More squabbling about free will in Quillette: William Edwards now finds libertarian free will in the “singularities” of physics

September 4, 2019 • 9:30 am

In July, writer and philosopher William Tomos Edwards wrote a piece in Quillette called “The Academic Quarrel over Determinism“. This irked me because Edwards wound up arguing that whether or not libertarian “you-could-have-done-otherwise” free will be true, we should believe in it anyway because the payoff (a better society and more individual well being) outweighs the downside (the scientific truth of determinism). As Edwards argued:

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

Well, that burned my onions on several counts: there’s no conclusive evidence that accepting free will will improve one’s character, much less one’s society; it’s patronizing to urge people to believe something for which there’s no evidence; and it’s also HARD to force yourself to believe in something that you previously rejected. Edwards also banged on about the mystery of consciousness as some sort of argument for libertarian free will (a “will” free from the laws of physics). I’m starting to learn that when you hear people dilate on “the mystery of consciousness”, they’re almost always antiscientific dualists or ID creationists.

At any rate, I wrote a rebuttal to Edwards’s piece, also on Quillette: “Why We Shouldn’t Bet on Having Free Will—A Reply to William Edwards“.  I won’t go into my rebuttal, which is summarized in the paragraph just above.

And then author Ben Burgis wrote his own gloss on both Edwards’s and my piece, “In Defense of Compatibilism: A Response to Edwards and Coyne.” Burgis argued for compatibilism: the view that accepts physical determinism of our actions but still can find a form of “free will”—in Burgis’s case, “actions that are free from compulsion.” This is the view of many compatibilists, who often argue that we become morally responsible precisely when we perform acts free from compulsion. If you shoot someone because someone holding a gun to your head says you must, you’re not only not exercising free will, but you’re not morally responsible for the shooting. In contrast, if you’re shoot someone and aren’t compelled to, then you’re both exercising “free will” and can be held morally responsible.

I responded to Burgis’s post on this site, making four points in my reply (each point is discussed in more detail in my piece):

1.) You are always acting under compulsion.

2.) This does not mean that external circumstances surrounding an action should not be taken into consideration. 

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. 

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

Now you can argue back and forth about what compatibilist definition of free will is correct (there are many, which is itself problematic), and whether “moral responsibility” is a concept that adds any value to society. But what I insist is that accepting physical determinism for our actions must have some import for society, particularly in the judicial system. This is because much of our notion of governmental punishment (and societal views on rewards) depends on libertarian free will—on the assumption that someone who did bad stuff could have chosen to behave better.  It would be a brave person indeed who says that accepting physical determinism for our actions, and the view that we could not have done otherwise, has no implications on how to change society.

But this is just background. Now Edwards has a new riposte in Quillette defending himself against both me and Burgis, which you can see by clicking on the screenshot below:

Since Edwards says that his reply is brief, so will be mine. First, he reiterates the literature supporting his claim that believing in free will is good for society and for one’s psyche. The literature on the latter is conflicting, and for the former nonexistent.  And in some ways I think humans are programmed to feel as if we have free will, just as we are programmed to think that somewhere in our brain sits an “I” module. So we’ll always feel that we have agency. My point, however, was that we can (under others’ influence of course) realize that our feeling of agency is an illusion, and although we normally operate quite well under that illusion, realizing that it is an illusion can have salubrious consequences for society (e.g., the justice system) and for our own well being (for one thing, we needn’t beat ourselves up thinking that, in the past, we should have behaved otherwise). As I said, there is a material difference between feeling you could have behaved otherwise on one hand and realizing the empirical truth that you couldn’t have on the other.

But the main point of Edwards’s rebuttal to both me and Burgis is bizarre—almost a form of Deepakian woo. It is that there is a quantum “singularity” in the decision-making process, and that singularity somehow gives us an “unpredictable output” that could count as libertarian free will:

Coyne dismisses the relevance of quantum phenomena here. While it’s true that there is no conclusive evidence for non-trivial quantum effects in the brain, it is an area of ongoing research with promising avenues, and the observer effect heavily implies a connection. Coyne correctly points out that the fundamental randomness at the quantum level does not grant libertarian free will. Libertarian free will implies that humans produce output from a process that is neither random nor deterministic. What process could fit the bill?

Well, if the human decision-making process recruits one or more irremovable singularities, and achieves fundamentally unpredictable output from those, I would consider that a sufficient approximation to libertarian free will. Furthermore, a singularity could be a good approximation to an “agent.” Singularities do occur in nature, at the center of every black hole, and quite possibly at the beginning of the universe, and quantum phenomena leave plenty of room open for them.

Two responses here. First, unpredictability of output is not the same thing as libertarian free will. Even under determinism, tiny perturbations of initial conditions, as might obtain in human behavior, could approximate chaos theory, giving unpredictable outputs from a purely deterministic process.

More important, Edwards fails to tell us what he means by an “irremovable singularity” in our brain, and how that gives us free will.  The singularities to which he refers are pretty accurately defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as this:

“a point or region of infinite mass density at which space and time are infinitely distorted by gravitational forces and which is held to be the final state of matter falling into a black hole.”
How that is relevant to quantum mechanics, much less the brain, is completely obscure. How is our brain supposed to recruit singularities, and does that give us fundamental indeterminism or only unpredictability? We don’t know. It appears that Edwards’ argument boils down to the Millennial statement “Free will because singularities plus consciousness.” When you’re in a tight philosophical spot, quantum mechanics is often a convenient life jacket.

