” chosen?

                Methinks the goal posts are on wheels, ready to be wheeled out of sight as needed.


              7. Piero,

                Your reply to my complaint isn’t anywhere in the vicinity of actually replying to my complaint. I think it’s that you don’t know what a good argument looks like, but in case I was unclear, I’ll try to be a bit make my argument clearer.

                You and Jerry and some others around here are arguing like this:

                -Assume there are sound arguments for some positions that hinge on the existence of (free will)

                -Provide a definition of (free will)’ based on something independent of what’s necessary in those arguments (i.e., (free will) is not necessarily the same as (free will)’)

                -based on your idiosyncratic definition, declare that (free will)’ does not exist

                -without establishing that your version of (free will)’ has any implications for the previous arguments that hinge on (free will), declare those previous arguments must be invalid, since (free will)’ does not exist

                -(optional) declare that the converse of those arguments has been therefore been proven

                That is, I am accusing you of fetishizing an idiosyncratic definition of free will. You are throwing some words down (“freedom to choose desires”) without doing the hard work of showing that those words are ever important in contexts or arguments where people actually talk about free will. You might want to take those words, plug them back into the original arguments, and show that those arguments do in fact fail if we can’t choose our desires.

                Plus, of course, your definition just isn’t good enough, since it’s easy to show that we can, in several meaningful ways, “choose our desires.” I we are all supposed to be able to see clearly that those ways aren’t what you’re talking about, but…I don’t know what extra force your sense has than my sense. So really, try to be more careful, and show me why the freedom to chose, all the way down, is really the only important freedom worth talking about.

                (apologies, of course, since you’re probably very confused about what I’m actually asking for here)

  28. The current Big Bang evidence is not proof enough, Scientism can make the assumption (aka “leap of Faith”), that time and the universe are linear (with and end and beginning), but, what if it is cyclical (or toroidal), in it’s nature? There would then be no start and no end. Until there is definitive proof regarding the linear nature of our Universe, the possibility of a non-linear, or cyclical universe is just as plausible. Scientism is Monotheism, go talk to a river.

    1. The current Big Bang evidence is not proof enough …

      Not proof enough of what? Certainly a Big Bang model of our observable universe is overwhelmingly favoured by strong evidence.

      Scientism can make the assumption (aka “leap of Faith”), that time and the universe are linear (with and end and beginning) …

      Actually, scientism makes no “assumption” nor any “leap of faith” that time has a beginning and an end. For example the current favourite cosmological models have neither a beginning nor an end to time.

      Scientism is Monotheism …

      You’re not being very convincing.

      1. Strong evidence is not Conclusive Evidence, therefore it is still speculation, and premises based on these speculations are therefore assumptions or a leaps of faith. Causality implies determinism, if the is no cause (no start), there is no determinism. I didn’t expect that anyone that worships Scientism would take to kindly to the thought that I consider them a Monotheist, least of all convince them. Favorable Cosmological Models to whom, why? Not to me, that’s for sure. Scienctism is not Objective.

        1. Your post is wrong in just about every sentence. First, the Big Bang model is established on very strong evidence well beyond mere “speculation”. Nothing is ever established to absolute certainty, but the Big Bang model meets any standard of proof short of that.

          Second, many current Big Bang variants do *not* have time starting in the Big Bang, and do *not* have a beginning to time. So you are wrong to claim that cosmologists are making that “assumption” and you are wrong that proving the BB would prove a beginning to time.

          You are also wrong in your claim “if there is no cause (no start), there is no determinism”. Determinism can work fine with an infinite regress of time, and that is entirely compatible with current cosmological models.

          I didn’t expect that anyone that worships Scientism would take to kindly to the thought that I consider them a Monotheist, …

          Not really, I’d have to respect your opinion before I cared what you think, and so far you haven’t said anything sensible.

          Favorable Cosmological Models to whom, why? Not to me, that’s for sure.

          Favoured by cosmologists assessing the evidence, that’s who. (And, again, I’m not sure they’d care what you think.)

          1. “Nothing is ever established to absolute certainty” – you said it, and you therefor you assume.
            “Favored by cosmologists assessing the evidence, that’s who. (And, again, I’m not sure they’d care what you think.)” To say that these individuals are not biased, at the very least in their focus, is foolish.
            Determinism is not the only possibility in an infinite regress of time… unless of course you can’t take your glasses off.

            1. Determinism is not the only possibility in an infinite regress of time …

              I didn’t say it was; what I said is that determinism doesn’t require a “start” of time, and is compatible with infinite regress of time.

              1. the best explanations use the least assumptions. My personal feeling – if there is even a remote chance that the universe is not deterministic we must allow for that possibility to exist, otherwise we may be compounding false assumptions on top of one another. For example, until recently the speed of light was fixed, that’s 50 or so years of false assumptions if it is proved that it is variable. This same kind of error could have been made in determinism. The general attitude of the anti free will crowd seems to be patronizing, disdainful, and with Sam Harris’s support of torture, somewhat heartless. If we are only speaking of the body (due to assumptions), free will is indeed in question, but if we are not (due to a lack of assumptions), it is not the only question, and these other questions deserve equal objective attention (if that is even possible). And lets not forget the Ganzfeld effect

              2. if there is even a remote chance that the universe is not deterministic we must allow for that possibility to exist

                We do. Most of us accept that quantum mechanics is non-deterministic (or at least that indeterminacy appears to play a large role in quantum mechanics), and thus that indeterminacy is prevalent in the universe.

              3. with all that “indeterminacy” (even in basic concepts like gravity), comes a ratio of false probabilities that reflect the # of assumptions (+/-), and with those, free will – escaping determinacy. I don’t think (using the gravity example), that science has the capacity to even come close to the issue of free will because of the inherent “indeterminacy” in all things that exist, and to think that it can gives it the flavor of monotheism and faith in an determinate universe while ignoring the actually possibility of existing in an indeterminate one. I’d rather keep my options.

              1. As a matter of fact, I am taking antidepressants right now, after an attempted suicide. They are working allright so far. It’s April 23rd today, and I’m still alive.

              2. Piero,
                I’m very glad you are still with us. I’m sorry to hear things got so bad. I’ve come close to that myself, but always stopped short. You’re a really bright guy and I always look forward to reading what you write. You have a lot to give the world. I hope you don’t ever throw it away. Take care, and I hope you have a smooth recovery.

              3. I agree with Jeff. I’ve always enjoyed your posts, especially when you’ve challenged me directly. 🙂

                I just started taking an SSRI myself currently and I’m doing better than I have in years. Best of luck.

  29. Here’s my definition, since you asked: Free will is the ability to do what we want.

    This ability in no way conflicts with determinism, therefore free will is compatible with determinism.

    1. Yes! And notice how this is a highly nontrivial thing to have!

      Asteroids don’t have it; they don’t even want things.
      When our bodies are physically forced, we don’t have it; put enough force on my arm and it will break whether I want it to or not.
      When we are coerced, we don’t have it; we want things and can’t have them.

      Yet, when we are uncoerced, and using our powers of reason to make a decision, sure enough! We have this very unusual property, the property of being able to do what you want.

  30. I would be fine with abandoning the term “free will”, if—and only if—it is replaced by something that is useful and informative about the critically important differences between mindless natural processes and intelligent decisions.

    Asteroids do not think.
    Humans think.

    Therefore, humans have something that asteroids don’t. I usually call it “free will”; but fine, if you don’t like that term call it something else.

    Do robots and other animals think? Ay, there’s the rub! We don’t really know whether robots think, and while I’m quite sure that cats do and oysters don’t, I’m not positive whether say, slugs or ants do. But if they do, yes, they have the same stuff—the same thing compatibilists are calling “free will”.

    “Rational volition”, “executive function”, and “decision-making” are three that cognitive scientists would already be fairly familiar with. If you prefer those, by all means, use them instead. In many ways this is clearer than using a theologically-laden word like “free will”.

    One thing you CANNOT use—and I can’t stress this enough—is “the appearance of choice”. Because it’s not about appearance! It’s about the real phenomenon of actual choices being made, based on intelligent processes. It’s about the real, actual, empirically-verified difference in behavior between humans and asteroids.

    1. I completely disagree: “appearance of choice” is a perfectly intelligible phrase that acurately describes what we’ve come to call “choices”.

      Our ability to reason has nothing to do with it. The analytical capacity of our brain is completely impotent to change our desires, and hence our choices. If you are a heterosexual male, can you choose to become a homosexual man? Or viceversa? If you find cricket utterly boring, can you choose to find it interesting, or even exciting? If you find gristle vomit-inducing, can you choose to like it?

      We cannot change our desires from within. Only external inputs can do that. And that amounts to stating that free will does not exist. What’s so hard to understand?

      1. I don’t agree that analysis can’t change our desires. Suppose that I want to become a lawyer, but after thinking about it for three hours, realize that actually, it wouldn’t be a good career for me. Certainly that counts as analysis changing one’s desire?

        1. EXACTLY!

          Thinking often DOES change our decisions, not only in principle, but in PRACTICE.

          This is what makes us capable of rational behavior, as opposed to being merely atoms buffeted about by electromagnetic currents.

          Is this process entirely naturalistic? Yes. Is it entirely deterministic? Probably. But it is, in a very important sense, FREE—in that we are free to decide differently if we desire differently.

          This isn’t even always true: If you shoot me in the face, I do not choose to die. I may die, but not on purpose. But your shooting of me was most likely on purpose (though not necessarily, maybe it was a misfire, etc.); that is why we say that you are morally responsible for shooting me but I am not morally responsible for dying.

        2. Sorry, but you are just begging the question.
          Why should you have given the matter soe further thought? What made you choose to do so? What made you analyse the matter for three hours and conclude that a career in law would not be the right choice? What external elements came into play during your period of reflexion?

