Paul Bloom claims that we’re not biochemical puppets because we can reason. He’s wrong.

February 24, 2014 • 7:49 am

Paul Bloom is a noted psychologist at Yale, specializing in morality and its development in young children (see an earlier post on that topic here).

Now, in the new Atlantic, Bloom has published a longish piece, “The war on reason,” that describes a purported war on rationality incited by the findings of neuroscientists, determinists, and people like Sam Harris—findings that we are “biochemical puppets.” While Bloom’s piece is well reasoned and well written, I think it comes off as a veiled attack on incompatibilism, or at least as a defense of compatibilism, where “free will” is replaced by the word “reason.” And I think he’s off the mark when saying that the rationality of humans somehow exempts us from being “biochemical puppets.”

I say it’s a “purported” war because I don’t think that we hard determinists have any problem with rationality, or with people using reason before they perform an action.  I see reason and rationality as tools installed in us (and our ancestors) by natural selection: a computer program, if you will, whereby input information is weighted differently depending on how reliable it is, or whether it’s empirical versus revelatory.  And rational behavior is reinforced by being emphasized by everyone (except some churches) as a virtue. Humans, of course, aren’t the only animals that can reason.  Surely many primates can, as well as dogs, cats, and even those birds who, when they cache food, will dig it up and cache it elsewhere if they see another bird watching. (The latter involves a “theory of mind” which, in humans, would be taken as evidence for “rationality”.)

It’s obvious why natural selection would favor brain patterns that would evaluate evidence rationally, for if you have good reasons for what you do, you’re more likely to survive and reproduce. That is why, for example, our ancestors used empirical evidence and reason when hunting or finding food, or evaluating the mindset of their clan members.  (You don’t look for wildebeest where there is no grass.)

But rationality is not something we “choose” to exercise (I’m using “choose” in a libertarian sense here). Rather, it is something that most people are conditioned to use when evaluating evidence. And some do not, for they are swayed by emotion, mental illness (brain disorders that we still fail to understand), abuse or other prior mistreatement, a childhood spent in bad environments, and so on. And none of us (not even Professor Ceiling Cat) are completely rational beings. Love, for instance, is a largely irrational emotion, often driven by factors beyond our current ability to reason.  Most of us are largely rational but also show a good dollop of irrationality based on our backgrounds and genes. And some people are less rational than others.  But, at any rate, rationality is simply the brain’s adaptive computer program that, before providing an output, weighs the inputs according to their probative value. The use of rationality is something over which we have no personal control. Why on earth should it be seen as being less free from determinism, or more conducive to culpability, than even full-blown irrationality?

In other words, to say that we can reason says nothing about whether our “decisions” and actions are “free” or different in principle from the actions taken by those who are irrational or have a mental illness that impairs the input-output system of their brain.  The fact that we use reason says nothing about whether those who can reason, but nevertheless do bad things, deserve more punishment than those who can’t reason.  Both groups show equal moral responsibility for their actions—that is, none. 

Certainly we should treat those malefactors who are mentally ill, irrational, or incapable of persuasion differently from those who can be persuaded to reform via rational argument.  No determinist says otherwise.  But that rehabilitation and punishment must be determined by three things: a.) the liability of an offender to be rehabilitated, and the best means of doing so;  b.) the likelihood of recidivism (pedophiles, for instance, are more likely to relapse than are other criminals); and c.) the deterrent effect of punishment on others.  And of course it can be useful to persuade people to be rational, for it’s possible to reprogram someone’s brain by that form of environmental input. (It’s a common misconception that determinists don’t believe that their behavior can be changed by others.) But I see no rationale for claiming that rationality somehow makes me less of a biochemical puppet.

Bloom feels otherwise. He does agree though, that we are largely “biochemical puppets,” but somehow exempts reason from that monicker. And therefore he sees neuroscientists and incompatibilist philosophers as engaging in a “war on reason.” Frankly, I’m baffled. The article almost sounds as if it were written to reassure those who are discomfited by determinism (and the latest findings in brain science) that we can safely retain our notions of free will and moral responsibility.

First, Bloom’s admission of determinism:

We are soft machines—amazing machines, but machines nonetheless. Scientists have reached no consensus as to precisely how physical events give rise to conscious experience, but few doubt any longer that our minds and our brains are one and the same.

. . . For the most part, I’m on the side of the neuroscientists and social psychologists—no surprise, given that I’m a psychologist myself. Work in fields such as computational cognitive science, behavioral genetics, and social neuroscience has yielded great insights about human nature. I do worry, though, that many of my colleagues have radically overstated the implications of their findings. The genetic you and the neural you aren’t alternatives to the conscious you. They are its foundations. [JAC: who said otherwise?]

So where is this attack on reason coming from? According to Bloom, from the neuroscientists and psychologists who find that people can be influenced by unconscious factors—or take decisions made by their brains before they’re conscious of them. One of the former is the famous experiment showing that people who find a dime in phone booth are more likely to act charitably than those who don’t. There are innumerable similar studies showing how people’s behavior can be unconsciously manipulated. Bloom agrees, but says that this is not a strong criticism of rationality because those unconscious determinants don’t completely dominate our behavior—they merely influence it.

My response to this is: so what? Nobody claims otherwise. Except for strong manipulations like drugs or electrical stimulation of the brain, we can rarely completely efface rational thought and action.  Humans are a combination of programmed rational behavior—programmed by our genes and past environments—and behaviors that don’t always follow the dictates of reason (also caused by genes and whatever environments we experienced). Someone may, for instance, have been severely mauled by a dog when young, and although normally rational, he continues to hurl rocks at dogs whenever he sees them. We all know scientists like Ken Miller and Francis Collins who are perfectly rational in their working lives, but throw that all out the window on Sundays.

Bloom further notes that we should draw a distinction between people who have been “horrifically abused as a child,” those who “are psychopaths who appear incapable of empathy,” and “the cold-blooding planning of a Mafia hit man.” He sees the last person as having more morally responsibility for their actions.  But moral responsibility is, to many of us (including me) bound up with our idea of “freedom to choose otherwise in a fixed situation” and nobody—including Bloom—thinks we have that.  In fact, although Bloom throws about the term “moral responsibility,” he fails to distinguish it from “agent responsibility.” Yes, a psychopath is responsible for what he did, and should be punished, but he had no more choice in his actions than did a Mafia hit man. They are both biochemical puppets. Later in the piece, Bloom implies that you are somehow more culpable if you could have exercised “self control” over your actions (he says that such self control is “the embodiment of rationality”), but self control, too, is something we don’t choose to exercise or not. We simply have or do not have it depending on our genes and environments. It’s simply not true that anyone can choose to stop chain-smoking.

This bit, I think, sums up Bloom’s dilemma:

You have reasons for that choice, and you can decide to stop reading if you want. If you should be doing something else right now—picking up a child at school, say, or standing watch at a security post—your decision to continue reading is something you are morally responsible for.