Edwards plays the same singularity card against Burgis, first making a case for compatibilism based on our complicated brain function (this resembles Dan Dennett’s argument for compatibilist free will):

Absolute determinism could be intuitively visualized as a chain of dominoes. Neither the chain nor any domino in particular has a past or a future. Whatever happens to each comes down to the last force they made contact with. People, on the other hand, can run simulations on what might have been, and what could be, all day long. Even if it is all achieved through classical physics and a computational mind, your imagination is one hell of an achievement.

If we were philosophical dominos we would simply be on the fly from moment to moment responding to things as they happen. But, as it happens, we can simulate—or generate—an outcome that we want to effect and then act in an attempt to make it so. We can simulate many paths, and while we’re putting one of them into motion we retain some capacity to veto it. If the courses of action that we may create are best modeled as hemmed in, and finite, then we are comfortably within the realm of compatibilism.

What he’s talking about in these two paragraphs refers to our brain running a simulation of possible outcomes before we make a decision. But that is simply an output that comes from our adaptive brain programs giving different weights to different inputs as they run their evolved and acquired programs. Yes, our neural pathways and brain function are more complex than those of, say, a flatworm, but they still obey the laws of physics. QED.

And now Edwards’s woo:

The concept of a singularity becomes important once again here because if you can access some kind of instantaneous infinity and your options are fundamentally, non-trivially infinite, then it would seem you have escaped compatibilism and achieved a more profound freedom.

Oy! This isn’t even a Dennettian Deepity because it doesn’t have a clear meaning on the surface. As far as I can see (and I grant that I’m no Einstein), it means nothing. It is pure gibberish, this “accessing the instantaneous infinity”. What is the sweating professor trying to say?

Now maybe I’m missing the Grand Solution proffered by Edwards, but I doubt it. Before he can make a persuasive case that the laws of physics themselves permit a libertarian free will (after all, he says they allow you to “escape compatibilism”, and compatibilism is based on accepting the laws of physics), he’ll have to clarify what he means when he talks about singularities in our decision processes.

By the way, you might be amused by some of the few comments on toEdwards’s piece following his article. Here’s one:Rebutting that is like shooting fish in a barrel.


109 thoughts on “More squabbling about free will in Quillette: William Edwards now finds libertarian free will in the “singularities” of physics

  1. I typically wait until I wake up the next day to start reading posts but I just had to chime in after reading the title:

    Singularities show that our physical theories are incomplete, and do not exist. Therefore, this “philosopher” is basically saying that free will can be found in square circles.


    1. I agree Ryan – singularities in physical theories occur in the mathematical description & [up to now] they have always indicated that we need to rethink something. Singularities are infinite quantities & there have been no observed infinite quantities in the physical world only in the mathematics of incomplete models…

      However there are experts who speak of singularities at the centre of black holes as if real & yet the theory of Black Holes derives from General Relativity [GR] which everyone agrees is incomplete at the small scale. The unknown extension of GR is called Quantum Gravity & nobody has a clue how to think about whatever QG might be. It’s a very hard problem.

      I write all the above with a confidence of 75%. Happy to be shot down if I learn something new. 🙂

      Here’s STARTS WITH A BANG! discussing why “there was no Big Bang singularity”

      W.T. Edwards must surely know this & he’s presenting a secular form of the god-of-the-gaps argument.

      1. Hawking and others are wrong – or at least sloppy, unfortunately. What is true is that there is a singularity at the center of black holes IN THE MODEL, which should suggest that the model is wrong. (This decision of “unphysicality” is not straightforward; I do not claim to know how precisely that works, but here I think it is that we do not think there are any actually infinite mass densities or something like that.)

        1. I’m a novice at the physics, but it does seem strange that just by piling on more mater you can reach infinite mass. It’s easy to imagine equations arriving at infinity, but equations aren’t mater. I’m probably completely wrnog.

            1. As a pilot myself I’ve attended many lectures that highlight errors in systems, and pilot errors. But, Boeing, you’d think would handle things professionally. Browne seems to think they went cheap for profits. Sounds plausible.

              I was building my plane at the Glasair factory in Arlington, Washington when Boeing started a hiring binge. They hired the two mechanics who helped with my plane. Must have been shorthanded due to the previous slump between new aircraft.

              Here’s the film from the week long stay in Arlington with my wife, Hai.


              1. Eight Miles Hai? 🙂

                Sweet little plane – the back-folding wings & the simplicity, all very understandable. Did you fly it to your then home? Is it as responsive as the Glasair III? I watched a vid of the III & it’s fingertips easy flying at around 10 gallons per hour.

                I notice a Chinese outfit bought Glasair with plans to certify a model for use in many regions [manufacture to remain at Arlington in theory] & I think that’s happened in the past 2-3 years, but there isn’t an upsurge in sales – makes me wonder what the game is. I’m thinking the owners can source components wherever they please & build wherever too.

                I bet those two Boeing traitors aren’t working bare armed, ungloved in plimsolls & pony tails with the big boys.

              2. Glasair III is a performance plane(low wing). The similar Glasair 1 or 2 won a race at Reno when we were building ours. Ours is the Glasair Sportsman, which is designed as an off-airport bush plane, although I just use it for fun and a bit for travel. Running lean of peak we can get 6.9 to 7.2 gallons per hour.

                Once our plane was put together, we left in on site for painting and to spend some time getting checked out. It needed 40 hours on the engine before delivery. The company asked if they could use it as a display at Sun-and-Fun event in Florida after which we were planning to finish the transport to New York (our home, then). Unfortunately, a tornado hit the event airport and our plane was very slightly dented on one wing. They decided to fly it all the way back to Arlington and fix the dent, then fly it all the way back to New York. It’s been a fine little plane. We love it.

                Yes, I believe a Chinese company bought Glasair. It had been started by two dental students who decided they liked planes better than teeth. What’s next? Will a Chinese company buy Boeing?

