Why free-will compatibilists are like creationists

March 24, 2015 • 1:57 pm

I’m rereading Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality for purposes that will become clear later. I do like the book, but oy, does it take naturalism to its most extreme! Alex wears the label of “scientism” proudly, and in many ways I agree with him, though he does take evolutionary psychology to unsubstantiated lengths. But he’s right on the mark in his views about determinism, free will, and consciousness. All of you should read the book, though many will disagree.

But while thinking about the book at the dentist’s yesterday (you have to think of something when they’re stuffing tubes of rubber into your bored-out nerve canals and then melting the rubber with red-hot probes as acrid smoke pours from your mouth), I had this thought about compatibilists—those philosophers and intellectuals who agree that while our thoughts and actions are controlled by the laws of physics (and so we can’t really choose differently from how we do), we still have some kind of “free will.” It’s just not the type of free will that most people think we have. I’ve written about this ad infinitum, and feel that compatibilism is merely a semantic trick, and the important thing, which none of these philosophers seem to emphasize, is the determinism behind our actions and its implications for stuff like criminal justice.

But putting that aside, why do philosophers engage in the exercise of comporting physics with “free will”? I can think of only three reasons:

1. It’s just an intellectual game with no consequences for the real world or how the average person thinks.

2. It makes people feel good by assuring them that, despite the advances of neuroscience that tell us we don’t really have the ability to influence how we think, we nevertheless remain active agents in our behavior, and can really make choices that could have been otherwise. After all, that’s the way we feel!

3. It’s necessary to tell people they have some form of free will because if they think that determinism is solely behind their actions, they’ll start acting either immorally or will lose all ambition and lie abed. That, for example, is at least one motivation behind philosophers like Daniel Dennett (see my post and the video here).

I can’t see the first alternative being the case, but I think #2 is partly true, and #3 is certainly true for some compatiblists, as evidenced by their own statements.

This makes compatibilists like creationists. After all, one of the motivations—perhaps the main motivation—for creationists to keep attacking evolution is that they think the theory has inimical effects on morality. If we think we evolved from beasts, they say, we’ll act like beasts. And so evolution must be denied lest the moral fabric of our society disintegrate. You hear this over and over again from creationists and fundamentalists.

That’s how many compatibilists feel about free will. The observations, from both experiment and observation, that determinism does not make people immoral—and that incompatibilists like myself still try to behave well, and do behave well—is irrelevant.

751 thoughts on “Why free-will compatibilists are like creationists

  1. I think such people have unfairly debased conceptions of beasts, and unreasonably elevated conceptions of humans. I’ve known a number of animals that display significantly more compassion and cooperation and whatever else you care to cite than, say, your typical Republican Congressional representative.

    If I were to manage to explain to Baihu that he doesn’t have “free will” (whatever the fuck that married bachelor is supposed to be), will he stop protecting me? I don’t think so!

    b&

        1. If every republican “devolved” into penguins, we would have men on mars and the cure for cancer in five years time. Plus, a significant portion of the population would have much healthier diets! Seriously, some Omega 3 could really help with the forked brains issue.

    1. Yes, I agree about the beasts. It seems to me that the more people hold themselves apart/above other animals the more they can justify abuse of many sorts. It strikes me as somehow desperate, this need to hold people apart – from animals can’t feel pain, to they can’t communicate, to they can’t use tools, to (aaargh) they don’t have souls.

    2. Yeah, people really do think they are better than the other animals. Abrahamic religions don’t make this any easier to combat. My dog has a way better outlook on life and sense of humour than most people I know. In fact, I wish I were more like my dog!

        1. My dog isn’t like that (except for the furry part). She doesn’t take crap off people but at the same time is very friendly…until you piss her off, then she narrows her eyes and barks at you. I’ve never met a person who doesn’t like her – even people who don’t particularly like dogs, love my dog. I want the human version of that!

    3. As I read that part about “behaving like beasts” I thought, so that means they go about their lives, feeding themselves, raising their families and doing what 4 billion years of evolution designed them to do? Sounds okay to me.

  2. I’m thinking of all those people who were religious and then decided to become atheists when they were exposed to evidence of the falsehood of their religions. Was it not a choice of themselves to leave religion behind?

    Do humans have an equation for atheism in their brain that is activated when the variables in that equation are filled with a certain type of information? And if different information is put into the equation, do atheists turn out religious?

    It’s fascinating, but I’m having trouble picturing it in my mind.

    1. Because the laws of physics governing terrestrial biology are completely known and Turing-computable (ask Sean Carroll for details), it therefore follows that Church-Turing holds at least for humans…and that there exists a mathematical equivalent of any human being. That is, you might have to create a simulation down to the atomic level (though that’s guaranteed to be overkill), but you can, in principle, simulate any person on a computer. (And we’re multiple orders of magnitude away from having the technical ability to do so, it must be noted.)

      So, in a sense, yes, your speculation is correct.

      But, in reality…the complexities overwhelm it to the point that expressing it as “variables in an equation” is akin to describing the Pyramids as “piles of sand.”

      b&

          1. Funny how certain things like this stick with us forever. If only we knew that phrase would make up so many of our smart ass jokes when we heard it all those years ago!

    2. It often happens around puberty so I’ve thought there was something to brain development at that time that triggers these things.

      1. It could also be hormones. I fell in love with a girl of the pentacostal church when I was 16. We dated a lot but our differences were irreconcilable. I feared I would lose the thing that was most dear to me – my reason. But I did see other people from my class go to the pentacostal church and they’ve become members, often because they fell in love with a girl or guy from that church as well.

  3. I generally stay clear of these free will discussions, but one thing has been bothering me: the notion that punishment as a deterrence of crime makes sense from a no-free-will position. I can’t get my head around that. The very notion of deterrence presupposes that the person being deterred has some choice in the matter. What else is being deterred than bad choices?

    From the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

    deterrence: the act of making someone decide not to do something

    1. The very notion of deterrence presupposes that the person being deterred has some choice in the matter

      No, punnishment is just another input. The set of circumstances changes as inputs change.

      If someone says “try jumping off this 10 foot height and you will get $1 million” vs. If “if you jump off this 10 foot height, I will cut off your big toe”

      Different inputs, so potentially different sections made, but they are not free will (whatever that is). One’s total makeup – neurons processing of all input (physical, external, etc.) and all of your life’s history will make a selection at that moment.

    2. Hi,

      You said : “The very notion of deterrence presupposes that the person being deterred has some choice in the matter.”

      If we build a learning device in a robot (with this principle : you have to avoid everything that makes you alone) and he do x, then we punish him by puting him in a isolated room… he will learn to NOT do x next time. No free will here. Just a learning device, a deterministic one.

      But, did the “robot” had a “choice” in the beginning?

      When you say that a person has some choice in the matter, what process in the “person” are you talking about?

      You said : “one thing has been bothering me: the notion that punishment as a deterrence of crime makes sense from a no-free-will position. I can’t get my head around that.”

      It make perfect sense when you deal with learning devices (like our mind). We doesn’t need a free device (What does it mean anyway? A device free from what, exactly? Determinism?) to have concrete result.

      We are moist robots. Freedom in our devices is just weird and unecessary.

      Have a good day!

    3. Well, no. Determinism doesn’t say that choices aren’t made. It just says that the phenomenon we call “making a choice” is just as much a part of the causal web as the behaviour of an inanimate object is (though strictly speaking, it says causality is 100% predictable if you know the prior state of all the variables in the universe, as opposed to being merely probable). Free will treats choices as though they were fundamentally different from such causality, much like how dualists treat the mind as though it was fundamentally different from matter rather than, as physical monists claim, a subset of it.

      1. Without questioning your main points, I must raise a flag about your passage in parentheses. Knowing the initial conditions, even to 100% accuracy, may give you no idea at all about the outcome. There is too much non-linearity about!

        1. For the sake of brevity, I’m assuming at least determinism in principle. In principle, you could predict a non-linear system with 100% accuracy, since it’s still technically deterministic. That’s why chaos and complexity can still be studied; they have an underlying regularity and order, albeit less easy to study. In practice, though, even a simple chaotic system rapidly, perhaps exponentially becomes impractical to study the more variables are included.

          It makes little difference to the debate either way. Even if we really lived in a completely random universe, that’s a different kettle of fish from what free will is intended to convey.

          1. The logical conclusion of your argument is that if we knew the initial conditions of the universe to 100% accuracy, we could ‘in principle’ predict its current state precisely. I’m afraid I still don’t buy that.

            Agree your final para though – let’s leave it at that!

            1. The logical conclusion of your argument is that if we knew the initial conditions of the universe to 100% accuracy, we could ‘in principle’ predict its current state precisely. I’m afraid I still don’t buy that.

              Why? If you can’t predict it even in principle, that’s got nothing to do with chaos. That’s because of some degree of uncertainty, i.e. because of randomness or probability.

              1. Even in principle, there’s no such thing as calculation with infinite precision. Exponential increase in uncertainty means the actual trajectory of the system is unpredictable in all cases.

    4. Virtually no criminal act is committed as if the perpetrator is comprehending the situation as if it is exposed by some constraint of free will (or deterrence). The idea is silly.

      If someone really wants to kill someone else, for example, then regardless of free will or deterrence, that person can kill. Assuming the laws of physics are obeyed.

      1. There are crimes of passion, and there are ones that people do because they think they can probably get away with it. Are you saying the second set is virtually empty? (Embezzlement and forgery can’t be deterred? Rubbish.)

    5. At a crude level, our brain accepts input, uses beliefs (based on past inputs) and produces output (actions, new beliefs, etc). If you change the inputs, you change the beliefs and outputs. Many actions can change the (perceived) chances of getting caught and the punishments upon getting caught. Any police action, new law, media report, news show, discussion or article on law enforcement are inputs which change our beliefs and so influence our future actions.

      All seems pretty clear & obvious to me.

      Where’s the stumbling block here?

    6. the notion that punishment as a deterrence of crime makes sense from a no-free-will position.

      The fact that you no free will doesn’t mean that choices are random. It simply means you can’t consciously assess, and override a lifetimes worth inputs that go into making that decision.

    7. NewEnglandBob,

      “No, punnishment is just another input. The set of circumstances changes as inputs change.”

      This doesn’t answer the question.

      Deterrence does presuppose someone has a choice. If you say ““try jumping off this 10 foot height and you will get $1 million” it presupposes someone has a choice to either remain as they are (or do something else) OR do as you advise.

      If they do not have a choice, your recommendation would make no more sense than
      saying “try not being affected by gravity today and you will get $1 million.” This computes as a senseless recommendation because it’s impossible to do otherwise.

      As usual the “just another input” response just misses the point. The point isn’t whether any input per se can affect behavior – bad and incoherent mutterings can be input that affect other people’s behavior. We want to know if what you are recommending actually makes sense, given the other things you also claim. If you start with the claim there is “no real choice” then recommending an action – an act that presupposes choice – is incoherent.

  4. …stuffing tubes of rubber into your bored-out nerve canals and then melting the rubber with red-hot probes

    Were you have a root canal or your tires changed? I have had several root canals done and never had this procedure.

    Of the choices:

    I think many think #3 is the reason, although it is not correct. (sort of a belief in belief – even Dennett gets caught up into it).

  5. I’m not going to say whether I’m a compatibilist or not because I’m not sure any two people have the same idea of free will, but:

    First, I disagree that determinism has implications for the criminal justice system – specifically, I argue that the punishment/revenge model of justice is bad, and for exactly the same reasons, even in a world of libertarian free will.

    Second, I think our common experience suggests people’s actions are predetermined even in a physically non-deterministic universe. Even if magic wizard-angels moved our bodies around entirely separately from the causal chain, they’d still have values and preferences that would alway control and perfectly predict their behavior. The better we get to know people, the better we become at anticipating their behavior. That sounds like determinism to me, and we don’t need Newton for that.

  6. compatibilists—those philosophers and intellectuals who agree that while our thoughts and actions are controlled by the laws of physics (and so we can’t really choose differently from how we do), we still have some kind of “free will.” It’s just not the type of free will that most people think we have.

    You are never going to understand compatibilism until you recognize that it treats “free will” as a deepity. The average person lumps a lot of things into the idea of ‘free will’ — some true but trivial, others extraordinary but false. The “kind of free will most people think we have” is actually a mixed bag.

    When creationists say that if we evolved from animals then we’ll act like animals, the compatibilist position would be to agree that yes, we DO act like animals — but that doesn’t mean what they think it means.

    1. That’s a good point.

      I’ve found the the same thing by reading the reactions to a denial of free will. The family of responses that go “if not X then why B?” are incredibly instructive as to what people think a particular concept entails. In the case of free will, often the B refers to abilities of a person which any monist would agree is part of what it means to be human.

    2. Sastra, I think you are metaphorically shooting your own position in the face. You appear to be saying that the compatibilist position is either true, but trivial, or false. Heads we win, tails you lose.

      1. No, what people generally mean by free will is the deepity – compatibilism is what you get when you clear the conceptual confusion.

      2. No, it’s as kelskye says. The term “free will” has both realistic and non-realistic meanings. Compatibilism clears up the confusion.

    3. You are never going to understand compatibilism until you recognize that it treats “free will” as a deepity.

      That’s the overwhelming impression I’m getting: compatibilism treats “free will” as a deepity, which is another way of saying “as a bait-and-switch”.

      1. People treat “free will” as a deepity and Compatibilists recognize this. The bait ‘n switch is being done by the supernaturalists, who try to hitch a ride on the back of the reasonable interpretation.

        Consider this comparison:
        “Does life have any meaning if there is no God?”

        The religious answer is a swift and easy “No.” And then they frame atheism as an inherently nihilistic, depressing, and meaningless world view.

        The atheist, however, will answer “Yes … and no: it depends on what you mean.” And then we will separate the trivial idea of a life formed FOR a reason (teleology) from the more important idea of a life which has meaning because it has meaning for the people who live it.

        Has the atheist performed a bait ‘n switch?

        No, the theist has. They put two plausible readings of “life has meaning” together and tried to swap the humanist one we ALL live by for the theistic one … and pretend there’s no distinction.

  7. Just because free will is an illusion doesn’t mean that life is lessened or meaningless. Since the brain mechanisms that determine our actions are subconscious, I don’t live my life constantly thinking: “I’m doing this because I have no other choice.” Since I rarely get into a determinism mind set, I live as if I had free will. I suppose that’s how most determinists plod through life.

    1. For a reason I can’t figure out, I find the whole idea of no free will incredibly funny…in a sort of dark way. As soon as it hit me that free will is an illusion, I found that very funny. Perhaps there is something absurd about us thinking anything else and that is what I find so funny.

      1. I do believe that the many brains and nervous systems of the many earth creatures living now and hence default into the evolved state of free will thinking without the reality of free will being an illusion. That’s animals for ya.

        I’m shutting up now as to sound too ?Deepakidumb?

  8. The comparison with creationism is exactly on point with the compatibilist. And from Dennett’s argument he must believe it too. Look at the harm they do those evil scientist. We will all start acting like Monkeys if we don’t put a stop to these Atheist.

  9. Rather than guessing, you could simply ask the compatibilists (like myself) why we believe what we do. In my case, it’s because talking about people as agents capable of making decisions is the best description we have of them at the emergent level where it’s possible to talk about “people” at all. On this view, denying the existence of free will because the underlying laws are deterministic is a non sequitur, like denying the existence of temperature or pressure because we now know that fluids are made up of atoms. Not every property of the underlying level is straightforwardly reflected at the higher levels.

    1. Thanks for pointing that out, Sean. Maybe somebody will eventually get Jerry to stop misleading people (including himself) into believing that there are no serious arguments for compatibilism.

    2. Sean, would you be so kind as to clarify what you mean by the term, “free will”?

      What is the will free from? How is freedom willful?

      Personally, I contend that the term itself is incoherent, with a caveat: when people say they’re exercising their free will, they’re pointing to the mental process of evaluating a set of options by imagining the outcomes of each. It subjectively feels like Jerry’s “rewind the tape” definition, but it all happens in the mind…and it’s also pretty emphatically an entirely deterministic process and not at all what most people mean by the term.

      …which is why I don’t call the decision-making process “free will” and why I’m not worried about attempting to salvage this married bachelor for secularism.

      You’ve obviously got some definition in mind that you consider coherent for the term…but I’m also left wondering how well that definition fits the common understanding of it.

      Cheers,

      b&

      1. Hi Ben,

        What is the will free from?

        “Free will” is a construct about human interactions, and it is “free” from social constraints.

        Thus someone is not “free” if they are being coerced by a gun to the head. They are also not free if they are in jail.

        How is freedom willful?

        The freedom is “willful” if one is acting on one’s own internal (and determined) desires, rather than the social constraints of a gun to the head or being in jail.

        Now, if your reply is that the above doesn’t correspond to your notions of that “free will” is supposed to mean, then, yes, we do know that, having discussed this 200 times.

        1. Again, the phrase is used to denote entirely different concepts based on context.

          In law, it is perfectly reasonable to ask if you had a gun to your head or if you signed the document of your own free will. Or, a free will might be a promotional gimmick offered by a family practice attorney — one free will with every prenup.

          But the term as it is used by philosophers and theologians is as incoherent as “married bachelor.”

          b&

          1. But the term as it is used by philosophers and theologians is as incoherent as “married bachelor.”

            But philosophers have also been using the term in the “perfectly reasonable” compatiblist sense for hundreds if not thousands of years.

            This is the basic problem. There are two long-standing usages of the term: (1) dualist and incoherent, and (2) “perfectly reasonable” and actually fairly widespread and useful.

            The incompatibilist insists that only (1) is the “right” one, and says (rightly) that it is incoherent and doesn’t exist.

            The compatiblist entirely agrees about (1), but sees that the *other* usage is useful and more or less necessary for human social interactions, and so adopts it.

            Thus, the compatiblist with full clarity and full explicitness, rejects (1) and adopts (2).

            The incompatiblist then accuses the compatibilist of fudging the difference between (1) and (2) and of secretly hankering after (1).

            Sigh.

            1. The compatiblist entirely agrees about (1), but sees that the *other* usage is useful and more or less necessary for human social interactions, and so adopts it.

              That would be well and good, if the compatibilists didn’t essentially hijack the conversation and / or do a bait-and-switch.

              The way compatibilism comes off is that somebody raises the question of the reality of dualist free will, and then a compatibilist says that free will is, of course, real, because you didn’t have a gun to your head when you signed your mortgage papers.

              I think it might be Sastra who rightly identified that as a deepity: superficially true, deeply worng.

              If your compatibilism stems from the fact that you think it’s useful to distinguish between whether or not there was a gun to your head at closing, then you’re engaging in an entirely different discussion from the one that everybody else is having.

              b&

              1. That last claim is simply not true. When used in everyday social interactions, the compatibilist sense of the term is just as prevalent.

              2. Coel, the entire problem the compatibilists are causing is the conflation of two radically different definitions for a single word.

                A shockingly close analogy would be, “married bachelor.” In the context of logic and philosophy and what-not, it’s instantly understood that a married bachelor is a man who simultaneously has never been married and yet, incomprehensibly, also has a wife to whom he’s married.

                Yet it’s also true that there are millions of people who hold undergraduate degrees and who are therefore bachelors…and who are also married.

                You incompatibilists are saying that the only type of bachelorhood worth wanting is that which is granted by a degree from an institution, so what’s the fuss about identifying all those wedded graduates as married bachelors?

                I think you’d agree with me that that’s a bait-and-switch that would cause absolutely nothing but chaos and confusion.

                And…you would also seem to agree with me that the philosophical / theological incoherent conception of “free will” is as radically different from the legal term, “of one’s own free will” as a married bachelor is from a coupled diplomate.

                Where we part ways is that you still think it’s a good idea to keep muddying the waters by harping on gun-to-the-head legal definitions when the rest of us are discussing philosophical ghosts in the machine.

                b&

              3. So the conflation is all the compatibilists fault then? 🙂

                Trouble is, both usages have a very long history.

                That’s because both usages of the term originated as *interpretations* of human experience. We experience “will”, we experience making “choices”, we experience feelings of “freedom” versus social coercion (the famous gun to the head).

                So how do we interpret those things? The compatibilist explains them as arising in a deterministic brain world.

                The in-compatiblists still haven’t really sorted out what language they actually want to use about social interactions. When they do they’ll find compatibilist language available and convenient. 🙂

              4. Trouble is, both usages have a very long history.

                Yes, both usages have a very long history.

                But there’s never any confusion about which definition is applicable to which context until you get a compatibilist muddying the waters.

                It’s the same for all sorts of words. “Black” is a color, a race (such as “race” exists), a social construct, a not-uncommon last name, and a financial term for positive numbers. If I start talking about the perils of “driving while Black” in America and you tell me that there’s no problem because you keep a black ink pen in your glove box, I’d think you’d gone crazy.

                b&

              5. Sorry, I just don’t think it’s the case that the compatibilists’ “free will” is nothing more than the lawyers’. If it is, then I don’t think they (including Daniel and Sean) have described their position very well…

                /@

              6. Sean’s reply in this thread makes it pretty clear that he’s not thinking of a legalistic “of one’s own free will” but something roughly congruent with the popular notion of a ghost in the machine that’s an emergent property of the underlying physics.

                How rough or smooth the congruency I’d love for Sean to clarify, but I’m pretty sure that’s the direction he’s headed in rather than questions about loan points and termite inspections.

                b&

              7. Yes, Ben. It seems like a Motte and Bailey tactic. They say, “yes, free will is real and true and people have it,” but when contested they say, “free will just means you don’t have a gun to your head…you don’t have a gun to your head, do you? Then you have free will!” It’s hard to argue with that, but it’s a dishonest tactic.

              8. » Ben Goren:
                That would be well and good, if the compatibilists didn’t essentially hijack the conversation

                *LOL* I think we have to give it to you, Ben, that is just the perfect troll. Superbly done!

              9. <sigh />

                Do you have any idea just how easy it is to make that type of typo in a context such as this, especially given that neither word is in my spellcheck and always gets highlighted squiggly red?

                Call it a Freudian slip if it makes you happy, but I stand by what I clearly meant to type as opposed to the motions my fingers went through.

                b&

              10. How easy it is? But, Ben, you had no choice but to mistype it?

                (Depending on your OS, try the “Learn spelling” or “Add to dictionary” option from the contextual menu.)

                /@

              11. “Add to dictionary” only works for the device you’re using at the moment. As such, I abandoned it as a useless waste of time about five minutes after I first discovered the feature.

                b&

              12. I may be paranoid, but I avoid all things cloudy. The closest I come to that sort of thing is the Mac mini server I have in the closet that holds all my mail, contacts, calendars, that sort of thing. I don’t even use dictation or ask Siri for anything more significant than arithmetic or the woodchucking abilities of woodchucks.

                b&

              13. What typo, Ben? As far as I can see, what I quoted is exactly in line with what you have been saying all along. Or did you in fact want to concede that it is incompatibilists who are hijacking the conversation? That, I would have to confess, would be an interesting turn of events. 🙂

        2. So if I throw a rock at x but my friend is throwing a rock at my rock, then my rock is not free. It’s being coerce by another rock.

          But normaly, my rock is a free rock when it is controlled by me.

          But, at bottom, the rock is ALWAYS coerce by things (me throwing it or when the rock hits another rock).

          In other words, my mind is always coerce by things, social, environnemental or else. When you talk about our mind being free, you are NOT talking about a capacity of our mind – choosing without being coerce – but a context.

          Being free from this social context (a gun, a prison).

          So basically, you’re changing the subject, which is okay.

          But know that you are not really talking about the freedom of the will. “Freedom of the mind” is a metaphor for “x is not being constraint by social or environnemental contexts”.

          You are talking about context, not about the mind. So we should say : were you in a context free from constraints?

          1. But normaly, my rock is a free rock when it is controlled by me.

            Nope, compatibilist “free will” is a concept about human social interactions and doesn’t apply to rocks. You don’t blame a rock for falling under gravity and hitting you; you do blame a human for hitting you.

            Want to figure out the difference there? Note that both cases are deterministic.

            So basically, you’re changing the subject, which is okay.

            Nope, we compatibilists do know that compatibilist free will is a very different thing for dualist free will. Which one of them do *you* want to talk about? We *agree* with you on dualist free will.

            But know that you are not really talking about the freedom of the will.

            We do know that we’re not talking about dualist libertarian free will! We really, really do know that!

            But we *are* talking about the only sort of freedom that actually exists. You can regard that as a metaphor if you wish.

