Dennett tries to save free will, fails

March 19, 2015 • 9:13 am

I’ve long been puzzled by the many writings of “compatibilists”: those philosophers and laypeople who accept physical determinism of our choices and behaviors, but still maintain that we have a kind of “free will.” Such people reject the classical form of free will that’s been so important to many people (especially religious ones)—the kind of “libertarian” free will that posits that we really can freely control our actions, and in many cases could have chosen to behave other than how we did. This is the kind of free will that most people accept, as they don’t see the world as deterministic; and most also feel that if the world were deterministic, people would lose moral responsibility for their actions (see my post on the work of Sarkissian et al.).

Based on statements of some compatibilists, I realized that one reason philosophers spend so much time trying to define forms of free will compatible with determinism is because they see bad consequences of rejecting all free will. Some compatibilists think that if people realized that they don’t have the kind of free will they thought they did, the world would disintegrate: people would either lie in bed out of sheer languor and despair, or behave “immorally” because, after all, we can’t choose how to behave.

I’ve been rebuked sharply for imputing these motivations to compatibilists. Their efforts, I’m told, have nothing to do with trying to stave off possible bad results of rejecting free will. Rather, they’re supposedly engaged in a purely philosophical exercise: trying to show that we still have a form of free will that really matters, even if the libertarian form has been killed off by science.  I have, however, responded by pointing out statements by compatibilists like Dan Dennett warning about the bad things that could happen if neuroscientists tell us that we don’t have free will.

If you ever doubted that compatibilism is motivated largely by philosophers’ fears about what would happen if people rejected classical free will, and weren’t presented with a shiny new compatibilist form, watch this “Big Think” video by Dan Dennett. It’s called “Stop telling people they have free will”:

Supposedly aimed at promulgating a better concept of free will, Dan’s video in fact doesn’t do that at all. Rather, Dennett tries to show that those neuroscientists who tell people they don’t have free will are being “mischievous” and “irresponsible.” He devises a thought experiment that shows only one thing: if people don’t think they have free will, they start behaving badly, and could even commit crimes! They become “morally incompetent people.” His short talk is an exercise in consequentialism, not a philosophical recasting of free will.

Dennett even cites the Vohs and Schooler experiment purporting to show that if people read passages showing that they have no free will, they tend to cheat more on subsequent puzzle-solving tests. (Note that those supposed effects are tested over a very short span—an hour or two—and say absolutely nothing about the long term effects of rejecting classical free will.)

Dennett, however, fails to cite the work of Rolf Zvaan at Rotterdam, who failed to replicate the results of Vohs and Schooler while pointing out defects in their experimental design. (See my post on that here.) Zvaan found absolutely no effect of reading pro- and anti-free will passages on the level of cheating in subsequent tests. His paper is being submitted for publication.

But even if people behaved worse if they were told that determinism reigns and libertarian free will doesn’t exist, so what? The truth is the truth, and if science shows us something like that, we simply have to deal with it. After all, science has found no evidence for God, either, and yet there are studies showing that belief in God similarly produces better short-term behavior on psychological tests. Do philosophers like Dennett then try to confect new definitions of God—”the kind of a God worth wanting”? Maybe we should redefine God to comport with science: “God is the Cosmos.” No, of course they don’t do that. They’re atheists!

It is curious that Dennett has spent a lot of time attacking the concept of “belief in belief”: the idea that we should tolerate religious belief because, even if not based on truth, it still makes people behave better. Yet when the “belief” is in free will rather than God, then “belief in belief” becomes not only okay, but essential.

And that, I think, is why some compatibilists try to invent forms of free will to replace the libertarian version. They do it, I believe, because they can then tell people that they really do have free will, and so we’ll all continue to behave well and society will thrive.

But I don’t believe that people will either run amok or become vegetables if they become incompatibilists and realize that all our behaviors are determined (or perhaps slightly affected by quantum indeterminacy, which still does not constitute anybody’s idea of “free will”). I’m an incompatibilist, and since I became one neither I nor anyone else has noticed a change in my behavior. I haven’t started robbing banks or assaulting people, and I sure don’t lie abed in the morning!

Society will learn to live with determinism, as it has learned to live with death and the absence of God. And, as I always maintain, abandoning the idea of free will is actually good for society in several ways: it undermines religion, and it is a highly useful attitude when thinking about how to reform the criminal justice system.


BTW, while we’re on free will, reader Jim E. sent a short (2-minute) animation about the famous Libet experiment, and pointed out that Professor Ceiling Cat makes a cameo appearance as a critic of free will. And I do! Look for me at 1:05 in the video below. Dennett is in there, too—as an experimental subject!

107 thoughts on “Dennett tries to save free will, fails

  1. It’s not a matter of rescuing a religious concept at any cost, it’s about separating the foolish religious supernatural interpretation from the naturalistic secular one — and going with the latter.

    Compatibilists treat “free will” like “the meaning of life.” Just because there technically is no larger meaning TO life, or meaning OF life, doesn’t mean that people should despair, give up all hope for happiness, and live empty lives which have no meaning to them or anyone. People who have been indoctrinated into the idea that we need God to give a meaning to our lives because “meaning of life” entails a supernatural world view might very well act on that and become depressed if they “lose their faith.”

    In other words, “free will” is, for most people, the ability to make choices which matter. The spooky explanation is not just wrong, but optional.

  2. A hypothetical: could there be any evolutionary advantage to organisms usinga random ‘input’ to the decision making process? For example, evading predators.

    1. At least two types of potential human prey — outlaws trying to avoid retribution from their peers, and informed possible kidnap targets — endeavor to avoid predation by eschewing routine and other predictable behavior. Not sure if you can extrapolate from there.

    2. No. The “random” is not random at all. Even decisions caused by randomness are not in itself random. If you’re dumb prey up against dumb predators, your survival depends on your abilities and instincts. If you’re smart prey up against smart predators, your survival depends on your predator being wrong in estimation. Randomness gives you a 50/50 chance of being eaten, while an informed decision vastly increases your chances

  3. If explained properly people will understand (better than Dennett) that the lack of free will does not sanctify unsocial behavior. The great author of Darwin’s dangerous ideas just lost a bit of his luster.

