More mishigas about free will, this time in the TLS

August 12, 2019 • 9:45 am

The Times Literary Supplement, which I used to write for, doesn’t often make its articles free online, but this one was (click on screenshot below to see it). And it’s about free will: a review of three books on the topic (The Limits of Free Will: Selected essays by Paul Russell, Aspects of Agency: Decisions, abilities, explanations, and free will by Alfred R. Mele, and Self-Determination: The ethics of action – Volume One by Thomas Pink). The reviewer, Jenann Ismael, is a professor at Columbia University, specializing in, as her website reports, “Philosophy of Physics; Philosophy of Science; Philosophy of Mind; Epistemology;  Metaphysics, with interests (and some expertise) in Cognitive Science, Philosophy of Literature, and Existentialism.” That’s a lot of expertise!

As is common in many book reviews, and in most of the good ones, the books themselves play a secondary role to the author’s ideas about the subject. The thing is, I’m not sure what the author’s ideas are, as she goes back and forth between hard determinism and “freedom”, trying, I guess, to forge some compatibilist view that gives us free will. It has something to do with “moral responsibility”, too; but the rather flabby article would have benefited from tighter writing and better editing.

Ismael starts out admitting that the laws of physics make it certain that we could not act other than what we did. She even goes so far as to claim that quantum indeterminacy would not affect her claim that everything we do was determined from the moment of the Big Bang. I don’t accept that, for I’m pretty sure (though I can’t prove it), that quantum indeterminacy made today’s actions fundamentally unpredictable, even if we knew the position of every particle in the Universe after the Big Bang. But since Ismael asserts that quantum mechanics and quantum field theory are not truly deterministic, I’m not sure how she claims that a rerun of the Big Bang would produce exactly the same results, right down to our choice of food the last time we went to a restaurant (or even if there would be restaurants!).

So be it. I’ll buy it since it’s irrelevant to her argument. For as Ismael admits, even quantum mechanics gives us no agency. In one of her better paragraphs, she says this:

Considering quantum mechanics helps us focus on the kind of control that seems essential to human freedom. We don’t want our actions to be controlled by the initial conditions of the universe, and we don’t want them to be controlled by random sub-microscopic events in the brain either. We want to control our own actions ourselves, and we think we do. We want to get ourselves into the causal chain. And we want our decisions to come from us.

But for her the important issue is that although determinism be true, and we couldn’t have chosen otherwise, it doesn’t square with our experience of agency:

This problem [of free will] has been around for millennia, but physics gives it a precise formulation and a concrete setting. It’s a beautiful problem because it brings physics into contact with issues of central human concern and forces us to think hard, in concrete detail, about what a scientific view of the world really entails about ourselves. The problem confronts us with a vision of human action that appears to be irreconcilable with the way we experience the world.

Well, lots of our experience is at odds with what science tells us. We experience a chair as a solid surface, yet most of it is empty space. And physics tells us that our experience of solidity is illusory, but also why we have that experience. In the case of free will, the so-called disconnect between our experience of agency and the reality of determinism may rest on evolution’s having instilled into our ancestors a sense of you-can-do-otherwise agency. It may have been illusory, but it may also have been adaptive. I can think of several reasons why selection would favor that cognitive illusion, but I won’t go into them here.

And there the issue should rest, but Ismael still can’t seem to reconcile our experience of agency with the reality of determinism. This, she says, tells us something important:

To most people, however, it seems literally unbelievable that the scales of fate don’t hang in the balance when making a difficult decision. And it is not just those dark nights of the soul where this matters. You think that you could cross the street here or there, pick these socks or those, go to bed at a reasonable hour or stay up, howl at the moon and eat donuts till dawn. Every choice is a juncture in history and it is up to you to determine which way to go.

Yet, if there is one foundational scientific fact, it is that things can’t happen that the laws of physics don’t allow. And the clash between these two things shows that there is something centrally important about ourselves and our position in the cosmos that we don’t understand.

Apparently—though in a way that she doesn’t make clear—the “centrally important” thing is our sense of moral responsibility—a sense that Ismael thinks is important to preserve. Again, I’d punt to evolution here, and simply say that “morality” is the word we use to describe the dos and don’ts of behavior instilled in us by both evolution and culture. Some animals have it, though not to the degree that we do, but a sense of “right and wrong” is not absolutely unique to humans. Still, the issue appears to keep Dr. Ismael awake at night.

She then describes in detail the murder of the Clutter family in Kansas in 1959—a story well known to those who have read Capote’s In Cold Blood. Surely Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, the murders, were morally responsible for that horrific crime, no?

As I’ve said many times, I don’t think adding the word “morally” to the word “responsible” adds anything. In fact, it’s misleading, for to most people, if moral responsibility means anything it means that you could have done other than what you chose to do. I prefer to simply use the word “responsible”. Or, if you insist, “responsible for violating the social norms considered part of ‘morality’.” To me, the term “moral responsibility” is heavily freighted with libertarian free will, and should be, if not abandoned, heavily qualified, as I’ve just done.  It is this feeling of moral responsibility that Ismael appears to find problematic in light of determinism:

It is the question of moral responsibility that transforms the problem from the relatively shallow one of reconciling the rigid necessity of physics with the felt spontaneity of action into one that engages with deep human questions about what we are, both as individuals and as a species. It also moves the question outside of the simple setting of physics. The question “what am I? And how do I fit into the universe?” is one of the oldest in philosophy. Linking the question to moral responsibility gives us more traction because it forces us to think about what makes another human being an appropriate target for moral emotions like praise and blame, not to mention love, admiration, anger and contempt. Science won’t answer these questions, but it provides us with the right setting in which to address them, if we do not want to rely on magical thinking.

Well, I think science could at least give us a purchase on these questions. Why do we even have notions of morality?  Do most people really think that being morally responsible means that, at the moment of your decision, you could have chosen to do something other than what you did? I don’t think philosophy has much to add to this; in fact, I think philosophy has actually muddled thinking about free will by dragging in the inevitable compromise of compatibilism: the “little people” notion that we must have some notion of free will, despite physics, because without it society will fall apart. (They used to say the same thing about ideas of God.) Philosophers can’t even agree on what compatibilistic free will is!

And so, at the end, Ismael proposes, but not explicitly, her own idea of compatibilist free will:

We are shaped by our native dispositions and endowments, but we do make choices, and our choices come from us to the extent that they are expressions of our hopes and dreams, values and priorities. These are things actively distilled out of a history of personal experience, and they make us who we are. Freedom is not a grandiose metaphysical ability to subvene the laws of physics. It is the day-to-day business of making choices: choosing the country over the city, children over career, jazz over opera, choosing an occasional lie over a hurtful truth, hard work over leisure. It is choosing that friend, this hairstyle, maybe tiramisu over a tight physique, and pleasure over achievement. It is all of the little formative decisions that when all is said and done, make our lives our own creations.

This is freedom? Where is the freedom? I scrutinized this paragraph over and over, and I find no “freedom” in it. What I see is (as is common for compatibilists) a redefinition of “freedom” in which there are no degrees of freedom, no scope to do otherwise. For Ismael, your predetermined choices are called “free” because they are your choices, stemming from your personal experience (which is determined) and your genetic endowment (which is also determined).

It takes a special kind of slippery philosophy to engage in this kind of rhetoric. And, in fact, virtually every sentient organism has this kind of free will, including microbes, whose lives are also their own creations.

