A new interview with Steve Pinker

January 9, 2020 • 9:20 am

I’ve often been a defender of Steve Pinker, and it’s because I agree with most of what he says and because I think he’s been unfairly maligned—perhaps the most unfairly maligned public intellectual in the U.S.. But today I’m going to praise and criticize his views, largely praising his views on identity politics but criticizing his views on free will. Both are laid out in an absorbing new interview by Pelle Axelsson on the site IntellectInterviews. (I’m pretty sure Steve would hate the title below!). Click on the screenshot to read it.

There’s a lot of material in this interview: stuff about the evolution of language, the effects of social media, climate change and denialiam, Pinker’s own reading habits, and, as I said, identity politics and free will. I’ll deal only with the last two.

Identity politics (“IP”). I think this is Steve’s most explicit critique of identity politics to date. Here’s what he says:

What are your thoughts on identity politics?

– It’s a regrettable development. Even though it is essential to combat racism, homophobia and sexism, we ought to do so under the principle of fairness, rights and equity. That means each individual should be treated according to his or her merits and not according to the color of their skin, their chromosomes or their sexual orientation. This is different from identity politics, as it is commonly understood, namely that there is a perpetual zero-sum contest for power among racial and sexual cartels. On that view, the source of injustice is not that people have been treated with bigotry or unfairness, but that one group has monopolized power at the expense of others. To rectify that we have to upend the hierarchy and wrest power away from the faction of straight, white males and hand it to factions of gays, racial minorities and women.

– This vision of social change is hard to justify. Modern societies aren’t divided into monolithic armies of a single sex or skin color, and it’s people who suffer or prosper, not categories. Yes, group-based bigotry and exploitation exist, but at the same time there are poor white males who are horribly disadvantaged, women of color born into privilege, and every other combination. To shame or disempower an entire category of people violates the principle of fairness and can have repercussions, such as the election of President You-Know-Who. So identity politics, with its notion of group-based power reassignment, is not the appropriate response to the undeniable existence of racism, sexism and homophobia; the principle of equal rights is.

– Another regrettable form of identity politics is the notion that we should evaluate ideas based on the demographic traits of who advocates them — that an idea should be sidelined if it comes from a white male and taken seriously if it comes from a person with some other combination of gender and skin color. I appreciate where this concern comes from. I’ve often seen brilliant women ignored, interrupted, talked over and mansplained, and have heard of many more. This and other injustices must be called out and eliminated. But that’s different from considering the ideas themselves based on who talks about them. The existence of anthropogenic climate change, for example, is true regardless of who discovered it. It’s insulting to women and people of color to evaluate their opinions based on their census traits, as if they all thought alike, or their arguments could not stand on their merits.

I pretty much agree with this (and the claim that identity politics played a role in Trump’s election), although the source of IP is a combination of bigotry and power.  After all, if whites didn’t have power in this country, there wouldn’t have been slavery or Jim Crow laws, for it was whites who made those laws and had the power, via politic and police, to enforce them.

I also agree that our goal is to give everyone equal rights, though I’m not sure whether Steve thinks that attaining that goal requires some form of time-limited race- or gender-based affirmative action. (I myself favor a limited form of affirmative action, but one that takes not just race and gender into account, but things like poverty, general background, degree of “privilege” in one’s upbringing, age, and so on.)  I agree more strongly with the notion that the validity of an idea depends not on its source but its content, which means that the views and prescriptions of “minoritized” people, who should have a voice and to whom we should listen, aren’t automatically correct—even on issues of oppression. Nor are the views of straight people, white people, men, or older people to be dismissed on grounds of sex, sexua preference, race, or age.

Free will. In the first sentence of his response below, Steve clearly takes the position of a determinist, but then tries to identify what free will can mean, opposing it—to my mind, somewhat misleadingly—with autonomic reflexes, and confusing freedom with predictability:

How do you view free will?
– Like most scientists and modern philosphers [sic], I don’t think that every time we make a decision a miracle happens. It’s all brain physiology. But “free will” does refer to a distinct neurobiological phenomenon. When people refer to “free will,” they are singling out a neurophysiological process that is distinct from the one that gives rise to reflexive or impulsive responses. The brain contains complex circuitry, mostly concentrated in prefrontal cortex, which takes in information from many sources, including memory, current goals, understanding of the social situation and internal models of what would happen in hypothetical futures. These include anticipations of reward and punishment, praise and blame, respect and shame. Also, the output of those circuits is not completely predictable; it can be deflected by chaotic or random elements in the brain. The decision process that we call “free will” is not completely predictable, and it is unfathomably complex, but that does not mean that it takes place outside of information processing by neural networks.

If it’s all brain physiology, then it’s all naturalism and materialism, and therefore decisions obey the laws of physics and we couldn’t have decided otherwise. In other words, “a miracle happens” is a somewhat obscure way of characterizing “libertarian free will”. In other words, I think the first sentence is an admission that we couldn’t have chosen otherwise when we make a decision or commit an act. That’s an important admission because it’s a deterministic view of behavior, which, to me at least, has enormous consequences in how we reward and punish others, and in how we view other people.

In the next question, below, he says that there are factors that could have made us behave otherwise in a situation, but I think that he’s wrong in general (see below).