  4. Dennett’s video proves just the opposite of his point. By adding another input to the brain, the decision-making process has been altered, therefore it’s deterministic. Those that acted differently could not help themselves. With the current set of inputs, the result was determined.

    1. I think the virtue of honesty is not to be taken lightly. Religion also adds another input to the brain, but both features ultimately do more harm than good, because bad decisions are made based on bad info.

      You can lie and say god/free will, or you can tell the truth that cooperating with society may seem counter-intuitive, but is objectively good for your health.

      We need to raise a generation who make decisions not on wishy washy bullshit, but on logic.

      If you can prove, objectively, beyond reasonable doubt, that lying about free will creates a more stable and prosperous society than telling the truth that its bullshit, then I will concede. But history shows that lying has more than often come back to bite us in the asshole, just look at religion, for all the good it caused, there’s at least double the bad.

  5. The still image from Dennett’s YouTube video is of a scientist-looking person wrapped up to protect himself while entering a toxic-looking lab. I clicked that, and simply got a video of a nice old man sitting in a chair.

    Dennett’s point in this essay really is simply “let’s lie to people because of the consequences that may happen if they know the truth.” There are two reasons I can’t get behind that. One is that I favor telling the facts, consequences be damned. But the other is that the bad consequences would happen only if people misunderstand the implications. Lack of free will is not an excuse to behave badly, but I can see that someone who used to believe free will and all its moral trappings could get that impression if they hadn’t thought it through.

    One last thing – I took a chance and looked at the YouTube comments. Those are normally the lowest-level dreck to be found on the interwebs, but these comments were actually thoughtful!

    1. Dennett isn’t advocating lying to people. He believes that we do have free will. That’s part of what it means to be a compatibilist.

      1. Yes but the free will he believes in is not the free will that the people he is worried about believe in. He is not worried about how compatibilists or incompatibilists will react to being told they don’t have free will.

  6. Its misleading to say “We don’t have free will” unless you then immediately state exactly which definition of “free will” you are using. If there is one thing we’ve learned here, it is that we can never assume that another person is using the same definition of “free will” that we are.

    I would change his title to:
    “Stop telling people that they don’t have free will, and start telling people that they don’t have dualist free will”.

    (Jerry in his posts here is an exception, of course, as we already know which definition he means).

    1. A really big part of the problem is that the very notion is incoherent. A will only means something if it acts according to its nature — but then it is not free. You could free it, but then it merely blows in the whim at random; it is no longer willful.

      We no more have free will than married bachelors live death in Spartan luxury north of the North Pole.

      Now, there does exist a mental process where we imagine the outcomes of an array of decisions before us and make a choice based on that analysis. And many people who insist they have free will are pointing to that process when they say they’re exercising their free will. It’s even a close fit for Jerry’s “rewind the tape” definition, save it all happens in the mind rather than reality. But tell these same people that insist they have free will that this entirely deterministic mental process is their free will and they’ll tell you you’re nuts, so even that avenue is closed.



  7. Dennett is arguing that fatalism will overcome people, mostly the weak, and usurp their motivation to do good.

    This is some kind of emotional fear. This is not science and this is not the Dan Dennett I knew who could defend free will as, simply a concept, which is consistent with our inability to know the future precisely.

    1. The article explains the fallacy of libertarian free will. Good riddance to the myth, he says. Acting in accordance with one’s wishes without coercion is real free will, says he. This may seem like an emaciated form of liberty by comparison – mere wiggle room. He says that would be a mistake.

      So freedom consists in acting or not acting according to one’s wishes without external constraint or coercion. It is true that this is something which we generally value. The value of such “freedom” is experienced psychologically as pleasing.

      Fair enough. It is a crashing disillusionmnent though, for anyone who has hitherto assumed they had absolute freedom of will in the abence of external coercion or contraint. Different people may well respond differently to such disillusionment.

  8. Before I watch the videos, I have no choice but to make the comment that this conflict is a major theme in my forthcoming* book on ethics in a determinist universe As If. The eponymous philosophy is that we have no choice but to think and behave as if we have conscious free will, and to raise our children to think and behave so, but the radical acceptance of determinism suggest a shift in our judgment of good and bad and can consequently shift our reactions – how we act on the secondary emotions we observe in ourselves, how we take credit or responsibility for our actions, how we treat others to effect optimal outcomes – toward a rational pursuit of “the good.”

    (* – Forthcoming = sometime after the publication of the seventh Ice and Fire novel. Which means …)

    If Dan were to insert the words “as if” in front of every reference to “free will,” his position would be much more logical.

    1. Right. I had the thought some years ago that even if we don’t have free will, we have to act as if we do in order to get through the day. The knowledge that we made the correct choice among several alternatives makes us feel better.

      1. Yes. But my notion is that it is a simple effective theory, which simplifies our modeling “what if’s” when we decide to do stuff outside reflexes.

        Unless we are dreaming, which is a huge part of using such extrapolation according to animal experiments. Because trying to rationalize dreams is awkward…

  9. The more I have thought about free will, it becomes clearer that it’s tied up with the notion that there is an “I” who is calling the shots. And since we are learning that that is not the case, as the I begins to dissolve, so will the idea that we have free will. You can’t claim that you have free will if ‘you’ doesn’t exist. But as Ceiling Cat says, knowing that free will is an illusion doesn’t (or shouldn’t) change the way we act.

    1. This was the consensus in the graduate course I did years ago – that we had to solve the mind-body problem first. I boldly said that it was solved more or less and only interesting details remained. But there’s a sense in which we *socially* have to internalize that and make it into our laws, etc. first.