            So we should say : were you in a context free from constraints?

            Fine, say that. (And note that you used the word “free”!) But it so happens that in English that concept is usually expressed by the phrase “did you sign the contract of your own free will?”.

            1. Thanks for this response!

              You said: “You don’t blame a rock for falling under gravity and hitting you; you do blame a human for hitting you.”

              Because humans have many learning devices inside them and rock doesn’t. Okay. So responsability is a social construct made by our learning devices. Okay.

              But to say that we have a free will is to explicitly say that our will is free from things (whatever these are). But our mind is – as you agree – never free from anything. That’s the context in which our mind is that matter.

              And you are changing the subject (even if it’s only slightly), because people are talking about a capacity of the mind, not a metaphorical potential in some context (which is just abstract talking).

              I do appreciate your way of speaking, it’s clear and it seems valid. But I see no reason to use the terms “free will” without adding some confusion to a discussion… I hope you do agree on this point 😛 haha

              And about the english phrase “did you sign the contract of your own free will”, I couldn’t care less (I do not mean to be rude here, sorry), it’s a social use of a word to describe a context, not a capacity.

              In the future, I have hopes that this will change.

              have a good day!

              1. “But to say that we have a free will is to explicitly say that our will is free from things …”

                No it is not! Not when you use the term in the *compatibilist* sense!

                “And you are changing the subject … because people are talking …”

                That’s just such typical incompatibilism! Blithely insisting that the term “free will” can only mean one thing while being entirely oblivious to the long-standing and prevalent usage in the *compatibilist* sense.

              2. » Coel:
                Blithely insisting that the term “free will” can only mean one thing

                Which is just like what the fundamentalists do, funnily enough.

              3. That’s just such typical incompatibilism! Blithely insisting that the term “free will” can only mean one thing while being entirely oblivious to the long-standing and prevalent usage in the *compatibilist* sense.

                Yes, because when I talk about bridge in the context of suspension cables and iron girders, I’m blithely insisting that the term can only mean one thing while being entirely oblivious to the existence of the card game.

                Look, if you don’t think human choosing is done by ghost in the machine, and that this can’t be reconciled with the determinism or indeterminism of the world, then you’re an incompatibilist. If you insist that you’re compatibilist because of a legal definition that involves finding out whether or not someone had a gun pointed at their head, then you’re baiting and switching.

      2. I think Sean means something like:

        Free will is the capacity of people to make decisions.

        The decisions are still determined, like temperature arises from the motion of atoms.

        1. The problem with that is that the decision that people make are no different in principle with the decision that computers (or thermostats) make, and “free will” is explicitly formulated so as to distinguish itself from such.

          Ask “the man on the street” if a thermostat has free will, and he’ll think you’re pulling his leg with a question so absurd. And, yet, from the perspective of physics, the choices the thermostat makes are no different from what the man on the street does when he gets home and decides to twist the dial on the thermostat.

          b&

    3. A problem with that is that the term “free will” has a long history of a very clear “ghost/soul in the machine” meaning. And that’s the meaning most people hear when you say there is such a thing as free will

      You could pretty much have used the same argument as above to keep using “phlogiston”, back when.

      Sure, you may well need a term to speak about that, but it’d probably better to coin *another*, anything, that does not come with that baggage.

      1. A problem with that is that the term “free will” has a long history of a very clear “ghost/soul in the machine” meaning.

        The history of the compatiblist meaning is also very long.

        And that’s the meaning most people hear when you say there is such a thing as free will.

        No, the evidence is that most people have a confused mixture of the two concepts.

        1. > No, the evidence is that most people have a confused mixture of the two concepts.

          Even provisionally granting that it were so, the point of clinging to a word that evokes “a confused mixture of the two concepts” — in favour of coining a new “blank slate” word if needed — eludes me still.

          And I do not grant this, as I don’t see how the very large percentage of, say, USA residents who believe in the survival of the soul after death (eg. 71%, 2009 Harris online poll) could possibly have “emergent property of inherently deterministic system (with possible stochastic components)” as one of the ingredients of that confused mixture. Souls and that don’t *mix*.

    4. In my case, it’s because talking about people as agents capable of making decisions is the best description we have of them at the emergent level where it’s possible to talk about “people” at all.

      Are you under the impression that incompatibilists don’t believe that children pick their favourite ice cream? Because my response is exactly the same as the one to Coel below: you’re confusing phenomenon with explanation. And which do you really think the debate over free will is about, if you think about it?

      We’re not denying that people make decisions based on what they believe or what they want. In your analogy, we’re not denying the existence of temperature or pressure, since the debate was never about the existence of either. We’re pointing out that the explanation for said phenomena is in the same ball-park as an explanation for other phenomena of causality, such as how weather behaves and why animals seek out mates. We ARE pointing out that temperature and pressure don’t work because of some fundamental substance like phlogiston, but because of how atoms behave in a fluid, such that temperature and pressure are in the same ball park as chairs and galaxies.

      And that’s a big deal, because when it comes to human minds in particular, it is incredibly, intuitively, seductively easy for people to start thinking like dualists and human exceptionalists. That’s in complete defiance of the science, and it’s an insidious, even unconsciously operating misconception that’s easily compartmentalized, leading to contradictions between the scientific view and popular policy. Even framing it as an emergent property should require an onus on exactly how it emerges from atoms, neurons, and physical things, because otherwise it lends itself well to the sort of mindset that would translate that as “and then a miracle happens”.

      1. And which do you really think the debate over free will is about, if you think about it?

        Which debate? There are two debates.

        The debate between dualists and determinists is over whether decisions result from the prior physical state of the system. All of us here (I take it) say yes.

        The debate between the compatibilists and the incompatabilists is mostly semantics.

        The compatbilists consider it useful to regard children and cats and chess-playing computers as agents that make choices, so say things like “choosing an ice cream flavour”, as a shorthand for all the low-level deterministic gubbins.

        The incompatiblists are so spooked by the prospect of dualism that they reject that usage — except that they don’t if you catch them in everyday conversation.

        1. Which debate? There are two debates.

          There are indeed two debates, and one is indeed a debate that involves dualism on one side, but I think you don’t characterize it accurately.

          The first one, which you characterize as between “dualists” and “determinists”, is the classic one between free will and determinism, which is generally one of human exceptionalism. Crudely put, it’s “Are humans fundamentally endowed with some mysterious faculty that makes decisions, or are we simply different from clockwork only in degree rather than kind?” That’s the puzzler the likes of Descartes and religious believers have wrestled with, and it’s the one where the axes are drawn: free will or not, and compatible with determinism or not? On that front, it should be clear that compatibilism doesn’t make sense (if you agree determinism is true, it’s contradictory to also say there’s a mysterious faculty called free will there too).

          And the science is decisive here: We differ in clockwork only in degree rather than kind, i.e. no free will, and the question is merely whether the causality involved can be predicted with 100% accuracy in principle (determinism) or involves probability and random chance (indeterminism). But that’s another, more interesting debate in itself.

          The second one is a question of semantics; is it fine to use a word when we can be confident we mean nothing spooky, or is it best to avoid the spooky connotations like the plague? That’s fine, and it’s a legitimate point about word use and its consequences. But it’s simply not the compatibilist-incompatibilist debate, and it’s wrong to confuse the two.

          1. Crudely put, it’s “Are humans fundamentally endowed with some mysterious faculty that makes decisions, or are we simply different from clockwork only in degree rather than kind?”

            No, we’re endowed with a *non*-mysterious faculty that makes decisions. It’s a neural network brain, and it makes decisions in the same way that a chess-playing computer makes decisions about which move to make — namely, deterministically.

            Or are you really going to drop the word “decision” from the language along with “choice” and dozens of others?

            1. No, we’re endowed with a *non*-mysterious faculty that makes decisions. It’s a neural network brain, and it makes decisions in the same way that a chess-playing computer makes decisions about which move to make — namely, deterministically.

              This is another example of where compatibilism gets you into hot water.

              I would absolutely agree that the decisions humans make when playing chess are, in principle, no different from the decisions computers make. Indeed, computers beat the snot out of humans at the game, so one must conclude that computers make better decisions than humans do.

              But…it’s an incredible stretch in any sense of the term to describe a chess computer as having free will.

              For the dualists, the rejection is outright, with a chess computer being an archetypal example of an entity that doesn’t have free will.

              And, here’s the problem.

              Would you say that a chess computer could sign a mortgage of its own free will?

              Or would you admit that the concept of “of its own free will” is incoherent when applied to an iPhone?

              So…why, again, is it in any why useful to conflate the social / legal term, “of one’s own free will,” with the philosophical / theological term, “free will”?

              b&

              1. “Would you say that a chess computer could sign a mortgage of its own free will?”

                No, because the chess computer doesn’t know about mortgages.

                But, I would be happy enough to say that if the computer took a pawn with its knight because it was the only legal move to get out of check, then it was “coerced” or “forced”, whereas if it did the same move as a positional sacrifice then it did so “of its own free will”.

                Now, if that usage sounds strange, then it’s because the chess computer is vastly more limited and simpler than a human. But, it’s the same principle as “gun to the head”, and any such concept properly exists on continuum, rather than being binary, so I’d accept that usage — it’s all about the range of options and pressures determining the choice.

                “Or would you admit that the concept of “of its own free will” is incoherent when applied to an iPhone?”

                iPhones don’t have goals, as chess-computers do. So, no, I would not apply the term “will” to it. Now, I might accept the term about an app, depending on what it was programmed to do.

                “So…why, again, is it in any why useful to conflate the social / legal term, “of one’s own free will,” with the philosophical / theological term, “free will”? ”

                I don’t find it helpful! I wish the dualistic, theological sense would disappear. But, the starting point is human experience. We experience desires, “will”, goals, and we make “choices” and “decisions” (ones determined by our physical brains). We also have constraints on whether we act on our desires.

                We need a language to discuss all of that. What language would you suggest using? De facto it’ll end up compatibilist.

              2. But, I would be happy enough to say that if the computer took a pawn with its knight because it was the only legal move to get out of check, then it was “coerced” or “forced”, whereas if it did the same move as a positional sacrifice then it did so “of its own free will”.

                I’m sorry, but the only context in which that can make sense is the dualist ghost-in-the-machine one.

                In all instances, the chess computer is, logically, using the language of Turing Machines, applying its input to its table and writing the results to its output. Different inputs will result in different outputs depending on the table.

                For the opening move, there’re…what, 20 possibilities? And the move the computer actually chooses is based on its input as determined by its table. In other situations, there are fewer possibilities, with your “force” being an example where there was only a single possibility.

                You would have us believe that free will exists from the opening move through to situations where only two options remain, with free will vanishing in a puff of smoke the moment it’s reduced to a single option. Yet, at no point is the computer ever doing anything other than processing its input through its table to its output.

                Such a distinction can only meaningfully arise if you think that the computer can ignore its input and table when there are two or more options available to it…which is pure dualism.

                b&

              3. Your analysis could just as well be applied to a person who is signing a contract “of his own free will” as opposed to having a gun held to his head.

                Everything you said about the Turing machine can apply equally to that human. Yet, you’ve accepted the “of his own free will” usage in that context.

                So why not accept it about a chess computer making a piece sacrifice, as opposed to making the only legal move to avoid check?

              4. Everything you said about the Turing machine can apply equally to that human. Yet, you’ve accepted the “of his own free will” usage in that context.

                That’s the heart of the matter, isn’t it?

                In the legal profession, the phrase, “of one’s own free will” has a very particularly defined definition relating to the social interactions of humans. It’s a term of art that only applies within the context of the legal profession.

                As is common, there’s a parallel common definition of the term that’s too lose for the courts, but the fit is close enough that a lay person isn’t going to be able to tell the difference. It’s this informal formulation of the legal term you’re referring to for your compatibilist definition.

                There is an entirely different and perfectly unrelated phrase, “free will.” It is a theological and philosophical concept regarding the forces of nature and supernature that drive individual desires, with interaction with other humans being an insignificant and typically irrelevant factor. It’s this term that the rest of the world understands is being used when the preface, “of one’s own,” is left off.

                Because the one is utterly dependent on human interaction and the other ignores or discards human interaction, you just simply can’t conflate the two the way you insist on doing.

                Again, “Black” as it relates to human society can’t be conflated with “black” as a financial term regarding positive cash flow. Certain parings of words with “black” would be just fine in the one context and incoherent or downright rude in the other context.

                So why on Earth are you so eager to adapt the usage in one context to another diametrically opposed context?

                b&

              5. One Ben’s side, there is a very distinct difference between a compatibilist “free will” and a legal “(of your own) free will”.

                If you sign at gun point, that’s not “free will” in a legal sense. Yet, you still have “free will” in a compatibilist sense: You can decide not to sign and get shot (depending on what it is you’d be signing, you might believe that it’s worth dying; I’m sure we can all think of examples of this) or maybe you have good reasons to think that the gunman might not actually pull the trigger. &c. &c.

                So even in the legal “no(t of your own) free will” scenario, you still have the capacity to chose.

                /@

            2. No, we’re endowed with a *non*-mysterious faculty that makes decisions.

              Then stop calling yourself a compatibilist! You do not believe in free will – and don’t give me the “what definition” response, you know full well what I mean. You do not believe in mind-body dualism. You do not want to be confused with someone who thinks human decision-making is somehow something more than or fundamentally different from animal cognition or a complex physics system. You do not believe in the ghost in the machine. You are clearly an incompatibilist in the determinist or indeterminist camp, and – more to the point – not in the free will camp. The classic, dualist free will camp, I will emphasize, which is the one that matters. As far as the classic, popular, readily recognized debate between free will and determinism is concerned, you are in the same camp as I am. Yet you persist in acting like “indeterminist” is a diss-word applied to semantic pedants.

              I don’t, when you get down to it, give a damn whether you want to defy the dualist connotations of the word free will or not, so long as you’re clear about doing so. If doing so doesn’t make it harder for people to distinguish the two meanings, then why not? But in practice, you jump from saying yes, you’re in my camp to insisting on making cheap cracks about dropping “decision” or “choice” from the language, as if the prior discussion had never occurred! What am I supposed to conclude, except that you’re either not getting it or deliberately muddying the waters?

              1. You’re right, like all compatibilists I reject dualism and embrace determinism. And yes, that means rejecting dualistic free will.

                Now, what language do you want to use for the “choices” and “decisions” that we make as “agents” in order to advance our “goals” and “desires”?

                How about the words “control”, “attempt”, “option”, “plan”, “threaten”, “test”, “compel”, “consider”, “coerce”? Do you want to reject all of those from the language as well, or do you want, de facto, to adopt compatibilism?

              2. I don’t think anybody here would deny that our language is infused with dualism…any more than we’d also acknowledge that our language is infused with theology.

                But, really. All you’re doing is playing the same game that Christians use to attempt to convince atheists that we really do believe because we write “2015” on our checks in acknowledgement that it’s been two thousand fifteen years since the Holy Ghost got horny with Mary.

                So?

                Today is also Tuesday, Tyr’s day, the god of single combat.

                b&

              3. You’re right, like all compatibilists I reject dualism and embrace determinism. And yes, that means rejecting dualistic free will.

                Then call yourself an incompatibilist, for goodness’ sake. It’s not a dirty word, and you’ll have fewer clashes here.

                Look, if fair play will make you less squeamish, I’ll go first:

                No, I do not want to junk words like “choice”, “decision”, “agent”, “goal”, “desire”, “control”, “attempt”, “option”, “plan”, “threaten”, “test”, “compel”, “consider”, and “coerce”. If it means people actually accept monism, determinism, and all that, then I won’t have a cow over word use. I will be watching if I think someone’s trying to inject some dualistic human exceptionalism in there, but I’m not going to kill over it.

                Yes, in your narrowly defined and totally unsatisfactory complete redefinition of the badly misused word, I am thus technically a so-called alleged “compatibilist”. I do not agree with this use at all and still think it’s a needless cause for confusion, but temporarily taking this provisional alternative definition, I won’t object too much.

              4. » reasonshark:
                You do not believe in mind-body dualism

                Which is about as effective as saying to a post-Einstein physicist: ‘Stop saying you believe in gravity. After all, you don’t believe in occult forces.’ That is just as irrelevant to the discussion as to insist (without a shred of evidence, in your case) that the majority of people believe in the occult-forces version, or in your case: dualist free will. What if they did? As if that by itself were any kind of obvious argument.

                The classic, dualist free will camp, I will emphasize, which is the one that matters.

                Which you keep insisting you can just unilaterally dictate. From what I gather from some of the other compatibilists’ responses here, that is an authoritarian (and basically anti-intellectual) attitude that quite a few people here resent. Strongly.

        2. The term, “choose,” is, indeed, problematic in this context.

          It would be much more precise to substitute, “compute,” in its place.

          Once you have that established, with all it connotes, it may be convenient to informally use “choose” as a synonym for “compute,” but such usage should be careful as to avoid the dualistic implications of “choice.”

          b&

          1. “Once you have that established, with all it connotes, it may be convenient to informally use “choose” as a synonym for “compute,” …”

            And the compatibilists are just further down that path than the incompatibilists. That’s the only difference.

            1. How is what you are saying any different than because “it appears as though we act as if we had free will, then we have free will?”

      2. » reasonshark:
        Are you under the impression that incompatibilists don’t believe that children pick their favourite ice cream? Because my response is exactly the same as the one to Coel below: you’re confusing phenomenon with explanation.

        Apparently, you are confused about the goal of that particular attack of yours. Jerry has indeed said over and over again (for another link, see below) that he regards choice as an illusion, as only apparent, as “choice” only to be used with scare quotes.

        For you to charge the compatibilists here with confusing phenomenon and explanation is quite funny…

    5. “talking about people as agents capable of making decisions is the best description we have of them at the emergent level where it’s possible to talk about “people” at all.”

      Except when talking about people with particular kinds of brain injuries/tumors or particular hereditary deviations in brain physiology. Also when talking about people unkowingly under the influence of particular kinds of externally administered chemicals, or externally administered ideologies.

      1. I’m afraid I posted this on the wrong thread. These long threads get confusing. I meant it to be in reply to Sean Carroll’s comment. My bad.

    6. “Not every property of the underlying level is straightforwardly reflected at the higher levels.”

      Please name one case where it isn’t so.
      A billion nitrogen atom in a vessel has a certain pressure. Where does some of the pressure ‘go’ when atoms moved further away from each other, as in a bigger vessel? Thus the non-existenceness of pressure as an independent entity unto itself; it is always dependent on the properties of it’s constituent.

  10. I think a chunk of it is a difficulty to connect the explicit belief – that humans differ from inanimate objects and even animals by degree rather than kind – with something (the concept of free will) that compels intuition but is very slippery when actually examined. We’re still struggling to grasp how nerve impulses translate into seeing the colour blue, never mind the really heady stuff like thinking about politics or philosophy.

    For instance, there’s a disconnect between the crisp logic of deterrence – which a scientist can lay out and extrapolate from – and the full-blooded, often uncontrollable thirst for revenge which people immediately make sense of without being able to see very deeply into the reasoning behind it. There’s another example in moral dumbfounding; people strongly and immediately say yea or nay when asked to judge the morality of an action, but can barely piece together a rationale behind said judgement when asked. A third example is taboo: some people are simply too outraged at being asked about them to ever stop and think if they make sense.

    The result is a black box mentality. We talk cheerfully about “us” having “choices”, but hardly ever ask what those words even mean. They are black box concepts, and all the more suspect for it because they’re taken for granted, they are intuitive, they were put there to follow darwinian logic rather than make people happy or virtuous or intelligent, people resist or even demonize trying to analyze them, and they are sloppily compartmentalized from what an explicitly described scientific body of facts would imply.

  11. It seems to me that there is a bit of ‘fighting the pendulum swinging too far the other way’ to compatibilism.

    I’m very much a physicalist and argue often against libertarian free will, but there is this problem when talking to people who have magical explanations for their behavior, in that they think that the only option aside from LFW magic is being a puppet on a string.

    A realistic picture of things is that our behavior is determined by a combination of factors, some of which are internal to us (memories/knowledge, constellations of cognitive strengths and weaknesses, aesthetic preferences, etc.) as well as factors outside ourselves.

    It seems to me that at least some compatibilism is an attempt to prevent the pendulum from swinging from one unrealistic extreme to another unrealistic extreme.

    Anyway, some half-baked food for thought.

    1. Here is the problem with the swing too far worry: Most everyone understands that computers process things and then makes decisions. And most people understand that the brains of individuals process complex problems or engage in complex, individualistic programs. That is, the idea that it is somehow god manipulating every decision and body part, or the idea that some evil genius has wound us up just right to make the choices we do, is rather absurd. When people like Harris talk about “puppets,” it is quite clear (and as he spells it out) the kind of complex (deterministic) processing that he thinks people/brains are.

      The idea that we should be worried about the general public falling into Oedipus-like fatalistic beliefs is rather absurd, even if they do often show up in comment sections. Such an idea is easily dismissed even if some kind of fatalism/determinism is true in the end.

  12. Lately I’ve been watching a bunch of physics talks on YouTube. There’s a ton of good stuff, from top physicists. One of the most interesting is Lee Smoling, author of “The Trouble With Physics”, in which he argues that string theory is a mathematical mirage which is untestable, and that it’s popularity among physicists is a symptom of the intellectual stagnation of physics.

    Smolin has some interesting talks on his theory of “time reborn”. I am by no means qualified to articulate his theory, so I’ll leave readers the link to his talk, but basically he’s arguing that the laws of nature must have evolved over time, and that the inexplicable features of nature (the fundamental particles, the various constants etc) have arrived at their values by some process of cosmological evolution which he has theories about.

    His views are absolutely fascinating, and listening to him talk is wonderful, because he has a hypnotic way of speaking. I’m no physicist, but one thing that makes me skeptical of is theory is the way that he ends up talking at certain points (around the 1:00 mark in this video) in a way that seems to me to indicate that his theory is motivated by a desire to find a source of free will in physics. “What does this mean for us? The future is open and yet to be made. We can choose to influence the future” etc.

    He waxes on like this and mentions free will in other videos, generally speaking in a way that has a quasi-theological manner. I suppose his theory (which he claims is testable) could be true regardless of his views on free will. It’s interesting to me that sometimes cosmologists who are total atheists will sometimes employ the language of physics to wax one about the universe that sounds quasi-theological manner. The Universe is a gnosis upon which many dreams can be projected.

    Smolin’s lecture here:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ATxi0_-7HqQ

    1. At 1:34 in the second video, he makes it clear that his cosmology is motivated by a desire to find free will in physics :

      “I’ve come to the view that we must live in a universe where laws of nature evolve and time is real, to permit human beings to have the kind of agency that we imagine we need, if we’re going to address the problems that we face.”

      It doesn’t get much clearer than that.

      1. Except that “agency” is not exactly equivalent to (any of a number of definitions of) “free will”.

        In any case, trying to deny that agency can arise out of “conventional” deterministic physics (implicitly, by seeking a new physics) seems akin to denying that crude tools can be used to construct more precise tools.

        /@

        1. If we assume that agency comes with the territory of consciousness — a not unreasonable assumption, I would suggest — then we can assume that, once consciousness is solved, so is agency.

          And we know that physics has, at a very rough level, solved consciousness. Whatever it is, we know for an absolute fact that it’s a phenomenon grounded in the electrochemical workings of human (at least) brains. We might well be a loooooooooooong way from understanding the chemistry of the logic circuits and what-not, but we already know that we don’t have to invent any new physics to explain it.

          b&

    2. Well, this is interesting and i may find time to listen to more.
      What immediately startles me is that he looks almost exactly like me but with a bit more hair, a different nose, and a different voice. Otherwise, it is like seeing myself.

  13. How far down does determinism go? Yesterday I drove the old car so my husband could have the new one. Today I decided to have a cookie with lunch (despite knowing all the reasons I shouldn’t). Just now I was chewing on a fingernail. Are all of these decisions, from the potentially consequential to the tiny, the immutable result of the condition of my brain at a given moment? Do I have the power to decide freely which blog to read, or when to scratch my ear?

    1. Well, yes. But then you’d have to explain how you can choose these things, but not choose to do an impossible feat, such as rolling a huge ass rock up a hill, that should be way too heavy for you to even move an inch.

      In your brain, you’ve got a galaxy full of neurons that behave just like that rock.

      1. the only difference, is that the unable to move the rock thing, is so much more apparent, since we can see and feel how heavy the rock is, and we can see the pusher’s puny muscles.

