More misunderstanding of free will

January 4, 2014 • 12:48 pm

Every time I think that the folks at the Discovery Institute can’t get any denser, they surprise me.  Over at the DI’s website, Evolution News & Views, the IDers have taken on my denial of libertarian free will in a post by neurosurgeon Michael Egnor, “When machines collide.”

Scouring my website (I guess he doesn’t have enough surgery to do), Egnor came across the post in which I described how my car was damaged by a hit-and-run driver, but how a helpful medical student took down the model and license number of the offending car.  My calling the post “The good and bad of humanity” led Egnor to charge me with hypocrisy, to wit:

Coyne titled his post “The good and bad of humanity.” The cognitive dissonance is amusing. After all, Coyne has argued emphatically that man has no free will, and “choices” are really determined entirely by biochemistry and history. So “good” and “bad” don’t really apply to humanity. If Coyne is right about free will, then the guy who drove off has no more moral culpability than the car he was driving. The cars and the driver and Coyne himself have no free agency at all. If determinism is true, no other event was possible.

Coyne’s soulless deterministic world is merely an arena in which chance and physics and chemistry play. We’re all meat machines, incapable of free will. So a machine is angry that a machine damaged his machine.

The only flicker of libertarian free will in Coyne’s deterministic dystopia is when someone dents his fender.

The statement that “‘good’ and ‘bad’ don’t really apply to humanity” is Egnor’s own mistaken characterization of my views. Of course I see actions as “good” or “bad”, based on their salubrious or deleterious effects on individuals or society.  And, if Egnor actually read what I wrote instead of filtering everything through his religious/libertarian worldview, he’d know that.  Approbation and disapprobation are useful social tools, for, although we have no choice about how we act, we can influence how others act by giving their behavior labels and sanctioning or rewarding them accordingly. Presumably Egnor doesn’t think that dogs have libertarian free will, but you can train a dog to behave according to your liking.

Indeed, I don’t believe in moral culpability: that term is without real meaning if one denies the possibility of free choice. But there can still be still “culpability” based on the effects of one’s actions. (I’d be glad to hear readers’ feelings about why we should retain the term “morality” if there is no free choice.)

As for my using the terms “good” and “bad” as showing a “flicker of libertarian free will,” well, that’s just wrong. It’s bad for me, and bad for society, if people are allowed to damage other people’s property and then get off scot-free.  Yes, the guy who hit my car had no choice in what he did, and I had no choice about reporting him, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not useful for me to report him.

Three things are clear in all this. First, Egnor doesn’t understand my views on free will—either that or he does understand them but mischaracterizes them on purpose.

Second, he—and no doubt many of his creationist colleagues—do indeed believe in libertarian free will: the “ghost in the machine,” as do many religious people.  So those philosophers who say that few people are true libertarians are simply wrong. True libertarian free will is an essential part of many religions, and without it the foundations of faith would crack. And there are a lot of religious people. That is why I think that those philosophers who spend their time confecting ways to reconcile free will and determinism are wasting their time. There are more important jobs to do, like telling religious folks about determinism. In fact, even using the term “free will” helps enable religious belief.

Finally, Egnor’s blathering continues to show that the people at the Discovery Institute have run out of arguments for Intelligent Design. They’ve lost the battle against evolution: they lost it in Texas, twice, they lost in at Ball State, and they’ve repeatedly lost it in court. Now, bereft of success, they’re reduced to pointing out what they see as inconsistencies or character flaws in evolutionary biologists. (Remember when they allied me with Nazis, racists, and eugenicists simply because I visited John Scopes’s grave and said I’d like to shake his hand?) But it would at least behoove them to understand what their opponents are saying before they attack them.

This will no doubt inspire another rancorous fusillade by Egnor, but I thought it was worth correcting a common misunderstanding of incompatibilism. I don’t expect Egnor to understand this (after all, he’s only a neurosurgeon), but perhaps others might.

231 thoughts on “More misunderstanding of free will

  1. Indeed, I don’t believe in moral culpability: that term is without real meaning if one denies the possibility of free choice.

    It has the real meaning of “amenable-to-social-opprobrium culpability

    I’d be glad to hear readers’ feelings about why we should retain the term “morality” if there is no free choice.

    Because if you don’t you’ll soon need a word that means the same thing (since saying “amenable-to-social-opprobrium culpability” instead of “moral responsibility” is a bit cumbersome).

    1. How about holding people RESPONSIBLE for their actions instead if MORALLY RESPONSIBLE? That’s one word less! Win, win.

      1. How about holding people RESPONSIBLE for their actions instead if MORALLY RESPONSIBLE?

        Because (normative) morality is generally understood to be concerned with *prescribing* “how we ought to treat one another.”

        If you only stick to saying “Fred is responsible for stealing the money” in the sense you seem to be using it, what does it tell us? It seems to simply identify Fred as being the agent that caused the stealing.
        It doesn’t tell us whether Fred OUGHT to have or OUGHT NOT have stolen the money.
        Which also means it doesn’t tell anyone whether he ought to or ought not steal money.

        In other words, in simply identifying someone as “responsible for stealing” you’ve just got an “is” statement, without showing how you are going to get to an “ought” for why anyone else shouldn’t do it. And how are
        you going to have a rational basis for affecting other people’s behavior, recommending one action over another, without
        explaining why someone OUGHT to have treated a victim any better?

        To say “this is what I label good or bad” (e.g. has salubrious or deleterious effects on individuals or society) also in of itself isn’t prescriptive either. It just tells you the labels you are slapping on certain actions – it doesn’t explain WHY one ought to do one action vs the other.

        And clearly you and Jerry DO want to retain the project of being able to recommend some actions over others. But then you run into the issue of saying “you ought to do X instead of Y” if you are also saying “real alternative choices/options don’t exist.”
        That amounts to contradiction.

        But insofar as you are going to finally get to saying “This is how I recommend we treat one another, not THIS way but THAT way…” then you are doing what is normally held to be “morality” anyway. “Moral responsibility” pertaining to those actions that involve how we think we should treat one another” (as opposed to, say, those actions that only take our own desires and goals into account).


        1. No, because historically the word “moral” implied—and still implies to the vast majority of people—that they could have chosen to do otherwise in a given situation. That is what it means to religious people, the vast majority of people in the U.S.

          As for “ought,” if you insist on using it (I wouldn’t, though of course I am trapped in the illusion of free will as well), it can be construed as “if you do this, it will have consequences X and you will be punished/rewarded” for it.

          One can be prescriptive without adding to it the notion that actions or people are “moral” or “immoral”. For that implies that we can make choices that mold our characters. Presumably you agree that we can’t.

          It’s more than semantic, because people are treated differently in the justice system if they’re thought to have been able to choose one alternative rather than another. They can’t. We all have guns to our head, except that the guns are our neurons, molded by our environments and genes. Those do exactly the same thing that someone holding a real gun to our head does.

          1. historically the word “moral” implied—and still implies to the vast majority of people—that they could have chosen to do otherwise in a given situation.

            And they indeed might have done differently had the environmental conditions (level of social opprobrium for such acts, etc) been different.

            people are treated differently in the justice system if they’re thought to have been able to choose one alternative rather than another. They can’t.

            So you want to treat everyone the same? The person who commits crimes owing to a brain tumour gets exactly the same treatment as anyone else?

            If not, presumably it’s because deterrence would work for most but not for the person with the brain tumour. In which case the relevant issue is *not* whether they had “freewill”, it is whether deterrence would be effective.

            In other words, some acts are amenable to social opprobrium as a deterrence, some are not.

            In which case, why not use the terminology “moral” and “immoral” about the former?

            If the answer to that is that “moral” language is too bound up with religion, then we have a choice: (1) replace the “moral” language with new language, (2) educate people to realise that morality is nothing to do with religion.

            The example of Europe suggests that (2) is easier to achieve, since vast swathes accept that morality is nothing to do with religion, yet everyone still uses the “moral” language.

            I suspect that “atheists say that morality is nothing to do with religion” is a much easier sell than “atheists say there is no such thing as morality”, because all of us *feel* our own sense of morality.

            1. Your first point, that someone could have “done otherwise” if the situation or person had been different, is completely irrelevant to this discussion.

              Further, I have said many times that I don’t want to treat everyone the same, and you know that because you’ve participated in these discussions before. So please don’t distort what I’ve said. What is important is the avoidance of retributive punishment, which rests on the notion of free choice, and a scientific approach in which one tailors the punishment to the person as well as the act and to society, seems the best approach.

              I am more concerned with spreading the message of determinism than with what word one uses, though I think the word “morality” has baggage that is too ingrained. Regardless, philosophers should be spending their time working out the consequences of determinism for our society instead of spinning their wheels making up many different and incompatible versions of compatibilism. That serves no purpose whatsoever.

              1. If you’re tailoring the punishment to the person, act and society then — presumably — the main or sole point of the punishment is deterrence.

                In that case, my first point, that people could have done otherwise given a different level of deterrence, is entirely relevant. Indeed, it is the main point of the punishment.

                You’re right that the concept “moral” has ingrained religious baggage, but the concept “moral” itself is even more ingrained in us.

              2. If youre tailoring the punishment to the person, act and society then presumably the main or sole point of the punishment is deterrence.

                This does not at all follow. Any competent physician, psychologist, physical therapist, etc. is going to tailor treatment to the individual. For that matter, so is any auto mechanic or plumber.

                There are many reasons for a criminal justice system than deterrence — though, of course, deterrence may well be one of the intended purposes. Historically, of course, there’s retribution, and, sadly, there’s no denying that that remains a key goal of American jurisprudence. But there’s also rehabilitation, as well as simple quarantine.

                The crime’s already been done. And, all too often, it was done because the criminal lacked the education or skills or other resources to have accomplished his own goals in a less antisocial fashion. Sure, you could put a bullet in his brain and be sure he’d never do it again that way, but that causes waaaaaaay more other problems than it solves. Much better to invest in him the same way that you invest in everybody else but that he obviously missed out on, and thereby turn him into a productive member of society. And much better still to invest in education (etc.) such that people don’t fall through the cracks in the first place.

                Some other criminals will have mental health problems of various sorts. Again, treat them the same way you’d treat anybody else. The ones who recover sufficiently to no longer pose a threat to society belong back in society where, again, they can shoulder their fair burden. Those who can’t deserve the same sort of long-term compassionate care we’d offer to anybody else with a permanent disability (and would wish for ourselves).

                Of course, all that applies to actual crimes, and not this fucked-up bullshit “legislated morality” of the War on Some Drugs variety. It’s that which accounts for the overwhelming majority of prisoners in America, and they have no business in prison in the first place.



              3. Any competent physician, psychologist, physical therapist, etc. is going to tailor treatment to the individual.

                There is a big difference between *treatment* and *punishment*, and my comment was about the latter. What other rationale do you have for punishment other than deterrence?

              4. Punishment is barbaric. And I don’t think Jerry thinks it has any place in the judicial system. I know for certain I don’t.

                (If he’s used the word, I’m sure it’s as a shorthand for “what happens to the criminal following conviction,” as is very common in informal usage, even when actually punishing the prisoner is the last thing on the person’s mind.)



              5. People don’t not do bad things out of the deterrence of the fear of punishment. By and large, people simply don’t do bad things because they don’t want to live in a world in which people do bad things.

                Those who ostensibly need deterrence instead need to be civilized, to learn those lessons which the rest of us learned as children. Those unable to be civilized need to be quarantined.

                As it so happens, both those options are unpleasant enough for people only marginally civilized that they see them as deterrents. Insofar as it has the effect of them sufficiently mimicking civilized behavior, that’s just fine.



              6. Well let’s suppose I could rob a bank, and get $30 million if I got away with it. If I got caught I’d get treatment, which, let’ s suppose, takes two days, is not at all unpleasant, and is effective (I’d never rob a bank again). Then I’d be returned to society.

                Well, I think I might go for it. Of course it wouldn’t sit well with my conscience, but for $30 million I’d be willing to over-rule my conscience.

                Would you want to have me quarantined? If so, I suspect you’d be quarantining a large swath of the population.

                By the way, no I wouldn’t want to live in a society where people robbed banks a lot, but that’s a different issue from whether I personally would rob a bank (cf. tragedy of the commons).

              7. These types of hypotheticals don’t add much to this sort of discussion, for they distort reality into forms that it isn’t actually, but that more resembles some particular unreal caricature.

                I could illustrate all the problems with your scenario, but instead I’ll build upon it.

                What if anybody could rob any bank at any time for $30M without any harm to anybody? It’s just one additional distortion of reality; instead of you magically not suffering ill consequences from your action, nobody suffers ill consequences. Clearly, in this hypothetical, with no harm to anybody, even the thought that it could somehow be “bad” doesn’t make sense, and the whole thought experiment is rendered incoherent.

                The same sorts of disconnects happen even with your scenario. The real world just doesn’t work like that.

                Another vital point to make is that all of our morality is based upon probabilities and aggregate outcomes. In that way, it’s much like health-related matters. As my grandfather used to say, if you smoke a pack of cigarettes every day for 70 years, you’ll live to be an old man — which is exactly what he did. Yes, there have been people who smoked every day from high school through to their 80s. But the overwhelming majority of people who smoke that much die unpleasant deaths at ages much younger than everybody else. If you wish to maximize your chances of a long and healthy life, you shouldn’t smoke.

                Similarly, there have been people who have committed heinous crimes and gotten away with it. That doesn’t change the fact that, if you again wish to maximize your chances of a long and healthy and happy life with a minimal amount of stress, you shouldn’t commit heinous crimes.

                If it’s perfection and absolute arguments you’re looking for, try the church down the street. It’s pure bullshit, of course, but that’s their specialty. Reality is a lot messier, but that doesn’t change the fact that the dice we roll really are very heavily weighted, and only the fools bet against the house.

                Even if the house does sometimes lose.



              8. Your suggestion of stealing money in a way that harms no-one is self-contradictory, in that the money had to be someone’s (even if it’s a tiny loss to a lot of people).

                My scenario is coherent, indeed it’s not that implausible that sometime we might “in the real world” have such a treatment for a sex offender.

                How, then, do you deter the initial offence? Screening and preventative treatment for all?

              9. Then reduce the stakes a bit.

                What is it that prevents you from stealing in other situations, even ones where you know you won’t get caught? Would you steal a salt shaker from a restaurant? How about your neighbor’s garden tools (while she’s on vacation) to sell for a bit of extra cash at an out-of-town pawn shop on your own next road trip? Maybe you could “appropriate” a laptop from work?

                Especially if those were one-off thefts, your chances of getting away with them far surpass those in your hypothetical bank heist. Indeed, any reasonably competent adult should be able to pull off that sort of thing.

                And yet practically nobody, you included, ever does that sort of thing.

                Take it up a notch, and an awful lot of people in an awful lot of jobs — especially accountants and systems administrators — are in positions to embezzle huge sums, and they could be quite reasonably confident of success if they’re sufficiently modest about it and don’t make an habit of it.

                Why don’t you, Coel, yourself commit those sorts of crimes? It’s clearly not fear of punishment.

                When you understand why you’re not a criminal, and that it has nothing to do with deterrence, you’ll understand why deterrence is, far and away, the absolute least effective means of keeping people honest.

                Somebody who only acts honestly out of fear from getting caught will leap at the opportunity to be dishonest the moment he thinks he can get away with it. But a truly honest person needs no such threats of compulsion — and most people really are truly honest.

                …and, for those who aren’t, we have the criminal justice system — a system which can only be maximally effective if it makes people honest for the sake of honesty, and not out of fear of punishment.



              10. On stealing minor things like a salt shaker, no I don’t because the benefit to me is trivial, so isn’t worth the wrestle with conscience and the minor chance of getting caught.

                As for embezzling large sums, relatively few people are actually in a position to get away with it and the downsides of getting caught are large (especially since those in a position to do it usually have well paid careers and thus have a lot to lose). [Again, your position is slightly contradictory: “embezzle large sums … confident of success if they do it modestly and don’t make a habit out of it” — the latter means they won’t get large sums.]

                Further, such fraud is a very real issue, lots of people try it, some get caught. If the downsides were far less a lot more people would try it.

                You seem to have a utopian view of human nature that is at odds with reality.

                What would you have done with Madoff? Bear in mind that a lot of 20-yr-olds starting off in that industry would take note.

              11. With Madoff, the first thing I’d have done is slapped his investors upside the head with an halibut that’s gone off.

                The financial meltdown was predictable, and very likely intentionally orchestrated. Congress lifted the regulations put in place after the last similar exercise, with inevitable consequences. And the bailout just closed the loop such that we paid the thieves for their ingenuity. The whole thing is so fucked up on so many levels and grew from such profound corruption that I can’t imagine where to begin addressing the mess.

