“The dark side of free will”

December 11, 2014 • 10:08 am

Gregg Caruso is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Corning Community College, as well as chief editor of the journal Science, Religion, and Culture.  In this ten-minute TEDx talk, he discusses what he calls the “dark side of free will”. Note that the “free will” he’s speaking of is contracausal (libertarian) free will (the idea that at any moment you could have made any of several choices), not “compatibilist” free will (the notion that your choices are determined beforehand by physical laws, but you still have some sort of “free will” anyway). So before you compatibilists start kvetching, remember that Dr. Caruso’s addressing the form of free will that I believe most people hold, and certainly the type that most religious believers hold. He’s lecturing to a general audience, so I have no doubt they know what kind of free will it at issue

And although I’m sometimes told I lack philosophical savvy/credentials to allow me to pronounce on this issue, Caruso certainly has: as his bio notes, he’s “the author of Free Will and Consciousness: A Determinist Account of the Illusion of Free Will (2012) and the editor of Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility (2013) and Science and Religion: 5 Questions (2014).”

Anyway, here Caruso argues that rejecting libertarian free will is actually a beneficial act, and that accepting it has, as I’ve long asserted, bad consequences for our system of rewards and (especially) punishments.

And, just to get you riled up, I don’t see what advantages there are in accepting compatibilist free will as opposed to being a pure, incompatibilist determinist. The usefulness of compatibilism seems limited to its keeping philosophers employed and the Little People convinced that they do have some sort of “free will” after all, even if it’s not the kind of free will they think they have. The whole area of compatibilism appears to involve redefining terms that we thought we understood all along, much as Sophisticated Theologians™ do all the time with the term “God.”

I will maintain until my last breath that philosophers who are compatibilists should, if they really wanted to improve society, spend their time teaching about the consequences of the determinism they accept rather than engaging in a never-ending argument about semantics. I see nothing to be gained by promoting compatibilism. The only reason I bring that view up, in fact, is because I think it distracts us from the important issue of physical determinism, and because I think that some compatibilists are motivated by the Little People argument (they say so explicitly) as well as confusing people with their tortuous arguments.

Note: you’re not allowed to comment until you’ve listened to the whole video, for I want people to discuss Caruso’s points.

108 thoughts on ““The dark side of free will”

  1. “compatibilists should… spend their time teaching about the consequences of the determinism they accept”

    There is very little agreement on what those consequences are. The disagreement between compatibilists and hard determinists is directly a disagreement about the logical consequences of determinism. No two people seem to arrive at the same set of conclusions, so this cannot be said to be a simple problem of deduction or intellectual honesty.

    1. I didn’t say it was an easy problem; but it’s an important problem and one that has real social consequences, particularly for our system of judicial punishments. At least let’s argue about something meaningful instread of semantics. And it seems to me that the consequences of determinism aren’t that hard to envision for how we regard people’s responsibilities.

    2. What’s important to social order and justice is improving our understanding of how to raise children, to teach, and to manage people who break laws.

      All of this is covered by learning theory. Not very well, perhaps, but it is the subject of learning theory.

      1. If I may be permitted to prolong this tangent: from my layman’s perspective I agree that something needs to change in learning theory, especially with regard to young children. That infants and toddlers are Blank Slates still seems to be the default position among education professionals, based on my experience in several parenting classes and with preschool and kindergarten.

        Of course, being a layperson, I’m not sure exactly what would change if professionals started acknowledging to a greater extent the role of genetic prescription (or at least predisposition). But I can only react skeptically to the claims that I can train my child to have a certain temperament, personality, sleeping habits, likes or dislikes for certain foods, etc.

        1. I now have three grown children– all, fortunately, wonderful, thoughtful and caring people. It was in the course of caring for our then-young children that I came to see rather starkly the hubris of the “blank slate” hypothesis. The notion that a parent or any other primary caregiver has the capacity to write on that blank slate is, well, BS.

          My wife and I deserve some credit, I suppose, for providing a secure and nurturing environment during their development, but to claim any credit or blame for our childs’ outcome beyond that seems to me now a ludicrous proposition. The kids will be what they’re gonna be and that observation– as much as any other high-falutin’ philosophical argument– makes the case for deterministic “free” will.

        2. The slate isn’t blank, but neither is it stone. We are born with temperaments and proclivities, but we are also born with malleable brains.

          We are born — most of us — with a brain molded by evolution for learning language, but we are not born to learn French, or Chinese, or English.

          Similarly, some of us are born having a propensity for empathy, and some of us not. But nearly everybody has the capacity to learn the rules of society. Some by internalizing via empathy, and some by rote.

          I see two related problems. One is the problem created by assuming everyone is born the same, and the other problem created by assuming we cannot learn how to teach.

          1. Oh, sure. I didn’t mean to imply everything is carved in stone. Just that, in my experience, parenting experts/early childhood learning professionals are eager to claim far too many behaviors as programmable or reprogrammable. Which actually relates to the overall topic of this thread in that this attitude strikes me as being rooted in as subtle kind of dualism.

          2. As someone who spent seven years working in children’s protective services, working with certifiably bad parents and teenagers, I’d say we can do much better than we do at managing people.

