In which I diverge from Steve Pinker on free will

October 13, 2019 • 12:30 pm

Well, I’m not always in accordance with the views of Steve Pinker, and I found this short Big Think video he did on free will (full transcript below) in which we part company in several ways.

Granted, not completely. Steve is still a determinist here (to some extent; but see below). For instance, he says this:

“I believe that decisions are made by neurophysiological processes in the brain that respect all the laws of physics. On the other hand it is true that when I decide what to say next when I pick an item from a menu for dinner it’s not the same as when the doctor hits my kneecap with a hammer and my knee jerks. It’s just a different physiological process and one of them we use the word free will to characterize the more deliberative, slower, more complex process by which behavior is selected in the brain.”

True, but in both cases the results are determined by the laws of physics. In one case the neural impulse doesn’t go through the brain, while in the other it does, and in a more complex way, but in neither case could you have behaved otherwise. In neither case do you have any agency about what happens. It’s curious that Steve uses the word “free will” to characterize a deterministic brain process that is just as determined as a motor reflex. In neither case is anything “free”. It’s telling to me that Steve says “we use the word free will” to characterize the former, but that language may be referring to how most people conceive free will rather than what Steve believes. He may be acting as a linguist and a sociologist here, reporting on how the phrase is used in society.

Now Steve is proposing a Dennettian view of “free will” here, arguing that decisions that work their way through our evolved and deterministic brain programs are “free”, but motor reflexes aren’t. But, as Sam Harris said in Free Will:

[Compatibilism] ignores the very source of our belief in free will: the feeling of conscious agency. People feel that they are the authors of their thoughts and actions, and this is the only reason why there seems to be a problem of free will worth talking about.

I think that right there Sam isolated the only important issue: we feel that we could have decided other than we did, but we couldn’t have. And that has all kinds of ramifications. The view that “free will” consists of a complicated but deterministic brain program that looks as if people have agency is an illusion that has inimical social consequences. One of them is the death penalty and other barbaric forms of punishment. And this issue of feeling you have agency is ignored by compatibilists like Dennett, and is elided here by Steve.

Where I do differ more substantively from Steve is his apparent view that, yes, in identical situations people could have decided otherwise:

[Our decision making is] not completely predictable in that there may be random or chaotic or nonlinear effects that mean that even if you put the same person in the same circumstance multiple times they won’t make the same choice every time. Identical twins who have almost identical upbringings, put them in the same chair, face them with the same choices. They may choose differently. Again, that’s not a miracle. That doesn’t mean that there is some ghost in the machine that is somehow pushing the neural impulses around. But it just means that the brain like other complex systems is subject to some degree of unpredictability.

Here he conflates, as many do, predictability with determinism. Something can be completely determined, like the results of chaos theory or nonlinear effects, and yet still be unpredictable, since prediction requires knowing things that we can’t. But in those cases our decisions are still determined. As for “random” effects, unless Steve means pure quantum indeterminacy, things are still determined, since effects we consider “random”, as in tossing a coin, are still determined but unpredictable.

Further, the identical twins argument is misleading, because identical twins don’t have absolutely identical molecules in their brains and bodies, nor do they have identical environments. Using identical twins as a surrogate for “being in the same position and deciding differently” is not a hill I’d want to die on.

What, then, does Steve mean by free will? Here’s his definition, though it’s not really a definition:

So paradoxically one of the reasons that we want free will to exist is that it be determined by the consequences of those choices. And on average it does. People do obey the laws more often than not. They do things that curry favor more often than they bring opprobrium on their heads but not with 100 percent predictability. So that process is what we call free will. It’s different from many of the more reflexive and predictable behaviors that we can admit but it does not involve a miracle.

I guess that here he conceives of free will as a determined brain program that responds to external influences in ways we can “predict”. But that’s only because the program is an evolved one: people want good things and want to avoid bad things, and their brain helps them, more often than not, effect these results, which are indices of reproductive success. But again, why is this free will? What, exactly, is “free”?

The video is below, and I’ve put the full transcript below that, which is provided by Big Think. 

The transcript:

STEVEN PINKER: I do believe that there is such a thing as free will but by that I do not mean that there is some process that defies the laws of physical cause and effect. As my colleague Joshua Greene once put it, it is not the case that every time you make a decision a miracle occurs. So I don’t believe that. I believe that decisions are made by neurophysiological processes in the brain that respect all the laws of physics. On the other hand it is true that when I decide what to say next when I pick an item from a menu for dinner it’s not the same as when the doctor hits my kneecap with a hammer and my knee jerks. It’s just a different physiological process and one of them we use the word free will to characterize the more deliberative, slower, more complex process by which behavior is selected in the brain.

That process involves the aggregation of many diverse kinds of information – our memory, our goals, our current environment, our expectation of how other people will judge that action. Those are all information streams that affect that process. It’s not completely predictable in that there may be random or chaotic or nonlinear effects that mean that even if you put the same person in the same circumstance multiple times they won’t make the same choice every time. Identical twins who have almost identical upbringings, put them in the same chair, face them with the same choices. They may choose differently. Again, that’s not a miracle. That doesn’t mean that there is some ghost in the machine that is somehow pushing the neural impulses around. But it just means that the brain like other complex systems is subject to some degree of unpredictability. At the same time free will wouldn’t be worth having and certainly wouldn’t’ be worth extolling in world discussions if it didn’t respond to expectations of reward, punishment, praise, blame.

When we say that someone – we’re punishing or rewarding someone based on what they chose to do we do that in the hope that that person and other people who hear about what happens will factor in how their choices will be treated by others and therefore there’ll be more likely to do good things and less likely to do bad things in the expectation that if they choose beneficial actions better things will happen to them. So paradoxically one of the reasons that we want free will to exist is that it be determined by the consequences of those choices. And on average it does. People do obey the laws more often than not. They do things that curry favor more often than they bring proprium [sic; they mean “opprobrium] on their heads but not with 100 percent predictability. So that process is what we call free will. It’s different from many of the more reflexive and predictable behaviors that we can admit but it does not involve a miracle.

226 thoughts on “In which I diverge from Steve Pinker on free will

  1. I’m on Pinker’s side on this topic. That is because there is a part of my brain, probably largely in frontal lobes that is “me”. So when then the “me” part of my brain does the choosing I call that my free will.

    1. Yes, but you couldn’t have decided other than what you decided. I could call my sister “free will” but it doesn’t give me agency. You may have “will” but nothing about it, according to what you said, is “free”.

      1. Actually, I think I do have responsibility. I am an emergent property of the organisation of my brain so when my voice says to the waiter “pizza please”, it is because I made a decision. It’s all deterministic, of course and so not free will, but, for moral purposes, I am responsible for my decisions.

          1. While my cat and I do make decisions, it is hard to think that a tree decides to break its own branch. If I get hit by a car, unless I deliberately jumped in front of it, it is not a decision I made, free will or not.

            1. What makes a branch break and fall? Only the laws of physics are responsible for this.
              All decisions, whether made by humans or cats, are also governed by the laws of physics without exception. There are no degrees of freedom anywhere, neither in plants, animals or humans, even if the complexity of the activities from species to species is subject to great variations.

              1. Hi, i’m the one who started this thread with the following:

                “I’m on Pinker’s side on this topic. That is because there is a part of my brain, probably largely in frontal lobes that is “me”. So when the “me” part of my brain does the choosing I call that my free will.”

                The important part of my comment is the question of who or what is “me”. The “me” is some very complex part of my brain. That “me” is able to make decisions. My decision making is very complex and easily influenced by other parts of my brain. When “I” make a decision “I” am the one making that choice by my own will. So that is why something deterministic can be called “free”. That is, I made the choice base on MY own will.

              2. You’re opening a whole kettle of fish asking who “me” is because now you’re touching on the related concept of “self”. The self is a delusion. There is no place in your brain for it. It’s evolution is probably a result of keeping some coherence and organization around the organism.

              3. Now I will do what everyone does to me. How do you know that “self” is a delusion? Can you prove it? Why is there “no place” in the brain for it? The “self” is an information complex in the brain. The human brain with its hundred billion neurons has ample room.

                BTW, “self” and “other” goes all the way back to early bacteria and amoeba.

              4. I really don’t understand why anyone would think that there’s some specific mechanism in the brain that defines the “self”. The whole thing, along with your body, defines your self. There no serial number anywhere. I can’t prove it but I know it’s true.

              5. Yes, I have read Hood and was not convinced. He provides no proof that “self” is an illusion. He simply asserts. And the fact that brain damaged people have a fragmented notion of self does not prove that self is an illusion anymore than blindsight in someone with a damaged visual cortex proves that sight is an illusion.

                You should read about the evolution of self.

                The notion of self in single-celled organisms began with quorum sensing. In early vertebrates, the somatosensory system central to the concept of self developed in the tectum, later the wulst and cerebral cortex.

                My best rejoinder to the assertion that there is no self is to point out that if that were true a starving organism would try to eat itself (auto-cannibalism). That never happens. It will try to eat anything but itself.

              6. sherfolder,

                “What makes a branch break and fall? Only the laws of physics are responsible for this.
                All decisions, whether made by humans or cats, are also governed by the laws of physics without exception. There are no degrees of freedom anywhere, neither in plants, animals or humans, even if the complexity of the activities from species to species is subject to great variations.”

                You are engaging in a naive reductionism.
                This often happens when someone points to the features A and B share, while ignoring or downplaying the differences between them.

                If you bought a car from someone and when you go to pick it up they hand you a banana instead of the car, would that do? After all, they can simply point out “Why are you nonplussed about receiving a banana for that $15,000 you paid me for a car? Don’t you know that a banana is just like a car? They are both “merely” made of atoms in motion, so why are you discriminating between the two?”

                The reason that would be crazy is obvious: yes we can talk about the fundamental features a car and a banana share in terms of physics, but they are physics doing some RADICALLY DIFFERENT THINGS in the world. That’s why you can to all sorts of things with a car that you can’t do with a banana.

                It would be the same if you were building a campfire, ran out of wood, and suggested hurling a nearby child in to the fire to keep it burning. “What’s the matter with that?” you ask. “Don’t you know that a child and a piece of wood are both merely atoms, and both follow fundamental physics?”

                Of course they share those features, but again, what makes this suggestion INSANE is that it is a case of appealing to features shared by a child and wood in order to ignore or downplay the DIFFERENCES between them. And it is the DIFFERENCES that we care about, that make all the difference in the world (e.g. a child can suffer terribly, has goals, desires you will thwart, people who love the child will feel incredible distress, allowing children to be randomly used as firewood would make for a horrendous society for many reasons, etc).

                It doesn’t matter how many times you would return to “but…they are BOTH JUST FOLLOWING THE FUNDAMENTAL LAWS OF PHYSICS”…because you would just be ignoring the salient facts in how they are DIFFERENT and WHY THAT MATTERS.

                This is what you are doing when you equate humans making deliberations/choices with a tree branch cracking and falling, and telling us “both are just following the fundamental laws SO THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE.”

                But there ARE differences, and they are what count. That’s why you are insane if you are found trying to reason with a tree, but not insane if you are found trying to reason with your neighbor who wants to cut a branch over your property. One entity can reason; the other can’t.

                It’s just as naive to say “there are no degrees of freedom because people are made of physical stuff just like rocks or trees.” That ignores the relevant differences. People have desires, goals, they can deliberate and reason about how best to achieve those desires, take actions to do so, etc. We can talk about ranges of “freedom” people have to fulfill their desires.

