A critique of my views on free will and the humanities by the man formerly known as “Uncle Eric”

October 21, 2013 • 7:41 am

Yes, I’ve been forced to de-avuncularize Eric MacDonald—not on the grounds that he goes after me hard in his latest post, but because his criticisms seem to me manifestly false and even a bit unfair.

It’s sad to lose an uncle: first it was Karl Giberson, and now Eric.  And there are no candidates waiting in the wings.

But on to business.  Eric’s post, called “A bit more on Jerry Coyne,” is basically a critique of my views on free will and of the consequences of seeing it as an illusion. His subject is a short post I made recently called “A bit more on free will.

In that post, I affirmed my opposition to libertarian free will and decried the tendency of philosophers to forge a form of “compatibilist” free will which, though keeping those philosophers off the streets, accomplished almost nothing. Indeed, I saw compatibilism as a huge distraction from an important topic: physical determinism of human actions and its dissolution of the “ghost in the machine” view of human behavior. That determinism has enormous implications for how we reward and punish people. In particular, it should be a view that is incorporated into the justice system (it already is in some respects), and, when it is fully appreciated, we’ll have a system of justice that is better for society.

Eric has two objections to my piece:

1. We don’t really know that there’s no libertarian free will because physics is “incomplete.”

2. My form of determinism guts a large portion of what humanity sees as important: poetry, music, emotion, and the whole nexus of social interactions in which we’re embedded.

I see both of these objections as wrongheaded.

While I think most of us reject the notion of contracausal free will (although many of us accept other forms of “free will”), Eric refuses to do so.  Because we don’t fully understand physics, he sees the acceptance of determinism as unscientific—indeed, metaphysical:

There is not a shred of evidence for the claim that physics is complete, so that we can simply say that the whole of reality is tied up in a causal nexus such that all our “actions” are determined. Indeed, as John Dupré points out in his book Human Nature and the Limits of Science, science, and therefore, empirical demonstration, only works on very carefully isolated phenomena, where the effects of each underlying particle or force are known, and all extraneous (and therefore incalculable) causes are excluded. Science works by means of models and abstraction, and does not provide a unified theory of reality.

But physics does not have to be complete for us to accept determinism on a macro level.  Although I don’t know many physicists, the two I’ve spoken to about this at length (Sean Carroll and Steve Weinberg) agree that we know enough about the physics of “everyday life” to provisionally accept that human behavior is indeed determined by the laws of physics. Even if quantum mechanics produces some fundamental unpredictability in our neurons and hence in our behavior, that gives no leeway for “free choice”. Such choice would be equivalent to tossing a coin, and nobody wants to think of free will as anything like that.

What Eric is doing here is opposing not just physics, but also materialism. In that respect, then, he’s converging with theologians and intelligent-design advocates. If our minds can exert and be affected by something that’s not physical at all, there’s no evidence supporting such a claim.  One might as well say that there are hamsters living in our head that control our behavior, and we can’t rule this out because “physics is not complete.” Maybe those hamsters are invisible, like Carl Sagan’s dragons.

The part that upset me the most was Eric’s claim that I know nothing about how societies function, and so even determinism on an individual level could somehow be overridden when a lot of people are deterministic en masse. That puzzles me:

However, Jerry Coyne’s determinism depends upon precisely this unified science. Nor, to be truthful, does he seem to have any idea of how societies function, so that he thinks we can think in terms of a strict mechanistic determinism when it comes to human behaviour, and yet retain the substance of a human society. He claims, on no empirical basis whatever, that “if we truly grasp determinism, then the consequences are profound—and largely good.” Yet he gives us not one single piece of evidence to suppose this true. This is certainly a piece of metaphysical assertion, but it has no relation whatever to science, nor to anything that can be substantiated by science. It is as theological an assertion as the claim that God was incarnate in Jesus.

. . . Jerry Coyne’s position is no more securely grounded in empirical observation and confirmation. It is a philosophical-metaphysical claim for which he has no evidence whatsoever. Indeed, though he says he wrote his post because “physics made him do it,” that is an implausible reason to give for making such bold pronouncements without an empirical leg to stand on. He wrote the post because he believes he knows the truth, and the truth, as he points out, would have valuable social consequences. But the truth that he knows is not scientific. How did he come to know it? (if, that is, it is something known).

Well, I wasn’t an Anglican priest like Eric, so I may have missed something about how societies (including religion) function, but determinism writ small, in one human, equals determinism writ large, in a society of humans. Unless there is some numinous force that makes human interaction qualitatively different than the interaction among billiard balls on a table, then determinism must reign in society.

As for “lack of evidence”, he’s wrong, too. The evidence for macro determinism is the observed determinism of physical objects in everyday life (a staple of physics), and the new evidence from the neurosciences that our “decisions” are made before we become aware of them. It is no more a metaphysical claim than asserting that if you give testosterone supplements to a female, she will become masculinized in behavior and morphology.

The last card Eric plays really stings: he lumps me together with Dawkins as people who simply don’t understand art, emotionality, and poetry, for crying out loud! That is, he implies there is something to these phenomena that defies understanding by physics.

Well, yes, of course physics can’t understand why people make poetry, what kind of poetry they make, and how that poetry affects us emotionally. In principle it could, but I doubt we’ll ever have the knowledge—at least within the next few centuries—to explain the genesis and effect of poetry by invoking molecular interactions.  And until then—and even after then—I’m happy to enjoy the arts as everyone else does, on an emotional level, a subjective level, and in great awe of those who can produce great art. I know why flowers evolved, and often why they look like they do, but that doesn’t detract at all from my appreciation of their beauty. It enhances it, but the emotionality is still there.

Referring to C.P. Snow’s ignorance on why the humanities are important in a science-dominated culture, Eric says this:

Some of that ignorance, I regret to say, I sense in some of the things that Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, and other new atheists say. For example, sorting through some video downloads the other day, I came upon one by Dawkins, in which he says, rather grandly, if inconsequently, that “science is the poetry of reality.”

. . . The point to be made is that the collection of scientific facts, interesting and important as this may be to an understanding of our world, does not even begin to describe the importance of the more rounded humane understanding of the human world that can be derived from the humanities, and, for Leavis, in particular, from English literature. And it is precisely this that is missing in Dawkins’ suggestion that “science is the poetry of reality.” For reality includes so much more, and at so much greater depth of human engagement, than can be provided by science.

The irony here is that both Richard and I are huge fans of poetry (Richard knows more than I, but I’m no slouch for a scientist) and, more important, although we do see science as a form of beauty, we also appreciate poetry qua poetry. Of course we see great value in the humanities, and are moved by the emotions aroused in us by poetry, music, art, and literature.  They may not be profound “ways of knowing,” but they engage our emotions by helping us see things in new ways, tugging on our heartstrings, affirming our common humanity, and allowing ourselves to be immersed in situations that are new and engaging. They exercise our imagination in ways that science doesn’t.

I’ve recently been reading two of my favorite poets, Yeats and Dylan Thomas, and so I find it almost humorous when Eric says stuff like this:

The problem is that [Dawkins] does not seem to understand what poetry does or is for. Does he understand why, say, Blake, wrote about “dark Satanic mills”? Or why Lawrence made fun of figures like Lady Ottoline Morell and Bertrand Russell in Women in Love?

. . . Dawkins himself is, of course, a poetic writer, but is what he writes about reality? Certainly, he is a master at describing, almost transparently, the nature of the world discovered by science. This, for him, seems to be the only reality that there is. However, does he not recognise that science creates problems as well as solves them? Does he not recognise that science is a part of the human world to which so many other discourses belong?

I proudly count myself lumped with Dawkins in that critique and, in fact, I’ve read nearly everything written by Blake and Lawrence.  And yes, I understand why Lawrence made fun of Ottoline Morell and Russell in Women in Love.  I would claim, in fact, that I know more about the machinations and philosophies of the Bloomsbury Group than 98% of scientists. I’m not trying to brag here, but simply making the point that a love of science, and a form of principled reductionism that does not claim (yet) to include the humanities in its ambit, does not preclude our seeing the value of, and benefiting from, the humanities.

Note, too, that Eric is allying himself even closer to theology in emphasizing the “problems” caused by science.  Would he rather live in a world without science? Sure, we wouldn’t have those “problems”, but most of us would have died years ago from tooth problems, infections, or other maladies. The dissing of science is simply gratuitous.

In the end, I simply don’t understand what Eric is on about here. His piece, it seems, boils down to the claim that “there’s got to be something more than molecules out there”, and that that “something” verges on the numinous. The criticism that people like Dawkins and I don’t appreciate the humanities, or understand what they’re trying to accomplish, is simply wrong, and Eric should know that.

A while back Eric was on the front lines of atheism, dissecting the follies of faith with an ardor possible only in former pastors.  Now, it seems, he’s slowly lurching his way back to—well, not religion, but something close to it.  It’s the view that “there’s more than materialism” out there.  Well, we have no evidence for those invisible dragons, and for now I’ll do my science during the day and read my Yeats at night.

154 thoughts on “A critique of my views on free will and the humanities by the man formerly known as “Uncle Eric”

  1. While I’m fond of Blake (heck, I wrote my Master’s Thesis on him), my least favorite line of his was
    “May God us keep, from single vision and Newton’s sleep”
    an all-out attack on alleged scientific reductionism.

    Similarly, my fondness for Walt Whitman does not prevent me from decrying his poem denouncing “the learned astronomer” whose calculations somehow detracts from the beauty of the stars.

    Dawkins has similarly distanced himself from Yeats complaint that Newton had unwoven the rainbow.

    That said, I haven’t any opinion one way or the other on the free will debate, although it certainly seems on the face of it that many hardened criminals are in some sense helplessly addicted to the evil that they do and are not altogether (if to any degree at all) in control of their actions.

  2. Note, too, that Eric is allying himself even closer to theology in emphasizing the “problems” caused by science.

    I think that supports my earlier skepticism that someone who was ever an Anglican priest could easily overcome the inherent irrationality that led him into that belief system.

    This divorce is no surprise.

  3. It is curious how often those decrying ‘scientism’ or determinism seem to see scientists as 1950s sci-fi stereotypes or as emotionless Spock-like logicians. Have they ever spoken with actual scientists? Has Eric M., in this case, not read what Coyne has written over the years? Scientists in general may not be as well versed in the arts and humanities as professions specializing in these fields are, but how could they be? Few have time for multiple full-time careers! In general, the scientists I know have pretty intense interests in and appreciation for many topics that fall within the arts and humanities. For critics to say otherwise about scientists is simply perverse.

