E. O. Wilson on free will

August 20, 2014 • 10:24 am

Ed Wilson has finally decided to wade into the murky hinterlands of Consciousness and Free Will, as seen in a new article in Harpers called “On free will: and how the brain is like a colony of ants.” (Sadly, you can’t read more than a paragraph without paying.)  I’ll quote from the pdf I have, but, in general, the article adds little to the debate about free will, which to me seems largely semantic. The real issue—the one that could substantially affect society—is that of determinism, which most philosophers and scientists agree on (i.e., we can’t make choices outside of those already determined by the laws of physics).

There are two problems with Wilson’s piece: it doesn’t say anything new, its main point being that consciousness and choice are physical phenomena determined by events in the brain, and it doesn’t define the subject of the piece, “free will.” How can you discuss that when you don’t tell people what it means? After all, for religious people (and most others, I suspect) it means one thing (libertarian free will), while for compatibilists like Dennett it means another (no libertarian free will, but something else we can call free will).

So here’s Wilson’s tacit admission of determinism, or at least of the physical basis of consciousness and “free will”:

If consciousness has a material basis, can the same be true for free will? Put another way: What, if anything, in the manifold activities of the brain could possibly pull away from the brain’s machinery to create scenarios and make decisions of its own? The answer is, of course, the self. And what would that be? Where is it? The self does not exist as a paranormal being living on its own within the brain. It is, instead, the central dramatic character of the confabulated scenarios. In these stories, it is always on center stage—if not as participant, then as observer and commentator— because that is where all of the sensory information arrives and is integrated. The stories that compose the conscious mind cannot be taken away from the mind’s physical neurobiological system, which serves as script writer, director, and cast combined. The self, despite the illusion of its independence created in the scenarios, is part of the anatomy and physiology of the body.

And here’s what I take to be Wilson’s tacit admission, though he’s never explicit about it, that “free will” is a mental illusion, since it reflects not conscious choice but unconscious brain processes. There’s a lot more to be said here, but Wilson doesn’t say anything beyond this one sentence:

 A choice is made in the unconscious centers of the brain, recent studies tell us, several seconds before the decision arrives in the conscious part.

But one novel part of his piece is reflected in the subtitle: an analogy between mental activity and colonies of social insects. Each insect is basically a little computer programmed to do a job, with its task sometimes changing with the environment (bee larvae destined to be workers, for instance, can become queens with some special feeding). But if you look at the whole colony, it appears as a well-oiled “superorganism” that works together to keep the colony functioning like a “designed” unit.  Wilson sees the brain in the same way: each “module” or neuron is entrained to behave in a certain way, but the disparate parts come together in a whole that is the “I,” the person who feels she’s the object and (as G.W. Bush might put it) “the decider.” But this analogy isn’t terribly enlightening, and doesn’t point the way forward to a scientific understanding of consciousness. That understanding will come through reductionist analysis, I think, but we already knew that.

Wilson is a physicalist, and says that progress in understanding consciousness and volition (I won’t call it “free will”) will come not from philosophers but from neuroscientists. In the main I agree, though I do think philosophers have a role to play, if only that of holding scientists to some kind of consistency and conceptual rigor. By and large, however, I see compatibilist philosophers as not only having contributed little to the issue, but having sometimes been obfuscatory by sweeping determinism (the truly important issue) under the rug in favor of displaying their own version of compatibilism.

At one point Wilson, though, appears to abandon determinism, but makes the mistake of conflating “chance,” which is simply determined phenomena that we can’t predict, with true unpredictability: that which we see in the realm of quantum physics. Perhaps in the statement below he’s saying that human volition isn’t repeatable or predictable because of such quantum phenomena, which could make decisions differ even if one replayed the tape of one’s life with every molecule starting in the same position. But Wilson could have been much clearer about this.

. . . Then there is the element of chance. The body and brain are made up of legions of communicating cells, which shift in discordant patterns that cannot even be imagined by the conscious minds they compose. The cells are bombarded every instant by outside stimuli unpredictable by human intelligence. Any one of these events can entrain a cascade of changes in local neural patterns, and scenarios of individual minds changed by them are all but infinite in detail. The content is dynamic, changing instant to instant in accordance with the unique history and physiology of the individual.

Well, does that give us “free will” or not? Does it give us truly unpredictable behavior, even in principle? Wilson doesn’t say.

In the end, Wilson bails, floating the common but unsatisfying conclusion that we have free will because we think we have free will, and that the illusion of (libertarian) free will is adaptive.

. . . Because the individual mind cannot be fully described by itself or by any separate researcher, the self—celebrated star player in the scenarios of consciousness—can go on passionately believing in its independence and free will. And that is a very fortunate Darwinian circumstance. Confidence in free will is biologically adaptive. Without it, the conscious mind, at best a fragile, dark window on the real world, would be cursed by fatalism. Like a prisoner serving a life sentence in solitary confinement, deprived of any freedom to explore and starving for surprise, it would deteriorate.

So, does free will exist? Yes, if not in ultimate reality, then at least in the operational sense necessary for sanity and thereby for the perpetuation of the human species.

Wilson is right in saying that we all act as if we have free will; nobody disputes that. And I’d like to think that he’s right in claiming that our illusion of libertarian free will is adaptive, though I know of no way to test that proposition. (We can, as always, concoct adaptive stories about this. One writer, whose name I can’t remember, argued that knowing whether a “choice” came from your brain versus someone else’s is an adaptive bit of information: it makes a difference if your arm is pumping up and down because you’re doing it yourself or if somebody else has hold of it and is doing it to you.)  I would have liked this conclusion better had Wilson been a bit more tentative in his adaptive storytelling.

But in the main, the piece adds little to the debates about consciousness and free will. In fact, I find that it muddles the debate. In my view, the best popular exposition of the problem of consciousness remains Steve Pinker’s article in Time Magazine in 2007. The reason the Harper’s piece got published was not because Wilson had something particularly new to say, but because the person who wanted to hold forth was E. O. Wilson. As for free will, I still like Anthony Cashmore’s piece in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

134 thoughts on “E. O. Wilson on free will

  1. The free will/determinism issue is one that I find fascinating, but at the same time I am largely ignorant on it. I have read (and enjoyed) the Pinker piece that Jerry mentioned. Does anyone have suggestions for books on the topic that would be accessible to a layman such as myself?

    1. Well, Dan Dennett has written two compatibilist books (Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves), but I don’t agree with his theses. They do, however, give one a view of how compatibilism works.

      For incompatibilism, I’d recommend “The Illusion of Conscious Will” by Daniel M. Wegner, though it’s a bit dated. But I do in the main take Wegner’s viewpoint. The Cashmore paper is free and, I think, accessible to non-experts as well; it’s the paper that got me going on free will.

      All of these books are written for the educated layperson, and so are accessible to my readers.

      1. Thanks so much for the suggestions! Adding them to my reading list now. I’m looking forward to expanding my education on the subject.

        1. Robert Kane’s _The Importance of Free Will_ book tells you what a naturalistic libertarian free will is supposed to look like. It is also completely false, but it has the virtue of being clear and naturalistic.

          _Responsibility and Control_ by Fischer and Ravizza is one end of the compatibilist viewpoints. Here we get the *ethical* questions addressed. (Unsuccessfully, in my view, since it seems to result in a regress.) This is where a lot of the debate actually is. It isn’t whether or not “free will is compatible with determinism” but should really be read as “Is moral responsibility compatible with determinism?” which seems to escape some of the discussions we’ve had on site in the past.

          There are also various anthologies of historical papers on the subject. I have no opinion on these.

          Note: Both of the above are philosophy-for-philosophers, the latter especially.

      2. After years of reading Dennett I’ve become convinced he is seeking a semantic way out of admitting there is no free will. He easily and quickly admits that libertarian free will does not exist and then spends significant numbers of words, inserting qualifiers and parentheticals like “(in any significant sense)” or “any version of free will worth having” in an effort to make one of the other flavors of “free will” palatable. I have never found them convincing. To get to “free will exists” he has to redefine it too far away from its classical libertarian roots, and in my opinion the result should be called something else. I think it could be fairly argued from his writings that he finds the phrase “free will” socially beneficial and is loathe to give it up for that reason.