    2. I completely agree. The question of whether free will exists is secondary to consciousness. If consciousness is a neurobiological feature of brains, “caused by neurobiological processes and as much a part of the natural biological order as any other biological feature such as photosynthesis, digestion, or mitosis,” (John Searle) then the whole notion of free will fades away or becomes meaningless.

      I feel compelled here (no choice) to add, there is grandeur in this view of life.

      1. Yup. “Paying attention” is something we certainly share with most other animals. “If you snooze you lose” is fundamental to life in the largest sense. We can easily appreciate our kinship with our fellow creatures in that aspect of consciousness. What we don’t know is whether other large-brained mammals have
        1. a sense of past and future
        2. self-awareness and theory of mind
        3. sense of risk vs. reward
        4. ability to reflect on the probable consequences of an act
        5. Ability to imagine hypothetical situations (fantasy)
        6. abstract reasoning, logic, etc.

        I’m sure that more could be added, and it’s quite possible other mammals can have the first three to some extent. But the ego is an evolved brain function and not something that was infused into us by some supernatural power, of course. How it arose and to what purpose it had survival value are the interesting questions.

        1. Many of the items on your list…non-human animals unquestionably possess. A trivial example is your #3, which is the foundation of almost all approaches to animal training. Both d*gs and birds have demonstrated solid abstract reasoning skills in laboratory environments. Koko remembers her traumatic childhood and initiated her request for the kitten All Ball. And so on.


          1. You are correct. The ability to manipulate symbols constitutes abstract reasoning. I wonder what the relation between language and ego might be. As far as I know we are the only species that can say “I” and “me”, etc. However, the concept (as feeling) of ownership is perhaps another matter. That goes back a long way! So what is it that points toward the ego? Is it the awareness of being in various moods at various times? Does my dog remember barking at the UPS truck when later I’m rubbing his tummy or throwing a ball?

          2. As far as I know we are the only species that can say “I” and “me”, etc.

            Koko definitely understands the difference between first- and second-person pronouns. And I seem to remember that Alex the African Grey Parrot did, too.

            However, the concept (as feeling) of ownership is perhaps another matter. That goes back a long way! So what is it that points toward the ego? Is it the awareness of being in various moods at various times?

            I’d fall back on my definition of consciousness for this one, which is any model of the world that recursively includes itself in the model. I rather suspect most vertebrates would have at least some rough and / or simplistic form of consciousness according to that definition.


  10. There is some limited evidence that lack of belief in free will leads to worse behaviour:

    Now, I come down firmly on the same side as Professor Ceiling Cat in this debate. I think it is likely that there is a net social benefit to a more widespread disbelief in free will. However, I don’t think you can just shrug off the possibility that there could be negative effects.

    The claim “Well, *I* certainly didn’t change *MY* behaviour after becoming an incompatibilist!” carries precisely zero weight. Sample of one, and all that. The same goes for the argument that people won’t change for the worse *if* they truly understand, or have it “properly explained.”

    They’re the same arguments we hear from gun advocates: “*I’M* certainly responsible with *MY* guns!” “As long as we properly explain gun safety so that gun owners truly understand it, there’s nothing to worry about!” These are flawed arguments because the bad stuff happens at the margins, with outliers, when things don’t go according to plans, when the occasional person doesn’t quite meet the standards of personal responsibility we expect from the majority.

  11. This topic always overwhelms me. Can someone recommend a book for a layperson? I’m having a hard time understanding a definition of free will that seems to conflict with my understanding of my ability to make personal decisions, personal choices, as it were.

    1. I don’t know about a book. You might want to take a speed reading course first. A truly e – nor – mous number of words have been devoted to this subject.

    2. Sam Harris wrote a (very) short book on the subject. I recommend it. Alternatively, try reading his blog posts on free will to get his gist.

    3. You could also go to the site and have a root round. There is quite a bit about free will, as well a lot more about the implications of taking a fully naturalistic view of life, the universe and everything.

    4. See the link above (comment 10) to Julain Bagginis’s article promoting his forthcoming book. He writes very well, for the layperson, I think. “The Ego Trick” on the ontological status of the self would be useful too.

  12. the libertarian form has been killed off by science

    My compatibilist position is that the libertarian form was killed off long before science even existed. It is killed off by its own definition. It is as incoherent as a four sided triangle.

    Libertarian free will requires that one’s choice be non-determined by circumstances (including the situation, the agent’s thoughts, desires, perceptions, etc.) and simultaneously be determined by the agent. I don’t care if the agent consists of a physical body + a soul or a physical body and no soul, the choice cannot be both determined and not determined. It contradicts itself and cannot possibly be true no matter what science discovers or fails to discover. No matter what powers you grant a hypothetical soul, it cannot determine your choice and simultaneously not determine your choice. If your choice is completely free, it is random and not willed. If your choice is completely willed, it cannot be otherwise, and is not free.

    That’s why I like the compatibilist definition better – it actually refers to something that is observed in reality. There’s no point in talking about 4 sided triangles.

    1. Wouldn’t a libertarian proponent argue that circumstances ‘influence’ the agent? That they are factors in the ‘recipie’ that comprises the agent’s decision?

  13. I agree with benjdm. Libertarian free will is incoherent.

    Compatibilists – of who I count myself one – are determinists. But they do also believe in something which (possibly misleadingly) we can call free will. We might also call it voluntarism. What it means is that there are certain (determined) choices which we are happy with; no outside agent forced us to choose them. We couldn’t help choosing them, but that’s OK because we wanted to anyway. It is useful to be able to contrast this sort of choice with one which was forced upon us by somebody else.

    It’s useful to be able to make this distinction because it makes sense of our reactive attitudes. We can feel gratitude or resentment towards someone who helped or harmed us because they wanted to; but it wouldn’t make sense to feel those things towards someone who was compelled or controlled by another, against their will, to help or harm us.

    1. Wow, thank you. I am compatibilist. I didn;t know that 🙂

      Bsically that means when I was arguing with other people over the internet I didn’t know my arguments were already invented long ago 🙂

  14. “Science has found no evidence for God.”
    Well, duh! It’s a little tough to find evidence of something when you don’t know what that “something” is. So it’s no big shock to know that no evidence has been found! This is hilarious.