                If someone you loved were snatched up, taken before a court and ordered to be imprisoned for life for no good reason, you’d protest this right? And if the Judge said “why do you care whether this person is in prison or not? They are simply made of physics, and THERE ARE NO DEGREES OF FREEDOM ANYWHERE in that scheme, hence your loved one is no more or less free than you are when we place her in prison.

                I hope that sounds like an insane scenario to you. But it’s the one your false-reductionist logic endorses.

              7. Paul, I think your instinct that the self is an asseblage is correct. It simplifies understanding of the issue. The philosopher David Chalmers introduced the term “hard problem” of consciousness which is a similar issue – which seems to have caused a lot of people to think we shouldn’t look for a simple, straightforward solution.

            2. Darwinwins (and he does), the rational goes something like this: The self is a delusion because we can see that a person, a me, is made up of many parts of the brain. The sense of “me” is an emergent property. When damage to the brain takes out specific regions, the functions of those regions are attenuated. Thus, “we” are what the brain does in concert, it’s not some special place like the pineal gland (Descartes). We suspect that the organization of the brain gave rise to the sense of self fairly recently in evolution because it is adaptive for complex brains to have a sense of a center. This allows us to better further our goals vis-à-vis other members of our tribe who may be competing with us. It also helps in cooperative efforts to think of one’s self as a part of a group. No, this is not known for a fact but it’s a decent model that matches the evidence.

              1. Yes, thank you. I was lazy in my answer. I’m watching The Walking Dead at the same time so took short cuts.

              2. The walking dead is a good lesson in philosophical zombyism. They lack qualia, but you can still feel for them.

  2. It’s curious that Steve uses the word “free will” to characterize a deterministic brain process that is just as determined as a motor reflect. In neither case is anything “free”.

    As we’ve discussed here many times, this really is just a dispute over semantics. Absolutely everything “obeys the laws of physics” and thus absolutely nothing is “free” in the sense of not conforming to the laws of physics. So that is not, in general, what the word “free” means.

    Instead, by “free” we mean something to do with how constrained people are to act on their desires. Thus a woman is generally free to choose whether to wear a hijab in the US, but not in Iran.

    Harris: “People feel that they are the authors of their thoughts and actions, …”

    Well they are, in the sense that it is their brain, part of them, producing those thoughts. Of course it’s not ex nihilo creation of those thoughts, but do people really think that it is?

    1. I wish we’d all get along and argue for determinism against contra causal free will. This whole semantic split among those who accept determinism is like how the Left cannibalizes itself. I guess during that argument, however, the contra-causal crowd would use the term “free will” in their own “ghost in the machine” way and we’d end up fighting amongst ourselves again. Such is the issue with that term that means 3 different things to 3 different groups.

      1. There’s no-one here arguing for contra-causal free will to argue against!

        But yes, as a compatibilist, I’d readily join with non-compatibilist determinists to argue against contra-causal free will when appropriate.

        1. It here on this site but all the big 3 religions argue it and if we can get people away from that we can get people away from religion and all the other bad choices and sloppy thinking that ends up influencing our societies.

          1. Do you think that arguing against contra-causal free will is a good tactic for making people less religious? Well, maybe. But I think there are easier ways of arguing against religion. And places like Scandinavia did not become less religious from first arguing about contra-causal free will, it’s more that people abandon contra-causal free will after they become less religious.

            1. Why should anyone bother to argue any against religion as those who believe it *must* believe it?

              Where are the rules governing trying to convince other people to be against the death penalty and religion— the ones I hear most often mentioned— that we should argue against?

            2. I think it’s absolutely one way one reaching certain people. There isn’t one way of making places less religious. If I were religious and someone showed me the science behind how the brain works, it would definitely plant a seed.

            3. Coel, IMO “persons who believe in contra-causal free will” are a mythical creature. I mean, just ask the libertarian free-willer “Why did you choose A instead of B”, and he’ll proceed to give you a list of reasons why A was the better choice. When you follow-up with “And those reasons caused you to choose A instead of B?”, he’ll answer, “Why, yes, of course”.

              Reasons are causes. Therefore he cannot possibly be claiming his choice was contra-causal.

              1. Contra-Causal free will states that a decision is free if it is not causally determined. In other words, I chose not because I am forced by causes, but against causes. But, the confusion is that if one thinks there is an, “I could have chosen otherwise”, you contradict your assertion that decisions must be caused. I guess the problem is, most folks think they are a self (an humongous) which observes and decides outside of the flow of causes and effects.

              2. The “ability to do otherwise” is true by logical necessity at the beginning of every choosing operation.

                Choosing is an operation that (1) inputs two or more real possibilities, (2) applies some criteria for comparative evaluation, and (3) outputs a single choice, usually in the form of a single “I will” that sets our intent for the immediate (“I will” have breakfast now) or distant (last “will” and testament) future. That intent then motivates and directs our subsequent actions.

                In order for choosing to happen, there must be (a) two real possibilities and (b) the ability to choose either one of them (= the ability to do otherwise). If either of these is false, then choosing cannot occur.

                We empirically observe ourselves and others choosing. Neuroscience can do a functional MRI showing the brain activity across different areas as it is happening. So we know it happens in physical reality. So, choosing is not an illusion, nor is it simply a “feeling”. We can watch people doing it using pencil and paper, or in group meetings.

                Whenever we use the terms “can” or “ability” or “possibility” our context is the beginning of the choosing operation, where we have not yet decided what we “will” do (the end of the operation).

                The concept of “I can” refers to a possible future that may or may not ever happen, but which might happen, if we choose to make it happen. The concept of “I will” refers to a specific future that I intend to make happen.

                These are distinct concepts, with distinct meanings. “I can” refers to a choice not yet made. “I will” refers to a choice that has been decided.

                Given a choice between A and B, “I can choose A” and “I can choose B” are both true, even if “I can choose both” is false.

                The fact that I did choose A does not contradict the fact that I could have chosen B. Both facts are true within their own context, the beginning versus the end of the choosing operation.

    2. Sorry, but when you say “we mean something”, what you really mean is that “I mean something.” If you survey people on what they think free will is, it’s dualistic, libertarian free will.

      I presume you’re not trying to tell us all what everybody means by free will. Because if you are, you’re wrong.

      1. Hi Jerry, I was backing off to the more general issue of what people mean by “free” on it’s own, not by “free will” (in reply to: “In neither case is anything “free””).

        The word “free” means (googling dictionaries): “Able to act or be done as one wishes; not under the control of another”; “Not imprisoned or confined”; “Not controlled by obligation or the will of another”.

        That is the sense in which Pinker is “free” to pick an item from a dinner menu, whereas the knee jerk is not “free”.

        1. That is the sense in which Pinker is „free“ to pick an item from a dinner menu, whereas the knee jerk is not „free“.

          There is no “free” at all.

          There is neither freedom in the activity of the knee nor is there any freedom in the choice of a menu.
          The main mistake made here by both Pinker and you is that the greater complexity that is contained in a menu choice situation, as opposed to a simple physiological reflex response, is supposed to somehow create a gradual kind of freedom. There are no degrees of freedom, neither in the simple reflexes, nor in the difficult choices made when reading a menu.

          1. You are adopting a conception of “free” such that freedom does not exist in the world at all.

            And yet, people use the world all the time and consider it meaningful. Thus, it matters to someone that they are “freed” from prison, rather than still being incarcerated.

            So, rather than being an incompatibilist and wanting to overturn half the language, why not interpret the language in ways that make sense given how the world actually is?

            1. “So, … why not interpret the language in ways that make sense given how the world actually is?”

              Because that is not just a semantic problem or issue of finding adapting words.
              The false belief in a free will/ people could have done otherwise/ of the vast majority has great implications and impacts for the society.

              For example: just to consider the justice systems which operate in all countries with the conept of guilt: acknowledging that no one could have acted otherwise means abandoning the concept of guilt and replacing it with something else. These are the questions that are really at stake and not semantic side scenes that have nothing to do with the false but dominant belief of the freedom of will.

              1. No, there would still be “guilt” if everyone accepted determinism. As PCC explains, you’d still have punishment in order to deter wrong-doing, and you’d still hold people as “guilty” if they acted such despite the deterrent threat of punishment.

                Most of these concepts evolved *in* *a* *deterministic* *world*, because that is the world we live in. Changing some of the erroneous and superficial commentary about them (such as contra-casual free will) does not change the underlying concepts and does not actually change that much.

              2. Guilt means always : could have done otherwise. There are people which did criminal acts but they were not put to prison, because they were considered to be not guilty along to severe mental health issues. Some of them are transferred to psychiatric hospitals, but others got free. The wide acceptance of the absence of free will in everyone means to find new forms of
                punishment at all. (Those who were not impressed by deterrence and committd a crime – how can we punish them, if they could’t do otherwise?)

              3. Yes, I agree. Determinism is the answer here and what the current laws suggest is a contra-causal idea of free will of which both compatibilists and non compatiblists accept.

              4. “Guilt means always : could have done otherwise.”

                And see other comments for what “could have done otherwise” means.

                “Those who were not impressed by deterrence and committd a crime – how can we punish them, if they could’t do otherwise?”

                If you’re suggesting no penalty for those who are not deterred, and thus that society abandons deterrence and punishment, then you have an un-workable society.

              5. sherfolder,

                Guilt means always : could have done otherwise.

                Yes, in the sense relevant to the law, this is not undone by determinism.

                For instance:

                On what basis would you ever prosecute a case of “Criminal Negligence” if you rule the notion of “could have done otherwise” can play no part?

                After all, the ONLY reason to discriminate between a person “guilty of criminal negligence” worthy of intervention by the law, and an innocent person, is on the basis that the guilty person “could have done otherwise” but chose not to.

    3. Exactly. This becomes apparent once we juxtapose the hard determinist stance with “Free Markets” which of course are not really free, because they, too, obey the laws of nature.

      Then, there’s no “Free Speech” either, because everything we say, and every reaction is not free to begin with. We couldn’t say things otherwise, or react differently anyway, and up to the government everything does what it just does according to nature.

      As I’ve argued many times, once the term “free” is seen as uniquely problematic in one instance, it causes a contagion that quickly infects many terms.

      1. Aneris,

        Exactly, and these are issues that IMO compatibilists seem to think through more thoroughly than hard incompatibilists.

        Once you go down the road of saying “If it is part of a deterministic system you can’t say it’s ‘Free'” this causes all sorts of incoherence for our normal language (and language conveys our concepts, of course, so those have to be valid for us to use them).

        This is no problem once you realize that the typical use of the term “Free” isn’t a metaphysical claim, but on completely compatible with determinism.

        1. You seem to keep ignoring the fact that most people conceive of free will as dualistic libertarian free will. So go ahead and change their attitudes, but please don’t tell is what the “typical” use of the term is. Do you have data on that?

          1. Based on some links to academic papers presented in previous free will discussions, it seems the jury is still out on what most people think about free will. I tend to think intelligent people aren’t dualists but that’s based solely on my own experience, much of which lately has been in discussions on this site. I find it a little offensive to be called a dualist. It’s a little like being accused of believing in magic or, dare I say it, God.

          2. I don’t agree that the matter is that settled on how people conceive of free will, Prof CC.

            But my point was specifically concerning abandoning the concept of “free” itself (not just free will) which is how hard incompatibilists often argue against a compatibilist account of freedom given determinism. I mean, we start off with the compatibilist and the hard incompatibilist agreeing that contra-causal free will is off the table. But the compatibilist STILL gets push-back as the incompatibilists often say “But X, Y, Z is clearly determined by the laws of physics so ‘where’s the freedom in that?’

