Brother Blackford responds to me about free will

April 9, 2012 • 5:28 am

My friend Russell Blackford continues the back-and-forth we’ve had on the issue of free will in a new piece at  Talking Philosophy: “Jerry Coyne writes back—about free will.”  Because it’s Monday and I’m lazy and haven’t yet had coffee, let me just post his opening paragraph that gives all the relevant links:

Over at Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne recently wrote a post responding to my earlier post on his piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education. This debate can go back and forth a lot, but let me clarify a few things at least.

In private emails to me, Russell argues that I am “confused” on the issue, and perhaps I am.  But I have to say that I don’t find Russell’s piece bringing a lot of clarity to the issue, either.

For one thing, he seems to contradict himself.  On the issue of determinism, for instance, he says this:

. . . even if determinism is not true, there are well-known arguments as to why a mere mix of occasional indeterminism with determinism is unlikely to give us free will if we otherwise lack it (Jerry alludes to this in the Chronicle, and I agree with his brief comment on it). Moreover, even if determinism is not strictly true, it is difficult to see how I could be responsible for my own character, desires, etc., all the way down. Coming up with a picture of how this could work that is both coherent and plausible seems very difficult.

But he later argues that one can rightly blame someone for failing to save a drowning child.  Note the word “rightly,” which assumes not just responsibility (which is okay with me, as blame changes future behavior, both of the “blamee” and onlookers), but moral responsibility. Russell certainly favors the idea of moral responsibility. But if he sees difficulty in understanding how one can be responsible for one’s own character (and he’s right: how could we be?), then whence the concept of moral responsibility?

This highlights to me a problem with compatibilism: not a philosophical failure, but a tactical one. If most “compatibilists”—that is, those who, like Russell, find free will compatible with determinism—really are determinists, why do they soft-pedal this important result? After all, shouldn’t they be telling people that their actions are determined by the laws of physics, not their own “spooky will”?  Philosophers tend to de-emphaszie this important result—yes, a finding of science—in favor of showing us how we can haz free will after all.  I’m not sure why the soft-pedalling of determinism, but perhaps some philosophers resent the incursion of science onto their turf. (I know that is not true of Russell, though.)

But never mind.  Another problem is that Russell sort of agrees that he is a determinist, but doesn’t exactly trumpet that to the world:

Another point that should be made to try to get all this a bit clearer is that I am not especially reluctant to concede that causal determinism is true to whatever extent is required for arguments based on it to go through (assuming the arguments have no other problems). So Jerry misreads me when he thinks that I accept determinism “only grudgingly”. On the contrary, it would make the whole debate simpler for me if we knew that determinism is true. I’m not temperamentally opposed to determinism. Furthermore, I think that it’s probably true enough for our purposes.

That’s a lot of words to use for saying, “Yes, I accept determinism”!

But Russell, if you are a determinist, then why isn’t the whole debate simpler for you?  What else could there be but determinism of character and actions—physical determinism by genes and environment, with perhaps a soupçon of quantum indeterminacy, which Russell agrees does not count toward “free will”?  The fact that the debate has not become simpler for Russell is seen in his repeated statement that the “free will” case is complicated and fuzzy.

And if Russell is a determinist, why does he begin his last paragraph with this:

Perhaps we don’t have free will. Although there are no spooky forces controlling us, someone might argue that, for example, we all have deeply disordant sub-conscious urges which play much the same role.

No, those discordant subconscious urges cannot play the same role as a “soul,” because, unlike a soul, those urges have a material origin, and are hence part of the field of determinism that regulates our actions. They might be “spooky” because we don’t grasp them consciously, but subsconscious urges are not part of dualism.

But these are ancillary issues.  Russell’s real beef with my argument against free will turns on the use of the words “can” or “could.”  My definition of free will was this: if one replays the tape of one’s life back to the moment of a decision, with all the molecules and forces that acted previously still in play in an identical way, then “free will” is the notion that, given this situation, one could have made a different decision. Now most compatibilists, at least on this site, agree that it would indeed be impossible to have made a different decision.  Russell is explicit on this point: if everything is the same on the replay, then only one decision was possible.  But he takes issue with the word “could.”  My definition of it in this context was “it was actually possible, not just logically possible” to make a different decision. Russell’s definition of “could have decided otherwise” is that “to an outside observer, you apparently had all the mental and physical equipment necessary for making an alternative decision.”

Re the drowning child, for instance, Russell says this:

I did, however, use the scenario of the drowning child to demonstrate how we ordinarily use such words as “can” (“can’t”, “could”, etc.). Let’s return to that.

Perhaps Jerry wants to use the word “can” in a special sense, but if so the word becomes equivocal in its meaning. Normally, when we say, “I can save the child” or “I could have saved the child” we mean something slightly (but not very) vague to the effect that I have whatever cognitive and physical capacities are needed, have whatever equipment is required, am on the spot, and so on. Perhaps it includes not being in the grip of a disabling phobia and not being coerced by someone with a gun. “Can” refers to a commonsensical notion – slightly vague, but no more so than most ordinary language – of having the ability to do something.

If all this applies, but I fail to save the child (perhaps because I dislike children or because I don’t want to get wet, or because I am just too lazy), it makes still makes sense to say that (speaking tenselessly) I can save the child but I don’t do so because I don’t want to. Here, the ordinary meaning of “can” is being applied correctly to the situation. If Jerry’s argument demands throwing out this ordinary usage, it’s in all sorts of trouble. If he wants to use “can” and “could” in some other sense, apart from the ordinary one, in the context of free will talk, I see no reason to believe that his conception of free will is much like what the folk have in mind when they say, for example, “Russell acted of his own free will.” The empirical research done to date, e.g. by Eddy Nahmias and his colleagues, does not suggest that the folk, or the majority of them, have some special meaning of “can”, “could”, and “ability to act” in their minds.

In other words, you have free will because you “could have saved the child,” although in reality there was no possibility that you really would save the child.  You could have because you apparently possessed the cognitive and physical capacities to do so, even if it was impossible for you to exercise them.

I don’t see how this solves the problem.  For one thing, where is the “freedom” here? There isn’t any: you still have only one course of action. The “freedom” is purely theoretical! More important, what does Russell really mean by “cognitive and physical capacities to save a child”? He rules out some aspects of cognition as part of the “could” here:

Perhaps it includes not being in the grip of a disabling phobia and not being coerced by someone with a gun.

Well, perhaps Charles Whitman didn’t have free will when he shot all those students in Texas because it was found, post mortem, that he had a brain tumor that could have produced a murderous aggression.  So Whitman “couldn’t have” refrained from killing people.

But what is the difference between such a “disabling phobia” and the so-called “normal” neurological conditions that produce our behavior? Does someone who was repeatedly beaten and mistreated as a child have “free will” when he beats up someone else when he’s older? There are all sorts of environmental influences that can act deterministically (now or later in life) to produce a behavior—a behavior that was inevitable.  What is the difference between these and a “disabling phobia”?  Which phobias are “disabling” and which not—in other words, which neurological conditions show that one didn’t have free will and which truly instantiate free will? I see no relevant difference between Whitman’s brain tumor and a childhood trauma.  They are both forms of “coercion” that are equally potent (but not nearly as obvious) as a gun pointed to one’s head.  At what point does a “could not” become a “did not want to”? Does it lie between a tumor and a personality disorder?

(Let me hasten to add that I feel it is proper to remonstrate someone for failing to save a drowning child, for such remonstrations act to change behavior, and can lead to a better society.  I just don’t think that such a person was “morally responsible” for that failure to act.)

Russell thinks that his conception of free will is better because it involves a use of the word “could” that is in more in line with our everyday parlance.  When we say “I could have had a V8,” for instance, Russell thinks we mean, “There was V8 juice available and I didn’t have any mental disability that prevented me from ordering one, nor an inborn aversion to tomato juice.”  Well, if all he means by “free will” is that to an outsider one seems equipped to make a choice (but which outsider? can the outsider see our neurons and how they operate?), perhaps I’ll go along with that.  But not necessarily.

For there are other uses of the word “can and “could” that imply not just physical equipment, but the concept of want.  Here are two. What do you you think when you hear these phrases?

“Hey, buddy, my car’s broken down—could you give me a lift?”

“I’m hungry.  Can you give me a dollar for some food?”

According to Russell, in both cases you can tell the supplicant that yes, you could give him a lift or a dollar, but then walk away.  After all, you were equipped to give a ride or a dollar (you “could have”), but according to Russell you just didn’t want to.  But try telling that to those people.  “Yes, buddy, I can give you a dollar.  But I won’t.”  I doubt that either supplicant would comprehend these meanings.  In these cases the common understanding of “could” is precisely what I mean in my definition of free will.

The point is that there is often no clear distinction between “could have done” and “want to do”; indeed, under determinism I see no sensible difference between these concepts. But even in common parlance these two concepts elide.  I think the onus is on Russell here to show how one can be “physically and neurologically equipped” to perform an act in all ways, but then not perform that act.  If “free will” simply means that there is no reason obvious to an observer that one couldn’t perform an act, even though the character and constitution of the actor make it impossible for him to perform that action, then I see us mired in some sort of Free Will Wonderland.  After all, an outside observer (unless she’s a neuropsychologist two centuries from now) will never have the ability to examine the molecular structure of our bodies and the neuronal connections that will enable her to see whether we’re mentally equipped to do something.

159 thoughts on “Brother Blackford responds to me about free will

  1. Surely the whole notion that we “could have” done something that we didn’t in fact do rests on the dualist assumption that there, indeed, even exists a “we” in the first place?

    What we think of as a “self” is evidently the emergent by-product of mechanistic and subconcious process of which “we” are observers, analagous to watching TV except that we are “watching” our own brains. We can’t choose what happens as we watch a film, nor can we choose what happens as we “watch” the results of neurological processing that has already taken place.

    Russell shows that he understands this, but then undercuts his own understanding by maintaining, in effect that it is somehow possible to time travel a few split seconds back to the past and undo mental processing that has already taken place. Unless Russell is invoking some spooky new physics, and can evidence this, he simply has no choice but to admit his position is untenable.

    1. A few other commenters have argued that Harris and Coyne implicitly espouse dualism in exactly the sense you describe – that there is a “we” who is bound simply to observe as the laws of physics exert themselves on our physical apparatuses.

      It seems to me that the limitations of language are responsible for this and that neither Harris nor Coyne intends such a conception.

      Rather, I’m not convinced there’s no hint of dualism in the compatibilist view. Harris makes a good point when he says that if he were to trade places, atom for atom, historical influence for historical influence, with a murderer, there would be no “extra part” (free will) which would allow him to act differently from the murderer.

      1. That is nonsensical. If he trades atom for atom, historical influence for historical influence, with a murderer, that would mean he IS the murderer. To ask if “he” could have done differently than “the murderer” is to assume there is a dualistic self that remained distinct after the complete material trade.

        1. “… that would mean he IS the murderer.”

          I think that’s rather the point. We are those atoms, we are those influences. The only way to escape the implications of Sam’s example is to invoke some kind of dualism.

          1. He defined free will as something external, so naturally the only way to introduce free will as he defined is to invoke dualism. That’s begging the question.

            Why did he assume the murderer had no choice but to murder? Did he assume some kind of mental disorder or some other scenario of less than full brain health?

            If you exchange full material composition with a cow, will you (as the cow) be able to choose to eat hotdog for breakfast rather than grass, after the trade? Will the cow (as you) be able to avoid eating grass? Clearly the answers are no, and yes, respectively. Did it require a dualistic source for the biological human to have the capacity to choose what to eat for breakfast, or was it all part of the advanced ability of the human brain, as compared to the cow’s brain.

            1. Perhaps there is something about the apparent higher-order phenomena that we humans exhibit (over other living matter) and that all conscious beings exhibit (over inanimate matter). Perhaps this something should be called free will. I don’t know enough to come to a definitive conclusion.

              The thrust of my comments was only to counter the accusation of sneaky dualism some have levied at Coyne and Harris.

              When Harris says “you do not choose what you ‘choose'”, he isn’t claiming there’s a homunculus in us that helplessly observes the laws of physics playing out. Some commenters have mounted this argument.

              The “trading atom for atom” example should show that Harris does not have an implicitly “homunculussy” conception of the issue.

  2. Brother Blackford just couldn’t respond differently. Now, with JC’s input, he could(?!).

    1. It just means that with new information or ideas or data, your responses to a future but similar event can be different.

      Having a predetermined response only means determined by all input you have gained up to the point of your response; not predetermined from indefinitely from birth.

  3. Is the most important issue in this discussion, i.e., your primary point in this discussion, the notion that we cannot have what was previously thought of as “moral responsibility” so that questions of morality and immorality and punishment are rendered obsolete, while a response that may lead to a change in “bad” behavior is fine?

    1. I think this is the crux. Moral responsibility is an intuition founded on the concept of free will. Without free will it falls away.

      The problem is all a cognitive constructs seem to be founded on dualistic freewill because these two concepts 9dualism and freewill) have been unproblematic and accepted by all cultures throughout history (happy to be corrected on that) and our psychology seems to be wired that way to (could make up a just-so story here, but won’t).

      We are going to have to make a lot of conceptual and linguistic changes before we can reason coherently about this.

      1. What is meant by “a better society” in this post, if (presumably) not a morally better society? And what motivates me to respond to correction in my behaviors, if the correct action is not what I’m impelled to do by determinism?

  4. ‘That’s a lot of words to use for saying, “Yes, I accept determinism”!’

    But he doesn’t. He explicitly says, ‘if we knew that determinism is true…’, which means he does not accept determinism; but he is open to the notion if it can be shown to be true (by someone else – he obviously is going to waste time looking for such evidence).

    1. I haven’t read Blackford’s post, but I imagine he is using the conditional because he knows that determinism is not true (see quantum mechanics). However, for a limited argument about free will, it might as well be true, since the kind of indeterminacy underlying quantum mechanics merely adds randomness, not spooky extra-physical causes. I think that is the position that most “determinists” have taken during this debate.

  5. Why have I not decided which argument – Jerry and Sam here, Russell and Dan there – is the better one to support?

    If determinism is true, then why am I not susceptible enough to give in to the immediate physics to which I am subjected countless times throughout this long debate to actually decide? How is it I can suspend this apparent determined result of my mental faculties over which I can have no control? It seems the determinist side assures me I cannot. And yet…

      1. But I haven’t decided. I think both sides make very good points. I’m figuratively on the fence here. My questions are very serious ones in that I honestly do not know why I have yet to accept one line of reasoning over and above the other. Why haven’t I done this?

        1. Your question seems to depend on the assumption that someone making an argument is sufficient cause for your brain to accept it.

          It isn’t. There is a logic to these arguments, and your brain hasn’t fully worked through it yet.

            1. I don’t believe I’ve assumed anything. But judging from your smart one-sentence reply, I guess you aren’t interested in discussing it. Good day, then.

              1. You write There is a logic to these arguments, and your brain hasn’t fully worked through it yet.

                That’s an assumption (and a bit of a snarky one at that) you make to explain why I haven’t favoured one side over the other, assuming as you do that once I follow each to their logical conclusions I will have made up my mind and that, therefore, I have not followed them to that point.

                But there are other possibilities, that neither conclusion is satisfactory even if logical, or that there are more than just one of these answers. I do not think you considered these possibilities.

              2. I did not mean anything snarky by my reply. Nor do I mean to imply that either Russell’s or Jerry’s arguments are exactly correct. If you had decided that both were incorrect, then you might have asked “Why have I rejected these arguments?” Instead, you asked “Why have I not decided which (if any) to accept?” Clearly, you haven’t decided that either argument is valid or invalid. So – again I think it is clear – that you are still working your way through the logic of each. If you had worked your way through the logic and found them to be unsound, you would have rejected the arguments, not merely been undecided about them. So really, it sounds like I’m saying the same thing you are. I think you misinterpreted my original reply.

                At this point, however, I would ask – if we are saying the same thing, why did you ask your question at all? Is the above answer not good enough?

              3. Thanks for your reply.

                I don’t think they are both incorrect; if anything, I think both are correct as far as they go, both valid, both sound, and both with strong merit on their own. The problem Is that I don;t think either is accurate model. And therein lies the problem. That I can find them thus IS a problem for the perspective of determinism – even though my brain is fully responsive to the same physics that other people have (but who, unlike me, have reached the conclusion of favouring one over the other. So how is it that I can suspend favouring one over another when the neuron activity I undergo in following each position to their conclusions do not result in me finding one more no more compelling (and with similar shortcomings) than the other? I do not think I suffer from some neurological shortcoming (call me an optimist) nor immune from physical forces that affect decision making. I think the answer lies in how I weight certain points raised by both differently than others and it is this weighting whereby I find what I shall call will. I can weight them differently should I so choose (not from some ‘I’ superimposed on my brain activity like a pilot of some craft but coming from different parts of my brain that I may temporarily favour over others, which seems to me to stand contrary to the idea of inevitability that seems part and parcel of Jerry’s position on no free will. What appears to me to be contrary, however, is not enough for me to overpower his argument on the entire process being physics in action. It is… but I also think it’s much more a process than a result, which may explain why I have not yet reached a decision.

                Hope that helps.

              4. But there’s plenty of difference between your brain and other people’s brains, such that this scenario-

                1. Russell makes an argument.
                2. Jerry makes an argument.
                3. Both arguments physically impinge on your brain.
                4. Your brain becomes convinced of one of the arguments.

