My INR5 talk about free will—or rather, our lack of it

August 14, 2015 • 12:45 pm

I don’t think I’ve posted this, or knew till today that it was even on YouTube, but I’ll put it up for the record. It’s my talk called “You don’t have free will” that was given at the Imagine No Religion meeting in Vancouver in June.

Of course many will disagree with my views, but I try to emphasize the implications of determinism rather than the semantic squabble between “compatibilists” and “incompatibilists.”

55 thoughts on “My INR5 talk about free will—or rather, our lack of it

  1. Well, looks like we’re in for another long discussion about free will.

    I don’t think we have free will in the sense that most people think we do. I am a determinist.

    So if we have free will, where does it come from? I want answers from non-determinists only. Convince me.

    1. I don’t know. Seems like recent FW posts have garnered far fewer comments than older posts. I remember posts from three or four years ago that quickly accumulated hundreds of comments. Perhaps we all feel we’ve said our piece.

      1. Yes,I think that’s the case. I’ve said my piece, too, but the piece is this video above, which summarizes everything I’ve thought about (with readers’ help, of course) over the last few years.

        1. Dang, you’re right. Even a year ago I would have got 20 responses in a few hours.

          I suppose the ant-faction has won here at WEIT.

        2. That’s the case for me as well. I love the topic but I’ve blathered enough here about it. Though as a reader I’m always happy to read or watch Prof Coyne’s views.

          BTW, Prof Coyne, you and Sam Harris are responsible for turning an every day, sane professional cartoonist into a free will and philosophy nut! 🙂

          I was at a party when my life-time friend, the cartoonist, who’d never uttered a philosophical word, started on about determinism and free will. He’d been directed by someone else to your conversation with Sam Harris and found it utterly fascinating and mind expanding. Afterward he couldn’t get enough information on determinism/free will for days. He’s still learning more.

          It’s also amazing to me the impact New Atheism has made upon so many people. Most of the friends I grew up with were non-believers and we had little reason to even talk about religion. But now when the subject of religion comes up most of these people confidently declare themselves atheists and often reference Hitchens or other New Atheists. I’m constantly met with evidence that secular people I know or meet have become both more thoughtful and emboldened on the issues of atheism and religion.

          As another public emissary for atheism/reason, you are doing the Lawd’s work, sir (or the Debil’s?).

        3. I’d say the discussion’s run dry because it’s a conversation to nowhere. Sure, it’s interesting in it’s way, but from a pragmatic point of view this latest resurgence of the ‘free will’ debate is pointless. It’s tabula rasa all over again. Old hat. Those who argue so strongly for it sound rather like the ‘true faithful’ to me: Pretending to know things they cannot know. We might as well be debating whether we live in an actual Matrix. A fun thought experiment sure, but same result. As such, the free will conversation has petered out for now. I’m sure it will surge again in ten or twenty years. And again another twenty after that. Meaning yeah, maybe we don’t have free will. Who knows?

          1. “I’d say the discussion’s run dry because it’s a conversation to nowhere.”

            Indeed. We compatibilists have heard it all before and find the arguments presented against free will both superficial and flawed. Similarly the incompatibilists find our own counter points unconvincing.
            Perhaps August, the time of holiday and relaxation is not the time to reignite the free will debate when other pleasures beckon.

            Perhaps we can all resume again in October.

            1. A slight slip of willpower. My previous posts occurred before I’d watched the video. I have to admit watching the video makes it all the harder to not comment.

              In particular, Jerry’s “ex girlfriend” example for the salutary effects of accepting determinism has, to my mind, precisely the opposite implications, really bringing to fore the problems with this view of incompatibilism. (E.g. The incompatibilist case made in the video, while it explicitly claims to disavow fatalism, actually adopts a sort of fatalism-with-a-happy-face when it suits the psychology of the proponent.)

              But I still think FW fatigue has set in myself and others, and developing this will have to wait for another time if ever.

          2. I tired of it years ago in another chat group. It took me a long time to realize that it matters so much to some atheists because it’s such an important apologetic for Christianity. (“Why is there evil?” “Because God gave us free will, duh!”)

            1. Yeah, I came to the same conclusion. It seems the irony is lost on the non-religious who double-down on determinism. I definitely need to smoke a bowl or two to find the conversation at all interesting these days.

    2. I feel that there is a great deal of unnecessary confusion surrounding the ‘free will’ issue.

      What if the brain operated entirely non-deterministically? Would that give us ‘free will’? No- it would simply make our choices random. The non-existence of free will does not depend upon the universe (and brain) being deterministic. If our choices are determined, then they are not free; conversely, if they are random, then they are not willed.

