My podcast on free will at Left at the Valley

July 16, 2018 • 8:45 am

Left at the Valley is an atheist/science/politics podcast emanating from the Fraser Valley of Western Canada. I’ve been on it once before, talking about evolution, but this time they wanted to discuss free will. Before you get all het up and ready to pound the keys, I defined the kind of free will I’m discussing here as the kind most commonly held: dualistic I-could-have-done-otherwise free will. There’s very little talk of compatibilism, as the three hosts (Kevin, Nancy, and Kristina) wanted to talk about the dualistic kind and its significance.

Click on the screenshot to hear the whole podcast; my part begins at about 45:18:


31 thoughts on “My podcast on free will at Left at the Valley

  1. The WSOP finished up last night in a marathon ten hour session. many, many decisions were made, many of which seem very logically that could have been done differently. At one point a player at the end of a hand clearly had a losing hand. All of the expert commentators said he had no choice but to fold his hand and move on to the next hand. They felt that a player of his caliber knew that he could not win in a show down, so he had to fold. So, he went “all in,” betting all of his remaining chips and his chance to come in first. The other player folded, even though he could have called and had he lost, he would still have been in the game. (The commentators were shocked and astonished by the move.)

    What was the deterministic cause of this decision, that could not have been made any other way by this player?

    1. Sorry, you’re not serious in asking me what laws of physics and past circumstances applied here, right?

      Are you a dualist, then, suggesting that at any one time a player could have done more than one thing?

  2. There is not enough information known about determinism and perception of choice to apply arguments about free will and determinism to the legal system. This is an interesting podcast.

    1. Well, we need to GET that information through empirical studies. What, for example, is a good way of “reformation” that will ensure that a criminal doesn’t reoffend?

      And we already know data suggesting that the death penalty is not a deterrent, and in the US is more expensive, because of legal challenges, than life without parole.

      I suggest that we already know enough, from the example of low-recidivism countries like Norway, to start implementing changes in the US justice system. Or do you think we should do nothing in light of determinism. We know already that people couldn’t have chosen otherwise. Is that not enough information to start making changes?

  3. We know enough from low-recidivism countries like Norway, but not from determinism and the erroneous perception of choice. We can use Norway as an example in changing the legal system. Using the argument of determinism and couldn’t have done otherwise seems like it’s making it more complicated than it needs to be. Even if there are no questions about determinism (i.e. indeterministic interpretation of quantum mechanics), people feel like they have the ability to make choices. That is not irrelevant. It’s a complicated debate that I don’t think needs to be used to reform the legal system. Maybe I am missing something and am off base. I just seem to disagree on this one point even though I’d say I’m a determinist who doesn’t have free will. It’s too abstract to use it to bring about criminal justice reform.

    1. Too abstract? It’s simple: people could not have chosen to do otherwise, and we need to take that into account when we decide how to “punish” them. The implications are clear: reform people, remove them from society, and use punishment as a deterrent, but do not engage in retributive punishment. That view comes directly from determinism but is arrived at far more tortuously by other philosophies. I’m sorry, but the law ALREADY uses determinism as a big factor in punishment: if you’re deemed to have been unable to make a choice, your punishment is mitigated, as I say in the podcast. Why do people find it so hard to apply exactly the same principle to crimes where the determinism is less evident?

      1. If you are going to make the case that we should change the way we punish people based on determinism and the fact that people could not have chosen to do otherwise, then how can you, at the same time, suggest that we use punishment as a deterrent? It’s like you are saying that people couldn’t have done otherwise, but using punishment as a deterrent will be effective in not making them do otherwise the next time. That does not make sense to me. Yes. If you have brain damage and break the law, the punishment is sometimes mitigated. I see the point there. Going from that to what you are saying is exactly where I find it abstract. I believe the principle that you are referring to, if I’m not mistaken, is having responsibility for one’s actions. Someone’s brain being damaged to the point where actions and consequences are affected can be measured. You are looking to take the laws of physics, with which I agree, and say that, without a doubt, the person with the healthy brain also could not have done otherwise. There is also, in the healthy brain case, no principle of having responsibility that is a factor. That is simply not the case. It is more complicated than that. People with no brain damage, for example, were generally taught different things about actions and consequences through family and society. They are aware that if they do something wrong, for example, that there will be consequences. It is my understanding that you are saying that what a person is taught and what they understand in terms of actions and consequences has no relevance in light of the laws of physics. I think it does. I also think that using determinism to argue for punishments that are not retributive but are deterrent, is contradictory. It doesn’t work to say that we couldn’t have done otherwise and then introduce a method intended to change a person’s actions. It makes sense to make the case for punishment as a deterrent instead of retributive punishment. Using determinism for this, though, makes it complicated. The complication is that we do understand our actions and consequences. To me, it seems like you are arguing for the laws of physics to override that fact. They might do that, but they don’t just wash away all of the details of our perception.

