Quillette author advocates a new Pascal’s Wager: We should bet on libertarian free will because it makes us behave better

July 7, 2019 • 4:15 pm

I won’t comment much on this new article in Quillette, as I’ll be writing something more substantive about it later. I’ll just summarize its thesis very briefly below (click on screenshot to read):

In brief, the author, William Edwards—described as founder of Bright Tapestry Data, a company pushing back on misinformation and fake news. . . [and] an independent scholar, with a Master’s in Experimental Psychology”—says that there’s not enough evidence to give us confidence in physical determinism, and that, combined with fundamental physical indeterminism, somehow vindicates the notion of our having dualistic (“contracausal”) free will.

He clearly is plumping for dualistic free will rather than compatibilism because he opposes his notion of “free will” to determinism, and concentrates on the notion of real human agency. In the end, he dislikes the idea that determinism seems to absolve us of moral responsibility, and cites evidence (weak, I think) that determinism makes its advocates behave worse.

In the end, Edwards advises us to believe in contracausal free will as a kind of “Pascal’s Wager”. The “win” here is not eternity in heaven, but the good behavior and better societies that Edwards thinks come from believing in free will. The implicit idea is that you can force yourself to accept free will even if you think evidence is against it, or if you’re a diehard determinist.

Needless to say, there is substantial evidence that people who believe in free will, or at least believe that they are in control of their own lives, are more prone to exhibit good mental health and productive, ethical behaviour. There is a not inconsiderable moral dilemma here. As we illuminate the role of DNA and other fixed factors, we will acquire knowledge that should allow us to improve and save countless lives. On the other hand, if more and more people come to accept the idea that they’re not choosing their thoughts and actions, their subsequent behaviour may guarantee that a lot more lives are in need of saving.

Thinkers like Harris and Weinstein are preoccupied with how we build a less risky world, which may be partly why their thinking appeals to conservatives. However, it is worth remembering the well-established relationship between risk and reward, because whether or not we believe in free will may turn out to be the Pascal’s Wager of the twenty-first century. With that in mind, any professional gambler worth their salt should bet on free will. There is just too much about the universe that we don’t understand, and the potential pay-off from agency is staggering.

I’ll have a lot to say about this later, but probably not on this website, and so feel free to discuss the article in the comments below.

78 thoughts on “Quillette author advocates a new Pascal’s Wager: We should bet on libertarian free will because it makes us behave better

  1. Disregard the evidence because it will make you a better citizen – haven’t we heard that somewhere before?

  2. I haven’t read it, but it seems to me that almost everybody already believes in free will — and how’s that working out for us?

  3. “A New Pascal’s Wager” — sounds like doubling down in blackjack after you’ve taken a hit and busted.

  4. I keep reading Quillette and I keep getting this weird feeling something isn’t quite right…

    There are some vile comments, and by extension, commenters.

    1. Painedumonde, I read it too, mainly because the articles tend to express a “conservative” but usually non-partisan and often well argued position on many topics. The comments inevitably bring out the trolls, on both sides of the political spectrum. That is not the fault of the authors of the articles, just a feature of our increasingly polarized and angry intellectual space. As somebody on the left, in the sense that I believe that our politics should pursue greater social justice, but not – for example – in the competitive victimhood of intersectionality, I find plenty to disagree with in the content, but often in a good way. So the thing that “isn’t quite right” is that Quillette (or the authors published in it), in rejecting the dodgy shibboleths of the left, inevitably embraces some of the equally dodgy shibboleths of the right

      1. The commenters are more right wing than the articles.

        For similar sorts of articles without the right wing commenters, go to Areo. Unfortunately though, without many commenters at all.

        If anyone knows of a site which slags off right and left wing nutjobs equally, and has a good comments section, please let us all know.

  5. He clearly is plumping for dualistic free will …

    Let us know when you publish your piece slaying the fatted calf, so that we might all eat and make merry.

  6. “…there is substantial evidence that people who believe in free will, or at least believe that they are in control of their own lives, are more prone to exhibit good mental health and productive, ethical behaviour.”

    I don’t think believing you are in control of your life is the same as believing in libertarian free will. Free and mentally sound compatibilists believe they are in control of their lives. And a Pascal’s wager with on an impossibility—libertarian free will-is just fooling yourself.

    If you are uncertain about compatibilist free will it might be worth a Pascal’s wager, but I don’t know how convincing the evidence is.

    1. Actually, people who are convinced of incompatibility still behave in the hear and now as if they had choices, even if they don’t. I certainly do. So, I don’t think it’s possible to definitely identify a problem with it.

  7. Isn’t the real debate between determinism and indeterminism? In determinism the effect always follows the cause. The gas flowing through the bunsen burner ignites when you set off a spark in the presence of oxygen. In an inderminist system everything happens by chance. There is no continuing cause and effect. In science we look for determining events that way we can explain and predict what happens. Because of determinism we can hold people responsible for their actions after a certain age. Otherwise it is chaos. The debate is really about theory of knowledge.

