Another philosopher in Quillette goes after my determinism, and proposes a compatibilist definition of “free will”

August 2, 2019 • 10:15 am

Not long ago I read a piece in Quillette, “The Academic Quarrel over Determinism,” written by William Edwards, described as an “independent scholar” and “founder of Bright Tapestry Data, a company pushing back on misinformation and fake news.” Edwards’ piece, about determinism and free will, seemed pretty muddled, and wound up arguing that even if determinism be true, we should still believe in free will because of the salubrious nature of that belief for our own well being and that of society. In other words, Edwards was asking us to make a Pascal’s Wager about free will (though the stakes are lower than Pascal’s own wager). To wit;

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.

That was too much for me, and so I wrote a response, also in Quillette: “Why We Shouldn’t Bet on Having Free Will—A Reply to William Edwards“. Besides trying to correct some of Edwards’ apparent confusion about free will (i.e., determinism doesn’t equal predictability; naturalism, which includes determinism plus stuff like quantum indeterminacy, does not give us any extra agency), I was almost insulted at the idea that we should believe something for which there’s no evidence because it has good consequences. That’s too much like the Little People argument for religion.

I won’t belabor what you can read in Quillette, but now there’s a new piece that criticizes both me and Edwards; it’s below (click on the screenshot). The author is Ben Burgis, described as follows: “Ben Burgis is the author of Give Them An Argument: Logic for the Left, which is available for pre-order from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. He’s also a regular on The Michael Brooks Show on Tuesday nights and he releases videos every Monday for the Zero Books YouTube channel.” Burgis also appears to teach philosophy part time at Rutgers. But the argument, not credentials, is what’s relevant here.

Burgis is arguing for compatibilism: the view that even if determinism is true (conceived of as “our brains obeying the laws of physics, both deterministic and indeterministic), we still bear moral responsibility for our acts. Burgis does agree that at any time we could not have done other than what we did, but insists (with me) that we still should be punished for bad things we do—at least those bad things for which we’re morally responsible. And the idea of moral responsibility, which flows from Burgis’s own definition of free will, is where we differ.

What, to Burgis, makes us morally responsible? It is acts we do when we’re free from compulsion. If we commit a crime because someone holds a gun to our heads and tells us to do it, that’s compulsion, and we’re not morally responsible. But if we commit the same crime for other reasons, without the gun to our head, then we are morally responsible. As well as that sort of compulsion, Burgis counts other “compulsions” like drug addiction or mental illness. Absent those, we are morally responsible for what we do, and we can say that what we do shows our free will (excerpts from Burgis’s piece are indented):

Coyne and Edwards both seem to think that the kind of “free will” we’d need to be held morally responsible for our actions is “contra-causal free will.” In other words, if we’re truly free, then our decisions can override a physical chain of cause and effect. Hume didn’t think we have this kind of freedom. In Chapter Eight of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (“Of Liberty and Necessity”), he argued that, even when we don’t know everything about what led Person P to decide to perform Action A instead of Action B, we shouldn’t jump from that premise to the conclusion that there isn’t a coherent cause-and-effect explanation. Hume compared human psychology to clockwork. When a clock stops working, a peasant might only be able to report that “sometimes they stop working,” whereas a trained clockmaker would be able to find the tiny grain of sand that got caught in the gears. Nevertheless, Hume thought, as long as P picked A because he preferred A rather than because, for example, an assassin threatened to shoot him if he picked B, P chose A of his own free will. In other words, Hume thought that the freedom we need to be responsible for our actions is freedom from coercion.

This was an early version of compatibilism, and it’s vulnerable to some obvious objections. What about a kleptomaniac who steals a bauble to satisfy his compulsion, or a heroin addict feeding an addiction? More fancifully, what if a mad scientist were to implant a chip in P’s brain that caused him to have an overwhelming desire to do A? In each of these scenarios, coercion isn’t present, but P doesn’t seem to be in control of his actions in a way that makes him responsible for them—or, at the very least, he seems to have diminished control and hence diminished responsibility.

Many post-Hume compatibilists would say that in order to be responsible, P must be free not just from coercion but from other factors such as addiction, compulsion, and manipulation by brain implant. Nevertheless, they do not claim that P must be placed entirely beyond the influence of genetic and environmental factors to be responsible.

Never mind that contra-causal (or “libertarian”) free will is what most people think of as free will, and is certainly the view of free will held by many religions as well as much legal thought, for finding salvation or being held responsible for a crime depends on the contra-causal notion that you could have done otherwise.”

But why does being free from compulsion make you morally responsible? Because, according to Burgis, it means that the decision you make (although you couldn’t have done otherwise) was your decision (my emphasis below):

If I find a precious stone on a beach that no one has laid claim to, it’s fine for me to take possession of it. If I find the same kind of stone in a friend’s pocket, it would be wrong of me to take it without asking. In both cases, the stone comes from outside of me. I didn’t make it. The difference is that in the first case, I’m the only person with a claim to it. Similarly, if the mindless operation of natural laws playing out through a complex combination of genetic and environmental factors results in my weighing the pros and cons of a possible course of action in a certain way and coming to a particular decision, the reasons that motivated me are my reasons. If a mad scientist’s chip in my head brings about the same result, they are not. In both cases, my decision is determined by factors outside of me, but only in the first case do I have a unique “claim” on my reasoning.

And if the reasons you do something (that is, the reasons you think has made you do something) are yours—part of your own personal cerebral computer program—then you are not acting out of compulsion and you are morally responsible for what you do.

To be sure, Burgis says that “there’s room for reasonable people to disagree” about his argument, but his argument, which is not new, still seems weak, and for several reasons.

1.) You are always acting under compulsion, whether someone holds a gun to your head, you’re mentally ill, or you’re acting according to what your brain has made you do. As Sam Harris notes, your deciding to drink a glass of milk was just as compelled as your doing something bad under external force. You don’t feel compelled when you do something like walk one way to work rather than another, but you are, because you’re simply following the logic of your brain circuitry and the “decision” it’s spit out.

For example, suppose you decide to forego your vacation so you can save money to send your kids to college. You don’t want to forego your vacation, but you want to send your kids to college, and if you don’t you’ll be ostracized by them and by society. If you give up your vacation in that way, are you under compulsion or not? I’d say you are—just as if someone held a gun to your head. For the workings of your genes and environment made it inevitable that you’d do what you did, even if you didn’t really want to. Many similar examples are conceivable. The point is that if determinism is true, every action we take is an action we were compelled to take.

2.) This does not mean that external circumstances surrounding an action should not be taken into consideration. If you commit a robbery because you’ll be killed if you don’t, then yes, you’re responsible for doing the robbery, but you would be punished, if at all, very differently from someone who commits a robbery without that form of compulsion. For if you do it without a gun to your head, you’re more likely to do it again and need to be punished differently for deterrence of others, for reformation (you need a different kind of treatment in these two circumstances), and the different likelihood that society needs to be protected from you.

3.) The concept of “moral responsibility” is outmoded; we should simply retain the idea of “responsibility” since whether you are irresponsible or morally irresponsible are both results of the laws of physics. I do not deny that the term “morality” has a value in expressing a code of conduct that society requires or desires of its members, but the term “moral responsibility” is not materially different from “responsibility”, and yet carries the implication that in the former case you had a choice to do otherwise. You didn’t. Ergo the term “moral responsibility” is misleading.

4.) The concept of “moral responsibility” is injurious because it underlies a vindictive and retributive view of punishment. Yes, we need to punish people who do bad things, but we can do that by a). holding them responsible for what they did (not morally responsible), and b). realizing that they had no choice about what they did, and then c). meting out punishment based on the circumstances under which they did the crime, how much punishment will constitute a deterrent, what kind of reformation, if any, the malefactor needs, and considering how much society needs to be protected from the malefactor.

These are the reasons that Burgis’s argument doesn’t move me. His view that you are morally responsible, and have a form of free will, so long as what you do is not done “under compulsion” and is done “according to your own reasons”, is neither consonant with what most people think of as free will, nor adds anything to further the points I’ve already made about responsibility and punishment.  I’m not going to respond to Burgis in Quillette, for I’ve just done so.