    1. “It’s a little tough to find evidence of something when you don’t know what that “something” is.”

      Not at all. The history of science is littered with things we had no concept of until evidence for them was discovered. Neutrinos for instance, previously unknown species, new planets, etc. Conversely, few subjects in human history have had as much time spent on describing them as God. But like other bad concepts we’ve never found the evidence those descriptions imply. (While internal contradictions in the description abound.)

      1. Yes, of course, one may find evidence of something without knowing what it is. But in those cases, no one was looking for any evidence. The point is you cannot say you are looking for evidence of something when you don’t know what that “something” is!

  15. I fully agree that there’s no contracausal free will, but we need some comparable concept to determine who needs to be rehabilitated and who does not. For example, if my mechanic tells me that my brakes are about to fail and I drive anyway, killing someone, I need to be “punished” to change my future behavior and deter others. If I did not know about the faulty brakes before driving, rehabilitation doesn’t make sense. You can define the difference between these cases any way you wish; the result, however, will be a concept coextensive with what we commonly call “free choice.”

    1. That’s called ‘conscious choice’. One you are aware of making. But it still doesn’t address the issues you are concerned with. We could equally punish someone whose brakes failed in order to influence his or others future decisions to get their cars maintained and inspected. Or he could have been coerced into driving dangerously because he feared losing a job or spending money. Those aren’t qualitatively different than being coerced by directly fearing for one’s life at gunpoint. All considerations like that enter into a discussion of rewards and punishments, but the term ‘free will’ does nothing to illuminate them.

      1. My point is that we need a set of rules to determine who to punish. These rules will define a set of actions in which one is culpable, and these actions are ones we would refer to as choosen freely.

        By analogy, there are no truly (non-quantum) random events, but the concept of “random” helps us talk about, say, dice and probability. We can use “free choice” the same way since it fits with our normal way of distinguishing actions, though the purist might want to refer to “pseudo-free” acts.

        1. Shouldn’t you start with the question of why we should be punishing anybody in the first place?

          Punishment is a most crude attempt at persuading the public at the expense of the person being punished. There are better ways to make the point than through torture, even “mild” torture.

          It is entirely reasonable for society to protect itself from those who would cause it harm, but, unless society would be as reprehensible as those it ostensibly protects itself from, society must engage in the least-harmful means of self-protection possible. At the absolute most, that means incarceration. Overwhelmingly, it means education and job training and mental health treatment beginning immediately, perhaps concurrent with a period of incarceration until the remediation attempts have had enough of a chance to take effect that the likelihood of recidivism is minimal.

          Another essential element is that we’ve got to get rid of laws against victimless “crimes.” Full decriminalization of all drug use would be a great start. A close second would be the decriminalization and regulation of drug manufacture and sales.

          That’s not rocket science, either. We all agree that Prohibition, of the Eighteenth Amendment variety, was one of the most spectacular failures of our society. Yet countless idiots think that it’s still a good idea when applied to substances other than ethanol.



  16. Sad to see Dennett fail so miserably in his critical thinking about free will. His is like the thinking of Francis Collins when it comes to Christianity, or Martin Gardner regarding faith. All heroes have their weaknesses, but some are more disappointing than others. This one is big.

  17. Is the focus on the potentially negative effects of non-compatible dterminism not an appeal to consequences?
    I admittedly have not studied this enough to commit ether to being a compatibilist or non-compatibilist, but shouldn’t the ultimate goal be to evolve a society that accounts for the way consciousness actually functions rather than one that uses a potentially illusory form of free-will that acts as a kind of check on negative behavior?

    1. In the course of all the discussions on this website I came, some time ago, to the following conclusions. Provisionally of course.

      1) The thing that humans actually have, as opposed to contracausal, dualistic, libertarian free will, is agreed upon in pretty much all particulars by Compatibilists and Incompatibilists.

      2) The primary argument between Cs & ICs comes down to whether or not that thing humans do actually have should be labeled “free will.” Cs say yes, ICs say no.

      3) The very terms the two groups use to identify themselves, Compatibilist = free will is compatible with determinism and Incompatibilist = free will is incompatible with determinism, are in accurate and misleading. The reason being that in the case of the Cs the term “free will” means that thing that both Cs and ICs agree is actually the case, while in the case of the ICs it means the old contracausal, dualistic, libertarian notion of free will.

      4) Cs will not admit that Dan Dennett is making a little people argument here, but he is. And he has done so multiple times, clearly and with varying degrees of directness.

      5) Both Cs and ICs routinely misinterpret and straw man each others arguments.

      6) It doesn’t seem to me to be of great importance whether or not the term “free will” is retained or not. Historically when it has been discovered that how something actually works is completely different from previous conceptions, sometimes the original term is retained as a label but the definition changes, and sometimes a new word is coined. I have know idea which route is better for disseminating or enhancing acceptance of new knowledge.

      1. The only interesting notion of free will is for me is the Libertarian kind. The one that creates moral responsibility. Some Cs, like Dennet, try to save moral responsibility, because they fear society will break down.

        For me if someone thinks people are moral responsible for their actions he or she is a Libertarian.

        But of course most people are both Cs and ICs:

        “When asked questions that call for a more abstract, theoretical sort of cognition, people give overwhelmingly incompatibilist answers. But when asked questions that trigger emotions, their answers become far more compatibilist.”

      2. Well said, Darrelle. I am an incompatibilist, and a big reason is illustrated by Dennett’s little people argument. He’s basically admitting that most people are dualists and arguing that we shouldn’t really tell them they’re wrong. If most people were compatibilists, I don’t think anyone would even care about this topic outside of academic philosophy departments.

        1. That is, I’m sorry, a ludicrous characterization of Dennett.

          Dennett argues we shouldn’t tell dualists they are wrong???!!!!