    John J. Fitzgerald

    1. No, the debate is whether the laws of physics hold for all physical matter on one hand, and numinous superstition (without mechanism) on the other. You can accept both determinism and pure quantum indeterminism and still be a “determinist” in the sense that nothing is behind decisions besides the laws of physics–that there is no “agency” that itself does not obey physical laws.

      1. Thank you for your comment.

        Isn’t it true that the laws of physics or chemistry are not prescriptive, but descriptive? They are generalizations that have been confirmed numerous times by different observers. They are not like judicial laws that demand a certain behavior to avoid punishment by the executive branch. Empiricism is very different from normative discourse. I do not believe that there is free will.Human behavior can be predicted.

        John J. Fitzgerald

        1. Human behavior can be predicted but with significant restriction. When my sons become teenagers I’d like to predict their behavior, and now one is a teenager and I am constantly struggling to anticipate any behavior. I know he’s unlikely to be a raging murderer, but it’s anyone’s guess whether he will choose McDonald’s or Dominos next Friday night…

      1. LMGTFY

        Adequate determinism is the idea that quantum indeterminacy can be ignored for most macroscopic events. … Random quantum events “average out” in the limit of large numbers of particles (where the laws of quantum mechanics asymptotically approach the laws of classical mechanics).

  8. I give the writer credit in that he doesn’t confuse the idea of free will with a number of other, similar concepts, which I think happens frequently when people discuss free will. But his conclusion, while logical, is paradoxical:

    Is it far-fetched to suppose that conscious choice is real, but rules, processes, and definitions don’t apply?

    I mean… maybe. But if something is essentially a mystic concept that defies definitions, then there’s little point in discussing it anyways. Maybe mystics on mountaintops surpass all contradictions and see square circles – it’s an interesting idea, but for practical purposes, there are no square circles in the world in which we live.

    I understand the idea / hypothesis that perhaps the role of individual agency has been so important in Western culture, that Western culture as we know it would cease to exist without it, even if it is an illusion. From a strictly pragmatic point of view, it’s an interesting argument. However, I think that you can still say there is something special and even emergent about self-conscious agency and the individual wills / thoughts / plans that arise from said agents, without resorting to the idea that said agency springs forth continually from the universe via uncaused means. One could also argue that such a view undermines our mutual interdependence and connection to the world around us.

  9. I suspect that acceptance of determinism has opposite effects on different kinds of people. For example, it could be that it makes narcissists and sociopaths behave worse, and good people behave better. Studies on the subject should take in account character traits and intelligence, but I don’t know if already do this.

  10. Edwards makes the common mistake of confusing the scientific principle of physical determinism with the psychological state of “fatalism.”

    The determinist is the guy (if you’ll pardon the sexism) who, when he looks in the mirror while shaving in the morning, understands that there’s no ghost in the machine staring back, that all the universe is subject to the laws of physics (be those laws classical or quantum and indeterminate).

    The fatalist is the guy who, when the alarm goes off in the morning, turns it off and climbs back in bed, figuring, screw it, if the boss is gonna fire me, the boss is gonna fire me whether I show up to work or not.

    1. One problem is, though, that hard incompatibilists, while claiming to not endorse fatalism, start implying it in the way they talk about free will.

      That happens when they not only deny “we could have done otherwise” but also say things like “we can not do otherwise.” And that choices are thus “illusion.”

      (The logic of determinism actually does lead you to the same “could not do otherwise” about either the past or the future, IF you want to start talking that way about determinism).

  11. “On the other hand, if more and more people come to accept the idea that they’re not choosing their thoughts and actions, their subsequent behaviour may guarantee that a lot more lives are in need of saving.”

    In other words if people don’t think they are choosing their thoughts and actions they are going to choose bad thoughts and actions. William Edwards assumes people make choices and will make choices based on whether or not they believe they can make choices. He presumes you can override causation via belief. The force of illusion is strong in this one.

  12. “. . .when he looks in the mirror while shaving in the morning, understands that there’s no ghost in the machine staring back.”

    Well, of course not. It’s a well-established fact that ghosts, like vampires, don’t show up in mirrors. Machines, yes, but not ghosts.

    1. ‘Swhy it’s so hard for ghosts and vampires to get a nice, close shave in the morning.

      Tryin’ to shave in a mirror fogged over by steam from the shower is hard enough. But when you cast no reflection at all? Fuhgeddaboudit.

      1. I systematically shave without mirror. It’s easy, because you can actually feel where you missed a hair (or two).
        So, I respectfully disagree.

        1. Back when I used to have a long morning car commute to the office, I’d sometimes see guys with electric razors shaving in their rear-view.

  13. If I flip a fair coin, what is the probability it comes up heads? The mathematician says, “50%.” But the determinist says, “it’s 100% heads or 100% tails, we just don’t know yet.”

    There is no “randomness” right? You have no choice in what angle and force you apply when you flip that coin, so the outcome is predetermined, but we just don’t know yet. And it’s far too complex a system to precompute, so we have to FLIP THE COIN to “compute” the result.

