Hili dialogue: Monday

June 8, 2015 • 9:11 am

The meeting wound up with a bang yesterday. Harriet Hall gave a great talk on the medical harms that come to children through faith (also see FvF, last chapter), Lawrence Krauss talked about new physics research looking for gravitational waves (so far unsuccessful), I talked about free will, and Carolyn Porco gave a poetic and inspiring talk about her work on the Cassini imaging project.

After my free will talk, which I think at least made many people think about the hegemony of behavioral determinism (I don’t care so much whether they accept compatibilism or incompatibilism so long as they accept determinism), I was accosted by an angry jazz musician. He said that I had basically ruined his life (I am not exaggerating) by telling him that his “improvisations” were not really improvisations in the sense that he he (in a dualistic way) “decided” what riffs to play, but that they were were the determined product of unconscious processes. I tried to reassure him that they were still the product of his own brain, his own musical background, and his training that allowed him to improvise around what his fellow musicians were playing, but he didn’t find that reassuring. (Even Dawkins jumped in and tried to explain that this didn’t devalue the man’s art or abilities.)

I am starting to realize that one does undergo a mental transformation of sorts when one embraces determinism and jettisons the notion of dualistic agency, and that this transformation can in some ways be as unsettling and profound as rejecting the security blanket of God. But I took care in my talk to emphasize the salutary effects of realizing determinism, like being more empathic towards oneself (less self-recrimination), toward the unfortunates of society (by opposing the Republican “Just World” theory that people get what they deserve) and by reforming the criminal justice system.

But I digress. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is looking especially cute:

A: Here you are! What are you doing here?
Hili: I’m delegating authority.


In Polish:
Ja: Tu jesteś! Co tu robisz?
Hili: Deleguję władzę.

52 thoughts on “Hili dialogue: Monday

  1. So the scales fell from the musicians eyes… rather than his lips?

    He sounds just like a religious person told for the first time that there is no god.

    1. Being determinist does not make me any different, in that I live pretty much like non-determinists, but then maybe because of my personality type I chose it rather than it choosing me!

      Maybe we are a tad less anxious than non-determinists, more content?

  2. Should have known that Hili has mastered that highest of management traits — the art of delegation.

  3. [quote]”that this transformation can in some ways be as unsettling and profound as rejecting the security blanket of God.”[/quote]

    How is it a divine driver is an acceptable (and oft comforting) concept, yet the sub-conscious driver (determinism?) concept gives many the willies?

    1. I think a divine driver is acceptable to the religious because most religious people have been raised in their faith and that is all they know. People fear the unknown.

  4. At first I was about the condemn Hili for loafing on the job whatever that is (chief mouser?)
    But, on reflection, she is doing nothing worse than many who surf while at the office. Besides, cuteness is deterministic, and she has no will, free or otherwise to alter things.

  5. As with the gods and geocentricism, there’s an incredibly powerful desire to believe that humans are special, at once apart from the rest of the universe and the focus of attention. It shouldn’t be any big deal if the Sun goes ’round the Earth or the other way around, but people have been tortured to death for having an “unacceptable” position on the matter.

    Same thing for determinism. That the courses of our lives even in the minutiae should follow the same type of paths as the planets do in their orbits shouldn’t be either surprising or upsetting…yet that simple fact causes reactions as every bit as violent as the Church’s to the heresy of heliocentricism.

    Go figure.


  6. Whew, I’m glad I’m not the one being reprimanded for accosting you.

    I was the one interested in discussing your comments on sequestering (for life) versus capital punishment. The short question being whether life imprisonment was a deterrent or not?

    Since the reason for sequestering was to prevent repeat of crime, in that sense, capital punishment for cases where there is no doubt (ie. only for serial killers like Ted Bundy, Dahmer, BTK, etc.) is superior since it guarantees no repeat of crime, while there is always the chance of escape or release for sequestering.

    I’m well aware that capital punishment is not a deterrent, and more expensive. However if expense is the best argument left, then reforming/streamlining the legal system could easily the remove the expense argument.