                But the earlier part of your note suggests that — and I write what I’m about to in the hopes that it’ll trigger some serious introspection on your part — you’re not actually an honest person. You weigh risks versus rewards and will take advantage of others should you perceive the reward to outweigh the risk. You’re sufficiently risk-adverse that I don’t think you’re likely to commit very many or very serious crimes, but only for your fear of getting caught.

                It might blow your mind to learn this, but your way of thinking certainly isn’t universal, and I very much doubt it’s typical. Sure, it’s not uncommon…but where it’s far and away the most common is amongst criminals, including white-collar criminals and sociopaths, with your own example of Madoff being perfect.

                Why do I think it’s atypical? Because the overwhelming majority of people don’t actually cheat and steal, and most of those who do do so once or twice without getting caught generally feel overwhelming remorse and regret at having done so.

                So…again. Your rationale for not stealing things may well be “good enough,” but it’s not healthy. And you owe it to yourself to figure out why you think the way you do, and to take careful and conscious and considerate action as you see fit to compensate.

                …and that goes triple if your first reaction on reading my description of majorities was, “Oh, that’s so naïve!”

                I should, at this point, stress that I’m not suggesting that we do away with all external disincentives to do harm to others. At the very least, “games” (such as the markets) need to be “rigged” in such a way that cheating cannot go undetected and will not be rewarded.

                But I’ll still stand by my point that retributive punishment is barbaric and has no place in civilized society. There are much more effective ways of achieving the goal of crime reduction and mitigation.



              12. I don’t think that anyone is perfectly honest or perfectly dishonest, everyone is somewhere on an honest–dishonest spectrum, and somewhere on a peaceful–aggressive spectrum, and somewhere on a hardworking–lazy spectrum, and the generous–selfish spectrum, et cetera.

                The whole point of society is to push people to the desired ends of these spectra by means of incentives and disincentives. Deterrent punishments are part of this.

                If I went for a walk in the woods and stumbled over a suitcase containing $30 million in used notes, would I keep it or hand it to the police? OK, I admit, I might well keep it. Call me a sociopath if you wish!

                I suspect that a lot of people are more like me than your rather utopian view suggests.

              13. That’s another great example.

                Most people who stumbled over a suitcase with $30M in used notes would be scared shitless, and most would be a lot smarter than to try to keep and spend it.

                Again, I’m not trying to suggest that there’s nobody who would do what you would do. Clearly, there are a great many people like you.

                But, first, you’re very much in the minority, even if it’s a minority of millions; and, second, the reason civilization (mostly) works is because you’re in the minority, not because we have effective means to keep you in check.



              14. “Most people who stumbled over a suitcase with $30M in used notes would be scared shitless, and most would be a lot smarter than to try to keep and spend it.”

                So them not keeping it is owing to fear of bad consequences, rather than innate honesty? If so you’re making my point for me.

              15. In this particular case, absolutely. A suitcase with $30M in it just screams, “DRUGS!” Either there’s a drug lord who’ll be looking for it, or a DEA agent watching to see who picks it up, or, best case, you’ve now got to figure out how to launder $30M in cash — an exercise that’ll get you branded and arrested as a drug lord in the absolute best of realistic circumstances.

                I could easily make up a similar scenario. What if an exiled Nigerian prince offered you a 30% cut of a $100M fortune if you’ll only assist with the bank transfers? Would it be the fear of bad consequences that kept you from taking him up on the offer?

                Remember — you’re the one who came up with the bad suitcase example, not me.

                And I still maintain that the reason most people don’t do bad things is because they don’t want to do bad things.

                Here’s another, much more visceral example.

                You’re camping in the middle of nowhere. You come across a lone woman whom you find powerfully physically attractive, but you realize you couldn’t stand her personality if you spent any time with her. You’re a strong man; she’s got a slight frame. Or maybe you’ve got a gun and she doesn’t. Would you rape her for the fun of it and then murder her to keep her from calling the cops?

                The reason most people wouldn’t rape and murder her isn’t because they don’t think they could get away with it. It’s because they find the very thought horrific and repulsive — and, for that matter, you’d have to be the one to suggest the possibility because it wouldn’t even occur to them otherwise.

                The same goes for the thefts we’ve been discussing, petty and grand both. It just doesn’t occur to people to steal things, and they find the thought distasteful at best. Sure, if they think about it long and hard enough (such as in the context of these types of discussions) they might eventually get around to the risk v reward calculations that you’ve been making…but, by that point, it’s just an intellectual exercise with no bearing on reality whatsoever.



              16. You do seem to be admitting that the fear of bad things is a powerful disincentive in at least some cases (the cash-stuffed suitcase).

                You’re also right that in other cases (your rape example where you’re harming someone greatly and very directly) ones decency would prevail (for most people).

                What I’m suggesting is that both aspects are important in general, that people do indeed do a crude cost-benefit analysis of such things, and that the whole point of the criminal law and penalties is to affect that calculation.

                Without it you’d have vastly more insider-trading, fraud, embezzlement, etc.

              17. Of course fear of negative consequences is a powerful disincentive. That’s why people generally don’t stick their hands into fires or jump off cliffs or play catch with beehives. Your suitcase example is of that variety, and only very vaguely one of the morality of theft.

                As for your last three examples, I’m pretty sure research has been done that shows that the perpetrators of such crimes generally, if not overwhelmingly, suffer from sociopathic personality disorders. And other research has shown that such people are drawn to positions where they have access to commit such crimes and disproportionately represented therein. CEOs are notorious for being sociopaths, and they’re the ones most likely to commit insider trading. And large-scale fraud usually involves the purchase of politicians, such as, again, with the recent financial meltdown — and those purchases are generally made by or on the order of the CEOs and other sociopaths.

                Now, if you want to argue that we need to have mechanisms in place to keep sociopaths in check, I’d heartily agree. But, there, the primary proper solution is to provide sufficient transparency (audits, etc. to prevent the crime from happening in the first place, and, ideally, screening to keep sociopaths out of positions of trust in the first place — the same way that surgeons aren’t permitted to operate on patients when the surgeon has an infectious disease.

                The solution still isn’t retributive punishment.

                Oh, sure, when people commit fraud (or whatever) anyway, take away all their ill-gotten gains (remove the profit incentive), never put them in positions of trust again (which is common sense even if they’ll interpret it as punitive), and rehabilitate them as best as possible (again, common sense but undesired).

                But don’t punish them, and don’t think that fear of punishment is primarily what protects you from people doing bad things to you.

                And, a pro tip? Anybody who insists that the only way to stop people from doing bad things is to threaten them with worse is somebody to keep an eye on. Even — nay, especially — if that means you keeping an eye on yourself.



              18. I don’t think Ben is saying that there are no consequences. Logical consequences of committing a crime might be quite dramatic, including being confined away from society until such time as everyone can be reasonable sure that community safety will no longer be endangered.

          2. Thanks Prof. Coyne.

            (I understand you don’t have time to stick around and continue to reply to everyone. But my response…)

            As for “ought,” if you insist on using it (I wouldn’t, though of course I am trapped in the illusion of free will as well), it can be construed as “if you do this, it will have consequences X and you will be punished/rewarded” for it.

            1. But since it’s not the case that people are always caught or punished, and most criminals do crimes on the presumption they can get away with it anyway, your “ought” statement leaves the implication: “But if you can do X without punishment, there’s no reason not to do X.” That seems problematic. It seems to me we’d want to be able to give reasons why we ought not do a crime even IF we can get away with it.

            More fundamentally, though:

            2. You’ve inserted an “is” statement and called it an “ought” statement, with no additional argument for how that “is” statement suddenly becomes prescriptive – how it recommends an action. “If you take the food supply away from a child he will starve to death” may be a factual statement, but it doesn’t entail “therefore you ought to take the food supply away from a child.” Nor does it entail “therefore you ought not take the food supply away from the child.” That seems to be the general problem with “is” statements by themselves.

            So I don’t see how your “is” statement that simply states a likely consequence works in giving reasons for someone to alter his behavior, as you wish.

            3. Your “ought/is” statement is using the language of alternate possibilities: If you do X this will happen, but if you do Y that will happen.

            But if you start out criticizing such logical possibilities as “not really existing” – e.g. we could never have chosen otherwise – then what are we to do with such statements? I’m going to ask “do I REALLY have the option to take either course of action?” If you say “no, not really, that would be just an illusion” then the claims you are making to me, and the reasons you are trying to give for me to do one action over the other are illusory too, and lose their force.

            I just can’t see the coherency of how it all fits together.


          3. We all have guns to our head, except that the guns are our neurons, molded by our environments and genes. Those do exactly the same thing that someone holding a real gun to our head does.

            Sorry, but no. A real gun to our head overrides all other considerations, precludes the possibility of rational deliberation, and makes us immune to social opprobrium. Properly functioning neurons, properly interconnected, have the opposite effect: they enable rational deliberation, expand the possibilities available to us, and render us amenable to social opprobrium.

            Both situations are deterministic, but to characterize them as “exactly the same” misses the whole point of having a large, complex brain in the first place.

            1. I disagree. Having a gun to your head sets off all the same kind of rational calculations that any dangerous situation would. Will the guy shoot? Can I disarm him? What should I do? Some people do resist, you know. And the determinism of that moment is just like the determinism of every other moment. Inputs are taken in, filtered by an evolved brain, and there is an output.

              You might also consider that saying “Sorry, but no.” is snarky, like somebody wagging a finger.

        2. Actually, your example sentence says to me that it is Fred’s job to steal the money. If we were describing an action already taken it would be something like “…having stolen…” and we know that there are rules against it because stealing is illegal. I don’t see any of the ambiguity that seems to worry you.

      2. Because someone who commits a crime owing to a brain tumour is “responsible” for their actions, but not “amenable-to-social-opprobrium” responsible and thus not “morally” responsible.

        Wouldn’t your attitude to such a person be different?

  2. 4 out of 5 comments above are subs – is there a way for you all to “subscribe” without adding extraneous comments? Thanks.

    (my apologizes if my request/question is against the roolz, I don’t remember seeing this addressed)

    1. There is no way to subscribe to a thread without making a comment, so I don’t see any real issue here. If people want to read what others say but don’t have anything to say themselves, well, they have no choice but to “sub” 🙂

  3. It’s interesting that, whenever religulous people who believe in free will (as they must, of course) discuss determinists, they automatically assume that the “robots” we supposedly claim mankind to be are cruel, selfish, uncaring, “evil” robots; this merely highlights the sinister underpinnings of why they think religion is a “must”: THEY already think that mankind is basically cruel, selfish, and uncaring and that their particular contrived belief system is the only thing that can “save us from ourselves.”
    – It also pisses them off that atheists appear to enjoy things like sunsets, puppies, etc.- why, those pleasures should be reserved for BELIEVERS only!

    1. “whenever religulous people who believe in free will (as they must, of course) ”

      Not so….many flavors of Christianity believe in predestination or believe that Christ “calls” specific people to the fold.

      1. This is one of the funniest things I ever heard:
        A friend of mine told me, “All my life I’ve prayed that I wouldn’t get The Call.”
        I think that if he believes praying to God will have any influence over whether he will become a follower, means that he already is.

      2. I’m not sure “not so” works here. Logical consistency is not a common attribute of christianity. What you say is correct, but at the same time they also believe that Big Daddy gave them free will. The only thing is, if you use it you are fucked, forever. This inconsistency is consistent with Big Daddy setting mankind up for failure and eternal indentured servitude. Which is the one consistent theme to be found in christianity.

        1. “Logical consistency is not a common attribute of christianity.”

          Well, yes, I stand corrected. 🙂

      3. I understand that (the old debate between salvation by “grace” or salvation by “works”), but I also understand it to be yet another example of how logically inconsistent the Xtian belief system is: in order for Christ’s “blood-atonement” to be meaningful, Adam and Eve HAD to, of their own free will, “sin” in their eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. How could a creature who is not in control of its actions, “sin”? Of course, another ridiculous aspect of it is that, until they DID learn of “good” and “evil” through their eating of the fruit, how would they have known that to go against God’s will was a “bad” thing? The need for Christ’s sacrifice to save us from original sin is far more of a “core” belief (essential, actually) in the religion than the sectarian differences as to just who gets to go to Heaven, and why.

        The other major religions rely on “free” will as well, in one way or another: even Buddhism relies on the adherent making a free-willed decision to seek the solution to suffering in this existence (which is ironic and contradictory in a philosophy that denies the very existence of a permanent “self”).

    2. “religulous” in the Bill Maher sense ?

      It pisses them off that anyone enjoys anything, at all, ever.

      Christian (and most monotheistic) eschatology is focused on death and an eternal afterlife.

      Any action that detracts from that death cult goal is a sin.

      Any action that emphasizes how worthless this life is deemed moral, hence the religious preoccupation with suffering, poverty and ignorance.

      Any action that decreases human well being in this life is a validation of the religious world view and goes a long way to explain why the Egnors of this world are implacably opposed to equal rights for gays, women’s control over their own bodies, family planning, universal socialized medicine, public education and most other secular values that work to increase the well being of human beings.

      H.L. Mencken — ‘Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.’

    3. Not just believers either. People in general seem to really dislike the idea that free will is an illusion and many do indeed equate it with being robots with the implied sociopathy that robots have.

      What perplexes me is that really all this in the practical sense is moot. It’s necessary to understand and I must say so interesting to explore, but free will and dare I say the self are most likely necessary illusions to allow humans to function and knowing they are illusions doesn’t allow us necessarily to break the illusion (maybe it’s even near to impossible to do so).

      So, if these illusions are necessary and we are stuck in the Matrix, we are going to behave the same way (except for making more informed decisions about crime and punishment and even treatments for crimes) so Egnor looking for little cracks in Jerry’s behaviour or opinions is futile because he’s going to behave like a normal human who is subject to the illusions of free will and self; he just knows they are illusions.

      This makes Egnor look extra childish and dare I say, a little pathological; maybe even a little backward.

      1. I think your second last paragraph hits the nail on the head.

        This is exactly what people like Egnor do not, or refuse to, understand. The fact is that the illusion of freewill is indistinguishable from freewill in practise. The difference is that the illusion of freewill is consistent with ordinary cause and effect (plus or minus quantum probability), whereas freewill requires something for which there is no evidence.

      2. While I can see that it’s probably an illusion that we make choices I have difficultly with the concept that the self is an illusion. If the self is an illusion who or what is deluded?

        1. No good philosopher would deny that consciousness is real. Consciousness is real, just as the self is real. These are not illusions. Consciousness is constrained to the activity of collective neural states. Without something physical, there would be no consciousness as far as we know.

          Take, for example, Odysseus. Obviously, not real, but in what way? The reality of Odysseus relies on qualities which define him and his life. These properties are largely guided by Homer but also by others who paint him or rewrite him in movies, etc..

          Many believe that consciousness, like their favorite god, is real, but it is only in the way that Odysseus is manufactured to be real. Unlike Odysseus, consciousness arises from the physical world: atoms, cells, biology, evolution, not from our willing it into existence like a fictional hero.

        2. You’d probably agree that when you look in the mirror and see your face, there really is no being behind your that you call “me”. That is dualism so we agree there is no “ghost in the machine” & we are our brains. If you don’t agree with this and you are a dualist then you won’t accept the self illusion at all but I suspect you aren’t a dualist.

          So, the self as an illusion is based on scientific understanding of the brain. The brain takes in an unfathomable amount of information at any given second in parallel. It needs to filter out the irrelevant stuff, act on some of the stuff and show us still different stuff. The self is formed by processing this data (some conscious inputs include how other people interact with us, experiences we have). The self puts these experiences together from fragmented narratives. The self becomes the focus of all this data so that we are not overwhelmed with the burden of dealing with all these computations separately.

          One way of understanding how the self is an illusion is it didn’t manifest fully formed in us at birth. It slowly developed. If the self was really a fully formed, unified entity, you’d expect it to exist like our body does – fully formed, even if it changes. It has been suggested that we don’t have memories earlier than the age of 2 or so because we do not have a fully formed self that comes with brain development to hang those experiences on.

          What I’ve written is a small part of a wider body of work. More information about this can be found in The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity by Bruce Hood. It’s a good read but I find the editing of the book was not done very well and it appears rushed (there are numerous glaring grammar errors and the book could have done with more coherence – summation of chapters, a central repeated thesis to make it more readable).

          Another book is Altered Egos: How the Brain Creates the Self by Todd E. Feinberg which I haven’t read but I’ve heard is better written.

        3. This one’s a bit tricky. The only coherent conclusion is that all human experience is illusory, which leads to the subsequent conclusion that the distinction between illusion and reality isn’t as useful in this context as it is in other contexts.

          Before I begin, please note that our language is inherently dualistic. There’s no graceful way to write what I’m about to write without using dualistic terminology that imply some sort of spirit-type idealized ego in charge of things. Please, everybody, let’s not get sidetracked with arguments over this flavor of semantics. As you’ll see at the end, it ultimately doesn’t matter outside of these types of (generally very rare) discussions.