I’m not sure about the absolute distinctness of a reflexive instinct from a “reasoned” one. Insofar as determinism is concerned, they’re both determined and not controllable by “will”. The former may not involve the brain at all, but it’s all neurons and the laws of physics—as is a “decision” based on taking into account the workings of an evolved and adapted brain. Yes, the latter are far more complex, but both reflexes and decisions obey the laws of physics, i.e., you could not have behaved other that how you did.  In terms of what most people think of as “free will,” which is “I could have decided otherwise” free will, predictability is irrelevant. I suppose Steve is offering a form of compatibilism here: if your brain works through its hardware and software and comes up with a decision, that is “free will”, while if you jerk your leg when your knee is tapped, that is not free will. That’s Dan Dennett’s view of free will: a decision that passes through a brain’s processing, if that brain is sufficiently complex, is what he calls a decision made by free will.

But “reflexive” vs. “processed output” behaviors are relevant for things like praise, blame or punishment. If you kick someone because you’re mad at them, that’s a different matter from kicking them because they happen to walk by when a doctor is testing your reflexes. As I’ve always said, in cases like these you’re “responsible” in both situations because you are the actor who did the kicking, but what society does about it is—and should be—very different. Likewise with crime and punishment. There are reasons to sequester lawbreakers and miscreants, namely to deter others, to reform people who habitually do bad things, and to keep bad people from further injuring society. That view of crime and punishment doesn’t contain anything about whether someone committed a crime of their own “free will”, because even in the case of a premeditated murder the criminal had no “choice”. In fact, there is no way to construe “free will” in a way that will always be useful in a court of law. What we need to figure out are what are the deterministic factors that caused a problematic act, and then the best way to mitigate them.

And what about intermediate situations? If you jump out of the way of a speeding car, is that reflex or Pinker’s “free will”? There is brain processing involved, but also reflex and hormones.

Dragging “predictability” into the issue doesn’t add anything as far as I can see. Find out if someone did an harmful act, and then you can determine how to proceed in the best interests of both society and the malefactor. In many cases, treatment rather than punishment should be prescribed, or even a change in the law, as with the increasing legalization of marijuana.

Now, about predictability. Here’s the next exchange:

If we knew every bit of information existing in the brain, we could still not predict the next choice?

– Theoretically, maybe. Perhaps some Laplacian demon that knew the entire connectome of the brain, and the position and velocity of every ion and every neurotransmitter molecule, could deduce the trillions of neural firings that would take place in the ensuing moments. Though perhaps not — it’s conceivable that there are quantum effects in the brain, or thermal noise or Brownian motion in the molecules in the brain that fall below the threshold of any physically realizable measurement device. In that case, even Laplace’s demon may not be able to predict with certainty wat [sic] we will do.

– At the same time, we all can predict human behavior statistically. Clearly, the fact that society, not to mention everyday social life, functions more or less coherently means that behavior must be in large part predictable, so that our laws, norms, threats and promises can be effective. Otherwise we would be solitary hermits who just happen to share the same space, randomly bumping off each other, rather than families and institutions and societies. That doesn’t require us to predict each other’s behavior down to the last sentence and action.

First of all, predictability has nothing to do with most people’s concept of free will, which involves volition:  you make a decision but could have made another decision. But, as Steve says, a decision is not a “miracle.” And yes, we know enough about people to be able to roughly predict whether or not they’ll do something. But I defy you to predict what I’ll have for dinner on Friday! That will be determined on Friday, but this lack of predictability doesn’t mean my decision about victuals is freely made.

Further, the only factor that can make you “decide otherwise” is not volition, but the unpredictability of quantum mechanics. Factors like “thermal noise” or “chaotic or random elements in the brain”, while making decision hard or impossible to predict, are still deterministic, and thus should not be limped with quantum-mechanical factors . But none of these so-called random factors have anything to do with whether or not we have free will unjder most people’s construal of that term. Random factors are not part of volition, be they based on quantum mechanics or Brownian motion.  With the exception of quantum-mechanical indeterminacy, a deterministic view of human choice and behavior is independent of predictability.

h/t: Barry

81 thoughts on “A new interview with Steve Pinker

  1. I only read the identity politics part so far and I have never read or heard so clear and articulate a definition for the phenomenon, and in so few words. Did he improvise this response (obviously after a lot of prior thought, like a jazz musician)? Looks like this long interview will be an illuminating delight.

  2. Pinker says this in regard to injustice as articulated by practitioners of identity politics : “To rectify that we have to upend the hierarchy and wrest power away from the faction of straight, white males and hand it to factions of gays, racial minorities and women.” Of course, he disagrees with this.

    Perhaps Pinker thinks of himself as liberal, but his analysis would be endorsed by any far right-winger.

    First, why does Pinker assume that those in the minority who practice identity politics want to wrest it away from white males and give it to themselves? Perhaps most of these people want to share power (which for centuries they have been denied), not oppress white people. Certainly, you can find anecdotes about extremists wanting to take power from whites, but those are just anecdotes. It is much easier to find minorities who just demand their fair share of power. At least, that is my observation.

    Second, Pinker ignores the biggest identity group of all – white Trump supporters, who are scared stiff that their fantasy world of the 1950s is coming to an end. For these people, the color of one’s skin determines the proper place of a person in the social hierarchy. Trump’s election was due in large part to his appeal to the worst of white identity politics.

    Third, Pinker laments identity politics as something bad. Maybe so, but this is no different than lamenting that a big snowstorm makes it difficult to get around. The reality is that identity politics is going to be around for many years. What we need are solutions to mitigate its worst effects (it will never totally disappear). Identity politics has always been a part of American politics and will continue to do so because unless human nature changes, people will continue to identity with groups (whether political, ethnic, racial, or social) that gives meaning to their lives.

    Pinker can expect harsh criticism of his views as expressed in this interview, hopefully not just from extremists on the left. He deserves it. His comments left me very sad.

