Amateur theologians: You can’t be a determinist if you feel like you have free will

June 10, 2013 • 11:49 am

This came to my attention through a linking attempt, and doesn’t merit a long response, but it’s an argument new to me.  At a website called Theo-Sophical Ruminations, whose author describes him/herself  someone whose “professional training is in theology, but I am an avid student of Christian apologetics,” there’s a post that seems quite critical of my views on free will. Called “Coyne on free-will: ‘we don’t have free will’ but ‘we have no choice but to pretend that we do choose“, the piece chastises me for saying that I behave as if I have real libertarian free will, even though intellectually I believe my choices are a determined product of my genes and my environment. That’s is supposed to be a real problem.

Here’s what the blogger says,

Scientists say the darndest things.  Last January I blogged on an article Jerry Coyne wrote in USA Today regarding free will.  At one point he said, “So if we don’t have free will, what can we do? One possibility is to give in to a despairing nihilism and just stop doing anything. But that’s impossible, for our feeling of personal agency is so overwhelming that we have no choice but to pretend that we do choose and get on with our lives.” Coyne is still spinning the same gobbledygook.  Recently, on Coyne’s own blog, a commentator took Coyne to task for acting as though humans have freedom, while being adamant that they do not.

Coyne responded:

“Yes, I think that all human actions are predetermined and not under some kind of dualistic control. Nevertheless we all, including incompatibilists like myself, act as if we have choices, for our feeling of agency is strong. So please don’t say that I shouldn’t make “should” statements because of that. I will act as though I have free choices even though I don’t. And of course you have to admit that what I say, determined or not, can influence the future actions of others. . . .” [it goes on]

I’m not sure exactly why that’s gobbledygook, nor does the writer give a reason. We have a strong feeling of agency, and that may be a product of natural selection—I’m not sure. But regardless, that feeling of agency is there, and pervasive, even though it may be a confabulation. We know such confabulations exist, for we’re all aware of cases in which people pretend to themselves that they’re making a choice when they’re really not, either because we “know” them so well that we’re aware of their self-deception. More obvious cases come from neuroscience, whose practitioners can stimulate brains and cause automatic responses (like waving one’s hand) that the subject interprets as a free choice (“I was waving at a nurse”). Likewise, psychology experiments with Ouija-board type setups clearly show that subjects think they are moving a cursor or an object when they’re not influencing its movement at all.  These things are indisputable. So what’s the problem?

In response, the unknown blogger simply levels a criticism of my remark made by David Heddle, a Calvinist physicist in Virginia who has something of an obsession with watching and criticizing my words.


. . . if all actions are predetermined then you cannot act as if you have choices. Acting is a volitional process of the very type you are denying. In your model there is no acting, there is only a differential equation of the universe cranking out its next time step. He is so close! He admits that in his world-view everything is predetermined, but in the next breath he obfuscates that unsavory factoid by claiming that he can “act” as though he has free choices. He can freely choose, he believes, to pretend that he can freely choose. And Jerry can’t, as he suggests, affect the behavior of others when he has already admitted that all human actions are predetermined.

To which the Theo-Sophical blogger responds:

Spot on!  Determinists who deny free will always end up affirming it through the back door.  They really do need to make philosophy courses part of the core curriculum in science programs!

What a mishmash of garbled thinking! Acting is not a volitional process of the type I’m denying; where is the evidence that it is “volitional,” presumably in the dualistic sense implied by Heddle and the Theo-Sophist. As for “freely choosing” to act as if I have free choices; that’s simply wrong. I don’t choose that feeling, freely or otherwise. My feeling of volition—that there is some “I” apart from my genes and environment that can make choices—is not freely chosen. It’s instilled in me—and almost certainly by my genes, since nearly all humans have it regardless of their experience.

Finally, of course I can affect the behavior of others if my actions are predetermined, for I am part of other people’s environments. Those effects are predetermined as well; they’re part of the whole physical regress (except for any pure indeterminacy produced by quantum effects).

Maybe I’m misunderstanding something, but this seems to be a misguided defense of libertarian free will. I’m used to compatibilists criticizing me for not happily embracing “the only kind of free will worth wanting,” but the idea that my feeling of volition somehow vindicates libertarian free will is simply dumb.  Maybe they should start making critical thinking part of the theoogy curriculum.

Ten to one Heddle will get his knickers in a twist over this. I won’t be paying attention.

82 thoughts on “Amateur theologians: You can’t be a determinist if you feel like you have free will

  1. So if animals act as if they’re hungry, they have free will too?

    Just seems to me this is a misunderstanding on their part about the meaning of “acting” in this context.

    After all, doing something is an act, isn’t it?

    1. My thought exactly. Since when do actions or acts require a prior conscious choice? We all inhale/exhale, blink, sweat, digest, move our bowels along, etc. largely without any conscious thought whatsoever, and the act still continues. Am I to think that these are not “acts” now since I do them without prior decision?

      Moreover, when I verbally express myself regarding respiration (or digestion, etc.) I apply my own delusional sense of personal agency to the act — I say “I am breathing” — even though we all clearly know that my breathing is by and large an automatic function of my physiology that requires no conscious thought or prior decisions whatsoever.

  2. Just because we understand something at the intelectual level, does not mean that we can change our subjective experience in order to reflect that understanding.

    We know at the intelectual level that 3D movies are an illusion and that nothing is sticking out of the screen, but when we put on the 3d glasses we can’t help but be fooled by the illusion, no matter how much we try.

    Same thing with free will and choices. As much as we may understand at the intelectual level that it may not exist, we just can’t help being fooled into feeling that it does exist.

    1. Yes, I know that an image formed on my retina in inverted but my brain flips it for me so I understand it. This doesn’t mean I act as if the image my brain is showing me is reversed.

      1. This is a duck-OH. (Can’t be bothered looking for the “base canard” meme). And a red herring.

        The image formed on your retina has a more-or-less one-to-one correspondence with the placement of things in the outside world that would look upside-down if it were viewed from the outside world. But it never is so viewed. For all we know it’s “still upside down” in your brain, and for all we know all your brain-functions are “upside down” but who cares? The more-or-less one-to-one correspondence is all that matters.

        1. This is how free will works. If you subscribe to the notion that you do not have it and that it is an illusion because your consciousness is only made aware after the decision is made and is thus “tricked” into believing there is free will then this is no different than you seeing an image that is reversed from the data collected on your retina. You’re conscious of an image that is otherwise reversed just like you are conscious of a choice but you didn’t consciously flip that image nor did you consciously choose.

          I don’t think this is a red herring at all.

          1. Right. Whether or not it makes sense to talk about a spatial orientation of visual processing inside the brain is beside the point.

