Sean Carroll on the shows “Westworld” and “Devs”: free will, simulations, and multiverses

In the May 4 New York Times, culture reporter Reggie Ugwu interviewed Sean Carroll about the recent television series “Westworld” (HBO) and “Devs” (FX on Hulu). Sean watched both shows and gives his reactions, then discusses the premises of the shows.  Since I’ve seen only two episodes of one show (“Westworld”), and none of the other, I’ll let you read Sean’s take. Instead I’ll concentrate on one of the big topics of the interview as well as a pet interest of mine: free will.

Sean is a “compatibilist”: someone who, while admitting that our behaviors are determined in the sense that that laws of physics “fix the facts”, as Alex Rosenberg claims, including the facts of our behaviors, still avers that we can sensibly speak of “making a choice”. That is, while we could not have “chosen” other than what we did, we can still talk about “making a choice” and even pretend to ourselves that we really did make a “libertarian” choice where, at a given point, we could have made several alternative decisions.

I have no objection to saying that we have “free will” in the sense that we behave as if we did, though what rankles me are two things. First, philosophers dealing with the issue tend to concentrate on the “we really have a free will” part and downplay the determinism part, which to my mind is the part that has real ramifications for human behavior. Second, I think they do this (Dan Dennett has said so explicitly) because they think that if people realize that they don’t have a “free” choice and could not have made other choices, society will fall apart, with all of us, feeling like automatons or puppets, becoming nihilists unable to rise from our beds. That, of course, is false. I’m a “hard determinist” and get out of bed every day, and I realize that my “agency” is illusory even though I feel that it’s real. And if you’re a philosopher who argues for compatibilism in this way, it is condescending, for it tries to buttress most peoples’ feelings that they have libertarian free will. It’s exactly like those cynical theologians who don’t really believe in God, but think that it’s good for people to do so, as it keeps them on the straight and narrow. It’s odd that Dan Dennett, who’s demolished the theological argument as “belief in belief”, does nearly the same thing with free will.

There are a few more issues that compatibilists like to bring up.

Nobody really accepts libertarian I-could-have-chosen-otherwise free will.  That may be true among non-theological philosophers, but not among the public, with 60-85% of people surveyed in four countries saying that we live in a universe that has libertarian free will. And ask a religionist, one who thinks that one has a free choice to accept Jesus, God, or Allah, if they are really determinists at bottom. With the exceptions of Calvinists and a few other sects, they’ll say “Hell, no!” (Well, they’d probably leave out the “hell.”)

Even if our behaviors are determined, it wouldn’t make a difference to society if we espouse some form of free will. This is palpably untrue. Although some philosophers as well as some readers here say, “there are no consequences of determinism”, I think that’s cant and, indeed, somewhat disingenuous. Our whole legal system has a retributivist bent that comes from punishing people because we think they could have made a better choice than they did. Likewise, poor people are often held responsible for their own circumstances (viz. Reagan’s “welfare queens”), so that people ultimately get what they deserve. This is called the “Just World” view of life.

And if you don’t believe that, look at the Sarkissian et al. study of those four countries: 60-75% of people surveyed thought that if they lived in a deterministic universe and could not have chosen other than they did, then people would not be morally responsible for their actions. This, I believe, is the reason why some philosophers like Dan Dennett, though avowing otherwise (but contradicting himself in other places), espouse compatibilism: if you tell people they have free will, they consider themselves morally responsible for their actions. And, said Dennett, if they don’t, then society will fall apart.

My response to that is that we can have more justifiable and more ethically based systems of reward and punishment if we don’t accept that people could have done other than what they did. They can be held responsible for their actions, and rewarded or punished (the latter on the basis of deterring them, sequestering them from the public, or reforming them), but not morally responsible for their actionsFor “moral responsibility”, as with the people surveyed above, implies libertarian free will and can justify retributive punishment. (That said, I don’t object to the use of “moral” to characterize” what comports with human ethics”. But I dislike the term “morally responsible”, which smacks of free choice.

Compatibilists have not settled on a definition of “free will”. To one compatibilist, free will means freedom from obvious coercion. To another, it’s that we have complex processing in our brain that spits out a decision that’s gone through an involved (and evolved) program. To a third, it’s somebody who’s sane enough to understand the consequences of their actions. There are as many definitions of “free will” as there are compatibilist philosophers. So when you say “we have free will”, you better be damn sure that you add exactly what you mean, explain why your compatibilistic “free will” is not only different from others, but is better than others.

Enough. In his interview, Sean not only admits that he’s a determinist (and a compatibilist, which he lays out in his book The Big Picture), but comes surprisingly close to saying that determinism should affect our view of human behavior. I’ll quote a few of his answers (indented) and make a few comments:

First, Sean’s definition of determinism:

A common thread between the two shows is the conflict between free will vs. determinism. Can you explain what determinism is?

Determinism is basically the idea that if you knew everything that was happening in the universe at one moment, then you would know, in principle, everything that was going to happen in the future, and everything that did happen in the past, with perfect accuracy. Pierre-Simone Laplace pointed this out in the 1800s using a thought experiment called Laplace’s Demon.

Well, that’s his view of determinism, but I would rather use the world “naturalism”. For, if quantum mechanics be true, there are things that we couldn’t predict even if we had perfect knowledge of the Universe—like when a given radioactive atom will decay. And this means that even if we knew everything happening in the universe at one time, predictions might be inaccurate. I myself have argued that perhaps even evolution is unpredictable with perfect knowledge if mutation involves quantum processes. If that’s the case—and we don’t know—then the fuel for evolutionary change is unpredictable, and hence so is evolution.

Below is Sean’s compatibilism. Most readers here probably agree with it, and I don’t disagree unless one emphasizes the free will part and not the determinism part. All the following emphases in bold are mine, in which Sean makes it clear that we could not have done other than what we did.

Let’s talk about free will. Do we have it?

It’s complicated, and I apologize for that, but it’s worth getting right. The very first question we have to ask is: Are we human beings 100 percent governed by the laws of physics? Or do we, as conscious creatures, have some wiggle room that allows us to act in ways that are outside of the laws of physics? Almost all scientists will tell you that of course it’s the former. If you jump out of a window, the laws of physics say that you are going to hit the ground. You can use all of the free will you want, but it’s not going to stop you from hitting the ground. So why would you think that it works any differently when you go to decide what shirt you’re going to wear in the morning? It’s the same laws of physics. It’s just that one case is a more crude prediction and the other case is a more detailed prediction.

Good, Dr. Carroll! We obey the laws of physics when we “choose” a shirt to wear.

Did I make the choice to pick up the phone and call you?

Short answer: yes. Long answer: It depends on what you mean by “you” and “make the choice.” At one level, you’re a collection of atoms obeying the laws of physics. No choices are involved there. But at another level, you are a person who pretty obviously makes choices. The two levels are compatible, but speak very different languages. This is the “compatibilist” stance toward free will, which is held by a healthy majority of professional philosophers.

I think this is a bit confusing given that most people think that the words “you are a person who pretty obviously makes choices” means “FREE” choices. Now Sean takes care to make the distinction between determinism and the illusion of free choice, but I couch the distinction in a way very different from Sean, emphasizing the determinism. The rest is semantics, often (not with Sean!) constructed to fool people into behaving morally.

Here Ugwu asks a good question, and Sean answers with the traditional form of compatibilism.

But isn’t that a rhetorical sleight of hand? If our choices are fully predetermined by physical processes outside of our control and beneath our consciousness, are they really choices? Or is that just a story we’re telling ourselves?

I think it’s the same as the chair you’re sitting on. Is it an illusion because it’s really just a bunch of atoms? Or is it really a chair? It’s both. You can talk about it as a set of atoms, but there’s nothing wrong with talking about it as a chair. In fact, you would be dopey to not talk about it as a chair, to insist that the only way to talk about it was as a set of atoms. That’s how nature is. It can be described using multiple different vocabularies at multiple different levels of precision.

At the level of precision where we’re talking about human beings and tables and chairs, you just can’t talk that way without talking about people making choices. There’s just no way to do it. You can hypothesize, “What if I had infinite powers and I knew where all the atoms were and I knew all the laws of physics.” Fine. But that’s not reality. If you’re reality based, then you have to talk about choices.

In his response below, Sean comes about as close as he ever has to saying that there are tangible social effects of accepting determinism (again, the emphasis in the third paragraph is mine).

On both shows, the laws of physics are used to reframe the idea of morality. On “Devs,” Forest makes the argument that determinism is “absolution.” And there’s an idea in “Westworld” that humans are just “passengers”; forces beyond our control are behind the wheel. When you see people on the news, or even when you think about the people in your own life, does your belief in determinism affect the way you judge their behavior?

Not really, no. As long as you’re talking about a human-scale world. This idea that we are just puppets is clearly a mistake. It’s mixing up two different ways of talking about the world. There’s a way of talking about human beings going through their lives and making choices. There’s another way of talking about the laws of physics being deterministic and so forth. Those are two different ways — pick one.

