A video on (the absence of) free will

June 26, 2015 • 11:45 am

Reader Matthew sent me this brand-new Cracked video with the note:

It’s a pretty funny take-down of common arguments for free will, mostly of the compatibilist variety. None of this will be new to you, but the arguments are snappy and cogent. I also found some of their analogies to be quite clever.
Cracked, in case you’re not familiar, began as a MAD Magazine knock-off, but has since developed a significant internet presence.

38 thoughts on “A video on (the absence of) free will

  1. Prof Coyne,

    You go away for while and happily, the fabric of society starts to come unraveled. We resolve health care, we get rid of the Confederate flag, evrry body can get married —

    remarkable. Please come back soon so you can celebrate with the rest of us – however I have great confidence you are celebrating each day.

    1. I felt the same in parts, especially when they were making cultural references because you had to try and recall those and by the time you did, they’d moved on. And I don’t consider myself a slow thinker in any way. However, the arguments were really good so I’m going to watch it again later. Now I’ve recalled all the cultural references I’ll be ready for them, and I think I might absorb it much easier.

      1. I prefer reading than listening or watching. I can stop and contemplate and it is easier to reread than to rewind and replay.

        1. One of my best friends prefers audio books, but I prefer actual books for the very same reasons you gave, Bob. Also, I just find it much easier to focus on something I’m reading than on hours of recordings of the same material.

    2. Welcome to the world of the next generation.
      The pace of entertainment and information is off the charts faster now. If you even watch video-blogs on youtube, reviews etc, you’ll often see a talking head speaking in a constant, rapid stream – it’s common to cut out all the normal uhms, ahs and pauses in normal human speech so as to compress what the host is saying.

      Pity the slow aging brain that can’t keep up.
      (Like mine).

      1. I like this about the next generation. I like things moving along fast. I think this may, in part, be because of my love of sugar & caffeine.

  2. Maybe one thing missing:

    Whether we believe in free will or not we will, by design, mostly act as if we do have free will. This illusion is, in our daily lives, too powerful to be ignored. Most of the time.

  3. I thought it might be of interest.

    According to Morsella’s framework, the “free will” that people typically attribute to their conscious mind — the idea that our consciousness, as a “decider,” guides us to a course of action — does not exist. Instead, consciousness only relays information to control “voluntary” action, or goal-oriented movement involving the skeletal muscle system.

    Morsella E, Godwin CA, Jantz TK, Krieger SC, Gazzaley A. Homing in on Consciousness in the Nervous System: An Action-Based Synthesis. Behavioral and Brain Sciences.FirstView 2015;:1-106. http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=9795408&fileId=S0140525X15000643

    1. I think that’s a misleading take on Morsella, see Morsella 2005 (pdf):

      Another problem for epiphenomenalism is the systematic rela-
      tionship (or, at least, the lack of arbitrariness) between cognitive
      processes and their epiphenomenal by-products.

      Epiphenomenalism is the name for the view that consciousness does nothing. He clearly rejects it.

      You can call decision-making “only relaying information” if you want, but that’s a remarkably under-specific description. Kinda like calling climbing Mount Everest “only going for a hike”, or calling flying a jet plane “only locomotion”. I guess if you want to emphasize that new, previously non-physical information is not being injected from a dualist realm, that’s true enough. But any confusion in the public’s mind on that score, is because they misunderstand what consciousness *is*, not what consciousness *does*. It does what everyone thinks it does – weigh needs and desires against each other to come to a decision. See Morsella’s discussion of the hot plate scenario, etc.

      Which leads me to quote Vaal’s comment:

      It’s like the concept of “life” which many people had thought meant or required a special supernatural “life force.” But a naturalistic theory of life – which seems to be the correct one – says this is mistaken, that life is not, and does not require an extra dualistic force; the explanation for life lies in naturalistic, material processes.

      Similarly, both “consciousness” and its cousin “free will” should be naturalized, and identified with their respective brain processes.

      1. I really don’t know why you accuse M Scally of misleading information.

        Well, let Morsella speak:

        “We have long thought consciousness solved problems and had many moving parts, but it’s much more basic and static,” Morsella said. “This theory is very counterintuitive. It goes against our everyday way of thinking.”