The idea of “choosing” to stop (or choosing anything at all), they suggest, implies a mystical capacity to transcend the physical world. Many people think about choice in terms of this mystical capacity, and I agree with the determinists that they’re wrong. But instead of giving up on the notion of choice, we can clarify it. The deterministic nature of the universe is fully compatible with the existence of conscious deliberation and rational thought—with neural systems that analyze different options, construct logical chains of argument, reason through examples and analogies, and respond to the anticipated consequences of actions, including moral consequences. These processes are at the core of what it means to say that people make choices, and in this regard, the notion that we are responsible for our fates remains intact.

I am guessing that Bloom’s agenda is in the third sentence of the second paragraph: “But instead of giving up on the notion of choice, we can clarify it.” He wants to let people know that by some redefinition, they can retain their beloved idea of choice.  By all means we should avoid discomfiting the public with the scientific truth. By some judicious re-jiggering of how we use words, we can let them have their determinism and moral responsibility, too.

Bloom is right that “choice” is really deterministic: we could not have chosen otherwise. Where he goes wrong is thinking that somehow rational deliberation is what people really mean when they say they make choices, and that such rationality is the ultimate touchstone of moral responsibility. (By the way, why on earth would Bloom think that a choice to continue reading his article is a “moral” choice? Even if you believe in moral responsibility, which I don’t, not all choices are “moral” ones. And surely to continue reading has nothing to do with morality, however you conceive it.)

But who is Bloom to tell us what people really think when they say we “make choices” or are “morally responsible” for our choices? We’ve seen in the past few days, reading papers by Nahmias et al. and Sarkissian et al., how complex this issue is, and how hard it is to gauge what people really think about determinism and moral responsibility. First of all, many people are true indeterminists, disagreeing with the Bloom’s notion that the universe is deterministic (with some quantum indeterminacy thrown in—an addition that doesn’t give credence to anybody’s notion of “free choice” or “moral responsibility”). Second, some people agree that in such a universe people are not morally responsible for their action. Curiously, still others think that in a universe that is completely determined, people still think that others “could have chosen otherwise” and are morally responsible for their actions.

It’s all a mess, probably because, as some commenters have noted, many people don’t think a lot about physics, determinism, and moral responsibility. What we do know, as scientists, is that determinism reigns (as Official Website Physicist™ Sean Carroll notes, the laws underlying the physics of everyday life are completely understood), and in that light we have to decide what we mean by “responsibility.” Bloom is silent on this issue, particularly when it comes to “moral responsibility.”

In the end, I don’t agree with Bloom that determinists, like those who show we can predict simple decisions before people are conscious of having made them, are waging a war on rationality. We aren’t. If there is a “war,” it’s on three other fronts.

First, there’s a war on whether determinism reigns. Bloom and I agree that that issue has been settled in favor of determinism, but many fellow humans would disagree. Those include the many religious believers who think that we can make libertarian, can-do-otherwise choices.

Second, there’s a war about what it means to be “morally responsible,” and how that differs from simply being “responsible” (to see how one can distinguish these, read Bruce Waller’s book Against Moral Responsibility).  I don’t think that there is such a thing as moral responsibility, for if surveys say anything, they tend show that moral responsibility goes hand in hand with the notion of true libertarian (“can do otherwise”) free will—something that we do not have. I fully agree that we must hold people responsible for their actions, for social good demands it, but we must realize that there is no essential difference between the culpability of those who are “rational” criminals and those who are “irrational” criminals. There is a difference, however, in how we should deal with such people.

These first two “wars” are important ones, for they have real implications about how we should run our society. While some disagree, and argue that giving up the ideas of indeterminism, free choice, or moral responsibility would still have no social implications, I think they’re wrong. They’re wrong because we already recognize that some people can’t freely choose to refrain from crime. Sending mentally ill criminals to prison hospitals instead of jail is one example. Imagine how things would differ if we realized, as we should, that no criminal had a choice about what he did.  I won’t dwell on how we’d change the criminal justice system, but, with Waller, I agree that we’d also concentrate far more on eliminating the environmental factors that promote criminality. (Chicago is already doing that by getting rid of large “projects” and trying to mix low-income people with higher-income ones.)

Finally, there is a semantic war among determinists: do we have “free will” or not? I myself engage in this discussion, but see it as a much less important “war” than the battle between deterministics and indeterminists. That’s why I say that I’m baffled when philosophers spend their time confecting new and diverse reasons why we have “free will” in a deterministic world. That’s like theology: it’s an activity without a point. (Or rather, the point resembles the point of theology: to reassure people that they have something they don’t.)

Let me hasten to add again that I do believe in holding people responsible for their actions.  I also believe that rationality is a quality that we should aspire to and promote. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t spend a lot of time criticizing religion and its evidential basis—faith. What I don’t believe is that people can themselves “choose” to be rational in a libertarian sense. But we can promote the virtue of rationality, and even in a deterministic world such promotion can have positive effects.

And finally, we can’t freely choose to promote rationality. We do that because of our genes and environments: the infinite regress back to our ancestors. What a good thing that evolution and experience favor rationality!

155 thoughts on “Paul Bloom claims that we’re not biochemical puppets because we can reason. He’s wrong.

  1. Bloom’s article seemed to make sense up to his assessment of determinism but then seemed to go off the rails. It seems from his writing that he hasn’t quite worked out what he thinks for himself or at least is struggling to articulate it. Could be the examples were just too long and that threw off my short attention span.

    It is odd that he suggests a war on rationality and sees determinism or at least incompatibilism as part of that war. Perhaps he hasn’t though threw what incompatibilism means and that rationality is part of the deterministic nature of our evolved brains or that appealing to rationality is an input to those deterministic brains.

  2. Great post, Jerry! I read Bloom’s article yesterday and was disappointed and vexed by his thesis.

    Your response was perfect!

    It seems Michael Shermer, on Facebook, likes Bloom’s article, though.

  3. “In other words, to say that we can reason says nothing about whether our “decisions” and actions are “free” or different in principle from the actions taken by those who are irrational or have a mental illness that impairs the input-output structure of their brain. ”

    Except that the ability to reason is the DEFINITION of free will, at least as most compatibilists use it. So yes, if you deny free will, you are denying the ability to reason, as far as I am concerned.

      1. Yes. His reasoning might be affected by faulty premises and faulty brain biochemistry, but it’s not as if most people don’t act on faulty information and incorrect assumptions anyway. The psychopath is just way off the bell curve in that regard.

          1. Or, as a matter of fact, that any of us could choose our own neurophysiology, biochemistry and genes which all affect our actions and fly in the face of the concept of “free will”.

          2. Yes, reasoning is the ability of our deterministic brains and a psychopath may be seen as mentally ill but a psychopath reasons, it’s just empathy isn’t one of the inputs in his/her rationale to achieve an end or that his/her brain enjoys things that are repugnant to the brains of non-psychopaths given our different brain structure.

    1. I do not think reason implies free will. Reasoning comes from our brain and I know of no way to think of it as anything but deterministic, i.e., lacking free will.