[Carroll] Now, there are situations where we might learn that the choices that we thought people had are more circumscribed than we knew, either because of their biology or because of mental health issues, or what have you. By all means, take that into consideration. But that’s very human-scale stuff. If a person could not have acted otherwise, then you don’t hold them responsible in the same way. It’s not a matter of cutting edge science, it’s ancient law.

Well, ancient law isn’t that clear cut! For law, ancient and modern, is largely based on the premise that in some cases people could have acted otherwise. But they couldn’t—not ever! So we shouldn’t hold people responsible as if they could have acted otherwise. And that has enormous ramifications for the legal system. We already have “not guilty by reason of insanity”, but we should have “guilty of doing an act, but punished in light of the knowledge that they couldn’t have acted other than what they did.”  I’ve always thought that the court should determine responsibility, but another agency should determine “punishment”, and in light of determinism.

I wish that Sean would discuss the ramification of that “human-scale stuff”, because that’s what’s important to society. Sean clearly implies that the law under determinism would be different from the law under libertarianism (or perhaps even compatibilism). And in that he does differ from people like Dennett and many of the readers here. I’d love to have a discussion about all this with Sean some day.

143 Comments

  1. Posted May 10, 2020 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    I wish I could convince Ceiling Cat that compatibilists really are not his enemy!

    … and even pretend to ourselves that we really did make a “libertarian” choice …

    That is not compatibilism! Compatibilism entails a thorough acceptance of determinism. We make a “choice” just as a chess-playing computer makes a choice of move.

    They can be held responsible for their actions, and rewarded or punished … but not morally responsible for their actions. … That said, I don’t object to the use of “moral” to characterize” what comports with human ethics”.

    The compatibilist then uses “responsible” and “moral” in the same way. The only difference is that the compatibilists also use the two words adjacent to each other, whereas Jerry thinks that implies libertarianism. The difference there is only semantics.

    Also, the compatibilist is not saying that there would be no consequences at all for the legal system, of accepting determinism, just that they wouldn’t be as far-reaching as suggested.

    Also, Dennett has explicitly denied making the “little people argument”. All he’s saying, as Jerry indeed does in the bit quoted, that we do need to hold people responsible for their actions, and we do need notions of right and wrong conduct (= conduct that “comports with human ethics”).

    • Posted May 10, 2020 at 10:20 am | Permalink

      I disagree with compatibilists who say that

      a. society will fall apart without their efforts to persuade people to have free will and
      b. there are no societal consequences of determinism.

      Their attempts to downplay determinism in favor of emphasizing their new definitions of “free will” have profoundly inimical social consequences. They should be working on the social consequences of determinism rather than confecting various new and different definitions of free will. They may not be my enemies, but they are, in my view, wasting their time when they could be working on a philosophical problem of great and practical import.

      And, Coel, I’ve written several times where Dennett did make the Little people argument, so he’s wrong if he says he didn’t make it.

      What do you make of these quotes? If you say that he’s not talking about the social consequences of accepting determinism, you’re going to do some fast tap dancing!

      If nobody is responsible, not really, then not only should the prisons be emptied, but no contract is valid, mortgages should be abolished, and we can never hold anybody to account for anything they do. Preserving “law and order” without a concept of real responsibility is a daunting task.
      —Dan Dennett, “Reflections on Free Will”
      (naturalism.org)

      There is—and has always been—an arms race between persuaders and their targets or intended victims, and folklore is full of tales of innocents being taken in by the blandishments of sharp talkers. This folklore is part of the defense we pass on to our children, so they will become adept at guarding against it. We don’t want our children to become puppets! If neuroscientists are saying that it is no use—we are already puppets, controlled by the environment, they are making a big, and potentially harmful mistake.

      . . . we [Dennett and Erasmus] both share the doctrine that free will is an illusion is likely to have profoundly unfortunate consequences if not rebutted forcefully.

      —Dan Dennett, “Erasmus: Sometimes a Spin Doctor is Right” (Erasmus Prize Essay.

      • Posted May 10, 2020 at 10:38 am | Permalink

        Hi Jerry, it seems to me that, in those quotes, Dennett is saying what you are saying when you write: “[People] can be held responsible for their actions, and rewarded or punished (the latter on the basis of deterring them, …)”.

        We do need a system of punishing behaviour that we want to deter. We do need to hold people to contracts such as a mortgage, so we need to treat them as “agents” who can be held responsible for their actions.

        We can’t just declare that no-one is “responsible” for anything, and so never deter or punish behaviour, never expect anyone to pay their debts, hold to contracts, obey laws etc.

        That’s what Dennett is saying, and that’s also what you would say (I expect you’d fully agree with the last two paragraphs?).

        There is no substantive difference (indeed, as you write in this post, you and Carroll are pretty close on all that matters).

        The only difference is semantical — you think that certain words and phrases have dualistic/libertarian connotations, and so want to avoid them, whereas compatibilists want to use those phrases (to avoid re-writing the language) but consider them to be stripped of dualistic connotations.

        • darrelle
          Posted May 10, 2020 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

          I agree with Jerry regarding Dennett. I do think you are tap dancing real fast. I mean, you are right in that you simply reiterated, rephrased what Dennett has said. But though I’ve read and understood your response, and similar ones in the past, I don’t see how you can conclude that Dennett is not making a “little people” argument.

          Dennett has clearly said, on more than one occasion, that if experts go around telling everyone that free will is an illusion and this becomes generally accepted that there could be dire consequences for human society. He has even gone as far as saying that experts saying that free will is an illusion are being irresponsible. He has said that with some obvious feeling too.

          He’s admonishing experts to not tell people that free will is an illusion (which he himself acknowledges as far as “libertarian” free will is concerned) because the people won’t be able to deal with it, aren’t capable of having a sophisticated understanding of the issue such as experts like Dennett are capable of and therefore they will succumb to nihilism and lawlessness in such numbers that it could be a disaster for society. This is an ideal example of a little people argument.

          • Posted May 10, 2020 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

            Thanks for this; you answered better than I have. Yes, it’s clear that although Dennett believes that libertarian free will is indeed an illusion (most people think they have it, but they’re wrong), we have to keep that fact from people lest society fall apart. I can see no other construal of his words in the second quote.

            • Posted May 10, 2020 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

              I think all Dennett is saying is that if people were to believe that they were all robots following the laws of physics (true), and that all their choices are not really their choices, then society would fall apart. He’s certainly not saying that if the little people believed as he does, they couldn’t handle it. After all, there’s nothing about Sean Carroll’s view of free will that is society destroying and he believes determinism is true. I’ll admit Dennett is a bit muddy on the subject.

              • Posted May 10, 2020 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

                So your interpretation of Dennett is if people knew the truth (were robots following the laws of physics), society would fall apart.

                How does that qualify as “all he is saying”. That’s what I maintained. It’s a blatant example of the Little People Argument, because it says that if people fully grasped determinism, our society would fall apart. That’s the same as theologians who are basically atheists saying that society would crumble without belief in God.

                A bit muddy? I think it’s pretty darn clear!

              • Posted May 10, 2020 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

                “if people fully grasped determinism, our society would fall apart”

                I think Dennett is saying that if people grasped determinism AND believed this eliminated free will, then society would fall apart.

          • Posted May 10, 2020 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

            I don’t think Dennett is making a “little people” argument but simply saying that allowing “determinism made me do it” to be a valid defense of wrongdoing would cause all hell to break loose.

            As others here have noted, considering determinism at the level of our legal system wouldn’t only apply to desirable court reforms but to all human actions, good and bad.

            • GBJames
              Posted May 10, 2020 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

              ”allowing “determinism made me do it” to be a valid defense of wrongdoing would cause all hell to break loose”

              Not at all. Or, rather, it is a non-sequitur in a deterministic legal process. The question there is “did you do it”, to which the answer is either “yes” or “no”.

          • Posted May 10, 2020 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

            Since his exact wording is fairly crucial on this sort of point, can you give some quotes or links of what he said?

            • darrelle
              Posted May 10, 2020 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

              A reasonable request, but at the moment I don’t have time. I’ll try to make some time later. One exchange that sticks in my mind and which I can remember the source is an exchange during the Moving Naturalism Forward conference. But of course there is many hours of video to look through there.

              • Posted May 10, 2020 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

                There is a video here, in which Dennett says that it would be bad if people had no sense of “free will”.

                But, if you consider what he means by that, he means it would be bad if people had no sense of criminal responsibility, of feeling that they will be held account for their actions.

                Those notions *are* necessary for human society. (If no-one was ever held “responsible” then society could not function.) So he really means that it would be bad if people had neither a dualistic sense of free will, nor a compatibilist sense of having a “will” that they will be held account for acting on.