    2. You might find “Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain” by Michael Gazzaniga interesting. His point, as I recall, is the the idea of free will has passed, that the issue is whether we are responsible for our choices and accountable for our actions.

    3. I should know if you’ve been a participant in the frequent discussions of free will on WEIT or not, but I have a bad memory for avatars ;). If you haven’t, you might also enjoy perusing them–just search WEIT for free will posts.

      1. I was just about to suggest this myself. It was this site that allowed me to understand free will and all its issues so that I was able to figure out where I stood on it.

    4. Julian Baggini’s The Ego Trick is an excellent and highly accessible introduction to the question of Self. The book leads finally to the question of free will. Free will for humans seems bound up with Self.

      1. Expanding on Schopenhauer, we need to remember that Will is an emanation of Being itself, and is a fundamental part of the fabric of the cosmos itself.

  2. In response to the claims that (1) Determinism is really important, and (2) Compatibilism contributes little:

    How does a determinist speak intelligibly about practical choice-making? A big part of philosophy is concerned with normative questions, i.e. “What should I do” in this or that circumstance. Compatibilism attempts to provide definitions of choice-making that allow discourse to proceed on normative topics. How can determinism accomplish this, if it insists that choice-making is an illusion?

    1. I don’t see how compatibilism gets you anything in the policy-making department, because AIUI (and I could be wrong) compatibilists like Dennett acknowledge that we are physically deterministic beings – they just redefine what ‘free will’ means to be consistent with determinism.

      Remove the compatibilism, and we can still create definitions of choice-making that allow for normative discussions. Here’s an example (it’s a 5-second try, so I acknowledge it probably has some holes): choice-making is when a human organism responds to empirical stimuli in a matter perceived by themselves and others as under their conscious control.

      There, now you can have all the normative discussions you want about choice-making without the compatibilism. 🙂

      1. Your descriptive definition of “choice-making” doesn’t deliver what we need to talk about deliberate choice-making. I can’t intelligibly ask “What should I choose” if I have no freedom to affect the choice. The concept of “should” becomes nonsense, at least with respect to first-person agency.

        Your definition of choice has utility if we’re talking about external manipulations. We can assume the role of behavioral engineers and evaluate methods and conditions that cause people to behave in ways we consider better. But the individual agent still needs a framework for considering and evaluating conscious choices, and for affecting others through persuasive dialogue, and there’s no avoiding the fact that free-will is an axiom for that framework.

        1. But the individual agent still needs a framework for considering and evaluating conscious choices, and for affecting others through persuasive dialogue, and there’s no avoiding the fact that free-will is an axiom for that framework.

          Well, this may be a quibble but things like ‘persuading,’ social rules, social responses etc., are still inputs into a deterministic beings’ behavior. Determinism doesn’t mean I won’t be swayed by some normative argument, it just means you making it and may being swayed by it are physically determined.

          But you still haven’t addressed my key point about your claim: compatibilism doesn’t deliver what you says it will deliver, because it does not deny determinism, it just creates definitions of free will different from the older, what Jerry calls libertarian free will definition. It seems to me that only that old definition of free will will meet what you’re asking for, but compatibilism rejects that notion.

          1. With regard to your key point: There are different compatibilists who take different approaches; I don’t want to speak for any specific version of compatibilism so I’ll just articulate my own. I would say that it is functionally impossible to eliminate libertarian free-will as an axiom for normative first-person choice-making, even if we accept hard determinism. This view is sometimes called “illusionism,” which advocates that we must accept the libertarian illusion to some degree.

            There are many examples where determinism is an unhelpful nuisance. Consider this situation: I have a friend who is planning to commit some minor moral infraction (not a crime, but something objectionable), and I want to persuade him not to do it. Suppose I have two strategies: (1) Attempt rational persuasion based on a preferred moral theory; (2) Attempt to manipulate my friend dishonestly, e.g. by falsely claiming that the planned action is illegal, knowing in advance that my friend obeys all laws (Sure, there may be other options, but let’s just look at these two). Both options would accomplish the same effect, but the first option respects my friend’s rational agency. If I’m a strict determinist, then how should I distinguish the merits of these options?

            1. This only really works if you think determinism is some sort of exclusive prescriptive doctrine, or outright nihilism. It’s as confused as saying the fact that physics underpins human agency somehow makes us unable to respect people’s rationality. Er, you said it, not the determinists.

              “If you knew all there was to know about the physical properties of the object beforehand, you can in theory predict their future trajectory.”

              “Oh, so you’re saying I can’t respect rational agency.”

              WTH?

              1. I don’t understand how its possible to respect rational agency if you don’t believe a person possesses authentic agency.

                I’m certainly not equating determinism with nihilism; I’m suggesting that determinism makes it difficult to distinguish persuasion from manipulation. This doesn’t imply nihilism; it implies consequentialism.

              2. I don’t understand how its possible to respect rational agency if you don’t believe a person possesses authentic agency.

                So what’s “authentic agency” as opposed to “fake agency”? Careful: you’re sounding like a closet libertarian free willer here.

              3. “Authentic agency” is whatever kind I imagine is real enough to care about; it does seem to be a libertarian notion. As I see it, there are two possible approaches to save agency: We can either be “hard illusionists” and think like libertarians, considering determinism to be ultimately true and incompatible with free-will, but ignore (2) We can affirm determinism completely and employ Smilansky’s fuzzy dualism; he adopts a compatiblist stance with respect to agency but invites hard determinist considerations in situational analysis.

              4. “Authentic agency” is whatever kind I imagine is real enough to care about; it does seem to be a libertarian notion.

                That doesn’t explain jack.

                Don’t fall for a deepity here, mate. There’s an obvious but unremarkable fact to explain – that humans and mobile animals have agency, whereas rocks and plants don’t – and an extraordinary but nonsensical claim – that it works because of mystical-magical “you just can’t understand it” free will. That confusion – equivocation – is what free-willers depend on.

                There is no need to “save” agency, any more than there’s a need to “save” other facts about humans. There’s just a need to deliver people from the delusion that it works – or has to work, or can only work – by magic.

              5. The problem of agency is not a “deepity”. It is a fundamental problem of moral reasoning and moral intuition. The philosophical problem is to either define the concept rigorously or account for how it can be eliminated without incurring unacceptable consequences for our moral intuitions.

                If you take a look at Kane’s Contemporary Introduction to Free Will, the problem of agency and manipulation appears right away on page 2. If we define agency merely as autonomous response to stimuli, then I’m not sure how to define “persuasion” as anything other than manipulating a person’s stimuli to affect a desired response. This is especially so given the neuroscience claims that our brains initiate decisions before we consciously reason about them; it would seem to imply that reasoning itself is an illusion or rationalization of already determined choices. Perhaps, then, our notions of honest persuasion are also “deepities” and manipulation is all there is.

                To solve this problem, I think “hard illusionism” (as I’ve called it) is a solution but not an intellectually honest one. Compatibilist definitions of free-will provide real solutions to this problem, and I think Smilansky is on the right track (but I won’t try to recapitulate his verbose arguments here).

              6. The problem of agency is not a “deepity”. It is a fundamental problem of moral reasoning and moral intuition. The philosophical problem is to either define the concept rigorously or account for how it can be eliminated without incurring unacceptable consequences for our moral intuitions…

                A good chunk of this is simply a series of engineering problems within the mind sciences, and the rest is largely a matter of societal convention and legislation. But this has always been the case, and shedding libertarian free will at least gets rid of one lazy answer to the issues. Determinism at least demands attention is given to different causes of different mindsets, among other things.

                Also, any scholar who’s trying to salvage a concept out of fear of unacceptable consequences has already handed in their intellectual honesty badge.

                … it would seem to imply that reasoning itself is an illusion or rationalization of already determined choices. Perhaps, then, our notions of honest persuasion are also “deepities” and manipulation is all there is.