          Pick your favorite optical illusion. I’m sure we’re all quite comfortable describing it as, in fact, an illusion.

          Now, here’s the rub: everything else you see is every bit as illusory; it’s just that the discrepancies between this mental model of the outside world aren’t as glaringly inconsistent with other independent means of sensing the world.

          All our senses are the same. We build crude — very crude — models inside our heads of what the outside reality is like. The direct reports of these models are very often contradictory, so we’ve developed methods for refining our internal models to make them more consistent, despite those direct reports. Yet, ultimately, these internal models of reality are still just that — models. No matter how accurate the reflections, they remain reflections.

          In the “free will” debate, this directly applies. When you feel like you’re exercising what people call your free will, you’re building new models that only exist in your head, one model for each option you perceive before you that you’re contemplating. You imagine what the result will be if you ask your boss for a raise, and you imagine what the result will be if you don’t. You compare the end result of those two virtual reality simulations, and whether you do or don’t ask your boss for a raise depends on the end states in those virtual realities.

          Again, clearly, all this is going on in your head; equally obviously, it’s even farther disconnected from the “real” reality than your senses — senses that we’ve already figured out are themselves mere reflections.

          Once you get this far down the rabbit hole, there’s no escape. Every thought you have is an echo of a reflection of an illusion. Oh, sure, the neurons in your brain really are firing in various patterns and your thoughts really do emerge from those patterns of firing, but there’e so many layers of abstraction between your thoughts and reality that to describe them as real just doesn’t even begin to make sense.

          Last, approach it from another angle. When you read a book, are the events that happen in the book real? Of course not. The book is just pieces of paper with squiggles on it. Peter Pan not only never actually existed in the real world, in the real real world he’s nothing other than some ink on a page. You build the illusion in your head of Peter Pan, and you also build the illusion of him flying his ship to Never-Never Land.

          And all those thoughts in your head when you read the book are no different from any other thoughts you ever have — except, again, some are less inconsistent with certain other observations.

          Now, again: context is key. It is a supremely useful thing in a different context to have somebody look through a telescope at the Andromeda Galaxy and say, “You’re seeing that galaxy as it was during the early days of H. habilis,” or handing somebody a trilobite fossil and say, “You’re holding in your hand the fossilized remains of something that really did crawl the seabeds an half a billion years ago.” Getting all pedantic and saying instead that “You have now constructed a virtual mental model of a low-bandiwidth, low-resolution, spectrally-distorted appearance of copies of photons that left what we’ve labeled as “the Andromeda Galaxy” a couple million years ago that Relativity nevertheless tells us really is happening right now” would be counter-productive in the extreme. Similarly, you wouldn’t give somebody a genetic analysis of the microorganisms to introduce into a certain growth medium to make bread; you’d just tell them to add a couple teaspoons of yeast.

          So, yeah. Everything mental is really an illusion, just as the ground you’re standing on isn’t really solid (with the electrostatic force of the outermost atoms creating the illusion of solidity). It’s good to know that that’s the case, but it really doesn’t have any more practical effect on how you go about living your life than the non-solid nature of matter does.



          1. Aside: this, “Last, approach it from another angle. When you read a book, are the events that happen in the book real? Of course not. The book is just pieces of paper with squiggles on it.” is why in Hamlet when someone asks Hamlet, who is reading a book, what he is reading & he replies “words, words, words” it brilliantly shows how he is mentally ill. His brain isn’t processing as it should and maintaining the illusion. Yes, Hamlet’s insanity could be argued but I think this is a good way to illustrate what you said.

            1. Yes, that’s certainly the same theme.

              But, even with Hamlet…Shakespeare’s brilliance is such that we’re left with the ambiguity of trying to decide if mentally unbalanced Hamlet only sees meaningless squiggles on a page no matter what sense he tries to make of them, or if he comprehends their meaning just fine but is experiencing existential angst at how, as we’ve been discussing, our lives are illusory despite all appearances to the contrary. Or, it could even be that he’s reading some utter piece of drek that no tree deserved to be pulped for.

              I would very strongly suspect, though, that Shakespeare intended for the audience to contemplate all those possibilities and wrestle with each, including the symbolism / illusion one we’ve been discussing.

              There’ve been lots of poets and playwrights since Shakespeare whose works are arguably superior, just as there’ve been lots of physicists since Newton who’ve done things he never could have imagined. But both men unquestionably deserve their towering stature, for they wee the first; it was upon their shoulders that everybody else stood; and what they did was so fucking awesome in and of itself.



            1. Hey, no worries — water under the bridge. I’m sure I let my own frustrations get the better of me and fired some undeserved splatters of napalm in your direction, too.

              (You do keep your fireproof suit on at all times, no? And it is an ACME suit, right? The others just don’t work for shit.)



              1. He heh, I thought you were playing on the absurd. Joking that you say mean things about Ben when we know you don’t. I find absurdity the funniest of jokes so when I read that I LOL’d.

  4. Love your blogs Jerry!

    In re: to “training dogs,” I’m not sure that I would limit our influence to others – of our own or other species. Might we (humans) increase the probability of our own preferred behaviors by altering our environments in such a way that we could accrue social or physical rewards for our own preferred behaviors? In other words, might we “train ourselves” just as we might “train others”? (Note: I concur that the act of changing environmental contingencies does not necessarily involve the presence of “free will.”)

    1. What would you be training humans towards and how do we establish what is preferred behaviour?

      1. The “training” need not be, and probably usually is not, consciously done. I think the answer is very obviously yes, our own behavior influences our own future behavior, whether a fraction of a second or years in the future. How could it not?

        One example, people train themselves all the time to modify their “instinctive” behavior from that which is normal for humans.

        1. Maybe I’m reading the training part a bit too cynically.

          What I was trying to get at was that morality is relative and differs greatly from individual to individual even though we inhabit similar socities. There’s no default morality that is independent of the specific environment.

          I fully concur that we train ourselves to a certain extent, but I’m not so sure this implies an instinct of morality.

          1. Ahh. I missed that context. I agree, that we can affect our own behavior does not mean we have an instict of morality. That seems like a separate issue independent of whether or not we can influence our own future behavior.

            In any case, being able to influence our own future behavior is not, I don’t think, a trait we have evolved or anything like that, I don’t think it could be any other way. It is just a consequence of an organism that receives input from its environment.

  5. As far as I’m concerned morality is an invention of religion, just like blasphemy. Actions are either ethical or unethical. If it harms someone it is unethical.

    Decisions are affected by genetics, hormones, environmental factors, and other agencies.

    1. This is literally a matter of semantics:
      moral, adj. ethical, honest
      1. of, pertaining to, or concerned with the principles or rules of right conduct or the distinction between right and wrong; ethical

      Go to the Oxford or Webster’s dictionaries and you’ll get similar results

          1. And these are the two systems that still maintain moral realism that have anything going for them. And most egoists think free will is a meaningful idea, which leaves us only with some form of consequentialism.

            i agree with Nietzsche that the conflict between older religion-based value systems and new values created by those attempting to radically revise morality in light of a scientific understanding of human nature is the source of the conflicts of the modern age. Compare a “harm reduction” model and a “War on Drugs” model for a good example. Or compare a consent-based system of sexual ethics to a religious taboo system.

            Nietzsche wasn’t exactly an optimist. He wasn’t all about scientific ethics versus old moralities. He understood that many movements would combine new understandings with old ideas and unleash horrible events. Every age of moral revision waters the earth with blood.

      1. It is not the way religious people use it. They define morality as conforming to their dogmatic beliefs only. My definition of ethics is straight forward.

        Religion has even defined genocide as moral.

        1. Oh, I agree with the way you’ve characterized some religious people interpret “morality”, but I don’t see that replacing “moral” with “ethical” solves anything.

    2. As far as I’m concerned morality is an invention of religion

      I suggest that you only think that because you live in a highly religious nation(I presume you’re from New England, US). In Europe vast numbers don’t think like that any more and for many people morality is pretty much divorced from religion.

      It could be closer to say that religion is an invention of morality, in that I’d think that moral notions are way older than religions in our evolutionary heritage. Chimpanzees and other social animals have notions of right and wrong modes of conduct (= morality).

  6. All this heated discussion seems to me to be too silly for words. Doesn’t this aggressive person have better things to do with his God-given time on this earth, than writing angry dissertations denigrating someone else’s point of view? The first time I wrote that, I made a mistake and wrote, “point of you”. But maybe this isn’t really a mistake. Naturally every person inhabits a completely different planet, made up of his body chemistry, state of health each day, whether he lives alone or is married with a household full of kids, and the entire history of all his private life experiences, right down to whether he got hot or cold cereal for breakfast as a child. (I am a Kellogs’-Variety-Pack kind of gal, myself.) Does it matter whether God or monkeys got us where we are? The main point is: Here we all are.
    Dear friends, please do not spend your energy and precious time being angrily indignant, and indignantly angry.
    Let us keep the peace and pet a cat.

    1. My, you sure did expend a lot of energy and precious time being indignant there!

      In any case, I’m pretty sure I don’t inhabit a different planet than my wife, my kids, or even you, for that matter. I think it matters to recognize reality.

      1. I have a few remarks to add from your comment:
        It was, of course, a matter of poetry to say that we all inhabit a different planet. I didn’t mean literally that there are billions of separate globes hanging around, just that every person brings his own perspective into every situation. Opinions dominate the many factors we take as reality to such an extent that it is often impossible to understand what happened, even when two people witness the same event at the same time. (Think of the Japanese classic, “Rashomon” as a great example.) So, hmm, what is reality? I wouldn’t even begin to touch that subject, not in this erudite company. I have a wide personal experience of watching people go crazy, just by having their perimeters shifted around until they cannot constantly adjust the incessant “if-then” processes of the human brain. Once you change “if-then” reasoning, you get “if…?”. The person doesn’t know how to understand what he is seeing or hearing any more, and it is merely a little skip and a hop to insanity. We mostly agree to view objective things in a similar way, but the rest is unaccountable. If I see a dead sheep, you may tell me it is in fact a great work of art, so valuable in fact that you give it a huge prize. Once it has that title, millions if other people will see the dead sheep as art too. What is the reality in this situation? It is the same for music. I might hear a lot of annoying noise, and you may tell me it is a wonderful composition. I will cover my ears, or better yet, leave the room, and you will pay a lot of money to sit there and experience the sounds. (I really wonder about this. If all sounds, structured or not, could be considered music, then we would be experiencing one long wonderful concert, every moment of our lives. Every over-filled trash can on the street should be seen as the highest Art. We would be bursting with joy at all the gloriousness of everything we experience, every second. Well, that would be nice of course. There probably are some people who see the world that way, but I bet they live in a meditation retreat and don’t have to pay any bills. The other people live in a world filled with trash and noise. Is one of them right, and lives in “reality”? I don’t know.
        My last point is this—you were right to say that I spent a lot of time being indignant enough to write my comment. So, I am not going to write anything here ever again. Thanks for pointing that out!

        1. Lol, Mitzi! You did it again!

          See you the next time you don’t waste your time making an indignant comment!

    2. I must have missed the “heated discussion”; I’m still looking for it- Ha! I disagree entirely with your description of the comments here as being “too silly for words” (which you somehow managed to describe by using WORDS, by the way). As for “indignant anger”, or “angry indignation”, I’ve felt for years that no worthwhile thing ever gets done in this world, save for the fact that someone was dissatisfied with the way things were (often vehemently so). And yes, it DOES matter, a LOT, whether “God or monkeys got us where we are.”

  7. Jerry,you write:
    “Yes, the guy who hit my car had no choice in what he did, and I had no choice about reporting him, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not useful for me to report him.

    I don’t get it–how this ironic-script called life works out.

    So the fact I think we can make alternative choices, do have the ability to create,etc. is a delusion forced upon me by deterministic reality?
    While your conviction of “no choice” is
    is an accurate assessment forced upon you by deterministic reality?

    So we don’t really think, can’t make rational “choices” but are done to by the cosmos?


      1. Approbation and disapprobation are useful social tools, for, although we have no choice about how we act, we can influence how others act by giving their behavior labels and sanctioning or rewarding them accordingly. Presumably Egnor doesn’t think that dogs have libertarian free will, but you can train a dog to behave according to your liking.

        But since you believe you have no choice about whether you will express approbation and disapprobation in your attempt to influence how others act, what is the point in describing “your” actions as having an influence – you don’t think, after all.

        As a compatibilist (not like the dualist to whom you’ve responded here), I still can’t see how you avoid nihilism. You clearly admire people who have made great intellectual or artistic contributions – but at the same time, I don’t see that admiration being consistent with you believing that people “don’t really think”. As I’ve said before on this site, I don’t see that a recognition that there are molecular scale mechanisms by which the process of “thinking” occurs as leading to the conclusion that “thinking” is an illusion.

        1. “But since you believe you have no choice about whether you will express approbation and disapprobation in your attempt to influence how others act, what is the point in describing “your” actions as having an influence – you don’t think, after all”

          It’s not a matter of there being a POINT in describing those actions as having an influence. The fact is that they DO have an influence. The passerby deterministically left a note on Jerry’s car, which deterministically had the effect of Jerry reporting the offence, which deterministically had the effect of police taking action against the purpetrator which, presumably, will have the deterministic effect of making such an action by the perpetrator less likely in the future.

          Alternatively, if a misreading of the no freewill argument deterministically caused Jerry to not report the offense, then that would have the deterministic effect of the police not being informed, the offender getting away with it and the offender to repeat this offence on the next occasion.

        2. This aspect of Jerry’s position has always been problematic, and he has never properly addressed it. Why would evolution have endowed us with a large, expensive brain and the capacity for rational thought if both thinking and rationality are illusions with no causal power?

          On the other hand, if he’s willing to grant that thoughts have real causal power (as they surely do), then why insist that choice (i.e. the process of thinking through and selecting among alternative courses of behavior) is an illusion?

          1. I don’t think anyone is suggesting that thinking is an illusion. Free will is an illusion. Free will =\= thinking.

            1. Time and time again, Jerry has called the process of making choices (i.e., exercising “free will”) an illusion. His reasoning supporting that description is that since the brain processes involved in making choices are deterministic – reactions between molecules, ultimately – the exercise of free will is an illusion. But all thinking, all creative processes, involves brain chemistry. He has never, until he answered ‘yes’ above, seemed to have conceded that thinking is an illusion (but it isn’t clear what he was saying ‘yes’ too). Hence my question: how does Jerry avoid nihilism?

            2. Daniel Wilcox: “So we don’t really think, can’t make rational ‘choices’ but are done to by the cosmos?”

              whyevolutionistrue: “Yes.”

              Sure sounds like Jerry is saying that thinking is an illusion.

              1. Words get a mite tricky at this point, or perhaps Jerry’s suffering from jet lag: I don’t believe he means that “thinking” is an illusion, for after all “thinking” is merely what the brain does: the “illusion” is manifested when the mind (which I believe is produced solely by the brain- traumatize the brain, you traumatize the mind) says, “I am making myself think this way, or that way; I am able to entirely disregard the effects of genetics, my sensory input, my circumstances, and my past experiences and memories in my choosing what course of action to pursue next.”

                In accepting the classical notion of “free” will, one is forced to adopt the notion of an “ego”, an entity, an “operator”; the “little man in the control booth” who presides over our decision-making processes. Problem is, when the operator makes up his mind as to what to do (or not do), he is doing so IN RESPONSE to outside stimuli or information, and bases that response on whatever “saved” information he has from the past as well as on his likes, dislikes, and his desires for the future (which are also based on his “saved” information)- change the information, and you’ll get a different response. One may ask, does the operator really have “free” will, or are his reactions, too, “determined” by “outside” influences? The definition of the word, “free” is, “not affected by any outside condition or circumstance”- have you ever made a decision that was not affected by any outside condition or circumstance?

                The word, “illusion” is not a good choice, here: an illusion, although it is not “real”, or what it seems to be, is nevertheless linked by its very nature to something that actually DOES exist (“an illusion OF; an illusion IN RELATION TO”), just as a mirage is an perceived, yet “un-real” image of a real object or scene (what would you call a mirage that looked like nothing that you’d ever seen before? Would you even recognize it AS a mirage?) If there were no recognition that illusion depends upon a reality for its existence, there would be no way to discern illusion FROM reality, and probably no word for it, either (Hmmmm… seems to be a lot of that going around these days- explains why the religious aren’t much for humor; they take everything as fact).