      Not knowing the future and caring about that future can imply free will. Reminds me of altruism. Any effort to think an altruistic action is possible always ends in some circular-motivational spiral that can never be boot strapped to a purely altruistic act. The closest I have ever heard argued for an altruistic act, is an unconscious, non-thinking, almost robotic action, like opening the door for someone without thinking about it. But then, was the action really intended to do another person any good, or was it just something we do now because we are trained liked monkeys to open the door for someone.

    2. I don’t see this as the definition of free will but then again I don’t accept that we have free will. To me, the ability to reason is something our deterministic brains give us. If we are unable to reason, that too is part of our deterministic brains.

  4. I very much like the distinction you’ve drawn here. Rationality without libertarian free will (LFW) is when your brain takes in empirical data and spits out well-justified and logically consistent conclusions. You may not have any choice in what conclusion you draw, but one can still talk about rationality in terms of validity; the connection between premises and data on the one hand, and conclusions on the other.

    I’ve been generally against Jerry’s contentions that lack of LFW (ought to) leads us to liberal social justice policies, but I think he does have a very good basis and argument for different social policies here. If someone is not ‘rational’ in the sense described above, then our normal deterrent or treatment may not work because they do not take that input data and process it the same way normal people do. A different response may be called for in the case of these irrational people…and this social policy can be justified without needing to appeal to LFW or its lack.

    1. Agreed about the second paragraph. I am a compatibilist when it comes to what we know about free will and I yet I agree, as much as I am aware, with every social policy endorsed by hard determinists. Likewise, I know people who are LFW artists and they adopt similar stances on social policies as those of hard determinists. In the case of some LFWers who behave as if they were determinists, maybe they just do not think deeply about the connection between their conception of free agent and which sensible justice policies to adopt, as an example.

      The more I read about issues of free will, the more I am convinced that people who think “we could do otherwise” are generally putting themselves in a dark corner making it, at least, more difficult to see reasonable solutions to problems. And this does have an effect on how people make decisions about retribution and punishment.

  5. Great article as always. My question to the group is what do you think are the implications of determinism to democratic governance?

    1. Well if you throw out everything, including things like ‘we can have goals for our civilization,’ then democracy becomes impossible to justify and you are stuck with a political version of postmodern subjectivism.

      But if you’re willing to say we can still have goals for our civilization, then I think you can defend democracy by going the route of Pinker in Better Angels. You say democracy, equal rights, etc… better address our goals of reducing violence and increasing posperity compared to the alternatives. Democracy creates a more efficient use of human capital; in lessens zero-sum squabbles over resources and increases the positive-sum utilization of both human and other natural resources.

      1. That is funny, really funny and mostly true, but still probably higher than zero, though. I know people, hard core liberal free will retributivists, who want balls of lightning or vials of barbituates to course the veins of every murderer. That’s silly. Determinism, could conceivably change some of these people’s perspectives, if not for every case, at least some.

      2. If determinism changes our perceptions of the criminal justice system how can it not affect our view of the manner in which individuals select candidates or respond to hot topic issues?

  6. It seems like one devastating result of a pure secularist determinism is that it destroys any possibility of an objective (applicable to all people) rationality.

    For example, if our senses and reasoning have evolved baed upon optimal survival value, how can we have any confidence that these faculties reflect truth (truth being what exists in an objective reality)? In a secularist/deterministic outlook, our reasoning and senses are reactionary and for survival/reproductive value only and do not necessarily express what actually exists.

    By what standard is one able to say that their reasoning methods have evolved correctly and another’s have evolved incorrectly? Even appealing to scientific experimentation, consensus etc is employing the very faculties that one is trying to validate. Additionally, these investigations assume various laws of logic which again cannot be known to be objectively true in secular determinism.

    I am unable to see how a secularist determinist can claim that they can know truth to any degree of certainty without simply asserting their own subjective reality (which is inapplicable to anyone else).

    To summarize, if secular determinism is true, you cannot know that secular determinism (or anything really) is true.


    1. This sounds like Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. And it is severely deficient. We have managed to derive rules and standards for what constitutes “reason.” See for example lists of logical fallacies. We can objectively judge whether arguments meet these rules. We do have perceptual and cognitive shortcomings. We can experimentally verify some of these (see for example any number of visual illusions) and compensate for them.

          1. Of course. People make choices every day, as do thermostats.

            Perhaps your question was: is that choice free?

      1. “We have manage to derive rules and standards for what constitutes reason”

        Right. And by doing so you are first assuming that your senses and reasoning are capable of reflecting truth. This doesn’t solve the problem.

    2. “True” beliefs are just the kinds of beliefs that keep you from bumping into walls, falling off cliffs, or congratulating paunchy women for being pregnant. There’s nothing special about true beliefs, save for their ability to help you anticipate and manipulate reality. Show me a version of “truth” that has nothing to do with anticipating and manipulating reality, and I’ll show you a version of truth that no human being cares about. It is precisely the former kinds of true beliefs — the ones that have predictive and explanatory power — that evolution has selected for. These are the kinds of beliefs that help us cure disease, invent nifty gadgets, and put people on the moon. These are the kinds of beliefs that we ought to encourage and nurture as a society if we are to prosper.

        1. Indeed, unless she has told you yourself that she’s pregnant and / or you’ve seen the pregnancy test results or ultrasound or the like, one does not say a word. And, upon learning that she is, in fact, pregnant, one should be surprised in a suitably congratulatory manner that suggests you’ve been completely ignorant as to her change in physical condition.

          This is not a situation where logic or keen observational skills are called for — quite the opposite, in fact….


    3. I think you are right that if secular determinism is true then you cannot know it is true. Based on what we know now, if liberal free will were true, we would not know that liberal free will is true. There is a reason free will is in metaphysics within philosophy courses. Nevertheless, science has made good progress in the last 150 years and has made plausible arguments for secular determinism being true.

      As far as objective rationality goes, it has nothing to do with determinism. If you think you have the capacity for objective rationality, then you have it. It is that simple. It is a tautology for you to muse over tea and biscuits.

  7. When we’re discussing complex philosophical issues, our choice of words always matters, but never more than when we’re discussing determinism, freedom, and moral responsibility. So I respectfully ask that we drop the talk of “puppets”: it’s seriously misleading and (I presume) not literally meant by any participant in this debate. A puppet does nothing without a puppeteer, an intentional agent pulling its strings. Determinism isn’t an agent and mustn’t be equated to one. Many people, including some well-known philosophers I could name, seem drawn to incompatibilism because they tacitly treat determinism as if it were an agent — a manipulator, a puppeteer. We need to avoid using agential language when we don’t really mean it, or we’ll encourage this widespread mistake.

    1. Totally agree. Coyne and Harris (most recently in his response to Dennett: “A Marionette’s Lament”) persist in using the puppet analogy to describe our position vis a vis determinism. But as you point out, puppets do nothing on their own, whereas we do, even though we’re fully caused to be who we are. To suppose that being caused robs us of autonomy is to ignore our internal behavior-controlling capacities (which puppets don’t have) and it makes us out to be passive victims of determinism, not a good way to bring people into the naturalistic fold.