            My wish would not to make everyone alike, but to reduce the prevalence of violence and crime.

            I would say that most of what we do is counterproductive.

    3. Isn’t it a fact that “free will” is a belief at this point, or is there some evidence of it?

      Also see:

      The free will inventory: Measuring beliefs about agency and responsibility

      Abstract
      In this paper, we present the results of the construction and validation of a new psychometric tool for measuring beliefs about free will and related concepts: The Free Will Inventory (FWI). In its final form, FWI is a 29-item instrument with two parts. Part 1 consists of three 5-item subscales designed to measure strength of belief in free will, determinism, and dualism. Part 2 consists of a series of fourteen statements designed to further explore the complex network of people’s associated beliefs and attitudes about free will, determinism, choice, the soul, predictability, responsibility, and punishment. Having presented the construction and validation of FWI, we discuss several ways that it could be used in future research, highlight some as yet unanswered questions that are ripe for interdisciplinary investigation, and encourage researchers to join us in our efforts to answer these questions.

      1. The debate between compatibilists and incompatibilists is not about the “fact” of free will; both sides agree that behavior is mechanistic or deterministic. The debate is concerned with whether to refine the definition or discard it; and what might be the logical consequences of these outcomes. There are a number of empirical studies that examine what people actually believe (using methods similar to the article you cited); these studies seem to indicate that people use inconsistent definitions and may change definitions depending on how the questions are setup.

        This empirical evidence is only partly relevant to the philosophical question on how to think about the words “free will.” Most thinkers on the subject try to resolve the issue in a way that avoids major implications for moral or social philosophy. Even many libertarian thinkers (like Kant, for example), are scientific determinists, but argue that it’s unwise to derive moral implications from such an unstable semantic argument on which agreement seems impossible.

        For my part, I mostly agree with Coyne’s position on retributive punishment, but it is not necessary to get there through a disputation on the semantics of “free will.”

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            I had to! When else will I get an opportunity to put dog emojis in a a reply on here?

    4. cjwinstead

      “The disagreement between compatibilists and hard determinists is directly a disagreement about the logical consequences of determinism. ”
      No. The difference between hard determinists and compatibilists is semantics.

      Both agree we don’t have Libertarian Free Will. Both agree that there is a difference between two people getting married ‘of their own free will’ and a forced marriage, which is the sought of thing compatibilism is about.

      So all we really have is a difference of emphasis. Compatibilists focusing on the free will we do have and the harm disbelief in that would do. And hard determinists focusing on the free will we don’t have and the harm belief in that does.

      I think the confusion is mostly created by insisting that the term Free Will should just be used for one version of Free Will when clearly and unfortunately it isn’t.

      The logical consequences of determinism are that if I had done otherwise either:

      A) the laws of physics would have been different.

      or B) The distant past would have been different.

      Most are content to leave aside A) since we are talking about the physically possible.

      And from B) :

      1) If the distant past had been appropriately different I would have made different choices for better or worse.

      And here we see the clear case of it being the luck of the draw who gets to make which choices.

      And that is what people on mass deny and what compatibilists and hard determinists usually agree upon. There maybe some ‘compatibilists’ who disagree but the logic is straightforward and they will just be mistaken.

  2. Agree entirely with Caruso. Note that his views on free will are hardly new and have been voiced by a number of thinkers over the years. For instance, see Tom Clark’s book Encountering Naturalism:

    http://www.amazon.com/Encountering-Naturalism-Worldview-Its-Uses/dp/0979111102

    and essays on free will at his website: http://www.naturalism.org/

    Note also that free will skepticism does not entail a commitment to determinism, as randomness does not give one genuine ‘free will’ either. If our choices are random, then they are not ‘willed’.

    1. Agreed. When I say “determinism,” I mean “determinism” on the macro level, though it’s possible that quantum indeterminacy might affect our “decisons” as well. But that doesn’t affect our ability to choose, though it may mean we make a different decision if the tape of the universe were rerun. What I probably said is “pure physical causality” rather than “determinism”.

  3. Not only could society take a more rational approach to dealing with and preventing criminal behavior, but individuals might find some relief from debilitating guilt and regret for past actions, similar to the way some theists find comfort when horrors are visited upon them or their loved ones.

    1. Relief from grief and regret is an interesting concept. It would seem to have some connection to the Christian concept of forgiveness.

      However, no one seems able to figure out how to constrain behavior if there are no internal sanctions.

      1. What do you mean by “internal sanctions”? How does that relate to free will and determinism?

        As to the Christian concept of forgiveness, it’s not clear on what that’s based. Do you forgive someone because they are a bad guy and you are a good guy and you forgive them for their sins; or do you forgive them because the world simply is the way the world is? It’s a different moral stance.

        1. There’s also the option of forgiveness in this life and trust in whatever god you believe in to sort it out sooner or later.

          Vengeful forgiveness.

        2. You forgive because we’re all wicked evil sinners, and any of us could be in that persons shoes. Which does seem to imply determinism, or at least that we’re incapable of choosing not to sin.

      2. By internalized sanctions I mean the remembered voice of one’s parents, and the remembered disapproval. Call it conscience. It’s something everyone takes for granted, but which isn’t well defined.