Truly, the idea that we have free will because our choices are the result of our unique combination of genes and environments mystifies me. After all, that same combination is what makes our choices predetermined. What we see here is a kind of Orwellian doublespeak: “DETERMINISM IS FREEDOM’.


h/t: Michael

98 thoughts on “More mishigas about free will, this time in the TLS

  1. I’ve enjoyed your discussions of free will, but because reviews like the one below are reactive to the text in question, they don’t give me a comprehensive view of your overall assessment of the free will discussion.  Is there an issue of Why Evolution Is True that would provide that?

  2. Defining exactly what is meant by freedom might help. Isaiah Berlin distinguished positive and negative freedom: the former is acting on one’s internal motivations, and the latter is the absence of external restrictions. Neither of which, however, necessitate free will.

    Furthermore, if free will is defined as the ability to have done other than what was done, what is that other than something random or arbitrary, or merely an expression of positive freedom, which does not necessitate free will? To the extent it is not random, it is determined by positive freedom, by one’s internal motivations, but that is no less determined. (For instance, I cannot choose to like sweet potatoes.)

  3. I have sometimes wondered if what some of the compatibilist/freedom people, kind of like what prinzler says, is that we do have some kind of notion of “freedom” that has nothing to do with free will, or determinism, but somehow a feeling we get based on whether our actions are more defined by internal processes (experience and mental state), or by external influences (whether that be consequences or even physical force).

    There does seem to be something about our brains that is resistant to external influence on behavior. It is as if our brains have a mechanism that causes negative emotion when external factors weigh heavily into the decision process.

    And I want to be clear, that by “decision process”, I’m talking about the deterministic process the brain uses to ultimate cause actions. Although I think this idea of “freedom” does reflect an emotion we have, it doesn’t mean we have some kind of “free will”.

  4. *Moral* responsibility, huh?

    I’m with you. The word “responsibility” is enough.

    For me, “responsibility” means, “Who pays the bill? Whom do we blame? Whom do we thank? Whom do we congratulate? Whom are we angry at? Who washes the dishes tonight? Who feeds the cat?” (I do.)

    This kind of responsibility says nothing about Free Will or abilities to do the thing or do otherwise. The person who gets the bill may not have enough money. The person whom we thank and congratulate may just have been in the right place at the right time. The person we’re yelling at may have been stuck and had no choice. And I wash the dishes and feed the cat because the cat sure won’t do it and the only other sentient beings in this house are the two pet snakes, and they sure won’t do it either.

  5. … Jenann Ismael, is a professor at Columbia University, specializing in, as her website reports, “Philosophy of Physics; Philosophy of Science; Philosophy of Mind; Epistemology; Metaphysics, with interests (and some expertise) in Cognitive Science, Philosophy of Literature, and Existentialism.”

    Seems Prof. Jennan (“Call me”) Ismael might be spreading herself thin — or else spreading it on thick on her website.

    1. When I was young I felt like I was an expert at everything. As we grow older, some of us realize we are expects at nearly nothing but one or two things. Maybe she restrict those specializations with time.

      1. Thanks, I’ll take a look. Although the free will question interests me, there are way too many books and papers to read on the subject so I have to be selective. I can handle 20 pages and an XKCD cartoon is a definite plus.

  6. I would like once again to defend the term “morally responsible.” “Morally” is not redundant. We are responsible for the consequences of every act we do, but not necessarily morally responsible. We are morally responsible when we know the consequences of our act inflicts harm on others but we do it anyway. A child, playing with his father’s gun, shoots his sibling. He is responsible but not morally responsible for the harm to his sibling. The father did not lock the gun away despite knowing the possible harmful consequences. He is morally responsible.

    Morality is not social convention. It is, as Hillel said thousands of years ago, not doing to others that which would be hateful if done to you. Slavery was considered moral in a social convention sense in the ante-bellum south. Lincoln in his famous ABC fragment pointed out then slave owners should think it perfectly fine if someone enslaved them.

    Evolution has endowed us with the capacity to understand the consequences of our actions and to understand how we would feel if we were the recipient of harmful consequences. The fact that the universe is deterministic is not the issue.

      1. That is true, of course, just as humans are just a “few” pay grades above the amoeba. How many pay grades? Oh, at least 600 million years worth. Evolution is gradual, but over time distinctions become obvious.

        The interesting question is what had to happen beyond pain avoidance in order for a species to have to struggle with that fancy word “morality”? I think sentience (the species must have information processing power to model itself and its environment and the consequences of its actions on its environment) and the species must also develop a theory of mind. That is, the species must not only have a mind but know that others similar to itself have minds and feelings too. Are we the only species capable of that I wonder? I sometimes think we are, and I envy them because they do not have to struggle with that pesky word “morality.” But who knows? Perhaps other primates or cetaceans.

    1. “Morality is not social convention”

      Moral obligations clearly are. They depend on place and time; and most are not universally accepted.

      Morality is a collection of social conventions. Morality is not good in itself; it’s our way of justifying our actions without any proof.

      In practical terms most perpetrators see themselves as victims of something that in their eyes justifies what they did. Everyone thinks he is on the good side (often in some weird way).

      “The fact that the universe is deterministic is not the issue.”

      In a deterministic universe you can not take responsibility for who you are or justify a claim that your morality is superior. In such universe all qualitative value statements are false; you are only quantitatively above an amoebae.

      If you want moral superiority, you better stick with traditional libertarian free will. I don’t believe denying free will is the best strategy for everyone, all the time.

      1. What you are saying is that morality is relative. I reject that as do many moral philosophers. Social conventions are relative but there is anchored morality. The sources of moral sentiments are moral principles like Hillel’s reciprocity principle, Smith’s impartial observer principle, Bentham’s sum-of-happinesses principle and Rawls veil of ignorance principle. The moral codes implied by these principles tend to be universal and stable.

        1. “tend to be universal and stable.”

          Moral intuition is a bit like taste, most people like to eat fat, salt and sugar but that doesn’t make eating fatty, salty or sweet things necessarily a good thing.

          Failing to see the bad properties of potential beneficial traits is a common theme when discussing morality.

          We certainly have a moral core but this moral core is created by natural selection, a morally blind process.

          “impartial observer principle”

          An impartial observer could come to the conclusion that it would be best to kill all humans to protect live on earth.

          Impartial observers may help to remove some bias in our thinking; it doesn’t necessarily lead to good decisions or decisions we all should agree with.

          “What you are saying is that morality is relative”

          What I’m saying is that moral realism and believe in determinism isn’t a happy marriage, because determinism leaves no room for moral responsibility. Moral realism and the soft freewill of compatibalism are impotent without moral responsibility.

          (BTW Technically I’m not a moral relativist; I don’t believe that moral judgments only are true relative to some particular standpoint).

  7. “Ismael asserts that quantum mechanics and quantum field theory are themselves truly deterministic” I didn’t get that out of her article. Why do you feel she asserted this claim?

    “This is freedom? Where is the freedom? I scrutinized this paragraph over and over, and I find no “freedom” in it.”

    To me, the last two sentences you quoted immediately preceding your question describes the freedom she is talking about: “It is choosing that friend, this hairstyle, maybe tiramisu over a tight physique, and pleasure over achievement. It is all of the little formative decisions that when all is said and done, make our lives our own creations.” I felt she was presenting these as examples of exercising *Free Will*.

    1. Yes, you’re right about quantum theory; I misread and have changed the text. Thanks.

      Yes, I understand that she regards the apparent phenomenon of “choice” as exercising free will. But it is not free, not in any sense. It just looks free.