            The larger point is that there is a clear difference between:

            1. The understanding of subjective consciousness that is gleaned from an abstract model of how the brain works

            2. What subjective consciousness feels like to the person experiencing it.

            The blogger in question completely fails to see this distinction.

    2. I think the differentiating point to make here is that 3-D imagery (or the way the human eye inverts what we see) is an “illusion” while our sense of freewill is likely a “delusion.”

      In short, an illusion while superficially providing false information is still driven by external physical phenomena that are as real and objective as anything in our environment. That is, illusions remain entirely explainable, definable, repeatable, and thus still reflect something about reality even if that reality has little to do with the perceptions they superficially portray. Delusions, on the other hand, remain entirely as constructs of the mind, non-transferable, and fail to provide any meaningful information to other people (other than telling them you are under the influence of a delusion). In short, while comforting, delusions cannot further human knowledge/understanding in anyway.

  3. A couple of language abusers, “Heddle” and “Theo-sophical”. These types invariably believe that if you simply string the right words together, it will offset experimentation, rigorous observation, and anything based scientifically.

    I want to say it again:

    “stringing the right words together.” That is what persons like these two are all about.

    Sorry, Heddle & Company, you have nothing going on here. It is as if you are pouring water on the same spot, different quantities, different frequencies, all in the quest to create a “mound of water”….
    …ain’t gonna happen.

    1. Of course, that would actually work if the ground were cold enough. Or enough hagfish-slime were mixed in the water, which sounds more like presuppositionalism.

  4. I agree with you on incompatibilism, but I think there is at least a semantic issue here worth considering. What does it really mean for your actions to affect someone else’s if neither of you had any choice? We can say things like “if I hadn’t done X, then he wouldn’t have done Y”, but you had to do X, so the statement is vacuously true.

    1. Tiefer,

      “What does it really mean for your actions to affect someone else’s if neither of you had any choice? We can say things like “if I hadn’t done X, then he wouldn’t have done Y”, but you had to do X, so the statement is vacuously true.”

      This is an interesting problem. But not specifically for free will.

      “What does it mean for the moon to affect the tides if determinism is true?” is essentially the same question.

      It doesn’t initially strike us as puzzling in that case.

  5. “Nevertheless we all, including incompatibilists like myself, act as if we have choices, for our feeling of agency is strong.”

    I guess it might feel like some of your choices are contra-causal since you don’t have introspective access to their neural determinants. But to *act* as if you had contra-causal free will (CCFW) would be to take CCFW as a necessary fiction in guiding your behavior, which you don’t. I bring this up since it’s sometimes claimed that acting *as if* we had CCFW is a good thing. Here’s Steven Pinker in How the Mind Works, my emphasis:

    “Free will is an idealization of human beings that makes the ethics game playable. Euclidean geometry requires idealizations like infinite straight lines and perfect circles, and its deductions are sound and useful even though the world does not really have infinite straight lines or perfect circles. The world is close enough to the idealization that the theorems can usefully be applied. Similarly, ethical theory requires idealizations like free, sentient, rational, equivalent agents *whose behavior is uncaused*, and its conclusions can be sound and useful even though the world, as seen by science, does not really have uncaused events. As long as there is no outright coercion or gross malfunction of reasoning, the world is close enough to the idealization of free will that moral theory can meaningfully be applied to it.” (p. 55)

    Fortunately, Pinker has since abandoned this line of thinking for an explicit determinism, e.g., in The Blank Slate, chapter 10. We don’t need to act as if people are uncaused causers to make the ethics game playable and it’s much better ethically if we don’t.

    I think Marvin Minsky also once advocated that it’s important we act as if we had CCFW, and as you know, philosopher Saul Smilansky champions free will illusionism (see his book Free Will and Illusion). He thinks believing that we are ultimately responsible agents – god-like, miniature first causes who choose without being entirely determined to choose – is necessary to supply the requisite motivation to maintain a strong sense of ethical duty and responsibility. So he thinks it would be a bad thing to disabuse people of the illusion of and belief in CCFW, to the extent they have it. To that extent, people are acting as if they had it and it’s *that* (contra Smilansky) that’s the bad thing, I think you’d agree.

    1. There’s acting and *acting*; the doer of one is an agent (the subject of verbs transitive and intransitive, including ‘think’, ‘want’ and ‘decide’), the other might be doing Shakespeare.

      I don’t think that ‘acting as if…’ is actually a helpful phrase in discussions of causation and the psychology of intentions, because it blurs the distinction. Stressing the importance of pretending to believe something incoherent because it seems to make ethics easier – can we call that Minsky’s wager?

  6. I think Heddles equivocation may be understood by noting that “to pretend” only attempts to explain that dwelling on the freeness of our next actions is pointless:

    our feeling of personal agency is so overwhelming that we have no choice but to pretend that we do choose and get on with our lives.

    It would sound more abrupt but equally true to say our feeling of personal agency is overwhelming, thus, we simply get on with our lives.

  7. Of all primates, a Calvinist physicist should know *beyond a doubt* that free will is an illusion. He’s got both reformed tradition and particle interactions holding the reigns.

      1. True: a system of rewards and punishments ia therefore essential for a stable society whether or not we have free will.

    1. There’s no free will say the philosophers,
      To hang is most unjust.
      There’s no free will assent the officers,
      We hang because we must.

  8. Jerry, I think there is some equivocation going on here. There are two distinct senses of the word “choice” that are being employed.

    It is important to distinguish between choice in a dualist if free will sense, and choice in the sense of deciding which hypothetical route of action one would take.

    While our choices are ultimately determined by factors beyond our control, we should still maintain that a choice is being made and that it is “ours”. I.e. a robot can “choose” amongs imagined alternatives.

  9. Heddle is a semi-regular poster on Ed Brayton’s log. He’s a Calvinist – believes that salvation is predetermined/predestined, and there ain’t nothing you can do about it one way or the other. Which is pretty darn ironic given his opposition to your position on free will, JAC.

    . . . if all actions are predetermined then you cannot act as if you have choices…

    That’s just silly. Of course you can; we could easily be programmed to deceive ourselves or others. Heddle’s comment is tantamount to saying that things like puppet shows and computer programs cannot appear to be making choices. Empirically they can and they do.

  10. I remember Heddle from my Pharyngula days. Myers eventually put him in the dungeon for his unpleasant and repetitive denseness. It was such a relief at that time not to have to witness Heddle’s compulsive self-medicating via his particular brand of superstition.

  11. It is a weird thing to consider, “could I have chosen differently?”. On the one hand people are very capable of thinking through various scenarios and then acting to play those scenarios out. On the other hand, there is no practical way to “go back” and actually test the idea after events have taken place. There is no reason to think there is a force of consciousness that flouts natural physical laws, so I reject dualism and any free will based upon that idea. Yet the idea that there is an inevitable destiny that can only be played out in one way is not a testable and meaningful one. There is a lot of evidence supporting strict predictability if enough information is known, but the human brain (or even many other mammal brains) is just too damn complex to make a decent attempt at reliable and precise prediction so far.