Social progress in this area depends not on philosophers confecting one or another view of compatibilist free will: Ceiling Cat knows they’ve already devised dozens of conflicting definitions of “free will”, and has that solved the problem? No, of course not.  Real practical progress, which seems not to concern compatibilists, depends us accepting that there is no such thing as contracausal free will, and that every act we perform is an act that we were compelled to do by our genes and environment. When we accept this kind of determinism, then we can set about implementing the kind of judicial reform that we so badly need.

For those of you who say that “compatibilism can also motivate judicial reform,” my response is that compatibilists seem more interested in making semantic arguments than in fixing our badly broken penal system. The reason why determinists are more concerned with practical consequences is because we don’t have to make semantic arguments, and thus move directly from accepting behavioral determinism to effecting a humane utilitarian effort to fix the way we deal with crime and punishment.


128 thoughts on “Another philosopher in Quillette goes after my determinism, and proposes a compatibilist definition of “free will”

  1. You don’t feel compelled when you do something like walk one way to work rather than another, but you are, because you’re simply following the logic of your brain circuitry and the “decision” it’s spit out.

    In order to claim we are always compelled to do what we do, we seemingly must mentally separate our selves from our brains — or ourselves from the laws of physics. They made us do x; we had no choice. But doesn’t this uncoupling just create another form of metaphysical libertarianism?

    Where do we end, and the universe begin?

    1. How many bananas were me and now are not?

      Borrowed energy, that’s all we are, that and stardust. The universe is us.

      Buris has a subtle, but rather significant, misunderstanding of what compulsion means. Maybe he should start by proving some action which is not compulsory.

      1. How many bananas were me and now are not?

        Borrowed energy, that’s all we are,

        And yet, the difference between a human and a banana are of all consequence.

        I’m not totally sure of the point you wished to make, but I’ve seen many people writing that who have fallen in to a fallacy where if you can point to the similarities we share between other things – e.g. we are “just matter/atoms/chemicals etc like a banana” – then THAT is used to distract from all the important ways matter/energy behaves “when in the form of a human” vs “when in the form of a banana or rock.”

        Everything we care about lies in the differences between us and non-sentient forms of matter and energy.

      2. How about those words you just wrote. You didn’t have to write them, did you? It seems to me you wanted to, you chose to. You thought they were true, accorded with our best evidence, and are intellectually defensible. None of those motives are about Causation. You “prove” in any detailed way that they were compulsory.

        Too many people on this site accelerate from 0 to 60 way too fast. Just because the universe started with only a few kinds of things and followed few and uniform laws of behavior, doesn’t mean that that is true here and now.

        You don’t have a detailed causal explanation and certainly no detailed predictions of most of the really tricky stuff people do. Prove to me how Tarantino was compelled to make “Once Upon A Time…”, or the causal chain that leads to what our jerk President will do next!
        You can’t. All this talk of determinism explaining all is “in principle”.

        1. Sorry pal, but do you have a detailed causal explanation of the laws of gravity? Nobody does, but you still act as if it operates in predictable ways. And so it is with all the laws of physics explaining stuff.

          And, you know, you might be a bit more polite and civil in your remarks, not just towards your host, but towards the other readers, whom you mistakenly say “accelerate from 0 to 60 way too fast”. In fact, they’re more correct than you are, with your “we don’t understand the laws of physics so they must not apply to our brains” mush.

    2. Dr. C wrote his above defense of Determinism in a manner no different from his gallbladder and its secretion of bile, or at least he should contend.

      But surely he takes “intellectual” responsibility for it, if not “moral” responsibility. He can’t just say “it came out and that’s all there is to say for it.” And of course it didn’t and he doesn’t, he Reflected upon each word of it.

      And that’s how we are part of and different from the universe at the same time.
      We are a Reflection of it, and not simply a result, like the bile.

      The most consistent form of a hard determinism position should simply be Quietism.

      1. Sorry pal, but if your last line is meant to say I should shut up, I reject it. And yes, “I can say it came out and that’s all I had to say about it.” My “reflection” is simply the ineluctable workings of my adapted brain when confronted with a question. If my arguments change your brain (unlikely, I think), then so be it. Yes, the mind secretes thought as the gallbladder secretes bile. You got a problem with that?

        1. By “quietism” being the logical outcome of your position, I meant Not to tell you to “shut up”, just that what is the point of ‘debating’ if everyone is only physically compelled by outside forces to say what they say and believe what they believe? Of course if we are so compelled then we will just keep doing what we are doing, even though it’s as big a charade as you think “free will” is. Free will and rational discussion are ideas in the same boat. Sorry you took offense.

          1. Greg
            You will have to explain why it is the logical position not to say anything. The same deterministic processes guide our thoughts regardless of whether we are hard or soft determinists. Practicing quietism applies equally to you as it would to any flavour of determinist.

            Incidentally I looked up “Quietism”, it is (or was) a heresy practiced by some (Catholics primarily) in the late 1600s where they started contemplating rather than meditating. Unfortunately the word contemplate does not quite mean the same in Christian theology as in the vernacular.

    3. I think what you describe is a semantic argument. If you accept determinism then you know you cannot separate our selves from our brains. We are our brains (and everything that interacts with our brains). The term “we” simply defines a small segment of the universe for use in discussion. If “we” are wound up clocks in a room, each clock runs a deterministic program within the deterministic program of the room. Each gear turns according to a deterministic program of it’s rotation withing the mechanism. We can say then that the room, clocks, and gears are compelled with the deterministic program of the Universe. “We”, then, are not separated from the universe.

      1. Yes, so by your terms ‘we’ should stop saying ‘we’? If hard determinism is true then doesn’t All Point of View disappear from a reasonable ontology? Seems so To Me (but then I guess that just gives away my position).

        1. Not quite. The term “we” is linguistic handle to label a complex phenomenon. We (there I go again) would have a hard time conversing about the universe if we confined ourselves to long-form descriptions instead of abbreviations like “we” and “I”. Even if our sense of ourselves as a disembodied observer, seated in the Cartesian theater (Dennett), is actually a fiction, it is still an important fiction. In fact, we are a distributed observer with only approximate locality in our heads. “I” suggest you keep using the term “we”.

        2. Greg … you keep making the same mistake over and over (I think). The physics is no different for the hard or soft determinist.

          A soft determinist should come to the same conclusion as a hard determinist. Yet you are coming to a different conclusion about expressing opinions etc. A soft determinist might suggest a different definition for free will, which is fine, and claim we have free will on that basis. Otherwise hard and soft determinists should be able to agree on pretty much on the consequences of determinism. Yet you don’t.

          Have you considered that you might not really be a determinist?

    4. Sastra, you’re picking up on the dualism inherent in claims like “my brain made me do it”. Since I AM my brain, whatever my brain decides, I have decided. Whatever it chooses to do, consciously or unconsciously, I have chosen to do.

      From childhood we are asked “Why did you do that?” So we begin early to construct explanations for our behavior.

      Another result of this operation is that we will stop, before doing something, to ask ourselves “How will I explain this to myself and to others?” Thus the “laws of reason” take control away from the
      “laws of physics”.

  2. Burgis counts other “compulsions” like drug addiction or mental illness. Absent those, we are morally responsible for what we do …</blockquote

    Sounds like the "irresistible impulse" insanity defense Jimmy Stewart coached his client Ben Gazzara about right before the latter's testimony in Anatomy of a Murder.

    Of course, those were the old days of the so-called M’Naghten Rule — the defense that was mortally wounded by the pistol shots John Hinckley aimed at the Gipper.

  3. After the last Quillette post on here I was thinking a lot about moral responsibility and how “moral” didn’t seem to fit in in the context of the laws of physics. I completely agree that when thinking about this it is just responsibility.

    I’ve thought about this a bunch many years ago and then again recently on here. I’ve always been and still am a determinist and incompatibilist (with some outstanding questions about indeterminism).

    I don’t agree, though, that the argument of free will or lack of free will should be applied to the legal system. The determinism/free will argument is so far removed from the reality of the legal system. As an example, with discipline unrelated to the legal system, discipline changes the way we act when growing up or otherwise. We also have a sense of responsibility even though we have no free will. It seems to me that lawyers and judges should have the same understanding as a physicist about determinism for that to be considered. Even then, I’m not sure that determinism and no free will is the best premise for punishment reform in the legal system.