    So that leaves my original question for readers to enlighten us with.

    1. I would agree that expense is not a very good argument against capital punishment. If it could be clearly justified given determinism, society should be willing to pay the extra expense. But, the principle of justice is a good argument. Any punishment should be fair and so should not be based on emotions and retribution. Capital punishment has been ended in many places but persists in the U.S. I’d like to see it gone.

      1. I’m trying to not look at the issue emotionally. I’m not sure what justice for the victims would look like. However as a consequence for the actions of a serial killer, they need to be removed from society to prevent repeat of crime(s). If life imprisonment isn’t a deterrent, then capital punishment would seem to be a more effective option if the cost was reduced. However I stress again, that it would be only used for cases where there is no doubt regarding guilt or repeat of crime if released (eg. serial killers) rather than a typical punishment.

        1. I recall reading recently (Rachel Maddow?) about Justice Scalia making this same point. As an example of a criminal who was undoubtedly guilty and deserving of death Scalia mentioned a man on death row in some southern state. Just the other day through analysis of DNA evidence the man was exonerated. He was released after having served considerable time. So much for “no doubt”. Besides it’s not hard to imagine a state like Texas, which executes the most energetically, deciding that all their prisoners are “no doubt” guilty, and carrying on executions at the same rate they always have. They’ve got a tradition to uphold.

        2. Capital punishment is barbaric. It is bad for the punisher as well as for the punishee. Could you be a hangman?

  7. I am starting to realize that one does undergo a mental transformation of sorts when one embraces determinism and jettisons the notion of dualistic agency, and that this transformation can in some ways be as unsettling and profound as rejecting the security blanket of God.

    I think it was Skinner who noted that “a theory doesn’t change what the theory’s about.” The irrational assumption that if the explanation changes then whatever it was explaining winks out or disappears seems to be the foundation of this sort of fear.

    It’s like when I ask a theist what would convince them there’s no God and they say “if there was no universe.” A universe with another cause simply isn’t on the mental table. The Free Will debate is trying to explain jazz improvisation, not support it or remove it. The necessary mental transformation isn’t so much a profound change in one’s view so much as a significant change in how one reasons. You learn that a theory about a thing isn’t the thing, and a new one isn’t going to change what the theory’s about.

    1. That’s the view from the one side of the hump.

      From the other side…the conclusion is itself used to support all sorts of other conclusions which would be rendered invalid, or at least have to be reexamined, if the particular conclusion itself isn’t valid. Sure, an universe could come into existence without any gods, but if the locally-favored god didn’t create our universe, then that means that there’s no afterlife, that the father god isn’t watching over them making them behave, and so on. And letting go of the entire matched set of luggage is a lot more difficult than just swapping out wallets.


    2. I think a lot of it comes down to the meaning that people have assigned to words. For some of the musicians I know, they prefer to say they “perform” music, while a radio “plays” it, to emphasize the artistic element.

      If they were to be convinced of determinism, I’m sure that at least some of them would then imagine themselves as no more than biological player pianos.

      It could seem to this jazz musician that if one removes the potential for self-recrimination, one also removes the the potential for self-congratulation, such that while the solo might be “great” in and of itself, the performer may not feel that any of the greatness can be claimed, any more than the instrument played can claim responsibility, which would have a strong psychological impact on someone with a dualistic self-image.

      1. Self-recrimination is still real and valuable, even in a deterministic universe. Owning our mistakes is how we learn from them. “The laws of physics made me do it” strikes me as no less a cop-out than “the devil made me do it”.

        1. That’s a good point. Our emotions evolved as an adaptation for survival. If we negate them with Spockian rationality maybe we end up losing something. E.g. if an enemy thinks you can lose your temper, he might be more cautious about attacking. The notion of personal responsibility, if it were negated, might lead to anti-social behavior in some individuals. But, the notion that should be reconsidered is not personal responsibility, but moral responsibility, with all it’s ramifications. I wonder if the fine differences are likely to be appreciated widely?