        According to Morsella’s framework, the “free will” that people typically attribute to their conscious mind—the idea that our consciousness, as a “decider,” guides us to a course of action—does not exist. Instead, consciousness only relays information to control “voluntary” action, or goal-oriented movement involving the skeletal muscle system.


        Of course you may disagree with Morsella’s interpretation of her findings.

        1. I think what happened since the 2005 paper was the Morsella succumbed to the dualist / incompatibilist definition of “free will”. Of course, on *that* definition, it doesn’t count as free will unless non-physical information is injected into the system. “Merely” weighing the pain of carrying a hot plate, against the desire not to waste the food by dropping it on the floor – integrating both these pieces of information to output a decision – doesn’t count.

          So sure, if you accept the dualist / incompatibilist definition – garbage in – then that’s not free will – garbage out.

          And Morsella’s 2015 abstract still endorses a critical role for consciousness:

          Inside this [somatic nervous] system, consciousness serves as a frame that constrains and directs skeletal muscle output, thereby yielding adaptive behavior.

          Emphasis added. Consciousness does something, without which adaptive behavior doesn’t happen. Sounds pretty decisive to me.

  4. I liked the video. I liked the narrative style. It shows, among many things, that one has to be knowledgable in order to have an intelligent conversation about free will.

  5. It’s a pretty funny take-down of common arguments for free will, mostly of the compatibilist variety.

    This isn’t really so. Nearly all the arguments are against dualist free will.

    As usual, those against compatibilist FW mistake it as being some sort of variant of dualist FW.

    1. Yup, it was a “take down” of libertarian/dualism. I wonder if reader Matthew has read anything on compatibilism, or read the discussions of free will on this site?

      Fun video though.

    2. Not only that, but the guy doing the takedown reveals himself as a closet dualist when he says “We’re just along for the ride” — as if the rider is somehow distinct from the horse.

    3. It deals with both; 2 quotes for the compatibilist:

      Everything in the universe works fine without free will.

      If, in any alternate timeline, it would be helpful to act as if we had it, may be, it is good to choose to have free will or believe that you are predetermined to believe you have free will.

      1. Everything in the universe works fine without free will.

        Which is not in any way an argument against compatibilism. Compatibilism is not asking for anything in addition to a deterministic world. Compatibilism is about *describing* and *understanding* a deterministic world.

        … If, in any alternate timeline, it would be helpful to act as if we had it, …

        Had what? Had dualist FW? Well, that’s nothing to do with compatibilism and not an argument against compatibilism.

        The thing that those who consider themselves against compatibilism never understand is that c-FW is *not* a variant of d-FW, and arguments about or against d-FW are irrelevant to c-FW.

        1. “not asking for anything in addition to a deterministic world”

          If it adds nothing why bother?

          “Had what?”

          free will (of any kind). As far as we know, all kinds of free will don’t exist in the real world.

          “…never understand it’s not d-FW”

          Saying you are compatible and being compatible are two different things.

          If you are very careful you may avoid dualism in your version of free will. In that case your “subjective free will” adds nothing to our understanding of the world.

          For instance, no objective moral responsibility is possible when determinism is true.

          1. “If it adds nothing why bother?”

            You still aren’t getting this compatibilism thing.

            What compatibilism supplies (if it’s a sound theory) is…a sound theory helping us understand the coherence of “freedom” and choice-making and options within a deterministic universe. A lot of people have unsound theories about free will, human choice and determinism. Compatibilism gets these things straight.

            It’s like the concept of “life” which many people had thought meant or required a special supernatural “life force.” But a naturalistic theory of life – which seems to be the correct one – says this is mistaken, that life is not, and does not require an extra dualistic force; the explanation for life lies in naturalistic, material processes. You haven’t “added” life; you’ve simply replaced an incorrect understanding of life with a correct understanding. That’s what we want to do in understanding the universe, right?

            Same goes for morality and meaning. A lot of people just haven’t been able to understand how “mere material things” could have meaning, purpose or morality. And therefore their theory includes supernatural dualism and Gods to impose these things upon the material world. THEY are doing the adding because of having a misunderstanding.