                This is complete garbage. The quotidian fact that persuasion and manipulation both involve causal webs affecting the brain (and, in that very general sense, are indistinguishable) is the unremarkable and obvious bit. The notion that this somehow jeopardizes our ability to tell them apart is ludicrous hype borne of confusion, akin to saying rape and consensual sex are the same thing because both are determined, and quite frankly a moral philosophy that struggles with even this basic distinction is off course.

                Are you seriously trying to tell me that you, were you to agree with determinism, would suddenly be unable to tell the difference between honest intellectual persuasion and rhetorical manipulation? You seem to think determinism suggests that reason and rational inquiry are futile because they are “determined” and therefore “indistinguishable”. Well, in that case, you’d better stop this discussion right now, in case you accidentally manipulate me into agreeing with you, since there’s apparently no such thing as rational persuasion with intellectual rules and standards. Or, if you disagree with that nonsensical point, admit what you just wrote was confused and didn’t make sense.

                For the record, I don’t deny there are ambiguities – Pinker lists a few in The Stuff of Thought when discussing our concepts of causality – but they’re going to be there regardless of whether you’re a libertarian free-willer or a determinist. The stuff you’re saying about how determinism poses these moral problems and makes rational inquiry an illusion is hard to distinguish from patronizing, anti-determinism ignorance, and I find it bemusing that you take it seriously.

              7. I’m sure our brains do react instinctively to certain stimuli, but surely it’s nonsense that we don’t take into account what has passed through our conscious minds in the course of decision making. Just think of the process of selecting a golf club for playing a particular shot – that kind of decision must be based on a variety of factors that are not part of the vocabulary of low level thought. Maybe I do select my golf club 2 seconds before I think I do (!?), but that hardly means that my ruminations about the wind direction and ball lie are irrelevant.

              8. I think it’s safe to suggest that the n-second decision delay experiments just establish that the parts of our brains responsible for self-awareness are only loosely and indirectly connected to the parts of our brains responsible for decision-making. This shouldn’t be surprising; we’re already well familiar with the fact that the parts of our brains responsible for vision are only loosely connected with the parts responsible for hearing.

                b&

                >

            2. I would say that it is functionally impossible to eliminate libertarian free-will as an axiom for normative first-person choice-making, even if we accept hard determinism. This view is sometimes called “illusionism,” which advocates that we must accept the libertarian illusion to some degree.

              I proposed something nearly identical to illusionism above, and you rejected it as ‘not delivering what we need.’ So now I’m confused about whether you support it or reject it as insufficient.

              I have no problem people adopting axioms that may be wrong because of their practical value in solving policy problems. That’s just using a “useful approximation.” But nobody needs compatibilism to do that. And in fact its compatibilism – not determinism – that unnecessarily complicates this picture. With determinism you just accept illusionism as a useful approximation and move one…while with compatibilism, you accept it and now still have the additinal problem of needing to define what you mean by compatiblist free will. You’ve added a completely unnecessary philosophical question to the picture.

              If I’m a strict determinist, then how should I distinguish the merits of these options?

              The exact same way you do under choice theory: your mind has a heuristic or map that it folllows. It takes inputs, plugs them into the heuristic, the output is a determination of which strategy to adopt.

              I have to agree with reasonshark here, you seem to be confusing determinism with nihilism. Determinism doesn’t mean you throw up your hands and give in to philosophical paralysis. A determinist is going to determine the merits of your two strategies using heuristics the same way a compatibilist will. A determinist may use reasoning to convince someone in the same situations a compatibilist would. The distinction is: the determinist thinks there was no free will choice in which strategy was chosen. The libertarian free willer things there was. And the compatibilist seems (IMO) to try and say that there was and there wasn’t at the same time.

              1. “I proposed something nearly identical to illusionism above, and you rejected it as ‘not delivering what we need.’ So now I’m confused about whether you support it or reject it as insufficient.”

                I don’t think you advocated for illusionism; but if that’s what you’re advocating then great.

                “I have no problem people adopting axioms that may be wrong because of their practical value in solving policy problems. That’s just using a `useful approximation.’ But nobody needs compatibilism to do that.”

                If I’m allowed to adopt free will as a useful approximation or axiom, then doesn’t that make me functionally the same as a libertarian free-willist? I acknowledge determinism but choose to disregard it when reasoning about morality or “policy-making”?

                “With determinism you just accept illusionism as a useful approximation and move on.”

                I don’t think that’s what determinists do. Determinists like Coyne seem to have a lot of ideas about how determinism affects our practical judgements, especially with regard to moral responsibility and punishment. Clearly they aren’t just accepting the illusion and moving on. If they are accepting the illusion, they must be doing so selectively.

        2. We make choices based on information available to us (deterministically: we act based on our brain states; our brain states are affected by our interactions with the rest of the world). Consider the brain as a function: information -> [desires, values] -> action. The same desires and values will always produce the same action given the same information. We cannot change our desires or values arbitrarily, but we can take a different course of action if given different information.

          Some kinds of advice are purely informational: How do I get to the bus stop? How do I get out of Situation X without offending anyone?

          Other kinds are about consequences: Were you ever in a similar situation; did you regret making this choice? Are there penalties attached to Act Y? How heavy are they? We have two conflicting desires—to eat a lot of ice cream and not to get sick; to quit our jobs and not to starve; to commit a crime and not to be punished—and we need more information about the benefits and consequences for the one to outweigh the other. (This is why we can reject objective morality without abandoning the justice system.)

          There is a special case of this second kind, in which the consequence of the desired act is betraying one’s own values. Sometimes this can be resolved purely informationally (we can do it without going behind their backs if we ask them first; we can apologize for hurting their feelings without saying that what we did was wrong). Sometimes it can be resolved consequentially (are our values strong enough that betraying them would make us, overall, unhappy?). And sometimes the best resolution is to eliminate the conflict by changing the value system—sometimes by abandoning it, but often by rephrasing it to make it simpler, more consistent, closer to our instinctive desires, or some combination of the three. Do we dislike stealing per se, or do we dislike most stealing because we dislike suffering? This is where philosophy comes in.

          Seeking information when uncertain is something people do; using information to resolve uncertainty is also something people do. I cannot meaningfully tell (or ask) anyone whether they (or I) “should” do X, but “doing X will help achieve Y” is an objective fact I can provide (or be provided). Have I understood your objection correctly?

          1. That’s a mouthful… I think you are addressing me and not eric, so I’ll try and answer. My objection is that descriptive theories of choice-making are inadequate for organizing the experience of choice-making. Most of us want to engage in purposeful actions and make choices based on reasons, and reasons are understood to be different from causes. We organize our conscious activities according to frameworks of behavior and decision-making. We collaborate with others to arrive at shared frameworks, which form a basis for moral reasoning. We expect each other to conform to those frameworks in the choices we make; this requires deliberate analysis and reflection when making choices. This collaborative process presumes that we have the ability to choose our behavior based on reasons compatible with our shared frameworks; i.e. it presumes a degree if libertarian free will. I assume it of myself and of my social collaborators. I can’t jettison that assumption in practice, even if I’m a hard determinist in principle.

      2. Eric, do you really not see the inconsistency here? (emphasis mine)

        [i]”Dennett acknowledge that we are physically deterministic beings – [b]they just redefine[/b] what ‘free will’ means to be consistent with determinism.

        Remove the compatibilism, and we can still [b]create definitions[/b] of choice-making that allow for normative discussions.[/i]

        So you are critical of compatibilism for “re-defining” free will to be compatible with determinism.

        But then you start re-defining “choice” to be compatible with determinism!

        If libertarian free will IS the free will people think they have when making a choice, as the incompatibilists here keep arguing, then denying it also denies the sense of “choice” people think they have. So you are stuck re-defining “having a choice” to be compatible with determinism.

        There may be ways of critiquing compabilism to be sure, but deriding compatibilism for “re-defining” words to fit with determinism while engaging in the same approach is just going to invite charges of hypocrisy.