    In the end, practically speaking, the inevitable destiny that is unknown is not all that different from no destiny at all. There may be no real choices in the grand cosmic sense of things, but we don’t need to worry about it in day to day life, because in our limitations we can’t tell the difference.

    Our scientific understanding of brains and biochemistry is a lot more advanced than the sense of identity developed by evolution and natural selection. “Agency” is just one of those concepts that work very well in the everyday common experience of humans that just breaks down into uselessness when applied to the precise and complex understandings of brain function and biology provided by science.

    It all kind of reminds me of Muslims befuddled about which direction to pray when in orbit. Compass directions are fine for navigating the surface of the earth, but have their limitations outside that frame of reference. So it is with ideas of identity and agency.

  12. But wait…Heddle believes in predestination. That you’ve already been chosen as “saved” or “damned”.

    How in the world is that not the same thing? Oh, I get it…it’s god doing the deciding and not the laws of physics.

    I won’t belabor why I think you’re barking up the wrong tree in terms of “free will”…other than it’s a meaningless term because it’s bound up in a fundamentally religious concept.

    Heddle is weird, that’s for sure.

    Of course, you’re not the only one he’s obsessed about. He’s a regular in many an atheist forum — at least until he gets banhammered for god-botting.

    1. “… free will [is] a meaningless term because it’s bound up in a fundamentally religious concept.”

      Er, no it’s not, and that wouldn’t make it meaningless anyway. Curious.

  13. Of course those theologians are talking nonsense – having a feeling about something does not make it true. However, again I wonder about the language you use:

    My feeling of volition—that there is some “I” apart from my genes and environment that can make choices—is not freely chosen. It’s instilled in me—and almost certainly by my genes, since nearly all humans have it regardless of their experience.

    I don’t understand how something can be instilled in you by your genes, because you are your genes. Likewise, it does not appear to make sense to say that the environment instills something in you without acknowledging that “you” are the product of the environment.

    That is why you there is no way around acknowledging that you truly have agency (to avoid the term “free” here) – because “you” are not a soul having to watch helplessly as the body is imprisoned in does predetermined physical things and makes predetermined decisions; instead, unless you believe in dualism, “you” are the body doing those things and making those decisions.

    So I’d say one can’t be a consistent materialist unless one is also a compatibilist…

  14. Is Heddle still an active apologist? Heddle combines the worst of denseness and sophistry into a sludge that he wants others to wade in. He would have made a good IDiot, if he could drop the abject christianism.

    No thanks.

  15. I’m sorry Jerry, I know this smacks of OWOK and all, but I think consciousness is the intermediate step between a wind-up toy and free will. I don’t think we have free will because, really, no one has ever given me a definition of true free will that even makes sense. What does that even mean, to say an action was not the product of cause-effect, randomness or chance, but “will”? But possible outcomes can be experienced via consciousness, at least in my opinion. And the flavor of that conscious experience, the relative pros and cons, can be very much impacted by the environment. That doesn’t equate to free will, of course. But I think it embeds a level of potential expression for our behavior within us that looks so different than anything else in our environment (imagine a man with a gun, on the verge of committing a crime – how many trivial factors could completely alter his course?) that some feel compelled to describe it differently. As I’ve said before, the free will debate, in my mind, is a problem of appropriate lexicon.

  16. Jerry posted a link to a tremendous, highly excellent article on “free will”, which I linked to and printed out. I sent copies to a couple of close friends. It was about punishment and free will. Something in there, approx page 9, mentioned getting a “ham sandwich”….or not..!

    Everyone interested in this topic “free will” should have a copy. It is as dense as tungsten (cue Larsson, Swedish for “Heavy Stone”) but it is delightfully developed set of arguments. The writing is superb.

    Somehow, Jerry, resurrect this link!

  17. It seems to me that the term “predetermine” confuses the agent/action relationship. I can (finally) accept that all decisions are responses to stimuli – both conscious and unconscious, but to emphasize the agency of the stimuli (which are practically innumerable) over the action (a single decision) unnecessarily complicates the discussion. Although each decision is determined in advance, its stimuli includes the previous decision, so no decision is determined more than one decision in advance. Predetermined, yes, but hardly comparable to the Calvinist use of the word.

  18. Under determinism, thinking, and therefore one’s ideas, would be determined too. So much for “freethought.”

  19. I’m sorry. I’ve tried to follow this argument, but it keeps doing my head in. I understand, I think, the idea that ‘free will’ isn’t free in a dualist sense, because by definition things are determining choices (at what you might call macro and micro-environmental levels): you don’t just arbitrarily choose between different things out of the ether (and I’ve read Dennett).

    But the counter-intuitive thing seems to me so profoundly counter-intuitive that I can’t help thinking it must be that Jerry and anti-compatibilists *must* be missing something.

    So in some real sense I had no choice about whether I just typed the word ‘word’, or indeed about whether I decided to post this comment… Or about whether I ‘choose’ to pretend I did have a choice…

    Or about whether I choose to delete this because I know someone will be deeply patronising towards me…

    It becomes, surely, simply an exercise in nihilistic absurdity.

    More likely there is something in our current understanding of how consciousness works which is simply inadequate to explaining it?

  20. Heddle and the other fellow are making bad arguments and Jerry rightly rebuffs them for it.

    But they raised the right issue. Various folks have pointed out the apparent tension between Jerry’s position on determinism and using any prescriptive “should” “ought” statements. Jerry’s response to this issue continues to strike me as not really getting at the problem.

    I have a similar problem from the opposite side, from Christianity: I ask the Christian “Why did Eve end up choosing to eat the fruit? What explains her making that choice?”

    The Christian answers: Eve ate the fruit because..*whips out trump card*…. SHE HAD FREE WILL! (Hence, it’s not God’s fault).

    But all “free will” says is that Eve had a choice. The question I’ve asked already presumes Eve is capable of making the choice to eat or not eat the fruit, hence to point out “she had a choice” is a non-answer. I want to know WHY she chose to eat it instead of not eat it. Just like I’d want to know the *reasons* why Fred chose to become a biologist instead of a lawyer, etc. (Because once you get into the fact there will be reasons why Eve ate the fruit, you’ll find God’s culpability for Eve’s proclivities at the Creator end of the chain).

    I have the same issues with Jerry’s response about prescriptive statements.
    The question is: “If everything is pre-determined and you say we don’t have a ‘choice’ in the way we normally presume we have a choice between various options, then how does it MAKE SENSE to say you ‘should’ do X and not Y? In other words, what good argument can be made to make sense of “should” given incompatilism?