        Forgiveness has social utility. It means society expects people to learn, but does not require people to drag an albatross forever.
        Scars are okay, but perpetually unhealing wounds are not useful.

        We really don’t know much about optimizing learning, but it would be nice if we acknowledged that it takes place and can be studied scientifically, as we study medicine.

        The concept of libertarian free will seems to imply that learning does not take place, and that punishment is the only way to deal with disruptive behavior.

        The problem is, it requires infinite resources, a police state. Something like what we see around us.

        1. “No one seems able to figure out how to constrain behavior if there are no internal sanctions.”

          “By internalized sanctions I mean the remembered voice of one’s parents, and the remembered disapproval. Call it conscience. It’s something everyone takes for granted, but which isn’t well defined.”

          Where I’m caught here is in trying to understand how there could be a situation of “no internal sanctions,” as per your definition. It would seem that by mere fact of being alive one acquires those sanctions; so why would one want to try and figure out how to constrain behavior in a situation that could never arise?

  4. Taking on the hard-determinist perspective has allowed me to view the social world so much more clearly (it actually makes sense!), and having a lot less of ‘moral anger’ baggage as a bonus.

    1. It does make sense and I agree with Caruso that it needs to be accomplished.

      BUT, convincing people to be less punitive, lose moral anger and stop blaming the victims and, instead, to actually DO something about the causes of criminality, wealth inequality and educational inequity is a monumental task. Even where to begin is confusing.

      If you think the Enlightenment was a huge step a few hundred years ago, this dwarfs that accomplishment.

      1. I think a good place to begin would be the reduction in the influence of religion which is a strong reenforcer of dualistic free will and retributive anger.

  5. All I could think about during the talk were the mocking lyrics of GEE, OFFICER KRUPKE.
    It is hard to think that the US could ever have rational conversations in the social or political sphere regarding the application and consequences of a Determinist viewpoint.

  6. Of course it should be no surprise to anyone who has seen my comments on our free will discussions that I agree with what the speaker says whole-heartedly. I am particularly pleased with his analogy of quarantine for sick people with how we would handle dangerous criminals. I also like his central thesis that if we were to accept that free will does not exist (and this is really accepting determinism so Cs & ICs likely agree on this) then we will reject the “just society” notion, stop casting blame on people who are in bad circumstances, etc. I see the “just society” notion as similar to what I call “the dangers of dualism”. It is completely understandable that religious people accept libertarian free will and believe in dualism (since they are about the same thing) and therefore tend to be the most punitive.

    This entire thesis certainly counters Dan Dennett’s argument that people will run amok, free from morality, committing unspeakable atrocities, should free will ever be shown as an illusion.

    1. I second your comment on the quarantine analogy. And the first people I would quarantine (if I was in the US) would be the people who are currently profiting from the prison system.

        1. Oh, no worries. The FSM has a pot of boiling water just for Jibbers — and, if that’s not enough, Sithrak has a spit just for him.

          Of course, Sithrak also has a spit for you. And for me. And even for the FSM…though I’m not quite sure how that one is supposed to work….

          b&

  7. I think that there is an incredible amount of relatively petty ‘suffering’ caused purely by retributive reasoning and that the floor all but completely falls out from this type of reasoning when one understands and accepts determinism. It could be argued that this is pointless anyway, because retributive reasoning shows itself to be unreasonable due to sunken costs fallacy as well but I think that’s less easy for people to internalize. I’ve become far more accepting of others, and also argue quite a bit for more humane treatment of ‘bad’ people since I’ve accepted determinism and I think everybody should.

    I also think that there is at least one good reason for creating a useful definition for free will, though, and that reason is because we may eventually begin creating artificial agents and there will be a difference in terms of legal accountability between an agent whose values and algorithm were implemented by another agent (because the initial agent is responsible) and an agent like us, whose values and algorithm were a natural and direct consequence of evolution. Free will (‘free’ meaning not constrained or dictated by another agent) seems like a useful label for this distinction, but maybe it can’t be freed from the common libertarian definition.

  8. Concise and well articulated. Just imagine actions having causes (albeit complex) that can be accounted for and trying to identify them! I think it’s too much for most people, dispensing with sentiment in favor of honesty. Most probably think they would cease to exist if they even considered the notion of free will being an illusion. They would also have to give up pointing fingers at other people and pounding their chest, which is basically the ego equivalent of heroin. Empathy being evolutionary and ultimately the origin of morality is an equally difficult notion for most as well, I believe. Remeber Jerry, angels 63%, evolution 15% (or 47).

  9. Thank you for posting this Jerry! Much appreciated. I would like to acknowledge some of my debts by providing the references to some of the work I cited:

    Thomas Nadelhoffer and Daniela Goya Tocchetto, “The Potential Dark Side of Believing in Free Will (and Related Concepts): Some Preliminary Findings,” in Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility (edited by G. Caruso). Lexington Books, 2013.

    Jasmine M. Carey and Delroy L. Paulhus” Worldview Implications of Believing in Free Will and/or Determinism: Politics, Morality, and Punitiveness” Journal of Personality (2013).

    Azim Shariff et. al. “Free Will and Pubishment: A Mechanistic View of Human Nature Reduces Retribution,” Psychological Science (2014).