    This is how I view free will: the outcome of a decision is already determined (because the laws of physics are already in place) but we don’t know what it will be yet, even in our own heads! So we indulge the illusion of “free will” and act as if we can weigh the influences and the various outcomes and make a “choice.” Therefore we use the notion of “free will” the same way the mathematician talks about “probability”… we acknowledge the pedantic deterministic view, but indulge the model that lets us encapsulate the notion of “we don’t yet know something.”

    1. That is a very good example, there are so many factors involved in action and behaviour that it often remains unpredictable, even -sometimes especially- to oneself.
      It has the feel of an ’emergent property’.
      It is the reason that determinism is so counterintuitive, and the reason that ‘free will’ is still a useful concept (albeit an illusion) for daily garden variety use.

    2. Or you could say that determinism is exactly what you’d want if YOU are to play a role in determining an outcome.

      The manner of thinking within the context of determinism that you seem to propose, entails a type of agnosticism that simply couldn’t work, if you think it through.

      So take an example where you are deliberating on a choice between driving to work or riding your bicycle to work.

      It only makes rational sense to deliberate between these two actions IF you could actually take either of those actions.

      What you propose is that we deliberate between the actions on the grounds “one of them is already determined, meaning I can not IN FACT do one of those actions, but since I don’t know which action I’m determined to take, I’ll pretend I can do either one for now.”

      The first thing to notice is the somewhat weird sense in which this seems to ignore the role your reasoning actually plays in determining the action. But that aside, this attempt at “fooling yourself” can’t be rationally upheld. You are setting out to deliberate between two options when you have decided in advance that both options are NOT IN FACT open to you!

      If you say “Well, I COULD get in my car and drive to work” you can not therefore, logically, simultaneously say “or I COULD ride my bike to work.” No, your presupposition rules that logic out.
      You don’t even need to know the outcome to already know you are engaging in fantasy, not reality, in contradiction and incoherence in trying to deliberate between the two actions.
      And if you can’t start with any reasonable way to say it is “true” when contemplating driving your car that you could do that, and “true” that you could ride your bike instead, then deliberating as if they are true is just irrational.

      The easy way out of this is just to acknowledge that in thinking about your choice you aren’t making some impossible metaphysical commitment to “being able to do either given precisely the same state of the universe” but rather you are just contemplating your real-world powers in given situations: e.g. IF I desire to ride the bike, that’s something I’m in fact physically capable of doing, likewise IF I want to drive my car, I have that capability.

      This is how we manage to rationally, and successfully guide ourselves through the physical world, no magic commitments, or contra-physical beliefs required.

      1. “. . .no magic commitments, or contra-physical beliefs required.”

        There’s an unfortunate tendency among materialists to assert that “contra-physical” (or, in a word they shun, “spiritual”) beliefs amount to a commitment to “magic.” But if one holds, as I do, that the spiritual is as much a part of everyday reality as the physical, then there is nothing “magical” about it. For that matter (or spirit), there’s nothing “supernatural” about it. The spiritual is every bit as natural as the physical, which is why I object to Sean Carroll’s equation of “materialist” and “naturalist.” I’m not a materialist, but I’m definitely a naturalist.

        1. Sorry, but your view that some “spirit” inheres in all matter, a form of panpsychism, is both non-naturalistic and, in fact, “supernatural”. Since you haven’t specified what that spirit is, I take it to be the equivalent of a “soul”—a proposition that is both non-naturalistic and magical.

          If you think the “spirit” is in some way a natural phenomenon that obeys the laws of physics, then by all means tell us what it is.

          By the way, saying “the spiritual is every bit as natural as the physical” is misleading, as it can be interpreted as “people who believe in God are evincing a natural behavior–something dictated by their biology and physics” but could also be seen as “god is as natural as the physical”, which is flat wrong. You keep mistaking the “reality” of a belief (i.e., someone thinks he’s Napoleon, and that’s a real belief) with the reality of existence that can be affirmed by independent observers (e.g., Napoleon existed). I think it’s time you told us about this panpsychism you maintain, which is the doctrine that “every bit of matter has individual consciousness.” What kind of consciousness? In what sense is an atom or a rock conscious? Is there any evidence for this consciousness beyond your assertion that it exists?

          1. Let’s stipulate that the physical is all there is. I am curious how we measure or quantify inherently subjective experiences, which clearly have causal powers on behavior.

            A great work of art (or propaganda!) can move people to change their minds, and affect their behavior, but not always in the same way. Human brains have a lot plasticity and each is a unique reflection of the individual’s life experience. So each person will have a different, subjective reaction to the same stimulus. How is all this captured in a strictly physical way, i.e. through quantitative measurement?

            One person reads the Brothers Karamazov and is inspired to become a policeman, another becomes a monk, another becomes a poet. Is the idea that all this can (one day) be quantified in brain chemistry?

            1. Is the idea that all this can (one day) be quantified in brain chemistry?

              Yes. (Not necessarily in “brain chemistry” but in the physical processes involving the brain.)