  14. If I understand your conception of free will and determinism correctly (feel free to tell me I’ve misunderstood), you continue to be a decent play-by-the-rules sort of person because of all the prior circumstances of your life over which you had no control, e.g., genetic potential, nutrition, parental supervision, education and training, social experiences, and on and on. A hypothetical disappointed compatibilist might respond differently, deciding (for want of a better term, but not in the sense that there was any free choice in the matter) that, in the absence of free will, the ends justify the means. He/she is constrained only by the formal legal system and law enforcement (each of which might be successfully manipulated and modified to serve the compatibilist’s ends (the ends weren’t freely chosen either)), and possibly also by the compatibilist’s social experiences, including the approval or disapproval of others. Of course, this is the system under which we already live, it’s just that some of us realize it and others don’t. Right? Also, given my past life and the current state of my brain and other circumstances, I found your latest free will entry so provocative that I had no choice but to send you this question.

  15. Let me briefly point out a couple of unfortunate shortcomings in your arguments:

    It’s just not the type of free will that most people think we have.

    I don’t think you have ever even acknowledged that such a claim calls for evidence that could possibly test it. Instead you uncritically take it for granted. As a scientist, that should worry you.

    If somebody said, ‘The idea of individual life forms being descended in an unbroken line from completely different ancestors is just not how most people think about species’, you would rightly laugh them off as being ignorant. The idea that there may only ever be one unchanging definition of a technical terms is laughable—as, incidentally, is the idea that what most people think should ipso facto be taken for granted.

    I…feel that compatibilism is merely a semantic trick

    And if people said, ‘I feel that the biological species concept is merely a semantic trick’, you would ridicule them twice—first for assuming that what they “feel” is of any consequence whatsoever* and second for refusing to seriously try to understand the issue.

    * Cf. Carl Sagan: “I try not to think with my gut. If I’m serious about understanding the world, thinking with anything besides my brain, as tempting as that might be, is likely to get me into trouble.”

    The important thing, which none of these philosophers seem to emphasize, is the determinism behind our actions and its implications for stuff like criminal justice.

    That, too, is simply ignorant of the issues. Neither is compatibilism a sufficient reason for supporting retributive justice, nor is incompatibilism a necessary reason to think retributive justice wrong.

    1. If somebody said, ‘The idea of individual life forms being descended in an unbroken line from completely different ancestors is just not how most people think about species’, you would rightly laugh them off as being ignorant.

      I don’t know, Peter. I think that most people actually don’t think about species in that way. If at all. 😉

      In any case, isn’t this a tu quoque? I think I’d rather see you put Jerry straight, rather than deriding him with faulty analogies. 😁

      /@

      1. » Ant:
        I think that most people actually don’t think about species in that way.

        Uh, yeah, that’s exactly my point. And the fact that most people have a mistaken idea of ‘species’ is completely irrelevant for the question of how we should use it.

        I think I’d rather see you put Jerry straight, rather than deriding him with faulty analogies.

        As I said, I don’t think it’s faulty. Most people have a notion of species as something fixed. Using that fact to argue that the biological species concept shouldn’t be used would be ludicrous. And Jerry’s argument is of that exact form. I think pointing that out is not to deride but to offer constructive criticism of a simple mistake in thinking, i.e. putting Jerry straight about his argument.

  16. I can think of only three reasons:

    There is a fourth possible reason: that they think that compatibilist free-will language is a useful way of thinking about the world.

    Thus, we do need to distinguish between the goal-oriented choice-selection behaviour of, say, a cat, compared to things like house bricks.

    Thus anti-free-will anti-compatibilists, when they’ve finally get round to deciding what language and concepts they do want to use, rather than just talking about those they don’t want to use, would have to invent compatibilist language to use in the social interactions of everyday life.

    Or do the incompatiblists never say to a child, something like: “Would you like an ice-cream, you can choose which flavour?”?

    1. You’re confusing phenomenon with explanation.

      Incompatibilist determinism isn’t denying the mundane fact that people choose what flavour ice cream they’d like, nor even people’s beliefs and desires which inform said choices (the phenomenon), regardless of your strawman portrayal. Heck, the whole free will debate doesn’t make sense if you think it’s somehow a quibble over such phenomena. Your jibe is inane at best.

      Incompatibilist determinism emphasizes that such things don’t work because of some magic, or because the act of choosing is somehow fundamentally different from causality, or because an inscrutable We can Make Choices (explanation). As an explanation, compatibilism just restates the phenomenon, which is the hallmark of a poor explanation. Incompatibilist determinism is no more radical than pointing out that the mind is a subset of physical matter rather than an ontologically separate category in and of itself.

      As soon as you admit that the phenomenon of decision-making is explained with physical things from the molecules in a neuron to the webs of information across societies through time (from physics up to social science), then you’re either an incompatibilist determinist or a “pessimistic” incompatibilist. It’s not even necessarily distancing oneself from a religious ghost in the machine: you can find secular thinkers who think free will is one of those things that somehow sets us apart from other animals. That’s the sort of distinction that needs a razor-sharp application of accuracy, and a confusion of phenomenon and explanation is not going to help.

      1. As soon as you admit that the phenomenon of decision-making is explained with physical things from the molecules in a neuron to the webs of information across societies through time (from physics up to social science), then you’re either an incompatibilist determinist or a “pessimistic” incompatibilist.

        That’s simply wrong, the compatibilist agrees with you 100% on that explanation! Compatibilism entails at wholehearted, 100% embrace of determinism.

        1. If compatibilism agrees with a deterministic account for the explanation, then what is it agreeing to when it comes to free will? That people make choices (phenomenon)? In which case, why the switch? If you don’t agree with people who explain the ability to make decisions by invoking some mysterious faculty called free will, then why do you not call yourself an incompatibilist determinist? And if you agree that there’s something called free will – or making choices without having a gun pointed at your head, or whatever – what do you think the incompatibilist determinists are denying there? That the phenomenon somehow doesn’t exist?

          Either way, it seems to me to be a confusion, possibly an outright contradiction.

          1. Compatibilists simply consider that regarding complex decision-making neural-networks as “agents” making “choices” is a useful way of thinking about the world, one we use every day in social interactions.

            what do you think the incompatibilist determinists are denying there?

            I think they’re denying my last sentence. Except that they then do it themselves in every day life.

            Basically they’re inconsistent, or they’re too busy fighting dualists that they haven’t noticed that the discussion with compatibilists is a totally different thing.

            1. Compatibilists simply consider that regarding complex decision-making neural-networks as “agents” making “choices” is a useful way of thinking about the world, one we use every day in social interactions.

              I don’t have a problem if people want to talk about how they followed their hearts, so long as I’m assured they don’t literally think that the pumping organ in the thorax is where emotions manifest themselves.

              Again, you keep using the word “compatibilist” in the wrong context. I will admit I don’t like using the word “free will” because I think it’s seeped too deeply in its dualist sense, but that’s not why I’m an incompatibilist. I’m an incompatibilist because I align myself with the view that you can’t reconcile free will – the mysterious dualist faculty – with determinism (or indeterminism, come to that), without incurring either contradiction or having to play with the words, whether innocently or with intent to deceive and misdirect. That in turn comes out of the classic debate on free will (dualist free will, if you insist), which I think is an incoherent and nonsensical position.

              1. “… I align myself with the view that you can’t reconcile free will – the mysterious dualist faculty – with determinism …”

                Well sure, of course not. The compatibilists agree with you 100% there.

              2. Er, no they don’t. The “compatibilists”, if they agree with me, are incompatibilists. They call themselves compatibilists erroneously, under the mistaken impression that it’s a term applied to the semantic debate. They either have a phobia about being called such or can’t tell the difference between a debate on dualistic free will and a semantic debate, possibly because they are mistakenly falling for the equivocation in the word free will or because they don’t really believe that you can’t reconcile free will – the mysterious dualist faculty – with determinism.

                Let me make it simple: if you think redefining free will into a secular and mundane synonym for choice or decision-making, you are not a compatibilist. If you think you can reconcile free will – the mysterious dualist faculty – with determinism, then you are a compatibilist. That is how the word is supposed to be used. If your argument that free will and determinism can be reconciled involves redefining the word free will away from its classic roots towards a secular alternative, then it’s wrong to call it compatibilism when that word already has a meaning in the classic debate. It only leads to equivocation and pointless confusion.

              3. “Let me make it simple: if you think redefining free will into a secular and mundane synonym for choice or decision-making, you are not a compatibilist.”

                Oh yes you are!

                “If you think you can reconcile free will – the mysterious dualist faculty – with determinism, then you are a compatibilist.”

                Oh no you’re not!

              4. This highlights another problem in these debates, quite apart from definitions of “free will”, definitions of “compatibilist” and “incompatibilist”! There seems to be an “atheist”/“agnostic” thing going on; we’re trying to map things along one axis, when there might be two (or more).

                I’d far rather we had clearer labels for our camps (so I knew which one I was in).

                So, human-agency-emerges-from-deterministic-processes-and-while-there-is-no-such-thing-as-contrcausal-free-will-the-term-free-will-remains-useful-as-a-way-of-talking-about-human-agency v. human-agency-emerges-from-deterministic-processes-and-there-is-no-such-thing-as-contrcausal-free-will-so-using-a-term-steeped-in-dualism-only-obfuscates-discussions-about-human-agency.

                /@

              5. Yes, that’s pretty much the argument.

                Dan makes this explicit when he refers to “the only type of free will worth wanting.” Clearly, the “free will” he’s referring to isn’t your father’s Oldsmobile, and he’s going to great pains to make that clear.

                His problem…is that it’s not even a car…it’s more of a home office rigged for telecommuting so you don’t have to drive…but it’s still got the familiar Olds logo on the mousepad! …even though you don’t have a mouse, you’ve got a trackpad….

                b&

      2. “Incompatibilist determinism emphasizes that such things don’t work because of some magic, or because the act of choosing is somehow fundamentally different from causality, or because an inscrutable We can Make Choices (explanation).”
        Compatibilists would agree with all of that.

      3. » reasonshark:
        Incompatibilist determinism isn’t denying the mundane fact that people choose what flavour ice cream they’d like

        For some of you, that is exactly what incompatibilist determinism is denying. Jerry, for one, has been saying over and over again that we don’t really make choices, but that those choices are “made for us”—which, by the way, is as straightforwardly dualist as it gets.

        1. Jerry’s ultimate point is that, what we informally and poetically refer to as choices and decisions are really very complex computations and calculations that take place in our brains.

          I think nobody would suggest that there’s any freedom in a computation. Would you?

          So then, the heart of the question comes down to whether the decisions humans make are choices or computations. And we know that answer…the incompatibilists just keep blurring the lines between the two.

          b&

          1. No, the fallacy is in the other direction, of mistraking the inside-the-computing-device perception of computation for spooky ghost-in-the-machine choice.

            When you make a decision, all that’s really happening is your brain is performing all sorts of very complex and subtle arithmetic-equivalent calculations that, eventually, cause a cascade of nerve impulses in your limbs in response. There really isn’t any choice going on in any of that, regardless of what it feels like. If you were placed in the same circumstances with your brain reset to the same state, including all memory or learning that resulted from how the results of the decision played out, you’d be every bit as guaranteed to always arrive at the same conclusion as a calculator is guaranteed to always come up with “2” after you ask it what “1 + 1” is.

            The main perceptual difference is all the recursive layers of feedback loops that let you have self-awareness of the decision-making process, including the imagined results of the different choices.

            But you have no more true choice in your deliberative computations than a thermostat does.

            b&

            1. We agree that the brain is the center of mental processing. How much is digital versus analog or conscious versus unconscious or calculations versus audio-visual is irrelevant to the point.

              The point is that the deliberation is happening there, and “there” happens to be you.

              Since there is no meaningful concept of your will that does not originate with you, the only issue is whether you are free to act upon your own will or whether someone else forces you to act upon theirs.

              If you are free to act upon your own will, you are said to have acted upon your own free will.

              The choices you make of your own free will are, of course, inevitable. But they are in fact uniquely yours, and made freely after you spent some time considering your options.

              1. The choices you make of your own free will are, of course, inevitable.

                That is a most Orwellian definition of, “free,” would you not agree? You can have any color you want, so long as the color you want is black, because that’s the color you’re going to pick no matter what.

                Would you argue that a thermostat has free will during the time that nobody’s fiddling with it? Because it’s most assuredly making decision no different in principle from our own.

                b&

              2. Ah! The Turing machine.

                To have free will, one must first have a will. Living organisms come with a biological will to meet certain basic needs (for example, see Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs).

                It is not enough to follow instructions programmed at the will of someone else.

                Now, it is certainly “possible” to create an electro-mechanical being with programming sufficient to define a set of needs and intelligence (we can drop the “artificial” when it reaches a certain level of functionality, including processes that monitor the processes to produce self-awareness).

                The needs become the source of will. When it is free to decide on its own behalf (best self-interest for meeting its own needs) what it will do next, then it has free will.

              3. As suspected…supernatural dualism.

                If you desire a piece of fruit as a result of an indeterminate and fuzzy chain of events including your genetic heritage and your personal history and blood sugar levels, that’s free will.

                If you desire a piece of fruit as a result of the manipulations of electrodes implanted in your brain by a mad neuroscientist, that’s not free will.

                The mental state is identical and indistinguishable; it’s the extra-physical magical intentionality responsible for the state that matters.

                Thanks…but no thanks. I’m still not buying.

                b&

              4. Ben: “As suspected…supernatural dualism.”

                Really, dude? I presume you are deliberately trying to be irritating.

                Ben: “If you desire a piece of fruit as a result of an indeterminate and fuzzy chain of events including your genetic heritage and your personal history and blood sugar levels, that’s free will.”

                Ben, there is NO INDETERMINACY at all, anywhere in the physical or rational universes.

                Therefore, any definition of an “anti-causal” version of free will is an irrational straw man, easily demolished.

                Free will operates totally within a physical, deterministic universe. If cause and effect were not reliable, then the choices we make of our own free will could effect nothing. Therefore, free will REQUIRES determinism.

                If I pick an apple from the tree, I expect to have an apple in my hand. If I cannot rely upon this, because sometimes it goes “poof!” and sometimes becomes a cat in my hand, then I would be living in an Alice in Wonderland universe. It may be a nice place to visit (everyone loves a magic show), but no one could live there.

              5. Then, now, we’re right back to Orwellian un-free freedom.

                Again again again: nobody is contesting that “freedom” is a very useful concept in many contexts. Nor is anybody contesting that the “will” is also a very useful concept in many contexts. The problem arises when one insists that the freedom of the will — that free will — is a real phenomenon.

                Bachelors are real. Marriage is real. Married bachelors are not.

                Make sense?

                b&

              6. Ben: “Then, now, we’re right back to Orwellian un-free freedom.”

                There is no situation in which there is freedom from causation. There is no situation in which one’s will is free from one’s self. There is no situation in which you are free from the world as it is (except in your imagination or dreams).

                If you insist upon having a freedom that cannot rationally be, then you may as well dispose of the word “free”.

                But we have plenty of freedom without requiring an irrational or indeterminate world. One of those freedoms is to choose for ourselves what we do next. The choice is literally our “will” at that moment. And if no one else takes that choice away and makes us act against our own will, then our will is free.

                It is really strange to consider the idea of universal inevitability being consistent with free will. Usually when we say something is “inevitable” we are speaking of something “beyond our control”.

                But the fact is that us biological organisms are in charge of choosing a lot of stuff that becomes inevitable. And all of the causes of our choices, our beliefs and values, our genetic makeup, our unique history and experience, are us being us. So it is perfectly true to say we, ourselves, of our own free will, determine a lot of what becomes inevitable on this planet.

              7. I just asked Siri if she had free will. She said she couldn’t answer that.

              8. Either that, or she’s trying to give you the illusion that she does….

                I asked her if she’s alive. She asked me if it really matters.

                Clever girl.

                b&

    2. I dunno. Take “heart” as an analogy – we still use the metaphor of our “heart” as being the center of emotions. It’s convenient, it’s clear, and it’s emotive but we know that it’s a metaphor and the head is the real source of emotions and don’t hesitate to say so if it’s unclear.

      If compatabilists are really using it as a convenient phrase or metaphor then why the refusal to pierce the veil and call it a only a metaphor or a useful phrase?

      1. It’s only a metaphor or a useful phrase.

        Happy now?

        So tell me, do you say things like: “Would you like an ice cream, you can choose the flavour?”?

  17. There is a 4th reason. For many compatibilists, like myself, one of the critical criterion for free will is “the agent makes decisions.” While this is a natural criterion, an incompatiblist might raise “nothing can make decisions in a deterministic universe” This is outright false. We have good formal/mathematical/computational definitions of decision making processes that are contrasted with processes that are *not* decision making processes and determinism in no way violates it. See, for example, algorithms that solve MDPs versus algorithms that work with Markov chains.

    An incompatiblist might then raise, “is this decision making distinction useful?” The answer is absolutely. For example, game theory is game theory because it involves agents that make decisions. Remove the fact that the agents are decision making agents and all the interesting and challenging properties of game theory go away. Therefore, it’s greatly in your interest to identify whether a system is a decision making agent or not, because having that knowledge affects how you should make decisions.

    1. And a 5th one: people think of the sort of “free will they want” is the one which can be morally responsible. *That’s* what’s held to be “compatible” or “incompatible”, really, *not* free will proper. And why Paul Russell’s class at UBC, in part, was under the “Moral Philosophy” title.

  18. I think a comparison of compatibilists to pantheists is more accurate than comparing them to creationists. They reject the most common notion of free will (the libertarian one), just as pantheists reject the most common notion of god (the personal one). They attempt to salvage the concept though because the emotion we attach to free will is real just as the emotion of experiencing god is real.

  19. “one of the motivations—perhaps the main motivation—for creationists to keep attacking evolution is that they think the theory has inimical effects on morality”. I think this is a generous interpretation of their denial of evolution. The religious types who seem genuinely caring (and I’m assuming that by “morality” we mean concern for what’s best for folk) tend towards the less fundamentalist positions.

    I tend to think such indefensible positions as creationism are held due to some kind of pig-headed tribalism, laced with holier-than-thou sanctimony.

  20. Sendt fra min iPhone

    Den 24. mars 2015 kl. 19:58 skrev “Why Evolution Is True” <comment-reply@wordpress.com>:

    whyevolutionistrue posted: “I’m rereading Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality for purposes that will become clear later. I do like the book, but oy!, does it take naturalism to an extreme. Alex wears the label of “scientism” proudly, and in many ways I agree with him, th”

  21. This is off-assignment but this posting has freed/willed me to ask about the root canal.

    I had one once, obviously long ago, when dentistry was more primitive but I have no recollection of acrid smoke pouring out of my mouth and the latex used seemed to be much more easily removed.

    My experience may have been unusual but I don’t remember it as gruesome, etc (as I’d heard). Maybe this was trumped/damped/blotted out by the cost!

    So, I wish you’d said a few more things about what these days we call the procedure.

  22. “It’s just not the type of free will that most people think we have.”
    I really don’t get why it matters. Most of the creationists who deny evolution (and many people who support it) don’t have a proper (or even coherent) understanding of what evolution is. That’s why it’s important to have biologists and philosophers of science try to get rid of the conceptual confusions and misapprehensions that exist on the topic.

    The problem if you go full incompatibilism is that it suspiciously sounds like epiphenomenalism. Our thoughts and deliberations do matter – is it such a problem that a brain is *how* it’s done? At the end of the day, we still have the ability to act upon an understanding of the situation.

    1. The problem if you go full incompatibilism is that it suspiciously sounds like epiphenomenalism.

      That would be the “stuck on a rollercoaster” model of human sentience: you see and feel everything, but all along you’re just sitting back and only believing you control the way the mind steers.

      I can see how that suggests itself, but I think it’s still too dualist to match the incompatibilism of, say, determinism. At the end of the day, “you” are still being treated as a ghost in the machine in epiphenomenalism. It’s just that instead of a limitless free will soul being whatever, the ghost that you are is in a straightjacket strapped to a robot.

      I think incompatibilism sounds more like monism. You’re not some hostage to the robot; you are the robot. Your actions are yours all right; it’s just that “you” are not a ghost, but a machine so complex and astonishing that it seems like you are a ghost from a completely different world.

      It might not seem like much of a difference, but I think it makes a huge difference. If a machine can be so amazingly complex and fluid as to seem like a ghost, what else can the world pull off?

      1. That’s the contention – we have an intuitively dualistic view of self, and it’s hard to disavow our descriptions of problems from that view. When we aren’t ghosts in the machine, but the machine itself, don’t we then embody the functions of the machinery? That is, if brains area way of taking in information and processing decisions and actions, how do we then say freedom is an illusion without resorting to a Cartesian notion of self?

        Both the compatibilists and incompatibilists are monists, recognising that there is no ghost in the machine. Yet our inherently dualistic language makes it incredibly difficult to tease out notions like free will from dualistic notions of self. It seems much of the disagreement between compatibilists and incompatibilists is at what level of description a notion like freedom can be meaningful.

        1. That’s the contention – we have an intuitively dualistic view of self, and it’s hard to disavow our descriptions of problems from that view.

          Exactly, which makes it all the more crucial that we make the distinction clear, unambiguous, and without any kind of wiggle room or back door for libertarian assumptions to sneak in.

          That is, if brains area way of taking in information and processing decisions and actions, how do we then say freedom is an illusion without resorting to a Cartesian notion of self?

          Well, it can be done. Incompatibilist determinism can sound a lot like epiphenomenalism, which is basically the ghost in the machine while the ghost is tied to the machine with a straightjacket, but it isn’t exclusively epiphenomenalist, and it still contrasts sharply with libertarian free will, which requires Cartesian dualism.

          Incompatibilist determinism is perfectly compatible with monism: you are the machine, accepting inputs both internal and external, and responding according to highly complex algorithms and goal states to pick how to behave. But fundamentally, the difference between you and a pocket calculator is simply design specs, not the existence of a soul.

          It seems much of the disagreement between compatibilists and incompatibilists is at what level of description a notion like freedom can be meaningful.

          I don’t think there’s anything sinisterly dualist in everyday words like choice and agent. The problem is a widespread resistance to the idea that we are essentially glorified meat computers. The point is to say “That’s what the science shows, we’ve been wrong to proceed with this assumption, get used to it.”

          “Compatibilists”, insofar as they agree that we are determined, are really incompatibilists. But then they say “Ah, free will can also mean something else, so in a sense, determinism and free will can coexist”.

          Yes, you can certainly give a word another meaning in principle. But to me, they seem to be just as squeamish as Descartes was about going up to people and trying to knock down free will. And when, among their arguments, they descend to ridicule that is itself ridiculous – presenting incompatibilists in the same way sophisticated theologians present boorish atheists – I think they’re either muddled or muddling.

          1. “Exactly, which makes it all the more crucial that we make the distinction clear, unambiguous, and without any kind of wiggle room or back door for libertarian assumptions to sneak in.”
            But a compatibilist is arguing against libertarianism. Whether one disagrees with compatibilism, it could hardly said to be giving any sort of notion of libertarianism; indeed there’s explanation of precisely how compatibilism makes sense of the notion of “freedom” and it’s articulated precisely in monistic terms.

            “and it still contrasts sharply with libertarian free will, which requires Cartesian dualism.”
            There are libertarian monists, though I haven’t heard a good case for how that could work. Perhaps something to do with strong emergentism?

            “I don’t think there’s anything sinisterly dualist in everyday words like choice and agent.”
            I think the dualism comes with words like “my brain” and “illusion of” – that we can distinguish a notion of self and mind from the physical agency we have.

            “The problem is a widespread resistance to the idea that we are essentially glorified meat computers.”
            There is a danger in trying to extend the computer analogy too much – we aren’t literally computers, but that widespread resistance shouldn’t make us sloppy. Those meat computers still have to account for our mental lives, and it’s difficult to try to understand what that means precisely when we as yet don’t understand consciousness.

            “Yes, you can certainly give a word another meaning in principle.”
            That’s the issue though. It’s really not giving the word another meaning, but taking aspects of a fuzzy concept and showing how they fit with a monist notion of personhood.

            “And when, among their arguments, they descend to ridicule that is itself ridiculous – presenting incompatibilists in the same way sophisticated theologians present boorish atheists”
            Interesting, though, that this discussion started with comparing compatibilists to pseudoscientists of the worst kind… 😉

            1. But a compatibilist is arguing against libertarianism

              And therefore is really an incompatibilist, because in this debate, that’s what is under question. If your claim, that free will and determinism are compatible, starts with saying “now, define free will as the ability to make choices without being coerced”, you’re switching to another debate entirely.