          He has written several entire books – on consciousness and free will – DISPELLING dualism, He regularly challenges the easy, comforting or convenient intuitions about our minds/brais.

          How tummy warming and coddling of the folk belief about consciousness is Dennett’s “multiple drafts” theory of consciousness, which denies the reality of a central “me” in control of our thoughts, and depicts instead a Darwinian competition for primacy going on in our heads between competing parts of our brain and competing interests. The “winner” at any particular moment being what we take to be the conscious “me.”???

          At every turn in Dennett’s books on consciousness he is dispelling what most people have taken to be the case based on their own experience and intuitions.
          This characterization I keep seeing of Dennett as someone who is adverse to promulgating intuition destroying or uncomfortable truths, is, to use a charitable term, unfair.

          1. Ok, Vaal. I oversimplifies for brevity’s sake. I do, however, believe that Dennett writes and speaks (or at least thinks) differently for two different target audiences. His books (I’ve read them) are aimed at us. His scaremongering about the horrible consequences of beng honest about determinism are really about the little people. He knows they won’t read Consciousness Explained and Freedom Evolves and he’s worried about headlines on or whatever. Do you disagree that his argument from consequences is a “little people” argument?

        2. Thank you.

          I am not sure what you mean RE Dan Dennett arguing we shouldn’t really tell them they are wrong. Taking your statement literally I think I’d have to disagree. Dan spends a lot of time telling people about his conception of free will. His argument is more like, “don’t tell them we don’t have free will, tell them we do but it isn’t exactly what they thought it was, it’s like this, and this is the only free will worth having.”

          I do think it likely that Dan might agree with, “better to say nothing than to tell them they don’t have free will.” But that is just a guess. I have never heard him say that.

  18. I recently re-read The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch. He has a conception of free will in it that I think is interesting and which I haven’t seen discussed here.

    He starts by making a case for the fact that the whole of physical reality is the multiverse. He builds his case very persuasively. For a layman like me his arguments are watertight.

    Then in the multiversal conception of free will what you could have done otherwise does in fact happen in a parallel universe. I like this idea. And everything is still determined.

    1. Very interesting book, but not persuasive at a couple of points. I also like the multiverse idea but am not convinced that the double-slit experiment proves it; and if time-travel is possible at all, I can’t see why the multiverse wouldn’t allow you to return to the same time-line. I’ve subsequently thought that whole books could be written about the ethical implications of multiple universe theory, but I wouldn’t read more than one of them (in any one universe).

  19. I think most people simply misuse the term free will.
    All it means, if you look at the situations where people assert they have free will, is that they are acting because of decisions made by the information processing system in their head.
    It is not a statement about determinism at all.
    It is completely consistent to say I did X because I have free will AND that it was causally determined that I do X.
    “Free will” is a statement about the nature of the causes.
    If my information processing unit is the proximate cause then I exercised “free will”.

    An example will clarify what I mean.
    You fall out of a plane. I ask if you am falling to earth because of free will.
    You look at me like I’m an idiot. “No, gravity is causing it.”
    You reach for the rip-cord. I ask if gravity is causing this.
    You look at me like I’m an idiot. “Of course not. My beliefs and desires lead me to pull the rip cord.”
    “Aha!” I say “So you’re denying that your beliefs and desires cause your behavior, or that they themselves were determined?”
    You now, I hope, look at me like I’m an idiot.
    “No, I am not making a statement about whether my beliefs and desires were determined,
    only that they are the cause of my reaching for the rip-cord.”

  20. I think Dennett would say that this whole question of determinism vs. free will is a pseudo-problem. It’s a confusion that results from using words like ‘free’, ‘bound’, ‘avoidable’ and ‘unavoidable’ outside of their usual everyday meaningful use. According to this view, It’s not really the deep and important question that it may seem at first, and it can’t have consequences on ethics or incompatibilities with neurology.

    The danger with spreading the (conceptually incoherent) idea that “we don’t have free will” is that it might be understood as the coherent idea that we can’t really do otherwise in situations in which we previously thought we can, and so scientific authority would be used as an excuse for irresponsible and immoral behaviour. There is no pretention here that something that doesn’t exist, actually exist.

      1. This is, I believe, the type of “baby out with the bath water” sounding declarations that Dan (and pleebs like me) have trouble with.

        What you are calling a “fact” is one of the central points of contention in the free will debate.

        Given determinism, how do we conceive of “choosing between alternatives” and talk about “could do a or b/could have done a or b”?

        If you say all such talk is necessarily untrue given determinism, then it’s possible you face many troubling incoherencies both in your use of everyday language, and in the logical underpinning of your very argument.

        On the other hand, if we allow that talk of choices between alternatives can be true, then it undermines the claim you just stated as “fact.”

        If your son wants to go out partying instead of studying for his exams, you are likely to council him to be responsible and choose studying instead. If your son responds “But dad, stop pretending I have a choice. I want to party and while you may THINK I can do otherwise in this situation, that’s an illusion. I dont REALLY have alternatves. I don’t have a “real” choice. I can’t “really” do otherwise!”

        If it’s as easy as the “fact” you have stated, then your son has got you. To make any sense to your son, to produce a cogent prescription for him, you will have to take the position that, yes actually, you CAN choose otherwise, son. Even given determinism, it still makes sense to think of you being able to choose between alternatve actions, to “do otherwise.”

        And, again, how do you work this out conceptually without talking like the compatibilist?

        1. Determinism and most incompatibalism doesn’t mean that your choices don’t matter or that you cannot choose.

          It does mean you do not deserve credit or blame for your choices and actions or for who or what you are. Just like all other animals.

          Some compatibilists seem to deny this.

          Empirical Science paints a different picture (F.I. biology, Libet, neuroscience). That’s the only thing that counts for me.

          1. The Libet experiment only shows that the conditions for someone behaving in a certain way (making a decision, say) existed inside his body and not outside of it. But the physical location of such processes has not limited or expanded his range of choices to act. It had nothing to do with the amount of freedom he had. The same goes for the patient in Dennett’s thought experiment. On hearing that all his mental content and choices are now fully controlled by the doctor’s lab, he only learns that one physical process is taking place rather than another. This has nothing to do with the amount of responsibility he has on his actions from HIS NEW point of view.