              1. Thanks. I appreciate the straightforward answer. I have to say, I’m somewhat dubious.

                It’s not merely the complexity of the interactions at work that’s a problem. There still has to be some objective mechanism for quantifying things that seem very hard to quantify. You’d have to be to say, “This novel, with it’s moving depictions of jealousy, lust, piety, etc. will affect person X’s brain (which is perfectly described in some formula?) by producing a xx% increase romantic feelings for Russian culture, a xx% decrease in compassion for alcoholic fathers, a xx% increase in respect for legal punishment of murder, etc.

                It’s very easy simply to assert that it can be done, but these things aren’t really “physical” qualities in any ordinary sense of the word, right? There is no mass or volume for jealousy. So merely asserting that these things can be quantified is just dicta.

              2. but these things aren’t really “physical” qualities in any ordinary sense of the word, right?

                Maybe not in the ordinary sense of the word, but I claim these *feelings* are the result computation (or information processing), and computation is a physical process, so they can be analyzed/quantified like any other physical process (in theory – in practice some features of the universe might never be within the grasp of our technology).

              3. Think of jealousy, lust, piety, etc. as discrete memories of events stored in long term memory, their strengths attenuated by time elapsed since the events. Once they resurface, a cloud of chemical and electrical stimulation is triggered which follow learned pathways within the brain. To analyze that you might need to know, not just the current state of the person, but his history. In principle, there is nothing beyond these changing states of the mind, so in principle a brain and it’s states could be fully quantified. The caveat being available technology and the time to do the analysis.

            2. We feel like we’re making decisions, but we really are just “discovering” what decision our environment and our brain has (in essence) already made.

              Take this example: put a coin inside a box and shake the box. Set the box down. The coin is lying inside the box, heads up or tails up. You don’t know which, so in some sense “it could be heads or tails.” But in another sense it is already one or the other, you just need to open the box to find out which one it is.

              When we “decide” something, we really are just opening the box.

            3. “One person reads the Brothers Karamazov and is inspired to become a policeman, another becomes a monk, another becomes a poet. Is the idea that all this can (one day) be quantified in brain chemistry?”

              Yes. Mostly just a lot of adjusting of synapses connecting neurons, making them stronger or weaker connections. Some of that affects responses to hormones, some of it the likeliness of remembering something, some of it connecting one idea to another, and so on. Humans weave an incredibly intricate web of connections in their brains, just to be able to contemplate ideas such as being a monk or a poet, or to write comments about them.

              The best, and saddest, evidence that it is brain connections that do it is the impact of dementia on a person. Gunk is clogging up the neural connections, and parts of their mind just shut down and fade away. Memories are lost, comprehension is diminished, any of the faculties of the mind may be affected.

          2. “If you think the ‘spirit’ is in some way a natural phenomenon that obeys the laws of physics, then by all means tell us what it is.”

            I don’t think that and have never said that. I’ve said that spirit is a natural phenomenon, yes, but you’ve misinterpreted this to mean that it obeys the laws of physics because in your world view all of nature is physical. My contention, rather, is that both the physical and spiritual are “natural”—that is, exist in nature as part of reality—and I would no more expect the spiritual to obey the laws of the physical than I would expect the physical to obey the laws of the spiritual.

            My take on how we’ve gotten to this impasse is this. Historically, the spiritual was set aside for the sake of a great experiment that we know as the Scientific Revolution. It really began 200 years earlier in 1347, a year that marked the beginning of the Black Death and, coincidentally, the death of William of Occham. The Church misinterpreted the Black Death as a spiritual problem—namely divine punishment for sins—and recommended spiritual solutions—i.e., repentance and penance. This strategy failed miserably. The Black Death established once and for all, at least in the collective human psyche, that the spiritual was irrelevant to dealing with physical events such as pandemics. Occham’s “Razor” began a parallel movement in philosophy to eliminate unnecessary inclusions of the spiritual. All of this culminated in what we call the “scientific method,” the essence of which, after all, is to divide the world into what is relevant and irrelevant to a particular experiment.

            The latter succeeded so well and with such amazing benefits to humankind that we eventually forgot that we had set the spiritual aside for the sake of an experiment and began to believe that it didn’t exist. Consequently, just as previously the Church interpreted all problems as exclusively spiritual, we’ve come to view all problems as exclusively physical. Global warming, for example, is as much a spiritual problem of values as it is a physical one of carbon emissions. If we resolve the physical problem without addressing the spiritual one—namely, our screwed-up relationship with the rest of the natural world—we will have failed as miserably as the Church did in dealing with the Black Death.

            Way more than you asked for, I’m afraid, and a bit pedantic at that, but I didn’t see much point in just repeating my views on experiential vs empirical evidence.

            1. It sounds to me you use “spiritual” to mean anything social, psychological, and in the realm of ideas and forms (Plato?), as opposed to scientific which does analysis in a strictly physical realm. Thus, peoples attitudes and behavior vs climate and environment (spiritual), as opposed to measuring and controlling the components of climate change (materialism).

      2. Hi Vaal, and thanks for the thoughtful response. I think you misunderstand what I’m saying.

        If you are trying to decide whether to drive or ride your bike, there IS one decision you are going to make, and there is one you aren’t. But you don’t know which one it is yet, so you go through your (well-developed) reasoning process to find out the answer. The illusion is the powerful feeling you get, while reasoning, that you have the freedom to make either choice. And the feeling of some supernatural agency that constitutes “you”, unbound by physical laws, that gets to choose. It’s powerful feeling, but I don’t believe it’s correct.