        1. The big flaw in your argument, which invalidates it completely, is your assumption that influencing people by example cannot work if determinism is true. That’s just wrong. If you kick a dog every time it comes around you, it will eventually learn to avoid you. That’s a deterrent, and it obeys the laws of physics. Same thing with showing people what happens to them if they behave in a certain way.

          1. I don’t think I am assuming that. If I understand correctly, you are saying that because someone couldn’t have done otherwise, we should reform the way we handle the people who couldn’t have done otherwise. You are using the laws of physics to say that a person could not have done otherwise (which is true). Where are the laws of physics when the person actually does otherwise after the deterrent? They are still there, but the deterrent still had a hand in the outcome. You have the laws of physics taking away responsibility first, and the laws of physics still there but allowing for the person to do otherwise second. The laws of physics are the same in both cases, but you are skipping over the fact that there is a problem with saying that due to the laws of physics, after the deterrent, the person still couldn’t have done otherwise even if they decided, due to the deterrent, not to commit the same crime.

            1. I agree. I think if we allow determinism to sweep away free will, it sweeps away all of society and human behavior. We’re all just robots observing what we are forced to do by determinism. Maybe we are but we better keep making choices as if we had free will.

  4. I love this topic, and I agree with you and Sam Harris regarding determinism and its implications. It seems to me that compatibilists like Dennett are just playing with definitions to suit their fancy.

    Thank you for taking into account the effects of quantum mechanics in your discussion! As a physicist, I always feel a little uncomfortable when people use the “rewind-the-universe-and-play-it-over-again” thought experiment but neglect the randomizing effects of quantum mechanics. As you say, even if a system is reset to the exact same initial state, it will evolve differently every time; but randomness doesn’t equal the power to choose, so it doesn’t affect the argument against free will.

    (According to the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics, which I think Sean Carroll espouses, EVERY possible outcome occurs, but in disjoint parallel universes. If that’s what really happens, then there’s no randomness — apart from the roll of the dice that determines *which* of the parallel universes you find yourself in.)

    With these things in mind, I find myself musing on the following analogy:

    In geometry, you can create a limited category of figures with a straight edge alone, and a limited category of figures with a compass alone. But when you combine a compass with a straight edge, they become a “basis” for a whole new realm of figures — one that transcends the two categories that were previously accessible. Similarly, when you combine the real number line and the imaginary number line, you get a basis that gives you access to a whole new dimension of complex numbers that cannot be found on either the real number line or the imaginary number line alone. I wonder whether it’s the “basis” formed by combining quantum randomness with classical determinism that gives rise to emergent, transcendent phenomena such as consciousness, qualia, and the illusion of free will.

      1. I think that since we have no knowledge or control over which of the parallel universes we’re in, things are still effectively random from our POV. If, however, we were able to extract information from other branches or obtain a “god’s eye view,” the security of such systems would break down. Not really sure, though; this is not my area of expertise.

  5. We have way more than enough information to start making changes in our education system and in our legal system. The whole system should be based not on the idea of punishment but on what we used to call rehabilitation. The idea is to expose criminals and children to new information and choices that they had not been exposed to before so their future choices whether free will or not will be different than those choices and options before. Think of computers – crap in – crap out. If the person makes poor choices it is because he did not see the better options based on what his past experiences lead him to believe were the possible outcomes.