      Also, I disagree with the idea that we (our brains) don’t make choices. The brain does indeed choose between options presented to it- it’s just that its decisions are not made by a nonphysical soul that is independent of the physical operation of the brain (which is influenced by genetics and environment). To suggest that we (our brains) do not make choices is not a productive or accurate line of argument, in my opinion. Neuroscientists have studied decision-making extensively and there is nothing dualistic or metaphysically controversial about it.

  2. Good talk. Enjoyed it. I think we’d go mad if we didn’t believe we have agency. On the other hand, if we REALLY had free will we’d never make the choice between the egg salad and the steak. And life would be hell. Or thanks to Jack Nicholson as a fake guru in a movie once said, “For we must allow the reality of the now to just happen, as it happens. Observe and act with clarity. For where there is clarity, there is no choice. And where there is choice, there is misery. But then, why should I speak, since I know nothing?”

  3. I’ve been giving talks on the illusion of free will for a couple years and I learned something new from the video: I didn’t realize there were different varieties of compatibilism (all false representations of what free will really is, as Jerry explains).

  4. Been working outside most all day and I had no choice in that either. I thought it was an excellent lecture and it gets all of that compatibility business out of the way.

    1. Worked outside myself yesterday, spreading mulch. Wifi more times than not extends to the front yard, so I can listen on the iPod to Prof CC and other luminaries spreading their pearls of cognitive clarity. (I’ve proven in ancient pre-Internet times that I can do drudge, grunge work without much to think about. It’s better having something to think about.)

      En route to get mulch, I wondered if I had any meaningful choice in that decision. I wondered if cleaning up the kitchen was/ought be a higher priority. In any event, I’m about to clean the kitchen this morning, the mess convincing me I’ve no choice in the matter.

      I have a leak in a certain line attached to my minivan fuel tank. The mechanic, seemingly using his free will, ordered a replacement. Total including labor estimate of $220. But wrong line sent. Further inquiry of factory rep revealed line not available as separate item but as part of overall fuel tank assembly, to the tune of $1200. Get’s me wondering if corporate tyrants had any free will in making that consumer wallet-deflating/-robbing decision. Mechanic said likely he [of his own free will? ;)] could cut and weld a bit and make something to work.

  5. I mentioned awhile back … just after the conference had ended and people were streaming out of the room, Jerry answered questions and addressed concerns of a man, who seemed distressed (at least to me) about the possibility of no free will.

    I thought Jerry handled the situation with compassion and rationally. (Not that the two are mutually exclusive).

  6. I’ve passed over most of the free will discussions because they don’t seem very interesting to me, but one question does occur: do humans tend to believe in “free will” because we develop in a world full of agents that appear to have free will (e.g. cats and comets – both having hair, tails and doing exactly what they want to), and so our paridolia is primed to interpret some behaviours as ree will even if they’re not.
    Damn, Flash has crashed.

  7. I’ve just thought of something that I’ve never really pondered before. It’s not a complete thought, but I’d be very curious to hear any responses.

    Many scientists think that the future might give way to conscious, intelligent computers/robots. Would their decisions also be predetermined? Or, to put it another way, can you think of any possibility in which there is some kind of free will? Aliens perhaps?

    In the case of robots, if they were exposed to some sort of persuasion, like a t.v. commercial for example, wouldn’t they have the ability to make 100% analytical decisions, immune to something like emotion that could greatly affect decision making.

    I know…it’s just speculation. But still kind of interesting.

    1. Your question seems to contain a bit of a confusion. Yes humans are driven in part by emotions – which amounts to feelings we experience and act upon. Robots would have none of that, unless perhaps if they were designed that way. But emotions are not outside the chain of material causation so they don’t represent freewill. If you see a lion and you sense fear, your brain triggers the release of adrenaline which alters your emotional state and prepares you for a quick exit from the scene. That does not make the outcome any less predetermined. A robot might lack such “emotion loops” in her reaction chain, but nothing is fundamentally different.
      Did I understand your question correctly?

      1. I was just trying to say that the extent that a robot would be determined would be confined to whatever programs it’s builder uploaded it with. But being robots, they (hypothetically and potentially) lack any genetic predisposition toward a type of behavior, they are immune to persuasion and previous experiences would not necessarily influence their “decision making”. Not that they necessarily have “freewill”, but given their complete lack of preference and robotic state, their decisions might not be set in stone. They could just be random and pointless. Think about the “shuffle” feature on your music player. It’s determined which songs will be shuffled. You’re not going to magically get songs that you didn’t previously have, but there is no way to predict how they will be assorted. Not unlike how mutations are random. The slight stochastic factor at the quantum level. So if you reran the tape of this robots life, there is no reason to think that it would or would not make the same choice twice. It has nothing influencing it in any direction and it’s actions are all random.