                In order to avoid further verbal “pitfalls”, I prefer the word, “construct”, instead of “illusion”: our seemingly-ingrained (although I feel much of it is cultural, and not “hard-wired”, the result of elemental errors in thinking early in mankind’s history) belief that we, and we alone, control our choices, is a construct (this would have survival-value in a society with others who believe it, too); that we are in command of our own thinking (funny how that kicks off and on, isn’t it?) is a construct; indeed, the notion that there actually IS a “we” is a construct, too. Buddhism talks of the “self” as likened to a cart: take away the axle, tongue and box, and what happens to “cart”? Take away your personal likes, dislikes, and memories, and where did “you” go? “Self”, too, is a construct; a very useful one. Were it an “illusion”, that would have to mean that there was a “higher” REAL “self” that it’s an illusion OF.

              2. There are two parts to that question. I think Jerry means choice is an illusion.

              3. But choice is the output of a thought process. The two are inextricably linked; without the process, the choice doesn’t get made. So it makes no sense to say that the process is real, but the choice is illusory.

        1. It is possible he means, rightly so, that predeterminism is not something we either understand or believe will be true given the laws of physics. Physics is, by definition, deterministic. That implies everything else is determined, chemistry, biology, etc. Yet, we (humans) have no way of knowing and have no theories which approach evaluating any accurate predictions about the dynamics of any particle or field at any time in the future. This clearly differentiates deterministic states from pre-deterministic states. Or, if you like, determinism is the same as predictable.

            1. I believe in “post-determinism”: that is, that everything that has happened to me in my life up until this moment of time HAD to happen!

  8. As to philosophers thinking that libertarian free will is a minor nuisance when it is quite wide spread, you would think philosophers would be used to their opinions having nothing to do with what the general public believes by now. After all, a great percentage are atheists.

    Philosophers have done a terrible job of actually bringing their thoughts to wider audiences and in its place we get crappy theological philosophy and people like Deepak Chopra reach the wider audiences.

  9. In fact, even using the term “free will” helps enable religious belief.

    IMHO, the only reason the religious have any interest in this issue is that it makes a handy way of sweeping questions of theodicy under the carpet.

    1. But then there are natural disasters, such as tsunamis, which kill innocent children (and adults) and have nothing to do with freewill.

  10. Egnor doesn’t understand your position because he doesn’t like you and doesn’t want to understand. It is very rare to see the principle of charity applied to opponents across cultural divides.

  11. ‘(after all, he’s only a neurosurgeon)’- is an apropos comment. Egnor, unfortunately, is not a lone example of his brand of cognitive dissonance. The stable includes the likes of Eban Alexander – he of the vision of heaven; Ben Carson – the self-confessed man with the golden hands; there are others in my profession. A neurosurgeon is trained in the art of neurosurgery – there is little skill required re diagnosis anymore, given the plethora of imaging devices – but such training does not require him/her to divest the mind of childish things

  12. I can see how a religionist would misinterpret the fender-bender post and this follow-up post explains it perfectly.

    In July, JAC had an excellent post about Sam Harris, taking issue with the concept of objective morality.

    Isn’t all morality relative? Thou shalt not kill, yet theologians have come up with the concept of Just War to justify it morally.

    In reading the fender-bender post a few months back, I myself tried to imagine valid reasons that someone would fail to stop and leave information after denting a car. Compassion and empathy can be entertained. The driver’s wife was in labor, the driver just heard his mother had a heart attack and was on the way to the hospital, the driver has a thought disorder or uncontrolled diabetes with a blood sugar of 35 (granted, perhaps he/she shouldn’t be driving, but it’s another level of judgement), etc.

    Lastly, the idea of morality being that which comports with “social opprobrium” is spot-on, and I’d add that we have to mention who is included within our moral community as well. Jains include even animals and insects (all sentient beings), while others historically consider it okay to commit genocide on human populations. Morality, or social opprobrium, varies by time and geography and culture. Is it moral for us to militarily support monarchical oppressive regimes in order to get our oil?

  13. Indeed, I don’t believe in moral culpability: that term is without real meaning if one denies the possibility of free choice. But there can still be still “culpability” based on the effects of one’s actions. (I’d be glad to hear readers’ feelings about why we should retain the term “morality” if there is no free choice.)

    Because morality, in and of itself, isn’t impacted by free will at all. When we say that there being no free will is a problem for morality, it isn’t because it takes away the ability to judge a person’s actions as moral or immoral, but because we can’t hold a person RESPONSIBLE for their actions. But you seem to hold that we can indeed hold people responsible for their actions, so unless you are going to argue that we need a stronger form of responsibility than your view would allow there for morality there seems to be no reason to say that moral culpability is lost if we don’t have free will.

    To expand on this, your definition of “good” and “bad” as being defined by its impacts on others is indeed the definition of moral good and bad used in a number of moral systems, such as Utilitarianism and the altered view of that advanced by many Gnu Atheists. So there’s no problem THERE with morality. If the problem isn’t that we can’t actually hold people responsible for their decisions and so can’t judge them as moral and immoral because they never really decide anything, then what problem could you possibly have with moral responsibility?

    1. “When we say that there being no free will is a problem for morality, it is…because we can’t hold a person RESPONSIBLE for their actions”

      I don’t think you have that quite right.

      They are not RESPONSIBLE for their actions.
      But we do HOLD them responsible for their actions. We reason that, if we do not HOLD them responsible for their actions, they are likely to repeat them and this would be disadvantageous for us and society in general.

      1. But how is it fair to hold someone responsible for an action that they aren’t responsible for? Even using your reasoning, it would be like deciding to hold the nearest millionaire responsible for the injuries done to someone in a car accident because they’ll be able to pay for the medical expenses and the person who actually caused the accident can’t. That’s certainly not fair or reasonable.

        Reasonably, we can only hold someone responsible for an action if they ARE responsible for it in some meaningful way … and if they are responsible for it, the biggest problem with moral responsibility wrt free will goes away.

        1. To hold a determinist view is to realize that you’re not so much dealing with a “free-willed” entity as you are dealing with a phenomenon: the “confluence” of all of the experiences, genetic programming, and memories of an individual- it is an easily observed fact that a person who gets a “reward” from a particular action is likely to repeat that action, whether it be a law-abiding one, or not. I believe that this “gain-seeking” IS hard-wired, and, in that sense, there is no such thing as life being a series of choices between the “carrot” and the “stick”, as even the AVOIDANCE of a loss is perceived as a “gain”; we’re actually operating under an “all-carrot” system. Our legal system totally misunderstands this; the restriction or elimination of basic rights and privileges that occurs in prison only represents a “loss” to be avoided, which is why inmates try to escape, or engage in MORE illegal activities while incarcerated (another factor is that our brains seem to operate on the value or loss perceived in what is happening NOW; the threat of a future punishment just isn’t given much weight in our decision-making process).

          Society has to protect itself against individuals whose “confluence” indicates a tendency to offend against the laws of society. Unfortunately, our system waits until AFTER the offense is committed, not recognizing that it is the society itself that plays a major role in creating this phenomenon (poverty?- failure of society; childhood abuse?- failure of society; juvenile behavior and anger issues?- failure of our society’s educational system), although there do appear to be real “sociopaths” who simply do not possess empathy toward others, and cannot acquire it.

          “Re-habilitation is impossible for someone who was never “habilitated” in the first place.”

          A good example of the failure of the “correctional” system, when it operates under the delusion that it’s dealing with “free”- willed individuals, is that of England in the late 1800s: in many prisons, inmates were not allowed to communicate, in any way, with other inmates (hoods were often used to help with this); the inmate was expected to perform a certain amount of meaningless labor each day, with food or other privileges being withheld if he didn’t (turning a crank with a counter mounted in the cell, walking on a rotating, “stair-stepper”-like drum with other inmates, etc.) The rest of the inmate’s time was expected to be spent in meditation on one’s crimes and prayer. By this it was hoped that the “character” of the inmate would be improved (another way of looking at the “little operator” who makes decisions in our minds) and they would “decide” to become useful members of society and not re-offend. You’ll notice that system is not being used anymore.

  14. Egnor is a brain-mind dualist and has been writing about brains and souls as separate things for years and years. He shows no sign of letting up.

    Egnor’s faith is so shaky that if he admits there is no soul his entire world view is in tatters.

    Of course Egnor misrepresents Coyne. He has to. Egnor’s only recourse is to project his own insecurities. Egnor can’t tolerate the notion of a person being good without the thread of a Cosmic BanHammer.

    I’m sure Egnor would go ape over a recent RadioLab presentation on NPR in which a morality is the outcome of a set of computer programs interacting with each other.

    Check it out HERE. The computer part is about 3/4 of the way through, but the entire program is good.

  15. I don’t expect Egnor to understand this (after all, he’s only a neurosurgeon), but perhaps others might.

    Perfect! Just perfect!

    1. Very good, indeed. I wish I could endorse neurosurgeons as persons who have mightily advanced human civilization and/or philosophical programs, but their input has been rather lacking, given their general hubris.

  16. Egnor’s argument doesn’t follow – it would be like saying that since free will doesn’t exist, you have no reason for doing anything, like waking your kids up for school, or brushing your teeth, or paying your rent. Clearly the brain has circuits that can respond to exhortative inputs from others, as well as its own memories and goals, even if those circuits run according to physical principles rather than by magic. The argument you cite confuses two levels of analysis, the micro and the macro; it’s like saying “Don’t sit on that chair; physicists have proven that it’s mostly empty space.”

    1. Well, you could say that the sudden realisation that he has no freewill could deterministically cause someone to become nihilistic. However, that wouldn’t last long. He’s going to starve and his wife and kids are going to complain, so eventually he’s going to start eating again and paying attention to his wife and kids because, for one thing, he’s going to feel much happier doing so. In fact, he’s going to start acting AS IF he has freewill after all…even now when he now knows he does not. Win, win!

      1. I think that one of the reasons that “free” will is so strongly defended is that we live in a society that has evolved into its present form to suit people who believed that there WAS such a thing. That particular “illusion” is a very good one, indeed.

  17. May I paste in a dialogue I wrote on the subject of free will, with a philosophy colleague of mine, Joe Chislett? It’s a make-believe interview between God and a sceptical journalist…

    INTERVIEWER: My contention is that the very notion of free will is incoherent – it’s just a mish-mash. It doesn’t make sense.


    INTERVIEWER: No, that’s not what I’m –


    INTERVIEWER: I do have control, but –


    INTERVIEWER: Stop hectoring me, just for a minute, and listen. I agree that there is such a thing as freedom from external compulsion. I’m in control of what I say, in the sense that it’s me who’s deciding it, not another person. But that’s not enough for free will.


    INTERVIEWER: I take it that having free will, in the real, full-blooded sense, means that whatever action one takes, one could have done something different.


    INTERVIEWER: That’s exactly what I’m disputing. Let me explain. Let’s assume that we live in a universe where events are causally determined: Cause A leads to Effect B, inevitably, consistently, predictably. Let’s take an example. An apple on a tree, as it grows, reaches a certain weight, which becomes too much for the twig to bear, so the apple falls to the ground. We don’t think that the apple chose to fall to the ground, or that it could equally well not have fallen at that point. The laws of – of – apple-growth, and twig-strength, and of gravity, saw to it that the apple just had to fall at that moment, and no other. It’s clear enough that as far as reasonably large-scale objects go (we’ll leave quantum physics out of it for the moment), we do live in such a universe. That is why we are able to predict tides, and eclipses, and so on. That is how we are able to design bridges that stay up and machines that work. So –


    INTERVIEWER: But we are! We are bodies, with brains made out of fatty acids, and –


    INTERVIEWER: Well, they might. But that decision would be caused, that’s what I’m saying. A human being would know the consequences of falling and that might make them re-double their efforts to stay up there till help came. I’m not saying we’re as dumb as apples, obviously!


    INTERVIEWER: I shouldn’t be having to explain this to you, God… Humans are obviously vastly more complex than apples – for one thing, we are conscious, we know what’s happening to us. But knowing what is happening to you doesn’t free you from causality. That knowledge itself is another element in the network of causes.


    INTERVIEWER: Let me make this as clear as I possibly can. For the readers. Every action we take is the result of activity in our brains – neurons firing and connecting with other neurons, and so on. It’s chemistry. And each individual brain has its own unique chemistry, which is the result of that individual’s genetic inheritance and their experiences and reactions to those experiences. Everything we do has an antecedent cause. But we ourselves didn’t start the causal chain.


    INTERVIEWER: I don’t believe that at all. What I am saying is that if an event is caused it is inevitable. It may be in line with the wishes of the agent – those are the cases we think of as instances of free will. But they’re just as inevitable as the cases where we are forced by outside agency to do something. They’re more acceptable to us, that’s all. Let me give you an example. You mentioned earlier my decision to come along here today for this interview. That’s a decision I was happy with – my interest, my curiosity made me want to come along, so I did. Now let’s just imagine that some all-powerful being – such as yourself, God – could turn back time to the split-second before I made that decision. Everything would be the same as the first time around. I wouldn’t be aware that this was happening for the second time; my memories would be exactly as they were the first time, I’d be the same person, with the same disposition, and the neurological state of play in my brain would be exactly the same as before. Would I make the same decision? One wants to say, Of course! Why would it be different? All the same, and only the same causal factors would be in operation. Suppose that the moment was replayed a hundred times, a thousand, a million – an infinite number. Again, one wants to say that I’d make the same decision every time – because there would be no reason – no cause – for me to decide any differently. But if on every occasion, given an infinity of chances, I make the identical decision, the claim that I could have done differently looks, well, kind of unsubstantiated!


    INTERVIEWER: I’m not saying it’s a problem. I’m just saying that because an action is performed in line with one’s own wishes, that doesn’t make it free, in the full sense. Because one’s own wishes are themselves part of the cause. And as Bertrand Russell put it, I can do as I please, but I can’t please as I please.


    INTERVIEWER: No, I’m not complaining about it. I’m a compatibilist – freedom from undue outside interference is as much freedom as I’m ever going to get: I know that, and I’m OK with it. But ultimate freedom of the will, the kind theologians talk about, doesn’t and couldn’t exist. And that means that it’s got to be unjust for you to punish and reward people for the choices they made in life. They couldn’t help making those choices. Replay the tape as many times as you like and they will always make them.


    INTERVIEWER: I’m human. I’ve evolved to have reactive attitudes – of praise and blame, gratitude and resentment and so on. I can’t help that. It’s the way I’m constituted. But you don’t have that excuse, God.


    INTERVIEWER: If there’s no such thing as free will, there’s no such thing as justice.


    INTERVIEWER: No, of course not! Society is entitled to protect itself by locking dangerous people away. But that’s not a reason that you could call on. You don’t need to protect yourself. Why punish people after they’re dead for doing things they couldn’t help doing?


    INTERVIEWER: OK. But here’s where the second horn of the dilemma comes in. We know from quantum physics that at a subatomic level events appear to be genuinely random. Unpredictable in principle. That might look as if it offers a little bit of room for free will. But it doesn’t! If our actions are random in a similar way, even just sometimes, that doesn’t make us any freeer. It makes us less free. Because then my actions don’t even have anything to do with who I am, my character, my disposition, my motives. In that case, my decision to come here today was pure chance – replay the tape, and I’ll make a different decision. Acts that are random aren’t any freeer – we’re then at the mercy of chance. We don’t have control over chance. (It wouldn’t be chance if we did.) So it still wouldn’t be fair for you to reward or punish people for their actions.


    INTERVIEWER: Yes – those are the only two possibilities. And neither allows for free will. And that’s why it’s an incoherent concept. It’s not just that it doesn’t exist: it couldn’t exist, in this or any conceivable universe.


    INTERVIEWER: Oh, here we go. I thought we might end up at the noumenal plane.


    INTERVIEWER: But if I could see the view from the noumenal plane, I’d believe in free will, would I?


    INTERVIEWER: But since I can’t…


    INTERVIEWER: Sorry, God. I’m not going to.

    1. I’m trying to grok all this, and this “interview” helps a bit; setting morality and such aside for a moment, what do we call it when I “will” myself to do/not do something difficult?

      I’m a runner. In a race, if I’m to run fast, I have to embrace a lot of agony. My legs and lungs and heart scream for me to stop, but I persist for the sake of the goal to claim a few meaningless numbers that measure increments of time. If not free will, what is that persistence?

      I’m not debating or arguing, I truly don’t get it. For what it’s worth, I don’t get free will, either…

      1. “Free will” is an oxymoron. A will without constraints is a compass without a magnet, and only according to Big Brother’s MINITRUE is something governed by purposeful determination somehow free.

        As with all other oxymorons, both words are superbly useful on their own in their own contexts. It’s only when you inappropriately juxtapose the two that they render each other incoherent.



    2. So you’re a compatibilist because you are not subject to UNDUE external influence? Whatever can that mean? That you have partial freewill? That the other influences are internal and free? That the internal influences are not the result of genetics, emotions and memories, and that the emotions and memories are not the result of genetics plus past external events impacting on the internal workings of the brain?

    3. brandonrobshaw: Thank you for that long post. It helped me better understand the argument against free will. Not sure if I fully accept the argument just yet, but I feel I get it more now.