    1. The comparison of this kind of thinking to Spock always bothered me. What made Spock an interesting character was that, despite a devotion to logic and rational thinking, he wasn’t a robot. That he can so calmly walk to his death, even knocking out a friend and shipmate to do so, does not change the simple fact that “I am, and always shall be, your friend.”

      The writers of Wrath of Kahn can see why logic does not preclude emotion. Why can’t these people?

      And why can’t adults see why kids like cinnamon toast crunch?

      I find the lack of perspective in both cases equally annoying.

      1. That was his human half. 😉 but I take your larger point. Often analytical people (of which I count myself as one) are labelled as cold and unfeeling because we’re not running around screaming and clawing at our cheeks (I took this visual from Homer :D) whenever something heats up.

          1. Ha! I don’t even know where in Homer but I just know that whenever women are freaking out that’s what they do – it’s probably all through The Iliad & The Odyssey. It left a big impression on me because it’s so weird a thing to do.

      2. This adult loves Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

        I think it’s willful ignorance at best, deliberate vilification at worst.

        But even more than a fear that scientism leads to an inability to appreciate art and emotion, I think what drives Eric’s view is an irrational fear of reduction, as if penetrating to deeper, more general levels of explanation somehow undoes higher levels of explanation. Or that those who attempt to uncover the deeper explanations want to ignore or even vitiate the higher-level explanations.

        1. I think you have it there. It also seems almost like a matter of ethics or morals with Eric and others of similar viewpoint (religious believers, accommodationists). They seem to feel as if it is immoral to want to find deeper, more basal explanations. Or to place any importance on such explanations.

          1. I actually feel kinda bad for Ex Uncle Eric. He is so grounded about the euthanasia stuff that this just doesn’t suit him.

  4. You know, I think we should take another look at NOMA.

    Not in the original conception, of course, which is ridiculous. Religion and Science are both attempts to make claims about the factual objective nature of morality. That religion is so wrong about that is what attempted to provoke the retreat that is NOMA.

    But the idea is sound. There is objective reality, and subjective experience. While the two are inherently intertwined, they are still seperate.

    Science is what IS, regardless of what anyone thinks about it. Art is how we feel, often times in contrast to the world outside. Claims of scientism is an attempt to claim that some people see only objective fact, or think that we should see only objective fact.

    And yet, subjective reality is the only thing that can motivate us. Sure, science can tell me what I need to do to survive, but it can do nothing to motivate me. I have to have some desire, some subjective justification.

    These attempts to place scientists solely in the objective world, apart from any subjective experience is rather annoying. When you get down to it, art and science really are non-overlapping magesteria. They may be tightly woven together, but the boundaries are plain.

    Anyone who truly thinks the way a ‘scientism-ist’ would is in desperate need of psychological help. That should be the first clue that no sane person thinks that way.

    1. I disagree that the idea is sound. We should not fear two different fields or techniques studying the same subject matter and coming to different conclusions. NOMA is an attempt to ‘solve the problem’ of an academic conflict, when academic conflict is no a problem in the first place. To borrow a line, it (competing analyses) is a feature, not a bug.

      1. I was referring to the “objective” vs. “subjective” claim of NOMA. It doesn’t apply to religion in the least, of course.

        Rather, I’m talking about the “Can’t get an ought from an is” perspective. Art can be used as a stand in for our experiences and judgements that are subjective to individuals, whereas Science is the experience and judgement of objective phenomena.

        Too often, people seem to treat science as something that claims to tell us what we ‘ought’ to do, when it isn’t that at all.

        Perhaps bringing NOMA into it wasn’t the best idea. Too much baggage from it’s foolish origins.

        1. But subjective experience comprises a lot more than just “oughts”. Things that can be studied scientifically, like color or sound perception.

          And I think it’s far from obvious that science has nothing to say about any “ought”.

          I think eric’s comment was apt. I don’t think we should rope anything off from scientific study a priori, especially when you consider that science does not mean doing things with test tubes in a lab with lab coats on. Any time you take measures to help ensure that your conclusions are consistent with your observations you’re doing science. There’s precious little that’s immune to that kind of treatment, it seems to me.

        2. I still don’t think NOMA works, even for that comparison. I have no problem with objective and subjective analyses of the same phenomena leading to different conclusions.

          Jerry’s post about the optical illusion is a great example. We can do an objective analysis and say the color is the same. We can do a subjective analysis and say it looks different. The conflict tells us something; NOT allowing such a conflict – trying to have the “objective” and “subjective” magisteria not overlap in terms of what they cover – would do a disservice to us all. It would actually reduce understanding.

          So no, the NOMA concept does not work even when you’re talking objective vs. subjective.

  5. While, I generally agree with your rebuttal of Eric MacDonald’s assertions, I am suprised that you cite Sean Carroll. I believe (correct me if I am wrong) that he promotes the idea of emergent properties in macro systems that may give rise to something like free will.

    1. Nope, Sean is pretty much a diehard determinist. Yes, he believes in emergent properties (the wetness of water), as do we all, but believes (as we all do as well) that those emergent properties are explainable by lower-level properties. They may not have been a priori predictable from lower level properties, but they are always consistent with them.

      As far as I know, Sean abjures contracausal free will.

      1. One of the most interesting things about emergence is figuring out how it happens, even when it seems very difficult. (E.g., shaped from shapeless.) That sort of study also would help figure out how “freedom emerges” (not in any contracausal sense) but if any notion of “self origination” does. I think R. Kane is right that the debate isn’t on “could have done otherwise” but on self-origination, really. Of course, his specific proposal is neuroscientifically dubious, to say the least.

      2. Being “consistent with” is rather different from “being explainable by.” That the Dow-Jones went up 2% today is consistent with the biochemical urea cycle, but neither explains the other!

        1. Yes, but in that piece Carroll is, as I said, a determinist about human behavior, which is what I maintain above. So is Weinberg. But Steve still believes in some kind of nebulous free will that I don’t quite grasp, while Sean’s article evinces some compatibilism. The important thing for me is not which brand of compatibilism to buy, but whether or not you admit physical determinism of human behavior.

        2. Yes, but in that piece Carroll is, as I said, a determinist about human behavior, which is what I maintain above. So is Weinberg. But Steve still believes in some kind of nebulous free will that I don’t quite grasp, while Sean’s article evinces some compatibilism. The important thing for me is not which brand of compatibilism to buy, but whether or not you admit physical determinism of human behavior.

          1. Well, notice that if the physicist Carroll views himself as a compatibilist then it’s unfair to suggest that compatibilism is simply how “philosophers keep themselves off the streets.” The viewpoint you offer on compatibilism is too simplistic in suggesting that it is merely a face-saving device created to avoid recent evidence about determinism. Compatibilism has a very long history and was defended long ago by people such as Aristotle, Hobbes, Hume, and others leading to the present. So I don’t think the history of the subject supports your interpretation of compatibilism very well.

      3. Jerry, Sean Carroll in discussing your views on free will, back in 2011, wrote:

        “Given our lack of complete microscopic information, the question we should be asking is, “does the best theory of human beings include an element of free choice?” The reason why it might is precisely because we have different epistemic access to the past and the future. The low entropy of the past allows for the existence of “records” and “memories,” and consequently forces us to model the past as “settled.” We have no such restriction toward the future, which is why we model the future as something we can influence. From this perspective, free will is no more ruled out by the consequence argument than the Second Law of Thermodynamics is ruled out by microscopic reversibility.”


        1. The article you cite also says this, showing that Sean is a determinist about human behavior:

          There are people who do believe in free will in this sense; that we need to invoke a notion of free will as an essential ingredient in reality, over and above the conventional laws of nature. These are libertarians, in the metaphysical sense rather than the political-philosophy sense. They may explicitly believe that conscious creatures are governed by a blob of spirit energy that transcends materialist categories, or they can be more vague about how the free will actually manifests itself. But in either event, they believe that our freedom of choice cannot be reduced to our constituent particles evolving according to the laws of physics.

          This version of free will, as anyone who reads the blog will recognize, I don’t buy at all. Within the regime of everyday life, the underlying laws of physics are completely understood. There’s a lot we don’t understand about consciousness, but none of the problems we face rise to the level that we should be tempted to distrust our basic understanding of how the atoms and forces inside our brains work. Note that it’s not really a matter of “determinism”; it’s simply a question of whether there are impersonal laws of nature at all. The fact that quantum mechanics introduces a stochastic component into physical predictions doesn’t open the door for true libertarian free will.

          That’s all I maintained. It’s more important to me that he agrees that libertarian free will can’t exist than what sort of compatibilism he buys.

    2. It is true that emergent properties will not violate the structure of the components, but those emergence might create (large) uncertainties that makes the system no longer deterministic in all sense of the word.

      This unpredictability is inherent in all complex systems and definitely our minds.

      1. This unpredictability is inherent in all complex systems and definitely our minds.

        Not really relevant to the issue.

        1. If you think that the outcome of the system is totally deterministic (or even pre-determined!) to initial states, the fact that it won’t – definitely relevant to the issue.

        1. I found a very nice paper today on exactly this question! Seth Lloyd’s “A Turing test for free will“, despite the slightly unfortunate title, is more like a test for belief in free will—using Turing’s halting problem to show how even wholly rational and mechanistic decision-making systems can be impossible to efficiently predict, giving rise to the impression of free will. It is easy to follow and very cute. I think Professor Coyne would like it.

          TL;DR: Yes.

          1. Funny, I just happened on that one as well….I guess it’s all thanks to determinism that I’d happen upon such a serendipitous event. 🙂

  6. I always find it ironically funny when someone tries to explain to me what art is and what it is supposed to be about, and at the same time jumps to silly conclusions regarding my ability to appreciate it.

    Anyway, the loss of free will appears to be a mental achilles’ heel for many otherwise reasonable people.

    I wonder why?

  7. I gave up on Eric a while ago, even though I appreciated many of his thoughts. The crunch came after long debates over his views on ‘objective morality’, as well as determinism.

    He seemed very reluctant to define any of his terms and if pressed would fall back into ‘the argument from consequences’ or other rhetorical fallacies. I felt that he was very proud of his ‘rationality’ even while he argued for subjective values and against ‘scientism’.

    1. I share your frustration. I too have resolved not to argue materialism with him any more. Eric’s compatibilist free will just seems to try and retain an immunity to cause and effect in the human brain, only attempting to abandon the dualistic properties (without ever explaining how that could be done). It all strikes me as special pleading for the brain vis a vis all other physical things in the universe, plus the other logic mistakes you already mention.