    1. To me, this is the biggest problem with Pinker and other critics of identity politics — that the white identity politics of Trump supporters is not typically seen as the same or worse, and it has been going on for much much longer.

    2. In your second paragraph you take Pinker to task because he ignored the “biggest identity group of all”. But he didn’t. He explicitly said that identity politics played into the election of “You-Know-Who”. Did you really thinker Pinker meant that the IP effect on the election was only one way?

      1. The entire Pinker quote is this: “To shame or disempower an entire category of people [I think Pinker means whites] violates the principle of fairness and can have repercussions, such as the election of President You-Know-Who.”

        I take this quote to mean that Pinker blames minority identity politics for inciting a reaction in some whites who decided to vote for Trump because of this. That is, Pinker blames minorities for upsetting the sensitivities of whites, and if it weren’t for the minorities, these whites would not even think in racial terms. I say bullshit. I stand by my previous comment.

        1. Pinker blames minorities for upsetting the sensitivities of whites, and if it weren’t for the minorities, these whites would not even think in racial terms. I say bullshit.

          As a historian, you must be familiar with similar discussions during the rise of German National Socialism about Jewish refusal to assimilate, whether Nazi’s caused Jews not to identify as Germans or if it was just their racial character.

          To re-write your statement:

          X blames the Nazis for upsetting the sensitivities of the Jews, and if it weren’t for the Nazi’s, these Jews would not even think in racial terms. I say bullshit.

          As re-written, it could have come directly off the desk of Himmler himself.

          I only point this out, not only because Anti-Semites like David Duke make the same arguments progressives do regarding “Jewish Privilege”, but that this entire discourse is just a recycling of Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories with a cut-and-paste job. I don’t think grown ups should talk this way, and if they do, they should feel ashamed.

          I don’t think the way forward is to knock the Jews, or the Whites, or the Chinese or whomever off their block and “make” them share. It didn’t work well for Zimbabwe or Germany.

          1. I think you may have misconstrued what I am saying since if I understand you correctly, I do not disagree. Throughout history majorities have always picked on minorities as scapegoats. My point is that Pinker seems to be blaming minority identity politics for inciting a backlash by white Trump supporters. Actually, white majority politics, in various permutations, has existed since the founding of the Republic.

            1. Yes, but the current Anti-White thing is a coordination of the white BoBos plus elite minorities against the white poes. Its a bunch of status signalling to show you are the superior kind of white person, not one of the dirty poes from Dubuque who never went to a fancy college. Its the same people who cheer when they hear about a spike in fentanyl overdoses in the heartland.

              1. Or cheer when residents of Houston, Texas die in floods, because Houston is a Red State which elects politicians who deny that Anthropomorphic Climate Change is real. Forget the fact that Houston is as Blue as any other major US City.

                Yes, this really happened to me on two different occasions.

        2. I am not an American, but I took away that one big factor in Trump’s election was the low turnout of would-be Democrat voters.

          Some of that was certainly due to Hillary Clinton having incited little enthusiasm, but part of the reason was also that her identity politics strategy, and the ascendant woke Zeitgeist was such unappealing to (probably) most people.

          Even the internet savvy could barely keep up with ever more labyrinthine demands of the woke faction, who weren’t merely shrill, but openly hostile, condemnatory and ridiculous (and still are).

          1. For my part, Aneris, I think you are right that low voter turnout was the main fault for a Trump victory. But ID politics did play a roll too and as Historian speaks of above, aging white angst was the main ID pol at play, fed as it was, in part, by a basket of deplorables.

          2. At first I read your comment to include… “ver more labyrinthine demands of the woke fashion“, which would work just as well, I think.

        3. Then you take that quote in a way that is frankly baffling to me.

          I would say the pretty much same thing as Pinker there – but it isn’t bound on people thinking along racial lines really.

          So lets start with this: The racist, sexist homophobes were never going to vote Democratic anyway. They are a constant, but not a big enough constant to safely deliver the Whitehouse to the Republicans.

          Before the Trump admin, Obama was president, and a lot of voters who voted Obama, voted Trump.

          And I credit identity politics for a lot of this.

          With regards to Clinton part of what I think people found so off-putting about it was that it was a distraction from serious issues regarding her potential presidency.

          Clinton’s major issue in that election was credibility – people didn’t trust her, and trying to gloss over that by calling them sexist or racist, didn’t deal with the issues people had with her.

          Throughout the election there was a lot of talk about how well qualified she was for the position, but later her own campaign staffers would admit that they didn’t know what her campaign was really about. There was no clear offer being made.

          Rather than dealing with her ties to high finance, her vote for the Iraq war or general hawkishness, or her support for the TPP, her campaign’s response was to call Sanders’ supporters “Bernie Bros.”

          A focus on identity politics does not address the concerns of people who are not in that identity – and they are going to go and vote on the things that concern them.

          With Clinton people didn’t know what they were voting for, and the concerns they had were being dismissed by people calling them bigots.

          That Trump did as badly as he did is a testament to how repugnant he personally is, because he managed to lose the popular vote while essentially running unopposed.

    3. I find your (Historian) response to Pinker depressing, especially your brief second sentence.

      I feel pretty much as Pinker does. That puts me in bed with far right-wingers. Indeed, I’m the type of far right-winger who oppose the Republican Party vociferously. The kind who voted for Bernie Sanders in the last primaries. The kind who supports Sanders and Warren most among the current candidates. The kind who protested against the Vietnam War, Ronald Reagan’s presidency. The kind who found Bill Clinton too conservative.

      The tendency to poison the conversation by describe those on the left who dislike identity politics as far right-wingers can serve no useful purpose.