      Saying we’re puppets is a symptom of residual dualism: it’s to continue to apply a discredited idea of autonomy (having libertarian, contra-causal free will) and draw the conclusion that therefore we’re not autonomous. Once we see that having such freedom would be of no use to us, then we’ll no longer be tempted to think of ourselves as puppets, at which point we should stop making the point about determinism in terms of being the marionettes of genetics and environment.

      1. Thanks for those concise thoughts. I think that you hit the proverbial nail on it’s head.

        The idea of “residual dualism”….Yes! That’s why Dennett correctly called him on living in the “Cartesian theater”. In his reply, Harris didn’t even understand the comment, think of it instead as referring to 1st & third person – neither term refers to the “puppeteer” that lives in the Cartesian theater as is the “conscious decision maker”.

        Sam Harris doesn’t seem to be able to think past the idea of his body as the puppet of some unseen but external agent. The notion of Puppeteer as God, yields to the notion of Puppeteer as Consciousness, (capital C) yields to the notion of Puppeteer as Determinism.

        What I don’t understand is why Harris insists that we all think of ourselves this way – as “conscious decision makers”. I just don’t think that is true. I think instead that the insistence on some outside agent pulling strings is more the aberration.

        1. Again, this is a fault of language, not of Sam’s thinking ability. Sam no more proposes a puppeteer than Newtonian inertia proposes a prime mover, though one could certainly misinterpret his words as such for similar reasons.

          The “agent” of determinism is no more personal nor intentional than the “mover” of inertia.



          1. Incidentally, inertia (that one doesn’t need a force for constant velocity motion) is *another* one of those scientific (and metaphysical) topics people need to learn more of – we get the WLCs of the world lying about it, basically.

            1. I thought Sean put it rather well, however he phrased it — that WLC’s ideas were cutting-edge for the Bronze age. Basically, WLC got stuck on Plato and doesn’t actually understand anything new since then. It was painful to watch in his attempts to explain cosmology to the cosmologist.


        2. Have you even read The End of Faith? Sam does not in any way suggest that he thinks his body is the puppet of “some unseen but external agent.” He is explicitly nondualist. I don’t know where you’re getting your ideas about Sam’s beliefs on free will/consciousness, but I would thank you to stop making up witless to pit in his mouth.

            1. FYI: Sam uses the metaphor to describe a collection of factors such as our neurophysiology, our biochemistry, and inherited genes which are beyond our control, yet influence our actions.

            2. Yes and Dawkins said genes were selfish too, right on the cover.
              But I suppose one should open the books and read before spouting nonsense about things you assume but actually don’t know.

          1. Yes, I think I have probably read every thing he has written. I’m a fan of his writing skill and in agreement with much of what he says.

            Some of what he says is contradictory however,just as we see here with his selection of puppet and puppeteer as metaphor and for his cover graphics.

            He wrote two essays regarding his dissonance on the subject of “Consciousness”. I think his published struggles over this speak for themselves. In these essays, he makes the case for “miracles”, (a word he uses several times), that he also knows cannot be. He rationalizes the case FOR dualism (disembodied “Consciousness”) while describing the case against it. I call this dissonance. “Residual dualism” as Mr. Clark put his finger on it. Read these and you’ll see what I mean.



            1. I have read both of those articles, and all Sam really makes a strong argument for in those is a temporary agnosticism about the source of consciousness. He is not a closet or “residual” dualist, whatever that means.

              And it should be obvious that the fact that puppet strings are depicted on the cover of the book does not mean that Sam is arguing that we are exactly like puppets, i.e. devoid of our own will and controlled by an external hand. Unlike puppets, we can do what we will (for puppets don’t even have wills) but we cannot will what we will. The puppet strings are merely an arresting image which makes it clear that, like puppets, we do not have free will (we cannot “will what we will”).

              1. 4 wing You said,

                “we can do what we will (for puppets don’t even have wills) but we cannot will what we will.”

                OK! Check! We get that! No s___ Sherlock!

                My question stands. Why would anyone think that they could “will what they will”?? That does seem to be the “Marionettes Lament” but who thinks of themselves this way!?

                I don’t know if it’s residual dualism or what but it’s a crazy notion that I don’t think that many of us share!

                Will what we will! You mean like REAL magic!?

                Also you said,

                “all Sam really makes a strong argument for in those is a temporary agnosticism about the source of consciousness”

                Temporary agnosticism regarding materialism? LOL 4 wing! Sam can’t shake dualism, he has to leave room for it.

                Dennett gets it. He takes the organic, material nature of consciousness seriously where Harris does not. Dennett does real reverse engineering where Harris holds out for mysticism.

                The title of the essay was “The Mystery Of Consciousness”. Harris glorifies “Consciousness” into something necessarily inexplicable. He would be a strong denier of AI. But he takes this stance without research or evidence.

    2. Yes. Very much like the way natural selection is so often described as some sort of agent “doing” things, when it is just the passive outcome of probabilities. It is a tempting metaphor, but it can also produce misunderstandings.

    3. The “puppet” term bothers me a lot as well, and for the very implications you mention. I suspect it is part of the fear free will advocates tend to have that if there is no freedom from causality then there is no longer any identity, and instead of a person one becomes an empty shell. Even so, they remain so committed to a free actor that they use the puppet analogy to pass on the autonomy that they think is lost instead of making it clear that such autonomy would have never existed in the first place. I don’t think there is any reason for such worry, but most free will advocates, of either the libertarian or compatibilist stripes, seem to think there is.

      Biochemical “machine”, “computer”, or “engine” perhaps work much better than “puppet”, I think.

      1. Better, but not ideal. The paradigm cases of machines, computers, and engines are all designed by agents, whereas human beings aren’t (yet) designed by agents. In order to avoid biasing the debate, we need to avoid language that implies or suggests design when we don’t really mean it.

    4. Count me as another “like” of this comment. The whole issue is semantic anyway because we are all agreed on determinism. But it still makes sense to discuss choice of terms because, as the saying goes, Words Have Meanings.

      Incompatibilists take umbrage at the use of the terms free will and choice because (somehow) they think that sentences like “I went to the cinema out of my own free will” or “which movie did you choose?” are referring to supernatural activities.

      Others, as can be seen here, take umbrage at the term puppet. The use of this word simply does not make any sense. Of whom am I a puppet?

      If I am a puppet of my genes / environmental influences / brain biochemistry, then I am a puppet of myself, because these items are what constitutes me. Or, in the words of Bloom, the genetic you and the neural you aren’t alternatives to the conscious you. They are its foundations.

      [JAC: who said otherwise?] — Well, everybody who uses the phrase “we are the puppets of our genes” says otherwise! That’s the point.

      The only way to make phrases like these work is if “we” or “I” are envisioned in a dualist way, as souls being apart from our bodies, genes and brains. But if dualism is false, then we are our bodies, genes and brains, and the puppet analogy falls apart, (and *we* make choices whenever our brain chemistry makes choices).

  8. Sean’s superlative article that you linked to is, when it comes right down to it, all that really matters in these “free the willies” discussions.