          1. You said that thought can’t change our decisions.

            We just showed that thought can change decisions.

            So you moved the goalpost: Now in order for it to count, the thought itself must be uncaused.

            This is like arguing that rain does not exist because rain comes from clouds, and you need to explain where the clouds came from.

          2. What question am I begging, Piero? Maybe I gave the matter more thought because I’m a thoughtful person, or maybe it’s because I was worried about my future, or maybe it was some other reason. As for “external elements”–external to what? My brain? My entire body?

            1. OMG! How can you not see that “maybe I gave the matter more thought because I’m a thoughtful person” explains nothing? What made you decide to give the matter further thought? Was it a random quantum event? Do you always give any matter whatsoever the same degree of further thought? Why didn’t you go to the cinema instead of devoting three hours to thunking about your career choice? What caused your neural circuits to make you think about it?

              I think both Patrick and Joey are missing the point by a few miles. The point is not that we use reason to ponder our decisions: the point is what makes us decide to ponder some of them (but not all) and what makes us adopt the decision we in fact do.

              1. OMG! I think Piero is missing the point, because he claimed that “The analytical capacity of our brain is completely impotent to change our desires, and hence our choices.” I gave a valid counterexample, and he retreated by asking “what makes us adopt the decision we in fact do.” There’s a lot of complex and not-too-well-understood neurology behind that sort of thing, but whatever the neurology is, at the end of the day a process of analysis still changed a desire.

      2. How about “appearance of free choice”? (Just to nail it down even more.) Really what is just having an appearance is the freedom element not the choosing part.

  31. Thanks to Jeff Johnson for triggering an understanding of why this discussion seems to exasperating and disappointing.

    The way Coyne and Harris and the incompatibalist commenters here approach, redefine and dismiss compatibalism strikes me as very similar to the way faitheists approach, redefine and dismiss nontheism.

    Just as faitheists:

    a) refuse to accept atheists’ self-definition and

    b) refuse to acknowledge the nuances of soft/hard agnostic and soft/hard atheist,

    c) insist that all nontheists are hard atheists (refusing to acknowledge that that is a minority position–it is one I hold myself, but hardly the consensus), and then

    d) hang amorality and nihilism on all atheists,

    so does the incompatibalist argument here

    a) refuse to accept the self-definition of the compatibalist position by the actual compatibalists here and elsewhere in the non-theistic, physical reality/monist community,

    b) refuse to acknowledge the many nuanced positions,

    c) insist that all compatibalists are dualists and then

    d)hang religion and mysticism on all compatibalists.

    It is not a legitimate approach to critically thinking about an issue. It is not helpful, reasonable or useful.

    1. I offered them the chance to use the term “rational volition” if “free will” is too dualist for them.

      They turned it down. Apparently they don’t believe in rationality?

    2. I think you are mistaken in crediting me with these things.

      I think that compatibilists and incompatibilists agree that there is no dualism, and that our ability to will and choose is not contra-causal.

      I think incompatibilists agree that what compatibilists call free will exists and is meaningful.

      I think the only real disagreement is in using the term “free will”. The basic definition of compatibilism is “free will and determinism are compatible”. This can ONLY be the case if you limit the meaning of free will to exclude what has been and continues to be one of its most important components of the meaning of “free will” to most people who have lived in the last two thousand years, namely freedom from causation and freedom from divine will or divine determinism. Theologians long ago correctly sensed the paradoxes and contradictions if they allowed all human behavior to be determined by God’s will. They invested a lot of effort in creating the concept of “free will”, which is dualist and contra-causal.

      Compatibilists want to dismiss and erase that history. Compatibilists try to insist that people don’t really believe “free will” relates to a dualist conception of the human soul. This is obviously a necessary step to defend the claim that “free will” is compatible with determinism. But that claim amounts to mere semantics, because it is only true with a specialized limited redefinition of what free will has meant for centuries.

      You just have to talk to any religious believer to discover that they believe they have a soul, that it chooses God freely, purely by uncaused personal choice. That choice determines their fate, they believe, in an afterlife.

      Read theologians, read Descartes and many other philosophers to see the historical prevalence of the notion that free will is a human quality that specifically relates to individual uncaused choice. The theological importance of this is that following God’s command is optional, so it relates traditionally to a divine rather than physical kind of determinism. But this meaning is tied up in over 5 billion human being’s self-conception as possessing a soul. This aspect can be found in any good dictionary definition of “free will”.

      The reason this is the traditional and most commonly understood meaning of free will is because this is exactly what it feels like we have; obviously the common meaning is derived from natural human intuitions about their inner mental experience.

      So here is what baffles me about compatibilists: Why is it important to be able to say that free will is compatible with determinism? What would be the problem with saying we do not have free will?

      I’ll answer the opposite question: what is the problem with (mis)using the term “free will”? It is because I believe that religious belief is a force for confusion and bad thinking in the world. I want the world at large to understand the role of the brain in determining who we are, and that there is no refuge for the notion of the soul and the afterlife. I think that compatabilists pretending that nothing has changed because they can mouth the words “we have free will” obscures from the general public this message of new discovery.

      It confuses people when some people write articles saying we have free will, and others write articles saying we don’t have free will, and only a very deep and nuanced understanding enables people to conclude that they are both just saying the same thing in different words with different meaning. Given that confusion, most people probably are tempted to stick with what they know, and what seems obvious, which is that they believe they have dualistic free will. They don’t really understand the subtlety of the compatibilist position on free will, and so compatibilism has effectively obscured the truth from the common person. It is much more clear to say that we do not have what we always thought we had: we do not have free will. That is true: we don’t have it. Yes we do have “limited form compatibilist apologetic free will facsimile”, but so what? That only means people that, surprise, you can continue to do what you’ve always done, as if anybody ever thought they couldn’t.

      I agree its a good thing that we all really can do what everybody knows and always has known, what even children know we can do: choose what we want and do what we want to do. Nobody ever worried that we can’t do what we all obviously do every day (well, maybe compatibilists worried about it). So to cling to a particular word definition of “free will” seems like it’s building a firewall around scary determinism, rather than embracing and publicizing this radical new conception of the basis for human behavior.

      Fully embracing determinism, rather than hiding it under a carefully crafted veneer of comfortable language of course demands further explanation, and compatibilists have done much excellent work creating the explanations of why it is we appear to have free will when we don’t actually have free will. This is what is really good and important about compatibilism: it answers the worries that determinism makes us no better than a train on a track, or mere puppets. If we are puppets, at least it is our brain and our body that controls the strings. The need for these explanations offers a great deal of job security for compatibilists in the future; their mission in life does not depend on bravely clinging to the syllables “free will” as being among the long list of many wonderful human qualities.

      1. “This can ONLY be the case if you limit the meaning of free will to exclude what has been and continues to be one of its most important components…namely freedom from causation and freedom from divine will or divine determinism”

        Oh, that’s easy to address: we ARE free of divine will/determinism, because there is no god. And freedom from causation (all the way down) has never been an *important* part of what we think of/intuit when we think about free will (at most, it’s a convenient but sloppy description of what we mean).

        Of course you’re basically right about free-will in the theological context. But just from an argumentative perspective: that theological scenario has many other problems besides *just* free-will, the free-will required in that scenario is intuitively incoherent (in a way that more secular versions needn’t be), the free-will used in that scenario isn’t obviously the same as free-will invoked in other contexts. Most importantly to me, it seems that if you really mean to be arguing against a *soul*, or against *divine justice*, or etc., you can probably do better by arguing against those things, rather than going off an a tangent about how “free-will” doesn’t exist, and hope that you manage to refute the original thing serendipitously.

        1. Yes. But you missed what my major concern is. All those problems with theology are my major concern.

          And freedom from causation (all the way down) has never been an *important* part of what we think of/intuit when we think about free will (at most, it’s a convenient but sloppy description of what we mean).

          It depends on what you mean by important, and important to whom. I agree that in terms of a factual analysis of human cognition and behavior, what never existed is unimportant to the reality of human beings.

          On the other hand, to billions of people who don’t understand these things, freedom of causation is THE most important thing; it is their ticket to heaven. They think it is real and essential to their identity and character of human beings. So, when you say it’s not important, yes I agree, it’s not really important, but billions are deceived into believing it is important. In their minds it IS important.

          Compatibilism obscures that from the general public. When there are a series of articles talking about free will, what most people get is that some people are saying we have it, and others are saying we don’t. What they don’t get is that both are in agreement except for one thing: what they mean by free will.

          The typical religious believer is shielded from the unsettling notion that there is wide consensus that free will does not exist.

          My main objection you could say is social, and has to do with how scientific understanding is communicated to the general public. Compatibilism is a kind of denial of something very true:

          Compatibilists and incompatibilists AGREE that the kind of free will most humans think they have does not exist. It is doing a disservice to humanity, in my opinion, to confuse them and shield them from this truth by continuing to claim “we have free will” when you don’t mean what they think you mean. I suspect some compatibilists think they are protecting people from what some may consider to be unpleasant implications of the truth. This is a bad thing in my opinion.

          1. Sorry, serendipity was a bad analogy for your style of argument. You’re taking aim at free will, with the strategic aim of bringing down theology/belief in heaven as *collateral damage.*

            I still disagree with your approach: there are much better ways to argue against heaven, god, souls, than to try to discredit “free-will,” and especially than by arguing that “compatibilists are missing the point.”

            And on that note, who is trying “to confuse them and shield them from this truth?” Compatibilists (like Dennett) are very vocal atheists (hey, he’s one of the horsemen, even!), and very critical of the theological ideas you say you’re most concerned with. Dismantling those ideas directly, instead of indirectly through “free-will” talk, is not “confusing” or “shielding from the truth,” and if anything, your indirect, collateral damage approach is more confusing.

            And lastly: “But you missed what my major concern is…”

            Well, actually, it’s just that I’m not obliged to share your major concern. I’m entitled to my own concerns.