    I really enjoy this topic. I’m especially happy to see #3 and the accuracy in the responsibility only.

    1. Liz, most people, including lawyers, use the “operational” definition of free will, which boils down to a choice one makes that is “free of coercion and undue influence”. They do not use the “philosophical” definition, which is a choice one makes that is “free of reliable cause and effect”.

      The philosophical definition is logically irrational, because without reliable cause and effect we could never reliably cause any effect, and would have no freedom to do anything at all.

      The solution to this problem is simple: stop using the philosophical definition. Dismiss it for the oxymoron (self-contradiction) that it is. That resolves the paradox.

      Deterministic causal inevitability is a logical fact, but it is neither a meaningful nor a relevant fact. It changes nothing and has no practical implications to any real world scenarios.

      1. “Deterministic causal inevitability is a logical fact, but it is neither a meaningful nor a relevant fact.”

        I’m inclined to agree, but the failure to accept determinism seems to lead many to retribution. If the crime WAS your fault, you should be made to pay! Emotions are engaged which require satisfaction. While a determinist would be more measured about the remedy.

        1. Determinism does not change the fact that “the crime was your fault”.
          A) If you were coerced by someone else, then it is his fault, and he is subject to correction.
          (B) If you were mentally compromised (diminished capacity to reason, under the influence of hallucinations/delusions, influenced by an uncontrollable compulsion) then you are still the cause which requires correction, but in a mental hospital.
          (C) Otherwise, the crime was a deliberate act caused by your deliberate choice, requiring changes to your way of thinking. In this case penalties are designed to change your way of thinking, including giving you the opportunity to participate in rehabilitation programs.

          And that’s the way it has always been and always will be. What is changing is our understanding of what works and what doesn’t work. And what is fair and what is not.

          Determinism does not change any of this. No one has ever been punished for having free will. They are only punished for the harm they have done. And punishment, even when vindictive or retributive, has always been a deterministic tool for changing a person’s behavior.

          1. You’re right in describing the legal criteria. But,

            “punishment, even when vindictive or retributive, has always been a deterministic tool for changing a person’s behavior”

            Is the contentious point. Mobs pull prisoners out of jail and string them up because they are vindictive and retributive, not because they understand that we live in a deterministic universe.

          2. EVERYONE understands that we live in a world of reliable cause and effect. They broke into the jail and hung the guy to cause a specific effect. They wanted to send a message to themselves and others that the prisoner’s behavior would not be tolerated. So, if you want to blame something for this behavior, you might as well blame determinism: the notion that their behavior will produce the effects they desire.

          3. The danger is that the mob will inflict more cruelty and suffering into the world than they can expect to prevent. Think about the treatment of criminals in centuries and millennia past. Torture and other ghastly punishments were meted out which did nothing to improve overall human well being. Think of the criminal system in Saudi Arabia today. Modern USian law is generally much more rationally driven, but there is still a lot of vengeance in place of justice. Look at the imbalance in the treatment of racial groups, for example. Much of that is prejudicially based and fueled by retribution.

          4. Of course, Rick. But the issue of mob retribution versus law and order is a question of justice. It is not a question of determinism “versus” free will. What does the criminal “justly deserve” (“just deserts”)? The question actually has an answer.

            The point of justice is to protect rights, EVERYONE’S rights. Everyone deserves justice. Everyone deserves to be treated fairly.

            So, a “just” penalty would seek to (a) repair the harm to the victim if feasible, (b) correct the offender’s behavior if corrigible, (c) protect society from the offender until his behavior is corrected, and (d) do no harm to the offender or his rights than is reasonably required to accomplish (a), (b), and (c).

            That is the result of seeking justice. And if someone is seeking retribution of vengeance instead, then they’re not likely to find justice.

  4. Never mind that contra-causal (or “libertarian”) free will is what most people think of as free will, and is certainly the view of free will held by many religions as well as much legal thought …

    You could safely make that “prevailing US legal thought.” Contra-causal free will is presupposed by criminal statutes that proscribe acts done “willfully” or “knowingly” or “intentionally”. And it is presupposed by the instructions courts give juries regarding such statutes before they begin their deliberations.

    It’s also why the insanity defense obtains only where, due to a severe mental illness or defect, a defendant is unable to understand the “nature and quality” of his or her actions. It’s also why other types of mental illnesses that merely impinge on a defendant’s exercise of free will are treated not as defenses, but as a mitigating factors to be considered at sentencing, generally under the rubric “diminished capacity.”

    1. It’s interesting to see that our legal system, evolved over millennia, has incorporated a lot of language around an intuitive concept of free will, perhaps based in a framework of folk-physics. It surely was, from early times, been influenced by such religious notions as possession by daemons, evil spirits, guilt by association, etc. But, seems to have become fairly pragmatic in modern times. Modern law seems to have removed some of the retributive attitude that must have prevailed when executions and torture were common. We still have a ways to go.

      1. The law doesn’t presume free will is contra-causal. The law simply recognizes the causal nature of the act of deliberation that precedes a deliberate act. And rehabilitation in prison seeks to change how the offender deliberates upon such matters in the future.

        One of the problems with deterministic theory is that it appears to overlook the most meaningful and relevant causes of the deliberate act. But no theory of determinism can be called valid if it ignores the most meaningful and relevant causes.

        Determinism without operational free will is simply false, because it ignores current causes while only seeing prior causes.

          1. I was looking at it from the other direction. You gain some credibility by association. 😎

          2. “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool”. Richard Phillips Feynman

  5. Compatibilists simply need to pay closer attention to their own arguments. If a tumour in a person’s brain is a cause of compulsion so is everything else in a person’s brain. As Sam Harris puts it, it’s tumours all the way down. This is precisely the point where compatibilists lose the plot. There is actually no difference at all between a tumour causing someone to murder and a normal brain causing someone to be a kind and generous person. The kind and generous person is no more free to become a murderer than the murderer with the tumour is free to not be a murderer.

    Here’s what causes people to be compatibilists. They are kind people who want to take credit for their normal kind brain. It feels good to think that you are just a better person than criminals. It feels good to think that you both have the same compulsions and options but they chose evil where you chose goodness. I see the temptation to be a compatibilist. You get to feel superior to those less genetically and environmentally fortunate than yourself.

    In closing, just like spellcheck, I refuse to recognize compatibilism as a valid thing. Spellcheck knows what time it is.

    1. “As Sam Harris puts it, it’s tumours all the way down.”

      Or chemistry all the way down, or physics all the way down.

      Evolutionary processes have resulted (so far) in brains that massively boil down incoming sense data (both from outside and inside the skin bag) into small driblets of data which *may* be important for survival and/or reproduction.

      This motivated boil down results in everything being divided into what is salient and what is not (or not yet). Between ‘me’ and ‘you’. Between ‘moral’ and immoral’. Between ‘effect’ and ‘prior cause’.

      You can make a reasonable argument that all this abstraction and abduction result in all the ‘high level’ labels our brains use as learned templates. Templates like ‘free will’, ‘responsibility’, ‘agency’, ‘blame’, ‘love’ and so on.

      But the ‘templates’ do not have a concrete reality; they are shortcuts we have learned to boil down the flood of data we must live through.

    2. I’ve read someplace that “if everything is an illusion then nothing is”. The same would apply to saying that every choice is equally compelled. It destroys the ability of the word to make a meaningful distinction. But it has a relevant meaning, precisely to distinguish between a decision that an adult of sound mind makes for themselves, versus a choice made at gunpoint or due to mental illness.

      Oh, and I too was surprised at the term “compatibilism”. I don’t think that school of thought had a name when I was reading about the free will “versus” determinism paradox nearly 60 years ago. (The solution to the paradox is simple: free will is a deterministic phenomenon. The two concepts were never incompatible. That was just an illusion).

  6. When it gets down to the underlying details, when they are laid out clearly as done by Jerry and Burgis here, it looks to me as if this may come down to a “values” choice as opposed to a question that can, even in principle, be definitively answered by science. Burgis and Jerry seem to pretty clearly be in general agreement about the ramifications determinism has for human behavior. The difference is that Burgis thinks that it is useful to draw a line somewhere in order to make use of the concept of moral responsibility and Jerry thinks that that’s a bad idea.

