John Searle on the persistent philosophical problem of free will

July 14, 2016 • 9:45 am

You don’t get much more respected as an academic than John Searle, a philosopher of mind and language who’s been teaching at Berkeley for 56 years. I’ve read some of his stuff, which I generally like, and admire him for still being an active, non-retired professor at 83. He must love his job! When Sam Harris tw**ted what’s below two days ago, I went over to see what Searle had to say about free will, pleased to see that he was still doing philosophy.

The link in Sam’s tweet goes to a 10-minute interview of Searle by Robert Lawrence Kuhn, which, it turns out, is part of a larger series of videos on free will at the “Closer to Truth” site. There are dozens of them! I’ll watch a selection over the coming weeks and report on any that seem interesting.

Sam liked this video, as I do, because Searle agrees with us on the main issues, and is quite articulate. As he notes, while other areas of philosophy have advanced over the centuries, there’s been no advance in the philosophy of free will.  I’d take some issue with that, since over the last decades the idea of determinism, and the scientific evidence for it, has gradually pushed aside the of dualistic, I-could-have-done-otherwise form of free will that is not only beloved of religionists, but is the type of free will that most people accept. When determinism dispelled that, philosophers stepped into the breach with notions of “compatibilism”—the philosophical idea that there are forms of free will that can exist side by side with determinism. (Yes, I know that some compatibilists operated long ago.)

But I suppose Searle doesn’t see the rise of compatibilism—Dan Dennett is a prominent exponent—as a philosophical advance. Neither do I: rather, I see it as a diversion, as a waste of brainpower.  At any rate, when Searle talks about “free will”, he’s talking about the dualistic form that is so widespread.

Searle sees that form of free will as an illusion, which it is if you accept “illusion” as the notion of “something that isn’t what it seems.” The big philosophical problem with free will, which has been highlighted repeatedly by Sam Harris, and here stressed by Searle, is this: we feel as if we are free agents, that we are in control of our decisions—but we’re not.  How can that be? Compatibilism simply doesn’t deal with that question, and Searle calls compatibilism (at 6:25) a “copout.”

So does free will remain as a philosophical problem? It is if you need to confect other ways to define free will, and justify them. But if you reject compatibilism, then the philosophical problems are considerably narrowed. As Searle notes,”If the neurobiology level is causally sufficient to determine your behavior, then the fact that you had the experience of freedom at the higher level is really irrelevant.” Yes, that’s true, but then what’s the problem.

Most of the problems of free will, it seems to me, involve evolution and neuroscience rather than philosophy. Why did our feeling of agency evolve (evolution and neuroscience)? How far in advance are our decisions “determined” (neuroscience)? And which factors determine them (neuroscience)?  But there is still room for philosophy, of course. Its ambit would involve questions like, “In a deterministic world, is there any meaning to the term “moral responsibility?” Or “in a deterministic world, how do we structure the system of reward and punishment to produce the most well being for society and its members?” The last question, of course, involves not just philosophy but empirical observation of how people behave, or are “cured” under different systems of treatment and punishment. (That’s sociology.) As I’ve always said, I think philosophers would do much better to deal with these critical and important questions—questions about real issues in society that have import for us all—rather than spinning their wheels about the “right” definition of free will.

But listen to Searle. His straightforward talk reminds me a bit of Richard Feynman.

h/t: S. Krishna

161 thoughts on “John Searle on the persistent philosophical problem of free will

  1. But do you not see that your suggestion “… would do better to…” implies that they could choose between two or more things, and you keep saying they aren’t actually making choices, but just are reacting.

    I believe that’s one of the reasons why this debate keeps going.

    1. You have confused a statement about a future course of action… “would do better” referring to performance in the future, with explanations of past behaviors (“could not have done otherwise”).

      Such confusion of thought is the reason some people keep the debate going.

      Correct me if I am wrong, but you do think it wrong to see freewill as an illusion.

      As long as people will assert the realness of freewill, then there will be a debate.

      1. My thoughts/opinions about free will are not germane to pointing out where others appear to be inconsistent.

        I am not confused. Those arguing against free will say that it is an illusion, that no actual choices are being made, that physics shows it is all reactions, based on previous reactions, based on previous reactions.

        Fine. Then don’t say “someone would do better to do course X than course Y” because that directly implies they have a choice in the matter. In the future. It doesn’t matter if the decision point is in the future or past, if there is no free will, no actual choice being made, then don’t use language that suggests you believe one is or can be.

        That, I believe, is why the debate continues — because the ‘no’ side still walks and talks like they believe the ‘yes’ side.

        1. Um, No. Nobody on the ‘no’ side dose such as you claim. Show me where someone is doing that, (claiming that someone didn’t have to do the thing that they did, i.e., they could have done otherwise), and I’ll get them ejected from the ‘no’ side.

          There is nothing in saying “someone would do better to do course X than course Y”, that invalidates the case the freewill is an illusion and that there is no freedom to the will. I am sorry if the determinants in your life have rendered you incapable of seeing (or acknowledging) that pronouncements about the relative quality of one choice over another are irrelevant to the freedom of making the choice between the two.

          1. First, you’ve gotten the “no” and “yes” labels backwards in your response (HINT: “no” is for “no free will”, “yes” is for “yes free will”).

            Second, I didn’t say the phrase in question “invalidates the case”, only that it is inconsistent with claiming no free will. According to the no free will people, given 100 “options”, you will only choose one, and that one is the only one you could have chosen given all the conditions of the universe at that point. Therefore, the other 99 aren’t really choices, because you could not have chosen them.

          2. I think I agree with you and, if I understand Searle correctly, he may as well.

            “in a deterministic world, how do we structure the system of reward and punishment to produce the most well being for society and its members?”

            Seems to me that the point is, and Searle seems to accept it, that if we live in a deterministic world we don’t structure anything. The structure is what the structure is and it’s determined from the state of the universe as it was at the time of the big bang.

            But, as Serle points out, if it is the case that we live in a deterministic universe and if it is true that free will is an illusion, it is such a strong illusion that nobody actually rejects it; even though some people may be convinced that there is no such thing as free will, nobody actually lives in a manner such that it is accepted as true. Of course, if it is true that there is no free will, what choice does anyone have in accepting or rejecting it?

          3. desconhecido,

            I can assure you that I for one actually reject it (the concept of actual libertarian contra-causal freewill).

            I am pretty sure I am not the only one who actually rejects freewill as real, understanding it to be merely an illusion.

          4. The structure is what the structure is; gee I wonder who built all those highways and railroads and streets and towns and airports and aircraft and aircraft carriers and so on and on and on. You mean there was no choice about any of it? We can’t even choose between one design and another? It all had to be exactly the way it was done? Then there’s no point in doing anything. No point trying to relieve hunger, trying to cure or ameliorate disease, no point having hospitals? They’ll all magically appear because determinism rules. Well maybe it is so but colour me unconvinced.

            But wait! first we have to prove that the universe actually is totally deterministic. Has that actually been done?

          5. Xuuths,

            First: I got that ‘no’ is for ‘no freewill’, and my post was phrased accordingly.

            Secondly: You point has now come down to semantics. Basically you are saying that because the other 99 choices won’t be chosen they are not real choices. That is just pure linguistic gerrymandering.

            Thirdly: I didn’t say, that you said the “phrase in question ‘invalidates the case'”. So telling me you never said it, using quotes even, is a non sequitur.

      2. Xuuths is right. He’s pointing out a problem with incompatibilists appealing to prescriptions for action.

        To say “… would do better to…” is a prescription for action (if it weren’t, whatever followed that phrase wouldn’t be much use to us).

        But if the incompatibilist wishes to say of the past “we couldn’t have done otherwise” then it’s the same for any future choice, which is the point of incompatibilism to begin with. Therefore, it seems ill-fitting for the incompatibilist to make prescriptions for actions, which imply we actually have real options to make any sense.

        And to the degree the incompatibilist will start making sense of prescriptions within a deterministic frame-work, he/she will end up sounding like a compatibilist (if he’s consistant).

        1. I am (currently) persuaded by many points compatibilists make, but I’m not sure this is an example of inconsistency on Jerry’s part, for two reasons.

          First, it’s not necessarily a prescription, but an expression of opinion: “I think more would be achieved if philosophers devoted their attention in this wise rather than otherwise”.