    4. ^^^ Well that was confusing.

      Most of it, by my lights, was filled with the types of dubious assumptions I and others have argued against before here.
      But the weirdest part is that the “Interviewer” starts of saying that “the very notion of free will is incoherent”
      and then later calls himself a “compatibilist.” (Which traditionally means someone who things Free Will IS a valid concept and compatible with the type of causation described in that dialogue).

      Not sure what to do with that.


  18. I’m not sure why everyone seems to go along with this absolutist black and white thinking. But I can see two cases where this leads to very unreasonable conclusions. It seems that if you are going to state that individuals ‘have no choice’ then you need to be able to back that up with proof, i.e. there must be a reason why there was no choice, similarly to why a falling body has no choice but to comply with gravity. What is it specifically that prevents you or a hypothetical person, from choosing a wide range of responses?

    1. There is proof of the lack of free will; if there weren’t, I would not have been convinced of this position. I solidified my position both after reading Sam Harris’s book Free Will, reading a few articles about it (which I don’t have links to) & participating in discussions on this site.

      Searching this site for “free will” will give the background of the various discussions here and you may want to start with this post.

    2. It’s because freewill is incoherent.
      When you get right down to it, there is only determinism and quantum probability. What else is there? Neither provides for freewill.

      Freewill is almost an oxymoron. For there to be freewill there needs to be a mechanism, but freewill implies no mechanism.

      If you disagree, please explain to me how you can have freewill.
      (Without re-defining the word)

      1. Well, I would say experimentally I’d disagree. You can have probabilistic outcomes for various choices, which is how I’d define choice in a normal everyday sense, but that is vastly different from stating that a choice is deterministic in an absolute sense.

        1. You would have to explain how quantum probability could be the basis of freewill and how a probabilistic outcome could constitute freewill. Freewill can’t be a coin toss! Either that or you have a strange definition of freewill as something that is neither free nor willed. An oxymoron.

      2. I’d answer your question BillyJoe, but apparently I don’t have a “choice” to do so (without re-defining that word).



    3. It’s largely a difference of opinion about what the word “choice” means. Jerry’s position is that it means the ability to defy the laws of physical causality and do something genuinely uncaused. Compatibilists think it means the mental process of deciding what to do, even if that process has a deterministic physical basis.

      In other words, “real” choices, in Jerry’s view, are the magical, impossible kind; and the sort of choices that real people make and talk about every day aren’t “real” choices at all.

      1. I think this is a very good, concise, summary of this topic. Is there anyone here who disagrees with this?

        I happen to agree with Jerry, FWIW.

      2. Did either of you have a choice to reply to my query? In the real sense of the word? If not, I’m going to be sadly disappointed as I expected this was the only place to find real humans! I had a choice to follow up, I had a choice in what words to use, and what tone to use…etc. And though it might be claimed that theoretically, each muscle twitch was the result of biochemistry, or a neuronal firing- claiming it was ‘predetermined’ implies a force or entity doing the predetermining..which would need proof. Its the same problem facing the neuroscientist, except in that case it’s a higher being, a director of choice. Hence two absurd problems.

        1. You’re conflating determinism with fatalism. Determinism has nothing to do with a “force” or “entity” doing anything. Most non dualist types, including those who are compatiblists, accept determinism which is simply one thing causes another.

          Here is a definition to help.

          1. How would you prove that a hypothetical individual, confronted with options, does not have a choice? When “Choice” can simply imply a number of alternatives, 1 through 10. It is simply an experimentally defined notion in that case. Then we have to ask, why door #5 for example? Such a test could be run on anything capable of making decisions. And I believe you’d find it’s only probability, cuase and effect.

            1. ….for a few reasons:

              1) The fMRI experiments that showed that decisions are made before people are conscious of those decisions

              2) The evidence of sick minds – sociopaths, damaged brains like the prefrontal cortex I reference in another reply. How do those people have the choice to feel emotions or be reasonable?

              3) Expanding 2 in much the same way Sam Harris’s example does in his example reproduced here

              1. Those fMRI results show that spur-of-the-moment finger-twitch impulses originate before we become consciously aware of them. But this is hardly a surprise.

                It has not been shown that these results generalize in any meaningful way to deliberative decisions of a non-impulsive nature. Just because neuroscientists are prone to over-interpret their own results does not mean that we have to.

              2. Diana,

                On point #1:

                I presume that, in most other circumstances and fields of study, you value the skeptical caution with which science usually (or is supposed to) proceed towards it’s conclusions. In other words, one ought to be very careful about just what can be inferred from an experiment and how far that experiment can be stretched to cover.

                For instance, putting en example into the context of a court case: A defense attorney in a kidnapping plot case stand before the court with a rubber mallet in his hand. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m now going to demonstrate conclusively that my client is NOT responsible for this crime. Observe…”

                He repeatedly taps the client’s seated leg, just below the knee. “See how my client reacts, INVOLUNTARILY and without conscious planning or desire, moving his leg at the mere tap below his knee. This is clearly pure reflex action.”

                And then he finishes: Therefore, as you can see, my client’s actions are only purely reflexive, done without thought or planning, and hence he COULD NOT have committed the crime he is being tried for, as it presumes the ability to actually think through and plan a crime. This is impossible for a being who is purely reflexive as I have demonstrated in my test before you. You must find him Not Guilty.”

                We’d immediately recognize what a vast, and frankly silly leap this lawyer has made right? He’s taken the results of ONE type of test, testing a discrete, specific type of reaction, and then generalized those results to cover EVERY OTHER possible action taken by the defendant. We would be very suspicious of any scientist also making such incautious, confident forms of inference from such limited tests.

                And yet, you seem at the moment comfortable with inferring from a similarly limited “free will” experiment, like pushing a button, to cover ALL of the complexity of human decision making, planning, etc…as if it settled the matter. Like the Lawyer expecting the knee reflex test determining that test covers all possible behavior of his client as being of precisely the same nature.

                Given just how much complexity of human behavior there is to cover, isn’t such an inference from such modest beginnings, such simple experiments…a little bit rash and incautious?

                2) Sociopaths, or someone with some type of brain damage may indeed be incapable of acting or feeling in certain ways. And this would be empirically testable, so you could say “No, they are NOT capable of doing X and hence are not FREE to do X.”
                Then, you can test other subjects and see if THEY are capable of feeling/doing X. And if so, THEY are free to do it where the brain damage person is not. Not only is this pretty much normal empiricism in action, it tends to track why we often make allowances for the effects of brain damage in assessing the culpability of a person.

                3) It’s not clear in the Harris example exactly what is meant by a Mad Scientist who “uses a machine to control all the desires.”

                Free Will, in the compatibilist sense, involved identifying in whom does a desire originate and whose desire is being fulfilled by an action.

                If, for instance, I were essentially only the puppet of the Mad Scientist, insofar as it is HIS desires that are the cause of my actions, then I would not have free will. The desires are not mine, they are his, I’m only a physical vessel for expressing his desires. It’s not the same
                when you replace the Mad Scientist with non-sentient precursor forces or whatever.
                If the precursor causes aren’t capable of “having desires/making decisions” – like the Mad Scientist would be, then we aren’t tracing the motivations of my actions to another agent’s desires; we make sense of them as MY desires.

                If you are tempted to say “But in either case your actions/desires had precursor causes” of course that’s the case. But you can’t merely assume that it therefore does not matter what caused them, it’s all the same. That would be begging the question, as a compatibilist would point out it matters quite a bit to “free will” in what context person’s actions were caused.



              3. And yet, you seem at the moment comfortable with inferring from a similarly limited “free will” experiment, like pushing a button, to cover ALL of the complexity of human decision making, planning, etc…as if it settled the matter. Like the Lawyer expecting the knee reflex test determining that test covers all possible behavior of his client as being of precisely the same nature.

                Lawyers in courtrooms, unlike scientists in labs, have a desired outcome in mind and work toward that outcome. If you are implying, through your court room analogy, that the scientists behaved in an unscientific way in conducting this experiment, your analogy makes sense but I don’t agree with it since there is no evidence to suggest the experiments were rigged to produce an agreed to outcome.

                I am not resting everything on that one experiment but the commenter who questioned me demanded evidence for why free will does not exist and I think this provides something to think about and I don’t think you can wave it off so easily as I’ve seen most compatibilists do.

                My sociopath example is to show that it isn’t someone holding a gun to our head, forcing us to make choices but often the limits of our own biology and experiences that restrict our choices. When you see someone’s brain work differently than most, it becomes more easy to understand how the laws of physics restrict us. If you then try to consider all of the variables that restrict us in addition to this particular one (the brain and all the ways it functions), there does not seem to be any degree of freedom. When you are that person in that space and time, you will do the exact thing you did should you be able to roll back time and do it over and over again (unless chance comes into play).

              4. Diana,

                “If you are implying, through your court room analogy, that the scientists behaved in an unscientific way in conducting this experiment, your analogy makes sense but I don’t agree with it since there is no evidence to suggest the experiments were rigged to produce an agreed to outcome.”

                To be clear: That’s not what I was arguing.
                I wasn’t arguing that the tests themselves are unscientific, or shouldn’t be done (I think we need to understand how our brain works!), or that they are rigged. Doing the experiment is noe “unscientific.”

                But you CAN become “unscientific” in what you EXTRAPOLATE from an experiment. Deepak Chopra is an obvious example of someone who takes perfectly good scientific research on quantum mechanics and then makes WILD overreaching, generalized extrapolations, stretching the implications far beyond what the experiments actually cover. We recognize this as being unscientific insofar as he recklessly abandons the scientific caution we expect for drawing conclusions from an experiment.

                The anti-free will/anti-consciousness (who deny consciousness as efficacious in our decisions) crowd strike me as being incautious in a similar way.
                To take experiments limited to people quickly pushing buttons and the like, and extrapolate from such limited results to the entirety of human cognitive activity, all the complex actions and decisions we make, and say it’s all an illusion based on those experiments, is a rather massive, overreaching and incautious conclusion. The idea that, for instance, the cognitive activity, the massively complex experiences, decisions, planning, coordinating of interests, etc in NASA getting a rover on to mars can be explained by, or reduced to the exact same process as quickly pushing a button seems a tad absurd.

                It’s like the lawyer saying his experiment showing the patient acts reflexively to a knock on the knee is good enough for concluding ALL his client’s behavior has been understood by this demonstration.


              5. However, I don’t think we are saying that our entire position on free will is based solely on those experiments but that those experiments play a part in our acceptance of the lack of free will. It’s borderline reductio ad absurdum to suggest so.

              6. I’d go more than just a step beyond that.

                The experiments show what one would expect if our brains are Turing-equivalent devices and our minds some form of internal perception of the brain’s fundamental activity.

                From the other direction from these experiments…well, especially since the confirmation of the Higgs, we now have a complete model of all forms of physics that can influence human-scale events, and that includes the scales enough bigger and smaller than us that their effects can trickle up or down into our world.

                We know those models are complete because, again since the Higgs, we have ruled out all other possibilities. There are no forces without particles (or vice-versa); we’ve found everything up to and including the Higgs; and there’s nothing else smaller than the Higgs that could throw a monkey wrench into the works.

                That only Turing-equivalent computational devices are possible with physics is a trivial conclusion from the fact that physics, itself, is Turing-computable; therefore, at least in our corner of all possible universes and realities, Church-Turing is absolute.

                Now that Church-Turing is established, we know that anything that happens in an human mind can, at least in principle, be duplicated by any other computational device with sufficient resources.

                So, if you’re cool with an algorithm having “free will” (whatever the fuck it’s supposed to be), then I’ll grant that whatever it means for the algorithm in the abstract equally applies to an instance of it operating in an human brain. If you don’t think that an algorithm can have “free will” but that brains do, you’re just not up to speed on modern physics. And, either way, I’ll continue to maintain that “free will” is an oxymoron that’s not only incoherent and loaded down with useless religious and philosophical baggage but does far more to muddle the conversation than anything else. Name your pet dog, “Free Will,” and I’ll cheerfully admit that Free Will is real but that you’re in no small way being deceptively uncommunicative.



              7. Diana,

                I wasn’t saying, or implying, that your or anyone’s position on Free Will rested solely on Libet-type experiments.

                However, it’s almost like clock-work that incompatibilists point to Libet experiments, and even the inference from those experiments to “consciousness doesn’t play a part in decision making” or “we” are not really in control or “we can infer a lack of free will” etc still strike me as an unwarranted leap from the data.


              8. Okay well then that’s good but you and I will for the foreseeable future disagree on free will as we have in the past.

                I’m glad you came to comment though – I was wondering when you’d represent the compatibalist POV here. 🙂

              9. Fair enough Diana, thank you.

                I swear, every time I see a “free will” post I think “don’t click on it, don’t click on it” because I don’t want to be sucked into the discussion.

                And I failed again…:-)


            2. Granted the fMRI studies might be (arguably) overinterpreted, but the other explanations that Diana gave do stand.

              Determinism is the parsimonious model by which to view our actions. Sure, you can insert the concept of free will, but it’s not necessary to explain the observable world….similar to the concept of god: Unnecessary.

              1. Which “concept of free will” are you talking about? If it’s contra-causal free will, I’d agree. It’s incoherent to begin with.

                But if it’s the compatibilist account of free will, I’d disagree and feel you have it exactly backwards: the logic behind saying “I could have done otherwise” (necessary for free will) derives from the same basic logic *necessary* to explain the observable world.

                You can not describe the nature of the world WITHOUT helping yourself to the the assumptions involved in anything having a nature or identity, including hypothetical and counter-factual reasoning.

                You can’t, for instance, accurately describe the nature and properties of “plastic” without explaining it in terms of *true* alternative states that are possible for plastic. And you can’t reason about how to employ plastic for a goal without first understanding the nature of plastic as embodying these various alternatives.
                Same with humans and our actions. You can’t describe humans in general, or a specific human, without *alternate possibilities* being part of that understanding and description.


              2. “You can’t describe humans in general, or a specific human, without *alternate possibilities* being part of that understanding and description.”

                Such descriptions would be illusory, my understanding of another individual would surely differ from your understanding of that same individual. I think I’m understanding your argument.

              3. desertviews,

                Then you’d be calling the rest of the “observable world” you referred to illusory.
                Hence…what would you be describing?

                Again: I presume you think plastic really exists and that it can take many forms, and that we can do many things with plastic.

                Try explaining the nature of plastic to someone, that is give them KNOWLEDGE of plastic such that they can take that knowledge and interact predictably with plastic – reliably manipulate it to get what they want. This will necessarily involve counting into your description of “plastic” the ways plastic has behaved in the past, and extrapolating from that how plastic will behave in the future. E.g. IF you put the plastic in one state, it will behave this way, IF you put it in another state, you’ll get a different result, and on and on. This necessarily involves “REAL alternatives” for how you can manipulate plastic.

                The same will apply to your attempt to supply someone with knowledge about any particular human being. To be comprehensive, your description of “Sarah” will of necessity be derived from all sorts of Sarah behaving in various ways, at various times, in various places and circumstances. Hence, to understand “Sarah” at all, entails understanding Sarah as being a collective of “alternative instances and behaviors of Sarah.” Sarah laughing at X, crying at Y, interested at A, bored by B…”
                And for the same reason, if this knowledge of Sarah is supposed to help someone interact with her or predict to some degree interaction with Sarah, then such “knowledge” entails viewing Sarah as a range of *real* possibilities: IF you give this to Sarah she’ll be happy, IF you take that form Sarah she’ll be sad, do THIS and you will bore here…etc.

                You can’t understand the nature of anything in the real world, or have “knowledge” of it, or predict interaction with it, without
                assuming it’s identity as comprising it’s various possible states of being. It’s ALTERNATIVE states of being. That’s what describing the nature of ANY entity in the world is about: understanding as many of it’s possible states, depending on various causes and conditions, as you can.

                But once you say “alternatives states” are “illusion” (no “real alternatives are possible) then you’ve made everything, your knowledge included, an “illusion,” (which is also of course self-defeating since you’d be
                making a knowledge claim in the first place).

                The gist of what I’m saying is this: when you dismiss my saying “I could have done otherwise” as being only “illusion,” you are doing so from an unreasonable, and incoherent, standard that you can’t apply anywhere else in the empirical world, so why make that bizarre exception only for my empirical acts of choice making?

                To say “I could have eaten the apple instead of the pear” is no different conceptually than saying “you could have made a ball out of that plastic instead of a cube.” It doesn’t assume “all conditions precisely the same.” Rather “could have done/been otherwise” simply states that I have characteristics that can interact with the world in certain ways.


              4. Sorry, you lost me. No offense, it’s late here and I cannot follow how this pertains to free will vs determinism.

                I skipped the “plastic” argument because I don’t think you’re arguing that plastic has free will, are you? Plastic is acted upon by humans who may or may not have free will. Even the most avowed free will proponent would agree that the nature of plastic is that it does not have a free will of its own.