  8. “For Ismael, your predetermined choices are called “free” because they are your choices, stemming from your personal experience (which is determined) and your genetic endowment (which is also determined).”

    Exactly. Compatibilists and non-compatiblists are talking about different things when discussing “free will”.

    Non-compatibilists are talking about what leads up to wanting something; compatibilists are talking about whether one can then act on that desire.

    “Man can do as he wills, but not will what he wills”, is the classical statement of compatibilism (attributed to Schopenhauer and/or Einstein).

    Most of us have the “freedom” to walk down to the pond and feed the ducks, if we wish to. A person in jail does not have that freedom.

    This is the sort of freedom that matters to us!

    Linda Sasour wears a hijab “of her own free will”; a women in Iran who does not wish to wear one does so against her will.

    The fact that Sasour’s will and the will of the Iranian woman are both products of prior causes is irrelevant to that meaning of “free will”.

    We then use the term “moral” responsibility to denote our value judgement about acts that someone *intended* (acts that derive from their will).

    If a soccer player deliberately kicks an opponent in the head while they are lying on the ground, we hold them “morally responsible”.

    If, however, their foot made contact with the opponent’s head, not because it was an intentional act, but because they were pushed from behind by another player, then they are not “morally” responsible but still (in a literal sense) “responsible” for the blood on the opponent’s face.

    Again, the fact that both scenarios are determinsitic playings out of prior causes make no difference to this.

    1. Good account of compatibilism Coel. Here’s how I might put it:

      A. Libertarian free will: our choices are made independently of the laws of physics

      B. Compatibilist free will: all of our choices are determined by the laws of physics. But some are 1. Voluntary (made ‘freely’), while others are 2. Involuntary or under duress (‘against our will’).

      C. Incompatibilist free will: same as B, but denies that there is a meaningful distinction between B1 and B2.

  9. ” We want to get ourselves into the causal chain.”

    This to me is the basic error of the free will discussion. It always come down to some mystical version of “us” or “self” wanting to control what “we” do.

    There is no “ourselves” other than what is being produced by that causal chain (unless you are a dualist). Whatever you think you want, it is a thought occurring in your brain by neural processes. It is the only way you have ever had an opinion or preference about anything, and the only way you ever will.

    The sense of self has to be deterministic, otherwise you might drift between being Oprah Winfrey and Kid Rock. You don’t want that, do you? Thank goodness your identify is perpetuated by a reliable deterministic process, making it possible to be yourself.

    1. I think her statement is intentionally open to interpretation in just that way. You can read it like a dualist, or like a naturalist. She’d read it as a naturalist, and agree with your last paragraph.

  10. Thank you for this review of Ismael’s review, and your summary of the subject. You always clarify this difficult subject for me.

  11. I was wondering how many of the compatibilists that visit this blog actually agree with the statement I could not have done otherwise in a given situation?

    1. It depends what you mean by “could have done otherwise” and “a given situation”.

      In utterly identical circumstances (every molecule in the same place), you could, of course, only do one thing.

      But that’s not really what we’re pondering if we ask ourselves “could we have done that differently?”. Really, there is a range of normal, everyday variation in our circumstances, and we’re pondering whether, given that *range* of circumstances, our behaviour could have been different. And the answer to that is often “yes”.

      So we could have — in slightly changed circumstances — held our tongue rather than giving an angry retort.

      We ponder *that* because that is what is most *useful* to ponder. After all, we are never again going to encounter an identical “every molecule in the same place” situation, but we *are* going to encounter similar, “within everyday variation”, circumstances, and our pondering can influence how we then act.

        1. “Could you have replied otherwise?”

          Yes. I could have replied with a limerick.
          Or in any number of other ways, with any number of different combination of letters.
          That’s something I’m capable of doing in circumstances LIKE THIS ONE.

          This is the sense a compatibilst means “could have done otherwise,” which is the sense in which normal everyday people mean when talking about what they can or could do or could have done.

          Just forget about the philosophical argument over determinism and free will for a moment, and consider context in which you and other people talk of what you “can do” or “could do” or “could have done.” What is it we normally mean to convey with those concepts?

          You are going to meet an old friend at his new home. You are wondering whether to take the car or subway. He suggests “you COULD take the subway – my house is right by ‘X’ subway station.”

          What information is such a statement meant to convey? Well, he’s just letting you know that IF WANT TO, this is something you are presumably capable of doing to get to his house. And it’s based on various reasonable empirical presumptions – about your physical capability to ride the subway, the subway being available, etc. That’s why it’s offered as a possible option. It conveys a “truth” about the world and your abilities in such situations, whether you end up deciding to take the subway or not.

          Now what if you had driven your car to your friend’s place and complained about the traffic, and THEN he tells you “you COULD HAVE taken the subway; my house is right next to ‘x’ subway station.”

          You shouldn’t be experiencing any confusion as to what your friend MEANS to tell you. After you had chosen to drive, he’s using “could have” in exactly the same way he would have used “could” BEFORE you’d made your choice. He’s just conveying information about what you would have been capable of – getting to his house via subway – IF you choose/had chosen to do so.

          If you had replied “Sorry Joe, in fact I could not have taken the subway to your house – since I did not take the subway, on determinism your claim is impossible”….then Joe would rightly look at you like you were nuts. Because you would REALLY have missed the point of the information he was trying to convey to you. Right?

          So when you speak of our only “imagining” we could have done otherwise, this is I argue a misunderstanding, insofar as you would be insinuating that to imagine entails “illusion” or untruth about the world. It is by our “imagination” – our conceptual scheme of modelling the world from previous experience to predicting outcomes of future experience – that we navigate the world, and it only works insofar as this conceptual scheme conveys truths about the world. Will a small pot of water come to boil when placed on a lit stove fire? It hasn’t happened yet so you can only “imagine it” but you aren’t just imagining it – you are predicting it, and rightly so, because this form of prediction is how we carry our KNOWLEDGE about how the world works.

          So you aren’t “imagining” in a merely illusory way that you COULD bring a pot of water to boil on the stove. For the same reason to think “I COULD have brought the water to boil if I’d wanted to” is just another way of thinking good old empirically true thoughts about how things work in reality.

          1. I agree we can imagine doing otherwise.

            But you are answering a different question here. Now a determinist would admit they could not do otherwise. Ismael for example understands this.

            We cannot escape causality whether deterministic or otherwise. Our imaginings of alternatives limericks etc we could not have done otherwise.

            1. “But you are answering a different question here.”

              I don’t see how. You asked for the compatibilist perspective and asked if a compatibilist could have done otherwise.
              I answered the question from that standpoint.

              I agree we can imagine doing otherwise.

              Right. But you don’t say whether you agree with the rest of my analysis, which is the important part.

              So I’m wondering if you do?

              It is, after all, our daily experience of “choosing” – deliberating between alternative actions both before and after the fact – that hit at the center of the Free Will debate.

              Free Will skeptics always talk about how we need to accept that our daily experience of having a “choice” and our language and assumptions about “I could have done otherwise” is illusory. A fiction.

              But if the compatibilist analysis that I’ve given you is correct, then the free will skeptic has made a mistake about what’s behind your notions of choice and possibilities. The information normally conveyed by “could” and “could have” is entirely compatible with determinism, because it’s not built on making anti-deterministic “only relevant to a singular state of the universe” claims.

              1. So are we agreed your analysis treats imagining doing other wise as actually being able to do otherwise?

                In the vernacular I might use the phrase “free will” much as you are using it. But scientifically/philosophically speaking actually being able to do otherwise does not make sense.