          Second, incompatibilists can simply say their issuing of a prescription was simply a link in the causal chain, which in turn might influence the actions of philosophers farther down the causal chain.

          1. First, it’s not necessarily a prescription, but an expression of opinion: “I think more would be achieved if philosophers devoted their attention in this wise rather than otherwise”.

            That is the response I anticipated, which is why I wrote: “To say “… would do better to…” is a prescription for action (if it weren’t, whatever followed that phrase wouldn’t be much use to us).”

            That bit of wisdom wouldn’t do anything for us if it weren’t supposed to act as knowledge we can use to guide future action. And that is only relevant if: 1. we COULD take the action informed by that wisdom and COULD have taken another one instead. It is, after all, not terribly helpful to say “it would be better to do X” if “X is the only thing one could do.” One may as well say “it would be better to act in accordance with physics.” Well…thanks for that pearl of wisdom, right?

            It’s inescapable to think this way, and it show up in the word “if” as you’ve rephrased it. “If” it weren’t possible for philosophers to do X, what would be the point?

            Second, incompatibilists can simply say their issuing of a prescription was simply a link in the causal chain, which in turn might influence the actions of philosophers farther down the causal chain.

            That objection has been addressed quite often before. The problem being pointed out is an internal contradiction. It therefore has to be solved internally; it’s not solved by saying “but it could still influence people’s behavior.” It’s like pointing out
            to a Christian “There is a problem with your argument that you now the bible is true because it says it is true.” If the Christian responds “Well, it still might influence other people’s thinking” the Christian is probably right; lots of Christians are influenced by bad arguments.
            But he would have missed the point right?
            The problem isn’t whether or not the argument could act as an influence on anyone else: the problem is a flaw in the internal logic of the argument, which means any reasonable person shouldn’t be swayed by it.

            This is what we are pointing out when the incompatibilist says, essentially, “you can’t really do otherwise” but then “you SHOULD do X rather than Y.” That’s an internal contradiction that, unless the incompatibilist can untangle, should lead anyone desiring consultancy and sound arguments to reject it.

            And, of course, if we want to influence people, wouldn’t it be best to have actually coherent ideas? If not, the flaw will always be there to be uncovered, giving reason to ignore it.

          2. Fair rebuttal of point one.

            Regarding point two, I think my clarification above, which you probably didn’t see before posting, may be relevant. Incompatibilists may say that their issuing a prescription was determined. They could not have done otherwise, even if it makes them seem inconsistent. They were determined to seem inconsistent.

          3. Doesn’t that strike you as an enormously problematic rebuttal? (I don’t think most incompatibilists would say that, actually).

            “My argument is inconsistent, but what the heck, no reason to object, I was determined to make a bad argument.”

            What are we to do with that? Say “Well, ok, got me there. Instead of fixing your argument, the move is to suggest it’s a perfectly fine thing to make and accept bad arguments?” Surely not, right?

            Are we no longer to pursue sound, valid, coherent and reasonable arguments?

            See how (at least some) incompatibilist positions seem to dissolve like acid through everything, making our reasoning incoherent? Anyone making that reply really should be getting the feeling he has gone wrong somewhere in his assumptions, if that much starts tumbling down.

          4. I do find it unsatisfying, in the way you articulate, but I think incompatibilists would make it. Perhaps not Jerry, but I’ve read comments here from others who come down on the side of incompatibilism saying just this.

  2. My take on Sam’s comment was that Searle demonstrates that he doesn’t have the introspection ability that would lead him to not make the distinction between the powerful emotion-based behaviour and the thinking-based behaviour. If you’re enough you realise there is no “gap”.

  3. Just ask a free-range chicken how compatible his freedom is with determinism.

    Besides, I thought the current election cycle thoroughly dispelled all notions of free will.

    1. Just probe a free electron how compatible its freedom is with determinism. Unless its in Gabrielse’s lab (*) you will have little success predicting its location in a year from now. It’s world line is fully determined and yet it can end up in a place we did not predict. This is why most compatibilists maintain the strength of their position.


  4. I’ve only recently started reading about the topic of free-will, but I’m already convinced by the ‘illusion’ argument.
    I particularly like Sam Harris’ conclusion that our ‘hate’ for evil-doers doesn’t make any sense, and that the need to hold folk responsible for their actions is a pragmatic approach – is there really any alternative?
    I think more could be made of the fact that the deterministic perspective is not solely based on genetics, by emphasising the importance of experience, learning, and personal change too. Seems to me this is closely related to another ‘illusion’, that of human-individuals being ‘blank slates’. But it still allows for rehabilitation/correction of criminals (for want of a better word).
    However, I’m confused as to what extent we can still talk about individuals having ‘options’, and the freedom to make ‘choices’ – what meaning do these terms still have (if any) in a deterministic framework? Can we still talk about human-agency in any real sense?
    Chris G.

      1. Hey, thanks for the offer, that would be good.
        I presume you don’t propose abusing Jerry’s hospitality here – how would we go about it?
        Chris G

        1. Chris,

          For some reason I thought I could be messaged via my wordpress profile… seems I was wrong about that.

          Hmmmm.. how to selectively pass an email address to someone???

    1. … and the freedom to make ‘choices’ – what meaning do these terms still have (if any) in a deterministic framework?

      They have meaning in the sense that a chess-playing computer “chooses” which move to make.

      For more see here: “… we can define “choosing” as the deterministic selection of one option, from among the range of opinions that would be available to a typical range of human beings in a typical range of situations”.

    2. As Dennett has explained and has been mentioned previously free will doesn’t have anything to do with determinism. Brains are not made of marbles or ping pong balls.

      Brains are computational devices that can solve algorithms independent of determinism (or indeterminism.

      They are different levels of understanding that philosophers get confused about all the time.

          1. Remember Searle is the author of the infamous “Chinese room” thought experiment, which he thinks proves there must be more to understanding than information processing, and which almost nobody else finds persuasive.

          2. Yes, really. Searle and my teacher, Mario Bunge, are two materialists who have written on the philosophy of mind and *denied* computationalism about brains *and* the possibility of AI. (I was the one who pointed out to Bunge that the two hypotheses are not equivalent without further ado.)

            Searle thinks it is vacuous to call the brain a computer, since he thinks there’s an argument to show that everything is. (He’s wrong, because a computer is not *just* a pattern of I/O relations.) Bunge thinks that *humans* are computers (or not) when they perform (say) calculations on paper or what not. (So the artefacts called “computers” strictly speaking are not, according to him, they are “computational aids”.) This is the only time he sounds Wittgensteinian, a remark that would no doubt horrify him. He also happens to think that the Turing machine model is not a useful model for understanding brains on top of the other considerations, since he claims that brains are continuous and so a continuous model is needed. We never talked about my further work on hypercomputing, so I am only guessing, but he would likely say the notion of applying *anything* from the theory of computation would miss the point, and then appeal to something like the first remark and matters from dynamical systems theory or the like. I find it all baffling, but he *was* a teenager when Turing wrote his “On Computable Numbers”. (He’s only 7 years younger, after all!)

          3. Oops, that should have been events and states, not “I/O relations”. Got the order mixed up – it is precisely the “interfaces” which make a computer program. So his “wall running WordStar” is no such thing, because you can’t press control-K, D and get it to save.

      1. Computers can be made of marbles and ping pong balls. If you accept that the mind is a Turing machine then it doesn’t matter if it’s neurons or marbles processing it.

        1. There you have it. Once a system can run algorithms, it doesn’t matter that it is made of deterministic components, like ping pong balls or neurons.

          What matters is the algorithm.

      2. In the past, I pretty much agreed with Jerry’s position. I seriously doubt it now.

        The problem with likening the mind to a computer (generally a Turing machine) is that assumption is false in itself. It is a big mistake to consider the brain just a computer.

        The human brain DOES step outside the limitations of algorithmic processing. Godel’s theorem (as well as research by Whitehead etc) have demonstrated that some conclusions are not obtainable by algorithmic approaches, in fact the demonstration of the limits of a Turing machine required use of processes outside the capabilities of a Turing machine.

        The big missing puzzle (and probably closely related to ‘free will’) is consciousness. Everyone can see that it exists but there is currently NO credible explanation of how it works. Period. No Turing machine has ever and will every be conscious (personally I believe no Turing machine will ever be capable of ‘understanding’ a problem the way humans normally do). Even Watson actually understands nothing.