    Bruce Waller, “The Stubborn Illusion of Free Will,” in Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility (edited by G. Caruso). Lexington Books, 2013.

    Derk Pereboom, Living Without Free Will. OUP.

    Derk Pereboom, Free Will, Agency, and Meaning in Life. OUP.

    1. I just finished your 5 Questions book. Fascinating range of views.

      Some typos as well, which should be fixed if it goes to multiple editions. Rabbi Wople, for example.

  10. That’s an appeal to consequences, a classic fallacy.

    Caruso’s list of “darkness” includes “right wing authoritarianism”, but what about left wing totalitarianism? Marxism, Leninism and Maoism rejected libertarian free will and attempted to shape and mold large populations through incarceration, indoctrination and propaganda, or as Caruso would put it: “preventive detention and rehabilitation” and “education”.

    He mentions “just world” bias, but misses the opposite problem of believing in an inherently unjust world. (e.g. paranoia, conspiratorial thinking, revolutionary madness, resignation, …).

    Caruso opposes victim blaming, yet he essentially blames non-criminals and especially free will believing conservatives for being ultimately responsible for the behaviour of criminals.

    Why does Caruso lecture to an audience of law abiding citizens anyway? This audience has no more free will than do criminals, so why not go straight to the troublemakers and reason them out of criminality?

    Summary:

    Beliefs cluster. Caruso merely picked some beliefs he deems problematic and claims that one causes the others. I am not convinced. I can easily make the opposite case, as I have shown. And, again, it’s a fallacious line of reasoning anyway.

    1. Caruso’s list of “darkness” includes “right wing authoritarianism”, but what about left wing totalitarianism?

      Perhaps because left wing totalitarianism isn’t something that was correlated with free will belief since the people that were studied simply didn’t have those beliefs (in other words, no one from North Korea was asked). I suspect, however that those with authoritarian personalities would correlate regardless of which side of the political spectrum they fell on.

      Caruso opposes victim blaming, yet he essentially blames non-criminals and especially free will believing conservatives for being ultimately responsible for the behaviour of criminals.

      How so? Where does he say that?

      Why does Caruso lecture to an audience of law abiding citizens anyway? This audience has no more free will than do criminals, so why not go straight to the troublemakers and reason them out of criminality?

      Because it’s a TEDx talk. He’s talking about large societal changes if we make a change in our philosophical stance. He isn’t talking about how we operationalize that. We have to agree there is a problem first.

      1. Additionally, he wasn’t arguing why free will is an illusion as he stated at the beginning of the video. He was exploring the consequences of maintaining it. Saying he committed a fallacy misses the point of the video entirely. It’s akin to rebutting WEIT by saying Jerry commits a post hoc falacy because he explains why he cares what people believe. Utter non sequitur.

        1. Jerry doesn’t say or imply that we should disbelieve in God or claim to be atheists, even if he clearly does exist. That would be nothing but the inverse of faitheism. It would be belief in unbelief.

          Caruso’s speech is not a disinterested analysis of the implications of belief in free will. It reminds me of the faitheist style of argumentation.

          Faitheist: “Sure, you don’t have to believe in God, it’s just that without faith, there would be concentration camps and mass starvation, rape and anarchy everywhere, but sure, go ahead and be an open atheist… just saying….”

          Caruso: “Believe in free will, if you like, but then women are blamed for their own rapes and there would be right wing authoritarianism and peaceful people will be turned into criminals and be needlessly punished, ….. ”

          I btw. equally reject similar arguments by conservatives in favor of free will.

          1. Believe in free will, if you like, but then women are blamed for their own rapes

            It’s not some rhetorical “but then”; it’s not an appeal to consequences. The just world belief exists, and manifests as victim blaming both on systematic and personal levels. According to Caruso, that belief correlates with free will belief.

      2. My questions were somewhat rhetorical of course. The debate about adverse consequences of free will acceptance cannot be decided on narrow, contemporary american partisan belief sets. Unless of course, if Caruso would concede that some other societies may actually do better, if they accepted free will. Or that the US should switch back to free will, if incompatibilism causes an overshoot.

        “He isn’t talking about how we operationalize that.”
        His argument is partially based on the claim that his proposals would be objectively better from a utilitarian point of view. He essentially claims there are proven methods for changing the will of criminals. So why doesn’t he show us how it’s done? Show us a program that significantly reduces recidivism rate. (repeated randomized trials please, not epidemiological meta-analysis…)
        If free will proponents would reject such a program despite the evidence, then he’s got a case.

        1. RE 2nd paragraph, I don’t know how you got that from this talk. He is obviously referring to statistical data between the US and other countries. And some topical studies that have yielded suggestive data. He does not claim that there are proven methods for changing the will of criminals, or even hint at that. What he hints at is that there are some very interesting data that we should devote some study to. He is saying that we should test or beliefs and methods against reality because there is data that shows, unambiguously, that significantly better outcomes than we currently achieve are possible. Because other societies are achieving them. By a large margin.

          1. The relevant part starts at 4:30 of his talk. (Side note: Violent crime, contrary to his claim, declined in the US tremendously and this coincided with the enormous increase in wealth inequality and mass incarceration.)