                -is not the same for everyone. What you take Russell’s words to mean may be different from what I take them to mean. Your background knowledge and understanding of this issue is different from mine. Your ability to reason through the issue given the same background knowledge, may even be different from mine. Any emotional reactions you have that impede your rational thought processes may also be different from mine. Jerry’s and Russell’s arguments constitute physical stimuli (once transduced into words on a screen) that are acting on different physical systems – different brains – and therefore creating (potentially) different results each time. It’s like if you roll a bowling ball down a bowling lane the exact same way each time, but each time the pins are set up differently – you get a different result.

        2. Are you asking why you havent decided sine determinism is true? Determinism doesnt predict that all minds must be made up , it just means that minds depends on physical , deterministic processes . Thiink of a rock traveling in empty space : according to Newtons law , it will go on forever at the same speed, it will never actually arrive at some determined destination, but it does behave deterministically

          1. Yes, I may be comprehending the term ‘deterministic’ incorrectly. I think the physical process we speak of that determines a result is missing something important if process is all we go by. To use an analogy (forgive me), that we can all use exactly the same process for, say, cooking with exactly the same ingredients but end up with slightly different results is evidence that there is more to results than a deterministic approach. Even when we try our best to duplicate some favoured dish by following a recipe to perfection, we need to pay attention not to just the physical properties of the ingredients subject to temperature for a specific amount of time but subtle elements of order to the mixing, the consistency influenced the speed of combination and so on. The physical elements used in the process remain stable but the results are not necessarily determined by those alone, any more than our decisions are based only on the physical properties of our neurology. “Why did we achieve this particular result?” I do not think this can be answered by only the physics involved although the physics are essential to the process; this ‘snapshot’ result can be (and often is for those of us married) different from moment to moment, which seems to stand contrary to those who think determinism from physics alone is true.

    1. It is determined (assuming determinism). You (your brain) just don’t know yet what that outcome will be. This is indeterminacy of human knowledge in the face of insufficient information.

      1. I think what we call free will is indeterminancy. I think all the interconnectedness of the brain processes we call cognition is captured at a particular moment a decision is made, which we call determinism. I think we grant moment-by-moment weight to certain factors in any decision making process which presents – but only at that moment – as ‘inevitable’… but a process that can produce multiple and quite different ‘inevitable’ results with the passage of next to instantaneous amounts of time even though the overall physics of the brain remains constant!

        In this way I think the deterministic argument is true as far as the physical process of brain operation dependent on physics is concerned but not the whole story, in that we can affect this part of our physics by that part of our physics.

        And isn’t this what learning is all about: accepting input and then altering some part of our brain physics which may affect brain function we call cognition? The reverse then seems true to me: allowing change to the physics to occur (granting weight to this rather than that factor) and then altering our decision output. (I think of what brain plasticity means and remind myself of Ramachandran’s mirror box for phantom limb pain and Bach-y-Rita’s tongue strip for rewiring balance, showing that we are quite capable of rewriting our brain code – our brain physics – even in fairly significant ways.)

        I am not denying that what we call will is in any way independent of the brain or independent of a strictly physical process. But this does not mean it necessarily must be deterministic to a particular and inevitable result and I think this is where the deterministic argument fails to account for the fluid process of indeterminancy. In this sense, then, free will also seems to me to be true if it means recognizing that our brain process for decision making is highly fluid and subject to multiple and subjective factors, meaning that compatibilism is also on the table… and that’s why I can’t choose because both arguments have strong merit.

        1. I think you may have misunderstood determinism. Determinism has nothing to do with making decisions and is not about moving toward a prescribed event or outcome (like making a decision) like fate is. Determinism is simply about the system (in this case the universe) being “deterministic” meaning that, with a full knowledge of all the formulas and all the values of all the variables you can know at any given time what state the system is in.

          For this discussion we can say that determinism means the future is already set in stone via the laws of physics (even if it’s not it’s still outside of your control so it doesn’t really matter). This is all that is meant by determinism, it has nothing to do with you making a decision. If this doesn’t make sense I’m sure there are better explanations to be found with a quick google search.

  6. I just want to say again I admire Prof. Coyne for taking the time to examine and respond to the arguments from the other side, both on this issue and the religious debate (e.g. taking the time to look into “sophisticated theology.”) This attitude is part of what makes this a great blog. (Probably my favorite of the vocal-atheist blog/web-sites).

    Vaal.

  7. If I’m 100 yards upstream from Niagara Falls and a child is being carried by the current toward the falls, I would want to save him. If I could wade out and carry him to shore, I would certainly do that. Trying to swim out to the middle of the river and back would be futile and fatal. There is some distance in between that would require a decision.

    If we could reproduce the states of every atom before the decision process began, the indeterminant factors might tip the decision either way in different replays. I think this is how the “can” and “could have” description should be framed.

    Since our will cannot influence the indeterminant factors, the will is driven by them so it cannot be said to be free.

  8. I don’t know why Russell is playing along with the definition of free will as “could have done otherwise if we rewind the tape”. This is untestable. Aside from the fact that time-travel to the past is impossible, even if we could, bringing back information about the 1st result (which has to be stored physically somewhere) to be able to compare it against the 2nd result, would fail the contrived requirement that all particles in the universe be in exactly the same state.

    How about a more sensible and testable definition of free will? To start, free will I suggest should be understood not as a static property but as an ability that may or may not be exercised in particular circumstances. In other words, free will is more like walking rather than bipedalism. Inasmuch as we agree that at a certain conceptual level, we allow it to be said that certain categories of things are capable of willing or intentionality, then that thing is potentially capable of free will, depending on how we understand what “free” means. If we can’t even get off the semantic ground by agreeing that it is valid to say that some things are capable of will/intention, then the discussion is pointless.

    Assuming we are past the first hurdle, then the next sticking point is what “freedom” means. Freedom from what? Since we all accept that the universe is deterministic, then “freedom” cannot mean freedom from causation. Necessarily freedom has to mean something less grand. Freedom from coercion or freedom from unwanted influence are about as best as we can get, or maybe as Dennett would say the freedom worth wanting, as it is pointless to want something that you cannot have.

  9. Jerry, I know you’ve seen Rosenberg’s article on why he’s a naturalist, but if you haven’t read it yet, you must get “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality” which greatly expands on that article. He’s your soul mate in arms, so to speak.

    Not only do we not have free will, we don’t really have thoughts that are “about” anything.

    A very bracing, courageous walk to the end of the road, only to discover the joy of living without illusions.

  10. “Philosophers tend to de-emphaszie this important result—yes, a finding of science—in favor of showing us how we can haz free will after all.”

    But surely, you can’t blame the philosophers for their de-emphasizing since they are clearly compelled to do so?

    The reality of determinism is clear to me but at a more granular levels, it starts to feel…wrong and self negating. Of course, I don’t beat myself up about that ’cause I know I can’t help it.

  11. Jerry Coyne:

    But he takes issue with the word “could.” My definition of it in this context was “it was actually possible, not just logically possible” to make a different decision.

    This is really shaky – “logically possible” leads to some really awful places, like the Ontological Argument and Philosophical Zombies. The easiest way out is probably to distinguish “epistemic possibility” – that is things that have to remain open because we don’t have enough information or processing power to connect all the dots – from “ontological possibility” or things the Laplace Demon would call possible. P-zombies might be epistemically possible (we don’t know for sure), but they may be ontologically impossible (that is, subjective experience will emerge from anything which complies with “matter organized humanwise”).

    But, as I’ve said at probably too much length in the previous thread, there’s probably an easier way to do this. “Could” poses a hypothetical. When we apply it in thought experiments it has the flavor of “here’s what would happen if a bunch of things were the case.” When we apply it to some situation in the past, it has the flavor of “here’s what would happen if a bunch of things had been the case [instead of what was in fact the case].”

    In this broader sense of “could,” we can put the hypothetical differences posed by “could” on a spectrum from “most plausible” to “least plausible,” with “what was actually the case” at one end (“could have happened” and “did happen” are compatible) and “depends on contradictory axioms” at the other. Then, if the context isn’t obvious, we can probe to find out which things would have to change in order for the “could have done differently” hypothetical to have held in the actual case. And by doing so we can get meaning from these depending on the types and number of differences between the actual and hypothetical case, thereby learning things about the world.

    For some people (e.g. Christians), they might actually hypothesize, “I could have done differently [given materialism and determinism are false].” For others (e.g. compatibilists in these threads), they might hypothesize, “I could have done differently [accepting determinism, but given something slightly different in the arrangement of matter].” Incompatibilists seem to be saying that for free will, the only relevant sense of “could” is “could have done differently [if determinism did not hold].” It’s a useful corrective when determinism is actually in dispute, but it’s useless if the context is trying to learn things about actual human behavior.

  12. I wish Jerry was wrong about this free will stuff, but i dont see how he could be.

    On the other hand, now i dont feel guilt for eating those cream eggs!

  13. At what point does a “could not” become a “did not want to”? Does it lie between a tumor and a personality disorder?

    (Let me hasten to add that I feel it is proper to remonstrate someone for failing to save a drowning child, for such remonstrations act to change behavior, and can lead to a better society….)

    I think the answer to your question can be found in your parenthetical remark. Since the efficacy of punishment is something we all seem to agree on, let’s follow up that line of thought to see where it gets us.

    Consider three case of bank robbery. In case A, Al robs a bank because he wants the money and has devised a plan that gives him a reasonable chance of getting away with it. So the rewards outweigh the risks in his mental calculus. But that calculus can change if Al gets caught and punished, decreasing the likelihood that he’ll commit similar crimes in the future. Let’s call this sort of behavior corrigible, since it’s subject to correction by social sanctions (such as prison).

    In case B, Bob robs a bank because bad guys are holding his wife hostage and threatening to kill her if he doesn’t carry out their robbery plan. In this case, fear of going to jail is the farthest thing from Bob’s mind; he’s just trying to save his wife’s life. Since the prospect of legal repercussions is simply not a factor in Bob’s behavior, let’s call that behavior incorrigible. In his mind he has no choice.

    In case C, Charlie robs a bank because a brain tumor or other neurological disorder has rendered him immune to deterrence. He simply takes what he wants, on impulse, with no thought of consequences. This behavior too falls into the incorrigible category.

    Now it may not be possible in all cases to draw a sharp line between corrigible and incorrigible behaviors. There may be some fuzzy boundary cases. Nevertheless I hope we can agree that this spectrum of corrigible v. incorrigible behavior reflects an actual fact about the world. It is objectively true that Al’s criminal behavior is more likely to be deterred by punishment than Bob’s or Charlie’s. This fact is not changed by a deep analysis of Al’s troubled childhood or the precise etiology of Charlie’s disease.

    I claim that most people would not have a problem with the statement that Al robbed the bank of his own free will, whereas Bob and Charlie did not. To the extent that this claim is true, it would seem that the folk notion of free will as expressed in ordinary speech does indeed correspond to an actual fact about the world, namely, the degree to which the behavior in question is corrigible (i.e. subject to modification by social sanctions).

    This, I think, is the gist of Blackford’s argument. To the extent that one’s behavior is corrigible, it’s reasonable (and consistent with ordinary usage) to say that one could do otherwise. The idea that behavior is amenable to modification is the very essence of corrigibility.

    1. This is probably the best thing I’ve read in all the things I’ve read on free will on all the blog posts and comments I have read. Good job.

    2. I think your categories “corrigible” and “incorrigible” make sense in deciding punishment, assuming we have a way of evaluating to what extent they apply to a given individual. But I disagree that Al used free will any more than the other two cases.

      Al decided what to do deterministically based on the structure of his brain, shaped by his genes and experience. For whatever reason Al downplayed the risk of being caught more than the typical person, who would love to get away with the bank’s money, but does not attempt to do so because it is wrong, or because they fear being caught.

      Al is corrigible not because he has free will. He is corrigible because he can learn from the consequences of his actions. After a prison sentence, the next time his brain does a deterministic risk/reward calculation regarding prospective criminal activity, the memory of the jail sentence would (if he really is corrigible) amplify the perception of risk and thus his deterministic calculation would arrive at the conclusion that the reward is not worth the risk.

      No free will there at all, just an intelligent adaptable deterministic biological computer doing it’s job, which is to guide us to the actions that are in our best interests according to our brain’s best reckoning abilities.

      1. I’m not claiming that Al’s will is free in any metaphysical or libertarian sense, or that such freedom is what makes his behavior corrigible. I agree that his behavior is physically determined just as Bob’s or Charlie’s is.

        What I’m doing is drawing attention to the empirical sociological fact that people use the words “free will” to describe corrigible behavior. Natural selection has endowed us with heuristics for distinguishing corrigible from incorrigible behavior, and through some accident of linguistic history, the label we attach to one of those heuristics is “free will”.

        It’s unfortunate that a lot of incoherent metaphysical baggage has accreted around this term. But that doesn’t negate the pragmatic utility of the core concept, which is that some behaviors are corrigible (“freely chosen” in popular parlance), and some are not, and there’s value in knowing which is which. That value is lost if we deny the distinction and lump together all behavior in a single deterministic bucket on the grounds that “free will” doesn’t exist.

  14. But try telling that to those people. “Yes, buddy, I can give you a dollar. But I won’t.” I doubt that either supplicant would comprehend these meanings. In these cases the common understanding of “could” is precisely what I mean in my definition of free will.

    I think you’re really reaching here. If a panhandler asks me if I can spare a dollar, one look at my clothes tells him that in fact I can. So when I tell him “Sorry,” we both know that what I really mean is that I can but I won’t. And when he says, “Yeah, well, have a nice day,” he’s demonstrating that he knows that I know it. That’s a reality that’s understood by any urbanite who deals with panhandlers on a daily basis. To claim otherwise is pure sophistry. Point to Blackford on this one.

  15. “which is okay with me, as blame changes future behavior, both of the “blamee” and onlookers”
    How can blame, without free will, change future behaviour?

    1. Better maybe to say, “affect” (or even “effect”) rather than “change” future behavior, unless “change future behavior” means “elicit future behavior that is different than what it had been in the past.”

  16. Jerry Coyne:

    Note the word “rightly,” which assumes not just responsibility (which is okay with me, as blame changes future behavior, both of the “blamee” and onlookers), but moral responsibility. … whence the concept of moral responsibility?

    Interesting, as usual we arrive an an issue of semantics! Jerry, what does the phrase “moral responsibility” mean to you? Does it mean “dualistic woo responsibility” or “supernatural soul responsibility”? If so I can see why you argue as you do.

    But suppose we define “moral responsibility” as “susceptible to social opprobrium and deterrence responsibility”. In that case your question answers itself and moral responsibility is explained.

    Afterall, our moral senses are the product of evolution, programmed into us for the entirely pragmatic reason of affecting our behaviour and others’ behaviour.

    And my definition is compatible with the fact that someone whose behaviour was determined by a brain tumour would not be held “morally” responsible.

    In the same way, someone not wanting to help a child in distress *would* be held “morally” responsible (even though his attitude is entirely determined) because those attitudes *would* be susceptible to the opprobrium of others.

    If most “compatibilists” … really are determinists, why do they soft-pedal this important result?

    I for one would do in any context where I was discussing with dualists. But in these threads, for example, there are hardly any dualists.

    1. I would think that for most people, “moral responsibility” is equivalent to “the right thing to do”, however that might be defined.

      1. But there is no “morally right” thing to do in any abstract or absolute sense, there is only people’s opinions about what is right; and those opinions evolved as a pragmatic mechanism of social glue, as a way of affecting people’s behaviour.

        1. Of course there is no “morally right” thing to do. But you attributed some bizarre definitions to Jerry Coyne. I was just stating how most people define it.

          1. I didn’t attribute any definition to Jerry Coyne, I was asking (partially prompted by something he had said on a previous thread). The point is that one can’t ask “whence moral responsibility?” without clarifying what one is asking for.

            Your “most people’s” definition isn’t actually a definition at all, unless you then define “right thing to do”.

            1. I have no need to define it when it is not my belief. Ask those who believe it as to what THEY mean.

  17. “In private emails to me, Russell argues that I am “confused” on the issue, and perhaps I am. But I have to say that I don’t find Russell’s piece bringing a lot of clarity to the issue, either.”

    Yep Jerry, I have the impression Russell is confused, the seemingly key mistake is here:

    “I sit by idly and watch a child drown. If I have the resources, etc., all that is required for me to save the child is that I want to.”

    This is wrong as it stands, that can’t be all that is required. There is no physical possibility of a different want arising in precisely the same cirumstances. (As you rightly say)

    The only way to make sense of the physical possibility of the want arising is to include slightly different initial conditions in which the want would arise.

    So Russell just seems to be mistaken so far.

    Most compatibilists don’t make that mistake but their mistake is close enough. They say he could have saved the child means could if he wanted to and that’s as far as we need to look.

    But that isn’t the full story.

    It’s not including the full story that leaves out the crucial point that in order for the want to have arisen the past would have needed to have been different.

    So could if… really means: Would if the past had been slighty and appropriately different.

    Once it’s put like that there is overwhelming tension between would if the past had been slightly and appropriately different and deserved blame.

    This is masked by the counterfactual could if he wanted to.

    You might be interested in Bruce Waller’s book “Against Moral Responsibility” I haven’t read it but know he makes the same point, from this review by Tom Clark:

    http://www.naturalism.org/Wallerreview.htm

  18. After reading so many of these posts, I have to agree with some others’ that the difference between incompatibilists and compatibilists is just semantics. They both agree what the other says is true, but they call different things free will.

    Incompatibilists like Jerry and myself believe that since actions are determined with some random input (which compatibilists agree with), whatever we will isn’t free. Thus nothing has free will, and indeed it is difficult to even think of a fictional scenario in which it existed.

    Compatibilists choose to call our ability to use data to make choices we feel like we want to make “free will” (and incompatibilists agree we have this ability). Yet when confronted with the fact computers and animals do this too, they bite the bullet and say they have free will as well*.

