Determinism doesn’t mean that you can’t change your behavior, or help others to

January 6, 2019 • 10:45 am

I’m a free-will “incompatibilist”: someone who sees the existence of physical determinism as dispelling the idea of contracausal, you-could-have-done-otherwise “free will”, which is the notion of free will most common among people. Many people find my view disturbing and fatalistic, and I’m often posed this question: “If everything is determined by the laws of physics mediated through our neurobiology, what’s the point of trying to change somebody’s mind?”

My response is that no, we can’t choose (via contracausal free will) whether we want to change someone’s mind, nor can they freely choose (in the same sense) whether to change it. But human brains are wired by both evolution and experience in a way that alters people’s behaviors when (in general) they would benefit from those changes. So, for example, if you learn that treating people in a certain way makes them treat you better back, your brain circuits for “better treatment” might be activated, and you might begin treating folks better.  And if you see someone treating others badly, your circuits to give them that advice might be activated. You might then advise them, and their own brain circuits may “take” that advice.

None of this is incompatible with determinism. People learn, often in a way that helps them get along better with others, perform better on the job or other aspects of life, and so on. The possibility of such changes might have been produced by evolution since such malleability might correlate with your status and well-being, which in turn might have been connected with your reproductive success. Or, on the cultural side, we avoid pain and seek pleasure, and our brains are capable of taking in advice or experience that would increase our well being and decrease ill being.

Likewise, advice from someone else can act as an environmental stimulus that activates brain circuits that alter behavior. Again, we have no free choice about whether to render advice to others, but that doesn’t mean that the advice can’t effect changes.

Pacific Standard has an interview with Stanford biologist and writer Robert Sapolsky, the author of the acclaimed book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. (Click on screenshot below for the interview.) Sapolsky discusses a lot of things about tribalism, but I’ll reproduce two exchanges about free will. (Sapolsky’s writing have shown him to be, like me, an incompatibilist who thinks that the notion of “you-can-do-otherwise” free will is an illusion.)

Here he expresses the difficulty in explaining to others why determinism doesn’t entail fatalism. Perhaps his answer is better or clearer than mine, and here it is:

TJ [Tom Jacobs]: You write that you don’t really believe in free will, but we nevertheless have an obligation to try to understand our behavior and make things better. Isn’t that something of a contradiction?

RS [Sapolsky]: I’m realizing how incredibly hard it is to articulate how an absence of free will is compatible with change.

Gaining new knowledge, having new experiences, being inspired by someone’s example—these are biological phenomena. They leave biological traces.

There are all sorts of neuro-pathways that analyze the world in terms of cause and effect. The knowledge that one person—or a bunch of high school students—really can make a difference can be inspiring. That means certain pathways have been facilitated, and, as a result of that, certain behaviors become more likely. Pathways to efficacy can also be weakened if you find out you have no control in a certain domain. Learning to be helpless is also biological.

TJ: So the fact free will is largely illusory does not mean the way we react to the world is static and unchanging.

RS: Absolutely not. There’s a vast difference between a biologically determined universe and fatalism.

h/t: Tom

211 thoughts on “Determinism doesn’t mean that you can’t change your behavior, or help others to

  1. I still think that radical physical determinism is absolutely not necessary to refute contra-causal free will. Why should it? Causality is fully sufficient to do so. And causality itself would be a completely meaningless concept in a block-universe of complete deterministic structure.

    1. By “radical physical determinism” do you mean of the <a href="; variety? If so, I don’t hear many people making that argument these days. I think there are theoretical refutations of it stemming from the stochastic processes introduced by, inter alia, quantum indeterminacy and chaos theory. But, as I think you’re agreeing, those processes create no mechanism for contra-causal free will.

    2. Way late on this comment but I’m going back through pertinent posts trying to straighten my thinking out. Seem like a lot of curvy thinking is going on. SORRY IT’S SO LONG!

      For example: “causality” would be a meaningless concept For Who? A person outside the “block-universe” and watching it could have a very meaningful concept of cause and use that universe to show, demonstrate it: “Its just a bunch of bumping around.”

      But a block inside the block universe cannot have an idea of causation because they don’t have the internal complexity to have any “ideas”.

      So, if you mean that in a universe that only has physical causes in it and physical things then —- there are no things and causes that are not physical things and causes. That is absolutely true, and by definition.

      And your point is not a meaningless or trivial one.
      The above biologists are jumping from one category of terms to others illicitly.

      Sapolsky: “having new experiences,being inspired by someone’s example— these are biological phenomena. They leave biological traces.” “Inspiration”, since when is that biology? Only persons “get inspired”, that is an interpersonal term and how that leaves “a biological trace” is hard to say. That is jumping categories in a difficult manner. Having “a mew experience” is only slightly less problematic.

      Coyne: “advice from someone else can act as an environmental stimulus that activates brain circuits that alter behavior.”
      Advise from someone is “an environmental stimulus” only at the lowest level. You could be equating it here with an electric shock or a pellet of food. You have drained all the linguistic content out of it! The advise had Meaning, primarily, at a sociological, psychological and personal level and how that “leaves a biological trace” is hard to say. That it allows them to reproduce more? Once again, that is a very minimal, very ‘distant’ implication. Its like saying the real goal for me in having this discussion is so that I can pass on more of my genes. If that’s my goal i’m really taking a round about way to get there!

      Sorry to have been so long, but no one is going to read it — probably — but me.
      I think my point has merit, there is a lot of category or level jumping going on and that is hard to make good sense out of. “Reductionism” is true, but the devil is in the details.

  2. Between what Professor Coyne wrote and what Sapolsky wrote this is one of the clearest examples of explaining how “free will” doesn’t exist but changes can happen by even the slightest of changes in input stimuli.

    That can even be extended to “changing your own mind”. If your genetic makeup makes you want to investigate a subject, and then you find something that you previously didn’t know, then that information allows you to “change your own mind”. This is still deterministic and you could not have done otherwise.

    1. What this does is highlight the flaw in the incompatibilist position. It stridently defines Free Will in a way that has no connection to our lives, but then makes a big deal out of it not existing. When pushed, it turns out that in practice not having “Free Will” is exactly the same as having it.

      1. Stridently? This is a rhetorical device, trying to undermine an opponent’s point of view as strident.

        Dr Coyne has pointed out numerous times what he and most others have meant by free will. Clearly and succinctly.

        Compatibilists recognize they cannot do otherwise yet define free will in a way that is does not address the issue of not being able to doing otherwise

      2. Sorry, but polls have shown that “you-could-have-done otherwise” free will is by far the public’s most common notion of what free will really means. I’ve posted about the studies before.

        People think they could have done otherwise so your claim that that form of free will has “no connection to our lives” is incorrect.

        And there is a difference between having and not having contracausal free will. The judicial system is one example. They give people easier sentence if they think they couldn’t have done otherwise, e.g., if they’re “mentally ill”. But NOBODY could have done otherwise, so one’s idea of the presence of contracausal free will makes a huge difference in how one conceives of the justice system. Most justice is dispensed under the assumption that the criminal could have done otherwise.

        1. I think there’s a lot to unpack in “you could have done otherwise”. If you ask the question in your poll as “If you repeated your decision-making process with absolutely no changes at all to your brain’s input, could you have done otherwise?” then they would answer “no”. We can’t repeat the decision “experiment” in real life without something changing. We can only do that in a thought experiment that is outside the realm of everyday thought. This is not what people are imagining when asked this question. In fact, when we talk of making a decision differently, it is ALWAYS with the assumption of something changing in our input or time having passed. It is simply a false poll.

  3. I just got a coffee mug that says, “I can explain it to you, but I can’t understand it for you”. I get that feeling from time to time when I’m trying to explain something to someone.

    (And I also got a coffee mug that says, “Good without God, and better with coffee”. I’m going to suggest that the people amend that nifty slogan to “Good without God, and better with coffee, and best with chocolate.”)

    1. I like both of those sayings but especially the “I can explain it to you, but I can’t understand it for you”.

  4. Great summary, Professor. Such a thorny subject that attracts misconceptions needs terse, clear explanations like this.

  5. Thats it, then? We have all the appearance of free will but it’s really nothing more than re-jiggered neurobiochemistry.

    I’m happy with the illusion.

  6. Does this mean we can get this guy off of that wall thing? I know, you first have to penetrate the person’s mind before any change is possible. Forget it.

  7. Of course you’re right, all our actions are the result of neuronal firings and the like. And obviously things like advice, fear, love, punishment, etc. influences that.
    Yet, there is this strong illusion of choice, and there are many layers between neuronal firing on the one hand and thoughts and actions on the other, I’d think.
    I’m not a compatibilist, but for ‘house and garden’ use, I still find some ‘free will’ somehow a useful concept. Especially since I have some young children. 🙂

    1. I’m not a compatibilist, but for ‘house and garden’ use, I still find some ‘free will’ somehow a useful concept.

      Then you likely are a compatibilist! Just adopt a compatibilist concept of “free will” (which is fully consistent with determinism).