              There are libertarian monists

              Really? Are they idealists, or closet dualists?

              I think the dualism comes with words like “my brain” and “illusion of” – that we can distinguish a notion of self and mind from the physical agency we have.

              Well, I don’t deny there could be more clarity and precision in the language. Separating “me” and “my brain” does come across as dualist. Then again, I might be persuaded it’s just a language fossil, akin to how people talk about “head” and “heart” without really believing the thoracic pumping organ makes them feel emotions.

              There is a danger in trying to extend the computer analogy too much

              Ah, now that sounds to me a bit like closet libertarianism: we’re not merely meat calculators, but free will makes us something more…

              OK, to be fair, if by computer analogy, you mean “we’re not made of silicon circuits, and we don’t process in linear circuits but in parallel circuitry”, then that’s one thing. We’re not in the same class as commercial PCs or laptops. But I can agree that the plane analogy applied to birds doesn’t mean that birds have to have jet engines or stewards inside them offering refreshment.

              The point is that brains are, technically, computers, not merely “like” them or “analogous” to them. They work on the same broad principles and function for the same reasons: information crunching and autonomous piloting of the body. Likewise, both birds and airplanes are aerodynamic machines designed on broadly the same principles to attain lift and powered flight. The fact that one is made of flesh and blood, while the other titanium and electric copper wiring, is a distraction.

              – we aren’t literally computers, but that widespread resistance shouldn’t make us sloppy. Those meat computers still have to account for our mental lives, and it’s difficult to try to understand what that means precisely when we as yet don’t understand consciousness.

              All that says is that mind sciences are still in their relative infancy as a scientific field. Any other conclusion must be dualist, even an epiphenomenalist one.

              That’s the issue though. It’s really not giving the word another meaning, but taking aspects of a fuzzy concept and showing how they fit with a monist notion of personhood.

              Compatibilists seem to be under the impression that they’re the only ones interested in how human minds work. At least, you seem to be implying as such. I think that’s wildly mistaken.

              I’m not saying stuff like legal definitions of free will and how decision-making works aren’t interesting. But to use an analogy, you can be interested in how neurons modulate and fire their impulses AND decry people who think it happens because of “nervous energy” or “ectoplasm”. We’re both interested in explaining how decision-making works. “Compatibilists”, however, seem to think we’re not interested.

              In the context of the free will debate, though, it IS giving the word another meaning. We’re not discussing “free will vs coercion”, but “free will vs determinism”.

              Interesting, though, that this discussion started with comparing compatibilists to pseudoscientists of the worst kind… 😉

              If creationists defend creationism by invoking an argument from consequences, and Dennett – a noted compatibilist – defends “compatibilism” by invoking an argument from consequences, what else is one going to conclude?

              I get that there are two debates, and I get that one side thinks it’s OK to use free will in a legal sense to mean uncoerced. That’s semantics. But it really does comes across as a Motte and Bailey tactic when “compatibilists” – who, when pressed, explicitly identify their determinist credentials – suddenly start talking about incompatibilists as if they can’t tell the difference between the two debates, or as if there’s a lot more going on than mere semantics.

              1. “And therefore is really an incompatibilist, because in this debate, that’s what is under question.”

                This is *exactly* the problem. Whenever compatibilists try to have a debate with incompatibilists, the incompatibilists *always* respond by trying to have a debate against dualism!

                We *agree* with you on rejecting dualism!

                So, can we put dualism to one side, as refuted, and now have a debate about determinism?

              2. “And therefore is really an incompatibilist, because in this debate, that’s what is under question.”
                I thought this debate was about the merits of compatibilism, not whether it’s either libertarianism or incompatibilism. You are putting forth a false dichotomy.

                “Really? Are they idealists, or closet dualists?”
                Neither. “Strong emergentist” might be the best way to describe it, but mostly the arguments are around the abilities individuals possess.

                “Ah, now that sounds to me a bit like closet libertarianism: we’re not merely meat calculators, but free will makes us something more…”
                It’s not. It’s rather downplaying the overreach of the analogy between brains and computers. Not just in what they are made of, but in how they work. Certainly some points of the brain seem computational in nature, but it’s a further (and contentious) step to declare that therefore the brain is a computer.

                “Any other conclusion must be dualist, even an epiphenomenalist one.”
                Must be?

                “Compatibilists seem to be under the impression that they’re the only ones interested in how human minds work. At least, you seem to be implying as such.”
                That’s not what’s being implied at all. Indeed, the point I was making was about our use of language of personhood, not about function of mind. This isn’t a legal definition of personhood either, but a language to make sense of our actions.

                “In the context of the free will debate, though, it IS giving the word another meaning. We’re not discussing “free will vs coercion”, but “free will vs determinism”.”
                If it’s free will vs coercion, then determinism wouldn’t matter and the distinctions compatibilists are making wouldn’t matter. If it’s free will vs determinism then you are by definition defining free will as being libertarian – something compatibilists are not doing. Compatibilism is seeking to understand whether freedom makes sense in a deterministic universe, and that’s what compatibilist arguments advance. If it’s simply “free will vs determinism” then we should point out it has nothing to do with compatibilism. Compatibilism is looking at a deterministic concept of free will, so it’s again a false dichotomy.

                “and Dennett – a noted compatibilist – defends “compatibilism” by invoking an argument from consequences, what else is one going to conclude?”
                You are mistaking the importance of the concept for the merits of the concept. Dennett’s written at least two books on compatibilism where he argues precisely what compatibilism entails. Feel free to disagree with the arguments, but pretending it’s simply an argument from consequences is an egregious misrepresentation of the debate.

              3. Certainly some points of the brain seem computational in nature, but it’s a further (and contentious) step to declare that therefore the brain is a computer.

                Okay, we can stop there.

                Brains are Turing-equivalent devices (with, of course, limited memory). Period, full stop, end of story.

                Anything that a brain can do can be done by a computer with enough memory and the right programming (both of which are, technologically, a looooooooong way beyond our current reach). The reverse is also true…though our memories are woefully limited unless we supplement them, and we’re very slow at processing operations at that level of abstraction.

                Either you accept that, or you are a supernaturalist or spiritualist of one stripe or another.

                There is absolutely no room for debate in this; the physics is as settled as the question of the direction in which the Sun will rise tomorrow morning.

                If you like, I’d be happy to help walk you through the physics of why we know this to be true…but we absolutely, unquestionably, without doubt know this to be true. (With, of course, the ever-present caveat about all bets being off if any of the infinite number of possible insane conspiracy theories, like brains in vats or the Matrix, turn out to be true after all.)

                b&

              4. Go ahead, Ben. I’m all for the possibility it’s the case, but it’s hard to see how we can take the analogy too far given the brain functions differently to any computer we have (it’s analogue, physical structures matter, lots of parallel processes, can’t run a brain on a brain, etc.) so I’m all for a demonstration of why the brain literally is a computer.

              5. I’ll take the easy shortcut route.

                Read up on the Church-Turing Thesis. In brief, it states that anything that can be computed can be computed by a Turing Machine. One might throw all sorts of attempted “gotchas!” at it, but it holds. For example, you might have a random number generator embedded in a computer’s CPU…but, logically, that’s just yet another input to the program — and, if nothing else, the program could iterate over every possible random value the generator can generate. Yes, that’s inefficient…but Church-Turing isn’t about efficiency but logical equivalence.

                Church-Turing remains a thesis rather than a theorem…but, as Sean Carroll has so well put it and as I’m so fond of repeating, the laws underlying everyday physics are completely understood.

                And that physics is perfectly computable.

                As a worst-case, horribly inefficient scenario (and one, it must be noted, unimaginably beyond our current technology), you could create a physics simulation down to whatever scale might be necessary — certainly not beyond chemistry in the case of humans, but, if you object to that, you can take it all the way to Many-Worlds Quantum Mechanics if you really think you need to — and include an human brain in your physics simulation. Said brain will, logically, be indistinguishable from a flesh-and-blood brain.

                Now, there’re almost certainly more efficient ways to go about it. You probably don’t need to go past neurons and synapses, and you probably don’t need overly refined models of either. And you might even be able to get away with higher-level approximations of entire brain systems…

                …but all that’s just a question of performance optimization.

                The point is, you’ve still got two systems, one flesh-and-blood, the other a computer…and they’re both doing the exact same thing.

                Cheers,

                b&

              6. (it’s analogue, physical structures matter, lots of parallel processes, can’t run a brain on a brain, etc.)

                None of those are essential to classifying anything as a computer:

                http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computer

                “A computer is a general-purpose device that can be programmed to carry out a set of arithmetic or logical operations automatically. Since a sequence of operations can be readily changed, the computer can solve more than one kind of problem.”

                In fact, wetware computers already exist: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wetware_computer

                “A wetware computer is an organic computer (also known as an artificial organic brain or a neurocomputer) built from living neurons.”

                And guess what neurons, which make up the nervous system, do?

                http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuron

                “A neuron (/ˈnjʊərɒn/ nyewr-on or /ˈnʊərɒn/ newr-on; also known as a neurone or nerve cell) is an electrically excitable cell that processes and transmits information through electrical and chemical signals. These signals between neurons occur via synapses, specialized connections with other cells. Neurons can connect to each other to form neural networks. Neurons are the core components of the nervous system, which includes the brain, spinal cord–which together comprise the central nervous system (CNS)–and the ganglia of the peripheral nervous system (PNS) .”

                Heck, we’ve even gotten to the point of making artificial neural networks of our own:

                http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artificial_neural_network

                “In machine learning and cognitive science, artificial neural networks (ANNs) are a family of statistical learning algorithms inspired by biological neural networks (the central nervous systems of animals, in particular the brain) and are used to estimate or approximate functions that can depend on a large number of inputs and are generally unknown. Artificial neural networks are generally presented as systems of interconnected “neurons” which can compute values from inputs, and are capable of machine learning as well as pattern recognition thanks to their adaptive nature.”

                Therefore, since the core components of the brain (neurons) are transmitting information and, in networks, carrying out a set of arithmetic or logical operations automatically due to how they’re connected up, it’s hard to see how one could deny that brains are computers.

  23. Yes, this has been discussed on this site many times, so what surprises is the summary of the supposed compatibilist position. I cannot speak for everybody of course (the generalisation is another issue), but here is what I would believe to be a more accurate summary:

    (1) I plainy disagree about the definition of free will, and especially with the belief that the compatibilist position is a recent invention. It has been in the discussion for thousands of years because people have assumed determinism for thousands of years, starting with the insight that determinism would be a logical consequence of an omniscient god (if one believes in such stuff).

    (2) The incompatibilist view only makes sense because it assumes religious mind-body dualism, considering “us” to be little homunculi sitting in our heads, with the only difference to standard religious dualism being that the incompatibilists’ homunculus is a passively watching captive as opposed to pushing the body’s buttons. But in reality, there is no dualism, we are not such consciousness-homunculi, we are our bodies, and so when our bodies/genes/brain chemistry make a choice, we make a choice. I consequently consider the incompatibilist position to be based on a wrong model of the world.

    (3) It is also inconsistent with how we usually talk and think about things. Claiming that ‘we’ don’t make decisions or don’t have freedom to chose between different options because laws of physics is no different from claiming that ‘we’ don’t walk or digest or sleep because laws of physics. Claiming that ‘could have decided differently’ is meaningless because at any given moment I could only ever have made one decision is no different from claiming that researching climate models is meaningless because at every given moment the climate could only have been the way it was. Because laws of nature! But every event could only ever happen once, and what we generally mean with ‘could have happened differently’ is ‘if conditions had been slightly different’, and in the case of free will that is ‘if I had wanted something different’. And we talk and think like that not because we ever assume that we can rewind the tape and things then go differently but because we want to understand the rules and influence the future.

    I utterly fail to see how pointing these things out makes me like a creationist.

    1. Thanks, Alex. Your point about what we can coherently mean by ‘could have done/happened differently’ is of course one that Dennett spends quite some time explaining in Freedom Evolves—and one that I have brought up in discussions here again and again. I have yet to see Jerry acknowledge that that concept even exists in compatibilist thought, much less criticise it in any serious fashion.

      1. Yes, Peter (and Alex), this is what drives me nuts in trying to discuss this with the incompatibilists on this site. They just don’t seem to get…or least care about…the incoherence problem.

        The compatibilist asks “Ok, given determinism, what can words and concept like our “having a choice” or “could have done otherwise” or “should do otherwise” actually refer to? Do we take the stance that given determinism such concepts can only be illusion – untruths? If we take THAT stance then there is a cascading problem of incoherence that eats through everything from everyday language to the very methods of scientific inference (which depends upon
        acknowledging TRUTH value to alternative/contra-causal/if-then concepts).
        I have yet to see any incompatibilist propse a cogent, viable method of using those terms
        while rejecting their truth value, or showing how they would be replaced.

        The compatibilist goes further, starts working it out and notices that concepts like “having a choice” and ‘could have done otherwise” and “should do X vs Y” can have truth values – not be “illusory” if you simply acknowledge the mode of logic involved: if/then thinking. IF you had done A Then B WOULD HAVE occurred is a true statement about the nature of some reality to which it refers (e.g. IF I had placed the water in the freezer, it would have turned solid).

        We notice that this conceptual framework doesn’t contradict determinism in the slightest. Yes, I was determined to have left the water on the counter. But it is nonetheless TRUE to say IF I’d placed it in the freezer, it would have frozen solid.

        Even further: we notice that it’s actually a NECESSARY way of thinking about and understanding TRUTHS about reality. You can not understand reality UNLESS you adopt abstractions like somethings “identity” or “nature” which we abstract, essentially piling into that thing series of observations
        of it in various situations over time, to understand “what it is like” and “what it can do.”

        And, just as important: we go on to ask “but does the conceptual framework we are talking about actually reflect how people think?”

        It turns out: YES, it does! But of course it does…in a determined universe, this thinking would be NECESSARY to even understand the way things work, so it’s hardly a surprise that this is the mode of thinking we often naturally find ourselves in. We think in “If/Then scenarios: IF I don’t go to the store tonight, I won’t have milk tomorrow. We naturally “jiggle” reality, even if it’s merely implicit “I could have lifted that weight (IF I’d wanted to…).” If someone says we could not have lifted the weight, our first impulse is to walk over and lift it “see, you are wrong!” because we are thinking in general claims about our nature, our powers, over time NOT
        about ourselves only considered frozen in an instant.

        One is never going to understand this train of compatibilist reasoning by searching instead for alternate “motivations” (which are rarely if ever accurate IMO). The compatibilist has arrived at the position in just the way the incompatibilist believes he has arrived at his.

        The issue on the free will debate, as we have pointed out again and again, is that the concept of “free will” is simply much richer and more complex than the incompatibiist seems to want to acknowledge.
        “No, Free Will ONLY concerns whether you think there is dualism at the moment of a choice! This is like the Theists insisting that morality ONLY concerns whether an Abrahamic God has given a command to us, and refusing to acknowledge that there is a wider array of concerns tied to the concept of “morality” that are actually preserved when you acknowledge this and think about it.

        Every time incompatibilists say things like “You couldn’t have chosen otherwise” “It SEEMED to you like you had a choice, but it was an ILLUSION” etc, it obfuscates this terrain, throwing babies out with the bathwater. Such expressions assume that when people ponder having a choice that
        “spooky dualism” is sufficient to capture the assumptions inherent in their thinking, when there is a much WIDER phenomenon involved, like the modes of thinking I’ve spoken of above, which remain valid in a deterministic universe, and which compatibilists acknowledge is captured in our language and way of thinking.

        1. Yes, agreed. To move the conversation on, I invite the incompatibilists to:

          1) State what language and concepts they want to use about human social interactions and about what the rest of us call making “choices”.

          I would really appreciate seeing an incompatibilist discuss that (not what concepts they don’t want to use, but what concepts they do want to use).

          My thesis is that, if they tried it, they’d find themselves sounding exactly like compatibilists and thus becoming de facto compatibilists.

          2) If incompatibilists think that society needs radical changes as a result, say to the justice system, please spell that out explicitly.

          Not in vague “this would need to change” terms, but an explicit account of what they’d replace it with.

          1. 1) State what language and concepts they want to use about human social interactions and about what the rest of us call making “choices”.

            We’re not language police. I’m perfectly capable of describing a kid who picks chocolate flavoured ice cream.

            2) If incompatibilists think that society needs radical changes as a result, say to the justice system, please spell that out explicitly.

            Here are two, one for justice system, one for human psychology:

            No “retribution” justification to the justice system. No “punitive” justification to the justice system. The deterrence justification, with all logical underpinnings explicit, is as close as one can get. And lastly, a model closer to the one we apply towards medicine: prevention, alleviation, cure, quarantine, after treatment, and so on.

            Open and widespread acknowledgement of the computational theory of human mind and a reappraisal of the logic behind human relationships that are taken for granted. The revenge impulse is one, but other impulses are on the table. Dispelling the myth of pure evil and replacing it with a conception of criminal or otherwise harmful humans in at least a similar way to how we perceive, say, dangerous wild animals as “unable to help it”.

            1. “We’re not language police.”

              But you are! Because you totally object to people who use the term “free will” about deterministic systems. You accuse us of “redefining” the term and of “bait and switch”.

              When people gave up the idea of vitalism, should they have abandoned the word “living”, or instead just interpret it in a materialist way?

              “No “punitive” justification to the justice system. The deterrence justification, …”

              OK, but this is all vague, and often amounts merely to changing the commentary. Instead of locking someone up for “punitive” reasons you lock them up for “deterrence” reasons.

              And yet deterrence is already a large part of it. So your changes might amount only to fairly minor changes to commentary.

              Now, if you want any *radical* difference to what actually happens (not just commentary), then please explain it.

              Take Paul, who robbed a bank and shot a policeman, and is now in jail for 30 years for deterrence & retribution.

              You come along and say, yes, Paul should be in jail for 30 years, but just for deterrence, not for retribution.

              That is a minor change in *commentary*, not an actual major change in the justice system.

              If you want an actual major change, tell us about it.

              1. OK, but this is all vague, and often amounts merely to changing the commentary. Instead of locking someone up for “punitive” reasons you lock them up for “deterrence” reasons.

                And yet deterrence is already a large part of it.

                Actually, wrong. Very wrong. To quote from Better Angels, page 650:

                “The psychologists Kevin Carlsmith, John Darley, and Paul Robinson devised hypothetical cases designed to tease apart deterrence from just deserts. Just deserts is sensitive to the moral worth of the perpetrator’s motive. For instance, an embezzler who used his ill-gotten gains to support a lavish lifestyle would seem to deserve a harsher punishment than one who redirected them to the company’s underpaid workers in the developing world. Deterrence, in contrast, is sensitive to the incentive structure of the punishment regime. Assuming that malefactors reckon the utility of a misdeed as the probability they will get caught multiplied by the penalty they will incur if they do get caught, then a crime that is hard to detect should get a harsher punishment than one that is easy to detect. For similar reasons, a crime that gets a lot of publicity should be punished more harshly than one that is unpublicized, because the publicized one will leverage the value of the punishment as a general deterrent. When people are asked to mete out sentences to fictitious malefactors in these scenarios, their decisions are affected only by just deserts, not by deterrence. Evil motives draw harsher sentences, but difficult-to-detect or highly publicized infractions do not.”

                The irreducible revenge imperative is a product of the peculiarities of our local, parochial environment of our ancestors, while deterrence is the universal principle that informs the sort of strategies living things evolve – but not completely. Retribution also includes motive policing, demonization, and a focus on dictating others’ survival in genetic competition rather than being morally justifiable in modern civilization. Retribution and deterrence are not synonyms and function differently as a result.

                But this is less interesting than your focus on deterrence, which is itself a lower priority! I put in the medical model for a reason. I emphasized “punitiveness” not to emphasize “retribution”, but as a separate issue. That’s why I said “deterrence is as close as one can get” – because what I had in mind was an emphasis on rehabilitation, isolation for others’ protection, and fixing social problems so that crime rates are lowered at their source, hence the medical model I also put forwards. It’s similar to the contrast between Japanese and US prison systems as depicted in The Spirit Level.

                And before you chip in that this still wouldn’t make much difference, keep in mind that most people view evil as something to punish and a reason to blame the criminal. My emphasis is on pointing out that the criminal is just as much a victim, because they turned out so due to processes beyond their control. Compared to the cultural attitude of “that bastard had it coming”, that’s unorthodox to the point of taboo, but it’s also the logical consequence of taking determinism – heck, physical monism – seriously.

                The reason I said deterrence is as close as one could get is because, ideally, the point is not to rebrand retribution, but not to go that way at all.

    2. (1) I plainy disagree about the definition of free will

      When Ryle was writing about Descartes’ struggle between “two conflicting motives” in The Concept of Mind in 1949, it was explicitly about the fact that humans differ from clockwork “only in degree rather than kind”, which troubled someone who wanted to believe in a soul that could freely choose. This is a typical example of the debate between free will and determinism, relevant because free will is explicitly steeped in dualistic conceptions about mind vs. matter. I don’t know what definition of free will you and others think you’re using, but I don’t think it’s representative of what the debate is actually about.

      (2) The incompatibilist view only makes sense because it assumes religious mind-body dualism

      That’s not even wrong. Incompatibilist free will is dualist, not incompatibilist determinism (or indeterminism, come to that), which denies that dualist free will exists in the first place! If your position is that choices are determined by brain activity, then that’s not dualism. Compatibilism is the bizarre position that you can eat your cake and have it, and so far two people on this thread seem to be using it in a way that suggests a radically different definition of free will alone.

      (3) It is also inconsistent with how we usually talk and think about things. Claiming that ‘we’ don’t make decisions or don’t have freedom to chose between different options because laws of physics is no different from claiming that ‘we’ don’t walk or digest or sleep because laws of physics.

      Not even close. As I’ve said to others already on this thread, you’re confusing the phenomenon – people get up and choose what cereal they want – with the explanation – say, they do it because they have a mysterious faculty called free will – and as a result are equivocating. Sastra’s right: in the free will debate, it’s a deepity.

      If you want to discuss whether using a term like free will is OK or not, fine by me. But at least recognize that that’s not the same thing as the debate on free will, incompatibilism, determinism, and all the rest of it. Such muddying of the waters is not accurate at all.

      1. (1) Acknowledging that there might be different ideas of what the debate is actually about is a very good first step! Now perhaps entertain the possibility that your understanding may not totally obviously be the correct one, and that you are perhaps potentially somewhat conflating the debate with libertarians with the debate with compatibilists…

        (2) Mere assertion isn’t helping. When our host or Sam Harris for example writes a sentence like “we are the puppets of our brain chemistry” or similar, what does that sentence actually mean? Unless one assumes that the ‘we’ in the sentence is different from brain chemistry, the sentence is gibberish: we are our puppets. For the sentence to have a meaning, any meaning, the writer has to have a dualist model of ‘us’, where we are an entity separate from our brain, whether they realise it or not. Conversely, to realise that our brain/genes/sum of the environmental influences that shape us is what we are is to realise that the above sentence and all its variants summarising the core position of incompatibilism, does not make sense.

        (3) Again, we all agree on the explanation. The debate between compatibilists and incompatibilists is only about whether using a term like free will or choice or decision is okay or not. Check Wikipedia, check previous threads on this website (especially commenters Coel and Vaal), check people like Dennett. That. Is. The. Debate. There is no other disagreement.

        1. Now perhaps entertain the possibility that your understanding may not totally obviously be the correct one, and that you are perhaps potentially somewhat conflating the debate with libertarians with the debate with compatibilists…

          Compatibilism IS a position in that libertarian debate. It’s a position that involves redefining free will into something that is no longer at odds with incompatibilist non-free-will and then saying we don’t have free will when someone points a gun at our heads. It is precisely what Ben Goren above says it is: a bait and switch.

          (2) Mere assertion isn’t helping. When our host or Sam Harris for example writes a sentence like “we are the puppets of our brain chemistry” or similar, what does that sentence actually mean?

          Yes, it seems dualist, (strictly speaking epiphenomalist), but in context you can see that he’s arguing against libertarianism. When you’re arguing against that, you can’t half-ass it. Talk about free will to most people in the street, and I’m confident most of them will assume libertarianism. He’s emphasizing that no, no, no, there is no ultimate sense in which your choices are above or beyond the causal chains of brain chemistry. In a sense, you are a puppet to whatever inputs (internal or external) your brain receives.