        (As for the attempt at re-defining choice, as cjwinstead pointed out, it essentially skims over the whole problem. Your re-definition of choice makes it compatible with simply being an illusion – so long as a choice is ‘perceived’ to derive from our conscious control, that’s good enough. But it’s obvious everyone already DOES perceive himself as being under conscious control, and that “I” am making the decisions, and that I had a choice to do otherwise. The free will question of “choice” is whether we REALLY DO exist in this situation. So offering up an illusory version of choice isn’t a fruitful way to settle the issue).

        1. Whoops, darned formatting….

          Above quote should look like:

          Dennett acknowledge that we are physically deterministic beings – they just redefine what ‘free will’ means to be consistent with determinism.

          Remove the compatibilism, and we can still create definitions of choice-making that allow for normative discussions.

    2. Here is why I think educating people about determinism is more important that arguing about free will: we really need to get past this ghost in the machine crap. If we realize that we are our brains and also are brains are material things, subject to the physical laws that all material things are subject to, we will hear less uninformed opinions about mental illness. This has a very practical purpose given that mental illness has a very serious cost to society.

      If we recognize the illusion of the self while recognizing that we can’t really escape the illusion (maybe if we have brain damage we can) the possibilities will really open for humankind as we truly get out of our dark, ignorant prisons!

      1. I think you make an important point about mental illness. There are a lot of people who see everything as a choice. There are a lot of significant things we can’t help: why don’t choose who we love, we don’t choose to be happy or sad, we don’t even choose our beliefs. Choice is a slippery concept.

        In another comment I referenced the views of Saul Smilansky; he agrees that determinism has relevance in a lot of cases. But he also shows that we can’t escape from the “illusion” of free will and choice. He describes his philosophy as a form of “dualism”, in which we must simultaneously balance between the contradictory stances of incompatibilism and compatibilism. It is logically awkward, but we live with a similar irreconcilable tension between moral duty and consequentialist ethics. I think we are forced to hover between these stances and draw adaptable borders between them.

    1. I haven’t finished Harris’ book yet, but so far I don’t find it to contain anything shockingly new. I don’t want to say too much until I actually finish it; but this is a very old topic and there are plenty of reasons to accept both the reality of determinism and the need for a practical vocabulary that includes free-will and responsibility.

      I might recommend recent articles on free will by Saul Smilansky, who argues that situations should be simultaneously evaluated from a deterministic and libertarian perspective. According to Smilansky, typical compatibilism may be insufficient if it works to screen out relevant deterministic considerations. On the other hand, strict determinism interferes with notions of choice-making and responsibility that are integral to social relationships. Just to name one of his papers, I like this one: “Free Will and Moral Responsibility: The Trap, the Appreciation of Agency, and the Bubble,” Springer Journal on Ethics, 2012, doi: 10.1007/s10892-012-9126-6. This is a good tutorial-style article, but unfortunately I don’t think it’s open access.

    2. Yes, I love that book! I have the electronic and the hard copy and reference it often (in free will arguments). It’s the first book that got me thinking about free will.

  3. Just about what I expected Jerry’s response to be (only with much more detail and nuance, of course). 🙂

    But this article will perhaps reach a different audience, so I’m looking forward to see what sort of letters-to-the-editor come in.

    Here’s an article excerpt for Ben:

    Philosophers have labored for more than two thousand years to explain consciousness. Innocent of biology, however, they have for the most part gotten nowhere. I don’t believe it too harsh to say that the history of philosophy when boiled down consists mainly of failed models of the brain.

    😉 Ben, you’d enjoy the rest of that paragraph, too.

  4. The analogy of brain as ant colony is not exactly “novel”; it is developed charmingly and at length in Douglas Hofstadter’s eternal Gödel, Escher, Bach, mainly Chapters X and XI and their associated Dialogues.

    1. I MUST get back to Gödel,Escher, and Bach one of these days. I think I started it right before having kids….

        1. Runaway Bunny is great!! The kids are now in their twenties so we don’t read it quite so much any more…(or Goodnight, Moon).

  5. Are non-libertarians less likely to reproduce? If they are then is being a non-libertarian genetically determined? I am doubtful about both propositions but particularly doubtful about the second. I don’t see that being libertarian is more adaptive than not. Consciousness I think could be adaptive. By coincidence just today I pondered over a group of ants on the pavement scouting for food. Each individual ant a unit of life. What is it like to be an ant? Like something, I feel sure. Ants are conscious I believe. But in evolving from our universal common ancestor the physical processes leading to this collection of individual ant-life units has produced within each ant, ant-consciousness. To me the evolution of the body of the ant has been accompanied by the evolution of ant-consciousness. The chemical signals that the ant brain processes result in some kind of elemental sensation I believe. Does an ant feel free in any elemental sense? If not, but if it does experience some kind of elemental sensation would that not be adaptive? Surely it would have to be since it would be part and parcel of the ant’s physical state. The behaviour and consciousness of an ant would be as intimately bound together as in a human. Whether or not the ant feels free in any elemental sense.

    1. I think the illusion of self is certainly adaptive and the illusion of free will fits in with that. I suspect (with no evidence) that our brains formed with functions that told us – hear is your body: it begins and ends in this space oh and that other stuff out there is not you. The brain needed to keep track of things you did with the stuff out there because that was most likely the adaptive part. The self was a result of that.

      1. here is your body… jeeeze. I was thinking of senses when I wrote that so that is my excuse for my homophony. I should’ve used Latin: hoc est corpus 🙂

      2. I think the illusion of self is certainly adaptive

        I could make an argument that it isn’t. After all, you see a lot of successful species with fur, who have had it for or tens of millions of years. A lot of successful species with eyes, who have had them for tens if not hundreds of millions of years. A lot of successful species with wings, who have had them for millions of years. We see one sucessful species with a sense of self, and it’s been on the planet for approximately one million years without producing any successful branching species.

        Correlation is not causation so this is no argument that sense-of-self is maladaptive. However, in terms of successful speciation and producing whole families of succesful animals, sense-of-self seems to be a big fat biological zero.

        1. How do you know they don’t have a sense of self? I’d argue that their brains allow for it, just not at the level of sophistication that ours do.

          Their brains must allow for the “this is your body”, “this is the stuff outside your body”, “these are the things you have done”.

          It may not be necessary for all animals, but it was an advantage for others, like ourselves and I suspect like many more animals that we had not considered.

          1. Or to use Dennett again, Dennett has argued that “sense of self”, like many things, should be regarded as coming in degrees. For example, an amoeba doesn’t try to phagocytose itself. So it has a primitive “self representation” to at least that degree. But it doesn’t represent itself as an amoeba, as continuing in time, or what not, just as something to always avoid eating.

            Exercises to postulate and describe other sorts of sense of sense is left to the reader. 🙂

            1. I see Dan Dennett’s point on this one and I also would see that different organisms’ brains adapted to different environments. Somehow this stupid self thing worked for humans (and probably other animals).

  6. And that is a very fortunate Darwinian circumstance. Confidence in free will is biologically adaptive. Without it, the conscious mind, at best a fragile, dark window on the real world, would be cursed by fatalism. Like a prisoner serving a life sentence in solitary confinement, deprived of any freedom to explore and starving for surprise, it would deteriorate.

    Oh boy, what a vote of confidence in our fragile noggins.

    It’s akin to say we need religion in order to cope emotionally.

  7. A choice is made in the unconscious centers of the brain, recent studies tell us, several seconds before the decision arrives in the conscious part.

    I’ve seen this argument trotted out repeatedly by those opposed to free will but it’s always seemed spurious to me.

    Just because a decision is made unconsciously doesn’t mean I didn’t make it, any more than the fact I don’t consciously control every movement of my body when I cross the room proves I didn’t cross the room.

    That’s setting unconscious processes up as something separate from me. Since I don’t think my actual consciousness is separate from my body I see no reason to see my unconscious processes any more detached.

