Why do intellectuals avoid discussing free will and determinism?

January 22, 2018 • 9:30 am

One thing that’s struck me while interacting with various Scholars of Repute is how uncomfortable many get when they have to discuss free will. I’m not talking about Dan Dennett here, as of course he’s a compatibilist and is glad to cross swords with anybody—while admitting sotto voce that yes, we could not have chosen otherwise.  And I’m not talking about Sam Harris, who has spoken out eloquently about about our lack of free will in his eponymous book. (And, of course, Dan had a go at Sam when reviewing that book, to which Sam replied.)

No, I’m talking about other prominent thinkers, and I’ll use Richard Dawkins as an example. When I told him in Washington D.C. that, in our onstage conversation, that I would ask him about free will, he became visibly uncomfortable. But I didn’t back off, and when I reported on our discussion, I said this:

 . . . I did pin Richard down to saying something about free will (in the dualistic sense), as in his upcoming book of essays, Science in the Soul (recommended), he’d written this:

“After my public speeches I have come to dread the inevitable ‘do you believe in free will’ question and sometimes resort to quoting Christopher Hitchens’s characteristically witty answer, “I have no choice”.

Well, that’s glib, but also a non-answer, so I wanted to ask him if he accepted that all our actions are predetermined except for possible quantum events in the brain. And he did admit that, but added that he doesn’t really understand compatibilism and other attempts to give us free will. I didn’t get into those issues, and we briefly discussed the implications of pure determinism for society and the justice system.

As you see, Hitchens also avoided the question. Perhaps Steve Pinker discusses the issue in extenso somewhere in his works, but I don’t know where, and I’ve never directly asked him his opinion.

I’ve seen similar “avoidance behavior” from other scholars, too, but won’t name them here.

It’s my impression, then, that with the exception of vociferous compatibilists like Dennett, people who really are determinists often try to avoid discussing it in public. And by “it”, I don’t mean just free will, but mostly the fact that we are not able after performing a given act, to argue that we could have done otherwise. That is, people don’t like to talk about determinism. This bothers me, because, as I’ve said before, I think fully grasping the determinism of human behavior has enormous practical implications for how we punish and reward people, particularly in our broken judicial system.

Why this avoidance of determinism? I’ve thought about it a lot, and the only conclusion I can arrive at is this: espousing the notion of determinism, and emphasizing its consequences, makes people uncomfortable, and they take that out on the determinist. For instance, suppose someone said—discussing the recent case of David Allen Turpin and Louise Anna Turpin, who held their 13 children captive under horrendous circumstances in their California home (chaining them to beds, starving them, etc.—”Yes, the Turpins people did a bad thing, but they had no choice. They were simply acting on the behavioral imperatives dictated by their genes and environment, and they couldn’t have done otherwise.”

If you said that, most people would think you a monster—a person without morals who was intent on excusing their behavior. But that statement about the Turpins is true!

Now how the Turpins are treated by the law is different from saying that they had no choice in their behavior: causes and social consequences are not the same issue. As I’ve argued many times, saying that people had no choice in committing a crime is a statement about “is”s, not “oughts”, and there are very good reasons to incarcerate criminals, though in a way different from what we do now. But grasping determinism, as I, Sam, and people like Robert Sapolsky believe, would lead to recommending a complete overhaul of our justice system. Philosophers who spend their time confecting definitions of free will that still accept determinism could better spend their time working on such an overhaul. Their lucubrations on compatibilism are, I contend, a semantic endeavor that’s largely a waste of time. Why bother with semantics when you could fix severe problems in society? As Marx said, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Now you could argue that the notion of determinism of human behavior is complicated and hard to understand, and that’s why Big Thinkers avoid it. I don’t believe that. Certainly people like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Pinker have the neuronal wherewithal not only to understand determinism, but to work out its ramifications for how we treat people. It’s not rocket science. I am neuronally challenged compared to those people, but the fact is clear to me, and the ramifications seem obvious.

You could also say that some people avoid discussing determinism because they misunderstand its implications. Determinism does not, as I said, imply that criminals should go free. It does not imply that, if we grasp it, we’ll become nihilists who lie abed in an existential stupor. It does not say that we can’t change people’s minds by arguing with them. Yes, many people have such misunderstandings, but I can’t believe that the people I’ve named would share those misunderstandings.

Here’s another possible reason why the Brainy Ones avoid determinism. They may think—as Dennett has said explicitly several times—that if people believe they’re puppets controlled by the strings of their genes and environments (which they are), it will rip society asunder, for our feeling of agency, which we need to somehow confirm as real, is a potent social glue.

But for decades people said the same thing about religion: “We can’t disabuse people of their belief in God, for society would fall apart.” As we know from Scandinavia, that’s simply not true. And I really do believe that if people intellectually grasped determinism, society wouldn’t fall apart, either. For one thing, our feeling of agency is so strong that grasping determinism wouldn’t turn us into do-nothing nihilists. Although it’s an illusion, so is the notion of the “I” in our brain. Life will go on when we believe in determinism but still have our evolved feeling of agency.

That is what I have to say this morning, and I throw this out for readers’ discussion. I really don’t want to engage again in the endless fracas about whether we have “free will” or argue fruitlessly about whether we have a kind of “compatibilist” free will that is “the only type of free will worth wanting.” No, I assume that most readers here accept determinism of human behavior, with the possible exception of truly indeterminate quantum-mechanical phenomena that may affect our behavior but still don’t give us agency.  What I want to know is why many intellectuals avoid discussing determinism, which I see as one of the most important issues of our time.   

Now some readers may say that there are no practical consequences to accepting behavioral determinism. I disagree, as do people like Harris and Sapolsky, and most other determinists who aren’t at the same time compatibilists. Those people who say there are no consequences could argue, “Well, if there are no consequences, why should I bother to discuss it?” If that’s your reason for avoiding determinism, so be it. But I think you’re wrong.

350 thoughts on “Why do intellectuals avoid discussing free will and determinism?

  1. Re “If you said that, most people would think you a monster—a person without morals who was intent on excusing their behavior. But that statement about the Turpins is true!”

    Fascinating! You seem to have absolute proof of your position … which I believe you do not, so why are you stating this this way? Why not “I believe that statement …”

    1. I agree.

      If there was some sort of conclusion about free will vs. determinism, it would not be necessary to continue having discussions about it. There’d be a consensus, and reasonable, rational, educated people the world over would consign continued argument about the conclusion to the same world that anti-vaxxers inhabit.

      Clearly, this is not the case.

      So I don’t understand.

      Where does the confidence come from, to say “but that statement about the Turpins is true!” [They were simply acting on the behavioral imperatives dictated by their genes and environment, and they couldn’t have done otherwise.”]?

    2. Fascinating! A reader who denies the laws of physics!

      If you’re denying physical determinism, which all of science supports, then it’s not just a matter of belief. In fact, nearly all philosophers accept determinism, as do scientists.

      Oh, and your comment is rude and snarky.

      1. I must question this. Are you advocating hidden variable quantum theories, which most certainly are not the mainstream view, or do you accept that in quantum theory measurements are probabilistic?

        1. Quantum theory doesn’t get you off the hook. If there’s a random element to your decision making occasioned by non deterministic quantum events, it’s still not free will.

          1. You’re missing the point, which is about Jerry’s certainty that the Turpins could not have done otherwise. If there’s a random element to decision-making, then that certainty is unwarranted.

            1. That’s a problem for LaPlace’s demon (and, perhaps, Coyne’s certainty); it’s not a backdoor for patching in free will.

              1. Nobody’s claiming it is, and the fact that it isn’t doesn’t give Jerry license to overstate the case for determinism.

            2. No, his claim is that they had no choice. Whether their actions are determined by the state of the Universe or by a random event, it is not their choice (in a free will sense).

              1. Jerry’s claim (in his own words) is that “They were simply acting on the behavioral imperatives dictated by their genes and environment, and they couldn’t have done otherwise.”

                “Couldn’t have done otherwise” has been the cornerstone of his argument from the beginning. This is the unwarranted certainty people are chastising him for.

              2. Your bolding is in quotes. It’s Jerry hypothesising what would happen if somebody said that. Throughout the rest of the article he talks about them having no choice and it is in that context that you need to interpret your bolded bit.

                It is ridiculous to take what Jerry says and assume he is denying some aspect of quantum mechanics as a result.

              3. “Your bolding is in quotes.”

                Yes, and Jerry immediately followed it with “that statement about the Turpins is true!”

                As I said, he’s been consistent throughout these discussions in insisting on “could not have done otherwise”. I don’t think it’s ridiculous to assume he means what he says.

                If that’s not what he means, he’s had ample opportunity to find a better way of saying it.

            3. Let me modify that: they could not CONSCIOUSLY have done otherwise. I’ve written about this before and you are nit-picking here. Randomness does not give us any “freedom”, and if an electron had made them do otherwise (and the physics I’ve seen suggests that quantum indeterminacy doesn’t act on the brain level), that doesn’t affect their “agency” one bit.

            4. How many times are you going to say this? As Ken says below, what I meant–and what he understood and you should have, given my previous writings on this which you have read, is that it doesn’t give us any “free will agency”. It’s as if you’re looking for something to criticize me, when you know what I’m saying. Leave it alone.

          2. I’m not talking about free will here. I’m talking about the claim all science supports determinism. Hence my question about hidden variables.

        2. In one universe, Schrodinger’s cat is alive and the Turpins abused their children. In another, the cat is dead and the Turpins didn’t. Isn’t this all a bit esoteric?

      2. Jerry, you yourself admit the possibility of “truly indeterminate quantum-mechanical phenomena that may affect our behavior”. There’s no denial of physics in that.

        You seem to want to have it both ways, paying lip service to the possibility of genuine physical indeterminism while at the same time insisting on the absolute truth of “we could not have done otherwise” and citing physics in support of that claim. Readers are right to call you to task for that inconsistency.

        1. Jerry did not say that there was no set of circumstances that could have produced a different outcome; he said that the Turpins “had no choice,” which seems to me to be correct. In that regard, Jerry has acknowledged that quantum indeterminacy could conceivably affect behavior. However, I am aware of no argument that individuals have the ability to control (or affect) quantum indeterminacy. Thus, while it is true that quantum indeterminacy could (theoretically) have resulted in the Turpins NOT imprisoning and torturing their children, there is no known basis in physics by which the Turpins themselves could have consciously chosen not to do so.

          1. “Thus, while it is true that quantum indeterminacy could (theoretically) have resulted in the Turpins NOT imprisoning and torturing their children, there is no known basis in physics by which the Turpins themselves could have consciously chosen not to do so.”

            This is the sort of sentence if I read it makes me think there isn’t enough pot in the world.

            1. “This is the sort of sentence if I read it makes me think there isn’t enough pot in the world.”

              This is the sort of sentence that makes me think you haven’t visited one of those pot shops in Seattle. 🙂

          2. Jerry also said that “they couldn’t have done otherwise”, which according to our best understanding of physics is not correct.

            Whether they “had no choice” depends on what you mean by “choice”. If you share Jerry’s view that “real” choice can only mean the supernatural kind that doesn’t exist, then they obviously didn’t have that kind of “choice”. But that’s begging the question; you’ve smuggled in your conclusion in your definition of “choice”.

            If you take the naturalistic view that what we call “choice” in everyday speech is just a kind of calculation brains do when faced with alternatives, then the Turpins did have a choice, were consciously aware of making it, and violated no laws of physics in doing so. (Whether the calculations are 100% deterministic is beside the point.)

            1. “…take the naturalistic view that what we call “choice” in everyday speech is just a kind of calculation brains do when faced with alternatives.”

              This comment seems so brilliantly obvious, you must be completely wrong.

            2. You do understand that the equations that describe quantum mechanical phenomena are deterministic? The idea that particles randomly choose a state to be in when observed is part of the Copenhagen Interpretation which may or may not be The Truth.

            3. Yes! This is what I’ve been saying. Choice is just a calculation by our brains. I believe consciousness can be described in much the same way. Whether the hardware is deterministic or not is another question and doesn’t affect the calculation.

            4. Jerry said that the Turpins “had no choice,” and then said that “they couldn’t have done otherwise.” Most of us understood the latter remark to mean they couldn’t have “chosen” to do otherwise. That is the most logical interpretation because, as I pointed out, Jerry conceded that quantum indeterminacy (which functions independently of “choice”) might affect outcomes.

              1. I don’t think there’s a meaningful (i.e. non-question-begging) distinction to be made between “couldn’t have done otherwise” and “couldn’t have chosen otherwise”. As naturalists we must accept that what we call “choice” is a physical process or algorithm in the brain. If it’s possible for that choice algorithm to yield different outcomes based on indeterminate inputs (“could have done otherwise”) then that’s equivalent to saying we could have chosen otherwise, because choice simply is what that algorithm does.

        2. Have you not read what I wrote on this before? Even if quantum indeterminacy affects the brain’s workings, it doesn’t give one any agency.

          You know this but keep harping on it. It’s still the laws of physics and still doesn’t give us agency. By “done,” as I’ve said endlessly, I mean their actions are solely due to the laws of physics.

          Readers who “call me out” on this are either missing the point or haven’t read what i’ve written about this before.

        3. What we have here from Gregory is simple nitpicking, as he knows full well my argument about indeterminism from previous posts. As he knows, my argument and point has nothing to do with quantum indeterminism. In light of that, the comment that “readers are right to call me out” is not only ludicrous, but rude. It’s almost obsessive to say the same thing over and over again when I’ve dealt with indeterminism before.

      3. Karl Popper was THE philosopher of science. He debated Einstein on this subject. He defined rigorously what is science, distinguished from other intellectual pursuits. He was absolutely not a believer in determinism.

        1. I have some confusion about “belief” as it applies to determinism, which I don’t expect to get cleared up in this thread, to wit:

          Evolution is true. This is science. It does not require belief to be true. It is fully evidenced, and refusal to accept that evolution is true is looney.

          Determinism is not like evolution, as evidenced by repeated comments in this thread that discuss “belief”, “believe in determinism”, etc. No one has suggested that disbelief in determinism is looney.

          This confuses me. How does anyone talk about determinism with the same certainty and authority that one talks about evolution?

          1. I doubt whether many here on this thread have the same level of certainty as to the truth of evolution and determinism. We are all (I’m guessing) very certain evolution is true.

            Whether the universe is deterministic or not is an open question in physics. From Wikipedia’s “Interpretations of quantum mechanics” page:

            “Determinism is a property characterizing state changes due to the passage of time, namely that the state at a future instant is a function of the state in the present (see time evolution). It may not always be clear whether a particular interpretation is deterministic or not, as there may not be a clear choice of a time parameter. Moreover, a given theory may have two interpretations, one of which is deterministic and the other not.”

            I believe this thread is trying to address the question, if determinism is true, what does it say about “free will”.

  2. I have a sneaking suspicion that the very idea of punishment for bad behavior is incoherent if free will is in the picture. Punishment relies on humans behaving deterministically — if people had free will, we couldn’t expect the threat of punishment to be a reliable deterrent and we couldn’t expect rehabilitation to work with any consistency.

    1. >”there are very good reasons to incarcerate criminals, though in a way different from what we do now”

      What way?

  3. There was an amusing exchange between a parent (with an 18 yr old son) and Sam Harris in San Francisco (guests Eric Weinstein and Ben Shapiro). The parent was worried about what would happen if she disclosed the secret of free will’s nonexistence to her son. Sam’s advice: “Don’t tell him.”

    It was funny, but does underscore what a lazy interpretation of this fact gets you.

  4. Perhaps intellectuals are comfortable understanding bad behavior in terms of no free will. But to be consistent it also means not taking credit for one’s own accomplishments, and that is quite a bitter pill. Evolutionarily speaking we are prone to take credit for good fortune; people generally do not gain status by revealing that their success is akin to winning their lottery. It would be interesting to tease apart these two aspects and discover whether they are treated differently by the intellectual mind.

    1. I fully agree that this is a probable cause for the reluctance to engage in the free will discussion. The people that Jerry mentions are high-achieving, disciplined, focused, intelligent individuals. It’s possible that their self images are based, at least in part, on the notion that they “willed” themselves to succeed.

    2. Agree, but i suggest that intellectuals may fully accept and be reconciled to the idea that their own abilities and accomplishments were not attained through the force of their own will or virtue, but may be reluctant to project that philosophy onto others, as it might seem rude, denigrating.

  5. Drop the term “free will”, and we can then discuss realistically how our brains have a role in shaping and controlling our actions. Yes, it’s true that at one particular moment, we can’t choose otherwise. But it’s not true that what out brains have already experienced (including our own thoughts and deliberations) play no role in the choice we are driven to now.