                The Sarah argument would be answered by admitting that I do not know “why” she acts certain ways and I do not know “how” Sarah would react if I gave her something, etc. I might try to predict, but can I? Determinism does not imply predictability. Sure, I can try to predict Sarah’s behavior based on past experience: I gave her flowers and she smiled, so perhaps she will smile every time I give her flowers. Observation, empirical analysis, hypothesis testing.

                You say: “But once you say “alternatives states” are “illusion” (no “real alternatives are possible) then you’ve made everything, your knowledge included, an “illusion,” (which is also of course self-defeating since you’d be
                making a knowledge claim in the first place).”

                Alternative states ARE an illusion, they exist only in my mind. Alternatively, instead of flowers, I can imagine giving Sarah a lump of coal, but any knowledge claim about Sarah’s reaction would also be illusory. Unless I actually give her a lump of coal there is no way to predict her reaction to this alternative state.

                Pertaining to JAC’s issue of determinism vs free will, does Sarah have a “ghost in the machine”, ie, a free will, that allows her any number of reactions to the gift of flowers? Perhaps, but that is an unnecessarily complex explanation of the reality. She will have only one reaction, determined by her chemistry and the circumstances. All other “alternative states” are navel-gazing– illusion.

                Likewise, you will have one reaction to this answer to your post. I cannot predict what it will be but I believe it is determined by your chemistry, the amount of caffeine you ingested, your past experiences on the internet, your didactic education, your religion, etc…. can there be alternative reactions? Sure, but they would be illusory.

      3. It’s largely a difference of opinion about what the word “choice” means. Jerry’s position is that it means the ability to defy the laws of physical causality and do something genuinely uncaused.

        So every time someone says, for example, “would you like an ice cream? You can choose which flavour”, they are inviting someone to break the laws of physics!

  19. Why didn’t you have a choice to report or not report the hit and run? What if you were under insured — a crime here in Michigan — you might choose not to report the event. I can see how or range of actions could be affected by evolutionary forces, but I don’t see (understand) how evolutionary forces determine which antibiotic I prescribe. I choose to not call a temp less than 38.5 a fever, not because of evolution, but because of the social pressures inflicted by a surgery chief screaming at me while on rounds 10 years ago. A choice I make of terminology.

    1. You misunderstand determinism: it’s not just “evolutionary forces” (i.e. our genetic constitutions) that compel our actions, but also environmental pressures, and you yourself just gave an example. In fact, you didn’t have a choice of terminology because of the combination of your genes and environment.

      Do you really think that there was a time where I could have “freely chosen” to report the crime, or have done otherwise? If so, then what magical, extra-physical force could compel me to move my molecules in one direction or another?

  20. bereft of success, they’re reduced to pointing out what they see as inconsistencies or character flaws in evolutionary biologists.

    They’re a stiff! Bereft of success, they parrot a philosopher!

    If the churches hadn’t nailed ’em to the parish they’d be pushing up the daisies! It’s scientific processes are now history! They’re off the publications!

    They’ve kicked the school boards, they’ve shuffled off their legal processes, run down the field and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!! THIS IS AN EX-‘INSTITUTE’!!

  21. Here’s my problem with the determinist anti-free will position, and it has nothing to do with morality or dualism. Let’s grant (for the sake of argument) that the person holding this position is in fact deterministic and has no free will. Nevertheless, he acts as though to approve or disapprove of acts of kindness or cruelty, and even tries to persuade others to his positions, as though they had a choice, as though they were conscious agents with free will, unlike himself. Furthermore, does this deterministic person consider himself open-minded to persuasion by reasoned arguments backed up by empirical evidence?

    I’m not trying to piss anyone off, but this doesn’t make sense to me. What is the point?

    1. Also, if there is no free will… How does science happen? What is curiosity? What is the point of this blog? I guess he never decided to write this blog because it was predetermined (preordained)? If ordained, by whom? Chance? Therefore chance = predeterminism?

      1. You are conflating several things – determinism with fatalism (determinism is essentially that there is cause and effect) & the lack of free will with nihilism. Your actions influence others in a deterministic way which means doing things is not futile. Moreover, the decisions to act a certain way are constrained deterministically by so many variables, that we can’t predict behaviour very easily. Determinism does not mean predictability.

    2. That person could be open minded to persuasion. Things influence the mind; I just read an article today about fMRI studies of people who read novels and their experience of reading the novel changed the resting state connectivity of their brains.

      Consider also, that if you have a brain injury, you change what you are able to do. For example, if you have an injury to your prefrontal cortex you may find yourself unable to reason. You would not be convinced of anything other than what your limbic system is telling you to do. Or if you were a sociopath and couldn’t learn from your actions but kept instead repeating dangerous risk taking behaviour even if you knew, threw reason, that these behaviours were risky & riskier than the behaviours of those around you.

      In this way you are behaving completely deterministically based on the physical constraints of your brain.

      1. I am slowly trying to join the free-will discussions after sitting on the fence for a long time.
        So the argument for the lack of free will is based on the fact that all or our behaviors that seem willful, like the decisions we make, are the result of various synaptic events in our brain, correct? So once those events occur we cannot change them. The decision has been made. It is because of this that some declare we do not have free will.
        But what about before those synaptic events got started? Why do I feel like I could have nudged them in a different direction to make a different decision had I wanted to? I suspect your answer will focus on that last line..

        1. That’s some of it but there is more….

          If you think about all the hidden variables that make you who you are – beside genetics (that make up your brain and body), your life experiences, and lots of things that we probably can’t even account for – those things are make up the “you” at a specific space in time. You have no choice but to react in a certain way because of this. If you were to play the tape backwards, you would most likely do the same thing again because the you that you are have no other choice.

          I say “most likely” because there could be chance in the form of quantum indeterminacy though I think this has been somewhat refuted given that things that happen in the quantum world don’t affect the classical world directly like this (though I could be wrong).

          So, how can this person exercise free will? He or she can consider things but they will only pick one option and the feeling that they are willing their choices is an illusion because of determinacy.

          Sam Harris says it best in Free Will:

          If, after weeks of deliberation, library research, and debate with your friends, you still decide to kill the king—well, then killing the king reflects the sort of person you really are. The point is not that you are the ultimate and independent cause of your actions; the point is that, for whatever reason, you have the mind of a regicide.

          1. Diana,

            So are you and Harris claiming that the terrorists who attacked nearby our kibbutz in Israel had no choice?

            That the terrorists who flew planes into the Twin Towers had no choice?

            That the priests who molested the children had no choice?

            I realize determinism could be true, but it surely is a hopeless outlook then.

            1. I don’t think it’s hopeless. People are influenced by deterrence or praise if their brains work that way. It isn’t nihilism. Of course some people won’t be influenced – sociopaths won’t be deterred into feeling because their brains don’t work that way.

            2. Of course they had choices, but what they CHOSE to do was the predetermined result of who they were at that time: all of the memories, experiences, habits, genetic makeup of the brain, etc.

              I have been sober for over 18 years. Back when I was a drunk, I hurt many people, myself most of all, by my behavior. Through most of the time I was drinking, after I started accumulating “consequences” and especially after I started to learn some facts about the nature of my “disease”, I was an unwilling “observer” as to what I was doing. I KNEW what I was doing was wrong and that it was harming myself and others, yet I continued, time and again, to repeat it. There were many times over the years about which I ask myself today, “Why wasn’t THAT my ‘bottom’; why wasn’t THAT night the one in which I said to myself, ‘Enough’s enough.’?”

              All the while, I had choices, but I kept choosing the wrong ones because of who I was at the time (possible genetic predisposition; dysfunctional family upbringing; habituation to alcohol as a “solution” to my problems, etc.). When my sobriety DID come, it was as the result of a confluence of events and feelings, one which occurred quite without my planning it, or necessarily even wanting it.

              Today I would never do the things I routinely did while drinking, practicing instead certain emotional and spiritual disciplines that keep the pleasurable feeling alcohol gave from becoming attractive to me once again. My point is two-fold: (1) There is hope that even those who savagely caused harm can have a “change of heart”, and (2) The person who believes that we do NOT have “free” will has a much better chance of understanding and thus forgiving such behavior.

          2. Hi diana, I really like the way you have argued your views here, and you largely convinced me. I only disagree that re-winding of tapes would nearly always lead to the same outcome: chance not only presents itself in quantum effects, but also in the perceived world. I believe that any event is shaped by such a complexity of causes, that small changes here and there can have big effects (an extreme example is becoming a millionaire in the lottery and how this affects decisions of you and others, or not becoming one)

            1. I think I can speak to the possibility that you would do something different b/c of quantum effects. Although quantum randomness is probably not very important in determining events on a larger scale like which synapses fire, leading to a decision of yours, lets pretend for a moment that it does. If some of your decisions are determined by quantum randomness then yes you are not fated to make a particular decision but (important bit here): you still have no free will. You had no free will if you were fated to do a certain thing, and you have no free will if you have no control over random determining factors like quantum effects.
              Diana and others and that entertaining story at #20 has helped me to understand the argument.

              1. I agree with you, my comment has no relationship with free will. I just think that one needs not invoke “quantum effects” for any indeterminancies in outcomes. If we would turn back the clock of earth to when first life arrived and replay it, would the same organisms be found? I doubt it, even without quantum randomness, but it seems many commenters here would not.
                I think that if you throw the same fair dice with the same strength on the same table multiple times, it will not necessarily always show the same number. I don’t have proof of this, and don’t feel very strongly about it, but I wonder what makes others feel strongly about the opposite.
                Likewise the case of regicide: sure there are some predispositions, but the largest motivation will be political which is shaped by many of your experiences, some of which may be the result of randomness (at least if one believes randomness has any bearing on outcomes)

        2. “So the argument for the lack of free will is based on the fact that all or our behaviors that seem willful, like the decisions we make, are the result of various synaptic events in our brain, correct? So once those events occur we cannot change them. The decision has been made. It is because of this that some declare we do not have free will.”

          No. Incorrect. It is not because once various synaptic events occur we cannot change them. It is because those synaptic events are determined by the state of your brain and laws of physics.

          1. I think I see the fine point you are making. You are putting the inevitability of our thoughts and actions to the brain state before the synaptic events that are our thoughts and actions. Those synaptic events had no choice given our tendencies and given earlier events. Is that better?

            1. Sort of. The main point is that in a deterministic universe, everything is governed by the laws of physics. It’s like Laplace’s Demon. All the atoms, etc, in your brain at particular point in time are in particular locations, moving in particular directions, at particular speeds and the will continue to behave according to the laws of physics. How can you truly be free to choose anything, when all the particles in your brain are going to keep behaving in the only way they can?

        3. As I’ve noted elsewhere on this page, “free will” is an oxymoron; all attempts to determine whether it exists or not are as futile as trying to decide what clothes a married bachelor should wear at the nudist beach.

          However, when people say they are exercising their free will, they are pointing to a very real phenomenon: the typical human decision-making process that involves imagining the likely outcomes of various decisions. You construct various virtual realities that you hope are realistic, and use that analysis to actually make a real-world decision.

          That process is entirely deterministic, with a good amount of chaos thrown in (and perhaps an insignificant smidgen of randomness). It’s nothing at all like what philosophers and theologians describe free will as being. But it is a very real and very important phenomenon, and it’s what you’re actually doing when you think you’re exercising your canine cat.



    3. “he acts as though to approve or disapprove of acts of kindness or cruelty, and even tries to persuade others to his positions, as though they had a choice, as though they were conscious agents with free will, unlike himself”

      I really do not see the problem…

      The deterministic output of the first person’s brain is to approve kindness, disapprove cruelty, and persuade the second person to do likewise.
      If the deterministic output of the second person’s brain was to not distinguish between kindness and cruelty, he now has a new input into his brain (the persuasive efforts of the first person) and this could deterministically change the output of his brain to be more in line with that of the first person.

      No freewill, all deterministic cause and effect.

    4. “…Nevertheless, he acts as though to approve or disapprove of acts of kindness or cruelty, and even tries to persuade others to his positions, as though they had a choice, as though they were conscious agents with free will, unlike himself. …”

      I don’t think it is implied to think “I’ll treat other people as though they had free choice when they actually don’t”, just to coax them into a different kind of behaviour.

      We all act in our lives, all the time. What actions take place is a result of all factors involved coming together at that particular moment. The way we think about our actions is just as much part of it than all other factors. What I experience as me “choosing” an action is the result of how my brain processes the information received from both outside and within.

      What then has shaped my brain to be processing in one way as opposed to another? The biggest portion of that answer will remain unknown to me, but one aspect I know, at least indirectly, of: it’s the way my brain has learned to process information. And that is not something I can choose to change “freely”, independently from all factors of life that are happening continuosly during my existence. It is what it is, at any given moment.

      My brain takes on board the information from the world around me and that of course influences the next activities that will take place. So if I have been told off for a certain behaviour, that will influence how I might react the next time round I am in a similar situation.

      (At this point I am interested whether Hili recommends going along with what is expected of her, or being even more naughty the next time around 🙂

      I could now, to prove a point, decide in reaction to this comment thread, that I am going to learn a completely new skill, let’s say learning chinese. “Surely, this is my free choice? Nobody forced me to choose it, I thought about it, and I made the decision!…” Well, no. This idea came to my mind, because the conditions were there that lead to this thought. I didn’t freely choose to come up with the idea. It presented itself to me, for whatever reason.

      In any case, I am not free to choose to learn chinese, as I haven’t the time. You know, life getting in the way, earning a crust, and all that bloddy determinism. 🙂

      I do hope there is something valuable in my answer to you. I wish it was shorter and more concise, but it is the way it is because it has/had to be.

      1. PS: Am a big fan of your pictures. Which is one of the factors that led me to answer your comment. It’s true!

        One last fun thought for this discussion:

        Try to think of something that you’ve never heard or known about before. Good luck!

  22. The psychologist B.F.Skinner argues very convincingly for determinism in human behavior in his book “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” published in 1971. If anyone is interested in the issue of determinism vs. freewill, the book is definitely worth a look. The book is old but still very much relative.

    1. I doubt you’ll find many modern cognitive scientists who consider Skinner relevant, since Skinner’s approach essentially denies the reality of the internal mental events that cognitive science studies.

      1. He didn’t deny them, he simply said that it is difficult to apply the scientific method to internal mental events. His arguments for determinism still hold and are very good.

  23. Jerry, I have a great presentation on the illusion of free will and morality. I know it’s great because we agree 100%. Here’s an except you might like:

    “People who commit harm are not subject to reaction from the rest of society in a moral sense but in a practical sense. We should be judgmental towards the action but the person.”

  24. For me, the interpretation of free will that makes the most sense is that it is what I consciously experience when I am aware of two or more alternatives, and follow one of them. I recall that before I lifted up the cup I am drinking from that I thought about whether I was thirsty enough to take a drink, and I feel that I could definitely have followed the alternative course of action, and left the cup on the table. I have the conscious experience of following one path of action instead of another. I do believe in a deterministic universe, and therefore my belief that I could have changed the outcome of my action is not true. Nonetheless, I had the experience of choice and free will, and that experience is not an illusion: it reflects internal states of my mind.

    I also believe that free will/choice is an activity of the part of the brain called System 2 by Kahneman and others, the conscious, deliberative part of the brain. If the cup slips from my grasp, I may or may not instantly try to catch it before it falls and breaks. That action is also the result of a deterministic universe, but there is no experience of free will or choice, it just happens, under the control of System 1 mental processes.

    I think that free will is very similar to perception of colors and other experiences. Photons come with different levels of energy, they don’t come in “colors”, but once a photon impinges on our retina and is processed by the brain, we have the experience of “blue” or “red”. No one would say that these experiences are illusions, but there is no “red” in the physical world.

    1. Bummer…”red” was my favorite color and I thought creativity was a possibility and so majored in creative writing, and thought my not getting stoned when living in Haight-Asbury was an alternative choice I made, but
      now I
      the Big Bang caused it all…
      because nature has no goal; matter and energy does it…
      “we” don’t exist.