    1. Most of us have a sense of morality (guilt pride etc)in our or someone else’s actions. Similarly most of us have a sense redness(colour in general). While I might think of my kitchen chair as red (admittedly a useful concept for communication) in no way do I think of it as actually being red when applying scientific understanding to the matter. Similarly when looking at an ‘action’ dispassionately it makes absolutely no sense to me to see that action as moral or immoral.

      It takes some discipline not see the likes of Trump and Obama in some moral black and white.

  7. This was a long one, me being an idiot do know this that determination is crucial for human survival. Didn´t one guy some time ago said to himself ” I´m freezing” and trhough determination he created fire. Now we have lighters so we have progressed.
    Something you said about “free will”, you said it. It is free to think about it, it Will cost you time, sweat, tears, to become a man or woman and work yourself to having the Will to do things. But free to think about for sure.

  8. These are the reasons that Burgis’s argument doesn’t move me.

    So, like a common Danish prince, your “withers are unwrung”? 🙂

  9. 1.) You are always acting under compulsion, whether someone holds a gun to your head, you’re mentally ill, or you’re acting according to what your brain has made you do.

    Excellent rebuttal. I would assume Burgis would agree that near-death starvation satisfies his definition of “under compulsion”. But what about a starvation level not-quite-near-death? Is there a point of duress that satisfies “under compulsion”, or is it a gradual scale? If it’s a gradual scale, is one ever free of compulsion?

    Compulsion is inescapable, whether it’s a survival-oriented compulsion (e.g. hunger), a reproduction-oriented compulsion, a social-oriented compulsion (gotta have that BMW M3 – I NEED it!), etc.

    You are always acting under compulsion

    You nailed it.

      1. So it’s always a mistake to draw lines in a continuum?

        No. If there is a line, please tell me how you determined it, and then we’ll go from there.

        I’m challenging anyone to illustrate why that line exists, why duress level x is compulsion, but duress level x-1 isn’t compulsion.

      2. Compulsion vs ordinary decision are two clusters in a continuum, like male and female, or child and adult. The boundary is inherently fuzzy – exactly how similar to typical female genitalia do you have to have, to count as biologically female? Or which chromosomal patterns count, in which species? Or hormone levels? But fuzzy boundaries are compatible with the fact that most cases fall clearly into one cluster or the other.

        Of course you can always draw a line, such as 18 years or 21 years, and say “after this you count as adult (for purpose X).” But such boundaries are a little artificial. Or you can have a system of legal precedents – like we do in most Western countries, for compelled and uncompelled actions. That set of precedents would be a good working definition of compulsion.

  10. Even if the world is not deterministic, nothing changes with respect to responsibility for an act. The only alternative is randomness – the act was not determined by physics, but some sort of cosmic roulette wheel.

    Belief in souls does not get you out of it either, the “soul” would be subject to the same two possibilities.

  11. “The concept of “moral responsibility” is injurious because it underlies a vindictive and retributive view of punishment.”

    I think you are asking us to be morally responsible about criminal justice. Can a society be morally responsible if none of its citizens can be?

    I am all for eliminating vindictiveness and retribution from criminal justice, but it does seem to me that it is a moral position to take. I don’t think arguing against moral responsibility is a good way to advocate for morally responsible criminal justice.

    1. Quite the paradox as you lay it out. It becomes less paradoxical if you don’t use “moral responsibility,” but just “responsibility” in the neutral, causal sense. I think Prof. Coyne makes this case following what you quoted.

      No doubt the professor’s case contains what might be considered moral judgments or his own world view – basically that we should strive for a better world as he sees it, and most of us non-sociopaths see it as well.

  12. Since all my future beliefs are already determined and anything going by the name of I cannot change them including the ones about the existence or not of free will then the writing of this argument is already determined and while the conclusion I will eventually reach is not known to me it is already set I find myself trying to ‘decide’ which I believe. I’m excited to find out the outcome of the decision I’m not making.

    1. A number of years ago, Susan Blackmore wrote ‘Conversations on Consciousness’, consisting of a series of interviews with scientists and philosophers on a number of aspects of that subject, including whether or not free will exists. She herself is a hard determinist, and says at one point that, when she goes out for a meal, she often finds herself thinking about herself ‘I wonder what she’s going to choose to eat’. A bit like your final thought, I guess!

    2. While determinism can assert that your choice is causally necessary, from any prior point in eternity, determinism cannot assert that anything other than you will be making that choice.

      If the choice is inevitable, then (1) you will inevitably run into a problem or issue that requires you to make a decision, (2) you will inevitably weigh your options to see which one is likely to turn out best for you, and (3) based upon your own evaluation, you will make that choice.

      Science can assert that your choice was causally necessary, but it can never assert that the choice was made prior to your consideration, your evaluation, and your choosing.

      Deterministic inevitability doesn’t actually change any of the facts on the ground.

  13. The focus should be shifted from “responsibility” to “treatment”, but “treatment” should be focused on good parenting and the education of children, because what we really want is to make punishment and deterrence unnecessary.

      1. I’m familiar with the work of thousands of good parents, and with the work of thousands of bad parents. The results are very different.

        1. That was the sort of reaction I had when I first heard about Harris’s Nurture Assumption. I’d wager it’s the same with most people. It took Steven Pinker’s advocacy for me to look at the argument and see she was right – backed up by data, and not prejudices we’ve internalized over a lifetime.

          That “good parenting” has much of an influence on adult personality turns out to be a species of the blank slate fallacy. Good parenting is an act of decency, but we shouldn’t believe it molds children into good people.

          1. It’s not about “influence on adult personality”, it’s about avoiding doing things that will put you in jail.

        2. Perhaps we are conflating the parents’ genes with parenting skills here? Can you point to the sibling studies (adoptive and non adoptive) studies especially for identical twins separated at birth?

          The Blank Slate (Pinker) has a summary of the studies.

          1. I’m not aware of sibling studies for incarcerated identical twins separated at birth. If they exist, I would like to know in how many cases both siblings go to jail, and how many don’t.

  14. I wonder how many of us have been able to see through the illusion of free will, at least some of the time?

    Philosophical arguments for determinism will fall flat to people who lack a certain world view. The empirical arguments using fMRI to show actions can be predicted from brain activity before arising in consciousness are not as decisive as one might like.

    However, I often see I am acting without consciously deciding to.

    1. Quite. As I have aged I’ve become more aware of doing (or preparing to do) things without conscious thought. Habits do tend to ‘work’ without a great deal of conscious thought… that is why we call them habits.

      I’m currently redecorating the ‘upstairs front bedroom/computer room/ library/ hobbies’ room so my computer has been moved elsewhere. I have noticed that I ‘prepare’ to turn into the original computer room several stair treads and steps away, without conscious thought.

      Similarly I have noticed occasionally that the very earliest glance (tens of milliseconds only) of a new object may identify it incorrectly, before it ‘snaps’ into its ordinary form.

      So if ‘my decisions’ are formed in the same way I might not even realise how mechanical those processes are.

      Of course I may be misleading myself.

    2. It’s called “habit”. A toddler learning to walk is hyper-conscious of each step, but as he gets more practice he ends up running all over the place, no longer thinking of each step. The process repeats when he gets his first skateboard, and again when he gets his first bike.

      Habits are the product of prior conscious decisions.

  15. Quite the paradox as you lay it out. It becomes less paradoxical if you don’t use “moral responsibility,” but just “responsibility” in the neutral, causal sense. I think Prof. Coyne makes this case following what you quoted.

    No doubt the professor’s case contains what might be considered moral judgments or his own world view – basically that we should strive for a better world as he sees it, and most of us non-sociopaths see it as well.

  16. The fundamental problem with any kind of materialist reductionist account of everything (atoms pushing atoms-type model) is not that it abolishes free will, it abolishes agency altogether.

    If you can say “every action is compelled” (e.g. any action I take is strictly a result of a series of physical causes and there is no agent) you can also say “no action is compelled”–because compulsion typically involves one agent compelling another agent to do something through coercion.

    [Note that compulsion is treated differently from a legal defenses of insanity which have different consequences. There is also generally a difference between voluntary and involuntary intoxication.]