        My bringing up emotions was a bad example. I was trying to establish how they would be neutral to everything, lack of hunger, tiredness, praise, anger, etc… none of that would necessarily play any role into their decision making. You could say, “who cares what didn’t play a role, it still was determined” I’m thinking more of random on the quantum level like sub atomic particles that are unpredictable.

        Not sure if this makes any sense. I haven’t gotten any sleep at all last night and am a bit out of it. Sorry for that.

        1. I’m afraid I don’t see your point quite, although I’m sure you have one. The notion of consciousness (forget freewill for a moment) and the idea that robots or computing devices might be said to have consciousness is an interesting topic which you seem to be touching upon. Dan Dennett has written interestingly about it. He has postulated a vending machine, if memory serves, which for all intents and purposes could be said to have a simple form of consciousness. Robots of today function within restricted domains. They are pretty limited in the range of independent thinking, and behaviors they can exhibit. But, I think it may just be a matter of time until their sophistication equals and then surpasses our own.
          As far as randomness goes, a machine can be programmed to have pseudo-random behaviors or as you suggest you could conceivably build one with a truly random generator based perhaps on some quantum device. However, this does not imply freewill except to make behavior include a random component.
          Make sense?

        2. It’s my understanding that the intelligent robots that will conquer us will be able to program themselves as they see fit. This can be bandied about to support either side of the free will argument, I fear.

          1. It’s a sci-fi cliche that AIs wouldn’t have emotions. It’s likely rooted in writers’ misunderstanding of Classical notions of Reason versus Passion–antiquity knew full well that both were needed to have a functioning mind, hence the depiction of Apollo as being held up by Dionysus.

            Every demonstrably intelligent creature exhibits emotions, so it seems a clincher that one requires the other, unless evolution is being unaccountably whimsical.

            1. It is hard to understand *motiviation* and a few other things without emotion, from my reading of Damasio, etc.

              I also note that some sci-fi “emotionless robots” are often portrayed as somewhat self-deluded. I remember ST:TNG’s Data as being portrayed as almost that way; other characters do not always take him completely at his word when he says he is (say) incapable of love.

              1. The Canadian comedy duo Wayne and Schuster did a Star Trek parody that ridiculed the idea of Spock not having any emotions.

                Kirk slams a piano cover hard on Spock’s fingers and he doesn’t react, a space battle throws the bridge crew violently back and forth between port and starboard while Spock indifferently stands around munching on a banana, etc.

            2. And presumably a superior (artificial) intelligence would observe that sometimes emotions are profitable and be able to program themselves to have, if not the real thing, at least some functional ability to simulate them where needed.

              1. Emotions in humans and animals are, I’m pretty sure, driven by the interaction of the brain with hormones. Fear arises when we detect a threat and adrenaline surges. The feeling we have is one of anxiety, tension, and an urge to run. This arose adaptively for self preservation by speeding up the problem resolution computations.
                An AI would normally not require such a circuitous problem solving mechanism. It would be massively more complex to build machines that had these features, so I think it’s unlikely we will add emotion to computers any time soon.

              2. I think likely no more complex than programming computers to think in the first place, and quite possibly less so.

                In the 1960s it seemed plausible that formal manipulation of propositional logic-style constructions was artificial “thought” of some kind. Propositional logic can represent “thoughts” but not “feelings”, so at the time it seemed that “thinking” was an easier nut to crack then “feeling”. However, as Hofstadter came to understand, all such simplistic efforts are doomed to crash on the shoals of fatal symbol-grounding problems. Propositional logic is a mere cartoon of whatever is really going on in our brains when we think, which seems just as mysterious at this point as emotions.

                If emotion were truly an inefficient and “circuitous” way of setting up an intelligent goal-seeking system, natural selection should have weeded it out in at least one case. It hasn’t, so I conclude that thinking without feeling is probably either hopelessly hobbled, wildly inefficient, or outright impossible.

              3. But, emotions in humans and animals are, like our brain itself, embedded in an organic body. The inputs and outputs to the brain come through the body and emotions are initiated and controlled within the body. The idea of simulating this level of nervous and hormonal complexity is complex in the extreme. You would have to simulate most of the activity of living organisms. Even if you could do it well, we probably don’t understand it well enough to create a reasonable model. Besides, I think the idea may be pointless. What we want in this world is more Spock-like minds and fewer Trump supporters, there are far too many of them.