            If the practice of giving credit and putting blame on people (while avoiding doing so with regards to animals and certain humans) serves our purposes, than nothing is wrong with it. We shouldn’t have problem blaming quacks for spreading bad medical information and praising others for their contributions to public’s health. We are performing an act and if we are pleased with the results of it than there is no reason to think we are deluded with regards to it.

          2. Libet and redesigns of the experiment:
            Well, if your actions are decided before you are conscious of it …. . These experiments of course don’t prove there is no free will, that’s impossible. And nobody is denying that we have self-control.

            “If the practice of giving credit and putting blame on people (while avoiding doing so with regards to animals and certain humans) serves our purposes, than nothing is wrong with it.”

            F.I. the extreme incarceration rate in the US may or may not serve your purpose.

            There is of course nothing wrong with fighting bad information. That can easily be done without blaming people.

          3. “Well, if your actions are decided before you are conscious of it ….”

            Decided by whom?

            The point is this: as living creatures we develop over time our capacity to be unsurprised with our environment. We can express this ability to respond appropriately in different circumstances by making physical gestures such as uttering specific sounds or presenting special ink signs in the presence of other creatures like us. The content of some of those speech acts can be called ‘laws of nature’. There is no limit in principle to the amount of unsurprisement we can achieve and express (putting aside QM). This is the truth of determinism and this is where the “libertarian” is wrong.

            But all of this doesn’t make us deluded when we say that someone is responsible for blocking the road if he just made a decision to stop, but not responsible in circumstances where his car broke down or a medical condition made him do so. If the practice of using the words ‘free’, ‘bound’, ‘avoidable’, and ‘unavoidable’ works for us, than nothing could be wrong with it. Our use of scientific predictions is absolutely compatible with our use of those words.

            The question of how hard we want people to get punished or how harshly we should speak to them (choose the word ‘responsibility’ rather than ‘blame’) is a totally different question.

          4. Yaniv,

            “the question of how hard we want people to get punished or how harshly we should speak to them (choose the word ‘responsibility’ rather than ‘blame’) is a totally different question.”

            Assuming determinism for a person to have done what they should have done circumstances not of their choosing (in the distant past) would have had to have been different.

            Free Will can be defined as the denial of that.

            Denying that does strongly influence how we think and feel about blame, punishment, fairness and so on.

            So it’s not irrelevant, people are strongly negatively influenced by denying that luck, which they do on mass since it’s why they think free will is incompatible with determinism.

            And this is really what matters, the rest is mostly semantics.

      2. “Well,the fact is that we CAN’T do otherwise in situations where we thought we could. That’s the result of determinism.”

        Certainly there is a malignant illusion caused by jumping to the conclusion that can means can in the actual situation.

        But in this case we really do need to interpret can correctly rather than drop it all together.

  21. This post & its comments — in tandem with yesterday’s related post & comments ( — have clarified multiple aspects of this debate for me — including a few points regarding which I was confused without even realizing it.

    Hitherto, I felt inclined towards determinism, but still felt a degree of uncertainty. Now I see that it must be the case. My misgivings were borne of conceptual woolliness & misconstrual; with these resolved, determinism strikes me as the only coherent position.

    What a relief it is to clarify the matter!

    (This is why I come here — I’ve learned so much from this site & its community…)

  22. On a personal level I find the idea that we don’t have free will troubling and quite depressing. I have done since I first realised this was the case when I was in my late teens. The societal and other consequences don’t bother me (not least because most people live their lives in happy ignorance of the fact), rather it’s the idea that I have no agency over my life (whatever ‘I’ means). When I was younger and more gullible I hoped that an idea like Roger Penrose’s microtubules might be able to offer some slight glimmer of free will (although that would really just be quantum indeterminism at best, it still wouldn’t give us a choice) but now I realise that’s almost certainly not gonna happen. I wish I could have a different viewpoint on the whole thing but when I think about it, which I do on a regular basis, I can’t stop the idea troubling me. It’s still a zillion times better than believing in a vindictive, green-eyed sky fairy who can’t wait to torture you for ever…..

    1. Wetherjeff,

      I’m sorry to hear that you find the idea you don’t have libertarian free will depressing. I went through a stage of that but now I’m fine. I think this philosophy is much more positive than you think. It’s good to realise that nobody is ultimately to blame for anything, nor can we take ultimate credit. I think it’s unfair and unkind to deny that and so we would treat ourselves and each other much better if we stopped believing in LFW.

      Libertarian free will isn’t worth wanting. Sure we’re not in an ideal position but we know that because we only need to look around at the lives people get and the choices they make to see that people go through terrible suffering at times.

      But given the world is the way we find it, I don’t think it could get much better than being an amazing choice making machine built by natural selection. 🙂

  23. A bit late to the party and haven’t caught up. Apologies if somebody else has already made this point.

    Dan goes off the rails with his thought experiment by means of a false equivocation.

    It’s one thing to recognize that we are, essentially, very complex Rube Goldberg approximations of difference engines…and another one entirely to think that a particular evil neurosurgeon has implanted puppet strings in us and is undetectably making us dance to her tune.

    Garbage in, garbage out. The analogy doesn’t even get off the ground, so any arguments based on it are irrelevant.


    1. Yes, thanks Ben. That’s what I was thinking as I watched the video, but then I got distracted by the comments and forgot to write it. And you probably said it much more succinctly than I could have.

    2. Ben,

      I’m just curious if you would rebuke Sam Harris’ position for the same reason you give here.

      Harrspis has often taken the position that there is no in principle distinction between manipulator such as the “evil scientist controlling us” thought experiment, or the influence of a brain tumour, as against any other set of circumstances or causes that determined our behaviour. In terms of free will and responsibility/moral blame, It’s “tumour all the way down” as it were.