    So we all agree that computers, humans and other organisms act under the same principles, and that these principles mean every action we take is due to a combination of past events and quantum randomness. We’re left with the choice that all such beings/machines have free will, or none do.

    As for me, since there is no freedom to do other than what the universe has played out to make us do, I’m happy saying computers and organisms all have wills, they’re just not free wills.

    * As an aside, I think a good survey question to determine if ‘the folk’ have a compatibilist notion of free will would we “do you think insects have free will?”. I bet almost all would answer “no”.

    1. Really? Compatibilists agree that computers have the “ability to use data to make choices we feel like we want to make”?

      Who conceded this much? I’m compatibilist but I don’t think computers and insects have free will. Not yet for computers at least. There is a qualitative difference between insect brains and today’s computers on one hand and human brains. But we can see how the gap would be narrowed and the boundary blurred. For example just imagine a child growing up to be an adult. Compatibilits would say humans have free will, but no compatibilist would ascribe free will to an infant. Somewhere along the way as part of the child’s brain development and maturization, he acquires it (or rather we become more and more comfortable ascribe free will to him).

      1. Maybe coelsblog and Torbjorn were too hasty. Heh.

        So which part do you contest? Surely you agree computers and insects have the ability to use data to make (determined and/or random) choices. Thus the hangup would be whether they feel they want to make those choices. If this is the case…

        1. How do we tell what has free will? Does a gorilla? A cat? A lizard? A fish? I for one think a trapped insect wants to escape, a hungry insect wants to find food, etc..

        2. If free will is just the feeling of wanting the choice we made, then by definition it can never be an illusion.

        1. They were too hasty.

          Maybe they got tired of no progress (criticisms raised about incompatibilism and no response) and hence were more inclined to be accommodating at this point 🙂

          1. Speaking of criticisms raised with no response… 😉

            I guess if compatibilists think that infant brains are qualitatively different than adult brains, that really is an empirical difference between them and incompatibilists.

              1. It’s certainly not because the one year old lacks free will. Are you confusing free will with self awareness, which I agree comes in degrees and is lacking in current computers and insects?

                Though actually I think a lack of knowledge (both empirical and logical) is most of the reason I wouldn’t let an infant vote.

              2. In my view “will” presupposes awareness at minimum; intentionality requires consciousness. That’s why I’m prepared to ascribe will (much less free will) only to those things I’m prepared to ascribe consciousness. So at least we agree insects and computers don’t have consciousness. If such non-conscious things can be said to have intentionality or will, i think that is only by anthropomizing them. But I’m ok with qualifying that they have a very very small amount of free will. To me “very very small” is close enough to “none” to nitpick.

                I think the question of voting is actually illuminating because it is a perfect example of making a choice. So it’s a good question to ponder. Who do we allow to vote and why, and what conditions qualify as a legitimate vote (think Saddam Hussein getting 100% votes in his reelection)?

              1. I suppose the difference between qualitative and quantitative could get bogged down in semantics too. The differences seem quantitative to me- MORE synaptic connections, especially in the cerebral cortex, MORE myelin, LARGER size, etc.. But both infants and adults have qualitatively the same brain- same subdivisions, same kinds of cells that interact through the same electrochemical signals.

              2. Fine; then it’s quantitative. Isn’t that Dennett’s point? That adults are freer than infants, and humans are freer than slugs, precisely because our larger brains enable us to process more information, imagine more options, formulate more and better long-range plans, giving us access to a broader range of potential futures? How does that support your claim that “all such beings/machines have free will, or none do”? If it’s quantitative, then it’s not either/or.

              3. Just because some organisms have more “free will” than others doesn’t mean they lack “free will”. So since a slug has some ability to process information and act to create a future based on that information, a slug has some amount of compatibilist free will. So does a tree or a chess program. Thus every organism has some freedom in its will, using the compatibilist definition. Other objects, like rocks, do not.

                That’s not the same as the incompatibilist definition though, and under the latter none of these things, nor humans, have free will.

              4. Another approach would be to say that from quantitative differences in physiology emerge qualitative differences in behavior.

                A certain quote attributed to Stalin comes to mind…

      2. Last thread there was somewhat of a consensus among compatibilists that whatever they call “free will” comes in degrees – humans have more than dogs, dogs have more than frogs, frogs have more than slugs and bugs. Slugs, bugs, computers “have it” to a very very small degree.

        This can lead to some discomfort, and there’s a “fallacy of the beard” thing that happens, where we feel there ought to be some boundary between those things like insects and computers, and those things that – you know! – really obviously have it! That boundary is going to be fuzzier than even the semantic mess between compatibilists and incompatibilists.

        Curiously, incompatibilists in these threads insist that the “free will” concept is necessarily a binary proposition – one either has it or not – which is a further manifestation of (and maybe evidence for) the semantic disconnect Mickey Mortimer is talking about.

        1. Also – to the chagrin of many – folks like Dennett and D. Hofstadter, and even Dawkins have started to use the word “soul” as a metaphor for this ability to process and respond. Hofstadter uses “soul size” in much the same way I’d be inclined to use “degree of free will” or, as others here have said, “degrees of freedom.”

        2. See, that’s what I thought- that compatibilists argued computers and insects have free will, even if it’s only a small amount of it.

          I have no problem with the compatibilist ideas of “free will” being gradational. A plant responds to sensory inputs, but has no brain to feel it wants those choices. A cat not only responds to sensory inputs, I think it feels it wants to act on them. But it has no self awareness, based on mirror studies and such. So if the definition is “ability to use data to make choices we feel like we want to make”, then yes, it’s not binary.

          But the incompatibilist version of free will is not the same thing. Since even dualist free will supporters agree our wills are not 100% free (affects of drugs, hormones, life experience, physical constraints on what humans can do), the freedom is already partial. We’re just saying that since every other variable contributing to our will is out of our conscious control, that bit of freedom most people grant us doesn’t exist either. So I think most incompatibilists would say that free will could be partial and indeed most people think of it that way, we just see zero freedom in our actions.

          1. >>we just see zero freedom in our actions

            i agree that pretty much sums up the incompatibilist position.

            and my response is, that’s a sure sign you’ve been living well all your life in a free society, you have taken your freedoms for granted.

  19. In my eyes you are both confused. Russell because he behaves like philosophy is useful. And you because you, ironically, rely on dualist “counterfactuals” when there are no such things to observe by their very definition.

    If most “compatibilists”—that is, those who, like Russell, find free will compatible with determinism—really are determinists, why do they soft-pedal this important result?

    Despite being no philosophic “compatibilist” I would be classified as one by philosophers, so I feel compelled to respond.

    Why, this is the very core of contention: an effective will model doesn’t soft-pedal on determinism for the same reason that an effective theory like general relativity doesn’t soft-pedal on quantum mechanics. They simply doesn’t depend on it, at their scale of granularity they don’t “see” it. Yet they don’t reject the underlying theory.

    They are orthogonal to it.

    If you don’t understand the concept of emergence and orthogonality and how they apply to social models of agents with will, and that they do not imply a rejection of the underlying nature (here a monism of quantum mechanics), there is not much to do at this juncture.

    But as a comparison, very few physicists believe there won’t be a deeper theory of gravity where quantization can be extended to high energies. Similarly one can envision a moral theory where will can be extended to fine grained, neuronal descriptions.

    But I bet both are huge undertakings.

    1. Going over this, I overreach by claiming orthogonality. Of course there are some dependencies. (Say, energy measures for QM and GR both.) But not very constraining ones.

    2. I think you have this exactly right. There are different domains being considered by the incompatibilists and the compatibilists; one is concerned with how the brain works, the other is concerned with how it feels subjectively to be human, and what that implies for society.

      It’s like the difference between a driver of a car who doesn’t care how it works but only that it moves and can be controlled, and a mechanic who knows or is concerned with how every mechanism works and is constructed.

      Compatibilism “works” logically because all of our language was based on how we feel in our minds and how we observe humans (viewed as objects or black boxes) to behave. It doesn’t matter that much that there was a metaphysically mistaken foundation called contra-causal free will for a long time. We still feel and behave the same way, now that we understand it is based on a deterministic brain. So the language still applies, except terms such as free will, which had dualism embedded conceptually, have a reduced set of connotations; they apply to how we behave and feel subjectively, but not to how things work under the hood.

      It is worth being aware of how the brain works, and to try to understand how it creates our subjective experience. As our brain thinks and wills and makes choices that it predicts will satisfy its criteria for our best interests, the subjective mind is only aware of the tips of unconscious icebergs in our brain. This is why the incompatibilist wants to say it is an illusion that we sense freedom to will. The subjective feeling that we create uncaused choices, the powerful feeling that our will or intent is a free and uncaused cause of our choice (as opposed to being caused by our deterministic brain), to the incompatibilist are all subjective illusions. They don’t exist independent of our brain, they only seem to exist inside our brain, just as the experience of the color red does not exist outside our brain, it only exists inside our brain, triggered by particular wavelengths of light.

      It seems to me that the brain creates this illusion because it is constantly interacting with the environment, and taking into account the consequences of previous determined choices, and feeding that back into our memory and neural connections and decision processes, hence changing the state of our brain so we can choose differently next time; we can even change our mind fractions of a second after we made a choice. The brain does this well enough and quickly enough that it simulates freedom adequately, enough so that compatibilist language is a close enough fit to how we feel subjectively and how we observe others to behave. This fit is good enought that this language has practical applicability to human behavior, even if it doesn’t adequately describe how the brain works. The compatibilist language is true on the scale of how people perceive themselves and each other to be, but not true on the scale of the brain’s inner workings. But our apparent freedom comes from the brain’s learning and adaptability to choose differently in the future, not from it’s ability to have chosen otherwise when it makes a choice.

      This is exactly why Jerry can say when we choose we could not have chosen otherwise (and be correct), and the compatibilists can feel clever when they joke about Jerry and other incompatibilists still using the every day language of choice when they go to lunch.

      We have to keep consistent (somehow) about when we are floating above the surface of (soft) emergent human behaviors and perceptions, and when we are drilling down into the biological neuro-chemical workings of the brain.

  20. Saying that we have free will makes as much sense as saying that a computer can make decisions independent of its software. It just makes no sense. And too many people, it seems to me, are merely moving the goal posts and thinking they’ve won the game. It’s like when people argue (from a faulty assumption) that God had to create the universe because complexity requires a creator. They feel they’ve answered the question, but when you ask, “well, who created God, then?”, it’s clear they’ve simply substituted one problem for another. Similarly with free will, you have people saying that if they can change their mind, there is something like free will after all, but what is the cause of your mind changing?

    1. Get over it. There’s no such thing as freedom from causation. Set your bar for “freedom” lower.

      Say you sign a contract and then reneges on it, and the other party sues you. To determine your culpability, the judge will ask you, “did you sign the contract of your own free will”?

      I suppose incompatibilists will always say “no”, huh?

      1. This debate is about rejecting the traditional notion of free will, & not about trying to approve some different version of the term that compatibilists would like. And beware of equivocation, DV. If a judge asks whether you signed a contract of your own free will, he’s not posing a philosophical question.

        1. This debate is about rejecting the traditional notion of free will …

          No it’s not: all the relevant people, Jerry Coyne, Russell Blackford, Sam Harris, Dan Dennett etc reject “traditional” dualist free-will.

          This debate is actually about what happens next. Having rejected dualism, what phenomena do exist and what words do we use for them?

          1. coelsblog,

            It’s been my position that we have to be careful about the notion of “traditional” free will, given that is actually hard to pin down and disputable, as practically any introductory philosophical text on the history of the subject will point out.

            I’ve said before I think it is more informative (and could lead to less confusion and controversy) when we recognize the subject of free will is, like the subject of “morality,” not a single answer but is instead an area of inquiry – sets of questions and concerns.

            If morality were only seen narrowly as an answer, then a theist pointing out that most people have considered “morality” to be “what our God has told us to do” means we who don’t believe in that religion or God would have to say “Oh, drat, I guess I have to say morality doesn’t exist then.” But we don’t actually do that – the concept of morality is maintained through history and through competing belief systems, secular and theistic included.
            Secular moral philosophers are still held to be talking about “morality.” Why? Because morality can be understood as a set of concerns. Concerns like: “How ought we treat one another? What, if any, are my responsibilities toward other people? Ought I treat others in a specific way and if so, what is the basis for this prescription? How far do these prescriptions reach into the rest of the living world in terms of how I ought to treat non-humans as well…” etc. So long as you are giving answers to the same questions, we are all still talking essentially about the same thing – “morality” – but giving our own explanations for our moral obligations. That’s why there are so many moral theories, so many answers, to “morality.’

            Same with Free Will. Seen as an area of inquiry – “Am I really free? If so, how free? Could I have done otherwise?” etc. – we understand that there are many answers to the same questions, and insofar as anyone answers those questions in the affirmative, we are saying “Yes, we have free will” and here is the basis for this answer.

            This explains why there has been compatibilist/libertarian/fatalist/determinist positions concerning free will for thousands of years, from the Greeks and even before when the foreknowledge of the Gods stood in for the same problem of determinism.

            The morality analogy again: a theist and an atheist (moral realist in this case) may both agree that “Helping those in need” is a moral imperative. But both have a different answer for why it’s true. If the theistic explanation for why it’s true turns out to be false (based on non-existent God) that doesn’t mean that “morality” or the moral imperative is “false” or an “illusion”…so long as a real basis for it can be explained…it’s still the same thing.

            Similarly, the “Free Will” that Libertarian/contra-causalists and compatibilists are talking about is essentially the same thing – we both answer “yes, I could have done otherwise” in terms of our everyday experience of choice-making. It’s just that we have a different answer for why it is true. If the Libertarian answer for why it’s true – “Because my mind is excempt from the loop of determinism” – turns out to be false, that doesn’t equate to “free will” being an “illusion.” It’s just one wrong answer, and if there are answers that make it true that we could have done otherwise, then we still have the “free will” that is the object of our inquiry.

            I find that compatibilism makes a better case for describing what we ACTUALLY tend to mean, uncovering the basis, for when we describe ourselves as having a choice and being able to have “done otherwise.” Hence I do not agree that contra-causal free will “is” free will, as if it truly captured the basis for our claims about our ability to choose. (Hence, it would be false to say that contra-causal free will represents the “traditional” view in terms of how most people have made claims about their ability to choose).

            So slapping the word “traditional” on only one answer to the questions of free will can confuse that answer as BEING “free will” (and that therefore we are talking about some new thing if we aren’t giving THAT answer).

            Hence, I’d rather say compatibilists and incompatibilists agree that one answer to the questions of free will ( one “variety of free will” as Dennett would short-hand it) is to be rejected – contra-causel/libertarian answers are false.

            But that in itself shouldn’t be confused with the stance that “therefore Free Will itself doesn’t really exist.”

            Vaal

            1. “Seen as an area of inquiry”

              Hmm. I feel that you are are comparing things that are themselves incomparable. Moral systems can be compared because they are frameworks with inputs and outputs, and we can agree on outputs while debating the inputs, however “free will” is a theory of causation and ramification thereof. In fact, all moral systems use “free will” as a premise in some way or another.

              So, when you point to free will as an area of inquiry, you cannot escape the ontological distance between it and moral frameworks; what you are doing is defining “free will” to *be* a system of thought rather than an axiom of nature. Compatibilists – in my eyes – are redefining the traditional term (yes, I’m happy to say ‘traditional’ in terms of free-will; it has almost always meant choices free of enforced guidance) without specifically saying they are doing so (which is why I suspect a lot of people, including Jerry Coyne, says that we shouldn’t use the term at all any more; there’s no much put into it).

              “This explains why there has been compatibilist/libertarian/fatalist/determinist positions concerning free will for thousands of years”

              Hmm. Well, there’s certainly been many models of free-will through the years, but any field that is working with poor data have similar diversity, and only when more and better data / evidence reaches the field will it get a broader consensus and a narrower focus (check out the wonderful theories of life before Darwin as an example, or the age-old “what are stars, and why are some of them moving funny?”). The reason we are talking about this right now is probably more that there has never in history been more scientific evidence that helps us suss out the many side-questions of the free-will debate – neuroscience, biology, cosmology, physics and so on – which is why it has flared up in recent times the way that it has. That especially Christians have “free will” as one of the main premises to their religion coupled with the “new atheist” kerfuffle has also helped feed the flames of late; if there is no free will, the doctrine of Christianity crumbles (except those whacky Calvinists), which is important to point out.

              And finally, as to you saying “compatibilism makes a better case for describing what we ACTUALLY tend to mean”, is something I certainly agree with, however that doesn’t make it true when we use it as a theory of nature. In other words, they might truly well have a model that reflect how we think about the matter, but it isn’t necessarily true. Again, models vs. true axioms, et cetera.

              Again, much to like in your post, and I don’t think we disagree too much.

            2. I simply do not see how you can say both: “we could have done otherwise” and “there is no contra-causal free will”. I can’t prove it mathematically (but I think it may be possible to do so), but I don’t believe there is any way to create or imagine a brain that “could do otherwise” that is also deterministic.

              I think that the by definition, to say we “could not have done otherwise” means that there is a unique decision path that the brain must follow, based on the state of the brain and the available inputs. For it to be able to do otherwise we have to have multiple possible decision paths, not a unique one. In order to be able to do otherwise, there must be at least one point in the brain’s decision process when there is a bifurcation, a branch between two possible pathways where each branch has a non-zero probability of being followed; but it’s not clear how the brain would select a branch without determinism being behind the choice. I can only visualize that if I visualize some kind of meta-physical decider that is outside of causality (which I think we all agree is impossible).

              It makes sense to say “we can do otherwise next time”. That is our freedom: to learn from the consequences of our determined choices, and to choose differently in the future.