                So in summary you as a compatibilist you believe you could not do otherwise but you cannot help but imagine you could do otherwise?

              2. “So are we agreed your analysis treats imagining doing other wise as actually being able to do otherwise?”

                So long as we are clear on what I said “imagining” entails in the context you have raised it. Remember, you used that word, not me. I would not use the word “imagine” as it tends to connote fantasy. Whereas the sense in which “I could have done X” is the same as “I could do X.” It’s not simply imagination, but a statement of knowledge (or, a reasonable assumption extrapolated from experience).

                You don’t say “I imagine I could freeze an ice-cube tray of water if I place it in my freezer.” You simply say “I can freeze an ice-cube tray of water if I place it in my freezer.” Why do you claim that? Because it’s true! You are conveying knowledge about how the world works, in particular that you can freeze water, if you take certain actions.

                The term “imagination” just doesn’t capture what is going on in these normal, empirical statements and claims.

                It’s precisely the same to say “I COULD HAVE frozen the tray of ice cubes (by putting it in the freezer).” That conveys the same knowledge about “what is possible or likely to happen IF…” and so the word “imagination” doesn’t quite accurately convey what’s going on in such thinking about options.

                Now you may want to say, and I’d agree, that other outcomes or actions are not “possible” IN THE CONTEXT of following a moment where the universe is in PRECISELY the same time/state. Of course not. But that is NOT what we are normally claiming, or trying to convey, when we talk about, or cogitate on, possibilities in the world. If it were, we literally could not have or convey any empirical knowledge relevant to understanding what we “can and can not do” and predicting future possibilities from past counterfactual reasoning.

                But it seems to me you want to keep using the word “imagine” to keep what I’m saying in the purely fantastical realm of “not really true” so you can dismiss it.

                “In the vernacular I might use the phrase “free will” much as you are using it. But scientifically/philosophically speaking actually being able to do otherwise does not make sense.”

                The reason you will fall to talking of “choice” and possibilities, and “could do/could have done” in your normal life is not because it’s an illusion. If it were, you’d be able to come up with some other just as useful (or more useful) substitute. But you can’t…as hard as you may try…because counterfactual reasoning is built in as a necessity to understanding the world.

                And the counterfactual information imbued in “X or Y could happen IF X” or “we could have done X or Y IF we’d had the desire to” makes all the sense in the world both philosophically and scientifically. It’s an inescapable part of scientific thought!

                “So in summary you as a compatibilist you believe you could not do otherwise but you cannot help but imagine you could do otherwise?”

                Again I “could not do otherwise” in the abstract sense of “given the exact same state of the universe including given precisely the same desires” but that is a useless starting point that does not in fact play any substantial role in our empirical thinking about possibilities and the nature of the world.

                And again, the ambiguity in your use of the word “imagine.” If I say “I could have written a longer post than this one” it is a statement of knowledge – of what I am capable of doing (in situations like this one). It’s not merely imagination. And, yes, we “can’t help” but think in counterfactual ways about possibilities, and can not help make our inferences about “what we can/could do” from relevantly similar experiences, because as creatures moving through time that is the ONLY possible method of inference we could have!

                So…again…the claim of Free Will skeptics is that people don’t have the “choice” and possibilities open to their actions that they *think they do* in their everyday life. But this is simply a misdiagnosis of how we think empirically. We do not get our information from false metaphysical assumptions (even IF some people include or appeal to those assumptions), we get and convey our information through counterfactual if/then reasoning from similar-but-not-identical experiences.

      1. So it boils down to we can imagine otherwise but could not have done otherwise.

        Plus our imaginings/ponderings (or not) could not have been otherwise.

    2. I am a compatibilist who would NOT agree with the statement “I could not have done otherwise.” To put the reason as briefly as possible:

      Neither “causation” nor “determinism”, as used in viable scientific theories, means what you (probably) think it means. Once you get clear on what science actually says, there is no valid inference to “could not have done otherwise”.

      1. I am not sure I understand Paul.

        Having a science degree and a PhD does not mean I necessarily understand, but your reply leaves me no closer to how we might have free will.

        1. Most people think of causation as a one-way relation. There is a master: the cause, and a slave: the effect. Most people think “determinism” implies “causation (as just outlined) is everywhere”.

          But modern scientific deterministic theories, like special relativity or Everettian QM, exhibit CPT-symmetry (charge+parity+time symmetry). In consequence, past and future are on equal footing in these theories. The past states are implied by present or future ones, every bit as much as vice-versa. There is no master-slave relationship to be found there.

          So if you want to do an analysis and find what events imply what other events, you can with equal logic start where/whenever you like. And for practical reasons, the best starting point is usually here now, with your own actions. You needn’t worry about the past. It will have fallen into place. The idea that the entirety of the past, including even microscopic events, is “fixed”, is a mistaken idea. (By “fixed” I mean “independent of your actions”.)

          Of course, for thermodynamic reasons, macroscopic past events are typically fixed. But they are also not 1:1 correlated with your present actions (if they were, they wouldn’t be fixed).

          Sean Carroll explains the basics. I love the number line analogy. Nails it.

          1. OK … the future might possibly direct the present. There might be no direction for cause {Everett?}. These do no not help the case for free will.

            If there is no ’cause’ then this makes a mockery of the concept of free will. Makes the concept of ‘will’ highly suspicious too.

            The world you are arguing for is not free will friendly either.

              1. People are macroscopic objects (with well defined entropy properties), so we can cause things to happen. You said that if there is no ’cause’ then that makes a mockery out of free will, or even just will. But there are causes – it’s just that, if causation is by definition a one-way relation, not every event participates in causal relations.

              2. The “problem” of free will is imaginary, because the past doesn’t constrain us, it merely correlates with us.

                Suppose you are in the cloudless desert in the afternoon, and you can walk to either of two towns. You decide to go to town A. You can’t go to town A unless your shadow also goes there. Likewise with town B. Oh no! Does this mean that you “couldn’t do otherwise”? After all, you can’t go to town B, holding fixed the fact that your shadow went to town A.

                That would be a stupid argument. You shouldn’t “hold fixed” the shadow’s path, because your shadow’s travels are not independent of your will. But the incompatibilist’s argument is flawed for the exact same reason. The incompatibilist points out that I couldn’t do otherwise, holding fixed the detailed microscopic events of the past. But those are not independent of your present will. Common sense says that the past, even down to microscopic details, is completely independent of the present, but common sense is just wrong about that.

              3. “past doesn’t constrain us”

                Say what? My past has landed me here, now, sitting in my office typing at this keyboard. My past prevents me from sipping a wee dram of Highland Park Valknut in Orkney later today, much as I would like it otherwise.

              4. OK but still, while you’re not sipping that wee dram, your constraint does not reduce you to a single option. And being now in your office is itself dependent on previous choices.

              5. The constraints eliminate an infinite number of “possibilities”. The past has created the entirety of what is now and cannot but have determined what I’ll do next… which will most likely be clicking that “Post Comment” button.

              6. Constraint is relative to individuals, though. If I’m handcuffed to Andy Ruiz Jr (heavyweight boxing champ), that constrains me a lot more than it does him. More relevantly, the microscopic details of your past could in principle constrain *my* expectation of what you’ll do next. But they can’t constrain yours. Some macroscopic past facts can constrain you down to a range of options, but typically not down to just one.

              7. Paul, you seem intent on finding a way by which the past doesn’t constrain the present. There’s no way to do that except in your imagination, which itself is constrained by the past.