    On the surface, it might seem like a materialist determinist has something in common with the Calvinist, because everything is determined, but they don’t. The Calvinist believes in rational agents, only that God (an agent, or the Agent really) determines what happens in a deterministic manner. Dr. Coyne’s position is that agency does not exist, its just atoms pushing atoms all the way up.

    If there is no agency, there is no will, and no free will, and no unfreewill. There can be no “freewill debate” any more than we can debate how many leagues separate Narnia from Middle Earth.

    The problem is that the concept of agency and punishment works. Punishment deters crime in people, it does not work so well with rocks or trees or probably with a person who is severely retarded. Further, I don’t know that punishing people for behavior during a psychotic break or when they are unknowingly spiked with drugs does much for the deterrence value. It would seem that the metaphysics offered contradicts our plain common sense observations of ordinary life–not that that ever stopped a metaphysician from telling us our common sense is an illusion.

    The attempt to disentangle responsibility from morality also fails. Law from a sociological standpoint is parasitic on social morality, and when social morality shifts, changes in the law are downstream. While modern people are used to codified laws, this is a recent innovation. Most people at most times had laws that we based on unwritten understanding. In fact, morality amounts to uncodified social norms not enforced by the state, and law are (mostly) codified social norms enforced by the State. Morality and agency and moral responsibility are the more primitive precursors to concepts of statutory laws, legal sanctions and punishment, and legal responsibility.

    I see two possibilities:

    1.) the metaphysics is wrong and the science is either wrong or misapprehended;

    2.) common sense and generally accepted notions like the efficacy of punishment are wrong. . . and the conceptual foundations of our modern liberal democratic mixed economic system, such as consent in sex cases, voluntary contractual arrangements, crime and punishment, social morality, voting behavior, rational persuasion, are all illusory, wrong and false.

    1. Besides eliminating agency, there is also the effect of seeming to eliminate identity. You are left with a gaggle of atoms slamming up against each other. How is it possible to divide the world?

      While I suppose we can signify as particular skin bag as “A” or “Nancy” or something, isn’t there are difference between naming a person or an animal, and labeling something? Isn’t that difference based on a different way of perceiving that entity–as another subject or another object.

      I don’t get the “humane understanding” part of all of this discussion:

      How could anyone ever invest worth or importance in a skin bag over anything else in this world if our sense of the personhood of another is just a glorious illusion?

      And what scientific explanation is there for the fact that such an illusion can be conjured out of our material world ex nihilo?

      How is this magic conjuring any less inexplicable than the conjuring necessary if agency and personhood were not an illusion?

      1. How could anyone ever invest worth or importance in a skin bag over anything else in this world if our sense of the personhood of another is just a glorious illusion?

        Because the illusion* is both convincing and useful. We identify and think about organisms because that’s a useful way to organize things and helps us survive in the world. The distinguished category of of organism called “people” is also very useful from a survival perspective, as is the special instance of people that is myself.

        These familiar organizing and categorizing practices are the result of evolution.

        *Dealing with the world in terms of people, airline pilots, Kanye West, etc. are not really illusions, but a system of organizing information that has proven evolutionarily useful. But the attributes of concreteness and stability that we attribute to organisms are an illusion – people are dissipative systems constantly reorganizing and replacing their constituent matter. If you look at me now, then look at me in one year, you’ll think you’re looking at the same person, but in one year you’ll be looking at a assembly of completely different molecules.

        1. Sure, its a waste of time to argue about whether concept X is really real or not, there are concepts that are useful, concepts that are not useful, and concepts that are pernicious.

          But if the illusion of free will is as a practical matter fundamental to modern human life (as it is), why call it an illusion because its not compatible with some just-so story about how the world is just a pile of molecules sloshing around?

          I raised the issue of the value of money on Quillette. Money has value because of the way it functions in society, not by virtue of some magical property imbued at the time of printing. Concepts like morality and responsibility have utility in social animals like humans. . . they are used to talk about deviance and conformity with social norms. This means they are defined socially, and concepts like will and agency and the like acquire their meaning from that social system. Because they emerge from the whole, they disappear when you try to dissect them (just as if you cut up money to find its value will only end in the destruction of the dollar bill–it has value because of its special role in a system). We don’t need some theory of causation from science, as we are talking about an autonomous domain of being, any more than the value of paper currency needs scientific explanation.

          1. However, you can see that it is possible that something from a higher level of complexity could drive something on a lower level.

            Money, a virtual abstraction that exists by virtue of a complex system of economy, could drive a decision to invest in capital and production, which could result in fundamental scientific research to develop a new drug. Likewise, a drug, say one that enhanced cognitive performance, could cause changes in the higher levels of a complex system, perhaps resulting in someone accumulating more money, changing college admissions, research, social stratification, etc.

          2. Money has value because of the way it functions in society, not by virtue of some magical property imbued at the time of printing.

            Money is a form of information. Humans are constantly inventing new forms of information (e.g. emojis) – it’s what we do. Some of these forms of information become tightly entwined with daily life (money, laws, tweets), and some don’t.

            I think one of the reasons money is more universally agreed upon than morality is because it’s simpler.

    2. We have the same kind of agency as a robot – the Mars rover for example, which can “choose” a path that avoids obstacles. Of course, the rovers’s agency is programmed in by humans, but human agency, while much richer and more complex is programmed in by all the causal, deterministic circumstances of the past stretching back at least to the big bang.

      And yes, there is no will, free or otherwise, there is just this or that volition. “Will” is an abstract concept not an existing thing.

      Deterrence works for robots like ourselves because we are “programmed” as we are. The same with our morality.

      1. We aren’t programmed, and if we were, that would be an argument for design.

        If you have a rational agent, then yes, the rational agent can program things. . . but the rational agent would have to be programmed by another rational agent, up the chain until you reach unprogrammed programmer.

        Look, an oasis in a desert has a cause, and a mirage has a cause. So what is the cause for the illusion?

        [My personal take is that the problem is with reductionism, with emergent complex systems and chains of causality between levels of complexity you can deal with things like organisms and minds and will, whereas freewill versus determinism is pretty boring if your not a theologian, as if human behavior is not determined, its not very predictable, and if human behavior is indeterminate, it doesn’t necessarily follow that some hard core libertarian theory of free will follows-it could just as easily be random.]

  17. The ongoing debate regarding ‘free will’ has a built in fallacy, namely, ‘cause and effect.’ Such causal analysis is quite inadequate and possibly misleading. Being much influenced by Sean Carroll’s Big Picture and most recently From Eternity to Here (it took me over 2 months to read), his comment below from an article “Why (Almost All) Cosmologists are Atheists” is a cautionary note for the use of ‘cause and effect’ explanations of what humans do or for any other event in the universe.

    The materialist thesis is simply: that’s all there is to the world. Once we figure out the correct formal structure, patterns, boundary conditions, and interpretation, we have obtained a complete description of reality. (Of course we don’t yet have the final answers as to what such a description is, but a materialist believes such a description does exist.) In particular, we should emphasize that there is no place in this view for common philosophical concepts such as ”cause and effect” or ”purpose.” From the perspective of modern science, events don’t have purposes or causes; they simply conform to the laws of nature. In particular, there is no need to invoke any mechanism to ”sustain” a physical system or to keep it going; it would require an additional layer of complexity for a system to cease following its patterns than for it to simply continue to do so. Believing otherwise is a relic of a certain metaphysical way of thinking; these notions are useful in an informal way for human beings, but are not a part of the rigorous scientific description of the world. Of course scientists do talk about ”causality,” but this is a description of the relationship between patterns and boundary conditions; it is a derived concept, not a fundamental one. If we know the state of a system at one time, and the laws governing its dynamics, we can calculate the state of the system at some later time. You might be tempted to say that the particular state at the first time ”caused” the state to be what it was at the second time; but it would be just as correct to say that the second state caused the first. According to the materialist worldview, then, structures and patterns are all there are — we don’t need any ancillary notions.

    1. According to the materialist worldview, then, structures and patterns are all there are — we don’t need any ancillary notions.

      I’d say structures and patterns are all there are, but we don’t have the computational power to deal with all those structures and patterns, so ancillary notions are necessary for (humans) dealing with the world. Ancillary notions are mental crutches, if you will.