      And so now we are on to demanding absolute completion of all of physics in order to make a “free will of the gaps” argument. Despite his insistence that he is not disparaging science or its method, he seems to have no end of places it is not welcome or inadequate. I would bring up some examples of bad poetry or art and ask him to explain what we are supposed to do with with their claims to knowledge, (he very selectively chooses his his examples, I find) but I fear it is all a wasted exercise. His motivated reasoning is to deeply entrenched for any realistic expectation of well reasoned responses in this area.

      1. I’m always wary of anyone who proclaims “You can’t know [X] until you know everything that leads to it” or some variant thereof – mostly because said variants invariably crop up in arguments with creationists.

        It’s disappointing to say the least that Eric would play such a card.

  8. I think a lot of the confusion arises from what some see as a contradiction between determinism and emotions. That is, deterministic behavior would (some feel) be coldly logical; whereas (some feel) emotions cannot be explained by physics.

    In fact, neuroscientists such as Damascio have cited evidence which suggests that while logic and calculation can evaluate the consequences of potential actions, without emotion as a motivator, there is no preference among the consequences and no way to decide which action to take.

    So if emotions did not exist, evolution would have had to invent them. Which it did. They are the ways evolution has devised to make us feel pain and pleasure, so as to guide our choices in favor of survival and reproduction.

    Science research will eventually (if the human race is smart enough and lasts long enough) discover the mechanical/chemical means by which emotions work. It will never explain why emotions “feel” as they do, but as I have said before, that is the same problem as why a rose smells like a rose. For me, why things feel as they do in this universe is not a meaningful question – since they had to feel like something in order to exist, and if they were not possible to exist we wouldn’t be here to feel them.

  9. Well, this is interesting. I read Eric’s article before I wrote this.

    Jerry’s a) and b) poll is indeed very simplistic, I agree with Eric’s first part that asking that kind of question shows problem with Jerry’s understanding of the question of free-will, and for me some of physics as well.

    There is complexity of things, for instance the detail characteristics of chemistry theoretically must be derived from physics, but understanding everything in chemistry just by movements of quarks and string theory are definitely beyond our current science, or even probably (if complexity theory is right) impossible.

    The same goes up, biology will be very difficult to understand just by atoms, even molecules. Then psychology will be problematic if understood just by cellular mechanism within human bodies. Sociology and economy will be problematic if understood only by biology or genetics.

    The same way that climate system will never be understood just by physics of air, water and other molecules, there is complexity theory, there are things like strange-attractors that make complex systems will never be understood just by their deterministic components.

    The same goes with our brains, what happens inside our head, is a complex system, at level of complexity comparable (or even more) than Pacific ocean weather systems.

    So, saying that the whole universe is consist of nothing more than physical components (which is true) does not means that we will know everything in universe (or even earth, or our cities) just by understanding the physical components. Not just because our technology at the moment is not yet capable, if the complexity theorems are correct (which definitely seemed that way so far) even not THEORETICALLY possible!

    So, as I mentioned before, on free-will and determinism within human mind, Jerry is too simplistic.

    Jerry said that the world is materialistic, no demons or gods, that’s true. That there is no angels or invisible cats inside our heads, definitely true (regardless what the theologians say). But saying things are materialistic, and there is no demons does not means that everything is pre-determined in the sense totally deterministic and knowable (even only theoretically / in principle).

    Because, even if we know everything about molecules of water, air and all elements in Pacific ocean, plus all previous status of all molecules (very tall order, but just assume it is), we still NEVER know with any degree of certainty next week’s weather in Guam. Not just too many parameters, but a complex system outcome is never predictable.

    Similarly, even if we know the state of all individual neurons in Jerry’s brain (or Eric’s or mine), plus all previous historical states, plus all external stimuli in the past up to last millisecond, we still NEVER know the exact decision Jerry’s going to take for lunch.

    Then, being part of the executive of the mind, Jerry’s Self might affect the decision regardless of all other stimuli, and therefore shows some ‘free-will’ (I know we have to discuss what is meant by “Jerry’s Self”, not angel, not god, just a physical part of Jerry’s brain, but I will leave this to latter discussion).

    Thus, the idea of free-will is not just a dogmatic fight of olden pastors cheating on laymen throughout history. There is some “unknowability” within the system. And as the example about Jerry’s lunch above shown, saying that Jerry’s mind is totally deterministic is at least a misnomer oversimplification.

    And unfortunately, as in many other examples, the only thing closest to some certainty we can have is only from Jerry’s Self, enforcing a decision of menu choice (albeit must be influenced by a lot of factors), and some people simplified this by saying that Jerry has free-will. This is not exactly correct, and definitely wrong if this implies that an outside god, angel or demon (as mentioned in certain olden books) makes that decision, but saying that it is totally deterministic is also more than a tad wrong.

    I do not like Eric’s later arguments, his understanding of humanities must be better than most, but his physics is not. And he sound very pastorly there, I do not like his words about Dawkins too, mostly ad-hominem, and that’s bad-boi.

    Eric felt something wrong with Jerry’s questionnaire, irked by it, but his arguments got nowhere, and like most pastors in the same predicament, simply just attacked.

    I felt the same on Jerry’s questionnaire the first time I read it, but hey .. I do not like boots too! Just skip it (I do not even like cats!).

    Best regards to all.

    1. I don’t recall anyone saying that we will know everything in the universe. It’s my understanding that a bunch of variables make up who we are and that many of these variables are hidden. This doesn’t mean that determinism is wrong, just that there are unknown unknowns.

      1. Saying that something is pre-determined by initial states means that (with proper tools) the outcome will be (always) knowable in principle.

        The fact that it won’t is clearly a major difference.
        So the idea is not to say that everything (or something) is knowable, but whether outcome of a complex system is determined (or even pre-determined), which is clearly NOT.

        That’s the CRUX of this discussion.

    2. Unknowability is paramount. There could be some monkeys on the sixth-billionth closest galaxy to ours who have simulated the whole of my existence and know everything about me. They know this because they use the laws of physics to determine my actions (assumed determinism). Still, I do not know. I have no clue what I will eat for lunch on November 03, 2014 or that I will eat lunch. Good luck to the monkeys…

      The fact that I do not know makes the future fully legit for me, but not for the monkeys.

      1. But the emergent properties of complex systems theory say that such monkeys will never exist … all outcomes of complex systems will NEVER fully deterministic. Theoretically, not technologically.

    3. Diana is correct I expect. ‘Things’ can be fully determined but their outcome unpredictable to organisms like us who cannot hope to comprehend all the variables.

      Similarly I don’t expect full on reductionism to be ‘useful’ in predicting the outcome of complex events. What I do expect is that the explanations of higher order events must not conflict with what is known about lower level deterministic events.

      What humans feel and do must not conflict with the physical substrate that science has discovered so far – if you think you can turn lead into gold by sheer mental effort, or prayer, or alchemy, you are s**t out of luck.

      1. .. not “to organisms like us who cannot hope to comprehend all the variables.” .. there is no such creature.

        A lot of systems’ outcome (if they are complex systems) are NOT deterministic, even if the components are deterministic.

        See the weather systems. A weather system will always be a structure of its components ( water molecules, air — so it won’t become a computer systems with transistors as components), but the outcome whether it will create a tornado or not — is NOT deterministic, theoretically,not technologically.

    4. Your argument depends on defining (or identifying) “Jerry’s Self” and its characteristics; you can’t just defer that to a later discussion and expect people to accept your argument. It matters whether that “Self” exists as a separate entity and, if so, what it is and what influences it.

      1. I mentioned the self as one app among thousands transient apps in our (or Jerry’s) mind in another post.
        The nature of self is another discussion that not really relevant to the question of deterministic mind. I assure you the self I meant is NOT a god appointed angel .. 😀

  10. Eric, let go of the water wings & you will find that you can swim!

    Free will is an illusion that emerges from the idea of ‘self’, however self itself IS an illusion. Who am ‘I’? There is no single ‘me’ behind my eyes. Have yet to read it but in a pile waiting is Bruce Hood’s –
    The Self Illusion: Why There is No ‘You’ Inside Your Head

    1. Yes, the Self itself is part of the system, it is just one app among thousand apps inside our mind, and may not even clearly bounded, but it is there.

      The old-school free-will is definitely wrong, but the other side, saying that our actions are pre-determined is as wrong as saying that our weather system is pre-determined.

      1. Not PRE-determined, but determined. The ‘pre’ is I would say not required. As I said here the other day, there can only be one outcome from a situation, so whatever happens is what would have happened. we cannot re-run the situation.

        1. Determined and pre-determined are very important to distinguish. I posit that the universe is fully deterministic, but how predictable it is depends on knowledge. Humans have extraordinarily limited knowledge for predicting (simulated/modeling) anything.

          If you do not know the outcome, how is that different than saying that determinism is irrelevant? Determinism does nothing for free will. Pre-determinism, i.e., predicting future events based on knowledge, would make free will sensible, until then free will remains metaphysical.

        2. Jerry always used pre-determined, I believe not in the prophetic sense.

          The point is that even in a fully deterministic systems (like atoms following atomic theory, or swarm of bees following biological bee theory, or group of share-investors following investment theories) — the outcome is NOT deterministic, and it is not because we do not have the tools to check the variables, it is because of emergent properties of complex systems.

          The sum is more than its parts, and those added are not the ghost of propehets or anything supernatural, it is natural law of complex systems.

  11. Hi Jerry. As you know, I disagree with you about free will, but Eric’s criticism of your view is deeply mistaken in at least a couple ways.

    Firstly, there is huge evidence that physics is complete – when describing the world we experience. There are questions about dark matter, dark energy, unification of relativity and quantum mechanics and so on, but those have absolutely no connection with what happens at the energy scales of the world we inhabit – after all, life doesn’t evolve in an environment of exotic physics! (Sean Carroll covers this question well)

    Secondly, you can’t get free will from non-determinism in physics. That randomness isn’t available to some special non-material part of the mind in order to somehow effect reality. It’s on such a very, very small scale, and brains have evolved to be robust, to function predictably in the warm, wet, chaotic chemical and physical environment in our skulls. If brains were sensitive to quantum fluctuations we would be screwed.

    So, I hope we have a friendly disagreement about free will – unlike Eric, you may think me wrong, but about the right things – not nonsense physics and woo!

      1. I go with David Hume’s definition of free will – it’s freedom to be able to do what you want to do. This seems a fair use of the word, as it contrasts freedom with compulsion. For example, someone with an addiction or a compulsive disorder has less ability to do what they want – their choices are restricted. The same is true for someone who is imprisoned. I would say that we have moral responsibility for the choices we are free to make.