          2. Jeff, thanks for these recent posts. I find them convincing even if I’m not ready to agree with them just yet. Can you address one more thing?

            Is it only free will that has the problems you’ve been discussing? For instance, is it not a disservice to humanity, confusing them and shielding them from the truth that we don’t have, say, “conscious thought” in the way religious people think we do, that is, produced by an immaterial soul and disconnected from the “mere machinations of matter?”

            Talk to Edward Feser or William Lane Craig or Alvin Plantinga and they’ll all claim that there’s no way to conceive of something abstract and metaphysical like “triangle” or “algebra” or “conjugation” without something abstract and metaphysical like a soul, and further that there is no reliable knowledge without a personal god as first and final cause, holding everything together, etc.

            If religious people find these arguments convincing, and if they only in fact think of thought and knowledge in this way, are we doing wrong to say “yes, we have thought and knowledge but it doesn’t mean what you think it does or take the form of or depend upon what you think it does” rather than to ditch those terms as hopelessly lost to our religious past and come up with something new?

          3. Jeff,

            Compatibilists, like any other group within a general philosophical stance, will vary in how they’d answer you.
            As someone sympathetic to compatibilism, here is my answer (and I think it represents the *general* tenor of compatibilism).

            Compatibilists and incompatibilists AGREE that the kind of free will most humans think they have does not exist.

            No that doesn’t get things quite right. And it errs (or misstates) in a very important way – it seems to be the crux of the issue in your post(s). We DON’T agree like that.

            One of the reasons compatibilism argues for “free will,” rather than just making up some other term, is because it captures (and justifies) the important features of the ” free will” we tend to think we have. That is why compatibilists push back at the accusations that compatibilism is mere semantics and only “re-defining” free will.
            When Dennett talks of compatibilist free will being the “only free will worth want’ing,” he’s not saying “Look guys, I made up an entirely new thing that I think is valuable, and I’m just going to call it Free Will.'” Rather, he points out that the *important* features of the type of free will we think we have when making decisions…we actually have!

            Compatibilism is as much an analysis of human choice-making, and of what humans tend to mean by “could have done otherwise” as is libertarian free willism, or deterministic incompatibilism. This is why I, as someone currently sympathetic to the compatibilist view, keep arguing that a compatibilist understanding of “I can choose between X or Y” seems to be more cogent than that offered by incompatibilists who insist it refers entirely to contra-causal conceptions of the self.

            I think a better perspective to understand this from is something like this: Stop thinking of “Free Will” as being an “answer” and start looking at it as a question (or set of questions/concerns). It will make more sense of it across the board, and throughout history as well.

            Let’s use morality as an example, as I have before. For much of human history morality has been linked with Gods, especially the commands of the monotheistic God. Now, if you view “morality” in a narrow way, as simply an answer, then since most people in history (and most people today) thought “morality is what MY God tells us to do” then everyone not of that certain religion would have to say “Oh, since I don’t believe your religion, or don’t believe your God exists, I have to admit morality doesn’t exist.”

            But we don’t do that do we? We retain the concept of Morality across all manner of belief systems; Morality is a concept used by people of all faiths, and secular people and philosophers also believe they are “moral” and think morality still exists as a viable concept. Why? Because when you look at it less simplistically, morality isn’t merely an “answer,” it’s a question – an area of inquiry or a set of concerns, such as “Why ought we do X?” “How ought I live?” “How ought we treat one another?” etc. Once we understand these as the underlying features or concerns, we notice that one person’s religion does not “define” morality – it simply offers their answer to those questions (e.g. “Because God tells us to do X”). But there are other answers as well, and these are questions always open, a challenge for anyone to give their answer at any time – hence the huge proliferation of moral answers or moral/ethical theories. But all still talking about “morality.”

            The subject of Free Will is in the same situation. If you posit the subject of Free Will narrowly as only an answer by proclaiming: “Free Will Is…(contra-causal free will) ” then you’ll be stuck saying “Free Will doesn’t exist” insofar as THAT type of free will is incoherent. But Free Will, like morality, is more thoroughly understood as an area of inquiry, of a question or set of concerns: “Am I free? Can I really do as I wish? Is it up to me? Could I have done otherwise?” If we can find affirmative answers, then we have the things that concern us under the banner “Free Will.” Then you can realize there are, and have been for thousands of years, many different answers. One answer is “Yes, I’m free because an All Powerful God decided to make me free to choose.” But THAT is only ONE
            possible answer – it is not “the definition of free will.” Like morality, if we find out there is no God, so long as we can still answer the questions in the affirmative, we still are saying “yes we have free will.”

            And this helps explain the fact there have been numerous competing answers for thousands and thousands of years. Even before Christianity (and then within the monotheisms), when much of the discussion was stuck in the realm of talk out Gods creating or ruling humans, there have been Libertarian, Deterministic/Fatalistic and Compatibilistic answers. The power and foreknowledge of the Gods were just previous stand-ins for the challenges of determinism to our free will. And the Greeks were doing all three as well, from more strict philosophical, and “natural (“physics”)” points of view.

            So this notion you, and more typically indeterminists here, keep throwing out that “Free Will IS contra-causal – that’s what everyone has always thought it was,” starts from a rather blinkered and question-begging start.
            This should have been obvious even from how we have singled out the problem of free will to specific questions like “Could I have done otherwise?” The incompatibilists want to hold that this would STRICTLY mean “If every condition and cause were precisely the same, I could have done otherwise” and CLAIM this represents the basis for how we make such everyday volitional claims. But this is under dispute. The compatibilist also claims to uncover the basis for our claims that “We can do X or Y” or “I could have done X or Y.” And as I’ve argued, I think an appeal to our powers-within-a-situation-given-our-desire better represents why we say “I could have done otherwise” vs appeal to some “If I could rewind the universe precisely atom-for-atom I’m out of the loop of causation” concept.

            Back to the morality analogy: Both a Christian and an atheist (who is a moral realist) can agree there is a real, objective basis for morality. The theist will say God’s commands are the objective basis for how we ought to treat one another; the atheist may appeal to axioms that result in empirical facts about the world entailing the basis for moral truths. Though they have a different basis for the answer, both are still talking about “morality,” which you can see when you consider morality as a subject of inquiry, of looking for answers to sets of questions.

            Similarly, a libertarian free wiliest (contra-causal) and a compatibilist will both agree we have “free will” insofar as we can make choices, we are free to choose X or Y, we “could have done otherwise” and it was “up to me” etc.
            We are talking essentially about the same things; we just have different answers as to the basis – as to WHY we can do those things.

            And a theist, an atheist, a determinist, libertarian, or compatibilists may have different answers to the sets of concerns nuder the banner of “free will,” and so long as they are still given answers to those questions we are still talking about “Free Will.”



            Free will is a question, not an answer, like morality.

            It’s not an illusion that I can choose to do x or y. Because while I’m deliberating it’s a consideration of my powers at the time…based on my desires. IF I WANT X I can choose it or IF INSTEAD I WANT Y I can choose it. So long as I do indeed have the physical powers necessary to do either of those things, it’s not an illusion.

            Yes I know I’ll only ever able to be able to do one of the two.

            1. Aaah!

              Please ignore all the typing at the end of my post (after “Vaal”) – it was left over text from a post I never ended up finishing.


  32. Compatibilist notions of “free will” belong in a discussion about libertarian free will (the kind of “free will” that Sam and Jerry are talking about), in the same way in which “that which is used to hit a baseball” belongs in a discussion about Chiroptera.

    1. “… libertarian free will (the kind of “free will” that Sam and Jerry are talking about) … “

      That’s not true. Much of the commentary by Sam and Jerry is aimed at the compatibilist conception of freewill (read Jerry’s post and Sam’s post that it refers to), in fact I’d say that the vast bulk of it is! And given that, talking about compatibilist notions in this context is entirely appropriate.

  33. I haven’t read all the comments, so somebody else might have brought up the question, but here goes: numerous psychological studies have shown that a feeling for ‘fairness’ in relations with others is a natural and strong component of our psyche, and that this sense of fairness involves ‘punishing’ those who do not behave fairly: ‘Altruistic punishment could well be the glue that holds societies together,’ writes Daniel Kahneman in “Thinking Fast and Slow”; and he goes on to say ‘However, our brains are not designed to reward generosity as reliably as they punish meanness.’ I certainly agree with Sam Harris that we should feel pity first of all where, say, a psychopath or a pedophile is concerned, and I certainly find loathsome screams for mere retribution, but how is one going to deal with the feelings of someone whose child, say, has been killed: with the feelings of, say, Trayvon Martin’s mother who is saying, quite rightly to my mind, that someone should pay for her son’s murder? And who should that someone be? Zimmerman is obviously a very sad case, the sort of person who should never have been given a vigilante role and should never have been allowed near a firearm; and yet the police humoured him over a long period of time, and when he shot someone promptly battened down the hatches and went into a sullenly defensive mode, refraining from doing what is their proper job – a reaction that is, alas, perfectly natural and predictable, and doubtless determined, in the circumstances. And then there are those foolish politicians who for ideological reasons passed a law that would obviously lead to precisely what has happened now. There are a great many people who should be held responsible for what happened so that there can be a fair and just accounting in this case. And to say that is not to call blindly for retribution. Can not some actual cases be addressed instead of the desirable abstractions of Sam Harris?


    He didn’t defend his use of dualistic language, by the way.

    Issue number 1:

    “Dan seems to think that free will is like color: People might have some erroneous beliefs about it, but the experience of freedom and its attendant moral responsibilities can be understood in a similarly straightforward way through science. I think that free will is an illusion and that analogies to phenomena like color do not run through. A better analogy, also taken from the domain of vision, would liken free will to the sense that most of us have of visual continuity.”