      1. Unfortunately, there are some sincere liberals who share Pinker’s lopsided view of American identity politics and thereby unwittingly play into the hands of the right wing.

        1. Ultimately, you have class struggle as articulated by Marx, or in the alternative, you have race struggle as articulated most prominently by Hitler.

          That being said, post-Colonial independence movements utilized national socialist racial struggle to mobilize Colonial independence wars, which were “of the Left” as many were backed by the Soviets, and the colonial subjects were viewed as underdogs.

          The anti-colonial framework on the Left morphed into multiculturalism and identity politics in Western countries, to the point it has pushed out any serious class-based, Marxist socialist movement (such that English workmen won’t vote for Labor anymore).

          Are American “progressives” actually leftists? They seem very cozy with the corporations, they love the military and the national security apparatus, many like American Imperial wars, their only use for the working class is to lecture them on their defects, and most of their political energy seems to be scoring ethnic spoils in government and the private sector.

          Its basically a coalition of the house-slaves to insure they get better treatment on the plantation, and it doesn’t seem like the plantation owners mind a bit. How did Lenin describe define fascism again?

        2. Most actual liberals, IMO, share his view. The more authoritarian oriented on the left gravitate to identity politics. I have no numbers to support my case, but the goal of liberal thinking has always been to respect individuals “for the content of their character” instead of group membership. The reference is, of course, tp another “far right-winger” from my younger days.

          1. I hope that our difference of opinion is not rooted in a different understanding of the term “identity politics.” For me, the term “identity politics” connotes that a group of people gather together to achieve a political end based on factors that unite them. That is, they have a common identity, which can include race, ethnicity, religion, social or economic class. Such a phenomenon is commonplace throughout history and the world. Individuals emerge to lead the groups, but it takes the power of the groups to achieve their ends. It is also commonplace for groups, at least for time, to resort to extremist positions. In my view, I do not believe that the identity politics (those practiced by minorities) has reached an extremist position, and I hope it does not, although one can always find a few individuals who are extremists. Hence, the essence of my criticism of Pinker is that he chides minority identity politics for turning off whites and making unreasonable demands, while he seems to show little concern for the white identity politics, which, in my view, is the real problem in American society. Also, Pinker offers no solution to identity politics (there may not be one except the passage of time). Just saying that it is bad doesn’t accomplish much.

            1. The difference in our views is exactly the difference between your’s and Pinker’s.

              You seem to think that, to slightly rephrase it, “racism has always existed, therefore it is legitimate (for us) to use bigotry as a political tool”.

              You quickly jumped to lumping Pinker (and me, fwiw) in with “far right-wingers” for the offense of insisting that bigotry (etc.) is not OK, regardless of where it originates. That’s the issue we separated over.

              In my view, your’s is the position that excuses/justifies all of the “OK, Boomer…”, “Hey, white people…”, “I’m so sick of old white guys…” rants one sees from “left leaning” friends on Facebook, HuffPo, and elsewhere on left-leaning sources.

            2. Perhaps that is a point of miscommunication. I am pretty sure that Pinker, the interviewer and nearly everyone commenting here about this interview understand that mentions of IP in the interview and this discussion about it are referring to the very specific flavor of IP common today. For clear examples review the many articles Jerry has posted here over the past couple of years or so about ridiculous and or bad behavior by the Woke folks.

              Early on I was not convinced that this current flavor of IP was a significant factor in Trump’s election, but these days I find it more plausible.

              On another note, I’ve noticed that you seem to have a serious dislike of Pinker, which is puzzling to me. Having read your comments here for years and having read and listened to Pinker for years its seems to me like you two are natural allies. Not just that you disagree with him on some things, but that you seem to personally dislike him. If that is so would you mind saying why that is? I could of course be misinterpreting things but from where I’m reading it looks a bit like a prior personal dislike of Pinker sometimes leads you to a least charitable interpretation of things he has said.

              1. I don’t dislike Pinker personally. My disagreements with him are purely intellectual. For example, I agree with him that it is beyond doubt that on the whole the world has never been better. We may differ on the implications of this.

            3. “For me, the term “identity politics” connotes that a group of people gather together to achieve a political end based on factors that unite them.”

              That’s not how I’d define it. It would be more along the lines:

              “The most important thing is identity (race, sex, sexuality, etc). Traditionally, some identities have been privileged (white, male, straight, etc). This has caused a lot of wrong. To rectify this we need to invert the pyramid by actively promoting those in “marginalised” groups and actively denigrating those with “privileged” identities.”

    4. “First, why does Pinker assume that those in the minority who practice identity politics want to wrest it away from white males and give it to themselves?”

      Because that’s what identity politics is! Identity is all important, and the pyramid needs inverting. If they don’t want that then they’re not “practicing identity politics”.

      (And it’s not just minorities who play identity politics, plenty of whites think the same way now.)

      1. I imagine we can debate what the term “wrest” means. One interpretation is that it means taking all power from one group and giving to another. Another interpretation is that it means taking some power from one group so it can be shared with another. I think Pinker views minority identity politics as the former. I disagree and believe the goal of minority identity politics is the latter.

        1. “I think Pinker views minority identity politics as the former.”

          Or rather, he views identity politics as the former. (It’s not just minorities who promote identity politics.)

          1. America is in the midst of a rapid demographic transition, and I think Pinker fears a nasty white backlash taking place. Lebanon, among other states, fell into civil war over its demographic transition.

            I don’t know that there will be a civil war, but you don’t need a civil war, you just need a bunch of nasty white nationalists to seize power and declare marital law. . . and no, that’s not what Trump is, and if it happens, even Historian will be able to tell the difference.