        I see ‘free will’ usage rather like ‘life’ – we continue to have use of the word ‘life’ even though scientists abandoned the idea of a vital essence centuries ago. There need be nothing magical or non-material about freedom of will – it’s a characteristic of a sentient being, an evolved characteristic of the way we interact with a world in which we are aware of what we are doing.

        I see no conflict between freedom of will and predictability – I don’t see how you can have freedom without predictability. If you are predictable then you aren’t making real choices, just being random, which is no freedom at all!

        However, I realise that many disagree with this, and I respect their judgement when they disagree on the basis of good science!

        1. But we are not free to do what we want. We are constrained by the laws of physics.

          It is correct for me to assume that free will according to you is simply the ability to act against one’s instincts within certain limits?

          1. And we’re not free to (iteratively)want what we want, etc. This was the fundamental objection to Fischer & Ravizza’s work on FW in the graduate class on the subject I did many years ago.

          2. But we are not free to do what we want. We are constrained by the laws of physics.

            So the next time someone tells you “I’m free for lunch” you are going to say “No you’re not, you are constrained by the laws of physics?”

            You’d really miss what they were telling you, wouldn’t you?

            And do you see no difference between the situation of the 3 Cleveland women when they lived under the rule of their captor, vs before and after being held captive?

            Surely “being set free” describes real world differences in their situations in terms of “being able to do what they want to do,” right?

            In the zeal to deny we can be free, how many babies are you going to throw out with the bathwater?


          3. Maybe you’re jumping to conclusions about how many babies I’m willing to throw out with the bathwater.

            I honestly think you’re playing with semantics here so let me adress your examples one at a time.

            1.”So the next time someone tells you “I’m free for lunch” you are going to say “No you’re not, you are constrained by the laws of physics?””

            No, of course not. Just because I don’t think free will exists that doesn’t mean that the word free is useless to me.

            2. “And do you see no difference between the situation of the 3 Cleveland women when they lived under the rule of their captor, vs before and after being held captive?”

            Again, of course there’s a difference. That just doesn’t mean they’ll be able to act independently of the inputs from the world that surrounds them and their body.

            3. ” Surely “being set free” describes real world differences in their situations in terms of “being able to do what they want to do,” right?”

            Yet again, of course it does, but with limitations and not in the sense that they are free of physical constraints. No one is.

            Just because I don’t think free will ( depending on how we define it )
            exists, that doesn’t mean that I don’t think you should be held responsible for the choices you make.

            I have a few questions for you in return if you don’t mind.

            Does a billionaire have more free will than a slave and if that is the case, what does free will consist of?

            What do you think should be the main purpose with imprisonment of criminals? Rehabilitation or revenge?

          4. Jesper Both Pedersen,

            Ok, but it seemed fair to ask such questions, given you’d said the the constraints of physic entailed that “we are not free to do as we want.”

            But now you seem to be saying, yeah even given physical determinism, it’s still sensible to say we can be free to do what we want. Which is just what stevezara (and I) would say free will is. So, would you agree that free will, considered this way, exists?

            Does a billionaire have more free will than a slave and if that is the case, what does free will consist of?

            Both have free will (presuming not every single thing the slave does is coerced) but the Billionaire has more freedom, more opportunity to do more things that he wants.
            Does that mean the billionaire has “more free will?” I think it could be confusing to put it that way because both he and the slave can take actions that are “fully” free willed and hence they both have free will in the same sense, only the billionaire has more opportunity to exercise his free will. It’s sort of like morality; both the slave and the billionaire could be moral, but the billionaire may have more opportunities to do moral acts, which doesn’t necessarily make him “more moral,” just in a more free situation.

            What do you think should be the main purpose with imprisonment of criminals? Rehabilitation or revenge?

            There’s a number of reasons to imprison criminals, but limiting it to your two choices, to the degree possible I’d support rehabilitation. Revenge, I think, as a motivation is ultimately pernicious to individuals and to a society. I don’t think the desire for revenge is a healthy desire to promote.



          5. I think we are free to do what we want within the limitations of a material world, and we are constantly under the influence of physical laws and constraints that affects our decisions and actions.

            If your definition of free will simply is the ability to act against or resist some of the inputs from the surrounding world and our selfish genes, then sure we are capable of a certain level of objectivity about ourselves and reality.

            My objection to the notion of free will simply is that no choice or decision is ever free of the constraints and effects of the material world and universe that we live in.

          6. Yup. I don’t think you’ll find anyone here thinking we are free of the causal influence of the world.

            It’s really down to, even given the causal world, whether words like “free” still mean essentially what we use them to mean. And I think the answer is “yes.”


        2. The problem with your position is the question “who are you?”. Who is Self?
          When you say Alex (or Eric ..) decides this action, who decides?

          Self is an illusion, one app among many running around inside our brain. Evolution forces human brain to make decisions (so it is painful to not to decide), and there are apps that teach rational decision-making, there are others that push any-decision-fast, or priorities-those-fulfilling-certain-rewards etc etc.

          Once a consensus is made, usually (in a healthy brain at least), the majority rules, quick justifications are made, all other dissenting apps shut down, and you feel like you “decide”.

          Unlike US idiotic-decision to shutdown recently, the real culprit for the decisions in our mind are not always recognizeable. Or even the same parties (or app). So Self is the same like “America decides ..” – it is ultimately illusory, just a temporary container to different jostling parties.

          (to answer some, of course we will find apps on our brain ultimately consist of hardwares from the same structure as the components, i.e. non of the apps in our brain is non-brain-material … not just non-ghost-or-angel, but also non sillicon or gallium substrate based, all organic matters ..)

          1. So within our brain there are palimspsets of complex systems. The neuron cells organization creates one level. Then the competing “softares” (or apps in my example above) compete for directions, like in a congress, each with its own baggages (of enzimes and hormons, and sense reports) another level.

            Sometimes, a complex systems “freeze” into a non-random response system, when one factor overwhelm others (like an animal cornered, but it seems unlike a government facing shutdown).

            In other situation the outcomes is “fluid” – non-deterministic. Complex theory explain those situations (but this seemed outside current scope).

            When we are in fix-mode, we think “we” or “self” or “the government” is really in control, hence the classical (and wrong! duh) free-will. And because classical people lack lots of things, they put this free-will things to the standard bin labeled god-did-it.

            But fMRI and others (read Jerry’s position) prove that is not the case. Definitely so!

            But, it is determined (or duh .. pre-determined)?

            Definitely not (sometimes yes, when in overwhelming situations as above, but scientifically speaking? NOT).

    1. Dark matter exists throughout the universe. There is certainly some inside your skull. How can you be so sure it can be ignored?

      I am not a physicist but it seems, with all due respect, neither are you. I cannot imagine any physicist claiming physics is complete. They would be talking themselves out of a job!

      1. How can you be so sure it can be ignored?

        Because it only interacts via gravity, which is so weak that it is predictably irrelevant.

        We are talking 20-30 orders of magnitude difference here. A good comparison would be an individual atom’s impact on the temperature of your room.

  12. “the collection of scientific facts…does not even begin to describe the importance of the more rounded humane understanding of the human world that can be derived from the humanities”

    A longwinded version of the tired, petty accusation, “you care more about animals/plants/rocks/nature/science than you do about people” that the willfully ignorant often throw at scientists, naturalists, animal rescuers, and anyone else who betrays a hint of interest in something other than humans and their products. Also has disturbing echoes of the Christian nature-hater’s determination to “love not the world”.

    It’s useless to point out how many art and poetry traditions are grounded in the appreciation of nature, or how art (as scientific illustration) and good technical writing (which is as rare as good poetry) are essential to scientific study. For some people, none of that can compete with their mirror.

    1. As uncomfortable as it may be Eric may want to carefully and seriously consider this comment. It is an insightful and accurate comment by someone who is accomplished as both a scientist and an artist.

      It seems crystal clear that Eric still believes. His ideas on what god is may have changed, he might not refer to “it” as a god at all anymore, but he is still hanging on for something out there. For some nebulous “something more” that makes human beings more important than the mere importance we grant each other.

    2. Tim Minchin gave an address recently to the University of Western Australia graduates upon the occasion his acceptance of an Honorary Degree of Letters.
      The following quote seems germane.
      ” By the way, while I have science and arts grads in front of me: please don’t make the mistake of thinking the arts and sciences are at odds with one another. That is a recent, stupid, and damaging idea. You don’t have to be unscientific to make beautiful art, to write beautiful things.

      If you need proof: Twain, Adams, Vonnegut, McEwen, Sagan, Shakespeare, Dickens. For a start.

      You don’t need to be superstitious to be a poet. You don’t need to hate GM technology to care about the beauty of the planet. You don’t have to claim a soul to promote compassion. ”

      Read it all, or watch it all, at http://www.timminchin.com/2013/09/25/occasional-address/

      1. Good on Tim Minchin! I like him even more now! I find it incredibly odd when I hear of a person who is afraid of science or dislikes science and I don’t mean this in a “disgusted by the evil things people have done with science”, I mean it in the “avoid at all costs and dislike” way. A friend of mine has a friend who is a History professor and she is this way and avoids science at all costs. I find this a most peculiar attitude, especially for someone who lives in the 21st C.

        And I do agree with Tim Minchin – this at odds idea is a very recent one and the separation of arts and science a recent one (in that it was in the last couple of centuries) which IMHO has been very damaging.

  13. A partial explanation of this “pull of the numinous” even in a world of scientific rationality, in my opinion, is found in the brain itself: the development and informing of the cortex does not do away with the limbic system. That is why, just last evening, I listened for the nth time to Josef Shuetky’s “Emitte Spiritum,” a favorite four-part hymn our seminary choir sang. My atheist cortex now tells me it is a plea to a non-existent god, but my limbic system will still respond to the hymn’s beauty almost as much as it did when my cortex was still in sync with it.

  14. I think Eric misunderstands (and then takes offence at this misunderstanding) of Dawkins when he says, “science is the poetry of reality.” I took this as a metaphor for science being the rather beautiful language to explain reality; it wasn’t a comment on poetry or the humanities.

    Further, I think Eric is dangerously flirting with “other ways of knowing”. We only have the material world to describe and we can do this with science if we want to know how it works and with poetry if we want to express how we interact with it as humans. I am starting to blame the relatively recent divide of arts and science on these strange misunderstandings. I think it would do society well to put us back in touch with both; after all the Romantic poet Eric references, Blake, lived at a time when scientists and poets freely intermingled. Shelly was keenly interested in science and was a member of the Royal Society. Maybe Eric just needs to read more Shelley (a big ol’ atheist) instead of Blake (devoutly religious but disillusioned with the Church).