              3. Maybe the Chinese WILL buy Boeing as 737 contains lucky numerals. The missing row 13 in many western planes can be changed to missing 14, which sounds like “will die” in Mandarin…

              4. That’s a very impressive video(kudos for the stylistic choice of soundtracking the first half like it’s a blaxploitation movie too, I was unconsciously drumming my fingers throughout). As someone who is completely useless with their hands, and is protecting them from injury so that they can be used for higher purposes like video games and flicking M&Ms into my mouth, what you did there is amazing.

          1. Oversimplifying a lot but with some of the gist: density = mass / volume. So if volume goes to zero, density goes to infinity. So the “singularity” in this simplification is that we find a situation where we have to set volume to 0. Notice I didn’t say *mass*, but *density* being the crucial property of interest.

            1. What gives us the idea volume can go to zero? Isn’t it more likely (if that’s the right term) that there is a limit to the squeezeability of matter? Perhaps the volume is actually 0.000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001. Wouldn’t Plank’s constant or some such value apply? You can tell I don’t know much about this.

        2. Great reminder. Further, black holes have finite mass – there are big ones and little ones – because their gravitational effect on nearby stars is calculable. Infinite mass is incoherent because they would have infinite gravitational attraction, right?

          1. It’s not infinite mass at the Black Hole mathematical singularity, it’s infinite density of mass [a given amount of mass divided by zero volume = infinite density].

              1. Yes. It’s dimensionless bollocks – not real fortunately cos that would be uncomfortable 🙂

  2. Well, in defense of Edwards, many people DO believe the world revolves around them and, well, if we all have a singularity within us then, gravitationally speaking, they aren’t wrong.

    Another excellent post on free will. Are there any plans for a book about this topic, Dr Coyne?

      1. I still think there’s a case to be made from your specific point of view. I’d buy it. And Sam Harris’s book was very short, more of an extended pamphlet.

        There’s room for a really thorough book on this subject because there are so few books that deal with this subject from a purely deterministic viewpoint. There are chapters that deal with it, and there are compatibilist attempts to explain it away, and there are endless bullshit self-help books that reassure everyone they’re completely in control of their lives…but hard determinist books are extremely rare. If they exist at all they’re philosophical textbooks for an academic audience.

        I’ve repeatedly searched Amazon and Harris’s book was pretty much the only thing written for the general public by a genuine determinist. Galen Strawson wrote something about the subject which I’d like to read but it costs almost thirty quid for some reason, and Robert Sapolsky has never written a book specifically on this topic.

        I’d say you are one of a small handful of respected and well-known determinists who are capable of writing for the public, and I’d love to have a proper, thorough book I can point to if someone asks about determinism and its implications.

        I understand that it’s slightly easier for me to say you should do it than it is for you to give up years of your life to painstakingly write it, but if you ever do decide to I think you’d have the field pretty much to yourself and you’d be writing about something that’s only going to become more and more controversial as time goes on. Just my two cents.

  3. While watching David Attenborough’s nature series and being awestruck by the diversity and complexity of the animal world, I think most people would agree that all this happens without agency.

    Why should human beings be any different?

    1. “I think most people would agree that all this happens without agency.”

      Au contraire, most compatibilists would regard animals as “agents”. That means they have aims and objectives and are trying to attain them.

      (That is not attributing any non-physical woo to them, it is simply saying that these are useful concepts for thinking about how the world works, as are “will” and “freedom”.)

  4. … just as we are programmed to think that somewhere in our brain sits an “I” module.

    Hey, the homunculus manning the throttle and helm in the wheelhouse inside my head resents that implication.

    1. Actually, it’s more like everywhere in our brain sits an “I” module.

      To quote a famous philosopher,

      If you make yourself really small, you can externalize virtually everything.

      Dennett apparently decided later that this was the most important sentence of his book Elbow Room. On that we agree.

      1. The problem that I see is that in his _Consciousness Explained_, the self is in fact a “narrative fiction” created by the interaction of other modules (an emergent property) and (more contentiously) through language. Consequently, what is the “size” of this? I think he would likely say that the boundary of the self is the boundary of the organism’s body – but I think of that as a mistake, since the very idea of the interacting modules (see his later _From Bacteria to Bach and Back_) is that they are not just cooperative (and hence unified self-wise) but *also* and necessarily so, competitive. So which of the “me” is the relevant one for the “externalising” complaint? I am a great fan of Dennett, but I have always found his take on compatibilism to be weak, especially after going through _Against Moral Responsibility_ and (yes) Kane’s stuff.

        1. Ah, but what Dennett should have said if he wanted to focus on narrative, is that the self is a narrative fiat. Just as the Supreme Court can issue rulings despite the fact that it is composed of sometimes-competing members, the human being can also issue decisions. The Supreme Court is pretty adamant about remaining a Supreme Court, and most humans are pretty adamant about remaining a person. What a person sincerely says, even to themselves, typically has a significant effect on their following behavior. At least, barring severe delirium, mental breakdown, etc.

  5. This may or may not be relevant to the free will discussion but it concerns a show from Law & Order, Criminal Intent. This guy was experimenting on people to see if their choice was predetermined to kill someone else or themselves. It was suppose to be a newer version of experiments by Nazi doctors back in the day. He would strap two people into chairs, often husband and wife, with computers connected to monitor everything and give the choice to one, either kill the other or yourself would be killed in 20 or 25 seconds. He of course taped all of his experiments and was arrested for murder. His theory was that a person would always shoot the other and save himself.

  6. You are not “always acting under compulsion”.

    This voids the concept of “compulsion” of any meaning:

    1. “the action or state of forcing or being forced to do something; constraint.”

    2. “an irresistible urge to behave in a certain way, especially against one’s conscious wishes.”