    There are maybe 30 processes involved in sight, most of them unconscious. Just because I am unconscious of these processes doesn’t mean I don’t see. We have a philosophical problem saying what qualia (the actual sensations, such as the redness of red) in material terms but those qualia are still dependent on the brain and no one disputes they exist; ‘free will’ is just such a problem.

    1. The question isn’t whether you crossed the room or not, it was whether you made the choice to do so. Choice is by its nature a conscious decision.

    2. Well…

      Adrian North and colleagues from the University of Leicester playe[d] traditional French (accordion music) or traditional German (a Bierkeller brass band – oompah music) music at customers and watched the sales of wine from their experimental wine shelves, which contained French and German wine matched for price and flavour. On French music days 77% of the wine sold was French, on German music days 73% was German – in other words, if you took some wine off their shelves you were 3 or 4 times more likely to choose a wine that matched the music than wine that didn’t match the music.

      Did people notice the music? Probably in a vague sort of way. But only 1 out of 44 customers who agreed to answer some questions at the checkout spontaneously mentioned it as the reason they bought the wine. When asked specifically if they thought that the music affected their choice 86% said that it didn’t. The behavioural influence of the music was massive, but the customers didn’t notice or believe that it was affecting them.

      In other words the part of our brain that “reasons” and explains our actions, neither makes decisions, nor is even privy to the real cause of our actions

  8. In the main I agree, though I do think philosophers have a role to play, if only that of holding scientists to some kind of consistency and conceptual rigor.

    Shirley, mustn’t that be what the peer review process is for?

    By and large, however, I see compatibilist philosophers as not only having contributed little to the issue, but having sometimes been obfuscatory by sweeping determinism (the truly important issue) under the rug in favor of displaying their own version of compatibilism.

    Seems to me that that could fairly be described as inconsistent and lacking conceptual rigor — and yet you yourself describe it as applying to huge and relevant swaths of philosophy!

    b&

    1. I was waiting for you to say something about this. It was known that your comment would happen since the big bang…

      1. That actually gets to a rather interesting conundrum…is quantum mechanics truly random, or is it actually deterministic but impossible (or impractical) for us to deterministically model?

        The leading interpretations I’m aware of actually go with the latter. In many worlds, everything unfolds perfectly deterministically, and it’s just that we only ever see one particular branch of any split. Which branch we wind up on is arbitrary, as another version of us identical to that point winds up on the other branch.

        Then there’s the de Broglie pilot wave theory which says that there’s only one reality that’s again perfectly deterministic but so complex as to be mathematically chaotic.

        I’m not aware of any favored interpretations of quantum mechanics that’s not deterministic…but, at the same time, they all have as a fundamental property that it’s impossible even in principle to predict Heisenberg-scale phenomena.

        So…in one sense, yes, all this would have been determined since the Big Bang; and, in another, much of this was perfectly unpredictable until very recently.

        What that says about the true nature of reality I’ll leave to the philosophers….

        b&

        1. Strictly speaking convention QM is both causual and deterministic. (To use the physicist jargon.) Would it be if we knew everything? Yes, actually, according to orthodox QM. The problem is if one denies this one gives up locality, which is really hard to do. The Bohmian guys are trying, but so far they cannot get it to work with relativity.

          I might add that most philosophers and physicists also ignore another sort of randomness: coincidence of more or less independent causal lines. This is the notion of chance in statistical mechanics, arguably.

          1. I was going to say something like this too but got side tracked. I seem to recall a physicist saying that QM is deterministic. I want to say Brian Cox said it but I may have misremembered.

            1. I think pretty much any modern physicist would tell you as much, even when they’re not agreeing on the manner in which it’s deterministic. Certainly, anybody who subscribes to Many-Worlds will hold with strict determinism; it’s the ultimate expression of determinism. Most of the other interpretations are also deterministic, just in different ways.

              Of course, every single last one is also unpredictable and stochastic. It’s a black box that can never be opened, but there’s basically universal agreement that the black box itself, one way or another, works like clockwork.

              b&

  9. E.O. Wilson certainly makes me feel as though his sanity partly or wholly depend on removing fatalism from his experience

    Until Dr. Wilson can read other people’s thoughts, let alone predicting his own future thoughts, I recommend he continue to act as if he has free will.

    Pinker’s 2007 Time article is a great read; in fact it is quite dissimilar from E.O. Wilson’s final emotional plea. He could have simply stated that if one does not know the outcome of an event it is consistent with living in a universe where free will is indistinguishable from a determinism.

  10. I like what philosopher Corliss Lamont enlightens us with,

    “Determinism is logically self-defeating. For when the determinist propounds his theory, argues insistently in its favor and rebuts the free choice doctrine, he is all the while implicitly affirming that he has responsibly adopted his thesis and that thus he has chosen freely between true and false.”

    Then there is Rumi, who observes,

    “There is a disposition till mankind id raised from the dead, between the necessitarians and the partisans of free will.”

    1. Determinism is a scientific theory which happens to be true on the macro scale. A philosopher cannot say that it’s logically self-defeating, for the theory is simply that the laws of physics govern all matter. I declare determinism but I don’t claim I’ve chosen that freely.

      Corliss Lamont, pardon my French, is full of what comes out of the south end of a bull facing north.

      1. I think a libertarian would deny that there are any scientifically established theories if determinism is true, for basically the reasons given by Lamont.

  11. The political implications of free will can be summed up by the question: do people learn. That is, can people be changed by consequences? Does it make sense to apply consequences?

    Leaving aside, for the moment, the utilitarian problem of what kind of consequences make for the most efficient learning.

    Really, that’s it.

    Theology worries more about free will, because god presumably doesn’t care about learning, and smites absolutely and permanently on the first offence.

    If you think of free will as the ability to learn, there is no particular problem.

  12. What I’d like to know about our lack of free will is the significance of it. All living things are machines – so what? There will be no life after death or anything like that, of course, but what beyond that is the lesson of no free will?

    If the universe is deterministic then we are determined. Fine. That, to me, is like saying that everything is made of atoms therefore we are made of atoms. Sure, so what? How does my knowing that help me to understand my life better?

    I can certainly see how coming to grips with this would be important for a religious or otherwise deluded person, but for the typical science-minded person, what is the point, especially of that particular language – free will and determinism. If I understand it right, a much less confusing way of making this point is to say that living things are machines (no souls) that, of course, obey the laws of physics.
    Wouldn’t most non-religious people agree with that? It seems to me that free will is controversial only because the language is ridiculously confusing.

    1. We have discussed the very real implications of free will for human reward and, especially, punishment on this site. It seems that you’ve missed that discussion, but you can find it by using the search function for “free will.”

  13. What should concern us with the question of “free will” versus determinism is how it affects ethics.

    If humans don’t have “free will” but are determined it
    would seem to be true then that HAMAS terrorists don’t have a choice in whether or not to fire rockets toward innocent civilians in Israel.

    And I think of the abusive parents who mistreat students I used to teach. ETC. No choice:-(

    Maybe, none of us are able to make any choice.

    That’s up to scientists to determine;-)

    But it changes the nature of everything.
    (Wait, a minute, I didn’t have a choice in typing that;-)

    1. The implications of determinism for human behavior, and reward and punishment, have been discussed in detail on this site, by myself and others. If you do some searching, you’ll find that stuff.

  14. The most understandable thing I have read on free will is found in Hawking & Mlodinow’s “The Grand Design.” It occurs in the second chapter, “The Rule of law”. Their basic argument is that if one knows the initial conditions, physical laws constrain/predict outcomes. We cannot, however, know the initial state of the human body at the beginning of decision making.

    (As an aside, Jerry decided to buy a watermellon because his gut bacteria, without his knowledge, wanted him to.)

    So we end up with an effective theory that people have free will. An effectuve theory is a framework created to model observed processes without describing in detail all the underlying processes. Chemistry is cited as an example of an effective theory. I think theory of evolution is another example.

  15. Self-identity lies on a continuum. Some find it impossible to sustain this illusion and others embrace it with great ease while a gradated ability between the two extremes claim yet more individuals.

    How does where one lies within this range along with being aware or not that the self is just smoke affect productive functioning needs to be studied way more than it already has.