                Dennett is not saying that we need to preserve the dualist/libertarian illusion, he is only saying that we need to regard people as answerable for their actions.

              • Posted May 10, 2020 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

                Coel, you’re very good at reading Dennett in a way amenable to your own views, but contrary to what the man actually says. He’s talking about free will, and he knows bloody well that one can be held responsible for a deed without being considered “morally responsible.” I know that because I argued with him about that.

                I believe, as I’ve said, in being held responsible, but that’s not all Dan is saying. I think you’re being excessively charitable in your interpretation. How could he express the “Little People” argument any more clearly than ” . . we [Dennett and Erasmus] both share the doctrine that free will is an illusion is likely to have profoundly unfortunate consequences if not rebutted forcefully.”

                That’s about free will being an illusion, which it is, but we have to maintain that illusion (like the illusion of God, I’d add) for the good of society.

      • hazur
        Posted May 10, 2020 at 10:56 am | Permalink

        So, in your view it doesn’t make sense to talk about coercion either?

        • darrelle
          Posted May 10, 2020 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

          Can you point out where he said that?

      • John Dmytrenko
        Posted May 10, 2020 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

        “They should be working on the social consequences of determinism rather than confecting various new and different definitions of free will”. From Dennett’s podcast with Sean Carroll one of the main problems Dennett has with hard determinism is that it creates the illusion that people are puppets. That the notion that they do not have choice means they are being manipulated at a level beneath their control. He comes up with his own Black Mirror episode to illustrate this. The hard determinists on the other hand do think people are puppets and are being manipulated at a level beneath their control. These do not seem like semantic differences to me. As I understand it he has a fundamentally different view of free will. It is as if he thinks the hard determinists are suggesting agency where there is none. I find this topic to be overwhelmingly difficult and do not mean to step on anyone’s toes with a muddled explanation. I really don’t know where I stand, but I definitely think the consequences of who is right are very big. Also, thx for letting me post.

      • Tim Harris
        Posted May 11, 2020 at 12:36 am | Permalink

        I wonder if, regarding Dennett, there is not some kind of confusion or something not fully thought through. Leaving aside physics, it is surely true to say that our ethical upbringing (perhaps I should simply say ‘social upbringing’, but that brings too many other factors into play) influences our behaviour to quite a large degree(assuming we don’t have psychopathic tendencies), and is one of many factors that determine how we in fact behave in particular situations. It seems to me that Dennett fears that if everything is reduced to physical determinism, teachings as to what is right and what is wrong become meaningless and pointless. But surely they don’t. We are by nature social animals, and are determined by our total social environment as well as ultimately by the laws of physics.

        • Tim Harris
          Posted May 11, 2020 at 4:21 am | Permalink

          I should like to add that I wonder whether the lees of positivism are at play in the assumption that if everything is reducible to physics then anything that, like ethics, is not science is meaningless. I remember Francis Crick saying something along the lines of the love you feel for someone or the ambitions you have are all merely chemical reactions swilling about in brain and body. Were he to draw what seems to me to be the obvious conclusion from that, then any activity of human beings whatsoever, including the whole of science, is merely chemicals swilling around, deriving ultimately from physical activity. As, of course, why should it not be? It is that ‘merely’ that is the problem. It suggests that the whole of life is some sort of illusion.

          Another factor at play in determining why this assumption (that if everything is reducible to physics then things like ethics are void of significance) is so attractive to a certain kind of mind seems to be the long-standing disjunction between ‘matter’ & ‘spirit’ that runs, since Plato, through European thought. Having lived in East Asia for nearly fifty years, I can say with a fair degree of confidence that most people here have no trouble in supposing that any human activity involves chemical reactions and responses AND that the emotions and thoughts that human beings have, and the activities they undertake, whether it be science, the arts, sport or whatever, are none the less significant for that.

          And perhaps I should add that ethics is not just philosophers like Sidgwick making conscious arguments about ethical questions, but lies deep in our nature as social animals, as well as our upbringing from earliest childhood and our experience, so that most of the time our nature, upbringing and experience inform our responses to matters that could be called ‘ethical’, and we don’t usually make conscious arguments to ourselves as to whether or not we should, for example, stop that small child who seems intent on trying to cross a busy road.

          Finally, on another matter, there is the punitive tradition of Anglosaxondom that also determines things in its own way. The US has the highest prison population in the world (and the highest rate of incarceration) and the UK has the highest prison population in Western Europe, and the highest rate of incarceration.

  2. GBJames
    Posted May 10, 2020 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    sub

  3. Aldo Matteucci
    Posted May 10, 2020 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    On Sun, 10 May 2020, 16:45 Why Evolution Is True, wrote:

    > whyevolutionistrue posted: “In the May 4 New York Times, culture reporter > Reggie Ugwu interviewed Sean Carroll about the recent television series > “Westworld” (HBO) and “Devs” (FX on Hulu). Sean watched both shows and > gives his reactions, then discusses the premises of the shows. Si” >

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted May 10, 2020 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

      What is the point of this comment? (Of course, you had no choice about whether to write it).

  4. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 10, 2020 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    I’ve always thought that the court should determine responsibility, but another agency should determine “punishment”, and in light of determinism.

    Care to share any ideas regarding how such an “agency” would be constituted and how it would go about performing its task?

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted May 10, 2020 at 10:44 am | Permalink

      I don’t see why the legislation cannot determine the punishment, even if they need to explain the parameters of some penalties to the jury for the decision. First degree murder should be easier to say – 25 to life. Second degree might be 15 to 30. Both crimes are well defined enough, the penalty should not be that hard. Other crimes such as Flynn lying to the FBI could be something like 3 years to ten years. It sure as hell should not be none.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted May 10, 2020 at 11:17 am | Permalink

        In our extant criminal justice system, state legislatures (and in the federal system, congress) already set the maximum sentence (and as to some crimes, the minimum-mandatory sentence) that can imposed on an offender who has been convicted of a crime.

        In addition, in the federal system (and in some state systems), congress and legislatures have also enacted “guidelines” systems establishing the specific factors courts are to consider in setting the range of appropriate punishments a court should impose on particular offenders within the statutory maximums.

        But what I understand Jerry to be urging in the OP is that the authority to sentence offenders should be taken away from the court system entirely and given to a separate agency — something like “the ministry of punishment,” I should think.

        • Randall Schenck
          Posted May 10, 2020 at 11:33 am | Permalink

          Well, I am of the same belief as PCC regarding free will but I do not think a separate agency or committee is necessary or even useful. Who is there at the trial – the jury and the judge. Is this separate agency there, no. I think you have to be there to make the proper adjustment within the penalty. Where possible, mandatory sentences are okay. For instance, in California, if you are convicted of murder & a rape is involved, it is mandatory life. That is good for the jury because they do not have to figure out anything but the crimes. If guilty of it, you get life.

          • Posted May 10, 2020 at 11:37 am | Permalink

            If you think punishment should involve rehabilitation, then mandatory sentences don’t make sense. Even Anders Breivik, who killed 60 or more in Norway, got only 25 years or so. If some people can be rehabilitated and others can’t, then I don’t understand why there should be absolute fixed sentences for a crime.

            • Randall Schenck
              Posted May 10, 2020 at 11:57 am | Permalink

              I just don’t see it that way. If you committed first degree murder and are convicted of this, a minimum of 25 years is still a good sentence. The fact that you might be rehabilitated while in prison is fine, then you get out after 25 yrs. Who knows if you are rehabilitated after two years or 7 years and even if you are pretty sure, do you get this early out because of rehab? My lack of free will does not allow me to do this. I think if pronouncing rehabilitation gets the person released then rehab becomes the game. If they kill again, then what, more rehab?

              • eric
                Posted May 11, 2020 at 7:01 am | Permalink

                What a complete waste of resources – both the state’s and the individual’s – to hold someone in jail for years after they are rehabilitated.

            • Historian
              Posted May 10, 2020 at 11:58 am | Permalink

              The attack was in Norway, not Sweden.

    • Posted May 10, 2020 at 10:59 am | Permalink

      Don’t we have it? A jury determines “responsibility” and a judge decides on “punishment”.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted May 10, 2020 at 11:42 am | Permalink

        That’s generally the division of labor, yes. But in some cases — notably capital murder cases — the jury also determines punishment.

        And in 2005, in the case United States v. Booker, a fractured US Supreme Court came very close to holding that the US constitution requires that juries make express findings by proof beyond a reasonable doubt as to all factors that are to be considered in calculating an offender’s sentence.

    • Posted May 10, 2020 at 11:16 am | Permalink

      I agree with Jerry that the US legal system has a retributivist streak, but that’s a moral mistake, not a metaphysical one. Restorative justice is the way to go – and incidentally, doesn’t shy away from attributing moral responsibility. As Randall points out, this seems like a matter for legislation.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted May 10, 2020 at 11:51 am | Permalink

        Under our current criminal justice system, the two most crucial factors considered in setting an offender’s sentence are the extent of the harm caused to the victim(s) (whether individual victims or society writ large) and the blameworthiness of the offender’s state of mind in committing the crime.