          2. “But modern scientific deterministic theories, like special relativity or Everettian QM, exhibit CPT-symmetry (charge+parity+time symmetry). In consequence, past and future are on equal footing in these theories.”


            CPT symmetry implies that charge+parity+time inversion ALL TOGETHER is a symmetry.

            In fact, we know that CP symmetry is broken. Therefore, T need not be a symmetry.

            1. I said CPT symmetry, not T symmetry. CPT symmetry implies that the past condition is given by the present condition plus the laws. T symmetry isn’t required.

  12. “We are shaped [determined] by our native dispositions and endowments, ”

    The rest of that paragraph is unable to show ‘freedom’ from our determined dispositions and endowments.

    She should also lose the ‘moral’ from morally responsible. As Prof. CC(E) says, it adds nothing. Otherwise, she has clearly given this subject some thought, though I think she would benefit from reading Scott Aaronson’s paper:

  13. I like the ‘specializing in’ tag, followed by a laundry-list of philosophical talking-points. It reminds me of a sign on an auto repair shop near me: ‘Specializing in Foreign and Domestic Makes and Models’.

    I assume no Caterpillar tractors.

    In a way, I sympathize, since it doesn’t seem possible in the Age of Specialization, to just claim a broad familiarity with philosophical questions and methods.

  14. Hitchens; “Free will? Of course we have free will. We don’t have a choice.”
    Jerry, the quote following .
    “In the case of free will, the so-called disconnect between our experience of agency and the reality of determinism may rest on evolution’s having instilled into our ancestors a sense of you-can-do-otherwise agency. It may have been illusory, but it may also have been adaptive. I can think of several reasons why selection would favor that cognitive illusion, but I won’t go into them here.”
    You didn’t go there (reasons for cognitive illusion) and you have written about this elsewhere, I’m sure. This “sense of you-can-do-otherwise agency” by early humans may have been adaptive… This was the creation of the supernatural; the home of all gods.
    BTW: There is no free will in heaven because there will be no choices to make. GROG

    1. The sense of “You can do otherwise” isn’t an illusion. It was only adaptive because it was a necessary and valid way of understanding truths about the world.

      How exactly could you learn about the world and adapt your behavior successfully, if you could not learn something TRUE, not illusory, but TRUE from your past experience? If an ancient tribe came upon a river and bathed in it, only to discover that part of the river is full of crocodiles who eat some of the tribe…they’ve just learned something true and important about that spot in the river. The only way they can respond to this new fact is by appealing to some other real fact: “We could do otherwise than we did – i.e. next time we can choose a different spot in the river which isn’t likely to have crocodiles” ???

      If it’s not “true” they could do otherwise than they did the first time…how in the world could they reason about their actions in the world to survive it? The actions they contemplate upon have to be “possible” in order for such thinking to be of any use.

      As I keep arguing, it just seems to be a mistake, a giant red-herring, to conflate the normal assumptions and reasoning humans use in thinking about “possibilities” and choices with religious or philosophical cogitation of metaphysical claims. If you do that, you start saying incoherent things like “Well…choice and possibilities aren’t real, they are an illusion” and then it becomes some unnecessary puzzle where you have to figure out how untrue metaphysical assumptions evolved and played a role in human reasoning about choice. You’ll never make that piece of the metaphysical puzzle fit ((I’ve never seen it done) because it was never a salient part of the puzzle in the first place.

  15. While I don’t believe in free will, I waffle on the question of responsibility (moral or however one wants to label it,) and agency. I recall reading a book where the Dalai Lama explained the view that the ‘self’ is neither non-existent or independently existent. Regarding the ‘self’ not existing as an independent, homunculus-like ‘thing’, I imagine those arguments would be fairly familiar to most here, so I won’t summarize them. On the side of the self having some type of nominal existence, however (if I’m understanding / representing his views correctly,) he noted that the “I” we are now is the “I” that experiences the consequences of our positive or negative actions in the future, and that this temporal link wouldn’t happen if some manner of “I” didn’t exist.

    While this doesn’t speak to free will, I think it might speak to responsibility. I’m not sure. I suppose it depends on the degree to which we want to engineer the social world to either: 1) Mimic the natural world or 2) Be a safety net against the cruelty of the natural world. In most other endeavors, the person who experiences the consequences of my actions is me, whether I had any choice in making good or bad decisions or not. The universe, so far as we know, only cares about cause and effect, not one’s free will in being involved in that cause and effect. What sort of stance sentient minds should take on the matter is not immediately obvious to me. It seems to me that we find retributive cruelty instinctively wrong, but that removing people from causal chains entirely might also be harmful.

  16. Can I be held responsible for my actions if they are the inevitable result of a complex of influences? Well, among the influences that might work upon us are being taught that X is wrong, or the prospect that if we do X, we go to prison. If you are a person on whom these influences have no, or very limited, effect, then maybe it doesn’t make much sense to put you in prison, rather than a mental hospital, if you do X. But if you are a person whose behavior can be affected by these influences, then it makes sense to send a person who nevertheless does X to prison.

  17. The will can be free as a bird, but without mental causation all behavior is entirely determined by physical causes originating outside ourselves. And there is not an iota of proof of mental causation.

  18. Just on the basis that the free will question seems unresolveable, I suspect it is plagued by a semantic issue. We are determined but feel free, and want to BE free, but can’t. Confusion seems built into the subject.

  19. My intuition(!) is that ‘Free Will’ is difficult because the question is ill formed. Much like ‘Consciousness’.

    Neither need be a hard problem *if* you form the question correctly. So… is the universe deterministic? Almost certainly yes. Can people use deterministic cause and effect to navigate the around behaviours of other people, and their own feelings? Almost certainly not. There is too much data to boil down and almost all of it has to be discarded before it hits conscious awareness.

    If you conflate the basic workings of the universe with a much simplified and pragmatic abstraction then you will never find a single answer.

  20. Staying strictly Newtonian, Newtonian mechanics is indeterminate. Collisions of particles at angles results in unpredictable outcomes which make it impossible to predict the angles and velocities resulting.

    Trains and clocks and engines work because the mechanism restricts the freedom of movement of the parts in a particular direction, and machines break when that restraint is removed.

    Further, if you assume that physics determines movement of objects completely, notice there would be no need to build machines. Why would you force a chain with a fob to swing in a pendulum, if everything is already determined by physics? Why make a train travel on a track, since its direction is already determined by physics? Nor could you control the direction of traffic, or create different rules for moving chess pieces versus checkers.

    You can only take an open system and make it closed. If its already closed, a priori, then you can’t do anything. For example, you can’t design a motor that violates the laws of thermodynamics–the system is closed in this respect, but not closed in terms of how much energy goes to work and how much is lost to heat. Yes, you can take a clock and melt it (returning to a state of openness) and then cast an engine (making it closed again)–but that works because you are returning the system to an original state of greater openness.

    The point of “freedom”, if it exists, is to take something open and force it closed in a particular way. An engineer is certainly free to design an engine in different ways. The engineer could design a clock, or a small engine. That is agency, and agency would be impossible if the world were actually closed.

    Thinking about the world as a giant clock or railway system–or any kind of machine–is a metaphor. Sure, solids can usually be modeled as point masses, but not gases and liquids generally. The Earth is more liquid than solid on its surface, so it isn’t a clock, and neither are the organisms on its surface.