    This discussion should not be dominated by analogies: Analogies are there to help thinking, but as arguments in and of themselves, it is weak thinking and bad philosophy.

    “While color vision survives close inspection, our conventional sense of visual continuity does not. The impression we have of seeing everything all at once, clearly, and without interruption is based on our not paying close attention to what it is like to see. I argue that the illusory nature of free will can also be noticed in this way. As with the illusion of visual continuity, the evidence of our confusion is neither far away nor deep within; rather, it is right on the surface of experience, almost too near to us to be seen.

    Of course, we could take Dan’s approach and adjust the notion of “continuity” so that it better reflected the properties of human vision, giving us a new concept of seamless visual perception that is “worth wanting.””

    What is important to see here is the sleight-of-hand move of first giving his own analogy, and then mapping it on the supposed view of Dennett. Just as you can see in the first quote, the analogy Dennett has apparently given (I haven’t read this from Dennett, but I haven’t read Elbow Room yet, so maybe he has expressed this analogy, though it is still weak to have this discussion dominated by mere analogies) is about colour. Then, like a thief in the night, silently, hoping that nobody notices, he adjusts Dennett’s analogy to suite his own purposes. This is intellectually dishonest.

    Now there’s a lot I agree with overall in what he wrote in response, and I can sympathize with the moral argument, but this is still wrong.

  35. Statistical analysis is yet another good example.

    When I am faced with a set of collected data, I could say well, the data collected were all determined so the data were not free to vary. And the data were determined so there is nothing to attribute to random chance. Also there is nothing to attribute to measurement error because all the measurements I took were themselves determined — they might have the appearance of error in the sense that some of the values were slightly ‘wrong,’ but in order to be a real error we’d have to have had some latitude in our measurement and determinism says we don’t.

    On the other hand, trying to find, for instance, a “best fit curve” through the data is compatibilist in spirit – it depends on the view that the collected data “could have been different than what was collected” because that’s what such a relationship is asserting.

    It’s a shorthand for saying “if we had been able to account for and subtract out the effect of all of the minor causal threads, and if our measurements had been precise and accurate, the exact relationship between these two variables would be laid bare, and here’s how it would look.”

    Instead, we have to inductively search for such relationships across repeated trials. All of our physical and chemical laws are confirmed by evidence this way. We hope that those things “left to chance” will cancel over time or repetition because they have the features of a truly random signal, and if they don’t we hope to discover biases in measurement and confounds in experiment design.

    So in some ways, statistical analysis is just a technology that we use to overcome complexity – it is an epistemic tool. Even if we believe that all measurements “could not have been otherwise” (that is, we do not allow the hypothesis that determinism does not hold) it still makes sense to analyze the data in light of other hypotheses — other uses of “could” — to make sense of them and to predict results later.

    This is exactly the sense in which compatibilists here and elsewhere have used “could have acted otherwise”: it’s an epistemic tool used to learn some things about human behavior in the face of deterministic complexity. And most importantly, the one hypothetical it does not allow is “suppose determinism does not hold,” so all uses of “could” and “could have acted differently” hypothesize a difference elsewhere in the preceding causal chain to see what the results would have been with that difference, just as we do in other scientific activities.

    And hypothesizing a difference in the preceding causal chain is the one thing incompatibilists here have been saying is irrelevant or inappropriate (or in Jeff Johnson’s case, irrelevant to the question of “free-will”), and that “could have done otherwise” is always a hypothesis contra determinism — that anti-determinism is what “could have done otherwise” means and that’s the end of it.

    1. Well put. I don’t think the incompatibilists realize just how much of our modal language we would need to abandon if we took their ideas to the logical conclusion.

    2. This is utter nonsense. By definition, statistical studies are never accurate, unless you have the resources to make your sample equal to the population (something that never happens).

      But I don’t want to start a discussion on statistics, which would soon become incomprehensible to most readers. Let’s take a far simpler example: measuring the length of a brass rod. You know, and I know, that it’s impossible to obtain a perfectly accurate measurement. Depending on our needs, we might be prepared to spend several months and lots of money in reducing the uncertainty to a trillionth of an inch, but there is no way we can reduce the uncertainty to zero.

      So what? We are fuly aware of the effects of temperature on the length of the rod. We know that it will lose a few atoms and absorb a few ones. We know that “length” is a convenient but ill-defined construct: do we mean the distance between the radius of the maximum orbital probabulity function of the farthest electrons? I don’t think so.

      We cannot precisely establish anything at all about the universe, and that’s just a matter of fact. We cannot measure the distance to the Moon within a 1/64 of an inch. We cannot measure the surface temperature of the Sun to within a 1/10,000 of a degree. So what? Are you trying to argue in favour of compatibilist free will on the basis of the fundamentally fluid nature of the universe?

      In that case, I should probably remind you that our choices have nothing to do with statistics or accuracy in measurements: free will is assumed to be a characteristic property of individuals, not of populations. And it’s an on-off property: either it exists or it does not, so measurement has nothing to do with it either.

      1. Piero,

        You missed the point entirely.

        It’s not about measuring accuracy per se, it has to do with the fundamental assumption we even use to measure or describe the nature of ANYTHING.

        One of the criticisms lobbed against compatibilism by folks here is that compatibilists think it is justified to say “I could have done otherwise” and incompatibilists seem to retort that it’s false: That “I could have done otherwise” is ALWAYS false and an illusion, in a deterministic universe. And hence compatibilists are just fooling themselves, dealing with unreality.

        However, the compatibilist justifications for saying “I could have done otherwise” are exactly the same justifications you and any other critic use to describe the rest of the natural world. Every time you describe the nature of anything, and tell anyone how it can behave, you are making the same assumptions, and YET you no doubt also think you are making true statements about the world and describing something “real.”

        Take a statement such as this. A scientist is holding a beacon of water:

        “This water can remain in liquid form, but it can also turn into solid ice upon freezing it below 0 degrees C, or it can be heated and turned into vapor by boiling it to over 100 degrees C (at sea level).”

        Now, are such statements TRUE about water or not? Would this count as knowledge about water – i.e. we be describing something REAL about the world? Or would this be dismissed as not true and illusory?


        1. “This water can remain in liquid form, but it can also turn into solid ice upon freezing it below 0 degrees C, or it can be heated and turned into vapor by boiling it to over 100 degrees C (at sea level).”

          Now, are such statements TRUE about water or not? Would this count as knowledge about water – i.e. we be describing something REAL about the world? Or would this be dismissed as not true and illusory?

          This is completely different contextually. You are outlining possible behaviors in different scenarios. You are not talking about what a specific beaker of water does in a specific thermodynamic environment.

          When Jerry says he makes a choice and he could not have chosen otherwise, he doesn’t mean he can never choose otherwise, or that that particular choice represents the entire range of his human repertoire of capabilities.

          You are enumerating the possible behaviors of water in various temperature ranges. We can do the same for humans: a person can play Paganini on the violin, a person can run a mile in under 5 minutes, a person can kill someone with their bare hands, etc…

          This says nothing about a particular person in a particular situation. What determines whether the water freezes, boils, or remains liquid is the particular environment you place it in; if you put the water in the freezer for long enough it will freeze, and it could not have remained liquid or boiled, it could not have done other than it did.

          Same with a person. Except what determines the behavior is much more complex; there is a massively complex web of logic that intervenes between the environmental inputs and the behavior. But still the behavior is determined by the DNA of the particular person, the experience and memory of the particular person, and the environment they are subjected to.

          A person can go to a restaurant on different days and choose different items from the same menu. Or different people can go and choose different items. In those sentences we are talking about a general capability of humans, much like your discussion of general properties of water.

          But when we focus on the biological domain of how the brain works, and what it’s mechanisms are, given a particular choice on a particular day, if the person chooses the Reuben sandwich, then that was the choice determined by the state of that persons brain and body at that time in that place; given perfect knowledge of the unique state of that person’s brain, in principle it could have been determined in advance that the probability of choosing the Reuben was 1, and the probability of choosing anything else was 0.

          But the way that complex decision plays out in the brain, at the conscious subjective level, the person feels themself arriving at the option they want, the one that seems most satisfying to eat at the moment. It feels like anything else could be chosen, but the person isn’t really aware of all the causes of the choice. They feel free, but they really aren’t because the brain did a lot of unconscious work in coming up with a relative desirability ranking of the food options. When we pick we generally have a kind of hunch or vague feeling that a certain item “sounds good”, but we don’t really know how we determined that. We go with our gut. Sometimes we are disappointed, and that will contribute to the state of our brain when we choose next time, and possibly lead us to a different choice. That flexibility doesn’t mean we could choose otherwise on a particular trial; it means we get feedback that can lead us to choose otherwise on another trial.

          We could commit to an alternate means of choosing, a commitment that would be a choice determined by our brain: we could set parameters of calorie, carbohydrate, fat, and various vitamin intakes we want, and vow to choose the item with the highest overall nutrition score based on our algorithm for calculating “good nutrition”. Then we could do a nutritional analysis of all the food items and see which one has the highest score and choose that one. That would also be a deterministic choice, and that algorithm could not have chosen otherwise, even allowing for any errors in the analysis. This would be a process we could fully observe consciously, but we might not know exactly what caused us to be so anal about our dietary intake.

          But mostly we just go with our gut feeling, and we don’t consciously know what determines that. This lack of self knowledge is what enables the illusion of free will, which appears in the subjective experience, while biologically the brain is computing the choice deterministically.

          1. Jeff,

            This is completely different contextually.

            No it’s not. I am talking about the basis for incompatibilists rejecting the compatibilist’s
            justification for saying “I could have done otherwise.” One criticism by incompatibilists is that this does not represent the contra-causal basis most people assume for free will (in other words “you compatibilists aren’t really talking about “Free Will”). The other criticism tends to be that, even so, the compatibilist attempt to find any basis for free will fails because it appeals to unreality, hypothetical/counterfactual worlds that don’t exist.