        • Randall Schenck
          Posted May 10, 2020 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

          If first degree murder is defined as premeditated and a person is killed, you already have what is needed. The defenders state of mind and a dead person.

    • Posted May 10, 2020 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

      If that’s a serious question, then you’d have experts in psychology, rehabilitation, law, criminal behavior and so on sit as a group and come up with a sentence that balances deterrence, sequestration of an offender, and rehabilitation. Of course, prisons should have rehabilitation on offer, and a serious program, like Norway

      But of course I’m winging it here; I haven’t thought seriously about it though I suppose I should. Writing about this might make it clearer.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted May 10, 2020 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

        It was a serious question.

        I consider myself a committed (if occasionally fainthearted) hard determinist. But I’m so steeped in the ways of our current criminal justice system (with its presupposition of free will) that I have difficulty imagining how a system based on determinism might operate (though I think I’m reasonably well-positioned by experience to critique the potential strengths and weaknesses of such a system from a practical standpoint were someone to propose one).

  5. Pierre Masson
    Posted May 10, 2020 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Typo?
    “then people would not morally responsible for their actions.” was meant to be “…would not be morally…”

  6. Posted May 10, 2020 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    laws of physics “fix the facts”, as Alex Rosenberg claims

    Either Alex Rosenberg misspoke, or he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The laws of physics don’t fix the facts – you also need all the detailed physical information – quark, lepton, and boson fields, etc. But some of those quarks, leptons and bosons are you. So what happens depends on you.

    Now sure, you could consider a time in the history of the universe before or after your life, and say “I don’t see me here.” I would suggest that’s because you don’t know all the details and can’t reason your way through the necessary calculations, but never mind for now. More importantly, fundamental physics doesn’t elevate any particular time – like the Big Bang, as everyone seems to think – above the others. You can start your laws of nature calculations at any point, and work your way forward or backward, with equal sense. And pragmatically, what makes the most sense is to start here and now, with your immediate action. The Big Bang will turn out to be whatever it needed to be, to accommodate your decision.

    Laws of nature are not one-way streets. They just look that way to macroscopic beings living in an age of rapidly increasing entropy. (Read Mlodinow and Brun to start seeing why.) The “free will problem” is every bit as illusory as its traditional solution.

    • Posted May 10, 2020 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      “Either Alex Rosenberg misspoke, or he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The laws of physics don’t fix the facts …”

      I think that Rosenberg’s statement was simply “physics fixes all the facts” (not “laws of …”). What he meant by that was the reductionist idea that, if one exactly replicated all of the low-level status and behaviour of a system (the physics) then the high-level behaviour of that system would be entailed. I think he’s right.

  7. rickflick
    Posted May 10, 2020 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    “with 60-85% of people surveyed in four countries saying that we live in a universe that has libertarian free will”

    I’m not sure how we should take this statistic. I suspect many of these people have not really thought through the free-will and determinism issue. It’s rather too subtle for a quick answer. You need scientific literacy and a smattering of particle physics to really wrap your head around it. I think many people go with their instinct, which make the survey result less important.

  8. Diana MacPherson
    Posted May 10, 2020 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    I’m really liking Westworld Season 3 because they have an actual Laplace’s Demon. Dan Dennett would enjoy them all losing their shit when they realize they have no free will though I think they are more upset that Laplace’s demon was used to control them.

  9. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted May 10, 2020 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    “Second, I think they do this (Dan Dennett has said so explicitly) because they think that if people realize that they don’t have a “free” choice and could not have made other choices, society will fall apart, with all of us, feeling like automatons or puppets, becoming nihilists unable to rise from our beds. That, of course, is false.”

    Or perhaps it’s the counterpart of a false dilemma.

  10. Posted May 10, 2020 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    I like Sean Carroll’s chair analogy. It’s just a matter of different levels of human description. Mixing them is just not very useful. After all, “free” is, and has always been, a relative term. I live in a so-called free country but it doesn’t let me do absolutely anything. We sometimes talk about “free variables” in equations but they are still limited by their context. Incompatibilists want us to treat “free” as an absolute term but only when talking about free will and determinism.

  11. Steve Gerrard
    Posted May 10, 2020 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    I think you just need to explain how consciousness works, and most of the problems here will be resolved.

    Of course that is easier said than done. For instance, we will need to know if consciousness actually does anything, or if it is just epiphenomenal gravy and we are just along for the ride.

    I’m not sure you can really work out the consequences of a “no fault” criminal justice system until the workings of consciousness are properly sorted out.

    • rickflick
      Posted May 10, 2020 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      I’m not sure I agree. We have to work with likelihoods to construct a working legal system. We can’t rely on folk wisdom. We don’t need to know how consciousness occurs to be able to say we live in a deterministic world, so whatever definitions we come up with at whatever level of granularity, we already know a criminal is operating deterministically. How should we treat her? With vengeful anger? Or with a rational desire to reduce such behavior in the future? The answer is pretty easy – even if we don’t know which atom collided with which atom to create our sense of consciousness.

  12. Jonathan Wallace
    Posted May 10, 2020 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Surely the ‘could not have acted otherwise’ principle applies to exactly the same extent to the policeman, the jury-member, the judge and the prison warder (and everyone else involved in the justice system including voters) as it does to the person accused of a felony? If we are focusing on ‘everything must obey the laws of physics’ determinism it seems to me to be futile to debate the implications of this for our approach to justice in the sense that our positions in the debate are already determined by prior chains of events back to the dawn of time(of course, futile or not, we cannot do otherwise!).

    When we argue for a justice system that is not retributional but which recognises that the criminal was somehow compelled to act the way he did, it seems to me that we are implicitly recognising that we are free to make choices in the compatibilist sense. I can vote or argue in favour or against capital punishment or in favour or against justice systems that aim to rehabilitate criminals and in so doing I consider the evidence and to all intents and purposes ‘make my mind up’.

    I am also not convinced that a view of crime and punishment that acknowledges compatibilist choice necessarily dictates a different approach to justice to one based on hard determinism. With a de facto acknowledgement of personal choice we can still adopt social policies that seek to eliminate the causes of crime, steer youngsters away from crime, seek to rehabilitate them if they are convicted of crime and treat criminals humanely when they present such a threat to the rest of society that they need to be deprived of their liberty. There is nothing about acknowledging choice that then forces you to adopt a hard line retributional philosophy of justice. Indeed I would suggest that many liberals with no particular knowledge of or interest in physics, philosophy or free will and who tacitly assume they are ‘at the controls’ of their own persona nevertheless take a view of justice that is very much along these non-retributional lines.

    • Posted May 10, 2020 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      +1

    • Posted May 10, 2020 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

      If “everything must obey the laws of physics”, how is it possible for certain human individuals to seemingly choices to commit what some in various societies consider to be against the law (with no uniformity among cultures about law and types or severity of punishments), thereby possibly bringing about retributive vs, rehabilitationist so-called justice?

      Are mental and physical illnesses, child abuse, rape, and murder “determined”?
      Is not following orders re Covid-19 about masks and staying at home that may cause deaths of others “determined”?
      Is it “determined” that some of us do as we’re asked or told, and others not?

      It’s obvious that I haven’t the education or ability (yet) to answer this question for myself as I am torn between the reality of “physics” and determinism vs. “free will” (meaning different things to different people). So, I will continue to read all that is written here on this topic and hope that I eventually “get it”.

      • sugould
        Posted May 11, 2020 at 9:17 am | Permalink

        Good luck on that. I keep waiting for that explanation that would work for a six-year old. Not about the physics, but about “choice.”

  13. Posted May 10, 2020 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    What’s annoying is that Carroll denies that determinism, when accepted at the human level, might influence our interpersonal attitudes and social policies. To acknowledge that our behavior is determined isn’t, as Carroll seems to suggest, mixing up two ways of talking about the world:

    Q: “When you see people on the news, or even when you think about the people in your own life, does your belief in determinism affect the way you judge their behavior?”

    A: “Not really, no. As long as you’re talking about a human-scale world. This idea that we are just puppets is clearly a mistake. It’s mixing up two different ways of talking about the world. There’s a way of talking about human beings going through their lives and making choices. There’s another way of talking about the laws of physics being deterministic and so forth. Those are two different ways — pick one.”

    Why? It isn’t clear we must forgo talk of determinism when it comes to making choices. And in fact he immediately adverts to the determinants of choice:

    “Now, there are situations where we might learn that the choices that we thought people had are more circumscribed than we knew, either because of their biology or because of mental health issues, or what have you. By all means, take that into consideration. But that’s very human-scale stuff. If a person could not have acted otherwise, then you don’t hold them responsible in the same way.”