    If the physics of the world is partly indefinite, then the world can be forced into determinant patterns, and this would be a good thing, because it would be possible create useful regularities for certain purposes, such as working toilets and trains. Furthermore, between the determinant constraints of physics, and randomness, it would open the way to teleological exploitation of that openness, something useful and necessary, whether you want to design an engine or a clock. Moreover, you can distinguish, from experience as well as by statistics, between a random process and a purposeful one (at least when you’re not doing philosophy).

    As far as “free will”, I don’t know what someone like Dr. Coyne would take as falsifying or verifying that someone’s will is free, beyond the ordinary criterion (no one pointing a gun to their head). There will never be a predictive psychology that is any better than weather forecasting (complex nonlinear systems with too many parts), even if we assume the “second coming of science” when everything is worked out and we don’t have to resort to hand-waving. Human behavior will never be like a railroad car, unless you chain a human to a track.

    I see people taking phenomenological approaches to “free will” on this blog, as if it was something you could see out of the corner of your eye when ordering from a menu–or as if it were some anatomical feature we were seeking. You might call a neurologist in a will contest to say X was suffering dementia at the time of the last will, but that is inquiring about the cognitive capacities of an organism (a whole) even if the testimony might include testimony about the state of the brain (a part). It would be no different from calling a doctor to testify about a leg injury in a disability claim (no one is claiming that a capacity to work is an anatomical property of a leg, but that does not preclude the converse from being true in some cases).

    “Free will” exists in a world of agents capable of exercising coercion–that is a social world of social animals. The back side of “free will” is what are the limits of psychological coercion–as the will is “free” when it is free from coercion. Is the claim that anyone can be coerced into doing anything? If so, where is the evidence for that claim? Is the claim that–in the future–in some model totalitarian state everyone can be coerced into doing anything? Again, where is the evidence?

    If coercion works sometimes, and to a certain limit, doesn’t that suggest agency and a degree of freedom (else who or what is being coerced, and why does my agency/capacity for coercion have a limit).

    Note that we are talking about a social concept that has nothing to do with physics. [And as for the causal power involved, it is little different from the causal power involved in decreeing Greenwich mean time or in defining the meter or in labeling yourself an atheist.]

    If only free will didn’t exist, it would make things much easier for rulers. But it has never been that easy staying on top.

  21. I’m pretty sure (though I can’t prove it), that quantum indeterminacy made today’s actions fundamentally unpredictable

    Prove is a high order, but I think good evidence that QM indeterminacy has a macroscopic impact on what happens is very easy to come by.

    1. Look up any one of the initial discovery publications for elements ~105-118.

    2. Note that for each of these, only one or a few atoms were detected. Each atom is recorded as having a lifetime, with error bars, because they’re all radioactive.

    3. Those lifetimes are quantum indeterminate. Were we to run the experiment again, we’d observe a different value (though if the scientists have done the experiment well, the ‘new’ value should fall within the error bars of the ‘real’ one).

    4. The lifetime recorded has an impact on those who read it. And it has real-life impact on the design of future experiments intended to either confirm that element’s lifetime or use it’s half-life to identify some other property.

    5. Adding it all up then, we have here cases where humans detect a quantum indeterminate property, and base some of their future actions on it.

    1. I should add that even if someone questions whether reading a number in a journal ‘really’ changes the future, it is easy enough to cause that to be the case. You could – for example and if you were so motivated – decide before reading the article that if the lifetime ends in an odd number, you’re going to drive 20 miles east to go get a coffee. While if it ends in an even number, you’re going to drive 20 miles west to go get a coffee. Then read the article. Boom, macroscopic impact.

  22. Actually, Official Website Physicist Sean Carroll would disagree with you on two counts: Atoms aren’t mostly empty space, since the electron (wavefunction) fills the space of the atom. We see it in one position when we look, but that doesn’t mean it was always in one location, which is the assumption behind “atoms are mostly empty space”.

    Second, he (and I) would argue that quantum mechanics IS deterministic. The Schrödinger equation should be able to reproduce all our observations, including the randomness of our observations.

    He would also disagree with your take on compatibilism, but I’m with you on this one. Compatibilism is meaninglees sophistry.


    1. Second, he (and I) would argue that quantum mechanics IS deterministic. The Schrödinger equation should be able to reproduce all our observations, including the randomness of our observations.

      Interesting comment. Does this mean a statement that you have a 1 in 6 chance of rolling at “1” on a six sided die is deterministic? Why do we use statistics if everything is determined? or is this one of those clever definition games where “deterministic” is re-defined to include random events?

      Is this because Carroll rejects Copenhagen interpretation and believes in imaginary worlds? I mean, possible worlds, e.g. imaginary worlds that exist but are not empirically falsifiable? Carroll always seems to start from the concept that the map is the territory, and so if it shows dragons on the edge of the map, if you don’t find any dragons, then dragons must exist in some possible world. It’s good material for sci fi stories, but very unsatisfying to me, you might as well espouse the Virgin birth of Christ, an imaginary event that is not empirically falsifiable as it is a historic one-off and everyone involved has ascended to someone’s heaven/possible world.

      I’m not sure that if the cat is alive, things become deterministic because you pronounce that the cat is dead in Narnia. It may serve a psychological purpose to believe in imaginary realms, but it really is a theology of mathematics.

        1. So I presume that Kasparov playing a championship chess game makes a move in this world which is brilliant, but in another world makes a different move which is not so brilliant. In this world, he is a chess champion, in the other, he is not a champion.

          This would mean Kasparov’s moves are random (he just happened to live in a possible world where luckily he plays well), but Kasparov-the-loser would not really be Kasparov. Same parents but totally different existential wake. His description in this world would not identify him in the other world.

          On the other hand, if Kasparov can only make brilliant chess moves and this is programmed into the fabric of the multiverse, then in no possible world could he make stupid moves. This seems counter-intuitive.

          Or, we dump the possible world stuff, acknowledge that there is a middle term between a deterministic process (like a train on a rail) and a completely random process (like a dice roll) and that middle term is agency. For all the talk of “freedom”, it mostly consists in forcing random processes to behave non-randomly until something breaks for good.

          Semantically, you have the question of “how” which is answered, ultimately, by physics, and you have the question of “who” and “why” which cannot be answered by physics. I don’t want to misrepresent Dr. Coyne’s position, but I do think that it comes down to claiming questions like “who did it?” and “why did they do it?” to explanations in the 3rd person impersonal descriptive sentences.

          This I find queer, as why would intelligent animals such as ourselves devise a system of grammar with a first person, a second person and a third person personal, when all this is redundant and everything can be reduced in this way–especially when no one has ever actually been able to do so, they only give some kind of metaphysical/ideological reason why it must be so.

          As far as causality, attributions of agency or teleology (who and why) are categorically distinct from questions of how, and can only make sense in a social context, the same way conventions of grammar do not violate the completeness of physics. But the reality is that you can have different conventions of grammar (and different conceptions of agency and freedom), but you can only have one physics which they must “float over the top of” so to speak.

          As much as I admire Hinduism, the idea that appearances are all illusion is problematic as the concept of illusion is parasitic on the concept of the real. If there were no oasis in the desert, the would be no mirages, either. If there were no persons, there could be no illusions of persons, no man on the moon. If I contend persons don’t exist, and so I insist on saying “the illusion of Bob did it” instead of “Bob did it”, you have to ask what actual function does adding this qualifier actually serve in the statement. It doesn’t serve any, except maybe as a kind of flag marker for your particular group, the way Quakers sometimes use archaic pronouns.

          1. In sum, I think the position of determinism position is based on a category error. Physics answers certain questions (how the victim was killed), law answers different questions (who was the perp).