    [“We’re all slaves in this world”–very dramatic to say, make sure you wear a beret, but probably grating to a real slave.]

    With respect to definition 1:


    1. “strength or energy as an attribute of physical action or movement.”

    2. “coercion or compulsion, especially with the use or threat of violence.”

    Note that any physical process obeys the “forces” of physics, but the laws of physics do not employ compulsion (which requires an agent usually behaving badly). If I throw a ball, the ball is forced by me through the air, not by physical laws. If someone claims they were forced to lie, the question is “who put you up to it” not “how from a physiological perspective was it possible to behave the way you just behaved”.

    The way “force” is used in physics is entirely different from how it is used in law. . . and the concept of compulsion is related to the legal definition of “force”, not physics.

    Physical laws are entirely descriptive. You can’t not obey, but there is no punishment for disobedience.

    Human laws are prescriptive and violations incur punishment. You can choose to disobey, but there will be consequences. [Whether your choice is predetermined by God or Nature or the product of chance or your exercise of your “free will” muscle.]

    Its all a result of assuming the word “force” has the same meaning in entirely different contexts because it uses the same letters. In fact, you could use two different words and then it would be clear.

        1. This is sort of true, but I think Jerry’s point is that there really is not any difference between an agent constraining your actions vs. anything else.

          Really? It made no “real difference” to Patty Hearst in her bank robbery prosecution and subsequent presidential commutations and pardons?

          1. There is a difference in the PUNISHMENT you should receive if you do something bad under external compulsion versus internal compulsion, but that bears on the reasons for punishment (deterrence, reformation, etc), and not on whether or not something forced you to act in a way that you couldn’t have acted otherwise.

  7. … there is a quantum “singularity” in the decision-making process, and that singularity somehow gives us an “unpredictable output” that could count as libertarian free will …

    Would that be the same quantum singularity that gives a tossed coin the free will to come up heads or tails?

    1. Would that be the same quantum singularity that gives a tossed coin the free will to come up heads or tails?

      No – its the one Spinoza’s tossed stone had – if it could speak the stone would maintain it flies through the air of its own free will:

      This, then, is that human freedom which all men boast of possessing, and which consists solely in this, that men are conscious of their desire and unaware of the causes by which they are determined.

  8. I have said this many times before, but what I find eminently frustrating about these arguments is that they take a semantically incoherent concept and then throw all of the usual tools at it (God of the gaps, quantum mysteriousness, appeal to common sense and experience, etc.) I think this approach actually makes much more sense in terms of arguing for religion, because at least in that case there is an agreed upon, or vaguely agreed upon, referent. When it comes to free will, it’s like reading long considerations of how square circles might exist. This seems Alice In Wonderland-esque to me (although even that is not a good example, because I at least have a clear referent for ‘square’ and ‘circle’ individually – I have no referent for what ‘will’ would look like, and how it could ever be distinguishable from cause-effect or randomness, in a lab.)

    Funnily, I think the closest approximation to free will (not actual free will, but again, the closest one can get) is to be found not in complex new topics like quantum mechanics, but in good old fashioned ones like behaviorism. Our selfhood, physically and mentally, over long periods of time, is quite unique and mysterious, to my mind. I like Bill Bryson’s description:

    “To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and curiously obliging manner to create you. It’s an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, co-operative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally under-appreciated state known as existence.”

    I think one of the more unique aspects of such selfhood is our ability to carry forward consequences in time. My health status in 5, 10, or 20 years can be influenced by what I do today. My consciences might rest easily or heavily in a similar manner depending on today’s choices. It is hard to imagine a similar situation for, say, a rock. Living bodies and minds seem uniquely able to accumulate consequences and carry them forward unseen across long periods of time.

    When combined with our subjective experiences and subjective preferences, I think this is enough to get you an agent that, at a zoomed in level, acts on preference – sometimes very forcefully, mustering all the willpower it can – to affect certain outcomes. The achievements of modern human civilization are a testament to that ability. There is something seemingly unique about the way that agents interact with the world of potential outcomes and try to regulate their own subjective experiences.

    That said, when one zooms further out, this does not, of course, equal any kind of ultimate free will. No one chose to choose to choose to choose to be a creature with a subjective experience, or to have a particular subjective experience, or to want to want to want what they want, and so on. It simply speaks to things like human psychology being valid fields of study, as, whether ultimately determined or not, there is something to be known about the unique way that human minds interact with the world.

    1. Interesting. I would only point out that rocks also “accumulate consequences and carry them forward unseen across long periods of time”. Erosion is one such example, but many rocks undergo changes in chemistry and composition as well. Rocks can even change “species” (if you’ll excuse me) as metamorphic strata attest.

      1. Unless I’m misunderstanding though, those are all reactions that happen when a rock is in immediate contact with water, heat, or pressure. There would be no question of a rock being exposed to water today, being dried off, and eroding 20 years from now, for example. This is what I mean about why the relationship of living things to time + cause/effect seems unique. (With perhaps large and complex systems such as the movements of the ocean, or the weather, serving as a bridge between those two points.)

        I will say that perhaps this is largely a conceptual difference. I suppose what looks like reactions over time when it comes to a person’s physical body (gaining weight, getting pregnant, etc.) pretty much boil down to long chains of reactions that never actually stop, even though they may be invisible to our eyes. One could say that a rock is incapable of such chain reactions, but, one could also say that a rock is an arbitrary point of focus and that if one looked at a ‘mountainside’, then such reactions could occur (a rock could roll downward, cause an avalanche, which in turn could block a path for goats, causing them to graze elsewhere, in turn…) But, it does seem to me intuitively that a human being has a cohesiveness and agency that the concept of ‘mountainside’ does not, that there is some justification in conceptualizing ourselves as one unit.