      (These ancillary notions are also structures and patterns.)

      1. Yes, I think Carroll’s view was that there are levels of language to deal with reality at different levels of abstraction, or something like that. Thus, ancillary notions could be construed as simply emergent properties which we, for the most part, live with on a daily basis. A separate language is used to capture those higher level concepts above the level of particals.

    2. In particular, there is no need to invoke any mechanism to ”sustain” a physical system or to keep it going; it would require an additional layer of complexity for a system to cease following its patterns than for it to simply continue to do so.

      This statement reminds me why engineers should do philosophy, not theoretical scientists who spend their days dreaming of friction-less plains and infinite machines.

      Of course, any engine or machine made by humans requires constant intervention to keep it functioning. It doesn’t actually require an additional layer of complexity for a physical system to break in the real world.

    3. I think you just hit on the key point underlying the (pseudo)problem. Determinism as understood by physicists – i.e. exceptionless, non-probabilistic laws for all events at some level of description – doesn’t imply “cause and effect” as most people intuitively understand “cause and effect”.

      Well done.

  18. On the topic of free will, I 100% agree that it is a semantically incoherent topic, and wondering if it exists is like wondering if square circles exist.

    On the topic of responsibility, however, I think there are more shades of grey, and even if the term ‘moral’ doesn’t work there, we probably need other terms to define what we’re saying. It seems to me that our intuitions about moral responsibility are actual our intuitions about social (vs. moral) contracts. For example, say you returned home from vacation and found your house wrecked because:

    A) A flash flood ripped through your house.

    B) A friend was house sitting, and he didn’t feed your fish or water your plants as promised (all of whom are now dead, let’s say); dropped trash on the floor when he was finished with it, some of it still half full of sticky soda and such; and played a game of throwing baseballs at your china cabinet. When you ask him why, he says because, respectively “I didn’t feel like it; I felt like it; and I wanted to. But look, it’s not my fault, you know I don’t have free will. I couldn’t help myself and I couldn’t have done otherwise so we’re good, right? You’re not going to shun a friend for something he couldn’t help, right?

    C) A friend was house sitting and had a massive seizure in your house, knocking over your trash can and china cabinet in the process and neglecting to feed your fish or water your plants because he was unconscious over the weekend.

    I think almost everyone would agree that something changes in relationship B that does not change in A or C. The water couldn’t help what it did, the friend who had a seizure couldn’t help what he did, and in the most technical sense, the friend who was a jerk couldn’t help what he did either – but in his case, we would not only hold him accountable, but we wouldn’t do so in a way that regarded him as a malfunctioning bot (“Well, I see you couldn’t have done otherwise, but for pragmatic reasons I must now attempt to apply punishment in the form of shunning to get you to change your behavior.”) Because here our social ties would come into play – we would expect the friend to recognize the broader idea of reciprocity in relationships. and that indignation over you being upset (“How can you blame me for this when you know it wasn’t my fault?!”) would be inappropriate in situation B but not situation C – even though technically he ‘couldn’t help it’ in either situation. We would expect him to recognize that the simple act of having certain standards in the first place, and not accepting, “Hey, I don’t have free will so what happens happens” as an acceptable excuse creates a system of rewards, punishments, and expectations that regulates such behavior, and so “I couldn’t help it” does not qualify as an acceptable excuse in the same way that the seizure does. Despite being technically true, it still speaks to an alarming degree of carelessness and laxness in considering one’s social relationships, because of the broader expectations in those relationships and the expectation that a responsible person should understand those broader implications.

    This may seem contradictory at first glance, but again, I think it speaks to the nature of agent-to-agent social contracts and expectations, not libertarian freedom. A roughly analogous example might be suing a hospital over a medial error vs. hoping to strike up a friendship with a hospital. The first we see as perfectly reasonable, the second would likely qualify as a form of delusional disorder. In some ways this is strange because both examples treat the hospital as a volitional agent that one can interact with. However, the first speaks to the idea of responsibility (even if a hospital is not a sentient agent that can be independently responsible for errors, social expectations lead to the conclusion that conceptually, we should treat it as such when harm has been done) which we understand is necessary, in our society at least, for a functioning society. No one thinks the hospital has ‘free will’ on the one hand, but, no one thinks that we should just let every medical error slide with no consequence on the other.

    This may sound like an overly long summary of “we should still have rewards and punishments for functional reasons”, but what I’m trying to highlight here, in giving contrasting examples, is that out intuitions about those rewards and punishments do change based on broad, abstract ideas about reciprocity and responsibility, and those broader ideas, to my mind, create their own grey area of responsibility. It’s not a matter of immediate encouragement or deterrence, it’s a matter of considering those things in a much larger framework.

  19. In both cases, the stone comes from outside of me. I didn’t make it. The difference is that in the first case, I’m the only person with a claim to it. 

    Should read: I’m willing to use my power to keep it near me.

  20. Jerry, I realize your post is essentially a re-statement of your previous views. But for me this is the best post you’ve produced to explain your view and make your case. It seems all the thinking you’ve been doing on the subject over the years has honed your view very nicely. It was a very nice read!


  21. I do not accept that internal and external compulsions are equivalent. If someone puts a gun to my wife’s head and tells me to rob a bank, there is no equivalence to my deciding to rob a bank because I need the money and to hell with everyone else. This whole idea that determinism makes all choices morally equivalent is wrong, and why it has wrong has been explained by compatibilists many times. I am not going to try again.

    1. I realize that PCC has essentially agreed with this above. I just don’t understand why writers like Harris seem to think they are making some big point.

    2. Where I have difficulty with the compatibility framing, as I understand it at least, is that to my mind the moral judgement of society is an external compulsion, and one that we purposefully, if not always consciously, engineer. So, while I agree with compatibilists (again, I think,) that raising a child by responding “It’s not your fault, you couldn’t help it” to any and every misbehavior would be harmful, I do not agree that this is because people have free will. I think the reason is that raising children in an environment where there is zero social consequence for giving in to every egoic whim; and raising them in an environment where they know they will be judged for putting egoic whims over the good of society, is simply a broad, abstract system of external compulsions that we have built into society.

      I share the intuition that in some sense we do end up acting as if people have free will in enforcing such norms, but I still see it in terms of consequences and deterrents.

      1. I object (strenuously of course, how else?) to equating determinism with compulsion. They are different. If everything is compelled, nothing is voluntary. What, then, do we make of voluntary muscles? The volunteer army? Perhaps it is “just semantics” but the incompatibilist determinists want to change the very meaning of language. To them there is no difference between my voluntary ability to hold my breath and my involuntary inability to stop my heart beat. To them they are both determined and therefore the difference is imaginary. But we are talking about something real. These distinctions do not contradict determinism any more than the fact we make choices (which the incompatibilist determinists seem to want to deny) contradicts determinism.

        That, in a nutshell, is why I am not an incompatibilist determinist.

        1. I will say that, while I across the board do not believe in free will, I agree that grappling with the distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions – and what implications follow from that – is one of the most difficult issues around the topic. I would frame it in terms of “agent driven” vs. “non agent driven”, and I do not think the qualities of agency are in any way free from the rest of the universe – but they are notably different, in ways that I think we may not even fully understand. There is still a lot to be known about the workings of an individual, self-conscious self.

          1. On that we agree. Phenomena like voluntary acts and choice, whether we use the terms free will, agency, or something else, must be consistent with the laws of nature. I just don’t like using determinism to claim they are not real.

  22. Do I have this right?
    I totally understand and agree with Coyne and Harris on free will for the stated reasons. I still find it a bit challenging to get 100% the way there when considering reflective, contemplative thought toward a future action.