    As an aside, I did a little happy dance in my care this morning on my way to work when a neuroscientist answered a CBC interviewer about mind and brain with, “I’m a neuroscientist, so to me they are the same”. Yay!!!! Finally!

    1. Eric is more than flirting with other ways of knowing. Having spent my share of time sparing on his blog (what we would know as a web site) I can report this with some confidence. He’s firmly ensconced in the “other ways” camp.

      1. I was lucky no one was in the parking lot to see. I also try not to rock out until I get out of town & into the country. 🙂

    2. I’m not sure I even understand what it means to say the mind and brain “are the same.” Even if a few neuroscientists believe this, this view is not a consensus among psychologists and others and so I don’t see how this helps much. Here is an article which argues this point specifically.

      “the mind is not identical with the matter that produces it. So, to say that the brain and the mind are different is not necessarily evidence of scientific ignorance. It means simply that one cannot use the physical rules from the cellular level to completely predict activity at the psychological or behavioral level.”


      1. I think what is often meant when journalists ask the question is closer to the idea of dualism more than anything else – the belief that there is a “self” and the brain that holds it.

        1. Fine. But you can reject Cartesian dualism of the spiritual variety without having to say that “the mind is the brain.” The scientists in the article I linked to reject spiritual forms of dualism but also accept what they call “property dualism”. This latter view is very close to what Eric M. thinks about the mind and so I think the issues are more complicated than described.

          1. Honestly, I see this as a tempest in the tea pot. It may not be entirely accurate to call the mind and brain the same thing but I see this as a failing of language more than anything else and for the layperson, accepting that the mind and brain are on thing rather than separate things is much closer to reality than the rather widespread acceptance of the self illusion.

  15. People are rather harsh towards poor Richard Dawkins, for expressing his views which are really not unusual. He values the arts highly.

    I am however on the harder side of things regarding art(s) & literature v. Sciences – definitely on the side of the latter, that is to say that I favour substance over opinion. We can agree on things in science but we can differ in our views of the value or quality of a painting or bit of music.

  16. I know why flowers evolved, and often why they look like they do, but that doesn’t detract at all from my appreciation of their beauty. It enhances it, but the emotionality is still there.

    Well said! And it calls for this video of Richard Feynman explaining the same thing. I always loved this video (and the whole series of which it is from by the way):

    It’s also very nice to hear Feynman call someone “kinda nutty” 😉

    1. Or even this one where his voice is over some nice pictures. A tiny bit longer (4m46s) where he goes on more lengthly about other questions expressed here (science explaining everything, not knowing, the universe having any meaning or not, believing and ultimately religions)


      Sorry, I’m done now.

  17. Perhaps a good way for people to understand this concept is to try and work backwards.

    Assume there is free will, and then try to explain how it arises in a biological (physical) organism. There is just no mechanism to explain free will.

  18. “nobody wants to think of free will as anything like that.”
    Yes, I want. What’s the problem?
    Another question is if neuroscience will justify a thought like that. But excluding it a priori sounds way too much like a religious bias to me.

  19. How can anyone be so certain that free will does not exist? Perhaps it does, perhaps it doesn’t; but the human brain is the most complex object in the known universe and we are a long way from understanding its workings, if indeed a machine can ever be capable of understanding itself.

    The basis for the assertion seems to be that the universe is deterministic at the macro level. It is not deterministic at the quantum level though. Why is this important fact rejected when assessing the possibility of the existence of free will?

    To say that choice would be reduced to the equivalent of tossing a coin might be to adopt an unrealistically simple model of the decision making process. Some random element in the process is all we need to ensure it is non-deterministic but the random element may be merely peripheral, thus ensuring we arrive at an outcome that is in-keeping with what we might expect (asked if we want tea or coffee we do not reply “toothbrush”!) but which is nevertheless unpredictable in a physics sense. Is evolution not a good analogue? Random mutations are shaped by natural selection to forge an outcome that is so non-random that many mistake it for the work of an intelligent creator. Is it really impossible that quantum fluctuations in our brains could result in our thoughts, actions and emotions being consistent, rational and yet wholly indeterminate?

    There need be no ghost in the machine and no coins tossed.

    On the subject of brain scanning experiments I am sure Professor Coyne is far more aware of the research currently being conducted than I am. He also has the advantage of being a scientist, which I am not. Nevertheless I fail to see the relevance of experiments which claim to show that “decisions” are made before we are aware of them. I do not doubt that the part of the brain that makes decisions is separate from that part which is consciously aware of having done so. Brain scanners allow us to watch the decision-making process in action, so why is it any surprise that as we watch we might see the outcome of the decision before it is communicated to the conscious part of the brain that made it? What does this have to say about whether there was any free will involved in the making of the decision itself?

    I asked a scientist friend whose speciality is quantum chemistry what his take on this was, and he agreed with Professor Coyne that we have no free will. I might have concluded I was on the wrong track but for the fact that two eminent TV physicists – Professors Jim Al-Khalili and Michio Kaku – both independently state their belief that free will exists. I was particularly pleased to note that Professor Kaku’s analysis – which I was unaware of when I was giving this some thought – relies on the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics.

    I am not arguing that free will definitely exists; only that it might and that no-one can be sure one way or the other. Science does not deal in proofs but I fail to see how anyone can even have high confidence one way or the other. Physics seems to offer at least some scope for free will, scientists disagree amongst themselves on the issue, and the machine we are talking about is the most complex we know of, so complex it may forever be beyond our full understanding – as indeed quantum mechanics may be.

    I would be delighted if a determinist would put me straight. I keep thinking I must be missing something, given how certain people seem, but I can see no reason for certainty.

    I would pay good money to hear Professors Coyne and Kaku debating this one! In the meantime I remain convinced that free will is at least plausible and that our justice system needs no alteration, at least not in this respect.

    1. 1. The difference between quantum and macro behavior is a key point – while quantum indeterminacy remains a mystery, that mystery vanishes as soon as you get to the level of atoms, with no visible input from the quantum level. It does not ever propagate “upwards.”

      2. Indeterminacy is not comparable to free will in any way – random acts are, quite frankly, even more abhorrent that predicted ones. Imagine if you performed random acts while driving. And this is allowing indeterminacy to be considered “random,” which is not warranted – the behavior is usually within very narrow conditions (e.g., decay now or decay later, but not “double the energy” or “change from electron to proton.”)

      What those two points mean is that, for free will as commonly defined to exist, there must be a mechanism where we could alter physics as we desired, effectively changing the behavior of atoms on a whim. Seems odd, but that’s what it comes down to: deterministic physics, random inputs, or godlike abilities. I’m going with the first, myself.

      1. Determinism is not enough to settle the issue of free will. I posit that an electron’s behavior is fully deterministic (even with QM). An electron does not care about free will (also a postulate of mine, which I think is true). But humans care about free will (some of them). And that concern is what makes free will relevant. As far as we know the only beings that care about free will or those that know. My cats do not care or know and their lives are fully determined. Free will is irrelevant to electrons and cats and everything in the universe sans humans.

        The fact that those who care about free will must have beliefs that represent knowledge is important, because no one, on this planet, can accurately predict what thought, and, in general, what actions any person will have in a week’s time. Further, no physicists on this planet can accurately predict the whereabouts of any electron any electron in a week’s time, let a lone a few femtoseconds. That places an epistemological burden on those who would choose to ‘unprison’ free will from metaphysics.

        1. Being concerned (or any other emotion) about something does not make it relevant. A whacko who believes aliens are reading his mind does not mean the topic has any merit whatsoever.

          No one has to unprison free will. Every time this topic comes up, it’s approached from the wrong side. What is free will, how is the effect demonstrated, what does it explain? Give me a scientific reason for even entertaining the concept – that’s how I determine relevance. Free will started life as allowing people to be responsible for sin after being created by an omniscient god – despite the fact that this effectively trashed omniscience. It has never gotten any more coherent.

          The basic premise is, physics is predictable, so a mind made of atoms is predictable (given far more information than we will ever be able to grasp,) and thus, any decision that anyone makes could be determined. This is the part that people rebel against, because they believe this makes them automatons, acting “against their will.” But “against” is a red herring – our will is simply predictable (according to every bit of evidence we have at hand,) even while we’re perfectly happy with it. So is a coin toss, and the end of every movie we’ll ever see. So what? We can still be surprised, and nothing is preventing us from acting as we desire.

          As for not being able to predict? Nonsense; I can predict most of the reactions of my girlfriend, and when I can’t, I can often trace things back to the input that prompted the unexpected response. Humans have a lot of traits that restrict our behavior, from yanking a hand away from heat to getting trapped in addiction. Why do we like food that’s not good for us? Shouldn’t free will eradicate such things? Or, if you can accept that we are organisms with certain operating restrictions, explain why anyone should think there is a dividing line past which free will exists.

          1. Every human behaves as if they have free will (the illusion of it). The reason we think the illusion of free will is real is because we do not know. If you knew exactly what anyone else was thinking all the time, you would behave different. If you knew there was a 1000K diamond at the bottom of a riverbed in Wyoming you would probably go get it. Knowing things changes how we behave.

            If I knew everything…it would hard to contemplate, but I am guessing only then would I have the advantage to behave as if I had no free will. This makes me think that even an electron has the illusion of free will, because it has no idea that it is restricted to behave with its properties. Sounds flat world silly, but we can only ever behave based on what we think we know.

            Nothing I have read removes freewill from metaphysics, i.e., an unprovable pardox. However, we all act like as if we have it, so isn’t that functionally the same as saying we have free will?

    2. Physics has provided the most interesting input into free will since it was first conceptualized. It holds the paradoxical distinction of providing the most evidence for and against free will. Yet physics still does not provide enough evidence to lift free will from its metaphysical manacles.

      1. A universal definition of free will is desperately wanted IMO.

        I never think of free will in a metaphysical sense unless a theist refers specifically to theodicy. The rest of the time, I associate free will with the decision I made to type this comment, yet one more in a long list of entreaties for clarification.

        The instant I make the decision to hit the ‘Post Comment’ button, is it the determinist view that no other behavior option exists for me? And does this claim come down to the fact that for the decision to have been different (not to hit Post Comment), it would be necessary for me to have the ability to travel back in time and rearrange atoms? Is this not simply ad hoc justification?