        It is also worth pointing out, I think, that this temporal relationship does seem to pause entirely when it comes to the world of the mental, and social constructs. We might carry an idea, memory, or bit of knowledge somewhere in the back of our minds that doesn’t appear to ‘do’ anything, or be involved in any sort of ongoing causal chain, until one day something in the environment calls it forward – as when we see a picture of an arcane item that we never think about, but can still name when we see it (full disclosure, I probably got this idea from Buddhism). Whether this is illusion or not – perhaps things like mental impressions never recede entirely into potentate form and are just as much of a ‘chain reaction’ as gaining weight – I don’t know, but it certainly seems that we can carry around seeds of future causality in inactive, potentate form in a way that a rock cannot. (At least not to anything like the same degree, as a rock may move through time with a few fixed physical potentials based on its chemistry.) The same is also true in social systems, as when society mutually agrees that you have earned a certain amount of money for a given task, and so in that sense you carry an hours work forward in time with you almost indefinitely, until you spend said money.

        1. On reflection after pulling my thoughts together – perhaps a much simpler way to summarize the above would be to say that human bodies are systems; and human minds are somewhat unique because they, as a part of these systems, appear to be comprised of both open and closed components (or have the ability to transition between the two).

          This is consequential in that when we think of the determinism of cause and effect, we tend to picture very straightforward “this happens and causes this to happen” relationships. Because of the complexity of human systems and the way causality reverberates through us in ways too complex for us to understand (even top AI researchers are nowhere close, so far as I know,) I think this does make the idea of determinism working on humans hard to grok for many. We intuitively sense that there is a difference between the kind of causality that applies to human systems and the kind of common sense cause-effect relationships we see in daily life.

          While this does not give us free will, I think it does point to the idea that the complex algorithms of causality that apply to humans may well be very unique, even from a mathematical perspective (that is speculation, of course.) And perhaps this speaks to the reluctance people feel about accepting ‘no free will’ – an intuition that some important element, while not ‘free’, but unique nonetheless – is not accounted for when one pictures the more colloquially understood laws of physics at work. Agency is, perhaps, not free, but wildly different in the way it works. (Or not – again, that is mostly speculation about what might be true of agency and people’s intuitions about what might be true.)

            1. Just that the accessibility of various systems of the mind (brainstem vs. sensory input areas; long term memory vs. reflexes, etc.) are limited in different ways.

              (Although since there is no technical criteria regarding open and closed when it comes to something as ethereal as ‘the mind’; and all systems by definition have to be somewhat closed, or they wouldn’t be systems, ‘multiple subsystems’ would probably have been a clearer term. I didn’t think of it at the time though, lol. But ‘semi-enclosed systems within systems’ is what I was getting at.)

        2. I think what you’re getting at is the fact that animals have thoughts and desires, which store enormous amounts of information, which then exerts crucial control over further paths taken. And human beings do the same but on steroids.

          Am I close?

          1. Yes, but when I saw Paul’s comment I realized that talking about a ‘closed’ system has a pretty specific meaning in various scientific fields, so it was not the clearest term, as I wasn’t referring to thermodynamics or any such thing. (The pregnancy brain struggle is real. I have the equivalent of 100 birth control pills a day in hormones swirling through my body at the moment and I lie awake at night worrying about whether or not I should have Goodnight Moon in the house, as it might be a symptom of dualistic, objectifying Western culture. Why is the rabbit going around the room just naming objects? Why is he not interacting with his caregiver, and why is she an old rabbit who basically spends the entire book telling him to STFU? Word retrieval is not my strong suit at the moment. But, on reflection, I think that ‘subsystems’ was probably what I was looking for. Specifically, as you said, subsystems involving unbelievable amounts of memory storage and information that appears to change from static to fluid depending on the context.)

        3. “Systems with memory” are an interesting class, but they do include some purely physical ones. I think the term “metametal” is used for this sort of situation; any materials science people around?

          1. (To avoid unnecessary carping: I do not regard “physical” and “material” as synonyms – there are chemical, biological, etc. systems as well, which are *composed* at the lowest levels of physical entities but produce emergent properties at the various levels indicated.)

  9. Unpredictability, Indeterminism, Uncertainty are all “effects” of the laws of physics. The feeling of agency will always be with us. How we live out our lives in both contexts is critical, i.e., living with a feeling of agency but knowing that we live in a deterministic universe. I would appreciate if there was a detailed explanation (i.e., step-by-step) of how the feeling of agency functions in the context of determinism when sitting how for a meal at a restaurant and making delightfully hedonistic selections. This would definitely be helpful.

    For topics to address, I would appreciate some guidance, suggestions, for tourist traveling especially flying in light of the following article regarding climate change:

  10. Every physics book I’ve read recently reiterates that the singularities in black holes and the big bang are due to the application of general relativity on the quantum scale, which is known to be a domain which has not been explained yet. That’s what string theorists, quantum loop lovers and others are working on. Where does this guy get his information? He clearly knows nothing of which he speaks.

  11. I assume he means singularity as in somewhere where you know all the inputs but can’t necessarily tell the outputs, via quantum indeterminacy.

    Perhaps one could say that it swallows the input state and radiates information that can’t show what that input state was.

    I don’t see how this is free will though, and I agree that quantum indeterminacy doesn’t leave room for free will.

  12. I’ve said a lot about my feeling on free will already, so I will keep this short.

    1. The idea that we should accept free will because it is beneficial, regardless of its truth, is just a non-starter, IMHO. No good ever comes of denying the truth.

    2. It bother me to define free will as choice without coercion. I take free will as simply agency and something we all have. With that behind us, the coercion issue is simply a completely separate matter of society deciding which kinds of coercion relieve a person of moral responsibility for their actions and which kinds do not.