        2. “Another interpretation is that it means taking some power from one group so it can be shared with another.”

          ‘Sharing’ sounds nice, but a great deal depends on just which powers over whom are taken, how they are taken, and the extent to which groups are seen as homogeneous entities entitled to power.

          In my country, New Zealand, sharing power on a group basis now means that a subset of one ethnic minority can have up to 50% decision-making power in some boards with real statutory power, and on local city councils this same subset can not only stand for election in general seats, but can also be appointed to city councils with full voting powers.

          Of course, those who point out the inconsistency of these arrangements with notions of individual rights and one person, one vote are condemned as far-right racists.

  3. “Free will” is a theological bugaboo.

    The question is whether human behavior is predictable (it is to some degree), and to what extent scientific understanding can make human behavior more predictable (it probably will to some degree).

    I am skeptical human behavior will ever be more predictable than the weather, so those that wants will probably find “butterflies of free will” and others will insist if we only had a better handle on the initial conditions no butterflies of the free will genus would be disclosed. Not to mention someone will tweet something kooky to say about quantum mechanics that “explains it all” if they aren’t too busy settling their latest sexual harassment claim.

  4. Legally speaking, a person can be held culpable if they voluntarily commit an act in the absence of duress. It doesn’t matter if they are really a marionette or soul-man libertarian.

    Further, rational sanctions for behavior deter that behavior, so free or not, people are capable of making risk calculations and avoiding proscribed behaviors, so it works.

    Certainly, if our scientific understanding allows us to come up with better ways to deal with behaviors like addiction and pedophilia, I imagine those kinds of behavioral problems will get pushed into other avenues.

    But you are still going to have the guys that get drunk and get in a fight over a woman, and your still going to lock them up and send them through the court system. Not to mention shop lifters, dime and dash at restaurants, etc.

  5. “ Random factors are not part of volition, be they based on quantum mechanics or Brownian motion.”

    A thought occurred to me – I don’t know if this is true, but if a random walk (Brownian motion) is active inside a fixed maze, is the net result non-random? I point to toothbrush head robots – these have cell phone vibratory motors on them. They seem to exhibit net random motion. However, when placed in a maze, or some fixed structure, they will follow the path of the maze. I have to look into this.

  6. (I’m pretty sure Steve would hate the title below!)

    Pinker can eschew the title if he wants to, but if there’s anyone who merits the appellation or represents what an echt intellectual ought to be, it is he.

  7. Pinker makes the mistake on free will that so many analysts make. Confusing it with non-predictability. I think he’s a determinist though, which determines he’s on the right track and could not have done otherwise.

    1. I do not see anyplace where Pinker confuses free will with non-predictability. He simply states the brain’s decision making process can be unpredictable (true) but does not identify that with what he thinks is free will, which I believe is of the usual compatibilist type.

    2. “Pinker makes the mistake on free will that so many analysts make. Confusing it with non-predictability.”

      That would only be fair if he were trying to argue for a libertarian, contra-casual conception of free will. He’s not, he’s arguing for a compatibilist conception of free will.

      In the latter, predictability is important. If we could predict people’s behaviour exactly, we wouldn’t bother with a legal system. We’d just scan people’s brains, figure out who was going to commit a crime in the next week, and stick in an electrode to fix it.

      But we can’t, so we have to deter crimes by holding people responsible for their acts and threatening punishment.

  8. … wrest power away from the faction of straight, white males and hand it to factions of gays, racial minorities and women

    – is a straw man. Doubtless there are a scattered few individuals who want to impose a reverse hierarchy – which reminds me of a hilarious stand up routine. But movements with significant numbers of followers want to end institutional racial hierarchy, not reverse it.

    Pinker’s second form of “identity politics” – ignoring white male voices because they’re white and male – does pose a significant problem, however. Not for white males not getting heard, but for torpedoing the conversation.

    On free will, I agree that predictability is beside the point. If you tell me that Mark Sturtevant posted more dragonfly pics on WEIT, anyone who knows me knows that if you leave me free to respond as I will, I’m going to view them. What makes an action free is that it’s up to the agent – not whether it surprises anyone.

    But Pinker and Dennett are right that the difference between decisions and reflexes is where free will is located. And they’re right to dismiss the idea that the existence of laws of physics means that we couldn’t have done otherwise. Physics empowers us, it doesn’t disempower us. Bertrand Russell understood that determinism doesn’t ground a one-way, time-directed causality. Sean Carroll definitely understands that. I think Dennett does too, although perhaps not at the advanced physics level of Carroll and Russell. And Pinker seems to have learned from him.

    1. What’s “free” about a decision if you couldn’t have decided otherwise. What you mean is “goes through the brain’s program”, not “free”. Determinism doesn’t ground a one-way time-directed causality only in the sense that quantum mechanics intervenes; otherwise everything is determined. But QM indeterminacy has NOTHING to do with free will.

      There’s nothing to understand here except that philosophers make up new conceptions of free will that do not jibe with the average person’s understanding of free will (see paper of Sarkeesian et al.) which is a libertarian version. Frankly, I think philosophers could much more productively spend their time working out and promulgating the consequences of behavioral determinism than writing big books about “a new way to see free will” that don’t do anything for society except make people, who don’t want to be puppets, feel better about themselves.

      There’s no “right or wrong” about where free will is located. It’s a semantic issue, pure and simple. What’s important is to what extent our behaviors are determined by the laws of physics (nearly all, I’d say), and what the social/judicial consequences of that are.

      1. What’s “free” about a decision if you couldn’t have decided otherwise.

        This gets at the heart of my problem with all the “free will” discussion. It’s the counterfactual.