      1. I don’t like this compatibilist/incompatibilist dichotomy for free will. I believe the two sides are often working with a different definition of “free will” making it meaningless to talk about its compatibility with determinism. Even if everything is determined, we can still use the “free will” term and concept. It just describes our decision-making process. Every decision we make is a process that can never be repeated without something changing. It is therefore useless to speak of being able to do otherwise. Once a decision has been made, it is gone, done with. To think of making a decision differently while holding everything else constant, is an artificial thought experiment and not reality.

  8. Well yes, a deterministic system can in a sense learn. It can in a sense be responsive. even a falling rock can be pushed by the wind. An adaptive chess-playing program is just a more complex version of this.

    But dude a movie no matter how complex the interplay of characters is still locked in. If a character tries to change the mind of another character that fact is predetermined. And their success or failure is also predetermined. And if you are fatalistic about that then that is also predetermined. It’s an illusion. Any sense of agency at all is an illusion. Arguing about it is as pointless as watching a rerun. But you will anyway because that is how the script was written. There is no “ought”. There is only the one thing that will be.

    You are put off by the incoherence of the compatablists. I totally agree. But you have your own brand of incoherence going on here.

    I feel as if I have free will. I have little choice but to act as if I have free will. But if determinism is true then that sense of agency is an illusion. If the fictional characters in a movie experience a sense of agency then that sense of agency does not give them the power to change the ending of the movie. In a deterministic world, I have no more power to change the ending than the characters in a movie.

    The wild card in this is “feeling”. What sense does it make to say a character has feeling? Yet it is that feeling that drives our sense of agency and that sense of agency drives all our incoherent reasoning about free will and consciousness.

    1. I actually agree that I have never understood the difference between hard determinism and fatalism, other than perhaps determinism involving some instances of quantum randomness (if that exists) thrown in. Maybe ‘fatalism’ subtly implies people being *forced to do something by outside forces, but if not, then yes, presumably if one was omniscient then at the moment of the Big Bang determinism means our every choice was already written in stone, in a sense (unless, again, you get into some incomprehensible quantum stuff, at which point will isn’t ‘free’, exactly, but it’s not predictable either. Observer effect and randomness and all that.)

      Regarding volitional vs. non-volitional actions, I think this is an important question, but when carefully examined, still does not tie in directly to whether or not one’s will is ‘free’. It might relate to whether one’s will could be considered one’s own – how ‘real’ of a concept agency and selfhood are – but ownership and freedom are subtly different topics. Even if we found some unique emergent pattern, property, even substance (if you want to get really sci-fi) that constitutes an individual agent, self, soul, whatever – that ‘self’ would still not be self-created, or something that chose to exist and to want whatever it wants. It sprung into existence based on other factors and causes that came before.

      1. Compatibilism does not answer any question that we did not already know the answer to. Adaptive algorithmic systems exist.

        The theoretical consideration of mechanical methods to play chess goes back over two hundred years. The natural question that this created was – is there anything special about human agency or is the mind just a complex set of algorithms?

        The free will people said “Yes human will is special. We have free will”.

        The determinists said “No. All there is is cause and effect. We are complex algorithms.”

        The compatibilists say “No. All there is is cause and effect. We are complex algorithms. But let’s call it free will anyway.”

        So compatibilists are just determinists who screw with language and pretend that it is a deep philosophical insight. But in trying to split the baby this way you just end up with the determinist view plus a dead baby.

        It all appears to be essentially a political effort to make lack of agency more palatable.

        Watch this video for example:

        Note that Dennett isn’t saying that your behavior is not predetermined. He is only saying that you should not tell people that because it might cause them to do bad things.

        This is identical to a person saying you should not tell people there is no god because it might make them do bad things.

        Well first the truth is the truth and you should not try to hide it behind perverted language.

        And second, you can live well without believing in either god or free will. You may have no choice in the matter.

        1. So compatibilists are just determinists who screw with language and pretend that it is a deep philosophical insight.

          Or, rather, the compatibilists decide to interpret the language in terms of the only sorts of “will” and “freedom” that actually exist — which seems pretty pragmatic and sensible to me.

          Afterall, the difference between wearing a hijab “of her own free will” and wearing a hijab because the morality police will beat you is indeed important to humans.

          1. The definition of free will and determinism were chosen long ago to answer a specific question. If you change the definition you change the question you are trying to answer.

            Adaptive programs that respond to the environment and learn do exist. They are deterministic in a formal sense. Now the question arises – are brains deterministic algorithms in the same sense or do we have some possibly supernatural non-algorithmic power? No free will was defined as the deterministic algorithmic answer. Free will was defined as the noncomputational possibly supernatural answer. These are good solid and useful definitions for answering a specific question.

            Dennett takes the no free will side and calls it free will. That’s not pragmatism. That’s just weird. He can reasonably say that this is the only kind of free will that exists. And I can even more reasonably say that this means the whole idea of free will dissolves and should be abandoned. At least in a deterministic universe.

            He seems to want to preserve the free will language for political purposes. Fine. We have free will in that sense. But I draw no comfort from that and it has nothing to do with the question at hand.

            Its like Dennett decided that since the sun is the only god we humans can expect then we should just call the sun god and so yes there is a god. Anyone claiming that there is no god is being mischevious. Pragmatism right?

            The stuff about the hijab seems to have nothing to do with the fundamental question of free will. If I had free will before the gun pointed at me then I have it after. Even if it costs me my life.

            1. “The definition of free will and determinism were chosen long ago to answer a specific question.”

              Not really, humans have had notions of “freedom” and “will” for eons. The definition of “free will” that you’re adopting is just one, others also have a long history.

        2. Interesting video – I find Dennett’s views on this topic unusual given his outspoken atheism, about which people often make the same arguments. It seems like arbitrarily selective pragmatism over ‘truth at all costs value’, when the topic shifts. (Unless he considers himself a pragmatist all around and would shift his views on religion if convinced it were overall ‘good’ for people, but somehow I doubt that.)

          I actually can’t make much sense of compatibilism either. I do think individual consciousness means that *agency is important, because it means there are suddenly beings who are the recipients of good or bad experiences (in universe forever devoid of consciousness, who would care what causal chains went on?). When viewed that way, you can invoke ‘fairness’ over ‘freedom’ in order to justify various moral codes (i.e., if Person A received a great deal of subjective gain by causing Person B harm; or Person A was dealt a great hand in life while Person B was born into horrible suffering, we can invoke the intuition of fairness in equal distribution among agents, seeing as how each one only experiences their own headspace and not that of everyone else. [This is not an argument that ‘fairness’ equals Objective Morality, btw, simply that given our human intuitions and general desire for it, accounting for individual agency and consciousness makes sense]). But agency and freedom are separate concepts, to my mind.

          An aside – I think a belief in free will as a positive force *might be misguided. I say that because personally I’ve found mindfulness practice, in a counterintuitive way, to be helpful in all sorts of ways, and it involves a sort of deliberate letting go of the sense of ‘free will’ for various periods of time and simply observing what happens vs. trying to ‘make’ anything happen. Many people, myself included, report feeling *more productive, more compassionate, more focused, and so on with this practice, not sudden whirlwinds of hedonism. I am not entirely sure if this is true for everyone, however, especially for (sexism alert ahead!) males, who sometimes seem to respond better to drill sergeant, bootcamp style coaching in life, for reasons that totally elude me.

    2. In a deterministic world, I have no more power to change the ending than the characters in a movie.

      Your behavior influences the future. IMO the characterization “change the ending” is a kind of fallacy driven by the illusion of free will.

      1. In a deterministic world my behavior does not influence the future. The future was set in stone before I was born. Just like a movie. You can watch a movie and project emotions and motives on the characters and thus they seem to influence each other. But their actions are preordained at the filming.

        “Change the ending” is a fallacy driven by the illusion of free will. That’s the point. In a deterministic world you cannot change the ending. You cannot influence the future. It was set before you were born. A movie will end as it was scripted and filmed. A deterministic universe is just one vast movie with only one end that cannot be influenced or changed.

        1. No, that is fatalism. In determinism there is no set future, it unfolds based on influencing variables.

          1. Determinism does exactly mean there is a set future. I mean what else would you call it? If the future is predetermined it is determinism. How hard is that?

            If this causes you to be fatalistic that is an attitude, not a thing the universe can be.

            There is a form of determinism called fatalism that is purely teleological. That is it explains things in terms of the purpose it serves rather than the physical cause. I don’t think anyone here is talking about that.

            1. You just used “predeterminism” to define determinism. That might be your answer. There is no set future. There are rules of physics.

              1. I…

                If the rules of physics are deterministic then there is a set future. That is the future is predetermined.

                Predeterminism is implied by causal determinism. I don’t get your objection.

              2. Because there are rules there doesn’t mean there is only one outcome. That is predetermined. There are outcomes that are infinite based on whatever has unfolded before. Sure, if we were Laplace’s Demon we could predict everything that could happen but predictive ability doesn’t mean everything is already laid out before it happens and we are just following that plan.