        Once you are committed, and you have driven/ridden to work, it is a fallacy to say “I could have made the opposite choice.” We pretend that sentence makes sense because it is informally convenient, but from a purely scientific view, it’s false.

        Back to my coin example: we say “well, it landed heads but COULD have landed tails.” Nope. It couldn’t have. But it makes sense to informally speak this way.

        A lot of this is purely pedantic, but some who propose popularizing determinism say that it could help downplay some of our less attractive instincts (like revenge-seeking and hatred). I’m not entirely convinced.

        1. Hi back, JB!

          Yes, I understood exactly what you meant.

          Talking in the abstract about “not knowing which decision you are going to make” doesn’t address the coherence *during the decision making.*

          Once you are committed, and you have driven/ridden to work, it is a fallacy to say “I could have made the opposite choice.” We pretend that sentence makes sense because it is informally convenient, but from a purely scientific view, it’s false.

          No, I suggest you actually destroy science if you take such statements to be false. Science depends on the same type of empirical claims, which indicates you are assuming the wrong thing about the statement. Science isn’t simply about “what happened” but is about what COULD happen. If we weren’t conveying truths via talk of “possibilities” we couldn’t do science.

          I think you have misplaced the role of “not knowing the outcome” in terms of making our thoughts coherent.

          Our conceptual schemes, and our language used to convey those conceptual schemes, has evolved to understand convey information. Truths about the world we can conceive of and pass on to one another. And it has been successful. So we have to be careful about what we are actually throwing out, when saying a statement is “false.” Even from a “scientific viewpoint” the statements referenced are not “false” in the sense normally used in science.

          If I say to you “you COULD take route A using the freeway to the new office or you COULD take route B which uses streets that can avoid rush hour traffic” what do you think is the actual information content?
          Am I trying to inform you that you are outside the laws of physics? Of course not. The information is just useful empirical information, and you can use the information to inform your deliberation. “IF I want to get to work faster today route A will be the one to take.”

          If you get to work late one day and I say “You COULD have taken route B, which would have avoided the heavy traffic…”

          Again…do you really think that the motivation, the information content MEANT is purely some metaphysical impossibility? That wouldn’t make sense of it. The statement about what you “could have done” is just another way of giving you the same type of useful empirical information. IF you had known about it or wanted to, you could have taken that route to get there faster. And since the information content was NOT specific to “one exact moment in the universe,” this is why you can use it to inform your next deliberation about getting to work.

          Imagine if every time anyone tried conveying normal information by “could” and “could have” we had to say “Nope, actually, not true. That’s just false!” We would be blinding ourselves to the actual information content of such language. Imagine a police chief gathering his staff after a protest got out of hand leading to some disaster. He says “Ok, let’s go through this and find out what we could have done differently/better.”

          If one of the staff objected and said “I’m sorry Chief, but determinism means we could not have done anything differently than we die…”

          That person would be a moron, right? He/she would have completely missed what type of information the Chief means to convey, and receive, by such statements. They are only “false” if you misunderstand the intent of the statement.

          So if I say I can either ride my bike or drive to work, it’s not a false statement because I’m conveying facts: I own a car, I own a bike, I’m capable of using either to get to my work. And THOSE are the facts, the truths, that inform our deliberations and make them coherent. Our general abilities under relevantly similar conditions.

          The role of “not knowing the outcome” comes in here: I DO know…to the degree we have justifications…that I have those capabilities. But I DON’T know the outcome.
          I don’t know for instance if I’ll actually make it to work on my bike. Maybe I’ll be hit by a car.

          The same applies to the coin in the box example. When we say “the coin could land either heads or tails” obviously we don’t mean at the same time. We are only talking about the fact that under conditions like the one we are about to put the coin, such coins can flip either heads or tails.

          Yes, we don’t know before hand which way it will flip. But it’s TRUE before you flip the coin box that it could land heads or tails in the same way it is TRUE to say I am capable of riding a bike or driving a car. A coin like this one, in conditions like this, can sometimes flip heads, sometimes tails.

          It is just as informative to say after the result that “the coin could have flipped tails instead of heads” as it is to say “I could have taken the car instead.” Because this is empirical information about entities operating in similar situations, not precisely the exact situations. Since we can never reverse time, all our empirical inferences HAVE to be extrapolations from previous situations to not-exactly-the-same situations.

          1. I believe this is a case for what is called the subjunctive mood. The word “could” is often, but not always, an indicator of that. The clearest way to express it is to include some condition that wasn’t true, so it is clear that you are not talking about the actual case.

            For the trip to work, therefore, you can say “If I had felt tired, I could have driven the car instead of riding my bike.” Since you didn’t feel tired, you are not claiming libertarian free will here, you are just pointing out that if circumstances had been different, your decision might well have turned out different as well.