            The latter criticism is what I’m dealing with at the moment (though it reflects back to the former criticism).

            You are outlining possible behaviors in different scenarios.

            Yes. The only way of understanding the nature of things, powers, potentials, IF it is such as to change it’s action in different scenarios, IS to appeal to different scenarios. That is how we talk empirically about EVERYTHING. Depending on the specific subject, the scenarios can vary relatively little – e.g. the variation of a desire in roughly “the same” situation. But never IDENTICAL because if something has the power to behave differently when conditions vary, you will never learn this about it’s nature by only appealing to IDENTICAL situations. Right?
            If I say I chose the hamburger but could have chosen the hot dog if I’d wanted to, that entails a change – a change in my desire. But if I AM capable of making such choices, that is the only way to understand this power.

            —“You are not talking about what a specific beaker of water does in a specific thermodynamic environment.”

            I did indeed mention a scientist holding a specified beaker of water and making claims that it could do X, Y or Z. Yes, just as adding a new desire would change what I choose, adding heat, or adding cold (freezing) will change what the water does. The challenge posed by determinism is the same in either case: On a narrow, strict determinist outlook, one could say it is FALSE to claim the water “could” remain liquid OR it could be boiled OR it could be frozen.
            Because (at least within the scope of the experimental time) only one of those outcomes will actually happen, only one was determined – if the scientist chooses to freeze it then it was “false” the water could have remained liquid or boiled, since we see that it was always determined to have been frozen. If the scientist objects and says “But the water COULD have done X if I’d just…” the skeptic tut-tuts and says “Nope. You are wrong. It’s simply a false claim to say it could have done anything different, just as it was wrong to claim it could have done A, B or C before you froze it. To start telling me about what “could” have happened “had some conditions been different” is cheating, it’s appealing to a hypothetical reality that never was going to happen. It’s an illusion.

            See how exactly the same criticism lobbed at compatibilists for saying “I could have done otherwise” or “I CAN choose between A, B or C” can be lobbed at any such claim for other empirical entities in nature? And yet, incompatibilists don’t complain and talk of cheating, or complain about appeals to hypotheticals, or illusions etc, when the subject changes to other empirical entities, like water.

            A person can go to a restaurant on different days and choose different items from the same menu.

            Or the same person can choose differently within seconds, at the restaurant, making for an “for-all-intents-and-purposes” “same” scenario but a different choice, though with a critical difference: an alteration of their desire, within that scenario.

            “In those sentences we are talking about a general capability of humans, much like your discussion of general properties of water.

            The issue of the type of necessary assumptions we make cuts across trying to describe generalities OR specifics. In this case I’d talked about a specific beacon of water, and asked if it were valid to speak of the various things it could do, just as in a restaurant would it be valid to speak of the various things I could do (even though, strictly speaking, in BOTH cases, water and person, only one outcome can obtain).

            There is no change in logic, in terms of the challenge posed by determinism, between the claims “This beaker of water could have remained water, or could have been frozen, or could have been boiled into vapour” and “This person could have remained sitting, or could have remained standing, or could have chosen to run, or…”

            If you are going to say the former is impossible because determinism says only one outcome is actually ever possible, then you disavow the same type of talk about the former (water…or anything else we empirically describe and predict). That is what Another Matt and I and others are pointing out.

            Your reply didn’t directly address that issue, but instead went on to to a somewhat different argument based on how our brains work (as opposed to disavowing the validity of hypothetical/counterfactual-based truth). So it’s hard for me to tell whether you agree or not that we can be talking about “real things in the world” by appeal to hypothetical/counterfactual talk. If you disagree, then you’ll have to answer the above problem (how consistent will you be in applying this across the board to all other natural entities). If you agree, then cool. But then, you’d seem to have agreed quite a lot with compatibilism.

            As to your discussions of how our brains work and how desires arise, is that supposed to be a challenge to compatibilist free will? If so…what I find odd is that you include things like: “in principle it could have been determined in advance that the probability of choosing the Reuben was 1, and the probability of choosing anything else was 0.”… as if this determinism were a threat to compatibilism, when you already know compatibilism STARTS by assuming our choices were determined.

            Even if your description of how our desires arise were fully accurate, it doesn’t negate the concept of free will as understood compatibilistically. It simply says we are not aware of the way our desire to eat a Reuben arose. So what?
            Even if we didn’t know what caused our desire to order a Reuben, so long as we WANT the Rueben and are physically able to order it, or not order it (if we don’t want to) then we are “free” in the sense outlined by compatibilism. Surely, WHATEVER the mechanism that brings about the food desire, if the desire had been different, say for the fried chicken, we would have ordered the fried chicken, and would have been physically able to order the fried chicken. So long as we could have “done as we desired to do” and could have done otherwise “had we desired to do otherwise in that situation” we were “free” and “could have done otherwise” in the compatibilist sense. It’s not an “illusion.”


            1. So long as we could have “done as we desired to do” and could have done otherwise “had we desired to do otherwise in that situation” we were “free” and “could have done otherwise” in the compatibilist sense. It’s not an “illusion.”

              I think I agree with quite a lot of compatibilism. But really think it is confusing to use the term “free will”. Compatibilist freedom only resembles free will, because human behavior resembles free will, which is why the concept of dualistic free will even exists. But compatibilist free will is not free will as most people who have lived on earth and live on earth today conceive of it.

              When you say “could have done otherwise had we desired to do otherwise in that situation”, it is exactly like saying “I froze the water by putting it in the freezer, but if I had put it on the stove it could have boiled”. There is a use for talking of counterfactuals and creating thought experiments, but I don’t see how that relates to free will. Certainly the water has none.

              If the freedom comes from talking about counterfactuals, then I would say this: our freedom is not based on our ability to choose otherwise at a moment in time; it is based on our ability to learn (by considering counterfactuals for example) and change over time, and choose differently next time.

              But the subjective feeling that in a specific instance I could have chosen otherwise is in fact an illusion created by our subjective mind. What is not an illusion is that by talking or thinking about what else I might have chosen after the fact, I can learn, and change, over time, and choose differently next time in a similar circumstance.

              So the incompatibilist insistence on determinism, and insistence that thinking we could choose otherwise is an illusion is intent on remaining clear about how the brain works; it’s not a discussion about how it feels to be a conscious human.

              The compatibilist discussion of counterfactuals is not a discussion about how the brain works, but a discussion about how humans feel, and what they may do in the future given time to learn and change. I would say the feeling that we could have chosen differently in the past is an illusion. The idea that we can examine the consequences of our past choice, and consider hypothetical alternatives, and analyse how that might have affected the outcome and consequences, are not illusions, they are human capabilities, and they are related not to an imagined freedom we had at a past moment, but to the freedom we have to learn and change for the future.

        2. Jeff and Vaal,

          A couple of observations. Jeff, your point has been that everyday understanding of free will is very important to the discussion because that is what you are trying to change. Incompatibilists see their mission as trying to convince people who don’t believe the world is basically determinist to believe it is, and to convince those who have accepted it but don’t understand the consequences to mull the consequences. I think that’s an important project, so maybe you should be allowed rhetorical latitude in language.

          A common compatibilist criticism in this thread has been, “but nobody would ever say that; just think how much of our language we would have to change!” Upon reflection, I think this is actually where we compatibilists are at our weakest. If they want to come up with a new language they think has the appropriate attitude about determinism, they can do it and try to convince us to use it. They want to change minds, so it’s up to them to change language. And that’s kind of the point – maybe “nobody would ever say that” because they believe they have contra-causal free will.

          But I don’t expect incompatibilists to be consistent on this matter – they’re going to use the same, old language in everyday descriptions of the world, and in those cases they’ll be behaving as de facto compatibilists. They will know what they mean when they say something like, “wow, that could have been a disaster.” They’re going to have a very hard time being consistent even if they try – for instance, “to forgive” is a type of choice. So if one were to say “when I say ‘forgiveness’ I always mean the appearance of forgiveness,” nobody is going to understand that they’re talking about determinism and not a phony lip-service actually-grudge-holding kind of “outward forgiveness.”

          Where the “nobody would ever say that” criticism is worthy is when it applies to what people think about free will, and I think maybe now that the positions and moves in the present discussion are so well known, this is the most productive way forward. What we need is when someone says “I could have done otherwise,” to analyze by context just what kind of hypothetical is being offered.

          1. Humans have certain capabilities because of their wondrous brains. Long ago people observed the difference between a dead person and a living person. It’s intuitive to think something that gives animated life has been subtracted from the body. Hence we develop a notion of dualism, and we notice our ability to choose and plan and desire and intend, and we develop a system of language that describes all of these behaviors. It’s all consistent, because it’s based on how we really feel ourselves thinking, and how we observe one another to behave; except there is one fundamental error: the idea that all these human mental/emotional abilities and behaviors are predicated on dualism, the immaterial entity that gives life and humanity.

            The fact that for so long all that language worked and was consistent with how we observe each other to behave, even though a metaphysical error was embedded in it, means that the language can still be used consistently today. In essence this is the compatibilist insight. What has been substituted for the freedom of a contra-causal soul or other dualist entity is the subjective experience of control (which is what our language was in fact always based on, though we didn’t understand that).

            In order to make that subjective experience of control consistent with the actual underlying deterministic nature of the brain that makes it all possible, we just need to be aware that we don’t will freely, and when we choose it was determined, we couldn’t have chosen otherwise. The choice was not a metaphysical crossroad, detached from causality, where each direction is equally probable or possible (though we can imagine the choices and discuss them). Instead the choice was a problem for our deterministic brain to solve, which it did using its deterministic algorithms parameterized by its internal notions of will to survive, desire to direct outcomes in our best interest, and all the knowledge and memory it has recorded during a lifetime of being a unique individual.