            2. Determinism absolutely does not mean the future is pre-determined, only that the past is determined and fixed. The movie analogy is a fallacy because it’s in the past, while events here in the real world unfold in real time. At any moment your algorithm, or the algorithm of the universe, has been written and is set by what has come before, but the next input to that algorithm is fundamentally indeterminate at a quantum level. And if you do not think that quantum indeterminacy doesn’t translate to the macro level, consider that the radioactive decay of a single atom of plutonium, a fundamentally unpredictable quantum event, releases ionizing radiation that, by causing a point mutation in one lung cell, eventually kills the victim. That’s macro.

              1. Please what?
                Yes, there is a determinate future, but that does not mean that it has been pre-determined, as ppnl stated. Pre-determination implies at least theoretical predictability, and I dispute that.

            3. Determinism implies that every current state is the inevitable and necessary consequence of preceding states.

              Pre-determinism implies that all the information in the universe for all eternity was implicit in the beginning of the universe, and we have no evidence that that is true, Laplace demons, omniscient deities, and Everettian many world interpretations of QM notwithstanding.

            4. A future that is not fully predictable is one that is consistent with not being predetermined.

              Put all the high performance computers to work on this planet and they will not be able to predict where my cats will be within a meter next week.

              1. Not being fully predictable is also consistent with determinism, so unpredictability doesn’t say anything.

                The argument from unpredictability is a common but misguided argument against determinism.

        2. You cannot influence the future.

          I think we’re disagreeing on semantics.

          My position: the present state determines a future state, and we are parts of the present state. Hence we influence the future.

          Everything in the present influences the future.

    3. “If the fictional characters in a movie experience a sense of agency then that sense of agency does not give them the power to change the ending of the movie.”

      Reckon that’s why there was no sequel to Thelma & Louise. 🙂

    4. “Well yes, a deterministic system can in a sense learn.”

      A human being is an incredible learning machine, so it is not just “in a sense” learning – it is learning every minute of every day.

      You started out as a baby. In three years, you were speaking English. That is some intense learning going on. You have grown and changed every year of your life, and will continue to do so. It is gradual, with a little bit happening every day.

    5. About “changing the ending” – that’s an important difference between a movie and real life. The movie *has the same ending anyway* even if you cut out the middle scenes. You could cut the movie reel in three pieces, throw away the middle, and the end would now come right after the beginning.

      The real universe isn’t like that. Your grandparents gave birth to your parents, who gave birth to you. But cut out the parents, and the “you” never happens. Every event matters to the subsequent happenings. That’s how causality works in the real world.

      Yudkowsky can explain why this matters.

  9. In his recorded lectures on Youtube Sapolsky only touches on chaos, but I think he should pay more attention to chaos as far as attractors and emergent behavior (emergent phenomena being an example of attractors)and their role in evolution.

    Our individual behavior is random enough that we are free in that sense even though our behavior is pulled in various directions by various attractors. In the movie “No Country for Old Men” a person’s life or death is determined by the flip of a coin. The world could follow two entirely different paths based on that 50/50 chance.

    As far as being nice to people to modify their behavior is concerned, if one does not also make allowance for the fact that there are people (and animals) who take kindness as an opportunity for predation then one might wind up as a good example of pathological altruism.

    1. The world could follow two entirely different paths based on that 50/50 chance.

      It does if you are David Deutsch.

      1. Well no. The toss of a coin is a macro event. It’s not really random at all.

        On the other hand, if you arrange the 50/50 random event to be based on radioactive decay a la Schrödinger’s cat, then we’ll have two different worlds.

  10. “…one person can really make a difference…”

    “…certain behaviors become more likely…”

    Make a difference as compared to what? Become more likely as compared to what? In a deterministic universe, there are no alternatives, except the hypotheticals we create in our brains. In making a decision, we imagine hypothetical universes that might occur if we do this or if we do that. And we choose the hypothetical we prefer, hoping it works out according to plan. But is this not the essence of compatibalist free will?

  11. “I’m realizing how incredibly hard it is to articulate how an absence of free will is compatible with change.”

    Put that way there should be no principle problem at all, since all other objects bar humans will eventually change without them having “free will”. Even free will advocates have to make concessions to learning, damages or adolescent change.

    The problem becomes when people make a false equivalence between their introspection and what is going on in their bodies, re homeostasis, growth, damage, socializing/learning, adaptation, development et cetera. s/ When will they ever learn!? /s

  12. I believe reason governs the universe, and reason (intelligence, laws, or freedom, are some of its other names) is always growing. Not because it’s an agent, but because the nature of reason is to increase itself. And, of course, reason guides life or evolution: fitness and reason are the traits selected for. If I’m right, sentient life is governed by a formula that guarantees reproduction and keeps suffering (a very useful tool) at a minimum (a minimum to guarantee reproduction and the increase of reason). So, humans and genes are just mediums for reason to increase itself, and become One). That’s my crackpot theory, anyway.

    1. One thing I’m sure of: We’re all going to continue acting and thinking as though we have contracausal free will.

      No, only the INcompatbilists do that!

      Compatiblists think and act as though they have compatibilist free will (which they do!), not contracausal free will.

      1. Whether you’re a compatiblist or an incompatibilist, when you get up in the morning and mull over whether you’ll have raisin bran or corn flakes you’re acting as though you have contracausal free will, or so it seems to me.

        1. I don’t see why. When I make such decisions it seems to me that I’m making a deterministic computation just as (for example) a chess-playing computer does when it decides on a move.

              1. The problem is an algorithm does not need to experience its own operation. Maybe it does but it does not need to and there is no way to tell if it does. We humans do experience our own thought process. If we did not there would be no free will debate.

                The mystery before us is no free will but experience itself.

              2. I tend to agree, ppnl. The capacity of an intelligent information processing system, such as our brains, to create a working model of its world, and to contemplate its own decisions and actions within it, is necessary for free will. That includes the fact that the intelligent information processing system knows that it is thinking, which an AI machine does not yet do, as far as I know.

              3. Spot on, ppnl. The question of free will is entangled with the theory of mind and the hard problem of consciousness. Why aren’t we zombies? Of what possible use is consciousness if it isn’t for free will (at least)? You’ll hear a lot of side-stepping about epiphenomena and illusions. Don’t believe it. Consciousness is real, it’s categorically distinct from everything else we know about in the universe (particularly in physics), and demands an explanation that is currently outside our reach.

        2. Do you suppose that something different goes on when you mull over the raisin bran or corn flakes question, and Oprah Winfrey mulls over the same question?

          The critical element is your self. How does your self get implemented in such a way that it never behaves like Oprah, and always behaves like Stephen Barnard?

          The answer is determinism, without which your identity would be jelly and you would never be the same person twice. You can’t have an identity without determinism.

          That is the sense in which contra-causal free will is an incoherent impossibility. It is in effect a straw man, regardless of how many people think it could exist. It makes no coherent sense for a self to act independent of itself.

            1. If it is an incoherent idea that can’t possibly exist, I don’t see how it matters whether the physical case against it is weak.

  13. Free-will is something of a mystical concept: it could never be proven scientifically, if scientific proof makes the basic assumption of cause and effect. Unfalsifiable.

    Any cause and effect mechanism proposed for free-will would be a negation of the concept of free-will itself.

  14. As always, thank you so much for your clarity and eloquence in the way you express this. I am a writer in the field, and am so grateful to have your directness and expertise to back up my work.

  15. If you take fundamental quantum mechanics seriously — really seriously — there’s no such thing as causality. Things just ARE. There’s a humongous deterministic (but indeterminate) wave function that encodes everything in the universe from the beginning to the end of time. In fact, even the notion of time is a problem because there’s no place for entropy and the second law. The wave function is reversible. So, it appears to me, that if you use determinism to claim free will is an illusion, then to be consistent you have to claim time is an illusion as well. Which it may be, but it’s an awfully vivid one.

    1. If you take fundamental quantum mechanics seriously … there’s no such thing as causality. … There’s a humongous deterministic (but indeterminate) wave function …

      The view that the wavefunction is ontological — is what fundamentally exists — has some high-profile advocates but is a minority view among physicists. So there’s no need to adopt this view.

      1. There are several competing interpretations of quantum mechanics and no clear consensus about which (if any) is correct, but they all take the Schrödinger Equation as fundamental. As far as I can tell, the “no free will” advocates appeal solely to fundamental physics for justification. If you take the position that the wave function isn’t “ontological”, and there’s presumably some deeper reality we don’t understand, the whole argument falls apart.

        1. I don’t think that fundamental physics has anything to do with it, to be honest. If there is some indeterminism about QM it still doesn’t give you “free will” (specifically there’s no “will”) and so doesn’t affect the “free will” arguments.

          The concepts of “freedom” and “will” are human ones, about social interactions. Our “will” is simply what we want to do (it’s irrelevant to that how the will arises), and our “freedom” is simply whether we can act on it. That’s all there is to it.

          Both the dualists and the incompatibilists way over-complicate and over-analyse and so get things wrong.