          But it does not summarize the core position of incompatibilism, deterministic or indeterministic. That core position is:

          1. Either there’s a ghost in the machine, or it’s just the machine and whatever physics allows.

          2. There’s no ghost in the machine.

          (3) Again, we all agree on the explanation.

          No we don’t, and that’s the point! Again, go out onto the street and ask most people about free will. Get it clear that redefining free will as “not having a gun pointed at your head” is muddying the waters and making it easier for people to sink back to instinctive ways of thinking, which will involve libertarianism and all the contradictions that involves. Get it clear that the debate is not about patently obvious phenomena, like people making choices, but about the explanation of said phenomena, which involves libertarian free will.

          And in reply to your later reply: no, you cannot use a similarity of words like “compatibilism” and “compatible” as an excuse to wave away a strict definition of the word. Compatibilism means “believes free will and determinism are not mutually exclusive and can be reconciled”. My point is that this reconciliation either involves redefining free will and then mocking incompatibilists over their use of words like choice and agent, which is frankly cheap and dishonest, or trying to capture the metaphysical specialness of libertarian free will while also seeming to be full-blooded determinists, which if not explicitly libertarian sure walks and talks and smells like it, and sounds very much like accommodationism.

          I’m sorry, but compatibilism is garbled. One minute, you lot are agreeing there’s nothing spooky and you’re obviously on the side of determinist incompatibilists, the next you’re taking potshots at us because we’re too cro-magnon dull-witted to understand the “rich, subtle, and complex” understanding of free will that you have, and apparently are stupid enough to deny that children can’t pick which ice cream they want, or a paralysed when trying to talk about everyday decision-making.

          And you puzzle over why I believe I know better than compatibilists what they’re arguing for? Is it any wonder, when you come across as if you were theists who agree with atheists that there’s no bearded man in the sky and then seem to jump back and forth over different definitions of god as and when it suits.

          Libertarianism and its contradictions are way too pervasive in society at large, most people would understand what was meant when discussing free will, and it’s more important to root out this kind of dualistic human exceptionalism, unconsciously expressed or not, than to redefine free will and give it yet another way to muddy the waters, switch goalposts, and generally avoid honest debate.

          1. This is going in circles, and of course you are making it very easy for yourself if you assume that the other side is dishonest and doesn’t mean what they plainly say. But even if you assume dishonesty in the argumentation you could at least try to acknowledge when people describe what their stance is: Your summary of incompatiblism (no ghost in the machine) is also the basis for compatibilism, so the difference between the two must be elsewhere. Is that so hard to understand?

            You don’t quite get my point with the dualism. That sentence doesn’t just seem dualist for strategic purposes, but it is gibberish, and the incompatiblist position doesn’t make sense, unless dualism is assumed. And if one were to accept that the dualism in that sentence were merely strategic, then incompatibilism couldn’t really claim the moral high ground because compatibilism supposedly only wants to keep the word free will for strategic reasons. Can’t have it both ways…

            we all agree on the explanation.
            No we don’t, and that’s the point! Again, go out onto the street and ask most people about free will.

            I disagree with you about what people believe about free will, but that is besides the point. Even where most of them are supernaturalists (as in the USA), what does that have to do with the question whether compatibilists and incompatiblists agree on something? Random people on the street are irrelevant to that question unless they happen to be the former or the latter, and in that case they would by definition agree on the explanation because they agree on no ghost in the machine.

      2. reasonshark,

        Seeing your discussion further up with Coel I am getting really puzzled why you believe that you know better than compatibilists what compatibilists are arguing for…

        Consider also that the term compatibilist means that they consider something to be compatible with something else. In that case, that is of course: the term free will is compatible with determinism. The label compatibilist alone thus demonstrates what the debate is about.

        1. » Alex SL:
          The label compatibilist alone thus demonstrates what the debate is about.

          Or so one would have thought.

          1. I disagree. To an IC, this argument sounds a lot like saying religion and science are compatible because I am a religious scientist. Don’t try to tell me what I think or should think. Don’t you know what the word compatible means? — I don’t think it’s unreasonable to respond to this argument with: if you think science and religion are compatible, you are either misunderstanding what science is or what religion is. In this case, it seems plainly obvious to us ICs that you are either misunderstanding what determinism is or what free will is. That’s why we can’t get past this.

  24. The problem is not so much the reality of the existence of “determanism” vs “free will”, but the necessity of using indeterminate language to describe what we think we’re talking about. Language is analogous and/or metaphorical, not precise ever. Even when two individuals think they are communicating about the meaning(s)of a particular word,it is entirely probable that they are conceptualizing it differently.

    Another problem with language to convey sense is, as has been remarked on, meanings of words change drastically over time. A look at any word in the OED would confirm this. For example: “silly” once meant something akin to “crazy”. All our mental processes are largely “subconscious” and then elevated to “consciousness”. Our genetic makeup, the input by our “imprimers” (parents, teachers, friends), our experiences, etc., all go into composing our concept of reality. And, in these regards, we are all very different. The fact that we can “communicate” at all is amazing.

  25. People generally believe in Contra Causal Free Will. They just don’t accept that circumstances not of our choosing would have had to have been different for us to have made a different choice.

    What we should be interested in is how much harm this is doing. Someone does a bad thing and we judge them as if they alone could have behaved differently.

  26. “that incompatibilists like myself still try to behave well, and do behave well—is irrelevant.”

    What is irrelevant is trying to behave well since one does not have free will and cannot choose how to behave.

  27. What is irrelevant is trying to behave well since one does not have free will and cannot choose how to behave.

    Oh look, yet another poster who can’t distinguish phenomenon from explanation. I think you’re the fourth I’ve seen yet in this thread who comes from that camp.

    I’ll refer you to my reply to Sean Carroll at #10. I’m certainly not going to repeat myself.

    1. Thankyou for not repeating yourself. You’ve said far more than enough already – none of which is in the least convincing. If I have to choose between agreeing with you or Sean Carroll it’s Sean everytime.

  28. One can go on and on about, “semantics”, but it’s impossible to have any kind of logical exchange with another person unless they agree upon the meaning of certain words from the start.

    I look at one of the dictionary definitions of the word, “free”: it is, “not affected by any outside condition or circumstance”. Have you ever made a choice or decision in your life in which the choosing or deciding was totally unaffected by anything, whether it be genetics, personal preferences, past experiences, instinct, etc.?

    To claim that decisions and choices can be made that are NOT affected by any of these things is to claim that there is some “quality”; an “agency” (for lack of a better word); a, “ghost in the machine” that is immune to the influence of reality, an idea which flies in the face of the evolutionary development of the human mind. Our minds evolved the way they did because their structure is a response TO reality; there would be little “survival-value” in making choices and decisions that disregarded one’s circumstances.

    I remember hating asparagus when young; now I love it (if it’s fresh-picked). I used to think of yoghurt as “rotten milk”, and wouldn’t touch it; now I eat it every other day. So- if I started out hating these things, out of my “free” will, and now like them, then obviously something (evidence from reality) caused a change in my exercising of that “free” will, which means that it wasn’t really “free” after all.

  29. I don’t know if “Free will” is the right term, but one needs some vocabulary to note that the human mind contains what is sometimes called a “feedback loop” effectively like a camera pointed at it’s reflection in a mirror.

    Douglas Hofstadter in “I am A Strange Loop” has especially interesting thoughts on this. Hofstadter argues that the human mind is self-referential in the same way that mathematician Kurt Godel showed is true of complex mathematical systems. The mind can make meta-statements about themselves in the same sense that there exist poems about the writing of poetry, or Seinfeld’s Kramer character wanted to write a coffee table book about coffee tables. (It really should be about coffee table !*books*!.)

    Hofstadter argues that it is because of the self-referential nature of the brain, that the sense of self of an “I” emerges (rather than from some Cartesian dualistic “soul”).

    This at at least gives the human self some kind of “will” (free or not) in a sense that a basic computer does not have one.

    I have not read Dennett extensively on the subject, but if this is what he means by non-dualistic free will (and I’m not sure if it is or not), I think I agree.

    There is a sense that what the neurons in my head are doing IS me (though I may not be entirely conscious of it), in a way that a gun to my head is not, and it is why moral responsibility is a meaningful idea.

    1. Thanks for that summary of Hofstadter’s book. I just ordered it.

      I’ve come to the exact same conclusion, myself, and I don’t believe that I was aware that Hofstadter had made the same point until you just brought it to my attention. I don’t think I’ve encountered it from anybody else before in any form…and, indeed, I’ve been frustrated with (for example) Sam Harris for coming this ==><== close to it and still missing it by a mile.

      b&

  30. Jerry,
    As a practicing scientist, I like most of your stuff. However, the free-will denial is just wrong and in my opinion is sophistry. Big brains were selected in our lineage to do what? Think. Thinking is a real thing. You believe that my thoughts have a predetermined outcome because of PHYSICS. You will never be able to prove that. Ever. Therefore it is not a scientific theory. In any case, you cannot even predict in principle when a particular atom of U-236 will decay. You can give a probability distribution. That’s not even close to good enough to support your theory.

    1. I’m sorry, but I disagreee, and think that you’re wrong. Do you believe in libertarian free will? If so, where does it come from–do you have an immaterial soul, or something that is able to override the physical workings of your brain? If not, what makes you think that you can make conscious choices different from the ones you made. And there is evidence for a lack of conscious choice, including first principles (laws of physics), and experiments showing that brain scans can predict not only the times of simple decisions, but what decisions will be made—BEFORE they are made. Other experiments show that we can manipulate peoples’ sense of choice, either making them think they have choice when they don’t (moving cursors on computers) or vice versa (ouija boards). Do you realize that big brains could evolve for the same reason big computers did–to process more complicated data and programs? As for quantum mechanics, I’ve discussed that at length, so it appears you haven’t read my posts. I’d be very curious to see what nonmaterial forces you think can give us free choice, because material forces can’t.

      Finally, please adopt a bit more civility. What I have written is not “sophistry”, a term whose meaning you don’t seem to understand (look it up).

      1. » Jerry:
        Finally, please adopt a bit more civility. What I have written is not “sophistry”, a term whose meaning you don’t seem to understand (look it up).

        Well, let’s see: Merriam-Webster says ‘sophistry’ means “the use of reasoning or arguments that sound correct but are actually false”. That seems to be what Robert is getting at. You, on the other hand, seem to suspect that what he is saying has another connotation—“in order to deceive people”, as other dictionaries in fact sometimes add.

        Compare this with a word you yourself used about other people, some of them involved in this present debate: ‘trick’, which Merriam-Webster says means “an action that is meant to deceive someone”. It would appear, then, that you happily used a word whose core connotation is deception about some of us here and then complain that someone would use a word about yourself that only tangentially connotes deception. That would be quite the double standard—and very unfortunate, since first and foremost you set the rules of this place by example.

      2. Jerry, thank you for the chance to debate. I posted a response because you said free will compatibilists like me are like creationists; surely those are provocative words begging a response! By the way, I meant the first definition of sophistry posted by Peter Beattie.

        I am an atheist. I am not appealing to anything supernatural. I am saying that human thought and reflection are real despite being entirely physical in explanation. I cannot understand why you claim that strictly material forces preclude free choice. Why can’t there be emergent properties from such a complex system as the human brain? It is you who sounds more like a creationist citing the Second Law of Thermodynamics for why evolution is impossible.

        Of course human thought is often flawed and easily fooled or manipulated. Subconscious parts of the brain (e.g. instincts) may affect results. At times, some people may be incapable of reflection and therefore may not have free will. For that reason we have the insanity and mentally incompetent defenses in law. I may over-estimate the degree of my rationality and my reflection on choices, but that does not mean that free will does not exist at all. You are using the either/or fallacy when the more likely answer is that degrees of free will exist. At its best, human rational thought is arguably the greatest natural phenomena in the known universe.

        To recap, 1) you have a baseless faith that true thought cannot emerge from purely physical phenomena, 2) you generalize from some interesting failures and/or over-estimates of human rational thought to a faulty conclusion that rational thought does not exist at all.

        1. I didn’t say “free will compatibilists like you” are like creationists UNLESS you are one of those who think that we need to tell people they have free will because otherwise they will begin acting badly. (Dennett is one of those.) If you think that, and give that as a motivation for compatibilist philosophy, then yes, you are like creationists in that respect. I did not say that such people are like creationists in every respect.

          As for those “emergent properties” that arise from physical processes, well, they must be physical too; they are not “spooky” and they cannot be affected by anything non-physical. “Free” choice means that somehow we can make choices free of physical constraints, i.e. we could in any situation have done otherwise. That is what most people think of as free will, and most people are libertarians in that respect (see Sarkissian et al.’s survey).

          My definition of free will is the same as Anthony Cashmore’s: “a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature.” And because I don’t think there’s anything more to behavior than those consequences of physical law, then I don’t think there is free will. You’re simply muddling things up with the spooky notion of “emergent properties.” Such properties are completely consonant with the laws of physics. Water is wet, freezes at 32 degrees F, and both of those are “emergent properties” of a collection of water molecules, but they are completely consistent with physics and could be predicted. Nothing spooky there, as with all “emergent properties.” If you think about it, you’ll see that no emergent properties of a bunch of wet neurons in our head could constitute anything like free choice, for they still obey the laws of physics. And of course quantum indeterminacy, IF it plays a role in “choice,” can’t justify free will, because we can’t affect the quantum behavior of particles.

          But if you think emergent properties of a deterministic system somehow can produce any kind of libertarian free will, take it up with philosophers like Dennett.

          1. Jerry, OK the flaw in your argument is at the end of your post. You admit that you are unsure if quantum indeterminacy is an issue. But if it is, and I think that highly likely, then the universe is not deterministic. That was your major argument in the first place for why we can’t choose differently than we do. You then tried to dismiss this issue as not being a justification for free will. That is a red herring. I don’t need another justification if your argument is false, which it likely is.

            My definition of free will is the ability to reflect on the behavioral choices and then being able to consciously choose. I claim that we have that ability, even if we don’t always exercise it. We are neither a ghost in a machine nor simply a deterministic robot. We are thinking machines. For the record, I accept that the universe is strictly physical, I don’t accept that it is fully deterministic, and I do accept that there are degrees of free will.

            1. I’m pretty sure quantum mechanics is deterministic. What you are saying is that the universe is not clockwork predictable…that’s a completely different thing and determinists already recognize that.

              1. Even if it’s not deterministic…where’s the will in randomness?

                You can’t decide between an hot dog or an hamburger, so you flip a coin. What’s the meaning in that decision?

                b&

              2. I used radioactive decay as an example that has a probabilistic distribution, but individual decay events remain fundamentally unpredictable. I believe that Jerry would argue that the physical state of the universe is wholly dependent on the previous state. That is why he does not believe in free will. There is no evidence that radioactive decay depends on the previous state. It is immune to temperature & pressure, for example. Matter is affected by radioactive decay events as well as other quantum probabilistic events. Therefore, the universe is not deterministic and Jerry’s assumption is not correct. If the assumption is not correct, then the conclusion does not follow.

              3. Sorry, but you clearly haven’t read what I wrote. I don’t believe in free will because I am a materialist. I admit that there are nonpredictable quantum phenomena without a definable “cause.” But I also don’t have any idea, nor do you, whether quantum-level unpredictability of this sort affects our behavior. But even if it does it can have nothing to do with free will, because we don’t produce those phenomena. I suggest you read what I’ve written about free will before making this kind of fallacious argument.

              4. Stangely, whether quantum mechanics is deterministic depends on the interpretation of quantum mechanics, of which there are several. It is *indeterminate*, which is different from nondeterministic. Someone as prominent as Roger Penrose, whom no one has ever accused of being stupid, has proposed that consciousness is the result of quantum gravity effects in microtubules, which are tiny and important structures in cells, including brain cells.

                Whether or not Penrose is right, it’s clear that our understanding of quantum physics is woefully lacking, and I find it hubristic for some to think that we have complete enough understanding of physics to suppose we could, even in principle, model mental processes, including free will.

                Call me a skeptic.

              5. Specifically: brains are much too hot and much too messy for quantum effects to be relevant. If they were, we’d already know this from semiconductor design, which has blown way past the scale of neurons.

                Quantum effects are relevant in semiconductors…but not in any way that aids computation. Quite the opposite, in fact.

                Quantum computing is a fascinating subject with much potential for all sorts of revolution. But it’s not something that can, even in principle, contribute in a positive way to a tangled mass of big, wet, gloppy neurons at a blistering 310 Kelvins.

                It also, generally, seems to be inefficient for general-purpose computing and only really shines at certain specific tasks (such as factoring large numbers, or maybe solving the “traveling salesman” problem). The field is young, and perhaps there are ways to leverage its potential nobody’s even thought of…but all signs to date are that it’s about the least efficient way possible to do most of what we use computers for today.

                b&

              6. I think our understanding of quantum physics isn’t woefully lacking (just mine is). We have that whole quantum field theory thingy that seems quite nice, after all.

              7. I think it’s fair to suggest that we have lots of different levels of understanding of physics.

                At one level, as the LHC demonstrates, we’ve got the stuff needed for engineering dialed in to more nines than I can count, at least in polite company. That’s more understanding of Quantum Mechanics than Newton could ever even dream of for his own physics that he invented.

                At another level, there’s a lot of disagreement and even some confusion about what it “means.” Many worlds? Undetectable pilot waves? Something else? Are we even asking the right questions? Physicists seem to be trending towards the Many Worlds Interpretation, but they’ve yet to achieve consensus amongst themselves.

                …and, at a much more exciting level…we already know that the Standard Model is incomplete because it breaks down with quantum gravity and at singularities like the Big Bang and hasn’t yet explained dark matter or (especially) dark energy. This is where the real action is at these days…will the LHC at full energy find supersymmetry or something else beyond the Standard Model? Will somebody at NASA beat them to the punch and solve the dark matter or dark energy riddles?

                Don’t touch that dial; stay tuned to find out!

                b&

              8. Ooooh…I either didn’t know that or it hadn’t registered. One can almost speculate that the answer to neutrino mass could help explain dark matter — that whatever gives neutrinos mass is also responsible for the as-yet-unobserved gravitational effects.

                I smell several dissertations in the mean time and at least one Nobel in the offering for whoever figures that one out.

                b&

              9. “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”

                — Richard Feynman —

              10. I’ll tell you who thinks he understands quantum mechanics — Deepak Chopra. That’s the company you’re in.

                We’re still far away from a consensus on the correct interpretation, and quantum mechanics and general relativity haven’t been unified.

              11. But, Shirley, you don’t expect that to remain the case forever? And would not Wan hope that we have a less-miserable understanding of Quantum Mechanics today than when the good Professor Feynman was still in the lecture hall rather than pinin’ for the fjords as he is today?

                b&

              12. Maybe not unknowable, but as yet unknown, and we should stop pretending it is.

              13. I don’t think anyone is claiming that we know what we don’t know. At least not any physicist I’ve been exposed to. To suggest that it is arrogant to comprehend what we do know (humans use QFT to make predictions and they use quantum mechanics practically) is tantamount to saying that We don’t know everything there is to know every Word in every language so we can never truly express ourselves and it is arrogant to think that we can.

              14. We have enormous, gaping holes in our understanding of the universe, and it’s not just quantum mechanics. We know very little about complex, self-organizing systems, from things as common place as turbulence to as exotic as abiogenesis. Frankly, I find the attitude I frequently find in these comments, that our current science adequately accounts for something as puzzling as a theory of mind, to be naive at best. I’m a materialist. I think answers to at least some of these things can be found, while others may be out of reach, but skepticism in the face of ignorance and lack of evidence is my position.

              15. Vroomfondel — or was it Majikthise? — put it best. We have rigidly defined areas of uncertainty and doubt, as demanded.

                Or, in Rumsfeldian terms, we know what we know and what we don’t know.

                The most pressing (and exciting!) things we don’t know right now are dark matter and energy, cosmogenesis, quantum gravity, and what lies beyond the Standard Model.

                …but, we also know that the Standard Model is complete up to the energy of the Higgs — and that’s incredibly significant. It means that anything and everything that operates at energy domains less than that of the Higgs has, at its fundamental root, an explanation in the Standard Model with no need to go beyond the Standard Model.

                The most obvious example of which is biology and all its big unanswered questions — especially, of course, abiogenesis and consciousness.

                In all areas of biology, we can and should be absolutely certain (with however many nines as we do in the Higgs) that nothing transcends the Standard Model. And, indeed, for that matter…chemistry is as deep down the rabbit hole as you need to go and often not even that far.

                Just as Newtonian Mechanics is all you’ll ever need to describe the trajectory of a baseball you’ve just thrown — no need in that example to invoke either Einstein or Schrödinger — you’ll never have to resort to anything other than chemistry (if even that) to explain what goes on in the human body, including the human mind.

                We know what lies beyond chemistry: atomic theory. And beyond that is Quantum Mechanics. And neither is even remotely applicable at scales as hot and big and messy as what the human body operates at; anything that you might propose that could happen at those scales is going to get overwhelmed long before it reaches the scale of a cell…

                …just as Relativistic Mechanics is only barely necessary to explain Mercury’s orbit and entirely irrelevant for Venus’s orbit and not even remotely applicable for your baseball.

                Yes, of course — you can run the equations for biology using Quantum Mechanics, just as you can run the equations for your tossed ball with Relativistic Mechanics. But there’s no point; at those scales, the answers agree out to more decimal places than you have appendages to count with. It’s only when you get to much different scales where the answers start to diverge, and the phenomena in question simply don’t apply at those scales.

                Now, of course, that’s not to even remotely pretend to claim that we know everything there is to know about chemistry or biology, of course. Lots of surprises lurk there to be discovered, with some we should anticipate and many we won’t know about until we discover them.

                But we can and should be overwhelmingly confident that what lies underneath those surprises is plain ol’ Standard Model physics as we already know and love — which also places limits on what we’ll find.

                …and those limits include everything ruled out by the Standard Model, which would mean any sort of hypercomputation or the immaterial souls the religious propose or the Platonic idealist mathematics of others in this thread or anything else of the sort. Whatever you propose must reduce ultimately to the Standard Model, which, for brains, means you’re limited to interactions using electromagnetism and nothing else. If you have to invoke something that falls outside of that…then, whatever it is, isn’t real.

                Cheers,

                b&

              16. » Ben Goren:
                We know what lies beyond chemistry: atomic theory. And beyond that is Quantum Mechanics. And neither is even remotely applicable at scales as hot and big and messy as what the human body operates at…

                And yet you, and all the other fundamentalist incompatibilists here, refuse to even engage with Sean Carroll’s point upstream about appropriate levels of analysis.

              17. I think we have been engaging with like-minded people, and I think Coel’s example here really encapsulates the disagreement I have with Sean about this.

                Compatibilists, we can empirically observe here, have a pretty diverse array of phenomena that they label with the term, “free will.” Many of these phenomena are real, but many aren’t. It’s also the case that a number of the phenomena are explicitly supernatural and / or dualistic, such as idealized Platonic conceptions of computation.

                But the one thing that we incompatibilists keep asking…is whether or not any of those phenomena, real or otherwise, constitute freedom of the will. Not freedom of action, not freedom of choice, not willful determination, not sophisticated decision-making capabilities, not a recursive influential awareness of the decision-making process, not even the subjective perception of any of that.

                All we’re asking is, “Is the will itself actually free?”

                And, even in a classical Christian dualistic framework, for the will itself to be free is a self-contradictory incoherent proposition — and it’s exactly that incoherence that theologians themselves struggle with. Just as they struggle with the self-contradictory incoherence of omnipotence (how many allegedly-omnipotent gods are incapable of doing so simple as revealing themselves to humanity outside of the backwaters of ancient Rome?) or omniscience (how many had no clue that humanity would go so far astray?) or the rest.

                Whatever the phenomenon in question is, if it doesn’t directly pertain to the freedom of the will itself, it’s not free will.

                And, no. Of course no such phenomenon actually exists — and that’s the incompatibilist point.

                In many ways, the compatibilist position is the search for a phenomenon, any phenomenon, on which to hang the label, “the freedom of the will.” The incompatibilist position is that that’s, fundamentally, a rather silly and ultimately harmful thing to want to do, so we shouldn’t even waste our time engaging in such linguistic exercises.