            Caruso’s approach to crime reminds me of the following TED Talk parody:

            Compost-Fueled Cars: Wouldn’t That Be Great?
            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DkGMY63FF3Q

            He gives the impression that “free will skepticism” is the solution to crime, yet fails to fill in the specifics. I believe that if we knew how to do it, we would do it anyway, regardless of the free will debate.

            Also, why does he assume that his incompatibilist quarantine detention system would reduce the incarceration rate? If the mere likelihood of criminal behaviour is the justification for detention, then it seems we would have to detain more people for longer periods of time.

            1. “Side note: Violent crime, contrary to his claim, declined in the US tremendously . . .”

              That is not contrary to any claim he made in this talk. You just made that up. He reported statistics that show that the US has a much higher number of prisoners per capita than most other countries. He also claimed that the recidivism rate in the US is also comparitively high. He said nothing specific about the category “violent crime,” or any specific category at all.

              Why should he be required to be specific about solutions or methods when he is, specifically, suggesting researching something new, i.e. nobody knows anything specific about it and that is the point.

              1. Caruso literally said at 4:35:

                “Our criminal justice system is broken. It is not making us safer. It is not reducing crime … and it is not reducing the rate of recidivism.”

                My interpretation of Carusos claims is not only not made up, it is generous.

              2. Thanks for taking the time to transcribe the relevant part of the talk. Now we can see the exact words you wrote in criticism of the exact words spoken by Caruso, and it is plain to see that I was correct.

                It is clear that you don’t like Caruso’s opinions regarding crime and the justice system in the US, but in your attempt at criticizing him you are misrepresenting him and denying or disregarding plain data (as opposed to his interpretation of it).

              3. I am not an American and I am agnostic about the US criminal justice system. I accept neither the liberal nor the conservative take, nor the ignorant smug european anti-american one.

                There is just very little in terms of concrete, controlled experiments, although there are some:
                https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hawaii%27s_Opportunity_Probation_with_Enforcement_(HOPE)

                “About 15% of HOPE probationers complete the program—which can last up to six years—without substance abuse treatment. In a 12-month follow-up study, 61% of HOPE probationers had zero positive drug tests, 20% had one positive drug test, 9% had two, 5% had three, and less than 5% had four or more.[4]”

                The US experienced a tremendous drop in crime, coinciding with zero tolerance policies and the income of the 1%. To conservatives, this is a slam dunk case for their side. Case closed. Liberals use similar charts and factoids when they preach to their choir. To me those gotcha stats and charts are interesting, but they are just preliminal forms of understanding We are tapping in the dark.

                I am even more skeptical about supposed negative or positive effects of free will belief or disbelief. And I am suspicious of TED talks that always oversell their case by a huge margin.

            2. In addition to what darrelle says, Caruso isn’t arguing compatibilism or incompatibilism. He’s arguing against libertarian free will. Both compatiblists and incompatibilists reject libertarian free will and both accept determinism.

              This is why the two groups arguing is probably useless in the practical sense because we agree about more things we disagree about and sometimes we aren’t even sure what we are disagreeing about. Hence Jerry’s remark that philosophers’ time is better served thinking about the consequences of determinism, which Caruso’s talk starts to do.

              1. Correction – he’s supposing what things would be like if we rejected libertarian free will not necessarily arguing about free will itself – the way I phrased it wasn’t accurate.

  11. Long before I’d ever even heard of determinism I was an advocate of identifying the source of a problem and tackling it there, which I think is the logical consequence here. It’s also an approach all government should take imo, as quite apart from being better, it’s also cheaper. For example, those of us lucky enough to live in a largely single-payer health system controlled by government already know the benefits of the government focusing on prevention over cure: vaccination, smoking cessation programmes etc. At the moment NZers are some of the fatties of the world. However, our children are now being taught the principles of healthy eating right from their earliest school years, so we’re educating the whole next generation. My nieces and nephews, from the age of five, tell me how much sugar is in a soft drink (soda) and why it’s bad for me every time they see me drinking one.

    1. My niece and nephew often lets me know how they feel when I go out for a smoke.

      And of course I can’t in any way defend it.

      Little buggers.

    2. “My nieces and nephews, from the age of five, tell me how much sugar is in a soft drink (soda)”

      Why, the same amount as in freshly pressed, organic fruit juice, of course. Diet coke is the way to go.

      The French and Italians have figured this out. They simply eat smaller portions of tasty food, rather than stuffing themselves with large amounts of either junk food or the equally distasteful “health foods”.

  12. Coel Hellier at his blog coelsblog.wordpress.com had a recent posting that resulted in one of the most insightful exchanges I have read concerning this issue. I have been keenly following the compatibilism/incompatibilism debate for quite some time. Ron Murphy’s replies to Coel are simply the most coherent and well argued positions I have yet come across. My respect for Coel is almost unbounded as he has masterfully held court amongst the high priests of philosophy at Massimo’s ScientiaSalon. It continues to cause me distress to see him arguing (I would say poorly)for his position pro compatibilism.

    Continued thanks to both of them and to ceiling cat for enlightening this humble tyro.