            1. No, it’s not a misconception. Standard textbook QM has indeterminism (the Born rule).

              *Some* rather weird interpretations of QM do not have indeterminism, though so far they cannot explain the Born rule (which is experimentally verified) and have substantial difficulties themselves.

              1. Not many-worlds. A few years ago Official Website Physicist Sean Carroll wrote a paper about how one can derive the Born rule in a Bayesian, Everettian framework, negating one of the major criticisms against many-worlds (though I would argue it was a double standard in the first place since Copenhagen also asserts the Born rule as an extra postulate).


              2. I stand by my statement that mainstream, textbook QM contains indeterminism.

                Stephen is adopting MWI, which doesn’t, but that is a minority taste and has big problems.

                And yes, Sean Carroll thinks that he can derive the Born rule from MWI, and so resolve the issue, but so far he has not convinced the physics community that he has succeeded in that.

            2. There is no cause and effect in the case of many quantum events. For example, a free neutron decays in about fifteen minutes, but nothing causes it to decay. It is not a matter of our not knowing the cause, there is no cause. So neutron decay is not deterministic.

              1. The precise moment of the decay of the neutron is implicit in the wave function, which is deterministic. But, because it is indeterminate, we can’t predict the decay except probabilistically.

        2. The wave function is a *description* (or rather, part of one) like any other mathematical function: axiomatize a small fragment of QM and use Bunge’s theory of reference to see why, for example. (He first did this in 1967 before the theory of reference was fully developed; by 1974 the tool was available.) In most contexts, one can write an equivalent of the Schrodinger equation for the entire local spacetime, called the Wheeler-DeWitt equation. It, taken at face value, says the “things just are” thing. A few, Lee Smolin being one, denies that we should take this seriously – just like we not take singularities (divisions by zero, effectively) or other artifacts of our *descriptions* as necessarily realistic. (I.e., a scientific realist has to know the limitations of the equations as currently understood).

          I have no dog in the fight between Smolin and is his opponents here but he *does* (and agrees) he has the burden of proof here.

          Note however this has nothing to do with understanding probability: IMO that’s always been a red herring.

    2. Well the evolution of the wave function is deterministic. But the collapse of the wave function when you make a measurement is not. So yes there is a such thing as causality. But it is weirder than you think.

      1. The Copenhagen interpretation (collapse of the wave function) is only one of several. For example, Sean Carroll (this website’s official physicist) favors the many worlds interpretation, which has no “collapse”.

        1. Well MW does away with collapse but at the cost of creating something much weirder. And do you get more predictive power? Nope.

          What sense does it make to claim all these universes exist if there is no way even in principle of going there? They seem an unneeded extra used to handle philosophical rather than theoretical problems. Ironically it is hard to beat the philosophical problems of MW. You don’t have free will not because you can’t choose but because you make all possible choices anyway? The fatalism of determinism is nothing compared to the fatalism of being condemned to make every possible bad choice.

          I say just shut up and calculate.

          1. Copenhagen runs into a problem with Occam’s razor in that it necessarily more complicated than many-worlds, since many-worlds does not have a collapse postulate. Therefore it should be discarded in favor of many-worlds.


    3. From the Grand Design:

      “Quantum physics might seem to undermine the idea that nature is governed by laws, but that is not the case. Instead it leads us to accept a new form of determinism: Given the state of a system at some time, the laws of nature determine the probabilities of various futures and pasts rather than determining the future and past with certainty.”

  16. I probably should just accept the wisdom of the Harvard and Stanford educated (I’m not facetious), but it just makes absolutely no sense to me.

    If determinism is true, it follows that “what happens, happens”. I do what I do. The reasons are irrelevant and are simply part of the clockwork. They may be at the subatomic level, or at the hormone level, or result of neuron-firing patterns being merged and separated in mysterious ways (what we call “thoughts”, “wishes”, “desires”, “volition” etc.).

    In the end, everything is determined, including hearing good advice, being persuaded to go to a party and everything else. My own actions, my own advice, my own commentary, me dragging other people to a party is likewise completely determined. It’s determined that I write this, and if someone changes their mind, then this is determined, too. Neither could have done otherwise, nor could someone “decide” to not have their minds changed. It just happens.

    But from my point of view, the “computation” hasn’t happened yet and seems to be open ended, when it really isn’t. If an entity from beyond time-space was watching my life on a Laplacian device, it could rewind and fast forward the tape to any point, and even see how whatever I did that moment has influenced others. It come up with models to describe that influence, call it physical “cause-effect” in some instances, or call it “advice”, “persuasion”, “flirting”, “wanting” and so on, but all these terms refer to illusions in the exact same way as “free will”. And I mean, exactly the same thing.

    Which is why it’s patently absurd to me to reject “free will” only to embrace alternative terms that amount to the same problem. The bottom line is that from our point of view, going through the motions is very important — it’s being alive — but from a strict hard determinstic view, “cosmic ousider perspective” none of this is relevant, and “free will” disappears as any other concept.

    A hard determinist argument AND talking about influencing others is the proverbial cake-eating problem. You can do one, or the other, and there is no contradiction. They are mutually exclusive perspectives to my mind.

    They are models that don’t go together. They are like describing love as a great feeling, and describing love as complicated genetical-chemical-hormonal pattern triggered by something. We know both is true, but it’s impossible to use both models at once.

        1. I don’t know. Per the “is not what it seems” sense of illusion, rather than the “doesn’t exist sense,” I think some of the terms central to these issues are an illusion. “Choice” is a good example. There definitely is something distinct and important going on but it probably isn’t what the typical person thinks it is.

      1. I guess that the feeling of having agency (and the undeniable differences in how easy or difficult or just annoying decision making can be) is as fundamental as the “feeling” of being conscious. Why should consciousness have appeared in living auto-mobile matter in the first place if it was not for the necessity of making decisions all the time? Plants don’t need to be conscious, the don’t need to make decisions, the just “live”
        This is not to argue for true contra-causal free will, but for true agency, for the real possibility and also necessity to constantly participate in the ongoing “fate” of the world, or whatever that is.

        1. Plants don’t need to be conscious, the don’t need to make decisions, the just “live”

          But plants respond to their environment – they have behavior. For instance, if a plant isn’t getting enough light, it will grow tall and skinny in an “attempt” to get more light.

          But most people generally don’t interpret these slow motion responses as “decision making”, but faster responses to environment enabled by the central nervous system of animals is often characterized as “decision making”.

          Personally, I don’t see a significant difference other than one involves more computing power than the other.

    1. You’re mixing your terms. I think you are convoluting “determinism” with “incompatibilism”. Determinism is something most non religious accept. It’s simply that things happen as a result other things. That’s all it means. So it’s not “what happens, happens” but “what happens follows what happened previously” and of course there are multiple and difficult to nail down variables. We aren’t Laplace’s Demon but that doesn’t make determinism untrue and it’s accepted my most scientists as true about the nature of the universe.

      Incompatibilists simply think that free will is incompatible with determinism and compatibility think the opposite. I think this argument isn’t all that worthwhile and that it is more important to refute the ghost in the machine of contra-casual free will that says we are a spirit in the body making decisions. In other words, dualism is wrong and bad.

      The conflation of fatalism and determism is discussed here as well: And note that causal determinism is noted as not being referred to as fatalism at all.

      First published Wed Dec 18, 2002; substantive revision Fri Nov 7, 2014
      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. This view may be argued for in various ways: by appeal to logical laws and metaphysical necessities; by appeal to the existence and nature of God; by appeal to causal determinism. When argued for in the first way, it is commonly called “Logical fatalism” (or, in some cases, “Metaphysical fatalism”); when argued for in the second way, it is commonly called “Theological fatalism”. When argued for in the third way it is not now commonly referred to as “fatalism” at all, and such arguments will not be discussed here.

      Here is Stanford’s definition of determinism from the same site:

      1. I don’t think I do, either.

        “Determinism doesn’t mean that you can’t change your behavior, or help others to”

        Makes no sense to me. Either, you foreground determinism, then every state is result of a previous state, which fully determines any future state.

        Or, you foreground our puny little lives inside the clockwork, where of course, we decide, want, wish, long, change minds, and so forth.

        Each of these terms is composed of several tiny models in the “stuff of though” that have a metonymous, analogical or metaphorical relationship between them.

        Each is also some yet-unknown kind of “mentalese”, and also at once, some pattern, or physical stuff moving about, which is at once also some constellation of subatomic particles that do, whatever it does. It’s all at once. When free will vanishes (and it does when going with a deterministic model), then everything else vanishes, too.

        I understand Incompatiblism as the view that free will is incompatible with notions of free will. This is true, when both are placed into the same model.

        But my version of compatibilism is based on a model-dependent realist view, where free will exists in one contexts, but not the other.

        I think I know what Jerry and Robert Sapolsky are doing: they construct a double-scope blend which blends together hard determinism as one input, and our internal view (with qualia and all) into the other.