                Yes, we should preserve freedom; that’s what the American Revolution and similar endeavors was all about. Yes, we should empower the will; that’s the main driving force behind cognitive behavior therapy and all the self-help books out there — not to mention the pharmaceutical research into depression and other mental illnesses that interfere with the will. All that and more.

                But, really. Why do we have to keep looking for married bachelors just because we all love the institution of marriage as much as we love the wild rebellious freedom of perpetual bachelorhood?

                b&

              18. Ben: All we’re asking is, “Is the will itself actually free?”

                It would be irrational to expect any will to be free from self. Therefore, everything that constitutes the self, including all of the self’s biological needs, all of the self’s history and experience, all of the self’s beliefs and values, etc. are necessarily presumed to be represented in that will.

                Therefore one cannot rationally require a “free will” to be free from the self whose will it is.

                Therefore one must discard any proposed definition that suggests that, if a will is to be free it must be free of the self, whose will it is.

                And, since this is quite obvious to nearly everyone (except maybe the anti-choice determinists), I doubt that any theologian has ever, or would ever, claim such a freedom.

              19. Therefore one must discard any proposed definition that suggests that, if a will is to be free it must be free of the self, whose will it is.

                And, since this is quite obvious to nearly everyone (except maybe the anti-choice determinists), I doubt that any theologian has ever, or would ever, claim such a freedom.

                …and, yet…that’s exactly the theological point of the concept.

                It might help to remember that it’s blindingly obvious that all sorts of other theological constructs are equally incoherent. Omnipotence, for example…an omnipotent entity is incapable of abdicating its powers or committing suicide or anything of that nature. For, if it did, it would clearly no longer be omnipotent, which also means that its earlier, allegedly-omnipotent self was also powerless to intervene in those future events, rendering its earlier self less than all powerful. But that means that it lacks the power to reduce its power, so it can’t be all powerful.

                And it’s not like this is something extraordinary for us to consider. Indeed, we consider it a good thing when a ruler steps aside and makes way for the next generation…and yet such is impossible for an omnipotent entity to do, if the word is to have any meaning. An omnipotent god is one that will never have the joy of seeing its offspring surpass itself…and one that can never give to anybody a realistic hope of being, even for a moment, top of the heap.

                The theologians, at some level, are obviously aware of this because much of theology is obsessed with creative ways to limit the limitless. “Omnipotence” doesn’t really mean all powerful, silly; it just means it can do…well, when you get right down to it, precisely diddly and squat. Not even make an anonymous call to 9-1-1 whenever one of its official agents starts raping yet another kid…

                …and, you know why the gods are forbidden from doing that sort of thing?

                Because it would interfere with our free will.

                Yes, that same free will we’re discussing.

                If free will is more powerful than even an omnipotent and omniscient god’s creative abilities can deal with, what makes you think it’s supposed to be self-consistent?

                Just to drive the point home…theologians would believe that we all have some sort of idealized Platonic essence to ourselves, embodied by the soul, the will. And that essence has a nature that is either good or evil, with after-death accommodations determined by which it is. And we have the freedom to alter our nature to be one or the other, which is the whole inside-the-delusion point to the religion. (The real point, of course, is for the priests to have as much power and extract as much money from their marks and everybody else as possible.)

                So, yeah. You’ve pretty much summed up why it’s incomprehensible, and your only fault is in giving the proponents of free will too much credit for being able to dismiss the incomprehensible.

                Cheers,

                b&

              20. “…and, yet…that’s exactly the theological point of the concept.”

                Nope. No theologian has claimed that one’s will is separate from and therefore free of one’s self. (Gee I hope you don’t find one and make me take that back! It’s much more fun to speak in absolutes when I can get away with it).

                “It might help to remember that it’s blindingly obvious that all sorts of other theological constructs are equally incoherent”

                Correct. But still no evidence they think the will can be divorced from the self. And this is not really a discussion of your issues with religion is it?

                Their fear is the same as yours, that inevitability is an external force causing them to do things beyond their control.

                You are both equally wrong.

                Inevitability does nothing. Inevitability chooses nothing. It is merely the observation that events flow according to reliable causes and effects.

                One of those causes is us, choosing of our own free will to do this or to do that. Our choice is our will at that moment. And our action upon that choice determines what happens next. We choose what gets to be inevitable and what remains mere possibilities.

              21. But still no evidence they think the will can be divorced from the self.

                You’ll have to define what you mean by both “will” and “self” in this context, because they’re typically used interchangeably by others.

                Their fear is the same as yours, that inevitability is an external force causing them to do things beyond their control.

                I have no such fear, I’m afraid. I’m fully down with the recognition that I’m a meat computer. Indeed, I find it most fascinating…so many people wonder what it would mean for a computer to be conscious, what it would feel like for the computer if it’s even possible; I, on the other hand, realize that this is what it’s like and what it means.

                b&

              22. But you have one more choice, Ben. You can choose how you feel. And that’s done partly in how you choose the words that you use to describe yourself.

                “Meat computer” demeans the complexity of the human body (“meat”) and mind (“computer”).

                And choosing to say that you have no free will, but are only the flotsam tossed about, against your will, by the ocean is also demeaning, not to mention a lie.

              23. And I would guess his amygdala is influenced by hormones released in part due to prior conditioning. Memories and thoughts in general can influence how you feel, therefore they are triggering the physical result. And, since what you say to yourself can be chosen as well as what you say to others, you may find appropriate thoughts to trigger the feelings.

                I think Rational Emotive Therapy (RET) is based upon this idea of reviewing what you’ve been saying to yourself and doing some editing.

              24. …and all of that is just some extra bells and whistles and what-not added to the already-complex Rube Goldberg contraption.

                If “free will” is “complexity beyond what I can hold in my head,” then that’s yet another bait-and-switch….

                b&

              25. Non no, everything comes into the brain via the amygdala. All the fun starts there. Ben cannot feel what he wants to feel. Now, his amygdala could be malformed and he may not fear much or his amygdala could be ginormous and he could suffer from anxiety disorder…but he cannot control these things.

              26. From Wikipedia: “In complex vertebrates, including humans, the amygdalae perform primary roles in the formation and storage of memories associated with emotional events. Research indicates that, during fear conditioning, sensory stimuli reach the basolateral complexes of the amygdalae, particularly the lateral nuclei, where they form associations with memories of the stimuli.”

                The word “conditioning” implies the response is subject to training. The amygdalae do not function to originate emotional events, but manages their storage for later recall.

                So if you get bitten by a dog, you’ll be afraid the next time you see a similar dog. You can treat a phobia by slowly extinguishing the response through repeated exposure to nice dogs.

                There are also biofeedback machines that can be used to help you relax also.

                So you can choose to alter your feelings.

              27. Look up how information enters the brain. You may be interested in reading about how much is edited out before it reaches the visual cortex as well.

              28. “you may find appropriate thoughts to trigger the feelings”

                True, you may find them. But only if they’re there. You cannot /will/ them there.

                /@

              29. Ant: “True, you may find them. But only if they’re there. You cannot /will/ them there.”

                You can choose to see a therapist who will make new options available to you.

              30. Ant: “But you can’t /will/ yourself to choose to see a therapist.”

                Sounds like Zeno’s paradox. Are you suggesting that before someone can choose to see a therapist he must first choose to choose to choose to choose … ?

                The self is interacting with its environment. Within the environment are new things to learn about each day. For example, if someone is experiencing depressive thoughts then they may notice meds being advertised on TV and in magazines and choose to ask their doctor about it. Their doctor would recommend a therapist.

              31. You can choose how you feel.

                Tell that to somebody with a mental illness such as clinical depression (which, fortunately, isn’t me). Tell them that they can choose to be depressed or not.

                See how well that goes over.

                b&

              32. “No theologian has claimed that one’s will is separate from and therefore free of one’s self.”

                Well, that’s obviously not true re one’s /physical/ self.

                “Ah, souls,” as the polite eagles didn’t say.

                /@

                >

              33. Ant, their “soul” functionally refers to the self. There is no theological claim to a will separate from the soul/self (at least none that I’ve heard of).

              34. No, soul is definitely dualistic. My point was that the “self” is only in one place (either in the physical body or in the soul). So whether you believe in ghosts or not, there is only one true self. The dualists simply think the soul is not permanently located in the physical body like we do.

              35. Fair enough. (I replied to your comment in email, without the context of your original statement.) But how does your dualistic self will your body to act on its decisions?

                /@

              36. I haven’t a clue. I grew up in the Salvation Army, an offshoot of the Methodists. I don’t recall discussing the issue of free will in church.

                It wasn’t until my father committed murder and suicide that I ever questioned my beliefs. Then all of a sudden I had a direct interest in the concept of Hell. I eventually reach the conclusion that a God who would deliberately torture anyone for eternity could not, MUST not exist.

                So I ended up spending time in the Richmond Public Library looking through the philosophy section. I suspect it was Spinoza that informed me of the supposed issue between determinism and free will. And then I suspect it was William James’s “Pragmatism” that provided the cure.

                Anyway, I’m not familiar with the apologetics that explain the relationship of the soul to the body or any of that stuff. I suppose I left the church too young to be exposed to it.

                So to make a long story a little longer, you’ll need to ask a dualist about how that works.

                The closest I came was a letter I wrote to Oral Roberts asking what the soul was and whether it was the same as my self. They answered back that I should discuss it with my local minister. But that was my parents! And I figured they wouldn’t know.

          2. Hi Jerry,
            I hope you have time for one more comment from me. I have read more of your stuff as you suggested. You have three lines of argument that I can discern. All of them are flawed in my opinion.

            The first is a thought experiment (“you have free will if you could have chosen otherwise”) that purports to show that physical determinism of behavior precludes free choice. According to the Health Physics Society website, an average person is experiencing 5,000 radioactive decays per second just from their own radionuclides like potassium-40 in their bodies. This is about 1 tenth of the natural background radiation from things like radon. Therefore, the deterministic interval between unpredictable decays or bombardments is less than one ten thousandth second. I suspect that other quantum interactions, such as photobiology, might randomly affect quantum states on much shorter time scales. We could argue about the latent period between cause and effect on behavior, but of course effects are cumulative and the concept of predetermined output is undermined nonetheless.

            The second argument is that neuroscience has shown a disconnect between consciousness of our choices and physiological evidence of choices being made. That is not proof that our brains are always incapable of thoughtfully considering options and making free choices. Our evolved brains are not fully integrated systems. There is a range of consciousness. Some behaviors are clearly subconscious. Others, like writing a book on WEIT, are clearly conscious. You are erroneously trying to force an either/or verdict on the connection of consciousness with behavior.

            The third argument is that there is no plausible mechanism to generate free will in a strictly physical world. Here is your 2012 formulation from USA Today: “True “free will,” then, would require us to somehow step outside of our brain’s structure and modify how it works. Science hasn’t shown any way we can do this because “we” are simply constructs of our brain.”

            In your 2013 WEIT post entitled “Two disparate views of free will”, you provided the answer: “The refutation is, of course, that rationality (i.e., the combining of evidence to reach good decisions) is a product of natural selection, which has ordered those “irrational atoms” into neurological programs that not only promote human rationally [sic], but also help us weigh evidence.” Processing and rationally weighing information is getting close to conventional concepts of free will. The missing component from your answer is how we might modify how it works. We do that all the time. Good examples are learning and meditation. Both are reprogramming our own brains to think and behave differently. We are really talking about consciousness, awareness, wakefulness, self-awareness, reflection, comprehension, or whatever you want to call it. Although we do not have a complete theory of consciousness, that certainly is not an argument that consciousness does not exist. Our brains are evolved analog computers that can rationally process, model, and weigh information. Our brains can examine the environment and themselves and their output. They have the ability to recursively reprogram themselves, both consciously and subconsciously. Therefore, the human brain is a perfectly plausible mechanism for free will.

            1. I am not going to argue with you further about this except to point out, in response to what you say, that quantum indeterminacy provides no basis for conscious choice, since you don’t control it in any way. As for the second two points, that’s just the brain acting as an evolved computer. If, like Dennett, you want to call the actions of that computer “free will,” fine, but that’s not the way most people conceive of free will.

              This is the end of the discussion.

    1. To put it in perspective…we all often wish we had chosen differently, but how often do we really think that we actually could have, given the circumstances we found ourselves in?

      Yes, of course, if you rewound the clock and kept your memories of the consequences of your decision, you may well choose differently…but, at the time, you were bereft of the full knowledge of those consequences. So how could you possibly have done otherwise?

      b&

  31. I do like the book, but oy, does it take naturalism to its most extreme!

    But that was really the point of the book: What does the world look like when you apply an austere naturalism, everything being fixed by physics?

    One of the more interesting conclusions for me, given the creationist canard about the second law, was that evolution is a consequence of the laws of thermodynamics!

    /@

    1. And some recent maths modeling work lends support to that down to the level of abiogenesis. It seems that life is much more efficient at creating entropy than non-living processes, and therefore that systems with a strong energy source (e.g. stars, tidal heating, etc.) may “naturally” tend to organize living systems.

  32. Prof Ceiling Cat Wrote:

    “I had this thought about compatibilists—those philosophers and intellectuals who agree that while our thoughts and actions are controlled by the laws of physics (and so we can’t really choose differently from how we do), we still have some kind of “free will.” It’s just not the type of free will that most people think we have.”

    That one jumped out at me, and I see Sastra and others have already commented. But to add to the pile:

    The above quote still doesn’t represent the compatibilist position. The whole point is that in several important respects, we DO have the free will that most people think we have. That is what Dennett means when saying we have the “only type of free will worth wanting.” It’s mostly that alternative *explanations* such as dualism, are wrong explanations.

    And as I’ve argued, the logic and assumptions that undergird our daily decision-making is for the most part preserved and explained.

    Yes, there are *some* illusions to be dispelled. But, like the theistic illusions dispelled on the subject of morality to get at the REAL grounding of morality – not dispense with it – we can get at the *real* basis for conceptually coherent “freedom” in a deterministic universe.

    Ultimately, this consistent misunderstanding seems to me to derive from the position held by the incompatibilist, in which “Free Will” must be restricted to some spooky dualism at the moment of a decision, vs compatibilists who hold that the concept of “free will” is much wider and richer and more complex than that, and that many of the concerns wrapped up into “free will” are preserved or clarified when worked out in a deterministic framework.

    Jerry has said compatibilists are like creationists, but it just as assuredly feels the same from this side: from the compatibiilst side it can seem like incompatibilists will only acknowledge an over simplified, spooky dualistic concept as ‘free will” just as some Theists will only acknowledge a narrow supernatural conception of “morality.” NO amount of reasoning, or pointing to alternative evidence, seems to dislodge the incompatibilist’s desire to cling to a supernatural conception of free will, so there must be some other emotional motivation for clinging to it.

    Now, if that description of incompatibilists actually rings false to the incompatibilists here…welcome to the club 🙂

    1. The above quote still doesn’t represent the compatibilist position. The whole point is that in several important respects, we DO have the free will that most people think we have.

      So we do have a ghost in the machine, then, an undefined and mysterious, possibly irreducible We who gets to Make Choices. That’s what most people would think we have.

      We “only acknowledge an over simplified, spooky dualistic concept as ‘free will”” not because of some patronizing, psychoanalytical tosh about an emotional desire to cling to it. We acknowledge it because that is what the debate is about! It runs through our conceptions of free will – that there is something special about human decision making, about us, and that it can’t be answered with referral to the stuff of science, like neuroscience, computing, and mind sciences.

      When “compatibilists” mock incompatibilists for not appreciating the subtle complexities of the word free will, suggest we’re paralyzed when trying to use words to describe a child picking ice cream, and suggest the best way to describe reality is using free will – as if the debate were merely about the phenomenon of choosing rather than the explanation for what choosing is – which means not having a gun pointed at your head, they sound EXACTLY like the kind of theist who mocks atheists for believing in the bearded man in the sky, or like the accommodationists who claim religion and science are perfectly compatible. I’m not going to sink to psychoanalyzing why that is the case, but at best I remain suspicious that “compatibilists” are claiming their determinist credentials and not trying to salvage something about libertarianism.

      1. I’m not going to sink to psychoanalyzing why that is the case, but at best I remain suspicious that “compatibilists” are claiming their determinist credentials and not trying to salvage something about libertarianism.

        Drat, let me rephrase that:

        “I’m not going to sink to psychoanalyzing why that is the case, but at best I remain suspicious that “compatibilists” are claiming their determinist credentials and might also be trying to salvage something about libertarianism.”

      2. “… as if the debate were merely about the phenomenon of choosing rather than the explanation for what choosing is …”

        No, we compatibilists *agree* with you on the explanation for what choosing is. We “choose” an ice-cream flavour in exactly the same way that a chess computer “chooses” a move — both are entirely determined by the physical state of the system.

        Please can we agree that that is what is happening?

        The problem is that, no matter how many times the compatibilists explain their position, the incompatiblists simply refuse to assimilate it, and then suspect us of being closet dualists.

        There is no “ghost in the machine”, nothing “mysterious” about “choosing” as a compatiblists understands it.

        Really, there isn’t! Heck, we can even build machines that do it — chess-playing computers are an example! What do you regard as “mysterious” about a chess-playing computer and the choices that it makes?

        1. Then put your incompatibilist money where your mouth is. I’ve just responded to your “challenge” elsewhere. I want to see what you make of it.

      3. reasonshark,

        “So we do have a ghost in the machine, then, an undefined and mysterious, possibly irreducible We who gets to Make Choices. That’s what most people would think we have.”

        Of course not, and you are well aware we agree about that. The problem is that you are so focused on JUST THAT NARROW conception of free will that if anyone speaks of it in a wider sense, you will just refuse to acknowledge we are still talking about “free will.”

        Yes, there is a “ghost in the machine” mistake held by many people. But that is only ONE aspect within the whole free will problem (and as I’ve argued before, I see dualism not as being “what free will is” but rather, like supernatural morality, a *mistaken theory* about how human choice operates).

        Take a look at the Wikipedia page on Free Will:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_will

        Look how wide-ranging the scope is of concerns and thoughts are on the subject, how little actually you see the “dualism” “ghost in the machine” actually mentioned among the other concerns!

        And note that like every major article you can find on the subject of free will, it points out that the very definition – what it even entails – is under dispute. So, I’m sorry, this stance you incompatibilists keep taking that dualistic/libertarian free will IS “free will” is unwarranted. And appealing to what “many people think about free will” isn’t just the incompatibilist purview – MOST free will philosophical positions start with an examination of our common conceptions of choice-making from which to build the viewpoint. It’s not like
        incompatibilists are the only ones paying attention to how people think about free will!

        Take this line from the Wikipedia article on Free Will:

        “The underlying issue is: Do we have some control over our actions, and if so, what sort of control, and to what extent?”

        THIS is what I and others have been saying.
        “Free Will” does not automatically mean simply “indeterminism” or “dualistic soul power.” Rather, “free will” embodies general SETS OF CONCERNS, like the above.

        From the article:

        “On one hand, humans have a strong sense of freedom, which leads us to believe that we have free will.[8][9] On the other hand, an intuitive feeling of free will could be mistaken.”

        And so we have to examine our experience of “choice making” to see what, if any part, we might be mistaken about, what is illusion, what is true etc.

        As I have argued, the experience of choice making is rich and complex. It does not reduce to “thinking I am an indeterministic entity.” At times that sensation, or even illusion, may be there…but it is far from the whole story, especially as it relates to the types of concerns mentioned in the Wikipedia article.

        So if I am wanting to choose between driving to work or walking, I can stop and ask “do I REALLY have a choice? Could I REALLY do either action? Or am I MISTAKEN in thinking I could choose either course of action? Or that I “could have” chosen either course of action yesterday?

        And, again, as I’ve argued, when you look at the various assumptions in this choice-making, “ghostly bits” play little part. It may be a sensation perhaps, but it’s not a central part of the logic of our reasoning.
        We reason from abstractions over time, about the nature of ourselves and our world, and our powers and abilities in doing what we want. The necessarily abstract and “if/then” type reasoning we ACTUALLY USE does not require, or rely on indeterminism, or magic. It’s fully compatible with determinism (and would HAVE to be if this were a deterministic world. If we didn’t have some form of reasoning truthfully about the world – the world being deterministic – we wouldn’t be here. So incoherent magical thinking can not be as central to our experience of choice making and deliberating as some here seem to believe.

      4. Ben,

        Re definitions.

        First “ghost in the machine” isn’t exactly a
        clear or precise definition of free will.

        As to compatibilist definitions, the concept has been stated plainly over and over here.
        I’ll take this from Wikipedia’s page on free will as defined in compatibilism:

        “compatibilists define free will as freedom to act according to one’s determined motives without arbitrary hindrance from other individuals or institutions.”

        And, slightly expanded:

        “Compatibilists often define an instance of “free will” as one in which the agent had freedom to act according to his own motivation. That is, the agent was not coerced or restrained.”

        I would be very surprised if you do not recognize that this is the position so often expressed by compatibilists here.

        We say this, and then it seems the retort comes: “But there’s nothing referencing dualism or ghost in the machine in there, so THAT’S not free will!”

        And round and round we go…

        Cheerio,

  33. It’s been a while since I read Rosenberg’s book, but iirc, he embraces not only scientism, but also nihilism. He calls it, “nice nihilism”.

  34. To follow Coel’s excellent suggestion, that instead of theorising motivations to compatibilists, why not just ASK a compatibilist why exactly he/she takes up his/her compatibilist position.

    Here are the general reasons that I, as a compatibilist, hold my particular compatibilist view:

    1) I find the arguments that incompatibilists put forward are extremely unconvincing and weak. In particular I find the incompatibilist stance exceptionally simplistic and extraordinarily reductionist. By their incompatibilist sort of thinking, any emergent properties as complexification, for example, could never exist at all- because a similar primitive adherence to the implications of the second law of thermodynamics “negates that possibility”.
    In this reductionist thinking compatibilists completely discount any possibility that complexity in mental processes can ever lead to ANY emergent property that counters their most primitive definitions of causation in the physical world. In effect, instead of dealing with compatibilist argument they set up “causation straw man” that completely ignores the complex issues of mind. By doing this they do not address the issues we compatibilists raise.
    2) Alternatively, I find the arguments of compatibilists on free will extremely convincing. I am particularly impressed my the arguments of Kane and Dennett of the mechanisms that can explain processes underpinning free will (as they define it), and the evolutionary path that would lead to the existence of such mechanisms. An understanding of Computational Theory ( my own field is Computer Science) also provides significant insights into how a free-will mechanism can exist in a totally physical environment.
    3) I totally accept that just because “authority” leans toward one’s own particular conclusions on a subject one cannot necessarily assume one is on the right side of an argument, I still cannot ignore the fact that almost every scientist and philosopher that I particularly respect (with the notable exception of Jerry) also holds to my compatibilist viewpoint. This cannot but reinforce the feeling that my own detailed analysis and conclusions (given at length on other free will threads at WEIT) are valid.

    1. “In this reductionist thinking compatibilists completely discount any possibility that complexity in mental processes can ever lead to ANY emergent property that counters their most primitive definitions of causation in the physical world. In effect, instead of dealing with compatibilist argument they set up “causation straw man” that completely ignores the complex issues of mind. By doing this they do not address the issues we compatibilists raise.”

      So, *are* you arguing for contracausal free will? These seems like a straw-man straw man.

      “the mechanisms that can explain processes underpinning free will (as they define it)”

      This seems to be the sticking point. Is it useful to use “free will” as a label for “free will (as they define it)”; i.e., is that redefinition helpful or does it just muddy the waters?

      I guess I’m an it-muddies-the-waters kind of guy. It seems we could all move on if we could admit that “free will” will never be truly free of it’s dualistic and contracausal impedimenta, put the term aside and just talk about “human agency” or some such.

      But all of these deep arguments are straying away from Jerry’s point in the OP, if I understand it correctly, that Dennett (if not other compatibilists) are committing an “appeal to consequences” fallacy.

      /@

      1. “It seems we could all move on if we could admit that “free will” will never be truly free of it’s dualistic and contracausal impedimenta, put the term aside and just talk about “human agency” or some such.”

        I don’t think this redefinition would help at all, for it would only move the argument onto the question of exactly what are the characteristics of “agency” with respect to causality. Perhaps we should better try to define what constitutes “autonomy” – is it possible for anything to be separate enough as an entity to be the principal effecter of it’s actions? By principal effecter I do not mean that “heredity”=”make up” and “environment”=”historic external causes” have no presence or effect, but only that the entity is sufficiently “self formed” or self-programed so that most of what it does is the by-product of this self forming, a by-product of that AUTONOMY. Dennet’s evolved “evitability avoiders” are such autonomous agents, as are Kane’s “self formed” decision makers. And I say that computational entities are also possible, without breaking physical law.