    The laws underlying the physics of everyday life are not only completely understood, they’re completely Turing-computible. There is no aspect of the world as humans are aware of it that couldn’t be simulated by a sufficiently powerful computer.

    So, whatever properties that humans are said to have must therefore be a subset of the properties that a computer could have. If you think that an airplane autopilot or a chess computer has free will, however you define it, then so do humans; if not, then neither do we..

    And I still don’t think “free will” is anything but a married bachelor….



      1. Neither, or both.

        Physics, at the level that Sean is referring to, is all math. Most of that math is classical Newtonian physics, but there are edge cases where either or both Quantum or Relativistic mechanics comes into play. But all of those are simple, straightforward examples of algebra and calculus and related types of math of the sort that slide rules were originally invented to help with. Open any physics text and you’re not going to find a single equation that you can’t program…and, indeed, any standard scientific programming language is going to have all the primitives and more built in as ready-to-use functions.

        This shouldn’t be all that surprising; it’s just another way of re-stating the Church-Turing Thesis, but with empirical backing.



        1. Thanks. I remember now…”everything computable is computable by a Turing machine.” It hasn’t been formally proven but I see no problem in the sense you’re using it.

      1. Yeah…I have to disagree with Sean on that one. Sean’s an awesome cosmologist and lecturer, but he and I part ways on this one.

        But I suspect it’s mostly a disagreement over semantics. He thinks the phrase, “free will,” should be salvaged. I think it belongs on the same scrap heap as phlogiston. Combustion and heat and convection and the like are all very real, but we know it’s properly explained with chemistry and thermodynamics the like and that there’s no reason to muddy the waters with a notion so thoroughly discredited as phlogiston.



        1. Semantics? I don’t think so. Carrol was pretty clear. He and Stenger, (link below), and Dennett of course have made the most convincing arguments to me. I think that Harris has never really let go of dualism and this accounts for his reasoning being stalled at his discovery of determinism and materialism.

          Harris would like to think of himself as a consciously choosing agent and is astounded to discover that he’s not. He sets up consciousness as Mystery, (capital M), and then finds materialism and determinism to be in conflict with that Mystery. No wonder he feels like a puppet.

          All it takes to dissolve the mystery is to take the reality of materialism and determinism seriously. Then he could move on to address the idea of free will from that context, as others have done.

  9. Humans have no free will and we cannot have moral responsibility. Yet, at the same time, you say that we can obey laws or disobey laws. We can obey laws without trace of moral responsibility. I think we can teach moral responsibility to humans without any free will. You describe this over and over. Why do we let those who believe humans have free will to take over where moral responsibility is usually taught, but no free will is required? I constantly argue that humans can have moral responsibility and that humans have no free will. I think you should believe that humans have moral responsibility but no free will, and then you don’t have to invent moral responsibility all again and call it something else. Why should we give that term to those who believe in human free will?

  10. There is no topic that confuses me more than this one, basically because I am WAY behind the eight ball on the literature. I struggle to understand the meanings of the terms: determinism, compatibilism, etc. I have some reading to do, I know. But, because I’m basically lazy and attempt to gain knowledge when I can by asking questions of those who know, I want to ask about the following segments of Dr. Coyne’s essay above:

    Dr. Coyne: “I fully agree that we must hold people responsible for their actions, for social good demands it, but we must realize that there is no essential difference between the culpability of those who are “rational” criminals and those who are “irrational” criminals. There is a difference, however, in how we should deal with such people.”

    And again, near the end: “. . . we can promote the virtue of rationality, and even in a deterministic world such promotion can have positive effects.”

    So, it states there are positive effects for dealing with wrongdoing, if I understand it correctly. Can someone explain how that end of it works? It almost seems as if the front end of the equation cannot be changed, but if we deal correctly with wrongdoing there are positive effects, the assumption by me being those effects are to alter the front end of the equation. I realize I am not looking at this correctly, and I sincerely hope to gain enlightenment at some point, but I suspect it will be a long road. If anyone can help me along the way I’d greatly appreciate it.

    By the way, as I feebly understand the way of things, I agree with what Dr. Coyne is saying about how we, as a society, should deal with wrongdoers. I live in a state with a ‘cowboy’ mentality toward crime, punishment, and imprisonment, a mentality that has contributed significantly to increasing inmate headcounts, and an alarmingly high rate of recidivism. I am close with someone who works in the Department of Corrections, where she/he has attempted to implement effective programs to allay the recidivism only to be threatened with the loss of her/his job because such a program runs counter to the ‘lock ’em up, throw away the key’ system currently entrenched at all levels.

    1. So, it states there are positive effects for dealing with wrongdoing, if I understand it correctly. Can someone explain how that end of it works?

      Let’s say we are deterministic robots and the issue is the wrongdoing: murder. Well, its still possible that we are deterministic robots programmed to stop murdering if X is done to murderers. So, we deal with wrongdoing by doing X, and murder stops. Determinism doesn’t mean “no response will impact the murder rate.” It means that we should look and see what responses reduce the murder rate, and do those, and not do other things out of some moral obligation for punishment of wrongdoing. Now, the unliberal aspect of Jerry’s position is that you can substitute “mercy” or “justice” into that sentence instead of “punishment of wrongdoing,” and the logic still applies.

    2. Yes, what eric said. You recognize that in a deterministic universe, we are constrained by many variables including biology, experiences, etc.

      If you use the scientific method to determine what methods work best, you then get to the truth of the matter for how to deploy effective deterrents and rewards to reduce crime instead of assuming that everyone can make their own choices and the experience, biology etc. doesn’t matter so therefore we need to punish harshly those who behave badly (this may not work on many people or it may work on some but not others).

    3. I’m in a similar muddle. Studied and debated some of these ideas as a teen and young adult and in time became jaded. Now as an aged one, it’s a bit too heady for me. I get it but then I over-think and lose it. I often sense contradiction as well which really throws me. Paraphrasing here but as a few people mentioned already, semantics and metaphors can throw a spanner in the works creating conflict which also sparks further thought and/or confusion. So it’s really a matter of just reading and not struggling too much and then suddenly it’ll all fall into place. Ha! I hope. I feel like I’m taking a course just by reading this website. There is always homework. Jerry will never stop teaching. There are excellent and thoughtful comments — even the ones we don’t agree with (dead boring otherwise). So tomorrow I’ll dissect the Atlantic article — nearby waiting to be read — it might help me pull together the concepts for this WEIT entry.

    1. There’s an old story that even dogs can do disjunctive syllogism. Someone (Chrysippus?) saw a dog run to a crossroads, in pursuit of something by smell. It sniffed down one road; sniffed down an another road; and then set off down the third without sniffing.

  11. The puppet metaphor is wrong, because it implies that “we” are something different from “our biochemistry,” when in fact we are our biochemistry, and our biochemistry is us. Unless you are a dualist, the only possible form of self is the brain, and the only possible mode of expressing your will is through the biochemistry of your brain. The temptation to invoke some other “executive self” that could supervise the biochemistry is very strong, but it is still wrong. Once you fully realize that it would have to be your brain biochemistry that “chose to do differently”, you realize that you are chasing your own tail.