    1. I think I see your point, here’s my take: we are the product of our genes and environment over time. Our neural circuitry included is determined by genes, environment and chance. Prior thoughts do influence our present behavior, no one denies that. But if those prior thoughts arose from our fate (g/e/c) then their impact is fate continued. To your point, at EVERY moment we could not have decided otherwise. Given that, tell me how free wil is realistic

              1. Ooof. I definitely see some of those characteristics in my own writing.

                I was sure that the the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis must be wrong the first time I read of it because of how difficult it is for me to speak or write what my thoughts are. Half the time I’ve forgotten just what my killer thought was by the time I’ve got it half written out. Like a dream that I can’t quite remember. 🙂

      1. Every time a compatibilist tries to explain his perspective, people say “you’re trying to smuggle in some kind of free will.” No, we’re not. Apparently, we just have a slightly different idea of what factors are at play in making our deterministic choices.

  6. I take the definition of “determinism” to be “genes and environment”

    It starts to smell like tautology – what is environment? Genes are part of the environment.

    … that ^^^ and perhaps career concerns, and the sense of drowning in two inches of water, and never really getting anywhere, explains the – as PCC(E) suggests – the specified individuals won’t touch free will with s ten foot pole.
    … though it’s counterintiitive isn’t it – aren’t intellectuals – the tedious eggheads wearing turtlenecks – aren’t they exactly who would dive into a topic like free will on the couch with a cup of tea?

  7. Hi Jerry, longtime lurker, first-time poster here. I was curious to hear your opinion of B.F. Skinner’s work. I know of no other modern scientist that embraced the position for which you advocate to a greater degree. Beyond Freedom and Dignity, I think, is the best book of its kind.

    Of course, Skinner was vilified for the last three decades of his life, probably because of his position that the environment is the ultimate determinant of all behavior.

    1. I have been breeding animals all of my adult life. I can absolutely guarantee you that personality is genetic.

      I don’t think the nature/nurture issue is one that we will ever untangle. And, I’m not all that sure that it would tell us anything if we could. I think that one’s genes and one’s environment work in concert and affect each other.

      I’ve seen lots of situations where there’s one kid in a family that the parents have difficulty with, for no particular reason other than that the kid is just not responding well to their parenting style. And I’ve also seen situations where kids who might have been expected to go to pieces in a dysfunctional family turn out to be survivors.


      1. It’s a common misconception about Skinner that he denied the role of genetics in the determination of behavior. He didn’t, at all. However, he recognized that the genetic composition of any given animal is not a starting point – one still has to account for the fact that the organism’s genome is the way it is. And that can only be done by acknowledging the circumstances under which the organism’s parents (in sexually-reproducing species) mated, and THAT is an issue of external, environmental circumstances.

      2. Most of personality is inherited, but not all of it. Personalities can and do change as a result of “nurture”, although I mean more precisely “anti-nurture”. The impact of violence on a young person’s personality–especially non-contextual violence–is genuinely staggering.

        1. What makes you think that there’s such a thing as “personality,” anyway? What is it?

          To me, the term is a useless one. Personality is an inference from behavior, and then it comes to “explain” the behavior from which it is inferred. It’s a tautological term that shouldn’t be invoked except perhaps as a shorthand to suggest what an organism might do – but it’s definitely not a natural phenomenon, not an explanation for behavior, not a “real thing.”

          1. I don’t think personality explains behavior so much as it predicts it. Expecting a quiet, reserved, introverted person to be the headliner at your cocktail party is probably unreasonable. It’s not impossible–it’s just really unlikely, and it isn’t brain surgery to make a prediction like this.

            Whether or not it’s a natural phenomenon is not very interesting, I think. If personality exists, and here I’m obviously arguing that it does, it’s a property of brain–like “mind” or “consciousness”.

            1. “Mind” and “consciousness” are two more terms that I think are basically useless, for what that’s worth. Personality (and mind, and consciousness) exists only in the verbal behavior of persons. They are verbal constructs only.

              It may be more taxing to state that one is “unlikely to behave in a fashion that is generally considered outgoing,” or that one is “known to speak very little and to avoid situations in which many people are interacting with one another,” than it is to say that one is “introverted.” However, the former statements are almost certainly more precise than the latter, because whether one behaves in an introverted manner is almost certainly a function of the environment in which they find themselves.

              I think it would be a good thing to get away from all essentialist language in science. The language of personality is notoriously essentialist, and thereby misrepresents reality even when it makes it “easier” to talk of real phenomena.

              1. “because whether one behaves in an introverted manner is almost certainly a function of the environment in which they find themselves.”


                People are introverted or extroverted (or non-binary, in some very rare cases) generally all the time, and they know which type they are themselves.

                If they’re introverts, they know they’ll continue to be introverts no matter what environment they find themselves in. They may, temporarily, behave more warmly or friendly because they’re at a party they care about, but I guarantee they take that extroversion off like an itchy sweater the first chance they get.

                Personality is a pretty stable thing.

              2. Do yourself a favor and try to define “personality” without appealing to behavior.

                And then perhaps realize that everything we call “personality” is a generalization from behavior.

                And that exceptions to the rules (e.g., an “introvert” behaving “extrovertedly”) are ultimately just reflections of unusual environmental conditions which beget unusual behavior.

                And that personality is only a “pretty stable thing” if and when environments are “pretty stable things.”

                Personality is verbal behavior. There are conditions in which we invoke it, just like conditions in which we are more likely to invoke mind or consciousness.

              3. “Do yourself a favor and try to define “personality” without appealing to behavior.”

                Okay. But I’m not sure it’s meaningful to do that. Am I “me” when I’m asleep? Who knows? If I’m asleep, even I don’t care about the answer. If I’m conscious, I am who I am, and I know who that is, even if I’m doing absolutely nothing.

                (I’m not sure where this comment will land since the option to reply is unavailable. We’ve probably gone on too long about it then 🙂

  8. Given the depths of controversy both Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker have waded into in the past, I can’t believe that either would shy away from a topic because it would harm society or that they would fear opprobrium from others. It may well be that the topic simply doesn’t interest them enough to spend any amount of time on it. It especially seems this way with Richard Dawkins, who seems to avoid the discussion because he doesn’t feel he has spent enough time to be able to speak confidently about it.

  9. I avoid even thinking about determinism because, even though I believe it, it makes me want to put a gun in my mouth and pull the trigger.

    First, an overhaul of the justice system is unlikely. I think you sorely underestimate how much pleasure mean people get from their meanness. It’s going to be really difficult to get them to give that up.

    Even worse, you’ve said that determinism says that you don’t have to accept blame for your behavior. The corollary to that is that you can’t accept credit for your successes. I can tell you from my years as a shrink that nothing, but nothing, is more motivating than a feeling of success. To take that away would be debilitating, and pointless.

    Finally, I’m still not sure that if a change in external environment might produce a different outcome, why a change in internal environment would not. If I think that changing my environment would help me reach some goal or other, why would mentally considering various options NOT help?

    One strategy we use to help people with impulse control is to get them to imagine various outcomes to their possible behaviors in a situation. If we see people as nothing but a mass of impulses, why would this be effective?

    The whole question just makes me want to give up living. Why bother with anything?


      1. “I think that PUNISHERS enjoy their meanness.”

        No doubt.

        But that propensity for punishing those who stray is pretty well established to be inherent in our brains. I would argue, as others have, necessary for the regulation of society.

        What most of us do not like is those who are at the extreme of the spectrum and punish FOR the pleasure. But it is a spectrum and an unwillingness to punish can also be maladaptive.

        Human beings are capable of many actions that are not always pleasant but are necessary for the maintenance of civilization. Civilization is NOT a natural state.

        1. Right. The need to punish is one of those things given to us by evolution. Any “pleasure” we might feel in meting out punishment is the byproduct of that evolution. As with many such things, it is not optimal for modern society and we should attempt to do better.

    1. Why put a gun in your mouth when there is so much fun to be had living your life? Music, art, exploring, food, travel, reading Jerry’s blog! It’s all there for your pleasure.

      Life is pointless, that is absolutely clear to me. And yet I love being alive, love spending time with my kids, and I appreciate how incredibly lucky I am to be here right now, conscious and aware and able to contemplate these questions.

      1. Without going into all the gory details, I am a survivor.

        All that fun you’re experiencing isn’t something that is universal. Yes, I have fun sometimes, but mostly life is a struggle to keep sane.

        And, one of the big positives in my personality is that I DID survive, and that I used my experiences to help other people. I never would have gone into psychology if I hadn’t needed it to heal myself.

        Determinism wants to take that away from me.


        1. “Determinism wants to take that away from me.”

          That’s the same as one would say as a believer : atheism wants to take that away from me. That is like one would stick to false beliefs because it is seen as helpful for the own life.

        2. “Determinism wants to take that away from me.”


          Anyone who has quit after decades of heavy smoking squints hard at the whole determinism thing.

          Their lived experience just belies the concept, as they battle this dragon a single torturous moment at a time. It isn’t all the cigarettes they’ll never smoke again for as long as they live. It’s the next one, right now, when their entire existence is leaning into just one puff please, and they deliberately choose against it. Over and over and over again. For months.

          That’s what it’s like to quit smoking, and this is a microscopic struggle compared to what it takes to recover from trauma. If there’s one thing I really despise about free will vs. determinism topic, it’s the glibness of it.

          1. My mom (who is deeply religious) believes that god exists because he cured her drug addiction. My atheism is “trying to take that away from her.” But she knows her struggle was real and that god was there to save her. No amount of rational discussion will ever dissuade her from this. And in a way, it seems cruel for me to push on this point, so I don’t.

            But that doesn’t prove god exists.

            1. I like your analogy a lot, but I think we’re talking about different things. In my example, I’m describing the will and commitment it takes to quit smoking, and how those qualities are repeatedly tested. You cannot succeed at quitting unless you “want” it, and you have to “want” it pretty strongly.

              1. But they don’t want to banish “want”. “Want” is a useful concept, essential for much analysis. See my longer comment below replying to BJ.

              2. “The determinists would say that that “want” is determined as well.”

                You bet. It’s turtles all the way down.

              3. I fully acknowledge there is no free will, and then in the next moment I just resume living my life as if there is.

                Works for me.

        3. The notion that “God is in control,” but we also have the option to *chose* always sounded ridiculous to me. The notion that Determinism is in control, but we still can chose/influence some unspecified things sounds equally unclear to me.

          The main thing about Determinism- it’s not personal. With God, it’s always personal.

    2. Linda Calhoun said:

      One strategy we use to help people with impulse control is to get them to imagine various outcomes to their possible behaviors in a situation. If we see people as nothing but a mass of impulses, why would this be effective?

      “To get them to imagine..” IS an external, environmental stimulus. It is a change in the environment, which, like every change in the environment, can make them choose differently.

      People don’t seem to realize that everything external to your mind can be a game changer. That would even include remembering something said by someone or a recollection of something seen or heard. That is what makes this topic so complicated.

    3. A gun in the mouth seems a bit harsh and final, but I can see where delving too deeply for too long on the topic might cause one to wish to become (as Pink Floyd put it) “comfortably numb.”

  10. The abandonment of free will, a concept adhered to, rightly or wrongly, by nearly everybody, would have implications far beyond the imaginings of those few who promote it. Without a sense of personal responsibility, the CJS in Western countries would need to be replaced rather than merely overhauled – such a radical act with very few benefits that couldn’t be achieved by simply locking up only those who put the public at risk of physical harm and treating them more humanely. In fact it’s so hard to see any benefits in abandoning a useful concept that any public figure would be wise to avoid recommending it.

    1. As I’ve written before (perhaps you haven’t read it), the concept of a person being responsible for their actions does not disappear under determinism. What goes away is the concept of MORAL responsibility, which is based on people being able to choose between good and bad acts.

      To me, the horrible way many countries treat criminals and prisoners is a huge benefit of accepting determinism.

      1. This does not have to do with the free will question but with the overall level of empathy and compassion in a society, leading to belief that people need to be treated humanely even when they have done wrong. Hence the increase of human rights and fair treatment of prisoners in western societies, despite the laws of physics not changing during that time. Hence the Norwegian prison system, even though Norwegian intellectuals haven’t settled on the question of free will nor have they used it as an argument for reforming their prisons.

        1. A good point.
          Perhaps discussing free will and determinism is just taking a small step away from discussing superstitious belief, interesting but a compassionate society advances using other “tools”.

        2. Indeed. Determinism has no effect on how prisoners are treated. The only thing that affects prisoner treatment is what society sees as the ends of imprisonment. If one of the ends is suffering (either to pay ones debt to society, or as retribution, or as just desserts), then treatment has no reason to change.

          In fact, if the ends are rehabilitation and deterrence, there’s still no reason to change things based on determinism, unless the system is already completely misaligned with the ends.

          1. Further: How is rehabilitation to even work if the criminal can not come to feel “accountable” for the wrong that he did?

            Why would one ever think that more humane approaches like rehabilitation would be made more obvious, or easier, by telling people they have no agency and could not have done otherwise?

            And insofar as a prisoner has accepted the premise “I could not have done otherwise” (for any action) then it seems very tenuous to presume he will not notice that you are “forgiving” him because he could not have done otherwise, but now you are going to recommend he change and “do otherwise.”

            And why won’t he notice that, as you are trying to offer alternative choices for his future behavior, that the moment he makes any decision he’ll be told “you couldn’t have done otherwise.”

            It’s not simply the emotional clinging to free will and the idea of punishment that is going on here: it’s the problem that people really can notice some of the incoherence of proposing “we can not do otherwise” as some basis for changing behavior.

            1. “Further: How is rehabilitation to even work if the criminal can not come to feel ‘accountable’ for the wrong that he did?”

              From a deterministic perspective, he specter of punishment is yet another input that could theoretically affect the brain’s “decision” regarding whether or not to commit a crime. Unfortunately, as your argument here suggests, the input of a deterministic view could itself affect that “decision,” probably by making people feel unaccountable or uncontrollable.

              1. Indeed. If we are talking about rehabilitation we want more than just the threat of punishment; we want to be able to explain to a criminal why they were wrong to do what they did, haven them understand the reasons, so those give reasons to “do otherwise” in his/her future choices.

                Being able to give people “good reasons” to alter their behavior seems undermined if you’ve first undermined this by telling them they aren’t responsible and can’t do otherwise.

                You can’t give good reasons to do X if your reasoning contains apparent contradictions.

      2. The distinction and practical difference between responsibility and moral responsibility escapes me. As I said, if you want to improve the CJS there are other ways to do it. Persuading people to abandon the concept of free will if achievable would take years and, believe me, would bring calls for terminating the lives of violent criminals and probably others deemed incorrigible. You really haven’t thought this through and I wonder why you and others consider it important.

      3. It has never become clear to me what the difference is between responsibility and moral responsibility. It seems as if either they are the same or the former is an empty concept.

        1. I’ve explained it many times; if you don’t understand the difference between somebody committing a good or bad act that was predetermined, and somebody freely choosing to perform a good or bd act for which they are praised or damned for supposedly making a good or bad choice, I can’t help you. They are different and the former isn’t empty.

          1. I agree with Jerry that there is an important question regarding moral responsibility, and it makes sense to distinguish “responsibility” with “moral responsibility.”
            (And most philosophers would agree).

            One can identify that a broken electrical wire was “responsible” for causing a fire, but of course we don’t think this entails being “morally responsible.” It’s just a way of identifying a particular entity’s role in the cause of an event.

            The same could in principle pertain to human beings. We can identify someone as being “responsible” for a murder in the sense of being the cause of the murder, while not necessarily accrediting them moral responsibility. After all, this type of distinction is used in the legal system to determine whether someone who caused an accident was simply “responsible” in the first sense, or also “morally responsible” and *deserving* of punishment.

            The incompatibilist/hard determinist case made by Jerry and others says that if you trace through the logic of determinism, you only can justify the first sense of “responsible” (as in the cause of) and not the second.

            Justifying Moral Responsibility…in a deep sense…is something I still struggle with.

            I think a sense of Moral Responsibility is fairly easy to get via a compatibilist understanding, but to what degree this captures enough of the sense of “moral responsibility” people often tend to assume in assigning “blameworthiness” is another question.

        2. “Responsibility” says it is your job to do a certain thing, perhaps for the pay or because someone asked you to do it. “Moral responsibility” says you ought to do that thing for higher reasons, not just the pay. Because that thing is an intrinsically good thing to do and you are the one to do it.

      4. It is a fact of human psychology that humans who have been wronged want to take revenge. The intensity of that feeling will obviously vary according to nature and nurture, but it can be very cruel for people who have been horribly wronged to see the perpetrator get off unpunished.