        Now just to be provocative let me address the issue of “dualism” that you bring up. Of course both compatibilists and incompatibilists reject the classical interpretation of dualism. But on thinking about it – since the mind is exactly analogous to a complex multi-processing structure as a PHYSICAL entity, therefore mental processes of the mind are exactly analogous to the software that is executed in this structure. So it follows that, as with software, mind is a mathematical construct and NOT a physical thing. The “rules of behaviour” of the physical and the mathematical can overlap but are NOT one and the same. This is perhaps dualism in another form (NOTE: I am being playful here – but not incorrect) So accusing compatibilists as being dualists carries no weight – even if such a charge really was true (and it is not true).

        As for consequences, I cannot but agree that the consequences of indeterminism are morally dire. But this is NOT why I reject incompatibilism. I do so because the arguments that in favour of incompatibilism don’t stand up to scrutiny.

  35. Interesting that almost all the comments have been about the issue of free will and almost none about Alex Rosenberg’s book which covers that of course but also so much more. Perhaps most people on this list haven’t read it. If so, that’s too bad. It’s certainly one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in the last 20 years or so and I was very interested to see you were reading it again. I hope you will be following up, Jerry, on your rather cryptic comment “will become clear later” as I would certainly like to hear more about your impressions of the book. I’ve read it twice now and given copies to my two sons. I can’t recommend it highly enough to others on the list.
    Richard

    1. Ditto. It has something of Saul’s stark beauty about it. It highlights a lot of areas (like “free will”/“agency”) where we have a lot of work to do to reconcile out intuitions about how the world works with how the world works.

      /@

  36. In contradiction to all of the above, our current best theory is that the universe is not deterministic at all, it is stochastic.

    Of course, people above are only saying that the universe is “deterministic” because they are using another definition of “deterministic” which is IMHO wildly inaccurate and misleading.

    I demand to be protected from this misleading definition with a safe space, preferably one with play-doh and cookies. And a My Little Pony.

      1. You can have it, but I don’t like chocolate so I’ll need a safe space within the safe space to protect me from it.

  37. Just curious, would you concede that there are at least some compatibilists who would agree with you on the moral implications of determinism but who also think there are good reasons to define the types of choices humans make as ‘free will?’

    1. If you’re addressing me, the answer is that I don’t know of any such compatibilists, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. My experience has been that those who agree with me on determinism, which is most compatibilists, disagree with me on my view that this removes from humanity the idea of “moral responsibility.” And that idea of “moral responsibility” is one reason why people make up new definitions of free will.

      Truly, I can’t see any good reasons to define what people do as constituting “free will” given the data showing that most people think of “free will” as libertarian, unconstrained by physics, and in that form is very important to them as a component of moral responsibility.

      1. If you’re looking for a good reason, I’ll point you to my first comment :p

        To briefly summarize there are good mathematical/computational definitions for decision making systems versus non-decision making systems and the concept it describes is wildly important (not just an arbitrary definition). The decision making distinction is why game theory is a field.

        1. I’ll add one more thing.

          You seem to be arguing from a position of semantic authority for libertarian free will. But I don’t see how libertarian free will has any more semantic authority than compatiblism. I could see an argument if free will had a long history of a well established definition that compatiblists were now trying to overturn. That is not the case though. First, I don’t think libertarian free will has ever been well defined. I think “libertarian free will” describes a theory of mind as much as “the crystal’s energy” describes a property of physics (that is, it doesn’t). Second, compatiblism isn’t a new idea. So on what grounds can an incompatiblist claim semantic authority? Why should we reject useful definitions of free will in favor of poorly thought out intuitions (assuming that’s even the most common colloquial view)? If your goal is emphasize the consequence of determinism, the compatibilist definition doesn’t prevent you from doing that.

          In summary, the compatibilist view is not some new challenger, we can provide a very good formal and testable definition of it, I can provide good reasons that the concept of the compatibilist free will is important, and the points about determinism that you like are still able to made with it. Given that, why would you insist on the incompatiblist definition?

          1. Lots of good points here, JM. Especially this:

            If your goal is emphasize the consequence of determinism, the compatibilist definition doesn’t prevent you from doing that.

            Dennett, for example, takes great pains in Freedom Evolves to underline exactly that point. But not even Jerry has felt the need to address it, or even so much as acknowledge it.

      2. I strongly agree with you on the moral implications of determinism and I think they’re worth impressing on people because of how internalizing them will likely affect their intuitions regarding retaliation and justice. I also don’t support Dennett’s ‘little people’ argument and I think there are good reasons to believe that abolishing the idea of libertarian free will would make the world a much better place. However, I do think there is at least one decent argument out there for redefining ‘free will’ to the types of choices that intelligent agents make.

        I don’t want to make my post too long but I want to touch on a couple things:

        1. The moral implications with even libertarian free will being true would be nearly the same (though less intuitive). Unnecessary retaliation and ‘just deserts’ would remain irrational because of sunk costs fallacy unless they’re consequentially justified. Our intuition that some people ‘deserve’ to suffer still doesn’t actually survive rigorous scrutiny with libertarian free will being true imo.

        2. We’re already creating a flavor of AI agents that have a type of ‘will,’ but, as of yet, that will is entirely dictated by humans. As AI agents get more advanced, I think we will need categories for the types of will that’ll exist and the term ‘free will’ will be great for describing agents like ourselves, whose decisions are dictated by preferences that weren’t ascribed to them by other agents. The term ‘free will’ fits well because that’s what ‘freedom’ already means to humans: that our existence isn’t dictated or controlled by other agents.

  38. I think I’m caught up on what everybody’s posted since yesterday…and there’s something that was really quite striking, and repeatedly so.

    The incompatibilists are operating with an unambiguous definition of, “free will”: the popular libertarian misconception of a dualistic ghost in the machine.

    Yet, even if you put a gun to my head, I couldn’t tell you what the compatibilist definition of the term is. Compatibilists go to great pains to reassure us that their understanding of “free will” isn’t the common one, and it’s more than merely whether or not you’ve got a gun to your head…but that’s as far as I’d feel comfortable going without mischaracterizing the compatibilist position.

    So…I think it would do a great deal to move the discussion forward if the compatibilists here could come to first some sort of agreement on a dictionary-style definition of the term, “free will”…and then provide a convincing argument as to why that definition of the term is valid.

    But, please, for the sake of all that’s unholy! Start with the definition, and limit its length to about that of this here sentence.

    Cheers,

    b&

    1. Incompatibilists needs to explain why intelligent actors don’t have free will, because that’s my understanding of a compatibilist definition.

        1. Yes, exactly. The only clear definition I’ve yet to encounter is the dualist “ghost in the machine” one, and that’s not even internally coherent once you poke at it. Might as well say that “free will” is what married bachelors do and be done with it.

          So, give us a definition of “free will” that isn’t that one, and then maybe we can make some progress.

          b&

          1. » Ben:
            Might as well say that “free will” is what married bachelors do and be done with it.

            Your dogmatic insistence that a word you don’t like must never mean anything else than that which you find idiotic is…well, idiotic.

            And if ‘free’ did indeed only ever mean a binary dichotomy, then things such as “degrees of freedom” wouldn’t exist—which you are perfectly aware is not the case.

            So how about you stop being so self-servingly uncritical, and then maybe we can make some progress.

        2. I would argue that something that exerts or attempts to exert a change in a system due to its preferences for the state of that system, and in accordance with those preferences and its perception of the state of that system, has free will and is exercising it.

          1. Well, we know from physics that that’s not how the world works.

            Like it or not, you are a meat computer, and the choices you make are computed with the same unrelenting obedience to input (etc.) as a pocket calculator.

            …unless you’re also arguing that a pocket calculator has free will…?

            b&

            1. Wait, computer systems cannot perceive systems and express their preferences, and try to influence those systems to conform to them? I’m almost certain they can. I am not the first person this thread to claim that a chess program has a very rudimentary form of free will.

              1. Then we are left with the same problem of either a semantic argument or a misconception of hidden dualism.

                Give a chess computer the same inputs, and it’s guaranteed to produce the exact same outputs. Where’s the freedom in that? (And, remember: from the perspective of a computer scientist, the output from a random number generator is an input to the program.)

                So, either you must think that a computer is free to override its own programming — which is supernatural fantasy dualism — or your idea of “free” means “perfectly lacking choice.”

                b&

              2. You can make claims about people believing in libertarian free will, but I think people believe people actions are predetermined by their personality. This is the entire concept of trust: I know a person so well I don’t think they would ever do something that could hurt me; therefore, I’m willing to make myself vulnerable to them. If I trust them, does that mean I don’t think they have a choice? Myt guess is most people would answer not “No, I guess most people I trust don’t have free will.”

                For people to wholesale believe in libertarian free will, they could never trust anyone, because they could be capable of anything. Free will isn’t about choice, it’s about expressing preferences.

              3. Free will isn’t about choice

                …then your “free will” is diametrically opposed to everybody else’s definition, at least as I understand them.

                b&

              4. Then I repeat: how could people who believe in free will ever trust anyone? They clearly don’t think of it in the same hard lines you do, or they wouldn’t be able to.

              5. People who believe in dualistic free will are very, very confused. They think the mind is like a radio receiver for the soul, with the soul residing in a supernatural realm. And they’ve never thought about whether or not the soul is willfully obedient to its own nature or freely able to make any choice at any whim…and how the two are not merely incompatible but diametric opposites.

                That’s why those of us who reject free will do so.

                After all, we’re not the ones attempting to salvage an incoherent theological mess for some indeterminate secular purpose. We’re just pointing out that it’s an incoherent theological mess and rejecting it out of hand — the same way we do gods, an afterlife, and the rest of the schtick.

                b&

            2. Wait, you’re denying that human agents exert changes to the world due to their preferences for the state of that system in accordance with their preferences? This is precisely what humans do and that’s very well substantiated in terms of decision theory and game theory, regardless of determinism (in fact determinism may actually be necessary for one to make true decisions by that definition because if there is randomness, those decisions would be based on randomness and not on their preferences). You may not like calling it ‘free will’ but you’re absolutely incorrect to say this isn’t how the world works.

              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decision_theory
              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Game_theory

              1. I’m not denying the significance of game theory.

                I’m denying that there’s any freedom in the way the agents make decision.

                And, “Duh!” The entire reason that agents can be modeled in such a way is because they’re not free, because they’re predictable! Game theory doesn’t apply even in principle to an actor that always makes decisions at random, regardless of input or rules.

                b&

              2. It won’t let me reply directly to your last message so I’m replying to my own. Hopefully it isn’t confusing.

                I was mostly responding to your claim that he was wrong that the world worked in the way he described.

                Beyond that, compatibilism is a mostly semantic stance (except when people use it to attempt to smuggle intuitive notions of ‘just deserts’ and retribution into it). There is freedom in it if it’s defined as ‘free will,’ by definition, and freedom doesn’t have to be absolute. I can’t fly through the sky, or walk through walls, but I still consider myself freer than, say, slaves, for instance. My will is much the same way.

                If you want to see my argument for why I think free will should be defined in this way, please look a few posts above yours. I also agree with JM’s arguments below mine.

    2. I’ve already provided a definition here. Comments here don’t make it easy, but depending on how deep you want to go, we can break it down into mathematical formalisms. At a high-level summary though, there are meaningful computational properties of decision making agents versus non-decision making agents. These distinctions are very important in AI research. Also, from these formalisms of decision making we can also analyze whether an agent’s decision making system was designed with its consequences understood by a decision making designer or not, which seems like another useful property for whether an agent has free will or not. (For example, when responding to an agent, if it has a puppeteer of sorts, you may need to reason about the puppeteer too.)

      Looking below at further responses to you, yes, this definition would entail that a chess solver has a rudimentary will. However, in response to these claims you seem to be moving the goalposts. Your original challenge was “can you provide a definition of compatibilist free will?” People responded giving you an answer, yet now your rebuttal is effectively “but I wouldn’t define that as a free decision.” Yes, we know that; we know incompatiblists reject definitions in which determinism exists… that’s kind of the debate :p But you’re the one who challenged whether compatibilists even had good definitions, and clearly we do. It’d be nice then if you conceded that your challenge was addressed.

      Now you can say that you don’t like that compatibilist definition. Ultimately, no one can stop you from liking or disliking any definition, but it is a valid definition. Moreover, it’s a definition that expresses an important concept (as I said earlier, game theory is a field because of the concept of decision making agents). So let me ask you a question. Since there is a definition of compatibilist free will that describes a useful concept, on what grounds is the incompatibilist definition more useful? If it’s not strictly more useful, then I see no reason that anyone should *insist* that the incompatiblist definition is the one we should be using.

      1. In short…yes, I reject your definition for the simple reason that there’s no freedom in the system. How can you have a free will that’s not free, that is guaranteed to always result in the exact same output for a given input? That’s the textbook definition of not free.

        I am, in no way, denying that humans are complex computational systems that process all sorts of inputs into outputs, and that do so in ways that are labyrinthine and not amenable to analysis. Nor am I denying that there are all sorts of ways of making sense of the mess, with game theory an excellent way.

        What I and other incompatibilists are rejecting is the notion that any of that even vaguely resembles what is typically understood by the term, “free will,” and especially that there’s any meaningful notion of freedom in any of it.

        You can try to address the first, but you run smack dab into the problem that theologians and philosophers have, for millennia, framed the debate in exactly these terms, with your clockwork machinery being that which lacks free will and humans with whatever (falsely) presumed special essence we have defining that which has free will.

        Or you can try to address the second…in which case you’re either going full Orwell and claiming that slavery is freedom, or you’re now imparting dualism to clockwork machinery.

        So, let me turn it back on you.

        Why on Earth are you so passionate about holding on to such a perverted and useless and confused term as, “free will,” to describe these phenomena? Why not just describe them as the spirits of the souls bequeathed unto us by the gods and angels and be done with it? What you’re doing is every bit as confusing and leaves the waters just as muddy — but, if you go full throttle, at least you’ll have some sort of poetic beauty to point to.

        b&

        1. “There’s no freedom” according to your definition of freedom. You’re beginning the question. That is, the question to be answered is what does it mean to have free will and we have given you an answer (to repeat in brief, an agent makes decisions and those decisions were free from—as in cannot be strictly reduced to—the decisions and intentions of a creator agent). You cannot defeat that answer using a different definition of the term to be defined.

          You say you’re turning the question back on me, but you never answered mine or at least didn’t provide an example of additional value. If someone thinks the world is non-deterministic (even beyond the effects of quantum mechanics) a compatibilist can argue against this position. If a person claims there is a soul, a compatibilist can argue against this position. Insisting on incompatiblism doesn’t enable you to argue against more false claims that compatiblism does so you still haven’t explained what value is gained by insisting on that definition.

          An no, compatibilism is not a “perverted” concept of free will. Comptabilism is not a new concept.

          I’ve already explained why I prefer the definition of compatibilist free will. It describes a useful concept of the world (as in, knowing whether an agent possess the quality affects how I reason about them). In contrast, I do not see any use of the incompatiblist position that the compatiblist does not also share.

          1. Let me simplify.

            You are proposing that something that is guaranteed to result in an identical outcome every time is somehow “free.” This does not comport with any definition of the term, “free,” ever used in such a context. The closest you could get would be the “free” in “free fall,” but I think we can safely assume that that’s an entirely different definition of the word.

            Therefore, while you may well be describing some sort of a will, that will cannot possibly be free. It is constrained. Ask it if it wants chocolate or vanilla based upon the current conditions, and the result is as guaranteed as the “2” that shows up on the calculator after you press “1 + 1.”

            And I can’t offer you any meaningful definition of the term, “free will,” because the freakin’ term is a freakin’ incoherent self contradiction!

            It’s like you keep insisting that we must absolutely find a way to apply the term, “married bachelor,” and refuse to consider for a moment that there’s no point in even thinking to salvage it. It’s bullshit! Why do we have to figure out some situation in which we can use the bullshit term? Why can’t we just drop it, the same way we don’t try to shoehorn “married bachelor” or “god” or “soul” into discussions of real phenomena?

            b&

            1. Again, so says you. It absolutely does confirm to a definition of freedom, one many compatibilists use. Again, when asking for a definition for something, you cannot challenge it by saying the definition is something else, you’re begging the question.

              You are using the same reasoning I discussed in a previous comment. You want to to operate under the premise that your definition of free will has a priori semantic authority. It doesn’t. I’ll point you to my previous comment on the matter rather than repeat it:

              https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2015/03/24/why-free-will-compatibilists-are-like-creationists/?replytocom=1165655#comment-1165461

            2. Ben, every single other usage of the word “free” is compatible with determinism.

              Take “freedom of religion”. It means freedom from *external* social pressure and thus freedom to indulge ones *internal* desires. (It is not an appeal to dualism.)

              So what’s wrong with the same interpretation of “freedom of the will”?

              Or take the phrase: the fox struggled to free its leg from the trap”. That is not to do with violating physical laws, it’s to do with the fox moving the leg in accordance with its *internal* desires.

              1. The problem is that the will can’t be free. It makes no sense! Free it, and all you’re left with is randomness.

                Your objections make as much sense to me as if you said that a man must remain a bachelor even after he’s married, else how can he have sex? (And his children prove he’s getting it on!) Ergo, he’s a married bachelor!

                NO!

                You’re conflating multiple unrelated and often-contradictory concepts.

                Just drop the theological nonsense and let it rot. There’s nothing worth salvaging there.

                b&

              2. » Ben:
                The problem is that the will can’t be free. It makes no sense! Free it, and all you’re left with is randomness.

                Shorter Ben Goren: “LALALALALA! I can’t hear you!”

              3. Take the “freedom of religion” as the analogy.

                The sticking point for my colleagues in seminar was that the supposed “internal desires” themselves are not freely chosen – on pain of infinite regress. (This is the problem with J. Fischer and M. Ravizza’s stuff on compatibilism.)

      2. To add one more bit for clarity since you may have misunderstood something, while a chess program would have a rudimentary will, a calculator running conventional calculator tasks would not. Again, decision making is a specific kind of computational problem, not any computation.

        1. If you don’t mind, let me ask for further clarification.

          I think you’d recognize that a calculator will always return the same result for a given input.

          Do you think a chess computer is different in that regard? Would you expect to feed the same input (in the sense used in computer science, meaning that the output of a random number generator is an input to the computer even if the circuitry is physically located in the same box) but get a different output?

          If you answer, “yes,” then you have a very fundamental misunderstanding of computer science.

          If you answer, “no,” then you have just demonstrated that a chess computer is no more nor less free than the calculator.

          b&

          1. A calculator is not processing information in order to achieve a programmed-in aim, in the same way that a chess computer is.

            A chess computer is told the overall aim, winning the game, and is programmed to assess information to that end. Thus a computer program has a “will”, a will to win the game.

            Now, if there is only one move to get out of check then, within the confines of the game, the next move is forced. There is no “freedom” to “choose”.

            But, if there are twenty legal moves than the program is “free” to “choose” according to its “will” to win the game. That is free will.

            If your reply is “but that’s not what *I* call free will”, then, yes, we know that. But you asked what *compatibilists* call free will, and that is it.

            If your reply is “but it’s all determined by the programming and the information” then, yes, indeed so.

            While I’m on:

            “and it’s more than merely whether or not you’ve got a gun to your head”

            No, that is *exactly* what compatibilist free will is!

            We compatibilists say repeatedly and explicitly that compatibilist free will means whether you have a gun to your head.

            But the incompatibilists are so *desperate* to accuse us of dualism that what they hear is “compatibilisist free will is *more* than whether you’ve got a gun to your head”.

            1. If your reply is “but that’s not what *I* call free will”, then, yes, we know that. But you asked what *compatibilists* call free will, and that is it.

              I’ll repeat this to JM in a moment.

              If that’s “freedom,” then ignorance really is strength, and war peace.

              b&

              1. It’s the only freedom that actually exists, and it’s the sort of freedom that is intended by every other use of “free” in the English language.

                To quote a blog post of mine:

                Here are some common usages: Free speech; free press; freedom of religion; free style; free load; free radical; freed from jail; free lunch; free fall; free agent; free to leave; freed from slavery; free man; set the birds free; kick your legs free; free form.

                Oxford Dictionaries defines “free” as meaning: “Able to act or be done as one wishes; not under the control of another”. It is only in the specific case of the phrase “free will”, out of line with most other usages in English, that “freedom” is taken to be about dualism and the non-operation of the laws of physics. Indeed, if I describe an object as “in free fall”, the whole point is that it is obeying the laws of physics.

                Thus, the concept “freedom” has a sensible and coherent meaning in a deterministic world. That meaning is used commonly in everyday life, and is the one adopted by compatibilism.

            2. « “and it’s more than merely whether or not you’ve got a gun to your head” No, that is *exactly* what compatibilist free will is! »

              So, compatibilists are adding no more to the discussion than lawyers would… ?

              As I noted elsewhere (and nobody responded), people still have the ability to make choices, /even when they are being coerced/. So your definition seems too narrow to be meaningful.

              /@

              >

          2. I really don’t have a misunderstanding of computer science. My PhD in computer science and my research expertise is in artificial intelligence.

            If we remove from the discussion pseudorandomness that is not uncommon in AI algorithms (as in the physical state of the computer itself is also identical), the outputs will be the same for the same inputs. That doesn’t mean chess solving and arithmetic computation are the same computation. These are very different kinds of computational processes. A decision making system takes as input observations from its environment. It also has an objective metric for evaluating the quality of states (and possibly actions). The, the computational problem is to find a policy—a mapping from states/observations to actions (possibly being probabilistic) that maximizes the metric.

            Whether a system satisfies this property is incredibly important. For example, if some other system is *not* a decision making agent, then I can use single-agent solving mechanisms, such as modeling the world as a Markov decision process. However, if they are decision making agent, then suddenly we wind up in game theory land where everything is much hard *because* they’re trying to maximize their value and that makes determining how to behave much harder. We wind up with things like Nash equilibrium as a result.

            There is an actual important difference between decision making computational processes and ones that are not. Arithmetic is not a decision making computational process.

            1. These are very different kinds of computational processes.

              I must pick a nit with you there.

              They maw well be significantly different algorithmically, but both are equivalent computationally. Turing machines exist for both.

              …and that’s where a lot of this is breaking down. You would have me believe that some Turing Machines are more free than others, and there’s just no definition of the word, “free,” that I can buy off on that which can be used in that manner.

              b&

              1. My entire point is that I do *not* classify decision making as computation itself. I didn’t say “it’s computing and this isn’t computing.” If I did you’d be right to call me on that. I said the computational *processes* are different. An algorithm is a description. A computational process is the enactment of some algorithm. A system enacting arithmetic operations is a different kind of process than a process performing decision making.

                This is similar to the distinction between software code sitting on your disk drive and active processes that are running. So when I talk about the differences between computational processes, I’m talking about important differences in what they do. The class of things they’re actively computing. There are important properties about decision making processes that will change how you should respond to them versus non-decision making processes

                So no, I would not have you believe that Turing Machines are freer than others. In fact, I wouldn’t even say a Turning machine has a will, let a lone a free one, *Unless* it’s a machine performing a decision making process.

                On top of that, it wouldn’t have a “free” will if its running process was designed and implemented by another decision making agent who created it such that its processes would result in specific desired decision that that agent intended.

              2. Uh-oh…

                So no, I would not have you believe that Turing Machines are freer than others. In fact, I wouldn’t even say a Turning machine has a will, let a lone a free one, *Unless* it’s a machine performing a decision making process.

                So…I have a breadboard in front of me. I wire it up as a simple four-function calculator, fire it up, and it doesn’t have any free will. I power it down, re-wire it as a chess computer, turn it on…and now it has free will?

                Sorry…but “DOES NOT COMPUTE.

                On top of that, it wouldn’t have a “free” will if its running process was designed and implemented by another decision making agent who created it such that its processes would result in specific desired decision that that agent intended.

                …and this is where things really get sticky.

                Which decision-making agent created humans such that our processes result in the specific desired action intended by the agent necessary for free will?

                b&

              3. “So…I have a breadboard in front of me. I wire it up as a simple four-function calculator, fire it up, and it doesn’t have any free will. I power it down, re-wire it as a chess computer, turn it on…and now it has free will?”