              4. Who said anything about simulating biology?

                There’s plenty of hormones and other chemicals (NO, for instance) involved with thinking. If it’s not necessary to simulate biology for a computer to think, there’s no reason to expect it to be necessary for it to feel either.

              5. As for Spock, see above. The ancient Greeks knew better than to equate dispassion with passionlessness.

              6. Jof, I disagree for reasons given. Emotion is a function of the body/mind interface. Computers do not have biological bodies, so they could not be emotional. Yes, you could simulate emotion by programming, but that would be very ineffectual and artificial as perceived by actual humans. Think about what drives you, me or anyone to create, initiate, investigate, analyse, appreciate, love. It is our biological, emotional response to our environment. The several biological imperatives that keeps our species going. A silicon computer would have no interest in any of that unless specifically told to do so in a set of instructions.

              7. I think you’re unconsciously invoking the old AI paradigm. Thinking, whatever it is, isn’t just “following sets of instructions”.

  8. Great talk. Quantum undeterminacy is it the only heart ache for incompatibilists. Statistical physics is too. I can only assume, having known and being taught by Steven Weinberg, that complex systems defy prediction and that makes a universe that has no free will indistinguishable from one that could.

  9. I rise to the bait. A deterministic organism would be incoherent if only because of the contingent nature of things. It would be an opportunistic existence, dependent on the perturbations of electrons and such, guaranteeing its incoherence. It is the same opportunistic nature of natural selection that makes natural selection implausible. The plant of life would be an impenetrable thicket where opportunistic evolution was in place. One of the most serious problems for his theory, in Darwin ‘s view.

    Now all along. I have been thinking of what to say . . . mulling and such. I have been on a steady thought course for several minutes, something that would be unlikely if my thought depended on atoms, electrons and such.

    So of course there is a ghost in the machine (GIM), how else to explain mind! (Jerry, let’s not go overboard on the basis of one study.) Why couldn’t mind supervene as an autonomous entity as the result to physical events?

    Thanks, Jerry, for the wonderful stimulation. I love your guns blazing approach. One last comment: of course all animals have a modicum of FW, even Darwin’s bees (see Chap. on instinct).

    Now, was it determined at the moment of the big band whether I would or would not click the post button? Could a brain scan predict my decision?

    1. “Now, was it determined at the moment of the big band whether I would or would not click the post button?”

      It was apparently determined then that I’d forget to check the subscribe box around 50% of the time.

  10. Jerry’s introduction of this topic to me, and especially this video, have opened up an entirely new area of thought for me. Thank you.

  11. Regarding comment 13a:

    “Emergence” is a magic word that means nothing because it gives us no information.

    How does free will “emerge” from determinism? How do you get to the head of the chain of cause-and-effect dominoes to be the first cause? Wouldn’t you have to be a god to do that?

    How does free will “emerge” from indeterminism? If you could control indeterminism then it would be determinism. And since you can’t control indeterminism, it offers no avenue for free will.

    What other options are there for how a material universe operates besides determinism and indeterminism?

    1. “Emergence” is a magic word that means nothing because it gives us no information”

      Well, let’s start with a definition – the one on Wikipedia will do: “Emergence is a process whereby larger entities, patterns, and regularities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities that themselves do not exhibit such properties.” E.g. you would not be able to directly discover the phenomenon of viscosity by just discussing or studying the properties of quarks and leptons i.e. viscosity DOES NOT EXIST AT THAT LEVEL. To discuss a phenomenon we cannot allow ourselves to be grossly reductionist and sink down far down levels below the level where that phenomenon appears. We must analyse such phenomenon and factors producing it at the level where it arises.

      Now -let us discuss the human brain – an extremely vast multiprocessing network of sophisticated complexity. What would I consider emergent properties here? Well, they are 1)the sense of “self” (consciousness and self-awareness), 2)advanced computational capabilities, and 3)FREE WILL.

      What are the mental computational capabilities that allow these entities to emerge? They are mental Modelling capabilities , Abstraction (including categorizing, symbolization, and “object” formalization), Associative memory, Learning, Pattern recognition, and most importantly – Self Programming. With these capabilities the mind reaches its decisions. More than this, over a lifetime the human agent “self forms” to a major degree as an individual “grows up”. We are of course subject to environment and genetics but the largest factor in ordinary “day-to-day” decisions is the “self programmed self”.

      When someone addresses the subject of free will and only discuses phenomenon such as neural synaptic function, they are being just as grossly reductionist as someone discussing the possibilities of advanced computational properties limiting himself to the discussing the properties of NAND gates.

  12. Thanks! I think I’m a convert to determinism now. I never really took the time to read arguments against free will, but found this to be convincing enough that I’m now seeking out more arguments on both sides.

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