        This may be a darker side of human nature, but it exists and prosecutors know how to use it before juries. Part of the raison d’etre of the state is that it will take revenge for the wronged. If it abandons that role its claim to allegiance is weakened.

  11. “What I want to know is why many intellectuals avoid discussing determinism, which I see as one of the most important issues of our time.”

    Of course, I am speculating, but one possibility is that these intellectuals would disagree with your belief that determinism is one of the most important issues of our time. They may believe that other issues, such as the negative effects of religion, are, from a practical point of view, more pressing than determinism, which most people do not understand or do not accept despite its scientific correctness. To put it another way, these people may feel that their influence as public intellectuals could diminish if they talked about determinism.

  12. While on the issue of determinism, the fact we are pre disposed to the behaviour of our ancestors, or tainted by their habits, it does not mean we have to copy that activity, we can choose, and choice depends on current circumstance, are you hungry and without food, you might need to steal to survive, you might need to become an illegal immigrant. If one looks for a closer answer to this issue, the life of Jesus, and his teachings might confer the answer far more easily; forgiveness destroys hatred, and that makes making the choice an awful lot easier. and far greater than that; being able to forgive puts to bed the old behaviour.

    1. But isn’t data sparse on both sides?

      Is there a lot more data in support of determinism than there is in support of free-will?

      How is this in the world of hard science rather than in the world of philosophy?

      1. Is there a lot more data in support of determinism than there is in support of free-will?

        Well, you know, neurons, action-potentials, neurotransmitters, psychology, advertising, drugs, etc.

        Yes, we find causes everywhere, including the brain. We have good inferential reasons to suspect that the brain isn’t violating the laws of thermodynamics by inventing actions without causation.

        Glen Davidson

        1. Well, sure. Neurons. Neurotransmitters. Etc.

          These are physical matter and properties of “brain”, but I don’t think these properties get you to “psychology” (a field that is being decimated by the failure to reproduce study results) “drugs” or “advertising”.

          Even if they do, I don’t understand the point you’re making as regards evidence for one side or the other, or whether that moves the topic from philosophy (a scientific cul-de-sac) to the hard sciences.

  13. People are perfectly willing to discuss free will. We do it all the time. It’s baked into our language and our fundamental concepts of mind, personality and selfhood. “Will you have milk and sugar with your tea, sir?” “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “I think I’ll take a nap this afternoon.” “I’m planning to go to the Cook Islands for my next fishing trip.” “I wish I’d studied harder in college.” And so on.

    It’s discussing the LACK of free will that people avoid, and for good reason. It’s a deeply disturbing concept if you take it seriously. Facing the notion that our actions are physically determined, that we have no ability to do other that what we actually do, and by implication that our conscious life, our hopes, desires fears, and regrets are infective, utterly irrelevant epiphenomena, is an existential horror show.

    That there is as yet no plausible physical justification for free will makes the topic altogether more fraught. No one wants to be called a dualist (except the religious).

      1. If you believe, as Jerry does and it seems to me that any determinist must, that we are not capable of doing anything other than what we actually do, then you are by definition a philosophical fatalist.

          1. Anyone can put together a flashy web page. I look for more authoritative sources. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

            “Though the word “fatalism” is commonly used to refer to an attitude of resignation in the face of some future event or events which are thought to be inevitable, philosophers usually use the word to refer to the view that we are powerless to do anything other than what we actually do.”


            1. Ok, glibly dismiss what I was saying because you thought I supplied something that was too flashy. Regardless of what you want to believe, fatalism and determinism are not the same. Determinism is about causality and that is why most scientists understand it to be true. The only people who think determinism is not true are dualists and both compatibilitists and non-compatibilists accept determinism. They disagree on whether determinism allows for free will. You need to go back and do some more reading. I am seeing this misunderstanding all over this thread.

            2. Oh and you may want to look at your source’s description of determinism.

              Since the first clear articulations of the concept, there has been a tendency among philosophers to believe in the truth of some sort of determinist doctrine. There has also been a tendency, however, to confuse determinism proper with two related notions: predictability and fate.

              Fatalism is the thesis that all events (or in some versions, at least some events) are destined to occur no matter what we do.

              1. How so? It’s the complete opposite of determinism. No matter how many times you say they are the same, it won’t change the fact that they are different.

              2. We seem to have rather different
                understandings of determinism.

                Regarding the sentence “Fatalism is the thesis that all events (or in some versions, at least some events) are destined to occur no matter what we do.”

                “Destined” is a loaded word, with theistic and other metaphysical connotations. Replace it with “determined” and you have a pretty good alternative definition of fatalism. (I prefer the one from the dictionary.) I would expect any hardcore physical determinist to subscribe to it.

              3. That is why fatalism is pretty much alway associated with religion. It’s not the same as determinism. Determinism accepts that things can change based on influence of any number of variables, all working within the laws of physics within the chain of causality. If you choose to believe it’s something else, there is nothing I can say that will convince you otherwise.

              4. I have to chuckle, Stephen, because if you replace the words of a sentence with other words you come up with different meaning, no?

              1. Creationists are mostly using the same definition of “theory”, as something proposed that might or might not be true. The two parties just have very different levels of confidence in this particular theory, evolution.

              2. Yes, because they are using a dictionary definition of “theory” or what we mean by theory in every day discussion vs. what scientists mean in using the scientific method.

              3. You’re free to draw definitional boundaries around various isms however you like. I’m not that interested. The crucial point is how you answer the question: Are we powerless to do anything other than what we actually do?

                If you’re a determinist, you have to answer in the affirmative.

                You’re then committed, it seems to me, to a number of existentially unpleasant positions.

              4. At the risk of repeating myself, I believe that the determinism/indeterminism question has no bearing on free will. We have free will and can all continue freely making choices as if nothing happened.

                I guess that makes me a Compatibilist (one variety anyway) but that is a terrible label. It gives no hint as to what is compatible. It also implies that it took some work to make the ideas compatible. which isn’t the case I believe.

              5. With all due respect, from that statement I’d put you in the “libertarian free will” camp.

                I have to admit that I’m uncommitted to any of the isms. The notion that a deterministically evolving universe could give rise to consciousness and science and mathematics and art and all of culture seems preposterous on its face. On the other hand, what we know of physics offers no consolation.

              6. I agree with you on -isms. However, I looked up “libertarian free will” and, as I read it, according to this -ism, “our choices are free from the determination or constraints of human nature”. I certainly don’t believe that.

        1. The term “fatalist” carries with it the idea that there’s no reason to make a choice as it won’t change the outcome. A fatalist is doomed to act a certain way. This is not justified by determinism alone since we don’t know exactly what is determined. If you choose to do nothing, it was determined. If you choose to act, it was also determined. However, the choice still affected what happened to the chooser.

  14. The very foundations of human thought, seeded long ago in the verdant plains of Africa, Mesopotamia, the Indus valley, the hills of Greece and so forth, have long held that we rebel against something. Whether it’s gawd and her sin, nature and her gravity, and any other alien agency, we oppose it. This is so engrained, it is almost inescapable, especially in conversation. I’m not making the argument of compatibilism, I’m saying it’s a feature, not a bug. Millions of years of evolution are hard to overcome with only a lifetime of training.

    We aren’t computers that can have an entire operating system reloaded in an hour.

    1. While it takes far longer than simply uploading a new version of software, I think the fact that humans can decide to break habits like smoking or overeating and consciously choose to do otherwise over long periods of time points towards having the ability to make true choices. The fact that so few succeed indicates that conscious reprogramming of the brain is a difficult accomplishment. Genes and environment do exert strong influence over our choices.

      1. My point exactly. When faced with the facts, even the most thoughtful of us struggle with our software to speak intelligently about those facts. Partly the difficulty to transmit the meaning, partly to actual overcome their own operating system to do it. I’m not saying it can’t be done, otherwise this conversation wouldn’t be taking place (a glimmer of truth nudges us all), I’m saying that’s why the volume of that conversation is muted.

      2. “I think the fact that humans can decide to break habits like smoking or overeating and consciously choose to do otherwise over long periods of time points towards having the ability to make true choices.”

        It really does.

        At the moment where a person is tested (smoke to relieve my suffering/don’t smoke because I have a bigger goal) whatever the person chooses is yes/no. There’s no middle ground, and the outcome is decided only in the moment of the test. Repeatedly. The outcome is never a foregone conclusion (lapsing during addiction recovery is about as common as green on grass.) There is simply no way to confront this process without making conscious choices.

  15. I suppose I resist determinism, as you have noted before, because people are fallible. And while it is easy to put people into categories, mistakes will happen that impact adversely individual lives. I worry that’s politicians will grab hold of scientifically based determinism and start applying it to policies for other than scientific purposes. Witness the abuse of genetics to sterile the so called feeble minded. In the 30s and 40s. Moreover, I worry about what biases go into asking the questions to do the research to create the categories. And I fear the whole thins becomes a hot mess. On a personal level I experienced bias in college. I started out with limited skills. I was pegged into certain categories. I felt their condescension and unwillingness to help in my education. And then I surprised a few. So that she. I graduated with honors at least one professor expressed regret that he did not play a greater part in my education. I understand your perspective on determinism and actually find it persuasive. But I thing out language is not sophisticated enough for the proper understanding of the words to be shared by a large enough of a community to be effective or useful. And then there are those who will willingfully misuse the words and findings to nefarious ends

    1. How can anyone behave ‘willingly’ in a nefarious manner without having ‘free will’? Either their actions are determined, and they cannot choose otherwise or they are ‘willful’ and can.

  16. Since prison reform was mentioned, I thought some might be interested in a “Pod Save America” podcast that took place in Oslo, Norway. They interviewed a director of “the best prison” in Norway, and at several points his comments made me think that THIS should be the model of how to treat prisoners, especially in the absence of free will. If you want to listen, google the episode “Mr. President, don’t you mean the opposite” from January 11, 2018. The interview is only a portion of the whole 1 hour 20 minute podcast.

    Apparently officials in North Dakota (of all places) may even be trying to quietly implement practices similar to those in Norway!

    As to why so many intellectuals shy away, I’d just be guessing. Perhaps if they knew more about Norway’s prison system they’d be happier pointing the way to a more enlightened view of punishment than the American “revenge” model?

    1. I agree with PCC(E)’s positions on free will and its implications toward prison reform. However I wonder how a Norwegian model could be implemented in a country with extreme inequality and poverty such as USA. I would imagine that there are many thousands of homeless and destitute persons who would prefer a Norwegian prison island apartment with TV and books to read, no locks on the door and regular meals – to the life they have now – and consequently would be motivated to commit whatever crime required to get there. Norway’s system works because it is Norway when you get out, and you’ll be ok. I’m not arguing against Norways’s system but rather for a society where everyone would still rather avoid the island apartment prison because it is much better outside after all.

  17. I’m not sure it’s as avoided a topic as you think. There are many Closer to Truth videos that tackle free will with many public intellectuals. Granted, many of them are philosophers rather than scientists.

    Perhaps scientists like Dawkins don’t have much to say about it because there isn’t much to say about it that is objective and scientific.

  18. I disagree on this subject of applying determinism to the legal system. I find it very interesting. I actually think I know the answer to this question. Intellectuals probably avoid discussing this because determinism is based on the laws of physics. People are probably shying away from discussion on it because they are not experts in physics. It would be nice if people didn’t shy away from it. That’s my guess.

    “No, I assume that most readers here accept determinism of human behavior, with the possible exception of truly indeterminate quantum-mechanical phenomena that may affect our behavior but still don’t give us agency.”
    Truly indeterminate quantum-mechanical phenomena may be affecting the way that we perceive our experiences. Regardless of what truly indeterminate quantum-mechanical phenomena may be doing, the perception that we have that we have a choice, most of the time, is important. The Turpins most likely had the erroneous perception of choice. I don’t see how this can be overlooked. Even if determinism is absolutely correct, which it probably is, it’s a leap to changing the way criminals are treated. When I read about this, I picture someone crossing a river over stepping stones and see this giant leap from one rock to three over. It’s just so abstract. I have no idea who thought of talking about determinism and the legal system, but why not just talk about changing the legal system without incorporating determinism?

    1. Agreed. People need to realize that the purpose of punishing criminals is to affect future outcomes: to have an overall beneficial effect on the world by influencing the future behavior of both those criminals and the rest of the world.

      If you are a hard determinist, you can recast everything as probabilities of one event following another. If you lock up a deranged murderer, that will result in the future events unfolding with different probabilities than if you let him walk free. The probabilities of a former scenario results in the state of the world that most people prefer, regardless of whether they can help it or not. That is why it is natural for people to want to lock up criminals. In comparison to the state where free will exists, for optimal outcomes you only have to change your vocabulary (replacing “choices” with “probabilities of one event/action leading to another”), not the actions themselves.

      1. “People need to realize that the purpose of punishing criminals is to affect future outcomes: to have an overall beneficial effect on the world by influencing the future behavior of both those criminals and the rest of the world.”

        I hate to disagree with you, but I don’t think the justice system is as you view it. I haven’t looked up the statistics, but I’d bet you that most of the incarcerated are not a “deranged murderer”. It is far more likely that they’re jailed for not being white, using weed or other drugs, prostitution or use of prostitutes, stealing, battery, etc. Can you imagine locking up a marijuana user for life for having been caught, tried and convicted three times? Same punishment as for the murderer.

        First off, without consideration of free will, compatibilism, or determinism, our justice system desperately needs to be changed so that we aren’t convicting people for crimes of morality or minor crimes. I know of numerous communities in the U.S. where police departments pick and choose which crimes they will respond to. A crime (according to current statutes) has been committed but takes up too much in resources to make it cost effective to process. Especially if DAs won’t prosecute. Or, if prosecuted the convicted is given a minimal sentence. Or, if given a minimal sentence, they may be turned loose because the jails or prisons are too full.

        Also, consider that putting people in prison often teaches them new crimes. And, the recidivism rate is out of sight. This program does not very often influence for the better the future behavior of the criminal or the world.

        One major problem in changing this has to do with differences in state laws and procedures for designating criminals and punishing them. In addition, there are state laws vs. federal laws. In Oregon, marijuana is legal In the united states it is not. Go from Oregon to a state where it is illegal and you’re up for grabs.

        This system is for designed to punish, not correct, and punishes more than the convicted.

        1. What you describe is certainly true but I suspect Henry was talking about the idealized rationale behind the criminal justice system. It has a lot of problems as practiced in the US.

  19. It seems to me that neuroscience, cognitive science, and psychology are all about the denial of any magical “libertarian” free will, if mostly implicitly. I mean, when you’re discussing how thinking and decision really occur, and you’re doing legitimate science, you’re not leaving anything open to uncaused causes.

    Certainly many who push the idea of free will don’t think that intellectuals avoid the issue. To be sure, any denial of their precious belies would be too much for them, but I do think they’re right that science treats “free will” as the vacuous concept that it is.

    Glen Davidson

  20. I think maybe it would help some of the non believers, especially the atheists among us, if we threw in an example or two. I have little hope of convincing the religious of any thing here. I believe Donald Trump presents a good case of no free will that everyone is familiar with to some degree. This is on display in his constant ability to contradict himself. What is often just tossed around as lies is actually a politician arguing within his own mind. That is also why he will deny saying something he just said early.

    He has said very convincing that he loves the Dreamers and was in favor of helping them. Then not much later he throws them under the bus. The current shut down of the govt. is essentially the result of this issue. I would say he has fallen into his determined action which is, he never gave a damn about these people and gives them no quarter. He does not even get involved in attempting to negotiate an end to the shut down. If he had free will he would be in there doing something. Instead, he sits there paralyzed because he cannot do otherwise.

      1. Yes, probably a truck load of books already out on this guy. Maybe someone with the background will do one on him to include the Free Will, determinism idea.

        1. It may be that Mr Trump has a back office team at the White House which is churning out these books.
          As a businessman he would obviuosly be thinking of making a profit from his tenure.

  21. Why are some intellectuals reluctant to explore free will and its consequences? I can’t speak for them or for intellectuals in general; if Dr PCCe is “neuronally challenged” compared to them, I am not even in the same state, let alone the ball park. So I won’t.

    I CAN speak for me though and one reason I usually sit out these discussions is because even though I agree with the determinists, I feel I am missing something….critical to grasping some of the consequences determinism has. Not so much consequences on society (I do see the advantages it has in our penal system) but the consequences for how we understand our minds, our conscious lives.

    Perhaps you are right. Perhaps it is simply being uncomfortable discussing the consequences of determinism that makes intellectuals reluctant to discuss it. What they might be uncomfortable with, I can’t say, but I’ll bet it isn’t the reason I am.

    For my part, it is realization that there is an intellectual gap – a kind of black box- between the idea of determinism and my own concept of myself that I feel I need to sit back and learn from others talking about it.