    Jerry answers: “I will act as though I have free choices even though I don’t. And of course you have to admit that what I say, determined or not, can influence the future actions of others.”

    But that is a non-answer. It doesn’t tell me there’s a good argument for the coherence of prescriptions and preterminism, only that Jerry is predetermined to argue however he argues and that his argument is part of the causal chain affecting other people. But that would be true of every bad argument ever made as well, so it leaves the question completely unanswered. (The Calvinist Christian can say he’s predetermined to argue for The Resurrection and his argument may influence others, but that doesn’t speak at to the question of whether his argument for the resurrection makes any sense, which is the real issue).

    Since a number of us keep pointing this out I keep hoping to see a response that moves closer to an answer, but I’m not seeing it unfortunately.


    (As per previous discussions, I don’t see how you can make prescriptive statements intelligible given determinism without moving into the language and concepts of compatibilism)

    1. Vaal, you seem to be complexifying the simple. If a person prescribes being educated, she thinks thats reasonable based on her personal history. If a person prescribes forgetting about getting educated, just get a low paying job and get married, he thinks that is reasonable based on his personal history.
      From each person’s perspective their argument is “good” and reasonable. The arguments that can be made for and against come from personal history.
      Jerry’s position is not a non-answer because it tells you pretty much all there is to know about determinism. What exactly you seek in addition, I am at a loss to understand.

      1. What he seeks in addition (to incompatibilism) is an understanding of why human nature and language is strewn with the concepts:

        choice, will, decision, freedom, control, attempt, option, plan, threaten, test, compel, consider, coerce, etc, etc.

        The answer to this is not that we’re all dualists, it’s that (deterministic) goal-oriented option-selection is what our (deterministic) brains are *for*, why evolution went to the lengths of developing them.

        [And note that evolution would only have developed brains to do that if the decisions *were* deterministic, because decisions unrelated to physical reality would be useless in the real world, and thus could not have evolved.]

        Thus the ways of thinking in that list are central to our very nature. Compatibilism recognises that. Incompatibilism doesn’t, but then shies away from dealing with the issue. See Why Jerry Coyne is barking up the wrong tree on moral responsibility and free will for a fuller argument.

      2. rickflick,

        “If a person prescribes being educated, she thinks thats reasonable based on her personal history. If a person prescribes forgetting about getting educated, just get a low paying job and get married, he thinks that is reasonable based on his personal history.”

        And if a Christian Young Earth Creationist prescribes that you believe the earth is only 6,000 years old because the Bible says so, then “he thinks that is reasonable based on his personal history.”

        What in the world does that have to do with whether any particular argument, any particular belief, any particular prescription, makes any good sense?

        If I say “The well is dry of water” and then follow that up by prescribing that “if you want water you should get it from the well”
        I’ve just made a nonsensical suggestion. Right? If you point this out and I reply “Well, I’m determined to make the statements that I make” does that at all address the fact I’ve just made a nonsensical prescription? Of course not.

        Jerry denies we can have choices in the way most people presume we have a choice – that is when we say “You ought to choose A instead of B” such a prescription assumes we actually HAVE the ability to choose – that both choices are possible. But Jerry says, no, it follows from determinism that only one course of action was ever possible and that it’s simply an illusion to think we ever actually have a “choice” in this way.

        And then in his next breath Jerry will start talking about the choices we ought to make (e.g. about how to treat criminals, etc).

        The problem is: if we don’t actually have a “choice” in the way we normally understand that word, then it’s nonsensical for Jerry to then say we ought to make certain choices.
        He’s telling us to do what he’s denied we can do. To say Jerry was predetermined to make such statements is a non-sequitur – it just leaves his statements as incoherent.

        If someone asks “did your argument just make any sense” it is no reply to simply
        reply with a description like “Well, I just made that argument…and I had no choice but to make it.”

        If Jerry thinks that prescriptive statements still can MAKE SENSE given determinism, then we are asking “how?”
        Show the logic. Compatibilism holds that even given determinism it makes sense for us to make prescriptive statements because we DO have a choice in essentially the sense we normally think we make choices, so there’s not conflict. How does Jerry make his prescriptive statements MAKE SENSE
        within his context of determinism…and how can he make sense of it without essentially traveling on the road to the compatibilism he keeps rejecting?


        1. I don’t think your ought/should argument is working. Telling someone, “you should duck,” is different from grabbing him and pushing him down only in degree. In both cases you are doing something in hopes of affecting the outcome of the situation (he won’t get hit in the head, in this case). He may have no free will, but the input of your words may change the equation enough to result in him ducking when he otherwise wouldn’t. So it is not worthless to say someone should or ought to do something any more than it would be worthless to try to physically force someone to do something that you think is important. Ok, now tell me why you disagree.

          1. pacopicopiedra,

            That we can say something that will possibly change someone else’s behavior simply doesn’t get at whether what we are saying makes any sense or not.

            Take two statements:

            1. You should believe the earth is 6,000 years by putting faith in the claims of the Bible.

            2. You should believe the earth is billions of years old based on the scientific evidence for that claim.

            Now, BOTH those statements could affect someone else’s behavior. But that doesn’t answer the question of whether either of those prescriptions MAKE SENSE or not. Surely you think we should be able to make the case that one prescriptive statement vs another makes sense. Just saying “my statement might influence someone” just doesn’t answer this question, right?

            So if I’m asking Does Jerry’s prescription for us to make a certain choice make sense, simply responding that “Jerry’s statements might have some causal effect” is a non-response. I’m asking about the internal logic and coherence of his claims, not simply whether he could make noises that might have an effect in the world, since people with incoherent arguments also have effects in the world. How do we answer whether we “OUGHT to do” what one person says vs what another person prescribes?


            1. You’re losing me. Using your example of the age of the earth, either statement might make sense in a given context. If I believe that only by taking the bible literally will you spare yourself the terror of hell, then it makes sense for me to tell you you should believe the earth is 6000 years old. If I believe it is worthwhile to know true things then it makes sense for me to say you should believe it is billions of years old. And I think “just saying my statement might influence someone” *does* answer the question. Why else would you say it, if not to influence someone?

        2. “You ought to choose A instead of B” such a prescription assumes we actually HAVE the ability to choose – that both choices are possible. But Jerry says, no, it follows from determinism that only one course of action was ever possible and that it’s simply an illusion to think we ever actually have a “choice” in this way.

          I think you are misrepresenting Jerry here.

          Going back to his often used thought experiment, what he has claimed is that if you can rewind the tape on every (relevant) particle and return to exactly the same physical state that existed when a choice was made, then exactly the same choice would be made.