        1. I’am afraid Coel is a libertarian.

          Maintaining one can act differently is incompatible with determinism wich is a defining element for compatabilism.

          1. If you mean “libertarian” in the free will sense, no Coel does not hold such a position.
            He argues for compatibilism. If you think it’s an argument for libertarian free will, you’ve misunderstood it.

            1. I’am realy sorry.
              After rereading, I must admit, my mistake.

              To my defense, this did trigger my reaction:
              True, replies the compatibilist, but given a range of different humans in a range of similar situations, many of them would have been deterred. We hold someone “morally” responsible if many other humans in similar situations would have been deterred and thus not committed the crime.

              My comment:
              If actions are fully determined one can never be responsible.I would agree that people may be punished for pragmatic reasons.

    1. Ron Murphy is a smart fellow but in perusing his replies I’m seeing a repetition of the same arguments that have gone on here.
      I see Ron claiming that free will IS dualistic in conception and derived from a Christian theological concept (which isn’t true – the issue of free will pre-dates Christian thought, going to the Greeks – and before – people who noticed problems for free will simply by contemplating cause and effect metaphysics. There were compatibilist, libertarian and incompatibilist-type responses to free will, and not only outside Christianity but within Christianity).

      So essentially I see the same question-begging replies as I have seen in the debates here (IMO).

      But I’ve already violated Jerry’s injunction to watch today’s video first so I’ll get on that.

      (BTW, I just finished listening to another long discussion/debate about incompatibilism/compatibilism, featuring Tamler Sommers, philosopher, as a guest. Sommers is a somewhat recent convert to compatibilism and has just completed a long interview with Sam Harris on Sommers’ Very Bad Wizard podcast, including discussion of free will, which they say will be posted soon.

      Unfortunately I didn’t find the reasons Sommers gave for becoming a compatibilist to be very compelling, so I’m curious how things will go in his talk with Harris).

  13. An argument against compatibilism:

    Compatibilism breeds shame, not guilt. Recall that according to Humean compatibilism, you are responsible for your actions because they reveal your character, not your free will. If responsibility demands an emotion, it is shame, not guilt. You feel bad about who you are, not about what you have done. There is no way of changing who you are and you are stuck with your shame. A libertarian has an easier time. He can feel guilty about having done a bad deed, but he can promise (credibly to himself and other libertarians) that he will freely mend his ways.

    Shame is a far more destructive emotion than guilt, in part because of its non-fixability. The author of Genesis seemed to be aware of this. He — or she — notes that Adam & Eve felt shame after the apple, but not before. There is little talk of guilt, other than Eve blaming the serpent. To a compatibilist, Adam & Even were evicted from the garden for shame, not because they were guilty.

    from

    http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/one-among-many/201208/cold-comfort-in-compatibilism

    1. There is no way of changing who you are and you are stuck with your shame.

      Sure there is. It’s why we go to school. It’s why people go to therapists. Brains are malleable and adaptive. We are not insects.

      I will grant it can be difficult, but learning is frequently difficult.

      1. Hmm? That makes assumptions about choices that aren’t necessarily true. One goes to school, not to change who you are, but because it’s your destiny to go to school. Who says we aren’t insects; albeit clever and complex ones? Who says that we have more real choice than an ant? How is that so? Difficulty is not an argument against determinism.

    2. Adam & Even were evicted from the garden because God had to be technically correct in spite of His deception. The shame they felt is the exact same shame people feel when they are suckered by a fraud.

    3. I think you’re describing stoicism more than compatibilism. I actually think most compatibilists would agree with what Caruso says since they accept determinism and the inputs into it.

      1. from wikipedia:
        Compatibilism was championed by the ancient Stoics and medieval scholasticism, such as that of St. Thomas Aquinas, and also by early modern philosophers

        1. My point is that you are espousing that part of stoicism that speaks to accepting ones lot in life as unchangeable. A slave is a slave because he/she is destined to be so, for example.

          1. I had to look up espousing :). I did have some kind of hate hate relationship with my english teacher.

            I’am arguing against the bad part of compatiblism that tries to inflict shame on people. When some compatiblist try to avoid that,
            that’s fine with me. But maybe they are not incompatible with determinism as they would like.

            The nice part of determinism, there is no one to blame. Compatiblists try to take that notion away. It’s not hard to figure out why.

            So a slave is a slave because he has had a strain of bad luck. But it is not justified by any means. That’s the warm comfort of hard determinism.

  14. Caruso explicitly claims he is not even arguing here for the claim that free will does not exist, though he notes he is a skeptic about free will. Rather, he is discussing the consequences of belief in free will and of no belief in free will. Let’s try to respect his parameters. We can argue elsewhere whether someone’s personal inability to understand compatibilism or their name calling and other ad hominems about compatibilists count as any indication whatsoever that compatibilism is coherent. I happen to be one of those incomprehensible compatibilists but I think that is irrelevant to the merits of Caruso’s rather well-argued thesis. That thesis is irrelevant to the truth or falsity of determinism or compatibilism, technically, except insofar as people sometimes appeal to the negative consequences of a certain view as a reason for resisting that view. Part of the view in question is that if we believed that individuals lacked free well, say, because determinism was true and thus they do not have ultimate control over themselves, it makes sense not to praise or blame them, but that position presupposes either hard determinism, hard indeterminism, or both, that is, hard incompatiblism. I would suggest that, ironically, if some moral positions, attitudes, or policies (e.g., compassionate rehabilitation) make more sense than others (e.g., retributivism), given, say, determinism, then there is in that very case a basis for thinking some sort of reactive attitudes and or normative frameworks are compatible with determinism, generally, and then it is an easy step to the distinction between those determined individuals who are volitionally continent versus those determined individuals who are volitionally incontinent, which distinction grounds differences in attitudes towards individuals in each category.