  8. Great that Jerry is memeing the fact that we don’t have contra-causal free will (CCFW), what I’ve dubbed soul control. Hopefully, atheist, humanist and free thought organizations will expand their empiricism and anti-supernaturalism to embrace no-CCFW enlightenment and its progressive implications. We don’t have soul control and its a good thing, too!

  9. I have earned more contumely by arguing against the existence of free will (and therefore the pointlessness of blame) over issues like Oscar Pistorius or ISIS, than over the existence, or rather nonexistence, of a supreme being. However inescapable the arguments, it is a deeply counterintuitive and somewhat frustrating position to hold. For example, while I happen to believe that the Middle East would be in less chaos today had it not been for the actions of Bush, Cheney, Blair and co, I have to accept that they had no more responsibility for their actions than a man who accidentally steps on an ant, so that all the emotional and moral antipathy I feel for them has no outlet. I think that it is this emotional cul-de-sac that makes it so hard to accept determinism.

  10. I am feeling lost again. Jerry likes to talk about determinism, usually saying something like, “You know what I think about determinism.” Well, I don’t. All I have read are bits like the story about the jazz musician, but I don’t understand the rest. It all sounds very nice, but how does it work? I have not got past Libet’s experiment. And Sean Carroll takes an agnostic stance on physical determinism, meaning I suppose that he does not know. (I was once a physicist, so I tend to listen to physicists more than to biologists. Sorry, nothing personal…) So what’s it all about — preferably in an article of less than 20 pages. Three would be about right! 😉

    1. Sam Harris’ short book “Free Will” covers it pretty clearly. Put as simply as possible, the human ability to reflect on the past and to look to the future gives us the illusion that we could have chosen to do something different and that we have choices about the future. In fact, what we did in the past was entirely conditioned by factors over which we have no control, ultimately the activity of the elementary particles of which our brains are made. Similarly, the same factors influence our decision making for the future. The point being that there is no dualistic “I” separate from the activity of those elementary particles in the brain, and therefore no “I” able to influence the decisions they make.

      As Sam Harris writes, the religious cannot get around this problem by postulating the soul, since we would still have no control over the soul we are given. Similarly, for the quantum physicist, it is of no help to talk about “quantum randomness” in order to rescue free will, since even if brain activity were therefore probabilistic rather than deterministic, we are no more free agents when events are random than when they are determined. All this means that we are neither responsible for our failures nor can take credit for our successes. To take the argument further, an individual can only learn by past mistakes and plan for future success if they are born with or develop the kind of brain that can do those things, and they have no influence on the processes that decide what kind of brain they have.

      Dualism is often described as the “ghost in the machine”. In reality, it would be more accurate to say that the intuitive, dualistic “I” is like a member of the audience who believes himself to be the maker of the film.

      1. Thanks for the reply, John. I have no problem with dualism, I know there is no homunculus up there analysing things and deciding what to do. And that many of our decisions (all?) be taken unconsciously is no problem either. Also, it’s not clear that QM uncertainty reaches up to macroscopic brain levels; that question is still being debated. But on the practical side, when I am struggling with a really difficult and important decision (radiation vs surgery, for instance), I don’t see why I should go thru so much anguish making up my mind. Is that predetermined too? This may be Standard Question Number 17 or something, but it’s one that puzzles me. Further comments appreciated. Thanks again.

          1. I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer that, but here is an attempt. Dualism implies that there is a ghost outside the machine capable of influencing what the machine does. With monism, there is only the machine, which ultimately obeys the laws of physics, and proximately responds to whatever the environment throws at it.

          2. Non-dualism implies physicalism. It doesn’t require that the physics be completely deterministic, if that’s what you’re asking.

          3. Hmm, that sounds like a “no”. Am I hearing wrong or do you guys need to get in tune?

          4. I think we’re saying the same thing.

            “With monism, there is only the machine, which ultimately obeys the laws of physics” (John Crisp)

            “Non-dualism implies physicalism.” (Me)

            People often assume that physics must be deterministic, but the 19th-century Laplacean model of billiard-ball determinism was exploded by quantum mechanics, and a new consensus on whether QM rests on some underlying determinism has yet to emerge. Nor is such a consensus necessary to reject dualism.