          But Jerry fully acknowledges, as I have read his arguments, that if you were to rewind the tape back to some further time prior to the choice being made, that other inputs could influence the outcome. In this case a prescriptive statement would be an input that would change the choice by changing the physical state of the chooser.

          A problem with this model is that it’s hard to say a choice is made at some instant. Instead it is a process. Presumably though there is some time interval before a choice is announced when no external inputs could possibly change it, a point of no return. So if you were to rewind the tape to some time prior to the point of no return, of course you can get the result to come out differently by changing the inputs.

    2. The reason it makes sense to say “you should do X and not Y” is because we are able to absorb new information, learn from it, and incorporate it into our choices.

      So for example if the person making the prescriptive statement is not present, then the options available and the state of my body/brain will determine a particular outcome of my choosing.

      If a person I dislike, do not respect, or who makes idiotic prescriptions is present and tells me what I should do, I’ll probably reject the recommendation and do what I was going to do anyway.

      If a person I like, respect, or who makes wise recommendations is present and speaks before I finalize my choice, I will hear and possibly consider the prescription. This will change the state of my brain, and if the prescription makes sense to me, then this new information may actually influence what I choose.

      It’s as simple as saying new input arriving before the choice can influence the choice because we learn and have brain plasticity. The input could be a smell, a sound, an image, or even a prescriptive statement from a third party.

    3. Vaal,

      “But all “free will” says is that Eve had a choice.”

      Which means in this context that she could have done otherwise in a way that makes the choice entirely up to her.

      Which makes Eve morally responsible and lets God off the hook.

  21. Well, Jerry and I came to the exact same conclusion independently: that our lives demand that we act as if free will does exist, even though in reality it doesn’t. There is no contradiction. Even if we don’t have free will (and we know it), we look at the road not taken and say we could have gone that route–but we chose not to. We might have had an unconscious imperative to do what we did as opposed to the other. But it was still determined.

    The only question is why do we have to act as though we have free will? It may be tied up with the illusion that we have a “Director” or “chief engineer” running the show. But that’s about the end of my expertise, so I’ll stop!

    1. Even if we don’t have free will (and we know it), we look at the road not taken and say we could have gone that route–but we chose not to.

      So what are you saying? When you “Look back” and say you could have gone that rout but chose not to”…is that in fact a false statement? You would be in error?

      <i?"The only question is why do we have to act as though we have free will?"

      Because it’s not an illusion. The assumptions you make when you are trying to make any decision are necessary for understanding truths about the world, for knowledge itself.

      When you deliberate about something like “Should I go to Aspen in the winter or in the summer?” you are making mental models about what is likely to happen IF you go in the summer vs IF you go in the winter. And you are looking at which scenario you would desire most, hence “which scenario do I desire?” You are (supposed to be anyway) cogitating on true facts about the world, and how those facts play out IF you juggle certain parameters – e.g. IF you went in the summer vs IF you went in the winter and GIVEN whatever desires of yours would be most fulfilled in which scenario. This is precisely how we reason about, predict or know anything about the world. It’s not an illusion.

      And after you decided to go to Aspen in the summer and tell someone “I could have gone in the winter instead” the reasons you will give will be the relation of what WOULD HAVE been the relationship of what Aspen is like in the winter relative to the desire you were trying to satisfy. You would say “IF I had instead desired such-and-such an experience I would have gone to Aspen in the winter instead.”

      We understand the world this way, but juggling facts and conditionals to understand truths about how we work and how the world works. It is not illusory thinking. If it were, then every description you may want to make about the world would be an “illusion” as well.


  22. First, whether anyone wants to admit it or not, we don’t yet know whether we have free will or don’t have free will.

    Option 1: our brains function deterministically through a long and complicated process of mechanically weighing inputs and alternative outcomes against desired results, mechanically reaching a single causally determined result. This process lends itself to the impression we are making a free willed decision when in fact we are not. Jerry Coyne’s point (I think ). Also Coel’s point, I think (his article on his own blog explains this well). If Option 1 represents reality, then Vaal needs to realize that his view of “nonsensical” (while understandable) needs to be revised. Actual cause and effect cannot be nonsensical, although the semantics we use to describe could be (or at least could be counterproductive).

    Option 2: There is some kind of quantum indeterminacy at the base of a long complicated neurologically-based decision-making process (even if those decisions seem “impulsive” and sometimes “spontaneous”, the process definitely still seems quite physically complex). If Option 2 is correct, it is not clear that the term “free-willed” is useful. That is, the term itself would now be a bit confusing (and probably counterproductive) as a term if art, since quantum indeterminacy is not what most people readily think of when a term like “free will” is employed. But semantical problems can eventually be fixed. More to the point, I think, is that if quantum indeterminacy affects decision-making outcomes, then that begs the question of whether mammal brains can purposely make their own “free” decisions, which appears to be the point of Jerry’s post (and theme). After all, quantum indeterminacy would still, by definition anyway, be outside of a “free will” to control, and Option 2 here might just have to be merged into Option 1.

    Option 3: Somehow, cause scientifically as yet unknown, mammal brains (or specifically human brains if you want to take it anthropomorphically only) “house” or “are linked in some way” to either (a) an entity or (b) a process through which or by which “we” can actually make a “free” decision. One of the biggest problems here is that I have never seen a way to test this Optional Process. That is, how would a lab technician be able to determine if the “entity” or “process” could in reality make Decision A or Decision B? The process of making one decision, no matter how “free” that appears to be, certainly seems (logically) to forever exclude the other decision, therefore there would be no empirical data produced to theorize about.

    But that is always the problem with these debates. The lack of a scientific methodological process leads many (scientists in particular) to conclude ‘non-existence’ (which I think is prima facie “nonsensical” – pun intended), rather than merely ‘non-scientifically-provable’ (which by definition is “wholly founded”).

    And that’s the truth as I see it here in 2013. But before anyone jumps me for leaving Option 3 on the mat, remember that no scientist knows what 70% or so of the “material” universe (in the form of dark energy and dark matter) is or does. Religious explanations may be a bit (or even completely) outdated, and may in fact be semantics moving toward a passing fancy, but modern words like dark energy and dark matter don’t really have much content either, do they? – although they are currently ‘scientifically acceptable’ as place holders for unknown quantities, or dare I say it? – unknown entities. Peace out.

  23. Having just seen Vaal’s most recent comment employing his Aspen-choice-example (not sure how I missed it earlier), let me add a clarifying note to my longer comment above.

    Coel in his blog says: “Our brains are choice-selecting devices.” I agree with that generalization, because I believe (scientifically) that the brain is definitely the locus of decision making. Vaal’s problem (IMHO), in his Aspen example, is with the word “illusion”.