              1. It depends on what you think “could” means. If you think it’s about microscopic physical causality, then obviously nothing can happen other than what does happen.

                But if you think “could” is about behavioral competence (as Blackford clearly does), then it’s perfectly sensible to say “I could have done otherwise” in the sense that other options were within the range of my competence, even if the deterministic decision process in my brain did not ultimately choose them.

                I think the latter definition does a better job of capturing what people actually mean when they say “could” in everyday speech.

              2. Kusnick: “in the sense that other options were within the range of my competence”

                But even if they were within the *reach* of you, you still wouldn’t reach *for* them. Sure, compatibilism probably explain the model fine enough, but it in no way makes the outcome any different than from what is determined, no?

              3. Sure, but so what? My point is that it’s not incoherent to talk about “could have done otherwise”. There’s a perfectly reasonable, commonsense interpretation of such statements that comports both with determinism and with ordinary usage. But incompatibilists seem to want to deny the possibility of any such interpretation.

                If you’re trying to decide what to do for dinner, and your wife says “We could order a pizza,” are you seriously going to pretend not to understand? “But honey, ‘could’ doesn’t mean anything in this context. Either we will order a pizza or we won’t, depending on how the physics plays out.”

                Nobody talks that way in real life. Determinism does not render “could” nonsensical. And to the extent that folk notions of “free will” rest on folk notions of “could”, “freely willed” remains a useful label in folk taxonomy for certain classes of behavior (what I’ve called “corrigible” behavior elsewhere in this thread), even though compatibilists agree with incompatibilists that there’s nothing spooky or uncaused about it.

              4. Kusnick: “Determinism does not render “could” nonsensical.”

                Except it does. Sure, we can say a lot of folksy things that, when scrutinized, is rubbish and nonsense, and yet we communicate daily in the way – I assume – we want to, and get the job done. In daily life we do this, you’re right there. But in a philosophical discussion – where precision and logic and reason are the tools we use to move forward – on the notion of free-will? No, here it does not make sense if we take the premise of determinism to hold true; the main premise of the word “could” is indeterminism.

                “And to the extent that folk notions of “free will” rest on folk notions of “could”, “freely willed” remains a useful label in folk taxonomy for certain classes of behavior (what I’ve called “corrigible” behavior elsewhere in this thread), even though compatibilists agree with incompatibilists that there’s nothing spooky or uncaused about it.”

                So they should perhaps call it “folksy free-will” rather than just “free-will”? I’m getting mighty disillusioned about the severe lack of definitions on both sides of this otherwise fine fence, and I’m going to call upon compatibilists to do a better job of it (arguably because us hard determinists have it too easy).

                If I get this right (which I’m positive I’m not) compatibilists are using “free-will” in a way that is neither hard determinism nor spooky free-will as such, they’ve re-defined the word(s) “free-will” to mean something different from their traditional meaning; “free-will” now merges determinism with the word “choice” and the focus isn’t what it *is* (some axiom of nature) but what it talks about (a model of causation), and voila! that’s what they now mean, so that when we’re talking about “free-will” they can claim to be compatible with determinism and indeterminism at the same time. I don’t mean to be flip, but isn’t this, er, philosophical pole-dancing?

              5. “they’ve re-defined the word(s) ‘free-will’ to mean something different from their traditional meaning”

                But this is exactly the point. If you want to stick to precise, technical definitions, then you’re the one deviating from “traditional” meanings. If you want to refute folk notions of free will (as Jerry claims to be doing), then you’re obliged to deal with folk definitions, i.e. with the meaning of the words as they’re actually used in everyday speech.

              6. …Unless of course you want to argue that “traditional” has a special, technical meaning in philosophy that differs from its ordinary (dare I say traditional) meaning.

              7. Gregory,

                If you want to stick to precise, technical definitions, then you’re the one deviating from “traditional” meanings.

                I don’t think there is anything precise or technical about thinking that you have freedom from divine will (determinism) to choose God or Satan, and that the fate of your soul after death depends on your free individual choices to choose good or sin. This is traditional free will. It’s in the dictionary. Billions of human beings understand and believe they have this kind of free will.

                On the other hand, reconciling what compatibilists mean by free will, given a knowledge of the implications of determinism, requires some logical contortions to understand.

                Because we appear to have options and appear to be free to an observer viewing us as a black box, is that freedom?

                Because we can use our imagination to talk about hypothetical alternative choices after we make an actual choice (even though our brain in that situation physically was unable to have chosen any of those imagined hypothetical alternatives), is that freedom?

                This kind of freedom allows people to talk about freedom, which is how people have always talked, and how they have always felt. It’s kind of like saying we can pretend Newtonian physics is an exact description of reality, even though we know quantum mechanics is a more accurate description.

                What compatibilists call freedom (because it feels good to call it that) is a deterministic algorithmic ability to seek to iteratively revise and improve how we interact with and control our environment to increase the benefits to ourselves. It’s more a flexibility and adaptability than it is freedom. To call it freedom is to sweep determinism under the carpet and pretend it doesn’t exist.

                When compatibilists say it makes sense to talk about having been able to have chosen differently after making an actual choice, they are ignoring, or even contradicting, determinism.

                Yes it is logically coherent to talk about that; we know what we mean. But let’s be honest: determinism means we really could not have done differently, and the only sense in talking about alternatives is for purposes of the future: what we might do next time. Talking about past alternative choices is not sensible if anybody thinks it implies we had the freedom to choose those hypothetical alternatives.

              8. Regarding the argument over the “precise, technical” definition of “could” as in “could have done otherwise”: sure, Jerry et. al. are using a “precise” definition, but it’s also THE WRONG definition. The *right* definition has to be precise, technical, and *accurate*. Giving up accuracy for technical precision just doesn’t work.

            3. Vaal,

              “(Hence, it would be false to say that contra-causal free will represents the “traditional” view in terms of how most people have made claims about their ability to choose).”

              But the ability to choose isn’t the question.

              It’s free choice A.K.A free will that is.

              What Free Choice traditionally is, is the thing that fits in this sentence.

              You have free choice therefore you deserve to suffer for what you have done.

              Compatibilist free will does not do the same job. Because translated correctly to be compatible with determinism we have: If the big bang had banged slightly and appropriately differently you would have had a different want and therefore you deserve to suffer for what you have done.

              Which of course is nonsense.

              So compatibilist free will does not capture what we ordinarily mean by free choice.

              1. Stephen, if you’re going translate “free will” into compatibilist terms, you have to translate “deserve to suffer” as well. Try this:

                Since your behavior is at least partially the result of a reasoned decision process, it’s socially expedient to punish you in hopes of changing your future behavior and deterring similar bad behavior by others.

                Also, “If the Big Bang had banged differently” is pure hyperbole. Physics isn’t that deterministic. In particular, the mutations that fuel natural selection are largely quantum events. So the very existence of Homo sapiens is unpredictable even in principle from the Big Bang.

                Note that I’m not saying that quantum indeterminacy grants us free will; it doesn’t. But to say that the entire future of the universe was implicit in the Big Bang is clearly nonsense (except in the Many Worlds sense that all possible futures were implicit in the Big Bang).

              2. Let me try a bit better compatiblist account of what it means to “deserve to suffer.”

                When someone breaks a social more /taboo /criminal or civil law, society needs to take certain corrective actions to discourage the transgressor and others from repeating that behavior, rehabilitate the transgressor, possibly restrain that person, and possibly to compensate the victims. A proposed corrective action, though only meant to be practical, effective, and not gratuitously retributive, could nevertheless impose on the freedom and happiness of the criminal. However, we weigh that the crime was grievous enough that the corrective action needs to be taken, despite the suffering of the criminal. Hence, the criminal in that case “deserves to suffer.”

                (note that this is not meant to be a defense of the excesses of the American penal system. I don’t think our intuitions about “deserve to suffer” are unbiased or well calibrated, nor do I think it should be the penal system’s job to indulge our retributive intuitions. On the other hand, I think it’s silly that anyone argues that disproving contra-causal free will will compel people to renounce retributive justice).

              3. Peter wrote:

                On the other hand, I think it’s silly that anyone argues that disproving contra-causal free will will compel people to renounce retributive justice).

                I agree it would be silly to argue that this could happen immediately. (Do we all understand what I meant by could?) People don’t change quickly. But they do change slowly. I think this could have an effect on how people think over time.

                Notice that none of your description of “deserving to suffer” referred to determinism at all. Compatibilist seem to believe that once they’ve dispensed with determinism by redefining free will they never need think of it again.

                Once upon a time people accepted slavery, and part of what enabled that was a self-deception that considered that Africans were in some way sub-human or not human. Never mind for a moment the horror that people’s fear of the other, or their ugly blind lust for power, luxury, and convenience prevented them from recognizing humanity in a different color; if a 19th century biologist had discovered DNA and did tests and declared that Africans, and hence the American Negro, were fully human based on a DNA analysis, that would not have changed everyone’s beliefs on slavery overnight. But it’s the kind of change that can spread and be absorbed by the culture over time and eventually lead people to draw profoundly different conclusions about an important moral question.

                I would say that fully absorbing determinism has the same potential to sway large numbers of people to feel differently about inflicting suffering, and sadistic punishment out of the need for balancing the scales of moral retribution. We’ve already changed a lot in this respect over the last several centuries. We no longer draw and quarter humans in the public square, no public burnings or beheadings or hangings; this kind of thing happens in primitive theocratic societies only.

                At some point we may so thoroughly recognize that moral outrage is an emotional shortcut that evolved to enforce fairness and reciprocal altruism, that we may truly change how accepting we are of moral outrage. People will continue to feel varying degrees of moral outrage for a long time; but at a certain point mores may become such that it would be difficult for people prone to strong feelings of moral outrage to reproduce.

                Moral outrage involves a kind of dehumanizing objectification of its target, so that the normal rules of how we treat a human being can be ignored; it’s okay to kill or beat or torture someone who is morally outrageous. We still accept this to a large degree, sometimes even excusing or reducing the punishment for murder that was provoked by morally outrageous behavior. In the context of a wide understanding of determinism and a penal system designed without moral retribution, but strictly on deterrence and rehabilitation, we may find retribution quite thoroughly renounced some day. Such a prison system would probably have shorter sentences and better conditions for inmates, and not make them feel outcast from society, bitter, and resentful. Instead we may view criminals more as we view people who are sick and need treatment or confinement. Certainly we feel no moral retribution toward the diseased.

              4. “Notice that none of your description of “deserving to suffer” referred to determinism at all.”

                Of course I noticed it. That was my point. It was the very last thing I said and it was the thing you quoted. Contra-causality/ determinism don’t contribute anything to how we think about crime and punishment, nor do they contribute to most of the other contexts where we think about free will. (except in theology, which I doubt is as important to people as you think it is). I mean, yes, people do wiggle them in crudely and carelessly, but that won’t really stand up to scrutiny, and if you’re committed to retribution, you can remain committed even if you’re a determinist. Also, the best refutations of retributive justice aren’t based on refuting contra-causality.

                Otherwise, which compatibilists “dispense” with determinism? That’s an odd way to put it…

      2. Get over it. There’s no such thing as freedom from causation. Set your bar for “freedom” lower.

        I’m assuming you said this without irony. You’ve done exactly what secularjew described: by “lowering the bar” you “moved the goalposts”. Too funny.

        So let me paraphrase you: There is no free will, so let’s set the bar lower and then claim we have free will. Compatibilism in a nutshell.

        1. “There is no free will, so let’s set the bar lower and then claim we have free will. Compatibilism in a nutshell.”

          Marvellous summary! (Maybe an extra “folksy” in there at the end of the first sentence, just to bring the point home) Jerry needs to put this in his template for every discussion from now on on free-will.

          1. So you are all for perpetuating straw-men and begging the question? Going on the strawman above, you may as well say that a scientific explanation for why humans exist over a Biblical explanation is “setting the bar lower”

            A more apt description for compatibilism would be: “There IS Free Will, and we can have a true explanation for it rather than a false one.”

            This is unfortunate. Is there any hope that someone here will criticize compatibilism without begging the question?

            Vaal.

            1. Is there any chance a compatibilist can explain having determinism and indeterminism at the same time *without* setting the bar lower or shifting the poles? Free-will have always been defined at the conscious level, and all this wishy-washy nonsense that the “new” free-will of compatibilism also is whatever happens at the unconscious level doesn’t save you from the accusation that all you’ve done is setting the threshold for “free” lower.

              Btw, the above you responded to was admittedly paraphrasing, so declaring it a straw-man is a bit, hmm, obvious and ripe with redundancy, wouldn’t you say?

              1. Well, except that anyone who had thought about it for more than 10 seconds realized that we’ve never been conscious of everything that went on in our minds.

                That is a major compatiblist point (that is always ignored by incompatibilits): all of the findings of modern neuroscience that you claim completely changes the game, are things that people have been intuitively aware of forever.

              2. Peter: “anyone who had thought about it for more than 10 seconds”

                Careful, you’re slipping into ad hominem, calling all indeterminists less-than-10-seconds-of-thought-ers. 🙂

                That we’ve always had an unconscious mind is not in dispute, but the control of your decisions have *never* been thought to be lurking in the deep; free-will is not there, because you have no control there. Saying otherwise is mischaracterizing a long history of the philosophy of mind, and the only people on your side in this debate are various forms of dualism, with the biggest proponents are those who think the mystery free-will parts are the holy spirit, and I don’t think you want to venture there.

                This is an important part; free-will have always meant conscious decisions. When the decisions are shifted rapidly towards the unconscious (through neuroscience), then that *does* alter the game dramatically. What constitutes “you”, that voice inside your head, is not in control. I know some / most(?) compatibilists will at this point declare that even if it is unconscious, it’s still you, and you hence still have some free-will even if it isn’t part of the conscious sphere, however I fail to see how redefining free-will in this way is helpful; Determinism is still true no matter where in the brain you think decisions happen.

                The cosmos is so complex as to render our determinism almost insignificant, so I don’t understand compatibilists and what they hope to hold on to, unless it’s a purely academic model-building exercise which doesn’t try to make any assertions on reality or on the axioms of nature, and in that case, use some new words, please.

              3. “That we’ve always had an unconscious mind is not in dispute, but the control of your decisions have *never* been thought to be lurking in the deep”

                On the contrary, ordinary speech is full of idioms like “let me sleep on it” and “it just bubbled up from my unconscious” that suggest that an intuitive understanding of the role of the unconscious mind in decision-making is an unremarkable fact of everyday life.

                If academic philosophy has largely ignored this aspect of folk psychology, I’d take that as a sign that academic philosophy has failed to explain how real people actually think about thinking.

              4. shelterit,

                I’m a bit unclear on just what point you’re trying to make. You seem to only be concerned with a very narrow academic point of whether contra-causal free will is true. Or something close to that and similarly narrow. Which I suppose is fine as far as that goes.

                Compatibilists, of course, don’t believe that contra-causality is true, so we agree on that very narrow point. But we’re concerned more about the implications of that for our other intuitions about things like morality, whether we should be complacent with our position in life (or whether we can change it through effort), and so on. I’m not sure why you keep referring to that as a “purely academic model building exercise,” and especially why you’re contrasting the compatibilist project to a project to “make assertions about reality.”

                Compatibilism recognizes that “free-will” questions are about human values and priorities. And it means to find out what facts of nature are relevant to those values. And a significant conclusion of compatibilists is that the fact that physical determinism (or more correctly, I guess, physical lawfulness) is true, doesn’t particularly threaten our intuitions around free will.

                (for example, notice how Jerry insists that a proper understanding that contra-causality is false will radically alter how we administer justice, until he thinks about it a bit and provides a “deterministic” account of how justice should work that is really not that much different than how our justice system works now…and also that his proposed corrections to the justice system really don’t follow from the hypothesis that “contra-causality is false”, even though he tends to assert, without argument, that they do)

              5. Gregory Kusnick: “On the contrary, ordinary speech is full of idioms like “let me sleep on it” and “it just bubbled up from my unconscious” that suggest that an intuitive understanding of the role of the unconscious mind in decision-making is an unremarkable fact of everyday life.”

                That we process data in the unconscious is not in dispute, either, but the concept that the decision itself stems from it is a new one. No one says “I decided during the night as I slept on it that …”, they say “I slept on it, and my decision is …” thinking they make it there and then.

              6. Peter: “I’m not sure why you keep referring to that as a ‘purely academic model building exercise,’ and especially why you’re contrasting the compatibilist project to a project to ‘make assertions about reality.'”

                If philosophy isn’t about making assertions about reality, what the hell is it that you’re doing, apart from making models that may or may not be true or have relevance? Contrast what you say above with what you next say that compatibilists wants to ;

                “[…] find out what facts of nature are relevant to those values. And a significant conclusion of compatibilists is that the fact that physical determinism (or more correctly, I guess, physical lawfulness) is true, doesn’t particularly threaten our intuitions around free will.”

                Again, we’re going around in circles, and, I fear, you’re arguing from tradition. Of *course* they threaten our intuitions! History is chock full of where science slowly but firmly rebuke our wrong intuitions. Intuitions is what we use when we have no or faulty data, for goodness sake; Our intuition told us the earth was flat, that there was a firmament in the sky, that demons caused mental illness, that ether was real, and on and on it goes. Neuroscience of late is showing us that “free-will” isn’t free, that there is no deterministic platform of thought on which “free” makes sense.

                Or, short version; just because people in general haven’t heard much of these facts and arguments doesn’t mean that it’s right to still call it free-will, even if your intuitions tell you so. It’s just a game compatibilists play for some reason that a lot of us simply don’t understand.