        There definitely IS something there we don’t understand, yet we know it exists. Without a better understanding of consciousness, there is no way we can make a final call on free will–the two are too closely entwined.

        1. What super-Turing task do brains perform, and where on the arithmetic hierarchy is this task? How is it implemented? As far as I can tell – see my MS thesis one has to go all the way up to a delta-1,0 type environment to get anything remotably implementable (actual continuity). And yet that’s not enough for some purpose, since that’s not the top of the hierarchy (because there isn’t one). I suspect, but haven’t proved, that every stage of the hierarchy has its own halting problem, etc.?

        2. Gödel’s theorem applies to consistent formal systems. While our reason is (ideally) bound by consistency, our intuitions needn’t be. So I don’t think we need to invoke any sort of mysterianism to explain why we sometimes perceive truths unreachable by formal reasoning. The price we pay is that we sometimes leap to conclusions that turn out to be false once reason catches up.

  5. The big philosophical problem with free will […] is this: we feel as if we are free agents, that we are in control of our decisions—but we’re not. How can that be? Compatibilism simply doesn’t deal with that question, …

    I beg to differ, I don’t see any problem at all. The “consciousness” is only aware of a very small part of what the brain does. Since the consciousness is not aware of the trillions of neural-network events that deterministically create our decisions, those decisions seem to the consciousness to come out of nowhere.

    Far from compatibilism not dealing with that question, it provides a simple and straightforward answer to it.

    1. Right. No one seems impressed the we don’t control the pumping of our hearts or the metabolism of our liver and yet our entirely lives depend on them.

      It’s just hardware just like the brain.

      1. Seattle may call it a copout, but this does not mean that it is one! To my mind compatibilism is the only way we can both a) accept determinism and b) carry on living in society. But let me explain what I mean by compatibilism here. In my understanding of the term, it means that determinism is true, and also that we can distinguish certain times of determined behaviour (‘voluntary ‘ ones) from other types of determined behaviour (involuntary or coerced ones), and we will call the former ‘free’. It does not mean, and let me emphasise this, it does not mean that for any given action we could have done otherwise. No, it really doesn’t mean that; how could it, because determinism is true. But it does mean that there are certain types of action – the ‘voluntary’ determined ones, i.e. those which we have reflected on and endorsed – which would be modifiable in similar situations (not identical situations, obviously) in future. If one does not make this distinction then all our reactive attitudes – gratitude, resentment, admiration, blame etc – are pointless. But we’re not going to lose those attitudes, and I’m not sure that we would want to. A compatibilist position is the only way to make sense of them: I’ll praise or blame actions which, though determined, were ‘owned’ by the agent and which would be modifiable in future similar situations; and I’ll try not to praise or blame those actions which were coerced or otherwise ‘unowned’. Of course you might want to say that that kind of ‘free will’ isn’t free at all in the traditional sense. But the traditional sense was incoherent anyway, so that’s no loss. Incidentally, Searle seems to confuse determinism with fatalism at one point, when he says that a determinist can’t go into a restaurant and refuse to choose between the steak and the veal, thinking that the outcome is inevitable anyway. That’s fatalism, and it’s not compatible with even the (limited) kind of free will I’ve described above. But determinism, I believe, is.

          1. Fatalism means that the future is already written by forces or agencies outside of us; it doesn’t matter at all what we try to do, as the end result is already mapped out for us. Determinism means that the future is already written by forces or agencies including us; it does matter what we try to do, because our actions form part of the causes that map the future!

          2. desconhecido,

            That is actually something I’ve noticed is a bit of a conceptual divide between compatibilists and incompatiblists. Both sides would claim that determinism does not imply fatalism.

            But the actual ways in which incompatibilists speak about the implications of “no free will” implies fatalism (even though they don’t seem to notice). So for instance when some incompatibilists speak of being consoled by the implications of their incompatibilism “I don’t need to condemn myself for a past mistake because, really, I couldn’t have done otherwise” this is actually pretty fatalistic thinking, and logically it projects into future choice-making as well.

            Whereas compatibilism views the type of freedom we have within determinism to underwrite a quite robust response of “I could have done otherwise/should have done otherwise” and so doesn’t imply fatalism in the same way.

      2. It’s absurd to claim compatibilism doesn’t deal with the issue of personal control, especially when Jerry had just recently posted a link to Sam’s discussion with Dennett in which Dennett spoke on just that topic. And of course Dennett and others have written lots on the topic of in what sense we are in control of our decisions.

    2. I thought Sam dealt with this point well in the recent podcast with Dan Dennett.
      Dan seemed to accept Sam’s claim that thoughts simply arise in consciousness and yet took issue with the phrase ‘We are not the authors of our own thoughts’.
      Dan appears to want to claim that our unconscious processes/outputs are just as much a part of ‘us’ as those we are conscious of, and therefore ‘we’ are still in control.
      But if I can’t choose my thoughts, how can I claim I have free-will?
      Not sure who said this: “Man can do what he will, but he cannot will what we wills”. That seems to be the crux of the issue,
      Chris G

      1. Dan appears to want to claim that our unconscious processes/outputs are just as much a part of ‘us’ as those we are conscious of, …

        Which is of course true. The main way of going wrong here (both by dualists and incompatibilists) is in identifying the “us” with our consciousness. Our consciousness is just a small part of our overall selves.

        But if I can’t choose my thoughts, how can I claim I have free-will?

        Because compatibilists free will is about freedom to *act* on our wishes, not the claim that “we” decide what our wishes are.

        Not sure who said this: “Man can do what he will, but he cannot will what we wills”. That seems to be the crux of the issue, …

        Schopenhauer, and yes it’s a good one-sentence statement of compatibilism.

        1. Because even if you are not conscious of everything that goes on in your brain, you are the sum of everything that goes on in your brain.

        2. So, the question I would have for compatibilists is: But what *compels* the “freedom” to act, and how can you be aware or certain of what compelled you to act with such proposed freedom? It seems that we are programmed to survive based on causal necessity, but then the compatibilist creates a retrospective narrative regarding the unique liberties of that programming.

          1. So, the question I would have for compatibilists is: But what *compels* the “freedom” to act …

            I’m not sure what you’re asking. Humans have (deterministically created) desires, and since they are desires they try to act on them. There is nothing “free” about that step.

            But, there are different degrees of freedom to *act* on those desires. If you want to go out for a McDonalds you can’t if you’re locked in jail.

            To a compatibilist, “freedom to act on will” is all about social controls, constraints put there by other humans. (“Did you sign this of your own free will or was there a gun to your head?”)

          2. It’s not an anthropomorphism. Your brain and the algorithms it runs are literally you. Even if you can’t fathom how it works.

        3. Isn’t this changing the definition of free-will? You’ve accepted that our options are limited by the lack of control over what we can will, but emphasised our choice to act, or not, on that will. Isn’t this the ‘free-wont’ that Michael Shermer talks about?
          And don’t we also have an issue of regress, in that the reasons I chose to act, or not, are also determined by my unconscious, not totally under my control?
          Chris G

          1. Isn’t this changing the definition of free-will?

            That depends on what the definition of “free will” is in the first place, and that is what the whole discussion is about,.

            You’ve accepted that our options are limited by the lack of control over what we can will, but emphasised our choice to act, or not, on that will.

            No, not at all. Compatibilistic “freedom” in freewill is about the *ability* to act on our desires (not the *choice* to act on them).

          2. Hmm, it’s not clear ‘ability’ equates to ‘freedom’ in the way that I think most would accept ‘choice’ does.
            I have the ‘ability’ to make my heart beat, and to create red blood-cells, but I don’t choose to do either.
            Don’t we need to address the central illusion here: that we ‘feel’ we are consciously in control in a way that implies we would have the freedom/choice/will/ability to do otherwise if we could rewind the clock and put the universe back into the exact same state?
            Chris G

          3. Hmm, it’s not clear ‘ability’ equates to ‘freedom’ in the way that I think most would accept ‘choice’ does.

            You can indeed make your heart beat. Can you make it not beat, just by thinking about it? (As you can with, say, breathing?) No you can’t. Can you make it beat in time to music, as you can with clapping? No, you can’t.