    Coel used a nice example in his blog about preference for “strawberry ice cream”. The question, in both cases is what specific meaning (and what, if any, specific mechanical sequence) to give to the actual process by which we choose Aspen in the winter versus summer, or this time choose vanilla ice cream versus our standard preference of strawberry ice cream.

    There is no (currently known) way to test whether such decisions are in fact alterable. At least no way to test for “free-ness” that I am aware of. The recent experiments that tend to show that conscious awareness of a decision may lag behind the actual decision, as interesting as that result is, still does not rule an internally “free” decision. It would just alter our understanding of what role is played by “conscious awareness” in maintaining a stable and surviving organism amidst the turmoil of life-threatening decisions like whether to eat strawberry ice cream in Aspen next winter.

    Maybe dark matter, combined with fMRIs of Spock’s brain and dark energy, will one day answer this perplexing question. Cheers.

    1. c emerson,

      “There is no (currently known) way to test whether such decisions are in fact alterable. At least no way to test for “free-ness” that I am aware of.”

      That’s because, it seems to me, you aren’t quite getting the compatibilist concept of free will I’m discussing.

      The Free Will I’m describing is as empirically testable, and as amenable to empirical conclusions as any other properties you can test in physical objects.

      Here’s a claim I’ll make: I can choose between cheerios and corn flakes for breakfast in the morning. In fact, yesterday I chose cheerios, but I could have chosen corn flakes if I’d wanted to.

      To say it’s an expression of free will is an empirical claim about my general powers under similar conditions, made without specific restraint or coercion.

      I was “free” to make the choice. Because the choice was made to fulfill my own desire (not someone coercing me) and I had the physical option to choose either cereal.
      The reason I conclude I am capable of choosing between cheerios and corn flakes is the same logic we use to conclude we can do any such things: past experience having done the same thing in similar situations. Not IDENTICAL ONE TIME ONLY situations, but inferring our power to do A or B OVER TIME.

      You can test my claim in the same way you’d test any other empirical claim:

      Put me in front of a box of corn flakes and cheerios, and run successive tests. Watch as I choose cheerios the first time, corn flakes the next, then cheerios, then corn flakes…run it as many times as you want.

      I will have demonstrated my freedom to choose either cheerios or corn flakes, in exactly the way you demonstrate any other empirical claims. Being able to make such a choice when I’m unconstrained is a property I have.

      You’d run the same series of tests if you wanted to find out if salt melted ice, if an antibiotic was efficacious, if a car got a certain number of miles to the gallon, if a person can hear above a certain frequency and on and on science goes.

      You run tests, abstract the results you get over time to conclude that “X has or doesn’t have the property” you are investigating.


      1. Just the fact that you have only cheerios and corn flakes to choose from proves that you didn’t make the choice freely. Your brain seems to have constrained your choices even at that, have you never had some cheerios along with some corn flakes? 😉

        1. In fact I have 🙂

          And when I’m feeling particularly randy I even choose to leave the cereal and go out for fried chicken and waffles!


    2. @Vaal
      “Compatibilism holds that even given determinism it makes sense for us to make prescriptive statements because we DO have a choice in essentially the sense we normally think we make choices, so there’s not conflict.”

      I may be cross-threading here a bit to respond to your Cheerios v Corn Flakes examples, but I may not be clear in what you mean by either free will or compatibilism. Your Cheerios statement suggest you take free will to mean you truly possess the internal mental state ability to pick Cheerios instead of Corn Flakes each and every time you are presented with the externally non-coerced opportunity to do so.

      That is not my understanding of compatibilism but instead is my understanding of incompatibilism.

      It is my understanding that a compatibilist holds that there is a type of freedom in coerced by external forces to “choose” but that the actual choice a person makes (Cheerios vs Corn Flakes) is nonetheless internally causally determined by the person’s desires, motives, and understandings about the physical and moral consequences of the choice.

      Now switching to the question of “making sense” – I understand you to mean that if we have no true internal freedom to choose A instead of B, then, in that case, it would make no Logical Sense for Jerry to advise us to act or pretend as if we do. In other words, he would be advising us to essentially live a lie, and argue for various policies that would presumably not make sense to adopt unless we actually posed true freedom of choice.

      Do I have that right?

      If I do have that statement of your position correct, then I essentially agree with you.

      It is indeed an uncomfortable and logically difficult position to be in IF we think we could choose A, and even sense a desire to choose A, but are in fact internally predetermined to choose B, and in fact do choose B, a decision we feel ourselves desirous to actually avoid. Our whole common notion of moral decision-making is based on this type of de facto “freedom to choose.”

      1. Errata:
        “It is my understanding that a compatibilist holds that there is a type of freedom uncoerced by external forces” — [not ‘in coerced’]

      2. The last paragraph especially seems dualistic. Who is the “we” doing desiring and the externally predetermined “we” having “our” wishes denied? If you get rid of the language problem here and see that there is only one “me” containing all the decision making deterministically, you will cease to be confused. Right?

      3. c emerson,

        Thanks for the discussion.

        Yes, essentially it seems to me you understand what I’m trying to argue. (I’m leaving aside a discussion of some ambiguities I find in your descriptions).

        Just to clear this up:

        “In other words, he would be advising us to essentially live a lie, and argue for various policies that would presumably not make sense to adopt unless we actually posed true freedom of choice.”

        I would not say Jerry would be asking us to “live a lie” because that still implies someone could be telling you to do something coherent…false but still possibly coherent.

        To me, it’s the basic coherency of prescriptions within Jerry’s incompatibilism that I can’t get around. It’s like saying “There’s no such thing as a married bachelor” and following that by saying “Now go out and become a married bachelor.” It’s not even an instruction I could use to “live a lie” because it’s just on it’s face an incoherent set of premises. That’s what I get when I read Jerry arguing that, essentially, we don’t *really* “have a choice.” It’s an illusion. But then he advises us to go out and make choices.

        Now, of course Jerry agrees we DO make choices. But in his view they do not have the characteristics most people think a choice has when they are making a choice.

        But then Jerry goes on to use prescriptive language, and prescriptive seems to require that we DO have a choice in the way that most people think we have, and in the way most associated with “free will.” That is, to say you ought to do B rather than A seems to require that you REALLY have some ability to do either action (otherwise, it would be like recommending you ought to obey the laws of gravity instead of disregard them. What sense does recommending against an impossible course of action make?).

        So it seems to me to resolve this Jerry has to explain both his understanding of the concept of “making a choice” AND his concept of what it means to prescribe an action…making them coherent via reasoning that does not lead to absurdities or unacceptable consequences.