    My $0.02

    1. “I CAN speak for me though and one reason I usually sit out these discussions is because even though I agree with the determinists, I feel I am missing something….critical to grasping some of the consequences determinism has.”

      Actually I think this could be at least part of the reason that even the neuronal elite are unenthusiastic about discussing determinism & freewill. I think what you said here is quite accurate, not simply a lack of understanding on your part (or my part! though it could be).

      It seems to me that the various explanations and arguments regarding the consequences of physical determinism, whether from the elite or the amateurs, are not deserving of a status much higher than “initial hypothesis.” I don’t mean that as a criticism of anyone, simply that there is a paucity of data and a combination of these (the consequences of determinism with respect to human behavior) being very difficult problems to solve and there being a high level of subjectivity involved in many aspects of them.

    2. Here’s a thought for you. Let’s assume that brains are computing systems. It is possible to imagine a computing system built from unreliable components. I am using one now, the web. With the proper algorithms, redundancy, and so on, you can in principle a computing system reliable to any finite standard, and so to a greater extent than our own brains. You could then build a computing system which obeys the rules of computation that is built on a non-deterministic substrate, as long as that substrate was governed by probabilistic rather than deterministic laws.

      In some way then, computation obeys laws somewhat independent of those of the substrate

      My thought is this. That’s a real problem from those who want to argue from the supposedly deterministic nature of the substrate to the deterministic nature of minds while also insisting that minds can be modeled by computation.

      1. Your analogy to the computer is something akin to how I’ve always thought our mind and consciousness actually work; an emergent kludgy, error prone thing that relies on probability and trial and error to accomplish consciousness. It’s like our minds juggle various thought and sensual processes, testing each against memory and experience and from the very act of testing these, consciousness arises.

        I am not saying my concept is in any sense correct, but here’s the thing, whether I’ve got it right or wrong…lurking underneath it, like a basking crocodile waiting to snatch the unwary, is determinism. Even the loops of probability testing that our consciousness undergoes for its very existence, depend on real physical phenomenon. Electrons and atoms and quantum mechanics and thermogodamnits ….all that. It is lurking and I don’t know how to square it with my (admittedly probably false) ideas. So I sit back and listen to others on this and try to make sense of it.

        My reluctance is the reluctance of the wildebeest at the river shore; there’s a crocodile out there. I just know it.

        1. It has been thought for some time that a computer could only do what is programmed, and that, in that regard, brains are similar. As the brain is studied more, we’re being told that neuronal connections are modified or erased over time and that what we know or hold in memory has changed (without our consciousness.)In fact, we’re told that we arrive at decisions or conclusions “subconsciously” in a number of seconds before our “conscious” mind becomes aware of it. What does this do for free will vs. determinism? The brain’s black or white board is constantly being scribbled on and, without our conscious knowledge, being changed or erased. So much for what we “know”.

          Another facet is that it has been proven how easily one’s testimony changes depending on how questions are asked, and with the passage of time. (So much for testimony of witnesses in trials.) One witness was asked to repeat her testimony every five years and changed it over time. Also, people can be made to believe they’ve done acts they’ve never done and find it difficult to accept when later told that they did not do it.

          As our scientists learn more about brain function, we may have a better understanding of what we’re calling “free will” vs. “determinism”.

          1. Yes, “a computer can only do what it is programmed to do” but it is a weaker statement than many suppose. Only trivial computer programs can be proven to behave a certain way without actually running them. This is called the Halting Problem. In general, a program can’t be written that will determine if another program ever halts. This has been proven mathematically.

            The brain is certainly not a trivial program. This means that even if we know its initial state and the rules by which it operates, we still can’t predict its behavior without actually “running” it. Determinism doesn’t help in this regard.

      2. I’ve made this point myself before. If you want to claim that human behavior is fully deterministic (“could not have done otherwise”) despite quantum indeterminism, then you must give up the claim that “the laws of physics made me do it”.

        1. I am not sure I agree. If you accept MWI, as I believe you do, the laws of physics are deterministic, and certainly our behavior is determined by the laws of physics at the fundamental level. (I put aside the question of whether that level is a good one for understanding human behavior, which I think not.) So-called quantum indeterminism to an observer is simply a result of his being constrained to a particular branch, is it not?

          To me the “could not have done otherwise” fallacy is to confuse internal and external constraints. Take a computer chess program. To me it is perfectly correct to say it could have moved its knight a certan way, even if it didn’t do so, as long as it was a legal move. The computer program considered those other moves and rejected them as not serving its purpose. However, with respect to moving its bishop diagonally rather than vertically, it is right to say it could not have done otherwise. The rule not to move the bishop vertically is external to the computer’s decision-making program. Such a move is not in the choice set, unless the computer pulls a Kobayashi maneuver.

          1. The determinism of MWI is not “could not have done otherwise” determinism, so anybody who insists on the latter (as Jerry does) has implicitly rejected the former.

        2. Well if you understand the most basic logic of physics, you already have to give up the claim that “the laws of physics made me do it.” The laws of physics determine nothing without boundary conditions. And human beings are part of the boundary conditions.

  22. I’ve followed these arguments with interest. It appears to me that pre-determinists like Harris only know to argue against “libertarian” or religious free will and dualism – concepts without evidence that are easily dispensed of without consideration. Moreover, Harris’s mystical views on “consciousness” directly contradict his views on dualism and will, making him come across as thoroughly confused.

    Dennett, and most philosophers, on the other hand have put a great deal of thought into the issue, and have been able to make nuanced and true observations regarding what is meant by free will while still denying dualism. It is the evolution of this thinking, beyond elementary issues such as determinism and dualism that make us the basis for our cultural and our legal evaluations of moral culpability.

    1. To be sure Harris is not a pre-determinist. That implies that the future has already been decided. His view is that the present moment is caused by the prior moment according to the natural laws of the universe and that mind ‘ultimately’ has no influence.

      I think I understand fairly well what Harris thinks on this issue and to be it is surely complex but coherent as well. It would be nice if you could provide an example of how he decoheres..

      1. It seems to me there are several inconsistencies in Harris’s view.

        At the simplest level, claims that “my brain made me do it” or “I’m not in control of my actions” smuggle in dualism by defining “me” as something separate from my brain and the causes of my behavior.

        He also likes to cite his experience as a meditator in support of his position: if there is no self, how can there be self-control? Never mind that meditation is a skill that requires great discipline and self-control to master. In a podcast with (I think) Thomas Metzinger, Harris said “I personally have experienced the absence of self.” Metzinger immediately called him on that: if there was no self present, how can you claim to have experienced it?

        Finally, if as Harris claims his thoughts simply come to him unbidden, without his control or consent, then how is it possible for him to organize them into a coherent book? Clearly his conscious intention to write such a book must have played some role in the genesis of those thoughts.

        1. Sam is also not too great on answering the Is/Ought question. His recent twitter series “answering” that question re-emphasized that point.

          Also, during one of his recent talks someone finally asked him essentially the same question I was going to ask him (when I attended his talk). That’s essentially how do we derive prescriptions, and use prescriptive language given the premise “we could not do otherwise?”

          He gave what amounted to a non-answer, really skirting the problem, leading me to infer he does not really have a good answer to a pretty big problem in his thesis.

        2. Yes,

          Harris sounds silly when he claims HIS thoughts come to HIM without HIS control or consent. One has to wonder how many of him there are? He seems to think that “free will” means his “conscious mind” SHOULD be the originator of HIS thoughts. I think his problem is that he believes deeply in his “conscious mind” as an existential thing instead of an illusion of his own making.

          1. One of my bones to pick with Sam would be his claim that we do not know why any particular thought occurs in our mind. We can give no account of it.

            Yet it’s obvious we can give accounts of a great many thoughts that arise. I recently purchased an old album by a band I like. Why did the thought to do so arise? Because I came upon a thread in another forum where someone had posted a video of the band playing, and it reminded me I love that album and want to own it. Why do I want to own it? I can connect that with all sorts of previous experiences and thoughts explaining it.

            Yet for Sam, no such explanations “truly account” for why we have any of our thoughts.
            In which case I’d have to ask “Given that is the type of explanation that suffices in virtually every other domain of life, what kind of explanation could he possibly want?”

            I was gratified that during his conversation with consciousness researcher Anil Seth, Harris was pushed on exactly this aspect of his argument, and I don’t see that Sam managed to avoid the sense he is special pleading. It’s a sort of No True Explanation fallacy:

            “One can not produce a REAL reason how our conscious thought arose.”

            Ok, here’s an explanation for why X thought arose.

            “That’s not a REAL explanations; REAL explanations aren’t available for this problem.”

      2. Hello Jason,

        So, do you distinguish between determinism and pre-determinism? How is that different from the present moment being “caused by” the prior moment? After all the prior moment was caused by the next prior moment etc. back to the big bang. I think that this is what Dr. Coyne and Sam Harris mean by determinism.

        Harris decoheres by constantly referring to and believing in his “mind” and his “consciousness” and his (near exclusive experience) of “pure consciousness” as real things that are separate or not somehow part of his biological being.
        This is basic dualistic thinking. Fundamentally, it seems that Harris has difficulty reconciling his Buddism with his atheism and accepting the simple idea that the “mind” is what the brain does.

        If any choices are made, they are made by the unconscious part of the brain with the conscious part necessarily catching up only later in real time.
        However, there is nothing about free will that says that organisms must “consciously” make decisions in order to make the will free.

  23. Intellectuals refuse to discuss it because it is a question that is impossible to settle, and whatever it is, it has no bearing on how we live our lives except by means of the belief itself (i.e. a person who believes that she has free will may behave differently because of the belief itself, not because it is objectively true or false).

    Every now and then somebody comes and claims that they have solved it once and for all and that everybody should see the light. That always fails, so it is better not to be that person.

  24. I am not so sure about the prison system changes that some imply. Those who do believe in free will should also believe in rehabilitation. On the more sever crimes I get it…murder and any capital crimes they want blood because they are convinced they could have done otherwise. But for lessor criminal activity they should favor correction.

    1. I think this is it. We have to decide what to do with criminals either way. If we have a way to reform and rehabilitate them, we should do that regardless of the status of free will. If not because it is more humane, then because it is cheaper in the long run since it reduces recividism.

  25. I am uncomfortable because it seems to me these questions are independent of each other:

    1) Human behavior follows from deterministic laws.
    2) Free will illusion.
    3) Philosophy.
    4) A useful, moral justice system.

    1) is an observed fact.
    2) is sufficiently compatible with complex behavior.
    3) is sufficiently irrelevant for society.
    4) is sufficiently independent of 1); the reason for human behavior is not (at least in principle) relevant for the outcome.

    My take is that people quibble about the “in principle” part of 4). Is it a fact that a justice system has to be grounded in “common sense” ideas? Political systems seem to rely on “no sense” ideas (c.f. the various and conflicting US constitution interpretations).

  26. What if it is true that making people believe there is no free will is dangerous? Wouldn’t be morally wrong to make believe this (even if is true there’s no free will)?
    I understand that our behavior is determined by causal factors (the ones Robert Sapolsky write about in Behave) and that even we can´t predict at 100% someone´s behave from these factors it must be because we do not know all the biological or envioromental factors that are involved; however, what if the belief “there is no free will” is deterring people from doing bad things? What if believing there is no free will (even though there is in some way) is the external factor I need to commit a crime?

    I see a moral argument here. But what are the advantages of believing there is no free will (as appear is true)? As I can note is just a change in attitude toward people (criminals specially). If someone couldn´t do it otherwise, we shouldn´t be so harsh but I can punish him anyway. But I doubt people is going to change their atittud just because we don´t have free will. Being so natural and pleasurable to punish this will be hard to change.

  27. My guess is that many intellectuals shy away from the issue of free will, because there is something embarrassing about it. Physical determinism seems to be hold as absolutely true, so it’s difficult to argue against it, but, actually, thinking about all its consequences for our perceived life’s reality from moment to moment is very difficult, it needs a leap of faith, actually. And after this leap of faith – everything is the same as before (chance does not go away, randomness does not go away, perceived intention and will does not go away) and then it’s just cherry picking for what you want to apply your determinism-is-true-hence-no-free-will stance.
    I, for one, am an atheist and I am well educated in science. I am not a dualist, I do not believe in a dualistic free will, of course not. I believe in an open future, and I believe that there are always immensely many ways how the world can turn out, how the possibility space of future is constantly freezing out into the reality of the present.
    The human brain is of course a fully physical object, it is the most complex one we know of in the universe. Brains seem to be now those places in the universe where the truly new is appearing with constantly increasing speed, while for a long time in biological evolution it was in the DNA, working very very slowly through random mutation and selection.
    To deny the universe of creativity, of producing new phenomena seems absurd to me.
    So, the real question to me seems to be this: is there true creativity in the universe, does anything truly new appear over time in the universe, or not. If yes, then we cannot deny ourselves (with brains) agency. If agency, then will, and whether will is free or not, might be a rather secondary question.

  28. Perhaps the reason many very intelligent thinkers are loathe to discuss this issue (or, to discuss it in the manner specific people think it should be discussed) is that they’re not nearly as confident in its designation as The Truth.

    Determinists really only have one argument for their view, and it can be summed up in one word: “Physics.” The problem here is that “physics” isn’t a complete answer, because physics is an incomplete field, to the point that concepts and rules within it are constantly being discovered and revised. Every physicist will acknowledge that there are important gaps in their field of study. If the one true answer (the laws of physics) to the argument of free will is a field of study that isn’t close to being complete, how can one be so confident in that answer? And if one isn’t sure of it, why would one talk about it as if they are?

    As one of perhaps thousands of different things that could affect the “physics” argument for determinism, let’s take the “observer effect.” What if people are making choices/decisions, and when they do so, the brain observes a particular particle or group of particles, thus concretizing their positions (as opposed to the other particles that go unobserved)? This could be just one of thousands of possible ideas that could lead to choice within the framework of physics, and there are other concepts that we can be sure are yet to be discovered. It’s just an example; I’m not actually proposing that this is a rebuttal to determinism, but merely trying to demonstrate that we have little understanding of how many mechanisms could affect the answer of which determinists seem so confident.

    But forget even the idea I just proposed. It seems the biggest obstacle to convincing everyone that determinism is the absolute truth is that we still haven’t come close to a complete understanding of the laws of physics and how their effects. From dark matter to multiverse theory to the many other concepts we don’t yet fully understand, let alone even know to be true or untrue, it seems a bit absurd to me to be so confident in determinism. If we don’t have full confidence in the field of study on which determinism is predicated, I don’t see how we can be confident in determinism itself.

    So, perhaps not everyone is as confident in determinism as you are, Jerry. You may very well be right, but I don’t yet see why people must accept it as the one and only truth.

    1. There is another problem too. Even if our theories are deterministic that does not prove the world is. All our theories suffer from prediction horizons and problems of scale. No-one solves the wave equation for a frog jumping.

      The real issue it seems to me is levels of explanation. “Choice” is a coherent notion, usable in the same kind of discussions as “belief”, ‘Incentive”, “act”, or any mental construct. Its use should be justified by its place in such discussions. Coyne want to dissolve “choice” in the acid of physics and banish it. But his posts on the necessity of the concepts of “mind” suggest he doesn’t want to dissolve and banish “blue”, “left wing”, “mind”, or “miscreant”.

      1. True or not (which is what the argument is about, more or less uselessly, until we have the means to design an appropriate experiment) I think measures that try to prove that people have no “choice” are doomed, and doomed big, because they’re incomprehensible from an experiential point of view.

        Every adult in the world has had the experience of choosing vanilla over chocolate, and they quite rightly reject the laws of physics as explanations for their preference. We all understand that adults overwhelmingly have the power to choose what they do, even if that power doesn’t extend to choosing what they should think.

        No matter how smart you are, you aren’t smart enough to sell the idea of “you had no choice” to a person who, only seconds ago, chose the blue one instead of the green–even if “you had no choice” is true, which is arguable.

      2. “Coyne want to dissolve ‘choice’ in the acid of physics and banish it.”

        But he apparently thinks “gene” and “environment” can resist that acid.

          1. Like brains, genes are just collections of particles doing what particles must do. Assigning causal power to genes while denying it to thoughts and intentions (which are physical states of the brain) is inconsistent. If genes are useful concepts for understanding the behavior of cells, then choices and intentions remain useful concepts for understanding the behavior of brains.

            1. I think the issue here is much the same one as with the phrase “free will.” Based on what Jerry has written in the past when he says “we don’t have choice” I think he is not denying that there is a type of computation that human brains do that is commonly referred to as making a choice. I think he is saying that what people commonly think that making a choice is, is not really what making a choice is. I think he thinks that the common conception of “choice” includes a contra-casual aspect in the same way that contra-causal conceptions of free will do.