    Say someone is intent upon committing a murder. At that moment (or those weeks leading up to it) the constellation of genetics, brain wiring, experience, etc. all make that murder attempt essentially an inevitability. The only thing the murderous person could experience that could result in them “choosing to do otherwise” would-be new information in advance of that act. Maybe the would be murderer happened to read a book on criminology that changed their mind. A loved one could talk to them such that they are overwhelmed by empathy and see their intended victim as a human too and don’t go through with it. But what if they just happened to have a dream of the same event that was equally convincing such that they didn’t go through with it? The dream just occurred completely by chance, randomly with zero control, will, or intention and yet, that is what resulted in a murder or not. As I understand it, that person didn’t change their mind (active), their mind was changed (passive and irrevocable), right? Just as Harris says a brain tumor could force someone’s behavior to kill (which is exculpatory) but many nanoscopic brain defects could do the same and that person is likewise not at fault (moral responsibility). But in my hypothetical above, it sure looks from the outside that someone changed their mind (due to a random dream) and “chose” not to murder someone, in fact they could even be in solitary confinement with no visitors and still “change their mind” for no apparent reason at all. No dream, they won’t “change their mind.”

    How do we get “convinced” by evidence TO change our minds? I get that the thought process will occur and will work (or it never could have) in that moment to convince a thinker to change their mind because it is still a deterministic process. It’s weird though. Do I have this right?

    1. You answered your own question, i.e., it is still a deterministic process.
      The dream scenario does not substantively differ from the book or the conversation scenario. Dreams are like playing out events in some aspect of the imagination. It’s just as though you simply paused and considered what you intended to do gathering “evidence” from memory. The fact that dreams are enigmatic and ephemeral does not change the fact that they are material. The elements of a dream are stored memories, physical sensations while asleep, electrical discharges in the brain, etc.

      1. Thanks rickflick, makes sense. The dream scenario was not meant to woo-smuggle given that their content appears to be fairly inscrutable. I added it to illustrate that a mind can be changed (helplessly) with no input from the outside…no “new information” to change its thought trajectory…just a random firing that may never have occurred if they fell asleep 5 min later than they did. But wouldn’t this potentially confound the Libet experiments? If “choice” to do something is post-hoc realization of what neuronal firing pattern already occurred in the brain, couldn’t the dream be a de novo, spontaneous reversal of those impulses to override the initial determined outcome say from another module of the brain?

        As an aside, I fail to see how anyone can credibly claim that consciousness arises from quantum indeterminancy. My reasoning is that we’re conscious (and the prefrontal cortex is key to this capacity) but lower vertebrates that surely possess little or no consciousness have essentially the same hardware and surely the same quantum mechanics that we do. So why the disparity? Why wouldn’t dead neurons have the same QM behavior as living ones for that matter?

        1. “a mind can be changed (helplessly) with no input from the outside…no “new information”

          You may have a slight confusion here. The cause of a decision is determined by any and all prior events, whether they originate inside the brain or outside the brain. If a dream is altered by a loud nose from outside the brain it is a physical cause. If a memory or electrical discharge alters a dream from inside the brain it is also a physical cause. That distinction is unimportant to determinism as far as I can see. If there is a confusion, it might entail seeing the mind as a separate or transcendent reality. As far as I know, it represents the sensations around brain processing.

          As far as quantum indeterminacy, while it is completely unpredictable, it is also irrelevant to free will. It’s hard to see how it could affect consciousness since it operates only in the sub atomic realm while the brain is an electrochemical system operating at a much higher scale.

          1. If I might interject:

            A. Deterministic causation cannot be accounted for using only the “laws” of physics. While all objects are constructed from physical matter, you’ll find that the science of physics deals only with inanimate objects. It does not cover the behavior of living organisms, much less the behavior of intelligent species. Other sciences deal with these behaviors. For example, physics alone cannot explain why a car stops at a red light, because the laws of traffic are not found in any physics textbook.

            B. Living organisms are biologically motivated to survive, thrive, and reproduce. They exhibit “purposeful” behavior as they go about acquiring the means to accomplish that goal. We cannot explain their behavior without taking this purpose into account.

            C. Intelligent species come with a brain capable of imagination and calculation. They model reality as a set of objects and events. This model is manipulated internally to guide the organism’s adaptations to the reality in which it finds itself. We cannot explain the behavior if intelligent species without taking this mental process into account.

            So, we have physical causation, biological causation, and rational causation. To ignore biological and rational causation would leave our determinism incomplete, and therefore incorrect and false.

          2. Determinism does not pretend to give a complete explanation of high level processes. It only suggests that all things are connected at a fundamental level, and, in principle, this could be demonstrated. We assume that since everything we see in the Universe appears to be made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons and energy fields, we can assume further that all higher level processes in nature, such as biology, are emergent properties of the behavior of the particles at the base level.
            In order to deal with emergent properties we devise inquiries using a language specific to the subject at hand. Biology for example studies organisms, populations, genetics, evolution, etc, all of which deal with the emergent properties of fundamental particles. Determinism can’t be proven, as such, but there is no viable alternative concept.

          3. They are NOT the emergent properties of atomic particles. None of the particles you mentioned possess the properties of purpose or reason. These properties emerge only from the macro objects: like living cells, living animals, and intelligent species.

            We should also keep in mind that reductionism comes with its own self-defeating problem. The protons, neutrons, and electrons you mentioned are themselves composed of subatomic quarks, and they in turn will be composed of even smaller things, down to the theoretical “smallest part of the smallest part”. We do not know where the bottom is, or even if there is a bottom. So the parts of the atom are themselves macro objects in relation to quarks.

          4. As far as can be determined, all processes are emergent properties of atomic particles. H2O has the property of wetness, but H, and O alone do not. Molecules emerge from atoms as compounds emerge from molecules, and so it goes. Purpose implies a conscious being who sets goals. Even purpose emerges from low level capacities of organisms. Don’t let the enormous complexity of higher level phenomena make you think they did not emerge from levels below. Else whence did they come?

          5. Why does a tree grow leaf-filled branches reaching toward the Sun? It does this to convert sunlight and CO2 into the food it needs to survive, thrive, and reproduce. The behavior is “goal-directed” or “purposeful” even though the tree has no conscious experience of this goal. It is more like an instinctive or reflexive behavior. But it clearly serves a purpose, and we can describe that purpose, even if the tree cannot.

            Intelligent species, on the other hand, can be conscious of a specific purpose and deliberate upon the best means of achieving that purpose. This is called “deliberate” behavior.

            All living organisms, from the virus to the porpoise, behave in ways that serve the same purpose: to survive, thrive, and reproduce. Only intelligent species can be consciously aware of a specific purpose and act deliberately to achieve that goal.

            The origin and location of purpose is within every living organism and its species, and exists nowhere else in the physical universe.

            The origin and location of reason is within every living organism that has evolved sufficient neural capacity to enable imagination, evaluation, and choosing. And reasoning exists nowhere else in the physical universe, other than in these intelligent species and the machines they create.

            Both purpose and reason are required to explain why a car stops at a red light.

          6. Your description of purpose is pretty reasonable at a certain level of language and meaning. However, there is a semantic trap. Purpose, as we commonly use the term, includes intentionality, some form of intelligent assessment of what goal is to be attained. As Dawkins said, a birds wing can be described as having a function, of being designed for the purpose of allowing a bird to fly. But no intelligence designed it. It came about through natural selection which has no ability to look ahead. Without the ability to look ahead, purpose becomes somewhat metaphorical. We can still talk about the function of a wing, or what purpose a beak serves, but we have to keep in mind that we do not mean that any real goal was being sought in their evolution. We are not tempted to say, as Aristotle did, that an apple seeks to join the Earth when if falls from the tree. We are not tempted to say that a steel nail left in the rain rusts for the purpose of producing iron oxide. We would more likely describe the event as a passive process of natural law. Phototropism in plants likewise is a set of chemical reactions rather than a purpose of the plant. Humans and some other animals to one degree or another (and maybe chess programs) create purposes by their ability to see into the future and attempt to modify outcomes.

          7. I can appreciate the suggestion that I may be using “purpose” metaphorically. The same issue applies to many other concepts, notably that of “natural law”. Nature, of course, is not an entity that has passed any “laws”, nor do natural objects like the Sun and Moon consult any physics textbooks to determine what they should do next. The only thing that is actually governed by the “laws” of physics is the physicist as she does her calculations to predict where the Moon will be when Apollo 11 arrives.

            But if we examine conscious purpose, and ask ourselves what is its nature and where it comes from (you know, determinism) we find that our consciously chosen purposes can be traced back to a our biological drive to survive, thrive, and reproduce.