            You don’t need a “free will muscle” that works by virtue of previously unknown physical force to have free will. You just need a set of social animals with a language who have a need to deal out punishment and assign responsibility to redress private wrongs. You do need a universe that is open (non-deterministic) and holism allowing systems like language to emerge creating higher levels of complexity, but I don’t think there is any evidence to support the notion that the universe is closed or that language does not exist (and its convention are not partly arbitrary).

        2. Many-worlds is quantum mechanics at its bare minimum. Since the observer can’t observe other worlds in quantum mechanics, many-worlds forbids it. Complaining that one can’t see other worlds is like a geocentrist complaining that they don’t feel Earth moving, or a creationist complaining that crocoducks don’t exist. Because to see it would be a refutation of the theory.

          As an aside, I’m always surprised at the vitriol and ignorance of many-worlds critics. One would think an understanding of what exactly they are critiquing would be essential, but the reasons why most are anti-many-worlds boil down to “I don’t experience many-worlds”, completely ignoring the fact that decoherence and many-worlds proponents have explained exactly why it is that one cannot in principle see many-worlds. The only example I’ve seen of a critic well-versed in many-worlds is David Albert, who thinks probability cannot be adequately explained under its paradigm.

          And as for the vitriol, I really don’t have any explanation.


          1. Ryan: You replied to me but then started talking about people who criticize many-worlds theories with vitriol. Perhaps you were referring to others but that is not my position.

            I am perhaps skeptical that many-worlds is really how things work but my statement here was that it is still science. I also know that many scientists do criticize the theory on the basis that it can never be verified. This is a kind of hubris that I can’t stand. Perhaps someday we will be able to come up with a way of convincing ourselves that it is true or false. Just because we can’t imagine it now is no reason to stop looking.

            If I had to bet, it would be on our current theories being completely replaced by something new. As many have noted, our current physics equations fit the data but don’t seem to explain much. I think we’re due for a revolution.

            1. The value of a scientific theory is its ability to make useful empirical predictions.

              Many-worlds makes none.

              Its not science, its metaphysics in mathematical notation. Or a mathematical poem if it makes you feel better.

              Nothing wrong with mathematical theology if it floats your boat, and nothing wrong with abstract entities per se, but many worlds is silly and I think the decline of the Copenhagen interpretation is a function of the decline of liberal arts education.

              Physicists like Heisenberg and Bohr used to be better philosophers of science than the philosophers. Now the physicists write like failed science fiction authors. Time to sharpen your Occam’s Razor.

              1. >Physicists like Heisenberg and Bohr used to be better philosophers of science than the philosophers.

                Heisenberg, perhaps, but Bohr is more of a dogmatic theologian than a philosopher.

                >Time to sharpen your Occam’s Razor.

                Time to sharpen YOURS, actually. Occam’s razor can be formalized by the minimum message length formalism or Solomonoff inductive inference, which are identical. MML states that the minimum amount of code required to stimulate something is favored by Occam’s razor, and many-worlds requires Schrödinger’s equation only. Copenhagen requires a collapse to be coded, so it requires more information.

                As for Solomonoff inductive inference, QM states an interaction causes two things to become entangled, and so items in one basis state will only be able to see other things in the same component of the state vector as them. This is already many-worlds. Copenhagen requires an additional rule to cut off one of the worlds.

                Therefore, a sharp Occam’s razor would cut out the Copenhagen interpretation, leaving us with many components to the state vector, i.e. many “worlds”.


            2. I know you’re not one of them. I just went into rant mode for a bit there. Sorry.

              I personally think that many-worlds should be default QM simply because it doesn’t add unnecessary things to it, such as wavefunction collapse. A wavefunction collapse would be the first fundamentally random, time-symmetry-violating, retrocausal phenomenon in all of physics, and it is asserted without any evidence. I just find it baffling how such smart people can just brush over the fact that this contradicts everything else they’ve found out so far.

              And, well, I don’t see them criticizing those who say the Sun shines in directions we can’t ever see for being unverifiable.


              1. No problem, Ryan. I do think there are a lot more physicists who are unhappy with the current state of affairs. Sean Carroll interviewed Adam Becker recently on his podcast. I highly recommend Becker’s book, “What is Real?” if you haven’t already read it. He gives the history of QM mostly after World War II and pays particular attention to the renegades who were not happy with the Copenhagen Interpretation. It’s a very interesting book.

              2. Oh yes. I have to get on with that. I’ve been lagging behind on the podcasts. I’ll listen to it when I fly back to HK. Hopefully the flight won’t get cancelled this time.

                I’ll check out the book. Might be able to coerce someone to buy it for my birthday. 😉


      1. >Interesting comment. Does this mean a statement that you have a 1 in 6 chance of rolling at “1” on a six sided die is deterministic? Why do we use statistics if everything is determined? or is this one of those clever definition games where “deterministic” is re-defined to include random events?

        You think rolling a die is NOT deterministic? What is the thing that causes it to be fundamentally random then?

        >Is this because Carroll rejects Copenhagen interpretation and believes in imaginary worlds? I mean, possible worlds, e.g. imaginary worlds that exist but are not empirically falsifiable?

        Is it wrong to reject a vaguely defined, handwavey idea that passes itself off as science? Copenhagen doesn’t define what triggers collapse, (“a measurement” doesn’t count) and scientific theories have to be precise. Copenhagen contains constantly moving goalposts of what constitutes a collapse, which is indistinguishable from it being imaginary and unfalsifiable.

        >Carroll always seems to start from the concept that the map is the territory, and so if it shows dragons on the edge of the map, if you don’t find any dragons, then dragons must exist in some possible world. It’s good material for sci fi stories, but very unsatisfying to me, you might as well espouse the Virgin birth of Christ, an imaginary event that is not empirically falsifiable as it is a historic one-off and everyone involved has ascended to someone’s heaven/possible world.

        One would think that the prerequisite for critiquing someone’s views is to understand those views. Copenhagen is akin to stating that we won’t see photons that are fired into deep space by the Sun, so the Sun only emits light in directions that eventually hit stuff, don’t mind how it knows that. Many-worlds takes the formalism seriously and states that the Sun fires photons off in every direction. Those who hold to Copenhagen and criticize many-worlds for its worlds’ untestability is like criticizing isotropic-photon-emission-ists for the untestability of the photons emitted into deep space that will never hit anything, but ignoring the fact that their own position of photons disappearing if they will never hit something is untestable and unparsimonious.

        >I’m not sure that if the cat is alive, things become deterministic because you pronounce that the cat is dead in Narnia. It may serve a psychological purpose to believe in imaginary realms, but it really is a theology of mathematics.

        Just flinging out strawman after strawman, aren’t you? The reason it is deterministic is that Schrödinger’s equation is deterministic. The state of the universe now will determine the state of the universe one moment later. That this determinism states that the cat is dead in another part of the state vector describing the universe is an inevitable consequence.

        Many-worlds uses fewer assumptions than any other interpretation, and by any other theory choice criterion, would be standard quantum mechanics. The only reason Copenhagen is still taken seriously is historic, not scientific.


  23. I will re-repost the idea that we must accept a compatibilist type view of free will because of the role of freedom of choice in the acquisition of knowledge. This is most obvious in the various arguments about observers in quantum mechanics – with one solution of the classical-QM puzzles being “superdeterminism”, where the experimenter’s choices were determined at the time of the big bang so they always coincide with a particular set of outcomes.