        If I go to lunch, and place an order, then I made a decision, but we would say that I was “free” to make another decision. I don’t know if Jerry would deny that, but he would acknowledge at least that that is what we say.

        The thing is, that is what we say, but we don’t say it because it is a scientific thesis, and we have run experiments to verify.

        The issue is counter-factuals. They are imaginary. I go to a restaurant on Thursday, I place an order. I could order anything but I choose X. Its done, anything we say about what I could have done is imagination or fantasy.

        I think Jerry models human beings as basically clock works or engines, turn them on and they go. You hit the gas, the car accelerates and moved down the road. If you hit the gas, it can’t “choose” otherwise. The clock hand turns clockwise. It can’t go in the other direction.

        I model humans more like a weather system, storms on Monday, wind on Tuesday. Determinism is a joke. Even if in theory it was all predictable, it would never be in practice. If you want to call it “free will”, fine, but not clear what you are talking about. Go and blame God for the hurricane while your at it.

        I think the libertarians model is a person at the restaurant. Today I’ll get steak, tomorrow ham, and I could have ham today if I felt like it. Jerry can’t tell me what I can order, and if he did, I would order something different just to spite him.

        The point is, there are a number of pictures or models you can use, and no one has convinced everyone else which model is right (as compared to the structure of DNA). An appeal to imagination or counter-factuals does not settle anything.

        1. “If I go to lunch, and place an order, then I made a decision, but we would say that I was “free” to make another decision.”

          By which we mean, if you had wanted something else instead, then you could have had it. (Which you indeed could.)

          “Man can do as he wills, but not will what he wills” — Einstein/Schopenhauer.

          1. Yes Coel, that Arthur Schopenhauer quote, Man can do as he wills, but not will what he wills deserves some bold in a free will discussion.

        2. I could go to a restaurant with six entrees, and role a die, and order the entree that corresponds to the die roll.

          Obviously, unless the die is badly loaded, I could have rolled other than I did, and therefore chosen other than I did. However, I don’t see how this “proves” that I have “free will”, even if it accords with the libertarian notion of free will.

        3. KD,

          “The issue is counter-factuals. They are imaginary. I go to a restaurant on Thursday, I place an order. I could order anything but I choose X. Its done, anything we say about what I could have done is imagination or fantasy.”

          Have you thought through the implications of what you are claiming?

          We use counterfactual if/then reasoning not only to talk about what “could have been” but also “what could be” and even “what IS.”

          If I ask you to describe the nature of water, or an electron, or a car or tree, or an iPhone, or anything, the only way you will be able to convey most of the useful information is by adducing counterfactual information, drawn for instance from past instances of “behavior” of the item (or items in it’s category) applied to possible future behavior.

          If counterfactuals ONLY entail talk of fantasy, then you have seriously undermined knowledge itself about the world, including much scientific knowledge, and you’ve made much of human deliberations, planning, and reasoning about actions to be incoherent.

          1. Scientific inquiry relies on reproducibility.

            Counterfactual argumentation has nothing to do with that. The assassination of archduke Ferdinand was a single irreversible step, by nature. We can only muse on how things might be if that never happened. Counterfactuals — according to the Wikipedia article — can also be vague.

          2. Counterfactuals don’t give you “knowledge” of the world. At best, they can give you a basis for undertaking a research program.

            And a counterfactual that can’t give rise to a research program (what I could have had for lunch today but didn’t) is as good as the hypothetical beautiful woman I never met that I could have married. A fantasy.

            1. KD (and ThyroidPlanet)

              I’m bringing up the nature of conditional statements in general. Counterfactual statements are a type of conditional statement (e.g. if/then).

              If you seek to even understand or describe the nature of anything you will necessarily have to appeal to it’s behavior under varying conditions. This is especially true in terms of the fact we have to reason about planning our behavior, and apply knowledge of the world in doing so.

              So if you wanted to convey knowledge about water (especially knowledge useful in planning on any action with water), you will extrapolate from previous experience to conditional statements:

              If water remains at just above 0 Celsius, it will be liquid.

              IF water is cooled below 0 Celsius, it will become a solid (ice).

              IF water is heated to above 100 Celsius, it will boil in to vapor.

              (caveats put aside for now).

              Now, what is your attitude towards these statements? Are they false? Or true?
              After all, we can take water in any of those ONE states and say the same things about it.
              If I have a glass of liquid water, I can make those statements about the nature of that water, right? Even though it’s having been cooled to a solid hasn’t actually happened, nor has it being boiled to vapor.

              If you say those aren’t true statements about water than you’ve got a real problem. This is essentially how we understand and convey empirical information about the world.

              You may think you can try to remove the conditionals in any such description. You could “leave out” the If/Then and describe water by saying “Water remains liquid at 0 Celsius, water freezes solid below 0 Celsius, water boils to vapor at 100 Celsius.”

              But what would that actually usefully *convey.* If that were only “true” as a reference to “what has happened” – that is “what actually happened is all we can ever hold to be truth or about which we can have knowledge” then all you’ve said is “water DID (in the past) freeze at X temp, boil at X temp.” Well…so what? How is that information USEFUL in applying it to this new glass of water I have now? Does it have the same nature? Does that information help me predict how this water will behave? Yes. But only insofar as the statement “water freezes at below 0 Celsius” says not simply “some water in the past did X” but “water WILL freeze IF you lower it’s temperature below 0 Celsius. So the only way we really can describe the NATURE of water in any useful way, is to understand that understanding it’s nature entails a conditional understanding – IF/Then – in hoe it has and will behave in varying circumstances.