    But Carroll neglects to point out that under determinism, persons, although not puppets, could not have acted otherwise in any actual (as opposed to counterfactual) situation. So, as Jerry argues, we shouldn’t hold them responsible in the way we do under the assumption they could have acted otherwise, which is what many, perhaps most folks assume. This is the crucial point Carroll fails to communicate about determinism and its implications for our responsibility practices, very much in the way Dennett fails to communicate it.

    Thanks as always to Jerry for his valiant efforts to rectify this omission. Who else out there is a good determinist? Robert Sapolsky is one.

    • Posted May 10, 2020 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

      Carroll: “If a person could not have acted otherwise, then you don’t hold them responsible in the same way.”

      Carroll here is referring only to human level reasons why the person couldn’t have acted otherwise. The person’s lawyer may claim his client had a mental defect that made him do it but “determinism made him do it” isn’t one of the justifications we consider in our courts.

      • Posted May 10, 2020 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

        And I’m saying that determinism should be a FACTOR when it comes to meting out punishments for a crime.

        • Posted May 10, 2020 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

          Even if we reject libertarian free will (I do), the concept of free will (as used normally, I think) can be very useful when talking at the level of human psychology. In fact it is crucial for determining when we may need to “punish” someone.

          At this level, people are presumed to have free will when they are aware of what they’re doing, are doing it deliberately, and are unencumbered by any overwhelming force, whether physical or psychological, that might be dictating their actions.

          Absent any of those components, punishment to discourage a person from breaking the law in the future wouldn’t make sense, because the person was not his “normal self”. Likewise, if the person is shown to be insane, punishment as deterrence doesn’t make sense either, for obvious reasons.

          Let’s suppose we’re trying to teach a dog certain behaviors. We can easily accomplish this through rewards and punishments. It doesn’t matter one bit that the dog has no free will. Now let’s assume that one day the dog inadvertently ingests a drug that makes it lose its normal alertness and understanding. That day we wouldn’t punish it if it failed to behave as expected, because we’d realize that “it didn’t know what it was doing”, and that, consequently, punishing it would serve no purpose.

          The same logic would apply to us if we rejected libertarian free will. And it is in fact pretty much the way our justice system already determines guilt. The key difference is that if we rejected free will we should logically reject retributive justice. We’d “punish” someone solely for deterrence and safety (never for revenge, or because he “deserves” it). Is that what you mean by “And I’m saying that determinism should be a FACTOR when it comes to meting out punishments for a crime.”?

          • Mike Anderson
            Posted May 10, 2020 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

            …We’d “punish” someone solely for deterrence and safety (never for revenge, or because he “deserves” it).

            I agree with this kind of proposed “justice” framework and I think many (most?) of my fellow determinists do too.

      • Posted May 10, 2020 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

        “The person’s lawyer may claim his client had a mental defect that made him do it but ‘determinism made him do it’ isn’t one of the justifications we consider in our courts.”

        Right, determinism isn’t a universal excuse that could be used to exculpate anyone. But it does undermine the strong sense of contra-causal blame that accrues when people suppose (as they routinely do) that someone acting sanely and without coercion could have done otherwise, but simply chose not to. Determinism puts agency in a causal context that shows us not to be first causes, which is why it doesn’t get much press in a culture enamored of placing blame.

        • Posted May 10, 2020 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

          Taking everything down to “first causes” is extreme reductionism and leads to the chaos we want to avoid. Blame, on the other hand, is purely at the human level of discourse. We can argue about how much to blame someone or what is blameworthy but it is all our choice.

          • GBJames
            Posted May 10, 2020 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

            “blameworthy”? Seems a loaded term if what we want is to 1) determine facts (who did what) and 2) decide how to minimize future similar incidents. “All our choice” simply biases how we look at the question.

            • Posted May 10, 2020 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

              There’s definitely more to it than whether someone physically committed the act. In particular, we do not blame someone when they have a certain level or kind of mental illness or when someone else held a gun to their head. So there’s lots of bias and the term is indeed “loaded”.

              • GBJames
                Posted May 10, 2020 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

                You don’t need the idea of “blame” to take additional relevant information into account. It all falls under “how to minimize”.

          • Mike Anderson
            Posted May 10, 2020 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

            I’d argue all cause and effect identification is human level discourse. For any action, there are trillions of actions that led up to it. It’s a human endeavour to say “these are the significant actions in the chain we deem causes.”

            The proverbial butterfly on the other side of the world is one of the causes of the storm, but we don’t go hunting for that specific butterfly because it doesn’t help our understanding of the storm. We think of the butterfly as a cause only in the context of a mind experiment.

            • Posted May 10, 2020 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

              Sure but what I said is reducing things to FIRST causes. If we’re talking about the weather, taking causes back to butterfly wing flaps is already going too far. Determinism takes it back even further.

    • Posted May 10, 2020 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

      “Could have acted otherwise”, to a compatibilist, really means, it we had exerted different social pressures, such as threats of punishment, would that have made sufficient difference to have changed their action?

      Because, if the answer is “yes” then deterring a crime by threats of punishment is rational. But if the answer is “no” then it’s not rational

      Thus, “could have acted otherwise” does not mean “if everything is identical down to every last molecule”, it means “could have acted otherwise given the sort of alterations to environment that we could make”.

      All of these things (under compatibilism) are highly practical and pragmatic (they are not metaphysical).

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted May 10, 2020 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

        And this is why this argument about “free will” is useless. Let’s instead just talk about determinism.

        • Posted May 10, 2020 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

          Absolutely, but even if we just talk about determinism, we’ll still need to have concepts of “choice” and “agency” and “responsibility” and so on when discussing human interactions.

          • sugould
            Posted May 11, 2020 at 9:21 am | Permalink

            Agree with Coel. I have no problem with determinism. But to your list, I’d add “rehabilitation,” which I find even murkier.

  14. Posted May 10, 2020 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    I do accept the argument that it would make little difference to the stability of society if most people understood that they lacked free will. I expect that would be true enough if this understanding comes about during one’s adult life, after people have already been socialized and had committed to their sense of empathy and morality. After all, that is when people become determinists. They learn as adults that we lack free will.
    But what if a large population of children were somehow made to believe there is only hard determinism? Would that instead make a population of narcissists? A billion Trumpsters? I am wondering.

  15. eric
    Posted May 10, 2020 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    I don’t consider myself a compatibilist, but here’s about as close as I can get:

    Free will is like Newtoniam Mechanics – an excellent and accurate model we can use to effectively manipulate the world at human scales…but which also happens to be fundamentally wrong at other scales, as it is really an approximation of deeper theories. Thus, if you want to talk about people psychologically choosing X or economic agents choosing a price point, you’re using a theory in the domain in which it works. If you’re talking about brain chemistry, your model becomes inaccurate and ineffective. You would not use QM to calculate a cannonball’s trajectory – it’s not needed, and NM provides a high quality answer cheaper, faster, and easier. Likewise, you would not use deterministic physics to calculate human sociology – it’s similarly not needed, and other disciplines or models will give you an answer cheaper, faster, and easier.

    Our whole legal system has a retributivist bent that comes from punishing people because we think they could have made a better choice than they did.

    Briefly, I respectfully disagree with PCC here. We may agree that humans are deterministic, but I personally support more rehabilitative criminal justice, but determinism doesn’t show that. The question of “are we meat puppets” is different from “do these meat puppets change their behavior more to retributive, or rehabilitative approaches?” A “yes” to the first provides not answer to the second. Empiricism can, though, and I certainly hope it shows that us meat puppets respond better to rehabilitative criminal justice systems. If we look at European systems in comparison to the U.S. one, it certainly seems that that’s the case.

    Compatibilists have not settled on a definition of “free will”.

    I agree here. It seems more of an umbrella term for people who don’t want to call themselves determinists than it is any specific philosophical position. It’s sort of like “none” on a religious survey – comprising many disaparate groups.

    • Mike Anderson
      Posted May 10, 2020 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

      >> Free will is like Newtoniam Mechanics

      Very interesting analogy. I hadn’t heard that before.

    • Posted May 10, 2020 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

      “I don’t consider myself a compatibilist, but here’s about as close as I can get”

      You are treating compatibilism as a poor-man’s “dualistic free will”. That’s the wrong way of thinking about it. It is not a hankering after dualistic free will, it is about understanding a deterministic world. There is nothing second-rate about it.

      “It seems more of an umbrella term for people who don’t want to call themselves determinists …”

      No! Compatibilism is a complete and thorough embrace of determinism.

      • Posted May 10, 2020 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

        “Compatibilism is a complete and thorough embrace of determinism.”

        As Jerry points out from time to time, compatibilists routinely downplay determinism in favor of defending standard concepts of moral responsibility that give aid and comfort to retributive punishment and just world beliefs. It’s the skeptics about contra-causal free will who generally focus on determinism, and who draw out its implications for criminal justice reform and social inequality. Jerry is joined in this by philosophers Gregg Caruso, Derk Pereboom and Bruce Waller, and by behavioral scientist Robert Sapolsky.