        I always suspect that those who are most confident free will is illusory define free will as a supposed supernaturally bestowed capacity one chooses either to refuse or accept as a faith condition. Theists do believe this is true. But that is not the definition of free will those folks, or I, have in mind when contemplating how we decide which box of cereal to pull off the grocery shelf, what tv show to watch, or which color shirt or blouse to wear today.

    3. It is not deterministic at the quantum level though. Why is this important fact rejected when assessing the possibility of the existence of free will?

      Its not rejected; Jerry (and others) have covered that point very well. Here it is again: QM creates random or uncontrolled indeterminism. What you need for ‘free will’ is controllable indeterminism. So QM does not produce or add free will in any real sense.

      Think of a computer program that uses an ideal random number generator to answer questions. Its indeterminant. Does it have free will? Most people would say “no.” If QM has any effect at all on thinking, its effect is that of a random number generator. We can’t conttrol it. It doesn’t give us choice in how we act. Ergo, no free will.

      1. Thanks for the reply Eric, et al. Unfortunately the computer programme analogy does not work because random number generators are not really random, they only appear to be. Thus computer programmes are always deterministic in their operation. They would be of little use if it were otherwise!

        Controllable indeterminism is precisely what I am postulating. I see no reason why we cannot get that from QM as long as we bear in mind that the controlling mechanism is natural rather than conscious. It worries me when contributors say things like “we can’t control it”, because “we” only makes sense in this context if you believe there is a ghost in the machine. “We” are a part of the machine. If “we” have control then that implies “we” are making decisions and since the whole debate is about how “we” make decisions the argument quickly becomes circular.

        My analogy was evolution and I am surprised no-one has responded to that. Only those who believe in God consider that evolution is under conscious control yet its outcome is indisputably non-random and gives the outward appearance of being under conscious control. While the precise mechanism would obviously be very different who can say that our brains do not operate along similar principles?

        Would anyone try to claim that evolution is deterministic? Those who believe the universe as a whole is deterministic presumably would but my understanding is the opposite. There is no scale on which Newtonian physics is strictly correct; it is always an approximation based on observations of a sufficiently large number of datasets. The fact that it can get us to the moon and back is because the errors introduced by the approximation are so minute as to be insignificant on this scale. Fundamentally the universe does not operate like clockwork, even if considering that it does provides us with our most useful tool. I agree that our brains are a part of the universe and hence subject to its laws, but I see those laws as indeterministic. Bear in mind that cosmologists tell us that the observed structure of galaxies depended on quantum fluctuations in the otherwise uniform early universe, so who can say at what level the seed of a decision occurs?

        Some may claim this model of controllable indeterminism does not constitute free will. For me, it is sufficient. Our actions would be rational and largely predictable yet not truly deterministic, hence we would no longer be “trapped in a movie”.

        I do not claim this is how things are, merely that it is how they could be. Free will is therefore at the very least a possibility that cannot be dismissed.

    4. While quantum may be a sexy word for scientists, we do not need any quantum quackery to say that outcome of complex systems is NOT deterministic to initial states and properties of components.

      A lot of examples abound on very mundane systems. See weather systems, which is totally non-supernatural, the components are very boring atoms and small molecules, the governing law is very boring macro-physical ones, yet they are totally non-deterministic.

      You can go up to swarm, complex systems with components of bees (or birds, fish, people, special group of people like investors etc), following more elaborate governing law of actions like biological imperatives, financial gains, and you got totally non-deterministic systems.

      Now, our brain’s components are totally deterministic organic chemisty based molecules, set-up into highly complex network of neurons with thousands or variables .. what do you think the outcome will be? Deterministic? Far from it!

      Yet some people – like Jerry – dare to say that the outcome of brain is “deterministic”.

      That’s as good as saying that a computer is just silicon, which is correct grammatically, but totally very far from reality.

      1. What you’re talking about here is Chaos Theory, which does not invalidate determinism. Complex systems can have a very wide variety of potential outputs, simply through the multiplication of ‘choices’ (with a simple binary choice, each of which leads to another binary choice, in twenty iterations the potential outcomes have multiplied to over a million.)

        True enough, it’s easy to exceed the amount of information we would need in order to actually determine an outcome, especially in a working system where the inputs are constant. But at no point does a system, solely through complexity, introduce a violation of physics, which is what is necessary to invalidate determinism. It does not mean, “we know what any result will be,” it just means, “we know how the parts work.”

        The very fact that you’re reading this is excellent proof that both yours and my silicon computers, and every server along the way, are behaving exactly as we both intend and predict, despite their complexity. Physics is not this mysterious field, and we have a wonderfully detailed understanding of it.

        1. Silicon based elcetronics are designed to work on the deterministic area. That’s your answer for why our computers work exactly as it should be (this is actually very fascinating, I used to tell my students to just comtemplate how many billions things have to go right just to make sure your nonsense text get to the right mobile?)

          But that is not the same as Chaos Theory! (I do believe you know what Chaos Theory is, you raise it up first ..).

          Our brain, is not computer, it is not working on the linear area …. enough said.

  20. Urg. Two simplistic arguments disguised with flowery language (I’m referring to Eric here.)

    The first is what I personally refer to as unevidence – calling something into doubt, which supposedly supports some other idea. It’s often called the “god of the gaps” argument, but basically, “you can’t prove this, so my idea should be considered.” Eric doesn’t seem to understand that evidence does not come from nothing – he needs to provide the definition and the manifestations of free will first. Calling anything into doubt simply moves the pointer back to zero – what is the positive evidence for his own argument?

    Second, I’m so tired of hearing variations of the “emotions are not physical” argument. “I like art, therefore science is corrupt” – where the hell does this come from? It’s like saying, “I like driving, therefore cooking is inadequate.” Emotions rely on the personal experience of the person having them, so no, without a whole lot of information regarding someone’s complete past history, we won’t “understand” what they find appealing. This doesn’t make emotions fall outside of the realm of physics though, and in fact, the commonality of many emotions strongly indicates that our physical makeup is a crucial factor. There’s no reason a majority of people would find baby animals “cute” unless there were something in our brains that provoked a common response.

  21. Eric has two objections to my piece:

    1. We don’t really know that there’s no libertarian free will because physics is “incomplete.”

    Although I don’t know many physicists, the two I’ve spoken to about this at length (Sean Carroll and Steve Weinberg) agree that we know enough about the physics of “everyday life” to provisionally accept that human behavior is indeed determined by the laws of physics. Even if quantum mechanics produces some fundamental unpredictability in our neurons and hence in our behavior, that gives no leeway for “free choice”.

    It is obvious Eric has missed this year’s update.

    When Carroll wrote the piece so oft linked from here, about the laws (physics) underlying everyday life being completely known, the LHC hadn’t yet found a Higgs field boson. Now it has, and even if we don’t know the exact model (i.e. if it is a “standard” Higgs) it means the physics that affect our body and mind _is_ complete.

    Everyday physics is complete to ~ 10^-11 parts (the QED precision). Even if somehow a remaining action would be magic and trip a synapse by collecting the allowed energy, it would still be overwhelmed by the 10^11 synapses that was tripped by physics. There is no magical bootstrap here.

    The LHC physics is complete up to ~ twice the Higgs mass, due to Higgs self-interaction I think, so ~ 250 GeV. So non-everyday physics is by definition and in today’s universe, particle accelerators, high-energy cosmic rays, dark matter, and black holes.

    If we don’t go space faring I think the largest exception would be if dark matter would be weakly interacting. (Which is an open question.) Then about 1 nucleus/year experience a slight thermal excess by a dark matter particle hitting it. (Weak applause. =D)

    That is the scale of what could happen in a still magic world when taking the recent LHC observations into account.

    But I think inflation sets a better limit on magic interaction of all kinds. The pre-inflating spacetime volume is now diluted to more than 10^-50 times by non-magic energies. (Unless I’m mistaken, I just pulled this estimate from various sources for other uses. Just inflation is at minimum ~ 10^30 times dilution.)

    So that is ~ 10^40 times better exclusion of Erik’s dualist-magic/numinous-“something” than the LHC exclusion. Do you notice that we now are talking homeopathic magic?

    1. Oops.

      – I see that I’m confused about dark matter. The nucleus collisions should apply for all kinds.

      Dunno what weak interacting DM would contribute.

      – I was thinking of near space. Supernovas would also be non-everyday. Obviously…

    2. Argh! “more than 10^-50 times” – more than 10^-50 parts.

      Also notable, the LHC physics seems to be non-natural in the sense that they have trouble finding new physics right above 250 GeV. Meaning its completeness may go far higher…

  22. In amongst all this Eric bashing, can I point out that he’s pretty sound on right-to-die issues?

    (Though admittedly he’s pretty ropey on scientism, determinism and materialism).

    1. Oh, I absolutely admire Eric for his stand on that, and agree with him 100% on assisted suicide.

      I wasn’t aware we were “Eric bashing”; I thought we were taking issue (or agreeing)with his ideas. In fact, I think he engaged in more Coyne-bashing than vice versa!

  23. “The evidence for macro determinism is the observed determinism of physical objects in everyday life (a staple of physics), and the new evidence from the neurosciences that our “decisions” are made before we become aware of them. ”

    I recently saw an article which says that the findings that our “decisions” are made in advance of our awareness of them–has been refuted by a later study.
    Jerry, do you know anything of this?

  24. Seems to me that if determinism of the JC (or of the compatibilist) sort is true, then all our thoughts, conclusions, & judgments were predetermined ultimately by conditions present before we were born. If so, then both what we think and what those who disagree with us think was long ago predetermined to be what it is. What reasonable basis then can we have for thinking that our conclusions etc. (instead of those of our opponents) are correct?

    This seems to be a big problem for determinism – and, BTW, I have no answer to it other than ignoramus (“we don’t know”). There are multiple good reasons for rejecting dualism, so I’m not advocating that! Except that if determinism is true, the reasons for and against dualism are equally unjustifiable, we all just believe what we’re predetermined to believe and that’s the end of it.

    1. There’s a huge risk with language in this debate, Using words like predetermined tends to import the ideas of purpose and narrative – even if there was no original intention to do so. Similarly undetermined and unpredictable have echoes of agency/observation when none is necessary.

      That’s perhaps why the idea of chaos caught on a few years ago. The idea that even though a process was algorithmic it could still produce unexpected results some time later.

      Really all we need to say about determinism is that each state of events is fully determined by the immediately preceding state of events. As far as we know the universe is ecbatic, not telic.