            Secular thinkers engage in correcting these mistakes, pointing out morality would actually make no sense if predicated externally on a God, and that morality, meaning and purpose are perfectly well explained in terms of the characteristics we as material beings posses.

            Free Will is essentially about how to understand our experience of making choices and having options, and being responsible for our choices. In this case, like the others, many people have bad theories about how this works. Just like a lot of people have thought “well, if we are merely material beings, morality and meaning wouldn’t make sense, therefore there must be
            some NON material extra to existence” they’ve made the same mistake about human choice making and responsibility. “If we are material beings whose physics are determined like everything else, then I can’t see how we’d explain how we really have a choice in anything. But since I can’t get rid of the idea I have a real choice, I’ll have to posit something extra – a soul or a God giving us this extra power.”

            Compatibilism is about disabusing people of this error, and giving a sound explanation for human choice making in a deterministic, material context.

            Incompatibilists and compatibilists are very close in having the same project. We want to do away with the wrong explanation of spirits and dualism. And since many people
            presume that our choices in a deterministic universe would entail self-defeating FATALISM, which is a mistake, compatibilists and incompatibilists want to clear up THAT misapprehension as well.

            The issue is we have to clear away all the misconceptions many people have – that determinism entails fatalism, that decisions, morality and purpose can only make sense by appeal to an added supernatural component – while STILL making sense of human choice-making, morality, prescribing actions for one another, etc.

            I find compatibilism more convincing because, IMO, it does the better job in this regard, dispensing the errors of supernaturalism and fatalism, while providing a coherent understanding of what is left to explain. So I think compatibilists and incompatibilists are close to arguing for the same things, but compatibilists are doing it more coherently.

            And explaining human behavior in terms that would disabuse people of errors like fatalism and supernaturalism is a good thing, don’t you think?

            1. OK, these are consequentialist arguments; no problems with that.

              I just think that all these things can be better done without promoting “free will” of any kind.

          2. “If it adds nothing why bother?”

            We bother because compatibilism is about concepts that are useful for understanding a deterministic world.

            “As far as we know, all kinds of free will don’t exist in the real world.”

            That’s because you regard FW as being something in addition to determinism and the laws of physics. Compatibilist FW is not like that, c-FW is a way of understanding the world, given determinism.

            “Saying you are compatible and being compatible are two different things.”

            If it isn’t compatible with determinism then it is not c-FW, since c_FW is, by the very definition of the term, compatible with determinism.

            “If you are very careful you may avoid dualism in your version of free will.”

            No, we don’t have to be very careful. It is trivially easy to avoid dualism. All we have to do is adopt materialism and the laws of physics!

            Everything in your reply suggests that you don’t understand what c-FW actually is. It is not a version of d-FW, it is not something in addition to determinism.

            1. “C-Fw useful for understanding a deterministic world”

              No, it it misinforming people. C-Fw is just a minor part of free will; it doesn’t give you moral responsibility.

              “It is trivially easy to avoid dualism”

              No, what I’m saying is that when you try to add something like moral responsibility to determinism you have to be very careful to remain compatible and when you are careful it doesn’t have anything new or true to say in comparison with hard determinism.

              I could understand it if you promote the belief in free will from a consequentialist viewpoint that people should take responsibility for their actions.

              1. “No, it it misinforming people. C-Fw is just a minor part of free will”

                In the compatibilist conception, c-FW is all of FW.

                “… it doesn’t give you moral responsibility.”

                That depends entirely on how one regards moral responsibility!

                If one regards “moral responsibility” as requiring dualism, gods and fairy dust, then you’re right, c-FW doesn’t give you that.

                But, if you regard “moral responsibility” as a human social construct that means responsibility that can be influenced and deterred by social opprobrium, then c-FW does indeed give you moral responsibility.

                Indeed, it is by giving frameworks in which one can understand human society and constructs such as “moral responsibility” that compatibilism works much better than incompatibilism.

                “… it doesn’t have anything new or true to say in comparison with hard determinism.”

                You’re right, in a sense it doesn’t give anything extra. But what it does is provide concepts for discussing human society.

                Incompatibilists also want to deter crime, and so hold people responsible in the sense of punishing those who commit crime.