        Here’s a nice summary of the idea by one of its originators:

        The most advanced form, double-scope blending, consists of integrating two or more conceptual arrays as inputs whose frame structures typically conflict in radical ways on vital conceptual relations, such as cause-effect, modality, participant structure, role-value, and so on, into a novel conceptual array whose frame structure draws selectively from the frame structures of the inputs and dynamically develops emergent structure not found in either of the inputs.

        1. So what you’re saying is the previous variable that led you on the track to whatever you are doing can’t be changed? There can’t be another variable to do that because that’s not determinism?

          1. Well, that’s by definition. The “change” of the variable is also determined. Everything is. If you read on the internet an argument on justice and you become a civil rights icon later on, having changed the course of human history then all of that was determined by any prior state. Everyone and everything involved couldn’t have done otherwise.

            But that’s a silly view from inside. Here it damn well makes a difference whether you “voluntarily” do something, or are forced by someone else.

            But such concepts are nonsensical in a “cosmic ousider” deterministic model view. From outside, you have no free will, and you are not forced, you just do whatever the mysterious laws of physics determine you do. At once, you are forced to go through exactly the motions as determined. You can all the force whatever you want, it’s all the same. The other person doesn’t force you, because they have no free will either, and they are at once a system of hormones, brain-(tumors), matter, particles, patterns as you are, just stuff in a giant clockwork.

            Those two models don’t mix.

            1. The couldn’t do otherwise isn’t saying that no variables influence you. It is simply saying that you as an entirely can’t exist outside of the rules of physics. Determinism is the opposite of dualism. Either you believe we are all souls behind our eyes or we are animals subject to the laws of physics. Determinism is that simple.

              1. But you are if you are rejecting determinism. This is why I think you’ve not got the right definition of determinism. I think you may have valid points but we need to agree on the basic vocabulary.

              2. I don’t reject determinism, I reject hard determinism, i.e. incompatiblism. I view determinism as one model of the universe, which is true, and our experience as decision-makers as another, which is also true.

                My take is that models are incompatible, but this is completely ordinary — we don’t even have a theory of everything in physics. The flipside of the incompatibility of models is that parallel versions can exist, and hence free will and determinism are compatible.

                I don’t know if this is the same compatibilism of Dennett and others, I din’t quite get his take, either, but that makes most sense to me, for which I provided arguments.

              3. “Either you believe we are all souls behind our eyes or we are animals subject to the laws of physics.”

                Why not both? I can freely choose to jump off a skyscraper, but once I’ve jumped I can’t choose not to fall.

              4. What do you mean, “I can freely choose to jump off a skyscraper”? Does that mean that at any given moment when you’re standing atop a skyscraper, your mind can influence your brain somehow so that your choice to jump is not determined before you jump?

                If so, you’re a dualist.

              5. Suppose you’re a bystander. Why bother trying to talk him down from the edge? He’ll either jump or not jump. If you try to help and succeed you deserve no praise, and if you refuse to help you deserve no blame, at least in the determinist stance, because you couldn’t have done anything other than what you actually did. Ethics are largely built on a presumption of libertarian free will.

                That’s not to say it’s a correct presumption, but it’s sticky.

              6. ” Why bother trying to talk him down?”

                Because a) his behavior is subject to environmental influence, b) you are part of his environment, c) you (we) are evolved social animals that with features like empathy and a desire to protect our fellow humans.

              7. ” Why bother trying to talk him down?”

                Because a) his behavior is subject to environmental influence, b) you are part of his environment, c) you (we) are evolved social animals that with features like empathy and a desire to protect our fellow humans.

    2. I’m not clear on why it wouldn’t be possible to use both models at once. I think it would largely be a nuisance – feeling a compulsion to add ‘but let me be clear that in the broadest possible sense I didn’t choose to choose to choose this!’ after every sentence, but that doesn’t make the value of reflecting on our choices, weighing options, running through various hypotheticals, etc., any less valuable. It just means, again, in the biggest possible picture, we didn’t ‘choose’ any of that. We didn’t choose to be sentient beings; we didn’t choose to desire certain outcomes over others; we didn’t choose the laws of physics or social interaction or finance or whatever that make certain actions more likely to lead to a given result in various scenarios; we didn’t choose our particular skill in being able to figure out what course of action is most effective or our emotional intelligence in being able to stay on whatever course we choose, and on and on. And if we say “There’s no free will, so I’m just going to act on whatever random impulse pops into my head!”, we didn’t choose that either.

      I understand there’s something grim-sounding about saying “The future may well be determined, but because we care about our lives and our subjective experience, we are obligated to be actors in this play that we didn’t ask for in the first place.” But, I think that can be framed more positively via various meditations – ‘effortless action’, ‘letting go of attachment’, and so on. I actually don’t have a problem with the idea that, at the very deepest level, our role is simply that of ‘witness’ or ‘knower’, and not ‘doer’.

      1. Same problem as with Jerry’s take: there cannot be obligation, oughts or normative statements in a deterministic model, because they are from the wrong model and presuppose a free will model.

        In a deterministic model, your reasoning and my musing are part of “computations” that simply produce the output as determined by the input (any previous state). We call it whatever we like, and produce illusory models of what we think is going on. It’s even silly to distinguish between nature or nature, because that divide is also an illusion as far as the clockwork is concerned. The culture is as much on rails as is biology or particles or anything else.

        Hard determinsts are very uptight about the phrase “free will” without realizing, in my view, that the word makes as much sense as any other in a deterministic framework.

        It’s trivially true that we influence others, and get influenced by others, but that is meaningless in a deterministic framework: of course, laws of physics “change” reality around in some fashion, but with that model, we foreground it as entirely determined, thus you cannot “alter” the course of events in any way. Any “altering” is itself determined!

        1. I think this is largely a semantic debate. We say “this cold front influenced the weather” without free will on the part of the cold front, and everyone understands what that means – I think saying “this argument influenced a person” is fairly similar.

          As for obligations or norms (‘ought’ tends to mean objective morality to people, so I’ll leave that out,) I don’t see why you can’t have them. You just note that in the largest sense possible you didn’t choose to have them. And if you choose not to have them, you didn’t ultimately choose that either.

          1. Partially. Traditionally, the incompatibilists want to bust “free will” altogether, deeming that very important. The beef with compatiblists is that they should drop at least the “free” part, or discard the whole notion. The accusation is they would do word games by keeping the term, at least.

            I argue the same thing in the opposite direction. That it is selective to discard “free will” but wanting to keep all the other (in my eyes) contaminated terms.

            I personally have it both ways, but not at once. One model has wavelenghts, the other has colours. One model has sound waves moving through air, the other has music. And one has determinism, and the other has wanting, wishing, deciding, volunteering, etc. I’m not attached to the specific term “free will”, I merely view it as identical to deciding something without apparent detectable reason, i.e. the decision making can only be traced to the mental black box and disappears in its darkness, without coercion, no brain tumor, no identifiable substance etc has apparently influenced the computation).

            1. Again, I think this comes down to semantic / framing differences. To my mind, if something simply appears in consciousness, as you say, ‘without apparent detectable reason’, then that is the exact *opposite of what people tend to think of ad ‘will’. That is something that arises *without even perceived effort on the part of the ‘willer’, it is more an act of simply observing what springs into consciousness.

              1. An addendum to this… it occurs to me that what we call ‘free will’, experientially, is largely (to my mind, at least, other’s mileage may vary) a sort of constant craving that is set to ‘auto scan’. A desire for more information, for more course-correction, for more ability to influence a future that hasn’t happened yet. When we envision our choices for tomorrow, there is a nagging sense of “Am I making the best choices? Doing all that I can do with the resources available to me at the moment? (At the moment I am sick, for example, with limited energy ‘resources’, so halfway trying to rest and halfway kicking myself for not getting enough done, and not really able to settle on a course of action either way.) How will X event turn out? Let me go over my plan one more time.” When we look at the past, if we’ve made an error, there is such a tantalizing sense of “If *only I had done this one thing differently…”

                I think that to some extent this sort of thirst for more information – empirical or subjective – is a good thing, although it can easily be taken to unhealthy lengths. But it is not a *free thing – and I think this is what people tend to envision ‘going away’ if people don’t believe in free will – this constant information-scanning process. The irony, to my mind, is that if you try to *make such mental processes ‘go away’, no matter what your beliefs about free will, you quickly find that you will probably need about 10,000 hours of mediation to do so. Belief in free will or lack of therein seems to have little to nothing to do with this process, experientially.

          2. It is largely semantic. Both compatibilists and incompatiblists reject dualism and accept determinism. Instead of moving on and dealing with that, because they agree on pretty much 95% of everything, they quibble over semantics concerning the 5% of the words they can’t agree on.

  17. “…contracausal, you-could-have-done-otherwise ‘free will’…”

    This defines *dualistic* free will, the unfalsifiable sort laypersons have assumed for eons. Maybe someone has defined compatibilism this way, but I haven’t heard it

    My frustration with debates over compatibilism is that defenders and opponents always seem to be talking past each other, never having defined their terms clearly.

    If I were to moderate such a debate I would ask both sides “Given that compatibilism does not entail ‘able-to-do-otherwise’, what does it allow that incompatibilism does not?”