              I could be wrong of course. If I’m correct it may be that you and Jerry largely agree about the nature of the cognitive processes that make up what is commonly referred to as choosing. Where you disagree is in the label, how to talk about it and what the implications should be.

              1. If Jerry agrees that “choices and intentions remain useful concepts for understanding the behavior of brains”, then why does he keep attacking the motives of compatibilists who seek a naturalistic account of these concepts?

              2. I didn’t say that I think Jerry agrees that “choices and intentions remain useful concepts for understanding the behavior of brains.” Though I think he might as long as the terms choices and intentions were defined to his liking.

                Surely you know that incompatibilists and compatibilists are intent on talking about two different things and each believes that what they are intent on talking about is obviously important while what the other wants to talk about isn’t nearly so. For that reason you attack Jerry’s motives and Jerry attacks yours.

              3. I hope I haven’t been guilty of attacking Jerry’s motives. I believe he’s sincere in wanting to reform the penal system. But I’m skeptical that his brand of determinism is the right model of human behavior for that job.

  29. What I want to know is why many intellectuals avoid discussing determinism, which I see as one of the most important issues of our time.

    Maybe it’s not just their cup of tea? I understand you think it’s an important issue, but other people may differ on prioritizing it over other issues; they may conclude that if they only have the intellectual and social resources to tilt at one or a few targets, that isn’t going to be one of the ones they choose to tilt at.

    Now some readers may say that there are no practical consequences to accepting behavioral determinism. I disagree…

    This is somewhat close to my opinion. I accept that there could be practical consequences to it. But I haven’t seen a convincing argument for what, specifically and concretely, those consequences are. The prison reform question is the obvious example. In order to eliminate the ‘punishment for a moral choice’ component and focus on the rehabilitation component, you first are going to have to tell me which part of a sentence does which. Is year 1 rehab? Is year 1 punitive and year 2 rehab? How do you know some practice doesn’t have a rehabilitative component? How do you know some ‘punitive’ measure doesn’t have a deterrent effect? These are questions we can answer empirically, but (a) I don’t think we have answers to them yet, at least not comprehensive ones, and (b) I’m not wholly convinced that the empirical answers we get will necessarily be as liberal as proponents of liberal prison reform expect. It’s entirely possible that we are deterministic meat-robots who (in whole or part) are best deterred from future anti-social behavior through harsh and humiliating punishment. The Arpaios of the world could be proven right. It would suck if we found that out. I hope that’s not right. I don’t think that will turn out to be true. But it’s possible, and I don’t think we liberals have the empirical data needed to say we know it’s not true.

    1. I agree with your “cup of tea” hypothesis. The people who have put the most energy into this discussion are both interested in philosophy (Dennett, a philosopher and Harris someone who does philosophy though he doesn’t hold such an academic position). Perhaps not everyone likes to think this way.

      1. Very well said. Reminds me of darrelle’s comment “the various explanations and arguments regarding the consequences of physical determinism, whether from the elite or the amateurs, are not deserving of a status much higher than ‘initial hypothesis.'” In my own words: philosophy is usually more difficult than it looks, and it looks difficult to start with. Although some scientists – Sean Carroll comes to mind – seem to be naturals at it, they are probably a small minority.

  30. I don’t particularly avoid talking about the consequences of determinism, but it’s not a pressing issue for me because I don’t think that the consequences are nearly as big as PCC-E suggests.

    The consequences are at the level of the difference between the US judicial system and Scandinavian-style judicial systems. That, yes, is worth discussion, along with loads of other things.

  31. Maybe the deterministically unenthusiastic consider basic rationalism (or atheism) as a prerequisite to determinism, that the important battle at this point is against common supernaturalism, that it would be a strategic waste of energy to promote determinism now. Baby steps, if you will.

    1. This is exactly what most physicists know about the universe, not jut the brain. It’s too complicated to predict or simulate (at least with our present knowledge of science).

      Every good physicists knows that a single water molecule in a cup of tea loses all its memory on the order of nanoseconds. There are no computers (now) that can predict the states of these molecules.

      If you cannot predict the future, then that future with or without free will is indistinguishable. Bottom line: physicists are left with a metaphysical Turing like test for free will and physics don’t like metaphysics. That’s why they prefer not to talk about free will.

  32. I’ve been thinking about the non-existence of free will (I agree with Jerry on this) and consequences thereof for a while but have not been able to elaborate a coherently put-together position. So I can’t (yet) contribute constructively here.
    So maybe that’s why others don’t discuss the topic — and may have other priorities (as was pointed out in the thread).
    Or to be a bit glib — they have no choice…

  33. At some level Jerry’s complaint seems to come down to “Why do philosophers work on their own research programs instead of the programs I think they ought to work on?”

    Academics work on what interests them, and the question of human agency is an interesting one because agency and related concepts have earned a place in our cultural toolkit as useful ways of understanding the world. People like Dennett spend their careers studying these concepts not because they want to protect society from determinist spoilsports, but because there’s something there worth explaining.

  34. To pick a nit (as is, on occasion, my wont) if Sam’s book were “eponymous,” wouldn’t it be entitled “Sam Harris” rather than “Free Will”?

  35. As I’ve mentioned, I took a course at UBC on the question many years ago. Many of my colleagues were interested in the topic because of the practical consequences and effects on ethics more generally. I do not know if any of them wound up pursing further work with the link to criminal law, though I do know at least two of them are now lawyers.

  36. “I think fully grasping the determinism of human behavior has enormous practical implications for how we punish and reward people, particularly in our broken judicial system.”

    Very correct.
    But there are not just consequences for the type of punishment. Accepting that there is no free will has an impact on all human actions that we have become accustomed to for millennia. The way we criticize and condemn others for moral reasons is based on countless ways of being angry with them, getting upset with them, and always feeling good, better and superior
    If nobody has a free will, not only can not I blame offenders, I can not blame anyone else: How could you betray me? How could you just overdraw my account? How could you be so mean to the children? All these allegations vanish – they all could not do otherwise.

    Who should the media be allowed to revolt if nobody has a free will? No indignation, no more moral charges: What are the newspapers writing about and reporting the news: only bad news are good news. Nobody wants a majority of friendly messages about other people.

    Revolting is perceived as rewarding, it activates the reward circuits of the brain.
    To expose free will as illusion is to deprive people of one of the most important ways of being able to reaffirm their self-esteem over and over again every day by devaluing others.

    After all, scientists are also only people who know theoretically what determinism means, but in order to actually be able to accept it for themselves, they would be forced to completely rethink their own value system and evaluation system. For this, however, many lack the emotional / and yes: cognitive conditions, their brain simply refuses to accept the implications of a lack of free will, as it has so far found no way to integrate this counter-intuitive truth into its thought system.

    1. Give us our daily bread today – the Lord’s Prayer refers to one of the basic needs of man to have enough to eat, but soon after comes another basic need: to blame the other one.
      One should supplement the Lord’s Prayer by the following line:
      “And give us our daily Weinstein today.”

  37. As a simple country lawyer, I can’t speak for big-brained “Scholars of Repute,” but I’ve long suspected that if mankind ever ultimately resolves the conundrum of consciousness (thereby banishing to the ash pile the last remnants of dualism), the illusion of free will might fall be the wayside as a sort of epiphenomenon — that we might all just turn around and say “why, yes, of course, there is no free will; it’s all determinism.”

  38. I know pinker discusses it in How the Mind Works:

    “Free will is an idealization of human beings that makes the ethics game playable. Euclidean geometry requires idealizations like infinite straight lines and perfect circles, and its deductions are sound and useful even though the world does not really have infinite straight lines or perfect circles. The world is close enough to the idealization that the theorems can usefully be applied. Similarly, ethical theory requires idealizations like free, sentient, rational, equivalent agents whose behavior is uncaused, and its conclusions can be sound and useful even though the world, as seen by science, does not really have uncaused events. As long as there is no outright coercion or gross malfunction of reasoning, the world is close enough to the idealization of free will that moral theory can meaningfully be applied to it.”

      1. It was only a smaller chunk of what he wrote he goes into pretty good detail. I don’t get the sense that he is a compatiblist in any way.

    1. Then one has to ask: when does it *not* apply? How does one tell where and when the idealizations break down? Are there general principles, or case by case (like seems to be the situation now, except for that “Willed Action and Its Impairments” article I’ve mentioned.

    2. Ethical theory doesn’t require agents whose behavior is uncaused. It requires agents whose behavior isn’t caused in certain wrong ways (outright coercion and gross malfunction of reasoning, as Pinker mentions).

  39. I think the problem with determinism is that it doesn’t impact our lives in any practical sense. Knowing that everything is predetermined gives you nothing without knowing what exactly is going to happen. So we have no choice but to live our lives as if we didn’t know our life trajectory simply because we don’t.

    In short, there’s a big distinction between knowing whether determinism is true and knowing what is determined. The former has little practical value and the latter would change everything.

    1. Isn’t it practical to realize that if determinism is true we need to fix our justice system? This has nothing to do with predictability. No practical value to reform the prisons? Seriously?

      1. We Europeans have not fixed our justice systems because we are determinists. Its because of Enlightenment.

        1. I’m tempted to say “exactly”. But of course determinism and Enlightenment go together.

          The thing is, “fully grasping the determinism of human behaviour” has absolutely no practical implications for the enlightened European judicial system. Anymore. I’m not sure about America.

          Sam Harris has got the is-ought distinction backwards. The dualists here are those who believe the courts will do what they are determined to do, but what they ought to do is this or that.

      2. No. There are other, better reasons to fix our justice system: long sentences do a bad job of discouraging criminality, criminals can often be “fixed”, and a variety of others. I’m all in favor of reforming the prisons but I wouldn’t use any arguments based on determinism and free will.

    2. It might be important to clarify that in the context of physics determinism does not entail predeterminism. In a deterministic universe not having a choice isn’t because every instant of your life has already been determined it is because there is no way for you to instantiate an input of any kind that isn’t bound by causality. Or at least that’s my understanding after reading what some physicists think about determinism.

      1. I’m not a physicist so I may have the wrong idea. However, “instantiate an input” seems to imply that the person in question is outside the system. Instead, we are part of that system.

        It is as if we are software running on a computer. The question of whether the universe is determinate or indeterminate is like the software asking whether the processor is from Intel or AMD. The software can get an answer to this question but it doesn’t affect the running of program. (Unless, of course, the software explicitly bases a decision on the answer.) Whatever the software calculates is unaffected by the processor type and it is completely deterministic. We still have to run the program to do the desired calculation.

        1. Regarding your first paragraph, exactly.

          Regarding your second, I’m not sure I understand you exactly. Particularly given your final 2 sentences it sounds like a decent explanation of how determinism differs from predeterminism. I find Sean Carroll’s (the physicist) writing / thinking on these topics the most convincing. Particularly that he emphasizes provisionality (is that a word).

          1. Your comment forced me to check Wikipedia’s page on Predeterminism. It seems that it refers to events being determined by a conscious being, perhaps a god or powerful alien mind. I know this is certainly not what i am talking about. Looking at the Wikipedia page on Determinism, I see that it usually includes the idea that future states are determined completely from prior states and one state is said to cause the next. This is what I mean by determinism.

            Do you have a link to Sean Carroll’s thoughts on this subject?

  40. I suspect that many intellectuals do not engage the question of free will because they think there is really nothing new to be said. As for the issue of the humane treatment of criminals, I do not see how that necessarily follows. Instead, one might conclude “Kill the broken bastard” as one might scrap a broken machine.

    For me, the determinism argument leads to nihilism rather than idealism. But a nice nihilism as Alex Rosenberg calls it.

  41. I think I’m a determinist but I also get confused by statements like: “the point is to change it”. Is that not a contradiction to determinism? If one believes in determinism how can one also believe that the world can be changed?

  42. I think I’m a determinist but I also get confused by statements like: “the point is to change it”. Is that not a contradiction to determinism? If one believes in determinism how can one also believe that the world can be changed?

  43. Even Sapolsky (Behave) who draws almost exactly your conclusion about free will (‘No Such Thing) admits that it doesn’t feel like that to him, and it probably never will. Given this, what is there to talk about. For one example, there are many good reasons to make incarceration more humane, aside from the question ‘could this criminal have done otherwise.’ It seems to me that the technical philosophical question of free will muddies the waters there, and hinders, not helps, efforts at reform based on ethics, economics and social justice.
    And in everyday life, what’s gonna change? I feel a little more tranquil in the face of somebody else’s offputting behaviour, but on the other hand, I may use it to excuse my own. I think the best thing to do is to pretend we have a choice and try to make the best one.
    I realize, by the way, that these thoughts are the product of my conditioning; that they are not really my own, but I’ll stick by them.

    1. For one thing, you’d make the justice system more humane in DIFFERENT WAYS if you have deterministic views than if you have other aims, for the former is explicitly based on the realization that people had no real “choice”. Besides, realizing that determinism is true gives us more IMPETUS to reform the criminal justice system. Otherwise you face people who say, “The guy made the wrong choice; he’s a bad person and needs to be punished.”

      1. You can still say that if you believe in determinism. (You might have to if your thoughts are determined.) You can even do it for the usual reason for punishment: deterrence. One could believe that Harvey Weinstein is a pig, and we need to punish people like him for being such pigs *so that parents will try to avert piggishness in their children* and so save them from suffering.

        1. I see no reason to think that the optimal amount of punishment for effecting deterrence would be similar to that which is deemed appropriate for expressing moral opprobrium under our current “blameworthiness” model of criminal justice. The former, I think, is subject to scientific inquiry; the latter is not, in that it relies entirely on moral intuition.

      2. But even if we all would believe that there is no free will in the sense that a criminal couldn’t have done otherwise, I find very hard to conclude that we must make imprisonment more humane for THAT reason. Nobody will feel pity for, let say, a murderer because “he couldn´t have done otherwise” as if he were just a victim of his bad luck. There is no a humunculo in the muerderer brain who is a puppet. Most people feel responsable of their acts even if is true there is no free will.

        Do our justice system must be more humane? Yes, but not because criminals act wihtout free will, but because we need to punish in a neccesary way just to prevent or deterrence other to comit more crimes. As I see we can change our attitude by believing they don´t have free will (very difficult to accept)or by knowing that vengance is an atavistic emotion that we do not need anymore even thoug is natural and pleasurable.

  44. My take, (and this does get around to trying to answer Jerry’s question as to the apparent discomfort of folks like Dawkins on discussing free will):

    Those of us who defend compatibiism are very used to being psychoanalyzed as disagreeing because we just don’t want to accept that there is no free will. It means to much to us, so we cling to it for essentially emotional reasons, and concoct sophistic arguments to justify this.”

    And this is usually just wrong. I don’t reject the incompatibilist perspective because I don’t like the consequences; I reject it because it doesn’t make sense. Logical problems just leap out at me. Just like many incompatibilists think of the compatibilist arguments.

    This is relevant because I think incompatibilists like Jerry tend to make a similar mistake in evaluating why “the average person” has so much trouble just accepting incompatibilism when it is presented to them.

    But thought there is no doubt some truth in the idea the average person has an attachment to free will. But it’s far from the whole truth. Because free will isn’t just a vague metaphysical intuition: the concept actually MAKES SENSE of much of human experience. So it is going to be abandoned only if an incompatibilist makes more sense of the normal everyday experience.

    From the many, many discussions I’ve seen on free will (and often in forums filled with “regular non-philosopher-folk”), what actually happens is this: Someone make the incompatibist case that “we could not do otherwise” and the free will believer immediately intuits a logical problem: “Ok, so if we can’t do otherwise….why should I “do otherwise?” I’ve got reasons I thought I had to make choices – do otherwise – I give those reasons to other people, they given them to me, you in your very next breath are talking about reasons to do otherwise. This just seems like an obvious contradiction if I accept your claim.”

    And I don’t think the public intellectuals espousing incompatibilism are doing a sufficient job of answering this basic contradiction.

    When Jerry says the Turpins “had no choice,” as some have been pointing out, it assumes all the messy controversy over “choice” and expects someone to know what it means and be on board. In that way, such a statement is not clarifying, it’s confusing.

    A compatibiist like myself argues that Jerry’s assumptions in the word “choice” run afoul of the normal uses of the term “choice” which do not rely on reasoning that conflicts with determinism. People “do” make choices every day, all day long, often ruminating on the choices. It will make no sense of the actual “choice” scenarios people deal with every day to say “there is no choice.”
    People notice an apparent baby being thrown out in the bath water.