  16. It seems to me that there are two lines of thought on the whole free will and moral responsibility question.

    One line goes like this: Free will and moral responsibility are tied together – without free will, the foundation of moral responsibility is dubious; science claims to have shown, pretty well, that free will is an illusion; if science is right and free will is an illusion, then moral responsibility is left unanchored; we must find a way to prove science wrong and retain Free Will. This, it seems to me, is the line of thinking used by most compatibilist philosophers.

    The other goes like this: Free will and moral responsibility are tied together – without free will, the foundation of moral responsibility is dubious; science claims to have shown, pretty well, that free will is an illusion; if science is right and free will is an illusion, then moral responsibility is left unanchored; we must untether moral responsibility from free will, we must discard Free Will and find some other way to anchor moral responsibility. This, it seems to me is the line of reasoning used by the incompatibilists of the world, like Sam Harris.

    1. Be prepared to add lines; there’s definitely more than two.

      For example, I argue that “free will” is as incoherent as “married bachelor.”

      There is a common decision-making process in which we imagine the likely outcomes of various possible choices before us and make our decision based on that analysis. I contend that, though this is definitely not “free will,” it is what people are generally pointing to when they say they’re exercising their free will.

      And I’d further suggest that “free will,” however you wish to define it, is entirely irrelevant to the question of morality. Morality is an optimal strategy (in the sense of game theory) for an individual to behave in society. Societies in which murder is commonplace tend to not do as well as ones in which murder is anathema, and individuals tend to thrive more in the latter than the former; therefore, it is in your own best interest to not murder. It’s not an absolute guarantee that you’ll personally experience the best outcome by not committing murder, but it’s by far the smartest way to roll the dice.

      How you want to fit that into your model is your problem.

      Cheers,

      b&

  17. There seem to several definitions of free will that are being conflated in this piece: Firstly libertarian free will, which can surely be ignored in these discussions, since it is likely incoherent and I doubt anyone is advocating it. Secondly free will in the sense that if we have it our conscious brains make choices, but we don’t have it if our choices are influenced/determined by unconscious brain processes. Thirdly compatibilist free will, which is the ability of an agent to take decisions that are down to it.

    And do people really have an illusion of libertarian free will? I don’t, I just think that I can make decisions that are largely down to me and who cares how I got to be me in the first place. If I decide to have steak for dinner, my conscious thoughts surely have something to do with that and if you were to beam me up to a similar world in another universe with a different big bang and so different causal chains, I could still decide to have steak, I reckon (provided there were some causal chains to get those cows).

    1. Yes, what flavor of “free will” one talks about makes all the difference.

      P.S. I’ll bet a lot of people, perhaps most people do believe in the libertarian version, though probably not many who read this blog. When I just talk with people about free will around a dinner table – ok, around a bar table – that is what they most often have in mind.

      1. My point is that people can not have the *illusion* of libertarian free will: If it isn’t a coherent concept you can’t construct an image of it, illusory or not. Rather, they just feel that they are the authors of their own actions, that the choice about whether to have steak for dinner is to some extent (weather etc permitting) down to them and their own cogitations. That is really what people mean when they talk about having free will. Determinism doesn’t make any difference to that – determinism is not fatalism.

        I might add that compatibilists don’t ignore determinism as Jerry says; the whole point of compatibilism is that our feelings of what constitutes free will are compatible with determinism (Dennett would say necessary).

        1. Exactly. How would one experience the illusion of married bachelorhood? Common-law marriage? Uninhibited philandering while married? Whatever you have in mind, it’s clearly not married bachelorhood.

          Whatever people are experiencing when they say they’re exercising their free wills, it’s not free will. It may well be (and almost certainly is) a very important real phenomenon, but it’s not free will.

          Cheers,

          b&

          1. Perhaps Schrodinger’s Bachelor could solve this. A married man puts his wife in the box. The wife is both alive and dead until the box is opened. Voila! A married bachelor! 😉

              1. A mere technicality. I suppose this could be done with one’s fiance as well, though now we’re introducing the highly unlikely scenario that a woman you put in a box with poison and radiation would still say “I do.” Best we put the priest in there instead and be uncertain as to whether he pronounced the marriage valid until we open the box and see if he was actually poisoned…

              2. I think putting the priest in there is the only way to go if we want a married bachelor(ette). Of course we’d have to put him in there after the couple say “We do”, but before he can announce them as husband and wife.

                Someone weegie Schroedinger…we’ve got news for him. 🙂

              3. As much as I’m for putting priests in radioactive poison-filled boxes, there’s a better method that demonstrates that married bachelors are, quantum-mechanically, as common as dirt.

                All you have to do is decide whether or not you’ll get married based on the outcome of a quantum event, such as whether your geiger counter pings an even or odd number of times over a set period of time.

                If you hold to Many-Worlds (which I don’t), then the universe(s) branch, leaving you with one in which you’re married and another in which you’re a bachelor.

                By extension, it’s pretty obvious that the innumerable branching universes have married and unmarried versions of almost everybody.

                Then again, it’s equally obvious that there are living and dead versions of everybody, too, and almost any other permutation you can think of.

                …and it should also be equally obvious that, even if M-W holds (and I don’t think it does), it’s not exactly useful to apply it to situations such as these.

                b&

              4. The priest in the box poses a theological question too. If a priest may or may not say “I hereby pronounce you husband and wife”, but no one can hear him, is the marriage then recognized in the eyes of the lord?

                I think MW becomes a bit more approachable if you discard the notion that every conceivable universe equals every possible universe….but alas, can’t do the math, so what the hell do I know. 🙂

              5. I find more compelling some less extravagant (to my mind) theories, such as the pilot wave that’s recently been modeled with impressive fidelity by bouncing oil droplets. It’s all there in a. classical macro model: single-particle diffraction, entanglement, the works.

                Still hasn’t been reconciled with Relativity, of course — but, then again, neither has M-W….

                b&

                >

              6. One of the luxuries of being a layman is that I don’t have to pick a favourite…so Im waiting it out, for now. 🙂

              7. Suppose an overzealous couple starts to consummate the marriage during the ceremony. The priest pronounces them husband and wife but the couple officially (whatever that means) loses their virginity in the period between the time the priest utters the words and the time it takes the sound to be registered by the first witness’ ears. Has the couple mortally sinned? And is it possible they will spend eternity in both Heaven and Hell? These are the types of questions that can only be answered by theologians and only posed by people such as myself who just enjoyed watching Sarah Silverman, Bill Burr and Louis CK. Perhaps I also indulged in an extra drink or two.

  18. There are two problems with Wilson’s piece: it doesn’t say anything new, […] But in the main, the piece adds little to the debates about consciousness and free will.

    But isn’t that true of any contribution to the field since antiquity? Once some people postulated that the world is deterministic – for example some schools of theology arguing that since their god is omniscient everything that will ever happen is already predetermined – they had to have the discussion what that means for our volition and personal responsibility. Since that first time we merely repeat the same conversation because it is all about what counts as “us” and what counts as free will. Really all of neurology is irrelevant to the core of the debate because one can accept determinism without understanding the details.

    an analogy between mental activity and colonies of social insects. […] Wilson sees the brain in the same way: each “module” or neuron is entrained to behave in a certain way, but the disparate parts come together in a whole that is the “I,” the person who feels she’s the object and (as G.W. Bush might put it) “the decider.” But this analogy isn’t terribly enlightening, and doesn’t point the way forward to a scientific understanding of consciousness.

    But it does provide another model that might help at least some people grasp that sentences like “we don’t decide, our neurons decide for us” are fallacious. The ants are the colony; likewise, my neurons are me. If the ants go to war against a neighbor, the colony goes to war; likewise, if the neurons decide, then I decide.

    By and large, however, I see compatibilist philosophers as not only having contributed little to the issue, but having sometimes been obfuscatory by sweeping determinism (the truly important issue) under the rug in favor of displaying their own version of compatibilism.