            I might add that it is often this subjunctive sense that we mean when we say “I could have done differently,” meaning only that the other option was not blocked, and would have been possible had my mental state been slightly different at the time.

          2. Not much to add on this topic because, as usual, Vaal says everything I would have done, but better. The last sentence above is key.

          3. Hi Vaal.

            Seems like you are arguing a pretty standard compatibilist line here. It’s a semantic difference, but not a fundamental difference between what we’re saying.

            I understand your examples from real life about the police chief, the bicycle choice, and so on. I use that same language myself. I’m just saying it’s actually wrong in a very literal and pedantic sense. Determinism tells us it’s wrong. But we instead adopt the illusion that it’s correct (as you have in your examples) because modeling the world in this way matches our experience and our intuition much better.

            You just read this sentence. Could you not have read it? Nope. Did you “choose” to read it? Who’s the “you” doing the choosing here?

            Our host (Prof Coyne) and many other prominent determinists explain this better than I can. But there are prominent compatibilists (eg, Dan Dennett) who agree with what you’re saying.

    3. “the outcome of a decision is already determined (because the laws of physics are already in place) but we don’t know what it will be yet”

      I would quibble a little bit with this, in that the decision isn’t fully determined until the last moment. It is possible that something could change right up to that moment.

      Our act of deciding is needed as the trigger to say to our brain: “okay, evaluate all the inputs, do all the calculations, and tell me what my choice is – now!” The state of the brain at that moment then determines what you think and what your choice is.

      As it turns out, we have to do this a lot in the course of a day. Which pair of socks should I wear? Another piece of toast? Which comment shall I reply to next? Come on, Steve, make up your mind! So we get used to triggering these decisions. Indeed, once we are trained to do it as children, we can’t help but do it all the time.

      1. “I would quibble a little bit with this, in that the decision isn’t fully determined until the last moment. It is possible that something could change right up to that moment.”

        If something changed at the last moment, what changed it? Could it not have changed? Did some agent with free will “decide” to change it (like maybe God)?

        Your brain is a biochemical engine, subject to the laws of physics. Your environment is also physical. Where is the mystical entity unbound by these laws that’s making changes?!

  14. Determinism means that you do what you want to do, where that includes considering the consequences that you want to consider.

    It doesn’t mean you can’t change things in your life, if you want to. You can start going for a run every morning, if you want to. What it does mean is that you can’t decide you want to if in fact you don’t want to.

    As humans, we are excellent learning machines, and we change every year as we grow older and learn more. That in turn means that what we want gets changed, in response to our experiences. Just about everybody wants different things by the time they are 32, compared to when they were 16.

    We retain the notion that we are somehow the same person at 32 that we were when we were 16, despite all the changes that have taken place. So, we adopt the convention of calling this free will, though it is really just the absence of coercion, the not-libertarian version of what free will means.

    As long as we can grow, and learn, and change over time, we’ll be fine with determinism. It’s what we’ve been doing all along.

    1. I agree… there’s an argument that each of us tends to ‘do things’ first and then justify our actions retrospectively.

      Whether to ourselves or others or mythical beings our justifications are often confabulated and shallow.

      So “I made a choice because I have Free Will” could easily be a confabulation. But the strength of our conviction is no guarantee of its truth.

      1. “But the strength of our conviction is no guarantee of its truth.”

        Granted. But true or not, the strength of our conviction is, alas, the best we have to work with.

        1. True, but we can work toward holding justified convictions using techniques like skepticism and science.

      2. A.C. Harper wrote: “I agree… there’s an argument that each of us tends to ‘do things’ first and then justify our actions retrospectively.”

        Yes, and some have pointed to some lab experiments showing that, in the type of conditions of the experiment, people confabulate a reason for their actions.

        The problem is that many people following their intuition that free will is false, tend to leap from such “evidence” to extreme, unjustified generalized conclusions such as “therefore we do not have conscious access to why we did or do anything – the conscious ‘explanation’ should always be doubted because we don’t really have access to our reasons for doing things.”

        That is very clearly false. The claim that we don’t have access to our actual reasoning could never account for how well our conscious explanations often explain and predict our actions.

        For instance, I state the circumference of a given circle. How did I find the circumference of a given circle? I’ll tell you how: I went through the steps of calculating it using the standard formula of multiplying pi by the diameter of the circle.
        Why did I use that formula? Because I know that formula to work for the job I had in mind.

        That’s a conscious report of the reason for how I got from here to there.

        What could it mean to think this is pure confabulation and is an untrue report? What could explain my arriving at my conclusion about the circle’s circumference if that WASN’T how I did it?

        Would some non-rational explanation…the smell of morning coffee?…do the job better?

        Until someone can produce a working theory of how non-rational, unconscious influences can explain these and countless other examples better than the conscious descriptions, it’s more parsimonious to say that, generally speaking, we can have conscious access to the reasons we did things, even though in *some cases* we can be in error, just as our visual system can *generally speaking* reliably apprehend what is going on, though this system can also be provoked in to error (optical illusions and other influences).