      So nothing matters because of matter;-)

  25. 121) Pseudo-Science Symposia
    Within the religious technique for their promotion of gods called ‘One-Percenting’ there are increasing numbers of bogus academic symposia. The ‘One-Percenting’ refers to the theological belief that if you can throw doubt upon just one percent – or less- of evolutionary theory, then you may let their gods back into intellectual company.
    There is a site called ‘Evolutionary News and Views’ which takes the prize for the most swollen and distended belly of rotten nonsense ever to infect the body of humankind. It is all theology badly disguised as science. In it the lawyer Creationist Casey Luskin recommends the ‘excellent work done at a symposium held at Cornell University May:June 2011, and the subsequent book to which many contributed…. ‘Biological Information – New Perspectives’!! I smell a rat. Sorry to disappoint, but it is the same old Creationist nonsense, thinly disguised as a dispassionate enquiry into information systems in biology, particularly in the cell. Almost every contributor comes from a bible college. But why have they all gone to great lengths to hide their religious convictions while pretending to do science?
    Is this what we should expect in the future; the ever bounce-back of theologians, trying to undermine the scientific discourse with a pretence of ‘New Perspectives’?? Better we resolve to identify the techniques of this bounce-back, and make it uncomfortable for those dare put their names and reputations to such bible-based theology of ‘science’
    The problem with religion as with all cults is that the travesties of reality that form the bases of such beliefs have to be amended and reconstituted every time an outsider criticises those core beliefs. Religions are subject to ever more preposterous explanations.
    I have borrowed the phrase ‘Exponential Error Dispersion’ to describe the proliferation of Religious Apologist clap-trap which now burdens the internet. It works like this. Any enclosed three-body system, such as the earth, sun and moon, in motion, will not operate in a stable and predictable way, but will throw-up anomalies of major and unexpected disturbances. The global weather patterns, similarly, have not settled into a reliable and predictable pattern, but suffer violent, unexpected and unpredictable changes over time. It is a counter-intuitive phenomenon that is reflected in by the world of human belief and behaviour, whereby many human beliefs do not grow and expand in a regular way, but move by rapid changes and reversals, and accompanied by exponential error dispersion. The accumulated errors fly, like dust under a wind, clouding the air, and the minds of those who stick with the traditional belief systems.
    And so those who suffer Religious Brain Disorder are moved to engender the most lengthy and elaborate of false explanations as to why the earth, its objects and its processes simply do not conform to the mistaken models of reality put forward by goat-herding tribes of the Middle East three millennia ago. And here’s the point. The more that bible-bashers try to force the world around us to conform to biblical explanations, the more elaborate and byzantine their reasoning, the more bizarre and weird their claims, and the more preposterous the whole Apologetics enterprise becomes. And so we have Religious apologists expecting us to accept their explanation that Noah and his family ran around an Ark of thee million sawn board-feet of timber, (before the Iron Age!) shoving buckets under the arses of dinosaurs, and empting those tons of shit overboard! By supposed logic the nonsensical folk tales of the bible are reconciled with our experience of the living, breathing world.
    Always, always we could smell the motives for such elaborate charades; the great motive of trying to equate a religious conviction that the universe, its objects and its processes were made, and are operated by supernatural beings, against the observation that all the evidence of the universe points away from such a belief.
    We have grown used to the sketchy pulpit explanations for the strange world described by holy books, but now we are moving into new territory whereby religious folk are prepared to spend their lives studying evolutionary biology and genetics for the sole purpose of ‘proving’ it all wrong. After all, their hoped-for immortality is dependant upon disproving the world of knowledge. For the professional liars of theology, more than their life is a stake in disproving reality.
    We have had the elaborate pseudo-science of Stephen C Meyer’s ‘Darwin’s Doubt’ and many others, and all those theology books have the same pattern of error. They are written as a kind of syllogism, in which certain assumptions seem to lead, inexorably, to the conclusion that, indeed, the universe was made and is run by supernatural beings!
    The fraud is always the same. The supposed ‘reasoning’ isn’t reasoning at all. It is a form of misdirection. You see, they introduce their gods into the equation in disguise. Their gods are always hidden in the premises, and so surely come out in the conclusion. In each case, our task is to find the gods hidden in the premises, and expose the whole book as based upon a bogus argument. I have shown earlier, on this site, that Darwin’s Doubt has his thinly-disguised gods in the Introduction, where he quotes a long-forgotten paperbag intellectual called Henry Quastler…
    “The Creation of Information is habitually associated with conscious activity”… Henry Quastler (1908-1963)
    A moment of reflection and you realise that the Creation of Information is most certainly NOT habitually associated with conscious activity. It is a theological assumption. In the real world the accidental creation of information beats the conscious creation of information by, perhaps trillions to one. Fossils, geological layers, disposition of rocks, marks of long dead creatures, tree rings, ice-cores and volcanoes, and the whole panoply of ‘readable’ signs around our planet are not the result of conscious activity. No-one put those signs there. But the signs are often so detailed and elaborate that we can derive a great deal of information about what took place millions of years ago, just as a detective may look at accidental clues to discover what took place days ago.
    If they propose that the information passed along in biology is digital in nature and therefore must be the result of intelligence, one can counter that just because the natural world uses digital information, such as in seeds and nuts, it doesn’t imply the presence of gods. My ‘digitised’ daffodil bulbs grow and flower just as well in an atheist garden. The green flies lay digitalised eggs on my sick goose so that they can feed upon the dying creature; an act of their gods, or an accident of evolution? If theologians thinks that their gods are behind everything, they cannot pick and choose which is godly, and which is of the devil! One of the reasons that the religious oppose the dating of fossils and ancient rocks is that such an activity leaves out their gods.
    And so to the dire book resulting from the religious symposium. The whole book, largely owing to the same few names of theologians at The Discovery Institute, is all just another ‘god-of-the-gaps’ argument. Their trick is to indicate that, at the cutting edge of scientific research there are yet things to be explained, and those explanations must be divine in nature! But those attending the religious convocation are clever enough never to mention the true purpose of their gathering; to demonstrate the existence of gods. They pretend that they are dispassionate observers to nature, when, in fact, they are heavily committed to their conclusions in advance. One thing we have learned about theology books is this; you only have to read as far as the first crackpot proposition, and that’s where they have hidden their gods, – ready to reveal those gods towards the end of the book. Usually, as with ‘Darwin’s Doubt’ the crackpot assertion, – where Meyer has hidden his gods, – is in the introduction. No need to read any further. Such is the blatancy of misleading propositions that we can sell the theology books back to Amazon, often after reading only the introduction. Let us see if we can detect the god-scam in the Cornell University ‘Biological Information- New Perspectives’.
    Here’s how the scam works…
    The book is essentially a ‘god-of-the-gaps’ argument, but with the additions of a ‘False Dichotomy’ (by claiming that if science doesn’t have an explanation, then the gods must have been here!), and finally by wrapping the whole argument in dangerously misleading rhetoric designed to deceive.
    Look at the Précis…

    Smell a rat? You should do! The only things those many supposed ‘experts’ in all those fields have in common is their shared conviction that this universe, its objects and its processes were designed and are operated by Supernatural beings. They won’t admit to that. And look at their intentions… ‘to raise challenges to the conventional scientific wisdom…’
    Look to the Title…
    ‘Biological Information – New Perspectives’. This is a subtle way of softening-up the casual reader into agreeing that the little we know about Biological Information is probably wrong, and should be subject to radical new analysis (theological analysis!!) This title announces the intention, NOT to build upon present knowledge, but to jettison present knowledge for something from ten thousand miles away, namely ancient texts from ancient Israel!

    Here is an early quote confirming that subtle intention…

    An alert reader would realise that Ayala suggesting that there might be still-hidden major principles to be discovered is a far cry from wheeling-in the gods!!
    Read the whole book for free, and you may find that the whole things is a loose concatenation of lies and half-truths designed to let the gunman through the open backdoor of the liquor-store…Sorry, designed to let the gods into scientific research.
    Now Look at the chief contributors to that symposium…
    Editor- Robert J Marks II- Baylor University (A Texas Bible College!)
    Michael Behe – Proponent of Intelligent Design (GODDITIT!)
    William A Dembski – Discovery Institute. Fundie ID Religious outfit.
    Bruce L Gordon – Houston Baptist University!
    John C Sandford –Horticulturalist and theologian. (He testified on behalf of Intelligent Design at the Kansas Evolution hearings.
    It is important to keep permanent records of such symposia and their books so that future researchers can add to their knowledge of the lamentable history of theological lies that have been designed to halt human attempts at progress.

    1. Sorry, my block quotes got lost. Follow Evolution News and Views to get a copy of their book, ‘Biological Information – New Perspectives’. It is an education in theological techniques.

    2. One-percenting, as you say, is certainly the standard by which most religious persons like to penetrate the world with their faith ridden claims. It saves them no time, though. They are still left with the next step of explaining. What is supernatural about the universe? I would like to know.

      The first propositions after presenting the ‘one-percenting’ claim puts a religious person back to where they began, without any possible choice but to assume their entire theory rests on faith. One-percenting gets them a go-to-faith-do-not-collect-evience card. If that worked we could all make whatever ridiculous claims about the universe.

  26. “Finally, Egnor’s blathering continues to show that the people at the Discovery Institute have run out of arguments for Intelligent Design. They’ve lost the battle against evolution”

    That may be the case. But if we view the battle that we have with the Discovery Institute (et al) over Evolutionary truth solely from a political point of view, it does our cause no good whatsoever for the “validity of evolution” to be connected with the view that that there is no such thing as free will. This totally incorrect linkage becomes quite real when someone of Jerry’s position as a prominent Evolutionary Biologist argues so strongly against ANY form of free will – be it Libertarian or Compatibilist. You cannot expect that the likes of the Discovery Institute will not distort his quite nuanced views on free will and moral culpability and explain them properly to their audience – they are professional distorters. And to be honest, as a Compatibilist I find Jerry’s and Sam Harris’ arguments quite incoherent, try as I might to appreciate them. In any case, they are not in any way scientifically provable at the moment within our limited understanding of cognition – they are at most a philosophical stance with a few scientific hints that can be read in any number of different ways. Compatibilist free will is an equally (I’d say more) valid stance.
    So, back to the “politics” – and the “question” that the Discovery Institute so cleverly exploits to our cost ……. if evolutionary thinkers can take such a solid and convinced stance over something that is not yet scientifically established like free will, how can we trust that what they say about evolutionary theory is scientifically valid? Now I am a believer that scientific truth trumps all other considerations, certainly political considerations. But with respect to a certainty that SOME form of free will does not exist -we are not there yet – and I and my betters e.g. Dennett, Heisenberg etc. don’t think we ever will be. So why hand the Discovery Institute a loaded gun?

    1. I’m sorry, but you’re way out of line here. I will say what I think,and if the Discovery Institute distorts it to their ends I am not responsible for that. They’ve been doing that to evolutionists for decades: connecting us to Hitler, eugenics, and now free will. What you are telling me to do is shut up about free will because my silence on the issue will advance the cause of evolution. Sorry, but I won’t do that. And you should be ashamed of yourself for asking me to.

      Nor do I see my arguments as incoherent: they consist simply of the assertion that humans are made of molecules and our brains and behaviors obey the laws of physics. There is no immaterial or teleological force that can override the determinism involved in our decisions. Everything we know about science supports that, including a. the lack of evidence for an immaterial soul or ghost, b. the lack of evidence for any non-materialistic phenomenon anywhere in the universe and c. the increasing evidence that are decisions are “made” before we are conscious of them.

      In truth, I find the compatibilists incoherent, for each compatibilist has his/her own notion of what “free will” means, though there is really only one species of determinism (it’s called “science”). There are many “compatibilisms,” and they’re not only different, but incompatible?

      Am I not allowed to give my opinions on anything that may be inimical to the cause of evolution?

      You don’t seem to fathom that we can have more than once cause, either. People like you have told me repeatedly to shut up about atheism because it hurts the cause of evolution. Are you a new version of Chris Mooney?

      Well, there’s no more evidence for libertarian free will than there is for God: in fact, the two delusions are connected.

      Every compatibilist that I know accepts determinism. The rest is commentary, and unconvincing attempts to manufacture some kind of freedom in our decisions

      I believe that and so I will say that, and you will not make me stop saying that by telling me that it will be distorted by the Discovery Institute.

      1. “I believe that and so I will say that, and you will not make me stop saying that by telling me that it will be distorted by the Discovery Institute.”

        No… what my concerns center around is the level of CONVICTION that one places on the certainty of views and the scientific facts that we have that support such a level of conviction. The arguments we have in favour of Evolution are essentially unassailable – all arising from scientific facts and rational theorising. The arguments that support an atheistic view are also compelling – and much of the argument that supports such an atheistic view also arise from scientific facts describing the nature and history of the universe and our place in it. There is no sense in being guarded about expressing these views (although such “politically sensitive” care was indeed taken in the selection of pro-evolution witnesses in the Dover trial). What I only feel is essential is that all strongly expressed views have strongly evidenced argument behind them, for weakness in one argument area weakens all our argument areas by our adversaries. But do we have such a level of evidence to back convictions on free-will to the degree that such convictions are expressed? No.

        I believe that the case for Compatibilist free-will is very convincing based on Dennett’s model of evolved evitable agents, of the numerous two stage models of free will, of the breaking of causality that exists in several aspects of randomness in brain process, and of the iterative nature of our programming our own personal “utility values” under these influences. Some cognitive research can be said to also support this idea but the jury is certainly still out. We know very little of cognitive function. One thing for sure – this compatibilist model also operates wholly within the realms of a deterministic universe. But can I make the claim of compatibilist free will with CONVICTION? No. And that’s the point I’m trying to make.

        1. My final comment to you: you clearly implied that I should not connect free will with evolution, so when you say it’s only my degree of conviction that bothers you, that’s not exactly the case:

          “it does our cause no good whatsoever for the “validity of evolution” to be connected with the view that that there is no such thing as free will.”

          I don’t accept the notion of compatibilist free will, which I see as an oxymoron, so I’m not even considering that, except to dismiss it. And the DI doesn’t accept compatibilist free will, either, and you know that bloody well. So if it hurts our “cause” by saying that there is no such thing as libertarian free will, too bad!

          What I am proposing is that there is no such thing as libertarian free will and I believe I am on quite solid ground in saying that. And that is the kind of free will that the Discovery Institute accepts and faults me for denying. So yes, I can make the claim that there is no libertarian free will with conviction. Even if there is quantum randomness in brain processes, that doesn’t affect my conclusion. People can blather on all they want about how we don’t understand consciousness, and “thoughts” aren’t material things, but you can alter thoughts with material things and change subjective sensations by stimulating the brain. The scientific program has never made progress in any other way than by accepting materialism.

          We have enough scientific evidence now that determinism (with the possibility of some quantum-mechanical randomness)rules our thoughts and actions. That’s good enough for me.

          Again, I must ask you to desist telling your host what to say, or how much conviction I should bring to my views, lest I injure the cause of evolution. That’s simply impolite.

    2. Exceedingly few people take the D.I. seriously. They have nothing of value to contribute, and therefore they will always try to nit-pick everything that people who are taken seriously, like Jerry Coyne, say. That is their standard modus operandi, no matter what the subject is.

      Your argument essentially boils down to: I personally don’t agree with your argument here, so I think you should shut up. And I am going to pretend that the reason is because the D.I. will write scathingly about it.

      That isn’t a position you should be proud of.

      1. “Exceedingly few people take the D.I. seriously”
        If only this were true Grania. Perhaps a lot of “our kind of people” don’t take the DI seriously but that is not the case with a significant segment of the public. I run a channel on YouTube focused on evolution, and believe me I get masses of DI indoctrinated visitors.
        Perhaps I am too much a politically sensitive animal, but It is NOT to try to silence opinions different to my own. My approach is akin to Abraham Lincoln’s stance when his advisors suggested to him that the Union should go to war with Great Britain during the Civil War and he responded – “One war at a time”.

  27. I have no firm opinion about free will or the lack thereof. I’m a skeptic, and here’s why.

    The deterministic, materialist case against free will seems very strong at first, but there’s a problem. There are things that exist that aren’t material: namely, subjective conscious experience, such as thoughts, desires, pleasure, pain, and qualia of all sorts. Presumably, these things derive from and depend on the material world — kill the brain and they go away. There’s no evidence for souls.

    It’s often said that these nonmaterial things are epiphenomena, or even illusions (whatever that means), but that begs the question. We could know the state of a brain to arbitrarily accurate precision and we still wouldn’t have an explanation for them. It may be that they are hopelessly inaccessible to scientific explanation (e.g., John Wisdom, Other Minds). Furthermore, they seem utterly superfluous from a materialist perspective.

    I don’t buy into dualism or the mumbo jumbo of Chopra and his ilk, but this is a serious problem with the materialist program, and until it is solved I’ll remain a skeptic.

    1. We are in the same camp Steven, but not for the same reasons. I’m pretty sure that qualia will eventually be explained in materialistic terms. But, on the other hand I’m equally sure that the functioning of the mind is removed from totally causal effects by randomising influences, and hence this really does break us “free” to have free will.
      Breaking of causation is essential – even in Evolution itself. If in evolution, the breaking of causation via randomness cannot occur, then mutation itself also acts under the directives of pure determinism. If we follow this line of reasoning to its logical end, then the development of species is indeed utterly teleological -we were predestined to have evolved into exactly what we are. But this is not the case, randomness does break causation- hence, breaks this teleology.
      Similar to evolution (1-mutation, 2-selection), compatibilist free will is a two-stage process where, in part, we programme the intelligent entity that becomes ourselves – broken by random effects from total causation. The complexity of the mind allows for the existence of qualia, but this I feel is just the sensory way that certain brain functions encodes or represents things or states of mind.