    As to the poker question the winner probably realized at some level that his opponent was not enough of a risk taker to call. The loser calculated that based on his past experience his options were better to gold and the winner had convinced his by his behavior that he was s man who did not bluff. That is the key in poker to fool you opponent into honking you tend to play one way and then bushwhack him with a play against the shown tendencies.

      1. All good ideas without bringing determinism into it. Even if you find the determinism argument motivating personally, surely you recognize that the many US citizens that agree with you do not do so because of a belief in determinism. Assuming you agree, what do you think motivates their desire to reform the system?

  6. Dear Dr. Coyne,

    I would like to hear your podcast on Free Will, but it wants me to sign in with Facebook, Twitter or Google. I do not useany of those platforms. Is thee another way I could be able to listen to it?

    All the Best,

    Joe Hahn


    1. I clicked but wasn’t asked to sign in. Anyway, I always use a podcast app on my phone and this can be quite practical–no sign-ins, ads, etc. Podcast Addict is good for Android and free, but there are many others.

    2. I can listen to the podcast on the webpage if I unblock some subdomains from and some from in the uMatrix web extension for my Firefox webbrowser. I’m only asked to login if I click on the download button.

      Although I would prefer to download the podcast for my mp3 player I use while doing sports without having to sign up at, I’m content with what I get without an account via the web interface.

          1. Sorry for the big embedding. I used the anchor tag from Da Rools! #16, but apparently it still expands to a full embedded video if the LinkText also is the video’s URL. 🙁

  7. “We already know that people could not have voted otherwise. Is that not enough information to make changes?”

    There is enough information, but are people willing to accept it, are these truths welcome?
    Not necessarily: What should not be underestimated is that the acceptance of the lack of free will does not only mean that the idea of a maliciousness of the criminal is made to disappear (just as one no longer regards animals as malicious as in earlier times), but it also means that the feelings of self-esteem, of self-elevation, of superiority, no longer have a place; if one could not act otherwise, then there is no more room for pride and all these virtuous self-imputations.

    There is something at stake, concerning the self-image, which is gnawed on by the acceptance of the lack of free will and this effect might be an essential reason why there is such resistance (also among many physicists) to deal further with the implications for the penal system and society.

  8. Indeed, Jerry laid out his definition of free will in contrast to determinism, and none of the hosts challenged it. None of them noticed that in addition to laws of physics, you also need boundary conditions, before you can draw any conclusions about what will happen. Boundary conditions like the person who acts, for example. Probably none of the hosts are physicists or engineers. Nor did they object to the prioritization of some boundary conditions, like genes and early environment, over others, like a person as they are now. But such a prioritization has no basis in fundamental physics (see Sean Carroll, From Eternity to Here, chapter 7).

    Once you give up dualism, a person can no longer be an immaterial substance – she has to be a physical being. But then at that point, you should give up thinking that if some physical factor like a group of neurons triggers an action, that somehow means the person didn’t decide it. The real trouble is that people find it much easier to say they’ve given up dualism, than to let that sink to bone depth.

    By the way: if you stimulate the right neurons, you can make a person see red in a blue environment, or, well, anything. All thoughts are neurally based and messing with neurons can yield any false thought whatsoever. But this does nothing to show that such thoughts aren’t typically accurate in a normal context.

  9. Hi Jerry,

    Loved the podcast episode! I keep ruminating about the idea of free-will ever since I heard Sam Harris’ talk on youtube and your INR5 talk about the Libet experiments. It still boggles my mind.

    Apart from the slim volume by Sam, are there any good books about the societal and personal implications of lack of free will? Robert Sapolsky touched upon it briefly in ‘Behave’, would love to have more recommendations – books/articles.
    This is a fascinating topic, and IMHO, way more convoluted than creationism or atheism.

  10. If you could give a person Libertarian Free Will, it would only make a small difference in outcomes.

    They would still make the same choices. However, when you asked them about it afterwards, they could now say “I could have done otherwise.”

    With LFW a person still wouldn’t actually do otherwise; they would just be able to say they could have. They are bound to be themselves in either case.

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