                In fact, at this point, I’m curious to know what exactly compatibilists mean when they say determinism is *compatible* with free-will again? Is the whole point that the illusion of free-will is still ‘valid’ (to some degree of ‘valid’) simply because our intuitions tells us so, therefore let’s not argue for the *truth* of nature as much as – dare I say it – a model of possible intuitions? This is making less and less sense to me.

              7. “No one says ‘I decided during the night as I slept on it that …’, they say ‘I slept on it, and my decision is …’ thinking they make it there and then.”

                I’m here to tell you that I, for one, am quite prepared to say “I slept on it and woke up with a decision in mind.” I have no problem whatever acknowledging that the decision happened while I slept.

                I don’t even have to be asleep to make decisions unconsciously. Many’s the time I’ve pondered a tough decision and only gradually become aware of which way I’m leaning.

                I claim this is in fact the usual way in which decisions are made known to us. This finger-snap moment you’re postulating of consciously telling oneself “Now I am deciding” is, as far as I can tell, a myth. It certainly doesn’t jibe with my own experience.

              8. “apart from making models that may or may not be true *or have relevance?*”

                Well, I was arguing against your old position that compatibilism was only an arcane, academic model-building exercise that isn’t relevant to the real world (as opposed to the more worthy fact-collecting program you endorse). I hadn’t meant to be arguing against your new position that compatibilism is still irrelevant even if it has something relevant to say (am I summarizing your new position correctly? It seems absurd, I must have it wrong…)

                Hopefully in light of the fact that I was not anticipating your recent concession of compatibilism’s potential relevance, the perceived conflict in my previous comment will evaporate.

              9. Gregory,

                On the contrary, ordinary speech is full of idioms like “let me sleep on it” and “it just bubbled up from my unconscious” that suggest that an intuitive understanding of the role of the unconscious mind in decision-making is an unremarkable fact of everyday life.

                These types of metaphors are more prevalent today than they were 50 years ago, and they probably hardly existed at all before Freud became widely publicized.

                I grew up thinking that “let me sleep on it” simply meant “I need more time, I’ll tell you tomorrow”. But over time I discovered that sometimes I would wake up with a solution in mind for a math problem or software bug I had been puzzling over. But I don’t think everyone views this with the same intuition. Most probably regard it as God’s grace or a vision from the collective unconscious.

                At any rate, the public is capable of adopting and using metaphors that spread like memes and encapsulate some original meaning, without ever stopping to contemplate the original significance. When we use metonymy (“The White House said today…”) people don’t notice it. The word “literally” has literally taken on the meaning “figuratively” for many people who are completely unaware of it when they use it that way.

              10. Peter: “am I summarizing your new position correctly?”

                My position hasn’t changed. I’m only trying to understand what compatibilists really mean, but it seems I’m just too thick to understand how the reality of determinism is compatible with talking about it as if indeterminism is true.

              11. ” talking about it as if indeterminism is true.”

                Compatibilists *aren’t* talking about things “as if indeterminism is true.” I’m guessing you say that because you’re ignoring/rejecting/not understanding the compatibilist arguments about why assumptions of indeterminism aren’t necessary or useful to support folk intuitions of free will, morality, etc (and can even be shown to actually violate those folk intuitions, in some important ways).

            2. Vaal,
              To follow your analogy to the scientific explanation for human origins, the compatibilist approach, linguistically, to evolution would be to say “Humans must have a Creator, so now that we understand evolution, we must call evolution our Creator”.

              When you say “there IS Free Will”, what do you base that on? It’s only a true statement if you tailor the words “free will” to mean something that corresponds to what we observe in humans: humans have the ability to resist coercion, the ability to adapt their deterministic behaviors based on feedback from prior results, and the ability to formulate goals and plans to improve our circumstances and obtain what we want. It makes sense to call it agency, but I can’t see how it rises to the grandiose name free will, which has been for millennia a property considered worthy of a soul. It’s more like humans are limited by an exquisitely calculating adaptable brain that through constant trial and error tunes itself to the demands of a selection mechanism, i.e. our environment. We can will, but not freely. We have control, but not freedom. We are constrained by causality, genetics, and physics.

              It so happens that humans still are the same people we always have been, so we have all the observable behaviors we have always had, and that we for ages attributed to free will. For this reason, compatibilism can play a linguistic trick: attribute “free will” to a deterministic meat computer by fiat, and then all the language and observable behavior stays the same, and from then on pretend determinism doesn’t exist; as long as you don’t have to ever consider a question of how the brain actually works, you can remain blissfully detached from the consequences of determinism.

              It requires a great deal of imagination and poetic license to call this free will, and I can’t help but feel that there must be some wishful thinking along with that imagination and poetry.

              How can we call evolution our Creator? Only if one is so attached emotionally to the word “Creator” that one cannot find a way to follow reason and abandon it. How do we say we have free will? Only if one is so emotionally attached to the term “free will” that one cannot find a way to follow reason and abandon it.

              Imagine a remote tribe, studied by anthropologists who abandon an automobile when they depart. The tribe has always observed that the car takes the anthropologists where they want to go, and have developed the belief that a sky god helps them by using god power to move the car for them. When they investigate the abandoned car, they figure out how to drive it. They now believe that if they follow certain rituals (turn the key, put it in gear, and press the gas) the sky god will help them with god power too. One day the tribal scientists open the hood and discover the motor, the drive train, and they understand that the movement depends on the motor. Should they say that god power lives in the motor? The whole tribe uses language that describes the movement of the machine, and that language has the concept of god power embedded in it.

              If they are compatibilists, they decide to redefine god power so that they can say god power no longer comes from the sky god, but the machine makes its own god power. They feel comforted because they can still pretend that the revered god power is still with them. They have linguistic convenience at the cost of distorting the truth about how the machine works.

              The tribal mechanics (incompatibilists), who have learned much about how the motor works and can even repair the motor, find the notion that the machine has god power ludicrous and with exasperation try to convince the people to stop talking about god power.

              But look, say the compatibilists, it still moves around. You mechanics say the motor moves the car, but nobody talks like that. We must say that the motor has god power, because it appears to anyone with eyes as if it has god power.

            3. Peter: “Compatibilists *aren’t* talking about things ‘as if indeterminism is true.'”

              Aaaaaaand, we’re back to square one. You are calling it “free will”, yes? And you claim that even if determinism is true, we can still talk about the concept of free-will as if it is really free in some sense, yes?

              “I’m guessing you say that because you’re ignoring/rejecting/not understanding the compatibilist arguments”

              Well, that’s an understatement. Round and round it goes, not just me, but a lot of people here, wanting you to make the compatibilist position clear. We offer paraphrases on your explanations in attempts to capture what you’re saying, but they are all rejected, and the deeper and further we go, the less coherent it becomes. I’ve asked several times for the compatibilist definition, but there seems to be quite a number of them, all using words that are, apparently, hard for a lot of us to understand. Now, you can always chalk that up to us ignoring/rejecting/not understanding the compatibilist arguments – I even see from Russell Blackfords blog that you guys get it, and by extension I’m assuming *we* don’t – but could it be simply that we don’t agree, don’t find it convincing?

              “[…] about why assumptions of indeterminism aren’t necessary or useful to support folk intuitions of free will, morality, etc (and can even be shown to actually violate those folk intuitions, in some important ways).”

              Wait, what? You’re saying the folksy libertarian free-will assumptions people have are *not* necessary or useful? (which we certainly would agree on) I thought you were arguing they were useful in free-will discussions even if not necessarily true? Oh dear, I am getting very confused.

  21. Gregory,

    But if you think “could” is about behavioral competence (as Blackford clearly does), then it’s perfectly sensible to say “I could have done otherwise” in the sense that other options were within the range of my competence, even if the deterministic decision process in my brain did not ultimately choose them.

    It may be intelligible to talk about what could have been done, as in a post-mortem analysis, but it’s simply not true that there was any chance of those other things actually being done. Talking about the alternatives tells us nothing about how the brain works, or about what kind of will we have. So I don’t see how those things belong in this discussion about free will. It seems they can only be introduced from a standpoint of confusion about determinism. If we are to consider possible alternatives, it only really makes sense to talk about what can be done next time, which is the truly sensible reason for doing the post-mortem analysis of roads not followed.

  22. Peter

    Regarding the argument over the “precise, technical” definition of “could” as in “could have done otherwise”: sure, Jerry et. al. are using a “precise” definition, but it’s also THE WRONG definition. The *right* definition has to be precise, technical, and *accurate*. Giving up accuracy for technical precision just doesn’t work.

    Peter, how do you back this claim up? Compatibilists and incompatibilists seem to have different goals. The compatibilist seems to be interested in how the human being thinks their brain works based on the consciously visible subset of thought (not in how the brain actually works based on complete brain activity including unconscious processes). Hence it makes sense to compatibilists, after a human brain has made a choice, to talk about hypothetical alternatives that the subject might have been physically capable of doing, but because of determinism was not actually physically capable of choosing to do. And by talking like this it seems almost that compatibilists might actually imagine that the subject really could have chosen differently. This is baffling to the incompatibilist because it violates determinism.

    It makes sense to talk about hypotheticals of what could be done next time in the future, but it does not make sense to pretend that these hypotheticals might actually have been chosen in the past. So in what way is Jerry’s usage of could inaccurate in “could not have done otherwise”?

    1. How do I back up the claim that your definitions have to capture what’s meant by normal usage? Well, let me try to disprove that 2 + 3 = 5:
      define a + b as (the greater of a and b). Now 2 + 3 = 3 =/= 5.

      Satisfied?

      Or how do I back up the claim that Jerry’s usage of “could” is idiosyncratic and is not what is normally meant by could? Well, I’m much less eloquent and patient than Vaal or Greg Kusnik or Peter Beattie or most of the other compatibists who have been making that argument in all these threads. My explanation isn’t going to be better than the explanations you already haven’t found persuasive. But just briefly, it’s because *no one has ever cared about what would actually happen if the tape were rewound*. Because no-one has ever had that opportunity. “Could”, when refering to a past event, is still only being considered because we care about what can happen in similar future circumstances.

      But I do concede that in the theological context, contra-causal free will really is important. I just dispute that the theological context is usually the most important context in which free-will comes up.

      1. Nobody ever cared about riding around on a light beam. Einstein used that thought experiment as a pedagogical thought experiment. Just as with Jerry’s tape, he is not suggesting that is something with practical value. It’s absurd to even waste time thinking or talking about that; push past that to thinking about what the thought experiment means about how the brain works. He is merely using it to illustrate a consequence of determinism.

        But since compatibilists have redefined “free will”, just as you have redefined the addition operator to achieve the result you desired, you can pretend that determinism doesn’t exist. This is a huge hole that can only be ignored by someone who narrows their focus on language and human culture, but cares nothing at all for nature. Sometimes ignoring nature is dangerous. In this case, the historical approximate correspondence between human language and actual observed human behavior is letting you off the hook, just as you can fairly safely ignore asteroids or the fact that the sun will turn into a red giant in a billion years or so.

        Properly understanding the implications of determinism requires admitting that we can will, but not freely, and that we have control, but not freedom.

        It doesn’t require that we abandon the use of hypotheticals, of what could be done. Jerry isn’t saying that we can’t talk about what we could have done. He’s just saying we couldn’t have done differently. And he’s right. Even though such discussion is only relevant to the future, it doesn’t matter that much what verb tense is used.

        Considering past hypotheticals, or future hypotheticals, doesn’t depend on free will at all. It depends on the learning and adaptable nature of our deterministic brain to do differently in the future, not on having been able to do differently in the past, or even on being able to do differently than our determined behavior in a given instant.

        1. Are we supposed to get sidetracked on a discussion about how to interpret thought experiments, and whether a particular thought experiment is good or not? Can you at least concede that *just because Jerry thought the experiment* is not actually evidence that *the outcome was terribly relevant to how people actually think about “could”*. He at least has some argument to go through to connect the two.

          Otherwise, compatibilists have a refined definition of free will that strips out some unnecessary assumptions, but otherwise works like people would hope “free will” works. Presented without argument because the argument is what all the noise around here has been about. By contrast, incompatibilists redefine “could” by adding metaphysical assumptions about indeterminism that aren’t important to how anyone thinks about “could”, and insisting that those added assumptions win them their arguments. You seem satisfied with that approach, but I’d really like to see an argument that those extra metaphysical assumptions really should break our other intuitions (outside of theology, since I already concede that there are theological arguments that rely on those assumptions).

          1. Jerry’s thought experiment is not meant to illustrate something about how people think of the word “could”.

            It is meant to illustrate something about how the brain works, physically. He uses the word could as a tool, and for me it’s very easy to understand what he means by “could”.

            The redefined or refined definition of free will just acts like a shunt that enables linguistic convenience while cloaking the nature of determinism.

            incompatibilists seem to care about the nature of the brain, and compatibilists seem not to.

            I don’t see how anything I’m arguing depends on a metaphysical assumption about the word “could”.

            How do people “hope free will works”? I think they would hope that if they are depressed they could just decide not to be. If they are addicted to cigarettes or drugs, they would hope that a simple decision would stop that. They would hope that the kind of music they listen to or the style of clothes they wear is a unique expression of an autonomous ego that freely creates its own “taste” without influence. They would hope that if someone commits a crime, that they were completely free to not do so, and it was simply a matter of choosing not to.

            I think that a clear understanding of determinism and how our brains work means that there is nothing like “free will” as people hope it would work.

            1. So…you think people will be shocked by the revelation that nicotine, for example, is addictive. And that will have significant implications for how we think about morality, crime and punishment, and our ambitions?

              Well, I just don’t agree. While we understand that there are circumstances where our “free will” is inhibited (such as under addiction), most people don’t consider those to circumstances to be radically different from limits that we’ve always recognized on free will.

              Also, not fair claiming that *you* aren’t importing metaphysical assumptions into the word “could.” Jerry *clearly* is claiming that “could” is incompatible with determinism (he’s baffled, I believe he said), this is his blog, and this is a comment in response to his post. I do get to respond to Jerry, and if you disagree with him on some things, you can make that explicit. Don’t expect me take it for granted that of course you disagree with Jerry’s excesses.

  23. It may be intelligible to talk about what could have been done, as in a post-mortem analysis, but it’s simply not true that there was any chance of those other things actually being done. Talking about the alternatives tells us nothing about how the brain works, or about what kind of will we have.

    This is rather bold. Isn’t the “results and analysis” section of a science paper a formalized version of such a post-mortem? “Talking about the alternatives” is the only way to reduce scope enough to find out how the brain works and what kind of will we have.

    If we are to consider possible alternatives, it only really makes sense to talk about what can be done next time, which is the truly sensible reason for doing the post-mortem analysis of roads not followed.

    Again, “considering alternatives” is the only way to call something “the next time.” If we want to distinguish patterns to chunk off things and events from the rest of the deterministic Heraclitan flux, we have to accept some differences in organization. Your brain and my brain work utterly differently, but they still comply with the label “human brain” and the attendant organization and emergent behavior.

    The question is, which differences observable “each time” produce which differences in behavior? Which are relevant? We’re pretty confident that even though Jupiter will be at a different place in its orbit next time I place an order at Johnny Rockets that that’s not a relevant difference, so we don’t factor that in to a definitive description of “placing an order at Johnny Rockets” or even just “placing an order” or “choosing food from a list” or “choosing from a list” or “choosing.”

    Sometimes something that seems like it ought to be a small difference turns out to have huge consequences, and we’ll need to find out why – by hypothesizing what the range of actions were possible with and without that small difference. That’s how we do drug trials for psychopharmacology. Is this not part of “finding out how the brain works?”

    Compatibilism, as far as I can tell, is not about wishing we had contra-causal free will (it often makes a strong case that we should be glad we don’t). It’s just affirming materialism and the warranted amount of determinism (to within quantum limits), while acknowledging the limitations in our powers of analysis and prediction that affect the rest of our scientific enterprise. In other words, for a compatibilist, “could have done differently” is always an epistemic and empirical utterance.

    1. This is rather bold. Isn’t the “results and analysis” section of a science paper a formalized version of such a post-mortem?

      I guess I wasn’t clear; I meant that if we consider a person making a choice, and after the fact we say the person “could not have chosen otherwise”, it is a statement about determinism, about how the brain functions.

      Compatibilist repeatedly argue that somehow this usage of could denies the sense that the chooser “could have done otherwise if circumstances differed”, or that it ignores the hypothetical possibilities within the choosers range of physical capabilities. What does this add about how the brain works?

      Of course the chooser might have discussed having pizza rather than a hot dog. This may tell us something about human culinary conventions. When the choice is made in that situation, it could not have been different, no matter what you say about the word could or what other irrelevant circumstances are imagined. I just don’t see the point compatibilists are making as having any importance, especially not as contributing to increased understanding of what it means for the brain to be deterministic.

      After I chose to sit down and read a book, to say “yes but you could have gotten in your car and driven to the airport” seems absurd. That obviously was not an option that contributed a meaningful element to my deterministic decision or it would have been selected. So what is the significance of bringing it up?

      1. shelterit,

        Regarding the comparison between the subject of Free Will and Morality, I do not see that the difference you claim actually makes a difference. Both morality and free will are subjects of inquiry – “Is it true I ought to treat someone in X manner? ” “Is it true I am free to do otherwise?” The answers to either are not axiomatically true – we can inquire about the truth, or justification, in our answers to either, and in that way they are questions-seeking-answers.
        Whether one is assumed in another doesn’t change this, as many things are assumed in other things. The concept of “Marriage Counselling” assumes the concept of “Marriage” – but that doesn’t mean that each can be it’s own subject of inquiry.

        Kevin,

        “When compatibilists say it makes sense to talk about having been able to have chosen differently after making an actual choice, they are ignoring, or even contradicting, determinism.”