              This is the case for virtually everything – same if you are trying to describe to me what in iPhone is good for. Or a medical treatment.

              If your objection is that counterfactual statements aren’t truth claims, and thus can’t amount to knowledge “because they didn’t actually happen” then how could you object to all the conditional descriptions we use for describing the nature of water or anything else. Because THOSE descriptions involve descriptions that also “have not happened.” That’s what it is to reason about “possibilities” and if you can’t reason about possibilities you can’t reason at all in terms of planning your actions.

              That’s just the opening of that can of worms.
              It’s been pointed out that counterfactual statements are also implicated in the nature of causal relations. For instance, to even say “the impact of the cue ball caused the yellow ball to roll in to the pocket” seems to entail the counterfactual: IF the cue ball had not hit the yellow ball, the yellow ball would not have rolled in to the pocket.
              But if you say that counterfactual is a “fantasy” then that entails the statement is NOT TRUE. But then, if you say “it’s not true that if the cue ball hadn’t hit the yellow ball, the yellow ball wouldn’t have gone in to the pocket” then what have you actually *explained* by claiming the cue ball caused the actions of the yellow ball? If the causal claim doesn’t counterfactually negate it’s opposite, it seems the explanation for causation is actually left open (maybe something else caused the yellow ball’s movement!).

              Anyway…a big rabbit hole to go down.

              But my point is that our empirical inferences and descriptions, and our reasoning about likely outcomes of our actions in the world, seem to necessarily involve conceiving of possibilities and descriptions employing conditionals and counterfactuals.

              1. “I’m bringing up the nature of conditional statements in general. Counterfactual statements are a type of conditional statement (e.g. if/then).”

                oh that – sure – I didn’t want to get into that. my eyes have been glazed over since yesterday.

      2. My opinion of Beethoven’s Ninth can, in theory, be traced causally back to fundamental physics but it wouldn’t be useful to do so even if practical. Same with free will. As with appreciation of music, the free will concept lives in the human cultural and moral domain.

  9. I agree that “predictability has nothing to do with most people’s concept of free will”, but an unpredictable deterministic universe is indistinguishable from one that has free will.

    Promoting prediction as method to solve this problem does nothing to remove the metaphysical conundrum that is free will.

    1. To put it differently, what is the “cash value” of “not-free-will”?

      Its either the capacity to predict behavior or its a sob story to tell about criminals.

      1. And even better: modest predictions of behavior or society trends can improve engineering models to prevent future crimes.

        Free will or not: morality will turn into engineering controls. It’s not turtles; it’s airbags all the way down.

  10. Aha, I have the solution to the free will problem. Panfreewillism. Inert matter has free will. And I am on solid ground here, unlike panpsychism, because electrons do seemingly get to choose whether they will spin up or spin down when I measure their spin with a Stern-Gerlach magnet.

    Templeton, get your checkbook ready, because here I come.

  11. “Pinker thinks IP is bad”
    No he thinks it, unfortunate, and as he well knows, like all human progression as in, the enlightenment values, is slow and messy.
    From my view Pinker is asking, not to replace the existing with the same structure of power and hierarchy just with different groups (it’s our turn to run the show), he is asking for a replacement doctrine and practice via equality for all groups.
    I see nothing that says white before the rest, more, equality before identity politics.

  12. I agree with prof. Coyne’s view on free will as determined and understand much of the free will argument. I’m glad he highlighted the idea of a “reflexive” vs “reasoned” behavior because this seems to me the core issue. PCC writes “Yes, the latter are far more complex, but both reflexes and decisions obey the laws of physics, i.e., you could not have behaved other that how you did.”

    I agree but think there needs to be a caveat – that one “could not have done otherwise…in that moment.” But what about the next? Without new information I would predict the same behavioral outcome but this is where I think we elide the issue because new outside information gets introduced into brains constantly (e.g. a conversation) which could completely change the behavioral outcome. We imply that the premeditated murderer “could not do otherwise” but they could and would if for example the would-be perp overheard an elder relative saying “he never knew his sweet mother but that’s because she was brutally murdered when he was just a baby and I never had the heart to tell him.” Are we saying “could not have done otherwise” and further internal thinking cannot override the first impulse? But external thoughts could override it?

    Whether the new information proved convincing (which could also be time-dependent i.e. worked if subject was calm but not if enraged) would also be part of a deterministic causal chain but the behavior would be different. I hope this makes sense because I’m stuck on the temporal point of how irrevocable a thought is that is translating into action. Isn’t there a misleading assumption of ‘an inability to internally change one’s mind by thinking otherwise but not change one’s mind due to an external influence?’ Doesn’t the latter happen to people all the time, moment to moment, and may be indistinguishable from the former?

    1. I agree. It only makes sense to think about doing otherwise if the decision is made at a different time and/or with the brain in a different state due to different conditions. If the thought experiment under consideration is to simply replay reality with 100% fidelity, I would of course make the same decision. On the other hand, when I say that I could have chosen tea, I mean that I could have if I had wanted to which implies that my brain is in a different state than it was when I decided to have coffee.

      If we could replay reality but have the decision come out differently the second time, it implies that reality in the two runs was identical up to the decision point but different after. That is inconsistent with determinism as the hard determinists and free will deniers claim. It’s just not the right thought experiment.

      1. My implicit point also relates to crime and punishment. Say the murderer in my example above in their current brain state makes them ready to do the deed and at that time, of course they can’t “choose” to do otherwise. It’s a causal inevitability. It would be a premeditated murder and a horrible crime but are they morally culpable? Prof. Coyne I think would say no, that their actions are a very complex interplay of genes, environment, past experience, present hormone levels, etc. all conspiring at that moment to preclude a choice but predetermine their actions and the outcome.