    That is an odd way of putting it – how can somebody sweep determinism under the rug whose entire position is built on the acceptance of determinism? If somebody isn’t a determinist they can’t be a compatibilist philosopher.

    1. The most recent contribution that I know of that is worth thinking about is Kane’s mid-90s emphasis that the libertarian perhaps wants *two* things, not just one:

      (1) “Could have done otherwise”
      (2) “Self origination”

      Kane is willing to give up (1) but wants to work to develop something to give (2). See above.

  19. The other night, I had a dream that I was somewhere with lots of people sort of like in a library and there was some sort of demonstration of reflexes going on. At the end the demonstrators asked who believed we had free will. Everyone put up their hand except me. I was all excited when I got to put up my hand to say we didn’t have free will and I was actually thinking how I couldn’t wait to prove it.

    Then some goof called me from India at 6:30 am asking me about a support email I sent about a virtual machine I’m running & I didn’t get to have my little controversial dream speech! 🙂

    I really shudder at what that says about me on the inside.

  20. I have largely ignored the free will/determinism debate because it is empirically unverifiable – and I don’t mean for science, or philosophy, but for the individual.
    My own understanding of consciousness and the self is social constructionist, and basically I think the ‘self’ is an organizing principle for the organism’s effort to maintain a sense of coherence and stability in confronting the mass of sensory and internal events that occur at every moment. So for me, if science definitively proves a physicalist determinism, it wouldn’t bother me much.
    But it took considerable study and training to get to this point. Most individuals experience life and the world in a manner that seems to necessitate and emphasize their uniqueness and demand their ability to navigate by way of choice and decision making. So it is actually quite difficult for them to test a determinist hypothesis, all the evidence of their experience seems to confirm a stable self that has free will. I may be mistaken, but right now it seems strict physicalist determinism has no persuasive counter-argument (for the individual), beyond reference to scientific data and evidence-supported theory (i.e., a generalized knowledge that accounts for individual experience from outside, and not from within the individual’s experience itself.)
    For now, as a social constructionist, and having the knowledge that consciousness is biologically developed, I can deploy ethical arguments for individual behavior that still respect individual experience. (“Is that you talking or your friends?” “You may have genetic tendencies to do that, but you have other dispositions to do otherwise” – as simplistic examples.) I don’t think strict physicalist determinism gets us near that yet. And yet the individual – and what he/she does, or thinks he/she is doing – that is the real story here.
    Can physicalist determinism account for individual experience and ethical behavior? I don’t have the answer, but I think that’s the real question.

    1. Physicalist determinism is the most reasonable condition by which we experience the universe, and therefore make decisions based on what we know.

      Ethics does not have to be hard to understand with regard to free will. Consider that I do not know how to play the trumpet. There are many things one has to know (learn) in order to play the trumpet. In a deterministic universe, I still need to learn how to play the trumpet in order to play the trumpet. So it is with ethics. We learn what humans before us have developed, hopefully through raional thought, as ethics.

      You can still choose not to play the trumpet or be ethical. Such a choice is very likely determined based on what we know but, as you say, empirically unverifiable as determined. I would quantify that by saying it is precisely empirically unverifiable.

      1. I have no problem with your argument.
        But now it seems determinism is preliminary to human behavior rather than ingrained in it – the script the actor must perform yet not the performance itself (e.g., the difference between Olivier’s Hamlet and Mel Gibson’s; or for that matter, the mad Hamlet that Hamlet let’s everyone believe him to be vs. the philosophizing Hamlet of the soliloquy).
        I see problems with this, but it is an interesting way of looking at the issue, worth considering further.

      2. In a deterministic universe, I still need to learn how to play the trumpet in order to play the trumpet.

        I dunno. I’m still trying to learn how to play the trumpet, but that hasn’t stopped me from playing….

        You can still choose not to play the trumpet or be ethical.

        Well, that explains a lot. I seem to be incapable of choosing to not play the trumpet, which I suppose means I must not be ethical….

        b&

  21. If I recall correctly, he already floated the idea of having free will because we think we have it in his book On Human Nature, where he mostly argues for (again, if I recall correctly) determinism: deep below, physics governs everything, but since we can’t quite grasp all the details, it looks like free will to us. At least, that’s how I remember the book (and it was one of the things I liked about it).

    His new piece might also be related to him having (yet again!) a new book out soon, “The Meaning of Human Existence” (release date Oct. 6, 2014).

  22. Actually, I go along with the position of “pessimistic” or “incompatibilist indeterminism”, the notion that neither libertarian (“supernatural”) free will nor strict determinism is true. In its strict sense, determinism says that it is possible to predict with 100% accuracy what a system will do when you know its preconditions in detail. I just want to add two caveats:

    – Chaotic determinism, which basically says that you need impossibly perfect knowledge of the physical system before you can predict it. In practice, it’s technically “determinism in principle”, since it doesn’t say that the system has mysterious extra forces acting on it, but it discards the 100% predictability criterion.

    – Stochasticism, which also discards the 100% predictability criterion even if you know the system inside-out. This applies to quantum phenomena, I understand, though its application is limited above that level.

    But either way, no luck for “supernatural” free will.

    1. Determinism does not imply that future states of a system are predictable, only that if you run the system more than once with the same parameters it will cycle through the same states. You can easily make chaotic models on computers that behave in this way and there is no violation of determinism there.

      In reality you can ignore QM and chaos in free will discussions and that is why compatibilism is the position that free will is *compatible* with determinism and compatibilists (in general) make no assumptions about whether the universe is ultimately deterministic or not. Howwever, it seems likely from neuroscience and computational theory of mind that the brain itself operates essentially deterministically.

      1. It might be a good idea to keep chaotic determinism handy for later consideration, because predictability will become a crucial issue if determinism enters the political arena. For instance, Anthony Cashmore’s essay that Coyne cites, is an argument for a “fault-free” justice system; but this only triggers after someone commits a crime. What happens when politicians begin insisting we can brain-scan certain populations to discover who will commit crimes in the future and begin their accountability before they do so? (And this is America, we know what populations will be scrutinized.) We all know where genetic determinism (as eugenics) led in the early 20th century; it wasn’t pretty. It might be a good idea to develop a deterministic theory that includes a certain amount of unpredictability. That “A tends to Y” provides a stronger argument in the public sphere than “A necessarily will do Y.”
        And I wouldn’t rule out QM effects in the brain yet either, at least not until efforts to produce tests for such theories exhaust themselves.

        1. Proposing that quantum effects play a part in brain processes has something of a woo aspect to it, like intelligent design in evolutionary biology. It’s not that such a thing is impossible (if people could define exactly what they mean that is), just that it doesn’t add any conceivable mechanism that would be useful for problem solving software or make it more effective.

        2. And I wouldn’t rule out QM effects in the brain yet either, at least not until efforts to produce tests for such theories exhaust themselves.

          Brains are far too hot and big for “spooky” QM effects to have any meaningful role.

          Yes, there will be occasional blips here and there; just as a cosmic ray has the potential to flip a bit in a computer’s memory, it has the potential to fire a neuron at a time when it wouldn’t otherwise have — and that’s something that can only be modeled with Quantum, not Newtonian, mechanics. But brains also seem to be inherently much noisier environments than silicon chips and, as such, single-neuron anomalies are far less likely to alter cognition than single-bit anomalies are to alter computation.

          It’s much less likely, but not entirely impossible, that there may be some efficiencies gained through Quantum effects. Such is the case with photosynthesis. However, it’s rather unlikely that that’s the case in the first place…and, even if so, it just means that brains do slightly more thinking per gram of glucose than you would otherwise expect.

          What we can entirely rule out is quantum computation. As I noted, brains are far too hot and neurons much too big for the types of states required. But, again, even if that sort of thing really were going on, it still wouldn’t get you anything different. Quantum algorithms are entirely Turing-computible; they just get their answers with (theoretically) less time and resource consumption than a comparable classical device. Quantum computers don’t do anything a classical computer can’t; quantum computers just perform their computations faster and with less energy.

          Or, at least, that’s the idea…we still haven’t built any meaningful quantum computers, so we don’t know if there might be insurmountable engineering obstacles to getting a quantum computer to outperform a classical one.