            As I said: once you go down the road of saying that it makes no sense to say any action, or anything is “free” given physical determinism, then down that road is incoherence and a frankly insufficient account of how people actually use those terms in everyday life.

    4. For you and Vaal (and maybe Steven Pinker) this is just a dispute over semantics. But for me (and maybe Sean Carroll) it’s a dispute over what actual deterministic physics theories actually say and imply. I agree with Jerry’s “could have done otherwise” requirement on free will, but disagree with the extension of that to “could have done otherwise, holding the entire earlier state of the universe fixed, down to microscopic details.”

      That extension is a mistake: a natural and intuitive inference driven by common sense ideas about time and causality, which despite being common sense happen to be wrong. Once you understand the physics, the primary reasoning behind incompatibilism evaporates. So there’s no need to trim down the meaning of “could have done otherwise”, as some compatibilists want to settle for. We just need to refuse to apply premodern, intuitive physics as if were true.

      1. paultorek,

        Actually I have never fully agreed that the dispute between hard incompatibilists and compatibilists is purely semantic. It seems to me to be importantly conceptual differences.

        I believe hard incompatibilists have made a variety of misdiagnosis along the way that lead to conceptual errors, not just semantic ones. But, hey, that’s my opinion….

  3. Although I’ve thought about the question of free will for much of my life, I’m still not firmly settled on any view. When I was a teenager I read in a 1950s science fiction novel that touched on the question. The conclusion was that if everything is deterministic, the entire history of the universe was set at the instant of its creation. That not only does not set well, but it seems to run counter to the idea that quantum mechanics indicates there are truly random processes at work in the universe. Think Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Conversely, it seems to me that if the universe is completely deterministic, this Principle does not hold.

    Stephen Jay Gould, of course, touched on these ideas with his example of rerunning the “history of life tape”. Would we get the same evolutionary history? My feeling is that we would not. But that’s only a feeling. I remain without firm opinions here.

      1. Well that directly addresses the reason for my discomfort: if quantum indeterminacy holds, then the universe is not deterministic. The two ideas seem mutually exclusive.

    1. Quantum mechanics holds that the outcomes of an experiment has a probabilistic distribution. It does not imply that a specific outcome can be chosen. The world could still be deterministic in a probabilistic sense.

      The uncertainty principle says that there are pairs of (incompatible) observables whose values cannot be simultaneously measured to arbitrary precision.

      1. Yes, people say that quantum mechanics is a deterministic theory, but the question we were discussing just above was whether if the universe started just as it did before, exactly the same way, you’d get the same evolutionary result. My answer is no, and it’s not dependent on whether you conceive of qm as being deterministic or indeterministic.

        1. Again you address my discomfort: if we would not get the same evolutionary result, then the universe is not deterministic. Hence, there seems to be room for our brains and plenty of other things to act differently than they did, which in some ‘magical’ way might result in a subjective feeling of having free will. Whether that impression reflects reality is one thing I struggle with.

          1. Choosing is not a subjective feeling, but rather an empirical event. It happens in physical reality. A person walks into a restaurant, peruses the menu, and places an order. Choosing just happened, in physical reality, and it was clearly not an illusion.

            So the notions that the person “didn’t really have a choice”, because his choice was inevitable, is false. The act of choosing was just as inevitable as the choice was. So was the fact that it would be that one person, and no other object in the physical universe, that would be doing the choosing.

            We can sometimes confuse ourselves by using figurative language. For example, “the person didn’t really have a choice” is a figurative statement. We can test this by inserting the implied “AS IF”: “It was as if he didn’t really have a choice”. But, he literally (actually, objectively, empirically) had a menu of options to choose from, and he literally performed the act of choosing himself.

            While we commonly employ figurative speech, we need to keep in mind that every figurative statement is literally false.

            1. “Choosing is not a subjective feeling, but rather an empirical event.”

              I think this is a false dichotomy. Subjective feeling are neural events. They are brain activity.

              1. I’m wondering if, by the reasoning on display here, walking down the street can be considered as choosing to put the left foot ahead, then choosing to put the right foot ahead, etc.

      1. To me, the idea of determinism is that if initial conditions are set up EXACTLY the same in various cases, you’ll always get exactly the same result. Otherwise the concept of determinism seems inherently self-contradictory.

        1. Then, being consistent with your view of determinacy, the world seems to be inherently non deterministic. QM can only tell you what you will get up to a degree of probability.

          1. That’s how I understand things. The word “deterministic” means “one and only one outcome”, so applying probability to the outcome implies “not deterministic”. Am I right or wrong?

            1. There is absolutely nothing wrong in thinking of determinism that way — I do too. I was merely expressing (not very well) the idea that probability in QM need not imply a freedom of choice.

              What I missed before was the fact that you were talking about the ‘history of life tape’.

              It is a matter of defining a term so that we understand each other well enough to communicate.

              The fundamental properties of QM remain unchanged AND we understand each other 🙂

              1. I agree that probability in QM need not imply a freedom of choice. As far as the operation of brains goes, we simply do not know. Yes, defining terms is necessary for mutual understanding, but often not easy because we all have hidden assumptions. I think you and I understand each other.

              1. According to the physics I understand, quantum uncertainty does negate determinism. For what it’s worth, the Wikipedia entry on “deterministic systems” says: “In quantum mechanics, the Schrödinger equation, which describes the continuous time evolution of a system’s wave function, is deterministic. However, the relationship between a system’s wave function and the observable properties of the system appears to be non-deterministic.”

              2. I think the idea that the wave function is probabilistic does not obviate predictions at the level of cabbages and kings. The probability that an event may have an unexpected result in a physics experiment may be very, very small.

        2. Do you consider the weather a deterministic system?

          If so, does that entail that, if we knew the location of every molecule on the earth’s surface, and every force acting upon them (down to the flap of every butterflies’ wings in western Africa), we could predict with precision the global weather from now until the earth is burned to a crisp by the sun running out of fuel and expanding into a red giant?

          1. According to some people who voice opinions on QM, since QM is deterministic, the weather must be deterministic. I don’t know enough to voice an opinion. But if QM is non-deterministic, i.e., has a degree of true randomness, like radioactive decay supposedly is, then I think the weather must be non-deterministic. In that case, in principle, if some nucleus decays now or ten minutes from now, the butterfly effect might well multiply the consequences into, say, an Atlantic hurricane or just a tropical storm. But the rub is not in whether we can predict the weather, but in whether the universe will act the same if that nucleus decays now or ten minutes from now. I don’t *know* the answer, but my gut feeling is that all these things are non-deterministic.

            1. Right, but none of this should cloud our judgment about the existence vel non of contracausal free will, since nothing about probabilistic or chaotic systems creates any process by which humans (alone among everything else in the known universe) can will things to be other than what physics provides.

              1. Not entirely sure what you’re saying here. I think that no one really has sufficient information to say with surety that QM nondeterminism does or does not affect what people subjectively feel is “free will”. If the “tape of life” rerun would result in other than the exact state of the universe we have today, then that seems to me to say that the operation of brains is similarly nondeterministic. Where does one draw the line between brains and other biological systems?

              2. @Alanf00:

                What I’m saying is precisely this: even if we assume for the sake of argument that the operation of human brains is probablistic, it would mean merely that the output of those brains is random over the short term. It WOULD NOT IN ANY WAY suggest that individual human beings therefore have some para-scientific-laws-of-physics power to exercise contracausal libertarian free will.

                Randomness does not entail the power to choose (anymore than a flipped coin has the power to chose heads or tails). If you’re going to contend otherwise, then propose some mechanism by which the power-to-chose manifests itself. Otherwise, you’re being obtuse (or a supernaturalist, but then I repeat myself).

            2. Indeterminacy does not scale up to the macro level. QM is deterministic and can be predicted. It’s probably why electronics work.

              1. I disagree. The Schroedinger equation is deterministic, but not “the collapse of the wave function”. If that “collapse” affects things on the micro scale, it must affect things on the macro scale. Where would one draw the line? This is one of the basic points of discussion of how wave functions behave. As far as electronics go, they’re a combination of QM effects on the micro scale and “collapse” effects on the macro scale. Noise in electronic systems is fundamentally generated by the complete randomness of electron motion, which scales up to the macro level. We have thermal noise, shot noise, popcorn noise, etc. All arise from the indeterminacy of electron motion.

              2. Things on the QM level simply don’t scale up. Your intuitions are not correct in this case. There is a bunch of math for this but I’m. It a physicist and it’s beyond me. So I accept the consensus of physicists on this one.

    2. The conclusion was that if everything is deterministic, the entire history of the universe was set at the instant of its creation.

      It depends what you mean by “set at creation”. Is that supposed to be an asymmetric relation – the earlier events control later events but and not vice versa? There’s no evidence for such an asymmetry. Sean Carroll explains why causality requires more than just deterministic laws. (He doesn’t use the word “deterministic” there, but the laws mentioned are in fact deterministic.)

      1. Thanks for the link. I didn’t know Carroll was working with Google to produce little science documentaries. I’m now waxing optimistic for the future of the world (despite tRump) because I know some bright young student in Nigeria or Bangladesh can access such knowledge whereas there parent’s generation would not have had such luck. The future looks bright for the spread of scientific understanding across the world. Am I being too happy today? 😎

  4. Free will is a good first approximation, and we have to behave as if we had free will, but I think we do not. God plays dice with the universe, but the roll of the dice is deterministic.

  5. To me the “free” in “free will” means that in making rational decisions we are free (potentially, not always) of everything BUT the laws of physics. We can overcome genetic imperatives, we can overcome learned behaviors, we can overcome childhood abuse, etc. The laws of physics are a given.

  6. As usual, Pinker gets it about right, IMHO. Perhaps his video could have been a bit longer. Even better, a debate on free will with Pinker and our host among the participants.

  7. A question for anyone who cares to tackle it. Animals use perceptually acquired information from a number of sources in order to solve problems, to which there is not necessarily any unique best answer, about how to distribute themselves and their efforts through space and time in pursuit of their ends. And yet most people would more readily agree that animals don’t have free willI than that humans don’t have free will. Why is that, and is there, according to a deterministic viewpoint, an essential difference between what animals and humans are able to do?

    1. I don’t know about most people but I believe non-human animals have free will in exactly the same sense as humans do. They make decisions that are as much free (and determined) as ours are.

        1. When my cat decides which bowl of food he prefers, you don’t think he makes a decision similar to my decision to have tea or coffee with breakfast? I see no fundamental difference at all.

          1. Has your cat ever bought a house or planned for retirement? Also, perhaps your decision whether to have tea or coffee is based on whether you want to avoid caffeine jitters. Your cat probably does not make decisions like that.

              1. Because your cat’s choice has nothing to do with reasoning and free will. It eats because it is hungry. (If it refused to eat when it is hungry, then I would be impressed.) It sniffs two dishes to see which is freshest or which has the most protein. It would lap up antifreeze if it were offered. Pure biological forces. An overweight human on the other hand might order a salad rather than carbohydrate-loaded french fries. (Sometimes we don’t. Then we act like your cat.) Your cat’s actions are pure biology and conditioning. That is why humans have free will and cats do not. Humans can overcome biological imperatives and conditioning with reasoning and foresight.