  15. The talk was very good and probably the best way to address the free will debate. Move on to what can be accomplished if we can accept the principle of skeptic and the good that might be done, verses argument about the concept.

    As stated, this is the optimistic approach and he just quickly stated who holds strong belief in free will, the religious. I would like to be an optimist as well but it is a long road.

  16. Caruso main problem: he does not (sufficiently) distinguish between the religiously motivated believers in free will from those who are secular compatibilists. (JAC basically says which free will he is referring to and that is a relevant point which does not favor Caruso’s arguments, i.e., he needs to have discussed the compatibilist’s point of view.)

    Consequently, Caruso never shows that secular compatibilists are any less anti-retributivists than those who are hard determinists. I also do not believe, for a second, that a religious determinists (if that’s possible) would be less retributivist than a religious zealot who believed all harsh actions deserve harsh punishment.

    Caruso also makes numerous normative claims about how society would be better if we abandon the notion of free will. This is only conditionally true. Religion prejudices distort people’s view of justice far more than their understanding of determinism or compatibilism.

    Bottom line: religion motivates poor moral judgements, not one’s belief in free will. Caruso’s arguments are useful but not sufficient.

    1. Christianity in particular sees free will as the answer to the problem of God’s moral choices, not man’s, since if God supposedly created man with free will, it relieves God of any responsibility for man’s choices.

      Religious and secular alike fear the concept of fate, the religious hope to overcome God’s rejection of responsibility for them, and the non-religious see fate as some phoney quasi-religious-spiritual force controlling them.

    2. “religious determinists (if that’s possible)”

      Calvinists, Muslims and Hinduists are determinists and mostly reject or minimalize free will. A religious determinist is probably capable of more cruelty. He can claim that God or Satan made him do it.

  17. I don’t think we have anywhere close to a clear picture of the social and political consequences of accepting or rejecting the claim that we have free will. On the one hand, there is lots of evidence that believers in free will are more religious, more authoritarian, and more retributivist (all of which is bad). Evidence for those claims goes back to the 80s at least. On the other hand, there is some evidence that believers in free will are more helpful and less aggressive (http://psp.sagepub.com/content/35/2/260.short), that believers in free will are less likely to cheat (http://pss.sagepub.com/content/19/1/49.short), that believers in free will feel greater levels of gratitude for favors (http://psp.sagepub.com/content/40/11/1423.abstract), and that believers in free will are perceived by supervisors to have better job performance (http://spp.sagepub.com/content/1/1/43.abstract). The first two of these, at least, seem socially desirable. And arguably the other two are desirable as well.

    All of these studies strike me as preliminary at best. All of the studies I’ve seen involve small samples, many have dubious statistical methods, the measured correlations in observational studies are typically quite small, and the effect sizes in experimental studies are typically modest. I wouldn’t say that we *know* much of anything about the effects of belief or lack of belief in free will. I do think that we know that belief in free will is associated with retributivist attitudes, since that has been observed in *many* studies at this point. (The causal story is, I think, much less clear.) But more importantly, we have little or no idea how belief or lack of belief in free will is related to happiness, life satisfaction, longevity, overall health, productivity (as opposed to the appearance of good job performance), and so on. So, I don’t think we can confidently say very much about the social and political effects of policies designed to make people doubt that they have free will.

    With respect to your post today, I don’t think I understand the complaint that philosophical debates about free will just amount to semantics. As I see it, someone started us off with a rather vague conjecture or hypothesis: That we have free will. Philosophers working on free will have been trying to figure out what implications the hypothesis has. If we are to properly test the hypothesis, then we need to know what it implies about us and the world, right? Some thinkers have argued that if determinism is true, then we do not (cannot) have free will. That is a claim about how free will and determinism are related to each other, and establishing its truth (or falsity) requires having a clear enough idea of what determinism and free will amount to that we can derive practical consequences.

    But then I get confused. How is the elucidation of consequences of the assumption that we have free will or the elucidation of the assumption that the world is deterministic distinct from cases in science where one is trying to determine the implications of a theory? Sometimes the implications of a theory are non-obvious. For example, it was more than a hundred years before someone noticed that an implication of Newton’s theory is that light is bent by gravity (Einstein’s theory says that there is twice as much bending). Are there no examples in biology where the implications of a theory are not obvious? Is it *merely* semantic wrangling when two people disagree about what a theory says about the world? How is the philosophical debate distinct?