        1. Also, it’s not clear that QM uncertainty reaches up to macroscopic brain levels; that question is still being debated.

          Not exactly.

          First, there’s nothing in quantum computation that’s different in any form other than implementation efficiency from classic computation. It’s still Turing-complete; it just solves certain functions faster and with fewer resources than the traditional von Neumann architecture can.

          But brains are far to messy, hot, and big for quantum computing to be possible.

          There’s a remote chance that you might need QM to fully account for the energy budgets of some cellular-level activity, but that’d be very much like the discoveries of chloroplasts with features “tuned” for efficiency in the quantum rather than classical realm.

          But even if brains get some random input from quantum sources (and plain old macro-scale indeterminism would far more than suffice for anything brains might need), that still doesn’t get you anything. If you let a coin toss determine if you’ll have the chocolate or vanilla ice cream, does that somehow make the decision more freely willed than otherwise?


          1. I agree. I expressed myself badly. I meant that those who insist on quantum brain effects are still struggling, but it’s an uphill fight for them.

        2. I don’t see why I should go thru so much anguish making up my mind.

          Because events aren’t “predetermined” in the sense that the outcome can be known in advance; they’re “determined” in the sense of having physical causes. (Whether physics itself is fully deterministic is an open question that needn’t concern us here.)

          The digits of pi are fully determined, but if you want to know what they are, you have to do the calculation.

          Similarly, if you want to make good decisions, you must engage your decision-making faculties. In the end there may be just one right answer, but you still have to do the agonizing to get there, because it’s the agonizing that produces that answer.

          1. That’s an excellent explanation of the difference between determinism and predetermination, and one that I’ll very likely steal….


          2. So the jazz musician who comes up with something great can not feel good or take any credit for it (for himself, I mean)? It seems like a drab and dreary point of view on our existence to me. Where is there room for joy? I am of the age of existentialism, where we learned to live alone and be happy with it. You must imagine Sysiphus happy. I don’t see much place for happiness in this scheme, even tho I cannot find any argument against it. I’ll sleep on it now.

          3. How about “No other lump-of-information-processing-meat in the history of the world coulda come up with that riff!”
            Wouldn’t you be proud and happy with that?

          4. Sure, but it still sounds like he’s kidding himself, doesn’t it?

            I’m sorry to go on beating this subject to death. I am probably not expressing myself well. I do agree about the physicality of it all. As Gerald Edelmann says, “the mind is embodied.”

            Thanks again for you comments (and patience).

    2. Jerry’s spilled many, many electrons on the subject over the years, with all of those posts archived on the site somewhere.

      But the basic premise is perfectly straightforward. We’ve known for centuries that the planets have no “choice” in the paths they follow; they simply “fall” downhill along a gradient. And all of physics since then has shown the same repeated pattern over and over at all scales that that’s just how things work.

      Many compatibilists try to insert some sort of emergent behavior at some point, but all those attempts pretty much boil down to equating ignorance and / or unpredictability with “freedom.”

      Basically, any definition of “Free Will” that encompasses humans is also going to have to encompass computers, airplane autopilots, Rube Goldberg contraptions, and thermostats, since the physics is the same for all.

      It helps to understand the debate by realizing that we all share a similar decision-making process in which we imagine a multitude of virtual worlds, each of which is our prediction of the result of a particular choice. In our minds, we freely hop from the one simulation to the other, and the action we take in the real world is based on our prediction of which option is most likely to be desirable. Worse, we also frequently “second guess” ourselves, and imagine what it would have been like had we taken some other action.

      That all gives the subjective perception of the common conception of “free will,” but it is, itself, every bit as deterministic a process as the break of a billiard table. In reality, the action you take is as determined by the physics of the system as the thermostat’s flipping of the switch when the temperature moves through a given set point.