    My sense is that because self has not been seen as part of the brain through most of human history, we have a huge historical stock of culture and literature and scholarship that doesn’t treat it that way. The philosophers are trying to rescue some or all of that, and some of it is well worth saving. It is difficult to change the language everywhere all at once, so there will continue to be efforts to preserve it, resulting in lots of arguments about the definitions of terms.

    1. “The puppet metaphor is wrong, because it implies that “we” are something different from “our biochemistry,” when in fact we are our biochemistry, and our biochemistry is us.”

      It only implies that we are slaves to our biochemistry.

      1. The imagery in the metaphor supports the notion of two things: one “actor” and the other “puppet.” I think Steve’s point is that there are not two things, so the metaphor is somewhat inapt.

        1. Most people don’t realize that they have anything like their own biochemistry, and their their “own” actions are influenced by it, so the metaphor carries the message for them very aptly.

          1. I am sympathetic to those that don’t like the puppet metaphor but I think it helped me understand that “we” are slaves to our biochemistry, experiences and everything else that makes us who we are at any point in time. I know it implies dualism but it’s also apt in that the illusion of dualism and agency are powerful ones so this makes sense in that context.

            1. It was quite unsettling for me to realize that if I were to trade places with say, Deepak Chopra, that is, if I had his brain, genes, biochemistry, the same upbringing, education, experiences, event by event, I would be him. :-O

              1. Me too. The quote about the regicide made me really understand things.

                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.

              2. Scientifik,

                See, this is what I don’t get. What you write is essentially “if I were Deepak Chopra, then I would be Deepak Chopra”. Quite so, but I could have told you that when I was six years old. It is not clear what calling Chopra a puppet of [something] adds to this.

              1. If by “an agent” you mean something that exerts influence on something else, then both a slave master and our biochemistry should be considered agents.

        1. The elephant in the room is that our language is fundamentally dualistic, in the exact same way that many other European languages are fundamentally gendered. Short of inventing new language, every argument against dualism is going to incorporate misleading and self-contradictory metaphors for the simple reason that all our tools are hammers with nary a screwdriver in sight.

          As such, I think it high past time we stopped getting hung up on those sorts of “Gotcha!” moments. Imagine Newton attempting to convince Plato that inertia is what keeps the planets in their orbits, and Plato insisting that Newton must explain what’s moving inertia so that inertia can move the planets. That’s the level of discussion we’re at now, and I don’t think it’s doing anybody any good.



          1. I suspect that what really bothers people here is not the choice of a particular metaphor, but what stands behind the metaphor.

            1. What bothers me is that the metaphor may be interpreted by people to think there is something external to the body or the body’s chemistry controlling it.

              I understand that you draw the metaphor puppetmaster = biochemistry. But to me that is not the clear or most direct reading of the metaphor. Saying that our biochemistry controls our bodies is more akin to saying “the puppet’s metal pieces will rust according to standard chemical kinetics and thermodynamics.” It is not akin to saying the puppet is attached to something else not the puppet by strings, which get pulled by that something else.

        2. Check! Harris has a point. He’s not the only one who insists on a dualistic view. How much sense does it make to say that we are “slaves to our biochemistry”, i.e. biological being. Duh! Who is the “we” and who are they slaves to?

          Harris’s wring is full of this. e.g. “I am not the ‘conscious author’ of my actions”

          Who is he talking about?

          1. He’s talking about us not being conscious authors of our thoughts, and essentially not being free to choose what we can think.

          2. PS Whether one holds to a dualistic view is irrelevant here. Even if someone believes that one has a soul, Sam Harris’s point about the not-so-free will remains. He stresses the fact a couple of times in his book.

      2. I think what bothers me about the phrase “slaves to our biochemistry” is that in fact we should be thankful for our biochemistry. Without it we couldn’t be ourselves. Every single thing that is me is in my brain, and I am glad it works as consistently as it does. It gives me an excellent chance of waking up tomorrow still being me. It alone means I can remember what has happened to me in my life, and what I have read and heard and thought, and who my friends and family are. Without it I would have no identity at all. How else could a self possibly work?

        1. “I think what bothers me about the phrase “slaves to our biochemistry” is that in fact we should be thankful for our biochemistry.”

          You can be thankful for your biochemistry, neurophysiology, and genes but your can’t take credit for their operation. You didn’t choose your slave masters.

    2. “because it implies that “we” are something different from “our biochemistry,” when in fact we are our biochemistry, and our biochemistry is us. ”

      That’s Harris’ “moving the goalposts” example. Redefining “us” to be activities beneath our consciousness. Declaring that Sicily is the mythical Atlantis.

      1. “Redefining “us” to be activities beneath our consciousness.”

        Quite the contrary. That is the mistake that Cartesian Materialists like Sam Harris are making. Our consciousness is a part of us, so we cannot be beneath it.

        We are our biochemistry and our biochemistry is us. Free will and our consciousness are a part of our biochemistry and, since it is the same thing, a part of us.

      2. That’s Harris’ “moving the goalposts” example. Redefining “us” to be activities beneath our consciousness. Declaring that Sicily is the mythical Atlantis.

        Where does this come from? I grew up in an atheist household. When I was ten I knew that I was my body. When I was a teenager I learned about history, naturalism, materialism, the enlightenment and all that sod and what evidence there is that souls do not exist, and that all our memories and thoughts are emerging from physical processes. And I assumed that except for a few backwards faithheads everybody these days knows that we are our bodies.

        (And, of course, all the religious dualists in practice believe the same: When did you last run into somebody who said, ouch, you ran into the body I am inhabiting, good thing that isn’t the real me?)

        Only on this website do I find people who claim that they are materialists and monists but who think that we must be some immaterial entity sitting inside the body (which is not us). Which is, well, dualism, so there is a self-contradiction here.

        We are not moving the goalposts today to keep free will intact. Instead, that ship sailed a couple of hundred years ago when science figured out that dualism is wrong. We have not redefined “us” to be our bodies, instead it has been demonstrated that we are our bodies.

      3. “Redefining “us” to be activities beneath our consciousness.”

        If you think consciousness is not biochemistry, then you are being a dualist.

  12. You make a plan and execute it. You get up, find a glass, walk to the sink, turn on the tap. These aren’t acts of genius, you haven’t discovered the Higgs boson, but still, this sort of mundane planning is beyond the capacity of any computer, which is why we don’t yet have robot servants.

    This is absurd. Apparently Bloom doesn’t know anything about computers.

  13. Biochemical “animation” only becomes problematic for primates when consciousness evolves to become sufficiently reflective. How we retrospectively analyze and describe our capacity for discursive reasoning (via 3rd party objectivity) is where this topic becomes invidious. The most elusive aspect of autonoetic consciousness is the illusory con game it plays on us regarding the concept of a motivated self.

  14. Dr. Bloom, if we are “biochemical puppets” then there are ghosts in the machines. Even electrons can reason, when forced to.