        My goodness, no, that’s exactly wrong! Compatibilism talks about what it means to be able to choose differently WITHIN the context of determinism. Given the CONTEXT of determinism, does it make sense to say we could have chosen otherwise? Answer: Yes.

        “Yes it is logically coherent to talk about that; we know what we mean.”

        But the point is we are actually talking about the real world, making empirical claims, not mere logical coherence. If that isn’t the case, as I keep pointing out, then no science is talking about the real world, since it relies on the SAME abstractions and inferences from empirical observation as the compatibilist notion of choice. And that also means any science you appeal to, to tell me about how I’m determined can be ignored, since you’ve rendered it “not real” as well.

        “But let’s be honest: determinism means we really could not have done differently,”

        That’s just a massive begging of the question. The debate is over what do we MEAN by “I could have chosen differently.”

        It’s like the statement: At 5.7 tall and 135 pounds, George is a big Jockey.

        Clearly the use of the word “Big” is entirely appropriate given the context is the average size of horse Jockeys (which is around 115 lbs). If I come along and say “Actually, IN FACT, that’s false. George isn’t REALLY ‘big,’ – he’s well below the average male height, which actually makes him small. So, your statement is false.”

        Clearly I’m be fairly obtuse. I’m just ignoring the context of the claim. Within the stated context of the average height of Jockey’s it is in fact TRUE that George is ‘big.’
        That’s how context works: In the context of the average male height, it’s true George is small. But if you LIMIT (context) the scope of comparison to the average Jockey’s size, it’s true George would be ‘big.’ You can’t counter this contextual claim by appealing to the average size of average men!

        Similarly, the compatibilist context of the truth of the claim “I could have chosen differently” is “given similar circumstances/had I the desire to do so.” It is NOT the context of “If EVERYTHING had been precisely the same.” You can not keep one context to rule out the other, which is an error you commit every time you tell us “but determinism tells us you never could have done otherwise” (which is assuming the “given precisely the same situation” context).

        “After I chose to sit down and read a book, to say “yes but you could have gotten in your car and driven to the airport” seems absurd. That obviously was not an option that contributed a meaningful element to my deterministic decision or it would have been selected. So what is the significance of bringing it up?”

        Because it’s empirically informative of your abilities under similar conditions. This is how we make informative (and hence “true” because it’s not going to be informative if it’s not true) claims about anything in nature.

        Say you had food poisoning from chicken you hadn’t cooked well enough. I point out: You COULD have saved yourself from being sick had you chosen to cook it to an internal temperature of 165 F, which WOULD have killed the bacteria that has caused your sickness.

        Are you going to say such statements do not equate to meaningful, informative, true, knowledge? That it adds nothing of significance? Or are you going to insist that the context of determinism, in which you were never going to do otherwise, makes such statements “absurd” and meaningless? If so, then you’ve pretty much given up the ability to describe, or learn from, or predict anything. But if you are going to accept the validity and veracity of such “could” statements, then you should see how your inability to acknowledge the same validity for “could have done X instead of Y” is rather bizarre and inconsistent.

        Vaal.

        1. Vaal, at this point I’m not even sure you read what I wrote. But if I didn’t make myself clear, I’ll try again, perhaps a bit brasher ;

          Compatibilists make a model (which is fine for philosophic pondering), while incompatibilists are defining an axiom of nature (which is science).

          Perhaps, again, the problem is in the question being asked. Are we asking “What does the model of choices and causation look like in a hypothetical free-will model?” or are we asking “Do we actually have free-will?”

          My summary is thus; The first is a philosophical question (compatibilists), the second a scientific one (incompatibilists). And while a lot us like philosophy and play with it from time to time, I think you’ll find the science-leaning “cut the bull” people in the latter camp for obvious reasons.

          IMHO, of course.

        2. Obviously discussing counterfactuals is useful to our understanding. No incompatibilist would ever object to that (I think). It seems to imply nothing whatsoever about free will though. All your counterfactual examples are useful for the future. They don’t imply that in the past a person had freedom.

          Since you are talking about context, in the context of a discussion on free will, and a thought experiment designed by Jerry to illustrate that we don’t have it, because in fact we could not have done otherwise, how is it relevant to bring up the discussion of counterfactuals? It seems more irrelevant than the deliberate obtuseness of insisting that the relatively large jockey is really small, when we are in the context of comparing jockeys.

          Is the discussion of counterfactuals at this juncture somehow a challenge to Jerry’s claim? I don’t see how.

          It seems like you are asserting that it is a notion of freedom, and that somehow it either defends or illustrates the compatibilist notion of freedom. But I can’t see that yet. One of us is still confused.

          If I assume that by saying “I could have done different had I wanted to, or had the situation been different”, you mean that it gives us some kind of freedom, I have to say that is only imaginary; it is artificial. That freedom did not exist, just as my freedom to fly to Brazil at that moment did not exist (I wasn’t at the airport, had no ticket, had no money, no way I was flying to Brazil). Even an action physically possible, like choosing the hot dog instead of the hamburger was not something I had the free will to choose. No matter how many counterfactuals you generate, no matter how many statistical surveys we do of millions of cases of people choosing between hamburgers and hot dogs, and you pointing to the result that sometimes people choose hot dogs, and sometimes they choose hamburgers, in terms of that individual person they did not have the freedom one might infer from the statistical evaluation of millions of choices. Your statistics don’t point to a free choice, they point to variation in people’s brains that determine they choose differently.

          It suddenly strikes me that this argument is not unlike arguing whether an individual particle passing through a pair of slits, a diffraction grating, whether it is free to choose where it hits the screen, or whether where it hits the screen is determined by it’s wave function and some hidden factor we don’t yet understand. Obviously when we flood the slits with millions of particles, we see a diffraction pattern, so different particles “choose” differently. But no particle really chooses, does it? Is that what compatibilist freedom is based on? That lots of people in different trials can “choose” differently? That is still just an illusion of individual choice though.

          If there is a kind of compatibilist freedom, it seems to me only to come from the freedom to choose differently next time. This is a result of our brain’s learning and adaptability, not from any actual free will. It gives us control and agency, but not freedom. It allows us to satisfy our wants and needs, but it doesn’t give us freedom.

          Being able to say post-mortem that I could have done A or B instead of C is a useful exercise, but it exists only in my imagination and does not reflect any natural reality about the moment when I chose C. It only serves as part of a learning process that may lead me to choose A or B rather than C next time. As such it doesn’t reflect any kind of freedom, but rather it reflects the adaptability and flexibility with which our brain tunes itself over time to our environment so that it can satisfy its wants and needs.

          To call that freedom would be kind of like saying that a river that erodes a canyon is exhibiting freedom because it is able to carve out the kind of channel it needs. What it really is, is a mutual adaptation of the river to the river bed and the river bed to the river based on cycles of deterministic interaction. And that also describes how genes and environment interact, and how our brain tunes itself to the environment and learns to modify its environment according to its needs and wants. It doesn’t comply with any sense of free will.

      2. Jeff, you’ve gotten a lot of mileage from two arguments in particular. One is the “post-mortem” argument: given determinism, if any use of “could have done otherwise” is to be intelligible, it can only be as an analysis after the fact to be used as input for the future. I think this is true, and I believe compatibilists would agree with it (in fact, I think they would claim it as part of their own project).

        I think this has a great deal of importance for humans – if we had evolved to retain and process several orders of magnitude more information at a time, the implications of determinism would be a lot more clear to us in real time. We might have much more strict criteria for calling a given event “the last time” or “the next time” for purposes of learning. The upshot would be that we might simultaneously have more freedom in the “degrees of freedom” sense outlined elsewhere in these threads, but feel less free, more constrained.

        This all probably belongs to an empirical study of how humans “do empiricism,” but in any case it underlines how important the controls and statistical analysis in science really is for human observation. We can’t do it in real time as part of our perception, so we have to reduce scope, discard irrelevant information, and accumulate knowledge over time. You’re right to point out that the kind of freedom we have emerges over time – I don’t think compatibilists would have a problem with that concept, but in language there aren’t many ways of expressing the details of “freedom over time” except with counterfactuals and the language of choice. It’s a bit how language of design is useful in describing natural selection – if you’ve ever listened to Dawkins describe eye evolution you know what I mean, but it requires a shift in understanding of the words like “design,” “adaptation,” “innovation,” “arms race,” and so forth, so that no “purpose” is implied or inferable from those ideas.

        Your other argument is the “user vs. mechanic,” “user vs. programmer,” and “iceberg” analogies. You’ve said that compatibilists are like car “users” — they are content to know what it’s like to “drive” a human body in subjective terms, and that incompatibilists are more like car mechanics — they want to find out how the brain works. I think I agree to an extent, but there are two things to say about it.

        First, I dislike mechanical analogies because it’s easy to take them literally. A master mechanic can take apart a machine and tell you how it works without seeing it behave – the behavior is inferable from the machine’s construction. The cover of Sam Harris’s book — http://bit.ly/xIwjSq invokes the “puppet on strings” metaphor. For the “puppet” metaphor to be apt, we’d have to imagine a puppet controlled by trillions of strings, each of which does something slightly different, some of which only tug at other strings, and all of which are only connected to other points inside the puppet. But this no longer describes a puppet at all — at best it describes a complex robot — and even then we’re left with the stupefying “trillions of strings” which is a scale our brains have not evolved enough to imagine, let alone model adequately or design. One could start merely counting neurons in the brain and get through a fraction of a percent of them in a lifetime, without even seeing where or how they connect. This isn’t to say that brains are any less deterministic than anything else in the world, but it is not helpful to use analogies that factor complexity down just to make a point about determinism. I like the “degrees of freedom” description for this reason because you can make some reasonable comparisons with it, even if the difference between lizards and humans is staggering.

        Second, because of this complexity, analysis of subjective experience on one hand and behavior on another is one of the only good ways to even begin study of the brain. Cognitive scientists can tease out very subtle types of behavior and infer that there must be some special mechanism in the brain that gives rise to it, to give brain scientists something to look for and account for. Language connecting behavior and cognition to the brain resembles compatibilist language: here’s what happened this time; here’s what happened the next time with this change; the brain must respond this way with this stimulus, this other way with this other stimulus; here’s a possible associated brain location; here’s a group of neurons that seem to fire with the correct mapping and timings to account for this behavior, etc. It is, as you say, a type of freedom that emerges over time — but it’s still a real type of freedom. Even calling it “the human brain” rather than pointing to every specific human brain is in the compatibilist spirit.

        So it’s not so much that compatibilists are just content with the tip of the iceberg — it’s that they recognize that the “iceberg” is so huge (maybe it’s more like “the caldera of Olympus Mons”) that some people have to specialize in small parts of that tip, others specialize in small parts of the rest of it, but that we need language connecting all of it that provides useful shorthands and descriptions that comport with empirical language elsewhere. “Could have done differently if circumstances were different” is the entire story, and we only find out how it works by testing different circumstances over time.

        This will be my last post on this thread. Thanks for the discussion.

    2. Another Matt,

      I’m just at a loss at how all these people who love science, and even those who are scientists, can fail to take in this point.
      That virtually all our descriptions of natural, empirical entities rely on exactly the same abstractions as is used in the (compatibilist) claim “I could have done otherwise.”

      The way we gain true understanding of the nature of things is understanding how they behave in various scenarios. If it is the nature of something to “behave one way in X situation, and another in Y situation,” then
      it is necessary to appeal to IF/THEN descriptions to describe that reality. It’s not illusory talk. It’s how we describe empirical reality in every other context.

      So if I say I could have remained lying down, or could have sat up, or could have stood up, or could have gone walking…etc. it would utterly cut off our source of knowledge to object and say “but what you are talking about isn’t reality, because in REALITY you would only be determined to do one of those things. Once you appeal to any alteration of what actually happened, you are not describing reality.”

      Yet this is the type of objection compabilists keep meeting here.

      Vaal

      1. I’m swallowing hard to maintain composure, and to operate on the assumption that you don’t just mean this as pure sarcasm, but that you are sincere.

        Of course we understand the value of using our imagination to consider hypothetical counterfactuals.

        To say that “we could not have done differently” is not the same thing as saying “it doesn’t make sense to talk about the other options”. Is that what you think we are saying? That is way off.

        To say “I could not have done differently” is a statement illustrating a property of a deterministic brain. Period.

        It’s like saying “My car was out of gas, so it couldn’t start, and could not have done otherwise”. This is true. It is a statement about how cars work. How helpful is it when you then add “but if you had gas it could have started”? If you say that to someone who ran out of gas they’ll get irritated and say “What, do you think I’m stupid?”

        So what is the point of saying “If you had gas, your car could have started”? It does not give the car the freedom to start when it doesn’t have gas. And it doesn’t go back in time to provide gas and change the outcome. Just as saying “you could have chosen A rather than B” is not adding something to the consideration of the actual freedom to choose A rather than B. It only appears to be a really obtuse failure to understand what it means that “when I chose B, I could not have chosen otherwise.” It can only contribute to the decision between A and B next time we face it, which changes nothing in regard to free will and determinism. It’s a new input that will effect my deterministic decision algorithms in the future.

        1. Jeff,

          First, my apologies if you are getting frustrated with my posts. Of course, it feels the same from this side as it often does when it seems like we talk past one another, but I don’t want that to taint things and I truly appreciate your comments.

          “It makes sense to call it agency, but I can’t see how it rises to the grandiose name free will”

          I’m not stuck on the term “free will” per se. It’s just that “free will” is the word typically used to refer to the property a compatibilism claims we have – “I could have done otherwise.”
          That notion is typically identified as being the heart of the Free Will debate. If one takes the position that it’s justified to say “Yes, I could have done otherwise” then that typically means one affirms Free Will.

          Why not just “agency?” Because that term isn’t sufficient to describe the scenarios typically described as “free willed.” What’s the difference between whether I am able to choose to drive to work or take the subway, vs whether I’m able to fall “up” or “down” to the earth? I’m an agent in either case, but that doesn’t describe the difference. Or whether I have given my money to someone because I directly desire to vs because they are holding a gun on me? In all cases I am “being an agent” but that does not actually describe or convey the difference between those situations. We need words to describe these differences, and short hands are useful. Why not just “freedom?” Again, IF that word worked well enough to identify and describe the type of differences above, then that would be fine. Except, I’m not sure it does. Take the money-giving example. What do I mean by “I was free to give the money?” Well, if it ONLY applied to my physical powers (ignoring my desires), then I was “free” to give the money in either case and so being “free” doesn’t describe the difference. It’s not merely my physical ability but my DESIRE, what “I will to do,” that is different in those cases. In the gun scenario, the relationship of my desire, my will, to giving the money is that I did not desire to give it – which is why we’d normally describe that scenario as giving money “against my will.”
          “Free will” in this everyday sense then is just short hand for such scenarios. It more accurately delineates when we are talking expressly about circumstances related to our “will” or “desire,” vs mere physical freedom. So it seems useful.

          And then, again, insofar as we are talking about the age old philosophical issue of “free will,” compatibiism says that we offer an affirmative answer to “could I have done otherwise?,” which is typically seen as answering whether we have free will. You seem to keep agreeing that we could have done otherwise IF we’d had a different desire. Which implies compatiism is cogent. But then you go on to deny we “really” have freedom, which falls back to assuming “freedom” and “could have done differently” in a context different from compatibilism (e.g. in which you keep everything precisely the same, no change in desires).

          “We can will, but not freely. We have control, but not freedom.”

          This, again, keeps presuming the context of indeterminism – presuming “can” and “freedom” to mean “could have done differently in precisely the same situation” (and hence begs the question).

          What I haven’t seen from you is how you deny the logic of compatibilism WHILE showing how it’s denial fits comfortably with the way we talk about the rest of the natural world. Because you say of compatibilism that it’s wrong insofar as it describes us as “being able to do otherwise” or “do X freely” and that compatiblist descriptions are to be rejected as mere “linguistic tricks.” But since compatibilism (as I’ve been describing it) uses JUST the same logic as you and I use to describe reality in all other cases, then you’ve cast the same aspersions on our descriptions of the rest of nature…whether you realize it or not.

          So you will say things like:” Of course we understand the value of using our imagination to consider hypothetical counterfactuals.”

          Yes, I know you accept this as a matter of fact when describing the rest of the world. That’s a point I keep making. But THEN you go and make statement like:

          “If I assume that by saying “I could have done different had I wanted to, or had the situation been different”, you mean that it gives us some kind of freedom, I have to say that is only imaginary; it is artificial.”

          Which just flips around and denies the logic you say you just accepted. But, only in the case of talking out human choices.

          The “some kind of freedom” you are calling “imaginary” and “artificial” is a claim about our nature, our abilities, competency, power, given certain situations. To say “I was free to choose the burger or hot dog” equates to “I could have chosen the hot dog instead, had I wanted to,” which appeals to EXACTLY the same logic we use to describe how “real things” “really act” in the world. It is as “real” in this context as anything else we describe as “real” (like water’s ability to freeze, or evaporate…).
          But then you just label this type of freedom as “imaginary/artificial.”

          And so I point out, endlessly, that when you do that you are being inconsistent, since you do not cast the same aspersions on how we talk about the rest of the world on the same logic.

          “All your counterfactual examples are useful for the future. They don’t imply that in the past a person had freedom.”

          But appeals to the past are only “useful” for the future insofar as the claims about the past are “true.” If the claims weren’t true, it wouldn’t impart “knowledge” so how “useful” would knowledge based on false claims for the past be for the future? You have to think you are getting at something real and true when describing the past to think it applies to reality in the future. Why would you even claim “water CAN/COULD boil or freeze” if it were not based on inference from the past. And if it were not a TRUE description of water that it “could have boiled or frozen” then what would you possibly be basing your true claim about it’s future potential on?