    1. “The idea that we should accept free will because it is beneficial, regardless of its truth, is just a non-starter, IMHO. No good ever comes of denying the truth.”

      D’you think that’s always true? After all we deny the truth to ourselves all the time, in little ways, simply for the sake of our mental health.
      It’s possible that there are truths that would be best off…well, not outright denied, and certainly not _suppressed_…but just ignored, because they’re too psychologically and socially inconvenient.

      Not that determinism is necessarily one of those truths, but in principle I think it’s possible that some things are too damaging to be engaged with.

      1. I knew when I wrote that that others would disagree. I hit Return anyway in hope of learning some counter-examples. I share your intuition that they exist but can’t think of any.

  13. Why do some people insist so mightily that free will exists? Do we need it provide a moral license to heap suffering and immiseration on others, by pretending they bring it on themselves? The thirst for retribution does seem great, an undeniable part of the human psychological endowment. But would anyone even care about free will if the accepted moral rule were that hurting people on purpose is always, unconditionally wrong, except in self-defense?

    1. Free will is not only associated with these negative impulses but positive ones as well. If I don’t have free will, do I deserve the Nobel Prize? After all, I could not have done otherwise.

      1. There is such a huge asymmetry between praise and blame that I do not think the urge to praise has much to do with the affection for free will. Praising rarely results in irrevocable life-changing impacts while people’s lives and futures are wrecked in the name of blame every day.

        1. I would agree when the domain of discussion is human emotion, society, and culture but not when it’s hard determinism. If determinism says we couldn’t have done otherwise, it applies to both the good and the bad things we do.

  14. Always good to see you skewer Libertarian Free Will, Prof CC!

    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.

    Sure, but note that to even retain some bare, useful notion of “responsibility” in regards to human beings, the law etc, we need to retain some TRUE and viable notion of “could have done otherwise.”

    For instance, how could it ever make sense to adjudicate that someone was worthy of the charge of “Criminal Negligence” if they could not have done otherwise?

    Even putting some deep moral responsibility up on the shelf:

    It is ONLY in the case we think someone did not do what they COULD have done (if they wanted to!) that we could hold them “responsible” in the sense we need to, in order to even have a system of law, and decide when it makes sense to apply those laws.

  15. In view of the uselessness of Pascal’s Wager he could just as well have said:
    “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 determinism.
    The fact that that makes just as much sense, shows us that his argument makes no sense.

  16. Imagine someone gave you a “libertarian free will card”, good for 10 uses of Real Free Will®, which you could use whenever you wanted to.

    How would you decide when to use it? Would you choose something different when you did use it?

    1. That is an interesting question. Thinking about it, I doubt it would make any difference to me. Rightly or wrongly, I believe and act as if I have a free will akin to libertarian free will even though I fully accept that I live in a deterministic universe. The point is, the fact that the universe is deterministic is irrelevant to my sense of free will. I cannot see how the libertarian free will cards can matter to me. What could I do with them?

      I would like to know how someone who feels they do NOT have free will would answer this question.

      1. “I would like to know how someone who feels they do NOT have free will would answer this question.”

        It seems pretty straightforward to answer for a determinist: we’d either use the ‘free will card’ or not, and that outcome would be entirely determined by prior events.

        Let me ask you this(because you’re right, it’s a really good thought experiment):
        Let’s say this card is handed out to you.
        Let’s also assume for the sake of argument that the universe actually IS completely deterministic.
        Let’s also assume that the card actually works, and allows you to make a limited number of genuine choices in an otherwise entirely deterministic universe.
        Then let’s assume you use the card…

        How could you ever know if the card had worked?

        How could you ever know whether you had used up one of your “10 uses”?

        I think this gets at something important in the debate.
        If the insertion of free-will into a deterministic universe is invisible, undetectable, changes nothing that anyone can see, then we’re getting close to religious territory. The concept of free-will becomes as unfalsifiable as the concept of god.

        1. “If the insertion of free-will into a deterministic universe is invisible, undetectable, changes nothing that anyone can see, then we’re getting close to religious territory.”

          I like that framing.

          The determinist protests like this: “I was compelled to do what I want by my own brain!” It is a protest that does not elicit much empathy from me.

          You are unable to want something other than what your brain wants, because what your brain wants is what you want. Only your brain can produce the thought “I want to do otherwise.” If it does produce that thought, you don’t need a free will card; if it doesn’t, the card will be no use.

          1. I actually meant to reply to your original post(I forgot) and compliment you on the thought experiment. It’s very interesting and it really helped me sharpen my thinking on this.

            Particularly the question of how a free-will-advocate could possibly know if the card had worked once they’d used it.

            And if you can’t tell whether it worked or not the whole situation begins to reminds me of that quote about god; ‘the invisible and the nonexistent look very much alike.’

          2. That reminds me of the argument “you can choose what you want but you can’t choose your wants”. Perhaps if I had a free will card, I’d use it to choose my wants.

    2. Great thought experiment! I would never use it. Libertarian free will would at best be a poor approximation to compatibilist free will, the only kind worth wanting.

      I would (have a probability to) do something different than I wanted to when I used the card – exactly why I wouldn’t use it.

  17. What is the empirical evidence for “the empirical truth that you couldn’t have on the other.” To my knowledge, the idea that one “you could have behaved otherwise” is a fundamentally unfalsifiable belief, not an empirical fact. How could this *empirical truth* be tested and justified empirically?

    1. “To my knowledge, the idea that one “you could have behaved otherwise” is a fundamentally unfalsifiable belief, not an empirical fact. How could this *empirical truth* be tested and justified empirically?”

      The same way we test or demonstrate any empirical claim.