    1. Sorry, meant to say, if we are not “biochemical puppets”.

      Physics Chemistry Biology. They are part of the same game.

      Mind/Soul Religion. A separate game.

      I do not think Dr. Bloom is trying to imply dualism, just a wishful theory that we are deterministically special.

  15. I must say I’m all for a completely natural basis of thought and decision making, with no difference in kind between how human brains and other anoimals brains think. but I do think it is overly simplistic to conclude that this kind of determinism can take the vast number and range of, entirely natural, inputs and influences and produce one and only one outcome at each point.

    Rather the large number of influences would make a mostly flat decision landscape with a number of equally or near equally probablee future outcomes. This is where I think that completely natural and determined choice is possible.

    OGH seems to consistently argue for a simplistic view of determinism.

    1. It can’t be that flat, because I don’t get up in the morning and decide to stand on my head in order to teleport to work. Adult human (and other animal) responses to stimuli are, in fact, pretty structured and have a pretty narrow range when you really think about it. Of all the near infinite things I could do, I actually do nearly the same thing every single time. If the lanscape is flat, its flat for a relatively small mountaintop centered around a much much larger space of decisions my brain instantly and always rejects.

      Having said that, I think your idea is somewhat interesting. Its like saying that the brain has a high noise level, and because of that high noise level, we arbitrarily select one course of action out of a range of indistinguishable courses of action. The range may be small compared to all possible actions, but there is not a one-to-one relationship between signal (i.e. causal factors influencing our brains) and outcome.

      I don’t think that really corresponds to the LFW idea or Jerry’s conception of how humans work. It might be another way of thinking about the “robot with random number generator in charge of some of its programming” conception. It is interesting, though, so thank you.

  16. The arguments between compatibilists and incompatibilists often gets cast as “semantic”; ie, everybody acknowledges that both sides hold to physical determinism and the difference lies in how each side wants to define the terms in question.

    I don’t think this is really what’s going on. I think we’re talking entirely past one another, and are at cross-purposes. I think it’s a matter of where on the reductive continuum each side wants to focus.

    I think Jerry’s correct that reason doesn’t require a ghost-in-the-machine, but I also think compatibilists have a point when they want to put entities that possess the ability to reason in a different category from things that cannot.

    1. This objection to a ‘ghost in the machine’ seems to me to be a problem. Everyone knows that computers are not just hardware, but the software thet runs on them, with completely deterministic rules that can have, if programmed to do so, some randomness of outcomes.

      I don’t like the idea that my arguing for natural, deterministic ghost in the machine has me mistaken for a religious soul-merchant.

      1. I think the analogy a lot of people like to use here is that software is not any kind of “ghost in the machine” just as our minds aren’t. Software is emergent from hardware just as the mind is emergent from the brain.

        1. Indeed, many people forget that binary data in a computer is nothing more than different voltages in a circuit or different magnetic field strengths on a disk or the like. Software really is hardware, just much more easily configurable.



          1. IMO the distinction is best thought of as system configuration (hardware/brain) and change in system configuration over time (software/mind). “Conscious” is like “alive,” its not just about where the atoms are located but the fact that they are reacting: no metabolism, and you’re just dead meat. No neural activity, and you’re just unthinking meat. Mind is to brain what v is to x.

            1. It’s a bit murkier when it comes to computers. You can power them off, at which point they’re deader than a corpse. But, plug them back in, and they can pick right back up where they left off. And that DVD is inert the moment it’s left the factory / burner / whatever.

              Similarly, with people…a notebook is equally inert, yet you can still read what you scribbled on it, thus effectively making it an extended part of your brain’s own information storage and retrieval system.

              I know what you’re aiming for, but it really only works at an high level of abstraction. It’s an emergent phenomenon that makes less and less sense when you turn your attention more towards other levels of abstraction.



    2. The way I’ve found best to deal with the conundrum you’re describing is to start by making clear that we are, unquestionably, meat computers and that “free will” is a self-contained contradiction.

      That writ, when people point to what they say is their exercise of “free will,” they’re pointing to a very real phenomenon: the mental construction of virtual realities, each of which is the projected result of perceived available courses of action. We imagine what the universe would be like if we made each of the decisions we think we can, and then base our actual decision on the results of that analysis.

      That’s a very real and very important mental process, but it’s also fully deterministic (except for the negligible influences of quantum randomness and / or chaos). It feels like you’re repeatedly re-winding the tape and making different decisions each time, but these alternate virtual realities are no more real than Professor Dumbledore.

      Trying to get from there to questions of whether or not that’s the “real” free will seems counterproductive to me — akin to Sam Harris’s accusation of Dan Dennett declaring Sicily to be the “real” Atlantis.” Never mind all that; simply state the reality of the situation and leave it at that.



      1. Can’t we just agree that anyone using the strawman definition of free will as contracausal is arguing fallaciously and get on with finding a definition of free will that is compatible with how ther world actually works?

        That’s not the ‘real’ free will, so let’s try to work out what is.

        1. Why should we attempt to work out what the “real” free will is any more than we should attempt to work out what the “real” unmoved mover is, or what a “real” married bachelor is, or what the “real” phlogiston is?

          Some terms are best simply abandoned. “Free will” is a prime example.



          1. Paraphrasing what Coel pointed out in an earlier thread,

            If most people believed that life means elan vital, Why should we attempt to work out what the “real” life is any more than we should attempt to work out what the “real” unmoved mover is, or what a “real” married bachelor is, or what the “real” phlogiston is? Some terms are best simply abandoned. “Life” is a prime example.

            To answer the why question, because I want to have words to describe certain situations for which the incompatibilist would leave us incommunicado. In this post Jerry Coyne even rejects the term choice; how, pray, would I say “which boad game did you choose” if I may not use this verb any more? Is “select” or “decide on” any better if all human decisions are just “illusions”?

            1. Why is “choice” verboten if we reject “free will” as incoherent? The planets still move, do they not, even if we understand that inertia is the cause of their motion rather than a divine Prime Mover?

              I don’t think anybody has any problem saying that, say, a chess computer chooses which pieces to move where, even if they’d also reject the notion that any sort of “free will” was involved. So if a computer can choose a chess move, why can you not choose to play checkers instead of chess?


              1. Nah, just a bit pissed — the voices in my head aren’t talking to me right now after the…ah…incident, but they’ll get over it.


              2. Why is “choice” verboten if we reject “free will” as incoherent?

                That’s what I ask you. From JC’s post above:

                I am guessing that Bloom’s agenda is in the third sentence of the second paragraph: “But instead of giving up on the notion of choice, we can clarify it.” He wants to let people know that by some redefinition, they can retain their beloved idea of choice. By all means we should avoid discomfiting the public with the scientific truth. By some judicious re-jiggering of how we use words, we can let them have their determinism and moral responsibility, too.

                (Also, free will is not incoherent if it is defined as me having a preference and being able to rationally act on it.)

              3. I’d let Jerry be the one to clarify his words, but it seems to me like he’s addressing the contra-casual notion of choice, not the computational variety — as in, “could have chosen differently.”