              2. I eat because I’m hungry also. Don’t you? I am also sure that my cat decides what to eat based on what seems to appeal to him at the time. Sure, sometimes it might be a lower-level instinct like it smells bad but, just like us, it often isn’t. Every cat owner knows that a cat may like one kind of food for awhile but then later doesn’t want it. We don’t yet have the technology to tell why the cat changed his mind about his favorite food but I suspect he just got tired of the same old thing. Of course, one can portray even that as driven by the need to seek different nutrients but how can you be sure our choices aren’t similarly driven even if we tell other stories to ourselves about them?

              3. Because your cat’s choice has nothing to do with reasoning and free will.

                And you know this how?

              4. What examples do you have of HUMAN behavior that is not instinct or conditioning? The only knowledge you have that makes human decisions different from cat decisions is your introspection. That is not scientific.

              5. I have the intimate and personal knowledge of my own behavior and capabilities, which I extend to all humans. Subjective, but not unscientific. There are ways of probing and understanding subjective phenomena, you know.

    2. Most animals don’t have a robust self-conception the way people do. (Exception: other great apes, at least some of them, do seem to have a self-concept.) So they can’t ask certain questions, even non-verbally, like what virtues they should try to cultivate.

      On the other hand, most mammals and birds do seem to be able to imagine various plans of action and their likely consequences. So I’d say they have a low-grade form of free will.

    3. I think the only difference between what a cheetah does when it picks a gazelle to cull from the herd and what humans do is a matter of complexity (well, that, and humans’ having an awareness of being aware).

      The complexity is a function of the bigger brains humans have developed as an evolutionary adaptation. Our “awareness of being aware” — what we generally refer to as “consciousness” — may also be an evolutionary adaptation, or it may simply be a resulting “spandrel” (to employ Gould’s metaphor).

  8. ” The view that „free will“ consists of a complicated but deterministic brain program that looks as if people have agency is an illusion that has inimical social consequences. One of them is the death penalty … .”

    Harmful social consequences? It has rather individual harmful consequences, i.e. those which affect the perpetrator and possibly his closer family environment. But society can get rid of serious criminals whose crimes have caused serious damage to the community by means of punishment, even the death penalty.

    Twelve defendants of the Nuremberg Trials were sentenced to death, among them Wilhelm Keitel, Chief of the Wehrmacht High Command and Fritz Sauckel
    Chief Representative for Labor Deployment and the five million forced laborers.

    Sure, the defendants, since there is no free will, could not have acted otherwise than they did.
    Nevertheless, I see in these death sentences nothing that would have had harmful social consequences, on the contrary, this conviction had a pacifying effect and certainly meant a kind of satisfaction for the survivors of the genocide.

  9. I saw that TED Talk yesterday and was a little disappointed that Pinker seemed to equivocate on the definition and get sidetracked by related issues. Thinking about it now, I think he is analyzing free will from the viewpoint of a psychologist. Thus, he conflates how people prefer to think of free will with the formal definition. He also exaggerates any effects that are not deterministic such as, I suppose, unpredictable subatomic effects. But these, as Sean Carrol has said (I think) are too small to have any effect at the level of cabbages and kings.

  10. Pinker just needs another word. If thinks that the world is deterministic, the word ‘free’ in ‘free will’ is not what he means when he says ‘free’. Neither of the actions he describes is free in the free-will sense.

    1. The problem is that there is no general agreement about what “the free will sense” of the term “free will” actually means.

      Suppose I ask: Did you sign the contract of your own free will, or were you coerced by a gun to the head”, is that use of “free will” a usage “in the free-will sense” or not?

      1. I see. I thought that, in the context of this post, it means ‘I could have done otherwise’.

        So in that sense, the word ‘free’ is different as used in your example. Because neither option is ‘free’ in the sense of libertarian free will.

        1. OK, but what does “I could have done otherwise” mean?

          Does it mean: if every aspect of the situation had been exactly identical, down to every molecule, could I have done otherwise?

          Or does it mean: given me, and the typical range of moods I’m in on different days, and given the typical range of situations I find myself in, could I have done otherwise?

          What is most relevant to most people, most of the time, is the latter. You really could have ordered the salmon and not the chicken, if that is what you had wanted on that occasion, no-one would have stopped you! Or you could have walked away rather than making a hot retort.

          When we reflect of things, and consider the question “could I have done otherwise?” we’re really considering the latter question, not the former, because that’s what’s most relevant and that’s what best feeds in to future decision-making.

          1. I meant the former.

            ‘Does it mean: if every aspect of the situation had been exactly identical, down to every molecule, could I have done otherwise?’

            1. But since no-one has ever been, nor could ever be, faced that situation (a fully exact, molecular-level replication of a previous situation), why do you think that any human concept (such as being “free” or such as pondering “could I have done otherwise?”) would be about that possibility?

              Surely, human concepts are about things or situations that we have experienced or might experience? And if so, that means that the concepts are actually about the latter questions.

              1. There exist people who ask the question in the former sense. I don’t know is they are in the majority. You may not find that useful, but if ‘mood’ and ‘situation’ could be reduced to microscopic descriptions, you would find yourself in the former.

            2. The problem with that interpretation is that it involves an impossible comparison. Two events where the state of the universe is identical cannot occur unless the two events are really the same event, as follows directly from determinism. Most people (if not all) won’t answer, “That question makes no sense because of determinism”. This is evidence that this is not how most people understand the question. Instead, they take it as a question regarding the freedom of their agency, their ability to make decisions without being coerced.

              1. Where on earth do you get the idea that this is “how most people understand the question”?

                The study of Sarkeesian et al. says otherwise; most people conceive of free will as libertarian free will.

                If you have a study showing how the average person understand free will, then cite it here. Otherwise, admit that you’re just speculating.

              2. We did this a few weeks ago. The experimental results on what “most” people believe were mixed. Of course, we can each pick our favorite bit of research to make our case.

          2. Your description leaves out another possible meaning for “could have done otherwise”. I’m referring to the situation in the movie, Ground Hog Day, where Bill Murray has a memory of what happened the day before, but everything else is identical and all the other characters are in an identical state. So, Murray has the “free will” to change things based on how it went in the past. He of course is able to guide and control the outcome to improve his opportunities. If someone is asked if they believe in free will, this may be what they are thinking of, even if it could never actually happen.

          3. Coel – in your concept of a free choice, you only seem to consider coercion if it happens as the choice is being made. If someone holds a gun to my head and says “Choose the salad or something bad will happen”, I guess you would not consider that a free choice. What if I have been raised to choose salads otherwise there will be bad consequences for my future health? Isn’t that also coercion but without the obvious temporal link?

      2. No one doubts that there are acts that have only come about through the threat of violence. This concerns the cases of so-called freedom of action and this is the example you have chosen. Free will is only about whether someone could have acted otherwise, which the majority of the population believes, in all countries.

  11. “In neither case do you have any agency about what happens.”

    “Any agency?”

    On Human Agency (wikipedia):

    “Agency is contrasted to objects reacting to natural forces involving only unthinking deterministic processes. In this respect, agency is subtly distinct from the concept of free will, the philosophical doctrine that our choices are not the product of causal chains, but are significantly free or undetermined. Human agency entails the claim that humans do in fact make decisions and enact them on the world. How humans come to make decisions, by free choice or other processes, is another issue.”

    Humans certainly do deliberate about and select between actions to meet their goals. In the usual sense of ‘Agency’ we do have Agency.

    As for Harris on consciousness and agency, I think he’s off the mark (and makes some pretty rash inferences from his experiences meditating as well concerning consciousness).

    Take an example of what I am conscious of:

    I recently changed my package with my cable and cell provider. I was frustrated with how much we were paying per month, and with cell data overages as we didn’t have an unlimited data plan (and had sons who use a lot of data). I looked up the various plans, calculated which would work best keeping what we need, adding what we need, ran the numbers, chose the new plan.

    Now, the data I used for this (e.g. the prices for various cable TV/cell packages) was data I was conscious of. (How could I have for instance known the options if they were presented to me when unconscious?)
    So consciousness already is playing a roll.

    Further: the reasons that I am conscious of having had for those decisions beautifully explain those decisions.

    What would it actually MEAN to claim about my decision that I had no “conscious agency?”

    Is it that I made the decision for reasons that I’m not actually conscious of? And therefore that the reasoning I *thought* I engaged in wasn’t true? Well, that’s quite a claim and since my “conscious reasons” seem to fit and predict my actions quit well, I don’t see it as reasonable to accept there is some *other chain of reasoning/causation* that explains my choice better…unless someone can actually present it. Otherwise, it’s speculation.

    Could it mean that the reasoning actually happened “outside” of my consciousness? That is some non-conscious part of my brain was taking in all the considerations – my desires, goals, beliefs/data about the environment, reasoning through all those to achieve the the result? It would essentially have to be doing this to explain the results, right? So, how is that not “Me” making decisions in any case?

    And then what could it make sense that I was conscious of, or not, of this process? If you say that consciousness (the part of our brain that makes us conscious, not something magical) is somehow completely disconnected from the the reasoning process for our decisions…you would have an enormous amount left to explain – how does our consciously given explanations comport so well with reality? If for instance a NASA engineer tells you the reasons they constructed a probe in a certain manner are not in fact the reasons they had….what COULD be the reasons that would explain the nature of the probe?

    So, it seems to me if our brains are going through all the decision steps “unconsciously” they are going through (for the most part) the same steps we assume we’d need for conscious agency anyway. “I” am making those decisions.

    And if our reasoning enters consciousness slightly after the process is done, our consciousness still represents our reasoning (to a dependable degree – as we communicate our conscious reasons to one another for successful goal-achievement all the time).

    There’s just a lot wrapped up in the claims made about our not having “agency,” conscious or otherwise, that needs to unraveled.

  12. There’s a new kid on the block (at least for me)
    ‘Trick Slattery

    Also, click on his ‘Blog.’

    Slattery is a ‘Hard Incompatibilist.’

    However, whether a ‘Hard Determinist’ or a ‘Hard Incompatibilist’ there still are questions that remain to be addressed:

    * How does the brain which is made up of “fuzzy particles” which are considered unconscious have emergent properties that are conscious?

    * How do indeterminism/randomness and especially acausal events such as radioactivity from unranium relate to causality given that ‘Hard Determinism’ is a ‘causal explanation?’

    * Has ‘Hard Determinism’ filled in the historical ‘explanatory gap’ addressed by Noam Chomsky in “Mysteries of Nature: How Deeply Hidden” (Journal of Philosophy 2009) and “Language and the Problem of Knowledge” (Managua Lectures – 1987)

    * Descartes brought forth ‘contact mechanics.’ Newton rejected ‘contact mechanics’ because of gravity and action at a distance. Thus, Newton developed ‘mathematical materialism.’ However, Newton was baffled by what matter is in and of itself. Newton could only describe mathematically the interactive forces within a material universe.

    Examples of historic ‘explanatory gaps’ –


    Mechanistic materialism vs matter as such

    Unconscious matter vs conscious matter

    Thinking about matter and matter itself

    In summary, Hard Determinism is challenged to define consciousness and its associated phenomena in non-mechanistic terms, that is, in non-causal interactive terms which is standard operating procedure for Hard Determinism; it still must address the historic scientific issues as presented by Chomsky.

    * If ‘Hard Determinism’ (or ‘Hard Incompatibilism’) is to find its place in this historic context regarding the ‘explanatory gap,’ I believe it must address these questions!

  13. I’m totally with you on this.

    Pinker’s explanation is a perfect example of how hard it it, even when we know the truth, to rid ourselves of the habitual vestiges of oldthink. (For example, I still cannot help but see the sun as moving across the sky each day, even though I know better).