    1. If I were to moderate such a debate I would ask both sides “Given that compatibilism does not entail ‘able-to-do-otherwise’, what does it allow that incompatibilism does not?”

      The only difference is in language. The compatibilist allows the term “choose” for what a chess-playing computer does in computing a move.

      The incompatibilist denies that that is a valid use of the word “choose” since it involves a determined (rather than contra-causal) process, and insists that “choose” can only be used for processes that don’t exist and can’t occur.

      Whereas the compatibilist sees nothing wrong with using the language we have for processes that do actually exist.

      1. People and chess-playing computers use information to make decisions. Making a decision is in the Present Tense. As we act, thinking of ourselves as free is obligatory. Later, when we analyse our decision (past tense), we may object and conclude that our decision was unduly influenced by improper sources. That is how we are free, knowledge of the truly complex things in Nature are always after the fact. And yet we can use our experience and knowledge to think about them for our next opportunity to act. We may just be able to tweak the situation just a little.

        Keeping our eye on the ball and our head down as we follow through is important to allowing our focus to stay true. Same for the computer, but focus is no problem for it. The universe is pretty well set up; it has got us as far as we are now and may take us a lot further. We just need to keep acting for good reasons and keep our head down as we contemplate (to let it speak through us). (my take on Dennett)

    2. Yes, that’s a good question. And my answer to your question is that the only thing compatibilism does that incompatibilism does not is to give people the illusion that they have some sort of free will, even if it’s not the kind of free will that most people think they have. (Look at the surveys.)

      And what incompatibilism does that compatibilism does not is to make us think about effecting big changes in the justice system. (Yes, compatibilists could agree on that since they’re almost all determinists, but they don’t tend to ocncentrate on determinism as opposed to confecting some new notion of “free will.”) If criminals don’t have a choice about what they did, saying that that realization should have no bearing on how we dispense justice is ludicrous.

      1. I struggle to understand how the incompatibilist-determinist view has a practical bearing on the dispensing of justice. I think you can argue just as coherently for the same sentencing policies from the point of view of ‘could have done differently’ free-will as from the IC-determinist point of view.

        Can you give an example of how an IC-determinist justice system would necessarily differ from one operated by people with a belief in free-will (or an acceptance of the illusion of free-will as providing a practical rule of thumb for negotiating one’s way through the daily decisions of life)?

        1. Sorry, I know you didn’t ask me, but I find the topic really interesting so apologies for interjecting my thoughts here. I think by way of analogy, you’d ask how your intuitions would change when sentencing someone in a court of law if you knew their behavior had been caused by a brain tumor. Would you feel they should be punished simply because they were the proximate cause of a crime, whether volitional or not? What if the tumor was totally operable and curable? What if it was inoperable and you knew that they would repeat the same behavior over and over? Etc. I think it does make a fairly big difference in our moral intuitions.

          The potential downside, to my mind, is that the belief in individualism and individual responsibility does seem to have led to a lot of good in the West, and for that reason I am agnostic on what a ‘no free will’ model would look like or result in. It might be much kinder, it might not. For example, I was told that in Thailand, one of the first things the boys on the rescued soccer team had to do was go to a temple to ask / receive forgiveness for the death of a rescue worker. In the US we would find that somewhat horrifying or even traumatic for a child – implying that it was ‘his fault’ – but there’s nothing to say a lack of belief in free will *has to go in the direction of increased forgiveness, I think it’s just as logically coherent to say “Well, ok, if you were involved in the chain of cause-and-effect in any way across the board, you get some share of blame.” Also, I think the flip side of holding people accountable as individual agents when they are in trouble is the concept of human rights. Maybe you argue that the basis for human rights is ‘sentience’ whereas the basis for criminal justice is ‘blame’, but I think it’s a fine line when you start seeing people not so much as individuals but largely as a cumulative product of various circumstances. Overly-collectivist thinking can by dystopian in its own way, and to some extent I think drawing partially arbitrary lines around ‘individual agents’ protects against that.

          1. No need to apologise for interjecting!

            I suppose my position is this: I entirely accept that fundamentally we do not have free will and that our actions are ultimately determined by gazillions of preceding events each affecting what happens next. However, this realisation is something that preoccupies philosophers who form a tiny minority of the population but does not really impinge on the way most people go about their daily lives. Whether they believe it’s an illusion or real most people live their lives and make decisions as if they have free will. This applies to the justice system as much as to anything else including the criminals, the police, the courts, the politicians who make the laws and the public who sit on juries and who vote for the politicians.

            Despite this shared acceptance of the illusion of free will, we nevertheless arrive at very different views on how criminal justice should be enacted. Some people (a minority?)simply hold that the criminal is evil, has chosen his path and merits receiving the retribution of society in as unpleasant a form as possible but others take a quite different view. A belief in free will (or the day to day acceptance of the illusion thereof) does not mean that you think a person’s actions are beyond external influence. Many people who in all probability have never doubted that we have full agency and free will would nevertheless consider that the criminal’s background, education, mental state, etc could all play a part in his turn to crime and should potentially be considered as mitigating factors in dealing with his crime (they might not suggest being poor should result in him ‘getting off lightly’ but they might well wish to look at alleviating poverty in society as one strategy in reducing crime).

            From this perspective a belief in free will is not incompatible with a criminal justice system in which punishment is not designed to simply provide revenge for the criminal’s victims but rather seeks to reduce crime overall by (a) providing deterrence, (b) seeking to rehabilitate criminals wherever possible so they can ultimately re-enter and contribute usefully to society and (c) protect the rest of society from those who for whatever reason cannot be rehabilitated.

            So, in short, I agree that knowing a criminal had a brain tumour might well influence one’s moral intuitions about his culpability but but I don’t think this necessarily requires any acceptance of ideas about determinism, compatibilist or otherwise. I think it is of academic interest to discuss free-will vs determinism but I remain to be convinced that it is particularly helpful in reforming the criminal justice system. As the thread above indicates, discussion of this concept rapidly becomes very rarified and from the practical perspective of seeking to provide a fair, just and workable justice system, I would suggest it creates more heat than light!

            1. Well, I guess time will tell. It may may be one of those age-old questions that remains largely of interest in only small circles; it may be that one day we consider punishing someone for being born with ‘poor morality’ (for want of a better term) as cruel as we consider treating those with special needs poorly (which has happened at many times in societies), and simply think of both as luck of the draw circumstances for which ‘blame’ does not make sense.

              I actually do agree overall, and have said in response to a prior post on the topic, that I think just going up to someone and saying “We don’t have free will” sounds *so over-the-top strange to most people that it’s almost a functionally useless concept – but I think it is worth separating out what one thinks is *true, ultimately, vs. what one thinks is *practical in getting through a day-to-day type conversation.

      2. Its not an illusion that we have “some sort of free will”. Its an operating requirement at the interpersonal level, the level Justice is meted out. Many of us have learned that total responsibility for our behavior is a myth and one used in self-serving ways politically, and these mitigating circumstances to responsible action should count in the justice system.

        One of the things I find confusing in this discussion is that contributors are all over the place commenting about different “levels of complexity”. We go from talking about quantum waves to criminal justice in hardly a breath. But the world looks very different at these different levels and different things are possible at them. I take it that that is why Dennett calls them “stances” toward the the world. Each has their place in Analyzing our lives, and that is the subtlety of his thinking. What does Determinism look like at these different levels? What are its implications for persons considering the different abilities relevant at each level?

        So, how all these levels fit together is difficult to say, but when you contend that we are just like puppets on a string, I don’t find that reasonably helpful in understanding the Actions of criminals nor scientists in their decisions. It decimates the interpersonal/social level, just as a pure physics over all view destroys the biological level. It seem. And, thanks for your site!

  18. “That means certain pathways have been facilitated. . . . Pathways to efficacy can also be weakened . . . .”

    In my experience, reliance on the passive voice usually indicates either an intention to deceive or a failure to fully understand one’s opinion. When something becomes as difficult to explain as determinism, there’s a pretty good chance that one is avoiding a simpler explanation on ideological grounds. Not saying that’s the case here, mind you; after all, Sapolsky’s a MacArthur genius and I’m not.

    1. It’s a result of his training and his age. Used to be scientific writing was mostly in the passive voice to emphasize the process and the results, and de-emphasize the investigator. Now a lot of style manuals demand an active voice because it is more energetic and engaging. Two properties I couldn’t give a rat’s for in technical writing.

      My response to active vs passive is the exact opposite of yours. If I’m reading a journal article written in an active voice I’m always wondering what they are selling, and why.

  19. I have to repost my Deterministic Criminal Justice System spin off of Law & Order from another free will post:

    In the deterministic criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate but equally important groups: The police, who investigate crime that the offenders have no choice but to commit, and the district attorney, who prosecute the offenders who are responsible, but not morally responsible for their crimes. These are their stories. KUN KUN

  20. To be clear, I’m not taking a firm position on free will. It’s as much a mystery to me as anyone. What I’m trying to do is point out that the argument against free will based on physics is weak.