            You thus have far fewer abilities (aka freedoms) that you can choose from in the case of the heart.

            This is what compatibilist freedom is about. It’s not about violating the laws of physics (any more than holding your breath does so). It’s about your range of options *if* you desire them (and, again, it’s *not* about freedom to desire them). Thus it is akin to the physics concept “degrees of freedom”.

          4. Coel – forgive me, but it appears you’re trying to retain a concept of free-will whist bending definitions, something Sam Harris accuses Dan Dennett of in the podcast.
            You introduced the idea of abilities rather than choices, now you talk about freedom and degrees of freedom.
            This approach doesn’t address the ‘folk’ meaning of free-will i.e. ultimate control over the choices we make, the ghost in the machine – libertarian free-will.
            It appears compatibilists fear losing something essential if we should deny the existence of ‘folk’ free-will – but what would we lose?
            Chris G

          5. Chris G,

            The compatibilist position does address ‘folk’ (I often use ‘magical’) conceptions of free will. It says that they are incorrect, for the same reasons that incompatibilists do, and then goes on to explain that real free will is very much as Coel argues. Though I have to agree, you’d be hard pressed to realize that by arguing with compatibilists because they rarely come right out and say that.

            The compatibilist argument is that the mundane conceptions of free will, for example “I agree to these terms of my own free will,” have long been as commonly held in society as the magical sort and therefore the term “free will” should be retained.

          6. This approach doesn’t address the ‘folk’ meaning of free-will i.e. ultimate control over the choices we make, the ghost in the machine – libertarian free-will.

            We compatibilists reject that sort of “free will” entirely.

            It appears compatibilists fear losing something essential if we should deny the existence of ‘folk’ free-will …

            Not at all, I’d be quite happy if that concept completely disappeared.

          7. Hi Coel,
            Seems we’ve come full circle, and returned to the question I posed in my initial comment above (comment No. 4) “… to what extent we can still talk about individuals having ‘options’, and the freedom to make ‘choices’ – what meaning do these terms still have (if any) in a deterministic framework? Can we still talk about human-agency in any real sense?”
            It seems you and other compatibilists here (including Darrelle) wish to define our ability to consider options, reason, and affirm past choices we made (e.g. the signing of binding contracts) as free-will. Whereas others, I suspect Sam Harris too, would say that social contracts are fair and binding DESPITE the absence of REAL free-will.
            It appears you (and the likes of Dan Dennett) worry that the denial of compatibilist free-will would render all contracts null and void.
            And I agree, this is a tricky one to resolve.
            I’d be very interested if PCC(E) would chip-in with a view on this dilemma,
            Chris G

          8. I differ from Dennett in that I don’t worry at all about the demise of the concept “free will”. I’d be happy if the concept disappeared and would suggest that that would make no difference.

          9. I remain skeptical that people’s intuitions about “could have done otherwise” actually pivot on the notion of rewinding the universe to a microscopically identical state. I think it’s much more likely that our intuitions are tuned by evolution to deal in coarse-grained, roughly similar macrostates, in which context “could have done otherwise” is perfectly sensible (as Dennett noted in the Harris podcast).

          10. Chris G,

            Just to clarify, I am not a compatibilist. I was just attempting to relate some of what I know of the compatibilist position that seemed relevant to your discussion.

          11. Chris G,

            As you see, the debate often comes down to which concept of free will preserves “what people usually think of as a free willed choice.” Incompatibilists typically assert that Libertarian theory of free will best captures the essence of what people think when making “free” choices; compatibilists think it doesn’t necessarily capture it best: a compatibilist account does.

            And this gets us to what we really are thinking and experiencing when we “think we are experiencing the freedom of choice.”

            Take the case of someone deciding between running a marathon on the weekend, or playing pitcher for their weekend baseball team. If you ask her “do you think you can really do either one of those? If so, why?” What is she likely to say? It’s not “Because I am a contra-causal agent, free of antecedant physics, and if you rewound the tape of the universe to this exact point I can choose so contra-causally.” Of course not. She will speak to you of the type of reasons she actually appeals to: “I’ve run marathons like that before, I’m in good enough condition that I should be able to run this one. And I’ve also been pitching for my baseball team, and there’s a game this Sunday, so I know I’m capable of doing that as well.”

            Notice she would be thinking of her identity as stretching through time – things “she” has been able to do in the past constitute the “her” she is reasoning about. And then she is contemplating…or assuming from past experience…her abilities to do these things.

            Then you ask: Well, which option will you choose?

            And she does what? Starts speaking about contra-causality? Dualism? No. She will start talking about her desires, surveying them for their strength and relating them to reasons to choose one or the other course: “Well, I really want to run the marathon this year because I loved it last year. But I also don’t want to let down my baseball team on Sunday.”

            So far…nothing at all in her thought process is making magical or contra-causal assumptions, because that isn’t even a useful way to think.

            Then she decides: “I want to do the marathon more because it’s only once a year. I figure it will be ok if I skip the one baseball game. The other pitcher on our team is pretty good and even if we lose one, we are still doing well this season and it’s not big deal.”

            And…still…we have no “illusion” in her thought process. Nothing about dualism or contracausality has entered her mind or her decision-making process.

            Now, it’s possible that she has at some point
            deceived herself about the reasons she chose the marathon. It’s possible. But it’s not *likely* she did, and it can’t be the *norm* that we do not have access to our actual reasons for doing things because if it were the norm, then human actions would be inexplicable. And yet they are highly predictable when using them to understand and predict human behavior.

            Did she make the choice of her own will? Yes, she chose to do what she desired to do.
            Did “she” make the choice? Yes, it came from her desires and her reasoning about how to fulfill those desires. Could she have done otherwise? Yes, she is capable of doing both activities. Was she free to choose either? Yes, she wasn’t restrained by anyone or anything from playing baseball.
            Put her in a similar situation, and she can show you she could choose the baseball.

            So…all of this IMO captures the actual, general thinking going on when we are making choices. It’s not an “illusion.”

            The only real problem comes when you start asking people to, in essence, become mini-philosophers and start trying to hypothesize about free will and determinism.
            Then people aren’t so great at figuring out the details of how they fit, and like theists trying to figure out morality, some people think maybe it required magic, when it never did.



          12. According to this reasoning, those with congenital brain disorders or psychomotor retardation are unable to be compatibilists by default (their ability to “act on desires” is compromised or nonexistent). Either way, the capacities of mentation are not up to the recipient.

          13. Neither compatibilism or incompatibilism are things that people can be or not be. They are hypotheses attempting to explain apparent cognitive behaviors / capabilities.

          14. What I meant by “be” is “consider themselves” ad hoc. Of course no one is inherently born with either philosophical disposition. They had no choice.

          15. Compatibilism is all about an entity’s ability to act on will. Perhaps a cognitively impaired individual has less freedom. That’s not something compatibilists deny.

        4. And this is a problem, because one might not have the other attributes for (say) the reactive attitudes to be appropriate if the wishes were not also subject to our control. Addicts are the example everyone agrees on, even (some) libertarians, or those who lean that way. (I seem to remember one: both addict and sometime-l., in P. Russell’s free will seminar years ago.)

      2. I have read a version of this attributed to Bertrand Russell – “I can do as I please, but I can’t please as I please” – but I do not know the original source.

    3. In fact Dennett spent considerable time, in his recent conversation with Sam Harris, directly addressing the question of what it means to be in control. So I don’t know where Jerry gets the idea that compatibilism ignores this issue.

      Executive summary: if you want to insist that we don’t control our own actions, then you must also hold that an autopilot doesn’t control an aircraft, a thermostat doesn’t control temperature, and that indeed the word “control” is meaningless. Which puts you in the position of having to provide alternate explanations for such phenomena that don’t invoke the concept of control.

      Incompatibilists who deplore cop-outs ought to be champing at the bit to tackle that head-on.

      1. Exactly. I just mentioned this too. It sometimes feels like when compatibilists speak, inconmatiblists stop listening. Like that old Far Side cartoon of “what cats hear” when we speak to them.