    And I think this is also partially behind the apparent reticence of people like Dawkins to discuss free will publicly. There seems some contradictions, raised by incompatibilism that they intuit as both not worked out by themselves satisfactorily, but (I’m inferring) not worked out to their satisfaction by the incompatibilists making the case. With these ambiguities and seeming contradictions not worked out to their satisfaction, they are (rightly) not comfortable making declarations on the subject.

    1. It is a good comment indeed. Now, about the Turpin case:

      Never mind if they had a choice. Do the judge, the jury and the mental health experts have a choice here?

  45. Free Will is not an important discussion to have. Whatever you think about makes no difference either way, things play out as they play out. Why bother? (this is of course the case for everything, just here it is thrown on itself). 😉

    1. Yes, exactly. As obviously we cannot discern a deterministic world from an indeterministic one, it’s at some point really an unimportant question, whether determinism holds or not.

  46. We evolved to understand entities with minds differently than physical objects. We have a theory of mind, and an intentional stance. This is as real as there are colours, rivers, or squirrels.

    The reasoning to predict what a mind will do does not operate with physical-mechanical assumptions, but it is concerned with wants, desires, fears, and similar emotions and reaaons which are somehow competing and then producing a behaviour. We can make sense of this only as humans (or human-like creatures).

    If you really, truly leave the “reality box” behind you, float outside and examine it, you see there is no free will, indeed. But there are also no colours, rivers or foxes. There is also no time, and even space might be something else.

    The hard incompatibilist stance is a form of naive realism which insufficiently takes cognition into account, and how it is embedded in (evolved) bodies.

  47. Jerry wrote:

    For one thing, our feeling of agency is so strong that grasping determinism wouldn’t turn us into do-nothing nihilists. Although it’s an illusion, so is the notion of the “I” in our brain. Life will go on when we believe in determinism but still have our evolved feeling of agency.

    But, why would we evolve a feeling of agency unless it wasn’t useful? Clearly it is useful, and I can not see how you can explain it’s usefulness without uncovering some truth in the concept.

    This is is one of the bumps I continually stumble over when people promulgate incompatibilism: it starts with some claim that “it follows from analysis that we have to reject the notion of agency…”

    And then it leave dangling all sorts of string, now snipped, that are not tied up. There is so much more to explain if one accepts the premise “agency is an illusion” that just isn’t being explained.

    That there may be some illusion involved in X, does not entail “X is entirely illusion.”
    There is some “illusion” involved in our sight and how our brain processes sight, some best-guess templates leading to “illusions” – but to say “what you see is only illusion” can not explain how my sight allows me to successfully navigate my way home in the car!

    The best explanation is that, whether our naive idea of how sight works is accurate or not, there is a reality involved in saying we really “can see things,” that explains why it’s such a useful attribute to have.

    Same with Agency: the capacity of an actor to act in a given environment, making choices etc. This distinguishes us from physical entities that are not “agents” with goals, reason, deliberative powers, ability to choose between options, etc, vs a billiard ball that has no such characteristics.

    As for there being no “I”…again..it seems to me there is much bound up in that claim and it’s a throwing the baby out with the bathwater claim.

    Even IF our cognition doesn’t operate on the naive assumptions we hold about it, even IF there is some illusion involved, it does not follow that there is no “I” or “agency” in the sense that is useful and that matters, and that does not make contact with our everyday interaction with human agents.

    However messy the consciousness process in her brain (like mine) may be, it nonetheless resolves into something consistent enough to usefully understood as “her.”

    This allows me to predict my interactions with her – the type of present she’ll appreciate, or hate, at Christmas. Her reaction to me getting another parking ticket…etc. We successfully use the model of human agency all day long to navigate among one another.

    It makes sense for a therapist to regard “Fred” who is arriving at her office for the fourth visit, as the “same person” she has been treating for a height phobia the weeks before this. The “I” presented by Fred isn’t chaos: it’s unified and predictable in essentially the ways, and to the degree, we normally think human agents are predictable when we encounter them.

    It seems then there IS some real-world sense of unification, of “I” that is useful in much the same way it’s been useful in the past, and so just tossing it away as “illusion” seems more careless than illuminating.

  48. Thanks for this post, Jerry. I recently began reading Dawkins and was as puzzled and disappointed as you were at his facile comments on free will. It’s hard to guess what his reasons are for his reluctance to comment on the subject. I certainly agree with you that it’s an important subject, not only in itself but for the effects it can have on our culture.

    I also have to say in passing that I find the comments of many people here either totally off the subject or simply ill thought out and I wonder why. Perhaps the emotional commitment to the idea of free choice is just too much for some people to part with. It’s too bad.

    I do hope you’ll continue to post on this subject as I find yours and Sam Harris’s ideas always fascinating.


    1. One could just as easily assert that you have an emotional commitment to your own conclusions…but pop psychology suddenly seems facile and inaccurate when the other side is doing it, right? 😉

      That’s why it’s more interesting if someone can actually justify their position. I suspect that your claim the compatibilist arguments here are “off topic” and “ill thought out” would be as easy to defend as perhaps you think it is.

      Agree: Sam Harris is always fascinating. I’m a fan!


  49. John Horgan interviewed David Deutsch in Scientific American recently and asked him this question:
    Horgan: Do you believe in free will?
    Deutsch: People mean different things by the term. The multiverse is deterministic so “ability to violate the laws of physics” doesn’t exist. Nor does “having an effect in the gaps between laws of physics.” There are no such gaps. But the ability to create something new that is not *explained* by the laws of physics (laws of motion plus initial conditions of the universe), does. We do it all the time. Explanation is not the same as prediction – even prediction in principle.

  50. ”Yes, the Turpins people did a bad thing, but they had no choice. They were simply acting on the behavioral imperatives dictated by their genes and environment, and they couldn’t have done otherwise.”

    If you said that, most people would think you a monster—a person without morals who was intent on excusing their behavior. But that statement about the Turpins is true!

    The problem is the same as always. What does it even mean to say that they could not have done otherwise?

    As I tried to express in a comment a couple of weeks ago: Imagine doing a scientific study, being excited by a perhaps unexpected result, and then a determinist comes along and says, “well, that is all nonsense and irrelevant, because your study could only ever have produced this result. Laws of physics, how can you not understand that?”

    Does such a response make sense? Does “could only ever have produced this result” actually get at what is interesting about the study? Of course not, because it could have had a different result if things had been different. Likewise, an evil person could have done otherwise if they had been a decent person instead. That is all the could have done otherwise that actually matters, ever.

    Just like the determinist wiping the results of the study off the table does not make a helpful contribution because the effect that the experiment demonstrated matters, so a determinist wiping the difference between e.g. a kleptomaniac and a coldly calculating thief off the table does not make a helpful contribution either, because that difference matters.

    1. So you invent a very stupid determinist, a kind of straw man, to demonstrate, on the basis of his unqualified statements, that a deterministic view of human behavior produces no progress whatsoever.

      “Imagine doing a scientific study, being excited by a perhaps unexpected result, and then a determinist comes along and says, „well, that is all nonsense and irrelevant, …”

      The excitement of an unexpected result is completely determined by the neural structure of the brain and the influence of many hormones. We are human beings, who are excited when unexpected, new things happen.

      And we conceive of ourselves as living beings, products of evolution and not just as electrons, for which only the laws of physics apply. We are complex creatures for us, therefore many more descriptive levels apply than for particles at the atomic level.

  51. One of the many things we don’t have a free choice about seems to be experiencing the illusion of free will and the “why the hell did I do THAT?” kind of regret at some of our past actions. The illusion seems to have evolved for the purpose of facilitating and justifying external regulation of bad behaviour, but none of that makes the illusion real. Acknowledging that it is indeed an illusion can help reduce the string of negative and in some cases damaging emotions like regret, desire for vengeance, and hatred. Reducing the effect of those things is, IMHO, A Good Thing.

  52. So contracts go out the window and nobody should be held accountable for agreeing to terms or swearing an oath. I think Dennett hit Harris with this in terms of getting a document notarized. What is “free act and deed” if not an allusion to at least a useful fiction of volition. Is a person aware of their surroundings and competent to sign a document? Are they free from coercion, manipulation, or influence of drugs or conditions that would currently incapacitate them. Do they know what they are doing? Are they signing a document with clear and intentional end in mind? These questions answered affirmatively are sufficient to establish free will for execution of legal documents and if we throw that out the window because of Libet narrowly and pedantically applied we may as well stop letting people sign loan documents and powers of attorney or taking sworn affidavits seriously. It’s tumors all the way down so someone cannot be held accountable in terms of holding to contract terms or perjuring themselves as signing a document is not a free act and deed. Signing a document is akin to someone with a brain tumor shooting up a school campus because loss of function or things going wrong is the proper way of thinking about everything. Never about what is going right from day to day as Dennett opined quite aptly.

  53. Great post. I’ve often wondered the same thing. I think that their reluctance is due to one of two things:

    The stigma of being someone who denies free will: the vast majority of human beings believe in it and to suggest that it is an illusion is not a statement that is going to enhance your reputation. You will be seen as an elitist outlier. Not so good for book sales. ;^)

    The other reason is what Jerry has referred to as the LPA (Little People Argument). We simply cannot present this idea (fact) to those who are faith-based in their thinking. They will not comprehend it and we should leave them alone to feel content (safe) in their flawed epistemology.

    Scandinavia is a successful social experiment that demonstrates that a culture that accepts determinism is a culture where humans are the best they can be.

    1. What’s your evidence for thinking acceptance of determinism is more widespread in Scandinavia than elsewhere? Those societies are less religious and more secular than the US, and their penal systems are more humane, but that doesn’t automatically imply that determinism plays any significant role in their social philosophy

      1. Comparative official social philosophies is an interesting exercise that I wish people would do more of. I know there were some South Koreans working on understanding Juche, the philosophy of their northern brothers, but …

  54. Free will is a subject kind of like sports – everyone and anyone can have something to say about it – I think that is a turn-off, if one wants to impress the academic referees, if you know what I mean…

  55. As long as someone has a capacity for deliberative self control we can expect them to act in a manner that is morally responsible.

    Based on this podcast interview of Dennett my notes are “Well informed, well ordered desires, responsive to reasons, justified decisions based on evaluating probable outcomes, be persuadable, but sensitive to manipulation by others, know when to convey versus conceal”. The latter converges with a Machiavellian intelligence


    And here’s Pat Churchland notes I jotted: “Delay gratification, maintain goal despite distraction, impulse control, cancel action”. The last point is free won’t.


    As Kant opined ought implies can. And it’s not as much could have done otherwise as will do otherwise in the future. One may touch a hot stove by accident once or twice when younger but will learn to do otherwise in the future. People in a similar manner are expected given such native capacity to learn the mores of society and act accordingly. Unless incapacitated by a brain tumor- murder, rape, theft, and perjury are considered both illegal and immoral, and perpetrators are held accountable by society.

    Someone lacking a brain tumor or other loss of function disorder that has reached maturity or the age of majority (a Sorites problem no doubt) is presumed capable of freely evaluating alternative options and making legal and moral choices. Such person may find some laws unjust and engage in civil disobedience. That’s where a considered sense if morality diverges from law. That protestor has deliberated their choice and justified it to themselves and maybe persuaded others. They differentiate the way things are (status quo) and the way they think or feel things ought to be. Reducing such deliberations to Libet having subjects stare at a clock diminishes their agency.

  56. My problem with physical determinism negating free will is this: Physical determinism hasn’t made even the slightest dent in the hard problem. It’s an incomplete description of reality.

  57. If they have no choice in believing in free will or determinism what’s the point in any discussion about it anyway? Whether it’s true or not makes absolutely no difference we still have to go through life all the same. It’s not like if determinism is true everyone has to adhere to it people were still determined to believe in free will and will act accordingly so there’s no changing anything and all these arguments are null and void because the outcome will always be how it will be there’s no redirecting the course it will take. You can’t eat your cake and keep it too with determinism you just have to say what is… is and there’s nothing we concious agents can do about it.. it’s done you .can post as many things you want to try and change everyone to determinist but it comes down to your background determining you to be a determinist so your opinion.is also just genetics and environmental factors also not some objective rationality bestowed upon you by the universe it’s just another domino. That s probably why intellectuals don’t like talking about it…because it’s pointless

    1. ” you can post as many things you want to try and change everyone to determinist but it comes down to your background determining you to be a determinist so your opinion.”

      Of course it comes down to the background which is determing somebody to be a determinist or not. But you never ever can know how the outcomes and the affects of your actions will be – that is the reason why everybody should try to act and to speak according to his own convictions.

  58. I can’t believe I stayed up so late just to read this post and discussion. But I did. I chose to do so because I am interested in the topic. Simple? Yes. But why make it more complicated than that?

  59. I’ve struggled with this, I can accept that at a certain moment your actions are governed by Quantum Forces over which you have no control, but in the case of the Turpins,this went on for years, so are we saying that these forces never alter over time, so you continue doing the same actions, starving and beating your kids ad infinitum.?

  60. RE: One thing that’s struck me while interacting with various Scholars of Repute is how uncomfortable many get when they have to discuss free will.
    It’s very hard and uncomfortable for intellectuals to accept that they are only very complex robots that act in a deterministic manner. It implies that their accomplishments are not “theirs” since there is no theirs there

    1. I agree. That’s the other side of the medal of the non-existence of free will, all merits which you was proud before, were not performed by your strong will or your great inner self, they all based on genetics, environment and chance.
      You didn’t have a choice not to do them.

    2. Then maybe we shouldn’t praise “Jerry” for “authorship” of his books. And if some creationist launches an unfair and disconnected diatribe against “Jerry” for content in said books, we should not hold them responsible for their neurally driven actions. Said action is a teleomatic illusion not dissimilar from a rock falling from a ledge into the pond below. One would not praise or blame a rock because gravity.

      And “snowflakes” protesting speakers on campus are just passively following the buffeting winds into snowdrifts of societal change so stop maligning them. They lack agency and could do no other.

    3. Or maybe some intellectuals recognize that to conclude that determinism implies “their accomplishments are not “theirs” since there is no theirs there” is a shallow analysis and has very poor explanatory power.

      It’s not that agency, and attributing responsibility to agents is an “illusion” that we can not help indulging in. That simply doesn’t explain what it has to explain. Rather, treating ourselves as responsible agents is unavoidable because it is useful to do so, and it’s only useful insofar as it contains truth.

  61. As I said before there are a number of uninformed statements made in this discussion. It would help if those who want to engage in it would go back and read some of Jerry’s earlier posts on free will, some of which he highlighted in his post.

    Hard to find time to take up all of them but one that has occurred frequently, most recently by Log, is the claim that since everything is determined why bother even talking about it, the implication being that it’s impossible to change. But no determinist, and certainly not Jerry, has ever made the argument that humans can’t change. We change all the time in response to all kinds of influences, especially influences from our fellow humans. Determinism doesn’t imply the inability to change.

    And, contrary to some of the posts here, the deterministic position doesn’t imply lack of responsibility. Although our actions are determined we’re still responsible for them and can be held responsible for them.

    And thanks to Ulrich Fischer for pointing out one very good reason for understanding that determinism is the way the universe works.

  62. Ironically people are praising Jerry for this post and providing #1s to others when the topic is free will and responsibility. May as well praise a sunset for being beautiful as it could do no other. Book reviews are pointless. “Authors” were not responsible for their books. They had little say in the matter besides being a passive conduit between chair and keyboard.

  63. Hard to find the time to comment on all the posts in this thread but it seems to me that those who do comment should at least go back and read some of Jerry’s earlier pieces on free will, some of which he highlighted in his post. It help to clarify some things.

    One claim that has been made a number of times, most recently by Log is that since everything’s determined there’s no point in even talking about it. But no determinist, and certainly not Jerry, has ever made the claim that we can’t change. We change all the time in response to all kinds of influences including those from our fellow humans. Determinism does not imply the impossibility of change. Understanding that the world is deterministic would change many things. Not just the prison system.

    And determinism doesn’t imply a lack of responsibility. We’re still responsible for our actions and can still be held responsible for them.

    And finally determinism does not mean that everything has already been determined (fated) from the first moment of the universe. The future is always open.

    On the subject of the self which has come up in some recent posts, the evidence is pretty overwhelming that the self is mostly an illusion. Seems to me that should be clear to anyone who reflects on their past selves. Yes, we have their memories but would your present self always do what your younger selves did? In many many cases not likely. They were different people.

    1. “And finally determinism does not mean that everything has already been determined (fated) from the first moment of the universe.”

      Actually, according to The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Causal Determinism,

      “In a looser sense, however, it is true that under the assumption of determinism, one might say that given the way things have gone in the past, all future events that will in fact happen are already destined to occur.”

      This doesn’t refer to the first moment of the universe but I don’t see how that changes anything.