          And remember, in determinism, there isn’t this divined between the future and past for these purposes. The future is as determined as the past. Faced with a choice between a burger or a hot dog, it’s determined I only choose one, not the other – which is the sense in which you deny we “really”could have done either or. So it is no different to claim “I COULD choose either the burger or hot dog” vs “I COULD HAVE chosen the burger or hot dog,” since in both cases the indeterminist points out only one outcome was ever “possible.” So you either deny the logic of hypothetical/counterfactuals across the board to be consistent, or you accept them across the board. If you claim the “could” of the past is illusion, then you make any knowledge based on the past, and any prediction based on the past, an illusion as well.

          So we say “this water COULD be boiled into vapour or chilled into frozen ice.” Apparently, applied to the future this is ok with you. But then we boil the water. Now, apparently, you want to say it would be an illusion, only artificial and imaginary, because we now see the water was determined to have boiled and never “really could have” been frozen. So now our claim was merely imaginary. But what if the water had instead been frozen? On your logic, same thing: our past claim that it COULD have boiled was untrue, imaginary. But we see this means that ANY outcome entails this conclusion, so long as we have made the claim “X could do either Y or Z.” It renders every single such claim “imaginary” and illusion.

          So there is no dividing line as you like to keep it between “yeah, appealing to hypotheticals or counterfactuals is legitimate and makes sense for making sense of the future, but once it’s in the past, the logic becomes illegitimate.” In fact, you’ve undermined ALL claims about the nature of empirical entities, past or future.

          Dunno how to say this any more, or any more clearly.

          Vaal.

          1. Vaal,
            I’m going to reply in bits.

            I’m not stuck on the term “free will” per se. It’s just that “free will” is the word typically used to refer to the property a compatibilism claims we have – “I could have done otherwise.”
            That notion is typically identified as being the heart of the Free Will debate. If one takes the position that it’s justified to say “Yes, I could have done otherwise” then that typically means one affirms Free Will.

            First, I’ve heard you say elsewhere that contra-causal free will is hard to pin down. To me it seems the opposite: what compatibilists mean by free will seems like jello, it flexes on an as needed basis. It is easy to define contra-causal free will, and easy to argue that we don’t have it.

            So can we say, per your statements above, that compatibilist free will is encompassed and described entirely by the idea that when I’m faced with a choice, whatever I choose “I could have done otherwise”?

            Lots of these arguments get bogged down in disputes over what “could” means, and how “could” is used by people. I think it matters whether we are combining “could” with “to do” or with “to be”. There is a difference between saying that something could exist, or could be the case, vs. saying that something could be done. Let’s restrict our discussion of free will and determinism to what we could or could not do, because that is what really matters in a discussion of free will.

            To say I could do something, I must be physically able to do it, and I must have the opportunity to do it (all pre-requisite conditions are met). But these two conditions, while necessary, aren’t quite sufficient: I must also be able to decide to do it, or commit to do it. There are many possible actions I can conceive of, but if I consider those actions I may veto or reject them, or I may approve and my will triggers the actual action.

            If I have a choice between A or B, I may choose both, neither, or A or B, four possibilities. I claim that it is a consequence of determinism that there is only one decision path my brain can follow, that it is determined by the state of my brain and the interaction with the environment, and that one path is determined such that it will arrive at only one of the four options, and it could not have arrived at any of the other three, regardless of whether I could have predicted which one in advance, and regardless of whether I have a conscious sense of vetoing the other three.

            I’m saying that if you don’t accept this, then you are rejecting determinism.

            Now to continue to the compatibilist claim that I can say, or it is intelligible to say, or people talk in the following way, that “I could have done otherwise”: it is important to make a distinction between truth and reality. I agree it makes sense to say “I could have chosen B rather than A”, and I agree people talk like this, and I agree there is some sense in which there is some logical truth to these statements, but there is no sense in which these statements are real, there is no sense in which these statements could have been actual configurations of matter and energy in space and time outside of our minds or imaginations.

            This is what is so maddening about the compatibilist claim: it seems to be a purely hypothetical imaginary subjective claim of freedom, and so it’s lack of reality makes it wholly unsatisfactory, and frankly, illusory, and if you take determinism seriously there really is no other way to claim any kind of freedom.

            Are you really comfortable with this? That freedom is based entirely on imagining things? That the sense of “I could have done otherwise” has some a priori logical truth status, but it has no opportunity to have a posteriori truth status, it has the same status in reality as statements such as “there could be a flying spaghetti monster orbiting the earth” or “pink unicorns could be flying across the Pacific Ocean at this moment”.

          2. Vaal,

            This, again, keeps presuming the context of indeterminism – presuming “can” and “freedom” to mean “could have done differently in precisely the same situation” (and hence begs the question).

            I don’t think it presumes the context of indeterminism. Because determinism is such that we don’t have to refer to another instance of the same precise circumstances. Determinism means in the one original situation, we could not have done otherwise. And it’s important that we are looking at the internal workings of the brain, not viewing it as a black box. If you consider the person as a black box, you can imagine they could have chosen differently. If you consider the neural networks and biochemical reactions going on inside causing each desire, each logical comparison or evaluation, each step of the decision, it is an algorithm in the unconscious that can arrive at one answer and one answer only.

            The whole discussion of being able to do differently if you had a different desire is simply brushing determinism to the side. The fact is that you could not have had a different desire. To say that if you had a different desire, you could have done differently is useless; it’s the same thing as saying if I were another person I could have done differently, or saying if our brain was not deterministic I could have done differently. Again it is an entirely imaginary subjective freedom, not an actual freedom in the real world of matter and energy that is observable objectively by others.

            This is exactly what incompatibilists mean by saying that compatibilist freedom is an illusion: it only exists subjectively in the mind. It never is actualized. It never becomes action. It forever exists in the vaporous world of the hypothetical. Our subjective experience is like looking at the tips of icebergs in our mind. It is a partial view of what is happening inside the head. And it is full of illusions, which is well illustrated by the many optical illusions that have been discovered; we don’t really see what we think we see, we see what the brain concocts for us, which is fundamentally different from the objects scattering photons onto our retina. And language is based on our subjective experience, so to appeal to “how people talk” is also prone to error if you care about describing physical reality accurately, as opposed to merely defining conventions that are not firmly rooted in empirical reality. Just going by how people talk and how things seem means you are subject to errors like assuming the sun orbits the earth. So the way compatibilists talk about freedom, there is really no way they can claim it is consistent with determinism. What it really is consistent with is human subjective experience, which is misleading when it comes to understanding the underlying physical reality.

          3. Jeff and Vaal,

            I’m starting to agree more and more with both of you, which I think means there’s been some progress in these threads. A few observations:

            The disagreements seem now to be equally linguistic and empirical; we seem to agree on ontology. About language – I agree that we would describe the world much differently and use different words if language had evolved after we had gained scientific knowledge up to Newton (say).

            I and others (Vaal in particular) have said several times that our everyday language, combined with our empirical epistemology, forces us into using de-facto compatibilist descriptions and explanations. I was thinking recently that a theologian could easily “accuse” us of being de facto essentialists insofar as our language forces us to attach labels to any sufficiently perceptible, stable, and recurring pattern of nature (e.g. “water,” “whirlpool,” “star,” “katydid,” “grandmother”). A fair amount of teleology is built into our language as well.

            Rather than avoid these potentially embarrassing uses of language, we have invoked “emergent properties” in place of “essences” to salvage the “same old language” while affirming reductionism and materialism. Any high-schooler who has some basic knowledge of molecular structure means something much different by the label “water” than Aquinas would have, and in some contexts drastically so. This also has the advantage of connecting the sciences reductively so that when biologists study physiology, behavior, selection, and ecology it connects well — and depends on — a solid chemical and physical base.

            To my mind, compatibilism is a similar attempt to ground language of choice to materialism and determinism (to the extent that the world is deterministic). It connects very nicely to all but the most formal language used in scientific description. We can talk about options before us as real options, chosen from deterministically. We can talk about learning via trial and error. We can use scientific method to pose hypotheticals and use evidence to see how circumscribed deterministic chains confirm some and falsify others. In this sense, one might see compatibilism as the attempt to connect everyday language to the somewhat lower-level connections between cognitive psychology and neuroscience — it’s the language a cognitive neuroscientist would use in the popular press.

          4. Vaal,

            So we say “this water COULD be boiled into vapour or chilled into frozen ice.” Apparently, applied to the future this is ok with you. But then we boil the water. Now, apparently, you want to say it would be an illusion, only artificial and imaginary, because we now see the water was determined to have boiled and never “really could have” been frozen.

            This seems a little off. Again there is a difference between saying something is mentally useful vs saying something is real. When we take a specific container of water and put it into a specific thermodynamic environment, what it will do is determined. It can only do what is in the nature of water to do in that situation, which is to freeze if we are cooling it to 0C, or remain liquid if we keep the temperature stable between 0 and 100 C, or boil if we heat it to 100C. It could do no otherwise once it is subjected to a real environment.

            If we are talking about the future, we are only imagining hypotheticals, and they have no bearing on actual water in an actual thermodynamic environment. It is a useful mental tool to consider hypothetical options, but that act of thinking does not equate with a real situation of water being heated or cooled. So this is your trick; you claim I’m inconsistent, but I’m being consistently true to reality while you are flip-flopping between the real and the imaginary like a magician’s slight of hand, while pretending you are being logically consistent.

            Just like water placed in a specific thermodynamic environment will end up in one specific phase according to its nature, a particular person in a particular context faced with a particular choice can only make one choice, and had no possibility of making a different one.

          5. Okay, last one Vaal.

            I argued before that I felt your basing freedom on saying “I could do otherwise” violates determinism.

            There is a sense in which this debate between compatibilists and incompatibilists over “could or could not do otherwise” mirrors a debate in quantum mechanics.

            In the Copenhagen interpretation, a particle’s state is indeterminate, but given by a wave function, which is a probability distribution. Let’s say we are interested in the position of an electron. The wave function provides all the places, given a configuration of electrostatic potential energy, where the electron “could be”.

            It strikes me that this wave function is like your hypotheticals, I could choose A, B, or C.

            When we perform measurements to determine the position of the electron, the wave function is said to “collapse” so that there is probability 1 of the electron being in a specific location. We have determined the position, which prior to the measurement was indeterminate.

            There are some who believe that there are hidden variables (and problems with Bell’s theorem) such that “reality” holds, that is, the position of the electron really was determined prior to the measurement, but that determination is based on hidden variables we can’t measure and don’t know about.

            Compatibilists are like those who believe the wave function is real, and that there are no hidden variables. The electron’s state is indeterminate (it has freedom).

            Incompatibilists are like those who believe the wave function (hypothetical options) is merely mathematical, and the state of the electron really is determined but we don’t have any way to predict it.

            But the compatibilist approach is not deterministic; it requires indeterminacy.

            1. Jeff,

              This is a shame. I thought the thread was dead but I see you replied in detail. I’m sorry I missed it. If you signal you are still looking at the thread I’ll reply as I think you got right to the crux of the issue
              I’ve been talking about as well

              Vaal

              1. If it’s worth anything, I’m still following the thread, but probably won’t post anything after those last two (long) replies.

              1. Jeff,

                I’m back…

                “I claim that it is a consequence of determinism that there is only one decision path my brain can follow, that it is determined by the state of my brain and the interaction with the environment, and that one path is determined such that it will arrive at only one of the four options, and it could not have arrived at any of the other three, regardless of whether I could have predicted which one in advance, and regardless of whether I have a conscious sense of vetoing the other three.”

                I think this goes to far (depending on what you mean by it). We would agree that the outcome was fully determined of course, but I’m not ready to go along with your characterization. The sticking point is your “regardless of whether I could have predicted which one in advance, and regardless of whether I have a conscious sense of vetoing the other three.”

                This makes it sound like the deliberation part – the consideration of options, the vetoing etc – is somehow a-causal or not efficacious, as if it does not matter to the output. I’d certainly disagree if this is your implication (and if it’s not, then I don’t see what I was supposed to be enlightened about). If I’m looking at items on a menu I’m conscious of having the physical powers to choose A B or C (or none) and I’m saying to myself “Ok, but which one do I desire to choose most and why?” (And, when dining with my wife, her desires, what she wants to share, are factored in as well). So there are motives for various menu items being suggested in my mind, and I’m adjudicating which ones I veto, which desires are strongest, which make most sense given what my wife wannest, etc. This is all PART of the causal chain that results in my decision. Now, it’s true that only one outcome is ultimately determined, but part of what determines that outcomes is my deliberation/vetoing etc. So the outcome in that sense is not “regardless” of my deliberation/vetoing etc, it is a RESULT of that process (and of course, previous causes setting the stage for what is delivered to that process).

                I’m entirely comfortable with the outcome being determined, since that is the only way it would make sense “I” made a choice, anyway. (BTW, if you were wanting to make the point that all this deliberating is just an illusion, with consciousness playing little role, that will get into the discussion of consciousness itself – where I would take a “larger” view of identity in which any deliberation that relates to getting what I desire is “mine” whether it arrives to my consciousness before, during or after ).

                Cont’d…

            2. Jeff, (PT 2)

              “it is important to make a distinction between truth and reality. I agree it makes sense to say “I could have chosen B rather than A”, and I agree people talk like this, and I agree there is some sense in which there is some logical truth to these statements, but there is no sense in which these statements are real, there is no sense in which these statements could have been actual configurations of matter and energy in space and time outside of our minds or imaginations.”

              (Emphasis mine).

              I understand the distinction you wish to make between “true” and “real” – it’s a distinction I have assumed you (and others) have wished to make throughout these conversations. Yes, we can talk about one context in which the claim “Water could have evaporated or frozen” would be false, that is the context brought up by indeterminists – “If everything at time T were precisely the same water could have done either”. But that is only one context we can talk about, and importantly, it is not the ONLY context in which we can make claims about reality, and it is in fact NOT the context in which most of our claims about reality are made.

              But the bolded text gets right to the problem: yes there IS a sense of truth to I could have chosen B rather than A but then you acknowledge this without going into what truth that would be. “Some sense in which there is logical truth” seems to just skirt past this. And that is exactly the area I keep concentrating on.

              If you mean by “could” statements having some “logical truth” what would that mean? If it meant that our “could” statements amount at best to mere logical consistency (validity) and no more, then this is obviously false, because we use “could” statements to describe the real world. They therefore can not be “true” but not talking about the “real.” Rather, in order for the claims to be true, they must be talking about the real (at least, granting correspondence theory for the moment). For instance: “The water COULD have been frozen instead of it having evaporated” is obviously an empirical claim about the nature of the water in question. Since this is a claim about the real world potential/nature of that water, it’s truth value relies on it describing reality about water. This is why we would normally say that statement is, in fact true, whereas if the claim had been “The water COULD have turned into a rabbit rather than having evaporated” we would call such a claim “false,” because it is not empirically supported by observations about reality.

              So that little throwaway line of yours about such “could” statements having “some kind of logical truth, ” but then dismissing that truth as inconsequential in relationship to the kind of “reality” you want to describe, is to my mind a massive oversight in how we actually make our truth claims about the world. Much of our description of reality relies on exactly the type of abstractions you want to undermine when it comes to applying such abstraction to human choices.

              When it comes to free will and speaking of humans making choices, you want to disregard the soundness of claims that appeal to “could have” in different circumstances – as if they are not talking about the “real.” But think about it: If it is the nature of water to behave differently given differing circumstances and causes, the ONLY way you will be able to apprehend and describe that reality is by appeal to the shifting possibilities: The water CAN (or “could”) be boiled into vapour, or the water CAN be frozen solid, or it CAN be used for..”
              Yes, it can’t do all those things under PRECISELY the same conditions, just as we could not choose differently under PRECISELY the same conditions. But if you could only ever appeal to one precise condition in your description of water – e.g. how it behaved in below zero conditions, you’d never be able to describe the fuller reality of water, the other ways it behaves. You’d be missing real truth about water. And of course, describing the truth about water is done by observing it in various conditions, and putting all those observations together to form our understanding of the nature of water – and our “Water can be used for X, Y or Z” descriptions
              are empirically “true” statements about the real world properties of water. It’s not “illusion” talk. If it is, all science is illusion-talk.

              Same with every empirical entity. Same when we describe our powers, and when we are making choices.
              To say “I could remain lying down, or I could sit up, or I could start walking or start running” are empirically-born claims about what I can do, derived from past empirical experience of my powers or competencies.
              It’s no more “illusion” than talking about water, and no less talking about the real world than any other empirical claim. Again…IF we limited our descriptions of the world to ONLY the sense you demand for free will – that the only “real” descriptions are ones based on what happens when everything is in precisely the same state – then we would lose our ability to describe most of the real world.

              “The whole discussion of being able to do differently if you had a different desire is simply brushing determinism to the side.”

              No it’s not – it’s noticing that GIVEN DETERMINISM there are different ways we can still be talking about the real world, not just the one way you have in mind. And you are missing the way most of our accepted descriptions of the world work. You are short-changing the very nature of the empirical claims about the brain and determinism that you are using to undermine compatibilism!

              ” The fact is that you could not have had a different desire.”

              But that is a “fact” ONLY if you are stuck in the sense of “if everything had been precisely the same.” But that is not the sense in which compatibilism makes it’s claim! It makes the claim that “I could have behaved differently given slightly different circumstances” of exactly the same type made to describe the reality of things like water, cars and everything else. In that sense, if a scientist told you “You COULD have saved yourself from food poisoning by cooking your chicken to 175 F to kill the bacteria” and you replied “the fact is that chicken could not have been cooked differently” you’d be looked at like a fool, because of course as much as you may think it’s a true statement in the context of indeterminist demands about human choice-making, you would have been in the wrong context and would have contradicted a known truth about chicken and bacteria.