      2. Gregory,
        I think we need to be more specific about the ‘we’ that is controlling our choices.
        If it’s ultimately the unconscious ‘we’ not the conscious ‘we’, then the self that we perceive to be in control, the self we ‘feel’ is making key decisions and steering our actions, is an illusion.
        The autopilot of an aeroplane IS in control because it has been programmed to be in control – its control is determined by ‘unconscious’ code,
        Chris G

        1. Chris G,

          To the question of whether “we” are doing the choosing:

          First, if you are thinking of some of the experiments that *seem* to show unconscious decisions happen before we are aware of them, remember just how scratching-of-the-surface those type of experiments are in terms of the scope of our cognition. As I’ve said before, we have to be careful of moves like “because we can show an autonomic reflex when we hit a mallet to our knee..therefore we’ve uncovered ALL our actions are autonomic reflexes!” That is a huge leap because so much more is left to explain, that such a claim doesn’t explain.
          That said…

          Sam Harris likes to make a lot out of his own introspection and that thoughts, reasons etc just “pop” into existence in his mind (and hence this is how everyone’s mind works). The question is: what else COULD it look like? If we are to think a proposition, it would make no sense we have to first “choose to think the proposition” as in “think about the proposition before it appears in our thinking” because this would entail an endless loop of thinking about thinking before we ever thought something.
          It seems to be basing “real authorship of thoughts” on some impossible, incoherent demand. Which is reason to reject it.

          It seems to me that the most important question is whether the thoughts we are conscious of actually representative what is going on in our minds. In other words, if I
          think I am buying a birthday card for my son for certain reasons: “Because it is his birthday, and I want to give him a funny card” then I want those reasons I seem to apprehend to be accurate. If I say “this is why I’m doing it,” it’s true and I know this internally, then that seems to be what I care about in any relevant circumstances.

          Some people will point to research that shows we can fool ourselves about the reasons we have done something. But this, again, is making the type of leap from “hammer tapping knee” to “explaining everything else” that is unwarranted. Yes, we can fall for illusions. But not always, and not persistently and comprehensively. Yes we can sometimes have an inaccurate grasp of why we did something…but not comprehensively across the board, because as I mentioned earlier, this just couldn’t explain much of what would need explaining – it would be like saying we don’t really have any idea to explain why Nasa sent a probe to Jupiter, because we never have access to human reason to explain such things. And yet…having access to the reasons Nasa will give you, explains it, and predicts Nasa’s future. We really do have a generally, though not perfect, grasp of why we are doing things – the reasons that come from us.
          And that undergirds this sense of “our” doing the choosing for “our reasons.”

          1. Hi Vaal,
            Sam Harris claims that the illusion of free-will is itself an illusion – because the idea that there is an independent ‘self’ choosing what to think next is easily dispelled once we stop and realise that an unbidden stream of thoughts and feelings are passing through our consciousness and we have no idea where they come from; we are not in control of that stream. And it’s incredibly difficult to switch off.
            But as I asked in my very first comment on this post, I’m still confused as to what extent we can still talk about individuals having ‘options’, and the freedom to make ‘choices’ – what meaning do these terms still have (if any) in a deterministic framework? Can we still talk about human-agency in any real sense?
            The examples you give of buying a birthday card for your son, and (in your comment further above) a person trying to decide whether to run a marathon or play baseball at the weekend, are clearly examples where conscious deliberation, the application of logic and reasoning, drawing on past experience and memory, help us reach conclusions that we can all agree are robust explicable rational decisions.
            But what if, at the finishing line of the marathon, you were to go up to that person and say: “What are you doing? It was our son’s birthday today, you missed the party??”
            She explains it completely slipped her mind, and she has no idea how that happened. She beats herself up for weeks feeling she was selfish thinking only about herself, marathon or baseball etc. She was not in control of neglecting her son’s birthday.
            Just because we can make SOME choices, especially those of little moral consequence where we have ample time to pontificate, doesn’t mean that we ALWAYS make choices that we are in control of.
            Couldn’t we view your examples as proof that we sometimes feel in control DESPITE the absence of true free-will? To argue that we do have (some version of) free-will, don’t we have to show that all our choices are made as consciously as the decision to run a marathon rather than play baseball, and that if we find examples were that isn’t the case, the argument is invalid?
            Chris G

          2. Isn’t there a continuum to perceived control, from none (heart beat) through little (withdrawing your hand from that hot burner) and on to a lot (marathon or baseball)? Here we all are, talking about choosing to accept the idea of choice. Clearly there is something there, or is it just linguistic? Are the eliminativists right?

          3. This is one area I started to explore in the aforementioned seminar, now more than 16 years ago. I got out _Willed Action and Its Impairments_ from the psychology stacks (which I found by chance) and tried to figure out what exactly the neuroscience of “voluntary” action is. Not straightforward. Also not sure whether it makes a moral difference.

          4. Chris, the answer to your final question seems pretty clearly to be No. If we say that someone has a strong backhand, or a beautiful singing voice, or a facility with foreign languages, that doesn’t oblige them to demonstrate it 24/7. Nor does the occasional flubbed return, false note, or malapropism refute our claim.

            So why should free will – i.e. the capacity for deliberative choice — be uniquely an all-or-nothing proposition that can be disproved by a single instance of some other kind of choice?

          5. Gregory,
            I see your point, and agree when talking about ‘a single instance’. But what if our assumptions about someone with a strong backhand, beautiful singing voice, or ability in languages is undermined by many instances to the contrary – when we realise: actually, they’re rubbish at tennis, singing, and languages.
            Arguing FOR free-will on the basis of SOME scenarios where we’d all agree we exhibited control over choiceS made may well be mistaken, and far out-weighed by the many more instances, where this simply was not the case,
            Chris G

          6. So then what do you make of the ordinary citizen who, in a crisis, performs some act of extraordinary courage? By your analysis it seems we should conclude that such people lack the capacity for actual heroism, since the overwhelming majority of their quotidian behavior fails to exemplify it.

            This seems backwards to me. One example of heroic behavior ought to be sufficient to demonstrate that they have the capacity for it.

            Similarly, the fact the we occasionally engage in deliberative choice shows that we do indeed have the capacity for it, even if some or most of our routine daily choices are made on autopilot as it were. (And who programs the autopilot? To a large extent, we program it ourselves, so even those choices are ours in that sense.)

            Also, whether or not “we’d all agree we exhibited control over choices made” is pretty much the crux of the free will debate as I understand it. There are incompatibilists — Jerry and Harris among them — who seem to deny that choice and control are even meaningful concepts.

          7. Gregory,
            The issue isn’t whether people have courage and the capacity to behave heroically. The issue is WHY we behave those ways, and why sometimes but not others.
            Coincidentally, a few years ago, while crossing a road in a busy city centre, a woman crossed from the other side and we passed each other in the middle of the road. Suddenly, I reached back and grabbed the sleeve of her coat and pulled her to a stop – a bus sped past us on the side of the road she was walking towards. I literally didn’t have time to think about what I was doing, wasn’t even aware I’d noticed the bus.
            I think I probably saved her life.
            In our typically British way, we stood awkwardly on the pavement, shaking, not really knowing what to say. She thanked me, we moved on.
            I don’t think the issue of free-will is about abilities, capacities, instincts, nor reasoning – it’s about what ultimately is controlling when and how we exhibit all of those things.
            I’ve a couple more things to say in summary, but will do so in a reply to Vaal’s comment just below here,
            Chris G.

          8. Chris, compatibilists readily concede that we don’t have ultimate control. But we don’t need it to be effective agents, any more than the autopilot needs total control over the weather. So talk of ultimate control is something of a conversation stopper, since there’s no disagreement on that point.

            What compatibilists prefer to ask is what sort of control do we have? And how does it map onto the everyday notion(s) of free will used in ordinary conversation? Because it’s not at all clear that every utterance of the words “free will” is meant to say something about ultimate control or microphysical causality. That’s why it’s important to be sure we understand what people do mean when they talk about free will, before telling them they don’t have it.

          9. Chris G.,

            I had alluded in my previous comment to the issue you have brought up.

            As to the question of whether we have access to our actual reasons for doing things, as I said: we may be able to conclude that sometimes we are mistaken, but it is exceedingly problematic to leap to therefore this is the norm.