        • Posted May 10, 2020 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

          And Incompatibilists routinely place an unreasonable emphasis on determinism when moral responsibility has nothing to do with it. Arguments for criminal justice reform should be made solely on how humans should treat other humans, not the laws of physics. Our choice as to what constitutes a crime, and the decision whether to incarcerate or execute another human being for it, has little to do with physics. From a purely practical point of view, waiting around for the rest of humanity to “get” determinism delays criminal justice reform, IMHO.

          • rickflick
            Posted May 10, 2020 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

            Determinists just want to avoid retributive punishment.

            • Posted May 10, 2020 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

              Even the indeterminists want to avoid punishment. Hey, it’s a universal!

              • rickflick
                Posted May 10, 2020 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

                Ha. Not what I meant. But close.

            • Jonathan Wallace
              Posted May 11, 2020 at 4:32 am | Permalink

              ‘Determinists just want to avoid retributive punishment’

              Indeed but being a determinist is not a necessary condition for holding this aspiration. And do determinists not have to accept that the ‘could not have done otherwise’ applies to everyone? Why do we suppose that determinists can wisely and rationally devise a justice system based on rehabilitation but criminals are just automata with no ability to change their actions except as we wisely direct or nudge them?

              Surely in reality everyone from lofty professors of physics or philosophy to the little people (whoever they are) lives their day to day life with tacit acceptance of having choices about what they do? When sitting at a desk thinking hard about the nature of the world we may see that we live in a deterministic world in which every event is simply the result of chains of prior events but when we go out to buy our groceries we purchase this brand of coffee rather than that one because we think we prefer it or because we like the price. We might know deep down that we are some kind of pre-programmed machine in a pre-programmed world but we simply cannot stop ourselves from ‘deciding’ what we do at every step of the day from choosing which socks to wear when we get up to sitting down and thinking about the implications of determinism for society.

              • rickflick
                Posted May 11, 2020 at 8:29 am | Permalink

                I think you are missing something.

                “Why do we suppose that determinists can wisely and rationally devise a justice system”

                You seem to assume fatalism. You are assuming that determinism would have us all walking around in some kind of trance repeating our mistakes. That’s ridiculous. Just because our actions follow the laws of physics doesn’t mean we cannot work to improve society. Why can’t determinists have aspirations just like nondeterminists? Or even Republicans, for that matter.

              • Jonathan Wallace
                Posted May 11, 2020 at 11:41 am | Permalink

                “I think you are missing something.”

                Very possibly I am. If all we are saying is that ‘effects have causes’ and we can deter Uncle Bob from scalping tickets with the threat of being thrown in the cooler then that seems trivial – even proponents of libertarian free will would agree with that. The Catholic Church teaches that we have free will but also clearly believes that we are capable of being influenced, whether by promises of paradise or threats of ghastly punishment in this life or the next.

                Surely when we state that we don’t have free will we mean rather more than this; that in fact we have literally no real choice in anything we do because it is determined by ALL of the previous events at all levels – the atomic and sub-atomic scales as well as the macro level. In that sense the actions of the justice giver are no more free than those of the criminal.

                Nevertheless we have the illusion of making choices and as you point out none of us walks around in a trance simply repeating our mistakes. As with Sean Carroll’s chair we can view our ability to act from the point of view of the fundamentals of physics (we have no choice and the chair is a cloud of atoms) or at practical daily-life level (the chair is a solid object and I can choose what I do whether its choosing coffee brands or deciding how to manage the problem of crime in society).

                Our choices may be illusory but we all (surely?) share the illusion and live our lives accordingly. I struggle to understand how we can live any other way but freely admit that these are complicated issues and, as a lay person with no deep training in physics or philosophy, it may well be that I am failing to get my head round some aspect or another of the problem.

                PS I would not deny anyone the right to have aspirations, whatever their views on free will! 🙂

      • eric
        Posted May 11, 2020 at 7:06 am | Permalink

        [Me]“It seems more of an umbrella term for people who don’t want to call themselves determinists …”

        [Coel] No! Compatibilism is a complete and thorough embrace of determinism.

        Okay, so if it’s not an umbrella term, what is the single accepted theory of compatibilism that renders it different from non-compatibilism? In what way does “free will” exist within determinism, that makes us non-compatibilist determinists wrong?

  16. Mike Anderson
    Posted May 10, 2020 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    I think there is something to the idea that a hard deterministic outlook can have a negative impact on behavior, especially for children. I believe Sam Harris said he doesn’t expose his children to his promotion of hard determinism. It would be interesting to hear how much other determinists expose (or not) their children to deterministic thinking.

    The illusion of free will seems to enable a social cohesion that could be a fitness advantage – having said that I think governing and legislating informed by determinism would result in morally better outcomes than does out current Judeo-Christian influenced system.

    • rickflick
      Posted May 10, 2020 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

      Young children, say before the age of 12 or 14, are going to be convinced there intuition about free will is correct. It would be hard to convince them otherwise. As they mature, they may come to an epiphany and realize there is a question worth thinking about. It might be a good idea to include this and other aspects of philosophy in a high school curriculum so that the implications don’t become dangerously confusing. It might save many kids the burden of relying on religious dogma.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted May 10, 2020 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

        I say scare the shit right out of them. Like when my parents bluntly told me that one day I’ll die and that will be that. 😃

        • rickflick
          Posted May 10, 2020 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

          I vaguely remember my daughter asking if we are all going to die. I mumbled something, but I don’t remember what. I didn’t want her worrying about it just yet.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted May 10, 2020 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

            Ha ha. My parents never cared about my worry. It’s probably why I ended up with such high anxiety.

            • rickflick
              Posted May 10, 2020 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

              I’m sure they thought they were just being honest, which is usually the best in the long run.

      • Mike Anderson
        Posted May 10, 2020 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

        I agree, high school might be the time to expose kids to determinism and other philosophical issues.

        But it’s a thorny issue – how long, how much, do we lie to our kids? If we can shield our children from determinism, can we object to other people raising their kids religiously (shielding them from rationality, in a sense)?

    • eric
      Posted May 11, 2020 at 7:25 am | Permalink

      Our brains develop over the first ~20-30 years. I think it’s a separate argument to ask when someone is emotionally or intellectually able to handle certain concepts vs. whether they are able to handle it at all, ever. The first is the eternal “when do we start sex ed” debate. The second is the little person argument.

      I have no problem with holding off on deep ideas until kids reach the age and mental capacity to handle them. I’d no sooner try and push determinist philosophy on my 9-year-old than I would calculus. But I see this as different from the ‘little people’ argument because I disagree with Dennett about adults and society – I think pretty much any normal adult can handle the idea with aplomb, and society would no more collapse under determinism than it would collapse under atheism. In fact I think it’s very sociologically similar – the “doomsayers” in both cases ignore the fact that people are pragmatic when it comes to their families and society. Just as atheism /= nihilism, determinism /= nihilism either.

  17. Posted May 10, 2020 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    I find it odd (I am not saying contradictory) that the hard determinists here feel so passionately about changing people’s minds about determinism and changing the justice system. I’d have thought that an acceptance of determinism would make one more nihilistic, or at least indifferent.

    • GBJames
      Posted May 10, 2020 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      You’d have been wrong.

    • Mike Anderson
      Posted May 10, 2020 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

      We can’t help our passion for determinism.

    • Posted May 10, 2020 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

      I firmly embrace determinism but I am neither nihilistic nor indifferent, as you can tell by what I write on this website. I am constituted as I am, and part of that constitution is to try to fix the justice system. Blame the laws of physics!

      • Posted May 10, 2020 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

        Point taken. I could never consider you as nihilistic or indifferent. Your passion for truth and science is inspiring.

        OTOH, I might consider that you actually are a compatibilist and just don’t know it. 🙃

      • Tim Harris
        Posted May 11, 2020 at 6:07 am | Permalink

        I realise that philosophers, and particularly Galen Strawson because of his espousal of pan-psychism, are regarded with suspicion here, but I do recommend reading Nietzsche in ‘Beyond Good & Evil’ on the illusion that is the ‘freedom of the will’, as well as Strawson’s essay ‘Luck Swallows Everything’ and his conversation with Tania Summers entitled ‘You Cannot Make Yourself the Way You Are’ in the book of essays ‘Things That Bother me’. One really doesn’t need physics to realise that free will is an illusion.