                The only difference is that compatibilists are willing to label that concept “moral responsibility”.

                The incompatibilists are so scared of the big, bad bogeyman of dualism that they reject the term — but then, when they get down to actually living in society, they’ll either use the same words as compatibilists, or they’ll come up with different words that end up meaning exactly what compatibilists mean by “moral responsibility”.

  6. They could have delved more deeply into the possible evolutionary origins our sense of free will. Daniel Wegner suggested our feeling of having free will could have evolved for differentiating our actions from the actions of others; he called it the “authorship emotion”. Still the best explanation for my money.

  7. I do not believe there is contra-causal free will, but I also don’t believe Ought Implies Can. That principle is certainly not an empirical claim, and it seems to me to have the same status as the idea that marriage is defined as between one man and one woman. Both are rooted in essentialism.

    In short, Ought Implies Can is a moral policy disguised as a fact, and we can change that policy just as we can change our marriage policy. Sure, it seems like OIC is something true about the world, but that’s just the feeling our strong commitment engenders, the same kind of feeling gay marriage opponents have about marriage.

    1. Dean,

      Whether OIC is a logical principle or not, it at least seems a reasonable principle (insofar as being practical). OIC is at the least descriptive of how people currently employ the word.

      What point, for instance, would there be in recommending to me that I ‘ought’ to cure all cancer tomorrow, if this is something I can not do?

      What point would there be to recommend that I ought to be attracted to the mass of the earth, if that is something I’ll do whether I want to or not? One may as well, it seems, say water ought to flow down hill. But this strikes us as nonsensical because water has no alternative, rather we simply describe the fact that water DOES run downhill. And this is usually how we approach descriptions of facts that people
      can’t alter: It isn’t that I “ought” to obey the laws of physics; it is *the case that* I obey the laws of physics.

      So I’m curious how you would re-vamp “ought” and the general use of prescription. What would “ought” mean to you, and how would we apply it?

      (It’s not that I haven’t seen challenges to this before, it’s an interesting subject, but I’m wondering what your answer is).


      1. Vaal,
        Yes, OIC is how people currently employ the word, just as some people currently employ marriage as between 1m&1w. But in both cases it hasn’t always been so. I just finished reading “The Criminal Proscecution and Capital Punishment of Animals,” written around 1900 (free online), and though strictly speaking it’s not evidence for or against OIC, it was eye opening (and hysterically funny). One story: a statue fell and killed a man. The town put the statue on trial and beheaded it!

        Of course I agree with all your examples of OIC. But OIC is incompatible with determinism, so we need to adopt a new policy. Simply put, the new policy is “Determinism is no excuse!” Again, it is a policy, not a fact about the world. (Our current policy about culpability is complex, allowing for all kinds of exculpatory conditions — we can keep most of it, but get rid of duelist/God-y concepts like retribution.)

        So, since determinism is true, we are all automata. Fine. We still have all our feelings, hopes and dreams, etc. Is this still my iPad and does your computer still belong to you? Of course they do; and this is simply to say that we automata have rights and obligations. If we change our OIC and 1m&1w marriage policies, automata of the same gender can even get married!

        1. Dean,

          Well, I see you saying there’s a need for change; I just didn’t see how you think it would actually work.

          For instance, how you’d explain “obligations”
          without ought/can. Say I’m taking one action and you want to say I’m “obligated” to do another. For instance, I’ve found money I know belongs to my neighbor and I’m about to spend it on something for myself. How would you council me to do otherwise?
          If you bring in the idea of “obligation” how does that help? “You are obligated to return the money to your neighbor.”
          Wait, everything is determined, my spending it on myself is determined, so I “can’t do otherwise, so why are you telling me I’m obligated to do otherwise? Are you saying I COULD choose to do otherwise and return the money?”

          If you are using the term “obligation” while denying I could do otherwise, what force or use can the term have? But if you are using it with the implication I CAN do otherwise…then it seems can is implied in order to make sense of your trying to alter my behavior. In which case, we are back where we started.