      1. Randomness does not willfulness make. A navigator who rolls the dice at every turn has neither destination nor means to reach one.

        As a practical tool, randomness can be useful to sample a space that is too large for a complete census. However, while such sampling techniques can be supremely effective, they will never, even in principle, be superior to an actual, complete census.

        And “teleology” requires purpose; that’s the very essence of the definition. An apple falling from a tree is perfectly determined to fall to that exact spot, but that doesn’t mean that there is any purpose in its “choice” (or lack thereof) of its final destination.

        Sorry, but you’ve got pretty much everything quite mixed up on this one.



        1. “Randomness does not willfulness make. A navigator who rolls the dice at every turn has neither destination nor means to reach one.”

          It does if dice rolling is TWO STAGE where each roll is followed by a defined “selection criteria”. As with evolution. As with two stage free-will systems proposed by Dennett, Popper, Kane, James et al.
          As for teleology, check wiki or even the basic the Greek τέλος itself to insure my correct usage of the word.
          Ben, we seem to eventually end up in heated arguments with one another. I’d suggest it’s best that we converse with other posters here instead, to avoid this phenomenon. Ok?

          1. Howie, all your “two-stage randomness” is is a random survey as opposed to a complete census. And if that’s where the heart of free will resides, then Pew has free will whereas the elections they predict don’t.

            Again, I’m not dissing the utility of random sampling; I’m just trying to suggest to you that it’s not some sort of magic phenomenon which imbues decision-making processes with purpose.



            1. I’m not entirely sure what you’re describing here Ben – I think you have a misunderstanding of what such a two-stage randomised process achieves. It is NOT necessarily a exhaustive exploratory process if that’s what you’re driving at , nor is it an optimisation process (although certain two stage processes can indeed be optimising). It is a process that harnesses a randomised exploratory element in a way that creates a “designed” byproduct. But this is a continuously dynamic system with no specific “end point” or objective. In the case of evolution the two phases are 1) mutation and 2) selection and the “design” is a survival-adapted entity. And it’s an iterative process.
              In the free will models the randomness not only breaks causation (very important) but it also helps explore areas of a possible “solution space”. The entity being produced (“designed” is actually quite the wrong word in both cases) is an agent with evitibility. Evolution has produced evitability because it allows entities to avoid outcomes that are counterproductive to survival. And the human mind is the most complex form of evolved capability in achieving evitability.
              The brain is in a large part a decision-making device, which guides our function as an agent. If we look at the mathematics of decision theory we find sets of simultaneous equations with three main factors 1) the payoff of alternative n, 2) the probability of n occurring, and 3) the utility of that particular outcome to the “problem solver”. In the two-stage model of free will this set of utility values are iteratively created in the agent, BUT WITH CAUSATION BROKEN by randomising effects. In other words, to a significant degree as we grow to an adult, we programme our own decision criteria – we grow ourselves as agents. (I do not claim however that nature and nurture do not also have significant effects). It’s not ” it’s not some sort of magic phenomenon which imbues decision-making processes with purpose” that you accuse it of being…. it’s decision making with free-will involved.
              This is the best I can do to explain the two stage model, if it is still unclear please read Dennett.

              1. What “randomizing effects” are you talking about: quantum effects? If they’re truly random, then they can having nothing to do with conscious decision.

                As far as I can see, this answer is a non-answer; “WITH CAUSATION BrOKEN” does not give us the ability to make free choices, nor the “ability to program our own decision criteria”, which as far as I can see is a meaningless statement.

                And there is no evidence that quantum-level phenomena affect our decisions. Beyond that, there is no true randomness.

                Do not bother to reply to this; I think you’ve said enough on this issue

              2. In the free will models the randomness not only breaks causation (very important) but it also helps explore areas of a possible solution space.

                While that might be an helpful “higher-level” way of conceptualizing it, in reality, it is logically equivalent to the statistical sampling performed by a Non-Deterministic Turing Machine. And the first thing one learns about Non-Deterministic Turing Machines is that they’re provably equivalent to garden-variety Turing Machines.

                Yes, there are certainly practical reasons to implement one particular architecture over another. But, given sufficient resources, all architectures are — again, provably, this being Alan Turing’s most noteworthy accomplishment — logically equivalent; some are just faster or cheaper or more resource-efficient or aesthetically pleasing or whatever.



      2. Another objection to the deterministic materialist position, which is somewhat similar to yours, is epistemological. It seems to imply that given complete knowledge of initial conditions and complete knowledge of physical laws, it should be possible to extrapolate to any future state — a Laplace’s Demon. But this isn’t so, and not just for practical reasons. Even something as simple and abstract as a three-body problem not only has no closed-form solution, but is sensitive to initial conditions. Any accurate extrapolation would require infinite precision. Expand this to simulating a brain, much less the entire universe, and you see the problem. It’s the problem of what Stephen Wolfram calls computational irreducibility.

        One might object that this has nothing to do with deterministic causation — that just because we can’t predict the future with accuracy (and we can’t, even with perfect knowledge), that effect nevertheless ineluctably and uniquely follows cause. I’m suspicious of this because it sounds like one of those “in principle” arguments, and it’s circular. We “believe” in strict causation because the laws of physics, which in a real sense are just recipes for computation, imply it.

        1. It seems to imply that given complete knowledge of initial conditions and complete knowledge of physical laws, it should be possible to extrapolate to any future state a Laplaces Demon. But this isnt so, and not just for practical reasons.

          That is an absolutely true statement.

          However, I don’t think any substantive argument can be made that it has any bearing on the discussion at hand.

          It is equally impossible to exactly duplicate or calculate almost anything else of any degree of complexity — say, the cake that Malgorzata made for Jerry yesterday. Yet such down-to-quantum-level duplication is nowhere near necessary to either bake another cake or understand what cakes are.

          Similarly, one need not create an exact computer model of one Stephen Barnard to know that there exists a recipe for creating a simulation of you that is as “identical” as any pair of cars rolling off the assembly line.

          …and, for that matter, the you reading these words here is emphatically not identical to the you who read the words at the beginning of this post. I’m sure that degree of difference doesn’t upset you nor cause you to think that some sort of intractable Zeno-spirited paradox exists, so why should other expected copy-to-copy variation be any different?

          In other words, if the question is not, “Can we exactly duplicate a particular person’s mind in silicon?” but, rather, “Can we (at least in principle) build a mind in silicon?” the answer is the same as the question, “Does Church-Turing hold?

          …and that answer is a resounding, “Yes!”



    2. There are things that exist that aren’t material: namely, subjective conscious experience, such as thoughts, desires, pleasure, pain, and qualia of all sorts.

      Well they are material, they are patterns of material, namely patterns of brain stuff.

      (Note that most things we regard as physical entities, such as molecules and atoms, are actually patterns of more-basic particles.)

      We could know the state of a brain to arbitrarily accurate precision and we still wouldn’t have an explanation for them.

      How do you know that?

      Furthermore, they seem utterly superfluous from a materialist perspective.

      Not at all, complex patterns of material are entirely needed for a materialist account of life, they are not at all superfluous.

      1. “Well they are material, they are patterns of material, namely patterns of brain stuff.”

        Why should patterns give rise to qualia? There are patterns everywhere in nature that don’t. You cannot convince me that my qualia are merely patterns, for if they are patterns, they are patterns that I’m aware of, or that make me aware of other things, which is not taken into account in your pattern hypothesis. There is a sense of what it is to be like something — in particular, what it is like to be oneself.

        1. The “you”, the “what it is like to be yourself” is a pattern, a pattern of material brain stuff.

          There are indeed other “patterns that you’re aware of”, this is because these patterns interact with and affect each other (the brain is highly interconnected, and linked to sensory devices).

          As for “patterns everywhere in nature that don’t” give rise to qualia, well so what? There are patterns everywhere that aren’t trees, or aren’t tornadoes. That doesn’t stop there being some patterns that are trees and tornadoes.

          I fail to see any actual problem here with the materialist perspective.

          1. I agree Coel.

            No matter how many times I encounter it, this “mystery of qualia” stuff never strikes me as being that much of a “mystery.”
            Surely a physical brain evolved in great complexity to take all sorts of sensory information from the world, collate the information, a collection of modules providing various forms of feedback, usefully monitoring both what is going on in the exterior world and usefully reporting on what is going on in our interior world (ourselves) would feel like something…the whole system works to produce sensation in a useful way. And, well, this (our experience) is how it feels. What’s so mysterious? If it’s mysterious, then that suggests there’s something wrong, that there is some justified OTHER expectation that this experience contradicts.

            But then, what is this expectation? How else OUGHT it feel to have a brain/body like ours? Should we expect such a system to produce nothing like the sensations we experience, or no sensation at all? Why would one have THAT expectation, on what justification?

            Certainly HOW the brain produces the exact experiences we have (including consciousness)
            is a difficult thing to answer at this point, given all the complexity involved, and the technology that needed (and needs) to be developed to start answering such questions.

            But the FACT THAT our brains would produce
            the interesting, complex experience/sensation
            that it does, does not strike me as mysterious, unbelievable or utterly unexpected at all.


    3. How do you know these things aren’t material? You’ve ignored the central thesis of most materialisms: namely that the entities you mentioned just are brain processes. Are they superfluous? What does that mean? Superfluousity is relative to a goal, and the universe had no goal in “creating” you.

      1. What makes you think they are material? They don’t seem material. They aren’t measurable, and it’s hard to imagine how they ever could be. There’s no calculus of consciousness. I’ll grant that they *derive* from brain processes, but they seem, to me, to be an otherwise superfluous overlay on a deterministic machine.

        1. We can be certain that it’s material because the LHC has ruled out all other possibilities.

          It’s not unlike a lot of math. Eratosthenes’s Sieve can be used to discover all primes up to x**2 by simple operations on 2..x without actually factoring each number, for example. We also know that there are infinitely many primes separated by no more than about 600, and there’s very good reason to strongly suspect that there are an infinite number of twin primes. All of these facts (and many more) that we know about primes we know without actually having to enumerate all the numbers in question.

          Similarly, we know that there aren’t any forces that can be at play other than those in the Standard Model, which rules out any form of immateriality. We can also rule out any sort of hypercomputation, at least in the brain, because the Standard Model is entirely Turing-computable.

          We may never be clever enough to figure out how to actually build a conscious brain (other than through the obvious and messy way that takes nine months / 18 years / until the dog dies and the kids go off to college), but that doesn’t mean that the brain is fundamentally incomprehensible or doing something in principle radically unlike anything else — just as the fact that there are numbers too large for us to factor with today’s computers means that those numbers are neither prime nor composite but some mysterious third alternative. (And, incidentally, the next time you see a lock icon in your Web browser’s address bar, your computer and the server have exchanged one of those too-big-to-factor numbers.)



        2. In what sense aren’t they measurable? Once a year my optometrist accurately measures my subjective experience of clear vision with a series of questions of the form “which is better, A or B?” Doctors routinely ask us to quantify our sensation of pain on a scale of one to ten, and apparently find this a useful diagnostic procedure. Movie critics and Netflix users have no difficulty rating their satisfaction on a five-star scale.

          I’m also unclear on what you mean by “superfluous”. The very fact that we can talk about such things as qualia demonstrates that they have causal power to affect our speech. And if they have causal power, they’re not a superfluous overlay; they’re inextricably entwined in the chain of events that governs our behavior.

          Nor are they accidental byproducts of neurology. The color red (for instance) is vivid and attention-grabbing because it’s the color of spilled blood. That’s a feature, not a bug.

          You seem to be implying that the world would be essentially unchanged without this immaterial overlay of subjectivity. But that idea won’t hold water. Delete all reference to consciousness, qualia, agency, and subjective experience from our language, and this entire conversation (to say nothing of poetry, literature, and drama) would be inexpressible. Complex thoughts would be literally unthinkable without some mechanism of internal reflection. There has to be something it’s like to be us in order for us to think and talk coherently about our interactions with the external world.

          I suppose you could argue that the world didn’t have to be constructed in such a way as to allow the possibility of thinking, talking, self-reflecting intelligences. But the brute fact is that such beings are possible, and this is what it feels like to be one of them.

  28. My own ten-cents worth…

    The ‘problem’ of free-will is not a problem and not even a coherent point of discussion. The notions of free-will and determinism are both social constructs, and come out of accumulated knowledge of humankind, replete with dodgy historic assumptions. Therefore the idea of free-will has been generated by faulty metaphysics.

    But there are explanations as to consciousness and as to the workings of the human brain. Both explanations are shockers…

    Human consciousness is the booting-up of the human brain upon arbitrary assumptions concerning the nature of reality, picked-up through childhood. Those arbitrary assumptions tend to cluster. That is why a third of any human community anywhere in the world will be ‘Drones’ That is people who believe that they may best self-actualise as people by identifying the authority-structure, and then by finding their place within that real or imaginary authority-structure. Drones are very well represented in the ‘clerical-admin-professional-educational’ fields. (Many doctors are Drones, don’t you know it!) All religious people are Drones. Typically Drones believe that all knowledge comes from authority.

    The human brain works to restrict sensory input the better to produce understandings that help us navigate the world around us. The chief work of most human brains is the production of ‘Solution-Ideologies’ or frameworks of understandings that allow us to pursue our survivalist desires. If you ever doubt that the human brain is designed to build ‘solution-ideologies’ just look at the Discovery Institute. In the words of the poet, Wordsworth… ‘Great Minds, Visibly Entombed!’

    Science is intriguing because it decouples survivalist desires for a hoped-for advantage in getting to the bottom of things without having to build ‘solution-ideologies’ In that respect, for scientists, the pursuit of ‘truth’ is a strategy.

  29. As a neurosurgeon, I’m getting headache after heading listening to my so called colleagues ramble on with such ignorance. Take Eben Alexander’s recent foray on a butterflie’s wing! I knew his late father, a world-class neurosurgeon might I add, who is probably turning over in his grave listening to the lunacy from his son.
    Please alert the public that some of us went into this noble profession for reasons other than to emulate Jethro’s passion for “brain surgery or a double-nought spying.”
    BTW, saw Dr Alexander at a Barnes & Noble for his book signing…he REFUSED to answer any questions.

  30. I’m new to these boards and the regular posters here have much more knowledge in this area than I do, but nevertheless I occasionally find the free will discussion to be quite interesting, followed by a feeling that it is a waste of time and really an oxymoron, as some of these posts have pointed out.

    I think using the well-established facts about reinforcement working better to mold behaviors than punishment is reason enough to take issue with the penal system in the United States, but arguing over whether advocating for these actions is useful is really pointless. Assuming that free will is false, we don’t have a choice to try to push for reform and from the evolutionary perspective, it would make sense that within our human population, these viewpoints are evolving in such a way that it benefits our population by decreasing behaviors detrimental to the species as a whole.

    I believe it was Sam Harris who I saw state that even if we understand free will to be an illusion, we can still act as if it is real, and there’s benefit to doing that. (I’ve probably botched some of his meaning in paraphrasing him). Outside of promoting the point that punishment is not an effective way to modify behavior, I’m not sure I buy into the importance of these discussions and I’m not sure I even buy the argument that arguing lack of free will does anything useful in this cause (at least not useful to the degree that presenting evidence about the utility of reinforcement does). So, while it may make for some thought provoking and fascinating discussion, I’m not sure I see the practical utility. Am I oversimplifying here or missing some deeper reason behind why this should even be a debate? Who cares if Creationists/Dualists/etc. think it’s real? They can go on with their delusions if they get on board with the most useful ways to improve societal behavior.

  31. “Morality” (or, somewhat interchangeably, “ethics”) is the field of inquiry which deals with determining right and wrong actions. Morality does not depend on free will any more than medicine or psychology do.

  32. One need not believe in a “ghost in the machine” to be a libertarian regarding free will. There are a number of naturalistic accounts of free will that need not even appeal to dualism.

    Here are 4 authors you should consider.
    Robert Kane
    Mark Balaguer
    Timothy O’Connor
    Christopher Frankli

    1. And for rebuttal, see my student paper about Kane. Short answer: his neuroscience and appeal to quantum mechanics are both massively implausible, to understate the case.

      1. Christopher Franklin defends the libertarian notion of free will on scientific ground in chapter 6 of this book –

        Mark Balaguer defends libertarian free will on scientific grounds (very plausible science, unlike Kane who might be dated) in his book here:

        And the best and most detailed defense of the neuroscientific underpinnings for free will can be found here, by Peter Tse: He blogged about his book and the comment thread is nothing short of amazing, check it out!

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