      1. I do think this is a fair description of the Laplace world view, which was referred to as “determinism” for about a hundred years:

        “…given the way things have gone in the past, all future events that will in fact happen are already destined to occur.”

        At that time loads of religious people believed in a “will” that’s somehow “free” as in “uncaused”.

        After a century of quantum physics it seems silly to open up this debate. No sane adult believes in uncaused things. On the other hand: everyone remotely acquainted with science knows Gödel proved Laplace was wrong.

        Modern everyday usage of “determinism” is compatibilist. We are determined to make choices.

      2. There *is* no first moment to the universe, only (in *some* parameterizations) that of the local hubble volume. A lot of philosophy doesn’t understand modern cosmology very well, alas.

        1. Indeed. And that’s just the beginning of the problem. As David Albert explains in After Physics (Chapter 2), most people misunderstand the nature of time and causality. And as Jenann Ismael argues in How Physics Makes Us Free (link is to a book review), this makes all the difference in the world to free will arguments. In a nutshell: incompatibilism is founded in intuitive physics, but intuitive physics is mistaken.

          1. Physicist Sean Carroll addresses this “first moment of the universe” issue and dismisses it out of hand. (Thanks to other commenters on pointing me to his writing on free will.)

    2. I’m wondering how you can hold a person responsible for their actions, when the person had no choice but to act the way they acted?

      I mean, maybe people who do terrible things to others because they have a brain tumor should be executed (depending on one’s opinions about capital punishment). The courts have certainly held people with brain tumors responsible for the things they did even though they were sick when they did them. But is that something an enlightened person would agree with?

      How do you make an argument that people could not have acted in any other way than the way they acted, and still hold them responsible?

      What kind of ethics is this?

      1. You are correct that we can’t hold people morally responsible for acts over which they had no control, but we can hold them responsible. After all they performed the act. And we can take measures to ensure they don’t do it again or so they suffer consequences for what they did. And if we do that correctly, we will influence their future behaviour.

        1. We can hold them responsible, in the sense that the person with the brain tumor was the cause of sadistic death of another person, which is not functionally different from saying that the knife used is responsible.

          The use of “responsible” in such a literal way lets you slice the banana as finely as you like, but it’s not really meaningful, is it, unless human behavior and knives are the same thing?

          1. We hold the fox that kills a chicken responsible but not morally responsible. We hold a human with a mental disease responsible but not morally responsible for his actions. It’s a well established distinction.

    3. rgsherr,

      I believe what your comment misses is this:

      Those of us logic critiques at Jerry’s incompatibilism (and those who share his view) understand what Jerry espouses: rather, we think what he espouses doesn’t follow coherently from the other premises he starts with.

      Take the example of debating with a Christian (as I have recently) who says:

      Christian: God loves us and wants to enter into a freely loving relationship. In order for someone to be capable of love, they must possess free will. A loving choice also must be a choice made amidst competing, viable, alternatives. So, the ability to choose love implies the ability to choose evil.

      Ok, so tell me a bit more about God. Can God choose to do evil?

      Christian: No, God’s necessary nature entails God will only ever choose to do good.

      Me: Oh. Ok, so then God doesn’t have free will and can not love.

      Christian: No. That is NOT what I said. Of course God has free will. Didn’t I already tell you that God loves us?!! Why don’t you listen to what I’ve already said instead of strawmanning what I believe!”

      Clearly what the Christian is missing is that the critic understands that the Christian has told us God freely loves human beings. The issue is that she has not coherently argued for that proposition. There’s a lack of coherency in the steps moving from “The ability to choose evil acts is a requirement for free will and love” to “God by nature can not do evil” but nonetheless we are to accept “God has free will and can love.”

      Similar critiques are being lobbed at Jerry’s position. I know, for instance, Jerry has declared that incompatibilism does not equate to anything like fatalism. Or that it doesn’t mean “we can’t influence one another to change behaviors” etc. But what I’m not seeing is a coherent logical bridge actually getting there.

      As for fatalism, as I’ve argued before, there does seem to be a creeping fatalism *implied* by various parts of Jerry’s arguments, even if he doesn’t recognize it. He for instance has said recognizing hard determinism has salutary effects, for instance not regretting/being hard on oneself for past mistakes. But since his he claims we “don’t have real choice” and “could not have done otherwise,” based on determinism, the logic of this entails the same applies to any choice we may be contemplating. To say of my last choice “I could not have done otherwise” is to say of my next choice “I can not do otherwise.” The first thing to point out is the incoherence of trying to decide between options IF we accept the premise “I could not do otherwise.” Jerry on one hand can not say “you can not do otherwise” and then tell me (in trying to influence my behavior) “I can give you reasons to do otherwise.”

      This is why the common refrain “but I never argued we can’t influence one another’s actions with arguments” doesn’t work. You can’t do so by giving them *good reasons* because you’ve made giving them good reasons incoherent (because you’ve told them they can’t do otherwise).

      Secondly, if one can forgive oneself for the indiscretion of a past choice on the grounds “I could not have done otherwise” then consistency this applies to the next choice we are about to make. If for instance we were contemplating doing something dubious, that we may regret later, we can say “Well, I have no more choice this time than the last time I did this wrong thing, and no more reason to reprimand myself for it…so why not go for it? No matter WHAT I choose to do I can’t really hold myself morally responsible for it anyway.”

      In other words, the logic implies one can adopt a similar mood to fatalism “how will it really matter what I choose?”

      Sure we do things…and play a part in the machine…but as cogs in a machine do things.
      The cogs matter…but not in the way people want to matter, think they matter, and are motivated by.

      As a compatibilist I think all this can be worked out given determinism, but that requires acknowledging we maintain a robust sense of “could do otherwise” and “real choice” even given determinism. I don’t think you can get to some of the conclusions Jerry espouses – changing the treatment of criminals, recommending actions, making sense of morality, etc, without reasoning towards it like a compatibilist.

  64. The only reason to believe that the universe is deterministic is that the fundamental laws of physics, as we currently understand them, are deterministic. That’s the ONLY reason as far as I can tell. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong.

    So we have to start at the level of fundamental physics, which is deterministic. A microscopic state of the universe in the past (ANY state) determines uniquely the state at any time in the future. That’s what determinism means. There’s no wiggle room.

    It follows that free will, and in fact all conscious experience, is an ineffectual illusion. That’s why people don’t want to talk about free will.

  65. Stephen Barnard –

    Not sure what you mean by the inclusion of “all conscious experience” as an illusion.

    The state of the universe a moment ago almost certainly determined the state of the universe now, but the state of the universe at inception does not, nor does the state of the universe an hour ago necessarily determine it. There is always the possibility of quantum randomness. But free will doesn’t sneak in here. Nothing has any control over quantum randomness.

    1. There is no such thing as “quantum randomness”. The fundamental laws of quantum mechanics are deterministic. Quantum states evolve deterministically but indeterminately, a subtle but important distinction.

      1. That’s correct. But the term is a widespread shorthand for the process. “Quantum indeterminacy” is better.

    2. “Not sure what you mean by the inclusion of “all conscious experience” as an illusion.”

      The physical determinist stance DEMANDS that all conscious experience is at least something very like an illusion, even if it’s partially veridical. It can have no effect on the evolution of the quantum microstate, which is determined. To have such an effect, such as in an act of free will, would be dualism and would violate physical determinism. The implication is that consciousness is a sideshow, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

        1. Whether consciousness is physical or not (I assume it is) is beside the point. Whatever it is, it can’t change the evolution of the state of the universe, which is determined.

          The state a billion years ago uniquely determined the state NOW, and determines all future states until the end of time. This is the radical feature of determinism, and the basis for the argument against free will.

          1. You wrote:

            It follows that free will, and in fact all conscious experience, is an ineffectual illusion. That’s why people don’t want to talk about free will.

            I don’t see how any such thing follows from what you’ve said about determinism. It strikes me as a complete non-sequitur. Further, it seems to assume somewhere in there everything that is under debate, and hence begs the question.

            Generally, the debate over whether consciousness is effectual has nothing to do with appeal to determinism since the big bang. It has to do (at least among materialists/naturalists) with the roll of consciousness within a physical system. If it’s physical, it will be effectual (interacts other parts of the physical system). If ANYTHING is effectual since the big bang (or whatever specific state you are referencing billions of years ago), then a conscious brain is effectual insofar as it produces behaviors.

            And it’s begging the question to presume a conscious brain must be able to change things in a contra-causal way in order to be “effectual” or “real.”

            Brains/consciousness play a role in the direction of the outcome. That’s “real. ” That’s “effectual,” in any usual, tenable use of those words.

            You aren’t producing any new argument so much as just assuming everything we debate here.

            1. You’re arguing for a very outdated form of causation, one that physics abandoned starting primarily with Laplace.

              The modern understanding is that, given a system with a certain initial state that operates by a set of rules, it will evolve in a particular manner to a certain eventual state.

              To use a pool table as a toy universe example, the cue ball moving towards the set isn’t so much the cause of the resulting flurry of movement of the balls as it’s the case that that’s simply what such a system does.

              The Free Will argument is equivalent to one that the cue ball is commanding the movement of the rest of the balls and determining their final resting positions on the table (or in pockets). It works in an Aristotelian folk wisdom sort of description, and even tells a great story.

              But it’s as full a description of reality as Aristotle’s insistence that things only move when you push on them, and they stop moving once you stop pushing. Roughly a not-bad approximation in human environments, but it completely ignores friction and inertia and gives you a completely distorted picture of what’s actually happening.



      1. Let’s try to summon him, Beetlejuice-like, from the depths of cyberspace.


        1. Hunh? Wazzat?

          Oh — hi, guys!

          Life is good, and overflowing — hardly have time to inhale.

          Short version…”Free Will” answers the question of, “Why,” not, “What.” As theologians love to point out, “Why” is the domain of religion, “What,” of science.

          Let ’em have it. “Why” is for storytelling, and is up to the storyteller to answer. It can be loads of fun, but reality simply is what it is. You can make up any stories you want about it, but that’s just you telling stories. It also happens to be spectacularly useless for anything other than entertainment.

          That’s especially true of your own life…stop worrying over why shit happens, and just focus on as full an understanding as possible of what’s going on. You’ll be more successful, more productive, more compassionate, and happier. Can’t stress it enough: “Why” is worse than useless outside storytelling.

          The “What” of the subject at hand is that brains are deterministic computational engines that include not merely predictive branching functions, but full-on virtual reality modeling. Subjectively, you sure do feel like you “rewind the tape” as you’re making decisions — but an objective description of what’s going on will note that it truly is only atoms and the void. You can observe this for yourself: decide between chocolate and vanilla, see how you imagine the one, associate an outcome, imagine the other, associate another outcome, compare the scores, maybe with a bunch of repetititition. But in the end, you only actually have the one or the other, and there wasn’t actually any CEO-style “you” that was directing what to imagine at any given point in the process.

          If you want to influence the way people make decisions, you can encourage them to “rewind the tape” and “freely choose” from various options. Just understand that, logically, all that’s happening is you yourself are deterministically feeding the input tape of another Turing machine.



          1. Actually, the brain does have a CEO, the global neuronal workspace. Like corporate CEOs, she often claims more credit than is actually due: “I built this company into a powerhouse!” Well actually, it was the minions who did most of the work. But still, the CEO is very important. Like corporate CEOs, the global workspace consumes a disproportionate share of resources (glucose). But that’s better justified than in the corporate case: at any given moment, the brain’s CEO employs more neurons than other functionaries.

            1. Look for the CEO within your own mind and you will not find it.

              Right this moment, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “Huh? He’s nuts. I’m right here!”

              But where did that thought come from?

              You can hear the voice saying those words as were it coming from somebody sitting right in your ear. But where’s the speaker? And what part of “you” decided to utter the thought?

              Imagine Harry Potter’s magic pen writing on a pad of paper, “I am the magic pen writing on a pad of paper,” and you’re much closer to understanding.



              1. Right, I can’t find the global workspace within my mind, because this brain activity is my mind. You were also right earlier, in the comment I replied to, not to identify the CEO with “you”. Because “you” aren’t just a mind, you’re a whole organism. You aren’t just the CEO, you’re the whole corporation – to overstretch the metaphor a little.

  66. The best reason i can think of why intellectuals don’t discuss free will or lack of, to my mind, is that it is before it’s time and nothing can be gained from it. At least for now.
    As stated already, it is not that intellectuals don’t or can’t grasp it, it’s because all the lay people out there need to be convinced before it can influence any external systems.
    How are you going to do that when in a recent poll shown here at WEIT, Americans for one, couldn’t name a scientist of any discipline, good luck with a neuroscientist or a philosopher. Seems like the first hurdle. no?
    QM took some time to reach the un-scientific masses, we had to wait until physicist themselves had resolved an understanding and clearing the path for mortals to take a glimpse. Even with that, it still remains a mystery on boring to most…
    Getting back on track, it could be, as science awareness keeps growing in the populace (and in doing so has assisted in the overhaul of religion) this may allow the opportunity to bring the concept, the acceptance of no moral responsibility as a truth to the fore (queue the intellectuals) and to normalise it as a guiding principle.
    In other words it is hitched to this downturn, that free will belief rooted in religion, there is no room for both, if only one in principle, is true, described and shown as such.

    1. I suppose people who make a distinction between moral responsibility and “mere” responsibility have had some sort of religious upbringing.

      We ordinary atheists usually have a social scientific concept of morality as a biological and cultural phenomenon.

      1. Yes i was thinking more along the lines of this pervading view of religion over centuries embedded in society, even if you do not practice religion… a sort of status quo affect.
        Your last sums it up nicely and IMO is to “why” the discussion may come about eventually, when more take on board this view of a natural origin of morality.

  67. This is a really fun discussion

    Couple other thoughts, as I was going through the day:

    The notion of free will seems to arise from the sense that we operate independently. Some thought reveals utter dependency : I am driving on this road in large part because the road is here.

    I decided to drive on it because a truck was blocking the other way.

    The truck was there because it’s a snow storm out.

    If I had decided to finish coffee this morning, I would not have met that truck, and would have gone the other way, where a cop was stopping people in a speed trap.

    Did I choose to not get a ticket? Yes I guess, I mean, I’d hope so, but to predict it is impossible- as Eric Weinstein suggested, a double pendulum operates entirely with Newtonian physics, but it’s path becomes entirely unpredictable ( I think).

    And so on.

    It’s very liberating, I think.

    1. I’m not sure, but I infer you are associating a sense of free will with unpredictability. It’s a knowledge problem: we don’t know the outcome of our decisions, that’s why it seems we have a real “choice,” but if we had sufficient knowledge we’d know the determined outcome of the choice. So free will is just a stand in for our ignorance. (Again, that’s a commonly proposed idea, though I’m not exactly sure if this is what you were getting at).

      For various reasons I think this doesn’t work, but one of them is that we very often base our choices on predictability – from extremely high confidence, to confident, to less confident. If I want to stop playing with a ball, I know that if I choose to drop it, I will successfully predict it falls to the ground. But knowing that outcome doesn’t seem to say anything decisive about whether my choice was free willed or not.

      The notion of free will seems to arise from the sense that we operate independently.

      I don’t think that captures the reasons why we think as we do when making a “choice” between options.

      I just went out to grab lunch not far from where I’m working and I chose to run instead of walk (for exercise). “Could” I have walked instead? Yes. Why would I think that? Because I’m capable of walking to the same place. I simply thought about what I wanted to do, deliberated on which action was most likely to fulfill my desire (running fulfilled the desires both for lunch and getting some exercise into my day), and made the decision based on an appraisal of my ability to take such action, and it’s likelihood of fulfilling my goal.

      None of that made any recourse to being independent of the laws of physics. It’s just the type of thinking a being within the laws of physics/cause/effect would engage in to navigate such a world.

      1. Yet the falling ball, too, has full “freedom” to move in any direction — down, of course, but also sideways as well as even up. Indeed, it will move sideways, as the Coriolis Force and the net force of air currents, though typically trivial, are always non-zero. And all you have to do is hit it with a stick on its way down for the ball to move up. As a bonus, if it is spinning sufficiently, such as if thrown by a talented baseball pitcher, its own relative-to-itself motion can cause it to move so erratically that even a talented professional will have great difficulty in predicting its path.

        It is therefore plain that the ball, in one sense, is perfectly free to move in any direction; yet, too, clearly has no choice in the direction it moves.

        Humans are certainly more complicated than balls, but it is a difference of degree, not of type.

        You were “free” in the same sense as the ball to bike to lunch, yet you were kicked to run and had no more choice in the matter than the ball.