  25. It seems like there’s a lot of physics envy coming from the humanities these days…a lot of “you don’t have ALL the answers, and we’re important, too!” It’s weird that he’d write about appreciation of poetry and the like while you’re in the midst of a long series on your favorite Beatles songs, least favorite songs, Hili dialogues, nature photography, etc. It amazes me that some people seem to think that science and art are incompatible in the same way the science and religion are.

  26. I thought that I heard Sean Carroll say in a video that he did favor free will as an emergent phenomenon. Perhaps I was mistaken.

    In any case, let’s grant physical determinism and that physical randomness does not provide any useful free will.

    But what good is determinism if you can’t use it to predict what will happen? Jerry brings up physics, such as the behavior of billiard balls. These kinds of examples are extremely misleading.

    The vogue today is to model the world, and parts of it, as a computation. The modern theory of computation throws in a new element, which I think Jerry is either unaware of or rejects. Most computations are of a class such that, even if every step is completely determined and all possible inputs are exactly known, there are still no shortcuts to the result. (Like a formula or a quick solution of a differential equation, say.)

    (Two sources that discuss this are The Lifebox, The Seashell, and the Soul: What Gnarly Computation Taught Me About Ultimate Reality, the Meaning of Life, and How to be Happy by Rudy Rucker and A New Kind of Science by Stephen Wolfram.)

    So we might observe another person who is a very sophisticated automaton. But you can’t predict what he will do tomorrow at this time. In fact, you can’t even predict what you will be doing tomorrow at this time. The only way to do it would be to simulate step-by-step the entire environment that affects you or the other person. This is not only practically impossible, it is theoretically impossible. You would need a small fast computer that could accurately reproduce a larger piece of the world. I don’t think you could do this (maybe it’s up for discussion). For Jerry we might need an accurate map of Chicago, but the only accurate map of Chicago is Chicago itself.

    So we and other people act like very sophisticated automaton agents, taking in information and adjusting our actions, and we have no way of knowing in advance what we or they will do. (Not because of randomness, or a ghost in the machine, but because we just can’t compute it or anticipate it.)

    Jerry’s fundamental view may be correct, but there is still an extremely strong illusion of free will and automatons that were evolved to take actions on the basis that they could always know what other automatons would do would be at an evolutionary disadvantage.

        1. If you acknowledge this as true, then isn’t it about time for you to stop that kind of cockiness as shown in your questionnaire that started all of this?

          (no need to repeat, you have all the right to continue on .. I only expect next time with some caveats)

    1. One thing that need to mention here is that all computers are DESIGNED to be working on what the called the linear area, only on the working (voltage and currents) where the outcome (input-output relationship) is deterministic.

      Chaos is the bane of hardware industry (except maybe in quantum electronic, not the current technology).

      So, assuming that our wetware (brain and squishy stuffs) is deterministic is totally out.

      Natural things like our bodies (including our brain) never designed (!) by anybody to be deterministic, and they are complex systems (like weather and starling murmurations), having emergent phenomena.


      1. Natural things like our bodies (including our brain) never designed (!) by anybody to be deterministic, and they are complex systems (like weather and starling murmurations), having emergent phenomena.

        That’s not exactly true, and irrelevant regardless.

        In domains where the same repeatable precision of digital computers is required, within certain limits representing a rather limited computational capacity, human brains are highly reliable.

        Quick: sing, “Mary had a little lamb.” Practically no human who grew up in a culture that included that song will have any trouble precisely recalling the words and — within limits of musical ability and artistic expression — correctly singing the tune. Now, perform the following calculation: 7 + 3 – 6. You got 4, right? Without trouble?

        Our brains are not optimized for the same tasks that we’ve optimized our silicon thinking machines for, and the tasks they are optimized for are both much more complex and generally much less well-defined. But if our thinking was chaotic and unreliable, then it’d be useless to us. One day you might look upon your friend’s face and recognize it not as your friend but as a pair of scissors.

        It is true that there is some noise at the lowest levels of functioning…but similar types of noise exist in modern electronic circuits, too. Integrated circuit designers are working around and with quantum mechanics these days, and have to be on the lookout for quantum tunneling of electrons and the like, and stray cosmic rays have flipped bits ever since there were bits to flip. High-end computers have had error-correcting RAM to mitigate against those problems for decades, and pretty much every communications and storage protocol has some sort of error-correction or redundancy built into it. You can physically remove an entire disk drive from most servers in most racks in most datacenters and the computer will keep humming along just fine; put another brand new disk in the place of the old one and, some hours later, it’ll almost-magically be a perfect copy of the one that you yanked.

        That covers the “not exactly true” part. The “irrelevant regardless” is that even a truly indeterministic computing machine is still logically equivalent to a fully-deterministic Turing machine. This may well seem counterintuitive, but an easy way to take a first step towards warping your brain ’round it is to think of the random device as randomly sampling a small part of the available computational space; a fully-deterministic Turning equivalent would have to perform a compete census of the same space, and it would tell you where in that space the random machine wound up if you told it which particular paths it took when it made random choices. Since random sampling is a very useful technique for improving performance when absolute precision isn’t required, the random device may well be more efficient in coming up with acceptable answers, but there’s nothing it’s going to do that a fully-deterministic equivalent couldn’t given sufficient resources.



  27. A while ago I wrote an article entitled “Muffins and the End of Innocence” after overhearing some high school students talking on my morning train. One was lamenting (loudly) that her science teacher had explained how carbon dioxide released during the baking process creates the small cavities and “bubbles” in such things as cakes and bread. Her summing up: “He totally ruined muffins for me.”

    Eric’s complaint seems to run along similar lines.

    1. Let us hope that it is not true. But if it is true, let us hope that it does not become generally known.

      –some upper-class Victorian matron, upon being told about this disturbing new theory of that fellow Darwin

  28. Further, this canard that scientists/laypeople with an understanding of and appreciation for the mechanics of the universe don’t understand art or why people make it is ridiculous and personally offensive. My father, a botanist, birdwatcher and science teacher for 25 years, is also a multi-faceted musician, sketch artist, hopeless romantic (just ask my mother), incurable Goon Show fan and is the main reason I have the love that I do for music (esp jazz), clever, skillful language in all its forms and the visual arts.

    Dad, a lifelong scientist, doesn’t need appeals to the “numinous” (how I loathe that word!) in order to appreciate the beauty and hilarity that humans are capable of creating and neither does anyone else. I have to wonder what former-Uncle Eric is thinking.

  29. Of course, with your determinist view, Blake was a mere observer when his poems spilled out of the inkwell. He couldn’t do anything about it since it was predestined from the Big Bang.

  30. Perhaps a minor point, but Eric is not arguing that societies are nondeterministic (even if individuals are), rather that “[Jerry] thinks we can think in terms of a strict mechanistic determinism when it comes to human behaviour, and yet retain the substance of a human society.”

    That is, if everyone truly believed in determinism then society as we know it would be impossible. Maybe that’s true, but as Jerry argues it would plausibly result in a better society than the one we know.

    1. My guess is Eric cannot bear the idea himself and thinks that most people couldn’t either. He could be right but this post is not up to his normal intellectual par. Way below. How odd too that he has a huge bash at C.P. Snow’s two cultures contention – a reasonable enough contention at that time – but commits the faux pas of mistaking the 1st law of thermodynamics with the 2nd.

      Game set and match to Snow.

  31. Science can cause problems, but not the sort of problems that people think of when they say that science causes problems.

    Learning that how firmly you shake someone’s hand influences their opinion of you leaves you with the “problem” of making a conscious decision about how firmly to shake hands. But the effects of knowledge on our awareness and experiences are not what people like MacDonald are on about. They are are talking about problems like pollution, overpopulation, car accidents.. Those problems are not caused by science, but by technology; man’s attempt to improve the world and solve problems.

    I think it’s essentially incorrect then, to say that science “causes problems”, or as Richard Dawkins said on The Daily Show, that “Science makes mistakes”. Science is merely the practice of using empirical investigation to gain knowledge. People using science make mistakes, but the tool itself cant take the blame. You can make a mistake with a screwdriver, but screwdrivers dont make mistakes.

  32. I despise this kind of argument from people like MacDonald. He seems to think that every lay person enjoys all of the arts such as poetry, literature, gallery exhibitions, etc. but most people tend to have a particular area which they enjoy. I’m a film buff and a gamer and I find myself wanting to understand how they are made to further my enjoyment of them. I think most people are the same, somebody who is passionate about poetry understands aspects of it that I don’t such as meter and line structure. And so it is with science the more you understand the more beautiful it is (just started an Open Uni degree in astronomy so I can’t wait to see more).

    His reasons for disagreeing with determinism are the same as an other that Prof. Coyne has pointed out numerous times and is equally self defeating. I would say that the greatest pro for determinism is the fact that we know that certain actions that affect the brain have a massive impact on personality, intelligence, memory and many other aspects. The change in brain damaged people can be massive and is a well documented phenomena, which shows that whom we are is determined by our brains. I just don’t understand the mental disconnect between obvious evidence like that and still trying to claim that determinism is false.

  33. JC: “If our minds can exert and be affected by something that’s not physical at all, there’s no evidence supporting such a claim. One might as well say that there are hamsters living in our head that control our behavior, and we can’t rule this out because “physics is not complete.” Maybe those hamsters are invisible, like Carl Sagan’s dragons.”

    LOL. Makes me think the reason we have to have free will (other than because God loved humans so much he gave us that priceless gift) is because to say our thoughts and actions are materialistic in origin is if anything MORE demeaning to us as a species than common ancestry with [other] apes!

  34. I’ve commented a couple of times, but I’m sending this one along in the hopes that the electrons transmitted might move Jerry to write a post on a more down-to-earth level. While I’m competent in my own field, the more I read on this topic leaves me feeling more and more adrift.

    While I understand the logic of physics being the medium in which everything is taking place, and how there isn’t anything else in a material world to work with. That said, I still have some areas that I find difficult to get my head around, and a post with practical (even if they are simple and imperfect due to the complexity involved) examples would be really helpful in understanding Jerry’s view in a concrete way.

    While there are several thoughts that buzz through my brain, I’ve chosen three as my primary concerns:

    1) I think of your model in terms of Jerry writing a post for the website. Jerry is there in his room, and the temperature, a favourite pair of boots, needing to pee, etc can all impact him internally or externally, leading to a response from his brain that either leads to a post being written or some other activity taking precedence. Where this falls down for me is in terms of responsibility. We currently operate on the premise that some “part” of a person can choose to set aside these other influences and make a specific choice. It’s the basis of our work ethic-if someone continually is unable to work absent good reason, they cease working. Can there be actual responsibility in Jerry’s model or are we really just responding to carrots and sticks? If the latter, how does realization of that fact make for a better society?