          Cheers,

          b&

            1. My pleasure. Quantum mechanics (and physics in general) is amazing and mind-blowing enough without imbuing it with mystical properties. Indeed, the reality of it is much more impressive without the mysticism.

              For example, did you know that you need to use Quantum Mechanics to explain why you can see a rainbow in a CD or DVD? It’s a result of the diffraction of light off of a reflective grating, and a variation on the famous Young double-slit experiment. Now, add a laser pointer (which also requires Quantum Mechanics) of a known wavelength and measure the angle of diffraction, and you can trivially determine the distance between grooves on the disc. Or, of course, if you measure the groove distance, you can calculate the frequency of the laser’s light…and now you’re getting into the realm of spectroscopy, which is mostly about the quantized states of electrons orbiting atoms, and it don’t get more Quantum Mechanical than that….

              b&

      2. Determinism does not imply that future states of a system are predictable, only that if you run the system more than once with the same parameters it will cycle through the same states. You can easily make chaotic models on computers that behave in this way and there is no violation of determinism there.

        That’s fair enough, but for most real-world chaotic systems, it’s not so simple. I didn’t mean to imply that chaos in this sense was antithetical to determinism, hence why I called it chaotic determinism rather than something else. But chaos is the answer to the question of why, if we live in a deterministic universe, we can’t fulfil the Newtonian dream of mapping out the motions of every particle in existence.

        Admittedly, chaotic determinism has more in common with determinism than it has differences, so depending on the discussion it can be used both for and against.

  23. Although E. O. is not exactly my favourite person these days since he so comprehensively slammed inclusive fitness, I must say that he has made some rather telling points in this article – points think I myself would make more in “computational terms”. First his focus on the SELF in his discussions of free will. Most incompatibilists pay scant attention to the fact that that there is one specific source or agent at play, the self, in the exercising of “will” . They seem to picture decisional activity as arising in a continuous system … merging both external and internal causal elements into one causal chain- in computing terms this forms “combinational logic”. However, in computing terms, the self is actually a “state machine” i.e. one that has internal feedback so that it can effectively self-program and modify ITSELF over time. (In the philosophical treatment of free will this allows Kane and Denett to describe “self-forming” actions”). Secondly, E.O. points out that having time delays arising from sub-processing units (his analogue being in terms of a super-organism) which proves nothing against there being the freedom of will.

  24. Determinism discussions routinely worry about consciousness (easy and hard), moral responsibility, dualism, freewill definitions (compatible & incompatible), neuroscience, quantum physics.
    But one thing they 99.9% do NOT consider is reasoning. Eg. Cashmore says, “If free will is an illusion, then it becomes more difficult to hold people responsible for their actions.” That seems quite reasonable; but what about this: If free will is an illusion, then it becomes more difficult to hold people responsible for their reasonings and arguments!
    If all our thoughts, reasoning, and arguments are predetermined by antecedent conditions, then the arguments of Pinkers, Cashmores, Coynes, flat-earthers, woo-meisters, astrologers, sophisticated theologians, et al are all thinking what they think and reasoning the way they reason because they are predetermined to do so. And likewise, my reasoning right here is what it is because i am predetermined to do it this way; and any of you who disagree with me do so because you are so predetermined – you and I can’t do other than think the way we are thinking (unless “could do otherwise” is construed via much semantic gymnastics). Are you or I predetermined to think what is true, or what is false? How could any predetermined thinker tell which? Obviously, they couldn’t.
    This I dub the hardER problem of consciousness!

    1. Not predetermined. Determined. All determinism says is based on the laws of physics things will always play out a certain way (with maybe a little chaos thrown in – which is also within the realm of physics and its laws, as all things are).

      The brain, as one of the material things, is subject to the laws of physics and its determinism.

      1. What’s the difference btw “determined” and”predetermined”? I see none, except that the latter seems clearer.

        1. Predeterminism says that anything that happens has already been pre-established (usually by fate or god or whatever). Nothing can change these events.

          Determinism is that events unfold according to the laws of physics.

        2. If all events were “predetermined” then our brains would just be useless lumps of meat with no power to effect anything. If that is what you believe then, in order to save money, you might as well extract your brain and feed it to your cat.

    2. Not really. This is just confusing determinism with fatalism, the latter being a claim that nothing you do makes any difference. Determinism doesn’t care whether you are persuaded or not: either’s fine with it. The fact that our discussions had prior antecedents isn’t an excuse for someone to be lazy. Everything is up for grabs, whether you are persuaded by an argument or not.

      Also, how exactly can a discussion be reasonable only if it has no prior causes? If you actually think about it, you absolutely want a rational being to be anchored in the web of causality that is needed to make lawful connections. An uncaused reasoning system is worse than useless.

      1. Hmmm. You didn’t notice that I said nothing about fatalism, and nothing about causality or the lack thereof! But if you see implications about such things in my comments,and if determinism is true (IfDT), then you saw such implications because your immediately preceding brain states determined (I prefer predetermined) that you had to so think.

        1. Hmmm. You didn’t notice that I said nothing about fatalism, and nothing about causality or the lack thereof!

          You didn’t use the word. You were clearly falling for the same muddle everyone else does, though. Your point was either so obvious as not to warrant attention (“our behaviour is caused… well, duh”), or – more likely – to try and make some grand, sweeping claim that was probably bunkum, namely that determinism suddenly prevents us from distinguishing correct from incorrect, oh waily waily waily, etc.

          But if you see implications about such things in my comments,and if determinism is true (IfDT), then you saw such implications because your immediately preceding brain states determined (I prefer predetermined) that you had to so think.

          Well done, Sherlock. You get a gold star for stating the bleeding obvious, but none for stating it as though it were some grand epistemological insight.

          And if I do or don’t change my mind, then that was “determined” (predetermined implies some kind of planning) as well! And so is anything that happens, whatever happens! My golly, if stuff happens, it’s because of some stuff that happened earlier, in certain lawful ways! That means mistakes *gulp* can exist! OMG! By golly, how will I know if two to the power of three is eight now? My thinking was caused – just like if I thought it was two million! Now, if it worked by magic or because I chose the truth, I’d know for sure!

          When you state it plainly, your “harder” problem of consciousness is not all that revolutionary, now is it? It hardly presents a rousing case for the fatalistic notion that people can never get things done correctly because they’re doomed to be unable to tell the difference because they’re caused, oh waily waily waily, etc. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s a half-baked pseudo-issue borne out of poor thinking.

          It always amuses me how people who talk about determinism in this way consistently fall into the same dreary pitfall and think it’s insightful, as if free will were some sensus divinatus that just solved all those pesky problems instead of an instance of lazy magical thinking.

    3. But one thing they 99.9% do NOT consider is reasoning. Eg. Cashmore says, “If free will is an illusion, then it becomes more difficult to hold people responsible for their actions.” That seems quite reasonable; but what about this: If free will is an illusion, then it becomes more difficult to hold people responsible for their reasonings and arguments!

      I doubt if this really is the case. You act according to your reason and you cannot act any other way than you acted at that particular time, so it is with thinking.

        1. Yes, in that point in time. However that does not preclude other inputs. It is possible that inputs can change the way you think. This is why determinism is not predeterminism.

        2. This is what I’m talking about, for instance. Determinism=/=Fatalism. “Ken Ham was caused to believe in creationism”=/=”Screw effort, that’s fate.”

  25. In case some of you haven’t seen the blog Backreaction by Sabine Hossenfelder, a German theoretical physicist working at Nordita in Stockholm Sweden, here are a couple of links to her discussions of free will.

    http://backreaction.blogspot.com/2014/01/10-misconceptions-about-free-will.html

    http://backreaction.blogspot.com/2013/07/you-probably-have-no-free-will-but-dont.html

    http://backreaction.blogspot.com/2012/02/free-will-function.html

    Her posts are similar to Anthony Cashmore’s although more succinct. I think they pretty well sum up the view from the perspective of physic

    Richard

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