        1. “intuition that free will is false”

          I don’t think you meant to say that. No one, I think, has an intuition that free will is false. Quite the opposite. Giving up the instinct of free will take a lot of intellectual effort, and can’t be maintained beyond brief moments of philosophical musings.

          1. rickflick,

            “No one, I think, has an intuition that free will is false. Quite the opposite.”

            Yes I should have been called on that because I didn’t elaborate. The reason I wrote that someone is being pushed by an intuition one way, e.g. “free will is false” is because the “problem of free will” is based on a clash of intuitions. First the intuition that in making a choice “I could, or could have done otherwise…I am free to choose either way.”
            The problem for free will starts when we introduce another intuition that “everything that happens has a cause.” Once you follow the logic of that intuition, you get to “my decisions/actions were caused” and the chain of causation seems to precede the decision, out of your control. And this bring in another intuition that “if the previous chain of causation predetermined my choice, then my choice wasn’t ‘free.’

            When people are presented with these two *apparently* opposing intuitions, either immediately, or after some consideration, typically they choose sides: either “I can not give up the intuition that I could have done otherwise….hence I go with that intuition” or “I can not accept that a decision/act that was predetermined by causes out of my control is a ‘free choice,’ hence THAT is the overriding intuition, and I reject free will.”

            This is why, I think, the debate ever free will, even among skeptic-minded secular people, is so incredibly fraught and makes everyone want to pull out their hair. Once you slip to one side, the reasoning seems to ratify an intuition that just feels so right, that it’s extremely hard to be budged.

            Moral discussions also tend to be about ratifying our intuitions as well.

            So that’s what I had in mind: just like there is an intuition being satisfied or driving people’s intransigence on holding on to free will, some other intuitions are being satisfied and are helping drive the rejection of free will. IMO.

            That doesn’t mean that one side’s reasoning isn’t more sound of course, but I think it does explain the nature of the debates.

            1. The problem for free will starts when we introduce another intuition that “everything that happens has a cause.”

              I don’t think that’s an intuition.

              1. “I don’t think that’s an intuition.”


                I submit you navigate the world all day on this intuition. If you have a leak somewhere in your house, you presume a cause, etc.

                If you walked out one morning and found a 12 foot diameter smoldering pit in your lawn, would you think “oh, I guess that happened for no reason” or would you naturally presume
                there is an explanation: something caused the hole?

                Can you tell me anything that happens to you ever, or that you interact with, that you think did not have a cause?

              2. I think the cause and effect nature of the universe is something we learn, hence is not intuition. I have learned that a leak haa a cause and what that cause might be, and I don’t consider that knowledge to be intuition.

                Possibly you and I have different understandings of what “intuition” means.

        2. The claim that we don’t have access to our actual reasoning could never account for how well our conscious explanations often explain and predict our actions.

          I somewhat disagree with this. Sometimes the explanation for our behavior is clear to us – for instance your circumference example.

          But sometimes it’s not, especially with behavior that would be characterized as irrational. Consider a man that beats his wife. He might feel compelled to provide an explanation: “I grew up in violent household.” “I was drunk.” “She was asking for it.” All of these explanations are incomplete at best, false at worst. Yet the man will feel compelled to provide a summary explanation (an explanation that is culturally acceptable, if possible), and that explanation will take hold and become lodged in place even though it is very inadequate.

          Some people are able to provide better explanations for their behavior than others. Some people – outliers, have absolutely no clue as to why they’re doing what they’re doing (see Texas Tower shooter).

          1. Mike, I agree. That is why I was careful to say that we do indeed confabulate stories about our reasons sometimes.

            What I was objecting to is the wholesale leap some make from examples in certain situations, to “therefore we just don’t really know why we did anything.”

            Sam Harris actually, unfortunately, draws these types of inferences, partially extrapolating from his meditations where he observes that “thoughts just pop in to existence from I-know-not-where.” And then he uses that in an argument extrapolating to “we don’t control our thoughts and we can’t really give an account of how we have any particular thought.” And from this purported “mystery” he infers we therefore are not in control of our thoughts, which plays a role in his rejecting free will.

            I think Sam, and also people drawing these types of inferences from isolated situations, are stretching things too far.

  15. If people dislike determinism then let them spell out exactly how free will is generated biologically. Without fairy stories. Cain’t be done, I believe.


  16. Debaters of the issue, in any such discussion ought to outline, how, in a reality that is determined, there could be any oughts at all, when they are demanded as well as observed or disregarded as predetermined billions of years ago. I see how this also includes my request. It shows that the free will debate is unproductive for the matter at hand.

  17. Its a very poor article, well below usual Quillette level. It’s hard to know exactly what he is arguing for as he doesn’t properly define his terms.

  18. I see a lot of disparaging comments about “a ghost in the machine,” and I understand why. The laws of physics are not optional.

    But can someone help me understand the mechanisms for how a strictly materialistic determinism accounts for things like mood, emotion, desire, etc. — which clearly affect our behavior?

    Even if we have vast improvements in brain chemistry that allows us to map the position and effect of every neural connection, wouldn’t we still need to have perfectly precise metrics for psychoanalysis?