        The law seems to treat this crime as the highest moral infraction because they “knew right from wrong” but nonetheless carried out the crime. But if these reflective moral considerations were adequate to have altered the murderer’s resolve and subsequent actions, then they would have but didn’t. Thus, the only way the murderer could have ’chosen otherwise’ is the degree to which they received new external information that altered their cognition…and found it convincing given their brain state etc. at that moment. That also seems to me predetermined: it will or it won’t. So I arrive at the same destination of how could they be morally responsible based on contingencies that stand entirely outside of their control or “free” choice to be “convinced” by? Paraphrasing Sam Harris, they can’t choose a potential option that not only didn’t occur to them but couldn’t so they aren’t morally responsible. Further, they can’t choose to be convinced by new information (the only way in principal to alter the pending outcome) that may or may not come before their plan is set in motion.

        1. Yes, I understand all that also. Here’s the problem with that line of thought.

          Prof. Coyne also passes judgement on Philip Goff and his panpsychism theory. Coyne holds him responsible for that theory and tells his readers that it is a stupid one (I agree). However, Goff came to his philosophical conclusions in a manner completely analogous to your murderer. Why doesn’t Prof Coyne feel the same way about Goff? Goff couldn’t have thought otherwise based on the very same kind of reasoning. The “punishment” is less severe than the murderer’s, of course, but that doesn’t matter to my argument.

          I think the answer is that murder and bad philosophy, along with their punishments, are all part of our culture. They are choices we make and actions we take. Sure, perhaps they are all determined but we still must let them play out as they will. We have no choice in that. It’s the human condition.

  13. You wrote «  After all, if whites didn’t have power in this country, there wouldn’t have been slavery or Jim Crow laws, for it was whites who made those laws and had the power, via politic and police, to enforce them »

    This is a non sequitur. There were slavery in Africa and even in the usa some free black people were slave owners. And there are many examples of country with the exact analogs of Jim Crow laws and no white people.

    Forgive me the poor quality of my english : I’m french.

    Best wishes,

  14. The thing I find odd about the compatibilist view of free will is this idea that people have a common sense feeling of free will in the manifest image. But this is certainly not my experience. Yes it feel like I am making decisions and choosing things but not with my free will, just as it feel like I am breathing, but not with my free will.

    I am breathing. I am doing that. One could even say that I am responsible for my breathing. But I am not doing it with anything that could be called free will.

    The other issue is that the term “free will” is not common language. It is philosophical language. So to say that the idea of “free will” is a manifest image feeling we all have is not quite right. No one uses the term “free will” in ordinary language or conversation or even thought. When the waiter in the restaurant asks you what you will have for dinner, no one says “with my free will I choose the beef.” We say “I’ll have the beef” and if we pay close attention, that decision doesn’t really feel like free will. It feels like I am compelled to choose the beef just as it feels that I am compelled to cry when someone I love dies or is suffering terribly. I don’t choose to cry, and I don’t choose to love beef more than the other items on the menu.

    So just like we need to separate the scientific image from the manifest image, I would suggest we also separate the philosophical level discussion from the ordinary language level discussion. In ordinary language we do not talk about “free will.” That is a philosophical term only.

    So when we are talking philosophy it is correct IMO to describe the human condition as being without free will. And if we are talking ordinary language, in an ordinary non-philosophical discussion, there is no reason to use the term free will at all.

    1. I have a few problems with what you’ve written here:

      1. Breathing is a poor example for this discussion as it can be both conscious and unconscious. Free will can only apply to conscious decisions.

      2. I can’t agree that there is no such thing as free will in everyday speech. Rather than get into a discussion of where the term is used, it must have meaning in discussions about moral responsibility and the criminal justice system that our host and others engage in on this website and elsewhere. Such a discussion might start with physics and philosophy but certainly also impacts our everyday thought.

      3. Your last paragraph seems to imply that everyday folk don’t have free will simply because the phrase is not part of everyday discourse. I don’t see the logic in that argument.

      1. I had some of these same questions. As to point 3, everyday folk don’t have free will, it might be because they simply assume it without giving it any thought. They chose chocolate over vanilla, but they don’t think of it as an act of free anything. It’s just what they do. If you ask them if they have free will, they have to rummage about in their minds for a definition.

    2. True, free will is mostly theologians and philosophers.

      There is voluntary versus involuntary. Singing is different from the hiccups.

      Voluntary implies an agent with intentions.

      The scientific image people want to claim that people are ultimately mechanisms like clocks that depend on pushes and pulls, so ultimately there is no agency.

      They also reject the existence of teleology, so if I have to go to the bathroom, it is reducible to the equivalent of some kind of gauge on the furnace going into the red.

      The interesting thing is that people describe their system as “determinism” or “no free will” when really they seem to be saying there is no agency and no actual will. Determinism implies that the will is determined, and no free will implies it is constrained. I take the reductionist position to be that the appearance of volitional behavior is entirely illusory.

      [You get these interesting discussions of criminals with an end to changing public policy, but obviously the judge and the executioner suffer from the same lack of volition as the ax murderer. You have to wonder why we aren’t still sticking people on the rack.]

      The problem is that they seem to have no way to address how a 7-year old can raise their hands, and ask the teacher for permission to go to the bathroom, and the teacher can understand and give the child a hall pass.

      If there is no teleology in nature, and no purposes, and no agency in nature, and nature is all there is, how can an organism signal a purpose to go to the bathroom, and another organism understand and facilitate that purpose. [DesCartes dealt with all of this with substance dualism, but that is what we are doing away with.]

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