    Part of the problem with rooting out the attachment to free will is that those who reject it tend to think of it as an illusion. It is not an illusion; it is an inference. It is an inference that people draw from observations of events that really exist, but it is a false inference nonetheless. An illusion is something we think we see but isn’t really there. An inference is a conclusion that we draw (sometimes incorrectly) from things that usually really are there.

    1. At the risk of speaking for others, I suggest you misunderstand the position of most compatibilists. There is no “oldthink” to unlearn. Our definition of “free will” is just not yours.

      1. Compatibilism is the branch of philosophy in which people try to win arguments by fiddling with the definitions of words.

        Personally, I have no particular definition of “free will” because I have concluded it is futile to argue for its existence or non-existence. When I discuss others’ use of the term, I let them give it any definition they want.

        1. For me, it’s enough that (as per all the evidence) there is no such thing as “mental causation” despite the common, albeit fallacious, inference to the contrary.

    2. JAH43,

      As Paul Topping pointed out, if you are taking a jab at compatibilism, you’ve misunderstood it.

      “For example, I still cannot help but see the sun as moving across the sky each day, even though I know better”

      Sure, but consider how you actually think about what is “possible” in the world, even given determinism.

      Do you not think it is “possible” for you to get a sunburn under the hot sun unless you take precautions? And hence it is also “possible” for you to protect yourself from sunburn? (E.g. staying out of the sun, using suntan lotion, etc)?

      Are these “possibilities” to consider in your actions, or mere illusion. If mere illusion, then how can you establish rational actions?
      If it’s not a mere illusion/falsehood to talk of the possibility of getting a sunburn or taking steps to avoid it, while acknowledging determinism, why would it suddenly transform in to illusion/falsehood to talk of possibilities after the fact? E.g. “I got a sunburn but I COULD HAVE staved off getting a sunburn (if I’d taken these steps…)”

      Where exactly is the “illusion” or “oldthink happening in there?

      1. Oh, I agree that free will is not an illusion. As I said in my post, it’s an inference, not an illusion. As for the rest, I note that words like “could” and “possibilities” are well known among philosophers to have multiple meanings and that some compatibilists seem to love to play games with their definitions.

        1. What would philosophy be without discussion of word meanings? If you have a problem with that, I suggest you stay away from philosophy, and many other fields of human endeavor for that matter.

        2. JAH43,

          Can you put some meat on your assertions?

          I’m a compatibilist and in my post to you I discussed the nature of talking about possibilities, given determinism. I did so in a way consistant with what I see from most compatibilists.

          Please point out where the “word games” occurred.

          (I’m suspicious of the ‘word games’ charge as that is so often used as code for “I don’t agree with the conclusions, but don’t really care to engage the argument, so it’s easier on me to dismiss it as ‘word games’).

          1. Sure. Here’s some “meat.” The multiple meanings of “can” and “can’t” in this context were famously discussed at length by A.M. Honoré in his 1964 article called “Can and Can’t” and by Daniel Dennett in his book “Freedom Evolves,” among other places.

            Strictly speaking, the only things that ever “can” happen (consistent with determinism) are the things that actually do happen. But there is another, more figurative meaning of “can” which is used to talk of predictions based on incomplete information, e.g., where a number of conceivable outcomes are referred to as “possibilities” that “can” happen even though most of them actually can’t happen (consistent with determinism). To interchange the two meanings without being clear about what you’re doing is a common rhetorical device that I’d call a word game.

  14. I liked what Diana, Coel, Aneris and Vaal said in their exchanges. Also what M Gazzaniga and S Carroll elsewhere have said on the subject. I’m still waiting for Harris and Coyne – like two peas in a pod, aren’t they? – to get around to realizing that answers to this question depend strongly on context or discipline: It should be plain as day to everyone (based on their own life experience for starters) that different disciplines or fields bring with them different levels of explanation. If Harris or Coyne would simply take Gazzaniga’s advice and to get in the habit – which is to always ask when encountering the term – free to what? or free from what? then they could FREE themselves from this very unproductive stance they’ve taken. The point is, it is not always about being “free” from physics, chemistry and biological mechanism. (The educated in science get that.) Sometimes instead it’s about a will (cf: mind, market, speech) being “free” in other ways. Coercion, for example or influence, which can manifest themselves in countless ways. And back in the day, in medieval or pre-medieval times, a person’s will being free “from” demons and demonic possession was a predominant concern of many (See Crucible again, for reinforcement of this point, if needed). Do we not all today believe in a will that is free of demons? “Yes, I believe in a free will that is free from demons!” (lol) I continue to hope that one day soon Harris and Coyne will find a way to advance their thinking on this subject (which has been an important one to me for 35 year now), and let go of their one-context, single-level monoscopic pov re free will – and what’s more, re their mutual use of “agency”, too, as agency is simply the can-do power of any agent-player (whether mechanistic robot, cheetah, gazelle, primate, Pelosi, Trump) in any gaming (life) situation.

    1. Sorry, accidentally hit post before clarifying a couple of points. Oh, well.

      How many recall that once upon a time, long before people and publics knew of physics and chemistry, so- called “free will” was a term and concept of great importance concerning demons and demonic influence or demonic possession.

      I bet even Jerry “believes in” free will (or freewill) when it comes to demonic possession. lol

      So context matters. Umpteen millions can and will support using the terms “agency” and “free will” for a variety of experiences though they also believe, as E.O. Wilson likes to put it, that their “behavior is 100% obedient” to its underlying physics, chemistry and biology.

        1. C’mon, take it as humorous not snarky.

          From what I can tell from past readings, you and Harris both use “agency” and “free will” in the same way – yes, a limited way, imo – and you both view the relationship between them the same. That is, if there is no libertarian fw, then there is no agency.

          FWIW, I like what both you and Harris stand for very much. So there. (Humorous, m’kay.)

            1. Fair enough. Thanks for the reply.

              re: identifying as a compatibilist

              Could we get you to agree that (a) “free will” means different things to different people depending on context? not all of which have to do with underlying physics (vs libertarian fw or contra-causation); and (b) oftentimes that its use is, well, useful in more than one context? If so, then it seems to me that counting yourself as a “compatibilist” of at least a certain stripe is not improper or misguided. That’s all. Again, thank you.

  15. Choosing a menu item and jerking your knee are both set in a matrix of prior conditions of which the “chooser” is unaware. The “choice” in each case are reactions at the end of a long chain of reactions which no single person controls. I don’t see the difference in the distinction between a restaurant menu item choice and the doctor checking the reflex – because of the vast set of prior conditions that determine it : getting to the restaurant in the first place, having one health care than another, etc.

  16. I think Pinker is onto something here. Assuming for sake of argument that nonlinear dynamics/the butterfly effect are a possible link in the “consciousness” chain, you could (in principle) have two people with *exactly* the same histories, to any degree of precision you want, come up with different decisions. That is an unavoidable outcome of a chaotic system. Of course, I have no idea if nonlinear effects come into play in the brain, but it is an interesting notion, perhaps less murky to consider than probabilistic quantum effects, as to how physical processes could relate to “free will.” That is, decisions that are “governed by the laws of physics” (which everyone in the room seems to agree is the case) and those that are “deterministic” are *not* the same thing. Does that leave room for something like “free will”? In a related light, it seems important to distinguish between the *perception* that you have agency in a conscious decision, vs. whether there is an actual physical process that is involved in what we call “decision making,” that may or may not be deterministic. That is, maybe we have some sort of “free will,” but it’s not the agency we *think* we have.

  17. Another question, again the only motive being an effort to understand the determinist position. Does not having freedom of will also mean that humans do not have freedom of thought?

  18. I tend to agree with Steve here. We care about this topic of free will generally because we want to feel in control and because we have a sense of moral responsibility that we attach to ourselves and others. Some think that determinism renders these false, but precisely the opposite is not. Neither would be possible without deterministic minds. We can check this with a quick thought experiment: what would a truly “free” agent entity be like?

    Could they be in control of their actions? The answer is no. Volitional behavior requires choosing among alternative possibilities. I think we all agree that free =/= random, so that means a (nonrandom) choice to do or not do an action requires an expression of some sort of preference or criterion. But this is not permitted! A preference or criterion introduces a deterministic process. Our hypothetical entity can also not have their actions affected in any way by anything happening around them. They will therefore act as if unaware the world around them, other entities, objects, and even their own body, do not exist. It is unreasonable to call an entity that is (for purposes of behavior) completely unaware of the external world or the state of their own body “in control”.

    Can such an entity be morally responsible? Of course it can’t. And not just for the above reasons. Part of our basic intuition about moral responsibility is that there is an aspect or feature (transient or not) of a person that lead them to take an action that we applaud or condemn. This can never be true of our hypothetical Free Agent- there is no connection between its nature, no matter what the features of the entity are, and its behavior (a connection would be deterministic). In the truest sense, its actions are unrelated to itself, functionally random even if not literally random. Our Free Agent, by definition, could never learn or change and it’s hard to imagine that it would even understand or be aware of harm or benefit. This is clearly not what we wish to be.

    What free will really means is more about internal vs. external causes. If someone grabbed my arm and struck someone else with it, that would not be my fault because the cause was external to my mind. If I deliberately harm someone, then I am morally responsible exactly because of the deterministic processes unique to my particular mind that lead me to do that. Those features are proper grist of moral responsibility because they are internal and predictive of the future. What would be the point of rules and laws, if we could never affect future behavior with them? If one’s actions could not predict future actions and tell us who needed help or to be removed from society to protect it? If we could not learn, grow, change, or failing all of that, serve as a warning to others?

  19. It’s hard to know the degree to which Pinker is giving his most precise definition here vs. the degree to which he is trying to illuminate concepts for an audience that might be somewhat unfamiliar, using accessible metaphors.

    I think the distinction between volitional and non-volitional actions is an important one because this appears to be the obvious entry point for environmental influence, which I think is one of the driving intuitions behind the concept of ‘free will’. (I don’t believe in free will, but understand that the intuition for it can be strong.) It is, in a sense, impossible for us to realistically hypothesize about “could a person have done otherwise”, because even in that hypothetical, we are viewing them in hindsight. You can’t really ask this question in the moment – “Could you do otherwise?” makes little sense when a person hasn’t done anything yet. And the minute we approach the hypothetical from the vantage point of looking backwards, what we are really picturing is that person in the future – asking “Could you do otherwise?” – to which the answer is often “Yes, given the right motivations / environment / influences / etc.”

  20. I think Pinker does not use ‘prediction’ like other physicists have, namely Weinberg or Scott Aaronson.

    As physicists, we don’t know what the limits of prediction are. There is increasing evidence to suggest we may always have significant deficits in making precise predictions of future states. That is relevant to freewill because a universe where freewill exists is indistinguishable from one where precise predictions cannot be made.

    Freewill will remain a metaphysical concept so long as future states cannot be precisely predicted.

    Thought experiment: I will believe there is no freewill when someone can prove to me my great great grand daughter will assassinate the president. Or predict where my cat will be be within 1 m next Friday at 4:20PM. I am not sure which is more difficult.

  21. I’d like to think I’m not the only person on this planet who sees through the logjam.

    Reliable cause and effect is REQUIRED for us to have any freedom to do anything at all. Therefore,it cannot possibly be the case that the word “freedom” EVER implies the notion of “freedom from causal necessity” (causal necessity is the history of causation leading up to an event).

    The so-called “philosophical” definition of free will, as “a choice we make that is free of causal necessity”, is where the actual delusion resides. It imagines that causal necessity is an external force that controls us against our will.