      1. OK. I’m not touting free will. But I’m a simple guy and like examples. Such as, how do I avoid the Angst of making up my mind on a difficult decision? And why should I be so moved when Bird plays an astonishing and moving phrase? Maybe I should just lie down and wait for things to happen. Oh, right, that would be not a free decision either. I am exaggerating on purpose, to try to get some understanding as to just what this leaves for us. What you are telling me hurts, you understand!? Also, for me, this has nothing to do with religion, of which I have none. Thanks for your contribution. I’m trying. (I purchased Harris’s book on Kindle.)

        1. Such as, how do I avoid the Angst of making up my mind on a difficult decision?

          Sorry. Can’t help you there, any more than anybody else can. “Free will” itself offers no insight into angst aversion; realizing that “free will” is incoherent bullshit doesn’t offer any additional insights into angst aversion.

          And why should I be so moved when Bird plays an astonishing and moving phrase?

          There’re all sorts of evolutionary reasons why humans should find aesthetic pleasure in displays of skill and symmetry and the like. Again, “free will” is a red herring.

          Maybe I should just lie down and wait for things to happen.

          Determinism does not imply fatalism or defeatism. You’ll be just as miserable starving in bed if you do or don’t think it’s your destiny. Do you want the misery of starving in bed? Almost certainly not, so you’ll get out of bed and go do something. What difference does it make if some phantasmagorical otherworldly sprite is pulling the puppet strings of your body to cause it to get out of bed, or if that’s just the gradient of the pathway your physical self is on? Unless you’re terminally depressed, you’re still going to get out of bed.

          Not sure how much that helps, but I hope it does….


  11. I’m a jazz musician and a determinist. It should be clear to any jazz musician how much of what is improvised is not new. Every jazz musicians spends thousands of hours drilling into the brain and the muscles habits that are relied on in improvisation. The fact that the struggle in jazz improvisation is to do something that you’ve never done before shows how much of what is done is something that *has* been done before (= the vast majority).

    The source of the new stuff – the improvisation that can surprise even the improviser (and I’ve had those) – is hidden in the brain. To require free will to explain the creative stuff is a brain-of-the-gaps argument (that analogy is all wrong, but you get the point).

    Jerry, I hope to see you during your summer travels as we discussed. Paul

    1. I’m not a musician, but I can see how a musician might be angered by the suggestion that his improvisations are “predetermined”, i.e. that he’s just playing a script that was already written before he began his performance. If that’s how Jerry phrased it, that was in my opinion an unfortunate choice of words.

      There is no such script. Events in the brain unfold in real time, as a contingent outcome of prior events. The improvisation really does happen in the moment, and the musician’s sense of surfing a wave of creativity is not wrong (even if his metaphysics are a bit woolly).

      Whether that chain of improvisational events is deterministic in the Laplacean sense is irrelevant. The relevant point, in my view, is physicalism: mental events supervene on physical events, and there is no spooky mind-stuff separate from the action of the brain. One can make that point quite forcefully, I should think, without invoking “predeterminism”.

      1. I said nothing of the sort to this musician. He was simply reacting to my lecture on determinism. But, in fact, the script was written, for what ALL the musicians do was predetermined, and it unfolded as each musician reacts in a determinate manner to what the other musicians were determined to play. But I certainly didn’t say the words the musician uttered, and as most readers here know, I love jazz. Further, credit should be given for a good improvisation, for although one can’t choose what to play at a given moment, good playing, rewarded, inspires more good playing in the future.

        1. If the script is written, where is it written? Where should we look, before the performance, to learn in advance what notes are going to be played?

          The answer is nowhere. Even the most sophisticated brain scan imaginable will not tell us, because the multifarious physical causes leading to those particular notes do not converge in the musician’s brain until the moment the notes are played. They’re the output of a dynamic feedback process, not the rote playback of a predetermined script. Determinism does not render the two equivalent, and I think you’re making your argument needlessly contentious by insisting that it does.