            We deliberately build a house to keep from freezing in winter (survival). And, like other animals, we build a house, and do all sorts of other things, to attract a mate (reproduction). And so on. So, the foundation of all our deliberate purposes, even going to Mars, is to survive, thrive, and reproduce, as individuals and as a species. That is the purpose behind all other purposes we have.

            And it is specifically located only within living organisms, and in no other objects in the physical universe, even when we apply it to them metaphorically, as when we suggest that Nature is purposely selecting her favorite species for survival.

            And that, I believe, is the distinction between actual purpose and metaphorical purpose. Living organisms actively seek to survive, thrive, and reproduce. This purpose is an innate property of living organisms, even those that lack any conscious awareness of this purpose.

            It does not operate from the outside of the living organism. It is uniquely innate to each individual and each species. Living organisms are themselves the unique and only source of all purpose within the universe.

          8. I agree with you. I will only add that human culture is a kind of meta-level of purpose which, in it’s complexity and variety, includes many activities that a very indirectly associated with survival and reproduction or actually work against those goals. Steven Gould called these aspects spandrels – the spaces between functions that take on their own significance. Culture makes life spectacularly interesting and at the same time can lead to war and destruction. Good grief!

          9. Deterministic causation cannot be accounted for using only the “laws” of physics.

            Why not? Physics, as currently practiced by physicists, isn’t very good at dealing with computation, but computation is a physical process that follows the laws of physics.

            It’s true that complex behavior explained through the language of physics would be very unwieldy to humans, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

          10. Well, Mike, perhaps you could demonstrate this by answering the simple challenge question: Explain how the laws of traffic are derived from the laws of physics.

          11. Explain how the laws of traffic are derived from the laws of physics.

            I can’t do that. Do you think that means it is impossible?

          12. Yes. The “laws” of physics are derived by observing the reliable patterns of behavior of inanimate matter in response to physical forces. They cannot explain what they do not observe.

            Living organisms, though composed of inanimate matter, respond differently to physical forces.

            Physics is fine for explaining why a cup of water flows downhill. But is has no way to explain why a second cup of water, heated and mixed with a few coffee beans, suddenly hops into a car to go grocery shopping.

            Biology observes living organisms. Psychology and Sociology observe intelligent species. Their observations of consistent patterns of behavior in these objects is how their laws are derived.

            Determinism cannot limit itself to the observation of inanimate matter and still construct a totally connected causal chain. It is impossible.

          13. This argument resonates with me because descriptions of phenomena from the bottom up literally have no meaning (to us) because it is impossible for us to understand it at that scale. I think it’s true, just unimaginably complex because multiple emergent phenomena interact at the human scale,

            I think we obsess over the laws of physics at the extreme scales and conflate the “domains of relevance”. Electrons should be ‘unconcerned’ with E=mc2 just like galaxies should be unconcerned with QM.

          14. I do understand the idea of determinism all the way down, even for emergent phenomena. My problem with the ‘laws of physics’ arguments is that they may predict the future outcome (e,g. increasing entropy of the universe) but cannot predict the path of how we arrive there. Some claim that the future is entirely predetermined and can be traced back to the big bang which sounds ludicrous to me.
            It’s also as you say: E=mc^2 applies at cosmic scale but different “laws” apply at small scales such as quantum mechanics.

          15. “…future is entirely predetermined and can be traced back to the big bang which sounds ludicrous to me.”

            Welcome to the club. Much of modern particle physics and cosmology seems ludicrous to me to. Fortunately, there are those individuals who are working to peel back the layers of ignorance so that we mortals can catch a glimpse of fundamental reality.

  23. Agreed. Compulsion all the way. But I intuitively feel citing the ‘brain’ as the seat of these compulsions seems limiting. For example, could we include our ‘second brain’, the one in our guts, producer of seratonin and dopamine and widen the description of compulsion?

    1. Brains are concentrations of computing power, but computation happens throughout the body (feedback loops all over the place) and out into the environment (pencil and paper augment cognition; my diet influences my nervous system; etc.).

      In a sense the universe is all one interconnected system, but the concentrations of computing power in some places (e.g. brains) are significant and undeniable.

      1. More to your point, @junemax, there’s no firm boundary between brain, body, and the rest of the universe*, so compulsion can come from anywhere in the universe.

        *but as I said the concentrations of computing power and their interconnections are significant features of the universe.

      2. Good point. I’d like to emphasize the interaction between the brain and the hormonal system. Feedback loops, as you mention, trigger glands which, in turn, trigger neurons. Thought and behavior are, to a large extent, driven by emotion which is manifested throughout the body.

    2. Our brains are the central processing portion of our neural network, but it is not the sole place “decisions” are made. Pass your hand too close to flame and you will “instinctively” pull it away; your brain plays no role in that decision. Just so, our sense of proprioception – how we know where our body parts are in space- is a critical decision making neural network (where do I place my foot on my next step, how do I stay balanced on my bicycle?) that does not involve our brains. Our noggin can take over duties when need arises, but otherwise countless everyday decisions are made without any cognitive awareness.

  24. All the really smart people around here seem to agree that compatibilism vs incompatibilism is a verbal issue. Luckily(?), I’m not one of them. The way I see it, it’s a science issue. Everything turns on properly understanding “determinism” *as that hypothesis is understood by physicists*.

    Jerry is right, as far as I can tell, that most people are intuitively repulsed by “determinism” and think it is incompatible with free will. But since they understand “determinism” to imply “cause and effect” and they have a concept of “cause and effect” that is *not* implied by physics, the whole inference that free will is precluded by scientific determinism is based on a misunderstanding. Not a verbal disagreement, but a misunderstanding of physics.

  25. Is it just me or is this discussion more evenly divided? Seems like over the past year and more it was very dominantly hard determinism. Seems more even this time. Maybe that’s just my wishful thinking. Good discussion!

  26. I can’t agree with your claim that moral responsibility “underlies a vindictive and retributive view of punishment”. Isn’t your objection to vindictive retribution based upon your own moral judgment? Your own moral sense of how things “ought” to be?

    Any penalty that goes beyond what can be justified in terms of repairing the harm to the victim, correcting the offender’s behavior, and protecting society from further harm, cannot be morally justified. Thus, any excessive penalty beyond that is morally unjustified, and cannot be said to be justly deserved by the offender.

    The distinction between moral and legal responsibility is is that one is enforced by conscience and the other by law.

    1. I really like the way you put things in the second paragraph. I quibble with “morally justified” because that sounds like “morality” is some sort of universally accepted oracle. Anyway to me,

      Any penalty that goes beyond what can be justified in terms of repairing the harm to the victim, correcting the offender’s behavior, and protecting society from further harm …

      nails it – the best theory of punishment I’ve seen.

      1. I haven’t abandoned the concept of morality, like some atheists have. Morality seeks the best good and least harm for everyone. That measuring stick is the ultimate test for comparing two rules or two courses of action. But while it is simple to state, it is often difficult to apply, because the results of a rule or an action are difficult to predict, and two people of moral intent may disagree as to how things will play out.

        But they say that “a problem well-defined is half solved”. And having a criteria for judgment some measure of objectivity.

        1. I haven’t abandoned morality either. Really, how many atheists have? Your gloss on morality makes you some kind of utilitarian – there are many other moral theories. Saying something is “morally justified” is invoking a false authority. Rather that do this, claim it as your view.

          1. My claim is that ALL moral theories ultimately come down to “the best good and least harm for all”, because that is the only criteria upon which everyone can agree.

            How do we compare and choose between two moral theories?

          2. Unfortunately, from long experience, I have found, that most people ask
            “Is it fair for me?” That is, people worry about being treated unfairly rather than others being treated unfairly. It is hard to get moral criteria with this attitude. The first principle must be that of an impartial observer. Good luck, says the cynic.

          3. Marvin, there are more moralities than dreamed of in your philosophy. There are many moral theories that don’t agree your “the best good and least harm for all” principle. Nietzsche, Kant, Mohammed, and Moses each articulated different moralities.

          4. And they all say that murder and theft, and many other common harms to other people are wrong. Why? Because the intent behind their rules is to increase good and reduce harm for everyone.

            And that is the criteria you apply when reading and evaluating their rules versus your own.

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