    It’s not. We ourselves ARE packages of causal necessity, wandering around, causing stuff to happen. And we’re causing stuff according to our own interests, our own needs, our own purposes, and our own reasons.

    So what if we ourselves have prior causes? Why would that disqualify us from being a true cause? How could it disqualify us without also disqualifying every prior cause of us?! Such a requirement would unravel the whole chain of causation!

    We, ourselves, are the final prior causes of the events that we choose to cause. And if we, ourselves, have prior causes, then so what?

    The notion that our prior causes are more important than our own thoughts and feelings, our own purposes and reasons, our own interests and concerns, is delusional.

    Free will has a much simpler definition. It is a choice we make for ourselves that is free of coercion and other forms of undue influence. That is the definition that nearly everyone used when determining moral and legal responsibility.

    Our problem is that the irrational “philosophical” definition: a choice that is free of causal necessity (a history of reliable cause and effect) is a silly bit of nonsense, and has caused much more confusion than it was ever worth.

    1. “ And we’re causing stuff according to our own interests, our own needs, our own purposes, and our own reasons.”

      where did those come from, and how did they get there?

      “Free will has a much simpler definition. It is a choice we make for ourselves that is free of coercion and other forms of undue influence.“

      How would we know we are free of coercion or undue influence in real life?

      “That is the definition that nearly everyone used when determining moral and legal responsibility.”

      Aren’t we interested in what happens in nature?

      1. TP: “where did those come from, and how did they get there?”

        My purposes and reasons came from prior causes, of course. A great many of those prior causes involved my direct participation and choices as to what would end up being part of me and what would remain alien to me.

        The final product though, was me. And it was me that made this particular choice. None of those prior causes could bypass me and make the choice instead of me. That notion would be an illusion.

        TP: “How would we know we are free of coercion or undue influence in real life?”

        Well, coercion has a dictionary definition, so you can always tell when that is actually happening in real life. There are a variety of other forms of undue influence that can effectively remove your control over your choices, like mental illness, hypnosis, deception, authoritative command, etc. These too have definitions or legal precedents that describe them.

        TP: “Aren’t we interested in what happens in nature?”

        Of course. We, ourselves, are part of nature. We just happen to be a thinking and choosing part of nature.

        1. How do you know the likelihood of all possible outcomes prior to making any “choice”, and how does that knowledge affect the decision making process?

          1. TP: “How do you know the likelihood of all possible outcomes prior to making any “choice”, and how does that knowledge affect the decision making process? ”

            At the beginning of the choosing operation, you don’t know the likelihood of any option being chosen. That’s what triggers the choosing operation to begin. As you start thinking about your options, you imagine what might result if you choose this or that option. Thoughts and feelings associated with the options are called up and processed. The choice itself is a deterministic effect of those thoughts and feelings.

            And, of course, every event in that sequence will have been causally necessary from any prior point in eternity. But then, that is always true of every event, so, after you’ve said it once, it’s pointless to bring it up again, since it never makes any practical difference to any real life scenario.

            For example, causal necessity/inevitability makes no difference whatever to our use of the terms “freedom” and “free will”. Reliable cause and effect are subsumed by these concepts (and probably by every other human concept that has evolved within our deterministic universe).

            1. Can one choose to get a cold?

              I’d argue yes – I’d chose to catch a cold by inhaling particles with cold virus on them, letting them incubate in the nasal passsges for days, until one day – sniffle sniffle – cold.

              It could be called a “choice”, because there are apparent choices along the way – but isn’t it simpler to ditch the notion of “choice”?

              1. TP: “but isn’t it simpler to ditch the notion of “choice”?

                “Choosing” is an empirical event, just like “raining”. These are things that actually happen in the real world. That’s why we have words to identify them.

                The notion that an inevitable choice is not “really” a choice is using figurative language. You can tell it is figurative by simply inserting the missing “as if”.

                For example, “if the choice is inevitable, it is as if there were no choice at all”. We use figurative language all the time.

                But it has this one drawback: Every figurative statement is literally false.

                In the actual world of reality, there were two real possibilities, they were compared, and, based on that comparison, one was chosen.

                Choosing actually occurred. To say it did not occur would be denying reality.

              2. “In the actual world of reality, there were two real possibilities, they were compared, and, based on that comparison, one was chosen.”

                There were *at least* two possibilities. E.g. there is nothing that says if, at the moment of choosing, I get a cold, there was not some other malady hiding as an “option” (of which I would have been unaware). Or if I avoid the cold and the other malady I don’t just allow some other prior condition (latent virus) to affect me.

                Then there’s the notion of whom is performing the choices – how do we know the “free will” belongs to the chooser? Ants affected with parasites “choose” to climb up blades of grass where they are eaten by sheep, which provides the important step in the cycle of parasitism. (That’s an example from my fuzzy memory from, I think, The Selfish Gene).

                Who chose what there? If that is simply coercion, it’s a fairly sophisticated coercion.

              3. Well, where does choosing happen? In the brain, right? Whose brain? The person who is doing the choosing’s brain. Seems pretty clear to me.

                The ant has a nervous system. But most of its behavior is probably “instinctual”. Yet they will work together to build a leaf bridge across a stream. The ant’s behavior is purposeful (get across the water to the food), but it is arguable as to whether there is any deliberation involved. However, any species that considers two options, imagines what will happen with each, and chooses the one that it expects will achieve the desired result is performing the choosing operation.

                The parasite on the ant is probably is not doing any choosing at all. Strictly by chance, circumstances lead to its being eaten by the sheep, where it completes its reproductive cycle.

                The parasite is not coerced because he is not choosing what he will do. His choice is basically to sit tight and see what happens.

                The ant may in fact be choosing what he will do. He follows random paths until another ant finds food and leaves a train. If there is a trail he follows it instinctively. If there is no trail he instinctively wanders around. How a colony manages to work together to build a bridge is beyond me. Instinctual too, I would imagine.

                But the ant is not coerced either.

                To be coerced, you’d have to have a chosen will, which is overridden by someone else’s chosen will by force.

              4. For the record – I think this is very interesting. I might need to take a break soon.

                But I’ll try this piece :

                “Well, where does choosing happen? In the brain, right? “

                At least one, yes. But, does a crystal choose to grow? Perhaps something inanimate also conspires in this process. And, a brain is a vast territory of its own – contained by a skull, connected to a spinal cord, etc.

                “Whose brain? The person who is doing the choosing’s brain. Seems pretty clear to me.”

                Calling everything a “choice” is ok to a point. I think at this point, the notion of choice can be -and is helpful to be – abandoned for actions and volition. Thus, I think there are no choices or wills. Instead, the picture is made clear in terms of actions and reactions.

              5. We don’t call everything a choice. We call the options at the beginning of the choosing operation “choices”. And we call the single choice at the end of the choosing operation a “choice”.

                Choosing is a mental process performed only by intelligent species. It requires both imagination and evaluation. Living organisms that lack this ability do not choose, and therefore have no choices.

              6. How are all the options supposed to be known at the moment of choosing? We can point at them in the figurative instant replay, but what says the players certainly knew of the outcomes?

                This next part is long so I think I’ll really have to take a break :

                My suggestion of an inanimate factor in a choice is perhaps made clear with an example: on the morning commute, a truck spills hardware all over the street. I must re-route, choosing different roads I never worried about before. I miss my appointment.

                If instead of hardware, it had been birds, they might have flown away and I would have made it on time. Or a tornado could have made me late. I never chose to pick the unfamiliar roads. Yes, I end up going down only one road, but I never freely, willfully chose to get in that game in the first place. The outcome was counter to my expectations and apparently freely chosen actions.

              7. Choosing doesn’t require that all the possibilities be known in advance. Two are sufficient, even if it is a simple choice between do and don’t.

                Unexpected events and things not turning out as we expected are just that and nothing more. You chose to keep your appointment, but the birds, the tornado, the overturned truck, were beyond your control.

                And yet, in each case you had to choose how you would deal with the event.

                A real problem or issue arises that requires you to make a choice. You consider your options, and, if you only have one option, you don’t make a choice. If you have two real possibilities, you choose.

                And if you find both options equally desirable or undesirable, you flip a coin, and “leave it to fate”.

              8. Ok but where is the freedom? If free will is supposed to be free as in freedom, there can’t be a scale of freedom from 0 to 100%.

              9. To be meaningful, any use of the terms “free” or “freedom” must implicitly or explicitly reference some meaningful and relevant constraint.

                For example:
                1. I set the bird free (from its cage).
                2. We enjoy freedom of speech (free of political censorship).
                3. I participated in the Libet experiments of my own free will (free of coercion and undue influence).

                In each of those typical cases the concept of freedom references a meaningful and relevant constraint that one can in fact be either constrained by, or free of that constraint.

                Causal necessity (a history of reliable cause and effect) is neither a meaningful nor a relevant constraint.

                It is not meaningful because: (1) Every freedom we have, to do anything at all, requires reliable cause and effect. Thus, freedom from reliable cause and effect is an irrational, self-contradicting notion. And (2) What we will inevitably do is exactly identical to what we would have done anyway. (It’s just us being us, doing what we do, and choosing what we choose).

                It is not relevant because there’s nothing that anyone can, or needs to, do about it. So, it’s pretty useless to even bring it up. (1) We only care about specific causes of specific effects. (2) And we care about them because we can usually do something about them.

                We can do something about the robber who held up the bank. But we can’t do anything about the Big Bang. (Well, we haven’t figured out a way to do that yet anyway, I mean like, for the next one).

              10. OK, I’ll have to think about that.


                I’m getting the idea that, if I agree that free will is real/exists, it is exquisitely unimportant, operating only on the minutiae every living thing encounters : how many times to move a brush on your teeth ; how many steps to take with one’s feet. And even then, free will only works on some things – e.g. free will cannot get us out of hearing a thunderclap.

                To explain important, large scale phenomena- an individual’s career, climbing a mountain, saving someone’s life – free will isn’t doing anything.

              11. Ah. Habits. A toddler taking his first steps is hyper-conscious of where he places his feet. After a little practice he’ll be running all over the place. Then, we give him a pair of roller skates, then a bicycle, and eventually a car, and each time he begins the learning process very aware of every detail.

                Many of our earliest choices become habits that we no longer give any thought to. But they began as conscious choices.

                We take all of our freedoms for granted until they are threatened by some constraint, like the guy holding a gun to our head telling us to do something that we would not do of our own free will. Then free will becomes a critical issue.

                And, of course, free will doesn’t “do” anything. It is we ourselves that do all the “doing”. Free will makes the simple empirical distinction between us deciding for ourselves what we will do versus someone or something else controlling what we will do.

              12. Interesting.

                I’m starting to drown in the proverbial two inches of water at this point.

              13. Can I choose to :

                – sit awake, motionless for 10 hours straight
                – sleep 9 hours straight, no waking up
                – not think any thoughts for five minutes straight

                … I’m not sure about any one else, but those examples are really hard to do, even with some meditation practice. Yet, they are within the set of things we can conceivably choose (I.e. we can’t choose to win a Nobel Prize, or walk on Jupiter). The last one is so hard I wonder if it is telling me something.

                If everyone has free will genes, why can’t I do any of those things? Does this mean free will in fact was exercised but free will doesn’t have any role in the outcome? I can choose to walk on Jupiter, full stop – that is where free will is working?

              14. There are (at least) three impossible freedoms: “freedom from causation”, “freedom from oneself”, and “freedom from reality”. Because they are impossible, it would be irrational to insist that any use of the terms “free” or “freedom” must imply any one of them. Because it cannot, it does not.