            As an example: We know that we can perceive things inaccurately, e.g. all manner of visual illusions can be brought in as evidence. But the fact we get it wrong *sometimes* doesn’t mean we get it wrong all the time, or most of the time. Because if it were the norm for us to misperceive what is really happening, how would that explain our survival, or just the fact people routinely seem to be able to navigate the world and take actions that get the results they want? The leap from “making mistakes sometimes” to “always mistaken” is a thesis that would really fail when trying to explain all the things that need explaining.

            It’s the same when leaping from being able to give an example of our not being accurately in tune with our reasons and desires, and leaping to “therefore we never actually know why we do anything.” Imagine all the reasons you think you are conscious of having are false, and therefore all the reasons anyone gives for doing something are false and inaccurate. Just try to actually apply that thesis to human behavior and see how far you get. You’d have to explain why the desires and reasons we are conscious of
            are so predictive of our behavior, both to ourselves and to others who we’ve shared these reasons with. This thesis would have to make sense of why Nasa made all the choices it did to get Juno to Jupiter…without accepting any of the reasons anyone at Nasa has given to each other and us, for their actions.
            I really think you should quickly realise that the idea we are systematically cut off from our “real desires” and “real reasons” for doing things is a non-starter.

          10. Hi Vaal,
            I don’t think your comparison of the illusion of free-will to visual illusions is particularly helpful, because seeing two lines as different lengths when they’re in fact the same is an example of getting things wrong – but ‘doing what we will’ is not about being wrong or making mistakes. It’s about what ultimately controls what we do.
            As I replied to Gregory just above here, to propose free-will is an illusion is not to say we don’t have the capacities and abilities to behave in rational ways – but it questions WHY we do what we do on some occasions but not on others.
            There seems to be a general consensus here that we don’t choose the thoughts that stream into our consciousness, but that we have some control over how we act on those thoughts/inputs. But if my thoughts suggest chocolate or vanilla ice-cream, and I choose chocolate, isn’t it equally interesting that I never considered the choice of strawberry?
            I note you didn’t reply to my question about the person running the marathon having forgotten about her son’s birthday – these things happen, and it seems we don’t really know why.
            We are the products of evolution by natural-selection, so of course we’re not going to be ‘wired’ to consistently make mistakes – we’re survival machines.
            But as Searle said: “If the neurobiology level is causally sufficient to determine your behaviour, then the fact that you had the experience of freedom at the higher level is really irrelevant.”
            I think Jerry’s right when he suggests: “Most of the problems of free will, it seems to me, involve evolution and neuroscience rather than philosophy.”
            BTW, I really appreciate you and Gregory and others taking the time to post comments here and engage in this conversation, it’s been very helpful for me to start to get my head around the topic,
            regards, Chris G

          11. Chris G,

            The visual illusions are relevant to the particular point I was trying to address. Folks like Harris wish to undermine the idea that “we” are in control by saying that if our consciousness does not drive our actions “like it feels” then it’s an illusion that “we” are in control. I’m arguing that this is made from an unreasonable demand for what would constitute “control.” Harris insists our thoughts arise mysteriously to us, but I point out this is only if you start from a pretty incoherent idea of what it would look like otherwise (e.g. the eternal regress problem I brought up of having to “think what you are going to think before thinking it.”)

            I’ve argued that, even if one grants the claim that we become conscious of our desires and decisions slightly after they are made by pre-conscious deliberation, so long as we become consciously aware, accurately, of our desires and our reasons, and hence our deliberation process, then there isn’t much difference in any practical sense. If you ask me “why are you going to the store to buy milk” and I, being consciously aware of your question and consciously aware of my desires and reasons for doing so, and can convey them to you…what in practice is the difference in terms of human interaction and experience of such things?

            As I said, if our consciousness were routinely *deceived* about our desires and deliberations, then we’d have a problem. But I gave reasons why that thesis makes no sense, even IF sometimes, like visual illusions, we are mistaken. And that IS the reply to your example of someone running the marathon forgetting a birthday: even if it were an example of someone mistaken about her reasons (and it actually doesn’t seem to be) this can not be the norm, in terms of our knowing what we are doing and why. So your example doesn’t alter my argument.

          12. Also..

            “There seems to be a general consensus here that we don’t choose the thoughts that stream into our consciousness,”

            This depends on what one means. In one sense, it could be right, in another one wrong. Because we often choose to start thinking about something, for instance my choice to make this post, and we guide our attention to that goal, so in quite a real way we are studding our thoughts. If that weren’t the case, we’d be just making random statements all the time. And if you want to say “but you didn’t really choose to make this post” then you would have ruled out the very concept of choice at all, which will lead into further incoherence when trying to explain human behaviour.

            Your question about choosing ice cream flavours I think is running into the problem I’ve also been highlighting. Remember that we think of ourselves as an identity through time, not at a frozen moment of choosing between two options. In other words, when you are thinking “I could choose chocolate or vanilla” this is just an assessment of your abilities and the situation – e.g. you like both, have eaten both before, can afford either choice, etc. Why didn’t you choose strawberry? There’s likely an answer: you’ve tried that flavour before and prefer the other two, or something like that. Again, this is coming from your own control. Could you have chosen strawberry? Yes…you were capable of it, but didn’t desire to. None of which contradicts neurobiology or the possibility of physics being determined.
            If you were frozen in time could you choose either? No. But then, we are never frozen in time; we are quite reasonably assessing our choice-making abilities from previous experience, to situations similar to the one we face, and thinking in If/then truths: IF I desire chocolate I am capable of ordering it, but IF I desired vanilla, I am capable of ordering that too. Which are true statements of the powers you generally have, the truth of which are not threatened by determinism.
            And, very importantly: they are the truths that actually make our decisions reasonable and rational to begin with!

            But as Searle said: “If the neurobiology level is causally sufficient to determine your behaviour, then the fact that you had the experience of freedom at the higher level is really irrelevant.”

            And this is Searle just saying freedom is incompatible with determinism, which begs the question and what I’m arguing against.
            First, it’s like saying “your neurobiology isn’t you” which seems absurd. Where else would “you” come from? We would WANT our neurobiology to determine what we do, which of course includes our desires and reasoning toward what we want to do; otherwise it’s not us doing it, or it could be just random actions. And even given determinism WE play the crucial part in determining our actions, based on our desires and reasons.

            Secondly, it’s taking the “frozen in time” viewpoint of the self, rather than the view of our assessing our powers-through-time, which I argue is the real way we are thinking when making decisions (and which doesn’t presume being excepted from physics, or magic).

  6. But there is a more important question. I don’t give a damn about “free will” but about how in “determinism” the future has to “unfold”. There are many paths ahead or just one that is followed starting from big bang? Time passes with events like an endless movie, frame by frame (of cause and effect) or not? From what I read seems that both answers are wrong because each will invalidate the half of what a “determinist” appears to accept in practice. Is it possible to think that “history’s outcome” can be only one whatever people do in the meantime? Like in a movie the end can be only one, whatever the complexity of the plot leading there. Is that so?

    In a “reality” described as above life and evolution cannot exist.

    1. Freewill is usually taught as metaphysics. By definition, freewill cannot be proven to be true or false.

      The incapacity to predict outcomes is compatible with either a world where freewill is possible or not.

      The fact, for example, that there is no evidence for a soul does not mean that it does not exist. Science just makes it physically impossible, from what I have calculated. That still does not mean the soul cannot exist outside of nature, in some parallel transcendent plane of existence. There is no end to what could be the case, even if there is no evidence.

      1. “that there is no evidence for a soul does not mean that it does not exist. ”

        I love this sort of argument which seems to me to be pretty much the argument for Russell’s teapot.

        Another great argument of similar validity is that espoused by William Lane Craig in the question and answer session that followed his debate with Sean Carroll. Carroll suggested (as I understand) that there is no necessity that there was anything at all on the other side of the big bang — that the universe could have arisen from nothing. Craig characterized this as suggesting that the universe just “popped” into existence. And, he went on, if universes can pop in and out of existence, why not bicycles? But, bicycles don’t pop in and out of existence, so universes can’t either. Therefore, God did it. This is what I call the WLC bicycle popping proof of God’s existence. Of course, WLC did not explain how it is that we know that bicycles aren’t popping in and out of existence just as we don’t know that souls do not exist and that Russell’s teapot doesn’t exist.

        Similarly, we have Ken Ham’s proof that the moon is made out of green cheese: “How do you know that it’s not made of green cheese? Have you been there?”