                It would have a rudimentary will, potentially a free will depending on how much of your own knowledge of the decisions it would make informed its design.

                Why would this be surprising? My definition regards the important property of what a computational system is. Take a human brain a “rewire” its material and you’ll be left with something very different, probably something that doesn’t even compute and acknowledging that distinction between a human and blob is rather important!

                “Which decision-making agent created humans such that our processes result in the specific desired action intended by the agent necessary for free will?”

                In all probability, none. Which is why humans have free will… because their decisions were not designed by another decision making agent. Did you think there was an agent that created us? Are you a creationists? Did you think I was a creationist? I’m not sure why you thought this was a meaningful question. If an omniscient god existed, then we wouldn’t have free will though.

              4. My definition regards the important property of what a computational system is.

                Then your definition is…bizarre. An iPhone lacks free will until you install a chess app on it, at which point it gains a limited form of free will until you delete the app.

                I’ll grant that you can, perhaps, construct some sort of internally-consistent something-or-other in the direction you’re going. I’m just at a complete and utter loss for what you think this has to do with “free will,” or why you’d want to saddle it with such a theologically incoherent term.

                I’m not sure why you thought this was a meaningful question.

                My question was a near-perfect paraphrase of your own statement. Your statement strongly implied that free will is something that must be endowed by a creator. Would you not expect to be challenged on something like that in a forum such as this?

                b&

              5. “An iPhone lacks free will until you install a chess app on it, at which point it gains a limited form of free will until you delete the app.”

                You seem to be highlighting the ease to change what it does as if that’s important. It’s not. Bear in mind that processes are not imaginary, even though it’s easy to think of them as such. Running a process on a PC/phone is actually making really important physical changes in the device that changes what it does. PCs and phones are just, be design, really good at being easy to create physical changes enabling them to be altered to various computational systems. What matters is what it’s doing, not how easy it is to transform some device to make it do that important something.

                “I’m just at a complete and utter loss for what you think this has to do with “free will,” or why you’d want to saddle it with such a theologically incoherent term.”

                The term free will is not an inherently theological term. It concerns properties of mind and the mind—the human brain, for example—is just a computer doing specific things. Even if you believed in a soul, the soul will still have to be a computer, just of different stuffs. So naturally, if we’re talking about properties of mind, we’re talking about computational properties. That’s why it’s important.

                “Your statement strongly implied that free will is something that must be endowed by a creator.”

                No, I actually said the exact opposite of that. Reread what I posted. A sufficiently capable designer of a decision making agent is what means that they do *not* have a free will.

                To give an example, we know humans are decision making agents under the definition I’ve given. However, if humans were created by an omniscient God, then we would *not* have free will. There is no omniscient God, therefore we do have free will. We are free because our decisions were not merely decisions of another agent; our decisions were made freely from the will of other agents.

              6. So, to cut to the chase, you would argue that “free will” is a property possessed by a certain class of algorithms (when they’re executing) and only by algorithms of that class. You have a certain definition of what constitutes that class, and that’s all that matters for your definition.

                I will grant that your definition can reasonably be coherent.

                But I would most strongly suggest that what you propose is so unrelated to what anybody else considers “free will” that all you do is confuse the hell out of everybody by saying, “Free will is a property of certain algorithms.”

                Why not say that the algorithms have souls? That the programmers who write them are gods?

                More to the point, what on Earth is “free” about an algorithm?

                Every algorithm has a corresponding mathematical function. Are those functions equally free? And what possible sense does it make to describe a function as “free”? What does that even mean!?

                b&

            2. » JM:
              I really don’t have a misunderstanding of computer science. My PhD in computer science and my research expertise is in artificial intelligence.

              As you can see—and he is entirely representative of the incompatibilists on this thread—Ben is really good at making unwarranted assumptions. Usually, that (making unwarranted assumptions) should give one pause and cause to try for a somewhat more critical attitude.

            3. “…what you propose is so unrelated to what anybody else considers “free will”…”

              I don’t see how it’s unrelated. The class of process that is important in my definition is a *decision making process* The concept of decision making seems rather important to any definition of free will. It’s not like I just randomly picked a computational process class out of a hat. All I’ve done is been very precise in what a decision actually is in mathematical sense and removed the vagueness over the idea.

              “Why not say that the algorithms have souls? That the programmers who write them are gods?”

              Because soul implies a construct made out of material different than the matter with which we otherwise interact and “god” implies the creation of more than just agents but a universe itself.

              You might say “but free will implies a soul” or something else of the sort, but it doesn’t. Again, The libertarian free will definition does not have semantic authority. Compatibilism is not a new idea nor was libertarian free will ever a well defined concept that compatiblism arbitrarily challenged. By your own admission, you think libertarian free will not only doesn’t exist in reality, but is internally inconsistent. The semantic debate between compatiblism and libertarian free will is about as old as anything in philosophy. Neither has a prioi semantic authority. But I would argue that one defines a useful concept (compatibilism) and the other does not.

              “Are those functions equally free?”

              Again, decision making is one component of the definition and it—again—is a specific class of *processes*, not any arbitrary function. The other component for freedom depends on whether there is a creator and their role in the creation of the agent in question. For example—for the third time?—if we were created by an omniscient god, we would not have free will.

              1. You might say “but free will implies a soul” or something else of the sort, but it doesn’t.

                This would be a serious bone of contention by any dualist. Indeed, I can’t imagine any dualist who would accept that free will is possible in the absence of a soul. Worse, said dualist would use a soulless algorithmic decision engine as the perfect example of something that doesn’t have free will.

                Now, you’d obviously disagree with the dualist on basically every point…

                …but that brings us to what really pisses off us incompatibilists.

                You see, you have your conception of “free will,” and it’s perfectly congruent with how dualists define, “no free will.” And dualists have their own conception of “free will,” and it’s perfectly congruent with how compatibilists define, “fantasy that has no bearing on reality.”

                Notice the problem?

                You’re arguing that we really have free will.

                Dualists are arguing that we really have free will.

                What you’re arguing we really have is what dualists are arguing isn’t the case.

                What dualists are arguing we really have is what you are arguing doesn’t exist.

                There’s just no way to have a sane, coherent discussion with each of you defining the term, “free will,” in, literally, diametrically opposed fashions.

                And, as I indicated, that’s what pisses off us incompatibilists.

                I don’t care if you can point to some real-world phenomenon on which you’ve slapped the label, “free will.” You can pick a kitten out of the pound and bestow upon it the name of, “free will,” and I’ll be pleased for you.

                What I do care about is that you’re saying that we have free will, but it’s a bait-n-switch free will from the one that the dualists say we have.

                So, if you want to avoid confusing the dualists (and, remember, they’re the overwhelming majority) and pissing off the incompatibilists, you’ll come up with some new term other than “free will” to describe your real-world phenomenon.

                As I myself do!

                I’m one of the first people to point out that there is a very real decision-making process common to all humans in which we imagine the results of various choices before us and make our real-world choice based on our internal mental analysis. It subjectively “feels” like Jerry’s “rewind the tape” example, but it all happens in the imagination. It’s what people are generally pointing to when they say they’re “exercising their free will,” but — and this is the key point — it is most emphatically not free will. The dualists would agree with me on that point: this decision-making process isn’t what they have in mind for what constitutes free will. They likely wouldn’t agree with my assessment that that’s what they’re doing during the periods they say they’re exercising their free will, but that’s a legitimate topic for discussion.

                And…in that entire discussion, we’re all in agreement as to what the terms themselves actually mean.

                We’re not engaging in “gotcha!” semantic games that try to convince somebody that they have “free will” because our “free will” is a pair of socks and we can see that, yes, indeed, they have a sock on each foot.

                Cheers,

                b&

              2. Ben, incompatiblism isn’t somehow uniquely immune to this being a semantics argument. You’re actively rejecting a definition and advocating for another. That is a semantic argument. You cannot answer “does x exist” without defining x. The incompatiblist position is that “free will does not exist if determinism is true.” To hold that position requires defining free will. That’s semantics.

                As to describing properties of reality, nothing you’ve argued for about reality demands that we use a definition of free will that does not exist. So pointing out properties of reality does not argue for your definition of it. If you want to argue about the consequences of determinism, compatibilistis can do that too. You use the word “determinism” just like you have been here. Shifting over to incompatibilism doesn’t buy you any argumentative power in that regard.

                You’re free (hah!) to only use whatever useless definition of free will you want and remark on the fact that internally inconsistent ideas (by your own admission) don’t exist in reality. But I’m sorry, you’re not going to convince me to adopt a definition of it that describes a useless concept when I have a definition that isn’t and that fits the way many people have used the term since the dawn of philosophy.

              3. The incompatiblist position is that “free will does not exist if determinism is true.”

                No.

                The incompatibilist position is that “free will” is fundamentally incoherent and that the typical examples of how it’s supposed to function are not consistent with how we understand the universe to actually works.

                You’re free (hah!) to only use whatever useless definition of free will you want and remark on the fact that internally inconsistent ideas (by your own admission) don’t exist in reality.

                Again, that’s a really big difference between us.

                You’ve decided that you want to use the term and went looking for a definition you felt comfortable with, no matter what congruency that definition has with other people’s definitions.

                I’m just stopping at the point of calling bullshit on the term and I have no interest in trying to salvage it for any reason whatsoever.

                Yes, of course the definition is useless.

                You know what other definitions are useless?

                Those of basically any and every theological concept in the book, from gods through to salvation and grace (as used in the — Coel and Vaal please note — context of theology). They’re incoherent.

                Do you go looking for excuses to salvage those terms, too?

                Do your algorithms go to heaven if they terminate with a successful return code?

                If not, aren’t you doing yourself a disservice by clinging to a useless definition of “heaven” that doesn’t actually describe anything in the real world?

                b&

          3. He isn’t even arguing that a human would return a different result for a given input if all factors were the same. “Free,” is being defined here as one’s relationship to other agents; not one’s relationship to determinism or to any natural laws or limits.

            1. …and, again: physics is somehow irrelevant in all of this? Agents operate in some magical supernatural realm where they can blithely ignore physics at will…?

              b&

              1. Dude… no. This is a profoundly bad strawman argument. No one has said agents operate outside physics. The entire idea of comptabilist free will is that its a definition that is *compatible* with the idea of a deterministic universe in which human behavior is a consequence of the laws of physics. That free will is a term used to describe a property that is independent from any determinism in the physics of the universe.

                You have now been given the definition compatiblists use. You’re welcome to reject it and use whatever definition you want, but have the courtesy to at least accurately reflecting what our position and definition is rather than engage is such blatant strawman argumentation.

              2. I’m rejecting your definition, and my honest interpretation of your words is why I’m rejecting it.

                I honestly, truly, can’t get past this. I’ll take you at your word that you have in mind some sort of quasi half-breed freedom that’s free but not free…but my only conclusion is that you must be confused.

                Your words are coming across as, “Free will is free from influence by things in the real world, but it’s not free from physics, which is part of the real world, but it’s not the sort of thing that free things are free from,” and so on.

                Maybe free will is the type of a little bit of pregnancy that causes married bachelors relaxing anguish?

                b&

              3. Yes Ben, exactly, the word “free” is *always* about the absence of *some* sorts of contraints, it is *never* about the absence of *all* constraints.

                In the particular case of “free will” it’s about the absence of constraints from other humans. It is not about the laws of physics, which do of course apply.

                Really, this is not that hard a concept! Really it isn’t!

                Please give some examples of the use of the word “free” that you would accept — pick any context you like. (Or do you want to abolish the word “free” entirely?)

                For example, if a say “free-form dance”, it’s about the absence of some sorts of rules. It’s not about the non-operation of the laws of physics.

                Or, if I say “free speech”, it’s about the absence of some sorts of rules and coercion. It’s not about the non-operation of the laws of physics.

                Or, if I say “freed from slavery”, its about the absence of control by another human. It’s not about the non-operation of the laws of physics.

                Ditto for another 28 usages of “free”. Really, it’s not that hard a concept!

              4. Please give some examples of the use of the word “free” that you would accept — pick any context you like.

                Yes, Coel. Context is key.

                I have a friend, Cory, who has a built-in suntan. And he’s been known to go on rants about being harassed by cops for Driving While Black (for example).

                What do you think his reaction would be if I told him that it’s good that he’s in the black because that means he’s got a positive cash flow?

                I don’t give a flying fuck that “free will” is a perfectly valid way to describe a no-charge estate planning service; that’s not the context in which this discussion is taking place.

                The context of this discussion is the ancient one in which “free will” is, primarily, the theological response to theodicy.

                …and, remind us, again…where do guns-to-the-forehead enter that context…?

                b&

              5. The problem I’m highlighting isn’t that you reject the definition I’ve given for free will. It’s that you’ve gone the complete opposite direction and put words in everyone’s mouths, words that are antithetical to the entire concept of compatiblism. You desperately need to brush up on your reading comprehension if you honestly think we believed the things you said we did.

              6. I’m not putting words in people’s mouths; I’m trying my best to take them at their word and extrapolate the obvious conclusions.

                A perfect example is that Wikipedia quote which can only possibly make sense if the agent in question is unconstrained by physics, or if we’re somehow otherwise supposed to ignore the role physics actually really does play in the real world.

                You just can’t say that something is unconstrained by external forces…and expect people to ignore, say, gravity. But the problem with physics is that you can’t just stop at gravity, and there’s no line that you can, even in principle, draw between gravity and (to pick a favorite compatibilist bugaboo) another person.

                What you’re objecting to me doing isn’t putting words in your mouths. It’s refusing to refrain from paying attention to the man behind the curtain. You might not have thought through the consequences of including physics in the consideration, but us incompatibilists haven’t.

                And that’s the sort of thing that we’re trying to get you to understand. You can’t just handwave these things away, and we’re refusing to let you do so. Yes, if we’re willing to grant that physics is irrelevant, sure, you can have some sort of vague semblance of something kinda like free will — but that is the dualist position! But you say you’re not dualists…but you keep trying to separate out boundaries past which physics is and isn’t relevant…but that’s not dualistic…

                …and I’m the one having comprehension problems!?

                b&

              7. Ben,

                “Free will is free from influence by things in the real world, but it’s not free from physics, which is part of the real world, but it’s not the sort of thing that free things are free from,”

                If someone says “the dog is running free in the yard” what do you think they mean? Are you confused by this? “What, you are saying
                the dog is a contra-causal being, free of all causal influences in the universe???”

                Is that how you react?

                Presumably not. You understand that “free” has the context of things like “dogs being on chains, constrained from running in the yard” and that “free” refers to such local constraints. Right?

                This everyday use of “free” in term of local possible sets of constraints is how “free” is being used in “Free Will.” How is this so hard to grasp?

                The only reason it seems hard to grasp is that are fixated…very strangely from my perspective…on the conviction that “free” can ONLY mean “free from the physical universe.”

                And it’s your unbreakable conviction that “free will” can ONLY reference this contra-causal impossibility, or it’s “not really free.”

                The incompatibilists continually have accused compatibilists of “confusing” things by using the term free will. But (I believe) it’s closer to the other way around.
                If you only understand the issue of free will to be about whether we have spooky powers or not, then you have ignored all the concerns that are actually wrapped up in the debate. And when you say to people “You didn’t REALLY have a choice” or “You don’t have free will” it is actually at least as confusing. Because you will mean only the spooky part, whereas there is a LOT more to answer for. People will start asking “Wait, what are you saying? Are you saying I don’t really have a choice to, say, keep the money I found or return it to the owner? Am I not responsible at all for what I do? Etc…”

                Saying “you have no free will” doesn’t just clear the air – it actually will leave people wondering what you mean and what this entails. You’ll have just as much “de-confusing” to do – more I think – than if we keep the term “free will” and, like morality, “life,” etc disabuse it of the metaphysical mistakes and explain a natural foundation.

                The problem from my perspective is that both the compatibilist and the incompatibilist have to respond to people’s questions of “do I still have a choice?” in the context of determinism. It’s just that I find the incompatibilist answers, thus far, woefully insufficient and incoherent, vs the compatibilist answers which outline what we mean by “free” in a determined world – both in how we *could* understand the terms and in how we *already* use the terms.

              8. See my response to Coel.

                Ask the proverbial man in the street why God lets bad things happen to good people, and the first words out of his mouth will be, “free will.”

                If your definition of, “free will,” doesn’t make sense in that context, then, whatever you’re discussing, it’s not what everybody else is discussing.

                b&

              9. Ben,

                “Ask the proverbial man in the street why God lets bad things happen to good people, and the first words out of his mouth will be, “free will.”

                It’s not so easy Ben.

                The apologetics, both from the higher ups in Christianity and the “man in the street” ALSO
                make appeals that undermine the idea that freedom is all about the spooky ability to decide contra-causally, rather than being an issue of coercion or physical constraints.

                How many times have you heard the bad apologetic that God is so hidden because “if He revealed Himself to us unequivocally, it would take away our “free will” in terms of choosing to believe or not?”

                When atheists suggest all sorts of ways God could have reduced suffering and harm, e.g. by disallowing shooters to kill people etc, these PHYSICAL constraints are immediately flagged as harming our free will.

                Ask the “man on the street:” If God suddenly whooshed everyone in the world into a Christian church, strapped them in the pews, eyes held open to the pages turning on the bible…would that be a violation of our free will?

                You bet they would say “yes” which is why God allows the “freedom to choose.” In EITHER case they can believe that they have a soul, but the will STILL reflectively modulate what they think of as their “free will/freedom of choice” based on the PHYSICAL ability or constraints on doing what they themselves want to do.

                It’s just not as neat and tidy as your arguments presume.

              10. The apologetics, both from the higher ups in Christianity and the “man in the street” ALSO make appeals that undermine the idea that freedom is all about the spooky ability to decide contra-causally, rather than being an issue of coercion or physical constraints.

                Erm..you’re exactly making the incompatibilist case!

                All that incompatibilism entails is that “free will” is an incoherent mess that doesn’t actually refer to any real-world phenomena. Is it any surprise that all sorts of confusion surrounds the term, even amongst those who insist we have it?

                If the true believers at all levels can’t even figure out what it means…what makes you think you’re so special that your yet-another-conflicting-interpretation is the only real one that’s really real?

                It’s like gods. There are thousands of gods, and they can’t all be real, but they can all be imaginary.

                There are thousands of conceptions of “free will,” and they can’t all be real, but they can all be imaginary.

                b&

              11. Ben, again, the entire concept behind compatiblism is that it’s a definition of free will that is *compatible* with deterministic universe that includes the workings of humans. If you only understand one thing about the compatibilist position it should be that. So yes, we have thought through the implications of physics; the term wouldn’t exist if we hadn’t. So, if your “extrapolation” of the compatiblist position is that they insist that humans are not subject to physics you are extrapolating an idea that is entirely antithetical to the most central idea. That should be a massive red flag that your extrapolation about our position is completely and utterly wrong and you need to do a much better job trying to understand the position.

                I simply cannot emphasize how much of a failure of understanding this is on your part if you really don’t grasp that much.

              12. Ben, again, the entire concept behind compatiblism is that it’s a definition of free will that is *compatible* with deterministic universe that includes the workings of humans.

                That’s to me such an obvious exercise in the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy and related phenomena that I’m again not sure where to go.

                You’ve clearly decided that “free will,” whatever it is, is real and important…and so you’ve gone looking for what you think is a suitable real-world phenomenon to which you can attach the label.

                That might not be the point you intended to make, but it’s as straightforward an interpretation of that sentence as I can come up with…

                …and its exactly what Dan has said he’s engaging in. Dan has explicitly stated that he’s worried about what will happen if people think they don’t have “free will,” and so he’s presenting to them “the only type of free will worth having.”

                I’m sorry, but I just don’t see what’s so special about that pair of words juxtaposed in this context that merits such passionate attempts at salvation.

                Can’t we just admit that what everybody else has been calling “free will” for millennia is just a bullshit theological construct that has no more bearing on reality than angels and devils and be done with it?

                I mean, we’re fine with using “angel” and “devil” in casual conversation without attempting to imply that such-and-such a runway model really is an angel or such-and-such a corporate raider really is a devil, right?

                So why do we have to insist that somebody really, truly has some form of free will (that just happens to perfectly fit the classic definition of what it looks like to not have free will)?

                b&

              13. On the contrary, I didn’t have a horse in the race with the free will debate for a very long time and didn’t advocate for any side for a long time. I came to embracing the compatibilist definition of free will because in my professional work—research in artificial intelligence—I found that compatiblism is actually a really important concept and one that will become increasingly important as AI technology develops, because the the status of an intelligent system will dictate how we handle it. In contrast, I’ve found no use for the libertarian definition and any possible value of the incompatibilist position was equally captured in the compatibilist position.

                Your argument is increasingly becoming a series of blatantly false assumptions, misunderstandings, and misrepresentations. You really need to stop.

              14. I found that compatiblism is actually a really important concept and one that will become increasingly important as AI technology develops, because the the status of an intelligent system will dictate how we handle it.

                I wouldn’t doubt that the phenomenon you have labeled, “free will,” has been important to your work.

                This entire discussion is about whether or not your phenomenon is recognizable by anybody else as what they consider to be the phenomenon of “free will,” and the wisdom of adopting that label for your phenomenon.

                b&

              15. Yes, it fits in quite nicely with the views of plenty of other compatibilists and gets at the heart of what decision making is, a relevant component to any definition of free will. I’ve had plenty of compatibilists be entirely comfortable with how I’ve defined it. I’ve also had people who were more on the incompatibilist side decide that it was a useful concept worth adopting after listening to it.

              1. You can’t just handwave these things away, and we’re refusing to let you do so. Yes, if we’re willing to grant that physics is irrelevant, sure, you can have some sort of vague semblance of something kinda like free will — but that is the dualist position!

                Perfect! Like the comparison someone made earlier that free will was like saying “freedom of religion”. Sure in a pedestrian sense that’s a understandable concept, if you’re free from societal pressure, but in this context religious choice is still determined by life experience, and physics. You have no control over that input.

        1. I’ll restate it for you. An agent has free will if they engage in the computational process of decision making and when they were not created by another decision making agent that designed them to make the specific decisions that they do.

          To drill down, a computational decision making process is a process that solves decision making problems. For example, Markov Decision Processes define one class of decision making problem and an processes that runs an algorithms to solve the specific problem (e.g., value iteration) is a decision making processes.

          The concept of a decision making agent is critical to reasoning in general. For example game theory is a field precisely because of the unique properties of decision making agents interacting.

          1. An agent has free will if they engage in the computational process of decision making and when they were not created by another decision making agent that designed them to make the specific decisions that they do.

            Thanks for that restatement…because it made clear what role the designer is playing in your concept.

            …and because I’ll now challenge you on it from the other end.

            If you fast-forward the clock several more iterations of Moore’s Law to the point that you now create a physical model of an human brain to the synapse level (or whatever deeper level turns out to be necessary), and that computer model of a brain functions indistinguishably from a flesh-and-blood brain…

            …well, your definition would demand that this simulated brain doesn’t have free will.

            And, again: I would argue that “free will” is incoherent and needs to be dropped from these types of discussions with extreme prejudice. But, I would also argue that, if humans have “free will,” whatever the fuck it’s supposed to be, then this model of a brain must also have it.

            What does this “designer” actually add to your definition?

            And, please, no weaseling on “specific decisions.” You’ve presumably either modeled it on the point-in-time state of some other human, “raised” it from “birth,” or some other variation on that theme…which puts its decisions under the exact same types of manipulation as any other human.

            Did you really have a choice in the last election, or was it so obvious that you can’t imagine voting otherwise? Which puts right back to the ancient theological dualistic terms of the discussion.

            b&

            1. No, my definition would almost surely include a simulated brain as a free will agent. The fact that something is created alone isn’t sufficient to violate free will in the definition that I gave (if that were my position, then you could argue that giving birth is creation and therefore violating free will). It’s that the decision making agent that is created was created to produce specific decisions selected by the creator. In other words, the created agent has no free will when the decisions they make (and their enactment) is nothing more than an extension of the creator’s will itself.

              Being able to simulate a brain is insufficient to meet that criterion. You’d also have know what the outcomes would be of that agent’s reasoning in the world was and have designed it that to make the specific decisions that you wanted.

              For very narrow simulated domains I can do that. For example, in a “grid world” I’m able to program an agent that will through a decision making process make exactly the decision in every state that I intended them to make.

              If a person is ever able to design a human brain with that level of control then in that case the crated human wouldn’t have free will, just a will. I’d also be profoundly impressed by the creator.