                Nevertheless, you’ll find the so-called “hard” determinist or “free will skeptic” insisting that the “free” in free will is not “real” unless it includes one of these impossible freedoms.

                But such a requirement is irrational. If the will were free from reliable cause and effect, it could never cause any effect, and would be unable to carry out any intent. If the will were free were free from oneself, then it would be someone else’s will, and not one’s own. And if the will were free from reality, then it would not be a “will” at all, but only a “wish”, within a dream.

                If the word “free” must imply something impossible, then it becomes useless, and may as well be dropped from the dictionary. And there are “hard” determinists who will make that claim: that determinism means there is no such thing as “freedom” of any sort.

                It seems to me that it is more likely that our uses of the terms “free” and “freedom” already subsume reliable causation, that we ourselves can choose to cause things that suit our own interests, and that we can really make changes in the real world.

                I would even suggest that all human concepts, having evolved within a deterministic universe, already subsume reliable cause and effect, and that it is a bit silly to suggest that any of them do not. On the other hand, we humans and our minds do a lot of silly things.

              15. I wasn’t aware of those distinctions. It makes sense as you suggested a few days ago that reliable causation is a given. So it would explain why I can use free will to choose to walk on Jupiter, but causation makes that intended outcome impossible.

                But if that’s the same free will that’s in use when choosing strawberry ice cream, buying an electric car to reduce emissions, or meditating for 20 minutes straight with no thoughts of any sort – it appears utterly irrelevant, to me. Because cause and effect dominate the entire process – cause and effect within the body, and outside the body.

                I’d conclude that something operates that is called free will, is used all the time, and is utterly unimportant.

              16. To be “relevant”, a cause must be something we can do something about. We can only do something about the specific causes of specific effects, but there is nothing to be done about causation itself, so it is irrelevant.

                As you suggested, we can choose to have a bowl of strawberry ice cream, and we can choose to buy an electric car to reduce emissions. So, that’s relevant.

                But we cannot do the impossible, so its a bit pointless to choose to do something impossible, like walking on Jupiter this afternoon, or “meditating” for 20 minutes “without any thoughts” (whatever that means). So, what is truly irrelevant is the impossible.

                There is nothing we can do about reliable cause and effect itself, therefore it is irrelevant. There is nothing we can do about universal deterministic causal inevitability. Therefore, it too is irrelevant.

                It is only when someone falsely suggests to us the great delusion that causation is an entity that controls everything we do, that makes us feel threatened by it. But that suggestion is false. Causation is not an entity with its own agenda that takes over our lives and controls our destiny.

                That false threat sends the religious seeking solace in the supernatural and the irreligious seeking an escape by quantum indeterminancy.

                There would be no “contra-causal” arguments if we simply realized that causation is not a threat to our freedoms, but the very mechanism by which all of our freedoms exist.

              17. “… “meditating” for 20 minutes “without any thoughts” (whatever that means).“

                I know personally that I can choose to sit for 10 minutes, but to sit for 10 minutes and never be interrupted by thought is impossible (so far).

                But that’s me. It’s easy to try on your own, and maybe I’m the only one who has this result.

                But the point of that example is that even in a simple scenario where one should be inert to everything – where free will should be clearly observed – theres no sign of it. I originally thought this said something about free will – choosing to be uninterrupted by thought- but perhaps all it shows is causation.

              18. And my whole forking point is that there is no choosing between causation and free will! It is not an either this or that issue. There is no real issue between the two.

                Free will happens to be a causally deterministic event.

                You are never “free” of causation because you are never “constrained” by it.

                In fact, you ARE a collaborative collection of reliable causal mechanisms that keep your heart beating and your thoughts flowing (even if your only thought is your breathing in and breathing out).

              19. I suspect, but don’t know, that we humans have something that could be called “free will” (not libertarian of course), but I strongly doubt that ants do. Maybe Antalan knows.

              20. @Marvin…

                So a toddler taking his first steps is exercising free will? I assume this is also true for a newborn colt, right? And that newly hatched spider? An the newborn salmon swimming the first time after breaking free of its egg?

  22. I don’t understand your position on free will Jerry… a thermostat doesn’t stop controlling the temperature of the room just because its behavior is determined by the laws of physics, and the same is true for you: your brain doesn’t stop self-monitoring itself and controlling the body just because it follows the laws of physics. And not just that: sometimes the brain controls the body’s behavior through various layers of (conscious and non-conscious) discriminations and evaluations of good and bad reasons for behaving in certain ways.

    And just like there is a difference, at the level of functional control, between a broken thermostat and a good one, there is also a difference between dysfunctional people, which just can’t control themselves and so don’t have free will, and normal people who do. It’s not “tumors all the way down” as Sam Harris says. It’s not at all.

    Just because some crazy people say free will must be this incoherent notion of “uncaused decision-making” (in which, you understand, if decisions can’t be caused, they can’t be caused by you), that doesn’t make it so. For instance: if some people begin to say that genes must be strictly only Mendelian genes and if we grant them authority, then we would be obliged to say that genes don’t exist because we know that the concept of a Mendelian gene was just a useful oversimplification.

    We are determined by the laws of physics (them being fully deterministic or with an element of randomness) but we have also free will. It’s not big deal.

    1. Sorry, but NOBODY can “control themselves”. Some people are more responsive than others to outside influences and stimulation, but they still have no choice about what they do. I presume you think thermostats have free will, too. And as for the “crazy people” who believe in contracausal free will, you’re characterizing most of the world’s people, including the physicist Steven Weinberg, who told me he accepted that.

      It’s tumors all the way down because people’s behavior is determined all the way down.

      Look, the important thing I think needs to be conveyed to people is that their behavior is determined by the laws of physics, which you admitted. Most people don’t believe that, yet that fact has enormous implications for how we treat people who have “transgressed”. The other stuff–the semantics involved in incompatibilism–doesn’t interest me as much because it’s never used to effect real-world changes. It’s a philosophy game without practical results.

      I don’t understand your failure to understand my position, which is really about determinism. You needn’t respond here, as I don’t have time to engage in yet another discussion of this issue.

      I love your dismissing 85% of the world’s population, and nearly all Abrahamic religionists, as “crazy people.” I guess you’re one of the few sane ones.

      1. Ok, Jerry. When I said “crazy people” I intended just libertarian philosophers and other theorists who have thought deeply about the issue of free will and have nevertheless accepted the “contracausal notion of free will”, which is a mystical and incoherent notion.

        Regular folks just don’t think a lot about free will, but if you educate them, they’ll understand that they are determined by the laws of physics. But that doesn’t make them not free.

        Being free doesn’t mean to be “undetermined” or or “uncaused”… it means that you can do what you want to do. You are free, in the fullest sense, only if you can do what you want to do. A thermostat has the “artifactual” goal of regulating temperature, that’s – in a not so metaphorical sense – “what it wants to do”: and the laws of physics just permit that. The thermostat – forever following the laws of physics – can do what it wants to do! It can regulate temperature, unless it breaks. So yes, in that sense, a well functioning thermostat has a rudimentary version of free will.

        We are just like thermostats, but orders of magnitude bigger and fancier, with layers that control layers that control layers and so on… we have thousands, if not hundred of thousands, of different goals, a huge variability… and we can pursue our goals, change our goals, decide to pursue them or not… all of that with a lot of flexibility. The laws of physics aren’t against that. The laws of physics permit you to do what you want to do… and if you want to change what you want… you can!

        That’s really being free, in the fullest sense.

        About “controlling themselves”, I think a lot of people can “control themselves”, since the brain is prima facie a control system, like modern computers. It’s a device that takes information in and yields control out. That’s its primary evolutionary function, it’s why it evolved. A well-functioning brain is very different from a brain tumor, since the first can do what it wants, while the second wants nothing…

        1. I said I don’t want to hash this over, but I strongly disagree with your statement, “Regular folks just don’t think a lot about free will, but if you educate them, they’ll understand that they are determined by the laws of physics.”

          Sorry, I’ve tried that, and no, it doesn’t always work if they’re libertarians, or, especially, religious folks.

          And this seems completely incoherent: “The laws of physics permit you to do what you want to do… and if you want to change what you want… you can!” What if I want to buy a sports car but I can’t because society and my family tells me I have to save money for my kids’ education? You have re-defined “doing what you do” to mean “doing what you want to do”. This is a tautology, pure and simple.

          I am done with this discussion, as I said before, so there’s no need to answer me.

        2. I’ve argued many times on this site and others for a version of free will like yours, if I understand it. Unfortunately, your’s is a different definition of free will from the one offered by our host and other Incompatibilists. As they see it, you either believe free will is compatible with determinism or you don’t, hence the terms Compatibilist and Incompatibilist.

          We acknowledge that physics holds sway but we believe that free will operates at a higher level, the level of human affairs. ethics, culture, and thought. As you say, a thermostat is a control device that makes simplistic decisions even though it follows the laws of physics. We are just more complicated decision-making devices. When we say we have free will, we’re just talking about our decision-making ability, our sense of agency.

          The physicist Sean Carroll has an essay on this:
          The philosopher Christian List has developed the idea philosophically. Daniel Dennett also seems to believe in this version of free will. So we aren’t alone.

          Where the two positions run afoul of each other is when we discuss moral responsibility. The Incompatibilists claim that since physics is making all our decisions for us, we aren’t morally responsible for them. On the other hand, we think (if I may presume) that moral responsibility, like free will, is a concept that lives in the domain of human culture, ethics, etc. We are still morally responsible for our actions even if determinism holds.

            1. I’ll start listening to Incompatibilists when someone turns down the Nobel Prize because they couldn’t have done otherwise due to determinism. (Actually, I still won’t agree with them.)

              1. Yes, and a description will not change a court decision.

                Judge to defendant: So, tell the court what happened.

                Defendant: Well, your honor. I aimed a gun at the convenience store clerk and squeezed the trigger with sufficient pressure to detonate the gunpowder and the bullet exited the gun with sufficient momentum to pierce the victim’s heart and stop the blood flow to his brain and other vital organs.

              2. What happens in the courtroom is one thing.

                The question is about what happens in nature.

      2. The “laws” of physics are descriptive, not causative. And the only things they can describe is the behavior of inanimate objects, not living organisms, and certainly not intelligent species. For those we have other sciences, like the Life sciences and the Social sciences. Each is only competent to explain the behavior of the class of objects that they actually observe. The “laws” convey our observations of consistent patterns of reliable behavior.

        Physics is fine for describing why a cup of water flows downhill. But it is totally incompetent to explain why a similar cup of water, heated, and mixed with a little coffee, suddenly jumps into a car and goes to the grocery store.

        If physics were capable of explaining everything, then we should be able to derive the laws of traffic from the laws of physics. But, we can’t.

        There are three levels of causation: physical, biological, and rational. Biological organisms are animated to achieve what they need to survive, thrive, and reproduce. Their behavior is “purposeful” or “goal-directed”, even when they behave instinctively. Intelligent species come the the ability to imagine, evaluate, and choose. This gives them the ability to act “deliberately”, that is, they choose what they will do, by calculation and planning.

        Any version of determinism that ignores biological and rational causal mechanisms is incomplete. And if it is incomplete, then it is false.

            1. I think but cannot prove that brains (including human) are reducible to biology, biology to chemistry, chemistry to physics. I think, therefore, that everything we think and do is determined by underlying laws of physics (not the merely descriptive laws that you have mentioned, but deep, underlying laws that we do not know and doubtless never will). I cannot prove my claim, so I do not state it with nearly as much certainty as you.