      2. “Freewill is usually taught as metaphysics. By definition, freewill cannot be proven to be true or false.”

        Why? I do science oriented metaphysics, which runs a sort of “inference to the best explanation” from the specific sciences to metaphysical conclusions. See above about me taking out neuroscience books as an example.

  7. In his book, Freedom and Neurobiology, Searle expresses a convoluted view of free will. What is clear is that he is an incompatibilist. He thinks that it possible that determinists are right and that FW is an illusion (the part Harris and PCC like) BUT, if so, it is an illusion we cannot function without, so we just have to go with it. On the other hand he thinks FW may be real and the result of quantum indeterminacy in our brains which is random at the fundamental level but not at the systems level.

    As with his views on AI, I find Searle confused and confusing on FW.

  8. Compatibilism is all about saving the idea of “moral responsibility” in light of a deterministic world. But morality is a set of emotions and intuitions. The idea of “moral responsibility” makes about as much sense as “fear responsibility” or “disgust responsibility.” Society doesn’t need moral responsibility. We just need laws outlining what is permissible and what is not permissible.

  9. This was a great interview, getting to the core of the issue as I personally see it (and it is a personal issue on one level) in a very short period. It is an issue with which I am still wrestling. So I was impressed by Searle’s insistence that, given the view of physics (as I will call it) and the notion of free will, “…it’s hard to say how we could give up on either of them.”

    I like the point of view of Sean Carroll in “The big picture”. Here’s my take on that.

    First, he points out that physics does not talk about causes any more, just about the way a state of a system changes over time. His bigger claim in this book, tho, is that we have different languages for describing different levels or domains, notably, one for describing sub-molecular physics and one for describing psychology. Each language is useful in its own domain, but they must be consistent between them. On the physical level, everything is determined, in the sense that the evolution of a wave function is determined even if the result of measurement of the event it represents may be probabilistic. But on the psychological level, it is perfectly ok to use the language of voluntary choice. Or, as Searle says at 4:52, “…you can’t live your life on the assumption of determinism.”

    1. It’s a principle versus practice, or principle and implication juxtaposition; and I wouldn’t disagree with this in practice. Humans must resolve the existential problem imposed by determinism as a matter of sheer pragmatism.

      Muss es sein? Es muss sein!

          1. Oh, geez. It’s a technical music thing. Not relevant at all. I opened a nice Pinot noir last night. Would’ve been finishing up glass no. 3 at 10:48.

    2. Ironically, physics aside (which is debatable) there’s a renaissance in causal approaches and explicit causal modeling in almost every other field I’ve investigated (chemistry may be an exception, though with protonomics, I’m not sure).

  10. The following assumes free will is an illusion:

    Why is it so difficult to find a fitness advantage to the illusion of free will? The existence of the free will illusion has major influences over social behavior. My ‘belief’ in the free will of others strongly influences my interactions with them. Maybe it’s more effective to influence others by manipulating an illusory free will than it is to influence others by less illusory methods.

    Maybe the belief in other people’s free will is the important thing, and my own illusory free will is mainly to support that.

      1. I’m saying the illusion of free will might have an evolutionary advantage, mainly as it affects social behavior. I wouldn’t use the term “designed” – we all the connotation with that word.

        Searle claims the illusion is “uneconomical” (around 5:20 in the video) and that there’s no evolutionary advantage to maintain the illusion. And I’m saying, “what!? how do you know it’s uneconomical? Has this claim of ‘uneconomical’ really been thought out?”

        So just off the top of my head I thought, maybe, the illusion of free will presents opportunities for communication and influence. It enables constructs like guilt, duty, responsibility, etc., that seem to be necessary for human societies (as we know them now).

        There may be other ‘reasons’ for the illusion, I just sketched out a quick and dirty proposal for illustration.

        My main point is that I take issue with ‘uneconomical’ claim. Personally, I do believe that free will is an illusion, and I strongly suspect there is are evolutionary reasons for it (probably enables some glue to human society or something like that).

  11. Or “in a deterministic world, how do we structure the system of reward and punishment to produce the most well being for society and its members?” The last question, of course, involves not just philosophy but empirical observation of how people behave, or are “cured” under different systems of treatment and punishment.

    OK, let’s follow up that line of thought and ask what sorts of treatment are likely to be effective at rehabilitating offenders and reducing recidivism. Does anyone think that telling offenders “You have no control over your actions” is likely to be effective? Can anyone point to a successful rehabilitation program anywhere in the world that explicitly says anything like this?

    It seems much more likely that successful programs will center around the idea that you are in control, you can make smarter choices, you don’t have to revert to old bad habits.

    So let’s suppose that this turns out to be true, and the most effective therapeutic message is a compatibilist one. It seems to me you then have two choices: you can accept compatibilism as empirically validated, or you can adopt a Little People stance of publicly promoting a view you privately believe is false for the sake of therapeutic effectiveness.

    I know which I’d choose.

    1. Gregory,
      I agree, telling offenders “You have no control over your actions” would not have the desired affect.
      But I wonder if it would be better (and more consistent with a deterministic view) to tell them “You/we can influence your actions in future”?
      So through education, training, and ideas (i.e. environmental factors) we instil experiences that will influence, either consciously or unconsciously, the offender’s behaviour in the future.
      That appears to be more consistent (and more honest) with a deterministic take on matters.
      Of course, some offenders may be so damaged (genetically and/or experientially) so as to be beyond repair,
      Chris G

      1. over the last decades the idea of determinism, and the scientific evidence for it, has gradually pushed aside the of dualistic, I-could-have-done-otherwise form of free will

        I have said that here before, and as Vaal pointed out upstream it never seems to make a difference, but this is simply factually incorrect. Determinism is thousands of years old, going back to the first time somebody postulated an omniscient deity and tried to hash out the consequences for moral responsibility.

        Conversely, we need to consider only the term “quantum” to see that if anything the state of science looks as if determinism may have been disproved. Not that randomness helps libertarian free will – but the point is that this whole discussion that Bronze Age philosophers already hashed out did not only arise in the last 20 years, nor has science resolved it in favour of incompatibilism.

        that is not only beloved of religionists, but is the type of free will that most people accept.

        Similarly here, I have pointed out before that any religionist who seriously believes in omniscient deity does not believe in libertarian free will, and indeed many of them are quite happy with there being a divine, predetermined plan for everything. That these people exist is just a plain fact, and thus this is not a religion / atheism issue.

        And as Hume already pointed out a very long time ago, some people may claim to believe in libertarian free will to rationalise a contradiction in their religious or political beliefs, but all sane people live their lives as if they really assume libertarian free will to be false. Everybody models other people’s minds as the result of heredity and experience, nothing more, to predict how these people will act in the future.

        So this is a bit like a “he claims he isn’t lazy, but he never does a fair share of the work” situation. By their actual behaviour ye shall know them, and going by that everybody is a compatibilist in practice.

      2. As Dennett noted in the podcast, control theory starts from the observation that you can’t control everything. The autopilot keeps the aircraft on course despite uncontrollable variations in wind speed and direction. That’s the whole point of having dynamic control systems with sensors and feedback loops. If you could control everything, you’d just arrange the initial conditions to carry you along passively to where you want to go.

        So I’m not sure in what sense you think it’s more honest to talk about “influence” rather than “control”.

        1. Gregory,
          I think ‘influence’ is more consistent with determinism because it is the underlying uncontrollable aspects of the brain that we are trying to influence i.e. make changes to the underlying memories/processes/urges that we suspect are contributing to (or possibly even driving) the offending behaviour. Whereas ‘control’ implies a process that we can consciously apply now in real-time.
          So rehabilitation attempts to address and change those underlying aspects that the offending individual does not seem to be able to control, with the objective of seeing empirical changes in their future behaviour,
          Chris G

  12. There are compatibilists (e.g., Terry Horgan, Oisin Deery, me) who offer explanations for why the experience of free will (or free choice) would not be illusory even if determinism (or even though naturalism) is true.