            The brain working this way includes structures and processes that reveal parts of the decision making to our conscious mind. These revealed bits give us the subjective illusion of making a choice in the metaphysical sense (outside of causality). We feel like an independent “we” caused the choice by our will. But that is not the case, because even our will was caused by the state of our brain, and there is no “we” outside of or independent of the brain.

            We can still base our language on our subjective experience, even though that is only a tip-of-the-iceberg view of the reality of our brain at work. But we shouldn’t imagine we have free will. And we shouldn’t imagine that being able to talk about counterfactuals after the fact means we actually had an equal possibility to choose any of them. In the specific situation our brain chose in the only way it can, deterministically such that no other result was possible.

            I guess it really is a bit like rolling dice, though not in the sense of being random. While dice appear to be random, in fact the physics of how they are thrown really determines how they will land. You can imagine before they are thrown that any pair is possible, with probabilities that are well known. But when the dice leave the hand, all the parameters of the toss are determined and there is one possible outcome, though we can’t predict it (easily). It is the complexity of the physics that makes it appear to be random. There is an illusion of randomness.

            Afterward we can discuss the possible outcomes if the dice had come up with alternate values; we can say “I could have thrown a seven” but we would be making a mistake to think the dice as thrown could have come up differently.

            The human choice is no less determined, but much more complex, involving reason, emotion, and various imperatives that must be satisfied. And we are constantly interacting with our environment and being affected by things beyond our control, and we learn and adapt. It is this learning and adapting over time that is our freedom, not an ability to choose alternatives in a particular moment of time.

        3. About the beaker of water:

          I’m teaching a physics class, and I bring the beaker of water out, pour it into a flask, boil it, and collect the distilled condensate in another flask. I ask, “what else could I have done,” and someone says “you could have frozen it and turned it to ice.” I say “watch this” and bring out an electrolysis machine, and turn the water into oxygen and hydrogen gasses. Then I burn off the hydrogen and keep the oxygen.

          If the context in the class is demonstration of phase changes and compounds, then I could say, quite intelligibly, “I could have frozen the water, but now I can’t because it’s gone. I made water vapor when I burned the hydrogen, but it’s not ‘the same water’ that was in the beaker, and now I have no way of collecting the vapor once it’s lost to the air.”

          If the context in the class is demonstration of determinism, I could say, quite intelligibly, “so you see, I never could have frozen that water, because under determinism it was always going to be electrolyzed and the hydrogen was going to be burned.”

          In each case, the “could” is pointing to a different hypothetical, and I think context determines which sense of “could” is meant. For instance, sometimes “could” is relative to physical principle, and sometimes it is relative to available technology.

          If I said “I could have turned some of the water into sucrose,” I can make that intelligible if I qualify it with the hypothetical: “if I had available the technology necessary to fuse some of the hydrogen into helium and the helium into carbon, and the technology to construct sucrose from the raw elements I have left.”

          There are some things that are flatly impossible to qualify with a hypothetical. For instance “I could have turn this beaker of water into an skyscraper” is always false because there isn’t enough mass in the beaker to fuse into the raw materials for a skyscraper.

          “I could have…” is always hypothetical, and the full range of relevant hypotheticals is always possible. Many of those are totally far-fetched and are normally off the table, which is why we care so much about assumptions, and why we have to be so careful with language to qualify what difference in the world a hypothetical is proposing.

          Compatibilists have already agreed that hypothesizing anti-determinism is off the table, and all uses of “could” are to be viewed in that light. Incompatibilists note that for a lot of people – maybe even most people – determinism isn’t a settled assumption, so “could” actually might entail “…and if determinism didn’t hold, and…” I think this is the source of the disconnect, and I think it’s possible to bridge, no matter how we each understand the syllables “free will.”

          1. In a previous example of the water, the water was the subject: the water could freeze, or the water could vaporize. Here the subject is “I”: I could decide to freeze the water, or I could decide to do electrolysis and separate the hydrogen and oxygen.

            In both cases though, what will happen is determined by the environment and the properties of the subject.

            The water will do what is determined by the chemical structure of H2O, the volume of water, the pressure and temperature in the room, the amount of energy added to or subtracted from the water.

            What you as a teacher will do depends on what you desire the students to learn, what examples you think best illustrate what you are trying to get across, and how susceptible you are to the suggestions of your class, how you interact with them. All of these things are based on your DNA and your life of experience and learning and interacting with the environment.

            I’m not sure what the importance is of the hypotheticals, such as “I could have done differently”. Is it an objection to the description of determinism, when we say I chose but I couldn’t have chosen differently? Or is there something about the hypotheticals that lead compatibilists to think it is an effective form of or near approximation of free will?

            Obviously if we are going to choose between doing A, B, and C, we need it to be the case that it is physically possible, based on my ability and available tools, for me to do A, B, or C. Otherwise we could immediately eliminate them as options.

            So discussing these counterfactuals does nothing to illuminate the deterministic methods used by the brain to make a choice, nor does it provide us with any kind of escape from causality. But it is a very cool capability of humans to be able to use imagination and speculate on things that don’t necessarily happen, or might happen in the future.

            I don’t think that the important point of determinism has to do with what is possible for us to do physically.

            It has to do with whether the brain can reach a fork in the decision making process and branch either left or right with non-zero probability, and in a way that is free of causality. As the brain traverses through state space, each transition from one state to the next is deterministic, it is caused by the previous state and the inputs (which can be internal to brain and body, or external). So our decision making process is on a path through state space that has one inevitable conclusion, unless an unexpected external input influences the outcome.

            1. Jeff,

              But compatibilist free will is not free will as most people who have lived on earth and live on earth today conceive of it.

              That is, again, an assertion you keep making. I’ve challenged it repeatedly – both on historical grounds but more importantly on an analysis of how and why people make claims about their ability to have done otherwise. I keep waiting to see you challenge the logic I presented (rather than just disagree with it).

              Further, even if we grant that there was a difference between the basis compatibiism gives for the concept of “free will” vs libertarian free will, it’s still “free will” for the reasons I argued.
              Given most people have thought of “morality” as having a different basis than secular people do today, are we to give in and throw out the term “morality?” (My answer was “no,” for the reasons I’ve given; it would be a narrow-minded mistake to do so).

              —-“But the subjective feeling that in a specific instance I could have chosen otherwise is in fact an illusion created by our subjective mind.”

              Again…that word “illusion.” This is what I keep trying to pin you down on (and others who keep using that word).

              Statement A: This water in the beaker could reman liquid, or it could become frozen into ice, or it could evaporate into vapour.

              Statement B: This person could remain sitting, or he could get up and stand, or he could walk or run.

              Regarding statement A, can those claims be TRUE or not? Would those statements be referring to some REAL property in the world – how things actually are, eg. the properties of a quantity of water? Or are such statements only “illusion” and untrue?

              Because if you are going to call the claims of Statement B about the potentials of a person “an illusion” (because only one outcome is “actually” determined), then you are going to have to do the same with Statement A about the water. But, if we are not learning or stating actual truths about water in Statement A we seem in a world of hurt, since these are the types of empirical inferences and claims we use to understand and explain the nature of pretty much everything.
              That would INCLUDE any scientific basis for your very conclusios of determinism, and all your statements about how brains act. If those are “illusory” then you have sawn off the very branch you’ve sat your argument on.

              But, if you agree that statement A is legitimate and describes reality, describe real-world properties of water (even given determinism) then logically you have to grant it to Statement B about the properties of a person. In which case, it’s misleading to keep insisting such claims are “illusions.”

              This is what I have yet to see you grapple with, squarely.

              Yes, in one sense, if you are seeking only contra-causal concepts, “doing otherwise” is an illusion if you think it’s happening. But the point I keep making is that there are other very real senses in which we are describing “how things actually are” and we actually have to appeal to “shaking” scenarios slightly, slight changes in causes etc, to actually UNDERSTAND the TRUTH about how things ACTUALLY ARE. It’s how we understand and describe the world! And that we naturally appeal to or presume this when saying “I could do X or Y.”

              Now, in THAT sense, I submit it is “true” that I could have chosen otherwise and that during that act of deliberation.

              Example: Right now I’m deciding between ordering a cheeseburger, or a hot dog. I am deliberating between them on the basis that I can, IN FACT, choose either one insofar as I have the potential power to achieve my desire. In other words: “I can get the cheeseburger if I desire, or the hotdog if I want that…now, which do I want?” It is true that if I want the cheeseburger I can get it, but (alter the scenario slightly) if I want the hot-dog I can get that instead. I am not thinking “I could order either, even if every atom and desire in my head were precisely the same.” These are all truths in the same sense we think of what can happen with the water we are holding in an ice cube tray – it COULD remain liquid or it COULD freeze, etc.

              So I’m deliberating about my desires, imagining what I can do should I desire X, and I am apprehending truths about my powers related to fulfilling my desires. What if someone says “Could you have chosen the hotdog even if you didn’t want to?” Well, that would be a weird question – it’s not the sort of thing I or most people deliberate about when making choices. Of course I’d want to respond “Why would I if I didn’t want to?” And any attempt at answering yes or no will be some appeal to my physical powers anyway, just as we appeal to the properties of water to answer such questions.

              You said later: “But it is a very cool capability of humans to be able to use imagination and speculate on things that don’t necessarily happen, or might happen in the future.”

              Right. But the point is we apply just those conceptual tools and that language to things we think we “know” and are “true,” such as descriptions of water. It’s not just playing fantasy games – it is the very basis of our KNOWLEDGE and knowledge requires that what we know is “true.” The problem is, as soon as this talk turns to human being, you start talking about it being an “illusion.”

              Anyway, we keep going ’round and ’round on this, so it’s probably time to bow out for now.
              I have to get back to work as it is. Thanks for the conversation.