              To say that if you had a different desire, you could have done differently is useless; it’s the same thing as saying if I were another person I could have done differently,”

              No, because we are making empirical claims about real, specific entities. To say that if you freeze water it will become solid, or boil it it will evaporate, is to appeal to all the empirical information we have observed about how something with the identity “water” can behave in different conditions. But if we included “water can be turned into a rabbit if you wish hard enough” would be false, because there is nothing empirical from which to draw such an inference. So you just can’t go attaching any claim you want.

              Same with claims about other empirical entities like people. It’s quite within my nature to be able to have a different desire, e.g. for french fries or for onion rings in the same type of situations (not PRECISELY the same situation, atom-for-atom). To say that a Vaal who desired onion rings would be a “different person” than the Vaal who would desire french fries is to do such violence to our normal notions of identity that, well, if you are willing to make such extreme moves there isn’t much hope for real conversation. I chose fries yesterday at the fast food joint; today I chose onion rings. I’m the same guy in every conventional (and scientific!!!!) sense of the term.

              Every claim of “I could do A or B” or “I could have done A or B” has it’s own context. “I chose the 50 lb weight to lift today, but I could have chosen the 60 lb weight if I wanted to” means I had the physical power to do either, given the desire. But I couldn’t claim that, had I desired to, I could have used the 200 lb weight – that would be a false empirical claim. But of course, a bigger guy may make that claim and it would be true he could have chosen 60 or 200 lbw to lift today. What if I make a claim about a desire I had? Again, context. I desired french fries (and chose french fries) but I COULD have desired onion rings is an empirical claim about my desires – it claims I’m capable of having both desires. And that claim is based on my having in fact had both desires before. Again, not in perfectly identical situations atom-for-atom/cause-for-cause, because that is NOT the context of such empirical claims.

              So, I wonder if I may have budged you into acknowledging that we do in fact make empirical truth claims about the “real world” by appealing to “could have been or done A/B/C.” And so perhaps you might want to stop characterizing such claims (when made about human beings having the power of choice) as being in the category of “illusion” or not talking about the “real.”

              Vaal

  24. “Stephen, if you’re going translate “free will” into compatibilist terms, you have to translate “deserve to suffer” as well.”

    True, Gregory but can deserve to suffer be translated at all?

    It’s fair that some suffer so that others don’t have to?

    Even if you succeed in translating deserved suffering, which I doubt you can, how far away would it be from the ordinary concept?

    And that’s the problem, it’s the ordinary concept of deserved blame, deserved suffering, deserved guilt, deserved rewards etc etc, that is what libertarian free will is supposed to support.

    Compatibilist free will, usually, is the concept that we don’t have libertarian free will but nothing much changes.

    It’s not right.

  25. “Also, “If the Big Bang had banged differently” is pure hyperbole. ”

    No Gregory it isn’t.

    Free will compatible with determinism, is free will compatible with could if… meaning: would if the initial conditions had been slightly and appropriatley different!

    The fact you say that’s pure hyperbole is very telling.

    Compatibilism, by using the counterfactual you could if you had wanted to masks the implications of what that means, by not following it through.

    It’s not right.

  26. Gregory,

    “Since your behavior is at least partially the result of a reasoned decision process, it’s socially expedient to punish you in hopes of changing your future behavior and deterring similar bad behavior by others.”

    Makes sense but not in the sense that it’s fair that I’m suffering.

    Why do people feel the need to defend free will in order to justify deterrent and correction?

    Nobody would deny that punishment can deter and correct.

    People are looking for some way that not only does it work but it’s fair to those who draw the short straw.

    It’s not right.

    1. I’m not “defending” free will in any metaphysical sense; I’m pointing out that as a matter of linguistic fact, we have names for the class of behaviors that’s amenable to deterrence and correction. We call such behaviors “freely willed” or “freely chosen”. We also say that people who engage in corrigible bad behavior “deserve” to be punished, meaning that punishment is both socially beneficial and likely to be effective in such cases.

      That’s all it means. It’s just a set of sociobiological heuristics installed in our brains by natural selection, to which (through historical accident) we give the names “free will”, “desert”, and so on. There is no deep metaphysical significance, and no consideration of what’s “fair”, except to the extent that “fairness” itself is just another evolved heuristic for deciding when to apply appropriate correction.

      1. I should perhaps add that as with any evolved heuristic, it’s quite possible for the “desert” heuristic to misfire in a modern context and apply punishment that’s inappropriate, ineffective, too severe, or what have you. I think it’s quite likely that does happen fairly frequently in our justice system, and that would certainly be a reason for considering changes to the system. But not because of any metaphysical implications of determinism or the (alleged) illusory nature of “free will”, but purely as a practical matter of making sure our evolved intuitions don’t override our ability to make reasoned assessments of effectiveness.

  27. Gregory:

    “We also say that people who engage in corrigible bad behavior ‘deserve’ to be punished, meaning that punishment is both socially beneficial and likely to be effective in such cases. That’s all it means.”

    Not so. When philosophers talk about moral responsibility and desert, they generally have in mind the idea that punishment should be administered *whether or not* it brings about any social benefit. I suspect lots of ordinary folks might think this as well, but of course research is needed.

    Philosopher Neil Levy defines moral responsibility this way at the start of his recent interview at Philosophy Bites: “Well, as I use moral responsibility, it’s the property that makes agents appropriate targets of blame and praise and mabye even punishments and perhaps benefits. An agent is morally responsible if they performed an action and they deserve some kind of treatment on that basis, not on the basis of consequentialist considerations, not because it’s good for society or good for anybody else, but because they deserve it.” His host Nigel Warburton calls this “a fairly standard view of moral responsibility.” Tamler Sommers defines it this way – as essentially involving non-consequentialist desert – at the start of his new book Relative Justice. (From a footnote in my review of Bruce Waller’s Against Moral Responsibility at http://www.naturalism.org/Wallerreview.htm )

    One other example: compatibilist law professor Stephen Morse, a retributivist, says “Some things… we do only because it’s right to do them. For example, we give people what they deserve. Why? Because it’s right to do so. Not because we’re going to produce good consequences. If we do produce good consequences, terrific. But that’s not necessarily why. We do it because we think they deserve it.” From http://www.naturalism.org/morse.htm

    1. Let me try to clarify. I’m not saying that people don’t have feelings of moral righteousness, or beliefs that punishment is justified for its own sake. What I’m saying is that those feelings are evolutionary artifacts, much like the immediate pleasure we get from sex, when the real evolutionary purpose of sex is to make babies. The real evolutionary purpose of desert is, and has to be, consequential, because we wouldn’t have such feelings if they lacked consequences. The trick is to put aside our instinctive intuitions about desert and retribution and see them for what they really are: evolved heuristics for achieving particular social consequences.

      1. Exactly right!

        And I believe that a more broadly disseminated popular understanding of determinism can help facilitate such an understanding. People won’t want to let go of their feelings of moral retribution unless they begin to see transgressors more like we see the sick: people who need treatment and confinement, not people who must be made to pay by suffering.

        Compatibilism, by pretending that free will exists and using language accordingly builds a firewall between the public imagination and the true consequences of determinism.

        We already relax our sense of needing to punish the insane or the brain-damaged. They may need confinement to protect themselves or society, but we don’t wish them to suffer in punishing conditions. If we viewed every criminal as mentally lacking some kind of self-restraint or moral reasoning ability, prisons might focus much more on anger management training, conflict resolution training, and empathy building exercises and less on maintaining a harsh and cruel environment. We might think of prisons more as vocational training and educational facilities and less like sources of slave labor for commercial gain. And society as a whole could benefit from this in the long run.

        1. Not so fast. The fact that they’re evolved heuristics doesn’t mean that they’re wrong; on the contrary, it means that in many cases they’re probably right (more or less). We have a “free will” heuristic because there’s some real aspect of human behavior that’s worth distinguishing from “unfree” behavior (even if the labels “free” and “unfree” turn out to be philosophically problematic). This, I claim, is the sense in which compatibilists think that “free will” exists.

          1. Evidently I misinterpreted what you meant by “put aside our instinctive intuitions about desert and retribution and see them for what they really are”. I thought you were serious about putting some of them aside.

            I guess having me agree with you was too much to take! 🙂

            But I thought your point about the implicit consequentialist nature of these heuristics pretty much demolished the distinction outlined by Tom about non-consequentialist deserts. That sounds kind of like an attempt to rationalize something like moral absolutes, something that many people are quite afraid to deny or abandon. A careful examination of when and how we condemn or approve of killing immediately makes a mockery of the idea of moral absolutes.

            I didn’t say that all of our evolved heuristics are wrong. I would agree they are mostly right.

            But I do think that the tendency to dehumanize criminals because we believe they had complete freedom to decide to do otherwise is, in light of a new deterministic understanding of human nature, quite simply wrong, or at least obsolete. This doesn’t mean no punishment is valid. But it means capital punishment is cruel and unusual punishment (and thus ought to be unconstitutional). It means that designing prisons so that prisoners are miserable should be reconsidered in great detail. It means we ought to look very closely at prisons in Norway and Sweden and learn from them. The anger and vengeance of moral outrage (the evolved heuristic) is blocking a potentially enlightened reform of our prison system that could lead to a less populated, hence less expensive, and more effective system.

            1. To be clear, I’m not endorsing the dehumanization of criminals. I largely agree with your views on capital punishment and penal reform. I just don’t think a debate about determinism and “free will” (which to my mind are orthogonal concepts) is necessarily the right lever to use to accomplish those reforms.

            2. “But I do think that the tendency to dehumanize criminals because we believe they had complete freedom to decide…”

              That’s the thing. That’s not why we dehumanize criminals. I mean, most people don’t require that the freedom to be decide be *complete* in the sense that it transcends physics. If they did think that, but you managed to convince them that freedom to decide doesn’t actually transcend physics, they’d probably happily give up the idea that freedom to decide needs to be contra-causal to justify retribution, rather than giving up retribution.

              The better approach is to encourage people to be thoughtful about, and critical of, their retributive impulses, and what those are meant to accomplish; while also demonstrating that there are humane methods of accomplishing the same thing (more effectively, even). Discussions of determinism/contra-causality are just a distraction.

              1. Peter wrote:

                Discussions of determinism/contra-causality are just a distraction.

                and elsewhere wrote:

                Otherwise, which compatibilists “dispense” with determinism?

                I guess the answer to the question is see your quote from above.

                Compatibilists seem like drivers of cars, content to use the thing without understanding where the power comes from, and also not caring where the power comes from.

                I’m not even sure why compatibilism is defined as “the belief that free will is compatible with determinism”. It should be more like the belief that free will doesn’t need to be compatible with determinism, because we can pretend we have free will and we can ignore determinism completely because most people talk as if they have free will and neither understand nor care about nature and how it works.

                This is perhaps too lengthy a definition, but it seems more accurate based on all I’ve seen here.

                Maybe a more concise form would be: the belief that we can pretend we have free will and ignore determinism because of how people talk.

              2. Well, the first thing you quoted from me came from a particular context. The second quote was in reply to a claim from you that was in a different context. And I make an effort to be concise, so that you don’t have to read too much to get my point. But you still can’t read the whole thing?

            3. It’s probably also worth pointing out that the most important forces that encourage people to commit crimes are socio-economic, not neurological or physical (of course, you could try to describe socio-economic forces in terms of physics, but that would probably be missing the point).

              Another way in which talking about the implications of physical determinism for “free will” in the context of crime and punishment is just a distraction.

              1. There are reasons why when many people are all subjected to the same socio-economic conditions only some of them commit crimes. Many of those people may imagine committing crimes, but never commit them, while a minority actually commit them.

                The socio-economic conditions of criminals vary widely, though the type of crime does tend to be related to the socio-economic status.

                I suspect that the answer to the question: When many people are subjected to similar socioeconomic pressures, why do only a few commit crimes? is most likely to be found by a deeper understanding of neurological functions.

  28. Vaal (if you are still listening),

    This makes it sound like the deliberation part – the consideration of options, the vetoing etc – is somehow a-causal or not efficacious, as if it does not matter to the output.

    No, I meant exactly the opposite, that if we feel ourselves vetoing the options not chosen, that is caused (by forces we are only partially aware of) and that this freedom is an illusion of consciousness.

    I do agree, as you said at the end, that we still own the choice and the result; if we are puppets, it is we who pull the strings. That is to say, the deterministic mechanisms of our decision are the product of our unique genes and our unique experiences, knowledge, and memories, and they are partitioned off from the world at large by the boundary of our skin. The string pullers are caused by our biological structure, and they belong to us.

    So, I wonder if I may have budged you into acknowledging that we do in fact make empirical truth claims about the “real world” by appealing to “could have been or done A/B/C.” And so perhaps you might want to stop characterizing such claims (when made about human beings having the power of choice) as being in the category of “illusion” or not talking about the “real.”

    I don’t feel I know enough philosophy to be truly precise about my thoughts here, but I still see a distinction between what is “true” and what is “real”. The enumeration of logically valid “could” type statements is a subjective activity in the mind, they are a priori propositions, they are representations of reality created by the activity of the brain. They do not assume configurations of matter and energy with spatial dimension, so they don’t qualify as what I would like to call “real”. To me they are as unreal as metaphysical claims such as “A most perfect being could exist because an existent being is more perfect than an non-existent being”. (the ontological argument). The “could” statements do not become “real” until they are reified or instantiated in a particular physical instance with complete context, with actual measurable properties so that a posteriori claims are possible.

    After I choose the hamburger, to say “I could have chosen the hot dog” is in the sense of logical validity true, but it is not real, and it is not freedom. Freedom is being unconstrained. In our choice were not forced at gunpoint, and we were allowed to choose based on our internal tendencies and capacities, but we were not unconstrained; we were constrained by determinism to make exactly the choice we made and no other. So I don’t feel it is free if we consider the complete real context of the choice. We can only call it free if we limit the context to our subjective interior experience, to “how we felt”.

    Now, I think an idea I discussed earlier about domains of concern matters in this interpretation. The scientific domain of concern is the one I’m emphasizing, and I’m downplaying human subjective experience as an illusion.

    I think the concerns of compatibilists are largely localized to human subjective experience, and human social interactions. When I say localized I do not mean to diminish the importance or complexity of this domain, I’m just saying that it safely ignores the physical nature of the brain, it’s chemistry, it’s biology, and it’s deterministic nature.

    Much of the argumentation of compatibilists is based on linguistics; it matters what words people use and what people understand by those words. It matters little how people manage to speak, or hear, or parse the sounds or how they produce conceptual understanding. The compatibilist only looks at the origin and the endpoint of communication and ignores everything in between. And this makes sense for particular domains of concern (psychology, philosophy, economics, history, literature, art, etc.)

    But to the incompatibilist, these endpoints exist in a kind of bubble of illusion, created in the brain, called subjective experience. Everything else in the body and the brain is bracketed off (including determinism). I think this bubble of subjective experience, generated by the activity of the brain inside the brain is roughly analogous to a movie projected on a screen. In a movie the projector, the film, light cooperate to project moving images on a screen. But the movie we see is an idealization, a representation of reality; yes the film has a real component (light), but it’s primary content is conceptual and subjective. And we watch it, think and talk about it completely ignoring the film, the projector, the screen, and the light.

    When we talk we have a tendency to lump together our thoughts, ideas, feelings, our actions, and the real objective world. We need to be precise about the boundaries of applicability of our statements. If I say “In the army, general is the highest rank”, it seems like a simple straightforward statement. But it is not completely true or fully specified; it is a kind of skeletal conceptual linguistic construct that does not have reality or truth except in limited context; for example I didn’t say which army. The word “general” is not in use in most armies in the world. And for all I know, in some countries the word “general” may be in use but not the highest rank. If we say “In the U.S. Army” we further specify and we make the statement true. Americans often make statements like “most people speak English”. Most other Americans automatically understand “people” to mean “Americans”. But those who travel abroad or have family members abroad notice these things all the time, and may find them annoying. And this is the kind of constrained domain of applicability I feel when listening to the claims of compatibilists.

    It seems most if not all compatibilist statements have this ambiguity, in that they apply to that representational idealized bubble of human subjective experience inside the brain, but not to all of reality. Certainly the statements concerning choice, freedom, and free will are confined to that subjective bubble, and to our actions as they appear inside the subjective bubbles of other humans. We can infer a sense of freedom about others, and we can feel a sense of freedom in ourselves, but it’s all as illusory as the freedom we infer about characters in a film. It is created to appear free by the brain. I think this is the reason for consciousness: so that we feel free and feel motivated. It certainly seems that the purpose of emotions is to motivate actions that are adaptive. And it seems that this sense of freedom and ability to consciously reason is related to learning and adaptability. So it is all part of the human experience, it is part of who we are and how we feel. But to maintain the illusion of freedom you must bracket off determinism, chemistry, and physics and focus only on the flickering images in the subjective bubble. This is what compatibilists seem to do, and they seem not to fully realize it, or else they realize they are doing this but habitually ignore it, just as Americans saying “40% of all voters think X”. Obviously they are ignoring a lot of non-American voters, so the remark is false, unless properly qualified and constrained. It’s bothersome to always say “American voters”, so we use a shorthand convention, and we understand what is meant. And I think compatibilist freedom is based on such a shorthand convention based on anthropocentric assumptions derived from our subjective experience of the world. Within that context it makes sense to talk about freedom because there is a semblance of freedom that everyone shares and can refer to with words. But a complete consideration of reality renders that freedom as a very limited human perception, not an actual freedom in the sense of being completely unconstrained.

Leave a Reply