              That I cannot predict your behavior from first principles is irrelevant; the calculation is too complicated, but that does not demonstrate that it would not be possible in principle. If you think something is going on in our brains besides chemistry and physics, then I think it is incumbent upon you to provide evidence to that effect, or at least a carefully reasoned argument.

              We do not have space here, but I can easily explain why I think the universe is deterministic. I wonder why you state with such certainty that it is not.

              1. If we presume perfectly reliable cause and effect at each level of causation (physical, biological, and rational) then we can say that every event is the inevitable result of some specific combination of these three causal mechanisms. So, I have no problem with “perfect” determinism. But “hard” determinism, which typically asserts that “the laws of physics can explain everything”, is ignoring biological and rational causation, and thus it is incomplete, and therefore false.

                The brain organizes sensory input into a model of reality consisting of objects and events. Rational causation is simply a choice based upon the mental algebra of weighing benefits and harms, or logic, or simulating in our imagination how the future is likely to turn out if we select one option rather than another.

                The capacity for this operation of choosing is not found within any atomic particle. It is only found in the organism that has evolved sufficient neurology to perform these functions.

                By “perfect reliability of rational causation”, I do not mean that people perform logic perfectly, but rather that their logical errors are likely to be consistent, and thus theoretically predictable.

                Rational thought will also be affected by biological causes, like hunger and exhaustion, as well as by physical causes, like intrusive brain surgery or perhaps a misfiring neuron.

                The point is that, in any case, the event will have some specific set of causes that necessitate its occurrence.

                Free will is not “freedom from causal necessity”. That would imply freedom from reliable cause and effect, and without reliable cause and effect we’d have no freedom to do anything at all. Therefore, the so-called “philosophical” definition of free will is b.s.

                Free will refers instead to a choice we make that is “free of coercion and other forms of undue influence” (mental illness, etc). This is the “operational” definition that is used by nearly everyone (everyone outside of the philosophical delusion) when assessing moral and legal responsibility. The operational definition of free will is the only one that matters.

              2. It seems you are pointing to the courtroom, where the idea of free will is used. I’d agree it is necessary there.


                Just because something is used out of necessity in the courtroom does not mean there is a counterpart in nature. There is a legal definition of “under the influence”, with a pinpoint on a blood alcohol content as measured by a dubious device. That does not mean there is a natural law from which this number was calculated.

                If coercion includes brain tumors, why can’t it include weakened brain function – that might not even be diagnosed? And why not poor nutrition- or even missing a night of sleep?

              3. If I may quote from my blog:

                Neuroscientists can do a functional MRI of a person’s brain while they are making a decision, and show you the electrical activity across different areas as it is happening. Choosing is an actual event taking place in the real world, and our brain is doing it.

                But we don’t have to be neuroscientists. We can observe a man in a restaurant, browsing through the menu, and placing his order. Choosing is an operation that inputs two or more options, performs a comparative evaluation, and outputs a single choice. We observe ourselves and others making choices every day. It is not an “illusion”. It is an objective observation.

                Some have argued that, because his choice was the inevitable result of a history of prior causes, that the man in the restaurant “had no real choice”. But that is a denial of reality. He literally had a menu of options to choose from, and he actually made the choice himself. The man, the options, and the choosing were all real.

              4. I think we’re on the same side on this free will issue but I disagree with some of the words you use here.

                “Some have argued that, because his choice was the inevitable result of a history of prior causes, that the man in the restaurant “had no real choice”. But that is a denial of reality.”

                I believe his choices ARE an inevitable result of a history of prior causes but only in a context where one needs to consider causes going back to the Big Bang or to some known state of the universe. When we consider the man making a menu choice, it makes no sense to follow the causal chain back that far. Making a decision is a concept that lies in the realm of human affairs. We have a whole system of discourse and thought that works at that level. That it is all physics underneath simply doesn’t matter.

              5. Right. The human issue is what is the most meaningful and relevant cause. A cause is “meaningful” if it efficiently explains why something happened. A cause is only “relevant” if there is something we can do about it.

                The Big Bang is neither a meaningful nor a relevant cause. Neither is determinism or causation for that matter, since there’s nothing to be done about them either.

                But the bank robber is the meaningful and relevant cause of the robbery. And the most meaningful and relevant prior cause of his deliberate act was the act of deliberation that chose to do it.

                And we can do something to correct his future behavior in order to prevent him from causing further harm.

                Causal necessity is a logical fact, but it is not a meaningful fact, nor is it a relevant fact.

                We are the final prior causes of our deliberate acts. And because we are meaningful and relevant causes, we will be held responsible for what we deliberately choose to do.

              6. “ And the most meaningful and relevant prior cause of his deliberate act was the act of deliberation that chose to do it.“

                That needs some explanation. How would anyone know another prior cause – or posterior cause^*? – was at work, let alone weigh their relative importance? The statement appears tautological – perhaps question begging- because you are assuming an act of deliberation caused the robbery, then claiming the most relevant prior cause was the deliberation.

                And again I am losing sight of how this is supposed to connect with free will.

                ^*A posterior cause could be an incentive, I suppose.

              7. TP: “How would anyone know another prior cause – or posterior cause^*? – was at work, let alone weigh their relative importance?” … “And again I am losing sight of how this is supposed to connect with free will.”

                Because free will makes the empirical distinction between a deliberate act versus a coerced or unduly influenced act, it guides the correction process.

                The bank teller took the banks money and handed to the robber. How do we correct her future behavior? We arrest the robber, which removes the threat.

                The robber considered how he might get some money, and, of all the options he considered, he chose to rob the bank. How do we correct the robber? Obviously we need to change how he thinks about these decisions in the future. Prison, as punishment, induces him to want to change. Rehabilitation gives him a collection of mechanisms to achieve that change.

                If the robber committed the act because he had a significant mental disease, then the correction would include psychiatric treatment.

                The nature of the cause (coercion, deliberate choice, mental illness) determines the appropriate means of correction.

                Now, what are the implications of determinism in all of this? Nothing. Because all three scenarios are equally deterministic. The fact of causal determinism doesn’t change anything. Causal necessity does not make any meaningful distinction between any two events. It tells us nothing useful.

              8. “But “hard” determinism, which typically asserts that “the laws of physics can explain everything”, is ignoring biological and rational causation, and thus it is incomplete, and therefore false.”

                Please provide evidence or other argument that “biological and rational causation” are nonphysical. Include in your discussion that hunger and exhaustion produce physical responses. Otherwise, you are just repeating yourself.

              9. I haven’t suggested that there is anything “nonphysical”. What I’ve said is that the “laws of physics” are insufficient to explain purposeful (biological) or deliberate (rational) behavior.

                If you want to explain why a car stopped at a red light, you can’t do it using just the laws of physics. You’d have to include the the laws of traffic. And you cannot explain the laws of traffic without first evolving an intelligent biological organism that reasons out the likely effects of unregulated intersections (more crashes) versus traffic control lights (less crashes).

                The atoms of which we are made have no interest at all in whether they are part of us as a human being or as part of road kill. They really don’t care.

                They literally “have no skin in the game”. But we, as living organisms equipped with the ability to imagine, evaluate, and choose, along with the biological drives to survive, thrive, and reproduce, have plenty of skin in the game.

                The only “non-physical” question I have is what do we call a “process”. Thinking and feeling are not physical objects, but rather are a physical process. It is not an object, but rather a series of rapid changes occurring within a physical structure.

                We basically exist as a process (or actually a great number of processes) running upon the physical infrastructure of our neurology. We are something that goes on within the brain, but are not quite identical to the brain. When the process stops, we’re dead, and the brain is just a lump of inert matter.

              10. ” The man, the options, and the choosing were all real.”

                But that is sidestepping the actual issue. He should not have chosen otherwise. You can call the process “choosing” if you like, but if he could not have chosen otherwise what’s the point? (other than how it feels to him)

              11. GB: “You can call the process “choosing” if you like, but if he could not have chosen otherwise what’s the point?”

                “Choosing” is what everyone calls the operation. If I may quote from my blog:

                Logical Necessity

                The choosing operation logically requires (1) at least two real possibilities to choose from and (2) the ability to choose either one. If either of these is false, then choosing cannot occur. Both conditions are true, by logical necessity, at the beginning of the choosing operation.

                At the beginning we have multiple possibilities. At the end we have the single inevitable choice. If we must choose between A and B, then, at the outset, “we are able to choose A” is true and “we are able to choose B” is also true. This simple ability to choose either A or B is the “ability to do otherwise”. And if “we can choose A” and “we can choose B” are both true today, then tomorrow “we could have chosen A” and “we could have chosen B” will also be true.

                At the end, we will have chosen one or the other. However, if we choose A, then it still remains true that we “could have” chosen B. The concept of “I could have” refers to a point in the past when “I can” (“I have the ability to”) was true. Whenever we say “I could have” we are implicitly referring to a past time, specifically the beginning of the choosing operation. And, at that point, “I can choose A” and “I can choose B” were both true. The fact that we chose A does not contradict the fact that we “could have” chosen B.

                The concepts of “can do” and “will do” are distinct. What we “will” do has no logical bearing upon what we “can” do or what we “could have” done.

              12. I find it amusing to view this A or B choice from the viewpoint of prey : two predators appear. The prey has a … choice? The predators- they have s choice? There’s only one prey.

                Or is it more parsimonious to view the “choice” as selection – in the predator-prey scenario, natural selection. The prey was done for in either case.

  23. To me, the distinction is between “COULD not do otherwise” and “WOULD not not do otherwise” (assuming the initial conditions are the same.) In most cases, “could not do otherwise” is false. I need to determine my options in order to see what I CAN do before I can decide what I WILL do. If, in fact, one could not do otherwise, that step would not be needed. I know it is a matter of semantics, but isn’t this entire debate a matter of semantics?

    1. Semantics is about meaning and meaning is everything.

      The fact that it is inevitable that I will choose A does not contradict that fact that I could have chosen B.

      Of course, “I would not have chosen B” remains true.

      But “what I will” do is always undecided at the start of the choosing operation. If it were already decided, then I wouldn’t even begin the operation.

      One final thing: The decision making process will occur within me and will be performed by me, and within-and-by no other object in the entire physical universe.

      The Big Bang does not “decide” what I will have for lunch. Nor does determinism. Nor does causation.

      Determinism never determines anything. Causation never causes anything.

      Only the actual objects and forces that make up the physical universe can cause events. Only intelligent species can make decisions.

      1. “Determinism never determines anything. Causation never causes anything.”

        I think I know what you mean but I doubt you will convince anyone with phrases like this.

      2. “The Big Bang does not “decide” what I will have for lunch.”

        This is a statement of faith.

        As for “Only intelligent species can make decisions”… When did species start making decisions?

        1. The big bang cannot decide anything. It is a theoretical initial condition and we don’t even understand it well. We only know that it must have happened based on our knowledge of the expansion of the universe. It no more decides what I have for dinner tonight than did the sun, on which my existence depends.

          An intelligent species makes decisions when it acquires the ability to evaluate the consequences of its actions and decides accordingly.

  24. I think a predator “chooses” its prey purely according to things like: which did it see first, which one is closest, which one looks smaller or lame, etc. Not complicated, and purely instinctual. Prey-predator evolution explains the instincts, but it is more parsimonious to explain which prey the predator “chooses” with proximate causes. That gazelle was lame. End story. What could be simpler?

    1. The “purely instinctual” argument is awfully naive for a website inhabited by (largely) biologically educated readers. A great deal of animal behavior is learned.

      The old nature/nurture dichotomy is tired and frail.

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