  18. rgsherr
    Posted May 10, 2020 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Bump

  19. alexander
    Posted May 10, 2020 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    I believe that we will never be able to decide whether we have free will or everything is predetermined. There are two elements that contribute to this idea (if we accept the idea that the laws of physics apply to living systems) : the ultimate limit of predictability in physics is limited by the uncertainty built into quantum physics: we know the half-life of radioactive atoms, but we cannot predict when a specific atom will decay. Physics at the limit is aleatory. A second factor is Gödel’s incompleteness theory, which when applied to physics, would mean that if our mind works according to physical principles, we will never be able to completely explain the how and why of the underlying physics. You could compare this to the question whether a computer will ever be able to explain by itself the software that allows it to operate. Just an idea I’m developing…

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted May 10, 2020 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

      You may be confusing determinism with predeterminism.

      • alexander
        Posted May 10, 2020 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

        If you reject or question determinism, you also question predeterminism.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted May 10, 2020 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

          I don’t know what that means but determinism is not pre-determinism and is completely divorced from predictability.

    • Posted May 10, 2020 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

      Gödel’s incompleteness theory applies only to formal systems. I don’t think it says anything at all about whether a computer will ever be able to explain by itself the software that allows it to operate. I can write a program whose operation I completely understand but still not be able to tell whether it halts. This gets into what it means to understand something and that’s not a simple question.

      • alexander
        Posted May 10, 2020 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

        I expected your reaction. But can you say that a car “understands” what you do with the steering wheel?

        • Posted May 10, 2020 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

          Am I becoming predictable? LOL

          “But can you say that a car “understands” what you do with the steering wheel?”

          At some level, it does understand. When I turn the steering wheel to the right or left, it turns the road wheels appropriately. That’s all I need it to understand. If it understood much more than that, I would start to worry.

          More seriously, understanding is a continuum. Does anyone really understand something of non-trivial complexity fully? I think this is going to be important in judging whether some future AI truly understands like we understand. Those who quickly say “no” probably believe that humans have some uniquely essential property, something an AI will never have. It is hard to figure out exactly what that is.

          • alexander
            Posted May 10, 2020 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

            Yes, that is the fundamental question. Are we “machines” or not?

    • eric
      Posted May 11, 2020 at 7:37 am | Permalink

      I’m not sure I buy that. Godel’s theories say that a finite list of axioms that obey the laws of arithmetic can never explain all truths about the system they describe (IIRC it was whole numbers, in Godel’s original formulation).

      I’m willing to accept that ‘the laws of physics’ comprise a finite list of axioms. However it’s not clear to me that they must necessarily have the commutative and associative properties of arithmetic. Matrix algebra, for example, is not commutative – and QM can be described via matrix algebra, though it typically isn’t. So Godel’s theories may simply not apply to the set of axioms we call laws of physics.

      Probably more importantly, Godel doesn’t tell us which truths are unprovable – it only says some are. So even if the laws of physics are a system such as he’s described, it’s entirely possible that the determinism of human action is one of those truths we can demonstrate from our set of axioms.

      • Posted May 11, 2020 at 9:11 am | Permalink

        Godel’s Incompleteness doesn’t require that the system in question have any properties of whole numbers or arithmetic. The only connection is that if the system is at least as powerful as arithmetic then there are valid statements within the system that can’t be proven. Basically, it doesn’t say much about very simple systems.

        Even if the laws of physics were to qualify as a formal system, it is unclear why we should care about proofs within it. Everything we know, stars and ourselves, are statements within that formal system. I have no idea what it would mean to “prove” a star. As they say, a star is what it is.

        I don’t think Godel’s theorem says anything about reality, except for the small part containing mathematics. We’re still unclear on the relationship between mathematics and reality.

  20. Steve Bracker
    Posted May 10, 2020 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    “I myself have argued that perhaps even evolution is unpredictable with perfect knowledge if mutation involves quantum processes. If that’s the case—and we don’t know—then the fuel for evolutionary change is unpredictable, and hence so is evolution.”

    Surely it must be the case that mutation involves quantum processes. Mutations can be induced by ionizing radiation, some of which is emitted from radioactive decay, and that decay surely is a quantum process.

    Whether that leads to evolutionary change being fundamentally unpredictable depends on where you stand on the “Wonderful Life Thesis”: Is the course of evolution strongly contingent on very small accidents of history like a single mutation event, or are the consequences of the small accidents massively dominated by higher level selective pressures that nudge evolution in certain directions — if this mutation didn’t happen because the atom waited another millisecond to decay, another similar one will be along shortly to enable about the same large-scale evolutionary history.

    So while I’m pretty sure that at least some mutations are indeed quantum processes, I’m much less sure that this renders evolution unpredictable in any important sense. If Gould and Conway Morris couldn’t make any headway on a consensus view, what hope for me?

    • Posted May 10, 2020 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

      At least you cannot say that evolution is SURELY predictable–that the outcome would have been the same starting at the Big Bang. Where Gould went wrong was in his defining “contingency” as something that was not determined. Surely the big asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs, for instance, wasn’t an “accident”: its path and the collision (and the sequelae) were determined by the laws of physics. Gould confused “determinism” with “predictability”, a common error.

    • eric
      Posted May 11, 2020 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      Good discussion. This is just a completely offhand guess, but if I *had* to guess I’d say quantum processes play a much smaller role than biochemical copying process errors, for two reasons. First, because ionizing radiation most likely causes SNPs, and I would layperson-guess that sequence repeats or deletions would drive evolution more than SNPs. Second, because the biochemical copy process is integral to any dna strand in your sperm or egg – all of them undergo it, every time they replicate. In contrast, radiation hitting a sex cell and making a change that matters is an event that I would guess only occasionally or rarely happens.

      So, summarizing my complete guess: less opportunity for those sorts of errors, and less impact (SNP vs. long sequence change) when it occurs.

  21. Jeff Chamberlain
    Posted May 10, 2020 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    As usual, I got lost early in this discussion, specifically at the first mention of “deterrence.” If I couldn’t have done otherwise, then what sense does it make to talk about trying to deter me? And from there, it’s turtles all the way down (for me, as usual). I have never understood how determinism isn’t fatalism.

    • Mike Anderson
      Posted May 10, 2020 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

      Determinism doesn’t mean one can’t be influenced by your environment. In fact it means you can’t help but be influenced by your environment.

      • Jeff Chamberlain
        Posted May 10, 2020 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

        Mike, if this was intended to be a response to my post, I don’t understand it.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted May 10, 2020 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

      You’re confusing determinism with predeterminism. Determinism means that effect follows cause. So if something convinces you not to do something and you’re open to it, you won’t do it. That’s determinism.

    • rickflick
      Posted May 10, 2020 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

      If your uncle Bob got locked in the cooler for scalping tickets for the big game, chances are you’d be deterred form doing it. Deterrence. This reluctance to commit crime happens whether or not you believe he could have done otherwise. You, a learning creature, having experienced your uncle’s fate, are effectively restrained.

      • rickflick
        Posted May 10, 2020 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

        Bob is likewise effectively restrained from repeating his crime.

      • Jonathan Wallace
        Posted May 11, 2020 at 5:18 am | Permalink

        But even adherents of libertarian free will accept that effect follows cause at this human level and that it is possible to influence a potential criminal’s behaviour. Religious leaders frighten their congregations with threats of eternal damnation and are also often pretty keen on earthly punishments to keep the flock in line. I expect that the Saudi authorities believe (no doubt correctly to some extent) that their (hideous) penal practices deter people from committing adultery, apostasy or simply criticising the government.

        I personally believe that to reduce crime it is desirable to have policies that rehabilitate criminals and also policies that help people to avoid falling into criminal ways in the first place (elimination of poverty, providing educational opportunity, treatment of drug addiction as medical rather than a criminal problem, etc, etc. But I have to acknowledge that there are many other people who sincerely believe that the effective way to prevent crime is to operate zero-tolerance policing and implement harsh penalties including execution. Retribution may be part of their motivation for wanting to enforce severe punishments but such people also believe that this approach helps prevent crime (irrespective of whether or not the data supports that view).

        • rickflick
          Posted May 11, 2020 at 11:48 am | Permalink

          “But even adherents of libertarian free will accept that effect follows cause at this human level and that it is possible to influence a potential criminal’s behaviour”

          Straw man? I don’t think anyone makes the claim that adherents of libertarian free will don’t believe in environmental influences on behavior.

      • sugould
        Posted May 11, 2020 at 9:35 am | Permalink

        Or I could figure I’m smarter than dumb Uncle Bob and become better at criminal behavior.

        • Jeff Chamberlain
          Posted May 11, 2020 at 10:37 am | Permalink

          “Couldn’t have acted otherwise” seems to me to be voracious, and if that’s the case I don’t understand what we could mean by using volitional language, such as “deter,” “rehabilitate,” “convinces you to do otherwise” (and being “open” to that), “reluctance,” and so on.

          And I don’t understand determinism as merely affirming that I would be “influenced” by environment (very broadly defined, presumably) but rather that I’d be “determined” by it (“).