              1. I think everything you said is true, but it seems you are missing the significance of determinism and what it means to say free will is an illusion.

                Let’s look at dice. If I throw a pair of dice there are 36 possible pairs that can yield a distribution of 12 possible values, some values being more probable than others. Here we have a scenario similar to your statement A or statement B: a range of possible outcomes or behaviors. I can roll a 10 or a 2 or a 9, etc.

                But once the dice leave my hand, physics takes over, and determinism. There is only one possible outcome of the throw, and it will arrive at that one outcome based on the physics of the dice and the surface they are bouncing on. It doesn’t matter any more that there are 36 possibilities; one of those possibilities is determined before the dice come to rest.

                After I’ve thrown the dice and they come up, say, 7, it would be an illusion or a self-deception to say that they could have come up 5 or 8 instead. The seven was entirely determined by how I threw the dice and the properties of the dice. And this wasn’t random either. It only appeared to be random. We can pretend that the dice are random, because they are effectively random as the values that appear over a large number of trials tend to match the statistical distribution of values predicted by the mathematical concept of randomness.

                This is pretty closely analogous to dispute between compatibilist free will, and incompatibilist insistence that the freedom is an illusion.

                If we are concerned about the utility of the dice for a game of chance such as craps, they work just fine because there is so much variation in how a human throws the dice, and enough chaos in the system that even the tiniest variation in initial conditions will lead to different results.

                The compatibilist can say the dice are “effectively” random, which is kind of like saying the dice have the freedom to choose different values. But this is ignoring determinism and how the dice actually work.

                The human, when trying to select a hot dog or a hamburger feels free subjectively, as if one can perform an inner mental coin toss to make the decision. In fact the human can make the choice dependent on a coin toss: if heads hamburger, if tails hot dog. But in the human decision making process there is no place where such a bifurcation exists.

                If we think of the brain as defining a vast state space, then changes in brain state over time trace a path through this space. During a period of time, lets say the time we are deciding whether we want a hamburger or a hot dog, the brain will transition through a series of states S0…Sn. If we look at any consecutive pair Si and Sj from among S0…Sn, I claim the following is true: In state Si, there was never any third state Sk such that the brain had a “choice” between transitioning from Si to either Sk or Sj. The over all structure of the brain and the environment determined with probability 1 that Sj would follow Si, and the probability was 0 that any other state would follow Si.

                You can do things to the environment to try to make the resulting choice different: you can flash pictures of juicy hotdogs, or waft the scent of hotdogs into the room, or play the sounds of a person extolling the virtues of luscious hot dogs, and these things can effect the outcome, obviously. It may make one person choose hamburger (because they hate suggestions) and another person choose hotdog because they surrender to the sensory suggestions. But for a given brain in a given environment, there can only be one result, and in reality, as opposed to in our hypothetical imaginings, that result could not possibly have been different, just as for a given throw of the dice the outcome is determined.

                The parts of the decision process that are consciously available to us subjectively make us feel like we are choosing freely, but our choice is really forced by the way our lifetime of experience has shaped our brain. And it just so happens that the factors that force the choice include things that we experience subjectively as “what we like”, “what we want”, “what sounds good”, “what we consider healthy”, and it can involve a competition between health and sensual pleasure; which one wins is also determined by the physical state of our brain.

                So there is no actual freedom at a given moment. We have the illusion of freedom that is created in our subjective conscious experience, just as we have the illusion of seeing red or green. We actually see different wave lengths of light that our brain maps into the experience of red or green. Redness and greenness don’t exist outside of our heads.

                The human brain is complex enough that not only do we have the illusion of free will, we also have the freedom to learn and change over time. We can evaluate the consequences of our choices, and compare that with our concept of desirable outcomes, ones we consider good for us, and based on that feedback we can re-write or modify the brain state space; not only can we reconfigure it, but we can add new states that weren’t possible before. This ability of the deterministic brain to modify itself over time in constant interaction with the environment is, I believe, the basis of our sense of freedom, not the ability to choose differently at any moment. We can choose differently seconds later, or even a fraction of a second later, but each of these choices is the result of a new unique deterministic trial and changes in the brain over time.

                These properties of the brain that produce the appearance of freedom, just as the dice produce the appearance of randomness, is what enabled us to form concepts like free will. Just as the dice’s approximation of randomness is good enough that we can pretend they are random, the brain’s approximation or simulation of degrees of freedom is good enough that we can pretend we are free.

                So compatibilist free will is based on a deterministic brain that provides the appearance of choice, and the flexibility to learn and change. It’s not “free” in the sense that we thought it was free when we believed in libertarian free will. But the properties of the brain are such that we have notions of what is good for us, and we can resist coercion, and we can seek what is advantageous to us. We do this with a deterministic brain that engages in constant interaction and feedback with the environment and through this continual process of deterministic trial and error it adapts and learns what it likes, what it wants, and how to get it. And that is enough like our idea of freedom that for centuries we could imagine we had libertarian free will, and it remains the basis for compatibilists to pretend that we have effective free will (even though we don’t, we actually have intelligence and adaptability).

                And just like most people can drive cars without having any idea how the thing actually works, our brain’s simulation of freedom is so good that most people, including compatibilists, don’t ever have to worry about how the brain really works.

                It’s still useful for compatibilists to discuss morality, and if our “freedom” is free enough to hold people responsible for their actions, just as it’s still useful to use dice for craps, and it’s useful for people to drive cars even if they don’t understand how they work. When the incompatibilist is saying that when we choose we could not have chosen otherwise, they are focusing on how the brain actually works internally, not on how it seems from the subjective viewpoint. The subjective view only allows us to see the tips of the icebergs in our mind. The compatibilists seem to be happy pretending that only the tips of the icebergs are real, and ignoring the determinism below the surface.

  36. I’m late to the party. Anyway here goes…

    1. I think free will is confusing only in a dualistic mindset. Incompatibilists sound like hankering for dualism, when they tell us that concepts like “freedom”, “choice”, “responsibility”, “will” are not real unless they are of the kind that is dualistic. It is a very ironic state of affairs. Instead of understanding those concepts in the light of the non-dualisitic reality that we actually live in, incompatibilists end up telling us basically that the evolved powers of our complex brains are illusions.

    2. In a reductionist sense everything is a robot. Clearly free will is not a concept that applies at the level of reduction of arrangements of particles. Free will and choice are very closely related to the idea of consciousness. Inasmuch as consciousness is understood as an emergent property of sufficiently complex brains, free will too should be understood as emergent on complexity. And since complexity is continuous, then the definitions of our emergent properties are also necessarily continuous. Today’s computers are not yet at the level where we can ascribe to them free will, but there’s no reason why that is impossible in the future. “No free will”, and “has free will” are easy. It is not so easy to judge half a free will. That is not a problem of free will of course, but just a problem of classification. A person is not physically significantly different on his 21st birthday as he was 1 day before, but our legal system recognizes him differently.

    3. In legalese, an action is done of your own free will if not done under coercion. This is a very simple idea, even lawyers understand it without philosophers explaining it to them. If you have a gun pointed at your head and you do as you are commanded (according to the will of the gun-wielder, and against your will), then your action is not done of your own free will. If you did not yield to the will of the gunman, and chose to be shot instead, then isn’t it clear that action is an even more forceful exercise of your free will? Obviously it’s not the presence of the gun that is the point, the point is whether you can or cannot be said to be the owner of the will to the action.

    4. I don’t see the enormous consequences for how we punish or reward based on the arguments of incompatibilism. It is strange that Jerry quotes Sam as if what Sam says supports the idea. In fact, Sam says “that doesn’t mean we can’t lock him up, or kill him in self-defense”. What is different according to Sam is how we should feel, as Sam says “hating him is not rational” and “feeling compassion for him would be rational”. Imagine calling for bin Laden to be killed but do it with compassion.

    1. I think we can judge half a free will actually:

      Drunk people, cats and dogs, advanced robots…

      Once you really internalize compatibilism, the idea that rational volition could be quantitative doesn’t bother you anymore. It’s quantitative the same way intelligence, or rationality, or accuracy of perception, is quantitative.

      It’s only if you’re hung up on this “soul” nonsense that you have trouble imagining something with half as much free will as something else.

    2. I agree about the Bin Laden example. I guess I have a certain amount of compassion for him just as a sentient being… but no, I really hate him, and I’m glad he’s dead, and I don’t think I’m wrong in that. Why must there be souls in order for hate to make sense as an emotion?

      1. You cannot be wrong about what you feel: if you feel happy because Bin Laden is dead, then that’s how you feel It would not make any sense to call it true or false.

        It can, however, be called ethically positive or ethically negstive. By this I mean that certain feelings are conducive to a better state of the world than others. I you are genuinely glad that Bin Laden is dead, then a lot of people will be glad when you die. Is that the kind of world you want to live in?

    3. Obviously, you have not read the comments, so you are mot only late to the party: you are actually a gatecrasher.

      Concerning your arguments, I apologize in advance for my harshness, but they are extremely idiotic.

      1. “incompatibilists end up telling us basically that the evolved powers of our complex brains are illusions”

      This is pure, undiluted, 100° proof question begging. You are in fact claiming that free will is an evolved power of our brains. Can you provide some evidence for that statement, or are you just incapable of distinguishing an argument from a mere belief?

      2. Free will is incoherent no matter how complex the entity we assign it to. Let’s say in 2140 a robot is built which surpasses our intellectual abilities. Whre shall his will arise from? If it’s programmed, then it’s not “free”. If it’s not programmed, exactly what “emergent property” makes it real? It’s all very well to talk about “emergent properties”, as long as we can provide a coherent definition of what they are and of what they are not. Fort example, is “pain” an emergent property of the brain? If so, do worms and amoebas feel pain?