      If I am in a French restaurant with someone and she asks “Can you order for us in French?” what is that question about? It’s not a metaphysical inquiry. It’s an inquiry as to my empirical ability to speak French (or enough of it) or not. If I answer “Yes I can do that” then I can demonstrate this by speaking the order in French.

      Alternatively, if we have already ordered in English my dining partner can ask essentially the same question “Could you have ordered speaking French?” What’s the point of that question? Again, it’s not a metaphysical inquiry. It’s using a hypothetical question in the same service as the other one: my dining partner wants to know if I have the capability to order in French. I can answer “Yes I could have ordered in French if I wanted to” and then demonstrate I have enough French to do so, by reciting to my dining partner our order in French.

      Viola. There’s your empirical claim, with empirical verification.

      Now, of course we CAN take your question to be “How could we verify anyone could do otherwise if we rewound the clock to precisely the same state of the universe?””

      Well, yes, if you think in those terms, it’s not falsifiable insofar as we can’t wind back the clock. (Or…to the degree we assess the claim through inference about how the world works in physical terms, it IS potentially falsified).

      Fortunately, that is not how we actually think and communicate about the world, in most everyday situations. Normally we use inferences from similar experiences to predicting future experiences, use hypothetical if/then and counterfactual reasoning, to understand the empirical world, and what is “possible” for us to do and “likely” in terms of the outcomes of our actions. None of which threaten determinism at all.

      “I could speak French if I want to” and “I could have spoken French if I want to” can, and normally do, convey the same useful information.

      1. Thanks for the confirmation that no, it’s not an empirically falsifiable claim. As far as whether or not it ‘threatens determinism’, I don’t think an unfalsifiable claim can support or threaten any phiol

        1. Hi Beth.

          Your reply appears to tangle up exactly what I sought to untangle. 🙂

          I distinguished two ways of understanding the claim “I could have done otherwise.”

          The first one is the Libertarian Free Will sense, of “being able to do otherwise given precisely the same causal state and time – if you could wind back the clock.”

          THAT is the version that determinism DOES threaten. (Not to mention, it just doesn’t really make any sense).

          But I spend most of the time defending a different understanding of what people mean by claims like “I could have done otherwise.”
          And THAT version is the one that is NOT threatened by determinism. That version allows for verifiable, or falsifiable claims. And THAT is the version that does not threaten determinism. And, I argue, THAT is the version that explains what most of us actually mean when talking about what we could do or could have done.

          The problem I have with many hard incompatibilists is that they tend to either speak to either only one version – the Libertarian Free Wil version – without acknowledging the other, which ends up sloppily conflating the two. Which I think only adds to confusion, rather than clarifies.

          1. It was that first meaning of determinism that threatens freewill, as you put it. I presumed that Jerry was making the claim about that meaning of determinism when he said it was empirically true. I thought you were confirming that that specific meaning of determinism cannot be falsified. It is, IMO, an article of faith required by hard determinism as I understand it.

            The second meaning, that *I could have ordered in French if I had wanted to*, is not only falsifiable, but clearly true in the sense that people say such things but not what Jerry was referring to as empirically true in the OP.

            Have I understood you correctly? Are you trying to say that he meant the second meaning, not the first, which was how I took it?

            1. Beth, yes, that’s right, I can see you understood what I was trying to say.

              And you are correct: Jerry is usually referring to the first meaning, the Libertarian Free Will version of “I could have done otherwise.”

              I think the trouble in focusing exclusively on the first LFW version of “could do otherwise/freedom” is that it leaves the impression that’s the only version, and is de facto what people always mean by “I could have done otherwise.”

              It’s good to let people know they don’t have one form of freedom some think they have, but it’s also important to let them know the DO have a form of freedom they think they have.

              Otherwise you are throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and leaving confusion and incoherence.

  18. “…it is an area of ongoing research with promising avenues, and the observer effect heavily implies a connection.”

    Is it just me or is this a misunderstanding of the observer effect? I am under the impression that the observer effect has nothing to do with free will or a mind but is the result of measuring instruments interacting with the particles/wave.

    Am I wrong? Has my college training as a professional cook led me astray in regard to quantum theory?

    1. No Jim, your cooking nose is correct [IMHO].

      There is no observer effect in the sense of a conscious agent observing – if that were true it would open up the possibility of building a remote consciousness detector. And to the religious believers: since God is looking ‘down’ on all things why doesn’t he keep collapsing the wave function just by existing?

      1. I remember recently reading that the Observer Effect was more than just the experimental apparatus interacting with that which is to be observed. However, it still maintained that there was no basis for assuming that a human was special — no woo, in other words. I don’t know the physics well enough to say more. That said, I would doubt any physics theory in which the human is given a special place.

        1. Every authority on this that I’ve read has said that the ‘observer’ can be anything at all. Anything that collapses the wavefunction. A molecule, a cow, a rock, a person. Consciousness plays no special role in it at all.

          If you think about it, any real evidence to the contrary would be one of the most astonishing discoveries in the history of science and practically every particle physicist on earth would be fixated on uncovering how it worked. So the fact that it’s only mentioned by wooey cranks and physicists who are using language in a confusing way says a lot about the lack of weight it carries as a theory.

          1. Right, but I thing when the observer effect was first noted, it was suggested that humans were special and this idea was captured in its name. At the time, the woo merchants came out of the woodwork and some have still not let it go. It doesn’t help that scientists still don’t know precisely what causes collapse of the wave function. It’s just put down to environmental influence, whatever that is. All we know is we can delay collapse by isolating the system from the rest of the universe. (Physicists feel free to correct me if I’m wrong on this.)