        At this point I’ve only seen Jerry (and those who agree with him) offer the fact that our prescriptions, even if determined, can have causal effects on other people’s behavior. But as I keep pointing out, that still leaves the world filled with people making BAD prescriptions and GOOD prescriptions. How do we decide the good one from the bad ones? In other words, which prescriptions should we act on? But of course recommending what type of prescriptions we should act on itself requires a coherent
        theory for prescribing actions. There’s no way to escape that we need an understanding of “should” and “ought” statements that is coherent and makes sense. And to say as Jerry does that “our prescriptions may influence others” is an inadequate solution to this problem: it’s non-sequitur to the problem of whether any of our prescriptive statements MAKE SENSE.
        And to make sense, the statements have to cohere with our wider understanding of what it means to be able to choose.

        I say that it’s not an illusion that we have the ability to make choices in basically the way we think we do. Because we naturally think in abstract, counter-factual ways when considering the properties of possibilities of any empirical object, including ourselves. “IF I desire X what would I do?” IF I do X, the outcome would be Y…”

        It’s not magic. We can make choices, but
        we can acknowledge the varieties of circumstances in which we make choices – the degree of constraint on those choices, the degree of coercion vs the degree to which we are able to choose that which we ourselves desire. So there is no incoherence in me recommending you “ought” to do A instead of B, insofar as doing A will be the act most likely to fulfill your desire, and you have the property of being able to make the action I recommend.


  24. Those, like Jerry, who totally discount the concept of free-will based on the understanding that the universe (above the quantum level and aside from mathematically effects possibly arising from chaos theory) is totally deterministic in nature, assume our behaviour must be too. But they are using the wrong model of what is really going on. We are not a system, like some pendulum, where behaviour is totally determined by physical law; we are in fact part of a COMPUTATIONAL SYSYEM as well. The brain is an incredibly complex state-machine, and as such, is subject to the attributes and constraints of Computational Theory. This system by default separates out the PHYSICAL system of the computer – whose functioning is itself totally deterministic-and the PROBLEM or algorithm that the computer (or state machine) is trying to solve – which is a totally different sort of entity. In this, the resulting behaviour that such a system (essentially a Turing machine) executes, is determined by the computability of the particular problem being addressed. Some are computable, some are not. The situation is even more complex, in that the brain has complex feedback interactions and multiple interacting subsystems. How then do we attribute the resulting behaviour? It is NOT necessarily deterministic – the entity we call the conscious brain is both influenced by and influences the process of solution, which in itself is not necessarily computable. We need to understand all of this a lot more before we form any opinion about “free-will” or even define it properly. And only science and mathematics, not philosophy can resolve this issue. I believe it is incredibly premature to draw any conclusions on the subject at the moment. Furthermore, arguing that we don’t have free-will but we should behave as if we do have it, only opens us up to some well deserved ridicule.

    1. Hmmmm…the argument from complexity. I think we feel the world is deterministic because we understand very well the forces of nature. We can extrapolate in any direction we please with the confines of computability or chaos or complexity and never to we find a sink hole from which some sort of free will might actually emerge – without positing something supernatural. As we explore these unknown realms of complexity I recommend keeping an occasional glance toward the possibility that something beyond physics is going on, but my strong suspicion is that nothing of that sort will be found.

  25. Hear, hear! Much can be done with what has now been said, to broaden our understanding of what might stand as “mechanisms” that either produce or might stand in for “free” will. An algorithmic approach seems quite possible, especially if “we” added a time dependency to the complex algorithm (as in “pencils down, the tiger approaches”). I wonder if that’s how IBM’s Watson functioned? And, yes, RF, I did slip into the majestic “we” – but perhaps that turns out to be appropriate after all, as there may not be any single “me” in there but just a complex algorithm sorting out the collective “me’s”?

  26. @Vaal
    Thanks for replying. I apologize that in these long comment chains I never quite know where to hit reply. In my smart phone in no time the display has squeezed the text down to just one character, which I find unreadable. Maybe WordPress needs an algorithm to limit squeezing.

    I agree fully that there is a type of logical inconsistency that accrues to Jerry’s dual statements, (1) we have zero free will – all outcomes are fully determined, and (2) I recommend we all support position A with respect to the judicial treatment of persons in certain positions within the criminal justice system. But I intentionally use the phrase “certain inconsistency” (not to mount any particular defense of Jerry’s position as he can certainly do that for himself), but to merely examine the logic itself. There is no actual mechanistic inconsistency, in my opinion, because by his own accounting even that advocacy prescription is 100% mechanically determined (and therefore, in a your sense, logically meaningless, but not mechanically meaningless). We all react to his advocacy (putting words into his mouth, which I said I wouldn’t do) strictly in accordance with our respective predetermined billiard ball striking manner and make-up. Therefore, he is correct, is he not, that we actually become part of the cosmic chain of causal events regardless of the logical inconsistency of calling upon us to “make choices” that we in fact cannot actually make? Of course, the logical foundation for a @morally responsible decision” would seem to go right out the door if a person cannot in fact make a free decision. Still, we are all essentially bound by the mechanics to act as if we had free moral choices.

    It is that last part that is most troubling. But it is at least possible that that THAT is really how it is. If that is NOT how it is, then is RF correct that a ghost may yet be in the machine (although he doubts it), is Mr Kornstein correct that our brain performs a highly complex algorithm that determines the outcome in perhaps some non-traditionally non-deterministically manner (which simulates or might stand in for free choice), or is there yet another solution to this conundrum. What physiological meaning might you give to free choice, or must such freedom be purchased at the cost of re-admitting dualism of some sort?

    1. Yes of course everything we say and do is part of the causal chain.

      But if someone tells me “you ought to do A instead of B” I still need to ask “what do you MEAN by that?” Why ought I do that?

      If someone gives me a prescription for action, doesn’t that mean they are supposed to be offering a REASON for that action (vs another action)? I think the answer is of course, yes. So this means you have to have some account of what you MEAN by prescribing one action over another and WHY it ought to be convincing to me.

      Saying: “Well the statement I gave is part of the great causal chain” doesn’t answer that question.

      And if the reasoning behind a prescription breaks down due to a big weak link of incoherence (e.g. “Wwe never really have a real choice between options, but now I’m going to say you should make a choice between options”) then we have a problem.


      1. @Vaal,
        The general question of logical coherence in human affairs, and the apparent incoherence of WHY of an ought-to-choose-prescriptive-statement while simultaneously maintaining choice is predetermined, do raise interesting challenges. They are two different issues (although related I suppose).

        The demand for logical coherence in human affairs (moral or consequential argumentation) seems to me a standard being erected as a desired, perhaps useful guide, but is by no means an actual feature of routine human affairs. Cognizant dissonance and logical inconsistencies and even incoherencies abound in human life processes (as well as among other species – – wolf packs and elephant herds, and individuals among them, do stupid things). Among humans it is often quite difficult to determine, let alone agree on, what actually constitutes a logical AND factually accurate argument. To wit this blog, or any philosophic, religious, economic or political blog.