        2. Sorry, don’t get it. Why should the musician get credit for something which is just the blind, mechanistic working out of the molecules of the universe, his own in particular? Hope I’m not sounding more obtuse than I am…

          1. Credit? If I like the music I can applaud and pay a cover charge. Isn’t that credit? When a comedian gets laughs, she is inducing a reflex in the audience. This encourages her to continue perfecting her delivery. Approval and cash drives our mechanistic destiny.

          2. Sorry, expressed myself badly again. Let’s put it differently. Does the musician get to feel good about something she came up with when it just blind, mechanistic working out of the molecules of the universe, her own in particular? I know she does, but doesn’t determinism say she shouldn’t? (I’m trying…)

          3. Why “blind”? Mechanistic, sure, in the sense that there’s no magic involved. But there is awareness involved. The musician’s consciousness of the flow of music around her is part of the causal chain that influences her improvisation. Her (physically based, deterministic) thoughts and feelings are an indispensable part of that process.

            This is a wonderful fact of physicalism: that collections of molecules obeying the laws of physics can nevertheless represent and process information, form self-aware systems, and create meaning out of mechanism.

          4. I guess your question comes down to, is it reasonable or justifiable, given materialism, to reasonably enjoy and gain pleasure from accomplishment? Well, I suspect the answer is yes. Remember the character Mr. Spock often provided a bit of comic relief by rejecting credit or accolades from Kirk. This was clearly written to acknowledge your question. As Spock is supposedly dominated by rationality, he accepts his talents and gifts as a crew member, just as you suggest, as nothing to get excited about. He arches an eyebrow and shrugs. It’s my job. There are undoubtedly a few people who, in the right circumstances, respond this way to there own achievements. Often its considered indiscreet to over react with self approval. But most of us allow ourselves to become, to a degree, immersed in the emotion of achievement. That’s considered psychologically healthy and appropriate. Thus, a wise person cultivates the enjoyment of all pleasures that come their way. We are hedonists, of course, and positive emotions are to be accepted with gratitude.

  12. I greatly appreciate Ben’s and Gregory’s and John’s (I’m a John too.) attempts to enlighten me. You have been reading these ideas of Jerry’s (and others’) apparently for a long time. I only signed onto this site a month or so ago, after reading WEIT. I was already convinced on that, but we all like reading things that agree with what we think, right? I am interested in “reality” but also in how we set up internal mental models of what things are like so we can get along with them.

    I did read Sam Harris’s “Free will” and found it enlightening. Rather like Bruce Hood’s “The self illusion”, which I read about this time last year. So thanks for the tip. Hood, by the way, makes the case that the self is a coherent, integrated model used by the brain to help us comprehend ourselves. Maybe Jerry will take on that subject for his next book. If so, I promise to read it. But let me propose an idea.

    We are all cat lovers, right? I certainly am. I consider that my female cat is the prettiest cat in the multiverse (the neighborhood is not enough any more) — although Hili is quite pretty too — and my male cat is extraordinarily handsome. And both love me dearly just as I love them. On the other hand, I realize perfectly well that they are attached to me partly because I feed them and partly because I have become a mother surrogate. I won’t go into the psychological needs they fill for me, you can imagine. When they rub their cheeks up against my hand, are they being loving or are they marking me from the glands beside their mouths? For me, both. That is because I entertain at once the “myth” (don’t know what else to call it, but I’m sure someone will come up with a better word) and the “truth”, knowing full well which is which.

    I guess that’s what you do with respect to determinism and the impression that we can make choices, consciously or not. Rather like the way we see the world — widely separated clumps of waves in a 4-dimensional space of which 3 dimensions are curved and expanding become tables and chairs and … beautiful cats (among other things).

    Does that about get it? I am trying to make the point that flinging the truth in peoples’ faces can put them off more than enlighten them. They react. You have to take psychology into account. They need their illusions — or at least think they do. Or should I say “we”?

    My dog is nice too. (Hope this is not too long.)

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