    1. The physical argument against contra-causal free will is strong enough. All phenomena we experience and label must be consistent with physical law. Compatibilist free will is not so easy to dismiss that way. The problem is semantic. Everyone seems to have their own definition. Coel has his. Philosophers have theirs, whatever they are. I have my own. But so what? Unless we have a coherent and consensual definition, we’ll just argue in circles.

      1. It reminds me of the clerics of the Dark Ages defending Aristotle and Ptolemy. Our current understanding of physics is incomplete, to put it mildly. To hold it up as a final answer to philosophical questions is rash, ill considered, and intemperate.

        1. But it is complete for normal matter (of which we consist) within a broad range of energy levels within which we exist. (See Sean Carroll.) This includes the workings of our brains. We have found no physical phenomena beyond the Standard Model of physics, and Sean claims there cannot be any within the energy levels to which it applies. Yes, we cannot unify QFT with gravity, or explain the black hole information paradox, but those are not relevant for quotidian issues like this.

      2. “Compatibilist free will is not so easy to dismiss that way. The problem is semantic. Everyone seems to have their own definition.”

        Though it seems to me that all the compatibilist definitions are getting at the same thing, they’re all compatible (!).

        At least, when I read Dennett or other compatibilist commenters here, such as Vaal, I never disagree with their definitions.

        1. Just a note, Coel…

          I don’t comment in the Free Will threads any more (aside from this, if it is let through).

          Quite a while back our Host’s patience ran out with me. He felt I’d had my say, I’d become repetitive, so my contributions to Free Will threads were no longer welcome (as I understood it).

          Since then, all my posts for any thread have since gone in to moderation. This is of course the prerogative of the host! Though it certainly places a chill on the desire to post comments on WEIT, as the continued moderation gives the impression one is unwelcome.

          I still drop in to take a look at these threads sometimes. Keep up the good fight 🙂

          (I miss Gregory Kusnick’s contributions in the free will debate. He’s one sharp cookie! I haven’t noticed him posting for quite a while, so maybe he moved on I wonder? He wasn’t as annoying as I was, so I doubt he suffered the same fate).

  21. This is helpful. It leaves me with the question, under what circumstances does it matter whether we believe that it’s free will vs. biological determinism is correct. In terms of what we “choose” to do, it seems the answers would be the same. One exception that has been pointed out here concerns penal codes and rehabilitation (the perp couldn’t have acted otherwise because of determinism…). But are there other examples ?

    1. How we view mental illness (once seen as an issue of attitude: snap out of it, depressed person, don’t act so weird, paranoid person). Seeing mental illness as physical is parallel to seeing ourselves as no longer dualistic beings. I think understanding that a lot of what we do is based on circumstances out of our control, means a better understanding of how luck plays in our fortunes (the poor are not necessarily poor because of choices or character flaws, the sick are not sick because of poor choices).

      1. That of course applies to many other issues as well, such as where you were born, who your parents were and other lucks of the draw.

        1. But what proceeded those choices? Could the person who is poor and spent all their money on candy help their love of sweets or their lack of intelligence in planning? Is it morally their fault they have a faulty ore frontal cortex?

      2. Hmmm – not sure I see mental illness as a good example. It’s long been considered to have physical bases and not a result of attitude, etc., and it is effectively treated with drugs/chemicals in many cases. (I have a bipolar person in my family, and this is all too obvious.) And the question of whether it has a physical basis seems aside the question of whether(lack of) free should would affect how we view it or treat it.

        It makes me wonder, are there *any* other examples than the rehabilitation question? If not, I’d have to move it to my personal category of “interesting but not so important” philosophical topics.

        1. You’re speaking from an educated, 21st C perspective. It wasn’t long ago that the mentally ill were thrown into prisons or tortured because they were believed to be possessed by demons. It is only in the last 20 years that stigma for mental illness is beginning to lift. Why do you think there was a stigma? Because it was seen as a reflection of character and chosen behaviour.

          1. “. . .the poor are not necessarily poor because of choices or character flaws, the mentally ill are not sick because of poor choices.”

            I notice that in defending determinism on the grounds of a more humane justice system, no one ever uses white-collar crime as an example–e.g., “People used to think that white-collar crime was a matter of choice, but that stigma is beginning to lift.” While you’re getting the poor and the mentally ill off the hook, so to speak, you’re doing likewise for the sane, greedy, rich bastards who screw us all on a regular basis. You can’t mitigate a too-harsh justice system based on free will for some and not for others. Even if I were inclined to accept determinism, which I’m not, the loss-benefit ratio is too rich for my blood.

            1. Well, let me state for the record that yes, I would use white-collar crime as an example: those people have no more choice in the matter than does a murderer. My view goes for all sorts of crime: punishment is meted out on the grounds of deterrence, sequestration of the miscreant, and reformation. That of course holds for white-collar as well as poor and mentally ill people.

              Since you don’t accept determinism, I see you don’t accept the laws of physics, so you must be a dualist. In that case you have to explain how our mind affects our decisions in a “nonmaterialistic” way.

              1. I accept the laws of physics insofar as I expect them to account for all things physical (hence the name). If you or anyone else here can explain how they account for consciousness, I’m all ears. Really.

              2. Nobody is able to explain that yet, but just because we haven’t doesn’t mean that we should reject physical determinism as the underpinnings of consciousness. In fact, there are lots of things we can’t explain, like emotions, on the molecular level, but it would be arrant foolishness to say that these come out of some non-physical (“supernatural”, to use the word) source. This is the argument for dualism from ignorance, and I don’t mean “ignorance” perjoratively

                The “I’m all ears. Really.” is just snark because you know science hasn’t yet explained consciousness on the physical level. A few hundred years ago you would have said “If you or anyone else here can explain how physical processes produce epilepsy, I’m all ears. Really.”

                Emotions, like consciousness aren’t conceived of as physical “things”, yet physical interventions like drugs can alter them.

    2. In dealing with bad behavior, whether in raising children, dealing with employees at work, or dealing with people who have broken the law, we still have to act as if free will existed. Negative reinforcement (punishment) still is necessary and still works. Because it is predetermined that it does.

  22. I am sitting watching tv and realize I am thrifty. But I am also comfortable, tired and enjoying the show. At some point my thirst will overcome my other desires and I will get up to get something to drink. Seems pre determined to me. Or is it?

  23. Just ignoring the compatibilist definition for the moment which I can’t help but think of as a muddying distraction. It would appear we agree that we think we could not do otherwise (in any given situation).

    I personally don’t think I have a sense of free will, in that the vast majority of time I am going about in some autopilot mode. Even in the moments where I considering some future action I am completely unaware of the Sapolski type biological mechanisms that form my ruminations or the environmental influences that shape the biochemistry. So any will that I think I have is largely after the fact introspection.

    So my thought is, what are the ramifications more from a metaphysical point of view. How is the universe unfolding and in turn how are we shaping our immediate environments. Similarly I can’t but help disliking Donald Trump, but I also can’t help but think he is a product of the universe unfolding. So I can’t bring myself to hold him morally responsible (in the Strawson deep ultimate sense).

  24. I’m in total agreement with JAC and Sapolsky (btw, Sapolsky’s book is one of my favorites of the past two years). Our BRAINS learn things (not our conscious selves). But we are conscious of those things learned. We don’t CHOOSE to learn those things, the organ that is the brain does so, or not. Likewise, we do not choose to rupture our appendix.

    Our reality is a movie and we (the conscious self) are the audience. The writers and directors of that movie are our senses and the brain respectively.

    We have zero conscious control over these biological processes. Hence, no free will.

    1. My immediate impulse to a post like this is: Where does all this shit around us come from? There’s evolution, of course. That’s an immensely powerful idea, and probably at the root of it. But am I expected to believe that all of culture is the result of a deterministic wave function? That’s hard to swallow.

      1. Sometimes the twists and turns and perplexities and complications of this entire free will debate make me recall an Al Stewart song, “Accident On Third Street”:

        “…like a black hole in space or philosophy, useless but profound…”

  25. Some great comments here. One of the more enlightening discussions of this topic. I feel I might be close to finally formulating what I think is meant by “free will”. (A term I am quite willing to ditch since it has too much baggage.)

    “Free will” is the mental impression we have about our voluntary actions. Undoubtedly it is subjective, and does not exist outside our brains, but so is our perception of a color. I don’t think you can simply dismiss this mental phenomenon as “an illusion.” If you claim it is, I challenge you to prove it to me. An illusion, such as the Muller Lyer illusion, can be proved to be such by measurement.

    1. It’s an “illusion” in the sense that “it’s not what we think it is.” It’s not an emotional illusion, for we really feel we could have done otherwise. The illusion is that we couldn’t have but feel that we could have.

  26. Determinism doesn’t mean that you can’t change your behavior. Dr. Coyne is correct here. I have been a clinical psychologist for about 30 years and by using cognitive behavior therapy my clients have changed their lives by changing the way their brains work.

  27. I completely agree that determinism doesn’t imply that people can’t change. There’s lots more that determinism doesn’t imply. It doesn’t imply that nobody could have done otherwise. It doesn’t imply that people aren’t morally responsible for their actions.