  18. Dr. Coyne your dedication to truth and hard work are a constant source of encouragement to me. I love how going all the way through a thought – taking in all the consequences of a position makes the world a much more wondrous place. Seems counter-intuitive because I would much rather have a free will – not having one seems like much more work for me – because I have to work to set up the time ahead of myself to make the best use of my odds. – I have even more responsibility because I cannot just shrug something off as inevitable – I have to prepare using my brain – we are more responsible for each other from this point of view. Thanks

  19. The comparison he makes with quarantine has one problem — plenty of people DO blame others for getting sick.

    I hadn’t made the connection between free will and blaming the victim, but this certainly makes sense.

    1. You could argue that hard determinists may over think things and try to find a cause that is impossible to find as well.

      I think however, that the motivation is to find blame more than cause – like with fatal car accidents. There are times when no one is to blame; a terrible set of circumstances took place that resulted in a terrible end. However, people find this explanation unsatisfactory & seek to find someone to blame for the accident.

      It is human nature – we believe because we are under the illusion that a ghost in the machine that I call “I” is in control of everything and can influence what happens so can, upon making those choices be a hero or a zero!

  20. For me the discovery that determinism is almost certainly true, and that libertarianism is almost certainly not true, changed my way of thinking for the better. Books that make the case for incompatibilist determinism could easily be titled “The End Of Hate” because that was the result for me. Hate, retribution and punitive punishment becomes entirely irrational after such a revelation. But this only works if one thinks it is important to be rational. It’s hard to know how this revelation would affect those who do not think much of rationality in the first place. Like the religious, for example.

    1. >The end of hate…

      I used to say true compassion was the realization that “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”

      Now I say, “there, but for genetics and environment go I.”

      Seriously–end of hate, and dramatically increased compassion.

    2. The end of hate is the end of love.

      If incompatibilism invalidates hate and punishment, how does it not also invalidate love, reward and gratitude?

      Evolution bestowed us with these powerful emotions. Those who don’t have them, namely psychopaths, are the outliers. Love and hate are adaptive and therefore rational in some sense.

      I don’t accept the premise anyway. If it is irrational to hate somebody for his actions, it is also irrational to hate him for the act of hating, punishing or wanting to be irrational. Punishing is another word for disincentivizing. So it is irrational to disincentivize people from punishing or hating. This includes ourselves. So rationally, you should not restrict even yourself in your own hatreds or your urges to punish.

      1. “Punishing is another word for disincentivizing.”

        I’m not sure that flies. Punishing is just a word for retribution. It may disincentivize a person, but it may not. It may incentivize them towards another round of retribution. Punishment is more an act of self-satisfaction; i.e., I get satisfaction out of punishing you.

        “If it is irrational to hate somebody for his actions, it is also irrational to hate him for the act of hating, punishing or wanting to be irrational.”

        But of course, it is contained in the first expression: it is irrational to hate someone for their actions, which would include the act of hating, etc.

        1. What I am getting at, is that the supposed real life consequences of incompatibilism fall apart, if you think them through. All incompatibilists end up doing is to redefine words.

          So we can still potentially imprison, kill, whip or fine people under incompatibilism, we just can’t call it “punishment”.

          One very effective method of disincentivizing people is through hatred. People don’t want to be hated and shamed by others. What is the incompatibilist case against a utilitarian (evolutionary) justification of hate or moral outrage?

  21. The illusion of “free will,” much like the illusion of consciousness, just goes with the territory of the human experience, and most people simply cannot get their heads around the fact that these things are actually illusions. But once one lives in this reality for long enough, arguing about it almost seems as silly as arguing about the existence of God. It’s like, can’t we just move past this and argue about more pressing and interesting things, like how to end suffering and mitigate climate change?

    1. Agreed.Somehow love and compassion are more fundamental than emotions. Once we disabuse ourselves of self importance somehow what arises is compassion.

  22. Greg Carruso was talking about the harm belief in Libertarian Free will does. Libertarian Free Will is Could Have Done Otherwise without circumstances beyond our control, or put another way, not of our choosing, having been different.

    This is pretty obviously a particularly nasty myth, since it denies that the blameworthy person would have needed circumstances beyond his control to have been different to have done otherwise.

    It denies that fundamentally he was just unlucky.

    This is hardly likely to be benign.

    So what responses to we get? Well some asking for more evidence and pointing to conflicting evidence. Well I can’t argue too much with that, yes we need more evidence and to look at conflicting evidence. But I would point out that to be so skeptical of belief in Libertarian Free Will being harmful is odd for skeptics. Skeptics usually take the view that getting beliefs wrong about important subjects is harmful.

    Now to the other responses and these are the usual bizarre ones to do with compatibilism. Compatibilists correctly define Could Have Done Otherwise as Would have if circumstances beyond our control, or put another way, not of our choosing, had been appropriately different. Jerry take note “would have if..” is the ordinary way we use “Could have” it is folly to argue against it. And this is why we do have options and make choices even if determinism is true.

    Anyway the puzzle here is why are the compatibilists changing the subject?? Clearly the talk isn’t about that version of Free Will. It’s like there was a talk on the dangers of belief in alternative medicine and the argument against that being that science based medicine can prevent harm.

    Well Doh of course but why has the subject been changed to argue against the dangers of alternative nedicine.

    And so while all this goes on the simple fact that Libertarian Free Will is a nasty harmful myth gets buried.

    Very sad.

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