    2. I may be totally wrong on this, but I thought the observer effect was more “the measurement effect”. For example, if presented with the equation X + 2 = Y, it wouldn’t, in some sense, matter if a conscious human or a robot crossed out the Y and wrote in ’10’. In either case, X would suddenly ‘become’ 8 by default. Or, if you two sticks of known length and didn’t know if they really ‘were’ part of an isosceles or equilateral triangle, it wouldn’t matter if you put them down on the ground at an angle together or if a hurricane blew them into that configuration. Once there, the third side would be determined either way.

      If there is a mystic component to that, I don’t know if it involves conscious minds so much as the idea that the universe, rather than being a discrete, existing, dualistic ‘thing’ to be observed, is on some level undergoing constant creation based on new relationships as they occur.

    3. The “observer” in the strong sense thesis is *provably* wrong. (For “observer” in sloppy physics just read “measuring instrument”.) This was shown first in 1967 by both Mario Bunge and Karl Popper in the same collection and then more rigorously using 1974 stuff by the former.

      And even then, Heisenberg (and, sadly, early Vic Stenger’s) popularization (the “gamma ray microscope” thought experiment) is also wrong – the uncertainty relations apply even when there is no “measurement” or interaction with such an instrument either. This is where the so-called “decoherence” program takes place.

      The “observer effect” in social science is real, however.

  19. I’m starting to learn that when you hear people dilate on “the mystery of consciousness”, they’re almost always antiscientific dualists or ID creationists.

    Almost always. I’m not sure what the percentage of “antiscientific dualists or ID creationists” is but Annaka Harris is not among them. She has a fantastic recent book, Conscious, A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind. It strikes me like someone running a four minute mile on their first ever attempt.

    Our experience of consciousness is so intrinsic to who we are, we rarely notice that something mysterious is going on. Consciousness is experience itself, and it is therefore easy to miss the profound question staring us in the face in each moment: Why would any collection of matter in the universe be conscious? We look right past the mystery as if the existence of consciousness were obvious or an inevitable result of complex life, but when we look more closely, we find that it is one of the strangest aspects of reality.

    Harris, Annaka. Conscious. Harper.

      1. I also find that both Sam and Annaka (especially Sam) go a bit to far for my tastes in to the “mysteriousness of consciousness” and the Hard Problem.

        It must be an intuition thing because no matter how many times I hear about the hard problem and how mysterious consciousness is supposed to be, it just doesn’t seem to stir me. It feels like I’m at a party where everyone has smoked a bong and are saying things like “Man, can you believe we are even HERE? What’s it all about maaaan? And, like, what’s with the moon?!!”

        Except I’m not high and can’t get in that headspace.

        When people ask “why should we be conscious?” I can’t help think “why shouldn’t we be?”

        We have senses, and a complex neurology that arose to sense stimuli via our senses, sending signals to our brain which creates images and models of the world, and “feelings” and ways of thinking about our desires, predicting what it will be like if we do X vs Y, etc. It seems all ABOUT feeling, sensing, modelling. It would seem stranger to me if it didn’t “feel like” something. It has to feel like something, and consciousness is what it feels like.

        (And I do not go in for Chalmer’s zombies).

        1. I also find that both Sam and Annaka (especially Sam) go a bit to far for my tastes in to the “mysteriousness of consciousness” and the Hard Problem.

          I think your “also” is out of place here. Tom Clark wrote a decidedly positive review of the book, and disputes Harris on one issue. He does not share your disdain for the Hard Problem.

          I’m not complaining about your taste. To each his own. I just happen to agree with Tom Clark that:

          For my money there’s no more fascinating problem than that of why we’re conscious, and aside from my reservations about panpsychism, Conscious is a worthy introduction to it.

        2. I couldn’t agree more. Well said. I think Sam does a disservice to the science and rationality he champions with his mystical perspective on consciousness. It is a hard problem, but there is no good reason (IMO) to believe it is a Hard problem.

          The mystical view of consciousness reads to me very much like what NdGT was describing when he said, “What does he say? He’s… he’s at his limits! . . . You read Principia and God is nowhere until you get to the General Scholium. This is Isaac Newton, at the limits of his knowledge, invoking intelligent design. I want to put on the table the fact that you have school systems wanted to put intelligent design into the classroom, but you also have the most brilliant people who ever walked this Earth *doing the same thing*!

          1. Before Sam Harris became a famous atheist [a word he rejects, same as Hitchens did] author there’s a hole in his bio a decade wide – a bit like Jesus’ lost years 🙂

            There’s nothing at all out there that’s concrete about the period from 1986 to 1997 [all of his 20s basically], when he interrupted his Stanford University studies to supposedly do meditation stuffz in India & Nepal [according to Harris]. In essence a Hollywood born kid with some financial security takes MDMA & that inspires him to drop out for a decade & probe some mind mysteries in his own way.

            I would love to know what his real bio is – the official one is too simple my nose tells me.

        3. Shortened versions, alluding to Dennett and Descartes:

          We aren’t really conscious, we just think we are, so it seems like we are.

          I think I am conscious, therefore I am conscious.

      2. Very nice review, and lots of pointers to additional interesting writing. Thanks.

        I have to disagree with you on panpsychism though. As you write, this is a “speculative pre-theoretical hunch” – but one I find highly interesting. It makes more sense to me than theories proposing consciousness magically arises when a physical system become sufficiently complex.

  20. Sure, lots of people believe that free will works as libertarian philosophers or theologians say it does. And then they appeal to these notions when discussing punishment. But that just shows that lots of people have mistaken ideas about how choice works. It doesn’t mean that we should build-in those ideas into the very definition of free will.

    Similarly, lots of people believe that without a soul, you would have no consciousness. A few hundred years ago the idea of consciousness without soul would be almost unthinkable. Same sh**, different day.

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