    There’s a reason why Sean Carroll, Jerry’s well-chosen Official Website Physicist, is a compatibilist. It’s because Sean really understands causality, and what it does and doesn’t imply.

    1. Sean Carroll rejects the idea that somebody could have done otherwise.
      Carroll calls himself a compatibilist because he is referring to the concept of Laplace’s Demon, a concept which is in my opinion used by him in this debate as a strawman just to avoid the hard issues that he would have to deal with if he would follow the incompatibilistic standpoint.

  28. Count me among the lost, or at least among those who don’t understand how determinism does not imply fatalism.

    1. Determinism absolutely implies fatalism in the philosophical sense: That we can’t do anything other than what we actually do. I believe, and am quite sure, on the record, that Jerry is, in this sense, a fatalist.

    2. Under determinism you can change your behavior if you want to. The unknown being debated is what makes you decide you want to change.
      Determinism says it is not decided by you but by circumstances. You what by a sign that says come in for counseling. and you go in and meet someone that gives you advice that makes you want to change your life. You follow his advice and your life changes.
      But luck make you change or fix your decision to seek change make you change.

      1. You walk not you what

        Did luck make you change, because you were lucky to see the sign, or did your decision to go on make and see the change.

        Or did God influence you to walk down the street

  29. Some time ago I made a bit of a study into Objectivism which I found rather bizarre though made me curious to understand as a sort of non-religious belief system and from the point of view of its psychology and philosophical argument (I initially saw the film of The Fountainhead and found the main characters to be somewhat “on the spectrum”).

    Interestingly, Objectism (Ayn Rand) proposes the idea that free-will is compatible with cause and effect.
    They do not seem happy that we be seen as automatic, deterministic machines, I suppose because it is not in line with the idea that man is a dynamic, rational being and capable of decision: “man is a being of volitional consciousness”

    Objectivism is opposed to the idea that man is governed by instinct and propose the idea of tabula rasa upon which acquired experience is written. That ethics can be derived “objectively”: “Ethics is an objective, metaphysical necessity of man’s survival”

    They try to argue that free-will fits into the chain of cause and effect: experience of the physical world is taken as being direct (argued questionably as being Aristotelean and in opposition to Kant who argues that the physical world (noumenal world) can be known only indirectly through elaboration of the senses (phenomenological world)).

    They seemingly assume that free-will is axiomatic, that we “know” it exists due to introspection.
    “The principle of volition is a philosophic axiom”

    This, for me, is an invalid argument, pretty much “wishful thinking” because it is convenient to a certain philosophical stance (Rand seems to have decided what she wanted to believe and then cherry picked philosphical arguments to sustain it).

    “Awareness” may be taken as axiomatic (“cogito ergo sum” from Descartes), “volition” may not.

    Introspection tells me that I have thoughts and “awareness” relating to “decisions” I make and their associated actions. It also gives me the “impression” of controlling those decisions and actions. However that “impression” cannot be used to deduce that “volition” may be taken as axiomatic.
    My conscious thoughts are more likely following decisional processes whose heuristics occur at a subconsious level and are then “rationalised” to the conscious mind.
    The opposite to “free-will” but giving the impression of such (a feeling of agency).

    1. Plus the high level justification or rationalisation, even if it is a bit of PR for yourself and others, can never the less adjust the parameters of the processes beyond introspection through feedback.

      If a behaviour works ‘well enough’ it becomes more likely to be built into future predictive processing. Whether it is true or not.

      1. Not sure if I got you.
        If the “awareness” part is purely passive, there would not be any feedback.
        If there is feedback, the “awareness” part is presumably partly embedded in the decision process and is not simply a rationalisation of subconcious processesn but is actually having its own influence on them.

        The question arises: what is the “awareness” part actually for?

        In theory the whole process is equally conceivable as occurring completely without our being aware of it, or not.
        Any mental process would be just the same whether we are aware of it or not.

        Predictive processing should also work without conscious awareness.

    2. They seemingly assume that free-will is axiomatic, that we “know” it exists due to introspection.

      In other words: “my intuition tells me this, so it must be true.” 😉

    3. Kevin, you write: “My conscious thoughts are more likely following decisional processes whose heuristics occur at a subconsious level and are then ‘rationalised’ to the conscious mind.”

      If you think this is where our conscious thoughts come from, then what reason could we have to trust them? On your view all of our thoughts, including the thought that determinism is true, are nothing more than rationalizations, and rationalizations have no necessary relationship to the truth. The position seems self refuting.

  30. Here is a recent interesting discussion between a compatibilist, Daniel Dennett, and a libertarian, Keith Ward, that you may find illuminating. The free will discussion starts at 54:20.

    1. Thanks for the link. I agree with Dennett 100% on free will. The key is that it is impossible to repeat a decision-making process without changes in the conditions, making the “could do otherwise” question moot or misleading, depending on how one interprets the question.

    1. In a deterministic world where there is no free will, there is no place for moral guilt.
      But 99.99 percent of people have the desire to hold on to this moral guilt and it is precisely this longing that compatibiists serve.

  31. One of the terms of art introduced into the debate is “reasons responsiveness”, which is one of the characteristics of traditional free will that is often held to be compatible with determinism.

    I wonder sometimes whether or not that notion would be useful, and how, even if it does not do everything one wants.

  32. Sorry to start in on this so late. I spent my Sunday watching football and doing other stuff.

    I haven’t read any of Sapolsky’s books but if he thinks “humans have far more inequality than any other species”, as the interviewer here claims, then he’s crazy. In many mammalian species, males who do not rank are not allowed to mate. (Sometimes females, right?) In evolution, mating is the biggest prize so this seems to be inequality of the highest order. This has almost never been the case in human society.

      1. In ancient times, childbirth was perilous. Fatal Childhood diseases were common, and frequent plagues. Women were excluded from public life. A barren woman was an object of pity and probably destitution. A daughter required a dowry to be married profitably, so was a burden to her father. Slavery was universal and unquestioned. Cruelty was entertainment.

      2. Still not the kind of inequality represented by not allowing someone to reproduce at all. If you are a man, compare your distress at being neutered vs concern that there are men in the world that have many more kids than you do. Not even close!

        1. I’m not sure what your “neutered” example means. I’ll pass on that.

          My larger point is that modern life (at least for privileged white people — joking) is radically different from ancient life, and probably even more different from prehistoric life. It’s different in its incentives, opportunities, values, ethics, and most importantly knowledge.

          If human civilization survives for a few more centuries I suspect we’ll look back on birth control as the most important invention of our age.

          1. That may be so but Paul’s point remains entirely correct that many species of animal show levels of inequality that are at least as great if not greater than that shown in humans (at whatever point in history). In evolutionary terms he is correct in his assertion that reproductive output is the big prize and that individuals of some species gain far more access to mates than others and hence produce many more young. Even if we ignore reproductive success, in many species e.g. in birds and mammals, successful individuals also control access to key resources (which in turn gives them greater reproductive success).

    1. He seems to be very primate-centric (only natural as he studies baboons). If he thinks that insect equality is a thing then hes gone off the rails. But even the concept of equality applying to other primates isnt clear in its application (and probably betrays more about Sapolskys politics entering into the discussion than anything else). 1/4 gorilla males get to reproduce, that means 3/4 dont. Any notion of “equality” against that backdrop is a non-starter. When it comes to humans then we are descended from twice as many women as we are from men (although thats probably smoothed out a bit int he modern era)

  33. Of course determinism doesn’t entail fatalism.

    Determinism is a metaphysical doctrine, and is not empirically falsifiable.

    Fatalism is an attitude toward the world, a disposition, which while not falsifiable either, defines psychological outlook of the subject.

    It is true that those of a fatalistic temperament are more “at risk” of adopting a deterministic metaphysics. But there are other motives, if you are beholden to a basically Newtonian clock world (for whatever reason), you are likely to espouse determinism, unless you retain the Cartesian ghost in the machine.

    Common sense indicates that people can change, societies change, the world changes, etc., so whether this is “determined” “in advance” like railway cars rolling down tracks until they encounter a switch, or is random or the result of mystical celestial powers wouldn’t change common sense reality a whit.

    But my money is on SSDD. Do we elect a new set of assholes to oppress us or just settle for the old set?

  34. I’m a free-will “incompatibilist”: someone who sees the existence of physical determinism as dispelling the idea of contracausal, you-could-have-done-otherwise “free will”, which is the notion of free will most common among people.

    So am I. I just say I am a Non-free Willist.

  35. Sapolsky is amazing, and his focus on change is inspiring.
    Adam Rutherford proposes that what defines humanity is our intense social bonding and our desire to share ideas. Most humans cannot do otherwise- we are compelled to learn and teach from each other constantly. As Theodore Zeldin says, “Conversation is a meeting of minds with different memories and habits. When minds meet they don’t just exchange facts, they transform them… Conversation doesn’t just reshuffle the cards: it creates new cards, and it involves being willing to emerge a slightly different person.”

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