      Whereas if I understand your post here, you seem to be taking a contrary position.


      1. Dan has inverted — and, in so doing, perverted — Sam’s thought experiment.

        Sam’s point is perfectly valid. We should have compassion for those who do horrible things because they are themselves the victims of the circumstances that caused them to do horrible things. And that compassion should prevent us from, in turn, doing horrible things to those who did horrible things. As our parents hopefully taught us, two worngs don’t make a rite, even if two Wrights made an airplane.

        Dan’s inversion involves a neurosurgeon who deliberately and highly unethically instills a paranoid delusion into her patient by tricking the patient into believing that it’s the neurosurgeon who’s controlling every aspect of the patient’s life. That is radically different from the actual state of affairs — namely, that we are, essentially, autonomous self-contained biological computers that react in deterministic ways to specific inputs.

        It’s the difference between a computing device left to operate on its own, and a virtual simulation of one that’s constantly being tweaked outside of the simulated interfaces by direct manipulation of the simulated circuitry.

        And, while it’s true that you can’t even in theory eliminate the possibility of such, it’s also true that there are an infinite number of possible such conspiracy theories so, even if one of them were true, you could never have any hope of which one is true. Is it Dan’s evil neurosurgeon? The Matrix? Brains in vats? The only certainty is that that way madness lies.

        Sam’s example works to show us that brain tumors are no more and no less evil than Dan’s neurosurgeon. Dan’s example only serves to scare us about how scary the scary brain tumors and scary evil neurosurgeons are.



        1. Ben,

          As I wrote, I was referencing the concept of “moral responsibility/blame” and SAMs position on this. In which case I don’t think your reply accurately captures his position. Sam says essentially that whether we are talking of being manipulated by another’s intentional being (e.g. Evil scientist with ability to control us) or a brain tumour causing our choices, or simply the lucky or unlucky state of affairs/causes from which our particular neurology arose, it all has the same in principle consequence: “We” are not “responsible” for who we happen to be, and hence moral blame makes no sense in any case.

          Whereas you seem to be still trying to hang on to the distinction that a bad person causing our actions would be principle different than if we are left to our own devices. (Which is somewhat along the lines of what compatibilists would say, and if I remember correctly you decry compatibilist arguments)).

          1. Let me try a different angle.

            Sam’s phrasing makes the question of whether or not the person who commits a crime bears philosophical moral culpability.

            Dan’s phrasing makes the question of whether or not the victim of a crime bears philosophical moral culpability.

            Dan’s example shouldn’t be examining the victim, the patient who was deceitfully manipulated by the neurosurgeon. Rather, Dan should be examining the factors that caused the neurosurgeon to commit the crime she perpetrated upon her patient. And, once you approach it from that perspective, all of Dan’s angst vanishes into the same position of compassion that Sam advocates.


          2. Again, bravo, Ben. Vaal has consistently been the most thoughtful and convincing voice for compatibilists on this website, but this argument is not strong. Believing a psychopathic, sadistic neurosurgeon is controlling our thoughts is not equivalent to believing the laws of physics are.

  24. Jerry wrote:I’ve been rebuked sharply for imputing these motivations to compatibilists. Their efforts, I’m told, have nothing to do with trying to stave off possible bad results of rejecting free will. Rather, they’re supposedly engaged in a purely philosophical exercise: trying to show that we still have a form of free will that really matters, even if the libertarian form has been killed off by science. I have, however, responded by pointing out statements by compatibilists like Dan Dennett warning about the bad things that could happen if neuroscientists tell us that we don’t have free will.

    Well, with respect, I suppose here comes another one of those rebukes 🙂

    Just as its a mistake to conflate your worrying about the ill effects of false religious beliefs with your reasons for
    being an atheist, it’s the same mistake to conflate Dan’s worrying about the effects of
    a false beliefs about free will with his being a compatibilist.

    Someone taking the same angle you are with Dan could amass a huge amount of columns you’ve spent worrying about the I’ll effects of a false belief among the public – religious belief. Would this justify the conclusion that your actual motivation for yiur atheism is based on fearing the consequences of religious belief?

    No. Obviously not. You actually do think atheism is the most reasonable position hold, based on your careful consideration of the subject. Should a skeptic keep pointing to all your “worrying” about the ill effects of religion, as evidence for your “real underlying motivation for your atheism” what do we say? We would point out that this skeptical position seems to downplay, if not outright ignore, both the reasons you’ve actually given for your atheism, and all the arguments you have supplied FOR the atheist position and AGAINST the theistic position.
    Those arguments represent your reasons for your atheist position!

    Why then do you not seem to apply this same charity toward compatibilist philosophers like Dan?

    For decades Dan has supplied voluminous reasons – arguments – in entire books, scholarly articles, interviews, lectures etc, for why he takes the compatibilist position. Arguments that do not derive from, or default to “the argument from bad consequences.”

    Jjust as you think that region is truly a false belief AND that it has ill consequences, Dan thinks that the claim “Free will doesn’t exist” is both false AND he worries about possible ill consequences of promulgating that “false” belief.

    Your audience shouldn’t conflate all your public worrying about the ill effects of false religious beliefs with your actual reasons for atheism. Yet when you can find Dan publicly worrying about the ill effects of promulgating a false belief about free will, you say “aha! See, he’s as good as admitting his compatibist stance is based on his fear of the consequences of telling people the truth!”

    That stance only makes sense if you ignore the reasons and arguments Dan has actually given for why he takes the compatibist position – practically his life’s work!

    I’m confused as to why you would take a position with Dan that you would immediately recognize as uncharitable if applied to your own writing.