        Perhaps we are in the middle of an evolutionary selection process for logical analytical skill sets? Perhaps, as Dewey argued in the 1920s, diversity in customs and habits is just part of (and perhaps even an essential part of) human social development?

        That’s the best I can do with respect to the first question – humans ARE logically inconsistent and do logically incoherent things – it’s a process.

        As to Jerry’s particular positioning …. well … I don’t think I should attempt to argue for him, as I said earlier. First, I agree with you that his stated position is contradictory, and as a result this particular line of argument is not persuasive to me (a retired attorney and philosophical hobbiest) as arguments go. But as I also said, as a mechanical process and perhaps even as a strategic device, I see no conflict. He seems to say that our sense of personal agency is so strong (naturalistically I assume he means), that we might just as well go with the flow (logically inconsistent as it may be). Besides, our positioning on issues (physically determined as they are) still play a causal role in the overall process (as you seem to agree). So why not, heh, go along with nature’s show?

        Now since you take the position that real choice is possible (Cheerios today, Fruit Loops and fried chicken tomorrow – if YOU so DECIDE), if you are correct about choice (and even if you aren’t but correct but bieve you are correct, then you should be able to successfully argue AGAINST Jerry’s position with reasonable success, at least with any who think they, too, can make free choices.

        It is in that sense, is it not, that you can use the incoherency of Jerry’s own argument against his position (in the grand scheme of things)?

        As for me, I am still undecided as to whether there is practical reality to “free will”. I certainly am milling over Kornstein’s point about computational theory as applied to uncomputable (and perhaps time-limited) computational problems. His point introduces a non-quantum potential indeterminacy into Coel’s brain as a decision-making process. Prior to those ideas, I felt “mistakes in logic”, “failures to act in own’s own best interests”, “randomization of preferences”, and “random historical events” might be the most logical sources for Dewey’s cultural diversities. Now I can add “failures to complete full computational algorithms” to the list.

        Hmm…in summary I think Jerry’s position is logically inconsistent, but might be the biologically correct one. It does exert a bit of serious pressure on notions of objective morality, but that part of the discussion would seem to be off-thread?

  27. c emerson,

    The problem is that free will has been mixed up in many people’s minds when they try to think about it with some sort of magic, so even people who deny free will seem to think if you are going to say we have it, there must be some argument for a special, magical solution. But there is no such realm and absolutely no need to think of free will as a subject, or phenomenon that is somehow excepted from the natural order.

    My position is that our statements concerning our ability to choose between options – the very statements that make sense of free will – are completely consistent with how we make true statements about anything else in the world.

    I often use the example of talking about water. A science teacher holds up a flask of clear liquid and begins teaching the students about the property of the thing in that flask. “This is ‘water,’ and I’m going to tell you about the properties of this substance, water, what it’s like, how it acts, what you can do with it. I could take this substance and place it in below 0C temperature and it will freeze solid. Or if I keep it at room temperature, it will remain liquid, or I could apply high heat and it will boil into vapor…”

    Now, would we hold any of those statements to be controversial? False? Illusion? Appealing to some magic dualistic realm?

    Of course not. These are truths about water that you can only impart by such talk. But if you just examine what is involved in such talk, you find that the very identity of the substance in the flask is an abstraction. All the properties we ascribe to it come from
    putting together previous experiences of what seems to be the same type of entity over time, and seeing that it has frozen in X conditions, boiled in Y conditions etc.
    Has the fluid in that flask ever been frozen? Who knows? But assigning it the same identity as the other stuff in the past that looked like it, and inferring from separate past experiences, we say “Yup, this is the same stuff and in describing it’s properties we are speaking of how it has behaved in either similar or different conditions over time.

    So there is NECESSARY abstraction built into our empirical truth-talk about anything. And it is this same abstraction that is built into talk of our empirical “selves.” If I ask you to describe yourself, your description of your properties will be an amalgamation of lots of past experience of things you can do in similar or different situations. So the self is an abstraction over time, just like water.

    So, when I say “I could have chosen corn flakes instead of cheerios” the “I” I’m referring to me is this abstraction put together over time, in which I’ve inferred my abilities in various similar and different circumstances. I don’t mean I could have chosen otherwise in EXACTLY the same circumstances, at EXACTLY the same causal moment in the universe. No one thinks that way – you’d never be able to even have a sense of self identity, let alone describe your nature or your abilities, under such bizarre restrictions.

    I mean “I’ve been in similar positions to choose before, some in which I’ve chosen cheerios, others when I’ve chosen corn flakes, so this is an ability I have, so long as I am not physically restricted from making my choice.”

    And you can test my claim to have this ability, as I wrote out before. Think about it: the only reason you EVER would say “I COULD HAVE done X instead of Y is an inference from you previous experience that you have such powers. You’d never say “I COULD HAVE levitated to work instead of taking the subway, because there is no such previous empirical experience for you to infer such an ability.’

    So, do you see what I mean? It’s true that I could choose cheerios over corn flakes in exactly the same way it’s true water can freeze or boil. It’s not an illusion of choice because to call it an illusion is to assume some very bizarre, exceptional and virtually never-used criteria for the way we speak about ANYTHING empirical.



  28. Jerry wrote:

    “My feeling of volition—that there is some “I” apart from my genes and environment that can make choices—is not freely chosen. It’s instilled in me—and almost certainly by my genes, since nearly all humans have it regardless of their experience.”

    But if our lives provide us with the appropriate experiences, many things that are “instilled in us,” either by genes or environment, can change. Evolution has given us a taste for sweets, fat, and salt, but that doesn’t mean that everyone becomes obese. With the right environmental influences we can learn to exercise and eat healthy foods. We can also learn the joys of an agent-free life.

  29. as long as you don’t live according to what you believe your view is invalid , Einstein had it right – human stupidity is infinite and you are one of our best proofs

  30. the last part of your argument could not possibly be meant serious if it is than the one you criticized ran circels around you again , there is no whole sistem of predeterminism works together well – it is all blind chance so nothing works , noting it is al just one big mess (or better said in your head)and if all humans have it that doesn’t mean it is a product of genes ,that means that it is real , don’t try to make the facts fit what ever you want to believe in the end you will kill science with that kind of thinking , read Nietzsche and get your facts straight , there is no sheme by wich all predetermined causes fit together , nothing fits or will ever fit , it is just a big uncomprehensive mess in which nothing can be known or will ever be known , you cannot borrow from theistical world view t account for your own , account for rationallity,knowledge,learning,reason,science,logic etc since those CANNOT exist in your worldview , they simply are not possible

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