    2) As a holdover from my evangelical days, I still hear C.S. Lewis’ argument about punishment from “That Hideous Strength”. In a justice model based on free will, we assume the individual has made a choice, and serves appropriate punishment for that choice, with anything beyond that seen as unjust. This contrasts with a model where wrong acts are seen as weaknesses in the person or a disorder, more in need of treatment than punishment. Lewis pointed out that while permanent confinement is seen as inhumane, continuous treatment of an individual deemed “sick” or “disordered” is seen as a positive thing. The danger lies in who gets to define disorders. If there were to be a strong right wing takeover in the US and atheism were deemed to be a mental disorder that required “treatment” until one was cured, one could argue against that in stating that people have a right to their beliefs. In a deterministic society where acts are viewed as influenced by a multitude of sources, how would one argue against such an unfair act when crimes have been understood as being the result of forces beyond the individual combined with susceptibilities in that person?

    3) How do people maintain a sense of agency? Or do they? In my mind, I chose to write this post because I believe it will possibly generate a response that will help me and possibly others. If I believe that it simply came about from my reading comments here at a time I wasn’t distracted, and didn’t need to pee, or the phone didn’t ring, and that whether or not I’ll get an answer depends on a similar set of conditions, how can this action have meaning for me? How can I feel as if I’ve accomplished something if there’s no “me” that made it happen? How do you take pride in your accomplishments (assuming you do)? How should we think of our selves in a deterministic society?

    I apologize for the length of this post, feel free to hide it if it mucks up the comments, but I do hope there is a response to it. Thanks.

    1. The biggest problem in all of this is how many assumptions and misunderstandings we have. Let’s see how condensed I can express this.

      1. Free will is not an illusion – it’s a nonsense concept. Just discard it entirely. Nothing has changed.

      2. Determinism means we could know what will happen, but we don’t have minds or even computers that big. So the future remains a mystery to us.

      3. There is still an “us” making “decisions,” only instead of it being a badly-conceived concept of mind/brain separation, it is simply a system of making connections through experience, coupled with biases towards certain survival behaviors. I stubbed my toe, it hurt, I’m motivated not to do it again. The “decision” is created by a negative response (pain) to damaging effect (stubbing.)

      4. While the “ultimate path” of the universe (the reason why people throw around “predestination” and all that) comes from following the laws of physics, and we are a working part of it, what we organisms actually seek is simply gratification of desires – food, sex, social behavior, and so on. Does it make us feel better to punish someone who did bad? Then do it – it’s how we evolved anyway, the reason we have the emotions to begin with. We have a part to play, if that wording sounds better, and there’s no script, so we ad-lib.

      [This sounds like hedonism, and if you feel distaste at that concept, then your emotions are still playing their motivating roles, this time to help you avoid such behavior. Isn’t this fun?]

      Or if you like, physics does not define the results, it simply sets the rules. They’re one and the same, really, it’s just our perspective that differs. We’re stuck with gravity too, but never let that bother us much.

      5. Part of our enjoyment is experience. Every book has a fixed ending; every place we visit has distinct physical properties. We know this, and don’t expect anything else. We can still enjoy them, and while doing so, use those experiences as factors for the decisions we’ll make but have not yet encountered.

      We like to believe we have much more advanced cognition than species that “follow instinct” – the amusing bit is, that ego is likely just another instinct (helps us compete, propagate the genes, and so on.) But we are what we are, and our motivations remain the same, as do the consequences of them. Free will just proposes something that cannot be demonstrated, explains nothing, and predicts nothing. So, what is it for again?

      1. Something to add – to me at least, a very telling point:

        We rely on determinism, not from the standpoint of our brains functioning, but from the simple idea that making a decision involves knowing what the consequence will be. We turn the wheel to the right and expect, count on, the car turning right.

        If this didn’t occur, there would be no point to making decisions – anything could happen, so why bother?

        The curious part is, we count on this, yet want to believe that the dualistic/mind/super-ego “we” is exempt; the decision-making process is not bound by physics while everything we might decide upon remains so. Is that hubris or what?

        1. We cannot KNOW what the consequence will be. We predict but we may not be right because unexpected things happen. Maybe when you turn the wheel to the right the car carries straight on because there is a problem with your steering.

          Unpredictability is what makes decisions important. If we knew exactly what was going to happen with 100% certainty there would be no point in doing anything – except you would say we would still do things because we would have no “choice”. By the way, what does the word choice even mean to a determinist?

          Remember what happened to the lifts in the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide?

      2. Also, I think what confuses things worse is the illusion of self. So, I have a strong sense of who Diana MacPherson is but that is an illusion as there is no central Diana, but instead a whole bunch of things in my brain that make up who I am all operating in different areas and constrained by the physical nature of my brain and the genetics that make up my brain (which also plays a role in things like being able to exercise control over emotions, delay gratification or demand instant gratification, feel empathy or not, analyze and strategize, etc.).

        The illusion of the self is strongly linked with the illusion of free will.

      3. I’m sorry, but this doesn’t seem helpful to me. To see ourselves as “systems” that respond to inputs and to continue to use terms like “decisions” or “using” things. We don’t speak of water “using” gravity to move it from one place to another, and yet we speak of “using” gravity and other physical forces to achieve what “we” “consider” “our” “goals” (sorry for all the quotes, but once you start trying to indicate words that inaccurately describe our perception of our experiences-I’ll spare you the quotes for the rest of my reply). Yet there should be no distinction as both examples are simply physical forces playing out according to the rules of their systems.

        Hence my questions above. While I can think in an abstraction about determinism and its impact on us, when I try to think of it in any concrete manner, it loses any practical point of contact with society and experience as we know it. Is a society people who have negotiated some sort of shared choices that allows them to live together and benefit one another or is it a collection of systems that manage to remain mostly in equilibrium in the presence of each other?

        To what point do we stop using agency words and “I/We” statements to reflect the new understanding, and to what point do we entertain the lie because it makes us feel better to believe we are “doing” things? If as Diana mentions in her comment that the “self” is an illusion, then why speak of delaying or demanding gratification, as there is no one to be gratified, and therefore no positive or negative to either?

        I’m not speaking in terms of religious absolutes, but rather in a manner similar to Sam Harris. How can something good be done (in terms of well-being, not religious morality) if there are only illusions to “do” it to other illusions? And the monkeys keep chattering and what seemed clear loses any coherent form.

        That’s why I need concrete examples of what life and society would look like with determinism as a motivating force.

    2. To take your first example of an unreliable worker. Can that person be held responsible under determinism?

      Ultimately an individual is not fully responsible for anything unless they cause themselves to exist fully, completely and exactly as they are. That said, in this case the people who pay the unreliable worker’s wages can reasonably blame the worker for failing to fulfill the conditions of employment. They are as helpless to be anything other than they are than the unreliable worker is. Unless they are completely self-determined in every detail of their being.

      Your second example seems confused. We have the case where punishment is justified for illegal acts – big difference from merely wrongful acts. However, we require that the individual should be mentally responsible for their crimes. We do not mean by this that they should not be ultimately physically determined. We mean that their actions are not due to a mental disorder. The real question is whether *punishment* is justifiable when mental disorder is absent. Punishment as opposed to measures simply designed to repair or recompense or protect society from further illegal activities. Punishment for its own sake. Punishment purely as desire to see criminals suffer.

      I think acting on such a desire is wrong.

      To you third point. Determinists feel themselves to be agents! The accomplishment feeling is put into context, together with the failure feeling. These are psychological realities with material causes. Life goes on the same but with a different perspective.

  35. Very late to the party…

    Two points I’d make that haven’t yet been addressed.

    A) I still maintain that “free will” is an oxymoron of the “married bachelor” variety, and that 99 44/100% of the debate revolves around the inevitable contradictions that ensue. Nothing in the thread leads me to think otherwise. Confounding matters is that there are concepts where it makes perfect sense to observe that we have great freedom — such as at the ballot box — and other contexts where we are driven by our wills — such as when completing a marathon. But the two terms juxtaposed can never be made coherent. A will that fails to logically proceed according to its nature is no will at all, and only Minitrue could suggest that freedom is dependent upon strict adherence to order.

    ii) Richard is one of the greatest poets of our time. Even Shakespeare would have been proud to have had one of his characters recite, “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.” Not sure I’d put Richard ahead of Dr. Sagan on my list of top poets, but the two would be very close together indeed.



  36. Seems to me there are vestiges of theology left in Eric’s thoughts.

    How often have we seen “true believers” rail against the supposed “coldness” and “heartlessness” etc, of a scientific view of the world?

    It seems impossible for some folk to separate imagination from reality. As necessary as imagination is, it’s well worth being able to make that distinction.

  37. As a former religionist, I wonder if maybe ex-Uncle Eric is feeling a little closer to death than others who comment here. As I sometimes ponder my mortality and wish things, several times I found myself wishing my former beliefs in heaven and eternal life had been true / could be true. Perhaps Eric in an irrational way is leaving space for something out there, the Holy Spirit perhaps, to influence his mind, knowing that he himself left to himself cannot justify such a dumb belief reversal… even though death approaches. That’s what I’d do, if I could.

  38. Although I completely buy the theory of billiard-ball-causation of human decision-making, I always bristle at the suggestion that the law has catching up to do. While I would be happy to see distracting terms like “free choice,” “voluntary,” “malicious,” “intentional,” “depraved,” etc., go by the wayside, in any system where deterministic decision-makers incorporate information about the environment in their decisions–that is, where the “decisions” are, in part, a function of information–a well-publicized system of punishment makes sense. If, when punishment for some act which society deems undesirable is set at “x”, 10 people “can’t help” but do the act, and when punishment is increased to “x + 1”, only 7 people “can’t help” but do the act, punishment makes sense. So, allowing more excuses based on flawed understanding of neuroscience will only result in increasing the circle of people who “can’t help” it. O.W. Holmes understood this when he wrote: “The law threatens certain pains if you do certain things, intending thereby to give you a new motive for not doing them. If you persist in doing them, the law must inflict these pains in order that its threats may continue to be believed.” O.W. Holmes, Jr., The Common Law. Notice that, under Holmes’s theory, punishment did not rely on the idea that the person punished was deterrable, or had “free will.” Punishment was merely an unavoidable by-product of sending a credible signal to those who are deterrable.

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