          And as I’ve argued here (all too often before) it seems we have the problem of consistency. When you start saying things like “alternative possibilities are untrue/illusions” about ONE empirical entity in the universe – physical human beings making choices – it’s got to apply to everything else empirical. Except this will make nonsense of the empirical knowledge we pass between one another all day long, including scientific knowledge (explaining the nature of anything empirical generally entails talking about alternate possibilities – e.g. you can either use nails or glue to achieve the bonding of those two boards, or iron can remain solid or it can be melted…)

          1. Vaal,
            I think we are in the same ball park, with the exception that you want to maintain the principle (policy) of OIC, which could be expressed (roughly) by:
            “Moral obligation is defined as requiring that one could have acted otherwise.”

            I have struggled with this issue for many years (it led, in part, to my becoming an atheist at 18), and it was the current debate over marriage that finally made me see the light. Note the passive voice in my phrasing of OIC and in “Marriage is defined as…” The assumption is that God or Natural Law or something like Plato’s forms define marriage or obligation for us. My claim is simply that WE define moral obligation in the same way that we define marriage, and we can change what they are. It might seem odd at first, but this generation’s inventions become the next generation’s essential truths.

            Practically, we can adopt a “libertarian,” i.e., compatibilist, definition of “can” in OIC. (Such a definition answers all the OIC examples you cited.) But I don’t see myself as a traditional compatibilist — it’s clear that determinism IS incompatible with moral obligation as currently defined. Nor am I giving a “we’ll be better off” argument to reject the truth of OIC; like “marriage can only be between one man and one woman.”, it is a policy and as such does not have a truth value. I just don’t see a compelling reason not to change the definition of moral responsibility in light of what science has wrought.

          2. One more example, please.

            Suppose that after losing a pile of money on a roulette wheel, I protested that the final resting place of the ball was not really random, that I was determined to lose, and so the game was not really fair. Baloney! To be fair, the wheel does not have to function in a contra-causal way. We have adopted a working definition of “random” required for a fair game that is independent of determinism. We can do likewise with “obligation.”

          3. Dean,

            “Practically, we can adopt a “libertarian,” i.e., compatibilist, definition of “can” in OIC. (Such a definition answers all the OIC examples you cited.)’

            Two things:

            1. You are equating compatibilist free will with a libertarian version. While both can be used to justify ought-implies-can, they are competing theories at odds with one another – Libertarian version typically appealing to dualism/contra-causality (libertarian) compatibilism explicitly denying such appeals. It’s a huge mistake to mix them up.


            If it is your position that is it an untruth to say we “could do otherwise,” what can it mean to “practically” adopt libertarian, or compatibilist free will, or OIC? This sounds like you’d be saying simultaneously: We have to realize it’s untrue you could do otherwise. Nonetheless, I’m going to recommend you do otherwise (return the money). To anyone paying attention, accepting the first premise, this will be nonsense. You are recommending something you are saying is impossible. If the recommendation relies on accepting the truth of alternative choice, then anyone paying attention will notice the contradiction. How can this work, except if you try to keep people ignorant of the first premise so they won’t notice the contradiction? But then, that undermines your whole project to begin with, right?

            But if you mean that, given determinism we should employ a “practical” notion of “you could do otherwise” then that is exactly what compatibilists are saying! To say “you could return your neighbor’s money rather than spend it on yourself” is true, insofar as it is a description of your nature and abilities, using contra causal reasoning: IF you want to be moral you COULD (have the physical ability) return the money. Those are completely true statements within a deterministic world, making no contra-causal claims. It’s a practical understudying of “could do otherwise” and justifies prescriptive statements with no need to weasel around with winking that it’s all an illusion-but-try-not-to-think-about-it type behavior.

            You mention the roulette wheel example: that we need to have a coherent conception of “random” in a deterministic context. Yes! That’s because whether the world is deterministic or not, “random” STILL describes the characteristics of certain determined entities relative to other determined entities (in this case “random” means “random with respect to aligning with our desired result given multiple tries,” just as “random mutation” in evolution isn’t really “random” in terms of physics, but random “with respect to it’s result in the fitness of an individual). This is what compatibilists argue! So how do you start making sense of “choice” and alternatives and prescriptions in the context of determinism, without ending up saying what compatibilists are saying?


  8. I really enjoyed this, and it made me feel like I understood different sides of the argument.

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