              4. Ah, now you make it sound as if you’d be happy with keeping the term choice but merely making it clear to people that to use it in one specific way is wrong.

                Why not then the same with “I gave her the money out of my own free will”, which does not include any contra-causal meaning either? Why compatibilism for choice but incompatibilism for free will? Why the inconsistency?

      2. “That’s a very real and very important mental process, but it’s also fully deterministic…”

        Well, this is exactly what I mean. Acknowledging the things that make us different from rocks, but adding “it’s all still deterministic, therefore FW ain’t a thing” concentrates on the more reductive side of the continuum. “Ultimately everything is unconscious particle bouncing.”

        Acknowledging that everything does ultimately reduce to interactions of particles but adding “there are certain arrangements of matter that exhibit certain phenomena that we want to take into account in this discussion” focuses on a higher, less reductive level.

        These are not incompatible (!) views.

        1. Agreed. I would just very strongly caution against the use of the term, “free will,” except to the extent of indicating that the real-but-totally-unrelated process is what happens when people think they’re exercising their free will — again, analogously, that inertia is what keeps the planets in motion, but not because it’s pushing on them and that thinking in terms of a “prime mover” is an ultimately incoherent distraction.



  17. Later in the piece, Bloom implies that you are somehow more culpable if you could have exercised “self control” over your actions (he says that such self control is “the embodiment of rationality”)…

    In her 2013 book, Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain, neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland argued that if free will really were illusory, as argued by authors such as Sam Harris, it would be impossible for people to have self-control. Given the fact that she had been encouraged to develop self-controol since childhood, she did not explain how her ability for self-control was anything other than a consquence of the interaction of genes (her own and those of her parents) and the environment she grew up in. Instead of having the self-control to consider that argument, she attempts to change the definition of free will:

    DO ANY of us have free will? From time to time, we hear a claim that free will is an illusion. This is rather disturbing, to say the least. It suggests that when I decide to donate money to a political campaign, I could not have done otherwise. So what do these claims mean? Do they mean that you are never in control? That is far-fetched. If a grizzly can exercise self-control, why not you?

    There are essentially two completely different things that can be meant by free will. First, you can mean that if you have free will, then your decisions are not caused by anything at all–not by your goals, emotions, motives, knowledge, or whatever. Somehow, according to this idea, your will (whatever that is) creates a decision by reason (whatever that is). This is known as the contracausal account of free will. The name contracausal reflects a philosophical theory that really free choices are not caused by anything, or at least by nothing physical such as activity in the brain. Decisions, according to this idea, are created free of causal antecedents. The German philosopher Kant (1724-1804) held a view roughly like this, and some contemporary followers of Kant do also.

    So far as I can tell, this is an idea espoused mainly by academic philosophers, not by dentists and carpenters and farmers.[Footnote 14] When I take our dogs to the beach and ask other folks what they mean by free will, no one has this contracausal sense in mind. No one. They doubt it even makes any sense at all, even when I present the idea sympathetically. They do not think conviction under the criminal law requires free will in the contracausal sense. Without the slightest hesitation, lawyers tell me this as well. I am not claiming to have conducted a valid survey, but my experience with ordinary people is that free will has a different meaning from the philosophical sense of “contracausal choice.”

    With some disappointment, I am bound to say that I suspect that the claim that free will is an illusion is often made in haste, in ignorance, and with an eye for the headline and the bottom line.

    What is not illusory is self-control, even though it can vary as a function of age, temperament, habits, sleep, disease, food, and many other factors that affect how nervous systems function. Nonetheless, evolution, by culling out the inveterately impulsive, saw to it that, by and large, normal brains have normal self control.[footnote 23]

    She didn’t provide a citation concerning grizzly self-control. 🙂

  18. JAC: “… we can’t freely choose to promote rationality.” Yes we can, and you do it all the time, your inner workings not withstanding, since nobody besides yourself coerces you to do it.

  19. I am a believer in determinism and materialism. I agree with Jerry’s views on rehabilitation and justice. Yet I still wonder if the free will debate is somewhat misguided. At any given point in time, only one thing happens, so in the free will sense of the term there will never be a way to test the theory of being able to “do otherwise”.

    That said, it makes about as much sense to say we can do otherwise as to say we can’t. Both statements are not even wrong. I tend towards the incompatibilist stance since I think the alternatives are more based upon bad concepts. In the same way I would suggest that one could not do magic even with a “real magic wand”. Even so, the not even wrong idea that one could do magic with a “real magic wand” is about as relevant as the statement that one could not do magic with said wand. The same can be said of being able or unable to do otherwise vis a vis free will.

    1. I’d try to follow the example of those like Sean Carroll who seek to determine the underlying laws from observation of the statistics of alarge number of events.

      1. Inference is a good tool, but any theory that lacks falsifiability will forever be indistinguishable from something purely imagined. More than that, though, such a theory will never have anything useful to tell us about what to expect from the universe we inhabit.

        As far as results go, I am unable to tell the difference between compatabilism and incompatabilism. There only seems to be a marketing difference of definitions. Neither viewpoint makes any prediction about the world we inhabit except in a frame of reference impossible to observe.

  20. Perhaps Sean Carrol can help OGH to understand that “the laws underlying the physics of everyday life are completely understood” doesn’t imply that the outcome of any given particle collision can be predicted.

  21. What is the difference between a secure mental hospital and a prison? If there is no choice, then the difference in how inmates are treated is the result of people’s lack of choice to be a nurse rather than a warden. There is no scope there for society to decide either way, no?

  22. I agree with all your substantive points, but I’d be a little more cautious with our conception of rationality, especially with definitions like this: “But, at any rate, rationality is simply the brain’s adaptive computer program that, before providing an output, weighs the inputs according to their probative value.”

    I think that’s a little too Platonic, abstract and perfect – it’s a cultural ambition rather than how rationality really functions in the brain because even when we believe we are being fully rational in this way, *all* of our decisions are still coloured and affected by non-rational processes and influences that can change the outcomes beyond our awareness. We have to look at the whole system as an integrated mess rather than as distinct little modules with clear-cut behaviours.

  23. I like concrete, operational definitions, and usually enjoy the point in an argument where the critic demonstrates that some distinction made by their subject is “a difference that makes no difference” – devastating!
    But I find it hard to get into Jerry’s free will pieces (this is in no way to criticize the owner of this blebsite for writing on what takes his fancy!), and was a bit puzzled by:
    “…we must realize that there is no essential difference between the culpability of those who are “rational” criminals and those who are “irrational” criminals. There is a difference, however, in how we should deal with such people.”

    A lack of (‘essential’) difference that makes a difference? I usually choose to stay out of such arguments.

  24. I found Paul Bloom’s piece somewhat incoherent. The reasoning seemed pretty tortured and the prose was rambling. The concept of “free will” is an old one that predates the new science with all its the new information regarding choice making. Neuroscience and psychology so tightly constrain the original concept of free will that we might do well to drop it entirely and agree upon some new terms and their definitions.

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