        This would be a good place to introduce entropy into the discussion. Consider a set of macroscopic events: your workday trip to lunch. Assume a career of 40 years, an average of 48 weeks on the job, and going out to lunch three times a week; that’s a set of just shy of 6,000 examples of you going out to lunch at work. That’s the simple description of reality, something you’re not escaping. Maybe you’ll go out to lunch mere hundreds of times, maybe even 10,000 times — but it won’t be all that far from 6,000 times.

        Of that set, each instance is its own unique entity. But, because of the entropy of that set, there’re patterns: sometimes you run, sometimes you walk, sometimes you drive. And there’re patterns associated with those patterns: sometimes it’s raining, sometimes a particular friend has a lunch break at the same time. Patterns have predictive utility…

        …but the trees make the forrest; the forrest doesn’t define a tree. And whether or not to call a stand of 20 trees a forrest or to draw the line at 2000 trees is your problem, not the trees’s.

        That you find it useful to describe that one particular instance of lunchtime as “choosing” to run is a good use of data compression for a tiny human brain, but it throws away all the data of reality, in which you are but atoms moving through the void….



        1. The ball thing – just because there are a multitude of paths does not mean they are all greatly consequential. The only significant outcome is that it rests on the ground. Then the person holding it can get on with their day.

          1. And yet you are of no more consequence nor significance than the ball. Several billion years from now, if not in a century or less, you will be reduced to mere dust scattered indiscriminately in the void — and, a moment from now, you will be a different person, as different as Theseus’s ship after the wind wets the sails with spray from the wave.

            A great deal of the arguments in favor of Free Will depend on an implicit assumption of the specialness of humans, yet we are special only to our ever-changing instantaneous selves. Narcissus is a far more accurate portrait of consciousness than most conscious entities care to think. You see, it’s not Narcissus himself he was in love with; it was the reflection that loved the reflection — but the reflection changes from instant to instant, and so the moment only loves itself….



            1. I think this is way way too much to explain what happens to the guy dropping the ball.

              It’s why I like Weinstein’s point about the pendulum – we’re focused on the pendulum, not simultaneously the cars on the street and the black hole out yonder from billions of years ago. The pendulum – or human beings and their free will – which is the free will we are interested in, not of inanimate objects – is more than enough to work on….

              1. And yet we know from physics that the same forces that act on the pendulum — overwhelmingly electromagnetism (a tiny little hook is all that’s needed to overcome the gravitational force of the entire Earth), a bit of gravity, and academic courtesy nods to nuclear and other esoteric forces — are the exact same ones that act on humans. We are more complicated, to be sure, but there’s nothing going on inside us that’s fundamentally different from what’s going on inside everything else within our Big-Bang-limited horizon.


            2. I apologize

              “And yet you are of no more consequence nor significance than the ball”

              We are using different senses of “consequence”

              I am using it as a way to say the ball coming to rest on the ground means the person goes on their way.

              You are using it in, and let me know if this is wrong or unfair, a “life, the universe, and everything” sense – a perfectly good sense, but not the same.

        2. Ben,

          The salient difference between me and a ball (in this conversation) is that I am a being capable of having feelings, deires, the ability to suffer or experience joy, have goals, and I can use reason to come to probabilities about the results of actions, and reason towards making choices.

          A ball can’t do that.

          If a ball is outside on the lawn and it starts raining, a ball doesn’t have a “choice” whether to remain in the rain or move inside.

          I do.

          Humans are certainly more complicated than balls, but it is a difference of degree, not of type.

          No, it’s of type.

          If there is EVER a difference of type, the difference between non-sentient, non-biological objects and biological objects with complex experiences, ranges of actions, and reason…then this is such a difference of type.

          If that’s not a difference of type, then you may as well say there is never a difference of type because it’s all physics no matter what you point to. But then, that would undermine the very distinction you are appealing to when writing of “differences of type and degree.”

          You are trying to essentially make invisible everything that actually matters in terms of what makes us different from inanimate, non-sentient objects. That’s really not a convincing strategy.

          1. Your argument for the overwhelming significance of emotions and other thought patterns is simply an appeal to the unique specialness of humans — which is something science disproves time and time again.

            We know full well that there’s no magical mind force, no spirit, no soul, that animates us — and yet you just made the textbook argument for its existence.

            Are emotions one of the aggregate forces that push us this way and that? Sure, but so, too, do complex wave patterns move kelp in the ocean — and high-speed air pressure waves are an overwhelming factor in what makes your car’s engine propel you down the freeway.

            Further, those who take the time to closely examine their emotions typically discover that they’re simply thoughts — and rarely well-formed ones at that. Those who mindlessly let themselves be defined and ruled by their emotions are unsteady, chaotic, and rarely very happy.

            You’re not that special. Really and truly. I know you feel like you are, but you’re not. You know how the two lines look like they’re different lengths but they really aren’t? Same thing.

            The characteristic you keep focussing on — essentially, that you can think to yourself, “I’m thinking to myself,” is dominant in shaping your personal experience of existence, but it’s got far less explanatory power for your actions than you clearly imagine.



            1. We know full well that there’s no magical mind force, no spirit, no soul, that animates us — and yet you just made the textbook argument for its existence.

              Ben, you know very well I argue for no such thing, and nothing I wrote entailed magic.

              The argument you are giving departs so much from normal reasoning it’s literally irrational. Your argument against free will leads you to eradicate the very idea of anything being different in the world! That’s how far you are willing to go off the deep end.

              Of course everything is physics and insofar as it we consider physics deterministic, it’s all determined.

              Of course everything is made of the same basic physical atoms.

              But does that mean there is NO DIFFERENCE of any relevance between a rocket ship and a skate board? Between a whale and a flower? Between a child and a rock?

              Of course not.

              Say you noted someone building a fire with stacked wood, and then saw with horror they were about to toss a child into the fire. You run up and stop them, demanding what the hell they are thinking. The person responds “What’s the problem? A piece of wood or a child? They are all JUST REALLY DETERMINED SETS OF ATOMS. THEREFORE, there’s nothing special, or importantly different about a human being.”

              You would rightly recognize this as madness.
              This is literally mental blindness: not being able to recognize real, pertinent differences in macro physical entities in the world, in order to navigate the world.

              And yet, this is exactly the line of reasoning you send my way, when I point to relevant differences between a human and a rock.

              Ben, you don’t need to appeal to “magic” to be able to recognize and describe important differences between a child and a rock or stick, right?

              1. Of course they’re all different.

                But that doesn’t mean that those differences include the “Free Will” magic sauce you’re claiming is the most important difference.

                Replace your “Free Will” with a Christian soul, and you wouldn’t blink an eye at a Christian making it — and it would be equally valid.

                So if you’re not convinced by the argument when it’s made in favor of souls, why should you be convinced when it’s in favor of “Free Will”?


              2. European scientific adults do not speak of “free will” in the dualistic sense implied by “soul”.

                This may be a real problem in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, the United Stetes, Armenia or some other nation like that 🙂

              3. Ben,

                Can you please read what someone else is saying, instead of changing it into a total strawman?

                Don’t you want to actually address someone’s real argument, instead of one you imagine he is making?


                Nowhere did I even imply “magic sauce” or anything non-physical. That is completely your imagination at work.

                I’ve been explicit about exactly what I was talking about: the very same differences between a human and a rock that even YOU would acknowledge as relevant differences. In fact, you couldn’t get through a day without understanding the relevance.

                If there was a rock sitting on your driveway that you didn’t want there, you wouldn’t walk up to it and try to “reason” with it to move.
                It doesn’t have ANY of the features necessary for communication, understanding, reasoning, decision-making, taking actions etc. It lacks EVERYTHING relevant in that way.

                But if it were your neighbor sitting in his car that he’d parked in your driveway, and you needed your car in the driveway, you WOULD approach a human as something you can reason with. Because a human has all the relevant qualities that a rock doesn’t have.

                It’s not just a difference in “degree” as you earlier implied. It’s a difference in “type.” Rocks are simply not the type of things you can reason with. Or that can decide not to be in your driveway, vs deciding to be in your driveway.

                As I said, if there is ANYTHING in the world that we can separate between types vs degrees, then the differences between the nature of biological, conscious, reasoning human beings and non-sentient rocks are it.

                If that’s not good enough a representation between two different “types” of things, then I can’t imagine what would suffice, and your argument against compatibilist free will comes at the crazy expense of removing from consideration all relevant differences in the world.

              4. This discussion seems to have gone haywire – and I don’t think it’s Vaal.

                It was fun for a while though, thanks.

              5. Vaal, you can’t have your Kate and Edith, too.

                Either humans are part of the natural world ore we aren’t.

                If we are, then the same forces that motivate everything else also motivate us. “Free Will” isn’t ever necessary nor helpful in describing any other phenomenon, including other large-brained mammals; indeed, everything in physics unequivocally and absolutely rejects even the hypothetical possibility of anything remotely like it.

                But if “Free Will” is what makes your neighbor in his driveway different from the rock in his driveway, then that’s something that’s not part of the rest of the natural world; it’s supernatural.

                No small part of your objection comes from at least an implicit belief that the future is mutable, and that we can — at least in part — control our destinies. Nothing could be further from the truth. The future is unpredictable, but it is every bit as immutable as the past.

                Yet, while, at the same time as the entropic arrow of time permits us to remember the past but not the future, the low entropy of our current state permits us to observe patterns in the past and, from them, extrapolate the future evolution of currently-extant similar patterns.

                The subjective perception of that flow of entropy is that you can choose between the chocolate or the vanilla, but the brute fact of reality is that you will have the one or the other, just as surely as you actually did have the one or the other the last time you were confronted with the choice. After all, at some point in the future, you will have picked the one or the other, and, at that time, it will be obvious how that fact is immutable.

                When you accept that you can no more rewrite the future than you can rewrite the past, then you will come to understand the full incoherence of “Free Will,” and also gain a better perspective on how you fit into the Cosmos.

                (Incidentally, one can make an argument in favor of “Free Will” that it’s a rough approximation of a superficial analysis of human behavior — much in the same way as Aristotelian Metaphysics, including the coffee cup that only moves across the table when you push on it, is rather like how we observe the world. But the analogy holds well: engineers use Newton, not Aristotle…and mental health professionals use CBT and the like rather than spiritual theology and other forms of woo that rest on “Free Will.”)



              6. Many of us know that everything happens because of chance and necessity. You don’t seem to believe in chance. Quantum indeterminacy, anyone?

                I’m curious about what made you decide, choose or whatever, to offer these arguments?

              7. Ben Goren,
                by the same reasoning that you use to argue that humans are no different, fundamentally, from rocks (i.e. just configurations of physical properties) would you also argue that your position (which you think of as ‘right’) is fundamentally no different from Vaal’s, which you perceive to be in error? It would seem to follow that you do hold that view, and if so, why even bother to expend time and energy on such a moot argument?

              8. Actually Ben, you’ve got it exactly inverted. The future is very mutable, and to a lesser extent, so is the past. It’s just that the past events that depend on the present – via the Charge/Parity/Time-reversible laws – are only microscopic. So we don’t know, and don’t care about them. So it *seems* to us that the past is immutable. But that’s an over-generalization. Valid enough in the realm of human experience, but not perfectly valid.

                The past isn’t fixed. It’s broken – but only with microscopic cracks. The future, on the other hand, is busted wide open. There’s your entropic asymmetry, because in the future, macroscopic events do depend on what people are doing now. Which is why wise human beings choose their actions carefully.

              9. What are these “microscopic cracks” you speak of? Can you point to any hard, physical evidence for them? They appear to me to violate the default assumptions of physical determinism.

      2. The pendulum I used … I dunno, let’s see … because it shows how a well-understood object can operate according to well-understood laws, yet we cannot predict the outcomes.Now, if that’s true, what are the chances an object (a person) that operates on the basis even more laws, some less well understood than others, can choose anything they want and follow it completely through to an expected outcome?

        ^^^^thats the part with probability in it, and I don’t think probability is the centerpiece of that argument.

        The “independently” argument : I was sitting in the car thinking this – I said to myself, “OK, so look – what’s stopping you from going over there and taking a picture of those interesting shadows?”

        I really could up and do it. But there were other people around me, with different expectations of what I would do, and my role/responsibilities in this small scene. I was in a very complex web, each part dependent on the other, including myself – I AM the traffic too.

        Would a different person go get that cool pic? The right one, yes – who’d shirk their responsibilities,… but then how would such a person come to have those responsibilities in the first place?

        And so on…

        I think free will discussions can also tend to be self-indulgent, as my bit ^^^^ by necessity (?) is, maybe that’s a red flag for proper prickly p-p-p-professors…

        It’s still fun, easy to evaluate in by experiment…

        1. UPDATE

          was in the same scenario today

          I TOOK that picture!

          Would I have done otherwise, had I not been discussing the F words here? Doubt it.

          I want to say I was using my radical freedom, I think the philosophers say…

      3. …. i think in addition some things are more predictable than others

        So yeah, a ball, predictable.

        Getting a ticket (a civil violation, a speeding ticket..), not really. But all the elements were there – the truck, the coffee, the road, the cop – I called this a chain reaction a few weeks ago here, my big model system which is mine to study the absence of free will. It’s mine, I made it up. By me.

        1. Prediction is only possible because we live in close (relatively speaking) proximity to a dominating condition of overwhelmingly low entropy — namely, the Big Bang.

          In physics, there is no such thing as “up” nor “down.” Yet, here on Earth, there is — “down” is the direction of the vector of the local gravitational field, pointing (within rounding) straight to the geometric center of the planet.

          There’s also no difference in physics between forwards and backwards in time.

          What there is is the fact that — to use an example — there’re many more states of a collection of wet hydrocarbons that resemble “broken egg” than “whole egg.” Which means that, if you have something that looks like a broken egg, you can be much more confident that it’s the result of an whole egg being broken as opposed to a soon-to-be whole egg about to spontaneously assemble itself.

          It also means that, if you have an whole egg, you can reasonably predict that, before too long, it will take on one of the many forms that we describe as a broken egg.

          But can we get more specific? Which of those many broken-egg forms will it take, and when?

          That’s a much more difficult conundrum, of course — though, to be sure, ever-increasing entropy is still low enough that you can make some very reasonable predictions in many circumstances. This one will become an omelette, this one a chick, and this one will be eaten by a fox.

          A sufficiently close examination, though, will reveal that reality is simply unfolding, and it is what it is. That there are patterns (that there is low entropy) lets us create maps that are “close enough” approximations, but they’re only maps, not the territory — and, of course, they’re also part of the territory and simply are what they are.

          99 44/100% of the pro-Free-Will argument, along with 100% of pro-religion arguments, boil down to mistraking our maps with reality, of assuming that there really is some sort of Platonic ideal egg…when, in reality, there simply happens to be a statistically significant count of assemblages of wet hydrocarbons that our minds associate with our own map-marker that we label, “egg.” To our minds, all eggs are the same — even as they’re so clearly all different. Hell, it’s even obvious that the “same” egg is different from moment to moment, yet we still pretend it’s somehow eternal. It’s often supremely useful to assume such perfection…but religion is, in no small part, the assertion that all eggs really are eternally the same, in some sort of idealized sense.



  68. They avoid talking about it – ultimately – because they have no choice to do otherwise. That’s what no free will means.

  69. Seems to me that an admission that most of the science does seem to point to climate change caused by industrialization should be good enough. Absolute “belief” should not be required. That’s more religion than science. Also should not be required for people to sign onto future projections of climate based on models. Long term projections are notoriously unreliable.

  70. I’ve got a free will question.
    What about doing something for the sake of doing something? I am not talking about doing something because you enjoy the type of activity, but because you enjoy doing. We all have a desire for sex, for food, for love, for fairness which we satisfy with certain activities. Could we not also have a desire for agency? If one could prove that we take pleasure in doing something simply because we want to do anything, would that not mean that there is free will after all? That desire could exist in both a probabilistic and a deterministic universe (it would be a cause by itself), it would also explain why we feel like we could have done differently. Opinions?

    1. What difference does it make?

      THERES an infinite regress of how the neurons are ending up in a state that produce the actions you describe.

      All caps again – not me.

  71. It makes a bit of a difference. Let’s say in a scenario, I’ve got three choices: A, B, C. Granted my life history, my desires, culture, etc, have given me certain preferences, I’ve created certain habits. Some habits more fixed than others. Obviously, these preferences and needs will be pulling me in a certain direction. However, if there is a part of me, represented by a group of neurons, that just wants to make decisions and act on them, and at any given moment would be equally satisfied by me acting on either A, B, or C, it would mean that indeed I have a free will. Consider the irony, my free will is not the freedom to act independently of all my desires, since action is a desire in itself. I am however free to act independently of all the other ones.
    Now, going by the countless stories of people who end up with a mid-life crisis, because they feel they’ve lost touch with themselves, I’d say, it’s possible.

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