      3. Legal definitions are completely irrelevant, as they are based mostly on common-sense notions of responsibility, guilt and will. I’ve never met a philosopher interested in law, and viceversa. In fact, I believe they are the most incompatible fields of study you can think of. Hence, the opinion of lawyers or the philosophical bases of the law are completely irrelevant to this discussion. You might as well have mentioned that most lumberjacks are compatibilists. Who cares?

      4. Bin Laden was in Pakistan. It would have been a logistical nightmare to try to arrest him and bring him to the US to be tried. It would also have increased the risk of terrorist attacks on US soil. Hence, the military personnel in charge of the operation were explicitly ordered to kill him. Did those who shot him also hated him? I doubt it. I don’t hate the big brown recluse spider that is precisely at this moment crawling under my bed: nevertheless, I shall kill it, because I know the consequences of its bite and I don’t want to run that risk. Sadly, the bug has no way of telling whether I intend to harm it or not: any movement on my part coud be interpreted by the bug as an act of aggression, amd that could mean a lengthy and expensive medical treatment. Similarly, I don’t hate flies: I kill them because they eat shit and then deposit their germs om my jam.

      Yes, you can kill with compassion. I had to kill a bitch of mine because she was suffering from a brain tumor. It was obvious to me that life for her was nothing but constant pain. I called the vet and in less than half a second the poor animal was dead. I cried, but I was also glad that she was no longer suffering.

      1. I’ve read the comments. I responded point by point to Jerry’s post.

        What I haven’t seen Jerry or incompatibilists in this blog respond to are the criticism that have been repeatedly raised:

        1. greedy reductionism
        2. category error
        3. dualistic definition of self
        4. untestable definition of free will
        5. semantic problem

        You made at least 2.

        1. Oh, that was very enlightening! You know, conciseness is a virtue as long as it is a complement of intelligibility.

          What is “greedy” reductionism?
          Which category error can you point to?
          What dualistic definition of self are you referring to?
          What would be a testable definition of free will?
          Whuch semantic problem exactly?

          Finally, which 2 am I gulty of?

          1. Clearly you haven’t been following the comments of the free will posts in this blog. It seems this is the first time you’ve heard those criticisms pointed out. Since you first accused me of not having read the comments, I thought you yourself are very familiar with the discussions around this that we could proceed with a common vocabulary. Well, i’m not inclined to re-explain those things in depth at this point. If people have not grown tired of having to repeat criticisms without them being addressed, maybe you’ll get somebody to once again raise them in future threads. Or you can read up on the comments in previous threads. I suggest to start, google up “greedy reductionism” and “category error”.

            1. Nope. Since you raised the issues, it is you who should explain them. Directing me to a Google search is the epitome of bad manners. Besides. can you tell me where in Google can I find which two errors I’m gulty of?

              For your information, I am perfectly aware of what greedy reductionism an category error mean. I just fail to see the relevance of the concepts in relation to my posts. Unless youc an point poimt out precisely why they are relevant, I’d suggest you shut up for a fairly long time (let’s say, a couple of centuries).

  37. “Indeed. Sam’s written a good piece”

    I agree, I was very pleased to see it.

    It’s important to recognise the freedom and responsibility we have, that is worth wanting, as Dan Dennett does.

    But we shouldn’t forget that the free will and responsibility people actually believe in is positively not worth wanting.

    If Dan Dennett were to shift a little on that as a result of Sam’s efforts that would be great.

  38. Help! How could determinism not also imply fatalism?

    Yes, as agents we can choose to avoid something but that very choice was determined. Therefore what happened was always going to happen from the beginning of time.

    All of the evitability in the universe does not evit determinism and, quantum mechanics aside, Leplace’s demon remains possible.

    Sam asserts that although choices depend on prior causes they still matter – they are in themselves a cause. He suggests that it would be missing the point for someone to just ‘sit back and see what happens’. I think there is a problem with this idea in that any decision to sit back and see what happens is just as caused as a decision to do something productive. Of course choices matter – they are a part of the causal chain but the choice that is made is determined from the beginning of time by an extremely complex chain of causes. Again, quantum mechanics aside Leplace’s demon will still know everything there is to know about the universe.

    Sam goes on to state that trying to do nothing is very difficult and that the desire to do something will overcome most people’s effort. This point seems completely unnecessary (and counterproductive) to make. Again, the choice to do something and then the difficulty in doing it is all just as caused as any other behavior. Accordingly it does not make sense to discuss the difficulty of sitting back. The difficulty does not indicate anything relevant to the argument. The value of all behaviors for the purpose of considering whether there is free will are equal: each has a cause.

    Sam discusses the experiments of Benjamin Libet which indicate that a person’s decision to do something is made before they become consciously aware of it. Whether decisions are made consciously or unconsciously they are still determined because there is always a prior cause. This example does however beg the question of if consciousness does not result in choices why did it evolve (what adaptive advantage did it instill). To suggest that such a complex phenomenon is simply a byproduct of evolution that serves no adaptive advantage is extremely difficult to believe (although admittedly not impossible).

    All of the agency and intentions in the universe do not negate determinism and quantum mechanics aside Leplace’s demon remains possible. If people use the nonexistence of free will as a pretext for doing whatever they want then this outcome is entirely determined just as any other event is.

    Understanding freewill shouldn’t tempt us off our diets but it might and if it did it would simply be a cause in a long line of them.

    The avoidance of anything is simply determined. Intentional agents do not negate determinism. Every choice they make is inevitable. To see choices or avoidance as separate to the causal chain is simply wrong. They are an integral part of the causal change. Determinism does imply inevitability. If something is avoided it was always going to be avoided.

    I can’t fathom how determinism doesn’t imply fatalism. Any ideas?

    1. K,

      I am on your side… I think that what is going on is at the core an avoidance of saying “fatalism is true” (well saying it out loud). I think the main reason for this is that many of the pronouncements made by fatalists are not necessarily agreed with by nonfree willists, but if it is said that fatalism is true, there might be confusion that everything fatalism claims is also true, and that just ins’t true.

      1. Thanks – that response seriously puts my mind to rest.

        I would be disillusioned if Harris and Dennett are saying that fatalism does not exist even if they think it does. I assume then that they are simply saying it in the context that agents can avoid things (that their choices matter/ have an effect in the causal chain).

        I seriously think that they would do well to clarify this point however to ensure that their actual position is understood.

        1. K,

          Well, I would hasten to point out there are differences between what Harris and Dennett think and say… Dennett has out and out said, we can’t be saying that there is no free will (so, let’s find a narrative by which we can say there is free will (“the free will you really want anyway” TM). So I am certain Dennett would also feel that we can’d be saying that fatalism holds true. In this way Dennett is different from Harris, who may talk down fatalism, but also pays no lip service to so-called compatiblism. As long as Dennett says that there is free will, he has to be counted as a free willist.

          1. Thanks nonfreewillist,

            Yeah, I get the difference between Harris and Dennett. At this point I think, at least in the important points, they are saying the same thing and that it is just a semantic difference although they come at it with different arguments.

            The freewill that Dennett considers to be compatible with determinism is simply to say that the choice of an agent constitute a cause. Harris agrees with the premise but not the conclusion because I think they define freewill differently.

            Harris states that there is no freewill because ‘the self’ is not the conscious author of its choices. In the case of Dennett he has to assign agency to something bigger than simply the consciousness. I know that Harris expressly claims that this is erroneous. I agree with Harris on this point.

            Yeah, I see how Dennett would staunchly claim that there is no fatalism. I just think that this is wrong. An agent’s ability to effect cause in no way negates what I believe fatalism to be: that everything that we end up doing was always going to happen from the beginning of time. It just happens to be a mind fuck to think about.

            With Harris he states there is no freewill because there is no self authoring the choices: there is no locus of freewill. Primarily I think that his point about the futility of sitting back and waiting to see what happens is confusing. I especially think that his discussion of the difficulty of sitting and doing nothing is a red herring. The difficult of doing nothing is completely irrelevant to whether or not there is a fatalistic chain of events that are all fully determined at every level (sub – atomic to universal). Maybe I am missing something on this point???

            Again, any and every decision regardless of its nature is determined.

    2. Dennett’s view is subtle but more coherent than Sam’s view. As seen by the comments here Sam ends up saying a lot of contradictory stuff. Dennett doesn’t go into ethics in detail but the ethical conclusions drawn by Sam would be easily refused by Dennett (as well as society).
      Dan’s point about fatalism is that your conscious choices do indeed affect the future (though not the specific action measured by Libet). Even non conscious entities can make choices that affect the future. So humans are on a gradual continuum starting from thermostats. Dan would agree that crocodiles do not have free will. Since humans are able to introspect and ask questions regarding their own motivations, the conscious feelings of humans do indeed play causal roles. Dan tells us that along with the ability to understand the consequences of your choices, comes the obligation to take responsability for the choices you make.

  39. Hi Jerry,
    Can we still discuss this issue? You said that Sam intimates there’ll be a back-and-forth but from what I’ve heard from Sam, Dennett is resisting a debate because Sam hasn’t done his homework (hasn’t engaged Dennett’s arguments which have been in print for decades). I’ve been working on a succinct rebuttal to Sam’s view, and I haven’t found anyone else that has made my points. I agree that science has shown that many conscious feelings to act occur after the action itself. However, those feelings and associated rationalizations can still go on to be causes in forming the future you. I agree with Sam that crocodiles don’t have free will. My definition of free will requires language and a community to educate people about who they are and about their responsibilities. If you are capable of analyzing your own past behavior, and your memories of past-seemingly-conscious-choices, and if you are able to use that information to make choices that affect the future-you, thus contributing to the causation of choices you will make in the future, then you have genuine free will. I grant that the immediacy of the causation is an illusion, but the relevancy of the associated rationalizations is NOT an illusion. So conscious feelings are not an epiphenomenon, they have genuine causal roles to play (albeit further into the future than the 5 second window Sam refers to).


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