          I don’t know that this “confuses” determinism with predeterminism, although perhaps it equates or conflates the two. All determinism seems necessarily to involve a “pre-” element, and “predeterminism” seems to me “just” determinism pushed back further.

          As I said, I get lost quickly in this. That was the case years ago when I was chasing philosophy degrees, and it remains true today.

          • rickflick
            Posted May 11, 2020 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

            To me, determinism is rather a simple notion. It means merely that ALL events are triggered by prior events. As far as I know, this is the way the Universe works.

            Free-will is the term that should give us concern. It’s hard to know what anybody means who holds some kind of free will position.

            • Jonathan Wallace
              Posted May 12, 2020 at 1:48 am | Permalink

              I completely agree with this. The bit I don’t get is why recognising this fact is considered to have particular implications for the administration of justice.

              • rickflick
                Posted May 12, 2020 at 8:03 am | Permalink

                Yes, that is a subtle issue. I think it may have to do with the belief that if you could have done otherwise, intuitively we feel you can be punished more severely. This brings in the possibility of retribution rather than correction. People are eager to take out their anger on the perp, which is an emotional response. Determinism, undermines this justification for retribution. At least it draws attention to the fact that it is emotional and not rational.
                In fact, it might be just a framing issue.

    • eric
      Posted May 11, 2020 at 7:46 am | Permalink

      Seeing someone else punished for an act is input into your meat puppet’s calculation engine. As an input, it’s perfectly possible it changes the output of your calculation engine, even if the calculation engine itself is deterministic.

      This is actually why I disagree with PCC on whether determinism supports rehabilitative vs. retributive criminal justice. I don’t think determinism per se supports either over the other. It’s possible we are meat puppets that respond more effectively to the input of retribution. Is that actually the case? I don’t know. I hope not. But which type of criminal justice turns out to be most effective must be evaluated by empirical science – the philosophical principle of determinism doesn’t determine it. 🙂

      • Posted May 11, 2020 at 11:19 am | Permalink

        One might ask why has retribution or revenge seeking been practically universal throughout human history in both time and place? The answer is that it works. Within a group, the knowledge that others will seek revenge if harmed acts as a powerful deterrent to harming them. So the lust for revenge is innate, and evolved, IMO. Then the question becomes “how should an organized society deal with this fact about human nature?” One answer is to socialize retribution, which is why many justice systems have a retributive element. Another, favored by PCC, is to eliminate retribution from social justice, and simply focus on deterrence and sequestering. Some societies seem to have done that. But I am not sure that educating people about determinism is the best or fastest way to achieve that goal. Rather, I would emphasize the practical reasons for a rehabilitative justice system, such as reduced costs and lower recidivism.

        • Tim Harris
          Posted May 11, 2020 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

          ‘Within a group, the knowledge that others will seek revenge if harmed acts as a powerful deterrent to harming them.’

          I should suggest reading a few Icelandic sagas, the Japanese Chushingura & Soga monogatari, not to mention a history of the Mafia, or even Huckleberry Finn. What a revenge ethic tends to do is produce cycles of revenge-killings, and that is a large reason why governments or parliaments have sought to prevent the ready taking of revenge.

          Otherwise, I warmly agree with your last sentence.

          • Posted May 11, 2020 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

            Yes, you can and do get revenge cycles, which is why societies socialize retribution—that is, the government enforces a monopoly in retribution. I do not think, though, that the existence of revenge cycles invalidates the possibility that revenge behavior evolved because it discourages aggression.

  22. Posted May 10, 2020 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    I believe that I have free will – I don’t have any choice in that behaviour.

    rz

  23. Roo
    Posted May 10, 2020 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    When it comes to determinism and the justice system, it seems to me that the old saying “love the sinner, hate the sin” sums it up pretty succinctly. Recognize the sentient agent behind the act is ultimately a victim of circumstance; but also recognize that the act itself (or ‘choice’ to act, meaning the chain of events that leads up to the act) is susceptible to environmental influence.

    As with so many delicate balances, however, I think this is one that is very easy to get wrong (I typically do – I still feel angry at people, not deterministic chains, even though I don’t believe in free will.) And perhaps one that we are programmed to get wrong, in that retributive justice may have kept humans from total anarchy in our evolutionary past. It’s hard not to strongly identify an act with a person. And, in the other direction, it is hard to apply consequences to someone you see as sweet and innocent (less common, but what a parent feels, for example, when they can’t stand to let their child struggle through a challenge because they can see it’s hard for them.)

    • Posted May 11, 2020 at 8:18 am | Permalink

      I think you’re right that this is something that “we’re programmed to get wrong”. That’s why I think that not much would change in our lives if everyone fully realized that libertarian free will doesn’t make sense. Our human nature would see to it. The idea, in spite of its impeccable rationality, is too abstract and foreign to how we experience life for us to internalize it in a way that would significantly change our sentiments and behavior. And at any rate, our programming may sometimes make us act with unwarranted cruelty or severity, but it’s definitely an effective deterrence: your getting genuinely angry at someone (as opposed to his circumstances) who’s done you wrong, greatly dissuades him from doing so again.

      • Roo
        Posted May 11, 2020 at 9:44 am | Permalink

        I think if it changes, it will change mostly as a result of understanding very specific causes for behaviors, vs. understanding that behavior is deterministic on the whole. We seem to target behaviors that can be influenced by social pressure and, once we have evidence that social pressure is not effective, forgive the behavior or modify our expectations. As our understanding of neurology has advanced, for example, and we learn about things like neurotransmitters and brain tumors, we tend to quickly update our moral intuitions once we know more about the causes behind someone’s behavior. And it’s generally in proportion to how much a behavior can be influenced – we might encourage a depressed person to take steps to feel better while simultaneously modifying our expectations, while removing the idea of moral culpability completely from someone with a brain tumor.

        In the meantime, however, if someone is a total jerk to me, I find an abstract understanding of determinism doesn’t help to change my intuition that it’s ‘their fault’. That seems pretty solid. The only thing that does help a bit is imagining how I would feel if the offender was one of the people or animals I love most in the world, and seeing how my intuitions change, usually from anger to concern, as I envision my cat cutting me off in traffic and wonder how my sweet fur ball could have become so morally lost, ha ha.

    • GBJames
      Posted May 11, 2020 at 9:04 am | Permalink

      My objection to the “love the sinner, hate the sin” trope is that people who use it are concerned with offenses against imaginary beings. These people are often among the most demanding of harsh sentences and punishment for moral failure. They aren’t saying “love the criminal, hate the crime”.

      • Roo
        Posted May 11, 2020 at 9:52 am | Permalink

        Love the criminal, hate the crime summarizes my thoughts on this just as effectively. I think it helps to have a short and sweet go-to phrase vs. trying to remember a more abstract concept about trying to influence behaviors but understanding that all people are sentient experiencers just like you, in every instance.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted May 11, 2020 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

        My objection is the love part. Why so forward? Can’t we just appreciate the sinner?

        • GBJames
          Posted May 11, 2020 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

          Well, there’s that too.

        • Roo
          Posted May 11, 2020 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

          If you don’t want to get into metaphysics about the role of love in the universe, I think you can easily just think of it as a basic level of care. For example, imagine witnessing a hardened criminal who had done terrible things being subjected to a punishment. Now imagine that same punishment being meted out to an innocent child whose name was drawn randomly from a hat. In the former case you might feel a bit of satisfaction in witnessing justice being delivered; in the latter you might put yourself in harm’s way to prevent it.

          If you believe in determinism, the logical conclusion is that these scenarios are actually pretty much the same. That we would feel horror at seeing an innocent child being subjected to a harsh punishment at random speaks to at least some level of care for said hypothetical child. One could see this as a baseline level of care, once things like anger, a desire for retribution, etc., are removed.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted May 11, 2020 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

            I understand the concept. I reject the word choice.

          • GBJames
            Posted May 11, 2020 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

            ”If you believe in determinism, the logical conclusion is that these scenarios are actually pretty much the same.”

            Say what? Non-sequitur much?

        • Posted May 11, 2020 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

          I can’t buy the love the sinner part either. You only have so much love to spread around. How about reject the sin, accept the sinner?

      • Jeff Chamberlain
        Posted May 11, 2020 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

        My objection is that it’s nonsense. Who do any of you know who loves rapists?

        • Tim Harris
          Posted May 11, 2020 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

          Or Cardinal Pell.

  24. peepuk
    Posted May 11, 2020 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    Language is a tool to create fiction; sometimes it corresponds to something real (chairs), most often it does not (God, freewill, baseball and borders).

    This answers Sean’s question about chairs; real things can be reduced to Newtonian physical phenomena.

    What we call “emergent properties” are those properties not yet explained (away) by science. There are a lot of scientific phenomena we don’t know if they are real, but the laws underlying the physics of everyday life are completely understood.

    (see https://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2010/09/29/seriously-the-laws-underlying-the-physics-of-everyday-life-really-are-completely-understood/)


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