    For example, to _predict_ with mathematical certainty the outcome of WWII, would need to know the precise mental states of millions of actors, including, e.g., Winston Churchill, whose decisions clearly affected the war.

    But before you could map his brain to predict how his “stubbornness,” for example, influenced the war cabinet in May, 1940, you would need very precise definitions of every possible psychological trait, how they interact, their relative values, etc.

    Even with an infinitely powerful computer, I’m not clear how you would give precise mathematical values to things like ambition, fear, pride, remorse, prejudice, irony, etc. — all of which make up part of someone’s physche, and therefore would have to be accounted for and quantified.

    1. This is where the ghost has to be exorcised. In a materialist context, your stubborness (to the extent that it exists) is a property of your brain, likely related to your frontal cortex. One can see this sort of thing by the unfortunate brain injury victims and their behaviour, for example.

      1. Thanks. I already stipulated that these qualities are physically present in the brain. The question is how to connect the chemistry to the attributes and behavior. We can easily find quantitative measures for the neural innervation of a muscle. How do we quantify what makes someone more bashful, or optimistic, or conscientious?

        1. It’s important to keep in mind that emotions felt by the “self” are the result of very complex processes and feedback loops involving nerve impulses and hormones. Many hormones originate in glands throughout the body, so it wouldn’t be useful to only focus on brain chemistry when studying somebodies floating emotional states. For example a simple fear response (let’s say to stepping in front of a bus) would involve eyes, ears, nose, etc. The discharge of the sympathetic nervous system, the adrenal medulla, part of the adrenal gland on the kidney, produces a hormonal cascade that results in the secretion of norepinephrine and epinephrine. The brain stem controls the reflexes that start muscles moving before you are aware of it. Other glands react to concentrations in the blood releasing their own contribution to the mix.

          The hormones estrogen, testosterone, and cortisol, as well as the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, also affect the stress response.
          Chemicals in the blood up the blood pressure, stimulate the heart, increase the pulse, etc.

          All this takes place in seconds and the conscious part of the brain becomes aware of the danger and undoubtedly the emotions of fear. This kind of reflexive behavior can be mapped out, but for complex aspects of personality, say, where memories of past experience get involved, I think you’d need a great deal more information for a given individual. To fully understand emotion, you need to understand the entire brain-body system. Undoubtedly a long term project.

          In the meantime, there are ways of dealing with traits such as shyness. For example, Powdermilk Biscuits – Gives shy people the strength to get up and do what needs to be done.

    2. Determinism does not imply predictability. It says merely that everything is the result of physical interactions, however elaborate those may be. Things like ambition would indeed be very difficult to track down precisely, but it is still the result of physical events in the brain, not magic.

      1. You, Steve, gave the only reply it was possible for you to give, given determinism. I would have given much the same answer if I was a bit quicker, or you were a bit slower. But, that was not to be. I could not have done otherwise than to dilly-dally, while you were helpless to resist a quicker comment. With careful enough analysis, all this would have been predictable. But who’s got the time. Not me.

      2. Why wouldn’t physical interactions be completely predictable with a sufficiently powerful computer and good data?

        1. It would. You’d have to accept subatomic randomness, but it would be unlikely to affect much at the level of predicting behavior.

  19. People often say that belief in free will is due to our sense of experiencing it. It just “feels” like we have it. But a moment’s reflection on the experience itself reveals that thoughts occur to us. We don’t will them. A sensical interpretation of our experience is that the self encounters thoughts after the fact not before.

    1. That doesn’t seem necessarily like much insight if you consider what you could possibly mean by “willing thoughts” in the first place. What would that mean, if it doesn’t mean what we already can experience?

      The thought, or feeling “I am hungry” may indeed seem to come out of nowhere. But once that arises, I can think about what to do with it. Should I eat in or take out? Well, I’d decided I need to save money, so I’ll eat in. Should I make a sandwich or throw on a frozen dinner? I’ll think about how much time each would take, and contemplate the consequences. I’ve got work to do, little time to spare, throwing a frozen dinner in the microwave will better meet the goal of taking less time to make dinner, so I choose that.

      These thoughts occur in exactly the way I’d think they would occur if I’m thinking through my actions.

      Now, it could be the case that the way our brain works is that our thinking happens with some lag before it becomes conscious, but that shouldn’t be of any great consequence: it’s still “us” doing the deliberating and we have generally reliable access to our reasons for doing things. (Which we do, even though not perfectly so).

  20. Boy, Edwards does a lot of work to “solve” an imaginary problem of determinism. Instead of supposing that “determinism” means “take your intuitive idea of causality and apply it to the whole universe,” he really should study the science and realize that there is no threat to free will there. Causality in actual science is either asymmetric or universal (depending on definition of “causality”) but not both – not even in deterministic theories like Everettian quantum mechanics.

    No need to dance decisions on the head of a quantum pin. Just read some Sean Carroll and Jenann Ismael, and all will become clear.

  21. I do not believe “behaviour better” in general is a useful category … one would have to see where the tradeoffs are.

    And *then* over what period of time?

    And then, and only then, consider the “noble lie” and how to deal with the “truth getting out”, etc.

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