    Ultimately I think this is why I’m not a fan of the appeal to “motivations” in disagreements like these. Notice that we tend to recognize how often other people get it wrong, mischaracterize, when they switch
    Speculating about OUR motivations. I can’t think of any debate opponent from a contrary position, who has ever accurately diagnosed the “real reasons” I am disagreeing with him. It tends to be a road to enmity, to heat rather than light, and I see the depressing effects all over the place even within the atheist community. As soon as a person takes the position “Well, since mine is the reasonable position, my opponent isnt really appealing to reason for his position. Therefore I’m going to speculate about what his REAL motivation is for his comments…”

    Things just seem to always go downhill from there. 🙁

    1. I should add that in the above post I’m not defending that Dan is correct either about his compatibilist arguments or that he is right in his worries about the effects of telling people they don’t have free will.
      It’s all debatable and he may be wrong.
      I’m only concerned here with what I find to be an uncharitable take on Dan’s reasoning and motivations for his compatibilist position. I think it’s fair to infer Dan believes compatibilism is true and he worries promulgating otherwise may have ill consequences, just as Jerry holds to atheism and believes promulgating religion has ill consequences worth worrying about.

      1. I’m a little confused by this comment Vaal. Specifically where you say it’s debatable and Dan may be wrong about compatibilism. If we all accept determinism (plus or minus quantum effects), then it really should be just a matter of semantics. Words have the meanings we give them. Are you saying that it is debatable whether or not Free Will means what the compatibilists say it means or what the incompatibilists say it means? You are usually far more thoughtful and thorough, so I’m probably missing something here. What it is I’m missing?

  25. While I tend to agree with the deterministic view, I still have a couple of questions that maybe someone here could answer:

    If our actions are purely deterministic, why are we conscious of them? Is it just an evolutionary accident or does consciousness perform a particular function?

    My thought is that consciousness might perform a corrective function allowing us to assess our past actions and thus influencing our future ones. We can also simulate future actions and by judging those based in our past experience (in a bayesian way), we can choose to act or not to act in a certain way. In short, consciousness would be how a system influences itself. Does this make any sense?

    1. We don’t know what consciousness is for, but I would suggest – following Dennett – that we work on what it *is* too, since we’re often misled by “bad pictures” of it. That’s the subject of his book, _Consciousness Explained_ and later work.

      1. Dennett’s book is sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read, but I haven’t found the time to do it yet. Will do it soon, hopefully 🙂
        But the discussion on free will makes me wonder why are we even conscious in the first place and have that feeling of a “self” being in command if our actions are determined. Couldn’t we just be unconscious machines and do everything we do just the same? Is it consciousness an inevitable result of having a mental model of oneself in one’s environment? I know that there are no answers to these questions, but I am curious as to which possible explanations would make sense from a deterministic perspective.

        1. Is it consciousness an inevitable result of having a mental model of oneself in one’s environment?

          Basically, yes.

          I would define consciousness as a model of an environment that recursively includes itself in the model.

          If you created a walk-through-style first-person video game, it would not be conscious.

          If you created an autonomous character in that game, it would not be conscious.

          Once that character has its own internal model of the game, including itself as a character in its internal model…then it’s reasonable to describe it as conscious.

          The model, of course, doesn’t need to be perfect. Our own perceptions, both of the exterior world and our own inner desires and conflicts, is certainly flawed. But you could very reasonably describe the more accurate and more detailed models as being more aware and more conscious.



          1. “I would define consciousness as a model of an environment that recursively includes itself in the model.”

            Sounds like a good way to put it. I find it hard to wrap my head around this discussion, but I think I’m finally getting the gist of it. Thanks for the reply.

          2. Dennett quotes his friend Doug Hofstadter in the book I mentioned:

            “Mind is a pattern perceived by a mind. This perhaps circular, but it is neither vicious nor paradoxical.”

  26. The trouble is there isn’t a thing which free will refers to, there is more than one.

    I read the piece about the buddha in the headphones and the following jumped out at me “The offenders were forced to make a grovelling apology:”

    forced here is being used in contrast to unforced in a compatibilist sense. There is no escaping this. I’d like there to be because things would be so much simpler and I could just say there is no such thing as free will.

    Incompatibilist disbelievers agree with compatibilists entirely or almost entirely. It’s just a semantic dispute.

    I think the answer is to get past this, accept there is more than one meaning of free will and therefore neither compatibilism nor incompatibilism is correct.

    Otherwise we get this endless to and fro which is about no more than who gets to use the label free will.When what we’re really interested in is how things change if we stop believing in LFW and only believe there is an important distinction between forced and unforced, in other words, free choices like the buddha in the head phones example.

  27. The difference between compatibilism and incompatibilism is only semantics unless one is a libertarian.

    What we are all interested in (I hope) is what changes when we disbelieve in libertarian free will.

    There will be those who see a big positive difference like Sam Harris and those who see little change. Dennett see a positive change b.t.w.

  28. In a quantum universe free will is covered. AS in if you support the multi universe idea based upon all quantum functions happening in all of the one from the other, but it is free will based upon choices made. Can people choose outside of their own normal choice selection structure? Isn’t that what free will is, all choices even those you never thought of? Or is it just illusory in content. Then it just gets submerged hiding its true self.

    1. The Many Worlds Theorem, at least as popularly conceptualized, obliterates all meaning. You make all possible choices, and it’s only the anthropic principle that determines which “you” happens to carry this bit of consciousness. There’re other indistinguishable “yous” who made the other decisions, so there’s nothing special about the decision your particular you made. Not only could it have gone otherwise, it did go otherwise, and you’re just not able to look in the right direction to see how that went down.


  29. “Based on statements of some compatibilists, I realized that one reason philosophers spend so much time trying to define forms of free will compatible with determinism is because they see bad consequences of rejecting all free will. Some compatibilists think that if people realized that they don’t have the kind of free will they thought they did, the world would disintegrate: people would either lie in bed out of sheer languor and despair, or behave “immorally” because, after all, we can’t choose how to behave.”

    I think you are right about this. There is a compatibilist named Marvin Edwards who tells me that I should feel guilty for telling people they don’t have free will because it will increase crime. I think his fears are misplaced but like you I don’t care because the truth matters anyway. I would not suggest that people keep believing in anything that is false because the harm from doing so is always greater in the long term.

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