    Somewhat related, a headline that should seem paradoxical if people were committed to free will being incompatible with naturalism (e.g., with our minds being our brains):

  13. Determinism (aka Mechanism) and the “End of the Enlightenment”

    Determinism has clarified that “Free Will” does not exist and consequently the demise of “moral responsibility.” “Responsibility” exists in the sense of holding “individuals” accountable. “Accountability” is a better term than “responsibility” although both consist of “word gaming” to a certain degree. Holding a computer “responsible” or “accountable” for a malfunction is rather inane; so holding an “individual” accountable has a similar degree of bewilderment.

    Re: “The End of the Enlightenment”
    “English Common Law… held that every individual is, by nature, a free and lawful person and endowed by nature with the capacity to know right from wrong and truth from falsehood.” (“Jefferson as Model for American Classical Architecture,” Carroll William Westfall, AAQ, Spring 2016). This brief statement, is in a nutshell, the Enlightenment (liberty, freedom, individual rights, accountable government, etc) which was the inspiration, foundation, and guidance for the Enlightenment. Just as Darwin sent the Declaration of Independence to the realm of quaintness: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

    Determinism & Mechanism have done the same to the Enlightenment. This seems to be the reality we need to cope with. Postings here have given us guidance regarding how to cope with the criminal justice system in a Post-Deterministic world. Now, I’m in need of guidance on how to cope with the Post-Enlightenment age.

    1. Interesting remarks. And this points out what I do not like about determinism. If I struggle with a decision and finally end up making the right, or what is generally considered ‘good”, choice, I can take no joy in my responsibility for it.

      And I prefer “responsibility” to “accounting”, although the latter may be preferable to lawyers, that is up to them.

    2. I don’t assume that *everyone* has the capacity to know something about right and wrong and truth and falsehood, but I do assume some adults do. What does this have to do with determinism (in any sense)?

      I happen to also be an in-the-limit-no-punishment etc., but the two are independent.

  14. Holding a computer “responsible” or “accountable” for a malfunction is rather inane; so holding an “individual” accountable has a similar degree of bewilderment.

    Not so. Holding a computer responsible will have no effect on the computer; holding the person responsible will have an affect on them, since people really are affected by how others think about them and act towards them.

    Hence the concept of “moral” responsibility, which means something along the lines of “susceptible to social opprobrium” responsibility.

    1. Clearly everyone who commits a crime or an immoral act is someone who was not “susceptible to social opprobrium.” If they were they would not have committed the crime. Susceptibility to social opprobrium is a brain state that one is lucky to have been born with. Those born without it or with particularly low levels of it are no more candidates for moral desert than the mentally ill. To make these arguments you make, Coel, you still need to find that demarkation point between mentally ill and not mentally ill. If your criteria is susceptibility to social opprobrium or not, then every criminal is mentally ill.

      1. There are at least two ways Coel’s approach could work – before an action, and after. So if one is only “reasons responsive” or whatever *after*, that’s a shame, but it might be that Coel’s claim is that only those who are *never* such are ill.

    2. “Holding a computer responsible will have no effect on the computer”

      Not true all computers; this is only dependent on the type of algorithms running on this computer and the type of computer.

  15. Free will is as real as a rainbow. Saying a rainbow (or free will) is an illusion doesn’t imply it isn’t real, only that it isn’t what it appears to be.

      1. IMO, it the definition of libertarian contra-causal freewill is internally contradictory akin to a round square or a married bachelor.

    1. Unless you are a dualist, only physical stuff can be real.

      Illusions about physical stuff (rainbows) are fundamentally different from illusions about non-physical stuff like God or free will.

      1. Rainbows are physical stuff? I would disagree. They are composed of the interaction or relationship between light and air and visual receptors.

        Whether or not relationships should be considered ‘real’ is a philosophical question akin to whether or not such things as free will and consciousness are ‘real’.

        1. And that makes them brain processes (which I dispute, but it is a position one could defend) … and hence material (which is what one should say, not “physical”, because that implies no emergence or is at least ambiguous with that idea).

          1. Any reason consciousness or free will couldn’t be considered an emergent property? Doesn’t that mean it could be real in the same sense as a rainbow?

          2. That is Sean Carroll’s way of looking at it. I meant to point that out in post 10, but I forgot the word “emergent”. (It was getting late…) Check out Sean’s interview on Closer to truth.

            Looking for that again, I found another, where he talks about the block universe idea. I think that, just as you can consider a map to be a presentation of what is there at all spatial coordinates, you can extend the idea to space-time. This leads to the idea that all of space-time is existent “now” and time does not quite really happen. But choice can only really exist in time, so this raises another enormous problem involving choice. (I prefer “choice” to “free will”.)

            I sure hope this did not stick in two Youtube windows. I don’t think it will with this method, where I did not do an imbed.

          3. Probably “real” is not the best word. Better to say it is a useful concept which enables us to talk about the rainbow, instead of referring to quarks and electrons, or to molecules, or to light wave and refraction. It’s easier to say “rainbow”.

        2. “Rainbows are physical stuff? I would disagree.”


          A rainbow is a meteorological phenomenon that is caused by reflection, refraction and dispersion of light in water droplets resulting in a spectrum of light appearing in the sky.

          In principle we can create non-physical rainbows, it’s easy:

          I could remove my eyes and connect my neurons with wires to a supercomputer which simulates a convincing rainbow.

          This supercomputer would have created the illusion of a non-real and non-physical rainbow in my mind. Not a single molecule or photon from a real rainbow is used.

          1. Hmm…I said “They are composed of the interaction or relationship between light and air and visual receptors.” which seems to me another way of stating “reflection, refraction and dispersion of light in water droplets resulting in a spectrum of light appearing in the sky”

          2. Yes, but that was not my point.

            You claimed:
            “Rainbows are physical stuff? I would disagree.”

            My claim:
            A real rainbow is physical stuff only.

            But we can create an illusion of a non-real rainbow, without using anything from a real rainbow.

            So a real rainbow and a simulated rainbow can create the same illusion.

            This illusion of a simulated rainbow is an example of a false belief; it’s about a thing that doesn’t exist.

            You claimed :
            “Free will is as real as a rainbow.”

            I claim :
            Free will is not as real as a rainbow; a rainbow is real, free will is not real.

            If you are not a dualist you must agree that only physical stuff is real. Free will is mostly about non-physical stuff like moral responsibility.

            Maybe you mean your beliefs about rainbows are as real as your beliefs about free will?

            You claim:
            Whether or not relationships should be considered ‘real’ is a philosophical question akin to whether or not such things as free will and consciousness are ‘real’.

            I claim:
            Only science can learn us something new about the nature of reality.

            Introspection and logic cannot tell us the difference between a real and a non-real rainbow. That makes philosophy pretty useless in these matters.

            Science tells us that the classical idea of free will is pure fiction.

            And there is no reason to belief that there is such thing as the so called “hard problem of consciousness”, as some philosophers claim.

  16. One of the most interesting features we humans seem to have is self-control: when we consciously decide to overrule sub/-conscious impulses.

    To use the word freewill for that feature is misleading and confusing.

    Richard Feynman:

    Science is what we have learned about how not to fool ourselves about the way the world is.

  17. The idea of free will as an illusion seems to have made it to popular culture. Here is a quote from Eliot, a hacker character in the TV Series, Mr. Robot:

    There’s a saying — ‘The devil is at his strongest while we’re looking the other way.’ Like a program running in the background silently. While we’re busy doing other shit. ‘Daemons,’ they call them. They perform action without user interaction. Monitoring, logging, notifications, primal urges, repressed memories, unconscious habits. They’re always there, always active. You can try to be right, you can try to be good, you can try to make a difference. But it’s all bullshit. ‘Cause intentions are irrelevant. They don’t drive us, daemons do. And me? I’ve got more than most.

  18. I’ve never understood what the big deal is about the nebulous concept of free will, or why people like Dan Dennett think it’s so important to pretty much pretend we have it, even if we don’t.

    My experiences and environment may have shaped me to make the same decision 100 times out of 100, but you don’t FEEL like you’re constrained in such a way, and isn’t that all that really matters? You don’t feel like a puppet with strings, because you fundamentally aren’t one.

    This idea that if you rolled back the tape on your life, you could make completely different choices, strikes me as inherently nonsensical. Choices are only “yours” to make, in the sense that “you” are your brain – but your brain is still shaped by things not directly in your control.

    I don’t see a way past this, except to try and claim that “you” are somehow more than the wet stuff in your head – which sounds and awful lot like talk of “souls” to me.

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