  24. Do I correctly sense a slight, albeit very slight, shift towards the analysis of Sean Carroll a la The Big Picture? There seems to be a recognition that we must cope with the ‘phenomenal world,’ the world of the ‘everyday,’ even though the ‘phenomenal world’ is not the ‘real world.’ In the ‘phenomenal world,’ tables, chairs, stones are treated as ‘solid’ but in reality are mostly ‘empty space.’ Yes, ‘solidity’ is an illusion, but please don’t throw that ‘illusion’ at my window. ‘Free Will’ and ‘Moral Responsibility’ are illusions for the same reason that the solidity of a stone is an illusion. But here’s Carroll’s viewpoint: one adapts to the ‘phenomenal world’ with appropriate language and other forms of cultural engagement because that is how we cope with our human existence at any moment in time. So, I like the reference to ‘adaptive’ and the value of ‘cognitive illusion’ that evolution has generated. My own viewpoint is thus: daily life is living in the ‘phenomenal world.’ Knowing that this is an ‘illusion’ from a physics viewpoint is quite humbling and provides perspective, but I still won’t throw that ‘stone’ at anyone’s window.

    1. Carroll wouldn’t call the “phenomenal world” an illusion though. He would say that these phenomenons are real even though they are emergent and not fundamental. That’s the compatibilist approach.

      1. Thanks! Appreciate your clarification, i.e., ‘illusion’ vs ‘emergent.’ Whether something in the ‘phenomenal world’ is emergent or illusion still leaves one with how to live in the ‘phenomenal world.’ Are not chemistry, biology, genetics, neuroscience and evolution itself all part of the ‘phenomenal world?’ Are these ‘illusions?’ Is it not more valid to refer to them as ‘emergent’ properties of quantum physics than as ‘illusions?’ Sean Carroll does not invalidate the ‘phenomenal world’ and how it functions but helps people live purposeful and meaningful lives in that dimension while embracing quantum realities. Thus, ‘emergent’ is a better reference frame than ‘illusion.’ I don’t know if Sean Carroll would accept the ‘compatibilist’ label. Nonetheless, he has set forth a path that seems valid and more workable than Hard Determinism. Besides the Big Picture, I recently read his From Eternity to Here as well as stuff from his website and find my confidence growing in his analysis. Again, ‘Thanks’ for your helpful comment.

        1. Oh I agree that it is much more correct to refer to non-fundamental phenomenon as emergent and real rather than illusions. Whether free will is real or not of course depends on how you define it. But as compatibilists both Carroll and I believe that it is real that we have agency and the freedom to make choices. In the words of compatibilist Daniel Dennett; “we have the free will worth wanting”.

  25. Ismael has two parts to her suggestion of where the answers can be found. The first part, which you didn’t quote, was about “causality” as it is understood by modern science versus how people intuitively understand it:

    That way involves not imposing notions of natural necessity too closely tied to our experience on the interpretation of science. The everyday notion of cause is a mix of different elements (subjective, phenomenological, heuristic). For most of us, it is rooted in the primitive experience of pushing and pulling, holding and yanking. It has taken science rather a long time to develop a mature concept that gets rid of these subjective elements; causes appear in a mature science not as necessary connections written into the fabric of nature, but robust pathways that can be used as strategic routes to bringing about ends. They function not as challenges to freedom, but handmaids to decision.

    Given that your own (Jerry’s) arguments for “couldn’t have done otherwise” are based on causality, it’s this passage out of her review that is probably most relevant to your position.

  26. I have a problem with invoking “quantum indeterminacy” to resolve apparently “random” decisions or actions. Granted, that is a possible explanation, but as the cartoon posted later in the day points out there is (or can be) a large number of neural nets involved in a decision or action. Based on my very limited understanding, the states of each neuron in each net could vary significantly or the state could vary on a “molecular counter” when voting. I think that this might be a more likely explanation for a “randomly” choice than invoking quantum mechanics.

    Anyway, my 2 cents and a very uninformed and poorly explained one at that.

    1. If I remember correctly, Sean Carroll points out that the indeterminacy is at a much lower granularity and should not influence the level of neurons.

  27. The idea of a deterministic freedom is weird, but the idea of a freedom that is not strictly governed by laws is, in my opinion, inconceivable. How would that freedom be like? It has to obey laws always (reason, logic, math), otherwise it would be indistinguishable from unreason or randomness, which are not freedom.

  28. You think rolling a die is NOT deterministic? What is the thing that causes it to be fundamentally random then?

    Why does something random need a cause?

    Obviously, the cause of a dice roll being random is the homogeneity of the dice and the act of the dice being rolled and perhaps, a place where it can come to a definitive resting point on a side (not cocked). . . but there is no cause of the the die coming up “1” versus “6” unless it is loaded.

    To invert it, you will note that most occult systems of divination exploit random processes (tea leaves, decks of cards, coconut shells) to manifest the will of the gods. . . or randomly opening the Good Book if you are a monotheist. The premodern perspective was that everything was caused, and the gods speak through random events (e.g. they weren’t actually random).

    The modern view is that some events are predictable, and some events are unpredictable, e.g. random, coincidental. Loss of belief in religion has everything to do with the emergence of a social understanding of randomness.

    Many worlds is a reversion where you substitute imaginary worlds for the roll of the gods. Why not just go full wu?


    Copenhagen isn’t a scientific theory, its a philosophical interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Its better than many worlds because it is more ontologically parsimonious, among other concerns. Nor do you need a precise definition of measurement, you just need scientists able to make measurements of quantum events.


    The other problem with the many worlds view, with each dice roll and every quantum event creating new possible worlds, is what causes me to be following the particular world line I am following? That is outside of physics per se. You have just inverted the problem of randomness without actually solving it.

  29. . but there is no cause of the the die coming up “1” versus “6” unless it is loaded.

    I haven’t been following all of your lengthy comments, but yes there is. The “randomness” of a fair die throw is just ignorance about the initial conditions (how the die is held in the hand), the dynamic conditions of the throw (force, torque), and the conditions of the landing surface. With full information, the outcome of the die can be predicted *in principle*. In fact, good craps players can do quite well at controlling the outcome.

      1. I don’t understand your remark in the context of my remark. My remark acknowledged that you can interfere with a random system (dice loading, deck stack, dice control-if it exists) but that makes the system non-random, which you can determine by chi^2 statistical analysis, etc.

        You state the cause of the nonrandomness, not the cause of randomness, which is consistent with my original point. But even Newtonian physics is not deterministic:

        A second class of determinism-breaking models can be constructed on the basis of collision phenomena. The first problem is that of multiple-particle collisions for which Newtonian particle mechanics simply does not have a prescription for what happens. (Consider three identical point-particles approaching each other at 120 degree angles and colliding simultaneously. That they bounce back along their approach trajectories is possible; but it is equally possible for them to bounce in other directions (again with 120 degree angles between their paths), so long as momentum conservation is respected.)

        How often do you think 3 molecules collide in the ocean or in a gas cloud?

        Obviously, empirical reality of everyday life as we can measure it is indeterministic due to limitations of our measurements, but whether QM or CM, there are plenty of nondeterministic outcomes which are not simply the result of epistemic uncertainty.

  30. For what it’s worth, the TLS piece was simply an essay meant to convey what the problem of free will is supposed to be for readers. That’s it. I expressly did not want to make it about my own views. I’ve written about those elsewhere, but the piece was meant to acquaint people with the problem and leave it for them to think about.

    1. Sorry, but it does appear to be about your own views, in particular the kind of compatibilism that you propose. Since I have seen no form of compatibilism that makes sense and squares with the data, I felt free to discuss yours.

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